Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Wise Up / Build Your Thighs Up

Because the immediately previous post is a long bastard, I figured I'd post something that I could actually get to the bottom of. A website called "A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia" recently engulfed me. Emerging from it all sticky and dazed, I present two bits I thought were cool.

First off, English has a pair of homonyms that share no etymological connection but refer to surprisingly similar objects: "psi" and "sai." The former, the twenty-third letter of the Greek alphabet, is probably most familiar as a variable representing wavefunction in quantum mechanics. It looks like this:

Greek_letter_psi

A little pitchfork-shaped object. Or a small trident. Or something.

The latter is a Japanese word that refers to the weapon Raphael had in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It looks basically like the thing above, only with sharper edges. I find this fascinating.

sai-almost-done

The second thing I think bears repeating is a small examination on the notion that no word rhymes with "orange." The author here thinks that the accuracy of that statement depends entirely on how you pronounce the word. According to him, all of the following could potentially rhyme with "orange," most of them providing that you put more emphasis on the last syllable than Americans probably would.
  • Blorenge (a hill in Wales)
  • sporange (only if mispronounced, he notes)
  • range, Stonehenge and derange (if pronounced by a native of Singapore)
  • citrange (which, it turns out, is a lot like an orange)
  • Solange (as in the given name, as in Beyonce's little sister)
And now I'm tired.

Le Cigare Volant

(A DISCLAIMER: I realize there's a certain degree of silliness in placing a disclaimer in front of a chunk of text that is already preceded by a disclaimer, yet I feel I need to explain myself a bit. While finishing up work at home tonight, I went to save a file in My Documents and found that a Microsoft Word file there bore the title “Le Cigare Volant.” Not knowing what this was — or, for that matter, what “Le Cigare Volant” meant, off the top of my head — I opened the file to find an essay, the thesis of which seems to be “That show ‘Frasier’ is really gay.” I have little recollection of writing this, though the save date places it sometime last summer. It sounds like me, I guess, but looking at the article I can’t even figure out if it’s completed or not. Uncertain what point I was trying to make, I can’t hazard a guess how to finish it. Thus, I’m posting it here, exactly as I found it. My best bet as to why these words exist on my computer is that I had an idea and was overcome with the compulsion to write it out, then possibly was distracted by a phone call or a particularly animated bird outside the window or something. I don’t know. In any case, here it is, twinned disclaimers and all.)
(A DISCLAIMER: I’m not responsible for the thoughts my brain produces. In fact, I cannot take credit for the words I’m typing now. What comes out of me — my verbal leakage — is no more my doing than any other kind of leakage. It just happens, mostly as a by-product of the environment I put my body in at whatever time. I’m saying this only because where I’m about to go is most likely the result of me having drank an entire bottle of wine last night, then chasing it with whiskey. Now, I don’t know why. I just did. The following, apparently, is what happens to my brain after you do that.)

As far as sitcoms go, “Frasier” is thought-provoking — and not just because its title character is a psychologist. At the most superficial level, “Frasier” stands out among sitcoms because unlike a lot of the shows that aired during its day, “Frasier” didn’t shoot for the lowest common denominator. I’m not just saying that because I think the show was consistently funny. It wasn’t. I didn’t even watch the last few seasons. What I mean in that statement is that “Frasier” often tried for chuckles instead of the guffaws other sitcoms try to illicit. A lot of the episodes involved content that probably didn’t interest the average American, who likely would have rather been watching “Home Improvement” when “Frasier” first started airing and “Everybody Loves Raymond” towards the end. In that sense, it’s actually appropriate that the show was set in Seattle — a fairly important American city, I suppose, but one renown for its quirks, what with the rain and the coffee and the former music scene and being stuck way up in the corner of the nation and all that. It was something like highbrow — not out-and-out highbrow, but maybe some sitcom writer’s idea of what highbrow should be like if it were crammed into the mold of a ratings-topper.

