Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fifty Fun Trends for Spring 2015

Jump on at least one bandwagon!
  1. Shoes that fit weird
  2. Temporarily Jewish
  3. Ride a sheep to work
  4. Die on a wharf
  5. Tomahawks
  6. Narrate your every action
  7. Skip the coffee maker; just eat the coffee grounds!
  8. Jean Smart
  9. Gene Smart (the post-op Jean Smart!)
  10. False concern
  11. Housecats with intact testicles
  12. Feathering your pubis
  13. Regional insults
  14. Cypress trees
  15. Genuflecting
  16. Shitbagging Daenerys during Game of Thrones screenings
  17. Leering
  18. Self-racism
  19. Sneeze unapologetically
  20. Elective surgery for steel cranial plates
  21. Wasting food
  22. Talk like Sofia Vergara until your friends stage an intervention
  23. Inexplicable shaving
  24. Ranking the Koopa Kids
  25. Bubbles
  26. Constant cigars
  27. Trap doors
  28. Union suits
  29. Attendant ravens at dress-up parties
  30. American girls named Gemma
  31. Transcending the shitty birthstones you were stuck with
  32. Pedantry
  33. Zangief
  34. Whale noises
  35. That one episode of Full House where Stephanie forgets how to dance to "Motown Philly"
  36. Anti-abs
  37. Euro-mullets
  38. Smudged spectacles
  39. Power skipping
  40. "Mediterranean" gesticulations
  41. Ambiguous texts
  42. Pouting
  43. Sample scented markers to see if they taste how the smell
  44. Hats on dogs (they'll be all, "WHY AM I WEARING A HAT")
  45. Partial extremes
  46. The obvious homosexuality of Monterey Jack from Rescue Rangers
  47. Threatening messages on fogged-up bathroom mirrors
  48. The Manx Triskelion
  49. Cutting remarks directed at lesser college acquaintances
  50. Facial asymmetry

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Lonely Overworld

I spent most of yesterday humming a song from a video game I haven’t played in years. It’s the music that plays in Final Fantasy VI when you’re in the overworld — that is, the larger map that you travel around in to get to towns, dungeons and other locations. And it wasn’t until I’d mentally played and re-played the song yesterday that I realized it bears a passing resemblance to “The Lonely Shepherd,” the Zamfir song that plays at the end of Kill Bill: Vol. One.

I hear it, anyway.

The Final Fantasy song also happens to be the theme song of Terra, the game’s main character during the first half, which seems strange to me since there’s a more appropriately morose, contemplative version of song that plays during her scenes. In the second half of the game, Terra becomes more of a supporting character, and the lead character more or less is the game’s other female lead, Celes. (Terra? Celes? Terrestrial and celestial? There’s symmetry here, my English major brain tells me.) The overworld theme in this half starts out downright mournful, to the point that you’d sometimes just want to get the hell off the map screen to escape it. But there’s a pop song that reminds me of even this track: “In the Forest,” from The Coral’s 2003 album Magic and Medicine.

This seems relevant at the time.

Video game music, previously:

Monday, April 13, 2015

How Madonna Debuted Dick Tracy With an All-Male Kickline

It is weird, I think, to not have strong feelings about Madonna. She’s been a major pop cultural presence since I’ve known what pop culture was and she seems custom-designed to elicit reactions, but I don’t feel especially strongly about her. Most people either love or hate her, and all of those lovers and haters would like nothing better than to discuss those feelings at length. I take a pass on that. Play a track from She’s So Unusual, and I’ll have a profound emotional reaction. Play a Madonna song from the same period, and I’ll say, “Oh, this Madonna. She is an Italian-American singer, 1979-present.”

I had to write about her this weekend, however, because her Blond Ambition World Tour kicked off twenty-five years ago today. Not knowing a single thing about it, I had to do some research and even scheduled a sit-down with a friend who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Madonna’s career. Today, at the very least, I can say with certainty that I know a hell of a lot more about Madonna in her prime.

From my nerd perspective, the most interesting thing I learned has to do with Madonna’s role as Breathless Mahoney in the 1990 film version of Dick Tracy. Madonna incorporated elements of the film and her album I’m Breathless into the Blond Ambition tour. But while the tour opened on April 13, 1990, the movie Dick Tract didn’t hit theaters until June 15, when Madonna had already performed all but seven of her U.S. stops. Consequently, a good number of American fans got their first glimpse of the re-envisioned Dick Tracy at the tour.

