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Television Review – Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Season 11 (Netflix; 2017)

The revival season of cult geek-comedy television classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, available since mid-April on Netflix, seems fortuitously timed. Its core concept – mad scientists imprison a jumpsuited factory grunt on an orbital satellite and attempt to pickle his brain with awful movies, to which the average Joe(l) (or Mike, or Jonah) responds by endearingly mocking the bad films with the help of two snarky robots to avoid losing his mind – could be considered a metaphor for cultural survivalism in the post-capitalist news-cycle madness of 2017. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether left-leaning political and cultural snark on television and the internet is an effective form of resistance to the reactionary ideology represented by Donald Trump. Whatever effect (or lack thereof) mockery has had on his election campaign and presidency, laughing at Trump, despite its ease, is undeniably cathartic for those who disagree with him and all that he represents.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to its Silent Majority of dedicated acolytes, known as MSTies) is just such an outlet for comforting catharsis. Laughing at sincerely terrible movies might seem like punching down, but the MST3K model has always carried a measure of disrespect for authority and more than a faint shadow of anti-capitalist sentiment. The concept punctures the faux-mystique around cinema by violating its holiest commandment: Thou Shalt Not Talk in the Theatre. From the breaking of this cultural taboo follow small rebellions against the regard for filmmakers and actors, the suspension of disbelief at hackneyed premises and unconvincing special effects, the acceptance of nonsensical plotting and stilted dialogue; in short, against the very spurious claims to authority undergirding the producers-consumers compact that is the foundation of commercial capitalism. This is the bedrock of MST3K‘s trademarked “riffs”, which frequently spiral off into obscure references, topical jokes, and timeless observational humour in an unpredictable, often giddy manner. But it is also the bedrock for a generalized MST3K philosophy: the world is a mad place and it’s out to chew you up and rob you blind, and the only way to make sense of it is to laugh at it.

MST3K originally aired between 1988 and 1999, beginning on public access television in Minneapolis, Minnesota, moving to an embryonic Comedy Central (then known as the Comedy Channel), shifting to the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), and even finding its way to the very movie theatres it treated with such good-natured disrespect with a feature film in 1996 (which was my own inculcation to the franchise and still, for my money, one of the funniest movies ever made). The brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who also starred as its first host/human experimental subject, the low-budget show’s core scenes took place in a simulated cinema through an effect known as “Shadowrama”, with black silhouettes of the host, the robots, and a row of theatre seats superimposed at the base of the “projected” movie (inspired by an image in the liner notes of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). This allowed for not only the flood of verbal riffs but also elements of performance and even visual gags in “interaction” with the movie. To break up this central motif, various sketches would be interspersed around the commercial breaks, featuring the host and the robots, as well as the so-called “Mads” via videolink.

Hodgson left the show after its fifth season, replaced thereafter as host by head writer Mike Nelson, who also headlined MST3K: The Movie. The voices of the robots, the gumball-machine-like mock-sophisticate Tom Servo and gold-clad Groucho Marx-esque Crow T. Robot, also changed during the decade-long run, as did the actors playing the Mads. A certain Joel vs. Mike schism has thus developed in the fan and critical reception of the show, with some fans preferring Joel’s laid-back, ironical style and preference for prop-based humour and others going to bat for Mike’s more aggressive zingers.

This split has likewise transfered into similarly-pitched post-MST3K projects headed by Hodgson and Nelson and featuring former cast members. Nelson produces and sells online-distributed audio-only comedic commentaries to accompany legal copies of movies (B-movie, Hollywood blockbuster, and otherwise) known as RiffTrax with longtime Tom Servo voice actor Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who played Crow near the end of the show’s run. Hodgson, meanwhile, started a (now discontinued) live movie-riffing tour with accompanying DVDs, which he called Cinematic Titanic, with Trace Beaulieu (a core cast member who played head Mad Dr. Clayton Forrester and voiced Crow up until the final three Sci-Fi Channel seasons), Frank Conniff (Forrester’s sidekick, TV’s Frank), Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester, Clayton’s mad-scientist mother), and J. Elvis Weinstein (the first Tom Servo).

With this in mind, the new season of MST3K, largely funded via public donations on Kickstarter (over $5.7 million was raised, a record for the service’s Film & Video section) and distributed by Netflix, is most certainly a Joel Hodgson production. Hodgson directs all 14 episodes of the new season, is on the writing staff (along with head writer Elliott Kalan, Jon Stewart’s former head writer on The Daily Show), makes disguised on-camera appearances, and his sensibility lurks behind the return of the prop-heavy Invention Exchange sketches and other practical effects. Pehl, Corbett, and Murphy also have cameos, but other than that, The Return is marked by a near-total turnover of on-camera talent. The new human subject is Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), with new voice actors for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Crow (Hampton Yount), and female robot Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). The Mads have also turned over, with Felicia Day as Kinga, the new scion of the Forrester mad-scientist clan, and Patton Oswalt as Max (a.k.a. TV’s Son of TV’s Frank). Jonah’s prison home, the Satellite of Love, now orbits Kinga’s lunar base, Moon 13, which features a house band, the Skeleton Crew, that doubles as Kinga’s minions.

