Saturday, October 31, 2015

My idea for a can't-miss Halloween theatrical event

Neither Sissy Spacek nor William Katt are involved, unless they want to be.

Be part of the magic!
So I had this idea a few years ago for what I still think would be a really cool theatrical experience. I'd stop short of calling it a "play" because it's not quite that, though it would involve actors, props, costumes, a massive "set" (more on that later), and some ingenious practical effects. It's an immersive adaptation of Carrie, specifically based on the 1976 film version by Brian De Palma, and it's called Bates High Prom '76. De Palma renamed the high school in the story "Bates High" as one of the many, many, many Psycho homages he's made in his career. Anyway, Bates High '76 would not be staged in a traditional theater, but rather a gymnasium, VFW hall, or other large public space, possibly even a warehouse if need be.

The idea would be to recreate the prom from the movie as closely as possible. The venue would be decorated to look just like the gymnasium in the movie, complete with silvery stars hanging from the ceiling. We'd get real musicians to portray Vance or Towers, the band seen in the movie. They're the ones performing "Education Blues" in the background. I guess I'd also have them perform "I Never Dreamed Someone Like You Could Love Someone Like Me" and other tunes from the Carrie soundtrack. Mostly, they'd be playing mid-1970s Top 40 stuff all night. Ticket-buying attendees would be encouraged (not required) to wear either prom-appropriate clothing or 1970s-appropriate clothing. Both, if possible.

My actors would portray all the characters from the movie: Carrie White, Tommy Ross, Sue Snell, Billy Nolan, Miss Collins, and the ginger-haired super-villainess herself, Chris Hargensen. The prom would play out more or less in real time, and the actors would just be intermingled with all the other attendees -- not bothering people, you understand, just doing what they'd normally be doing under the circumstances. A lot of what they said and did would be scripted, but they'd have to improvise a lot, too. What would set the actors apart from the spectators is that the former would be miked and made up to look like the actors from the movie. How much of what a spectator hears during Bates High Prom '76 depends on his or her relative location and ability to notice details. If you attend the show, the story would be happening all around you: Carrie coming out of her shell, Miss Collins beaming from the sidelines, Chris and Billy rigging the election, etc.

And then... well, you know. You've all seen the movie by now, I hope, and you remember what goes down at the prom. Imagine living through it... or a safe simulation of it, at least. That's where practical effects, lighting, and sound come in. We'd have smoke machines, sprinklers going off, strobe lights, gallons of fake blood everywhere. It would be the most fun ever. Bates High Prom '76 is one of my many totally impractical ideas, and it probably wouldn't work in real life, but I'd like to give it a try sometime.  

UPDATE: My ever-reliable West Coast connection, Bob Blackburn, informs me that Carrie:The Musical is actually being staged in a manner similar to this in Los Angeles... to great reviews, no less! In a way, I feel justified. Maybe my ideas aren't as impractical as I'd thought. I'd love to see it. I think the only way to really do Carrie as a live show is to completely engulf the audience in the story and make them feel is if they are living it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dashiell Hamster

Dashiell Hamster. Does what it says in the description.

See, this is the kind of joke I find funny, but that no one else ever seems to like. I dunno. Maybe it's just me. But the thought of a hamster dressing up in a suit and sitting down in front of a wee little typewriter, miniature bottle of booze on his desk, tiny cigarette dangling from his mouth... to me, that's comedy. A hamster writing The Thin Man: how is that not hilarious? I went on a pulp/detective reading jag a few years back. Cycled through all the usual suspects: Chandler, Hammett, Cain. All good, but Jim Thompson remains my favorite because he didn't give a shit what people thought. Or at least that's the impression he gave off. After Thompson, reading any of those other guys was like switching from whiskey to sarsaparilla. But still, Hammett's no slouch. Loved Red Harvest especially. So did Kurosawa, who ripped off the plot for Yojimbo. Usually, the ripping off goes the other way in popular culture. Anyway, here's a picture of a hamster in a suit. Enjoy. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Magazine Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

Souvenirs from Ed Wood's days in the magazine writing biz.

NOTE TO READERS: As you may know, one of this blog's more popular features, Ed Wood Wednesdays, has been on hiatus since late June. Those articles are time-consuming and research-intensive, so I had to take a break from writing them. Luckily, however, one of my readers has stepped in to carry on the series. Greg Dziawer has been doing his own intensive research into the life and career of Edward Davis Wood, Jr., and he has agreed to turn his findings into a new series of Ed Wood articles for Dead 2 Rights. In other words, Ed Wood Wednesdays is back, and I couldn't be happier. The following article is Greg's work, which I am proudly presenting to you. The crude censoring of images is, I am afraid, a necessity to appease the Google gods. - J.B.

Pendulum's Savage Sex and Dick Trent's "The Responsibility Game"

A Pendulum magazine.
"When Bernie Bloom left Golden State, Eddie went with him, then all of a sudden one day Bernie called Eddie and said, 'I'm going to start my own company, Pendulum Publishing, come and help me.'"
Kathy Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy

Bernie Bloom filed Pendulum Publishers, Incorporated as a Domestic Corporation in the state of California on April 15, 1968. Its address, 5585 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019, would become home to numerous lines and imprints under the Pesndulum label in the next few years, including a plethora of theme-based adult magazines. Most titles were published bi-monthly. Savage Sex – its dominant theme BDSM – ran under the flagship Pendulum imprint, circa 1969-1972. Thanks to page scans here, we have a complete short story published in Savage Sex in 1972 and written by Ed:

The issue containing this story.
"The Responsibility Game" by Dick Trent
(Savage Sex, Vol 4 No 2 April/May 1972)

