You should click through, so that you can accurately answer this brief survey:
-How many black movies, with “black movies” defined as “primarily concerned with or created by black people” for the purposes of the question, have been nominated for Best Picture by the Academy?
-How many of those movies are about how sad it is to be black, or racial strife, or just the black condition in general?
-What does it mean when the organization of record for the movie industry only pays attention to black people, and undoubtedly people of several other stripes and types, when they’re in pain, but eats up movies about white people doing fantastic things?
Eddie Murphy, presenting an award at the 60th Academy Awards:
(and, just to stay on brand, here’s Jadakiss in 2004: “Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar?/Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?”
This year’s the 86th Academy Awards, but it’s biz as usual, isn’t it? According to a Feb. 2012 study, “the Academy is 94% white, 77% male, 14% under the age of 50, and has a median age of 62.”
I’m a few episodes into Sleepy Hollow, starring Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills and Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane, who has rip van winkled his way to the modern day after being nearly killed around the time of the Revolutionary War. I like it. It’s cast from the same mold as Elementary with Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, that kind of cute antagonistic buddy cop wave. (Almost Human is on that, too.) It reminds me of a Kamen Rider show in a lot of ways (stakes, approach to conflict, lighting, plot, more), only instead of a bug-dude riding a motorcycle you have a time-lost British guy.
I’m also a few hours into Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, which is much less good than Sleepy Hollow, but a comfortably familiar sandbox murder simulator in a setting I’ve rarely paid any attention to. The fun isn’t where it needs to be, but the new is on-point enough that I keep messing with it.
Both works have a character type I only recently realized is fairly common. Ichabod Crane, upon meeting a black woman in 2013, excitedly asks her if she’s been emancipated and gets offended when he feels that she insinuates he supports slavery. “I’ll have you know I was a proponent of the Abolitionist Act before the New York Assembly,” he says. “Congratulations,” Abbie replies. “Slavery has been abolished 150 years. It’s a whole new day in America.”
Edward Kenway, rakish pirate captain and lead character of Black Flag, is similarly progressive. He frees slaves at will, forces his men to work alongside them despite their prejudices, and is generally a good and honorable guy, despite the theft and murdering.
This is a type of character I’ve seen elsewhere, too. They are generally men who have been removed from their time and placed in ours, though the character type appears in period pieces, too. Despite the time they come from, when horrific misogyny and racism were perfectly fine and accepted pastimes for men to indulge in at their leisure, they are staunch abolitionists or totally okay with giving women the vote or drinking from the same fountain as a…you know. One of those.
Captain America’s a great example of this, I think. I don’t mind it when it comes to him, since my favorite aspect of that character is how he represents everything America often isn’t, and that kind of dissonance makes the character a lot of fun for me. It’s elsewhere, too—Batman’s ancestors helped smuggle slaves to freedom, which is more than a little ridiculous. Even Jonah Hex, veteran of the Confederacy that betrayed their country because they thought chattel slavery was totally cool, has been updated to “hate everyone equally.”
Everybody’s a Schindler, nobody’s a Nazi.
I’ve been thinking about this pretty much ever since I saw Mison-as-Crane get offended that someone thought he’d be okay with slavery. Abolitionists existed, of course. Good, kind, loving people existed who rejected the mores of their time. But at this point, I feel like every guy we see from Not-Now comes off exactly like your average open, accepting, 2013-model White Guy. Sleepy Hollow likes to use Crane to complain about taxes, Starbucks, and bottled water. Kenway’s bootstraps-y “I’ll have any man, if he’s able and willing” philosophy feels like it doesn’t take into account the prevailing attitudes of the time at all. The average is off, tilted in favor of the suspiciously progressive and accepting hero instead of reality.
The characters in our stories, the sassy black women, inexplicably pan-Asian ninja, the gay BFF, nerdy hacker, sad white guy who just needs the love of a good woman, whatever whatever, are stories unto themselves. Whether directly or indirectly, these characters tell us things about ourself and how we view the world we live in. They don’t evolve out of nothing. They represent something.
I think the prevalence of this character type largely comes down to the shifting definition of what we consider a hero. In the past, this kind of anachronistic hero character wasn’t really necessary. I once picked up a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming that was casually and hatefully racist within the first paragraph. World War II was full of government-supported hateful art and propaganda. I have a joke book from the ’50s a friend gave me, and a few books of period pin-up art, and half the punchlines are “haha, women sure are whores, stupid, or both!” It was the times! You can find all types of racial stereotype sidekicks from back in the day, but that number is markedly lower now. Racial and sexual harassment aren’t dead, but we aren’t supposed to enjoy it any more, or as much as we used to, so it’s relegated to the villains, the bad guys, not our heroes.
