10-minute Left Field Cinema podcast is great compliment to long-running Movies You Should See

November 29, 2007

lfc.pngFROM JASON’S iPOD — I sighed and rolled my eyes a little when British podcaster Michael Dawson’s new show popped into my Simply Syndicated feed yesterday. I shouldn’t have, because he proved all my preconceptions wrong.

For the uninitiated, Dawson is the most cerebral of the English podcasting group that produces Movies You Should See, the weekly film review show launched in August 2005.

Trust me when I say I’m the last person to field an anti-intellectual bias. It’s just that when others are raving about Robocop, Dawson can typically be found lusting after Three Colors Blue or similarly dense art films.

His grumpy dissension over popular movies even earned him the loving nickname “Crawson” (as in, “What’s stuck in his craw?”).

So when his new solo podcast, Left Field Cinema, debuted this week, I expected Dawson to assault me with something truly abstract and non-mainstream: Some Sergei Bondarchuk or Alexandre Astruc piece so impossibly convoluted and twisted by its own obsession with symbolism that no human (except Dawson) could understand it.

I was instead surprised to see Alien 3 in the show header.

In the 9:40 episode, Dawson reads an analytical essay about the 1992 David Fincher follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1979 unstoppable-monster-in-space thriller. It is the first scripted show from Simply Syndicated, which previously has relied on an informal zoo format and spontaneous comedy.

Now, I’ve listened to my fair share of audio books, but most of the time I wouldn’t be so keen to hear an Internet personality read at me. Dawson’s brevity and precision, however, quickly erased my worries. His pod-essay clearly grows from others written while studying cinema in college (many of which can be found on his blog), and is incredibly well-constructed and engaging.

In addition to some well-worked parallel structure, Dawson knows how to turn a phrase that made me sit back and clap at his bravado:

“Ripley is beaten from the start; she is going to die,” he says. “The central point of this film: You’re all going to die, and the only question is how you’re going to check out. Do you want it on your feet, or on your fucking knees, begging?”

Like other Simply Syndicated shows, Left Field Cinema bears an explicit tag in the iTunes directory. My feeling, though, has always been that if you aren’t mature enough for a few swear words, you also aren’t ready for most films or life experiences.

Overall, I think Left Field Cinema will be good for Simply Syndicated, which has struggled in the past under its own burden. Its flagship show, Movies You Should See, was the first podcast I ever found that had any kind of long-staying worth. It’s been an invaluable source of entertainment for me over the past two years and has been reliable for its tenure, surpassing the 100-episode mark.

Meanwhile, the network has released three other shows that sadly have been horridly inconsistent — especially the superior Albums You Should Hear, which has been rarely released since its launch this summer.

But two other podcasts featuring Dawson have appeared like clockwork: Make It So (the Star Trek podcast) and The Definitive Word (tackling social and cultural issues). His dedication to timely uploading convinces me that Left Field Cinema won’t just be a hit-and-miss affair.

I’m not sure what rating system to use, but I’m going to go ahead and give Dawson top marks for his new entry. Maybe I’ll give him six golden koalas out of five, or two thumbs and a big toe up. Any way it’s counted, I found the first episode of Left Field Cinema brilliant and I am already looking forward to next Wednesday’s release.


Andy Kaufman should get a producer’s credit for America’s wakening to solipsism

November 28, 2007

tonyclifton.pngFROM JASON’S COPY OF THE GREAT GATSBY — It’s hard to tell whether Andy Kaufman hated his audiences or was some sort of messiah sent to raise them to a new state of mind.

His goal, I think, was never to make the crowd laugh. He insisted he wasn’t a comic and didn’t tell jokes — unless it was to show how flawed conventional humor was.

“I’m not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads,” he told The New York Times.

Every Kaufman bit forced the audience through the gears and far past the confines of conventional humor. He made them squirm. He pushed discomfort to an art. He was a study in negative space and his audience’s reaction to it.

In that way, he was a masterful deconstructionist. He wanted to turn the entire idea on its head. He wanted to try reverse-reverse-reverse-reverse psychology. He wanted to piss people off, and he never made a secret of it — especially in his staged inter-gender wrestling stunts and legendary appearance on Fridays later in his career.

