Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 48: 'Rudolph Grey Presents: Short Films, Home Movies, and Other Miscellanea' (2014)

Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives: My gateway to the 10th Dimension?

Well, folks, I guess there is going to be an "Ed Wood Wednesdays" column this week after all, but it's not the typical sort of heavily-researched, carefully-constructed piece I usually do for this series. Instead, while the memories were still semi-fresh in my brain, I wanted to record some thoughts and feelings about attending the penultimate night of The 10th Dimension: Edward D. Wood, Jr., a week-long retrospective currently running at Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives (AFA). The AFA is not your typical movie theater. Instead, it's a nonprofit center for the preservation and exhibition of offbeat and rare films. As its name suggests, in addition to holding screenings, the AFA is also a vast storehouse of films and videos, preserving these artifacts for future audiences. This year, in addition to a slew of other programs, the center decided to honor the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. They've shown films both famous (Plan 9 from Outer Space) and obscure (Nympho Cycler) from Ed's entire career, with selections from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Tonight, Wednesday, September 17, was a very special show -- the linchpin of the entire festival, in fact -- because it was an assortment of rarities hosted by Rudolph Grey, author of Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992). In order to give this article some semblance of structure, I'll break down my reflections by sub-topics.

Jesus, New York City, did you lose a war or something?

Thank you, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, for helping me kill two hours.

"Now I'm back in Manhattan. New York, this is your last chance!"
-Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), Rhoda

"Wow. That's a pretty big JCPenney. Not the biggest I've ever seen, but still... pretty big." Those were among my thoughts, friends, when I got my first glimpse at the Big Apple in over a decade. I am here now, and the voyage was largely a nonevent, even a little dull. I chickened out at the last minute and decided to take a cab from my apartment to O'Hare rather than drive there and leave my car in overnight parking. This meant getting up at 4:30 a.m., but I must say I handled it like a champ. I arrived 90 minutes early, like you're supposed to do, but getting through security only took about four minutes for me. Hey, that's what your life is like when you're a part of the least-discriminated-against demographic in America. So I waited at the Delta terminal in Chicago for a while before boarding. The airport was a lot like a very tidy, orderly shopping mall at that hour of the day. Everything is grey. Grey walls, grey carpet, grey-haired businessmen. It's just a functional, impersonal kind of place. I boarded the plane with no problem whatsoever, and the flight was equally uneventful. This was my first voyage by airplane in a decade (at least), and it felt like a mid-sized nothing. It seemed like it was over before it even started. It takes much less time to travel from Chicago to New York by plane (one-third of the country) than it does to travel from Chicago to Indiana by train (one state over). One young lady behind me had a brief panic attack when we took off, and the flight crew had to give her an oxygen mask and assure her that everything was going to be juuuuuuuust fine. By the time we got to LaGuardia, which looked exactly like O'Hare, she was giddily taking pictures out the window of the plane and trying to spot the Statue of Liberty. Quick healer, that gal.

Click here for an article (on another website) about my previous trip to NYC. It was another cinema nerd pilgrimage. Back then, I headed East to see some of John Waters' rare movies. Am I predictable or am I predictable, huh?

Once I got to LaGuardia, it was surprisingly easy to get a cab. The cab ride, though, seemed to take a small eternity. Traffic was pretty darned heavy. I saw the same previews for Jeopardy!, Jimmy Kimmel, and something called Selfie (a new sitcom starring either Harold or Kumar) many times over on the little monitor in the back seat, along with a public service announcement urging us all to bump fists rather than shake hands because of the spread of germs and communicable diseases. Once we finally got to the hotel, I realized I was staying in a pretty dumpy-looking neighborhood. Not post-apocalyptic or anything but nothing photogenic or memorable either. I mean, there are some gentrified-looking folks here with skinny pants and overpriced headphones. But there are also some lost souls wandering around out there: folks who look like God just shat in their mouths. When I got to the Comfort Inn on Ludlow, I was a little disappointed to see only two employees, a maintenance guy and a desk clerk, on duty in the cramped and dimly-lit lobby. Both looked supremely uninterested in whatever was going on around them, up to and including my arrival. I know that "good customer service" requires a level of completely counterfeit enthusiasm, but that fake cheeriness is kind of reassuring. The dead-eyed young lady behind the front desk, on the other hand, seemed to be doing a spot-on Kristen Stewart impression and just told me in an affectless voice to come back in a few hours. I tried asking her about the location of the Anthology Film Archives, but this was a total flop. After three unsuccessful attempts at spelling the word A-N-T-H-O-L-O-G-Y to her, we both agreed it was futile and gave up.