Then there’s also the fact that “Frasier” did what few other TV shows manage to do: It spun off of a successful series and eventually grew into a success in its own right. When “Cheers” introduced Kelsey Grammer’s character as a love interest for Shelley Long’s Diane, I don’t think viewers immediately foresaw that Frasier would be hanging around for twenty more years. For the same reasons that “Frasier” didn’t match up with a lot of other popular 90s sitcoms, the Frasier character stood out in that Boston bar as haughty and distinctively upper-class in room full of the middle-class. Nonetheless, Frasier endured, surviving even Shelley Long’s alleged attempts to write the character off “Cheers” when Diane began sharing too much of her screen-time him. The character began to grow into something of a wit and, once Diane left Frasier at the altar, a sad sack who had finally earned a spot next to Norm and Cliff at the bar.

When Frasier finally moved to Seattle, however, he lived in a world that revolved around him. Frasier in his home, with his father. Frasier at work on his radio show with his producer. Frasier at his favorite restaurant with his brother. But in creating this little world for the character, the show runners also managed to make some curious decisions in how the character was portrayed. Specifically, when it comes to “Frasier” and Frasier, there’s a lot of odd gay subtext that, for the most part, was never addressed in the show itself.

This subtext is present, in a way, during the character’s time on “Cheers” too. If you think about his introduction to the show, the writers clearly modeled him to be a response to Ted Danson’s character, Sam Malone, the suave, macho former baseball player who has scored with the majority of Boston’s female population. Frasier Crane is the opposite: he’s eloquent, smartly dressed, socialized for academia and wine-and-cheese parties and an intellectual champion rather than an athletic one. In short, Frasier seemed a little gay. He has to be, if he’s the answer to a womanizer like Danson’s character. I think Diane’s attraction to him was, in a way, a joke on how Diane is a romantically misguided dingbat. “She can’t be in love with this guy,” says the viewing public. “This Frasier guy is obviously a fruit.”

During his Seattle years, however, this vibe becomes stronger. I can remember watching a news show some years ago in which various pundits were discussing social issues and television shows. The conversation had turned to the sudden popularity of gay characters on shows — and, yes, this statement helps to date when this show would have aired, as gay characters have since proved more of a gamble than networks are willing to take. (Seriously, it’s surprising when you actually look at lists of it.) Anyway, the fact was stated that “Ellen” was the first show to have a gay lead character. Then in response, one of the more conservative pundits joked, “What about ‘Frasier’?” And everybody laughed, because when you think about it, there’s a lot about the show that would speak to gay experience.

Foremost, unlike most shows ever, there’s no sexual tension between Frasier and either of the two women in the main cast. Frasier’s brother Niles quickly decides that he likes Daphne the maid and chases awkwardly after her, but seeing as how Frasier never spoke a word about his attraction to Daphne until halfway through the show’s run, it seems plausible that Frasier could have made the first move, especially since Daphne lives at Frasier’s apartment. (Meanwhile, the actor who plays Niles, David Hyde Pierce, is allegedly gay, though apparently not openly. But my friend took photos and some gay-interest fundraiser at his house a while back. I’m told he is gay and has a boyfriend. At least that's what I heard, anyway.)

Then there’s Roz, Frasier’s producer at the radio station. Like Frasier, she’s single and approaching middle-aged status. They spend hours working in a fairly confined space together. She’s smart. She’s pretty. And yet somehow the show never bothered to develop any romance between the two characters. Very odd, when you think about it.

And then there’s the matter of Frasier’s relationship with his father. In the “Frasier” pilot, viewers quickly learn that Frasier takes after his late mother, Hester, and not his father, Martin, a grizzled ex-cop who prefers football and beer to opera and wine. In truth, the living situation would have probably worked a lot better if Martin had cohabitated with Sam Malone instead of Frasier. Even though Fraiser and Martin live together throughout the series run, they clearly reside in two different worlds. It seems difficult for Martin to understand what compels Frasier to partake in his interests. To him, Frasier’s life is full of decadence and unnecessary fanciness and intellectual smarminess. To him, his son literally leads an alternative lifestyle, whether or not sexuality has anything to do with the great divide between them.

Maybe the oddest part about gay subtext on “Frasier” is the character of Gil Chesterton, the effete food critic at the radio station Frasier and Roz work at. Compared to Sam Malone, Frasier might seem as gay as springtime. But compared to Gil, Frasier seems like a Roman gladiator, who drives a lifted truck, often while fathering babies by several women. It stands to reason that Frasier’s relative masculinity compared to Gil would be the very reason Gil’s character was ever written onto the show: in order to make Frasier seem like more of the central male leading man character that a show starring a man usually revolves around. Even “Will & Grace” — a show in which the two male leads both play gay men — centers on the less flamboyant title character.