But angering people wasn’t the end goal — it was just a necessary transitional state. He always aimed to show people how to peel through the fake veneer of life and find the elusive truth underneath.

“What’s real? What’s not? That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality,” he said.

It was a concept that few people understood, especially the network executives he asked to back him. But he bludgeoned his way through show business anyway, pummeling the American public with a do-you-believe-everything-you-see solipsism that was infectious to an entire generation. He flippant attitudes toward what could be done or said on television changed the perspective of the multitudes, even if they didn’t realize it at the time.

It was like Kaufman was trying to be unpopular, just to prove how silly the entire notion of culture is.

“There’s a little voice that says, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that, that’s breaking all the rules,'” he said. “That’s the voice of show business. Then this other little voice says, ‘Try it.'”

Watch how he breaks the crowd in this 1977 HBO Young Comedians special. The audience members don’t know whether to take him seriously. They don’t know up front whether Andy’s stuttering, hesitant, self-effacing front is real. Andy keeps pushing and pushing the limits of their credulity, then slaps them a little in face to let them know it’s all an act.

Once he had disabused the confused masses of their expectations, he would show them his own home-brewed physical comedy.

It was so tangential to their expectations that they would be just excited and confused enough to fall prey to his abusive alter-egos. Here, Tony Clifton launches a raunchy assault born in the night clubs of both Reno and Tahoe.

Note that Mel Sherer is a plant — he helped Kaufman put together his “Andy’s Playhouse” special that (I think) never aired on ABC. Bob Zmuda was his obvious sidekick, though it’s unlikely the audience had any idea, and Larry Feinberg and Luther Adler were both Jewish comedic actors.

Many mass media outlets that clamored to interview and review the hot new “comedian” didn’t know that he and Clifton were one and the same. Sometimes, in fact, they weren’t — he would give his brother, Michael, and good friend Bob Zmuda turns depicting Clifton — again, just to mess with peoples’ minds.

After he added makeup, shades, and a little bit of weight to the Clifton costume, the gag was so convincing that it continues to baffle fans. Continued Clifton appearances post-Kaufman’s death of cancer in 1984 have even added fuel to the popular theories that Andy may have faked his own death.

Before his death, he was working on a script about a man who fakes his own death. He told others he wanted to actually do it as a type of performance art. Zmuda even said Andy was obsessed with the idea. But Kaufman did not rise from the dead to revel in the success of his hoax in 2004, as he bragged he would.

But that’s not the point. Kaufman still succeeded by doing what any good absurdist or mentalist does — he convinced us that it was possible that he wasn’t dead, and he kept us talking about it for 23 years. That’s a bigger trick than most men can ever hope to spring, and it’s what made Kaufman’s anti-comedic outlook on life so revolutionary.

Low score for ‘Bender’s Big Score’

November 27, 2007

futuramareturns.gifFROM THE YEAR 3007 — After wasting $22 to see the big-screen mess that was The Simpsons Movie, I should have known better than to invest so much trust in Bender’s Big Score, which marks the return today of Matt Groening’s critically superior Futurama franchise.

Billed at its release in March 1999 as “the Simpsons in the future,” the series was often bumped from its regular air time and was unable to gain a stable non-time-shifted following.

Fox — which is renowned by geeks the world over for knowing the absolute best time to pull the plug — canceled Futurama in August 2003.

But the success of another Fox survivor — The Family Guy — proved to the networks that they are fallible. Using Seth McFarland’s model for rising from the small-screen grave, the producers of Futurama are set to return today with the feature-length Big Score movie.

Thanks to deep magic wrought by the Intarweb, I have already seen it. I wish I could roll back time (just like Bender and Fry do ad nauseam in the movie) and convince past-me to avoid this gut-tearing collection of self-referential script-wrenching.

It’s a shame, because the early moments of Big Score had me convinced that here, at last, was a return to the out-of-the-box concept humor and left-field pop culture gags for which the series was famed: There was a trip to the nude beach planet, top-quality robo-rotica, and a stopover at the Cylon War Memorial.

