As some of you may have heard (I have griped about this rather frequently lately), the cold, icy grip of 40 is looming around my next corner, poised to wrestle my youth to the ground before September’s end, pummeling it with its grey-haired, middle-aged fists.
But I’m okay with that.
Not only because I will finally experience my first day off from writing since December 30, 2011, and not because I believe some faucet of inherent wisdom will squeak open and gush the solved riddles of the universe upon my anxious brain, but because I simply refuse to stack my plate full of anxiety and dread over a number. 40 can be the new 30 – except my kids are mostly grown-up, my time is more my own, and my taste in beer has matured to a delicious and luminous plateau.
Besides, I’m not the only one packing air into his lungs for a big 40-candle blow-out. Skittles turn forty this year, so does the Volkswagen Golf. The Intel 8080 chip was released four decades ago, as was the San Diego Chicken (from whatever oversized, freakish coop in which he was reared). Let’s see what else will be launching its fifth decade on earth in 2014.
The toy whose very visage defines the 1980’s was born in Budapest on January 16, 1974. The Rubik’s Cube is, quite literally, Rubik’s cube. Ernö Rubik worked at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts (where I suppose you can begin working on your major in kindergarten), and he designed the toy as a way to solve the design problem of having the parts move independently without the entire thing falling apart. After playing around with it for a while, Rubik discovered that putting it back to its alpha state, with all six sides sporting a uniform color, was a nifty little puzzle. Read more…
A survey of music lovers who possess even so much as a passing interest in the Beatles’ music will undoubtedly reveal “Come Together” to be one of the most universally beloved bullets in their melodic clip. From its swampy bass, its percussive “Shoot me” refrain to its absurdist and almost comically weird lyrics, the song righteously opens the gates to the magnificent Abbey Road album, tantalizing and gratifying most every pair of ears it meets.
It’s almost shocking to imagine the pretzel of nefarious backlash it provoked. “Come Together” may have begun its life as John Lennon’s attempt to pen a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s quest to unseat Ronald Reagan as governor of California, but it wound up inadvertently connecting Lennon with one of the most insidious corners of the music industry.
If only it were as simple as Lennon scribbling a new idea then slapping it onto vinyl with his buddies through the immaculate channel of producer George Martin. For the origin story of the madness that would follow, we need to travel back to 1956, back to when songs about cars were a veritable genre unto themselves. To a little single by rock ‘n roll’s illustrious grandpa, Chuck Berry.
In 1956, Chuck released a song called “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon’s song boasts a similar vocal melody and a set of lyrics (“Here come old flattop, he come goovin’ up slowly” to “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”). The similarity ends there – Berry’s song is about driving quickly whereas Lennon’s is about something called ‘toe-jam football’ and some guy with feet below his knees. But it was enough to snag the ear of music publisher Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Berry’s song and promptly launched an infringement lawsuit against Lennon. Read more…
A few days ago I slaked my fingers through the questionable history of the television laugh track. While I have always been baffled that one studio audience’s instinctive responses to actual comedy might 1 have been slapped underneath decades-worth of other material, I had no idea there was one guy running the entire show from his garage. One guy whose job it was to make Small Wonder appear as though it was funny to someone. One guy who made us believe there was a studio audience atop bamboo bleachers on Gilligan’s Island.
A laugh track is a form of audience deception, but it’s not the only tool in the manipulative belt of the entertainment industry. And I get it – people slave for weeks or months in preparation for a performance, often to the point where the ‘funny’ disappears for them into the swampy churn of repetition and rehearsal. They don’t want all that work to simply hover in the air around their audience like an unwelcome fart.
So they’ll take a moment of hilarity-response from Milton Berle’s old show and make it sound like Happy Days never lost a step when Richie and Ralph left. And we’ll eat it up, just as audiences have done before us – back before television, when entertainment producers had to be a little more clever and a lot more clandestine with their work.
16th-century French poet and playwright Jean Daurat was the first to plunk his toe into the smoky brine of audience manipulation. Whether it was moral or deceitful is a judgment call; Jean’s artistic guts were in the lines of this play, and he wanted a good response from the ticket-holders. So he did what any desperate artist would do: he bought a bunch of his own tickets and gave them away for free. Well, for “free” meaning that the recipients had promised to supply applause.
And it worked. Read more…
When I was eight years old I endured the most boring vacation of my life. There were a few glorious days spent in Disney World and the newly-christened EPCOT, and also an imagination-tickling stop at Cape Canaveral to gawk at Columbia, asleep at her launch pad. But the majority of those two weeks were spent at my grandparents’ Fort Lauderdale “condo”, a tight-knit community where you couldn’t so much as sneeze without an elderly Jewish lady telling you pipe down.
There was no internet to numb my curious mind, and figuring out when I could find my Happy Days reruns in this insane town was a daunting challenge. I found myself reading a lot, and eventually drifting down to the corner store with a crinkled dollar bill to ingest a purposeless sugar rush. While I was fortunate to find a handful of chocolate munchables (and always the tongue-inspiring flavor of Black Cherry Shasta), I would return home to Canada feeling that our snack selection was somehow… better.
Could this be? The nation that was dwarfed, both population-wise and culturally by the glorious USA, had a better offering of chocolate bars on our store shelves? I’d later learn it was the Commonwealth influx of British brands like Cadbury that put the ‘oooo’ in our candy store oomph. Allow me to share with my American friends just a little taste of what you’ve been missing.
I have sampled the American Caramello, and it ain’t no Caramilk. Caramilk is made up of 8 bite-size segments, each bursting with velvety caramel so smooth and sweet you’ll think your tongue went and rented a tropical timeshare and is simply broadcasting the warm sunny bliss back to your brain. Read more…
Throughout my years of paying an exorbitant amount of money to study the history of film, I was often told of films that had been lost to the ages for whatever reason. Georges Méliès, the first man to play around with film as an art form, had a lot of his original films confiscated during WWI and melted down to make army boots. Old nitrate film stock was highly flammable and prone to deterioration. Sometimes the prints of movies just got lost.
The rediscovery and restoration of vintage film is fascinating work. Fritz Lang’s revered silent film Metropolis has seen rediscovered and reassembled in chunks over time, providing a new experience every time I’ve watched it. Every so often a new Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle short film gets unearthed in a stash found in Norway or France.
Rarely do these films turn out to be cinematic gems, more brilliant than their never-lost counterparts. But they are history – and sometimes weird history. Take, for example, Santo Gold’s Blood Circus.
This is a fairly typical formula flick for the mid 80’s – aliens from the planet Zoran show up to do battle with a bunch of professional wrestlers, who wind up eating their foes once they’ve pinned them. The Shyamalan-esque twist is that the entire film was nothing more than a promotional vehicle for the producer’s jewelry store. Read more…