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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008

You’ve got to give George Lucas credit. Who else but the man behind the whole Skywalker family space saga could systematically rape his past while still producing staunch defenders? While he used to bemoan his inability to make “small, arthouse fare”, he now seems permanently stuck in Gene Simmons mode (read: endlessly remarketing his myth for future fans - and profits). After completing his horrendous prequels, many thought he was done with a galaxy far, far away. As it turns out, he was just getting started. As a live action TV series looms, we are currently being treated to the theatrical release of the pilot for his soon to be weekly animated effort, The Clone Wars. Based on the lifeless collection of computer generated chaos offered, things may be ending before the even begin.

For those unfamiliar with the storyline, a separatist movement, led by Count Dooku, is attempting to overthrow the Republic. The Jedi, including Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, have been put in charge of keeping things from spiraling out of control. As we catch up with the characters, Jabba the Hutt’s son has been kidnapped, and Yoda wants his two best knights to negotiate his return. Unfortunately, they are engaged in a massive battle on a far away planet. Adding to the problems is a new padawan, Ahsoka Tano. The youngling is assigned to Anakin, much to his initial chagrin. They eventually form an uneasy alliance. After tracking the huttlet to an abandoned monastery, the trio heads out to battle Dark Lord Asajj Ventress and her droid forces. While concerned over the safety of the hostage, they fail to realize that this may all be a trap to poison the Jedi in Jabba’s eyes.

Welcome to George Lucas’ latest bad, bad decision. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is easily classified as an “if you don’t mind” styled production. If you don’t mind unfocused battle sequences that seem to go on forever, if you don’t mind characterization clearly aimed at the under seven set, if you don’t mind overly cute merchandising bows and dialogue as ditzy as any Jar Jar monologue, you probably will enjoy yourself. But if the very thought of a drag queen Jabba the Hutt horrifies you, or if your fandom is killed by the concept that our future Darth Vader is referred to, lovingly and often, as “Skyguy”, Clone Wars will close the door on your love of this series forever. Sure, it’s merely the set up for an upcoming Cartoon Network/TNT series, but leave it to Lucas to drive a stake in his space opera’s vampiric heart once and for all.

It’s not an altogether unpleasant experience, at least at first. We are given a simple set-up -Anakin gets new padawan, she’s a spunky little thing, they both learn lessons from each other while saving a baby slug from some slightly confusing double cross. Dooku does his thing. Cue John Williams inspired theme. But thanks to the relatively lifeless realization of this material by director Dave Filoni (who almost out snores Uncle George in the filmmaking department) and writers Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy, we are stuck with nothing but cause and effect. It’s all set up and problem solving, the characters given limited access to anything imaginative, instead relying on the same old moves and screenplay mechanics to maintain the story arc.

Once we get beyond the narrative pleasantries, The Clone Wars has little else to offer. The battle sequences are sloppy and wooly, delivering little scope and even less excitement. The proposed suspense never arrives, and since we know the fate of these characters beforehand (some, if not all, have to survive to star in Revenge of the Sith, right?), there is little surprise or satisfaction. The newer additions are merely tossed in, given little time to impact the uninitiated. Unlike live action clashes, where character and other physical elements can be added to up the adrenalin, the flat 3D characters present simply spin around like videogame targets. There’s none of the stylized grace of Genndy Tartakovsky’s excellent hand drawn version of these events, which is odd when you consider that animation is as much about art as anything else.

No, the stench of preplanned marketing pours off this title like sugared cereal and sickening kid sweat in a Shrek queue. Everything here is dumbed down, turning potential science fiction and fantasy into overly cute concepts for toys and bubblegum flavored toothpastes. Looking even more closely, you can see the reach for the highly coveted girl demo (a speculative rarity), the equally elusive under 10 set (awwww - isn’t little stinky Rotta the Huttlet adorable!), and even those interested in alternative lifestyles. Yes, Star Wars gets its first openly gay icon in Ziro, Jabba’s wildly flamboyant and campy Uncle. Speaking like something out of a Tennessee William’s play and doing everything else to suggest homosexuality aside from lisping, this totally misguided creation is like a hate crime waiting to happen.

And speaking of anger, fans will be furious when they hear the sound-alike voice actors hired to bring their former favorites to life. Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christiansen, Natalie Portman, and Ian McDiamond are nowhere to be found among the credits. In their place are capable mimics, accented by the real voices of Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Anthony Daniels. Granted, we don’t get the return of Jar Jar Binks, but one imagines the lilting nasal whine of Ashley Eckstein (as Ahsoka) will be enough to give devotees a migraine. She turns this epic battle between good and evil into a highly costumed High School Musical. Indeed, everything is pitched so far over into outright juvenilia - the imbecilic droids and their incredibly dumb shtick, the lack of realistic violence, the continual arrival of new creatures - that the entire production feels like a love letter to Saturday morning spendthrifts

While it only truly drags toward the end (at almost 100 minutes, it’s 20 too long) Star Wars: The Clone Wars clearly suffers from a severe case of “why?” Why did we need more connective material between already unnecessary Episodes Two and Three? Wasn’t the first time through under Tarakovsky’s imaginative reign good enough? Why aim this material directly at kids? Don’t you realize that your biggest supporters remain the arrested adolescents who fill up Comic-Con with their aging geekdom, Smart Cars, disposable income, and costume making fanaticism? Clearly, the powers behind this convenient cash grab can’t see the real reason Star Wars remains culturally significant. The Clone Wars is proof that, in some people’s minds, it’s nothing more than an easily reconfigured revenue stream.

