Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Making a nothing day seem worthwhile

The eternal struggle between my desire to eliminate clutter / watch spending and my pop culture geekiness lost to the geek side again a few weeks back when I succumbed to an Amazon sale and bought seasons two and three of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on DVD (I already had season one).

There’s no buyer’s remorse. After spending time again with Mary, Lou, Rhoda, Murray, Ted and Phyllis, I was reminded how much that show was one of those extremely rare examples of TV alchemy. Creative freedom from network and studio given to brilliant producer / writers working with a perfectly cast ensemble made for some of the greatest tee vee ever. Not only does The Mary Tyler Moore Show hold up over three decades later, it has gained the weight and import of a true classic.

Not like The Brady Bunch, which is “classic” purely in a time capsule context rather than through artistic merit (I defy anyone to genuinely laugh at any episode). The Mary Tyler Moore Show (while very much a snapshot of the 1970s) is a classic because everything about the show rings true: The characters, the situations, the humor and the pathos (which was there). Relationships evolved naturally over the seasons, rather than being forced into change due to an actor’s increasing popularity (see Happy Days, M*A*S*H). The writing was smart, the acting broad but believable, and oh, man, that theme song gets me every time. As on Mary’s prior gig, The Dick Van Dyke Show, the heart of the Mary Tyler Moore Show is timeless.

This is not to say that I didn’t also feel a wash of overwhelming nostalgia for the Seventies as I watched a handful of episodes and bonus features late last night. I grew up in that decade, a period in American pop culture history that’s becoming less maligned as time goes on. ‘70s cinema is now regarded by many as the greatest era of American filmmaking. The disparate, often battling factions of ‘70s rock led to seminal punk, metal and even disco (hated it then, not so much now). And while much TV of that decade has become a bit moldy, there are a handful of shows (All in the Family, the Bob Newhart Show) that are aging like fine wine.

As we become further inundated with modern entertainment product that has more to do with corporate synergy, product placement and politically correct compromise than creativity, something as seemingly innocuous as The Mary Tyler Moore Show feels more and more like true art. And as I was watching Lou Grant pretend through gritted teeth to love Rhoda Morgenstern’s hyper-modern remodel of his now-white living room with the giant painting of a 5 on the wall (“I bet she looked at four other paintings before she chose this one!!”) while Mary Richards feared for her best friend’s life, I got so moved by (and envious of) the show’s perfection that I got teary.

Okay, granted, I had much wine. Still, Love is all around. Even if it’s on old TV.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Frowny Face. Tongue Hanging Out.

I had to buy a new cell phone yesterday. Dammit. My “old” one (a year and three months) died. I usually dread having to upgrade any technology (buying the big LCD HDTV an exception to the rule). I can’t stand the built-in obsolescence of things like computers and cell phones. And even worse, as the technology grows and “improves,” my less-is-more esthetic finds a colder and colder world. I don’t like bells and whistles on everything. I just want a phone. I just want to be able to call people... okay and text them.

Actually, I prefer texting to calling. I hate talking on the phone. Plus, texting has the great anachronistic pull of letter writing, even if it is in brief sentences (for this reason, e-mailing is my preferred method of communication).

To that end, however, I refuse to use most txt shorthand. I will write “before,” instead of “B4,” I’ll spell out the variations on “to” and only use “2” in a numerical context. But for some reason, I have no compunction using “yr” for “your / you’re” (no distinction, which does grate the grammarian in me); “txt” for “text”; and “u” for “you.” But those are the only txt shorthands that I’ll use.
And I never, ever use emoticons. I’ll write out “wink, wink” before I’ll type ;-).

Anyway. My new phone. It’s a Razr (or I should say, “Razor”). It has a camera. I can AIM. Play games. Download video and songs. None of which I shall do. The only new feature I may warm up to is the camera. We’ll see.

In other news, the final one-sheet for Superman Returns was released this week. And I gotta say, much as I’ve disliked most of the movie’s art direction so far, it’s pretty nice. It’s big and iconic, the maroon even looks more red and amazingly, Superman’s hair is black in the poster and parted on the correct side ( sadly not the case in the film). Yes, I am kryptonitpicking. It’s a term I invented. Feel free to spread it.

And finally, every morning, when my alarm goes off at 9am, I roll over and turn on CNN. Yeah, it’s often obtuse and pandering, but there is some news peppered in there and my annoyance with O’Briens Miles and Soledad usually propels me out of bed and into the shower before the Daily Show comes on.

