Your Guide to Popular Culture

22 February, 2015 at 1:02 pm (benjamin, webjunk)

One of these days I’ll actually get around to writing up the complete version of a long-standing musing about the top five writers and documents that most influenced my prosody and thought processes (current version, in chronological order: Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Sherlock Holmes, the Columbia Records version of Marshall MacLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, Philip K. Dick’s Valis, and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, but that leaves out both Woody Allen and Peter S. Beagle, so that’s no good already…), but perhaps not, because it is a strangely arbitrary idea to limit oneself to a handful of prominent influences, when we are constantly being yo-yo’ed and nudged by the thoughts and gravity of others. Still, it was interesting to stumble across a Vlogbrothers video of John Green reminding himself and his brother Hank of the fast-paced, breathless rants of Ian Shoales, and then engaging in his own musings on how much the Vlogbrothers house style exists in part because of the rat-a-tat delivery and charm of Shoales’ weekly column.

Merle Kessler as Ian Shoales: NPR Promotional HeadshotGreen may have been surprised to dredge Shoales out of the mists of memory, but I think of him quite often. I was introduced to him by a vintage mentor of mine who thought that his acerbic commentary and relentless observation and prodding of popular culture would mirror my own. He had a cassette he’d compiled himself from having taped Shoales’ segments on the radio, collecting them piecemeal over time. I can imagine him with his hands hovering over the controls of a silvered plastic radio, staring back at him with it’s one large, round, corrugated speaker, as he jabbed at the pause and record buttons in order to do that magical thing of capturing the ephemeral. Tape gave you power over the intangible essence of music, it gave you the freedom to replay it whenever you wanted, as well as the ability to share it with others. Radio was crazy. And television was the same way. You had to bend to its whims, and you only were permitted to watch that particular movie at 7pm on a select Friday night or perhaps on a lazy Sunday at 2. If you missed an episode of Saturday Night Live, you had to listen to everyone else talk about it on Monday in order to hear what had happened, and, man, would they talk about it. Constantly. And sure, the song that you liked was in high rotation and would almost certainly play again at the top of the hour, but the waiting and the ads and the Creedence that you had to suffer through in order to hear it again was extraordinarily frustrating.

Kids today, man, with their YouTube bootlegs and their wireless downloads and their gigs upon gigs of digital memory… I roll my eyes at how much time they spend searching for the right song on a computer, and how much of their lives they waste jumping from impulse to impulse as they compulsively playlist their daily scroll of emotions by making sure their angst and boredom and frustration has the right soundtrack at every given moment. But I strike this attitude in part because they will never understand the sheer frustrating idleness of living in a world where you had to be patient enough for media to happen on its own timetable, and the wastrel spending of time in the interim is the crucible that shaped my generational character.

On the other hand, that adolescent digital immediacy is what drove me to find Green’s memorialization of Shoales in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »

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I’m Comin’ Up, So You Better Get This Party Kickstarted…

15 March, 2014 at 10:26 am (benjamin, film, imdblr)

Comedian Doug Benson has a weekly gig called Doug Loves Movies, a trivia show about films that he runs at least partially because of his impressive recall of films he has idly consumed over his personal and professional life — both as a casual audience member and as someone who travels with some frequency and therefore watches a number of films on planes. He occasionally refers to himself as “IMDB”, because he an impressive depository of films and film credits that only the Internet Movie Database could rival, Deep Blue/Watson stylee, and because it allows him to say, “I am DB” — he is Doug Benson. (Not unlike Irwin Maurice Fletcher.)

This is a personal blog, and has been since November 2000, so ego-posting is hardly surprising. And while I (still) don’t (yet) have an entry on IMDB, I have been keeping track of my appearances in various DVD credits, a feat that is much easier to accomplish now that Kickstarter seems to be regularly offering it as a low-impact, high-cost perk for various film projects.

Unlike posts in the past, I haven’t actually made it to the credits of anything new, but I have created my own Doug Benson-inspired tag for this post and for the future: imdblr, or “in movies desperately: benjamin lawrence russell”. And while I haven’t been specifically named in any recent Kickfunded projects, I am thanked as part of a mass in two, appear unbilled in a third, and am thanked in the website credits for a fourth.


THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: BEYOND EXPECTATIONS (Filmed in 2012, funded for distribution in 2013)

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BRIEFLY: Positively Final Appearance

22 February, 2011 at 10:38 am (benjamin)

I should have folded the previous post into this one, but in the heat of excitement about seeing my name and the feeling that I need to explain what on gods’ green Earth BSATCOP was, anyway, I forgot that I had been planning a short list of my recent appearances in media. After all, what’s the point of having one’s own website, except for it to be a clearing house for the results of one’s own ego-surfing?