Lois Lane can never have that moment where she clutches her purse on an elevator because a black dude got on. Being a bigot isn’t in the cool guy repertoire any more. We’re past that, even though there are plenty of good, moral people who are also secretly afraid of black people or occasionally slip and say something untoward about Asian people. Sometimes it’s unconscious, sometimes it’s learned behavior, and sometimes it’s just a slip, but we view good and bad as a binary, not a spectrum, so just one drop of bad taints you. As a result, we avoid and eschew it.
Funnily enough, this extends to the stories we tell about real people, too. The prevailing narrative around the Founding Fathers is that they were saints looking out for truth, justice, and the soon-to-be American Way. In reality, Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slaves and Benjamin Franklin, upon being asked for sex advice from a young friend, told that friend to go after older women and provided a list of eight reasons why, ending on “They are so grateful!”
So you get Edward Kenways and Ichabod Cranes, men who came from a time when you could rape and murder people at your leisure, as long as they were inferior to you, being colored or of the fairer sex, but instead choose to be accepting and cool about everything. No awkward slip-ups, no uncomfortable conversations about why you can’t say things, just a lot of truth and justice. It doesn’t feel very true to me, exactly, it doesn’t feel very real, but I do know that if it were more real, I’d hate the characters for being human garbage.
What are your favorite pieces of comedy? Like, from movies, tv shows, stand up, etc.
Talk about the best question for a Saturday morning! Let’s get it:
My most favorite stand-up bit ever, like bar none forever and ever amen, is Richard Pryor’s “History Lesson,” off That African-American Is Still Crazy, a bonus disc on a boxed set of his work (my set is old, but it should be on No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert (7 CD/ 2DVD)). He starts with talking about the black revolution lasting just six months before dudes went back to singing groups, how the Bicentennial was celebrating two hundred years of white folks dominating the world and killing natives, and ends the first half of the bit with “But it only happens in dreams, though… you motherfuckers killed dreams.”
He’s got a lot of pointed, crucial, hilarious stuff in here, and goes off on this tangent about America getting away with two hundred years without getting murdered that I like a lot, and then he flips it and asks:
I wonder how it would be though if niggas was taking over? See, if niggas take over tomorrow, not only would white people be in trouble, a lot of niggas would be in trouble. Be in court for lot different shit, though. A motherfucker’d be in court for…
“What’re you here for?”
“Trying to get someone to murder him.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, he was fucking with me your honor, so I tried to kill the motherfucker.”
“Come here. Why did you make this man angry at you? Twenty years.”
There oughtta be some shit like that, you know? It oughtta be against the law to make a motherfucker want to kill you. I think that would be a good law, ‘cause a lot of people are in jail for killing good people… that needed to die at that particular moment.
I don’t know why, but this kills me every time. Just slays me. The whole scenario is outrageous, but then you realize that what he’s saying is that black people are no different from whites.
Immediately after, he says, “I’ma win you motherfuckers back. See a little racism sets in, I love it, then I can fight against that. ’cause humor… breaks through all that shit.” And he laughs a nervous laugh and goes, “Does-doesn’t it?”
Dude is basically the boss of all bosses, and the way he knows how to work the crowd and throw jabs at them always impresses me.
But I also really like this Hannibal Buress bit called “Bomb Water” off his Animal Furnace album:
The album is amazing, from the intro to the outro, and I could easily pull like five “favorites” off it, but “Bomb Water” is too hard. I don’t even want to talk about it because you can just listen to it. By the time I got to “sippable bomb water” I was through, straight laid out, and the bit stayed great even after that.
Later in the album he says “Why don’t we let time kill Jimmy Carter?” and that’s part of another favorite bit. “Nah Jeezy, those are closets.” I’m listening to this album right now.
My favorite bit of comedy tv is Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast‘s “Flipmode.” There’s a transcript here but you really have to watch it. It’s perfect, as far as I’m concerned. Every joke hits. Maybe it’s because SGC2C had built up a lot of goodwill with me by this point, but honestly, it’s just incredibly funny and utterly nonsense. None better, forever.
My favorite comedy series, at least at this specific moment in time, is gdgd Fairies, which is like… absurd extinction level event-quality meta-humor. It’s exceedingly low-quality visually, but at the same time, it’s the perfect quality for the show’s sense of humor.
It’s about three fairies who live in a forest and have conversations. The conversations start as something innocuous before getting complicated thanks to one character’s stubborn laziness and then absurd thanks to another character’s prankster nature. Then they play hypothetical games or do things like trying to raise the popularity of the show by staging a livestream. The third segment in the fifteen-minute show is usually Dubbing Lake. The fairies watch a lake, and in that lake they see what are basically wacky and brief youtube videos. Old men doing weird things, Mochida Fusako guest appearances, gorillas watching a knight and another guy make out, and so on. Then the voice actresses improvise dialogue, music, and everything for those clips, often shedding their character entirely in the process.
It’s great. It sounds like the least appealing thing ever, but it’s so well-written (there’s an impeccable time travel joke, a great Super Mario Bros. joke, several DARK jokes) that I ate it up.
