Archive for the ‘Pop culture’ Category

This past Saturday, I attended my first meeting of Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers in a while. As I’ve mentioned (whined about?) in some recent posts, I’ve been really busy lately and a lot of things got put on the back burner.

The meeting is in North Jersey and it’s a nearly two-hour drive for me. But it’s worth it. The group is made up of a very talented, professional and dedicated group of writers, and I always take away something valuable.

At this meeting, the guest speaker was Teel James Glenn. The guy’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia of things I consider to be cool. He writes books that are intentional throwbacks to the classic pulp era of the 1930s, of which I’m also a fan. Some elements of The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report were intended as a homage to classic pulps, including the tough-guy detective hero and the gang of masked villains.

Teel is also a martial artist, professional stuntman, and fight coordinator for movies. He’s got a particular specialty in sword fighting. I picked up his now out-of-print (but not for much longer, as a reissue is on the way) Them’s Fightin’ Words!: A Writer’s Guide To Writing Fight Scenes. I know we’re not too far into 2014 yet, but that still pretty much made my year. Hell, he’s even into sleight-of-hand.

Check out his Website, The Urban Swashbuckler. (Come on! How freakin cool is THAT?)

Anyway, he said something about writing that really had a big impact on me, and helped me get past something I was struggling with in the novel I’m currently working on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles, writing manuals, and critical think pieces about popular culture that stress the importance of two elements in fiction: A flawed hero and a compelling villain. (more…)

VeronicaThe trailer for the “Veronica Mars” movie is out. And it looks … well, I don’t know how it looks. I’m not going to watch the trailer for fear of seeing a single spoiler. And it’s not like I need to be sold on seeing the movie. Hell, I’d pay a large sum of money just to see a five-minute resolution of the season three cliffhanger, which is where the show wrapped up in 2007.

Soon after I discovered “Veronica Mars” a few years ago — perhaps “had been converted to” is a more accurate term than “discovered” — I was raving about it at a party. A rather sardonic friend of mine asked: “What are you, a 15-year-old girl?”

That’s the kind of misinterpretation the show engendered. For the record, I’m a 47-year-old man, and I’m a big fan of hard-boiled crime fiction. (By the way, check out Alex Segura’s “Silent City” if you’re also a fan. For that matter, check out my novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.”) As I don’t really follow TV, I was vaguely aware of the show when it was on from the years 2004 to 2007, felt no desire to check it out, and didn’t give it a second thought.

Ironically, I think the ideal viewer of the show is somebody like me, who has an idea that it’s some kind of lightweight teen mystery/soap opera hybrid. Somebody with no natural inclination to watch it, who ends up seeing it anyway through some chain of circumstances. That’s precisely the type of person most in a position to be surprised at first, and then blown away by how clever, darkly funny, edgy, complex and just flat-out freakin good it is. (more…)

MadMan! My friends are the best!

I went to a Christmas/New Year party last weekend, and my buddy Doug Ferguson got my 2014 off to a very good start by presenting me with the pictured issue of “Mad” magazine, signed by writer Dick DeBartolo. Thanks Doug!

Doug’s a tech guy, and he’s a fan of DeBartolo’s netcast “The Giz Wiz,” in which he talks about gadgets. I myself am not a tech guy, but I still listened to “The Giz Wiz” on Doug’s recommendation, and found it highly entertaining. By the way, be sure to check out Doug’s blog here.

My familiarity with DeBartolo comes from his status as a long-time writer for “Mad,” going back to the early 1960s. He specialized in the movie and TV satires, which were usually my favorite parts of the magazine when I was a kid. He also wrote an account of his experiences in “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

So I started leafing through the signed copy of “Mad,” and thinking about how much I loved that magazine as a kid. I’d like to think that when I was writing “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report,” DeBartolo and “The Usual Gang of Idiots” (the appellation by which the magazine’s editorial staff customarily referred to themselves) were kicking around in my subconscious.