LIFE Magazine: Springfield, VT - July 21, 2007Oldest first: whilst cleaning up the blog after the transition from Melbatoast to SmartOvercoat, I found the remnants of a promised second post about the Springfield, VT premiere of The Simpsons Movie. After having checked the saved links from the time and found that some were no longer valid, I did a little searching for alternate sites. And found myself hiding in the background of an image archived by a Life magazine photographer. This was surprising for two reasons, the first being that it’s always a little odd to be included in a real, professional publication. The second was that I was rather under the impression that Life had shuttered its doors in 2000. I’d read the press release about its deal with Google, which had only confirmed its defunct status in my mind, but had no idea it still had a print presence, or even reporters and photographers.

Somewhat more recently, I attended w00tstock at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston on Halloween in 2010. It’s getting harder, as I get older, to find occasions to dress up for Halloween. Working at a high school, I observe that the elementary school tradition of wearing a costume dies hard with some students, and it’s always good to find an opportunity to show teenagers that their teachers have pasts and tastes and enjoy their fair share of popular culture. So I like dressing up at work. This year, however, Halloween fell on a teacher meeting day — I can’t prove that this happened because the superintendent is a stick-in-the-mud who finds Halloween costumes both frivolous and unprofessional, but I maintain my suspicions. In any case, I wanted an outlet for my cosplay urges, and wore a Cameron Frye outfit to w00tstock, gratified that other nerds would surely be dressed up at well.

Gordie Howe, represent!w00tstock, being w00tstock, was fairly well digitally documented, and at one point someone came ’round with a camera asking all of the people in costume to identify themselves — or, more importantly, the nerd-references they had clothed themselves as. I knew I had been filmed, but it was still a surprise to see my face staring back at me from the preview screen of a playlist of videos taken at the scene.

(There’s also a picture of me in the fan photo album in the Wilbur’s Facebook page, where my face clearly shows that I suddenly got uncomfortable with the prospect of having my picture taken, and my mouth and eyebrows tried to quickly get out of shot, leaving my skull behind. No, I rather think I won’t be linking to that one.)

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Credit Sequence

6 February, 2011 at 7:04 pm (benjamin, film, imdblr)

Well, I’ve done this twice before, and I think it’s officially becoming a trend. That is, in so much as if I’m going to keep contributing financially to fly-by-night DVD releases so that my name ends up in the credits, there will eventually be a string of these on the blog. Until I get my own IMDB page, at which point tooting my own horn in this fashion will become slightly redundant.

Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins title card Hello to Jason Isaacs... and Benjamin Russell ...and Fizzlebang Wonderpop.

This year’s DVD credit comes from the bizarre fan-film Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins. Unlike most of the fan films of the nerd spectrum, from Troops to Browncoats: Redemption, this is based not based on a film, but on a film review. BBC film reviewer Mark Kermode said, whilst castigating Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, that the plot was such an identikit punchcard knock-off of Harry Potter that it might as well be called “Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins”. This made me laugh uproariously, and I did what most people do when they find something delirious: I made the comment into my Facebook status for the moment.

But Jeremy Dylan wasn’t most people, and instead of just parroting someone else’s punchline, he took it and ran with it. Read the rest of this entry »

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BRIEFLY: Toastmaster General

21 July, 2010 at 10:14 am (benjamin, clerical, comics)

If I were still using the “melbatoast” domain name and web-handle, I would have loved these photos from Paul Cornell‘s blog entry about the seeing geek chic fliers for local “virtual eatery” the House of Toast at CONvergence. And if that doesn’t mean anything to you at all, don’t worry, just enjoy this:

House of Toast - Lack of Faith flier

I know some of you quite enjoyed the mild confusion you felt about why I’d chosen “melbatoast” (or even “m3lbatoast”) as my online identity, and some of you haven’t successfully transitioned from the old page to this one (especially since I just killed it with nary a transitional announcement). In any case, I hope you haven’t found your lack of toast disturbing.

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27 May, 2010 at 7:13 pm (benjamin, imdblr)

Mystery Team: Special Features: Sword Club: Credits

Yeah, that’s right. I am once again in the credits of a DVD. And not like those namby-pamby people who got to be in the credits of a DVD that people actually watched, nosiree… I’m on the credits of a DVD whose primary fans are used to getting their content via YouTube, and are more likely to torrent this than buy it. And with the demise of the video store, there’s increasingly little likelihood of this video sitting in it’s minuscule niche on a shelf next to a hundred copies of The Tooth Fairy, hoping against hope it gets noticed. But now? Now, one hopes that Donald Glover does well enough on Community and Ellie Kemper does similarly swimmingly on The Office so that their profiles are linked to Mystery Team‘s NetFlix credits, and people take a risk. Or that everything else has been checked out of the RedBox, and someone takes pity on it, like an orange-ish tuna sandwich at an automat, or one last Zagnut bar in the creaky vending machine at the auto mechanic.

