The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 2

This week continues the closing novella, told in third-person, in which everyone comes together. Since a lot of us are still locked up, I think I’m going to share a bit more of this one in a few installments, since this part is 20,000 words or so. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here. Last week, we set up the Southern California social event of 2029, the wedding of the mayor’s daughter at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Downtown L.A. Now, the wedding is about to begin.

TAKING HOPE

It all began with the procession, because there was no “Here Comes the Bride” or opening hymn. Instead, a lone flute played a mournful tune, and then there were drums at the back of the house — yes, Alejandra thought of it in those terms, because she at least fully understood how the Church created western theater out of older Roman and Greek traditions, and how Mass and a play both were rituals, and she was going to take full advantage of it. The drums were pure Aztec and they played a few bars from house left before the first mind bend happened, and accordion music started up on house right.

Yep. Native American ritual drumming combined with a goddamn polka and, as they had discovered in rehearsal, the two went together so well it was ridiculous. Right as the audience was looking around in confusion, the entertainment entered from both sides. Down the outside left aisle came the Aztec dancers in full native regalia — feathers and fringe and fierceness. Down the right side, came the Bavarians, in lederhosen and dirndls. The two sides could not have been more different, but the two together could not have been more L.A.

To be honest, even Alejandra started sniffling at this point. It was just so sublime and incredible, unexpected and yet absolutely appropriate. As one reporter would describe it later, “This American wedding of the century could not have been a better representation not only of how Los Angeles has put itself back together a mere five or so months after a major disaster, but of how the country has done the same in almost a decade since we came to the edge of another Civil War, but averted it when unity finally prevailed.”

As all of the other performers gathered together and knelt in front of the bema, four of them mounted it — two men doing the Schuhplattler, which is that famous Bavarian dance that involves slapping the knees and thighs, jumping in the air, slapping the knees and thighs again, and then slapping each other. A young woman in traditional dress with sleeves and leggings decorated in red feathers took her place above them. Her face was covered in white make-up embedded with shimmering glitter in red and green that caught and reflected the light. From somewhere, the smell of incense began to fill the room, a mixture of sage and pine. The young woman watched them, arms lowered. Meanwhile, another woman came to stand above all of them, dressed as the Aztec Xochiquetzal, the goddess of beauty, love, fertility, flowers, and vegetation, and the patron of arts, weaving, and prostitution.

The woman portraying the part is young and beautiful — she was actually Miss Hispanic California 2028 — and the lyrics of the old song La Bikina described her perfectly: “Altanera, preciosa y orgullosa…” Well, the way she played the character, at least. She held a bouquet of flowers in one hand (Jackson had convinced Alejandra to use green carnations, even though they were not indigenous) and had a headdress made of bird’s feathers. In legend, those of Quetzalcoatl, the flying feathered serpent, but since those didn’t exist, Jackson had made a deal with Fumiko to contract another vendor in the garment district to obtain seagull feathers and dye them in shades of cyan, teal, seafoam, forest, and Kelly green. Although slightly harder to get, they were the better choice, because crow feathers — also the more indigenous choice — would need to be bleached first, and that would just soften them and ruin the effect. He had considered peacock feathers, but to some people they represented bad luck. Besides, those wouldn’t read as Quetzalcoatl at all.

Finally, Miss Hispanic California, whose name was Kathy Ruiz, was decked out in a lots of gold jewelry, which was entirely authentic and loaned by a shop down on 7th that was next door to the 24-hour Walgreens.

It was a stunning tableau, made more amazing by the lighting by world renowned and award-winning designer Dan Weingarten, abetted by the crew from CTG, the jewel of the Music Center (and Culver City), not to mention the amazing tech set-up in the cathedral.

Yeah, only in L.A. would a Catholic sanctuary have lights and sound that would give a Broadway theater a run for its money.

But the performers hit their places, the lights did their thing, and the two white guys were downstage slapping each other silly as the two women hovered above them in contrasting colors, Xochiquetzal looking increasingly upset even as the woman with red feathers appeared more sad.

“Moketsa!” the goddess suddenly cries out, and the young woman raises her red-feathered arms high. “Aufstehen,” an offstage voice cries, and then the men stop slapping each other. They make eye contact with the most profound sense of forgiveness before they hug. The woman curves her arms around them without touching, then pulls away, turns abruptly and bows to Xochiquetzal, who gives a gesture of benediction. The woman nods, turns back, and moves in a ritualistic way. She circles the men twice to the left, twice to the right, then stops above them, raises her arms, and lets out a single shout. She raises her arms above her head, slowly lowers them to be by her sides, then sharply turns to her right, moves a few steps, turns to her left, then marches out. The men follow without ceremony, then Xochiquetzal raises her arms.

“Tlasojtlalistli. Paxia. Tlauelkaktli.”

There’s a dramatic light change, the music stops, and they all exit in the brief moment before the processional of the bridal party finally starts.

And no. It’s not “Here Comes the Bride.” That would be too obvious, and, besides, the bride and groom have taste and a sense of humor. They enter to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies, but, of course, it’s not recorded — the lady herself is performing live from the back of the ambulatory, the entire wedding party comes in doing the choreography, and the crowd goes crazier than Dodger fans after Stefanie Lopez hits another homer.

The best part about the choreography is that it takes the wedding party the whole length of the song to make it to the altar, and in their outfits, it just looks spectacular. Alejandra thinks, “Jackson outdid himself,” and makes a mental note to give him and his assistant an extra bonus because of this moment.

The priest and altar servers leading the way are also doing the choreography. There was the added bonus of Father O’Malley, a middle-aged man who’s gayer than Christmas, leading eight teenage boys and girls in cassocks down the aisle first and doing the same choreo. The cute young blond (but of-age one) up front is O’Malley’s partner, but everyone knows it, and Pascale and the  padre are rocking the hell out of it. So is everyone else.

After the bride and groom and wedding party, both families follow but, while Valentina and her soon-to-be husband Chris, along with the groomsfolk and bridal party and both fathers make it up onto the bema, the song runs out, so the extended family is left to change the dance and we get another olidie — Born This Way by Lady Gaga. Valentina was a fan of the oldies, after all.