If so, I wouldn’t be the first one to cite “Mad” as an influence. So have writers with “The Simpsons” and “The Onion.” Even Joyce Carol Oates has sung its praises.

I stopped reading it at roughly the time I entered high school, around 1981. When I was in grade school, I first started reading the new issues that came out in the late 1970s. Then I started buying second-hand issues from earlier years, as well as paperbacks showcasing material from the 1950s and ’60s. I loved it all.

Here’s the funny thing — much as I hungrily devoured every issue I could get my hands on, I always felt vaguely depressed after reading them for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time. In retrospect, I think the reason tied in with why I found them so fascinating.

Social critic Tim Gitlin once described Mad as “bubble gum nihilism,” which strikes me as a very apt description. Looking back, I marvel at the balancing act that the writers and artists of “Mad” managed to pull off. They kept it ostensibly within the realm of children’s entertainment, always toeing that line but never quite crossing it. (I noted in the issue Doug got me that they’re still using the word “dreck” as a thinly veiled substitute for “shit.”)

What amazes me, given those strictures, is how subversive, bracing, sharp and ultimately bleak they managed to make the humor. Even in gloriously sardonic comedy such as “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development,” you get glimpses of redeeming intentions and behavior. Not so with “Mad.” Its sensibility was more analogous to “Eastbound & Down” or “Archer.” Unremitting in its cynicism. Every emotion, every action, every institution, every human impulse was ultimately grounded in venal self-interest, lust, or stupidity. Nobody and nothing was above mockery. The Usual Gang of Idiots were simply hanging back and reporting on it with knowing smirks on their faces — advising you that existence is nothing but an unkind joke, so you might as well laugh at it. I can’t begin to describe how refreshing that was for me, as a Catholic school boy from suburban South Jersey raised on Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books.

(And for the record, based on the netcast, Dick DeBartolo sounds like a wonderful human being. That’s often the case — people with the most cynical, biting sense of humor in print turn out to be the nicest people when you meet them in person. Maybe because they have a means of getting it out of their system.)

As I leaf through this recent issue of “Mad,” it looks a lot different from the magazine I remember. It’s in color, and printed on slick paper. I don’t recognize most of the artists and writers. It’s full of references to modern pop culture and technology.

But it’s still sharp. It’s still lively. And most importantly, it’s still funny.

So Alfred E. Neuman, my friend, it’s good to see you again after all these years. Thanks for the laughs. (Eccch! What a load of dreck!)

superfriendsA recent article on The Onion A.V. Club brought back some memories. It dealt with all of the knockoffs that Hanna-Barbera crapped out in the 1970s after the success of “Scooby Doo, Where are You?”

Among them was “Super Friends,” which debuted in 1973. Apparently there was a later iteration. But the version I watched as a kid featured a crime-fighting team consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, and Aquaman.

Also along for the ride were a couple of teenagers named Wendy and Marvin, who had no superpowers or any particular talents that lent themselves to crime-fighting. Their presence was never explained. Made me wonder if that prompted any behind-the-scenes discussions like this:

Wonder Woman: OK, this isn’t on the agenda. But it needs to be addressed. Can someone explain to me why Wendy and Marvin are on the payroll? They don’t contribute anything. And we spend half our time in the field trying to keep their pimply little asses from getting killed.

Superman: Ask Aquaman. He said that if Batman gets to have Robin, then he gets to have a couple of “special friends” too.

Wonder Woman: OK, that’s REALLY creepy.

Superman: Says the woman whose entire superpower is based on binding people up with rope.

Doc SavageSo I’m reading this book called Wanted Undead or Alive: Vampire Hunters and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil by Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman. I intend to do a more lengthy review of it presently, so stay tuned. But I just wanted to mention one thing.

The book has a chapter on the pulp magazines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which mentions “Doc Savage.” The Doc Savage adventures were really popular back in the heyday of pulp. They featured the titular square-jawed hero who traveled the world with a cadre of brainy tough guys, putting a stop to various evil-doers.