There’s a sister show, Straight Title Robot Anime, that’s about a trio of robots try to end the thousand-year robot civil war by mastering humor. They do this by explaining how a type of joke works, trying and failing to make those types of jokes, but the failure itself is usually a great example of that type of joke, and then they do things like run hypothetical situations to lower the tension of the robot war. Things like “What if everyone made dramatic glances at each other?” and “What if the robots kissed instead of fighting?” and so on. It’s not gdgd, but it’s pretty good.
The closest American joint to these is The Eric Andre Show, which is uncomfortable and amazing. It’s like nightmare comedy.
Joe Lynch directed this sweet-ass short film called Truth in Journalism. In a fake documentary in the style of Man Bites Dog, a trio of filmmakers follow around disgraced newspaper reporter Eddie Brock. Obsessed with showing his side of the story and what he’s all about, Eddie appears to be a little unhinged, low on scruples, lower on compassion and he’s definitely hiding some kind of secret. Eddie’s played by True Blood star Ryan Kwanten.
Definitely watch it past the credits.
He’s just a smidge too scummy in parts for my taste as an Eddie Brock fanboy, but it’s still a damn fine little movie.
One thing I really like about TI’s “Front Back” is that he shouts out UGK at the top of the song. It’s not just a regular shout-out, either. He’s explicitly and purposefully trading on their fame by shouting them out as legends and then placing himself and others in the ranks of the “UGK alumni.” “They’re the greatest, they’re legends, and I studied at their feet,” in other words. It feels like he’s snatching a cosign, instead of suggesting or accepting one, because most people are much more subtle about it.
Either way, that stuff really counts. It adds to the verisimilitude of rap songs, something that’s important since these guys are implicitly playing a role on wax and believability makes all the difference. TI’s shouting out UGK on a song with UGK, and that’s got heads rubbing their chin and going “Pocket full of stones… yeah… yeah…” It connects the two in your head, especially so in the case of “Front Back” because the cosigned and cosigners are on the same track together. If you recognize and accept the one, you should do the same for the other.
It happens all the time. Yelawolf said “Bitch, you know I got Bun B in the front seat and we got these boppers on the chrome!/ One time for ya boy Pimp C: POCKET FULL OF STONES!/ Yeah, I got a pocket full of stones ’cause I fell off my dirt bike in cargo pants” on “Good to Go” because it was a way better choice than “I’m a white dude but I like raps too, plus these other established dudes like me and I like them.”
In a scene early on in The Bling Ring, three characters drive to the beach while blasting Rick Ross’s “9 Piece” (NSFW video here). It starts around the line that goes “MJG, bitch, I got 8Balls” before segueing into the Suave House shout-out and eventually fading out. It really tripped me out, because while I could see the cast of the film–abstractly wealthy kids in Calabasas, CA–banging Ross on their way somewhere, I had a harder time believing they’d be specifically yelling the part that shouts out 8Ball & MJG or being into anything Suave House. That feels like inside baseball to me, the rap equivalent of making a joke about Cypher from New Mutants. It’s prejudice, obviously, but my mental picture of that specific type of person doesn’t really involve them being into Memphis rap. I’m not particularly into the song (there are better MJG/8Ball references to be had elsewhere), but I liked seeing that specific stretch of the song in the movie. It’s Ross showing off his bonafides, bonafides that are entirely fictional and thus remarkably apropos for this movie. He’s an actor acting as if he has the cred his forebears do, and the actors in the film are buying into his hype and using it to generate hype of their own, or maybe just to get hype.
The presence of that song in the beginning came back into my mind further into the movie, as I was beginning to realize exactly how much of the soundtrack would be rap songs that I own or have intentionally enjoyed (Twelve rap songs in all, including Frank Ocean, and I knew seven and would have heard an eighth if I still listened to leaks). Like TI borrowed cred from UGK, like Ross borrowed from 8Ball and MJG, The Bling Ring borrows cred from rap music. There’s a lot of dance music in the movie, but the way the rap music is deployed (Kanye’s “Power” plays over the type of scene you’d expect, Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” plays over the credits, “All of the Lights” has a singalong, “212″ plays in a hip club context) it’s associated with edginess, victory, the good life, fabulous crime or violence, and almost everything else that particular sort of rap is associated with.
A lot of the reason I like Rick Ross’s Teflon Don as much as I do, despite not really messing with Ross on a regular basis, is that it’s full of well-told tales of guilt-free and consequence-free crime. Ross-the-character does what he wants when he wants, and there’s something very enjoyable about that. It draws people in, myself included, and that aspirational aspect is part of why Ross is so much of a success.
