Tag: DVD

Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

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This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

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This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison. Read more…

Day 963: The Hounds Of Fealty

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Yes, I’m writing about dogs again. Last year saw the earthly departure of Rufus and Yoko, my two loyal – albeit halitosis-heavy – bulldog assistants, and I would be remiss (which is Latin for “an asshole”) if I did not honor their memory with a few feel-good tales of puckish pooches to warm the cockles (which is Latin for “the taint”) of the heart. Luckily, as chock-full as the internet may be with cat pictures, it is similarly packed with tales of loyal canines.

I make no apologies for the fact that I am a dog person. Dogs may not be smarter than cats – though they could be; I distinctly recall some Youtube video in which a dog retrieves a beer from the fridge – but they are more emotionally devoted to their human friends. I love that when I come home every day, my remaining bulldog assistants (Bessie & The Bean, so named for her legume-esque stature) are jubilant to the point of ridiculousness. In my limited experience, cats simply don’t offer that kind of overflow of positive energy.

And devotion. That’s a big one. The loyalty of my slobbery little friends has never truly been tested, but I’m sure it exists. The canine companions who grace today’s page have all demonstrated a form of loyalty that every super-villain dreams of extracting from but one of their grunting minions.

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Any pile of devoted-dog stories must contain a customary bow to Hachiko, the Akita owned by University of Tokyo professor Hidesaburo Ueno. Every afternoon, Hachiko would show up at Shibuya Station to await Ueno’s train. In May 1925, only about a year into their relationship, Ueno suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never made it home. Hachiko showed up anyway, and proceeded to pop in to the station at the exact same time every day to await his master’s return. For almost ten more years. Read more…

Day 873: The Movie-Money Juggling Game

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A spoiler for today’s article: it may shatter your innocence, lay waste to your humbling yet lavish optimism regarding the spirit of humanity, and rend into tatters your perceptions of Hollywood studio executives as upstanding, honest and forthright folk. If this won’t be a problem for you, read on.

The movie business is all about money, as evidenced by the fact that any film that coughs up some modest box office returns seems to get a sequel, or by the fact that Tyler Perry and Martin Scorcese technically have the same job. But beneath the big sparkly numbers earned by flicks like Avatar and Titanic lies an even more impressive act of CGI than those frolicking blue cats – they call it Hollywood Accounting.

Hollywood Accounting has nothing to do with the studios scamming the government to avoid paying taxes. I’m sure like any massive business they employ accountants to help them with that cause too, but specifically Hollywood Accounting is the insider method by which the movie studios can pilfer money from the very artists who concoct their revenue. It’s an ugly side of show business, but one that every aspiring actor, writer and director should be aware of.

To illustrate, let’s talk about this guy:

ArtBuchwald

That’s Art Buchwald, whom you might remember from his Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated Washington Post column, or, if you’re under 50 you might not. He was a brilliant wordsmith though, which is why it was strange that Paramount Studios was unable to transform his treatment into a full-blown feature. His concept – entitled “King For A Day” at this point – was about an arrogant and wealthy African potentate’s visit to the United States, ensuing in wacky hijinks and goofy hilarity. It would have been a perfect fit for Eddie Murphy, who was under contract with Paramount at the time. Read more…

Day 826: I’m Living It

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As we clamber into another springtime, the romantics fluttering their tootsies at the prospect of potential prospects while we loathers of the eternal snow pray for sanctuary from the dreary grey, it’s time to get away from talking about the weather and back to what matters: bitching about society. It doesn’t take a Father Knows Best marathon or a visit to one’s local seniors’ home to realize that things aren’t as they used to be. Our inherent institutional respect has deteriorated, our unflinching trust of “the system” has fallen like a Jenga tower of probing questions, and people appear to be less affluent and less happy about it.

On the flip-side, we have an unending cavalcade of bulldog puppy pictures on the internet, so perhaps we aren’t entirely doomed. But no – that’s the wrong attitude. You can’t get a good kvetch on if you’re looking at puppy pics. If we want to stack our plate at the local gripe-ateria, we must excrete the cutesiness and optimism we might possess and make room for the complaining.