That was great marketing for the film, of course, but it also meant that the first glimpse of Dick Tracy was unusual, sexy and overtly gay — in short, pretty on-target for Madonna.

Here is Madonna’s performance of the song “Now I’m Following You.” It features her first dancing — and lip-syncing — with a Dick Tracy dancer, yellow coat and all. (No, it is not Warren Beatty, the star of Dick Tracy and Madonna’s boyfriend at the time.) Around the five minute-mark, Madonna strips her Dick and then is joined by six more Dicks. They take the main stage in a choreographed dance, and around the six minute-mark, the Dicks pair off and dance together, pausing only to form a chorus line that kicks high enough to show that yes, they are wearing shorts beneath those tench coats.

I’m sure the implications of a Dick-on-Dick live show weren’t lost on Madonna or most of her fans.

Considering that Dick Tracy was a big-budget summer release with a PG-13 rating, surprised me that Disney would have permitted an eroticized take on the main character. Then it occurred to me that Madonna in 1990 was wielding the fullest-ever command of her Madonna-ish powers and could basically get away with anything. She maybe didn’t even ask permission to feature a gay Dick Tracy chorus line. She’s Madonna, after all.

Either way, Dick Tracy ended up making more than $100 million, so it seems unlikely that Madonna’s method of promotion hurt the film’s box office.

Oh, 1990, you were weird.

Side note: Is it odd if Madonna, blond sexbomb, inserted into a noir universe kind of makes me think of Harley Quinn?

Pop culture, previously:

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Upon Having Relatives Visit L.A. for the First Time

No, we shouldn’t eat at The Ivy.

No, I don’t have reason to come to Rodeo Drive ever.

No, I don’t know where Kim Kardashian is.

No, downtown Los Angeles is actually in a completely different part of town.

No, I can’t direct you to where all the celebrities hang out.

No, it’s not just one place.

No, they probably wouldn’t let me in if there were such a place.

No, the traffic isn’t that problematic for me.

No, I can’t just pop over in ten minutes, however.

No, I can’t direct you to somewhere nice that’s along the Walk of Fame.

No, I can’t tell you where Jennifer Aniston's star is.

No, you can’t sit in the Hollywood Sign letters.

No, you just saw that in a movie.

No, I haven’t seen Friends With Benefits. I just saw the trailer.

No, the neighborhood I live in probably hasn’t been featured in movies or TV shows you’d be familiar with.

No, I guess you wouldn’t have heard of the famous people I do see in and around LA.

No, I’ve never bought a star map.

No, I’ve never even thought about it.

No, Venice is not accessible by car from my side of L.A.

No, really — driving to Venice is actually forbidden by law here. The penalty is having to spend time in Venice.

Yes, I actually have gone to Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant once, but I didn't really have a choice about it.

Yes, I actually do love living in Los Angeles.

Yes, in spite of all that.

Yes, actually, I'm glad you came, because this really helped define what about this city matters to me most.

No, that probably just looks like Kristen Bell. There's a lot of women around here who — oh, shit, that is Kristen Bell. Well, there you go.

(an un-famous view of los angeles)

Los Angeles, previously:

Friday, April 10, 2015

That Time Tiny Toons Made a Domestic Violence Joke

Sometimes you wake up and suddenly remember a single gag in a cartoon you haven’t watched for twenty-five years.

The Tiny Toons version of Tweety Bird is Sweetie Pie, a smug, pink little thing that is thoroughly unpleasant. There’s this one short, “Eating Between the Lines,” that’s solely about her efforts to eat Bookworm, a sort of non-speaking non-character that is a worm who likes books. It plays like a typical Wile E. Coyote short, with Sweetie trying repeatedly to catch Bookworm and then getting injured, but there’s this one gag that happens in which Bookwork drops a book on Sweetie. After she gets smashed on the head, you see that the title of the book is The Mike Tyson Story, and Sweetie says “Now I know how Robin Givens feels.”

No, really.

Looney Tunes, Tiny Toons and a lot of other cartoons throw in little winks to adults who may be watching — the character of Shirley the Loon is at least conceptually a joke about Shirley MacLaine, and that is also a weird thing to include in a children’s show — but is it surprising that people thought this joke was okay? I mean, it’s not that funny, for one. And Givens alleged Mike Tyson abused her in 1988, so the joke wasn’t even all that timely. It just seems like the kind of thing to which a censor would respond with, “Yeah, maybe we don’t need this joke about the lady who got beat up by her killing machine of a husband?”

