Auld Reacquaintance

31 December, 2020 at 2:18 pm (dear diary)

I have discovered that I don’t listen to as much music around the house as I used to. After a decade and a half of living alone, while I still love music, what I have discovered that I need, subconsciously, are other human voices. My father is a fan of classical music, and has always had a strained relationship with public radio, which was the primary source for intelligent classical programming, but which featured talk, talk, talk ninety percent of the rest of the time. For whatever reason, he had little use for listening to other people; it wasn’t what he needed as part of his background. Whereas, while I like the comfort of listening to familiar music — and, perhaps as part of my father’s influence, much of that music was comprised of orchestral film scores — for the last several years my primary source of internal stimulus and conversation has been podcasts.

In talking with my friend Meggie, I discovered that what I thought was normal parasocial behavior — of imagining myself in conversation with the podcast hosts, figuring out how I would answer the questions being posed if I were ever to be a guest — was not entirely typical. It is, perhaps, born more out of a combination of using podcasts as a substitute for human interaction and a wistful male ego that aspires to one day accomplish something that would lead to being sought after as a guest that leads me to practice my answers to questions from people I will never meet.

The 'Make Noise' applause light in front of the audience at the 2013 taping of Ask Me Another in the Wilbur Theatre, Boston.Much of my podcasting still is primarily sourced from personalities involved with either the Largo/UCB Los Angeles comedy nexus, or prominent figures from BBC4 panel shows, and are usually trivia shows or film podcasts. So there’s a degree of interactivity built in to the format, making the parasocial relationship not so surprising (he justifies somewhat defensively…). Much in the way that Jeopardy is built around the audience trying to see if they would do as well as the contestants, I listen to podcasts with an ear toward how I might have performed. Which, incidentally, almost happened: I was an alternate contestant for the touring Boston episode of Ask Me Another…, I got to dodge the bullet of actually losing live on air, and got preferred seating to safely maintain the listener relationship. The producer told me that, as an alternate, the next time I attended a performance I would be able to jump to the front of the queue and be selected. I laughed and said that I wasn’t likely I’d be in Brooklyn on a random Tuesday or Wednesday night, but that I’d keep that in mind. Seven years later, the producer has moved on from the show and I wonder both: if that offer has expired, and also if that’s why I still live in this zone of thinking that I need to keep on my toes in terms of possible participation.

So I wander around my apartment answering lots of questions being asked of other people. I’m trying to choose what my favorite starter, side, main course, drink, and dessert would be in the Dream Restaurant, I’m trying to figure out what film I first remember seeing, which film I loved as a kid and think is shit now, and which film that people hate but I love and conversely which film people love but I can’t stand, and I’m determining how I would have rated a movie on a scale of 0 to 99 when I first saw it in 1999, and how those ratings would have changed today? But those are all year-’round reflections and inquiries. The timely, seasonal question over on Doug Loves Movies has been: what is the holiday movie that contestants have chosen as their favorite? Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: Pro Patria Mori

29 December, 2020 at 9:44 pm (dear diary, le carré diem)

A couple weeks ago, it was announced that David Cornwell, who had written under the pseudonym John le Carré for decades, had died. I may have found out, most banally, on Facebook, where I have subscribed to his fan page. I had enjoyed the announcements that spun out of there, most recently about the paperback edition of Agent Running In The Field — a book which I had purchased eagerly in hardback the week of its release, spurred on, no doubt by earlier announcements issuing from that same source.

The title and credit card for The Looking Glass War by John le Carré

It stung to hear of his passing, for entirely selfish reasons. There is literally no one on the planet who will live forever, but certain people take on the character of eternity regardless, particularly if they pre-date one and continue to flourish during one’s significant life changes. I mentioned in my Le Carré film adaptation recap series that I came to him on two fronts. The first was during a Michelle Pfeiffer-soaked adolescence ignited by her whisky-husk voice in the vinyl Catwoman outfit, but confirmed by her appearance in The Russia House, where her glamour was downplayed by the costumers and elevated by the text.