I make no apologies for that metaphor. As anyone who read the book Fast Food Nation knows, we are living in a fast-food nation (I haven’t read the book, but the front cover was very informative). I’m not talking about our collective addiction to Whoppers and Double-Downs and Blizzards and Sonic’s delectable tater-tots. Fast-food is representative of everything we’ve been sinking into, culturally-speaking, over the last few decades. Rev up your grumble-motors – it’s time to whine about ourselves.

Then, and only then can we look at bulldog puppies.

Then, and only then can we look at bulldog puppies.

Sociologist George “Puttin’ On The” Ritzer observed our gradual slip into societal doom back in 1993 when he wrote his best-selling (or at least good-selling – I don’t have the numbers) book, The McDonaldization of Society. Max Weber – that’s the German political economist from the early 1900’s, not the Canadian rock band from the 80’s – used the bureaucracy as a representation of society. George Ritzer felt we’d evolved into a new cultural organism, and that the multi-national fast food empire was a better way of seeing us today. Or, ‘today’ in his 21-year-old book, but I think you’ll agree we’re still there.

We have been shifting from the traditional mode of thought into a more rational process for years. We are less guided by ancient morality and outright conservatism and more driven by the marketplace and the outright scientific means by which we can hold as much of it as possible in our pockets. This shift may have begun within the embers of American capitalism, but thanks to globalization we’re seeing this inferno spread all around the globe.

When you're bitching about society it's all about the metaphors.

When you’re bitching about society it’s all about the metaphors.

Ritzer has pinpointed four pillars of McDonaldization. There’s efficiency: everything present in a McDonald’s restaurant is specifically geared toward minimal time and maximum turnaround, from the pre-cooked patty-warming drawers to the mostly uncomfortable plastic seating. It’s the fastest route from A to B – in this case from a hungry customer to a full one, and evidence of this mandated efficiency pops up in virtually every corporate culture  out there. This leads into the second important concept – calculability. McDonald’s wants to quantify their success through sales rather than qualify it through making food that actually tastes good. Okay, that’s basic economics. But they also know that they can tap into our sense of quantification by offering us a substantial amount of food for a low cost. You can still fill your face at McDonald’s for $6 – that’s enough of a selling point to make a lot of people forget that a McChicken tastes like a sofa cushion.

Now imagine that philosophy expanded to our entire culture. Sacrificing quality for quantity is happening everywhere, from cheapo $5 t-shirts that wear out before lunch to the people who actually buy dollar-DVDs from the discount bin.

The other two tenets of Ritzer’s observations are fairly self-evident mainstays of the McWorld: predictability – every McDonald’s is expected to provide a fairly identical experience, same as you’d expect from every Gap, every Costco, every Old Navy – and control – employees must conform to a strict and rigid corporate philosophy. The other option for control is, of course, mechanizing the process, something that has become significantly easier to attain in the online market that has popped up in the years since Ritzer’s book.AbandonedMcDonalds-3

Fortunately, the McDonaldization process isn’t going to bring about a 1984-esque degradation of our world. We don’t have to worry about becoming corporate slave automatons dressed in sci-fi jumpsuits and confessing our indiscretions to an automated salvation-system that will dispense mind-numbing medication to ensure our continued sheep-like behavior (which is as many future-dystopia-film tropes as I can fit into a single sentence). The corporate system’s weaknesses are already poking through the seams. George Ritzer calls this the ‘irrationality of rationalization’.

This essentially means that the dehumanization will become evident before we all devolve into expressionless flesh-robots. Bureaucratic red tape has snarled the quest for efficiency, the focus on calculability has led to low quality products, employees have become frustrated and confused about their lowly position and few prospects for elevation within the corporate culture (which kills off predictability), and the concept of control is, as a result, getting shakier. Is this good news? Can we all be saved?

