Sunday, March 29, 2015

The 'Chinese Democracy' of various things

One of the most-anticipated and least-listened-to albums in rock history

This is what 14 years did to Axl Rose.
Remember Chinese Democracy? In case you've forgotten, it was a semi-popular 2008 album by Guns N' Roses. Previous to Chinese Democracy, GNR had not released a full-length studio recording since 1993's "The Spaghetti Incident?," so anticipation was fairly high when the LP first debuted. It only reached #3 in America, but it went all the way to #1 in Argentina, Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Poland, Switzerland, and even Thailand. It got mostly favorable reviews domestically, and the title track was a mid-sized hit as well, reaching #34 on the charts. In the seven years since its release, however, this noteworthy collection has largely been neglected. This is rather remarkable because, previous to its release, Chinese Democracy was one of the most infamous and written-about albums in the history of rock. The hour-long LP was 14 years (!) in the making, and by the time it came out, lead singer Axl Rose was the only original Gunner left in the lineup. The other musicians had either been fired or quit in disgust. For years, rock magazines such as Rolling Stone dutifully reported all of the delays, missed deadlines, and outrageously mounting costs of the mysterious album, all of which were attributed to control freak Rose and his single-minded obsession with making Chinese Democracy absolutely perfect. Some writers even speculated that the album would never see legal release. Finally, in 2008, Axl Rose proved the doubters wrong. What Rose had not predicted, however, was the implosion of the music industry, the decline of albums in favor of singles, and the general shift in audience interest away from heavy metal and towards pop and hip-hop. He'd made his masterpiece, but the general public had already moved on. After nearly a decade and a half of rumors and false starts, Chinese Democracy debuted to widespread indifference. Besides, no real album could possibly hope to compete with such hype and publicity.

Clearly, however, writers have not totally forgotten about Chinese Democracy, because they still use it as a metaphor for anything whose release is delayed for years and years. Some examples:

So in a weird way, Chinese Democracy did achieve a sort of immortality -- not as a piece of music, but as a figure of speech. Does that count as a triumph?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

This song somehow failed to bring an end to society as we know it.

The Fast Food Rockers, moments before they were executed for treason by the state. 

There will always be a place in our society for completely mercenary "bubblegum" pop songs which are designed to grab the public's attention with the grim determination of a rabid terrier sinking its fangs into a mailman's leg. Seemingly idiotic and naive and therefore "harmless," this kind of music is actually quite cynical and calculated, driven largely by marketing and not by creativity. The goal of these songs, which usually employ some kind of moronic gimmick and have a fiendishly catchy sing-song chorus, is simple: garner tons and tons of airplay within a short span of time, try to parlay that notoriety that into some quick sales, then cash in and get the hell out of Dodge before people get too sick of you. (Such songs, however, inevitably overstay their welcome, which is why the artists behind them have such truncated careers.) In years past, these kinds of tunes thrived on the radio.That's where we first found "Disco Duck," "Pac Man Fever," and "Barbie Girl." Now, I guess, such ditties go directly to the Internet, e.g. "The Duck Song" and its sequels. (Note: for all I know, "The Duck Song" may be completely sincere. Forgive me if it is.) For a while, this field of entertainment was dominated by CGI animals, like Gummybear and Crazy Frog. By not being recognizably human, these animated creations made bubblegum pop even more obviously mechanical and impersonal. At least groups like Aqua and Rednex were made up of human beings ... sort of.

You might think America has a sweet tooth for this kind of pop music, and you'd be right, but this is one area in which we simply pale next to Europe. In England particularly, they just live and die for this crap. The British pop charts are like some weird lottery where athletes, flash-in-the-pan celebs, and cartoon characters have as good a shot at success as any pop singer. Hell, the Smurfs topped the charts over there! No foolin'! Anyway, I thought I'd draw your attention to a particularly egregious UK hit from 2003 which somehow failed to cross the pond and make it big in America. It's something called "The Fast Food Song" by the Fast Food Rockers. Seems legit. The melody apparently comes from a Moroccan folk song, because of course it does. The song went to #2 (how appropriate) on the UK charts and thereafter became a staple on the lists of "worst singles of all time." Listen and judge for yourself. I'd say that, if you were looking for a soundtrack to your type 2 diabetes, you've found it here.

P.S. Still reeling from this song? Here's the antidote:

The Clearblue commercial makes a great argument for mass sterilization

"Oh my god, I think I'm gonna cryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!"