Dave Caulfield pulled his head slowly away from the gilden, silken crotch of his secretary and wiped his chin in the crook of his arm. It had been a long affair. They had both climaxed twice during the previous hour but there was a tremendous reluctance between them both to stop their actions. However, there was simply a limit to both their capabilities. Enough was enough . . . for the time being.
     "Drink, Tina?" 
  "I need one," replied the luscious blonde as naked she came to a sitting position on the leather couch with her legs hanging over the edge. The words had come slowly, softly, almost a whisper, but through a rush of hot breath.
     "You take all the hell right out of a girl."
     "Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" And he was also naked. He crossed his plush office and pressed the switch which moved a false wall and the well-stocked bar was revealed.
     "As I remember you take Scotch?"
"You know I do!" She pulled her pink satin mini slip to her and draped it across her exposed pubic region. "I think I could use a strong one . . . even if it is during working hours."
     Dave started pouring the stiff jolts into the two chubby Scotch glasses. "You don't have to worry about working hours as long as you're with the boss." His grin was tried, but honest. Then when he had finished pouring, he lifted the glasses and carried them across the room. He gave one to the girl and noticed where she was looking . . . and that there was the same glint in her eyes which had been there every time she had looked at that thing.
     "Don't you ever get enough of that?"
"Is there enough?"
"I do believe you're insatiable."
"I hope so."
"Maybe you'd better join a group club."
"Show me the way."
Dave picked up his tie from the back of a leather chair and draped it over his almost limp manhood. "There, that better?"
"Looks a little bit like a gift-wrapped sausage now," she laughed then took a long swig of her Scotch. "There, that does feel better." Then she sighed broadly. "I've thought about swinging clubs. But I've also thought about the trouble I might get into. I think you're man enough to handle me. You have been for the last three months. Say, you know! I'm glad you hired me."
"That goes double right back at you." Naked he moved to sit behind his massive desk, and he put his feet up on the polished mahogany. "I've got big plans for you."
"I'd say you've already given me something big."
"With the business I mean."
"Honey," she furthered. "You've been giving me the business."
"Ahh, now cut it out. I mean I've really been thinking about you. About us! I'd like to keep you with me."
"Lord, I'd rather have it no other way."
"You really like it here, don't you?"
"The pay isn't that much," and she grinned and flipped the mini slip on her lap. "But the fringe benefits are something else."
"How'd you like to be a vice president?"
"I love anything to do with vice."
Dave took his feet down from the desk and the grin left his face. He formed the most official look he could muster. "You've got to take this seriously or we might just as well forget what I'm about to say."
The grin also faded from Tina's face. "Sorry Dave. I thought we were still kidding around."
"I never kid when business is concerned."
"I'll listen quietly."
"You haven't answered me."
"About what?"
"How would you like to be a vice president here in my firm? I think you'd find quite a jump in your salary."
"Such a promotion and after only three months."
"The time is unimportant. It has been the way you handle things. Of course there are many of my employees who have been with me for years. But there isn't one of them that I could honestly say is right for the position I'm offering."
"I'm flattered."
"Of course, you should be," he replied matter of factly. "But you must also realize you've more than earned it."
And her mind was laughing at the big jerk. Earned it! He could bet his sweet ass she'd earned it. How many times had she lied to him, to herself, to the silent world around them about what a great stud he was and how long she could stay with him . . . and how much torture she had put herself through to stay in the saddle with him so that he could have a double blow-off when he really wasn't even good for one?
A young man, a good looking man, a well-built man and a jerk. You bet she earned it! She'd like to have narrowed her eyes and told him so. She would liked to have thrown the Scotch into his face then spit on him. But that had not been the plan even from the start.
Of course he had hired her on the spot. It was all part of her master plan . . . there had been the club he generally frequented about cocktail time . . . she knew he had a wife somewhere . . . she knew he had a big bank account . . . a big firm . . . she couldn't get to the bank account because of the wife . . . but the firm was wide open . . . it was a corporation with dummy officers. He ran the whole thing. All she had to do was get in with him. That had been easy . . . a green mini cocktail dress of slippery satin . . .  shoes and mini purse to match . . . her blonde hair streaming down her back . . . those luscious red lips . . . she didn't really like to paint them at the bar . . . but it was an attraction getter . . . there was no doubt about that . . . and Dave Caulfield always had a couple of drinks at the bar before he went to the table which also was always reserved for him.
She marked her time until his arrival. Then when he took a stool at the bar she moved from her chair at a table and took the second stool from him.
That's when she ordered a Scotch and water and did the lipstick bit. Naturally it looked like a pick-up bit and naturally Dave was a guy who had been around. He couldn't have missed such a come on.
"Finish that one and there'll be a second one waiting for you right in front of the stool next to me," he had said.
"Why wait for the delivery?" she had grinned and moved over to the stool.
Then there were the introductions and there were several more Scotch drinks, then there was his car and then there was his apartment . . . the one he kept as a home away from home . . . and there was his bedroom.
Did she ever give him a ride that night. She rode him to a complete standstill. He thought he was something else . . . and she proved to him that she was something else . . . she was the best bronco on the range and she made him believe he was the best broncobuster in the world . . . and he should believe it . . . she told him enough times that night.
Then the following morning she discovered a closet full of nighties and negligees where she selected a sexy pink set with marabou trim, and went about making coffee for them both before he woke up. But they were not to drink their coffee the moment she brought it in to him.
His eyes had opened only slightly . . . too much of the night before. . . but all that dropped away when he caught sight of the vision of loveliness, the sex goddess which stood before him. To hell with the coffee! He jumped, naked, out of bed and took her in his arms. Their tongues had met and twisted and turned as they had the night before. His legs went around her so that she fit down his "V" and his hands pawed at her back, then into the front of the negligee and nightgown . . . then when the hand was free again it went up under the nightgown and negligee and played with the golden pubic region. . . .
He was steaming all over again and Tina knew that she was not going to have the coffee she so much desired at that moment. She would have to go into her act once more. But there was going to be much more in the act.
His hands flew from her and he backed up a step and his eyes narrowed. Suddenly his hands lashed out and tore the flimsy nightgown and negligee until there was nothing left to hold it together and the material fell in soft cloud-like folds at her feet. Then he knelt before her and took her as he had not taken her the night before.
Later when they both sat on the edge of the bed with the coffee in their hands and they were sipping of the hot brew he looked at her with his boyish grin. "My wife never let me do that to her."
"She doesn't know what she's missing."
"I've wanted to do that with a lot of the girls. I . . .I . . . I . . . just never had the nerve."
Tina had grinned. "I'm glad I turned you on like that. I liked it."
"When I saw you standing there all pink and blonde and I thought about last night, I simply couldn't keep my hands off you. I've always wanted to rip the clothes from a girl and do that other. I'm not sorry I did it."
"I'm not sorry you did either." He was falling into her plot . . . how well she knew the symptoms.
"Now what can I do for you?" He was serious.
That had all been three months before, and during the three months they made it every afternoon in his office and at least twice a week when he had to remain in town on business. And then the moment came to which she had been waiting for. . . .
"You really do mean you'd like me to be a vice president?"
"There are a lot of responsibilities connected with the job. But as I said. The money will be well worth your acceptance, and you're very well qualified for the position."
"Do I also get a silver key to the executive washroom?" The tension was broken and they both laughed.
     Tina slipped into her short brown mini skirt and white angora cardigan after she had straightened the slip down over her exotic body.
     "You'll even have your name on your own office door."
"I guess it pays to be a vice president."'
"Almost as much as it would to be president."
"I think I'll let you keep that position." She grinned. "You fit the chair better."
"There will be a lot of papers to sign." He pulled on his trousers and shirt, then started fixing his tie.
"I write a good signature . . . took a penmanship award in school."
"Miners have been known to transfer millions with a simple 'X' ."
"Well, I guess I've gone beyond that stage. I'll make sure anybody who reads the message over my signature knows who it came from."
"Always efficient, aren't you!"
"If I weren't you wouldn't be asking me to take over as vice president."
"Well we might also say I feel that running this corporation with a dummy board of directors is for the birds. It was alright in the beginning, but now with the firm as large as it is I'd like to have some of the decision responsibilities taken off my hands. I'm just tired of the full responsibility. A couple of minds put together are always better than one."
"I only hope I can live up to your estimation." She didn't give a damn about his estimation . . . the only estimation she had in mind was just how big is the company. That was going to be one of her first investigations. Then she would make further plans from there.
Dave, fully dressed and once more the business executive, pulled open the top drawer of his desk and took out the official document. "Come over here Tina."
Tina adjusted a tiny brown nylon scarf around her neck to top off the angora sweater, then moved across the desk. He handed her the paper . . . the very official looking document.
"It's all ready for you . . . witnessed and all." He pointed to one of the lower dotted lines. "Just sign there."
"Shouldn't I read it."
"Sure, if you want to. But it's a waste of your time." He stuck out the pen.
She shrugged. After all, it was the paper she wanted. She signed. "I'll have your copy notarized while I'm out this afternoon. By the way, your office is right next to mine . . . right through that door. It will make it even more easy for our get-togethers than before."
"That's what I call real cozy."
"Another drink? To celebrate our sort of partnership." He walked to the bar and poured. She didn't have to answer him. Then he walked back with the fresh glasses and they clicked glasses and drank.
    "I guess that makes it official."
    She thought it was wise. She put the glass down and locked her arms around his neck and their lips and their tongues met for a long moment. "What was that for?" he asked, grinning.
"Just for being you."
"Okay. More of that later. Go on into your new office and sign the papers on your desk. There's a lot of them. And I'll be out of town for a couple of days, so hold down the fort and keep those lazy characters outside busy. And when you get those papers signed have them mailed out right away. And you're nuts if you try to read all of them. I don't."
"You're the boss."
"No, you are," he grinned, then moved to his door and went out.
The papers were signed. They were mailed. And the company books were brought to her upon request. And over the following week she realized what had happened . . . . She knew or almost knew when she found the reservation note on Dave's pad. A reservation for Argentina.
She had played him for a sucker and he had played her for the dummy she was. And when the auditors came it was only a short while until the officers came with the warrant for her arrest . . . . The vice president had become the important one. After all the president was in Argentina and there was no extradition proceedings possible. And after all . . . she had signed all those papers which directed the banks to shell out the money to the bearer of the copy . . . Dave's copy . . . .
Dave had had all those other people's money in the bank . . . and he really had become tired of the responsibility. The only responsibility he wanted was the money in his own name.
In time Tina might be able to play the responsibility game again . . . maybe!


