Saturday, October 3, 2015

The man who put the 'stardust' in 'Ziggy Stardust'

The Ledge appears to have overdone it at the tanning salon in this illustration.

Norman Carl Odam. Sounds like the name of a presidential assassin, doesn't it? But Norman, he never assassinated anything other than a song. Born September 5, 1947 in Lubbock, Texas, hometown of Buddy Holly. Known professionally as the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. The Ledge, they've called him. As in something you jump off of. Made -- and still makes, I guess -- some of the craziest damned music you ever heard. Savage. Unhinged. Primal scream stuff, Texas style. Some call it "psychobilly." Others call it "junk" -- or worse. Appeared on Laugh-In once, dressed like something out of a Wild West show and screaming his fool head off. Scared the shit out of 'em. Bowie was a fan. Where do you think Ziggy Stardust got his last name? He and the Ledge covered each other's songs. Norman's lone hit, "Paralyzed" from 1968, was released by Mercury Records and actually scraped the undercarriage of the Billboard charts. Some have called it the worst record ever made. Maybe after listening to it -- or as much of it as you can stand -- you'll agree. What is this fascination of mine with things dubbed "the worst?" The Ledge's story is one of those weird little corners of showbiz I love. His "fifteen minutes of fame" were interrupted by, of all things, a musicians' strike. Some would say Norman was more of a demolitions expert than a musician. Anyway, here's "Paralyzed." You were warned. Dig the label. It took three people to produce this. Ah, the Sixties.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Aaaaaaaand it's another 'Marvin' parody, but first a WARNING!

"Attention, Ladies and Gentlemen." Artwork by Joe Blevins.

Attention, ladies and gentlemen. We are about to show you yet another parody of Tom Armstrong's long-running comic strip, Marvin. Although we have brought you comic strip parodies and remixes in the past, including ones of Marvin, we felt obligated to warn you that this one is different. It contains... a word, ladies and gentlemen. And not just any word but a word which many people find offensive. That word, ladies and gentlemen, is poop. Not only is that word used in the strip, it is used with abandon, over and over again. The effect, we are afraid to say, is quite disturbing. So if you are someone who takes offense at the word poop -- or if you are the parent of a young or impressionable child -- we ask that you and the child leave the auditorium for the next 60 seconds. Read further if you must, but remember -- we warned you.

In five years, this is what a real Marvin strip will look like. Except he'll say "shit."

A disappointing roundup of Halloween masks based on famous people

The Point Break gang in their presidential masks. Does this arouse you in any way?

Blame it on Point Break. Without that popular 1991 thriller and its quartet of bank robbers disguised as, respectively, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson, the phenomenon of presidential Halloween masks would not be as prominent as it is today, in my opinion. The fad didn't start with Point Break, obviously, but Katherine Bigelow's film kept it going far beyond all reason. As it is, the small-but-vital industry of latex masks designed to look like rubbery, hollow-eyed likenesses of famous people is still dominated to this very day by prominent politicians: presidents, ex-presidents, presidential candidates, and even a couple of powerful governors and congressmen. I wanted to do a little article about "celebrity Halloween masks," but I kept running into the same few faces over and over. It doesn't really matter which site you're exploring. When it comes to masks based on famous people, presidents and presidential wannabes rule all. Pretty much every Chief of State from Kennedy to Obama is represented in this form. The best you can hope for is a really off-the-wall, inaccurate likeness. Take this truly awful so-called "George Bush Sr." mask, which looks to me more like Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The thing on the left is supposed to be George Bush, Sr. The thing on the right is Flea.

Aside from anomalies like that, what will you really find if you go shopping for celebrity Halloween masks in 2015? Exactly what you'd expect: a lot of Obamas, Hillarys, and Trumps, a handful of Chris Christies and Arnold Schwarzeneggers, plus some leftover Mitt Romneys, John McCains, Sarah Palins, and even a few stray Newt Gingrinches if you really go looking. Because of his marital proximity to presumptive Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton is back in a big way as a mask this year. Among the other ex-presidents, Richard Nixon is still the most popular, of course, but there are a surprising amount of Reagan masks, too. Dubya's still up there in popularity. Bush, Sr., JFK, and Carter are less common but not unheard of, while LBJ is relatively scarce. And as for Gerald Ford masks? Sorry, Ger, but those are strictly Ebay collectibles in 2015. There are plenty of Rob Ford masks, though, in honor of the buffoonish, crack-smoking ex-mayor of Toronto. In case you're planning to do a hyper-complete Point Break remake with a nine-man robbery team, here are all the presidents from Kennedy to Bush II as Halloween masks.