Starring Jessica Chastain's hair!
But what the hell was I going to do until the room became available? Here is where my inexperience as a traveler comes into play. I'm in (allegedly) one of the greatest cities in the world, and I have no idea what to do here. I just wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood (lower Manhattan), trying to get the lay of the land. In a way, this was comforting to a person who almost never travels. You know what New York City has? The same exact stuff every place else has. People. Cars. Restaurants. Stores. Sidewalks. Hotels. More people, some on bikes. That's it. It just has a bunch of that stuff piled up in one place. That's all. In my travels today, I crossed at least two thoroughfares whose names I recognized from popular culture: Delancey and Bowery. And you know what these are? They're streets. Cars drive up and down 'em, and there are buildings on either side. Same as anywhere. Same as where you probably are now. "Oh, look, it's a different CVS! And a different Whole Foods!" Meh. Travel, I can take or leave. I don't genuinely feel like I'm "missing out" on much. Anyway, to pass the time until my room became available, I did what any good movie geek would do. I went to the movies. I decided to see whatever was playing closest to the time I showed up at the theater. That turned out to be something called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them with Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a miserable married couple who spend two hours pouting and sulking, both separately and together. It's one of those "bad things happening to pretty people" movies, complete with wishy-washy ethereal music on the soundtrack and cinematography that makes everything look like a high-end mail-order catalog. Boilerplate indie stuff. William Hurt is in it, if that helps. He has a beard this time and squints a lot. Nobody actually sings "Eleanor Rigby," but that song does come up in conversation a few times. There are apparently two more movies' worth of this stuff: a Him version and a Her version. Neither sounds too tempting, since both of these folks are kind of petulant, entitled twerps; but given a choice, I'd take Him, because James McAvoy's half of the movie has Bill Hader in it. On the other hand, Her would have even more of Jessica Chastain's incredible red hair. With such fiery locks and such pale, pale skin, you might think she was in danger of looking like Ronald McDonald. But she pulls it off. So majestic is the Chastain mane that there's a poster for this movie which literally features nothing but her hair. Not even her eerily perfect face. Just her eerily perfect, shampoo ad hair.

Okay, time to get serious. Tonight's the night -- the event I flew 800 miles for. Wednesday is Rudolph Grey's once-in-a-lifetime presentation of rare Ed Wood movies. If only I could find the darned place.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays temporarily delayed by research for Ed Wood Wednesdays

Perhaps this eye-catching photograph will distract people while I'm away.

A little programming note is in order, people. Normally, I post a new Ed Wood Wednesdays article every two weeks, but that's not going to be possible this week because I'll be out of town. Way out of town, you might say. Ironically, what is preventing me from working on my Ed Wood project is the project itself. Or rather, one aspect of the project is muscling out another aspect of it. Tomorrow, folks, I'm flying to New York City so that I can attend the final two days of the Ed Wood retrospective currently going on in Manhattan. I'd be lying if I said I weren't a little nervous about all of this. Not that I'm afraid of flying. I'm just really, really bad at traveling. I have no knack for it whatsoever. I hate having to make arrangements and show up at certain places at certain times. I simply do not possess the organizational skills necessary for travel. So tomorrow will be a high stress day. Today has been a high stress day, in fact, because I've been dreading tomorrow. I feel like I'm going to take the SATs or something. It's been that kind of day. Anyway, I'm about halfway done on the next Ed Wood column. I'll be posting it in the near future. This one is exciting (I hope) because it's about a mystery movie which I did not plan on covering in this series. To quote an ad campaign from the 1980s which has stuck with me much longer than it should have, BE THERE! In the meantime, please wish me luck on this trip. I'll tell you all about it when I get back home.

P.S. - How do you like the new look of the blog? I spent some time this weekend making it over and have added some extra features to make it easier to find past content. I hope you like it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

This is just one of my favorite things: a Cisco Kid tin whistle

(left) My Cisco Kid tin whistle; (right) Vintage illustration of the Cisco Kid.