A Dick Trent book.
  • Characteristically eliding narrative detail – sole details are 1) what kind of alcohol (always Scotch, in this case) is in the glass; and 2) lingerie specifics - Wood here propels his Darwinian male/female pair forward almost entirely via dialogue.
  • The office was a milieu oft-explored by Wood, and its politics commonly fodder for derision. The turnabout is swift, suspense-less and untelegraphed, but nonetheless inevitable. Though we fully expect Tina's comeuppance, Dave's fully successful turnabout erases the possibility of any comforting morality tale.
  • What to make of that final line? After she gets out of jail? If she makes it out of jail?
  • It's easy to imagine Ed pushing this one of his typewriter in an hour or two while at his desk at Pendulum, never proofread. The apparent speed translates into the read, save those "huh?" moments, like Tina's discovery of Dave's "reservation for Argentina." A hotel reservation...a plane ticket?
  • The evocatively awkward syntax throughout conspires with said lingerie specifics (a white cardigan angora and pink marabou)  to produce a representative Wood short story of its era.
  • The dramatic hinge is perfection: She had played him for a sucker and he had played her for the dummy she was.
  • Dick Trent was one of Ed's most-frequently-employed  pen names, across both books and magazine articles/works of short fiction.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Game of Checkers: An extremely short story by Joe Blevins

The Wilsons' names are George and Martha.

