Tag: tv

Day 986: James Randi & The Magic Of Truth

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One of the television landmarks of my childhood involved magicians/dissectors-of-bullshit Penn & Teller, performing the classic splice-the-assistant trick. They then performed the trick once more on a transparent stage with transparent props in order to reveal the gadgetry and choreography that had effectively deceived us. My mother loathed the bit; to this day her stalwart faith in pure magic remains uncompromised. For me, it was an awakening.

I saw Penn & Teller’s commitment to debunkery as an invitation to question the unexplained, and to search for the truth tucked under the throw-rug of perception. This curiosity need not be an omnipresent obsession – I would much rather share in the astounded guffaws of David Blaine’s close-up audience than pry into the secrets of his masterful sleight-of-hand – but when trickery is but a front for a more nefarious purpose, this well-worn skepticism is a handy frock.

James Randi has been an activist for truth and an intrepid explorer of paranormal hucksterism for decades. When Copperfield transformed the Statue of Liberty into furtive air on national television, Randi made no effort to deflate our collective entertainment. But when pseudo-psychics make ludicrous claims of otherworldly powers in their pockets, James Randi is there to reach in and show us the lint of deception.

Naturally, he has pissed off a lot of people along the way.

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The Amazing Randi rose to fame as a magician in 1956 when he broke Harry Houdini’s submersion record by having himself locked inside a sealed coffin beneath the surface of a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes on The Today Show. But while Randi was happy to entertain a gawking audience, he was always critical of the mysticism that people would invite into their lives as fact. While employed by the Canadian tabloid Midnight, he penned a recurring astrology column by simply rearranging horoscopes from other publications and pasting them randomly under each sign. Read more…

Day 982: Opening 40

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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.

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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…

Day 958: Day One Of Peace & Music

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“I have come to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog in something turning.”

I have been trying to reconcile my relationship with the Woodstock festival for more than 20 years. “These are your grandparents,” I told my daughter as the movie played in our living room this week. But Woodstock reached further than its generation, even beyond the magnificence of its music. It was the temporary realization of pure Utopia – or at least that’s how its legend trickled down to me, some schmuck born 2400 miles away, five years after the last gnarly raindrop had voiced its opinion that the festival ground should be mud.

Perhaps the images of a groovy, grubby, smoky paradise are merely the false concoctions of media (in this case, the documentary film Woodstock) and reputation, but this is the image that tickles my imagination and tilts my longing toward that sensation of community, of parity, and of that shared experience of being billion-year-old carbon in the same cosmic stew with a few hundred thousand friends.

2014 not only boasts the 45th anniversary of the decade-defining event, it also features an aligned calendar, allowing for the three days of the original festival (August 15, 16 and 17) to land once again on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Today I’ll be exploring what built Woodstock from the sloppy ground up; tomorrow I’ll delve into the music and on Sunday the potent culture – real or imagined.

To begin among the festival’s roots, one simply must start with the sitcom.

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In 1967, lawyer Joel Rosenman (pictured above) and his friend John Roberts decided they wanted to write a sitcom about two entrepreneurs who fall into wacky weekly hijinks as they try to bring their business plans to fruition. For research they plopped an ad into The Wall Street Journal, claiming to be “young men with unlimited capital” looking for investment opportunities. Two of the men who responded, concert promoter Michael Lang and “Dead Man’s Curve” co-author Artie Kornfeld, intrigued the would-be comedy writers so much they abandoned their plans for television stardom and became the very entrepreneurs they’d planned to depict. Read more…

Day 938: Bedtime Tales From Tiki-Topia

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Hey kids. Your mom normally takes care of story-time, but there’s an engrossing marathon of The Real Housewives of some damn city on TV, and she’s asked me to fill in. I’m more of a freestyler than a page-reader, so I’m going to unfold this tale fresh from my mind’s back pocket.

Because I love you, and because my brain is bobbing lazily upon a lilting brume of a particularly precocious rum tonight, I think I’ll unwrap the story of one of daddy’s heroes, a man whose singular vision of an urban oasis has not only helped daddy get through your mother’s tearful re-telling of the salient plot-points of every goddamn Nicholas Sparks novel, but also through your ballet recitals, your soccer games and your school concerts. That man’s name was Don the Beachcomber.

No Trixie, daddy isn’t going to tell you a story about a pony. Why not? Because Don the Beachcomber was a man, man of prescience. Hey, stop your whining! What would you rather hear about? Trixie, I don’t know any stories about goddamn unicorns. Lucy, so help me, if you ask me to read that Berenstain Bears book again, I will spend your college fund on cocaine. What did you say, Tommy? You want a story about zombies? That’s my boy. The story of Don the Beachcomber is full of zombies.

Delicious, Delightful zombies.

Delicious, Delightful zombies.