Behind those trees is the Beaver Island Toy Museum.
"It's funny how one can go through life, as I have, disliking bananas and being indifferent to cheese, and then be able to eat, and enjoy, a banana and cheese sandwich like this." So said Michael Palin as "Mr. Pither" on the "Cycling Tour" episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. I kind of know how he feels. I have no particular interest in either tin whistles or the Cisco Kid character, and yet one of my prized possessions is a Cisco Kid tin whistle. I suppose a lot of my affection for this little trinket comes from the manner in which I acquired it. In the mid-1980s, my family started vacationing on a place called Beaver Island, a scenic but isolated tract of land located 32 miles off the coast of Northern Michigan. I'd estimate I was about 10 or 11 when we first started going there. Before then, most of the Blevins family vacations were to more obvious tourist spots like Mackinac Island and Cedar Point. Beaver Island is quite a departure from those. The appeal of the isle is that there's almost nothing there: just a few humble restaurants, residences, and small businesses. The rest? Beaches, forests, and unpaved roads. It's the kind of place you go to when your goal is do nothing in particular for a week or two. If you're so inclined, you can visit the Beaver Island Toy Museum while you're there. The fact that it looks like a private residence from the outside tells you a lot about the culture of the island. Inside, you'll find vintage dolls, model cars, and wind-up robots behind glass cases or suspended from the ceiling. But there are bins of stuff you can actually buy, too. That, as you may have already guessed by now, is where I acquired the Cisco Kid tin whistle. Like I said, I have no particular nostalgia for that character. A Mexican caballero first created by American writer O. Henry, the Kid appeared in multiple formats (film, TV, radio, comics) from the 1910s to the 1950s, returning briefly in a 1994 made-for-TV movie with Jimmy Smits. I have experienced little to none of this. But I still have the whistle, and it still (pretty much) works. I mainly use it as a bookmark these days. Lately, it's been saving my place in The Real Frank Zappa Book. Anyway, I have been't back to Beaver Island or the Toy Museum in well over 20 years. Wonder how (or if) the place has held up? In the meantime, I think I'll rekindle those fond childhood memories by listening to the one other bit of Cisco Kid-iana which has managed to breach my perimeters, namely the 1972 song by War. The lyrics apply manifestly to my life. The Cisco Kid really was and is a friend of mine.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Birthdays are still a thing, so I guess I'm having one.

This ritual happens each day across America and other countries where Facebook isn't blocked by the government.

This comment is about a creepy Dennis the Menace panel.
A congratulatory message from my insurance agent in my voicemail . An Amazon gift card from my sister in my e-mail inbox. A much-reused banner reading H-A-P-P-Y  B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y stretched across my cubicle at work. The clues are all there. Doesn't take Mycroft Holmes to put 'em together. Another year went by, and I didn't die. And now, as a result, it is my birthday. Personally, the allure of birthdays wore off for me about twenty years ago, around the same time as the allure of Christmas. They were fun once; now they mean virtually nothing. You might think that a birthday is at least a chance to take stock of one's life. Nah. I'm too tired for that shit right now. I had to wake up at 5:30 this morning to get to work on time. I was filling in for my boss today, which meant there was no time for lunch or breaks. Just work, work, work, then leave. It's cold here in the suburbs of Chicago, 48 degrees currently, overcast, and drizzly. Not the kind of day which makes you wanna go out into the world and give life a great big bear hug. I think I'm gonna curl up on the couch and watch some of the shows that have accumulated on my DVR. It's Friday, so there should be new episodes of Married, Garfunkel & Oates, and Black Jesus from last night. Good shows all. By far, the best thing that happened to me today was that I was awarded Comment of the Week on Josh Fruhlinger's Comics Curmudgeon blog for my review of a rather disturbing Dennis the Menace panel. That's always an honor. In other news/life updates, I have booked my flight and my hotel and, barring the direct intervention of God (in whom I do not believe), I am headed to New York City to attend the last two days of the Ed Wood retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan. I'm genuinely excited about that. Or I would be if I weren't so cold and tired. What this situation requires is an episode of Black Jesus, some root beer, and a good night's rest. In the meantime, I'd like to leave you with a song I've been listening to a lot this week for some reason. Maybe it just came up randomly in shuffle mode and I got stuck on it. It's called "Leave My Kitten Alone," and it's a catchy little R&B number from 1959 by the great and tragic Little Willie John, who died in prison in 1968 at the age of 30. As of today, I'm nine years old than he ever got to be. Go figure, huh? "Kitten" has been famously covered by both the Beatles and Elvis Costello, but for my money, there's no beating the original. Give it a whirl, huh? If you promise to listen to this song even once, that's the best birthday present you could give me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

'Comic book movies' do not exist. Stop using that stupid, stupid term.