Mrs. Wilson turned her head halfway toward Dennis, paused, then looked back at the wall. The room grew very quiet then for about thirty seconds, at which point Dennis heard a sound he eventually recognized as Mrs. Wilson sobbing softly. Mr. Wilson must have heard it, too, because he said something that sounded like ‘goddammit,’ and he lifted his heavy frame from the chair and walked out of the room. Mrs. Wilson didn’t even watch him go. Dennis, sensing an opportunity, rearranged the pieces on the checkerboard in his own favor.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A weird, sad, true story about me and the Old Spice guy

For very personal reasons, the Old Spice ads make me feel sad.

Not an actual Nazi.
The actor in the goofy, over-the-top Old Spice ads is Isaiah Mustafa. That name is branded into my memory for the weirdest, saddest reason ever. 

You see, a few years ago, I was a regular member of an online movie discussion forum where that actor's brother was also a frequent participant, much more active than I was. He was very proud of his brother's career and would occasionally post updates about what Isaiah was up to. All very nice and positive stuff. No problem there. 

Unfortunately, one day there was a thread on the forum about the use of terms like "grammar nazi" and whether they were offensive and should be avoided or banned. I argued that history was full of infamous, real-life people whose names eventually became figures of speech. I cited, I believe, Attila the Hun as an example. As events recede further into the past, I argued, they become more and more abstract, so it is inevitable that they will take on symbolic meaning. A character like the "Soup Nazi" on Seinfeld is not intended as a literal member of the National Socialist Party, and there is no implication of antisemitism in his portrayal. The epithet merely means that he is very focused on rules, neatness, and absolute control. Banning terms like "grammar nazi," then, is ultimately futile. It's just how language works. Eventually, the "n'" in "Nazi" will be lower case. I still feel that way. You may not.

One person who definitely disagreed with me on this point was the Old Spice guy's brother. He accused me of being, in essence, a Nazi sympathizer or Nazi enabler, if not an actual Nazi myself. It was, unequivocally, the nastiest thing anyone has ever said about me, online or offline, in my entire life. (And I was once a customer service rep for a major automobile manufacturer, so I've been called plenty of nasty names.) 

I was shell-shocked. At the time, I still felt that online forums actually mattered, so I responded to this attack with a lengthy, heated post in which I accused the Old Spice guy's brother of being blinkered and dogmatic to the point of being unreasonable. I refrained from implicating him in the deaths of 6 million  Jews, however, a kindness he did not extend to me. I don't believe the dust-up between us ever came to any sort of agreement or peace accord. We both just kind of gave up on it and never directly interacted again on that now-dormant forum. To this day, I cannot sit through the Old Spice ads without feeling an awful mixture of embarrassment, anger, shame, and regret.

And that's my story about the Old Spice guy.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

That moment when you realize Powdered Toast Man is actually Jesus

"Leave everything to me."

"And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying: This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." -Luke 22:19

A PTM comic book.
Writing about Nickelodeon's The Ren & Stimpy Show recently caused me to think about -- and truly consider the oddness of -- the show's colorful cast of supporting characters, including frazzled kids show star Muddy Mudskipper (a seeming first cousin to The Simpsons' jaded Krusty the Clown), textbook suburbanites Mr. and Mrs. Pipe, taciturn steed Mr. Horse, and the dinner-jacketed announcer known only as That Guy.

But perhaps no R&S costar is better remembered or more loved than Powdered Toast Man, a ridiculous superhero voiced by Laugh-In veteran Gary Owens. He is essentially a muscular, deep-voiced man with two giant slices of toast where his head ought to be, and his outfit is the usual form-fitting leotard with the underwear worn on the outside.

During the show's first season, back in 1991, PTM appeared briefly in a mock commercial for the space-age product bearing his name. The concept of Powdered Toast is simple: just shake some powder out of a Comet cleanser-type can onto your plate, and in a few seconds it transforms into warm, crispy toast! In a example of the show's proudly juvenile, absurd gross out humor, the costume-clad crime fighter always made sure to fart on every slice of powdered toast Ren and Stimpy ate. The character made such an impression on R&S viewers that he was given his own episode during the show's second season premiere in 1992. Another PTM cartoon, "Powdered Toast Man vs. Waffle Woman," appeared in 1994.

For such a strange character, Powdered Toast Man's origins are fairly obvious. Superheroes and breakfast cereal ads have both been integral to animated children's TV shows for decades, so it was natural to combine them in this fashion. On the Ren & Stimpy DVDs, furthermore, creator John Kricfalusi has stated that he was inspired by the many Hanna Barbera heroes who, like PTM, routinely shout their own names, a lineage that includes Space Ghost (also originally voiced by Owens), Birdman, and Captain Caveman. Plus, we must factor in that "toast" is just a funny word, especially when you say it repeatedly in a short span of time. PTM's name led to such memorable quotes as Stimpy's "He's toast-terrific!"

I've already written about how Ren & Stimpy was filled with hyper-masculine, strong-jawed, he-man archetypes. PTM would seem to be one of the friendlier examples.

But I started thinking about that 1992 "Powdered Toast Man" episode, and I realized that there may be something else going on with the familiar character. Maybe PTM isn't just a breakfast-based superhero. Maybe he's a stand-in for Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God. 

Okay, it's a far-out theory, I realize. But hear me out.

Take and eat.
Powdered Toast Man actually opens his own head up and scrapes out some powder onto Ren and Stimpy's plates. This is as close a cartoon representation to the Eucharist as I can imagine on The Ren & Stimpy Show. PTM uses his body to feed a hungry cat and dog! The transformation of powder into toast may, in fact, be miraculous, like the story of the fishes and loaves in Matthew 14.