Hodgson and his team filmed the new season in Los Angeles rather than the prior 10 seasons’ production base of Minneapolis, and have a far more generous budget to work with. The sci-fi accoutrements of the filmed sketch segments retain a low-budget aesthetic nonetheless, but technical advances are more evident in the theatre: Tom Servo is now able to fly, opening up any number of new visual gags with his hovering silhouette on the movie screen; Crow has visible legs, and moves around the theatre more as well; and even Gypsy, her robotic head suspended at the end of a thick cable, pops into the theatre with a zinger or two each episode (she had previously only riffed along for a brief time in a 4th season episode). The intermission segments, though no longer strictly required on commercial-free Netflix, are retained as respites, often featuring high-wattage guest star spots (by Mark Hamill, Jerry Seinfeld, Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris), limited long-form storytelling (Kinga decides late in the season to grab at bigger ratings by marrying Jonah), and striking faux-cardboard cut-out comedy sequences. These segments even provided MST3K‘s first real meme of the viral video internet era, a hilarious rap rundown of international mythic monsters:

But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is, has, and always will be defined by its riffing along to terrible movies, and it’s the lion’s share of each episode’s running time inside the Mystery Science Theatre (its actual name, revealed in a faux-ad-break bumper) that defines its relative quality. The Return summons some real stinkburgers, and generally speaking, the riffs on these films performed by Ray, Vaughn, and Yount live up to the show’s august geek legacy while adapting tone and material for a contemporary cultural setting that, thanks largely to the internet and the digitally-empowered discourse therein, has moved closer to MST3K‘s barrage of snarky comments than Hodgson must have thought possible back in the still-analog 1980s. For easier consumption, some point-form highlights follow:

  • Episode 1 – “Reptilicus”: The source episode of “Every Country Has a Monster”, this awkwardly-pitched Danish monster rampage flick functions quite ably as a 90-minute assurance to fans that despite the space of years and near-total creative talent turnover, all will be well with MST3K. Featuring super-broad and eminently mockable comedy relief from Danish comic Dirch Passer, “Reptilicus” truly kicks into high cruddy-movie gear as the titular reptilian beast (shoddily executed as a model-scale rubber puppet) runs amok through the Danish countryside and finally in the centre of Copenhagen. The riffs ratchet up during this climax, too, and for me reach a comedic height that the rest of season struggles to match. One fancifully mock-informative behind-the-scenes detail riff from Servo (suggesting that model trees were made from sprigs of rosemary) had me on the floor.
  • Episode 2 – “Cry Wilderness”: Greeted by many viewers as a new MST3K classic, I found this movie’s riffs funny enough but not always up to the genuine loopiness of the film itself. Focusing on a young boy with some sort of psychic link with Bigfoot (who quite enjoys Coke), Cry Wilderness also features repeated forced faux-jocularity laughter and two scenes with a Native-American mystic and his menagerie of animal familiars that looks and feels like something out of Jodorowsky.
  • Episode 4 – “Avalanche”: For me, the revival season’s funniest episode. In this 1970s disaster flick, Rock Hudson (whose besweatered heftiness inspires a litany of jokes about a fondness for lunch buffets) stars as the owner and developer of a ski resort, with Mia Farrow as his ex-wife who visits just prior to the catastrophic titular snowslide. Dialogue-light scenes of furious action are always fine fodder for riffs, and the avalanche sequence in this episode might be the funniest sustained riff run of the season. Bonus points for holding off on the Woody Allen references re: Farrow until a fine extended joke in the final minutes, thus achieving maximum effect. Additionally, Neil Patrick Harris sings a song about online dating with Day (the two co-starred in Joss Whedon’s cult series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) during one intermission but I didn’t much like it.
  • Episode 5 – “The Beast of Hollow Mountain”: With the titular stop-motion beast held offscreen until late in the closing act, this 1956 Western set in Mexico is ribbed mercilessly for its blatant racial stereotypes and insensitive humourous treatment of alcoholism. MST3K at its most woke.
  • Episode 6 – “Starcrash”: An illogical, glacially-paced American-Italian space opera starring frizzy-haired former evangelical preacher Marjoe Gortner, buxom B-movie queen Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, and Christopher Plummer as the Emperor as the Universe, Starcrash has long been a hoped-for target of MST3K riffing among fans. Though the result generally doesn’t disappoint, the riffing can’t quite do the film’s awful weirdness full justice. It does feature the season’s non-kaiju-rap musical comedy high point, a Beach Boys parody called “Come Along Baby In My UFO”, as well as a vaguely baffled Jerry Seinfeld cameo.
  • Episode 7 – “The Land That Time Forgot”: One of two Edgar Rice Burroughs spec-fic adaptations starring Doug McClure (the slightly-puffy B-movie star who was the primary model for the classic Simpsons character Troy McClure) this season, this nutty movie about a WWI German U-Boat taken over by Allied sailors that alights on a hidden prehistoric island edges out the season-ending “At The Earth’s Core”, despite the latter’s eccentric English gentleman sidekick role for Peter Cushing.
  • Episode 9 – “Yongary: Monster from the Deep”: A Korean kaiju movie from the 1960s, “Yongary” features an annoying kid who dances with the rampaging monster shortly before the beast’s climactic death throes, which are disturbingly, uncomfortably drawn out. Jonah and the bots’ discomfort at Yongary’s convincing, squirming agony summoned by the puppeteers pushes through the usual ironic detachment with just the right force.
  • Episodes 10 & 11 – “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I & II”: Amateurish, filmed-in-the-woods sword-and-sorcery non-epics, each with different annoying kids, different vamping villains, and with low-budget kings Bo Svenson and David Carradine as different but equally-diffident legendary swordsmen who can barely be bothered to unsheath their blades. The first is better than the second, for MST3K purposes at least.
  • Episode 12 – “Carnival Magic”: A carnival-set sorta-drama starring a chimpanzee. Some funny stuff, but not enough good riff material to justify such a limp, incorrigibly incoherent movie choice. Good Mark Hamill cameo, though.

