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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007

Back in February, Mike Allen approached the mic to ask President Bush a question at a White House press conference. The President responded with a snide retort.


President Bush: Michael. Michael, who do you work for? (Laughter.)


Mike Allen: Mr. President, I work for Politico.com.


President Bush: Pardon me? Politico.com?


Mike Allen: Yes, sir. Today. (Laughter.)


President Bush: You want a moment to explain to the American people exactly what—(laughter.)


Mike Allen: Mr. President, thank you for the question. (Laughter.)


President Bush: Quit being so evasive.


David Gregory: You should read it.


President Bush: Is it good? You like it?


David Gregory: Yes


President Bush: David Gregory likes it. I can see the making of a testimonial. (Laughter.) Anyway, go ahead, please.


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Monday, Jul 9, 2007


When it broadcast its final episode on 8 August, 1999, fans feared they had seen the last of their beloved cowtown puppet show. After 10 seasons, 198 installments, and a major channel switch, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was offering up its last original take on bad movies – in this case, the Italian spy spoof Danger: Diabolik. As with all last shows, the series tried to wrap up various storylines, explain away certain elements, and end on a proper note of closure and nostalgia. While MST3K as it was otherwise known went on to last in reruns for three more years, the company behind the production, Best Brains, slowly folded up shop and dismissed any future potential projects. It did indeed seem like we’d never see the likes of Joel, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo ever again.


Fast forward to 2006. Former MST head writer Mike Nelson has been making a name for himself as a solo satirist, helping fledgling DVD distributor Legend Films sell copies of crappy public domain titles like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Thanks to his clever commentaries, similar in style to his old days on the Satellite of Love, Nelson was renewing interest in old films, while providing hope to fans that a Mystery Science revival is around the corner. Adding fuel to the fire was RiffTrax, an MP3 service started by the company that allowed Nelson, along with fellow familiar faces Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, to crack wise over contemporary movies. The popularity of these downloadable comic criticisms, hitting on such well known classics as The Matrix, Battlefield Earth, and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, proved that there was an audience eager to experience more bad movie bashing. 


Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, The Film Crew is here. Picking up almost directly where Mystery Science left off, and losing none of the previous show’s wit or audacity, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy are back, playing loveable losers working for an obsessed media mogul. Their job – provide a commentary track for every movie (bad or good) lacking same. After an online poll allowed fans to choose the first film to be tackled, the 10 July release of Hollywood After Dark shows incredible product promise. While the backstory and skit material make up a much smaller portion of the overall presentation, the quintessential quipping we’ve come to expect from these fully seasoned pros is provided in slaphappy spades. For Mystery Science devotees, this is an undeniable dream come true.


For those unfamiliar with how the process works, here is a short rundown. As a movie plays in the background, our three heroes use the hackneyed plotting, pathetic dialogue, and obtuse directorial choices as fodder for their funny business. They make jokes. They crack wise. They provide a plethora of pop culture allusions, and frequently fall into surreal, self-absorbed inferences – all in the name of mockery and merriment. During the MST days, it was a human (Mike, or series creator Joel Hodgson) and two robots (voiced by Trace Beaulieu, Corbett, and Murphy) doing the ribbing. Now, it’s in the guise of three bumbling archivists, hired by Bob Honcho (seen and hear via portrait and telephone only – Charles Townsend style) to provide his much beloved alternate narrative tracks. There are no silhouettes on the screen, no scientific experimentation subplot. Just grade-Z films and grade-A funnymen.


And Hollywood After Dark is the perfect picture to start off with. Culled from the days when exploitation could make hundreds of sow’s ears out of a couple of cinematic silk purses, strippers and Navy seamen take an unbelievably bum rap as future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan proves that even noted television stars had to get their embarrassing start somewhere. Yes, crazy as it seems, everyone’s favorite oversexed sitcom matron actually began her career in the low-rent films of the grindhouse circuit. Long before she became a small-screen staple in shows like Maude, she was churning out crap like The Grass Eater, Door-to-Door Maniac, and How To Succeed with Girls. Yet two of the films she made with journeyman John Hayes—1963’s Five Minutes to Love (originally entitled The Rotten Apple) and 1968’s Walk the Angry Beach (later called Hollywood After Dark)—represent the nadir of her reputation with the raincoat crowd. Talky, trashy, and just a little too turgid for most genre fans, both films represent over-processed scripts with nearly incoherent consideration for cinematic basics like narrative and characterization.


For its part, Hollywood After Dark is just a heist film welded to a melodrama and spiced with a pair of strip scenes to give the debauchery demographic something to sneer over. At the core is a lover’s triangle between Rue’s Sandy, Jack Vorno’s Tony, and clinical depression. Both of our leads have personas baked in hopeless melancholy and each one expresses it in a decidedly different way. Tony gets liquored up, argues with complete strangers, and sulks. Sandy sashays her fanny, gets molested on the casting couch, and teases her paramour. Together, they’re about as much fun as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald at a marriage retreat. But writer/director Hayes is obviously not out for levity and hi-jinks. He wants to sell this film as a frightening exposé, a chance to see how Tinseltown tears apart, chews up, and spits out people like Tony and Sandy every single day. Unfortunately, instead of just making a documentary about the local bus depot, he decided to forge ahead with a scattered script full of lame action scenes and half-started heart-to-hearts.