This is a scene from a movie, not a comic book.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie success story of both the summer and the year. I'll admit, I haven't gotten around to seeing it yet. (I know, I know. I'm the worst.) But the reviews and the word of mouth have both been excellent, and I've enjoyed previous Marvel movies in the past. I don't begrudge Guardians its box-office bonanza. My problem is that the film's commercial triumph has meant that I've had to endure a spate of articles and podcasts lately which use one of the dumbest cliches of pop culture criticism: the term "comic book movie." Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie based on characters and situations originally seen in comic books, so people are referring to it as a "comic book movie." This is, with all due respect, utter horseshit. Comics are a medium. Movies are another, separate medium. Calling Guardians a "comic book movie" is about as logical and helpful as referring to something as a "solid liquid," a "day night," or an "apple orange." If director James Gunn had taken an actual, printed issue of Guardians of the Galaxy and literally filmed its pages for 90 minutes, then it might almost make sense to call it a "comic book movie." But from what I've seen, he seems to have hired actors like Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana to, you know, say stuff out loud and move around. Like you would in a movie.

A  comic book movie?
Plenty of movies each year are based on text-only novels, yet we don't call these "novel movies," do we? Movies based on plays are not called "play movies." So why is Guardians of the Galaxy a "comic book movie?" I fear it's because people mistakenly think of comic books not as a medium but as a genre, and they feel that adding the descriptive "comic book" to the neutral word "movie" communicates something about a film's plot, characters, and tone. Now, it is true that the medium of comics has some longstanding relationships with a few specific genres, specifically superhero stories and so-called "funny animal" stories. And Guardians of the Galaxy (the movie) has elements of both of those genres. But those longstanding relationships I mentioned are not mutually exclusive by any means. There are plays and TV shows and even prose novels about both superheroes and funny animals. Moreover, comics can and have been used for a wide variety of purposes, far beyond superheroes and funny animals. Comics are an extremely versatile medium which can be used for any number of things: drama, comedy, action, romance history, surrealism, horror, biography, autobiography, education, etc. From Hell, 300, Ghost World, and Persepolis are among the movies based on comics, and yet we don't often refer to these titles as "comic book movies" because they don't fit the traditional "superhero"/"funny animal" mold. The rather silly term "graphic novel" is sometimes used to describe such works as Alison Bechdel's autobiographical Fun Home or Art Spiegelman's Maus simply because the public has a strong association between the perfectly good term "comic book" and images of super-powered musclemen flying around in tights or wisecracking mice who walk upright and speak English. Yes, comics can be used for these things -- and very effectively at that. But they can do so much more, and it's a mistake to confuse medium and genre.

For a brilliant and entertaining exploration of comics and their potential, please read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. In the meantime, at least stop saying "comic book movie." It makes you sound like a dumbass.

P.S. - "Video game movies" don't exist either. But you probably guessed that by now.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Is Stanley Kubrick selling Nissans from the Great Beyond?

Top: A banner ad for Nissan. Bottom: (left) the carpet from The Shining; (right) a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The power was restored a little after eight this morning, and I immediately got back to the hard work of mindlessly bumming around the Internet in search of entertainment. One of my first stops, of course, was YouTube. And it was there I discovered an intriguing banner ad for the Nissan Altima. Apparently, they have some new model with what they're calling "zero gravity seats" or something, and their marketing wizards have cooked up a little animation involving a floating spaceman looking at various glowing information screens. I couldn't help but notice the resemblance between the ad and a couple of Stanley Kubrick movies. The astronaut himself (or herself; it's tough to tell under those suits) looks like something from 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the background pattern seems to resemble the carpeting from the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. I wonder if the homage was intentional. Look at the images above and draw your own conclusions.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Powering down: My harrowing struggle with temporary loss of wifi

This is pretty much what it's like in my apartment right now.