Overall, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 revival is a welcome development, and sidles in alongside the revered previous seasons of the show with a reasonable claim to living up to its name. It’s a snarky but generally good-natured comedic balm for political, social, and cultural times that are particularly discouraging for the species of insouciant subcultural smart-asses for whom the show is a shared talisman.

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Categories: Film, Hilarity, Reviews, Television

Donald Trump Wants his Worst Policies to Fail: An Unsupported but Plausible Line of Thought

March 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve never bought into the suspicious, nigh-on cleverer-than-thou American political observer line of thought that U.S. President Donald Trump is not dim-witted, incompetent, imprudent, or hopelessly led by impulse and instinct but is, in fact, strategically brilliant and always thinking several steps ahead of his critics and the media, laying down narratives in advance to distract their attention from real problems and reports less-favourable to him. When weighing the choice between genius and ineptitude to explain Trump and his team’s seemingly haphazard and bumbling actions through the turbulent opening months of his Presidency, I’m generally inclined towards ineptitude on Occam’s Razor grounds, at the very least.

With all of that being said, I think there could be a consistent case to be made that Trump and his Administration is allowing certain policy promises from his presidential campaign to fail, or at least they are curiously deigning not to lift more than a perfunctory short finger to battle on their cherished, America-greatening policies’ behalf as they go down in flames. The case study for this argument is his notorious travel ban applied to citizens of seven six Muslim countries. Struck down by federal judges after its sneak weekend application at the end of January created chaos and sparked indignant protests at airports across the U.S. and the globe, a watered-down version of the ban (which Trump’s acolytes won’t even openly acknowledge is a “ban”) due to go into effect this week has also been blocked by federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland (at least partially on the basis of public statements by Trump lieutenants that the order, however it was worded, had specific religious discrimination at the forefront of its aims).

At the core of this argument, if you’ll stay with me as I make it, is the hoary, cynical old theory that Donald Trump only wants to be President for the money and the fame. This thinking has often been dismissed, and has been largely abandoned by pundits since he won the election, but I think it might still hold, at least in this case.

You don’t have to look very deeply or for very long at Trump’s public political statements to conclude that he holds them rather lightly. At the risk of getting bogged down in the much-mocked “take him seriously, not literally” morass, it’s clear that Trump very often just, you know, says things. He’s firmly stated his position on matters and then just as firmly (and sometimes conveniently) forgotten that he ever stated that position. It’s not that words don’t matter when Donald Trump speaks them, but more so that they cease to matter to him very soon after he does. The man is fundamentally a serial bullshitter, but even the supposed core values beneath that surface-level bullshit are unstable and mercurial. Certain specific views remain consistent over the years (particularly, and revealingly, those related to race), but most are up for grabs at any given moment.