Fish and bread, it should be noted, are both important motifs on The Ren & Stimpy Show. Their hero, as I've already pointed out, is literally made of bread. In "Son of Stimpy," Stimpy's prodigal son (another biblical reference!), Stinky, even marries a rotting fish carcass before honeymooning in Ren's nose. And fish are common comedic props throughout the series, as in "Haunted House," in which one unlucky trout or halibut becomes part of a grotesque sandwich. That episode, incidentally, features another example of a character literally turning into bread, as an unlucky ghost disguises himself as a slice of bread in an attempt to trick Ren and Stimpy. Eucharistic symbolism abounds!

But getting back to Powdered Toast Man, what other Christ-like characteristics does he have? After studying the "Powdered Toast Man" episode from 1992, I've made the following observations:

  • His skimpy red shorts are monogrammed PTM, but only the cross-like T is emphasized. Throughout the episode, his catchphrase will be "Leave everything to me," which sounds like an updated version of that classic bumper sticker slogan, "Let go and let God." Like Jesus, Powdered Toast Man is voluntarily taking on the burdens of the human race. PTM knows of our fears, our weaknesses, our sins, and our frailties, and he is willing to accept them all if we only ask for his help. Truly, he wants us to leave everything to him.
  • An overly-excited announcer describes PTM as a mysterious, god-like being from another world: "Who is this stranger from another land? Why does he walk among mortal men? What is his mission? Where can we get a pair of undershorts like his? Who is this man of toast and what does he want from us? What is his dark secret?" That second query -- "Why does he walk among mortal men?" -- seems particularly applicable to Christ as well. It's one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith.
  • PTM's chosen alias is "Pastor Toastman, the cool youth deacon." His assistant  is a lovely young lady who dresses much like a Catholic schoolgirl and refers to him as "Father." The fact that the character casually tears off his priestly collar could be viewed as either deliberate sacrilege or the fact that Christ would have no use for the hierarchical structure of organized religion as it is practiced today.
  • In an outlandish parody of Christ's mercy, PTM saves a small kitten from being run over by a delivery truck by crashing a passenger plane directly into the truck. Like Christ, PTM is primarily concerned with the humblest and most helpless of God's creatures. (Never mind that he carelessly tosses the animal into the path of another vehicle moments later.)
  • PTM is, in some ways, better than God or Jesus because he directly answers prayers. He can be contacted through his Toast-omatron Communicator, his inflating and deflating red shorts, and even his tongue, which functions as a telephone. When Ren and Stimpy need toast, PTM comes quickly, as in Revelation 22:12.
FZ as the Pope.
  • Whom does PTM save in the episode's main event? The Pope, as portrayed by Frank Zappa. And from whom does he save the Pope? An angry fish villain, as portrayed by Muddy Mudskipper. There is an absolutely religious-seeming moment in which PTM floats angelically over the semi-conscious, almost-dead Muddy Mudskipper and "resurrects" him, only to tie him to a barrel full of about-to-explode gunpowder. As with the kitten incident, it plays like a parody of a miracle.
  • In the cartoon's final act, PTM becomes heavily involved in American politics, perhaps denoting how much influence the Christian right has over the United States government. After saving the hapless, unnamed president, who gets his penis caught in his zipper in the White House john, PTM assumes the role of Commander-in-Chief, vowing "to relieve the American citizens of their basic human rights."
  • As president, one of PTM's top priorities is settling the "Three Stooges stamp controversy," possibly an oblique reference to the Holy Trinity. In another example of political satire, PTM then burns the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in order to heat the Oval Office, warming himself in front of the fire with his nubile female assistant, a possible cognate for Mary Magdalene.
So as you can see, there are numerous parallels between the Man of Toast and the Lamb of God. Whether this was intentional or not is up to you to decide. And am I, the author of this piece, being sincere with the evidence presented here, or is this an intentionally over-the-top comment on far-fetched fan theories? Well, that, too, is for you to determine. Read it over, examine the evidence carefully, and come to a conclusion that suits you and your spiritual life. Me, I'm off to enjoy some delicious powdered toast.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A clear-eyed look back at 'Back to the Future Part II'

"The shark still looks fake."

NOTE: Since today is the famous October 21, 2015, I thought I'd do a little Internet time-traveling of my own and resurrect an article I co-wrote back in 2010 for Unloosen with my pal and fellow movie blogger, Craig J. Clark. I've edited and retooled my section of the article somewhat and present that to you now.

Drew Struzan's poster art
Roger Ebert defined a sequel as "a filmed deal," and it's amazing how accurately the truly odd Back to the Future Part II (1989) reflects that cynical definition. The supplemental materials on the movie's DVD are surprisingly candid in laying out why the movie exists and why it took the form that it did. 

When the first Back to the Future was released in 1985, it was anything but a sure thing. The film's star, Michael J. Fox, was not a household name yet, and the film's co-creators (Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale) had failed to attain mainstream success with their two previous films, I Want to Hold Your Hand and Used Cars. Worse yet, the Zemeckis/Gale-scripted 1941, directed by Steven Spielberg, had been a financial disaster for Universal Pictures. So another Zemeckis/Gale comedy with Spielberg as producer was a risky proposition. In fact, the film could easily have turned out to be another embarrassing boondoggle for Universal.

But, of course, the first film was a massive worldwide hit, the top-grossing American film of 1985. A sequel was inevitable, and Universal informed Zemeckis and Gale that one would happen whether they were involved or not. They decided, not unreasonably, to become involved. So the Bobs were now "locked in," so to speak, as were most of the members of the first film's cast. Strangely, though, it was the holdout of one of the supporting players, Crispin Glover, that provided the catalyst for the sequel's plot in which his character (loveable nerd George McFly) is mysteriously killed off, creating another "time travel" problem for the heroes, Doc and Marty, to solve.

