Thursday, December 31, 2020

Quips and Quotations (Three-Hour Tour Wear Edition)




Oh, I've had a $50,000 offer, but I don't know. There's only one pair, that's all there is.

--Dawn Wells, aka, Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Seoul Music



recently named its annual (duh) Person of the Year, which happens to be President-elect Joe Biden. That's not much of a surprise. In the last 24 presidential elections, the winner was accorded the honor 12 times--that's half if I doing my math right--the year of the election. In the last 20 years alone--that's five election cycles--we've seen two George W. Bushes, two Barack Obamas, one Donald Trump (thank God only one) and now Biden. So it it isn't really something that piqued my interest. However, Time has other "of the year" categories, including Entertainer of the Year, the 2020 recipient of which is South Korean pop band BTS, and that surprised me. I've heard of the band, and I think their hit single "Dynamite" may have drifted into the vicinity of my ear drums at one time or other, but I had no idea they were the dominant form of entertainment of the past 12 months. This is my fault, and not theirs. Unlike others my age, or, really, anybody over, say, 40, I don't pretend that pop music has declined in quality simply because I don't keep up with current trends as much as I used to. As one gets older, staying attuned to tunes has to compete with such things as earning a living, trying to figure out where it all went wrong, and taking daily doses of prescribed medications that either make you dizzy, have to go to the bathroom, or both. With all that going on, who's got time to check out the cover of Rolling Stone, much less Time? Do they even publish Rolling Stone anymore? (I looked; they still do but it's now a monthly.) Moreover, who's even had time for entertainment with a pandemic going on?...Um, actually, with all the school closings, layoffs, and 10:PM curfews, most people now have the time, as long as the entertainment is emanating from an electrical device in your home. And that kind of works in BTS's favor. You can find them on the radio, on television, and on the dominant entertainment venue of our era, the Internet. Speaking of the Internet, you can find them here

Watching that video, I can't help but get the sense of a torch being passed. Androgynous young men singing (or rapping) a song packed with pop culture references that celebrates youthful rebellion. Sure, that kind of thing's been done before, but usually by artists operating inside the United States-United Kingdom pop music dominium. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Asians are beating us at our own game. But I'm not complaining. If freedom is to survive at all in our sorry world in the near term, it will have less to do with shameless politicians goose-stepping to the beat of the most incontinent campaign donor, and more to do with bands like BTS reminding us that freedom can be a viable option in the first place, as pop music acts have demonstrated since Elvis (or Louis Armstrong.) And it's not just a youthful rebellion without a cause, either. At the height of this year's race riots, the band sent a one million dollar check to Black Lives Matter, and challenged their fans, via social media, to match that number, and they did, in a single day (See? People without MAGA hats are allowed to use Facebook and Twitter, too.) And they've spoken out in favor of LGBTQ rights, otherwise a taboo topic in South Korea.

All well and good, but old fogey that I am, my mind can't help but turn to another musical video set in Korea. OK, it's actually a Hollywood set pretending to be Korea, and the performers aren't Korean themselves, but in its own way it's about that most basic of freedoms, the freedom to express oneself: 

You may want to come up with your own lyrics in case martial law is declared between now and January 20.



Monday, December 21, 2020

Quips and Quotations (Christmas Anthropomorphism Edition)


It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little field-mice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, "Now then, one, two, three!" and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

--Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Under the Radar: Melanie Chartoff


 OK, it's time for the third installment of my ongoing series about talented people, usually performers of some sort, who for whatever reasons never attained stardom. Except where Melanie Chartoff is concerned, I wonder if she didn't achieve some kind of stardom after all. I say that because I came across on eBay this autographed index card that sold about a week ago for just under $5. Ok, that's not a whole lot of money these days, but it does show that somebody is willing to shell out something just to bask in the afterglow of her celebrity. Of course, it could just be the afterglow of the fondly-remembered 1990's sitcom Seinfeld, and anybody who had any connection to it, even if, as in Chartoff's case, that connection amounts to a mere two episodes ("The Fire" and "The Finale".) I myself remember Chartoff from the early 1980s sketch comedy show Fridays. Like Goldie Hawn on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, she was the show's resident sex symbol, but, again like Hawn, she had the comic chops to transcend such symbolism. Unfortunately, you won't see those comic chops much on display in the following clip, as she, and just about everyone else in the scene (including a young Jon Favreau in clown's make-up) plays straight man to Jason Alexander's George Costanza:

George exhibits similar grace under pressure later on in the episode. I don't want to give anything away except to say it involves a toy pistol.

The comic stylings of Melanie Chartoff (whose birthday is today, incidentally) are more readily apparent in this clip (though it's not the only thing readily apparent):

Back in 1980, scatological humor was somewhat less commonplace on television than it is today, one reason you hear such loud whoops of laughter every time the word sex is mentioned in the above clip. Compared that to the mention of another word, pretentious. There the laughter is much more subdued, as if the audience weren't sure they got the joke. Of course, that's the whole point of the sketch, whether that television critic has figured it out or not.  