It rained very heavily for about 10 to 15 minutes early Friday afternoon in the town where I live, a mid-sized suburb north of Chicago. That was enough to knock out the power for several days. There's still no power there now. I'm writing this from my cubicle at work. I actually commuted into the city on a Saturday for the privilege of being somewhere with air conditioning, hot water, and Internet connectivity. I'll probably come back here tomorrow, too, because the power's not supposed to be back on at home until late Sunday or early Monday. Remember that Louis C.K. routine about how, because of our reliance on technology, we've all lost "the ability to just be yourself and not be doing something?" Well, that's where I'm living, baby. I live alone in a one-bedroom apartment. Without power, this place really sucks. I wish I could escape into Imagination Land or something and be happy just sitting on the couch doing nothing. Just existing. But I can't do it. I suck. Hey, even that kid from The Never-Ending Story needed a book, right? He didn't just sit there and think all that stuff up. See how I had to explain my situation in terms of pop culture references? That's how addicted to media and technology I am. I am as soft as a freshly-made eclair. Hell, it's probably a pretty nice day out there, and I'm inside blogging about my petty problems. Am I not aware that there's an outbreak of the Ebola virus right now? Yes. And that's happening to other people. People who aren't me. I feel badly that people are dying of Ebola, but that doesn't lessen the fact that I can't tweet for a couple of days or even watch a lousy DVD. I have Ed Wood movies to review!

Anyway, this is an opportunity to talk about some of my online ventures which readers of this blog may not know about. I don't think I've mentioned it here yet, so let me give a plug for a project called Both of Them, Mary Worth! I basically took this Mary Worth comic strip, mutated it in a bunch of ways, and made a Tumblr out of it. Here's a recent example, which took the form of a Psycho parody:

Wouldn't you scream under these circumstances, too?

Speaking of Tumblr, if you haven't checked out, you really ought to. I've put some extra stuff there that's not part of the regular "Ed Wood Wednesdays" series. Think of the Tumblr as being the special edition with unrated, value-added bonus features. I've been tweeting more often lately, too, so maybe you want to follow @Joe_A_Blevins.  I'll try to make it worth your while. And this is as good a time as any to point out some of my past, failed attempts to win YouTube: songs, monologues, impressions, you name it. Nothing really got any traction there, but (god bless me) I kept trying. An example follows:

I guess that's all I really have to say right now. God, I'm bored.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 47: 'Nympho Cycler' (1971)

Awesome poster or misleading representation of the movie it's supposed to be advertising? Can't it be both?

"It's not a big motorcycle, just a groovy little motorbike.
It's more fun than a barrel of monkeys, that two-wheel bike."

-The Hondells, "Little Honda"

"It's hard for me to get used to these changing times. I can remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty."
-George Burns

Sunday, August 31, 2014

So who is Karl Wiedergott, anyway?

German-born actor Karl Wiedergott in the movie 2 Days. Inset: one of Karl's many, many Simpsons characters

Bill Clinton on The Simpsons
If you have been following the 12-day Simpsons marathon on FXX, there is one name you have undoubtedly seen in the cast credits but may not be able to immediately connect to any particular role. Born in Germany in 1969, Karl Wiedergott lent his vocal talents to a staggering 248 episodes of the extremely long-running animated series, joining the cast in 1998 and staying with the show until 2010 when he left the United States. In addition to its six principal cast members (Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, etc.) and recurring guest stars (Kelsey Grammar, Marcia Wallace, et al.), The Simpsons employs a talented and versatile troupe of additional voice actors, nearly all of them women. Performers like Russi Taylor, Tress MacNeille, Pamela Hayden, and Maggie Roswell have been with the show for decades, voicing a slew of child and adult characters. The odd man out here, in more ways than one, is Wiedergott. Not only is he male and German, but (unlike the women I just mentioned) he doesn't really have any recurring characters on the show. Instead, along with impersonating celebrities like Bill Clinton and John Travolta, Karl Wiedergott spent his time on The Simpsons bringing life to such parts as "Care Worker," "Angry Man," and "Boyfriend 2." Ironically, this thankless work is probably what Wiedergott is best known for, even though he has appeared in dozens of television shows and movies for nearly 30 years. His CV includes such well-known titles as Coach, Columbo, 21 Jump Street, and Star Trek: Voyager. In 2003, he wrote and acted in Two Days, an indie drama whose cast included Paul Rudd, Adam Scott, and Donal Logue. Other film credits for the actor include 18 Again! (1988) and Breakfast of Champions (1999), in which he coincidentally plays a character named Homer. So there you have it, folks. That's the scoop on Karl Wiedergott. And now you know... the rest of the story.