My take-away on this, I guess, is that 1990 was a very different place than 2015 is, in that if a kids’ show made a similar joke — say, with Rihanna and Chris Brown in place of Givens and Tyson — the internet would be instantly in a state of outrage about it. Twenty-five years ago, you could get away with more when you thought that no one was looking, or at least no one had a means to instantly, publicly tell the world that they were offended.

Sweetie’s voice may sound familiar if you watched Dexter’s Lab. It was provided by Candi Milo, who was the second actress to voice Dexter, and you can hear a little bit of Dexter in the way Milo voices Sweetie.

When cartoons were weird, previously:

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Parrot Story

A few Christmases ago, I spilled bouillabaisse on the one warm jacket I owned. I was doing New Year’s Eve in San Francisco that year, so was at my parents’ house and had to take the jacket to the cleaners in my hometown. I went to pick it up the morning of January 31, and when I handed the clerk my ticket, he returned with a woman’s jacket with a parrot embroidered on the back.

Allow me to elaborate.

If Dorothy Zbornak had a louche sister who frequented seedy Las Vegas bars, this would have been her trademark garment. I’m not even sure what to call it. It kind of looked like a bathrobe or smoking jacket, but the fact that it the embroidered thread sparkled made me think this was a piece of clothing that its owner would wear out, for the world to see and admire. It was also huge. It would have been too big for me to wear, in every possible sense. I imagine the owner took it to the cleaners because it had rosé stains or maybe kahlúa stains. Whatever booze had been soaked into this thing, its name had an accent mark in its name, for sure.

I searched the internet to try and find an example of this garment but found none. I imagine it was a one-of-a-kind. But here is something that approximates the parrot, at least. Just imagine it bigger and sparklier, and then make it even bigger and sparklier yet and you’re partway there.

via ebay

“That’s not mine,” I told the clerk.

He insisted that it was because it matched the number on my ticket.

“But that is a woman’s jacket. And also  I don’t think it would fit me.”

He seemed unwilling to factor in this evidence. To him, this was the jacket I was leaving with. I described my actual jacket at length — black, for a man, not having a parrot on the back — and he left again to see if he could find it. And there I stood, staring at this hideous, marvelous thing and wondering what kind of person would not only own it but want it to get cleaned for future use.

Then the door jingled. Then I heard a booming voice that kind of sounded like Ursula the Sea Witch’s. (I have styled her dialogue to suggest how she spoke it.)

WELL, I supPOSE that they KNEW that I was on my way OVER!

There stood the only woman who could own the parrot jacket. She was taller than I was. She wasn’t fat, but she was huge — a commanding physical presence. She had hands that looked like they could palm a basketball or my head. She looked like the kind of woman who addressed everyone as “darling.” She was wearing a blouse that had all the flowers on it.

“Is that your jacket?” I asked.

WELL, YES. They MUST have had a INKLING that I was COMING.”

I agreed that that must be the case. At this point she was leaning on the counter like she was waiting to order a drink.

I’M throwing a PARTY tonight,” she said, though that was probably the case more often than not. Did I mention that all her sentences ended in a chuckle? They did. Throaty laughter was her punctuation, and life, clearly, was this woman’s party.

The clerk came out with my jacket, which now seemed plain and sad compared to the parrot jacket and the woman who owned it. I had somewhere else to be, so I wished them both a happy new year. The woman responded with an “mmm” noise that I think meant to return my wish or at least agree that she would, in fact, have a good year. (How could she not?)

I never saw her again.

Now, my hometown isn’t exactly a village, but it’s still small enough that a person like that wouldn’t go unnoticed. People don’t just wear sparkly embroidered parrot jackets where I come from. So when I got home I asked my mom if she knew of a giant woman who acts like she’s always auditioning for Auntie Mame. “No.” my mother answered. “Why would you ask that?”

“No reason.” I realized it was an oddly specific question.

Previous stories about me that I allege are funny:

Saturday, April 04, 2015

How Empire Proposes a Universe Without Courtney Love

I realize everyone else and their mom has already finished Empire — and that’s not just a figure of speech, because I know a few people who have discussed the show at length with their mothers. But I just finished it last week, and it occurs to me that Empire is a rather covert example of speculative fiction. It’s just that the show’s implicit “what if?” is “What if Courtney Love didn’t exist?”