That I know of, the subject of Gil’s sexuality only comes up once in the series. Casual conversation brings his co-workers to discuss the notion of who Gil goes home to at night and everyone hesitantly tosses around some gender neutral pronouns until Gil, offended, blurts out that he’s been married to years to a lovely woman who is also a skilled auto mechanic. Gil stomps out and another character remarks that his declaration of heterosexuality was the only time they had ever seen anybody “in” themselves. It’s a throwaway joke and the subject isn’t brought up again for the rest of the episode, but I think it’s interesting that Gil’s co-workers remark on the same kind of implication that a real person employing the same kind of stereotype might make having sat down at watched the show without having seen it before. What especially gets me about the way Frasier’s workplace character interact is that Gil himself is counterbalanced by the presence of Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe, the macho, loudmouthed sportscaster character whose radio show often follows Frasier’s. Dan Butler, the actor who played Bulldog, is gay.

Not that any of this adds up to anything, really, except maybe that there’s at least a lot of gay-seeming stuff on “Frasier,” if very little explicitly stated gay stuff. It all strikes me as very odd, not just because it brings up some interesting ideas about how Americans view gay people — the show was, after all, pretty popular for a long time and conceivably watched by people of different walks of life — but also how people who write TV go about creating a character and then changing it and contrasting it against other characters to make sure that people watching the show respond in the way the creators want them to.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Jam," Not "Cram"

The mystery of the best insult ever has been solved. Last night, Spencer and I were watching "Futurama" — specifically the one in which the unfrozen guy from the 80s stages a hostile takeover of Planet Express — and the occasional villain character Mom showed up. Mom is a fairly hostile person who verbally abuses everyone, particularly her three sons, to whom in this episode she barks the command "Jam a bastard in it, you crap." The insult is apparently famous enough that it even shows up in the Wikipedia entry for her. I quote:
She sometimes appears to throw curse words in at random, such as "Jam a bastard in it, you crap!" and refers to her fatsuit as "that bastard."
Thus, whoever wrote the insult clearly has a better working knowledge of "Futurama" than I do, though still not apparently thorough enough to get the line exactly right. (For the record, I think "you stupid crap" works a lot better than just "you crap.") While watching the episode last night, I was about to laugh at a throwaway line in which Mom refers to the Planet Express crew as "turtle squirts" when she immediately followed with what has quickly become my favorite line ever.

Later that night, Nate posted a comment to solve the mystery before I got around to it.
Lets be honest. I'm not that funny to make a up a line like that. But whoever anonymous was wasn't all that funny either. Its a line from Futurama. The episode with the 80's guy. Mom says it to one of her boys.
Now we know.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Best Insult Ever

"Cram a bastard in it, you stupid crap."

This is the insult some anonymous commenter wrote on the post about spices and flavors. I read it last night and could not stop laughing. It's the single most nonsensical yet utterly effective insult I've heard in years. It seems like whoever said it just plugged in mildly offensive word nouns into a sentence someone else wrote, Mad Libs-style. The result, in my opinion, works well. I can honestly say I don't think I've ever been called "a stupid crap" before.

Compliments aside, I'm a little confused as to exactly who that comment was referring to. I assume me. It's my blog, and most people who write things like that generally direct them at me. (Or, a few times, at Jill, but only because they believed tings I made up about her.) In the chain of comments on this post, however, Mr. Cram-a-Bastard could just as easily been referring to Nate, Stevi, Sanam or Bri, who written comments beforehand. I'm feeling that the likely target for the insult was atcually Bri, since her comments regard the return of "Veronica Mars" to TV and not food or spice and this talking out of turn irked another reader to the point where he or she demanded that she find a bastard baby and lodge into something — at best, her mouth — and that she was a stupid crap. But maybe that's just my ego, and I'm the stupid crap.

Oh, let's be honest — it was Nate.

Again, that was "Cram a bastard in it, you stupid crap."