The rest of the ceremony proceeded in a more traditional fashion, although typically for a Catholic service in L.A., the readings and sermons were an equal mix of Spanish and English. Father O’Malley himself had attended seminary in Mexico, and his first assignment was to a church in Puebla, which was really the only place in that country where Cinco de Mayo was a holiday, because that’s where the original events happened.

Once O’Malley had come back to L.A., the celebrations here made him feel like he was back in what he considered his second home, especially all around La Plaza, El Pueblo, and Olvera Street downtown, right across from Union Station and a stone’s throw… well, a Metro stop from the cathedral.

One of the unique things about Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular was that the city had never lost its Spanish heritage, and even more so had never lost its Mexican heritage. After all, this was part of the western third of what was now the United States that used to be Mexico before it was taken from them by the U.S. Sure, there had still been racist pockets of people here and there, but mostly in Orange County and until the end of the last century the west end of the Valley, but those people had all fled to the even more conservative and racist Simi Valley once everything north of Victory and west of Reseda became very Hispanic.

That was all before what Father O’Malley termed the American Troubles, thinking back to what his ancestors in Ireland had gone through about forty years earlier. But after the events that the press had dubbed Retribution and Reconciliation, the bigots and racists seemed to disappear from public life completely. Of course, a lot of them had simply died because of their own bad decisions, but that was all in the past now.

“Funny how the mind wanders when you’re doing something you’ve done a billion times,” he thought as he snapped out of his reverie having not missed a beat or a word of the Gospel (he had chosen John 15:12-16), and was very present as he delivered his homily, very cannily basing it on Mark 10:25: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” but rather than playing it as a straight condemnation of wealth — mustn’t piss off the guests too much — he steered it toward a description of the difficulties a marriage could face as two people suddenly tried to follow a single path.

“And especially,” he noted, “Dos personas de dos mundos diferentes, two people from completely different worlds.” This became a meditation on how embracing differences only made the world stronger, and the only way for two threads to make it through one needle was for them to wind themselves around each other. And in the real world, if you sewed that way, one thread around the other would create a thing of greater beauty, because both colors would show in a spiral and make the whole cloth much more interesting.

Jackson and Finley both looked at each other at this one and smiled, and Finley knew that Jackson was getting ideas — although it would be damn hard to pull off on a standard sewing machine, and hella expensive to do by hand.

“Dos hilos, una vida; dos mentes, un corazón; dos almas, un verdad,” he said. “Two threads, one life; two minds, one heart; two souls, one truth: Valentina and Chris unidos, united.”

Once the wedding part of it was over, the rest of the Mass still had to happen, and this was when a lot of the press took their lunch break. They hadn’t been invited to the pre-ceremony luncheon.

When it finally came time for the recessional, the song was I Won’t Let You Down by OK Go and yes, the actual band was performing that one live, too. Their costumes, also designed and created by Jackson on Alejandra’s commission, reimagined them as Edwardian gentlemen, but each one themed to the vibrant primary colors that they had been splattered in at the end of their video for This Too Shall Pass, released nearly twenty years earlier.

It was known as the “Rube Goldberg” video because of the elaborate jury-rigged machine that followed the tune and led the viewer through a warehouse of insane contraptions until that one moment when the band members were shot with paint cannons — Andy in yellow, Damian in blue, Tim in red, and Dan in green. Jackson put each of them in elegant morning dress all of similar cut, but each one made from fabrics in five different hues of the chosen color — swallow-tail cut-away coats the darkest; pinstriped pants slightly lighter with the stripes matching the coat; shoes slightly lighter again (in suede), laces matching the pants; cuff, collar, and tie lighter still; and shirt in the most pastel version of the color. Cufflinks and tie-tacks contained the appropriate gemstone — in order, citrine, sapphire, ruby, and emerald.

Almost as an afterthought, he gave the four-button coats surgeon’s cuffs with piping just above to match the pants, figuring that the band would unbutton them and that they would add just a touch of visual flair to their playing as their shirt sleeves flashed beneath. He had figured correctly.

While the wedding party didn’t ride out on Honda unicycles a la the video for I Won’t Let You Down, they did all twirl umbrellas. The bride, groom, best man, and maid of honor had white umbrellas with a red spiral winding from the center, while the rest of the wedding party had solid red umbrellas — yet another incidence of the costume planning colliding with the props to follow Alejandra’s hidden theme, which was also a direct reference to the band’s classic video for the song they were now playing. Alejandra and Jackson had both nixed the idea of having anyone do a quick-change into a Japanese school-girl outfit from that video, though. That would have been too much.

And then it was on to the reception, which was in Grand Park, and in two parts. South of Hill street, on the City Hall side, was the public celebration, everyone invited, and absolutely free — admission, food, beverages, games, dancing, entertainment, whatever. North of Hill up to Grand right below the Music Center was the private party, guest list only, and where Alejandra would be soaking the millionaires and billionaires throughout the course of events. Various bands had been scheduled to play on the landing at the top of City Hall’s steps from one in the afternoon onward — easily viewable by the people south of Hill, and particularly south of Broadway, but a bit farther away and occluded to the hoi polloi north of Hill, especially by the red and white party tents that had been set up to make the rich not have to look at the poor — in their minds — but which Alejandra had intended for the opposite reason: so that normal people didn’t have to look at the rich assholes who were literally above them topographically, but which she considered completely beneath them socially.

She had arranged for her special VIP guests to be told, “Come to the reception for the food, then duck out and go down the hill right after the cake to party with the real people. You’ll enjoy that one a lot more.” That schedule was a lot more interesting and diverse, and was publicized in all of the social media posts and posters like so:

11:00 a.m. — 12:00 p.m………………………………………………… Mick, Paul, Keith, and Ringo

Hot off of their Beat the Stones Farewell Tour, half of two famous bands that have become an even bigger legend together give a preview taste of their upcoming final U.S. gig at Amazon Dodger Stadium.