Thanks to the direct to home video dynamic, which keeps the nasty standards and practices pundits at bay, The Film Crew can take on the baser elements in the narrative – burlesque, sexual battery, criminal intent – and lay into them with equally off-color comments. There is no cursing here, but fans not used to hearing their favorite armchair critics talking about genitalia and horndogging may be thrown off a bit. Similarly, these new installments sound less rehearsed than previous MST style strafing. Murphy and Corbett frequently break up over their own gags, and there are several moments when the choice of a particular word or slightly crude comment has the gang backpeddling in obvious disbelief. Yet for the most part, this is quality old school slamming, the mockery a minute amusement we’ve come to know and love. While McClanahan is barbequed quite nicely, her co-star Vorno get’s more than his fair share of static. And it’s even worse for big league bad guy Nick (played by Paul Bruce). From his oil slicked hair to mouth full of tantalizing teeth, the guys can’t get enough of his manic mobster.


About halfway through the presentation, a standard work siren goes off, and soon the Crew is on a “lunch break”. It’s interesting that the DVD would employ such a conceit, since one thing MST3K fans will notice right off the bat is how weird the concept plays without the standard commercial break every few minutes. Back during the original series, these pauses acted like rib tickling rest stops. Not only did they give the creators a chance to offer up themed skits and songs, but the audience was allowed a moment to compose itself before the next onslaught of silliness. Here, after 30 straight minutes, one feels the need for some downtime. For their part, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett hold an “eat and meet”, where bizarre corporate spin speak substitutes for easygoing meal talk. Perhaps a tad too clever for its own good, it may be more inside than Office Space. Here’s hoping the next few installments in the series offer up less mannered material.


Indeed, Shout! Factory will be releasing future “episodes” including Killers from Space, The Giant of Marathon, and the bad movie classic Wild Women of Wongo. If Hollywood After Dark is any indication of the quality we can expect, one suspects that the Film Crew could be around for a very long time. DVD has helped redefine the rights issues that used to plague Mystery Science, and with a wealth of available public domain/easily obtainable material at their disposal, one imagines that the series is subject to the interest of the participants. Anyone who has longed to hear those mighty Midwestern voices once again violating the sacred vow of silence during a stagnant cinematic cesspool can now fully rejoice. While Rifftrax may have the marquee value, The Film Crew is coming up fast. This essential digital diversion is the answer to many a MiSTies prayers. 


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Monday, Jul 9, 2007

Once again, the inimitable Mr. Tony Sclafani provides a prime scoop!  You’ve probably heard the stories that the power-pop group the Rubinoos are accusing Avril Lavigne of ripping of one of their songs for her recent hit “Boyfriend” (which she denies)?


So sayeth Tony:


“She probably DID hear the tune, but not by The Rubinoos.  The song was covered by the teen band The Party on their 1990 debut LP. This band was a studio creation comprised of members of the New Mickey Mouse Club.  My guess is that Lavigne—who was a pre-teen star wanna be—probably heard this album at some point. The Party was sort of a proto-Britney/Christina/Justin effort by record execs. Many kids back then had this LP.”

Here is info on The Party

Here is The Party performing their minor hit “Summer Vacation”

Here they are doing the Rubinoos song in question “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”


So… what do you think?  Maybe Avril should hire Bush’s lawyers and exert some kind of executive privilege.


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Monday, Jul 9, 2007

NPR News this week interviewed Scott Rice from San Jose University about the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest “honoring the very best of the worst in fiction”. The contest invites writers, published and not, to submit the very worst opening line to a non-existent work of fiction. Winner of last year’s contest, Jim Guigli of California, ripped on Raymond Chandler to come up with this classic:


Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.


Honestly, I’d read that book. But, you get the idea. Contest mascot Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is the man behind Snoopy’s favorite opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night”, and Rice reveals in the NPR interview that he also invented the phrases “the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”. So, while the poor guy is often regarded as a terrible writer, he pulled out a few gems in his lifetime.


Among the fun to be had at the contest website is a competition called Dickens or Bulwer?—you’re provided with a published paragraph and must identify its author as either the revered Dickens or the reviled Bulwer. (It’s actually not that easy.) You can also check out some actual real-life bad opening lines worthy of the Bulwer prize, such as:


Anthony Rowley didn’t look like a self-confessed sadistic rapist.
—Sarah Lovett, Acquired Motives


By the end of the alley the fine hairs in my nostrils were starting to twitch.
—Lindsey Davis, Shadows in Bronze


An ineffable tranquility hovered over the villa, was broken only occasionally by the intermittent sounds of the staff going about their duties: the whirr of the vacuum, the faint birdlike chirpings of the maids as they dusted adjacent rooms, the echo of the butler´s brisk tones issuing orders, the click of a door closing, the patter of distant busy feet. Gradually these individual noises were beginning to merge, flowed together to create a vague and muffled hum that hardly intruded at all on her gentle peregrinations through the labyrinth of her mind.
—Barbara Taylor Bradford, Voice of the Heart



Results of this year’s contest are released 30 July.