There is this theory about movies that states that any movie starring, say, Tom Hanks exists a universe where there is no famous actor named Tom Hanks or who looks like Tom Hanks, because if Tom Hanks the actor existed in, say, the universe of Cast Away, then every minor character would be going up to the main character in that movie and asking, “Hey, has anyone ever told you you look exactly like Tom Hanks?” to the point that it would inhibit the plot of the movie. This 2010 blog post introduced me to the idea, and TV Tropes has an extensive list of of works that reference this Celebrity Paradox, including that awful scene in Ocean’s 12 in which Julia Roberts’ character tries to pass herself off as Julia Roberts.

The matter gets complicated considerably when the fictional universe in question revolves around celebrities and all the more so when those celebrities happen to be a mix of real-life ones and fictional ones invented for the show.

Like Empire.

Most of the celebrity characters featured on the show are fictional characters. However, some of them are played by people who are famous in our universe for being singers or musicians. Courtney Love, for example, plays Elle Dallas, a sort of Stevie Nicks by way of Madonna.

elle dallas courtney love empire

But the implication of this character existing on Empire is that Courtney Love probably doesn’t, but when you get into that, things get complicated. If Courtney Love doesn’t exist, does Nirvana? Does the Empire take on Nirvana go down a different route? Could they still be together? And who starred opposite Woody Harrelson in The People vs. Larry Flynt? I mean, If Hole never released a song called “Jennifer’s Body,” then what did Diablo Cody call her movie? Or did that movie just not happen over there? Good for them if so.

Jennifer Hudson also appears on the show playing a fictional character, so it’s presumable that in the Empire-verse, a woman named Jennifer Hudson probably didn’t rise to fame as a result of competing on American Idol. And Jennifer Hudson therefore probably didn’t perform at this 2009 tribute to Patti LaBelle, who played herself on the show.

The singer Estelle also plays a fictional singer on the show, and I’m probably the only one who’s wondering who is consequently voicing Garnet on Steven Universe, should it exist in the Empire-verse. (And why shouldn’t it?)

Of course, there’s some higher-ups who will probably say, “Yeah, it doesn’t matter,” when it comes down to the decision to nix a line or guest appearance just because it would seem to question the universe of the show. After all, 30 Rock created a fairly consistent alternate universe version of NBC in which Saturday NIght LIve didn’t exist, but it still featured Jimmy Fallon as the host of the The Late Show, even if he wouldn’t have had a reason to have become famous without SNL.

(Never forget the reality-bending implications of Jenna Maroney’s performance of “Fart So Loud.”)

Even The Comback threw off a reference to Matt LeBlanc, even if the Comeback-verse version of Friends probably didn’t star Lisa Kudrow. Maybe that Kudrow never went into acting, maybe never stopped using her science degree to study headaches. Maybe someone else played Phoebe. But then what of the episodes involving Ursula from Mad About You? It’s a headache that Dr. Kudrow could probably give medical advice about, if only she existed in this universe.

Raven-Symoné also appeared on Empire, so you have to wonder if someone else played late-in-the-series moppet Olivia on The Cosby Show. Then again, the character she played on Empire was also named Olivia, and one of the most significant things her character did on the show was to introduce a surprise moppet to the show’s central family. It could be a coincidence. It could be a knowing wink. Either way, it’s fun to think about how casting an actor to play a minor character on this kind of show can speak volumes about the world in which the show takes place.

Monday, March 30, 2015

On Retro-Futuristic Clamshell Phones

Read any think piece on It Folows and you will hear about the importance of Yara’s clamshell e-reader phone. It’s the mystery device on which she’s reading The Idiot throughout the film, and director David Robert Mitchell specifically created it so that a real smartphone didn’t immediately date the film.

As he explains in an interview with The A.V. Club:
That e-reader cell phone — or “shell phone” — you’re talking about is not a real device. It’s a ’60s shell compact that we turned into a cell phone e-reader. So I wanted modern things, but if you show a specific smartphone now, it dates it. It’s too real for the movie. It would bother me anyway. So we made one up. And all of that is really just to create the effect of a dream — to place it outside of time, and to make people wonder about where they are.
It seemed vaguely familiar to me, and I think that’s the point, but I couldn’t place exactly why such a device would seem familiar until this weekend, when I realized there’s a precedent for a retro-futuristic clamshell phone.

April O’Neli uses one in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Not that it’s intentional, necessarily, but if we’re having a conversation about retro-futuristic clamshell phones…