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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008
The introduction to the video for "Poppin'" provides a pretty good summation of what viewers can expect: "Hopeless Records Presents All Time Low."

I once attended college in Los Angeles, where I came across a lot of rich So-Cal kids (or rich, wannabe So-Cal kids) who casually used the n-word to insult each other and openly admitted their racism, even expressing pride in it.

I’ll be damned if this piece of garbage doesn’t remind me of some of those old acquaintances. These guys might as well have filmed their minstrel video in blackface.

Tagged as: all time low
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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008

Recently I started watching Family Guy, the animated Fox show that for a long time I assumed was sort of an vulgarized take on The Simpsons, with the jokes made dumber to appeal to the Maxim-reading frat crowd. That assumption was wrong; though there are plenty of surface similarities between the shows, Family Guy represents an entirely different kind of humor—mainly it’s a matter of arbitrary references piled up. Kind of like Mystery Science Theater, these are random stabs, meant to seem spontaneously generated as a reaction to events and seemingly designed to gratify the audience for its ability to recognize the allusions. It’s pleasant to know trivia; Family Guy works on the theory that remembering pointless pop culture tidbits is funny in and of itself. Just remembering there was such a cultural creation as Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life is the essence of the joke. It cuts both ways—it’s flattering to get what the show has dredged up, but at the same time that makes us the butt of joke for having remembered. 

There’s no attempt at coherent satire, like The Simpsons frequently presents, or clever plot architectonics, as in Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, where disparate plot threads are implausibly tied together. Family Guy defiantly rejects any kind of thematic unity, along with the rest of the Aristotelian rules. Its form is more that of a website like than a sitcom. It’s anchored in an aesthetic that has probably never made it this close to the mainstream before in the history of mass culture: wrongness.

It’s probably best to define wrongness by what strikes me as the most notorious example, the extended sequences in which Peter, the dad character, fights a giant chicken. These are elaborate parodies of the fights in blockbuster action movies, but that is only part of what is meant to make them funny—that’s just the shallow surface premise. Their complete gratuity, highlighted by the complete absence of relation to the episode’s plot, is also part of the joke, but the core principle on which these scenes are based is their interminableness. They go on well beyond what the audience expects, well beyond the moment at which every possible person will have gotten the joke’s surface premise, and enter a realm of annoyance and discomfort. They seemed designed to provoke the viewer’s anger, to make us shout at the screen, “Enough already!”

One might protest that these are lazy ideas deployed to fill time when the show’s writers’ invention fails them, but these sorts of messed-up scenes are in virtually every episode. They are not accidental. They have their analogues, too, in several other aspects of the show, completing a sort of holistic spirit of wrongness. These moments, when Stewie (the diabolical baby) goes on and on about Brian (the family dog who, in a Snoopy-derived reductio ad absurdem, is the most intelligent and mature family member) and his procrastination about his novel, or when Peter deliberates over stupid Trivial Pursuit non-questions, provoke the same creeped-out feeling that is the basis for the character of Quagmire, the hypersexed neighbor who perpetually takes his advances too far with inappropriate people and derives sexual pleasure from things that are too bizarre. Herbert, the bitter old molester, prompts a similar feeling, as the moment we start to laugh at his skeevy advances, he becomes contemptuous and spews unfunny, ominous insults and threats.

And the show’s lack of a plot works this way too—ordinary markers of the “acts” of a sitcom episode are ignored, conflicts are introduced and then forgotten, unresolved. The show will end abruptly on an off beat, or introduce a digression that takes over as the main storyline. Traditional TV conventions are gestured toward and then suspended, not so much subverted as exposed, taken too literally, pushed too far to the point where they can’t be allowed to function as the shorthand they serve as in other contexts but become instead strange. This makes Family Guy weirdly Brechtian. It often tries to alienate us, as though that were now understood to be a cutting-edge form of humor.

The show’s writers seemed to purposely build in a moment to every episode where they make the equivalent of chanting “not funny, not funny, not funny” into something funny through sheer persistence. The scenes of wrongness refuse to let us sit back and passively tally the orchestrated moments when we are supposed to laugh (which sitcoms customarily choreograph with laugh tracks). Instead we are forced by frustration into a different sort of emotional engagement. It’s a pretty audacious approach, and it’s no wonder the show has been canceled several times. What puzzles me is that there are enough devotees of wrongness to keep getting the show resurrected.