What is consistent throughout Trump’s public adult (ha!) life is his shameless grifting and his bottomless gluttony for fame. His politics and even his party affiliations can and have changed depending on who he’s trying to extract money or adulation or power and influence from at any given moment, but he’s always trying to do that above all. This might be the reason why he liked campaigning so much, and why he retreats to campaign poses in times of political turmoil: ego-boosting rallies, plentiful money-making opportunities (from voters, donors, and from general brand exposure), and he could say whatever he liked without real or immediate concrete consequences.

Perhaps Trump thought it would be the same in office. It quite assuredly is not. The grifting continues, emoluments clause be damned: foreign dignitaries staying at his hotels, multiple weekends spent at his Mar-a-Lago resort club residence in Florida (which has recently raised membership fees, ostensibly due to the unspoken promise of access to the President), the purchase of items from his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line marshalled as a right-wing political act, any number of potential hidden bribes and secret deals that are not transparent to the public, etc. But Trump hasn’t gotten the adulation he feels that he deserves as President, though a man who launched his political career with nastily racist conspiracy theories casting doubt on the citizenship of the sitting President should know better than anyone that as many citizens hate the POTUS as love him, that respect for the office and its power and prestige in the abstract has rarely translated to concrete respect for the man who holds it. His (frankly worrying) choice of presidential model, Andrew Jackson, could have told him that.

More important for the purposes of this discussion than that, however, is that Trump’s words, often lightly chosen and even more lightly supported by facts, have greater consequences now. His dashed-off, seat-of-his-pants tweets, the dramatic complaining tone of which endeared this sheltered Manhattan millionaire to his horde of loyal common supporters, are now the official pronouncement of the Leader of the Free World. However flippantly Trump is used to deploying words to his perceived advantage, they mean more now.

This new reality has implications for all of those outlandish promises Trump made during the campaign. Now, as President with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he’s expected to deliver on them, or at least to make a concerted and honest effort to do so. How firm those expectations are is unclear, based in voter perspective and passion, the support of his party, and media pressure, among other factors. Whatever the impetus for or level of these expectations, one can imagine Trump having a despondent Sideshow Bob-ish reaction to how his flood of campaign words are understood now:

The issue could be immigration, where both the blocked Muslim ban and his central promise of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (paid for by Mexico) are proving to fall short, or health care, where the contentious and faltering Republican House bill to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that will cost needier patients more and cover millions fewer people flies in the face of his brash claims on the stump that he would deliver a health plan that would cover everyone. He can’t, in these and many other cases, deliver on these brazen promises and even in his isolated bubble someone around him has surely told him that much.

This brings us to his Muslim travel ban, which has again been blocked again by federal courts. Trump has legal experts of some stripe around him; someone lawyerish crafted the executive order, after all. Perhaps one should assume simple ineptitude again, but surely an advisor or few must have known that the order would not pass legal muster. And, as Trump said in a speech in Tennessee given the same night as the news dropped of the new court order blocking the revised ban order, he wants to go back to the original ban order, which he preferred anyway. And, of course, which was already blocked in court and would, in unaltered form, certainly be blocked again if re-implemented.

Is the President just that dumb? Are his people that bad at finding ways to apply his harmful intended policies? Or is there an element of unwillingness at play, a disguised through-line of stealthy self-sabotage? Despite its basis in racist xenophobia (as close to a core belief as the ever-shifty Trump has), does he not really care that much about delivering on his Muslim ban promise? Or does he consider it only useful (or more useful) as source material for rousing rhetoric to please and rile up the xenophobic rubes in his support base? Judges block his ban so its messy consequences never come to pass. But Trump can still use the court order as a rhetorical cudgel against activist judges, the politically-correct institutions of the elite, the Washington consensus, sore-loser leftist protestors, etc. Specific initiatives fail, but the narrative endures. His political brand, Trump the besieged great man held down by limp-wristed snowflakes and corrupt technocratic global elites (but no anti-Semitism here, none of that, that is right out), endures.

This idea might furtively give Donald Trump some limited credit for secretly not wanting to prevent entry to the country for all Muslims from six countries (the original seven nations minus Iraq, likely removed from the order after bad press connected to Iraqi translators and other allies of U.S. forces in the country having visa troubles) for stated, dubious security-related reasons. But whether it’s true or not (and it certainly might not be, or might only partly be), it focuses on the man’s venality and irresponsibility in occupying the highest office in the U.S. Who cares about governing, it tells us, as long as Donald Trump is raking in the cash and the accolades of (a certain declining sliver of) the masses? True or not, this theory is plausible and well-grounded in Trump’s personality and predilections, and that inherent aura of plausibility tells us nearly as much about this odd, troubling, greedy figure in emperor’s robes as the actual truth would.