The Bling Ring clicked for me when I realized that the celebrity culture Sofia Coppola was indicting has a similar effect on the cast of the movie. They want to be on, and the people who are most visibly “on” are Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Kirsten Dunst, and Megan Fox. There’s a similar type of aspirational motivation at work, and it’s easy to draw a line between, say, my wanting that confederate flag belt Andre 3000 wore in the “Ms. Jackson” video or watching a video of 2 Chainz getting robbed in San Francisco and Becca Ahn–played to the hilt by Katie Chang–taking note of the latest star to get caught drunk driving and wanting to wear what Lindsay wears, even if she has to go into Lindsay’s house to get it.
There are several sequences, usually after a break-in, that show the characters wearing their stolen goods and posting them to Instagram and Facebook. They’re showing off. They take incessant pictures while in the club when they aren’t spotting celebrities. They vamp in front of each other and the internet. Coppola, in conversation with Lee Radziwill, said, “When I go to a concert, everyone is filming and photographing themselves and then posting the pictures right away. It is almost as if your experiences don’t count unless you have an audience watching them.”
She means it as an indictment, but I don’t see it that way any more. A line from Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past comes to mind, Jeff Bailey saying “Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it.” It’s my favorite movie and that’s one of the lines that’s stuck with me the most since I first saw it in school. It works for romance and friendship alike. Sometimes you want to share something’s majesty because you love someone else and want them to have that experience and sometimes you want to share it because you want confirmation that it’s dope. The two are twisted up with each other, almost to the point that the difference between them is academic. It’s selfish, sure, in a way, but utterly natural and sensible.
The Facebook shots in The Bling Ring struck me as being a clever way to show what was happening, instead of just saying it. What do you want to do when you get something new? You want to wear it immediately, you want to show it to people, you want them to compliment it and tell you how cool it is. It’s a twist on the quote from Out of the Past, but not much of one. When I finish this piece, I’m probably going to send it to a few trusted friends to read, and my hope is that they’ll enjoy it. After that, I’ll put it on this website. I don’t have to–I wrote this because I needed to organize my thoughts on the movie and essays are the easiest way to do that outside of conversation–but I want to share it. From sharing comes conversation, support, and a gang of other things I’m invested in.
All of this would be well-executed, but hollow, if not for the actors in the film. Chang’s Becca impressed me the most out of all the cast. There’s an emptiness to her that I enjoyed, a sense that she does things simply because she wants to do them, and consequences aren’t even on her radar. It isn’t heartlessness, though that was the first word to come to my mind, so much as “might makes right” played out on a different battlefield. “But I want it” as golden rule. She’s remarkably pretty, almost distractingly so, and I think that only adds to the effect. She’s the picture of a modern femme fatale. (Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat is the classic femme fatale for me, for very similar reasons.)
Israel Broussard’s Marc is a close second for me. He’s more or less the main character of the film, and Broussard balances the anxiety, love, and fun of the character very well. There’s a brief glimpse in the trailer of him dancing and goofing off with the girls, and he’s got a specific pose and smile that’s split between being goofy and loving life that killed me. The webcam scene, everything about the shoes, all of it felt real in a very warm and welcoming way.
There’s a lot of intentional comedy in The Bling Ring, more than I expected. The introductory shots of Paris Hilton’s house got a rising laugh out of the audience I saw the movie with, as we realized that 1) Hilton’s face is all over her house, like a musician who only plays his own records when he invites people over and 2) she has a lot of stuff. It felt like every scene in that house revealed a secret door, hidden box, or drawer full of jewels on top of all the ridiculous possessions that dot the house.
At one point, in a scene that struck me for its use of color as much as the (mostly-silent) acting, we watch a character eating while sirens play in the distance. The camera stays still as we watch the eater, their family, and pets going about their business. It clicks for us before it does for them–cops are coming. The scene goes on almost uncomfortably long, though it was probably just thirty seconds or a minute. It’s put-a-smile-on-your-face funny.
I didn’t find myself disgusted or troubled by the Bling Ring. I expected a little friction between my prejudices, tastes, and the movie itself. I was surprised to see aspects of myself and my friends reflected in these characters. Claire Julien’s Chloe was the most street-smart of the gang, and also the one most likely to be like “Hey, bitches” or use slang a certain way. Emma Watson’s Nicki was a lot of fun, too, a girl who rolls her eyes through life and its obstacles while looking for a chance to get big by any means. I know and have known Marcs, Beccas, Nickis, and Chloes.
My reaction to The Bling Ring was way more positive than I expected. I bailed out of Girls pretty much as soon as Lena Dunham asked her parents for rent money, but this movie full of pretty people doing petty things really worked for me. They go to the bad school in town–Becca for dealing drugs, Marc because he was home-schooled and needs to catch up–but their school is much nicer than the good schools where I’m from. They’re young, well-off, and if you know the real story, you know how little jail time they got for stealing millions of bucks worth of stuff. There’s a lot in here that should’ve ruined the movie for me, but the aggregate and execution were on point. The Bling Ring is a low-key feel-good crime movie, like Rick Ross’s lyrics, where people do big things for the sake of doing them and brag about it later.