In their infinite wisdom, the gods who run the Internet have decided that I must sit through the Clearblue Advanced pregnancy test commercial several dozen times each day. Why, Internet gods, why? What did I do to offend thee? Whenever I click on a video or article these days, I brace myself for that insipid music, that stilted acting, that dreary dialogue. What? By some miracle, you haven't seen this abomination? Okay, here it is. Keep in mind, I have now seen this commercial more times than I've seen all my favorite movies put together. I should have it memorized by now. These, then, are the sounds and images which now dominate my nightmares:

The "mandatory" version of the ad which preloads before YouTube videos and such is a little different than the one embedded above. It mercifully cuts down the dialogue by a few lines, for example, but adds an uncomfortably long, text-only, oppressively silent disclaimer at the end explaining that this particular pregnancy test is not meant to take the place of a visit to a real doctor and that, if you use it, your child has a 40% higher chance of being born with either more or fewer fingers than what is considered "normal." Either way, you get the basic plot here: two textbook "basic bitches" sit across a kitchen table, and one reveals to the other that she is two weeks pregnant, causing the other to squeal with delight. And how does the baby-mama-to-be know the number of weeks? With the Clearblue Advanced Pregnancy Test with Weeks Estimator, of course! It seems pretty benign, and it only lasts 15 seconds. So why do I hate this ad so much? Let me count some of those ways.
This ad's color scheme: taste the rainbow.

  • The music. I mentioned this before, but the background score is beyond wretched. There's no integrity to it whatsoever. I mean, just listen to it! It's this sappy, wussy, "la la la," frou frou frippery, the musical equivalent of low-fat yogurt with no fruit on the bottom. And I think part of the melody is swiped from the "Every kiss begins with Kay" jingle from Kay Jewelers. At least those ads have the decency to include Jane Seymour, a lady of character, rather than these two colorless ninnies. And speaking of color...
  • The overall production design. I know that Clearblue has "blue" in the name and that the company's business model is founded upon baby-making, but even so, the "baby blanket blue" color scheme in this ad is oppressive to my eyes. I mean, the clothes, the walls, the furnishings, and even the actresses' faces and arms have this pale, washed-out blue tint to them. This whole commercial looks like it got badly faded on laundry day. And, of course, the women in this world don't eat, so what do they do with their plates? Stick 'em on the wall, of course! Gah! What awful parallel universe is this? Because it certainly doesn't look like any place on Earth.
  • The acting. I can't decide whether the acting in this commercial is subtly brilliant or not-so-subtly terrible. If these women are supposed to be actual friends who really do care about one another, then the acting on display here sucks eggs. But, on the other hand, if the subtext here is that these women secretly hate each other and can barely disguise their contempt for one another, the acting is pretty good. Because that's what comes across when Not Pregnant Lady covers her face to deliver the commercial's big line: "Oh my god! I think I'm gonna criiiiii-yeeeee!" On the outside, she's pretending to smile. On the inside, she's screaming, "I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!" But I'm pretty sure these women are genuinely supposed to enjoy each other's company, so I'm going to say that the acting is lousy.
  • The women themselves. One of my favorite hobbies is making snap judgments about people based on just fleeting first impressions and very little actual evidence. So, of course, that's what I did with the women in this commercial. I've judged them and found them guilty on a number of charges. Specifically, I have decided that these two ladies are the poster children for "basic bitchery" in the social media era. Their lives revolve around yoga, North Face jackets, UGG boots, pumpkin spice, and their own smartphones. And what do they do to relax? Well, they sip overpriced coffee from giant white mugs in a hermetically-sealed kitchen and natter on about the joys of getting knocked up. 

So there you have it, folks. I think the evidence is all there. The Clearblue Advanced pregnancy test commercial is a flagrant and unmistakable violation of the Geneva Convention. Its cast and crew should be soundly horsewhipped for a period of no less than 15 consecutive hours. Thank you.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

So that's what it's like to get stuck in an elevator. Hmm.

Sorry, Butt-head, according to Archer, that won't work.

It happened to Archie Bunker. It happened to Beavis and Butt-head. A couple of weeks ago, it even happened to the gang on Archer. And today, my friends, it happened to me. After a lifetime of riding elevators without incident, I finally had the experience of getting stuck on one. Obviously, I got out alive and unharmed. I'm not blogging from inside an elevator car, in case you were wondering. My "ordeal" only lasted about half an hour -- perfect sitcom length -- and was not even that unpleasant. Disconcerting, sure, but not traumatizing. Anyway, here's what happened. (Note: I use the word "happened" advisedly. Like most of my "stories," this barely qualifies as a series of events.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Ed Wood Wednesdays salute to Gregory Walcott, Plan 9's super-square

Actor Gregory Walcott, who portrayed pilot Jeff Trent in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

"The producer, Reynolds, said Wood is going to use pretty good special effects. I thought that would be the salvation of the film. It looked like they shot the thing in a kitchen. I told my wife when I got home, 'Honey, this has got to be the worst film of all time.' Thirty years later, it's come back to haunt me."
-Gregory Walcott

"Greetings, my friends."