I was especially hopeful that big things were in the wings when Hermes was decapitated and crushed by the Planet Express Ship in the first five minutes.

But in two years of writing and planning, it seems all that Groening and company could manage was to shoddily fit together call-backs to episodes like “Godfellas,” “The Why of Fry,” “Roswell That Ends Well,” “Space Pilot 3000,” and “Time Keeps On Slippin’.” They had no compunctions about sacrificing creativity in exchange for face time for old minor characters.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love Futurama and own all of it on DVD. But any medium that merely rehashes and plagiarizes its own content for the sake of fan service deserves to fail. If you’re not innovating, you’re dying.

Big Score does very little new. It borrows from The Terminator and old Star Trek time-travel episodes, concocts a stale paradox theme, throws in an easily-ciphered “twist” involving a new character and then maguffins the hell out of the rest.

Three more movies are planned with unspecified release dates in 2008: The Beast With a Billion Backs, Bender’s Game, and The Wild Green Yonder. I can only hope they do more than slap the Hypnotoad in front of me again.

All glory to the Hypnotoad!

YouTube Cinema: The Best of Bugs and Yosemite Sam

November 25, 2007

samandbugs.pngFROM JASON’S SATURDAY MORNINGS OF YORE — Bugs Bunny never needed samurai skills, a robot sidekick, a secret base, superpowers, or a gun.

Using just his wits and impeccable luck, he managed to fend off hungry hunters, vengeful rednecks, ravaging Tazmanian devils, and even the devil himself.

Chuck Jones, the legendary Warner Brothers animation director who gave us the best Looney Tunes, never needed fancy computer-generated landscapes or extravagant cell-shaded character models, either. There’s something to be said for the simplicity and minimalism of Jones’ watercolor matte backgrounds and Escher-ish settings; very few modern cartoons with much larger budgets have achieved the same atmosphere.

Rather than focusing on the style (though there was plenty — it was just understated), Jones and WB dallied instead on giving us relatable wise-guy heroes and surly-yet-sympathetic antagonists.

My favorite of the later by far was Yosemite Sam, who throughout his tenure as Bugs’ anvil-dropping nemesis went by a dozen different aliases as the setting dictated.

Director Friz Freleng (his first name was Isadore, typically truncated in the credits to I. Freleng) said Sam was based on his own irritable and rash characteristics. The mustachioed villain was intended to be a leaner, meaner, more cunning version of Elmer Fudd, but he still never managed to hand Bugs Almighty his comeuppance.

But at least you knew that whereas Fudd was… well… a fuddy duddy, easily fooled and manipulated, Sam was much less of a push-over. Bugs versus Fudd was always the San Francisco 49ers versus the Cleveland Browns. But Bugs versus Sam was the 49ers versus the Dallas Cowboys.

That’s what made these three videos, my favorite Bugs and Sam match-ups, so much fun to watch. No matter how many times the 50-odd-year-old episodes ran, I always thought maybe — just maybe — Sam would get his day in the sun.

Sahara Hare

Vodpod videos no longer available.

While searching for the ever-elusive Miami Beach, Bugs instead finds himself in northern Africa. When he tries to take a swim in an oasis, he becomes embroiled in a property rights dispute with Sam.

Let’s pony up to the truth here (or camel up to it). Censors, sensibility, and sensitivity would never let this piece air today. We’re too afraid of depictions of anything Arab (even though this is Africa) to let children watch this.

That aside, this short gave birth to one of the most memorable catchphrases in the Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies cannon: “Whoooooaaaaa, camel!” I was born in the 80s and had fun watching it about 35-40 years after this cartoon was made — but my little brother and I to this day quote “whoooooaaaaa, camel!”

All of these episodes have the same ploy-and-counter-ploy feel as the Road Runner cartoons, with Sam as the stand-in Wile E. Coyote. But while this has the quick-talking and self-assured Bugs to anchor it, Sam’s failure lacks the long-suffering resignation resignation we see every time Coyote plunges to the canyon floor.

Don’t worry. Someday I’ll post about those shorts, too.