Documentary Quickshots #2

My Kid Could Paint That (2007; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)

What is the Truth? Is there such a thing? What does it mean to us if there is, and what does it mean to us if there isn’t? And can storytelling, be it painting or documentary film, brings us closer to it, or simply make it more distant, more obscure?

Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That asks all of these questions, openly or obliquely, and doesn’t really answer any of them. It also asks, in much the same manner though not nearly as pointedly as Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, if contemporary art isn’t inherently a scam to separate pretentiously naive rich people from the money they don’t really deserve to have in the first place. The subject through which these big, unresolved interrogatories are filtered is Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old girl from Binghampton, New York who became a global celebrity in the early 2000s when her abstract paintings began selling for thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Almost as soon as her fame exploded via an eager American media, skepticism reared its head, the focal point of which was a 60 Minutes II report that documented and speculated about whether Marla made the paintings entirely herself, or if she had secret polishing help from her publicity-hungry father Mark, whose interest in painting apparently sparked her own.

Bar-Lev had unprecedented access to the Olmsteads during Marla’s notoreity, which Marla’s parents seem to have given him primarily because they believed that his film would be favourable to their daughter’s practically impossible story. There’s certainly never a hint that the Olmstead household is anything but a happy one, whether or not it’s ground zero for a serious art fraud operation. Bar-Lev’s doubts become open by the film’s conclusion, which show a painful admission of his skepticism of Marla’s sole artistship to her parents, as well as Marla specifically asking for her father’s help in painting her latest work. Treated as a smoking gun of Mark’s guilt in stage-managing his small daughter’s career, it is far from definitive, though the father’s desperately insistent attempt to minimize its meaning on a phone call afterwards gives immediate pause.

But Bar-Lev more subtly and effectively mines My Kid Could Paint That with notes of creeping suspicion prior to that point. There’s the 60 Minutes II exposé, yes, but also Marla’s inability to explain her artistic choices when asked (I mean, she is 4 years old, but a Mozart-esque child prodigy would be able to express some idea, no?), the frustrating lack of definitive filmed proof of her painting a work start to finish (at least that wasn’t produced as marketing material by her family), and her art dealer’s brazen meta-admission of his opinion that modern art is an obtuse scam that he, as a semi-successful photorealist painter and outsider, was glad to exploit to the advantage of his finances and reputation. The film leads you skillfully to its agnostic conclusions before it lays them out openly (and, honestly, a bit clumsily).

One idea My Kid Could Paint That circles around but doesn’t key in on is how the story of Marla the 4-year-old painting prodigy preconditions reactions to her art, as well as sets its value. Exit Through the Gift Shop posited that the art world was so wrapped up in narrative and image, so disconnected from basic considerations of aesthetic quality or creative process, so awash in the irresponsibly-spent money of wealthy collectors with little clue about what makes art art, that a satirical ironist could lay bare its acquisitive hypocrisy by not only faking great art but indeed by faking the artist himself. My Kid Could Paint That posits something more profound and challenging, namely that it is not possible to tell real from fake in art, or even to begin to quantify or fathom what such a distinction might mean. Are the paintings of Marla Olmstead (now 16 years old!) great or interesting or valuable simply because they are painted by a preschooler, or despite of that (disputed) fact? How can we begin to answer either question, let alone sort one answer from the other?

Harmontown (2014; Directed by Neil Berkeley)

Far removed from the visual arts in practice, process, reception, and prestige, television comedy writing nonetheless has accrued a claim to direct access to Truth of serious, if not equivalent, dimensions. Dan Harmon, head writer and showrunner of the cult NBC sitcom Community and later co-creator of Adult Swim cult cartoon Rick and Morty, has received particular praise for not only his shows’ sharp, conceptually complex humour but also their beating heart, their use of laughter to forge a tentative but unifying sense of belonging among misfits. harmontown

Still, the praise given to a writer of a TV show with a cult following (and the middling ratings and perennial threats of cancellation that go with that double-edge term of endearment) may not be entirely satisfying to the ravenous ego of a comedy genius. So it seems to be with Harmon, who was fired from Community after its third season due to conflicts, both creative and personal, with executives, fellow creative staff, and most infamously with one of the show’s stars, Chevy Chase. Although Harmon returned to shepherd the show through the end of its run of six seasons (and, as one of the show’s cherished catchphrases predicted, apparently a movie as well), the firing (although not his first; he was also canned by Sarah Silverman from his key position with her eponymous show, despite her admiration of his work) seems to have sparked an existential crisis for Harmon.

