Saturday, February 28, 2015

Prosper

I, like a lot of nerds, enjoy Star Trek. So the passing of one of Star Trek's icons, Leonard Nimoy, is sad, if not exactly unexpected.

As far as Star Trek goes, though, I'm more of a Next Generation guy--it debuted when I was around 11, which is the sweet spot for watching dorky things in the 1980's. Unfortunately, DS9 bored me and by the time Voyager and Enterprise came around I just didn't have time to get into them, so my spectrum of Star Trek consumption is alarmingly limited.


That leaves, of course, the original series (TOS). I've always had mixed feelings about that series: on the one hand, it's an enjoyable series that does a pretty good job of producing entertaining, thoughtful plotlines centered in a sci fi universe, all while utilizing a fantastic set of characters and actors and establishing a rich foundation of backstory. On the other hand, the scripts were wildly uneven, the production values iffy at best, and it screams "60's" right in your face. Watching it can sometimes be a chore.

And yet, Star Trek is important. It is sometimes easy to forget the impact it had on our culture. It wasn't just a weekly hour-long nerd-wank session on a major network. Star Trek deliberately aimed at breaking barriers and pushing culture forward, all under the aegis of being sci-fi. You had one of the first African-American females as part of a main cast; you had an Asian who wasn't a martial arts expert or a coolie or Mickey Rooney; and even the inclusion of a Russian in the almost-hot Cold War of the late 60's was fairly important. (Thankfully, we had Klingons to act as stand-ins for the Russkies.) Add to that the fairly easy allegories that could be made using alien races as proxies for whatever social issue needed to be addressed, and stir in some decent writing and you can see why it had such an impact.

Well, maybe not so much. Expensive to make and with ratings that were modest at best (although it did exceptionally well in the lucrative young male demographic, a science that was just then gaining traction), it barely stayed on the air for three years before unceremoniously cancelled.And while Star Trek was innovative, it certainly wasn't the first to push boundaries by transplanting hot-button issues into science fiction; The Twilight Zone and other similar anthology programs were doing it a decade earlier.

But let's stop beating around the bush, here. Star Trek has stayed in our consciousness for a number of reasons, but one of them was the trio of characters (and their actors) that headed the show. William Shatner took James T. Kirk and made him into the able archetype of the action-oriented, aggressive captain and took exploring new galaxies to their logical conclusion. In addition, the logically-minded Spock, portrayed by Leonard Nimoy, and the cranky but diplomatic McCoy (DeForest Kelley), in combination with Kirk became an almost perfect triumvirate of personalities that many other television shows and movies copied.

It's easy to oversell it, of course. Star Trek took the brunt of a lot of jokes in its time, laughing all the way to the bank but never really being able to shake the whole reputation of being a nerdy, unpopular genre. It took decades of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and a few generations of video games and role-playing acceptance before converting into an acceptable, mainstream cultural phenomenon.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bad, Bad Movies

Tonight is the 87th Academy Awards ceremonies, where all of the glamor and glitter and cocaine-off-of-the-backs-of-commodes all concentrate in one place, so average Americans can watch rich people give other rich people awards.

Of course, let's not forget the bad movies as well as the good.

A lot of people have a fascination with bad films. At first glance, it seems weird--who would voluntarily watch something horrible? But I think a lot of people look at a final product and realize that thousands of people worked on it, and not one of them stepped up and said "Wait a second, what the hell are we doing here?"

There's also the type of bad movie to look at: some movies are "so bad, they're good" and then there are just bad movies, and finding that nearly invisible line between the two can be a challenge.

Granted, there are different types of bad movies:

  • Movies where there is a failure on all fronts. Production values are bad, casting is atrocious, and the writing makes no sense. You actually don't see this happening all that much anymore; at the very least on the production value standards technological costs are so low even the barest of budgets can get decent props, sets, and cameras. Gone are the days of things like Plan 9 From Outer Space where they were literally grabbing junk from random places just to put on a show. Still, there's enough stuff out there were naive or unprofessional directors straight up can't get their act together. 
  • Movies where the genres are mixed. This might be a thriller that also tries to be a romantic comedy, or an action flick that tries to make a political point, or a historical drama that tries to reinvent history to appeal to a modern audience. It's not impossible to pull off, and when it does it's brilliant, but it's very difficult. You'll also see a lot of people see this work once--and then all copycat attempts to duplicate that success are garbage.
  • Movies with an acting misfire. These often star perfectly capable actors and actresses that either can't quite pull off what the writers and directors are trying to do, or the actor is branching out into a genre they just aren't going to fit in with.
  • Intentionally bad movies. These are often horror movies or gross-out comedies,where the bad writing, situations, and productions values are done with a wink at the audience.
  • Finally, there are movies that are just a mess. These are the most common nowadays, where the production values and budget are average-to-high, it has a lot of big names, there's a large cadre of directors, writers, studio representatives, and money men involved--everybody who has a stake in the movie are all there, and not one of them steps back and thinks that it's a bad movie. The badness of the movie is amplified by the fact that these are all professional people with huge budgets and all sorts of talent at their fingertips, and they still produce a complete pile of trash. And so it gets wide distribution and a huge marketing campaign and then audiences hate it and it becomes the subject for ridicule. 
This last one, in my opinion, is the most fascinating. There's probably a part of it that enjoys the fact that big, powerful people get embarrassed by something they think is great. But another part of it is just the fact that the power structure of Hollywood is so farcically out of touch that no one can say "This is a bad movie" without there being repercussions. If you're an underling telling a big-name director that he is creating a bad movie, that's a one-way ticket to not working in Hollywood anymore. If you're the executive who expresses reservations about a project, you're painted as a betrayer.