Back to the Future, it should be noted, was not designed as the first film in a franchise. The original film's ending, with Doc Brown taking Marty and Jennifer to the future in his flying car as a "TO BE CONTINUED" caption flashes on the screen, was written strictly as a joke. In fact, it's one of my favorite ways to end a comedy -- the classic "here we go again!" bit. It's a very satisfying way to conclude a comedy/fantasy film, knowing that the heroes are not going to rest but are going to embark upon yet another madcap adventure. There was really no need, other than financial, to revisit these characters or the Hill Valley setting. But if you're contractually obligated to revisit them, what the heck do you do with them? Well, Zemeckis and Gale came up with three different, potentially intriguing answers to that question and devote roughly one act of the final film to each of them.

1. Put Doc and Marty in the actual future. 

Yes, that's Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the background. I don't know why either.

Despite that pesky word "future" in the title, the Back to the Future trilogy is mainly about the past. The success of the first film all but single-handedly revived the "rock & roll nostalgia" sub-genre, which had been on the decline seven years after Grease (1978), and soon the multiplexes and video stores were again teeming with oldies-laden films set during the 1950s and 1960s, including Stand By Me and Hairspray. But the subgenre was again in decline by 1989, done in by another trend. That was the year Tim Burton's designed-to-be-dark Batman permanently changed what a "blockbuster fantasy movie" was supposed to be. Gentle whimsy, the original Future's stock in trade, was definitely out that year, which is perhaps why this sequel mainly plays as a harder-edged, more frantic action picture that barely takes time to pause and revel in its surroundings and instead zips from one calamity to the next. 

In any event, BTTF2 devotes its first third to a thoroughly bizarre and somewhat off-putting sequence set in the Hill Valley of 2015. In the DVD supplements, Zemeckis admits that predicting the future is always a losing proposition -- even Stanley Kubrick was always wrong - so he and Gale mainly give this part of the film over to a variety of bizarre sight gags (hoverboards, self-lacing sneakers, double neckties, a 3D Jaws ad). 

This is also where the film begins to reveal itself as an almost surrealist parody of its predecessor, giving us grotesque and/or upsetting parodies of familiar scenes from the first film. Example: remember that funny, old-timey Texaco station from the previous movie? Well, now it's staffed by sleek, vaguely threatening-looking robots! Zing! And remember that classic showdown with Biff in the diner? Well, now the diner is a gaudy 1980s-nostalgia-themed cafe where the "waiters" are Max-Headroom-ized versions of Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson! And Biff has a grandson, Griff, who looks and talks just like him, only much louder! Nutty, right? Overall, though, I was glad that the movie's version of the future is ostensibly cheerful, closer to Futurama than Blade Runner.

Unfortunately, the "future" part of the movie also spends some time at the depressing homestead of middle-aged Marty McFly and his grotesque family. These downtrodden characters mill around in ugly, unconvincing old-age makeup in a suburban home teeming with blatant product placement. The dialogue here is actually some of the movie's worst, as the characters work overtime to squeeze in crucial bits of plot exposition for us to overhear so we know what the hell is going on. 

The main point of all this is gimmickry for its own sake: The filmmakers have cast Michael J. Fox in multiple roles so that we can watch him interact with various versions of himself on-camera. It's not surprising that some of this sequence, expensive and complicated as it is, wound up on the cutting room floor. Weirdly, the only thing I really enjoyed in this part of the film was the way Fox played the older Marty as a hoarse-voiced, washed-up loser who whimpers pathetically as he is fired from his job via a big-screen TV while the news of his dismissal spews from several gadgets at once. It's like the whole house is ganging up on Marty at that point.

Oh, and before we leave this part of the film, I want to give the movie some credit for taking baby steps toward gender equality. Like his ancestors, Griff has a gang of sycophantic thugs around him, but this time one of them is a girl. I liked that. But, anyway, on to the next section of the film.

2. Give us a nightmare version of the Hill Valley setting. 

Lea Thompson somehow makes this work.

Again being surprisingly candid, Bob Gale admits on the BTTF2 DVD that taking the story into the future was a logical and narrative mistake. You don't have to travel into the future to change it. Our destinies are ostensibly under our control, so we just have to try to live our lives so that those terrible outcomes never come true. If one of the real underlying problems is Marty's insecurity -- he can't stand being called "chicken" -- maybe he should just get some counseling or something instead of scampering willy nilly through history , diddling with the space-time continuum to fix his and his relatives' various screw-ups. One could imagine an increasingly-lazy Marty relying on the DeLorean every time he goofed up. ("Damn. Forgot to DVR Shark Tank. Better fire up the Flux Capacitor.")

The middle of BTTF2 shows us the negative fallout of Doc and (especially) Marty's impetuousness. They return to 1985, only to find themselves in a hellish alternate reality (called "1985-A" by the filmmakers) in which Biff is a multi-millionaire mogul married to Marty's mother, Lorraine, while Marty's father, George, is dead, having been murdered in 1973. 

This entire section of the film plays out like an extrapolation of the "Pottersville" sequence from It's a Wonderful Life. Like George Bailey, Marty has inadvertently created a dark parallel timeline in which a charming small town has basically been turned into a dystopian Las Vegas (Hill Valley instead of Bedford Falls), the corrupt villain is in charge and wields unlimited power (Biff instead of Mr. Potter), and the sweet but kooky sidekick guy has been committed (Doc Brown instead of Uncle Billy). Weirdly, Zemeckis even films Michael J. Fox the way Frank Capra filmed Jimmy Stewart. Both Stewart and Fox have a tendency to walk right up to the camera at crucial moments as they register how badly they've messed things up. 

Again, the filmmakers use this sequence to give us weird parodies of scenes from the first film. Remember when Marty was waking up and heard his mother Lorraine's voice and thought he was back "home" again? Well, now Lorraine has huge fake breasts and looks like a beat-up old whore, and they all live in a place that looks like it was decorated personally by Tony Montana! Pow!