American History Latex: Nine ex-presidents as Halloween masks.

That'll stick with you for a while, won't it? Yep, it's difficult to get those images out of your mind. Once seen, they cannot be unseen. You'd think that presidential Halloween masks were scary enough on their own, but there is a weird sub-trend happening in this sector of the industry: rendering the politicians as literal monsters from horror movies and TV shows, often zombies, but occasionally vampires and Frankenstein monsters, too. In case you've decided never to sleep again, here's a selection of those types of masks. In this grouping, you'll see zombie Bill Clinton, two different zombie Hillarys, a couple of zombie Obamas, vampire Obama, zombie Dubya, and my personal favorite, Reaganstein. All are available to those with valid credit cards. As Peter Sellers put it in Dr. Strangelove, "It requires only the will to do so."

These monster masks are most definitely NOT a graveyard smash.

Okay, then. There's that. But what about non-political celebrity masks? Do they exist? Eh, sort of. Back in 2010, as you no doubt remember, there was a very messy, widely-publicized power struggle going on in late night television, and this led to a mini-boom in the Halloween mask industry. Of course, the mask makers didn't have the right to use the names of the actual combatants, so a clever manufacturer called Faces by Rubies came up with generic aliases. Jay Leno was "Motor Mouth," David Letterman was "Talk Show Host," and poor Conan O'Brien was "Ex-Talk Show Host." This kind of sly gamesmanship is common in the Halloween costume industry, i.e. "We're not gonna use the real name, but you and I both know who this is supposed to be." The masks themselves were appropriately hideous and bore only a passing resemblance to the real-life comedians on whom they were modeled:

Let this image stay with you throughout the years, my darlings.

Conan O'Brien, in particular, took issue with the appearance of his wizened-looking mask. In a YouTube video uploaded shortly before the debut of his TBS talk show, the ex-Tonight/Late Night host complained: "I look like a burn victim. This is just horrible. This is the face of a 95-year-old man. This is a John McCain mask that they repurposed and slapped some Howdy Doody hair on." O'Brien revisited the mask in his own likeness in 2012, when as part of a Conan segment, he visited a costume shop and found the forlorn "Ex-Talk Show Host" mask among the store's wares. As a clerk giggled and cringed nearby, O'Brien read the description on the package: "Life-like replica of a 66-year-old man-child. Watch him desperately try to win your approval." O'Brien described this text as "very accurate" and then donned the mask himself to deliver a delusional monologue: "I'm still on the air! Why are you all laughing at me? I used to be on network!" This, in turn, led to a bizarre sequence in which the female clerk donned a Conan mask as well and the two Conans pretended to make out as "romantic" music played on the soundtrack.

Apparently, nothing in popular culture has captured the imagination of the Halloween mask industry since the Great Talk Show Wars of 2010. Well, that's not quite true. Charlie Sheen's druggy, hooker-y shenanigans in 2011 inspired a number of masks as well. But that was pretty much it. Frankly, I'm disappointed. There are at least two stores in my neighborhood with a wide variety of Halloween costumes for sale, and I visited both of them hoping to see a fresh selection of celebrity masks. You know what I found? A few politicians and pretty much nothing else. No doubt about it, the industry is in a slump. I was, however, encouraged to see that my local Party City still had a wonderfully creepy mask based on Jim Parsons' popular Sheldon Cooper character from The Big Bang Theory. Spend a good, long time staring at that eerie rubber face. Doesn't that look less like a lovable sitcom nerd and more like someone who would break into your house at night and slit your throat as you slept? Bazinga indeed.

This is supposed to be Jim Parsons, not Sam Donaldson.

P.S. I dug around a little online and found a second Sheldon Cooper mask for sale. This, I'm sure you will agree, is no improvement.

The last thing you see before you die.

Friday, September 25, 2015

And now here's the building from 'Blade Runner' in a damned Twix commercial

The unmistakable Bradbury Building in a commercial for Twix.