One last point: The Bling Ring has a title that derives from BG’s “Bling Bling,” featuring the Big Tymers and Hot Boys. The entire point of the song is getting something new and showing it off to the squares. “I pull up in a Expedition, they be like ah no, no, no he didn’t!/ Tattoos and fast cars, do you know who we are?” It would’ve been entirely too on-the-nose to fit it into The Bling Ring, even moreso than “Super Rich Kids,” but you know what? It’s the movie in miniature.
I often think of rap culture as being a black and brown thing, something we co-created and co-own with just a few others, but that isn’t really true now that we’re decades past the origins of rap. This stuff bleeds into the culture, whether it’s Miley Cyrus with golds in her mouth or a movie about a real group of burglars sporting a name that derives from one of the hottest songs from 1999. It’s bigger than hip-hop.
I like the connect-the-dots part of rap a whole lot. It’s a minor little thing to pay attention to, but it’s fun mental exercise and a nice way to discover new things to enjoy.
Like, Aloe Blacc’s “I Need A Dollar.” It’s a catchy song, it sounds real soulful, it’s real cool. I dig it. Jamaal Thomas does, too. The video for “Loving You Is Killing Me” is heat rocks:
So you’re interested in Blacc’s work, and you look him up online. He works with another guy named Exile as part of a group named Emanon. Exile works with another cat named Blu as Blu & Exile. Aloe Blacc sings on Blu joints sometimes, too. Blu and Exile are a good duo, a nice match of beats and rhymes. Somebody named Miguel Jonte sings with them sometimes. He dropped Kaleidoscope Dream a while back and it got a lot of acclaim as part of a new wave of R&B. Back up to Blacc a little — “I Need A Dollar” was the theme song for the (pretty good) HBO show How to Make It In America. That features Kid Cudi in a featured role, and from Cudi you can dip to Chip tha Ripper, Kanye West, and more besides.
Pretty much ever since I was a kid, I discovered new music by looking at liner notes to see who the artists I liked worked with or shouted out. It isn’t foolproof, but when you factor in how easy the internet makes things now, it’s definitely worth trying out. A lotta times you find little gems or weird pathways back to familiar ground, like when mainstream and underground artists collaborate.
It works for pretty much anything. It’s not really different from reading interviews to see who your favorite writer or actor was influenced by, I don’t think. It’s just a little more indirect. Part of the reason I stay so behind on new music in general is that I put albums aside until I can really listen to them and see if I need to google anybody new.
-I like how that Kid Cudi song is barely a song at all, just a… mood or sound. I like to see that sorta thing. Don’t overdo it, but give me something new any day of the week.
-Remember Jay Electronica? Jay Elect-chronically late, am I right or am I right fellas? Eh? Eh?
-I’m not much of a dancer probably, but that FreeBass 808 song really makes me wish I was.
-In “Right On,” J-Ro says “we all up in the house like cocky roaches.” It’s my favorite thing in the entire world at the time of this writing. Just say it aloud and maybe mull it over a little. Let it sink in. I love rap so much.
Y’all see that Jason Statham/Jennifer Lopez Parker?
Weird thing about this movie: it’s terrible. Every time Lopez is on-screen, you’re reminded of how good Out of the Past was, is, and will be forever. The cast is astounding, easily an impressive collection of individual talents if you like the stuff I like (you do), but they’re given mush to work with. It’s too nice, too slow, and too weak. I read the book after I saw the movie. It’s exponentially better, but still not great. There are also a lot of really visual action scenes that got left on the cutting room floor.
But I would totally see another. Despite its faults, the casting was genuinely good, certain action scenes were dead-on (the hotel room fight, for instance), and a lot of the tonal stuff wobbled, but tended toward being what I want out of a Parker film. I can see that Parker DNA in there. If it did well enough for a sequel, I’d check that out, no questions asked.
Open thread. What’re you reading/watching/hearing/enjoying? Enjoy the holiday.
Semi-random selection here. I chose songs that caught my eye on a fast flick-through of a random playlist. But it’s a holiday, so let me make this quick:
-Glasses Malone has an ill voice for a rapper. It’s perfect for gangsta rap, which Malone definitely makes. He’s like a west coast Trae tha Truth, in terms of being recognizable.
-Nas should be considered the greatest rapper of all time just for having the guts to follow G Rap on “Fast Life.” He should be knighted and sainted, because he ran a real risk of being martyred on that joint.
-”Full Clip” is the GOAT compilation album. I forget how ill Gang Starr was sometimes. I only started buying my own music around when Moment of Truth dropped (though Premo’s production never went away) so I think they were a little before my time, but every time I bump this album, man. It’s something else.
-”Mr Popularity” is one of my most favorite beats ever.
-Listen to The +2s. Trust me.