The author, “Kenneth Robeson,” was actually a rotating stable of writers. I read a few when I was a kid. They weren’t great in retrospect, in the manner of other pulp material from writers such as H.P. Lovecraft or Ray Bradbury. But they were a fun read. And to be fair, that’s no more and no less than what they aspired to.

But the books did have a lasting impact on me as a reader, in the form of one important lesson.

See, when I was about 13, I was reading one called The Sargasso Ogre. It features a scene where Doc Savage is interrogating a couple of criminals.

At one point, one of them defiantly answers Doc Savage’s questions with “Phooey on you!”
As a kid, I thought that was hilarious. This is a dangerous criminal. A very bad man, the story makes clear. And he says “phooey on you?”

When I thought about it at greater length, though, I realized what was really going on. The words “phooey on you” might as well have an asterisk indicating a footnote from the author. And that footnote would read as follows:

“Look. Both you and I know that the guy didn’t really say ‘phooey on you.’ What he said was ‘fuck you.’ But I’m writing this in 1933, and there’s no way in hell I’d get away with writing that. So I’m going to ask you, the reader, to use a little effort and fill in what he actually said in your mind, OK?”

That moment of realization comes back to me whenever I’m reading a book from a bygone era, and the writer has to obliquely hint at what’s going on.

I’m not one of these people who subscribes to the idea that graphically presenting something is akin to bad writing. I find that attitude naïve and a bit childish. Good writing is good writing, whether a faithful film adaptation would merit a rating of G or NC-17. And if the material calls for a lot of F-bombs, by all means get ‘em in there.

Still, there’s something impressive about reading – or watching, in the form of screenplays – writers from the past managing to convey through subtle suggestion what they can’t state overtly.

Case in point. I’m in the process of reading Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, published in 1898, for the first time. (SPOILER ALERT!) And the scene where Mrs. Grose reveals Quint’s nature as a sexual predator and pedophile is all the more disturbing for her unwillingness – and James’ inability, given the time he was writing – to state it overtly.

It’s all a bit more subtle than “phooey on you” in lieu of … you know. Still, I thank whichever incarnation of Kenneth Robeson penned “The Sargasso Ogre” for giving me that early lesson in reading between the lines.

Just goes to show that you can glean insights into literary interpretation from just about any source. Don’t agree with me? Go phooey yourself.

stewieI guess I’m weighing in a little late in the news cycle about Seth MacFarlane’s now-notorious Oscars hosting gig. But I’m not really going to talk about the gig itself, so much as what it illustrates about the nature of humor. And in that respect, a little bit of perspective is probably a good thing.

As a writer of humor – or what I HOPE constitutes humor, anyway – it’s a debate that I’ve followed, in the hopes that I might glean some insights.

MacFarlane, of course, took a lot of criticism for the jokes he made. Many observers, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Jane Fonda, branded him as sexist. Particularly infuriating, from the critics’ standpoint, was a musical number titled “We Saw Your Boobs,” which was essentially a listing of movies in which female actresses showed their breasts.

Another factor in the controversy, for better or worse, is the fact that MacFarlane’s appearance accomplished exactly what the Oscar programmers hoped it would. Ratings were up, particularly among the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. (more…)

ExorcistI recently re-watched The Exorcist from 1973 for the umpteenth time. I still think it’s one of the greatest horror movies ever.

And it’s more than just a great horror movie. Beyond the more disturbing and startling elements of the film, it works as a deeply nuanced exploration of the nature of evil and faith.

That being said, something occurred to me for the first time during the most recent viewing. I watched the two priests carrying out the actual exorcism rite at the movie’s climax. And I thought: They don’t seem to be very … good at this.

I should say right here that there will be some spoilers ahead. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet, go out and see it. Then come back and read the rest of this posting.

Everybody seen the movie now? We’re all on the same page? Good.

Now, I’ll admit I’m no expert on exorcism. But if the Catholic Church did indeed use that particular rite for centuries, I’d hope it would at least work a little better. Or if the rite does work, are these guys doing something wrong?