There are a lot of poster children for this sort of thing. Heaven's Gate, directed by Michael Cimino, is probably the most notorious, mostly because it had actual repercussions in the culture of Hollywood. If you are unfamiliar, the story is about the Johnson County War in Wyoming between land owners and immigrants. This was during the days in which New Hollywood reigned. When a large number of director-driven (as opposed to studio-driven) movies became smash hits in the 60s and 70s and easily became the "future" of moviemaking, studios adapted, giving directors a huge amount of money, resources, and leeway in how they wanted to make their movies. It produced a lot of classic movies, such as The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, and Apocalypse Now. But like most things, directors became more and more demanding and more and more difficult, and the returns on the movies were beginning to make less and less money.  

Heaven's Gate was the final straw: it cost $44 million to make (swelling from its original $12 million budget) and ended up making a paltry $3.5 million. It bankrupted United Artists (or, rather, they were bought out before that could happen) and destroyed Cimino's reputation, which had been on the rise after the Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter. It ended that era of Hollywood, and studios quickly took control back from directors and managed their movies (and budgets) more closely.

The thing is, the movie isn't bad, really--the acting is capable, the production values are decent, and it's not unwatchable. And yet it is a bad movie, because it's eminently boring, there's no reason to want to actually sit down and watch it, and to see all of the talent being poured into such a huge undertaking just baffles most people. And this is the sort of thing that happens most frequently now--while there's a lot of bad writing and bad acting and bad ideas still being produced in Hollywood, there's at lease some sort of quality control to make sure it's not something like a bad 60's sci-fi flick with set pieces falling down and actors who are their brother's chiropractor.

Still, there's plenty of bad stuff to go around. I recently saw The Room, which defies all description and fits none of the categories above. It's the sort of thing that's entirely enjoyable to watch and yet is clearly a bad movie. The actors are all capable if mediocre--except for the star, Tommy Wiseau, whose broken English and over-the-top acting and complete disregard for inflection and timing come across as laughable. The main plot of the movie--a guy whose friends, one by one, betray him--isn't bad, except that none of the plot makes sense, dozens of subplots are introduced and immediately forgotten, and weird scenes depicting things that no one in the history of the world has even done (like throwing a football back and forth while jogging) make the entire experience seem like a bad fever dream.

Anyway, when watching the Oscars tonight (or, like me, reading about it on Monday), just take a moment to remember all of the horrible, horrible movies that these same people also made.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why I'm Glad Jon Stewart Joined The Daily Show, And Why I'm Glad He's Leaving

So, last week, Jon Stewart announced that he is stepping down as the host of The Daily Show.

I was one of the early adopters of The Daily Show. When Comedy Central debuted the program in 1996, the state of news satire in America was pretty abysmal. You basically had Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, and...well, that was it. Sure, you had some attempts like Not Necessarily The News and That Was The Week That Was, but those were modest successes with a limited audience.

Being an avid consumer of current events back in the day, I ate it up. I wasn't a huge fan--Craig Kilborn, the original host, was kind of a smug prick, and the guests and format were a little too Comedy-Central-Centric. (Most guests were basically comedians who had Comedy Central shows.) Still, the writing was sharp enough and the genre so barren that it was still eminently watchable.

After Kilborn left and Stewart took over, the show revitalized itself. Sure, it still followed roughly the same format, but the attitude was different, the writing cleaner, the range of subjects broadened. It became a proper news satire source and not just a mash of comedy bits held together with dorky jokes about the news. Guests and topics no longer felt like they were simply vehicles for Comedy Central routines. And, most importantly, they cultivated what would end up being a dream team of writers and performers: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Rob Corddry, and Ed Helms, to name a few, all of whom have gone on with successful careers. From about 1999 to 2004 or so, there was no greater example of satire on the airwaves than The Daily Show.