Tagged as: family guy
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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008

Yesterday an appeals court in Manhattan overturned a 2006 decision awarding the copyright interests for 10 of John Steinbeck’s works to his closest heirs, his son and granddaughter.


Penguin has had a standing agreement for the publishing rights to Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men since 1938, which the family members sought to end in 2004. Penguin wasn’t willing to let go without a fight.

BBC News reports, “Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle were awarded the rights in 2006 after a lengthy court battle.” The story continues, “But the appeals court ruled the lower court had misapplied copyright law.”

It turns out that the rights had been more recently conveyed by Steinbeck’s third wife to Penguin in 1994, and left with her estate to her descendants from a previous marriage when she died in 2003.

John Steinbeck died in 1968, having won a Pulitzer for The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.

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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008

Perfect Sound Forever writer Tony Sclafani is someone I’ve enjoyed working with—he’s done a number of good stories for my zine. I’m also glad to see him making a name for himself at MSNBC as a writer there. What he didn’t anticipate was that writing pop think pieces can be a hazardous business. Not enough people do that nowadays and it’s easy to see why—when you’re dealing with a mainstream subject, most of the audience ain’t interested in theories and independent, unpopular thought. I happen to love this type of writing though I don’t envy the people who do it, especially for big publications.

As Tony found out, you get lots of slings and arrows for this type of writing. He was surprised about this at first and I tried to reassure him that it’s nature of the beast.

One case in point is his recent Madonna article. Here, he compares her cultural impact to that of the Beatles and finds that nowadays, Madge comes up as the winner. Mind you, he goes out of his way to say that her music isn’t necessarily better than the Fabs but that didn’t change anything in the mind of many readers. Look at the comment section for the piece and you’ll find a lot of scathing responses there. That’s to be expected. The readers prove their point (Beatles > Madonna) by quoting sales figures (which would ultimately mean that the Eagles beat both of them), musicianship (which ain’t always a guarantee of great music and which would qualify Keith Emerson or Richie Blackmore for Rock Hall of Fame slots that haven’t been available otherwise) and such. In other words, they don’t address the issues that Sclafani brings up and instead take offense that their heroes are being attacked. That’s not the purpose of the article though Sclafani clearly meant to tease the readers by bringing up the Beatles comparison- how much reaction would the article have gotten if he just said “Madonna’s had a lot of cultural impact”? (A: a lot less reaction)

One thing I do disagree about in the article is the cultural impact of the Fabs. Musically, it’s true that their legacy hasn’t DIRECTLY influenced a lot of music you hear today outside of power pop but the same could be said about another cultural icon named Elvis. The fact is that the Beatles did and still do have a lot of non-musical impact in culture today. They virtually invented the concert of stadium tours starting with Shea in ‘65. Also, Harrison’s love of Indian music helped usher in many musicians’ and fans’ interest in ‘world music.’ Sgt Pepper was a milestone as it introduced not only the concept of the album as art (both on the cover and in the grooves) but also that it could still be a best-selling item. Though Sam Cooke and others had done it before, the boys also popularized the idea of artist-run labels (Apple)—even beyond that, they branched out into other venues like a boutique and an electronics company (though both flopped). Their decision in ‘66 to end touring also made it viable for groups to be ‘studio bands.’  Even before they officially broke up in 1970, they had already began to popularize the idea of the ‘solo album’ (and did some interesting, strange things with it too). Even their interviews betrayed their art-school mentality instead of the aw-shucks persona adapted by the King. Their fascination with tapes and electronic music also helped usher in not only the idea of art-rock (which is a mixed blessing admittedly) and helped to push modern classical music more into the mainstream consciousness (even at the time of his death, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a giant of 20th century music, was still best known for his visage on the cover of Pepper).

And so on. You could spend all day listing the innovations that the Beatles brought about and which still are important today (and please do so, I wanna hear more myself!).

You can argue back and forth about whether the appended list above beats out what Madonna did or not but the end result is still the same. Both artists had a major impact on the pop world and continue to do so today.

As for Madge, I’m going to see her on her upcoming tour. I saw her on her last tour for what was supposed to be her worst record and she still put on a great show. I have no doubt that she’ll do it again this time- she’s a living legend and still a great entertainer. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that she’s not the cultural icon she once was, though she can still grab tabloid headlines (and though signing with Live Nation was a big move too). In a May cover story for Vanity Fair, she said that she thought that New York had lost its pizazz- “... it doesn’t feel alive, cracking with that synergy between the art world and music world and fashion world that was happening in the 80s.”  “In a response, New York said ‘right back at you!’” said Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update.

Oh and recent historical data has shown that Jesus was well over six-feet tall- he could have been a great point guard on a basketball team. So technically, he’s bigger than the Beatles or Madonna.

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