But the other source was the BBC television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, which I did not truly deconstruct on the (still partially unfinished) series. Upon rewatching the film for the blog entry, I found myself incapable of disentangling my feelings about the film from comparisons to the miniseries. Much in the way that I don’t feel myself wholly capable of judging the Knightley/Macfadyen Pride & Prejudice, because I’m not watching it as a movie so much as I’m watching it as a condensed version of the Ehle/Firth miniseries, I can’t get Alec Guinness out of my head while watching Gary Oldman. And more than just the performance, I’m judging Alfredson on his choices in interpreting the script versus the more luxurious prior effort. It’s not really fair.

It’s additionally unfair because my attachment to Guinness’ George Smiley is significantly sentimental. Read the rest of this entry »

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Birthday Present

2 November, 2020 at 10:47 pm (clerical, dear diary, music)

As I left my apartment this morning, I put my weekly lunch materials — diet iced tea, cold cuts, cheddar cheese, jalapeño wraps, peanut-butter crackers, and raspberry fruit bars — into a reusable shopping bag I got a few years ago. I got it at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston during an event with Emily Haines. That had been my second time seeing Haines perform, and my second time ponying up for a VIP experience.

The Things You Own; They Own YouThere had been a podcast I’d listened to at some point in 2015 that had detailed an investigator’s attendance at a VIP event with Britney Spears in order to be able to ask her a question. The strangeness of the description of the event — of paying money to be part of an assembly line in order to claim that one had a “personal” experience with a celebrity — was compellingly absurd. So when an offer from Ticketmaster came to upgrade my ordinary Metric tickets to a VIP experience, I felt like I owed it to the spirit of random adventure to do so, even though I had no idea what that entailed. Because while I’d been listening to the band since discovering “Poster of a Girl” via an mp3 blog aggregator (ah, a younger internet…), they hadn’t been a band I could claim I “knew” with any real strength. In fact, an illness had kept me from attending a previous concert I’d hoped would help establish that expertise. However, found myself enamored of the essential stupidity of going to an intimate meet-and-greet session with a band I basically didn’t know.

And, well, it was brilliant. The band were welcoming and heartfelt, and we unexpectedly got to go up on stage and sing along with a song, and I felt alive and thrilled, and the whole show ranks somewhere in the top five concerts I’ve ever attended. And I decided that, as a result of how thrilling the whole experience had been, that I was going to unironically take advantage of any and every VIP opportunity that Metric provided thereafter, to chase that dragon and try to recapture that thrill.

Metric sing "Dreams So Real" in the basement of The Orpheum in Boston.

Haines’ appearance at the Boston ICA was the next available opportunity, and since VIP access always comes with attendant merch, I left that show with the memory of breathlessly close seats and the aforementioned canvas bag that warned me that, “All the things I own, they own me.” I’ve had this bag in high rotation since I moved into a new apartment at the beginning of the summer, as I’d recently shouldered the weight of shifting my possessions across town, and of finding volunteers during Covid to huff and puff in proximity to each other while humping those possessions up and down stairs. Packing, moving, and unpacking had put a serious physical strain on me, and while I had returned to a degree of equilibrium, anxiety over maintaining work to maintain rent to not have to endure that physical gauntlet again any time soon remained. As I grew accustomed to my new digs, I wanted to remind myself not to get too comfortable, too entrenched, as my possessions were a future labor that would have their reckoning.

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14 July, 2020 at 2:36 pm (film, imdblr)

November 2015 was my fifth anniversary of my first joining and participating in the Kickstarter community. Slightly less than a year later, I backed my one hundredth project. In that time, I’d spent approximately $1,200 each year on autographs and comic books and albums and wedding presents and lithographs and fundraisers and film productions. I’d read articles decrying the fact that Kickstarter took advantage of funders because it wasn’t an investment system. If I’d been a producer on those films and albums and comics, and they’d proved to be successful, then I would have enjoyed a return on my investment. Instead, I would receive a shipment of tat, critics scoffed, and someone else would reap the real benefits.