But I don’t really care about that. I’m in Sword Club, boy-ee! Bring it!

'We are made to persist. That's how we find out who we are.'  -Tobias Wolff

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Obligatory Birthday Post

30 November, 2008 at 6:21 pm (benjamin, new hampshire)

It’s November 30th. Yay me, and all that.

Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about AT&T. Upon purchasing the iPhone this summer, I was told by a sales representative (consider the source and caveat emptor and all that) that AT&T would have extended its 3G network into southern New Hampshire by November.

I’m not saying that this was a selling point for me, as I was already going to pony up for the damn thing, but it was a nice bonus. All reports about how much using the 3G network burns up the iPhone’s already limited battery, while I was looking forward to being able to do a little web-browsing whilst in remote and portable locations, I was not looking forward to loading tiny, tiny images at dial-up modem speeds. So the future existence of 3G, with all its drawbacks, was a definite hatch mark in the plus column.

Billboard: 'New England is AT&T CountryWell, November is officially over, and there’s not so much of a sniff of 3G in NH according to my antenna. Peter reports that if he’s standing in a particular corner of one of his flatmate’s bedrooms, he can sometimes get 3G… but basically the evidence is not there. So I turned to the official AT&T portion of the world-wide web to see what they had to say about their services in my little corner of the world. A billboard adjacent to I-93 outside of Boston trumpets that “New England is AT&T Country“, a marvelously funny little bit of trumpeting considering that it was only recently that iPhones were officially available in Vermont considering that there was absolutely no AT&T wireless coverage available in the hidden valleys of the Green Mountain State.

Dan Frommer posted a well-Dugg map of AT&T coverage areas dated July of 2008, and had an additional, more popular map dated October of that same year. But AT&T has an online map of their own, that allows you to search down to street level how good the coverage is in your area.

AT&T Service Map for Concord, NH

The darker the orange, the better the reception. The blue on the right-hand map indicates 3G availability. And it’s an astounding piece of fiction. There is no 3G in Concord that I can find, and certainly a big swamp of it surrounding my apartment. And I’m bloody lucky to get three bars anywhere in my building, and to see that lovely deep orange right on top of my thumbtack indicating the “best” coverage is eye-rollingly inaccurate. The previous links to the Digg maps may be out of date, but they are more consistent with my experience on the ground, holding my phone towards the sky, squinting and hoping for a signal from above. Maybe some day the reality will match AT&T’s claims, maybe… Perhaps by next November 30.

EDIT: By sometime in mid-to-late December, which is to say, within a couple of weeks of writing the above, I did indeed have 3G in most, if not all of Concord. So the map was just a little ahead of the actual schedule of implementation. Not bad, AT&T… not bad.

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24 January, 2008 at 1:17 pm (benjamin)

I dreamt I woke up this morning to find the strings from my venetian blinds wrapped around my neck and a thug from the Joker’s clown gang crouched by my bed. “They can’t all look like suicides,” he said. “Some have to look like accidental death or home invasions.” Then I woke up, and resisted the urge to clasp at my neck to see if the cords were really tangled around my throat.

Like Bryan, I don’t know why I have been pursuing the new reports of Heath Ledger’s death with such relentless fervor. I’d only even seen him in 10 Things I Hate About You and The Brothers Grimm, and he was not a ping on my Hollywood radar. I think the reason it — “resonate” is the wrong word, but I’m going to use it anyway — has resonated with me is because I read an Associated Press story after Brad Refro’s death about whether certain young celebrities and their trepidatious lifestyles necessitated the preparation of early obituaries. I don’t think that Ledger would have merited such preparation, nor do I hold much truck with the Rule of Three with celebrity deaths (inspired, I assume, by the Valens/Bopper/Holly crash), but thinking about the potential need for young obituaries and then reading one has left me with a need for details, as if specifics would provide me with a perspective that would allow me to not think about it again. And certainly to stop dreaming about it.

One last thing: for those who haven’t see it, this is a flier from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, calling for a picketing of Ledger’s funeral in order to gleefully send him off to Hell for participating in Brokeback Mountain, claiming his death as a victory for God, and saying that this performance, this sin, is the only thing “relevant or consequential” he ever did. My first instinct was to picket the picketing with a simple Let He Who Is Without Sin… placard, but I prefer Jon Sung‘s idea: “a bunch of people dressed as Batman and the Joker beat the living shit out of [the WBC] in full view of news cameras.”

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Seeing Red, Fade to Black

12 October, 2006 at 3:16 pm (benjamin, dear diary)

No real stories from Dimitri’s wedding, but I am forced to revise my previous estimate that a hotel room is a hotel room, no matter how much one pays for it. My previous position was based upon a few hotel experiences and a growing sincere belief that one can dress it up, and buy different cleansing perfume, but that a hotel room still remained a box with an immobile bed whether it cost $35 a night or $100. Having just stayed in a $125 room, well, I’m ready to admit that maybe there are levels. It still had terrible construction and typical furnishings, and the headboard was hilariously broken and badly repaired, but the room had a better feel to it, a nicer sense of occupancy that didn’t drive one from its confines.