Clint Eastwood and Greg Walcott
Way back in 1957, the self-styled mystic Criswell used those familiar, homey words to welcome viewers to an absurd, no-budget, half-Gothic, half-science-fiction concoction with the unlikely title Plan 9 from Outer Space. A quarter-century hence, that motion picture was dubbed "the worst film of all time." Quite sadly, we lost one of the last-surviving cast members of that classic American film. Actor Gregory Walcott, who portrayed stalwart American Airlines pilot Jeff Trent ("I can't say a word! I'm muzzled by Army brass!"), passed away at the age of 87 on March 20, 2015. With a career which spanned over 40 years, the North Carolina-born Walcott had over a hundred film and television credits to his name. He worked repeatedly with Clint Eastwood in the 1970s on such manly movies as The Eiger Sanction, Joe Kidd, Every Which Way But Loose, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. He also appeared in such acclaimed, Oscar-winning films as Norma Rae and Mister Roberts. Steven Spielberg even used him in The Sugarland Express. On the small screen, Greg put in his time on everything from Little House on the Prairie to Murder, She Wrote. Yes, Walcott's resume is truly impressive, attesting to the actor's durability in Hollywood.

But what was in the headline of nearly every obituary? Plan 9 from Outer Space, of course. I'd like to think Gregory Walcott could have had a good chuckle at that. The obituary writers were sympathetic. The Independent called him "the blameless actor who couldn't shake off being a part of the worst movie ever." The Hollywood Reporter likewise called him "the reluctant star of Plan 9 from Outer Space." Unlike actress-turned-screenwriter Joanna Lee, who played the alien Tanna in Plan 9 and forever after denied having anything to do with the movie, Walcott eventually came to accept -- if not precisely embrace -- his weird quasi-fame from having appeared in the infamous motion picture. If nothing else, he was the consummate "good sport" about it, agreeing to be interviewed in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and appearing in The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr., Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The 'Plan 9' Companion, and even Tim Burton's Ed Wood, in which he portrayed a bemused potential backer who understandably gets cold feet about investing in Bride of the Monster. What else was he to do? People were going to keep asking about it. Might as well have some fun with it, right?

Eighty-seven years is a long time for anyone to live, and Gregory Walcott easily outlasted writer-director Ed Wood as well as just about everyone else associated with Plan 9 from Outer Space, both in front of and behind the camera. Nevertheless, his death means that yet another crucial link to the Wood-ian past has been severed irrevocably. How many Plan 9-ers are still around? Off the top of my head, I can think of only one: Conrad Brooks, who played a characteristically dim policeman. (His immortal pronouncement: "It's tough to find something when you don't know what you're looking for.") Almost everyone else? Long gone. Appropriately, death is a major motif throughout the film. Much of it takes place in a cemetery, after all, and funerals, crypts, tombstones, skeletons, and gravediggers all figure prominently into the plot. The film's ostensible "star," Bela Lugosi, had been in his grave for several years before Plan 9 ever reached audiences. Along with screen wife Mona McKinnon, Gregory Walcott represented the "life force" in Plan 9, the film's bastion of normality and vitality. And now, he, too, is gone from us. I, for one, will miss him. The actor's deeply sincere, profoundly humorless, and unmistakably Southern performance has become one of my favorite things about the movie. My short story, "The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls," is principally intended as a tribute to Walcott. Truth be told, I wanted to hear it read aloud in the actor's Carolina drawl. Guess I never will now.

Programming note: Against all odds, my computer has finally been returned to me in (basically) good working order, but heavy work commitments have prevented me from writing a full-length Ed Wood Wednesdays article this week. I have what I hope will be a darned interesting one in the works, though. Look for that next Wednesday.

P.S. - I'll leave you with a July 1998 episode of E! Entertainment Television's Mysteries and Scandals hosted by gossip columnist A. J. Benza and featuring Gregory Walcott and others, including Dolores Fuller, Vampira, and Paul Marco, reminiscing about Ed Wood.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Meanwhile, at a drive-in theater in Utah...

Charlton Heston airs out his armpits in The Ten Commandments.