Is salvation even in our best interests?

GoldenArchesTheory

According to journalist Thomas L. Friedman, no two countries with a McDonald’s inside their borders has ever fought a war against one another, at least after the restaurant chain had opened up shop. This is known as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, and it no doubt has more to do with McDonald’s-hosting countries being relatively stable and financially secure than the ability for each society to procure a Filet-O-Fish. Okay, the US did invade Panama in 1989, but that wasn’t technically a ‘war’. Oh, and India and Pakistan duked it out in 1999, but that was just a regional Kashmir thing, not an all-out military deathmatch.

Shortly after Friedman’s book dropped in 1999, NATO bombed Yugoslavia, and Belgrade protestors demolished the city’s McDonald’s. Friedman revised his book in 2000, citing the swift end of that conflict as evidence that Serbia did not want to lose its place in the global system that remains very much symbolized by McDonald’s. There have been other exceptions since (Crimea and Russia, for example), but it’s still an interesting lens through which to squint at the world.

BiteSizeJournalism

So we may be addicted to bite-size junk journalism, and maybe our post-secondary aspirations have been shaped by pseudo-universities that offer bullshit online degrees. Maybe we’re eager to embrace mediocrity because dammit, when it’s placed in a shiny ad next to a sexy model and a thousand twinkly lights it just looks so good. But I don’t buy it – we’ll sink into this muck pretty far but for most of us, there’s a way out.

As McDonald’s continues to spread its tendrils around the planet, a number of corporations are discovering the massive niche market of people who actually want quality over quantity, who actually want skilled, free-thinking workers and a subtle unpredictability in their experience. Even look at one of the myriad of Buzzfeed articles – Buzzfeed itself being a McDonaldization of online information – about the weird regional McDonald’s dishes that seem to show up in every country in order to cater to local tastes. Is that not traditionalism and/or individuality triumphing in a small way over the corporate machine? Is the proliferation of craft beer not indicative of our collective will to resist the vacuum of corporate homogeneity?

So there’s hope. At least until my next rant – the Kardashianization of popular culture. Until then, I highly recommend an overdose on optimism-feeding bulldog puppy pics.

Ahhh, that's better.

Ahhh, that’s better.

Day 757: Best Care Anywhere – 23 Things I Didn’t Know About M*A*S*H

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Up until the recent spate of Platinum-Age television brilliance forced me to redefine the parameters of small-screen excellence, I had always placed M*A*S*H upon a mighty khaki pedestal. The show wasn’t perfect, but it blended riotous comedy with deeply human drama and did so often within the same scene. As recently as last week I found myself reminiscing with someone about the most unforgettable episodes – “Point of View”, “Dreams”, “The Interview” – and I realized I have yet to pen a piece in tribute to this eleven-season masterpiece.

Hell, I’ve already written about Golden Girls; how have I not written about this show yet? I’m going with the ‘things I didn’t know’ format, since there’s simply too much interesting trivia to cram into a proper narrative kilograph. Also, I’ve got an extremely tight deadline.

Some of these I did know before today, but I learned them after the show’s initial run (which wrapped up when I was 8 – thank goodness for syndication).

MASH-Novel

–       The TV show was based on MASH, an elegantly twisted 1970 film by Robert Altman. The film was based on MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, which was written by Richard Hooker.

–       Richard Hooker doesn’t exist. He’s an amalgam of writer W.C. Heinz and former US Army doctor H. Richard Hornberger, who served as a military surgeon in the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.

–       Many of the stories in the first few seasons of the show were based on actual tales from former army doctors. Hornberger’s quarters in Korea were actually nicknamed ‘The Swamp.’ Read more…

Day 740: You Bring The Gags, Charley Will Bring The Laughs

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It was once so commonplace, so natural, so subconsciously integral to the very essence of comedy that we hardly noticed it. The laugh track came with the medium; it was swept in as part of the original package, like the wheels on the first car or the door on the first refrigerator. It was the oily black fingerprint of television comedy, first by tradition then by mandate. If you didn’t hear laughs, you weren’t meant to laugh. Bing Crosby’s team brought the technology to radio in the 40’s when they had to jazz up the flaccid responses to some flat jokes. It seeped into  the realm of TV with ease.