Roman Legion-Hare

The Roman Emporer Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar Germanicus, 37-68 A.D.) demands gladitorial entertainment and sends Sam to find a suitable victim. Guess who he finds.

Jones and Freleng always had a way of making historical contexts interesting. Here, they have problems with dating — construction of the Colosseum didn’t even start until 72 A.D., and didn’t finish until 80 A.D.

Nero does fiddle at the end of the short as his lions turn on him (as the old legend goes, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”), but as historians have often remarked, the instrument is entirely anachronistic. Fiddles weren’t even invented for another 1,000 years after his death. Maybe Nero harped while Rome burned — that would make far more sense.

Especially obvious here is Jones’ attention to shadowing, which other cartoons simply didn’t do. It added an element of depth and integrity to the pictures. Pay special attention to the sun-lit walls in the prison cells.

That’s where the absolute best bit happens: Bugs casually walks through a lions’ den, then as Sam tries to tip-toe through, Bugs lowers an alarm clock into the midst of the sleeping cats. Another anachronism? Sure. Hilarious? You better believe it, buddy.

Knighty Knight Bugs

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This short actually won an Academy Award in 1959 for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) and was even released on the big screen.

Court Jester Bugs is sent to recover (the absent) Prince Valiant’s Singing Sword, the sister blade of King Arthur’s Excalibur. The sword was stolen by the Black Knight (Sam) and is guarded by the sneeze-a-rific Gerry the Dragon.

In a brilliant call-back to Sahara Hare, we get, “Whoooooaaaa, dragon!”

When CBS used to air this one, it would censor the scene where Bugs smashes Sam on the head with a mallet. The resulting edit wouldn’t make any sense; we saw Sam cinch up a rope trying to storm the castle, then without explanation we saw he slide back down the rope in his boxers.

Bring Looney Tunes back

It’s time for Bugs and Sam and the rest of the gang to return to television. Sure, the cartoons are nearly 60 years old, but they hold up remarkably well. While I’ve seen them hundreds of times, young viewers haven’t.

I remember ABC would have the Bugs Bunny and Friends hour every Saturday morning. Nickolodeon used to air them every night, then Cartoon Network took up the cause. No longer. I miss them, and I would watch diligently. The least I’m asking for is a regular slot on TV Land.

Even after all these years, news myths thrive

November 25, 2007

bostonnewspaper.gifFROM JASON’S SNAP-BRIM HAT AND TRENCH COAT — Seriously, folks. The first American newspaper, Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, was printed in Boston in 1690. You’d think 317 years would be long enough for people to figure out how this business works.

But no — those old misconceptions about non-existent laws that supposedly limit what may be published continue to prosper. Many still don’t understand exactly what it is that reporters do. And too many people out there still think they are entitled to absolute privacy, no matter what the circumstances.

I run into these misguided myths and attitudes of entitlement nearly every day in the course of my work as a journalist. They annoy me. Hopefully, these few points will enlighten the billions who read Quaedam every day:

1) “You can’t print that! It was off the record!”

reporter.pngThere is no such thing as this chimerical “record” that pop culture has created. But thanks to old noir films featuring grungy, stereotyped reporters with press cards in their hats, people believe that “on the record” and “off the record” are relevant and binding concepts.

The Deep Throat scenario from All the President’s Men has ingrained this fallacy into the minds of three generations. Woodward and Bernstein’s method was the gross exception that proved the rule.

True, we do use the term as an informal agreement of confidentiality, but the fact remains that the record has no legal bite. Stating that something is off the record does not necessarily make it so. It is up to the reporter’s discretion to decide whether to grant a self-imposed moratorium on information.

If ever we do accept a statement as off the record, it is in exchange for either better information or a favor. I’ve agreed to put irrelevant information off the record just to bank against a source I may need down the road.

The only negatives consequences of using of-the-record info are loss of reputation and potential loss of that source in the future. Sometimes those losses are acceptable if the trade-off is big enough.

Statements made in public are never off the record, though. I once had a police chief walk by me in a city council meeting, muttering under his breath that a council member was an idiot because he would not increase his police budget. I printed that the chief called the legislator an idiot in public, and the he was irate. He tried to claim the comment was off the record because he did not intend for it to be heard. Too bad.

