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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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Monday, Jul 9, 2007

Spanning the distance from children’s music to alternative rock, They Might Be Giants captures the attention of their audience with their unique brand of music. TMBG, consisting of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, gave us hits such as Birdhouse in Your Soul and Don’t Let’s Start as well as Particle Man and Doctor Worm. Their latest album, The Else, will be released on July 10th, 2007.


The 1989 hit, Ana Ng:



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Sunday, Jul 8, 2007


While it’s never wise to rape an entire generation’s childhood memories for your own self-centered means, Hollywood still wants to be the biggest motion picture pedophile on the block. Name a cartoon and/or kiddie series – He-Man, GI Joe, The Care Bears - and somewhere, in a studio bungalow, an overpaid hack is trying to come to grips with how to re-imagine the title’s otherwise limited appeal. Perhaps no other form of filmic laziness – sequels, prequels, spin-offs – has resulted in such finite returns as live action cartoon updates. Examples like the live action Rocky and Bullwinkle fiasco, the horrendous Garfield films, and the horribly mismanaged Flintstones films have proven that – all Transformers aside – when it comes to bringing juvenilia to the silver screen, Tinsel Town is still in the zygote stages.


Now comes the most noxious example of this movie molestation yet – Underdog. Disney, not known for the gentile handling of kid vid past (Inspector Gadget), has decided to stop whoring out its own past masterworks and, instead, violate the innocent joys of the W. Watts Biggers’ television series. A staple of Saturday mornings for the majority of the ‘60s, the beloved superhero hound and his unique blend of wit and wackiness remains the perfect symbolic stepping stone between preschool entertainment and tween level treats. Putting it another way, the adventures of Shoeshine Boy, Sweet Polly Purebred, and the rest of the Underdog domain (including offshoots like Tennessee Tuxedo, Klondike Kat, and the great Go Go Gophers) helped wee ones make the transition from passive to active viewers. Biggers created characters and situations kids could invest themselves in, with just enough subtle satire to keep the parents pleased. There were even principled morals thrown in for good measure.


Of course, the best way for the House of Mouse and its corrupt creative staff to deal with updating this clear cult favorite is to literally toss out everything that made the original show stellar. However, in order to understand such a major misfire, the initial Underdog mythos must be explored. In the animated series, Shoeshine Boy was an anthropomorphic pup, working in a city of human beings as a benevolent boot black. His girlfriend was canine TV personality Sweet Polly Purebred, and together they maintained a kind of pleasing platonic romance. Whenever trouble loomed for the metropolitan citizenry, and Polly in particular, Underdog took his Super Energy Vitamin Pill and transforms into the title character. Then he would confront one of several recurring villains, including dwarf mastermind Simon Barsinister and wolf gangster Riff Raff. Speaking in rhyme and expressing a truth and justice mantra, our furry champion always saved the day – even if it took a few serialized installments to achieve victory.


In addition, each half hour episode contained supporting segments, little mini movies featuring ersatz educational and instructive messages. Granted, most of the material was couched in classic animated slapstick, the goofy comings and goings of talking penguins, Native American rodents, and – of all things – a senile geographical explorer. This helped divide up the typical Underdog adventure into several cliffhanger sections, while developing a whole new array of memorable characters for the show to profit from. None of this was done out of artistic nobility, mind you. Biggers worked as an advertising executive for General Mills, makers of fine sugar coated breakfast treats preferred by pre-adolescent appetites. All he wanted was pen and ink salesmen. But thanks to artist Joe Harris and creative team Chet Stover and Tread Covington, along with the amazing voiceover work of actor Wally Cox (a definitive turn), Underdog was much more than a cereal shill.     


So how did the geniuses over in Walt’s world decide to deal with this classic character? Did they intend to bring him back in pure 2D cell animation form, forgoing all the possible pointless pop culture updates to deliver unfettered Underdog? No, they decided to go the live action route (strike one) and make the cur champion a real dog (strike two). They then revamped his origins, removing the power pill (strike three) to forge some kind of X-Men/Hulk happenstance (dog ends up in nuclear reactor thingamajiggy – strike four?). Polly is now a pooch as well (strike…oh, who cares anymore) and our supposed hero has a human owner (grrrrrrrr!) to keep him in line. Voiced by Jason Lee (huh?) and costarring little person powerhouse Peter Dinklage as Barsinister (the only genius move in this entire gagfest), we end up with something looking like Superman with fleas, a generic action film dumbed down substantially to keep the bratlings at bay (oh, and did we mention that Riff Raff is now a Rottweiler, and apparently a rival for Polly’s affections – NOOOO!!!)