12:30 p.m. — 2:00 p.m…………………………………………….. Meghan Trainor featuring MIKA

“Daft by Design.” Join Meghan Trainor and MIKA as they team up to celebrate and lament love, loss, life, and lollipops.

2:30 p.m. — 4:00 p.m……………………………………………………………… Red Hot Chili Peppers

A special command performance in honor of the royal wedding on the palace steps from 2:30 thence to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, the Twenty-Third of September Two Thousand and Twenty-Nine.

4:30 p.m. — 6:00 p.m…………………………………………………………………………………… OK Go

We’re playing the wedding, but wanted to share with our fans, so we asked and the mayor got the county to let us put on our own show for you all. It’ll be interactive with giveaways and all the usual OK Go fun. DL the App for the full AR experience. See you there!

6:30 p.m. — 8:00 p.m…………………………… Maná with Natalia Jiménez and Special Guests

¡Les invitamos! Domingo el 23 de septiembre, 2029. Ven a la fiesta y disfrútenla, pero por favor no nos falten las dieciocho y media hasta las veinte en el pórtico suroeste del palacio municipal en un concierto corto por todos.

8:30 p.m. — 10:00 p.m………………………………………………………………… OMG OG-a-y-cons

Darlings! Join the last of the red-hot Mamas as they show you they’ve still got it as these Divine Divas revisit their greatest hits. They may be the original generation gay icons, but they are still iconic to this day, and to everyone. Barbra. Bette. Cher. Combined, there’s over 254 years of talent on that stage.

10:30 p.m. — 12:00 a.m………………………………………….. Shakira with Maluma and Pit Bull

¡Ven y bailen con nosotros en un espectáculo muy especial! Nuestros anfitriones serán Argelia y Omar. Tendremos muchas sorpresas, camisetas, carteles, y otros grandes premios. Y presentaremos un estrella invitado/a tan famoso/a que no podemos mencionar el nombre.

12:30 a.m. — 2:00 a.m…………………………………………………………………………………… A-Pop

The world phenomenon boy band that has taken all of Asia by storm is now conquering the west. Treat your eyes and ears to their decadent music and looks as they show off for you in public!

2:00 a.m. — 4:00 a.m………………………………………………………………. DJGomes and VJBDJ

Electro Beats cultivating the House vibe with flavored Italo Disco Cuts on top as we scratch the old skool vinyl with the latest AR and spin hits from the last 75 years of American, Euro, Latin, and Asian pop, rock, dance, disco, EDM, and anything else you can think of. Come with your dancing shoes on and your mind wide open and expect anything to happen.

OMG OG-a-y-CONS had been a compromise. Alejandra had wanted to call it “Octetris,” since all three of them were in their 80s, but they had all rejected the idea — although not as vehemently as Barbra and Cher had rejected Bette’s suggestion of “Octopussies.” Instead, they came up with “OMG OG-a-y-cons.” It was awkward, but if you read it slowly, it scanned, and this turned out to be the most popular event of the evening, despite the stars being a good fifty or sixty years older than most of the audience.

After they wrapped up at midnight, it was a dance party with DJGomes and VJBDJ that went until four in the morning, although the rich people side of the reception would have wrapped and gone off in their limos at eleven p.m. The DJs had wanted to call their show “EDM-Night Shamalamadingdong,” but the county had rejected that idea as culturally insensitive, so they went with their names.

Everything happening on City Hall steps and the southern part of Grand Park had been arranged and paid for by the county as a wedding present to the bride and groom, and also as a trade-off, since Grand Park was actually county-owned and maintained…

To be continued…

Image source: The Ezcaray Reredos altar carving, Our Lady of Angels Cathedral, Los Angeles. © 2017 Jon Bastian. All rights reserved.

Friday Free-for-All #14

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What do you attribute the biggest successes in your life to? How about your largest failures?

Well, this one is easy, because it’s opposite sides of the same coin.

Biggest successes? When I’ve let go of fear and just gone for it, despite my instincts.

Biggest failures? When I haven’t.

Or another way to put it is this: you can’t succeed if you don’t do, but you will always fail if you don’t. You may fail if you do but, surprisingly, those kinds of failures still lead to successes in teaching you other things.

And the fears that hold us back are not necessarily phobias or actual risks. They can be mundane as well — the fear of being inconvenienced or having to figure things out or whatever.

A big case in point for me was a few years back. It was just shy of a year after the little health scare that made me create this whole site in the first place, although not the event I wrote about in the prologue.

Basically, I had an opportunity to go to a resort in Palm Springs, spend the 4th of July weekend hanging out with a bunch of guys, and just getting out of town and relaxing.

I was fortunate enough that I could afford it, but what held me back was figuring out what to do with my dog. I mean, logistically, it was simple: Arrange for her to be boarded from Thursday afternoon through Monday morning, and I really trusted her vets to do that. Actually making the call to arrange it was another thing.

But I did, and made the trip, and wound up having a great time.

The same group was going to have an adult weekend camp in the woods near Big Bear around Labor Day, and by that time, after telling a neighbor about the whole previous thing, she told me that she’d be happy to board Sheeba any time, so this was suddenly not an issue.

But after I’d booked this one, I got an email from the organizer asking if I could give a ride to somebody from WeHo, since he didn’t have transportation up to the camp.

And I almost said no, because… how weird, right? I’m not an Uber driver. I don’t know this guy, and we’re going to be stuck in my car for hours. The only thing it seemed like we had in common were our first names.

But the lure of the experience was too much, so I said yes, picked him up, and in the course of the trip and the weekend, in which we wound up being the only two bunkmates in our cabin, we bonded, and he and I are still good friends to this day.

I’d call that a success. This was also the weekend when I learned that the late, great Sheeba actually liked cats. Who knew?

Other big wins have been when I’ve put fear aside to actually talk to people, and have managed to wrangle a few nice LTRs that way — and IRL, which is much scarier than via app, believe me. And good things have also happened when I’ve talked my way into talking my way into jobs.

Now, as for failures coming from fear, it’s obviously a lot harder to gauge when you’ve failed because you don’t really know it. If you never applied for that job, then you’ll never have heard a definitive “No.” If you never asked that person out, you can’t have been rejected.