EDIT 1.29.2007: Nate solved the mystery.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Some Kind of Audio-Vibratory Physio-Molecular Transport Device

What would appear to be the hotel that cameos in my now-dated Flash animation ditty, "The Freaky Tiki," is apparently going to be torn down.

New York City's Pennsylvania Hotel looks like it could very well be the hotel that I Photoshopped out from an old postcard for inclusion in the project. Built in 1919, the hotel was immortalized by Glen Miller apparently, whose song "Pennsylvania 6-5000" is a reference to the hotel's old phone number, 736-5000. Here's an old postcard of the Pennsylvania Hotel, looking basically benign but for some reason framed in the background by menacing-looking lightning bolts.


In "The Freaky Tiki," the hotel is home to a demonic little thing with glowing eyes who seems to be causing all the strange, bad things in the world. Or something. I forget what I was going for with that. For those who have a few minutes on their hands, watch the video, which the lovely Dr. Sorapure has permanently posted on her site.

EDIT 1.21.2007: On second thought, I don't think it's the same hotel. Oh well.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Robe, the Ashtray and the Coffee Cup

I’ve been reading Catching the Big Fish, this new book by David Lynch that consists of a few dozen short passages — not unlike what you might read on a blog — that discuss his thoughts on filmmaking, art and transcendental meditation. Believe me, the way he explains it, the three are entirely related. I love it, as it gives me insight into a guy who I regard as one of the most talented and creative people alive today. Lynch also rarely discusses his work in any depth. In fact, his reluctance to include director commentaries on the DVD releases of any of his films is one of the many subject that merits its own passage.

The passage titled “Mulholland Drive” involves pre-production of the film of the sane name. The passage concludes with “I went into meditation, and somewhere about ten minutes in, ssssst! There it was. Like a string of pearls, the ideas came. And they affected the beginning, the middle, and the end. I felt very blessed. But that’s the only time it’s happened during meditation.

Even more tantalizingly, the immediately following chapter, “The Box and The Key,” would also seem to relate to the events in “Mulholland Drive.” The weird blue box and the correspondingly weird blue key make for one of the central mysteries in the film and in the discussions that should rightly follow any screening of the film.

Of them, David Lynch writes the following: “I don’t have a clue what those are.”

That’s it. That’s the entire passage. God, I love David Lynch.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Not-Quite World Warrior

Geek break.

For those who are unfamiliar with video games and never had attended a pizza parlor birthday party in their formative years, the name "Street Fighter II" may sound unfamiliar. This game, a staple of every video arcade ever, was huge in the 90s, so much so that it continued in popularity — that is, various manifestations of the original game, and not prequels or sequels or spin-offs — until 1996 or so. That's a lot of quarters to be fed.

street_fighter_II_logo

In short, Street Fighter II is generally credited with popularizing the once-ubiquitous fighting game genre. That's the one where two people — usually with both with silly hair and both representing a nation, lifestyle or subculture — kick the living shit out of each other until one keels over the other travels to a new locale to start the process over again. This idea was copied again and again, by countless other series, but it was Street Fighter II that did it right first. (Also, I can't help chuckle at the inherent admission that by virtue of Street Fighter II reinventing the wheel, Street Fighter I must have sucked balls. In truth, I've never even met anyone who has played it.)

That's basically the plot of Street Fighter II, really, though the eight characters who were initially selectable had their own reasons for joining the globe-spanning competition. It's the four boss characters that this post concerns, however. The fact that three of them swapped names between the release of the game in Japan and its translation into English is fairly well known among the now-adults who loved the game as kids, but I realized yesterday that I had never read an explanation of why the name-swamp was necessary or a discussion of the fact that the names worked better having been switched. In any case, that's what this post will be about: the small bit of cultural difference that I'd imagine most people don't notice.

So if you're playing Street Fighter II and your selected character sufficiently pummels the other seven, he or she advances to the four bosses. The first is a boxer, Balrog, whose Las Vegas stage marks the third American setting the game offers. (And while I'm there, is it strange at all that a Japanese -produced game about an international group of martial artists should include three American characters and only two Japanese ones?) Balrog likes to hit things.