-Um… pass! I’m sure you all wrote very beautiful things last week that I read and enjoyed but apparently I was so preoccupied with real life stuff that I didn’t keep track.
-I did read and enjoy Fist of the Blue Sky, a Fist of the North Star prequel by Tetsuo Hara, Nobu Horie, and Buronson. It’s set in 1935 Shanghai, which is already a dope setting, and stars Kenshiro’s uncle. It’s good. I have two volumes, but the third is OOP and extra expensive. One day…
Furious 6, in a word? Fantastic. It was the sequel it needed to be, with a tighter script, impressive economy of storytelling, a few different hooks for entertaining spinoffs… it was a capital M MOVIE, is what I’m saying. Totally worth theater prices and blu-ray prices when it hits home release.
Who knew we’d get six of these?
Open thread. What’re you reading/watching/hearing/enjoying? Enjoy the holiday.
Memory lane: my grandfather has been going to the video store every Tuesday after work for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I could make requests or beg him to come home before going to the store. Sometimes we’d go a couple times a week. When I was older, I could drive myself over there, but the bulk of my video store memories are of the two of us walking into the video store and splitting at the twin metal detectors.
He broke to the left to check out the new releases. At $2.50 for three days/overnight, that was a little rich for my blood. I broke right, because that’s where the trash was. $1.50 got you a five day rental of the finest — or maybe just “readily available,” my taste as a kid was and remains suspect — low budget no budget exploitation flicks. I tore through the Carnosaurs, ate up the Roger Cormans, and pretty much anything that might have had some blood or part of a boob in it.
The crown jewel of the video shop’s collection, at least for me, were the kung fu flicks. They came in garish boxes, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle green and sickly yellows. You can see a lot of the cases in this photobucket account. I don’t recognize each and every one of them, since tearing through two or three movies a week for a few years isn’t really conducive to making lasting memories, but I love them nonetheless. I’d buy the Wu-Tang Collection on DVD if I could, and every other flick I rented back then.
As a general rule, I really enjoyed every one of these as a kid. I’ve rewatched a few and I still like a lot of them, though some are utterly bottom of the barrel. Chinese Super Ninjas 2 is trash, sure, but Hell’s Wind Staff is great fun. Sometimes they’re outrageous enough to be entertaining despite their flaws, as in the case of Super Ninjas, but the good ones are genuinely good, like Drunken Master.
My favorite flick from this era is easily Mystery of Chess-Boxing, aka Ninja Checkmate. Joseph Kuo directed it, Ping Han Chiang wrote it, and Mark Long stars in it as Ghost Face Killer. He’s the villain, not the hero. It’s hard to put my finger on why, because I don’t think I’ve ever tried to explain why it’s so good. It just clicks for me, from the stunts to the jokes to the choreo. It’s funny, it’s plenty charming, and the fights aren’t the best, but they are great to watch.
Amazingly, it’s streaming for free on youtube. The video is marked with “official,” so I assume it’s legal. You can watch it here:
It’s well worth the 90 minutes. It’s overdramatic, full of musical stings, and a bunch of familiar characters. It’s got my favorite kung fu kitchen fight, too. You want spectacle? Watch Ghost Face Killer and his Five Elements kung fu tear a swath through the countryside. The joke with the table that’s about ten minutes in is great, too.
The Following, created by Scream writer Kevin Williamson, is easily the least defensible show I watch at the moment. It’s trashy, violent, occasionally disgusting, and occasionally forgets about the main gimmick of the big bad guy. But in a way, that’s a strength unto itself. Things happen, and keep happening, on The Following. The usual way I describe the show is that it’s willing to “go there” several times an episode. The exact location of “there” varies from episode to episode, but in a show featuring people getting shot with spear guns, serial killer threesomes, two separate love triangles with one woman, one serial killer telling another serial killer “You’re crazy!” and meaning it, and Kevin Bacon straight-up murdering a couple dozen people.
The series feels like a Batman pitch in a lot of ways. Ryan Hardy, a retired FBI agent, is an alcoholic and burnt out. Years ago, he captured Joe Carroll, a serial killer, professor, and novelist with an Edgar Allen Poe fetish. Carroll went to jail, Hardy wrote a book, Carroll languished in jail, Hardy had a brief relationship with Carroll’s ex-wife Claire, and life went on. The series kicks off when Carroll escapes from jail a short time before his execution, murders a lady he considered unfinished business, gets captured again, and then sets about unveiling his “sequel.”
You see, while he was locked up, Carroll met a few fellow travelers that he quickly turned into minions. Imagine a serial killer sleeper cell full of people with specific instructions who are hiding in plain sight and utterly, terminally dedicated to the worship of Joe Carroll and death. He bestows his adoration of Poe upon them, and they take to the streets in Poe masks, with Poe-themed crimes, or with Poe’s work on their lips. Carroll wants Hardy — dead, alive, or in his bed, I’m not sure which — and his followers want to show their lord and master how dedicated they are. Hardy and Claire want to both stop Carroll and retrieve Joey, Claire and Carroll’s son. I want to see what comes out of this meat grinder.