The numerous numbskull moves made by the people behind the production are nothing compared to who is helming this atrocity in the making. Thanks to a script credited to three individuals – newbies Craig A. Williams and Joe Piscatella, along with industry fixture Alan (Zoom) Rifkin – but probably touched by a dozen or so illiterate cinematic scribblers, and the dim directorial flair of Racing Stripes’ Frederik Du Chau, there is a wonderful aroma of predicated failure wafting off of this turkey. The trailer plays like every animal-oriented cliché ever conceived (jokes about gas, pee, and butt sniffing are plentiful) and the blatant CGI used to capture the critters makes the movements appear stiffer than the original cartoon’s dynamic. Like the awful robotic baby in the equally abysmal Son of the Mask, the incredibly complex movements of your basic beagle seem to baffle the multiple motherboards of the F/X techs tools.


Now, there is nothing wrong with creating your own canine superhero, giving him human qualities thanks to a freak experiment, and building an entire film out of his amiable adventures. Or simply stay with the notion of a parallel universe where animals easily coexist and speak perfect English. Oh wait, didn’t they already make that movie and call it Cats and Dogs? And didn’t it die at the box office? Granted, Disney isn’t aiming this movie at fans of the original TV show. In fact, they have obviously avoided anything that would remind viewers of their childhood chum. No, this is Underdog designed for the post-millennial age, an entity only betrothed to its own disposability, calculated to make a fast potential franchise buck before living out life in DVD stud. While the House of Mouse is downplaying future animation sequels, there’s no such mandate on live action direct to video features. That means that even if it bombs, our tick-ridden friend will be back in Underdog 2: Curse of the Choke Chain and Underdog Returns: Puppy Power!


Listen, no one is faulting Disney for trying. The business of show is a cutthroat world. Everyone is anxious to exploit product awareness, create commercial interest, and manufacture new revenue streams. Digging into the past for present day projects is nothing new (just ask one Cecil B. DeMille, who more or less remade every silent movie he ever produced), but it’s the reinvention trump card that has fans and film aficionados up in arms. See, a studio can’t just take an old icon – say Alvin and the Chipmunks – and deal directly with what made the original so memorable. No, they have to add ridiculous contemporary characteristics – how about a splash of hip hop – to mesh with the fad gadget mindset, and pray that the potential fallout and backlash doesn’t keep parents from partaking of their cinematic babysitting services (by the way, the Chipmunks dig – it’s headed to theaters this December…no kidding).


There is clearly something more to Underdog than just interchangeable super hero elements. Fansites devoted to the dog love to mention his honor, compassion and lack of ego. They enjoy the true love longings of Polly Purebred, and feast on the hissable evil of Simon Barsinister and the original Riff Raff. One woman, Suzanne Muldowney, even went so far as to turn her passion for the crime fighter into performance art. Known as the Underdog Lady, she’s made numerous appearances on Howard Stern, and even has a documentary on her life in the works. Let’s face it – people really love the original, and for Disney to dump all over it this way seems like an act of artificial arrogance. From a creative standpoint, you know they don’t enjoy this kind of commercialization, but it’s been the corporate bottom line too long to back out now. Art has long given way to cash.


So get ready for the mid-August media blitz, the pathetic promotional campaigns, the none too clever Madison Avenue tie-ins (New from the makers of Snausages – Pure Polly Sweatbreads). Star Jason Lee will joke that he made the movie for “his kids”, while messageboards will conspire to consider Scientology as the reason for his continually weak big screen choices (next up – that aforementioned Chipmunks crap). Someone will Q&A the dog, and the original cartoon will get a fleeting mention before the talking heads reset the situation by adding in carefully worded exclamations like “new”, “improved” and the most tragic of all – “update”. If ever an animated hero needed no modernizing, it’s this classic champion of the cartoon people. Bad ideas love to breed in Tinsel Town, however. And with Underdog, the cinematic sodomy continues. 


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