Unfortunately, around that time, something changed. I don't know if there was any one specific point in which it did, but if I had to choose it would be Jon Stewart's appearance on Crossfire. During this interview, Stewart called out hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as being bad for political discourse, calling them partisan hacks in a combative and uncomfortable segment. While some think of it as a brave calling out of the loud, obnoxious debate programs that permeated the air, others (like myself) feel it was a absurd for Stewart to do this on their program in the manner that he did. Clearly Stewart was there to be a comedian--since, you know, that's what he is and claimed to be--and when he used it to unexpectedly attack the hosts it was not only hypocritical but in poor taste. He was simultaneously acting as an expert on news discourse, and when they counter attacked he just claimed to be a comedian, apparently hoping that his comments would be taken seriously enough to have an impact, but not so serious that he had to accept responsibility as a journalist. Had Stewart been invited on to discuss the state of media, I think it would have worked out fine, but he chose instead to take the opportunity to make a childish ambush.

The entire problem stems from the fact that around 2004 or so Stewart transformed The Daily Show from something that was a satire of everything to a vehicle for commentary and ideology. Oh, don't get me wrong--good satire has the pleasant side effect of calling out the rich and powerful on their bullshit where traditional journalism can't. But two things converged to make the satire less effective. First, Stewart and the staff took to criticizing all other news outlets, and then when those outlets turned it around against them they claim that they're just a comedy show. You can't just say, "Oh, we are strictly a satirical organization whose sole purpose is to be funny and shouldn't be held to the same journalistic standards as the regular news, except for those times when we want to make an accusation, where we want you to treat us like an academic source."

And that's the biggest issue that I had with The Daily Show. They wanted the good stuff (being taken seriously as a organization when they critique people via satire) but not the bad (their news stories were biased, slanted, used cherry-picked statistics so they could make a funny point). Everybody kind of took The Daily Show's popularity as an excuse to make accusations that under any other circumstance would be the exact sort of thing The Daily Show would get angry about, and if they were criticized they would throw up their hands and say "Can't you tell this is all just a joke?"

There was a glimmer of hope after 2008. Even though I had long stopped watching The Daily Show by that point, I always defended it. Good satire pokes fun at the powerful and influential, and during the height of its run the people in power were the Republicans. It only made sense that their targets would be ideologically slanted. But when the Democrats were ushered into power--mildly in 2006 and then fully in 2008--it was clear that The Daily Show wasn't ready to move on. Old, stale jokes from previous election cycles were trotted out, dusted up, and shook at towards the audience, hoping that they wouldn't notice that the writers couldn't bring themselves to make fun of the party and ideology they so clearly adored. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you are on, satire is most effective when you can make fun of both sides. Otherwise, it's just ideological masturbation. When you're creatively bankrupt enough to not be able to make fun of your own side, the effectiveness of your satire is greatly diminished. Oh, sure, they still made fun of Democrats once in a while; I'm not saying that the show became a relentless anti-conservative machine. But it was clear that the satire against their preferred party was weak, mute, and without bite.

Exhibit A for this sort of thing would be Last Week Tonight, a similar show on HBO starring former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver. It's almost like they took everything that was wrong with The Daily Show and magnified it--every story is a hypersensationalized distortion of any sort of reality. The stats are all skewed, the framing of each issue is slanted to an absurd degree, and the delivery is wrapped up in a sort of douchey faux-intellectual mock horror. You know that guy who goes to college for the first time and suddenly discovered politics and then uses every single logical fallacy in the book to prove that he's right? That's exactly what Last Week Tonight feels like. It almost feels like a satire of satire news shows, except that no one is in on the joke.

Ultimately, I think it's a good thing that Stewart is leaving. I'm glad he did what he did, but it was clear a long time ago that satire has progressed beyond stale Bush jokes and getting upset about the Tea Party, yet Stewart is still sitting in the back corner table wailing away about it while the rest of the world has moved on. He brought a fresh perspective into a vast wasteland of a genre, but it's time now for someone else to do the same to him.

Friday, February 6, 2015

George Washington Totally Wanted Peanut Butter Pie On His Birthday

So last year I entreated my readers to start a brand new tradition: making a delicious peanut butter pie in honor of Presidents Day.

I laid out my case in the post linked above, but last night during a fever dream I totally thought up another perfectly 100% valid reason why we should all make peanut butter pie a Presidents Day tradition:

1. George Washington Carver was named after our first President, George Washington.
2. George Washington Carver also invented peanut butter.*
3. Ergo and therefore and QED, peanut butter pie on Presidents Day makes the most sense ever.

 

Oh oh oh and 4. I just thought of this 4. George Washington Carver is black and February is Black History Month and he invented peanut butter so now it's not only awesome but now school children around the nation are legally obligated to make peanut butter pie (and epipen cocktails, I presume) and bring it to class.

 So--you guys have two weekends to spread (ha!) the word and get yourselves out to the grocery store. Peanut allergists get your placards out for your Presidents Day Protests (or just get some Nutella as a similarly suspicious substitute). And everybody get ready to indulge in a new and tasty American tradition.

*I know some people will claim that George Washington Carver did not, in fact, invent peanut butter, but those people are stupid and wrong.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Trivia Crack Category Conversion Chart


Geography = History
History = Meaningless Dates
Sports = Soccer, Volleyball, and Michael Jordan
Science = Obscure Medical Terms
Art = Pop Culture
Entertainment = Hunger Games Questions