The glue that kept the show together for me was Emma, who was played to the hilt by Valorie Curry. She’s by far the most interesting part of the show on almost every level. Ryan Hardy is depthless, and every attempt at giving him depth was more bathos than pathos as a general rule. Joe Carroll ranges from tedious to incredibly tedious on average, though he has his moments. Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, who play Hardy and Carroll, are talented, and perform well, but don’t have much to work with that you haven’t seen before. Claire, played by the fantastic Natalie Zea, is crucial, and I think a solid #2 for the show.
Emma has a lot going on. She’s part of a surprise love triangle between herself, her boyfriend Jacob, and her boyfriend’s accidental boyfriend Paul. (They had to pretend to be gay for a couple years so Carroll could spy on Claire. Paul was and is gay. Jacob was not, but might be bisexual now.) She’s in love with Carroll, the prototypical powerful male mentor. She doesn’t hate Claire, which I thought was a nice touch, but that doesn’t mean she’s totally fine with Claire being in the picture, either.
But what really clicked for me was that Emma is both ruthless and intelligent. She’ll cut you open from ear to ear if you give her a chance, but she also knows when to cut her losses and run. She struggles with her love, but she knows what she has to do. She has dueling commitments, and the bulk of her drama derives from how those commitments conflict with each other. When she finally chooses, it’s cold-blooded and sad, but appropriate and logical.
Claire, on the other hand, has one goal: her ex-husband does not get to ruin her son like he ruined their marriage. Everything she does in the show can be traced back to that motivation. Zea is a solid enough actress that you believe it, especially when she does something unbelievable. We’re privy to the thoughts of Hardy, Carroll, and Emma, by virtue of their mountains of screentime. But Claire is often left to react to what the other characters do, instead of doing things on her own, so she remains a slight cipher until she picks up a gun and makes a decision.
That makes her exciting in a way that Ryan Hardy, who is all Guilt and Shame and Anger, is definitively not. We know how Hardy’s story plays out, but Claire? She’s in a position to do something new and different, and she does. Repeatedly. The gun, the knife, the fight in the hallway, the screams, the submission, the betrayals — she works. Claire & Joey vs The World plays better, and more honestly, than Hardy vs Carroll ever could. Their conflict is a game of wits, a conflict between two men who are determined to prove that their way is the right way. Hers is simple: “Not my son.”
Carroll wants his family back, Joey and Claire included. He wants to live with them in his serial killer paradise, and he wants Ryan Hardy to die or submit to him. He’s playing the “I’m smarter than you, de-tec-tive” game, in addition to fetishizing death and murder. He’s a cult leader, and full of that pompous swagger that makes these dudes so boring. He’s all about how important he is, how remarkable his ideas are, when the opposite is true. It’s not Carroll that matters. Carroll is tedious. He wants sex and power, but he dresses it up with words like “family” and “literary” and pretensions of following in Poe’s footsteps. His big hideout is a light house. Why? ’cause his hero wrote a story about one.
His big revenge plan is not a scheme or outline. It is a novel, that he is writing, about exactly what’s going to happen. He is, when you break it down, writing fanfic about himself and Ryan Hardy with a smug omniscient narrator telling the tale. At one point, Hardy gets a copy of the manuscript and begins reading aloud… a passage about him finding the manuscript and reading it aloud!
Hardy’s not much better. Kevin Bacon plays him well, but believing in Ryan Hardy means believing in a whole bunch of nonsense. He’s retired FBI, and deputized at one point in the series, but not before he catches five or six bodies. By the end of the season, he’s killed so many cult members that the cult has to kill a bunch of people semi-offscreen just to balance the scales for the viewers. He’s an old and tired character type, and the writers refrain from doing anything new with him. The revelation of his sad past is more of an eye-roller than tear-jerker, and by the time he gets to the point where he tortures and then murders a defenseless cult member… well. You’ve probably already checked out by that point.
The Following succeeds when it’s indulging in spectacle (spear guns, threesomes, gaping throat wounds) and well-executed emotional content (Emma and Joey’s relationship, Claire and Emma, Emma/Paul/Jacob). Those parts range from good to great, and satisfy on a very basic sex/violence level. But when the series tries to do anything with Edgar Allen Poe, or Hardy and Carroll’s motivation, it stumbles. There’s not enough to Carroll or Hardy. They’re both sad old men who don’t see people as humans so much as tools.
Hardy is presented as the one man that can stop Carroll, both by Carroll and the show itself, and that isn’t right at all. Hardy is nothing. He’s just a dude, an object of Carroll’s affections and the object of his obsession. But Carroll wants him, and that works to shine a spotlight on him. But just outside of that spotlight, where Emma and Claire live, is where the real action happens. That’s where the heart of the series is, but The Following is so in love with the idea of clever twists and two men battling each other for pride and justice that it misses the mark.