When Don was nineteen years old, he left his home in Limestone County, Texas – that’s near Dallas, where the Cowboys play football… you remember last Thanksgiving  when daddy was throwing candied yams at the TV set and cursing a man named Tony Romo for almost blowing a game against the Oakland Raiders? Well, he plays for the Cowboys. Anyway, Don went on an adventure, sailing around the Caribbean and the islands of the South Pacific. Read more…

Day 937: Hollywood’s Hollywood Ending – USA vs. Paramount Pictures, 1948

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For those who wax nostalgic about the Golden Age of Hollywood, who swoon over the catchlights dazzling in Rita Hayworth’s dark chocolate eyes, who are pushed to the brink of their seat cushions by a stabbing violin score, or who treasure a film’s complete batch of credits before the story gets rolling, you may need to taste that era’s whole truth. Sheltered in the oligopolic thatch of corporate hubris, the Big Five studios were paying themselves twice, fortifying their sweet-spot on the dais of celluloid art with soggy sandbags of nefarious business practices.

When the chips finally fell on the Golden Age, they landed with such a clatter the movie business crumpled into a slump the likes of which we’d never see again; even the modern age of easily-snatchable torrents and duplicitous street vendors pitching bootleg blockbusters hasn’t throttled the industry like this.

For the struggling filmmaker or the tiny fledgling production company, adrift without financial paddle in a sweaty sea of studio bullies, the Golden Age of Hollywood was an ordeal. It took until 1948 for the United States Supreme Court to peel the wings off the sleazy sideshow of backdoor studio arrangements, and they managed to pack the full heft of their punch into one near-unanimous decision.

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Piecing together the components of a relatively new art form required some experimentation, allowing a few different business models to walk the industry’s catwalk while the studios toyed with the best way to maximize profits while maintaining the high aesthetic of the art form itself. I’m kidding of course; they wanted to make money, and it was clear from the moment Tommy Edison’s industry stranglehold was quashed by the feds in 1915 that the best way to do that was to keep everything in-house. Read more…

Day 935: Ah Yes, But Is There Any Evidence Of Semen?

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You can have your John McClanes, your Alex Murphys, your Jimmy McNultys. When it comes to picking out the Hollywood super-cops, we shouldn’t look any further than network television’s procedural potentate: the CSI family of formulaic programming. On the CSI shows, the stars are scientific swamis, investigative prodigies, precocious and apt interrogators, and almost inevitably the gun-bearing heroes who take down the guilty party, usually within 44 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, in the 14 years since Gil Grissom first suited up and embedded CBS’s flag atop the summit of Mount Nielsen Demographic Age 34-55, enrollment in college forensic courses has exploded, while the public’s perceived understanding of crime scene minutiae has ballooned. That’s perceived understanding – if one bases one’s knowledge on what Horatio Caine says or does right before he takes off his sunglasses and elicits Roger Daltrey’s unrestrained shriek, then one is most assuredly not a forensic specialist.

Experts in the fields of law, law enforcement and science call this the CSI Effect, and the reverberations of its repercussions can tingle the spines of professionals all across the justice spectrum. We know more, we expect more, and we understand more, but all stemming from the basis of fiction. If that doesn’t scare you just a little, then you simply aren’t trying hard enough.

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CSI was not the first dramatization of the justice system to throttle public perception into a bewildered shimmy. Jurors who regularly feasted upon the antics of Perry Mason between 1957 and 1966 often awaited the dramatic confession on the stand; one juror actually admitted to a defense attorney that his jury had voted ‘guilty’ because the prosecution’s key witness hadn’t erupted in a tearful admission of wrong-doing. Read more…

Day 932: Tornadoing It Right

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As the summer weeks amble past that first premature sploosh of sun, sweat and network television’s filler programming (the latest season of Fox’s 24 notwithstanding), we are reaching the time when the season becomes entrenched in whichever little cubbyhole we wish to place it. For some, it’s the season of swimming in a sun-soaked pool. For teachers and their flock, it’s the season of delectable freedom and a furlough from responsibility. For those of us who live with both a teacher and a student, it’s the season for drinking heavily to compensate for the globby paste of envy we feel at watching everyone else in the household sleep as we leave for work.

But for a number of geographically-encumbered folks, the sub-surface pillow-down of summer brings with it more grave and ungroovy consequences. Hurricanes and tropical storms are gearing up to spank the Gulf of Mexico with a debris-wreaking fist. Droughts will speckle farmland country, crapping its dusty fury upon a smattering of unlucky agriculturalists. And inevitably the funnel clouds will open up their peppery maws at the vengeful sky, bullying rural settlements and trailer parks alike on the ground.

Edmonton has seen but one tornado in our 100+ years as a city, and it left its mark on everyone who lived through it – even for those of us who saw nothing worse than the dog-spittle of rain against our windows. But in the interest of public safety – and as part of my court-ordered restitution for ‘liberating’ those pet store frogs into the IKEA ball-pit – here are some safety tips.