This has been a weird week for me and candy commercials with ties to cult cinema. On Wednesday, I told you about a York Peppermint Pattie ad obviously modeled on Requiem for a Dream, and now I'm writing about a Twix ad filmed at one of the most prominent locations from Blade Runner. What can I say? The Internet keeps making me sit through pop-up ads for candy, and this is the result. Specifically, a 2014 spot for Twix called "Factory Tour" was filmed at the historic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. If you've seen Los Angeles Plays Itself, you already know all about this place, but even if you haven't, you've likely seen it in a movie or TV show. Completed in 1893 and designed by Sumner Hunt and George Wyman, the Bradbury is the oldest architectural landmark in L.A. It has been a popular filming location for decades due to its distinctive look: plenty of oak, wrought-iron railings, geometric staircases, and a giant skylight. Though Ridley Scott used the hell out of it in Blade Runner, the Bradbury has stood in for any number of buildings in TV and film over the decades, giving off a vibe which is simultaneously elegant and seedy. And that's just how it looks in the otherwise-lighthearted Twix commercial, where it's supposed to be a candy factory. Note how the oppressive and foreboding atmosphere of the building completely dominates the 30-second commercial. The actors seem to know that they're in the belly of a pitiless and insatiable beast. Doesn't that just make you want to run out and buy some Twix bars?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A few kind words about Doctor Dinamite, the mad YouTuber

The funny, interesting, and awesome logo for Doctor Dinamite.

The Doctor's online avatar.
There are many, many, many countdown-style videos on YouTube, but there is only one Doctor Dinamite. As you probably already know, the popular site is positively strewn with documentary-style "infotainment" videos which bombard viewers with obscure (sometimes bogus) trivia, crazy (occasionally dubious-looking) clips, and bizarre (often Photoshopped) images, all of it linked together with quippy commentary and eye-assaulting graphics. If grotesque, unsavory trivia is your thing, especially when combined with snarky narration, YouTube has you covered. Thoroughly. Sometimes, it feels like half of YouTube is devoted to one, big, never-ending episode of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. So how do you stand out from the crowd? In Doctor Dinamite's case, the answer is: be even crazier than the stuff you're counting down. I don't quite know how to explain the Doctor to you, mainly because I know next to nothing about him. He has a sketchy, near-useless blog and a sketchy, near-useless Twitter account, both of which seemingly exist only to publicize his YouTube videos. When it comes to Doctor Dinamite, the videos are all that really matter. I know nothing of the man behind them or why he does what he does. His official YouTube description only says: "Let's bring a bit of originality in the world of countdowns, where information is copied all over and over again."

So what will you find on the Doctor's channel? Just as his own description implies, it's the same stuff you'll find on most of the other countdown videos and at content-aggregating sites across the web: Photoshop fails, tacky tattoos, dubious parenting choices, photos taken at just the right moment, etc., etc. Typical Internet clickbait. It's the Doctor's personality which make these videos stand out. I'm not sure what nationality this YouTuber is, perhaps Russian, but his accent is fairly heavy and his approach to the English language is, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic. His caffeine intake must be substantial, too, because he's an incurable motormouth who seems to have rage issues. His videos often seem like a cross between a used car dealer's desperate sales pitch and a psychotic rant by a street corner weirdo. Watching a Doctor Dinamite video -- or, better yet, watching five or six of them in a row -- is like tuning into a weird Twilight Zone version of the Home Shopping Network at three o'clock in the morning.

I don't have any particular recommendations as to where one should "start" with Doctor Dinamite's videos. They're all pretty much the same. I'll semi-arbitrarily pick "20 photos that will make you mad" as it contains the classic Doctor Dinamite quote: "I hate Harry Potter! But now I hate him even more!" His anger at this moment seems genuine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'The Critic' (1963): Symbolic of junk!

"Could this be the sex life of two things?"

By 1963, Mel Brooks was 37 years old and already a fairly well-known comedian and writer, even if he hadn't yet done any of the things with which we truly associate him today. Get Smart, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein were all in his future then. But he'd written for a couple of crucial early TV sketch programs at that point in his life, namely Your Show of Shows and Sid Caesar's follow-up show, Caesar's Hour. Also, perhaps more importantly, Brooks had recorded three popular, well-regarded comedy albums with fellow Your Show veteran Carl Reiner. These LPs, mostly centered around the duo's much-imitated "2000 Year Old Man" routine, in which Reiner would play an earnest interviewer and Brooks would play an impossibly old European Jewish man who had seemingly witnessed all of human history first-hand and, frankly, seemed pretty blase about the whole experience.