Although maybe it’s not so much a case of fear stopping things, but rather lack of initiative — which brings us back to the do or don’t mention up top.

We can pretend that it’s fear that stops us, but that isn’t always the case. Often times, it can be laziness, procrastination, annoyance, or inconvenience. Like electrical currents, humans are quite fond of seeking the path of least resistance and, in general, this will lead to the lowest possible energy state, whether we’re talking people or electrons.

We’re certainly seeing this right now with people who are itching to get out of lockdown and go back to the life they knew. If that’s not taking the path of least resistance, I don’t know what is. They are letting inconvenience dictate their actions, not realizing that this will just lead to failure, not only personally, but systemically.

I can’t say what failures I’ve face in the past when I let laziness, procrastination, annoyance, or inconvenience win — but I can list every single case in my life when ignoring all of those and actually doing something led to a success.

How about you?

Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better: part 2

Last week’s post was all about how the film version of Cabaret was much better than the original stage musical, although that musical was based on a play that was based on a book.

This time around, the derivative work started out as an off-Broadway musical that went to Broadway and then to film, so there aren’t any other layers to unpack. The stage show premiered in 1967 and hit Broadway the next year. It took just over a decade for it to make it to film, directed by a Czech immigrant to America, Miloš Forman. And, honestly, there’s a really good reason that he can relate to political protests in 1968.

Or, in other words, he showed how an immigrant can get a better handle on life in America than most Americans can and in this film, he nailed it.

But back up a bit. The original stage show was a pretty shallow review that only ever got attention because the cast got nude, they sang dirty words, and explicitly mentioned issues of race and vaguely protested the Vietnam War. That was pretty much it, and the thing really didn’t have any kind of plot beyond that, nor much of a real relationship between the characters.

Honestly, the script is a hot mess, more interested in abstract symbolism than in anything else.

But when this whole thing becomes a movie at the end of the ‘70s, Miloš gets what was going on in the ‘60s, and, bonus points, decides to take the approach of staging all of the musical numbers in real life. In other words, he’s going throwback old school — the exact opposite of the Cabaret approach — and, oddly enough, he makes it work.

Oh. Did I mention that part where the original stage show really didn’t have any coherent story? Right, I did.

This was the other big thing that this version brought to the table through two simple tweaks: Take the Lead Couple (a musical tradition), remove them from the hippie tribe, and make them the fish out of water (Claude and Sheila), then eliminate the concept of secondary couple entirely, and replace it with the rest of the core Tribe: Berger, Woof, Hud, and Jeannie — any one of whom could have been in a couple with any of the others.

In case you’re wondering, this is the show I’m writing about.

Hair (1979)

Much like the film adaptation of Pink Floyd — The Wall would three years later, Hair begins in relative silence as our lead character, Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), leaves his house in Oklahoma. It’s a foggy and probably very early morning. Sound and colors are subdued and muted as Claude’s father drives him to a roadside bus stop in the middle of nowhere.

We won’t know for sure until almost the last shot of the film, but this is most likely the summer of 1967, which tells us something else: Claude is no poor boy from the sticks, as his father insists on giving him $50 cash, in case of emergencies.

Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $390 now.

Claude hops onto the bus and sets off for New York City, and this is where the music begins as he gets closer to his destination. By the way, Forman makes the very interesting choice to have the camera track from right to left instead of the other direction. I don’t know whether he was just confused about American geography, but the tradition in film here is that right to left means going west, while left to right means going east.

So, in other words, to an American audience, the instinct is to feel like Claude is heading to California.

On the other hand, having come from Czechoslovakia, this may have been a very conscious choice on Forman’s part, representing a metaphorical journey to the west, from an oppressive, gray place to the land of freedom and color.

As soon as we hit Central Park and the opening number Age of Aquarius fully kicks in, we definitely explode in a riot of color in more ways than one. The entire cast of the movie was about as diverse as possible, and we pretty much have every ethnic group represented in the opening, with several interracial couples included.

Here, the costuming (and, naturally, hair) also manages to be spot-on, avoiding any of the usual media screw-ups when it comes to portraying the look of a fairly recent youth culture a decade after the fact.

There’s a lot to unpack in these opening six minutes, and they’re worth watching.

We’re a witness with Claude as he stumbles into this be-in in the park, and we also meet The Tribe — Berger (Treat Williams), Hud (Dorsey Wright), Woof (Don Dacus), and Jeannie (Annie Golden) — who will become that all-important collective secondary couple.

Here, Claude also has his first vision of Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), clearly a member of the patrician class, as she rides with two chaperones. She and Claude spot each other, and both are clearly smitten.

There’s also a lot of magic going on, and one particularly delightful moment comes when two mounted policemen approach the group. Most of the flee, but a brave duo of dancers remains, and their movements seemingly control the horses, making the cops powerless. It’s a really nice touch along with everything else.

The choreography here and throughout is stunning, and I have to give a big nod to Twyla Tharp, who does remarkable work, and pops up onscreen several times. This was her first of five film credits, a small part of a very long and illustrious career.

It’s very interesting to contrast her choreography with Bob Fosse’s in anything he did, but particularly Cabaret. Fosse was all about control through the concept of isolation. What this means in choreography is that a dancer should have precise control of any particular part of their body at any time, right down to a fingertip or a toe.

This is why a lot of Fosse’s moves seem to be intentionally robotic or jerky, with emphasis frequently being given to, say, just the hands, or the way a dancer tilts their head. Compare the choreography in the clip above to this bit featuring Fosse himself, with Gwen Verdon, in the film adaptation of Damn Yankees.

On the surface, it may seem like those are loose movements, especially given the tempo and tune, but if you watch closely, they are anything but. And you can also see the emphasis of ballet in Fosse’s work.

Tharp’s work in Hair, in contrast, seems to defy gravity, and clearly combines influences from tai chi and gymnastics. The dancer’s bodies are loose and limber, and rather than clearly controlling themselves, they seem to be drawn along by external forces.

It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the film, in fact.