Just to review, Father Merrin and Father Karras represent the forces of holiness there to do battle with evil incarnate in the form of the possessed Regan. How does that work out? Well, Regan spends a bunch of time f**king with them. Then Father Merrin dies of a heart attack. Karras tells the demon to come into him. When it does, he jumps through a window and kills himself.

So yeah, the demon is dispatched by the end. But two of God’s lean, mean fightin’ machines DID kind of get their asses kicked by a 12-year-old girl.

Maybe I’m being unduly harsh here. The priests were brave and noble and self-sacrificing and all. Still, think of it this way.

You’ve got a raccoon in your attic and you call a wildlife removal service. They send over two guys. In the course of doing battle with the raccoon, one of them dies of a heart attack because it’s too much of a strain. The other’s method is getting the raccoon to clamp its jaws on him and then throwing himself out your window, killing both himself and the raccoon in the process. And probably taking a significant chunk out of your security deposit.

You’d probably feel bad for the two guys who got killed, and admire their dedication to their work. At the same time, you’re probably not going to call that particular wildlife removal service again.

I’m surprised the first scene of Exorcist II didn’t show Regan’s mother on the phone saying: “Hello? Presbyterians? Yeah … the last guys didn’t work out so good.”

nerd2Well, it’s happened again. Week after week, two blog entries I’ve written get the most views.

This one deals with a bizarre conspiracy theory about coded messages from FEMA on the backs of road signs. I used it to explore a hypothesis of mine regarding the nature of conspiracy theories, which is that they’re essentially the result of a pattern recognition impulse gone haywire.

But this one gets by far the most views. In it, I examine the way that one’s values can change gradually over a span of decades, to a point where popular entertainment once regarded as innocuous can later seem offensive. As an example, I cite the movie “Revenge of the Nerds,” which features ostensibly sympathetic characters engaging in exploitative behavior toward women such as surreptitiously taking topless photos of cheerleaders with hidden cameras.

And week after week, according to the metrics helpfully provided by Word Press, variations of two search terms garner the most views on this blog: “FEMA road signs conspiracy” and “topless cheerleaders.” (more…)

Recently, I went to visit a friend of mine, and he’d rented the DVD of “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.” We ended up shooting the shit, and I wasn’t really paying attention to it. But I kind of wish I had, because I find the concept of DVDs like that oddly fascinating.

Keep in mind, that movie title isn’t a misprint on my part. The title’s similarity to the mainstream Hollywood release “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is purely intentional.

See, it was put out by a production company called “The Asylum,” whose entire business model consists of putting out straight-to-DVD “mockbusters” that are blatantly similar to more well-funded, mainstream productions. And their titles are often deliberately confusing. A few examples: “Sunday School Musical,” “Transmorphers” and “Snakes on a Train.”

So why do I find it interesting?

Well, obviously the production company has already accomplished its goal when people mistakenly rent “Transmorphers” in the mistaken belief that they’re bringing home “Transformers.” But I guess they’d face fraud charges if the movie consisted of nothing more than a caption that reads: “HA! GOTCHA, ASSHOLE!” They actually need to furnish a movie. (more…)

The following is a list of actual items that have turned up on the walls of Cracker Barrel restaurants as decorative antiques:

A lithograph featuring a full frontal portrait of a naked Theodore Roosevelt.

The sled owned by William Randolph Hearst as a child, which served as the inspiration for “Rosebud” in the movie “Citizen Kane.” But Hearst’s actual name for the sled was “Bootylicious.”

A vegetable slicer from the first McDonald’s restaurant opened in 1940, with a severed human thumb still wedged in it.

The poison dart gun disguised as an umbrella used to assassinate Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.

A tome once owned by Aleister Crowley, bound in human flesh and written in human blood in the language of a savage ancient race whom legends hold to be something other than human. Curiously, it appears to contain mostly household cleaning tips and pastry recipes.

A Victorian-era chastity device known as the “iron pelican.”

The skull of Gale Gordon, the actor who played Mr. Mooney on “The Lucy Show” from 1963 to 1968. Rumored to have mysterious healing powers.