An ad for The Critic.
Also by 1963, Connecticut-born filmmaker Ernest "Ernie" Pintoff was 31 years old and already making a name for himself with his then-ultra-modern cartoons, like Flebus (1957), The Violinist (1959), and The Interview (1960), which combined "hip" humor with jazzy, almost abstract minimalist artwork. The Violinist, in fact, had garnered Pintoff a BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination. Not too shabby. Clearly, like Brooks, Ernie Pintoff had established himself as a showbiz up-and-comer. As fate would have it, Pintoff finally won his Oscar when he collaborated with -- you guessed it -- Mel Brooks on 1963's The Critic. Half a century later, Brooks reminisced about The Critic when he was interviewed for the  PBS documentary Mel Brooks: Make A Noise. These were his thoughts on the origins of the short film:
"There was a brilliant guy, a cartoonist and sweet as sugar. His name was Ernest Pintoff, and he said, there was a guy called Norman McLaren who used to do films, beautiful films that were truly avant garde. I'm talking about late '40s, early '50s. So when Pintoff said to me, 'Look, I've got a good idea. You watch one of these films and just mumble to yourself.' I said, 'That's good.' I'll be this old Jew trying to make sense out of what I'm seeing. There's no better philosophical sound than a Jewish accent. If somebody's going to wax philosophically, he'd better have a Jewish accent, or he's going to sound like a dope. A Jew never sounds like a dope. Anyway, we made this little short and submitted it, and it won an Academy Award."
And deservedly so, since The Critic is a total delight, even today. There's not much to it, really, just some sprightly harpsichord music, various dots, blobs, and squiggles, and the cranky Semitic commentary of Mel Brooks' character, a 71-year-old Russian-American named Murray, who pays decent money to see a foreign film and feels ripped off when he is presented with meaningless modern art instead. Simple as it is, The Critic is an obvious predecessor to TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000, and writer-performer Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo from seasons 2 through 10) has acknowledged it as an influence. I wonder, too, if Woody Allen caught this film before making What's Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966.

Within a few years, Mel Brooks would be writing directing and occasionally starring in full-length films of his own. Ernie Pintoff spent most of his career directing perfectly-ordinary, yet successful network television shows, including Kojak, Dallas, and The Dukes of Hazzard. He passed away in 2002. In any event, here is the film itself. Please do enjoy. "It must be some symbolism. I think it's symbolic of junk!"

Here's a York Peppermint Pattie commercial inspired by 'Requiem for a Dream' (really!)

Quick! Is this shot from a candy commercial, a harrowing depiction of drug use, or both?

File this under "too bizarre to be real, yet too random to be made-up." York Peppermint Pattie, a product of the candy kingpins at Hershey, has an ad called "Environmental Connection" which seems uncomfortably close to the famous, much-parodied "getting high" montage from Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky's bleak 2000 film about drug addiction. Judge for yourself, though. Don't let me unduly influence you.

Here's the ad:

And here's the corresponding scene from Requiem for a Dream:

It's not just me, right? This is totally intentional, right? The quick cuts, the gasping for breath, the close up of a dilating pupil. It's all taken directly from Requiem for a Dream. The message isn't really even all that subtle: "Look, fatty, we know that chocolate is your heroin. Don't try to pretend that you have free will. You're our junkie slave, and you know it! Now have another York Peppermint Goddamned Pattie!"


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Some thoughts on the Pope's visit to America

Sadly, THIS is my idea of a compelling theology.

The Pope is visiting America right now, and all the TV channels are covering it, which means that when I make my daily phone call to my dad, I have to talk about it for a few minutes. The truth is that I haven't been a practicing Catholic in over a decade, and I haven't been a believer... ever. I went along with it for the first few decades (!) of my life to humor my parents, but I'm done now. Way done. You know what they say: "You can take the boy out of the church... and, all things considered, you probably should. Quickly." No, seriously, this current Pope seems like a nice guy, way nicer than the last couple of Popes, especially that one who looked like the Emperor from Star Wars. But, to me, he's still just a guy in a pointy hat. Hopefully, he can use his (unearned) position of (imaginary) power to do good in the world and inspire others to do good in the world. That's the best you can hope for with something as silly as the Papacy. Non-Catholics often think of the faith as a weird, bizarre cult with all kinds of spooky rituals, but the truth is that growing up Catholic was extremely boring. John Waters has written with as much humor and honesty as anyone about the "Catholic kid" experience. He can remember sitting through mass and fantasizing about the roof of the church caving in. That still makes me laugh, because I had very similar thoughts as a kid. Our church, in fact,had these big ceiling fans hovering over the congregation, and I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if one came plummeting to the floor. That's how boring Catholic church really is.