The cast of Fridays. Clockwise there' to begin...I'll start with the lanky guy in glasses with the Larry Fine-like hairdo. In fact, he's a Larry, too, though his last name's David. Next there's Mark Blankfield, Maryedith Burrell, Darrow Igus, Michael Richards, John Roarke, Brandis Kemp, Bruce Mahler, and in the center, Chartoff. Though I suppose there's only so many ways one can do a live late-night sketch comedy show geared toward an under-30 audience, Fridays was originally dismissed by most TV critics as a Saturday Night Live ripoff. That is, until SNL producer Lorne Michaels left the show (temporarily as it turned out), as did the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players (a more permanent departure.) A woman named Jean Doumanian took over and made such a mess of things that Saturday Night Live soon became a Saturday Night Live ripoff. Meanwhile, Fridays continued to improve, got better press as a result, and might have had a much longer run had ABC not decided to move the starting time a half-hour later to make room for a Friday edition of Nightline. Ratings dipped, and it was canceled after just three seasons. 

So what happened to its talented cast? For some, at least, Seinfeld. Larry David is best known these days for Curb Your Enthusiasm, but before that he was the co-creator, co-producer, and guiding light of Seinfeld. I'm sure some of you who were fans of the show about nothing took one look at the father in that Fridays sketch and shouted "Kramer!" Yes, the Saturday Night Live ripoff is where Larry David first met Michael Richards. Bruce Mahler played  the recurring character Rabbi Glickman,  Maryedith Burrell appeared as the proprietor of a non-fat yogert shop, and I've already told you about Chartoff. By the way, she's still a working actress, the voice of Didi Pickles on Rugrats.

All well and good, but I have a beef with Larry David. If he's going to have Melanie Chartoff on the show, why have her play it straight? Let her be funny. If nothing else, he could have at least have her say the word sex

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Vital Viewing (Craniums Edition)


Sure, go ahead, spend all your time dieting, lifting weights, doing sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups. Go ahead and give yourselves the the flattest stomach, the biggest biceps, the most shapely legs, the broadest shoulders, the tightest ass, the most massive pecs. But in doing so, you'll just be ignoring the most important part of your body, the part that's not your body, but the seeing, hearing, talking, tasting, sniffing, and of course, thinking growth that sits on the top of your body: your head. We are our heads. Our heads define us. Don't think so? Perhaps the following videos will change your mind.

Let's start with 1962's The Brain That Wouldn't Die, which played to sold-out grindhouse audiences in Skid Rows across America:

The Brain That Wouldn't Die was independently produced and released through American International Pictures. Neither Virginia Leith, who played the film's title character (though it's not just her brain but also her eyes, nose, mouth, and, presumably, ears that survive that car wreck) or Jason Evers, who plays her distraught, homicidal husband, went on to film stardom, but their performances are a notch above of  what one might expect from this kind of thing. A scientist who kills people in the name of science had been done before (most notably in producer Val Lewton's 1945 horror classic The Body Snatcher) but this time around the foul play, or rather, attempt at foul play, is not merely because of some abstract goal of increasing humankind's knowledge, but also due to affairs of the heart. And maybe the loins. I mean, Mr. Evers character can't very well enjoy an intimate relationship with his wife while she's in this condition (actually, he can, but it would give a whole new meaning to the phrase "giving head".) Ms. Leith died just last year at the age of 94, after which her body was immediately donated to the UCLA Medical Center. Intact, if I'm not mistaken.

Oh, yeah? Well, that English proverb writer never saw this movie:

Another film distributed by American International Pictures but independently produced. In fact, so independently produced that after his paycheck bounced, Bruce Dern--a mainstay of low-budget cinema at this point in his career--didn't know how to contact the producers, who had left town, and maybe even the continent as a whole, without leaving a forwarding address. 49 years later, Dern is still waiting to get paid. I don't know if Casey Kasem, who plays Dern's caution-prone colleague--mad scientists always have caution-prone colleagues--was paid or not, but by 1971, when this film was made, he had already begun his long-running radio show America's Top 40 as well as voicing Shaggy on Scoopy-Doo, Where Are You!, so I doubt he had to go on food stamps. Pat Priest, the second of two actresses to play Marilyn on The Munsters, portrays Dern's wife, so she's gone from one horror comedy to another (though this time around the comedy is unintentional.) The title-character in this film does a pretty thorough job terrorizing the countryside and leaving a high body count. But does a monster really need a second head to do that? I'm not sure what advantage that would give you, Well, I guess it would take the intended prey completely by surprise 