Noah Webster's Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, 1806Also, the four hour drive from Connecticut convinced me that I would not have the fortitude to drive back and forth to Amherst this evening for a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. This event sounds hella nerdy, and the draw is unmistakable. I have no real idea on what sort of basis the event would stand: would it be social, conversational, a lecture, a presentation? What sort of people would show up? What happens when bibliophiles, graphomaniacs, and librarians clash over cocktails? The answers to these questions should be compelling enough, but the idea of driving home between 9:10pm and midnight is simply no longer feasible. My ability to string coherent thought together expires each evening at 9:30pm, and the night from there becomes a sparkly, glistening enterprise of unusual word associations, heavy eyelids, and raucous laughter. Terrifically amusing to me and my flatmate, but not the optimal state for driving twisty back-country highways. So no Noah Webster for me, I’m afraid.

Instead, I shall have to comfort myself with color theory. I recently learned that the school district that employs me did not see fit to have a consistent color scheme across its school athletic teams. So while the middle school wears blue, the high school players sport red. Now, I went to a combined middle/high school, so I lack the perspective and experience to know if this is normal. However, it feels odd. It feels like we have competing teams in the same system. And while I enjoy the classy black and red warm-up jackets that are worn about campus on game days or simply autumnal days, the actual red uniforms don’t do much for me. So I was amused to hear Sports Illustrated editor Frank Deford, on his weekly column on NPR go off on a torrent against too many teams that use red as their color. It’s a marvelously verbal essay, full of thesaurus listings and alliteration that would make Stan Lee envious.

There is too much of it, and I am asking for a bloody moratorium. OK, maybe—maybe—I can live with your darker hues, your maroon, your garnet or your burgundy, but the ripe reds running riot, row upon row, in stadiums and arenas, is becoming, as Chester A. Riley used to lament, a “revolting development.”

…Understand, I’ve got nothing against red. Hey, you’re listening to a man who named his daughter Scarlet. I’m just the fashion policeman trying to help all you cinnamon-clad crimson creatures, you puce people, you magenta masses, you vermilion millions. Everybody’s doing it now. Wearing red to games is tacky. It’s passé. It’s so yesterday. Red flag it.

—Frank Deford, “At Games across the land, seeing red

So marvelously wordy, but interestingly issueless. I like Deford. He does for sports what PRI’s Marketplace does for money: Marketplace charmingly makes money matters accessible and contextual for those who are not financiers, and Deford he talks sorts in a manner that’s jocular but not jock-specific. But while I think he’s been a clear voice of reason about many sports issues, it must be difficult to come up with something substantive each week, and this tract is a soft lob. Which is perhaps why the vocabulary is so lush: he had to fill the column-inches somehow. Enjoyable, but mildly disappointing that he didn’t speculate on the purpose of the power color, the cultural reasons why red is so preferred by players and fans alike. After all, if studies show that those wearing black uniforms attract more penalty calls and demerits thank those wearing non-black uniforms, then color and competition clearly collaborate in some psychological manner. Is it true or is it an urban myth that red cars are pulled over by the police more frequently than any other hued vehicle? Do we associate red with speed, with daring in the way that Mark G. Frank and Thomas Gilovich’s study indicates we associate black with violence?

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A Valid Opportunity

17 August, 2006 at 6:01 pm (benjamin, music)

Bencam: 17 August 2006

Actual card I had prepared to give out last Saturday in case anyone asked me why I’d shaved off the beard the previous Monday. Shaving was a mistake, despite the fact that I know my Van Dyke makes me look like the Evil Duke of Norfolk and slightly less approachable than I’d like to be when starting a new job. That said, I still have a pouchy, jowly face that won’t be interesting until I’m as old as Phillip Baker Hall. Until then, I’ll continue to rely on a sharply trimmed beard to provide my face with the illusion of an undercarriage.

In other news, despite repeated listenings to Vienna Teng’s “Daughter” from Waking Hour, I did not engage in any summer flings or romances. I have, however, fallen in love with the Righteous Babe label’s technique of releasing entire albums via streaming QuickTime. Not impossible to rip, but just annoying enough to prevent any but the most dedicated of freeloaders. In this manner I have been listening to Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Ani DiFranco’s new release, Reprieve. The latter is a fun return to form, with an equivalent number of instruments and studio work as something like Little Plastic Castle, but with a greater idea of how to use them to good effect, instead of the effect of “Hey, look! Instruments!” I especially enjoyed the opening bass lick, the structure of which echoes “You Had Time“, and subsequently got me to put up with some rhythmic inconsistencies later.

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