I’m sure that somewhere in those 17 projects each year that I backed, one or two of them would be considered “successful”, but for me, the main draw of Kickstarter has always been the projected sense of “participation” in a given creative project. The updates from the creators are key to this: a regular series of follow-up messages about the progress and process of the actual project do make me feel like I’m involved, even if all I did was be part of the crowd of funders. It’s the — perhaps illusory — feeling of participation and pride that is the best part. And so the ability to point at one’s name and say, “I made this happen!” has become the real reason I continued with Kickstarter so avidly for so long.

Shortly after the end of the projects listed here, I backed off of Kickstarter. Not because of the money — although that clearly should have been a consideration, now that I crunch the numbers — but because I did come to the understanding that my internal sense of my “involvement” in these things was overinflated, and that they were part of a larger project of retail therapy I’d been participating in for some years. I enjoyed the vicarious thrill of the projects and the stories I was able to absorb from the production updates, but what I was really doing to a large degree was spending money to have exciting mail show up at some unexpected future date — and with Kickstarter projects, that date was almost always in significant flux… I needed less stuff in my life, and I needed less momentary novelty and excitement provided via the acquisition of said stuff.

There are still eleven outstanding film projects that I have backed — only four additional since I hit a hundred backed projects four years ago — and only three of which I believe will list my name in any manner (not including the Kurt Vonnegut documentary that already has me listed on their website). While I’m no longer actively chasing this kind of validation, I might as well keep cataloguing the last five projects that do name me and the last five that didn’t…


STANDING IN THE STARS: THE PETER MAYHEW STORY (Raised its minimum funds on Sept. 14, 2013, still unreleased)

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22 June, 2019 at 3:31 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: It’s all been building to this: the beginning of it all, if you don’t count, y’know, the TV show and the talk show appearances and the general omnipresence. This was huge. And it was. Box Office Mojo doesn’t have the opening weekend numbers for The Muppet Movie, but it does list the overall gross at $65.2 million in 1979 money, which adjusts to $234 million today, kicking the revival success of The Muppets at a comparatively mere $101.8 million into a cocked hat. It was wildly successful financially, and continues to be a massive emotional touchstone for fans and families.

And what’s weird is that it doesn’t even start with the banjo. It feels like it should. The DVD does. The Blu-ray does. The Blu-Ray’s “Intermission” feature does. It’s hard to imagine that this iconic picking wasn’t something that pre-grabs an audience and transports them back to memories of this film, but was once an eight-bar intro to an unknown quantity. And its even weirder that the film takes forever to get there, with a truly extended bookend sequence, that’s incredibly slowly paced and does little that’s iconic, with two exceptions: Kermit’s dialogue to Robin (“It’s sort of approximately how it happened…” and the fact that the theatre screening seats that were designed to hide Muppeteers beneath them have now become the standard for cinemas.

Statler and Waldorf puppets at the Museum of the Moving ImageHowever, it would be remiss of me not to point out that The Muppet Movie does open with an absolute goddamn public service: it not only names Staler and Waldorf — names I can’t remember not knowing, but which seem to be largely opaque to much of the general public… a comprehensive text search of transcripts of current podcasts as well as conversations around me at the Museum of the Moving Image’s Jim Henson exhibit would reveal that hardly anyone knows that “those two old Muppets in the balcony” even have names — but also tells us which is which, something even I have trouble remembering on occasion. The film then very leisurely introduces the various personnages with a series of small in-character moments. The whole thing is very unhurried, maybe even deleteriously so. So it’s a welcome gag that Animal and the various Muppets (while displaying the worst cinema-going etiquette ever… something that they apparently were wont to continue thirty-two years later) get impatient for the film to begin and bully Kermit into starting the film without thanking everyone involved. (A joke, of course, continued in Muppet Caper‘s credits, as well — as I’ve previously mentioned — as in Bloom County in 1982.)