Yesterday, the Twitter account Historical Images tweeted a rather remarkable -- and seasonally-appropriate -- image which caught my attention. It shows a drive-in movie theater at twilight. Above a blueish-looking sea of mid-20th-century automobiles looms a huge screen aglow with the image of Charlton Heston as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's biblical super-epic, The Ten Commandments (1956). The caption reads: "Charlton Heston, as Moses in the The Ten Commandments, on screen at a drive-in theater in Utah, 1958." I don't know if that's true or not; Twitter accounts of supposedly "historical" vintage photographs are notoriously inaccurate. I grew up well after the heyday of drive-in movie theaters, so I've only been to such an establishment once in my life. (For the record, I saw The Crow that way.) I know that they were controversial back in the 1950s, though, since they were considered (by frustrated prudes) to be hotbeds of teenage sexuality and juvenile delinquency. Some people even derisively called them "passion pits," because the horny adolescent customers were presumably having sex in the relative seclusion of their vehicles, totally ignoring the actual movies. So how odd to see a morally-upright film like The Ten Commandments playing in a drive-in. And in Utah, no less! This is the very epicenter of Mormonism and, by far, the most uptight of all the 50 states! It figures that this is what would be playing in a Utah drive-in in the '50s, rather than a cheesy horror or biker flick. Anyway, here's the pic:

The Ten Commandments plays to an attentive Mormon audience.

Pretty cool, right? But something seemed off about it to me. The image on the movie screen, of course, comes from the film's most famous scene: the parting of the Red Sea. But it doesn't look like Moses is getting great results at that particular drive-in theater in Utah. That "sea" of cars I described earlier doesn't seem to be parting one bit. What's the deal? Is God taking a snack break? If so, He's making His buddy Moses look like a real chump out there, like a comedian who's bombing. That didn't seem right. Moses can part a sea, but he can't clear a path through Mormon traffic? So I crudely "fixed" the image in Microsoft Paint. Here's that:

Now Moses can get to the snack bar unimpeded.

Ahhhh.... that's much better.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ed Wood Extra: The great Ed Wood auction of 2015 has ended

Ed Wood and Dolores Fuller in a still which will not be making its way into my collection.

Homer: Is this a happy ending or a sad ending? 
Marge: It's an ending. That's enough. 
-from The Simpsons, "Rosebud" (1993)

This bad boy? All mine, baby.
Well, that was certainly something other than else, wasn't it? RR Auction's sale of items related to Edward Davis Wood, Jr. has ended, after having garnered media coverage from, among others, ABC News, Rolling Stone, and the A.V. Club. Internet bidding concluded on Wednesday (how appropriate), and there was a surprisingly informal and chatty live auction today, which I followed remotely from my cubicle at work. I was not, alas, the winner of Lot #3026, a monogrammed leather briefcase and two suitcase-like trunks belonging to Ed Wood himself. This lot was especially enticing, as it also included a treasure trove of Eddie's personal papers, including production stills, publicity photos, and theatrical programs. I was in the running for this item until Tuesday, when the price jumped from about $4000 to $10,000. I had been told the final price could go as high as $30,000, so I bowed out. When all the bids were in, this collection of priceless Wood-iana went for a remarkably cheap $11,000. I won't lie, citizens. This one stung a bit. The memory of Lot #3026 will probably take up residence in the back of my brain for quite some time. The one that got away. The white whale. Damn. I was also not the winner of Lot #3027, which contained a script for Night of the Ghouls, a program for The Blackguard Returns, and actor Don Nagel's scrapbook. This, too, got out of hand on Tuesday. Way out of hand. I was prepared to pay a few hundred bucks, but this jumped up into the $4000 range, and I backed off quickly.

I wanted to get something out of the auction,  however, and I managed to do that. I bid on two smaller items for which I had some personal affection. One was a vintage one-sheet poster for Glen or Glenda? (1953) under the alternate title I Led 2 Lives: Based on the Lives of Christine Jorgensen. Another was a set of Mexican lobby cards for Plan 9 from Outer Space. I chose these two items for special reasons. Glenda, as I have stated many times on this blog, is my favorite of Eddie's films, so I wanted to have some memorabilia affiliated with it. And Plan 9, of course, is the movie which initially attracted me to Ed Wood's body of work. I chose the Mexican lobby cards because Spanish was my minor in college. Plus, the cards look pretty cool, as seen below:

Six of the eight lobby cards of which I am now the proud (?) owner.

So is this a happy ending to the Ed Wood auction or a sad one? Like Marge said, it's an ending. That's enough.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Strangers on a train... platform

"So... do you utilize public transportation around here often much?"

Can I tell you about my morning? Don't get your hopes up. The story I'm about to tell you would not even qualify as a story in most people's lives. It barely qualifies as one in mine, but it was something out of the ordinary which happened to me, and I wanted to write it down for posterity's sake. Okay? Here goes. Be forewarned: I'll probably tell you way more than you wanted to know... which I'll assume is nothing. You can skim the first few paragraphs if that helps.