Harmontown depicts how he chose to work through those issues: first, with a weekly cult comedy podcast, and second, by taking that podcast on tour across the U.S. in the dead of winter. Harmontown doesn’t sugar-coat its subject or depict him as any sort of brilliant or exceptional artist: Harmon procrastinates dangerously in delivering (unmade) pilot scripts to the CBS and Fox networks, drinks too much and is viciously critical of his live performances, and listens as his girlfriend discusses his rude behaviour. He’s even consistently outshone onstage by the deadpan unpredictability of Spencer Crittenden, an anti-social fan who was worked into Harmontown as Dungeon Master to the Dungeons & Dragons games that end each episode/performance.

But the film is often hilarious and even moving when showing moments from his shows and meetings with fans afterwards. Like the NBC sitcom that never had enough viewers and seemed to kind of like it that way, the Harmontown podcast and tour offers a feeling of community to people who don’t fit into the monolithic mainstream culture. In an American popular culture more niche-driven than ever before, Harmon has built for himself an intensely loyal niche audience, and Harmontown is a document of how he reaches out and touches that audience as well as how it recharges his creative batteries. This symbiosis – embodied by Spencer, the shy, solitary fan brought into Harmon’s modest spotlight – is good for both parties, and aims for some modest form of the Truth.

Categories: Art, Film, Hilarity, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun With Search Engine Terms #13

November 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Once again pawing through the half-secret detritus of desultory internet searches for kernels of mirth, the venerable series of mockery at anonymous googling marches on. Have at it, mates.

vanity fair dobbin fanfiction mature

At first I thought that was “Dobbie fanfiction” and was deeply troubled. But what red-blooded, sexually-open adult reader of speculative fanfic doesn’t want to have an inside view of good, upstanding Dobbin finally being allowed a bit of pleasure for his owOH MY GOODNESS I JUST FOUND THE DOBBIN/GEORGE OSBORNE SLASH AND AM TITTILATED IN NEW AND UNFAMILIAR WAYS.

Well, at least now I’ll have something to talk to the shrink about this week.

no king asgard the african one

This phrase is rather open to interpretation. Is it an inquiry into the Asgardian line of succession as regards Idris Elba’s Heimdall, whose African descent was a matter of controversy to white supremacists prior to and after the release of Thor? Or is there a previously unheard-of African state called Asgard that finds itself tragically kingless at this particular moment?

The maddening thing is… we will never know for certain.

is the raccoons in the circus

This would either be far more entertaining than it sounds or, more likely, far less. But apparently, it’s already happened in Britain and indeed is common enough to earn consideration as a practice to be banned. Well, I never.

what is the name of the band from bobcaygeon

I dunno, Bon Jovi?

I kid, yes. But I recall my father once very nearly mixed up the Tragically Hip and Bon Jovi when I asked him to pick me up Live Between Us in 1997 so my attempt at humour also masks a near-miss trauma of my teenaged years.

similarity: cutting, gangs of ny & kruger in elisyeum

I recently thought about the similarities between Bill Cutting and Stephen Harper, but hadn’t considered a comparison of these two characters. I suspect that there aren’t too many real point of intersection besides wicked accents and facial hair and a penchant for murderous violence.

cooking network fat food guy

“Fat Food Guy” is the most approximate English translation of Guy Fieri’s name in Mandarin Chinese.

obnoxious food

“Obnoxious Food Guy” is also an admissable translation. And produces an exact match on Google image search:

obnoxiousfoodguy

who is the blonde model on vatican outreach video

Whoever she is, dude, she’s not gonna date you and she’s never worked in porn. Although with that dionysian Pope Francis wearing the mitre, you never do know, do you?

@Sidslang’s Best of Twitter #8

@WernerTwertzog & @SlavojTweezek

The very nature of Twitter encourages, even predisposes, the viral re-circulation of marginal interests. Like most echo chambers, Twitter amplifies messages by exclusion of counter-messages. Sidelines become mainstream through a timeline-fed tunnel vision, and one-off, non-sequiturial witticisms can build up an entire counter-reality.

So it goes for two intellectually-tilted Twitter parody accounts plying their wares (and occasionally jousting with each other) in enlightened timelines. No, I don’t mean the twin contending Richard Nixon parodies, which are honestly difficult to tell apart. I refer to Werner Twertzog and its spin-off Slavoj Tweezek. Neither of these are official, verified Twitter accounts of the enigmatic, absurd existentialist Bavarian film auteur nor of the Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian philosopher, literary theorist and cultural commentator (neither of these men have such a “real” account, as far as is known). But like many parody accounts, they fill the void left in the Twitterverse by the absence of these narrowly-known but always rhetorically unique figures.