This second section of the film must've come as a shock to fans of the first film, as it more or less takes everything that was endearing about the original and vomits on it, but I admired it for its audacity and willingness to risk being offensive and alienating. There are some very funny things going on in the edges of the film as well. I enjoyed, for example, how Biff's gang from the 1950s has become his entourage in the 1980s, and how one of them (Billy Zane) has taken to wearing a cowboy hat as an affectation. And I laughed aloud -- for the only time during what is essentially a comedy -- during a scene that revisits Marty's old principal, Mr. Strickland, and finds him as a Rambo-like urban warrior taking on his hated "slackers" with a machine gun.

Getting back to the plot, though: Marty and Doc eventually realize the problems of "1985-A" can be traced back to the movie's main macguffin, Gray's Sports Almanac, a book of sports statistics that falls into Biff's clutches and allows him to become rich and powerful, thus destroying the future. So the film enters its final -- and, to its credit, best -- stage.

3. Revisit the first film from another angle.

Somehow, the leather jacket never caught on like the vest from the original did.

During this portion of the film, Doc and Marty travel back to 1955 to prevent the 2015 Biff from giving the sports almanac to the 1955 Biff. If you could parse that previous sentence at all, it's a cinch that you've seen the first Back to the Future. It should be mentioned that BTTF2 is a sequel that demands that its audience be thoroughly familiar with the plot of the original, not just the basic premise but the scenes and characters, too, down to fairly minute detail. Some sequels are completely comprehensible to newcomers; one needn't see every James Bond film to get the gist of that character and what his life is like. But a movie like BTTF2 relies very heavily on what the experts call "inter-textual dialogue," and never is this more true than in the third act, in which Doc and Marty are basically creeping around in the margins of the first film, trying to remain just out of sight while alternate versions of themselves are just a few feet away, wrapped up in what they think is the real storyline. I'm getting a bit dizzy just thinking about all of this.

They must practice that spin. Don't you think?
On the DVD, Zemeckis said it was this aspect of the story that interested him the most, and frankly it's what interested me the most as well. For one thing, it allows the film to ditch the horrendous makeup prosthetics of the first two acts, and it gives us a chance to see some more of the 1955 Hill Valley that we hadn't seen before. I liked getting a glimpse of Biff's home life, where he lives with his truly awful grandmother and menaces the small children in his neighborhood. (God bless the filmmakers for not dressing Thomas F. Wilson up in drag and having him play "Grandma Biff.") 

As noted previously, I'm always on board for more material with the mean principal, Mr. Strickland, so I was glad to have a scene of him drinking alone in his office during the famous Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, secretly drowning his misery in the sauce and oblivious to the fact that rock & roll, the ultimate slacker uprising, is being invented right next door. 

Above all, I loved the way this section of the film reached its mysterious and almost spooky apex, with Doc Brown seemingly obliterated by a lightning bolt and a stranded Marty -- alone on a rainy night in the middle of nowhere -- being suddenly visited by a trenchcoat-wearing Joe Flaherty, a very odd deus ex machina indeed. On the other hand, the film kind of fumbles the ball in the last few minutes by including a trailer for Part III before the closing credits, but even here I appreciated the opportunity to watch the members of ZZ Top do that thing where they spin their instruments around in perfect synchronicity. Damn, that always looks cool.

I have to say that revisiting Back to the Future Part II was generally a rewarding experience. The film is certainly one of the more idiosyncratic sequels ever made, and though it's not always appealing -- and, indeed is often deliberately appalling -- I was not bored by it. I was actually surprised at how frantic it was and how much there is actually going on in this film. I'd like to file BTTF2 alongside Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey in the small but noble category of meta-fictional parodies masquerading as sequels.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

More Splitsider and a 'Plan 9' alignment chart

Rick Moranis as David Brinkley on SCTV Network 90.

Splitsider continues to be a place where I can work through my long-gestating comedic obsessions. Case in point: my latest piece for the site, which is about comedian Rick Moranis. The article contrasts his work on SCTV with the film roles he played from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s before retiring. I got the idea when I started rewatching old SCTV skits and noticing two important things: (1) Rick Moranis is one hell of a sketch performer. (2) The kinds of characters he played on TV weren't often -- or even usually -- the nerdy nice guys he played in movies. That picture up there, for instance, is from a brilliant monologue he did as real-life ABC newsman David Brinkley. Anyway, I hope my article makes at least one or two people check out Moranis' pre-movie sketch work.

Also, I've noticed that my "Manos" The Hands of Fate alignment chart is the biggest traffic-generating item I've had on this blog since Ed Wood Wednesdays went on permanent/indefinite hiatus back in June. Thank you to all of who have read it and shared it. At the risk of running this thing into the ground, I've decided to respond with another alignment chart, this time based on Ed Wood's most famous movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space. At best, this will be the smoke that lingers after a kitchen fire, but I hope some Wood-heads enjoy it nonetheless.

Also: I don't want to promise anything immediately, but there are some serious plans underway to bring Ed Wood Wednesdays back in the near future! But not in the form you may be expecting. No further spoilers. Anyway, here's the Plan 9 chart. Hope you enjoy.

Can your heart stand the shocking facts about the Plan 9 from Outer Space alignment chart?

Monday, October 19, 2015

At last, a 'Manos: The Hands of Fate' alignment chart!

Here is the "Manos" The Hands of Fate alignment chart you've been clamoring for. EXPLANATIONS BELOW!

Since Halloween is just a couple of weeks away and since the 1966 cult classic "Manos" The Hands of Fate has recently been restored and released to DVD and Blu-ray, I thought the time was finally right to do one of those Dungeons & Dragons-inspired alignment charts for the film. There are already such charts for everything from The Big Lebowski to The Office to Alice in Wonderland, but there wasn't a "Manos" one yet. Well, now there is. You're more than welcome, I'm sure.