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Remember that viral video in which a Kansas TV crew near El Dorado fled from a nearby tornado and took refuge beneath an overpass? Yeah, don’t do this. If you happen to be caught on an empty two-lane highway with a tornado sneering at the hairs on the back of your neck, you might be tempted to tuck yourself under a concrete canopy, but you’ll really only be worsening your chances of survival. That TV crew happened to pick a rather odd overpass – there was a hollow crawlspace at the top of the embankment where they could grab hold of the exposed girders to stay stable. Read more…

Day 916: I’m About To Lose My Worried Mind – Led Zep 4Ever

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With practically the entirety of recorded music’s history available at the touch of a trackpad, it’s hard to find a lot of common ground among the masses. Back in the sepiatone days when I was in high school, there was certainly a cultural splintering effect afoot – some grooved to Hammer-time, others nodded angrily and forcefully to Nirvana, while still others begged C+C Music Factory to make them sweat upon a hormone-clogged dance floor – but there remained some sacred touchstones.

For whatever reason – and I pray a sociological study will one day uncover the mystery behind this collective madness – the girls in my high school were united under the secret thrill of ABBA. The boys, however discreetly some of them held back their own cravings for retro Swedish vocal-pop, united under an unwavering commitment to one of the greatest rock bands in ear-thumping history: Led Zeppelin.

Most of us had bands we liked more. For me, there was always the Beatles, while my other friends leaned toward Pink Floyd, Roxette or Extreme (yes, Josh, I’m talking about you). But we all sang along when Robert Plant belted out the first “Hey hey, mama” of their conspicuously untitled fourth album. Today Zep nets a kilograph, if for no other reason than as a thank you for the respite they provided after five straight listens of “More Than Words.”

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The group’s origin story funnels straight back to this guy, one of the most awe-inspiring yet least well-known (among today’s younger rock-lovers) guitar gods of the 1960’s. Jeff Beck had joined up with the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton had left the group in frustration. Now Jeff was feeling the pull of sweet freedom, and his frustration led him to record his own thing, away from the rest of the group. He invited his buddy (and future Yardbirdian) Jimmy Page to play guitar. Read more…

Day 902: The Guy Who Made Movies Sound So Damn Good

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If I were to venture west (okay, mostly south and just a little west) to stake my claim on a Hollywood career, I might end up as Channing Tatum’s body-double (or, more likely, Danny DeVito’s), or if I’m lucky, as Steven Spielberg’s on-set beard-groomer. Either way, I’d be looking at professions that have existed for decades – hardly anything original.

But when Jack Foley moved west to Los Angeles, he couldn’t have possibly foreseen the mark he’d have on the industry, especially since the industry as we know it didn’t technically exist yet. There were movies being made, but none containing the element for which Jack would come to be known: sound.

I think most people are aware by now of the existence of Foley artists – those inventive folks who stomp in gravel pits and slap cuts of steak in real-time in order to sprinkle our movies with legit-sounding effects. This sounds like a job that should be streaked with sepia, a faded relic from a time when Mothra destroyed model cities and spaceships still sported a thin line of fishing wire as they cruised through the stars. But despite the omnipresence of meddling computers, these guys still exist. And they still function behind the scenes as some of the most inventive and unheralded geniuses in the movie game.

And it’s all because of this guy:

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Jack grew up in Yorkville, New York, attending public school with James Cagney and Arthur Murray. He moved to California with his wife for the same reason most people did – the weather. He hooked up with the movie business for the same reason so many Californians did – it was the most exciting thing going at the time. Well, that and necessity. When the farmers of Bishop, California sold their farms to the City of Los Angeles for water rights, Jack helped to save his local economy by promoting the area as a sweet location for shooting westerns. Jack had his first film career: a location scout. Read more…

Day 886: When Whales Explode

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Human beings – and I’d specify the male of the species here, though I’m quite certain this amply bridges the gender gap – love to watch things explode. David Letterman helped to build his reputation by throwing stuff off a building and airing the ensuing splatter. TV shows on the Discovery Channel have existed for the sole purpose of blowing things up for our amusement. And deep down, we all know that we could never possess the internal discipline to walk bad-ass-like away from an explosion without looking back and applauding like a giddy tween in the presence of some douchey boy-band star.

Which is why it should come as no surprise to learn that when a beached whale carcass appeared on an Oregon beach one afternoon in 1970, the people in charge of its disposal embraced the dramatic. It became a media event, and it’s still a memorable slice of history today because it also became an absolute debacle.

The fact is, sometimes whales explode on their own, due to a build-up of gasses bloating out its insides. But it’s usually more fun when humans intervene and attempt to assert their dominance over nature via dynamite. We are a truly wondrous species.

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The sperm whale (that’s the one on the left) was a 45-foot, 8-ton beast. It drifted ashore in central Oregon, along the coast near the town of Florence. In 1970, beaches were inexplicably classified as state highways in Oregon, meaning the people in charge of the carcass’s removal were the same folks who helped to craft the Pacific Coast Highway – the Oregon Department of Transportation. The district engineer had disappeared on a hunting trip, so the responsibility for the body disposal fell upon the backup guy, George Thornton. Read more…