The same hidden hand is evident behind both accounts, and one sometimes replies to the other, carrying on public and “actual” but entirely imagined conversations. Werner Twertzog predates Slavoj Tweezek, though the former’s tweets were sometimes addressed to the other in a tone of weary, disagreeable riposte (and still are). Tweezek is, admittedly, a little more esoteric and less amusing, but this younger account is still finding its legs in expressing Zizek’s inimitable observations. Twertzog is quite magnificent, however, in distilling Herzog’s utterances, so much so that the term has become a verb, if this “interview” with Twertzog is to be believed, with its definition of the discourse’s dark erudition and straight-faced Teutonic morbidity.

In both cases, though, the perfectly accurate and often quite funny approximations of the peculiar statements of Herzog and Zizek lose a measure of their effect while simultaneously demonstrating a weakness of Twitter as discourse. Twitter is written not spoken, read and not heard, composed but never vocalized. Herzog and Zizek are distinctive and memorable speakers whose voices and tones imbue the things they say (in English, anyway) with peculiar import.

Zizek’s mellifluous Slovenian-accented outpourings, accompanied by a considerable lisp, persistent sniffles, and certain rhetorical habits, endear his observations to even those who might not be inclined to agree with them; he’s become so successful in academic circles and as a public intellectual partly because of his personality as a speaker. Herzog, meanwhile, has one of film’s most famous and distinctive voices, often heard while narrating his documentaries. His Bavarian accent is wondrously rich, even if he’s only talking about how dumb chickens are. But the knife’s edge poise of his tone is what makes Herzog’s speech so remarkable; you never do know if he’s making a deep and serious observation about the world, taking the piss out of the self-important windbags who think they have such observations to share, or both at once. Both of these tones are lost in the Twitterverse, as all tones of speaking and expressing generally are. There is freedom to Twitter’s proscribed form of discourse, but this is unquestionably one of its prime limitations.

Representative Tweets:

[tweet https://twitter.com/WernerTwertzog/status/593463127628451840 align=’center’] [tweet https://twitter.com/SlavojTweezek/status/589109028741111808 align=’center’]
Categories: Film, Hilarity, Internet

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun With Search Engine Terms #12

January 12, 2015 Leave a comment

What, if anything, does having a view into the text entered into internet searches tell us about the psychology of those who entered it? Are they mere impressionistic doodles, ephemeral short-attention-span bursts of spectral curiosity? Or do searches tell us more about the underlying psyche of the searchers? About their belief-systems, unconscious desires, or deepest intentions? Governments certainly think so, which is why they’re farming all of that content and sorting through the data to find something to detain you over. And you thought this post would only be good for light entertainment.

vanity fair novel as a satyrical comment on contemporary english society

I am very much in love with that spelling of “satyrical”, although contrary to popular (or maybe less popular and more marginal) belief, the word “satire” does not derive philologically from the Greek mythological creature.

casting of richard armitage as thorin oakenshield, objections

I’m sure that Stuart Townsend was pretty pissed about it.

tolkein orcs politicals england

For whatever reason, every other search result yielded by this phrase was about the Scottish independence movement.

what are the stage names of borden and angier

Siegfried and Roy.

siegfried and roy

I went searching for the most bizarre and hilarious Siegfried and Roy images and the one above was only barely in the Top Five. Though it involves only Roy, the one below is likely #1.

roybutterflytiger

hochschild leopolds ghost why was there colonization

As complex a question as it is possible to ask, quite probably. But can be summed up roughly as: where there’s honey, there will be flies.

what is ridley scott trying to say in the ibelin scene of kingdom of heaven

I’m not even certain that Ridley Scott knows what Ridley Scott is trying to say with his period epics at this point. Other than “I like sand”.

why is huxley such a prude

I’m assuming this question is rhetorical. Even if it isn’t, ten points to Gryffindor.

ohio state fuckeyes

This phrase is forever heartening.

innocuous ambiguous gallery

Very good name. Is it taken?

the hobbit trilogy is underappreciated

Is that you, Peter Jackson? Go back to finishing the Extended Edition DVD. Slacker.

Body Care Products, Soup and the Absurdist Eccentricity of Modern Masculinity

October 16, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s becoming fairly apparent that the globalized social order of the post-modern, post-capitalist, post-democratic West is undergoing at least a few active crises. But seemingly at the core of all of them lies a truly earth-shaking crisis: a crisis of masculine identity. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir recently descried a nostalgic yearning to preserve and recapture a fading sense of unshakeable white American manhood in a time of increasing feminism, multiculturalism, diversity, and LGBT rights, where even unassailable fortresses of homosocial identity communion such as the National Football League, the U.S. military, and fraternities are finding themselves assailed for the less savoury consequences of their inborn chauvinism (like, I dunno, rape and domestic violence, or something).