ADDENDUM: I thought I'd add some explanations, in case anyone wanted to know why I put each character where I did on the chart. Let's start with the lawful column. Obviously, the merciful, sensible wife who wants to spare Debbie belongs in the Lawful Good spot. A no-brainer. The do-almost-nothing sheriff belongs in the Lawful Neutral position because he represents the actual law yet does not use his authority to help anyone, and the Master takes the Lawful Evil spot because he's always talking about the "will of Manos" and quoting the rules to Torgo. Plus he's pretty darned evil. Of all these characters, it was the sheriff who was my inspiration for the entire chart. 
Good old Bernie. Can't rattle him.
For the neutral column, I chose three characters who don't actually impose the rules but don't go out of their way to cause havoc either. At opposite ends of the scale are two wives. At one end, we have simpering, obedient Margaret, who bravely offers to sacrifice herself to save her daughter, Debbie. At the other end, we have the Master's snottiest bride, who happily snitches on Torgo and accuses the "good wife" of jealousy. In the middle is the movie's true zen master: Bernie the smoocher, whose only interests in life are sucking face with his best gal and sucking down hooch from a flask. Nothing gets to this guy. True neutral all the way. 
Now, we move on to the chaotic column, where I put three characters who deliberately add to the pandemonium of the film. In the "good" spot, because she's still an innocent child, is young Debbie. She causes chaos by just randomly running away in the middle of the night and bringing a strange dog back with her. In the neutral spot is Debbie's useless father, Mike, who is just a mess. He gets the family lost, can't start the car, and just generally makes poor decisions at every turn. And finally, we come to the film's obvious master of chaos, Torgo. Some may question my rating of Torgo as "evil," but let's take Torgo's track record into consideration. During a conversation with the Master, it's revealed that Torgo takes advantage of the wives in some way (sexually, is my guess) when they are immobile and helpless. Add to this the fact that he peeps on Margaret and tries to force himself on her, and you get a habitual sexual predator. He serves a transparently evil master, additionally, and takes obvious pleasure in sadism. In short, not a nice guy.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The first 'Wizard of Oz' soundtrack album was neither a soundtrack nor an album. Discuss.

This artwork is from a later reissue of the 1940 Decca sides.

When MGM's The Wizard of Oz was first released in 1939, it did not actually get a proper soundtrack album for a darned good reason: such things were not technically possible at the time. The long-playing or LP record capable of holding several songs per side was not introduced until 1948 by Columbia. The crucial format change made the modern concept of the album possible, more or less. Before this innovation, a vinyl record only had enough storage space for about one song per side. If a label wanted to group a whole slew of songs together, it would package several individual 78 RPM discs together in a book-like binding. These collections were called "albums" because of their resemblance to photo albums. That's where the term originates. Decades later, in 1979, the innovative post-punk band Public Image Ltd. sort of revived this concept with its sophomore album, Metal Box, which was originally released in the form of three separate 12" discs packaged in metal film canisters.

Decca's Wizard of Oz cast album from 1940
When John Lydon and his cronies did this in the late 1970s, it was an attention-grabbing stunt. But back in the early 1940s, it was the industry standard for so-called "albums" to consist of several short-playing discs bundled together. Interestingly, such a marvelously clunky release counts as the first-ever attempt to compile an official Wizard of Oz soundtrack. Decca Records, the label that a few decades hence would infamously turn down The Beatles, released what it called an "Original Cast Album" for the lush MGM musical, though the only cast member of the film involved with the project was Judy Garland, who provided vocals for two tracks, "Over the Rainbow" and  "The Jitterbug," the latter of which was notoriously deleted from the film.

To add further authenticity to the Decca recordings, the vocal arrangements were done by Ken Darby, who also worked on the film, and Oz songwriter Harold Arlen portrayed the Scarecrow on at least one track. The orchestra, meanwhile, was led by Victor Young, a multi-talented, Chicago-born violinist, composer, and conductor who worked on such films as Shane, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Paleface, and many others. Decca's Oz album, which has been dubbed a "pre-soundtrack" even though it came out after the movie, contained eight tracks spread out over four discs, plus a six-page foldout brochure and stills and photos explaining the plot of the film. From the photos I've seen, it's a pretty deluxe package and a neat souvenir. For a mere $12,500, you can own Judy Garland's personal copy, if you so desire.

A reissue of the Decca material.
Now that the actual recordings used in the MGM film are commonplace and easily available, complete with outtakes, alternate versions, and Herbert Stothart's score, the 1940 Decca recordings have fallen out of favor and are no longer in print. The two tracks with vocals by Judy Garland are available as part of a compilation called Over the Rainbow: The Decca Singles,  while the other six songs are sadly neglected these days. 

But Decca's Oz material had a healthy afterlife for about four decades, being reissued time and time again by the label, sometimes paired with Decca's versions of the songs from the 1940 Walt Disney production, Pinocchio. A few of those Pinocchio tracks, incidentally, feature vocals by Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, who voiced Jiminy Cricket in the animated film. Apparently, Decca's strategy back then was: get at least one real person from the movie, preferably the one whose voice would be hardest to imitate. The most recent iteration of the Decca album came out in 1980. Since then, nothing. This material is not commercially available in 2015, except as a collectible on Ebay.

Happily, this little slice of Wizard of Oz history has not entirely vanished from the Internet. All eight tracks are available on YouTube to those who go looking. What's especially interesting about these recordings, apart from the participation of Garland, Darby, and Arlen, is that many of the tracks feature newly-composed introductions. Just as in the movie, the songwriting credit on the album only goes to Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Perhaps the original composers wrote these new sections themselves. It's certainly possible. Additionally, there are segments of "Muchkinland" on the album that are sung rather than spoken as they are in the film. In those cases, the melodies match those from the demo recordings made by Arlen and Harburg during preproduction on Oz. That suggests to me that perhaps the songwriting duo was more heavily involved in the Decca sessions and may well have written those new intros. In any event, it's a nice little footnote to movie and music history.