2) “You’re not allowed to put my child’s name in the paper.”

There is no law against publishing the names, crimes, or other actions of juveniles. Newspapers typically volunteer to withhold the names of people under the age of 18 who are charged with a crime or sexually victimized.

This, however, is not an absolute, and is left open to the discretion of the editors and publishers. Often, children who are charged and tried as adults will be named. Young people who are hurt in accidents or by criminals may also be named.

Reporters do not need special permission from parents or guardians to print the names of children. In some cases, however, there may be special rules surrounding coverage of juvenile courts. As always, judges have the final say in how proceedings are covered. There is also an element of forgiveness on the part of newspapers — mine, for example, does not cover juvenile courts unless there is a compelling public interest.

I recently covered an incident in which a 16-year-old boy was accused of shooting his parents. His mother was killed almost instantly, and his father (who was shot in the face) survived after being hospitalized for a month. We thought it prudent to print the boy’s name when he was charged.

superman.png3) “Reporters are private investigators.”

I am not Clark Kent, nor am I Kal El. It is not my job to solve crimes or catch criminals. I do not track down leads about where your husband is sleeping these nights, unless your husband is a an on-duty police officer soliciting prostitutes instead of patrolling the streets.

If you don’t want it published, don’t call me. If you want someone to help you find order, call the police. If you want someone to help you find justice, call a lawyer.

Many callers to my office want an intermediary to help make their problems go away. That is not what reporters do. We take information and transform it so the masses care and understand an issue. Reporters are professional gossipers with social and financial agendas.

A couple once called me complaining that a city had violated a contract to build a road in front of their house (they allowed the city to build a water tower on their land in return).

I made inquiries at the mayor’s office to find whether the allegation was true, and the next day cement trucks rolled into said neighborhood to pour the road. Once they were gone, the couple called to tell me they didn’t want the story in the paper, and even mentioned legal action.

I laughed and ran the story. I didn’t put pressure on the government for their gain. I did it for mine.

4) “My paycheck is none of your business.”

Anyone can be elected to public offices in America — that’s the biggest advantage and most dire curse of a democratic republic.

Unfortunately, it means too many yokels with no understanding of civics or the law gain power. I deal all the time with backwoods office-holders who don’t understand public records and attempt to deny access. The big-time politicians also try to claim ignorance of the Freedom of Information Act and open meeting laws.

“Sunshine Laws” (like Ohio Revised Code section 149.43) make it very clear what are the rules of the game. Any document used in the course of conducting public business is a public document. That means e-mails, pay stubs, budgets, court papers, police reports, internal memos, personnel files — even Post-It Notes! — are open to purview.

Every last scrap is my business, with notable exceptions: Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, and information related to security measures may be redacted.

A city auditor once refused to tell me to whom the government was loaning tax money. She said finances and loans were not the media’s concern. I quickly disabused her of that notion. She refused to comply with Ohio law several times (while I recorded her refusal), but reneged when I contacted county and state ethics authorities. I found out she was loaning thousands of dollars to business owners so they could fix their facilities.

5) “You ruined my life by putting that in the paper.”

No, I didn’t. You ruined your life by having sex with that high school principal on his desk during school hours. It was already over when that teenager walked in and saw you; all I did was tell the people who pay the principal how their tax money was misspent and their trust was violated.

There is an implied Constitutional right to privacy in the no-quarter clause of the Second Amendment, but that does not compel the media to help the accused or public figures save face. Once an individual gains a certain amount of notoriety, is given responsibility to uphold the public trust, or is charged with a crime (this is not an exhaustive list), they are subject to scrutiny.

The public’s right to know how its resources are handled and what events have or could compromise its safety outweigh the right to an individual’s privacy.

Quick Silver Screen takes up the TV Links cross

November 25, 2007

qss.pngFROM THE RELATIVELY EMPTY REGIONS OF THE UNIVERSE OUTSIDE THE ATMOSPHERES OF CELESTIAL BODIES — I’ll admit it. I shed a tiny tear Oct. 18 as our brethren solemnly committed the soul of TV Links to the ground.