Wherever one looks, in fact, defenders of aggressive, blustering masculinity are finding themselves seemingly besieged by the minority and diverse forces that they have marginalized and exploited for so long and are lashing out in response. The increasingly absurd machinations of the brothers Ford in Toronto municipal politics represents a pure distillation of the right-wing politics of white male resentment against the implications of liberal modernity for a permanent softening of an enduring (if ever-more vestigial) social hardness. Similar political predilections have taken firm hold of the Republican Party south of the border and are granted a seat at the proverbial table in the Conservative Party north of it.

most_interesting_man_in_the_world__60668Elsewhere, the longtime male fantasy zones of superhero comics and video games are experiencing spasms of change as open-minded creativity and criticism open them up to new, non-male voices. Some dudes may never be able to handle a female Thor, and even more dudes have crafted an obnoxiously misogynistic “movement” called Gamergate to harrass and silence incisive feminist voices criticizing sexist representations in gaming. Even international terrorism fits this masculine counter-revolution bill. What is ISIS, at its core, than the most extreme men’s rights pushback of them all, transmuted through post-colonial developing-world grievances against imperial powers and a radical, fundamentalist vision of Islam that restores a medieval gender hierarchy through brutal force? And what is the muscular military intervention against them but a resurgence of masculine martial fervour to match their vicious phallic demonstrations?

But there’s a parallel stream (or perhaps an intertwined one) to this belligerent counter-revolutionary masculinity. Corporate consumer advertising has targetted perceived male insecurity by flattering its assumptions of inherent superiority while simultaneously exposing the obsessive propriety with which it treats its cherished tenets as fundamentally ridiculous. This ironic, self-aware approach to the terms of traditional masculinity lampoons those terms just as it reinforces them. It presents masculinity as a sort of comic eccentricity to be stroked and kept placated by agents of traditional femininity, lest its claws come out. The innovating ad in this cycle was Old Spice’s viral clip starring the brilliantly deadpan Isaiah Mustafa as “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”.

There’s an overt appeal to women to the ad, of course: Mustafa is gorgeous, and he’s looking right at the camera, addressing the “ladies”, letting them know that men are basically ludicrous creatures but they have their uses (mostly, it must be said, materialist ones). But the dominant message is addressed to men: it’s okay to be traditionally masculine, but try not to take it too seriously, because that makes you a chauvinist asshole. There’s also a line out to men and women who reject the terms of traditional masculinity, nudging them knowingly and acknowledging the rightness of their view. No wonder the ad was so massively successful, launching similarly parodically manly sequels and indeed whole products lines based on the comic premise. It spoke, with exquisite, slippery balance, to most hegemonic young-adult demographics at the same time.

The Old Spice campaign found itself either inspiring or coming into discourse with similarly-pitched marketing, most prominently the meme-ready Dos Equis ads featuring “The Most Interesting Man in the World” pictured above. The tone of worldly, devil-may-care sophistication of those ads introduced a note of cosmopolitan savoir-faire to the modern masculine playbook, qualities that are often dismissed as European and effeminate. But a more recent, and odd, commercial for Chunky Soup’s blatantly male-centred Pub Inspired line of canned soup flavours focused the beam of ludicrous modern masculinity even more intensely.

The demographic appeal here is more particular: young father with teeny-pop fan daughters is offered respite from his emasculated plight by a meat-and-potatoes stew and a skull-perching eagle-wing set of earmuffs. But beyond the absurdist humour and gender assumptions lies a secretive homosocial exchange. The experienced soup-slinging bartender inside the television (his taps dispense not beer but sludgy, sodium-rich sustenance for young single men allergic to food preparation) offers sage advice and material gifts that preserve some private illusion of traditional masculinity to a subject otherwise deprived of contact with his supposedly primal (but really quite socially constructed) manhood. It’s a window into the mindset of patriarchy: private exchanges between men in settings where women are not present and certainly hold no power or sway determining the matters of true importance.

But the exchange is fundamentally silly, down to the screaming eagle with the pretentiously classical name. Perhaps the core truth of the current state of masculinity is most visible in this element of such an advertisement: although man-to-man exchange retains its protocols of respect and gravity, both the customs of this exchange and the patriarchal aims it supports and works towards have slid into a position of tired uselessness worthy of ridicule. A panicked realization of this fall from grace may perhaps serve to explain the vehemence of chauvinist masculinity’s response to the perceived reduction of its influence and dominated discursive territory.

Categories: Culture, Hilarity, Navel-Gazing