Now one thing about the original is that it has a bunch of character intro songs at the beginning that don’t really introduce the characters. Sure, they give an actor something fun to sing, but they didn’t really have any greater meaning. Here, they become background to the more important thing happening, which is actual character development.

One of the first and most important of these is right after Claude meets The Tribe. They ask him for change, and he wonders why he should give it to them. At first unmoved by their claim that Jeannie is pregnant and they haven’t eaten for two days, he finally tosses them what’s probably half a buck — about $3.90 now.

Now, one of the things that happens in the opening is that The Tribe comes across Sheila and company on their horses, and Woof sincerely asks if he can ride for just five minutes, because he’s never done it and he’s always wanted to. Naturally, they refuse.

But as soon as Berger realizes they have enough money, what does he do? He makes sure that his friend gets his wish. They rent a horse and go for a ride and, when they catch up again with Sheila and her chaperones, Forman puts Woof’s intro number to perfect use.

It’s a little ditty that I like to use as an audition piece and it’s called Sodomy. It has exactly 23 words in its lyrics. Five of them are references to sex acts, none of them involving missionary sex, and two of them refer to basically the Indian Big Book of Sex.

Naturally it scandalizes the two older women with Sheila, although it’s not clear whether she’s so upset. Still, the trio rides off, passing Claude. Moments later, the horse that Berger and Woof were on runs by rider-less, and the Tribe implores Claude to catch.

Remember: Claude is from Oklahoma, so he does, and takes the opportunity to show off some trick riding skills to Sheila, only to have them go one way at a fork in the trail while he goes the other. Another potentially intentional move by Forman: Sheila and company go right. Claude goes left.

The other intro numbers, which do have some powerful political content, come together during Claude’s first night in New York, after the Tribe has convinced him to hang out with him, then get him higher than fuck. In short order, the titles of these numbers are Colored Spade, Manchester, and I’m Black/Ain’t Got No.

The first one, performed by Hud and the people of color in the cast is basically a litany that throws just about every racist slur about black people right back at the white people, and Hud owns it here — clearly the original intention of the number.

It may seem un-PC now, but in reality it’s a clear and early example of “taking back the words.”

As if to emphasize that, Manchest is Berger introducing (and speaking for) Claude, and significantly all of the people of color vanish. Poof, instant erasure, as Berger describes Claude as being from Manchester, “England, England, across the Atlantic Sea.” It’s the American Empire in a nutshell.

Everyone returns and launches into the number Ain’t Got No, which is a litany worth repeating now, because it describes the true struggle that was going on at the time. It wasn’t about black vs. white. It was, and is, about have vs. have not.

After all, in this song, it’s all of the Tribe and hippies singing together.

Then morning comes, Claude wakes up, and starts to head off on his own. He’s about to leave when Berger notices a newspaper on the ground identifying Sheila, who is having her debutante party that very afternoon.

Side note: This means that she is probably sixteen. Since Claude comes to New York in response to being drafted, he’s probably not that much older. Pay no attention to the casting of actors who were 28 and 30 at the time the film was made.

But, again, Berger ignores logic and reason to help give a friend their dream. When Claude balks at crashing because he wasn’t invited, Berger replies, “Do you want to go to a party with me?”

And that’s the end of just the first act, which has already packed in a lot more character development, relationship, and meaning than the source material did in its entire length.

I could continue the deep-dive through the rest of it but that could easily turn into a 10,000 word post so, instead, I’d just urge you to see it. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime — I’ll leave you to search it yourselves because I’m not trying to monetize.

But the message of this film, which comes through much more clearly than it did in the stage show, is far from dated. The struggle we’re in is one of greed vs. community, fear vs. love, and hatred vs. hope.

Just substitute the concept of forcing people to go fight in the Vietnam War with the concept of forcing them to go back to work during a pandemic because, economically, they have no choice.

The rich could always wiggle their way out of the draft, whether it was via student deferments, daddy knowing Congressmen (they were all men then), or bone spurs.

The poor, not so much, unless they were willing to do things that would ruin their lives in other ways, like pretend to be homosexual, or insane, or flee to Canada — although one of Jimmy Carter’s first acts when he took office was to pardon the so-called “draft dodgers.”

Kind of seems familiar now, though, right? Hole up in your well-stocked mansion with no worries about where the money is coming from, lobby your Congressperson, Senator, or Governor to end the lockdown — for the people who work for you and earn you your money — or fly off to your private island.

Or… go back to work without proper PPE, maybe via public transportation, without health insurance, while you’re taking care of your kids and your elderly parent, and take your chances.

Watch Hair, listen to the message, and then do something. And remember: in the film version, Berger goes full on Jesus mode in order to help his friends.

Good day, India!

I’ve noticed over the last few months that I have quite a few readers from India, and first I wanted to say “Welcome!” Second, I wanted to ask what brings you here, and what I can provide in the way of content to improve your experience — or if what I’m doing works for you already.

So don’t be shy. Check in in the comments below, or click to send me a private message. It just amazes me that I seem to be connecting with and have followers from half-way around the world — which is kind of the point of the internet in the first place, isn’t it?

Peace!

Wednesday Wonders: Why more isn’t necessarily better

Okay, lockdown has certainly given me more time to take advantage of my Amazon Prime subscription, but for the most part I’ve found myself binging older shows that I didn’t catch the whole way through the first time, like 30 Rock, or deep diving in order to study those proto-shows that led to what we’re familiar with now, like SNL’s dad, Laugh-In.

Yes, “Dad.” SNL is that old now. Laugh-In ran from 1968 to 1973. SNL premiered on October 11, 1975. So, hell, not even Dad. Big brother.

I’d avoided Amazon Originals for the most part because there are just so many of them, and the one I’d attempted previously, The Man in the High Castle, left me cold at the end of the first episode because I’m a huge fan of the book it’s based on, and they basically blew through that entire story in the pilot, leaving them nowhere to go.

But isolation finally made me dip my toe into the water recently and I have to say… more is not better. For the most part, I’ve been very disappointed with what I’ve seen. Granted, it’s only a small sample of what they’ve done, and there are a couple of shows I still look forward to testing (Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), but… I’m seeing a lot of lazy and formulaic writing, and plot twists that are obvious from ten miles off, especially in their science fiction offerings.