And he looks a like an angry Tracy Morgan. Since Balrog is a well-muscled guy whose only apparent mode of social interaction is clobbering people, his name makes sense. The word "Balrog" originated in Lord of the Rings as the name of the behemoth monster that didn't kill the Hobbits when I hoped it would. In the original, Japanese version of Street Fighter II, however, "Balrog" was the name of a different boss. In Japan, this boxer is known as "M. Bison" and is meant to parody that other African-American whirlwind of fists and teeth, Mike Tyson.

The common story for this name switch is that those translating the game worried that Tyson would take offense to the joke — and really, who can blame them? — though I'd imagine that another factor came into play here. Namely, Mike Tyson had become the star of the Nintendo boxing game franchise, Punch-Out!!, a 1987 installment of which was titled Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! So for all I know, Nintendo may have actually owned the copyrights to the use of Mike Tyson or any Mike Tyson-like character in a video game.

To complicate the matters further, "Balrog" is a tricky name to pronounce for someone who speaks Japanese. The whole confusion with "r" and "l" means that the middle of Balrog's name can easily get slurred into one non-consonant. In fact, the name proved so problematic that later upgrades to the original Street Fighter II engine actually included voice samples from an in-game announcer that pronounced it "Barlog."

Got it?

The second boss, Vega, requires a bit of explanation even when one isn't discussing his name problems. He's from Spain. That only explains a small part why he's a mess.

vega_street_fighter_II

First off, this character's stage gave my childhood brain the notion that Spanish people have cage fights a lot. Secondly, I actually had to look this character up to remember why he looks like an escaped mental patient. According to his entry on the Wikipedia, Vega is a matador whose narcissism prompts him to fight with a mask. (One would also imagine that a person so concerned about his appearance wouldn't take up fighting with the fiercest martial artists in the world, however.) And the stupid claw? That just seems unfair.

In the original Japanese version, however, Vega's name is "Balrog." This strikes me as odd, given the associations Lord of the Rings readers and other assorted dorks would have with the word. The Wikipedia article supposes that the original name is intentionally ironic. Like in the case of the previous boss, the American name seems to make more sense, since vega is actually a Spanish word — and a fairly common surname in Spanish-speaking countries.

Next we have Sagat.

sagat_street_fighter_II

He's from Thailand. He fights in front of what I believe is a real landmark. Other than the fact that his name is doubly funny, he's not too important to this discussion, as his name remained the same in all versions of the game.

That leaves us with the Big Bad.

bison_street_fighter_II

That's right — four men. Street Fighter II came out before the days of equal-opportunity street fighting, when the game featured only one female character, who had to be pretty, skinny, proficient at kicking, generally good, and notably feminine.

A cheerful and laid-back fellow, M. Bison is the villain seen depicted above as he kicks a vomiting sumo wrestler. Since he's wearing what looks like a military uniform, I always assumed the "M" initial stood for "Major" or something, even though I must have known how that title is correctly abbreviated. In the Japanese version of the game, however, this character has the name "Vega," for no reason I can understand. Apparently by virtue of giving the boxer the clobberific name and the matador the Spanish name, the grimacing man in the hat became "M. Bison" in America.

In the process of writing this, it occurred to me that Capcom, the company that developed Street Fighter II, could have easily avoided the problem of having three characters trade names in the two different markets they'd be pushing the game by having renamed the boxer character something else — "Leonard" or "Priscillla" or "Captain Fists" or whatever. Why would they bother to move the names around how they did and, in doing so, saddle the game's main villain with a name that references a slow and decidedly un-fearsome American grazing animal?

Then it occurred to me: In the same way the game's announcer voice had marred the pronunciation of "Balrog" in a way that Japanese ears wouldn't detect but American ears did, the person who provided that voice was probably unavailable to re-record any samples for names that would better fit audiences outside Japan. The digits bits that said "Vega wins" and "M. Bison wins" already existed, and Capcom of America had to make do with what they had.

So there — this needlessly confusing difference between the Japanese and American versions of Street Fighter II arose, I'd wager, solely from the technical limitations of the medium. Well, that and the threat of a beating from a man whose fists are registered lethal weapons. This difference ub how two different cultures approach the same bit of popular culture amuses me — not only because the two sides could easily not realize that they've been given a slightly different than the other got, but also because the change happens for a reason.

Thus ends my geek break. And you thought that this was purely a video game-related geek break.