In the early 1990’s, the state of small-screen comedy began to transform, and with this came a subtle erosion of the dominance of the laugh track. Those shows with the broadest base appeal – by which I mean the ratings hogs that comedy connoisseurs and critics tend to loathe… yes, Two And A Half Men, I’m talking about you – still make use of laughter prompts. But for the most part, as an audience we’ve decided we don’t need them.

Good for us, not so much for the fleet of companies that made their mint by plopping requisite ha-has into prime time programming over the past half-century. Except there is no fleet. Most of the laughter beamed into our homes all those years ago came from the fingertips of one man.

CharleyDouglass

That’s Charley Douglass, who was a sound engineer in the nascent days of television at CBS. Back then, many comedies were broadcast live from the stage to the screen. Those that weren’t live were shot with a single camera, with scenes re-staged several times to capture different angles. Studio audiences were used, but they couldn’t be counted upon to deliver the chortles when the writers wanted them to, particularly on the third or fourth take. Charley came up with a process to ‘sweeten’ the laughter. It was brilliant and effective, and when Charley was ready to leave CBS in 1953, the network claimed it was their intellectual property. Read more…

Day 706: One-Thousand-Word Rock!

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If someone were to stop me on the street (or some other such location where I’d be removed from easy access to my braintrust, the internet) and ask me how a Canadian bill becomes a law, I’d have no idea. I know we have a legislative branch, and that there are votes and dissent and people that thump their hands against table-tops. But the details of the process? No clue. And I work for the government.

But before you condemn me as one of the drooling ignorant, in my defense there has never been a catchy song written about how Parliament does its thing.

As a kid, there were scant few options for television programming, so when something animated was on we watched. And despite our base desire for pure entertainment, the educational stuff would seep in through the cracks.

On Sesame Street the learning was fairly obvious. Mr. Rogers was teaching us all sorts of valuable lessons, but we didn’t care because we liked his sweaters and puppets. But perhaps the catchiest and most fun show from my youth was the delightful School House Rock: 3-minute animated classroom lectures, set to music.

Oh, we also had the Log-Driver’s Waltz too. Got to give props to true Canadian learning.

My American friends are saying, "Huh?" while my Canadian friends triumphantly cry, "Yeah, bitch!"

My American friends are saying, “Huh?” while my Canadian friends triumphantly cry, “Yeah, bitch!”

Around the dawn of the 1970’s, David McCall was a huge name in advertising. He was half of the successful Madison Avenue firm McCaffrey & McCall, which pulled in over $40 million in billings every year. One day David noticed that his son was having trouble remembering his multiplication tables. The kid could spout off the lyrics to the entire Beatles’ White Album and remember inane pop music ramblings like “there ain’t no one for to give you no pain,” but when it came to math he was lost. Read more…

Day 673: A-Buttoning The Atrocious – Worst Video Games Part 2

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Philistines may mock and deride, but some of us possess a truckload of warm memories playing bad video games. I remember when my friend Josh obtained a questionably legal Japanese multicart (that’s a single game cartridge with dozens of crappy games on it) for his Nintendo Entertainment System. We were in high school, and I welcomed in the dawn after a long night of inebriated attempts to conquer the cat-vs-mouse world of Mappy.

Mappy

Mappy contained two of childhood’s greatest loves: crime-fighting and trampolines.

Not that I’m suggesting Mappy was a bad game. But of the 51 or 81 or 101 games on that cartridge, most were repetitive platformers or half-ass variations on Pac-Man. But I played those too, if for no other reason than they were there.