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Monday, Jul 9, 2007

A longstanding conservative belief holds that until a class has risen above base material needs—until it is free from necessity—its politics are invalid, immature, determined, contingent, etc. In other words, they are not disinterested the way politicians, if they are to be truly noble and just, should be. This is the logic behind Rockefeller Republicanism: if politicians are already rich, they have no reason to be corrupt. And it’s the same idea that animated cultural politics in the so-called age of sensibility, the late 18th century, when much was made of disinterestedness as a precursor to rational judgment and true feelings (beyond greedy calculation and selfishness), a trend that culminates in Kantian ethics. And as Ellen Meiksins Wood argues in The Retreat From Class, her diatribe against postmodernized socialists like Laclau and Mouffe (my looking for perspective on Hegemony and Socialist Strategy led me to it), the notion that the poverty disbars one from clear-headed politics goes back to Plato. But her main gripe is that the postmodernist presumption that politics and ideology are constituted through discourse and not necessarily material conditions essentially leads to a covert assumption that the working class (bound by “economism”; tainted by material needs) doesn’t have the mental or ideological flexibility to promote a broadly successful socialist program. Instead, this would need to be led by a elite cadre of broad-minded intellectuals who can make the case for socialism without being tainted by the potential for getting something concrete out of it. Any desire for socialism beyond the altruistic, disinterested concern for justice and equality is discrediting for the practitioners of what Wood derides as the “New True Socialism”—a reference to Marx’s contempt for those who dreamed of a socialism so utopian that any action toward trying to achieve it was ultimately self-defeating in its apparent ethical impurity.


Wood’s argument is useful for contextualizing what is so off-putting about the political feints of hipsters and other fashionable leftists, who want to consider themselves against capitalism but don’t want to be involved in anything as grubby as class warfare. They want socialism without having their cocktail parties sullied with tiresome and potentially ill-mannered workers, who might not get their ironic references. Instead they can congregate amongst themselves, swap artworks and go on dumpster-raiding missions and reject animal products, and feel as though they are making a radical political intervention. Rather than focus on the exploitation of workers that sustains capitalism and class difference, and acknowledge that in this exploitation comes the animus to make a real assault on the system, they prefer to see themselves as exploited when the bands they like get too commercial or the neighborhood they live in gets more gentrified and less edgy. The evident distaste hipsters seem to have for those whose interests they occasionally claim to represent (as a pseudo-vanguard, though Wood is quick to point out that Laclau and Mouffe’s argument virtually precludes the existence of a vanguard, since there is no real gap between material interests and political practice that they could help close—it’s all constituted ad hoc in discourse), makes their politics so easy for the right to ridicule or dismiss. Plus, they can use the hipster archetype to discredit all leftist politics, plausibly paint it all as self-aggrandizing and patronizing and egoistic, about establishing the do-gooder’s identity rather than redressing any actual social problems. Unfortunately for John Edwards, he seems to be an emblem for this in the public’s mind—“he cries a lot for the poor, but he’s still getting his fancy haircuts and making his millions.” He comes across like an ideological carpetbagger, no matter ho wmuch he plays up his humble roots or courts union rank-and-filers.


In the Age of Sensibility, this phenomenon took the form of men and women of feeling doing things like visiting Bedlam or unwed-mothers’ homes and making a show of their feeling hearts by weeping, etc. And if they couldn’t do these things, they liked to read about doing them and fantasize. Often in fiction, these sensitive souls were not made for this world—they felt too much—and they would die some extremely noble, self-sacrificial death. But the point was to recognize and demonstrate your own virtue, prove that beyond a doubt—those who suffered were just convenient occasions for the establishing the proofs, and thus in some ways their misfortunes were necessary, not something that was to be eradicated. Of course, conservatives argue all along that there’s no eliminating others’ suffering, which is often their own fault and ultimately their own responsibility to rectify. So conservatives can work to ameliorate suffering without seeming hypocritical. They never pretend not to feel superior to the objects of their pity, so that their charity comes with a feeling of superiority doesn’t seem to invalidate it.


So the problem remains, the problem that has started me reading these political science texts—how does one declasss oneself so as to become a fellow traveler with the exploited classes without exacerbating their exploitation? In other words how does a bourgeois like me do anything to advance socialist causes without actually exploiting those who I mean to help via the process of establishing my political bona fides, for my own peace of mind? How does one contribute to the cause despite not being an “organic intellectual” of the class whose consciousness you imagine requires raising? I’m guessing there’s no simple answer to this question, but I imagine it involves finding yourself way out of your comfort zone, doing the hard work of bridging across the habitus gap between classes, trying to communicate with those indifferent to your plight or your sacrifice. But maybe that’s too pessimistic.


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