So it’s a full four and a half minutes before the banjo strings do their thing and our heartstrings do ours. Read the rest of this entry »

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15 June, 2019 at 9:44 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: As Fran Kubelik tells us, “Some people take, some get took — and they know they’re getting took — and there’s nothing they can do about it.” Well, Manhattan done got taken, that fool of a Took.

TITLE CARD: The Great Muppet Caper

While Manhattan is my brother’s favorite Muppet film, and while I think some of his comments and perspective helped me appreciate it as a sketch-movie, my comments about its utter lack of an earned ending do stand. And after finishing watching and reading about Muppets Take Manhattan, I was looking forward to revisiting my personal favorite of the Muppet franchise, and seeing how well it holds up and how well it might weather the scrutiny I’d been applying to the other Muppet offerings.

The disappointing news is: not well. I’ve been doing a whole bit over the course of this series where I’ve found a Group of Three, highlighting it early in the write-up, and eventually using it as the way of rating the film as a Success, a Mixed Bag, or a Basic Failure. The obvious way to do that with Caper is with Fozzie, Kermit, and Gonzo’s shipping containers. My notes say that my alternate take for ratings of this movie were going to be “A) Credit Card, B) Cash, or C) Sneak Out In The Middle Of The Night.”

Which would mean, if this film was only middling in its success, I’d have to give it a RATING between Bears, Frogs, and Gonzos of Frogs, which seems mildly insulting to Kermit. Surely a rating of Frogs should be excellent! Something that’s a mixed bag should be a rating of what is says on Gonzo’s crate, which is Whatever, but that’s the lowest rating, which this film doesn’t deserve. Or, at least, my twenty-year upholding of this film as the pinnacle of Muppet filmmaking won’t let me allow it.

Because, unfortunately, what I love about this film is the strange tone and pacing and the excellent post-modern wall-breaking, and almost all of that goes out the window in the final act, leaving us with a badly-paced, badly-assembled mess that needs more than charm to let the audience feel like their earlier generosity was justified. The deconstruction and chaos need to either pay off in a manner that shows that the clash of fiction and metafiction was purposeful, or need to build to a complete explosion of structure that just abandons structure altogether.

But, in order to show how it goes wrong, we do have to start at the start. Which is pretty wonderful.

GONZO: What a fantastic beginning!
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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppets Take Manhattan

8 June, 2019 at 5:55 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: The Muppets Take Victorian London. Those Muppets. It’s always take, take, take…

TITLE CARD: Muppets Take Manhattan

The film opens with a helicopter shot of New York City, and if you couldn’t already recognize parts of the skyline as dated, then the lack of a gyroscopic stabilizer on the camera would thorough date this footage as from the ’70s or ’80s. Immediately, the music starts with a loose series of dooting by Kermit, kind of scat singing — harkening forward to Whitmire’s excellent caroling with Tiny Robin in 1992 — but not really deviating from the melody as much as I associate with true jazz scat. Regardless, it is a pleasant introduction to the melody of “Together Again”, the song so catchy that they used it again as the closing number to Most Wanted thirty years later.

During this charming ditty, the name of the composer to the song comes up, and I have no idea who this is. “Music and Lyrics by Jeff Moss”? Who is this workaday imposter, I pre-emptively bristle. Well, allow Wikipedia to allay my immediate suspicions, as it turns out that Mr. Moss is the writer of “Rubber Duckie” and “I Love Trash”. This explains the catchiness of both the opening number and the later appearance of “I’m Gonna Always Love You”. I probably should have been able to let the music speak for itself, but it does help to know that the compositions come from the Muppet stable, as it were. It gives some faith in the proceedings to come.