I am fortunate that my game hobbying never steered me to the depths of the world’s worst video games. Okay, I dabbled with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600, and I still maintain that one or two of those text-based Infocom games I owned for my PC were designed to be impossible without the hint book (sold separately!). But I never had the misfortune of flushing my own hard-earned dollars down the poop-encrusted drain of a rotten gaming experience.

Here’s some of the drek that I missed.

Cheetahmen

In 1991 a legitimate multicart was dropped upon the Nintendo crowd. It was called Action 52 because it had 52 games and each of them involved some form of action, even if it was only the act of you slapping your own forehead in frustration for having bought this thing. I’d list off some of the games on Action 52, but you haven’t heard of any of them. Perhaps you remember The Cheetahmen, which was launched in this pack with the intent of sparking a Ninja-Turtles-like synergistic frenzy: action figures, comic books, a TV series… no, you don’t. This game was so loathed (as was almost everything on the cartridge) that The Cheetahmen fled for the hills.

Perhaps the $199 price tag wasn’t helping either. Read more…

Day 663: Movies For Those Who Hate Themselves

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Ever since I began working toward my vocationally hopeless major of film studies, friends and family began assuming that I would drift into the realm of the film hipster. That I would forego whatever movies won the weekend and instead find inspiration in the unfathomably absurd. I thought this too – that after four years of training I’d be able to sit through any Lynch or Cronenberg film and immediately understand the layered nuances.

Well, that didn’t happen. And I’m looking as forward to the Anchorman sequel as anybody else. My tastes didn’t change, they simply broadened to include French New Wave, Japanese quiet films and German silent expressionism. None of that is going to change the fact that our family Christmas Eve movie is and always will be Die Hard.

But when it comes to movies that are “out there” for out-there’s sake, my eyes tend to gloss over and my feet yearn to foxtrot me the hell out of the theater. I’m not wholly averse to the avant-garde; I find films like Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice or Bruñel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou to be magnificent and enjoyable visual collages. But for most of its indulgences, the experimental and avant-garde scene doesn’t connect with my inner oomph.

Maybe I just need to find the right ones.

CureForInsomnia

Here’s a film that acts not only as a rich artistic statement (perhaps that there are too many good films in the world and that the creator of this one is trying to balance things out), but also as a cure for insomnia. It’s called The Cure For Insomnia. You’ll have a tough time tracking this one down on DVD or at your local repertory theater, but don’t worry, you’re not missing a great story. Or really any story. Read more…

Day 656: Hollywood’s Original A-List

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If you swim deep enough into the swampy murk of Hollywood’s trench-laden ego, you might come across a tiny pulse of insecurity. To have one’s performance captured on celluloid (or digital film, but that doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as ‘celluloid’) is to have a date with immortality. Humphrey Bogart’s regal swagger lives on in Blu-Ray and DVD more than fifty years after his all-too-mortal lungs offered forth their final breaths.

But just how immortal is Hollywood stardom? Most people under 30 would have no problem picking James Dean or Marilyn Monroe out of a lineup, but how many could discern Lana Turner from Olivia de Havilland, or Van Heflin from Robert Ryan? These were potent stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but today they only resonate with scholars, trivia geeks, and those dwindling few who still love a great story told in black and white, and feel it’s important to read the credits.

I happily plunk myself in all three of the above pigeon-holes. And as someone whose own so-called artistic immortality is a lock only as long as people yearn to read love letters to bacon, I sympathize with the icons of silver screen past, in particular those who had mastered their craft enough to warrant an on-going legacy. So staple these photos to the underside of your skull and keep them in your hearts – these are the mighty ladies of Hollywood’s earliest years.

MaryPickford

It would be hard to find a more important woman in the nascent days of movies than Mary Pickford. She was the first starlet of moving pictures, edged out only slightly by Charlie Chaplin when it came to outright popularity throughout the 1910’s and 20’s. In 1916 she signed a deal with Adolph Zukor (the guy who would later build the mountain known as Paramount Studios) for $500 a week, which is over $10,000 in today’s dollars. Read more…