This week, they're running a series this week called "30s-40s-50s" about where you should be and what you should be doing at these stages of your life. Of course, I can relate to none of it as it's all geared towards people following THE PLAN, as I like to call it. According to this series, I should be married, have kids, a mortgage and a corporate career. Oh, and no life, apparently. Much of the talk revolves around basically (and of course, I'm paraphrasing) being MISERABLE! Coping with no free time, awful crippling debt, strained relationship with your spouse, bratty kids, and a job you hate.... NONE of which apply to me. I've got lots of free time, no debt at all (aside from my car), I’m happily single with no bratty kids and I like my jobs.

Gee, did you know it’s bad to have a lot of credit card debt and live beyond your means? That you’re supposed to limit the amount of saturated fat you eat and get lots of exercise? That you should sleep? That it’s better to own than to rent? Now THAT’S news!!! Way to go, CNN! You’ve finally become as fully vapid as the Today Show!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Bronze Beauties #8: Action Comics

I decided that to plug my five part series on Superman and Superman Returns on mtv.com, I'll pick a different Supes comic from the 70s each time a new piece goes live. For this week's installment, here are two of my favorite Action Comics covers from that decade.

Action #392 (Sept. 1970)was the second of a two part "imaginary story" (as Alan Moore pointed out, "aren't they all?") speculating on what the sons of Superman and Batman might be like. In the story, Superman's really a douchebag, bitching that his son isn't nearly the hero-in-training that Batboy is, treating him like crap, even using gold kryptonite to take away his powers after Superkid wrecks a bunch of stuff in the Fortress of Solitude! In part 2, Superman realizes the folly of his ways and, utlizing some convenient "cosmo-kinetic bracelets," transfers his super powers to his son. It's a supremely silly, head-shaking puzzler of a story, but it blew my mind as a kid. The campy cover is by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson.

In June of 1978, in Action #484, Superman married Lois Lane (for the first time). Actually, this was the Earth-2 Superman, the character that DC published in the so-called Golden Age. He was Kal-L instead of Kal-El, he worked for the Daily Star, not the Daily Planet and he wasn't nearly as strong as the character as he had evolved into the late 1950s. Sound confusing? Don't worry about it, he went away after Crisis on Infinite Earths in the 80s, only to be resurrected and killed off in DC's recent atrocity Infinite Crisis. Just look at the lovely cover by José Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dick Giordano and it'll all be okay. (As a side note, in 1992, I used this image on the RSVP card for my wedding).

I've begun going back and adding extra covers to the Bronze Beauties posts, because a mere two covers just ain't gonna cut it for most of these entries. So added to the roster are 17 more great covers spanning the Bronze Age (the first one below was one of my very first comic books, and thus the recipient of much love!). Up, up, and away!

Action Comics #387, April 1970. Art by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson

Action Comics #388, May 1970. Art by Curt Swan & Murphy Anderson

Action Comics #389, June 1970. Art by Curt Swan & Murphy Anderson

Action Comics #392, September 1970. Art by Curt Swan & Murphy Anderson

Action Comics #399, April 1971. Art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

Action Comics #402, July 1971. Art by Neal Adams

Action Comics #406, November 1971. Art by Curt Swan & Murphy Anderson

Action Comics #413, June 1972. Art by Nick Cardy

Action Comics #425, July 1973. Art by Nick Cardy

Action Comics #440, October 1974. Art by Nick Cardy

Action Comics #443, January 1975. Art by Nick Cardy

Action Comics #446, April 1975. Art by Bob Oksner

Action Comics #466, December 1976. Art by Neal Adams

Action Comics #481, March 1978. Art by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez

Action Comics #484, June 1978. Art by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez & Dick Giordano

Action Comics #500, October 1979. art by Ross Andru & Dick Giordano

Action Comics #545, July 1983. Art by Gil Kane

Action Comics #569, July 1985. Art by Howard Bender & Bob Oksner

Action Comics #574, December 1985. Art by Eduardo Barreto

©DC Comics

Friday, May 12, 2006

Cera Gets My Head

Last Sunday at 5pm, as I got in the car to pick up my brother at the train station and head home to PA for my Uncle Bill’s funeral, I noticed something shocking. The front passenger side window was down. The whole way. As it had been since noon on the previous Friday, when I returned from a Target-trek. An entire Hoboken weekend had passed and not one person fucked with my vehicle. Change in the glove compartment, CDs, everything was intact. An affirmation of basic human goodness... or pure luck? Everyone to whom I related the story invoked the latter. Either way, whew.

It was a trio of days full of consideration of human character. My Uncle Bill, the husband of my father’s oldest sister Kate, was a gruff guy. As a kid, I was sometimes a bit frightened of him. But people are complicated. And in the end, all that mattered was that he loved and was loved. Transgressions forgiven, perspective gained, my cousin Ed (one of four kids, all to whom I feel particularly close) poignantly reminding us through tears that we need to accept both the bad and the good in people, including ourselves.