On top of that, there seems to be an aesthetic of “let’s go there” that makes me reply “let’s not.”

So… how do you create an Amazon Original? Here’s the apparent formula for your pilot episode, depending on your genre:

An anthology series

An anthology series is one in which either each episode of a season involves different stories and characters (think Twilight Zone) or each season of a series takes place in different times and locations, although often with a repertory cast of the same actors (think American Horror Story).

For Amazon, their approach to anthologies is the former, with each episode a stand-alone, and the process is this:

  1. First, acquire an intellectual property (IP) based on something you can exploit, especially if it’s popular on the internet and/or has been memed to death.
  2. Figure out everything that made that work popular and interesting and… dump it. Especially ignore the demographic that made it popular.
  3. Next, create a pilot episode that really doesn’t include anything from the IP, but which just nods to it, and which is vague and ambiguous, preferably with mind-bending twists. Make sure that people who’ve ever written will be twelve steps ahead of you as every set-up screams like a siren, while everyone who hasn’t written will be confused.
  4. At the end, pay off what the writers expected and blow muggles’ minds. Then completely undercut it by tossing in an unearned and unrealistic twist that makes no sense. Repeat for ten episodes.

An Original series

Start with interesting idea, either adapted IP, or a completely new concept. Great. Now follow these steps:

  1. Make the pilot overlong, then start with a character who is much more interesting than your lead, but who isn’t your lead. For bonus points, make sure that this not lead character is a person of color and/or a woman, then make the real lead a white guy.
  2. Opening scene options: Generally, senseless and over-the-top violence, although confusing and muddled WTF is also acceptable.
  3. Be sure to show off your SFX budget as soon as possible, even if it adds nothing, but don’t get lazy. If you start your effects shot with future design, don’t give it up half-way through. People do notice.
  4. Don’t forget the sex scene, usually involving protagonist and SO, although Amazon Original sex seems to be of the “implied naked couple half covered by a sheet (and tits covered by an arm) while they lie on their sides facing each other to do some sort of impossible to get off hump while both having spectacular orgasms at the same time, regardless of the gender combo. (Exception: zero-G.)
  5. At every turn, telegraph the hell out of shit. Okay, you think you aren’t and you’re being clever, and maybe non-creative viewers don’t get it, but FFS… out of all the shows I’m going to mention below, there are only two exceptions in which I didn’t figure out the entire series plotline by the end of the first act of the pilot. One of those was because the writing was just too damn good. The other was because the writing was just so confused and muddled.
  6. Did I mention the over-the-top SFX violence or gore? If you’re ambitious, go for twice. And don’t fail to shoot scenes in ways that will make your audience ask, “Did we really need to fucking see this?”

You know, if Pier Paolo Pasolini were still alive, he would probably be the most successful producer and creator on Amazon Prime.

But let’s look at my hot takes of some Prime Originals I have tried to sit through, and whether I did or didn’t get past the pilot, and why. (Hint: I really only got past the pilot twice.)

1.   The Boys

This was a clever attempt at deconstructing the super-hero world from a very logical point of view: What about all of the innocent people who are inadvertently injured, killed, or have their lives destroyed when the “supers” do battle all across their hometown?

Deconstructing super-heroes has been a thing since the 1980s, when graphic novels reinvigorated comic books and brought them into the modern age. This was when the idea of dark and gritty DC heroes like Batman and Superman were created. It was also the era when Watchman took the graphic novel world by storm by further deconstructing the deconstruction, and imagining “masked vigilantes” in the context of the real world, beginning at the same time as the Golden Age of comics had, in the 1930s.

A sadly forgotten reimaging of superheroes as just regular people is the 1999 comedy film Mystery Men, which featured an outstanding cast who maybe weren’t the best at doing what they did, but they tried.

So… The Boys follows in those footsteps, but again doesn’t really give us any characters to root for because the team of guys who decides to go vigilante against the supers aren’t all that likeable, and their targets come off as such heavy-handed and obvious (but different enough to not violate IP rules) stand-ins for MCU characters, that they’re impossible to care for either.

It’s kind of interesting, because The Boys is sort of the fantasyland version of Hunters, see below.

2.  The Expanse

I thought I liked this one when I watched the first episode, but when I came around to watching the second, I realized that nothing from the pilot had really stuck with me, and that’s not a good sign the return to the well is within less than a week. I am normally a huge science fiction fan, especially if it’s hard sci-fi, meaning it actually follows the rules of physics and such. And, while this one did, nothing else stuck. Your mileage may vary.

3.  Good Omens

This one is proof that if you start off with good IP and trust the people adapting it, you’ll get gold. It also helps that the two leads, David Tennant and Michael Sheen as demon Crowley and angel Aziraphale have such amazing chemistry together that it sets the tone for and makes the series. (And many fans have shipped the two into TVs first ever asexual relationship.)

Of course, since it opens with the first 6000 years of human history as the pair stands on the wall of the Garden of Eden and then weaves in and out to the present, how could it go wrong? Bonus points: It’s narrated by god, voiced by Frances McDormand. And it didn’t hurt that the BBC co-produced and the scripts were written by one of the original co-authors of the book, Neil Gaiman.

This was one I binged, and one that Amazon Originals absolutely got right.

4.   Hunters

Okay, who doesn’t love a good “Let’s kill us some fugitive Nazis” story, right? Especially a period piece set in the 1970s. Except that it goes a bit way over the top in the opening scene, which stretches all plausibility. Then gets more implausible when Al Pacino, noted Italian-American actor, shows up as a Jewish Nazi hunter. What, they couldn’t find any Jewish actors in Hollywood. Nu? And then comes the ultimate “Why the fuck did they shoot it like this?” scene that just put me right off of the whole damn thing.

5.   Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

I’m a huge fan of Philip K. Dick’s work, and I may yet go back to this one, because I was engaged by the pilot, which was the quintessential Dickian adventure of “guess which one is the real world.” Both worlds involve a cop — one a white lesbian in a technologically advanced future world, and the other a black man in a much closer to now, but with some advanced touches world.