As I said, the two previous films were distributed by the above company. So what exactly was American International Pictures and how was it able to distribute all these flicks? Was the studio across the street from the post office? I doubt it, because I can't find any evidence that there ever was a studio in the sense of soundstages or a gate you had to go through or a commissary where all the big stars had lunch or a backlot that eventually became a Los Angeles suburb-- no, none of that, I'm afraid. AIP was no more than an independent film company itself, just a bit larger than the ones that piggy-backed on its distribution system. Whereas the company that stiffed Bruce Dern may have been headquartered in a rusty Winnebago with expired plates double-parked in front of a pawn shop, AIP probably had a long-term lease in a nicely-maintained office building, possibly one with a savings and loan on the first floor. We can only speculate. What we do know is that American International Pictures was co-owned and run on a day-to-day basis by one Samuel Z. Arkoff, a former entertainment lawyer. The skeleton key to Arkoff's success--he died a millionaire--was his targeting of an audience that in the 1950s, '60s, and first half of the '70s was largely being ignored by the major Hollywood studios: teenage males (boy, things sure have changed, haven't they?) This meant hot rod movies, bikini movies, and above all else, horror movies. Although some of those who worked under or alongside him may have had higher aspirations (such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Towne, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Laszlo Kovacs, Charles B. Griffith, and, when he decided to have a go with Edgar Allen Poe, Roger Corman), Arkoff made no pretense of creating art. It was all just pure entertainment, or maybe another word that begins with an "e", exploitation. However... 

...not even Arkoff could ignore the turbulent times he was living in, so in 1972 when he decided to make another multiple-noggin movie, he made sure it had a touch of... significance: 

It's hard to classify a film about a man with two heads as belonging to anything other than the horror genre, but it should be noted that the title character is quite sympathetic. Well, one half, the soul brother half, is sympathetic. The real monster here is institutional racism (that's the best spin I can put on it, I'm afraid.) Really, this movie is less horror and more a blaxploitation/car chase hybrid. Neither Pam Grier nor Peter Fonda would feel out of place in such a film. Also, until a finale that insists otherwise, the movie looks like it might turn into a buddy comedy, in which case Dorothy Lamour wouldn't feel out of place. Instead we have Ray Milland, and he's not really out of place either, as by this point in his career he was becoming a grindhouse mainstay. A talented actor, he was a movie star in the 1940s and '50s, and won an Oscar for his portrayal of an alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend. But as the stardom faded, he seemed to accept any role that came along (or maybe the stardom faded because he accepted any role that came along.) As for former NFL player Rosey Grier, he seems to be enjoying himself, and actually plays off the surly Milland quite well. Rowen and Martin's Laugh-In repertory company member Chelsea Brown is a hoot as Grier's dumbfounded wife and gets some of the film's best lines. Let me see, anything else? Oh, yes, as if a two-headed man wasn't enough, there's a two-headed gorilla terrorizing not the countryside for a change but a supermarket. Spills in too many aisles to count.

Now what keeps a head attached to a body is the neck, which, sans skin, look like the above. Unless... happen to be processed by the Devil:

Homophobic little brat!  And to think, William Friedkin had directed The Boys in the Band only a few years earlier. Anyway, The Exorcist itself hit theaters in 1972, long before the advent of digital special effects. So, how did Friedkin and his crew get young Linda Blair's head to make that 360 degree turn?


 Simple. The camera was turned off and Blair was replaced by a life-size doll of herself. Then with wires and pulleys and other mechanical doohickeys, as well as someone who was operating all those things just outside the camera's range, the head was set into motion. Basically, it's a very sophisticated, and very scary, Muppet you're looking at.

Unfortunately, due to a prior commitment, the rabbit is unavailable.

Speaking of magic... 

Meet Georges Méliès, born on this day in Paris, France in 1861. Unlike some stage magicians in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, he wasn't at all phased by the sudden emergence of a newfangled competitor, the moving picture. Instead, he saw in it the opportunity to create illusions on a whole new scale. With some 500 films to his credit,  Méliès was arguably the first special effects artist, the Stephen Spielberg of his day. His most famous film was 1902's A Trip to the Moon, based on a Jules Verne novel. Except nowhere in Verne's novel does he describe anything like this:


I'm tempted to show you the entire 18-minute film, but the topic of today's post is the human head, not lunar landings. So instead I'll show you a Méliès film from four years earlier, The Four Troublesome Heads, which he not only directs but stars. In fact, he has several starring roles:

 Méliès took a medium that in its earliest years did nothing more than document reality, and with a sleight of hand, gave it a reality all its own.

Finally, what does the future hold for the human head? Here's Matt Groening's prediction:

Yes, I know one president is conspicuously absent, but that's because...

...his jar is locked away in some cupboard in the 30th century White House, still unwilling to concede.

Well, I hope I've convinced you of the importance of the human head. You couldn't really survive without one, so use yours wisely.

Take it away, Lou:




Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Quips and Quotations (Single Bound Edition)

He was mostly leaping tall buildings in the beginning. There were cases where he would leap off a tall building or swoop down, and at that point he would look like he was flying, I suppose. It was just natural to draw him like that.

--Original Superman artist Joe Shuster, on just how that guy got off the ground in the first place.