The UK-based torrent aggregator was killed when its 26-year-old owner and operator was arrested by Gloucestershire police.

But now, after a month in mourning, it’s time to raise the black veil. Andrew sent me a link yesterday that leads me to believe that TV Links lives on in pirate heaven. It appears that Quick Silver Screen has taken up the mantle as the cataloger of available video media.

Like its spiritual predecessor, QSS does not host movies, TV shows, cartoons, and anime, but merely links to other places they are hosted. Using the DivX codec, it then streams it directly to your browser.

So far, I’ve not run across any broken links on QSS, but if the site has a weakness it’s that the media player takes an incredibly long time to buffer, at least for mundane broadband users such as myself. Andrew, on the other hand, is sitting on a campus backbone — which means that he can not only load QSS movies in a blink, but he can also make SkyNet into John Connor’s bitch with a few deft keystrokes.

The videos I am have watched so far are in much higher resolution than their YouTubian counterparts, but as always the torrent model is crippled by popularity. Don’t expect to find all great movies on QSS, at least for the time being. There was no Kung Fu Hustle there when I checked earlier, so, I mean, c’mon.

‘Rise of the Videogames’ documentary shows how old-school hackers changed the world

November 22, 2007

nolan.jpgFROM JASON’S CABLE BOX — The debut of Discovery Channel’s five-hour Rise of the Videogame documentary had me hooked Wednesday, giving me a brand new respect for my old Atari 2600 and its peers.

It seems that I inadvertently blogged about clips from the miniseries earlier this month before it aired — at least in the U.S. It was originally a BBC production, from what I can tell, and the clips that made it to YouTube appear to have Dutch subtitles. I didn’t mind seeing it twice. It’s scheduled to repeat regularly through Christmas.

The documentary intercuts Cold War and war games footage with modern game sequences, pop culture commentary, and interviews of the fathers of the video game industry.

One shot even shows Spacewar! inventor Steve “Slug” Russell bragging to the camera, “Something that I sometimes say is that I unleashed the curse of video games upon the world.”

The shows producers hypothesize that video games are a natural extension of America’s obsession with the space race and its fears about mutual assured destruction. It was Army analyst Willy Higginbotham who started the craze by tweaking his oscilloscope — a refrigerator-sized cathode tube contraption used by programmers to calibrate hardware.

Hacking his military hardware to relieve boredom, Higginbotham programmed the machine so that two people could play a crude game of “Tennis For Two” in glowing green waveforms.

His ideas and methods spread everywhere there were computers — which in the 1950s and 1960s was mainly restricted to military and research applications. In universities across the nation, researchers passed along line code instructions for hijacking primitive computational machinery. They taught the machines to play games.

But it was inventor Ralph Baer who saw the commercial possibilities of games in the home and invented the Magnavox Odyssey in 1968. In Rise of the Videogame, he tells the camera about his 1960s vision of making 40 million U.S. television sets do more than just receive two or three channels

The Odyssey was the world’s first console system when it was released to the masses in 1972 and featured 28 games and a light gun. Nintendo was born as an Odyssey distributor, but Atari quickly killed the platform.

Nolan Bushnell (pictured above) got his start hawking a clone of Russell’s Spacewar!. In 1972, he teamed with Ted Dabney to create Atari (a term from the Japanese board game Go, Atari is kind of like check in chess). Two years later, the duo combined to put Pong in homes rather than just in arcades.

Ironically, Bushnell made far more money in the late 1970s and early 80s as founder of Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater.

For the rest of the story and speculation on the future of video game technology, tune in to Discovery. It’s well worth five hours of your time.

Quick facts

Video games in the U.S. are a $7.1 billion per year industry.

More than 40 percent of gamers are women.

For every arcade game released in the U.S., nine are released in Japan.

Pokemon Red, Blue, and Green is the best-selling video game of all time (that wasn’t bundled with a console), with about 40 million copies worldwide. Super Mario Brothers, which came with the original NES, sold about the same number of copies.

Nintendo’s iconic plumber (and sometime carpenter), Mario, has appeared in more than 200 games.

The Sims is the best-selling PC game of all-time, with 16 million copies.