That faith, unfortunately, is largely squandered in my eyes. The film has a perfectly fine notional story, with the Muppets taking their senior college revue to New York to try and get it produced on Broadway. Perfectly ordinary Rise To Fame narrative that would be pleasant… if it wasn’t basically the plot of The Muppet Movie from five years before. But that!, I hear the movie implore, was a film about a ragtag group of strangers coming together and finding each other; their success is based on the fact that they were stronger with each other! So the stakes of this movie will be that initial failure forces them to separate, and we are anxious about getting them reunited. All of this is encapsulated by the opening, which is the finalé of Kermit’s revue! So the film starts with its eventual conclusion, and it will all be full circle!

Which is a pretty great pitch. Which the film, I say again, squanders in many ways. I realize that I’m jumping straight to the end of the film, but the ending is very much what makes me stamp out of the cinema — or, now, my living room — irritated at the logical inconsistencies in the construction of this film. A film is not its ending, but the ending is the last thing a film leaves you with, and it can absolutely sour the previous hour and a half. The fact that the film doesn’t end with “Together Again” is nuts. Everything about the musical that they stage is nuts. It defies belief, it leaves me frustrated and irritated, and it makes me want to buy Muppets Take Manhattan Burger King glasses on eBay just so that I can smash them.

So let’s establish how the film violates our faith. Read the rest of this entry »

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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppet Christmas Carol

1 June, 2019 at 8:09 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: A “Muppet” movie is made where the primary character dynamic is between Tim Curry and young actor Kevin Bishop. Because it’s a Muppet movie. With Muppets.

RIZZO: I guess the human beings want to hang out together.  Huhn.

In the opening commentary for Muppet Treasure Island, director Brian Henson talked about the complexity of the opening pan, and the way it transitioned into the studio set, but that he’d opened Muppet Christmas Carol the same way. I gave him a little stick for the mild — very mild — grandiosity of the claim, as it didn’t seem to be a major stylistic flourish. However, in watching the opening here, I see why he wanted to recapture the idea, and even kick it up a notch by using a helicopter to incorporate real ocean and island footage. It works very well, in that it’s a slow, graceful pan over a model village of London rooftops, and despite being a solid two minutes in length, it’s not boring. Which is surprising, but a testament to the craftsmanship of the model.

TITLE CARD: The Muppet Christmas Carol

And maybe that’s part of what gets lost in the Treasure Island recreation. The giant pan over rocks and water should convey natural beauty, but instead captures the audience abstraction of distance. It doesn’t explode with natural splendor, it just is. In contrast, the the rooftops and chimney pots in Christmas Carol are close to the camera, and noticeable in their detail, and so even in the moments between credits, there is atmosphere and hand-built care to absorb.

The vibrant camera work continues during the opening number, “There Goes Mr. Scrooge”, which employs both interesting visual angles and inventive compositions for the Muppet interactions and framing. The song is a really good mix of the Dickensian language and front-loading the themes of the larger work, and the tune is fun and catchy. Paul Williams, notably the writer of some of stone-cold Muppet classics, brings some enjoyable playfulness to the opening. The only odd thing that struck me is that the beginning scenes do the typical thing of establishing a world in which Muppets and humans work and live alongside each other, but only the Muppets sing in the song. This becomes particularly apparent as the camera allows Caine to swish and stride through the streets, that while there are occasional other humans in shot, all non-felt people are noticeably silent.

This establishes the three pillars of the production: Michael Caine as Scrooge, the Muppets teetering between comedy and pathos, and the original content from the novel. Read the rest of this entry »

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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppet Treasure Island

25 May, 2019 at 8:39 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: Gonzo can never refer to himself as a “Whatever” ever again. Except I don’t think we ever learned what his people are called… And I remain disappointed that there wasn’t an explicit reference to Koozebane anywhere in the film.

TITLE CARD: Muppet Treasure Island

The film opens with a long slow pan over physical mountains on location and seamlessly wipes to a studio lot that allows a mixture of Muppets and men to interact in song-styled backstory as narrated by Billy Connolly. There’s quite a bit going on here, according to director Brian Henson on the commentary track. He mentioned that this complicated melding of a composite helicopter pan with an on-set dolly pan was the same technique he used to open Muppet Christmas Carol, thus allowing us to infer that he feels it should be either a signature move for him as director or for Muppet movies under his watch. What’s interesting is that Henson is successful enough at the technical melding of the elements that it looks smooth and therefore feels… underwhelming? It should feel spectacular, but instead it just feels like a jumble.