Both of them suffer extreme guilt over a decision that led to the deaths of fellow cops, and each of them is given the option to treat their PTSD via a high-tech “drug.” In the future, it’s a small illuminated disk that sticks on the skin. In the not-as-future, it’s a black plastic headset akin to the skeleton of a bicycle helmet.

We soon learn that, via these devices, these two cops are the same person in two different settings, and from there it becomes a game of “spot the real world.” The hidden clues actually argue either way, and half of the fun is finding them, since set design and art direction plays a large part. My only quibble, at first, was that the deck was heavily stacked toward option 1 by the end and, indeed, we were told that this was the artificial world — only to have a rug-yank immediately thereafter. In retrospect, it kind of makes sense, but is going to take a second look.

The only reason I haven’t continued yet with this one is that it’s a bit dark for current events.

6.   Tales from the Loop

Pick a target demographic that doesn’t match the source and aim for them. For example, take a dark and satirical graphic novel about a virus that infects machines and turns them into sentient but dying creatures, leading to the devastation of human society, totally misunderstand what makes Stranger Things work (nostalgia, not kids) and then create a confused mess that’s not relatable by either group.

I did attempt two episodes of this one, but only made it about ten minutes into the second. What made the source material work — the beautiful and detailed paintings — doesn’t translate into a live-action series if you fail to add the action. Tales is surprisingly static and uninvolving, and that’s a shame. I have less than zero interest in watching some pre-pubescent child wander through an endless, deserted, monochrome landscape waiting for something to happen.

7.   Upload

The jury is still out on this one, although I have made it through two episodes and have stayed engaged. Briefly, it’s the story of a world where the afterlife has been digitized, and people have the option of having their consciousness uploaded to an avatar that will live forever in an ultimate VR heaven.

If they have enough money — and that includes paying for DLC once they’re there — then they can go to the fancy, lavish lakeside heaven. If not… well, we haven’t seen the budget version yet.

The one little drawback to the upload process, though, is that it leaves behind a headless corpse that’s frozen just in case science ever figures out how to download that information back in to reanimate the bodies.

And don’t worry about staying in touch with loved ones who’ve been uploaded. They’re only a phone call away. Talk about taking the concept of heaven being in the cloud(s) to its ultimate high tech conclusion.

The positives for this one are that the leads are really, really likeable and relatable, and the world-building has been well thought out — both on the afterlife and real life sides. (In-show clues indicate that the story probably begins in 2033.)

For me, the only drawback is that there were two really huge clues in the first episode — one a throwaway line and the other a button on the last act — that telegraphed the entire plotline for the season, if not the series, to me. I may or may not be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Still, this one is an Amazon Original that actually managed to get it right, and that’s rare — and it got me going along through the third episode, so I think that this one is a keeper, even if I think I’ve figured out the first season arc already.

What Amazon Originals have you hooked? Which ones didn’t do it for you? Tell us in the comments!

Image source:  A work of the U.S. federal government, so public domain in the United States.

Talky Tuesday: Weighing words from the past

The following piece is from January, 2000, when I was one of the founding-publishers, editors and critics for the site Filmmonthly.com, which is still a going thing even though I’ve been publisher emeritus for a while now. Still, in reading the sometimes harsh words of a younger me, one thing does really stick out: I still agree with how I felt about these films then, even now.

JON BASTIAN’S BEST AND WORST FILMS OF THE ’90S

So, once again, we look back at a decade in an attempt to catalogue and classify the best and worst. In doing so, I decided, first of all, that it’s much better to say this is my personal list of favorite and least favorite films released between January, 1990 and December, 1999. Your results may vary. Second, I know there are favorite films I’ve missed, and the original list was about thirty-five movies long. One day, I know I’ll suddenly shout, “Doh! How could I forget… blank?” Those are the risks of doing these things.

Both lists are arranged alphabetically because, once I honed things down, I really couldn’t give a numerical order to either list. I’d gladly watch any of my favorite films over and over. As for the least favorite list, some obvious choices are missing — Stigmata and Battlefield: Earth come to mind — but I tried to stick to films that I’m not fond of for reasons other than they’re terrible.

My Favorite Films of the 90’s

American Beauty — one of the most finely crafted scripts ever written, Alan Ball’s dark comedy holds the mirror in our face as his story unfolds just like the titular rose. And even though we know Lester Burnham is going to die by the end, we never see it coming but it all makes perfect sense when it does. All this, and some of the most memorable movie lines of the decade — you’ll be seeing American Beauty in revivals and retrospectives well into the next century. [Okay, except for all that Kevin Spacey shit. This one didn’t hold up, but only because of that — Ed.]

Boogie Nights — Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth film and second feature is the epic-length saga of the rise, fall and redemption of the adult film industry, embodied by the well-endowed Dirk Diggler, as the 70’s melt down into the 80’s. With a cast as large, and a time span as long, as Mr. Diggler’s dirk, Boogie Nights is a kaleidoscopic yet dead-on evocation of the era when disco died and cynicism was re-invented. If you lived through it, you’ll recognize it. If you didn’t, you need to see this film.

The Coen Brothers’ Collected Works — one decade, five amazing films. Joel and Ethan Coen obviously love movies, and each of their ventures pretends to be a genre piece, which they joyously subvert to create something more than it at first seems. They gave us, in order, neo-gangster Miller’s Crossing; noir-on-crack Barton Fink; screwy screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy; warped crime flick Fargo, and hippie Raymond Chandler The Big Lebowski. Always starting from an established genre, they give it one big twist and then take off from there. [And Lebowski just won’t leave me alone, thanks to a longer think piece I posted on Filmmonthly, a few months after this best/worst list — Ed.]

Eyes Wide Shut — a film that requires your close attention, but what Kubrick film doesn’t? On the surface, it seems like a simple story about a suspicious husband in over his head with a kinky group of swingers. But nothing is as simple as it seems. It’s up to the audience to decide what really happens and what doesn’t, whether we’re watching reality or a dream, and whether our hero is paranoid or prescient. It’s a film to start discussions that last long after the final frame has flickered. In other words, pure Kubrick. Boy, do I miss him.