The season finale was the worst episode of TV I’d seen in a while, though the weird and worthless incest double bluff episodes of Sword Art Online I saw this weekend actually beat it. It’s everything that’s awful about The Following, and precious little of the good. Ryan Hardy goes full heel, Joe Carroll becomes even more insufferable, and the focus is on the spectacle and the boring conflict between the men. It makes sense, since that’s where the story was headed anyway, but it feels so empty and tired, like reruns of a story you already know well.
The supporting cast shines, though. I really liked the experience of watching The Following, especially when chatting with #TeamBeloved member David Wolkin and my friend Keri, but I can’t say as I’ll watch it again. Season two might get a glance or three, just to see if it turns into The Following: Emma & Claire, but I don’t have high hopes.
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Eight songs here, which should play in random order. The list:
-The Smiths – Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
-The Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work
-The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony
-Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
-The Smith – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
-The Stone Roses – Fools Gold
-Blur – Trimm Tabb
-Blur – Under the Westway
My friend Amy hooked me up with a playlist she called “Madchester and Manchester.” You can listen to it here if you have Spotify. I was going to embed it here, but it turns out you need Spotify to hear the songs, so… I did a lot of extra legwork and turned the tracks I like best (plus two more) into an 8tracks mix.
I say I like britpop, but what I really mean is “I like Damon Albarn-led or -related projects, like Blur, Gorillaz, and so on.” Albarn’s work has been the main way I’ve experienced britpop, even down to it being the lens through which I learn about britpop history. Oasis exists in relation to Blur. I was introduced to Justine Frischmann not through Elastica but via “Oh, she’s Damon Albarn’s girlfriend, some songs are probably about her, and the best Blur albums are post-breakup.” It’s not that I’m a superfan — I own a lot of his stuff and I figure his name is enough to get me onboard, but I wouldn’t say I’m obsessive about it — so much as I’m ignorant of the context. I wasn’t there, I was a kid when all of it was going on, and frankly, there ain’t a lot of young black kids in Small Towne, GA listening to The Smiths or whatever. I didn’t even hear an entire Beatles song, and recognize that it was The Beatles, until high school.
So I reached out to a few friends who’d know. Amy hooked me up weeks ago, and it took me forever to listen for stupid reasons. (I wanted time to be able to really listen to figure out what I liked, which is typical of me.) I got Ron Richards to kick me a lot of album recommendations in a few different genres, too, since we have so little overlap in taste.
I’m trying to broaden my horizons, and the best way I know how to do that is to do something new and then see how it makes me feel. In this case, I took Amy’s playlist and listened to it a few times on shuffle while walking around the city and commuting home. After an hour or so, I started starring whichever songs caught my ear for whatever reason. Maybe I liked the melody, maybe I liked a particular line, or maybe I liked something more ephemeral.
Whichever way it is, the star means I need to pay attention, and paying attention means either checking out more songs from the album the song originates from or asking friends what else sounds similar.
I don’t really have an endpoint for this. I just wanna know more, and spider-webbing my way to more seems good enough to me.
Thanks Amy. Sorry it took so long.
The two songs I added to round out the mix are a couple Blur joints I like a lot. The only Blur album I don’t own/haven’t heard is The Great Escape, I think. I passed it over when I was heavy into Blur, by accident maybe, and haven’t had a chance to go back yet. Which is weird of me, but hey.
-I wrote about Frank Quitely & Mark Millar’s Jupiter’s Legacy. It’s soft like baby butts, but also the best comic Millar’s written in recent memory.
ComicsAlliance is closed. To my knowledge, it wasn’t because of hits or performance or controversy. It didn’t fit, or something. Dunno. Either way, I spilled 477,770 words on 317 posts over about three and a half years.
-I watched Matthew Vaughan’s Kick-Ass finally, the adaptation of the odious Millar/JRjr comic. It was eleventy times better than the comic, but still pretty dumb. It’s like they intentionally shied away from making a good movie in favor of a weird quirky… thing. Hit-Girl was the most interesting part, and they botched every single action scene with her, including the big introduction where she rescues Kick-Ass.
It’s weird. It wanted to be an action movie, but the action was shot poorly almost as a general rule. The hallway run toward the end had so many good parts, like Hit-Girl dodging bullets, but it was delivered in the laziest, stupidest-looking way. Why cut every time someone moves an arm? I mean, maybe it was because they needed a stuntman (stunt-girl?) for Hit-Girl, but people have been using stuntmen for decades without it look like crap.
Anyway. The trailer for Kick-Ass 2 was funny, but ehhhh. Figure I’m good.
Open thread. What’re you reading/watching/hearing/enjoying?
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