I’m always uncomfortable at funerals, but not for the same reasons as most. What makes me shift in my suit is my atheism. While I respect the right to believe and try not to wear my lack of faith as a badge, I also can’t be a hypocrite and play ball when it comes to things like reciting prayer or singing hymns. So I stand or sit quietly. But it’s more than just abstaining from ritual.

As someone who believes that when we’re gone, we’re gone, I don’t have the comforting notion of a blissful afterlife. I don’t think that my grandparents are looking down on me between watching Star Trek reruns on heavenly cable (or probably satellite). I don’t think that the deceased have “gone to a better place.” I think they’re just gone.

As such, I think the way we deal with the dead is ludicrous. Spending thousands of dollars on a pretty box to hold a lifeless body and then burying it in the ground? Wha? We now have the technology to get rid of a body in ways other than leaving it lying in a field to be feasted upon by carrion and bears. We’ve eliminated most infectious diseases that necessitate sticking the corpse six feet down. As for the notion that a proper burial is the portal to the afterlife, well, see above.

(At least some religions, like Orthodox Judaism and Islam encourage decomposition and refuse to allow for embalming or caskets designed to last longer than styrofoam.)

So the idea of leaving a loved one’s carcass in the cold ground, while certainly bringing harsh closure, doesn’t help; it compounds my grief. But when my parents kick, I’m going to have to deal with it. They’re going into a mausoleum rather than the ground, but it’s still not an idea I love. I’d prefer it if my brother and I could keep the ashes. But I will respect their wishes.

When I die, if there’s anyone around who gives a poop, my plans are simple. Harvest the organs (anyone who isn’t an organ donor should be ashamed), burn the rest, do whatever the hell you want with the ashes. Keep ‘em, spread ‘em in front of the TV (my nature), hell, toss ‘em in the trash. I honestly don’t care. Just don’t waste money or resources on my lifeless ass.

This discussion came up at the luncheon following the funeral, although the tone was a bit more conciliatory. Some of my cousins and I were talking about funerals and I voiced my opinion, in part so if I do kick prematurely, they’ll know what to expect. My cousins’ kids (being my first cousins once removed) didn’t know about organ harvesting, so I explained the concept to them. At which point Cera said, “I want your head!” adding much levity to the situation.

Actually, it’s always the post-interment where I find my solace, but I’m hardly alone. The collective release that comes from bad food shared in a church basement always seems to be when the true bonding happens. Stories are shared, jokes are told, neckties are loosened. After lunch, some of us went back to Aunt Kate’s and toasted Bill with a jug of the truly awful Pink Catawba wine he so enjoyed. We all raised our glasses and Aunt Kate (truly one of the most kick-ass ladies of all time) said, “Here’s to you, Bill! You never shared it when you were alive!” and we all laughed.

It was good to be home.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Shame, Balls and Bullshit

A lot to cover today. I’ve been quite busy, so let’s get caught up.

So, this is embarrassing to admit, but... I saw United 93. As someone who writes about movies for part of his living, I feel obligated to see certain buzz films, to be able to be a part of the discussion. But honestly, I might’ve seen it anyway. My relationship with 9/11 is much like my father’s with WWII. I can’t turn my eyes away from anything about the day, mostly because even though I saw it first hand (living right across the Hudson from NYC), I still can’t wrap my brains around it.

So I went to see United 93. Alone (again, naturally), on a Monday afternoon at a grand old movie theater in New York’s east village. But as I approached the sidewalk box office, I felt my stomach knot a bit. I whispered my order and averted my eyes when I gave the ticket to the usher. Buying snacks felt more than inappropriate, so I passed. I sat in the front row of the balcony, the theater sparsely populated, many people likewise there for a solitary experience.

More discomfort followed as the pre-show advertainment got under way. A particularly nauseating Pepsi spot featuring Jimmy Fallon and Parker Posey swigging the swill and dancing down a New York street (“It’s all about the cola”) was followed by a “funny” dancing concession / turn off yer pagers (showing its age) spot. The forced faux-humor of these ads felt even more crass in light of what we all knew was to follow.

My first thought as the movie got underway was “Ouch, that’s some bad acting.” Of course, that’s because they weren’t actors. Many of the actual air traffic controllers and other involved parties played themselves in the movie. Uh... okay. Even Unsolved Mysteries didn’t let actual participants play themselves. Seems odd to me.

But then the movie continued and things got worse. I felt like I was sitting in an old Times Square porno theater, I hid my face in my hands, I shrunk down in my seat. This movie was not an insightful glimpse into the face of heroism; It’s as exploitative as a Steven Seagal movie.