While well done, it’s not showy enough to be impressive, which is a metaphor for the entire movie and perhaps the existence of the Muppets at large. We’ll return to the bicycles alluded to in this series’ intro post to see how full-body Muppets in space — like Gonzo on his tractor in Muppets in Space — are a technical achievement that becomes sufficient normal that audiences, instead of saying, “Wow, how’d they do that!”, are more likely to think, “Oof, we should not be able to see Fozzie’s legs.” Trick photography, well-constructed sets, Muppeteers stuffed into underwater tanks, and multiple stunt Muppets employed through careful cuts are all employed to take the characters from their artificial Muppet Theatre random half-height walls and place them in the Real World. And when it’s done well, it’s almost invisible. And perhaps that invisibility helps reduce the amount of craftsmanship involved.

Sweetums, Kermit, and Rita Moreno in the 'Talk Spot'Degrees of invisible craftsmanship are relative, though, when it comes to fake animals and singing foam statuary. It is acceptable to have the singing statues in the opening number look like Muppet statues, rather than have them be, say, photo-realistic stone idols that magically, seamlessly have flapping mouths. The former is part and parcel of what an audience accepts when it attends something with the Muppet trademark attached. The latter hypothetical scenario would also require realistic acting on everyone’s part, and would involved far fewer flagrant demolishing of the fourth wall.

Because the nominal stars of this film — in addition to the novel’s traditional human lead, Jim Hawkins — are Gonzo and Rizzo playing their twentieth-century selves. Read the rest of this entry »

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18 May, 2019 at 8:44 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: A beloved cast of pigs and frogs and dogs and bears and whatevers apparently wasn’t relatable enough, so a brand-new humanoid Muppet was created to save us all. What is this, Sesame Street?*

TITLE CARD: Muppets From Space

Well, not to make another entry focused primarily on music, but I feel obligated to begin by recanting my previous position that The Muppets was the first needle-drop Muppets soundtrack. Boy, was I wrong. The Muppets from Space soundtrack is a jukebox playlist that is as funky as it is dissonantly idiosyncratic. After the standard space-referenced star-field credit sequence, we arrive in a dream sequence where Gonzo is prevented from getting on the ark by F. Murray Abraham’s Noah. This is followed by the film’s opening number, a sequence of how long a wait it is to use the bathroom in the morning in the Muppets’ communal house. It’s a mildly amusing bit, gentle in its mundanity, but mystifyingly set to “Brick House” by the Commodores.

Personally, I have never been completely sure how, precisely, this song has been complimentary to its subject. Sure, “she’s mighty mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out“, but you’re still eliding the expression “she’s built like a brick shit-house”, which is a kind of sturdy, fecal association that one doesn’t necessarily associate with elegance, let alone with a sense of community. What is this song doing here with this scene? Did someone do a word search for songs associated with bathrooms and this was the only result that truly kicks it?

The Crooked Beak StoryProbably not, because the soul/funk timbre of the soundtrack continues beyond this intro. It’s a lovely, strange series of needle drops that never particularly gels with the theme or the content of the film. Despite the fact that the concept seems to have come from an initiative by director Tim Hill, I couldn’t find any connective tissue between this soundtrack and the message, lensing, or theme of the movie. The film ends with — Spoiler Alert! — Gonzo’s extraterrestrial bretheren arriving and singing a cover of “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang, but an alien funk performance does not necessarily justify an entire audio soundscape with no other connective tissue. My bemusement with the “compliment” of the lyrics aside, “Brick House” is a great song, as is the later use James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” for Gonzo’s The Straight Story-esque journey to the television station, which also doesn’t really work but fakes it admirably.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Read the rest of this entry »

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