United 93 tells us nothing about the day or the people that we didn’t know already. Much of what’s depicted on the plane is, of course, pure speculation. A particularly offensive bit involving a blonde foreigner (British? French? I couldn’t tell) who is against the plan to take back the plane and attempts to warn the terrorists smacks of xenophobia.

And so we just sit, waiting to see the passengers attack (and kill?) the terrorists. Which happens in the last minutes of the movie, just before the plane crashes. The movie wants us to feel some sort of cathartic release in seeing Americans fight back and defeat (sort of) these members of al-Qaeda. And then the plane crashes. And the movie’s over. And we all just feel awful.

But don’t we still all feel awful anyway? To this day, almost five years later, I still wince every single time I hear a low flying plane. The fact that our administration has exploited the events of September 11th, 2001 to further its own unrelated agenda (and continues to date-drop it at every opportunity) only adds to the tragedy of that day.

Maybe United 93 isn’t for people in New York or Pennsylvania or Washington DC, for whom 9/11 didn’t look “just like a movie.” I can’t help but feel that, rather than giving weight to the sacrifice of the people who died on that flight, United 93 trivializes it (and I’m not even getting into the theory that the flight was actually shot down).

There are stories to be told. If the filmmakers would've chosen to tell the stories of one of the passengers, a pilot and/or a flight attendant, let us know WHO they were rather than just nameless faces in the crowd, I might've felt something deeper.

Tonight I’m seeing The Devil and Daniel Johnston (NOT alone) and expect a better experience.

In other news, you may have seen that “hilarious” George Bush impersonator side by side with the Prez at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend. But that’s not the real story. The mainstream media practically ignored Stephen Colbert’s appearance following that powderpuff act. Go to YouTube to watch the whole thing. It’s probably the closest Bush has ever gotten to truly being read the riot act in public. Pure genius. I confess to being skeptical when The Colbert Report debuted as to whether or not the joke wouldn't wear thin. The show (and Colbert) just keeps getting better and better. Now, how long until Mark Smith, the man who booked Colbert for the dinner is fired?

Finally, maybe you’ve seen that commercial for the Suzuki Forenza where a woman sheds her corporate clothing in a wage-slave-packed elevator and changes into athletic gear, running out the door of the office building to jump into the waiting bland-sedan and rush off for a liberating weekend of mountain biking, with the tag line, “You want more out of life?”

Not that almost all advertising isn’t worthy of derision (Wes Anderson’s Amex ad aside), but this commercial makes me ill. It implies that this woman is an uninhibited free spirit who’s not shackled by her high-paying corporate career.


She IS shackled by her job. You want more out of life? Then QUIT your stupid corporate job that apparently allows you so little time for your own life that you have to strip in front of drooling suits and rush to squeeze in your precious weekend. I cannot stand the mentality in this country that you don’t have to love what you do for a living, that it’s merely a means to an end of making lots of money that you won’t really be able to enjoy until you’re too old to enjoy it. Your life is your own. RIGHT NOW. Not when you’re 65. It is entirely possible to live a full, rewarding, and yes, fruitful life outside of the fucking PLAN.

In fact, I’d say it’s mandatory.

Bronze Beauties #7: Superman

In honor of the first of my five part series on anticipating Superman Returns on mtv.com, here are two of my favorite Superman covers from the 70’s. In #233 (January, 1971), a chain reaction converted all Kryptonite on Earth into harmless metal (something that wouldn’t last). In #240 (July 1971), a weakened Superman finds the citizens of Metropolis turning on him. The mystic I-Ching (advisor to Wonder Woman, who was likewise going through a powerless period. So to speak) teaches Supes how to reover his missing strength.

The Superman comics of the early 1970s (mostly those written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson) may well be my favorite comics of all time, and the powerful covers by Neal Adams left an impact on me that will never fade.

Well, it's seven years later, and here we go again. While SUPERMAN RETURNS didn't exactly pan out as I (or Warner Bros.) had hoped, expectations seem a bit higher for this weekend's debut of MAN OF STEEL. I'm trying to keep my hopes mitigated, as I don't wanna be burned again. But in the meantime, here are a dozen more awesome SUPERMAN comic covers from the Bronze Age.

1970. Art by Curt Swan & Murphy Anderson.

1971. Art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano. 

1971. Art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano. 

1973. Art by Nick Cardy. 

1973. Art by Nick Cardy.

1974. Art by Nick Cardy.

1975. Art by Bob Oksner.

1977. Art by Neal Adams.

1978. Art by José Luis García-López & Dick Giordano.

1979. Art by Ross Andru & Dick Giordano.

1980. Art by Ross Andru & Dick Giordano.

1983. Art by Gil Kane. Note the debut of the redesigned logo.