Fight Club — this stunner from David Fincher is epic in scope and literary in nature, and tackles some really big issues in a story that oscillates between hilarious and scary. With style to spare, Fincher’s tricks nonetheless add to the story instead of distract. It all builds to an inevitable finale that is beautiful and apocalyptic. [Also a film whose fanboys totally miss that it eviscerates toxic masculinity. Plus it has two eerily prescient references to 9/11 that happen in the opening and closing moments of the film — Ed]

Last Exit to Brooklyn — it took non-American director Uli Edel to turn Hubert Selby’s quintessentially American novel into an amazing film that captures the feel and prose of the original even as it turns Selby’s five disjointed stories into one coherent whole. The strike-bound docks of 1950’s Brooklyn are the lower depths of hell, populated by junkies, whores and straight sailors with their drag queen boyfriends. Holding it all together are devastating performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tra La La, the self-destructive prostitute, and Stephen Lang as Harry Black, the even more self-destructive and very confused union steward. This is the 50’s that Ozzie and Harriet never wanted you to see. In other words, it’s real.

Lone Star — John Sayles weaves an intricate tapestry around the lives of several generations of residents of a Texas border town as the current sheriff tries to figure out who killed an unpopular former sheriff years ago. What puts Lone Star several cuts above other films of this kind is the gradual way it cuts through many layers of truth. Each successive scene wrenches our perception of previous events until we’re left with only one devastating but poignant truth and our hero is stuck with one very difficult decision.

Richard III — Sir Ian McKellen brings us this sly update of my favorite Shakespeare, set in 1930’s England during an imaginary civil war. McKellen is joined by Annette Bening, Robert Downey, Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith and Dominic West, among others, as ol’ Humpback Dick connives and murders his way into — and out of — power. If you normally find Shakespeare inaccessible, this movie is a good place to start. If you’re already into the guy from Avon, it’s hard to find a better version of one of his works. In comparison, Olivier’s film performance in the same role was about as complex as his fake hump and wax nose.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut — more than just a movie, it’s a political statement, a musical and the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, even on repeat viewings. The song Blame Canada losing the Oscar to that over-the-hill whining hack Phil Collins was one of the most heinous mistakes ever made by Academy voters.

Titus — a creepy, haunting, incredibly designed and perfectly cast extravaganza that overcomes the problems in Shakespeare’s weakest play. This one will linger in your head long after the last corpse hits the floor.

Twelve Monkeys — an utterly unique film from one of our most gifted auteurs, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is a complex, multi-layered experience that reveals more of itself on every viewing while defying any effort to pull apart its logic. Part mystery, part race against the clock and part love story, it’s also one of cinema’s best uses of the knots of time travel, ending with the mother of all strange loops. Bonus: Gilliam brings us the best ever performances by both Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt — no mean feat, that. [And, since it’s about a world-wide pandemic that kills off almost everyone and which was started by a religiously crazed American scientist, scarier and more relevant now than ever Ed.]

Velvet Goldmine — a giddy, glammy trip through the early 70’s, with Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers starring in this “What If?” fantasia on the lives of Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Practically a musical and yet not, Velvet Goldmine’s story grows with liquid logic, and it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a Ken Russell film that wasn’t made by Ken Russell. Keep an eye on director Todd Haynes to show up on all those decade-end “Best of the 00’s” lists. [And… he’s only made five feature films since this one, only two of which you might have heard of. Oh well. — Ed.]

La Vita è Bella — A sweet little tragicomedy that shows us how a man meets and woos his wife, then shows us how he uses his wits and sense of humor to save his family from death during the Holocaust. When I saw this film, the final seconds brought tears of joy to my eyes. If they don’t do the same for you, you have no heart.

Honorable Mentions — it was difficult to hone this list down, and impossible to cut it to ten. A few movies that I include as my favorites, but regrettably had to relegate to slots below those already described: Dead Again, The Matrix, Naked Lunch, Pulp Fiction, To Die For, Total Recall and Trainspotting.

My Least Favorite Films of the 90s

Any film with Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner in it — Costner is a wooden actor who lacks the talent to pull off the epics he attempts. I only need to mention two: Waterworld and The Postman. As for Gibson — he’s a homophobic asshole who could have just apologized for his comments over a decade ago. Instead, he continues to crank out jingoistic, mindless rightwing crap and goes out of his way to indulge his anti-gay stereotyping. Remember the future Edward II as depicted in Braveheart?

The Blair Witch Project — the emperor has no clothes on. You have to admire the makers of this dreck for creating the film and the hype on a zero budget, but only because they did it first.

Forrest Gump — the glorification of idiocy, drawn out beyond all coherent length. I’m not sure what the message of this film is, except maybe that it’s okay to be stupid. Perhaps Contact was Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to make up for this message but, to paraphrase Mr. Garrison from South Park, “The alien was her goddamn father. What a rip-off.” [It’s still one of my favorite science fiction films, though — Ed.]

Gladiator — an attempt to recreate the sword and sandals epics of the 1950’s that falls apart because its hero is left with only one emotion to play and the action sequences are so badly directed that you can only figure out what happened afterwards when the dust clears. The CGI models of Rome were pretty impressive, but they were the only thing in this movie with more than two dimensions.

Goodfellas — yes, that’s right, I hate this film. Let me give you a comparison here: what if Spike Lee only made movies about African American gangstas, glorified their lifestyle and made them the heroes, inspiring legions of African American teenagers to want to emulate these thugs. He’d get ripped a new one by public opinion faster than you could say “drive-by.” Martin Scorsese does exactly the same thing, but gets away with it by depicting Italian Americans. He only gets away with that because he’s Italian. When Spike Lee threw a few goombahs into Do the Right Thing, he got ripped a new one by public opinion.

Hurlyburly — an incoherent mess with some of the least attractive losers ever put on screen, it doesn’t help that this very 80’s story was plopped into the 90’s with little updating. The characters on display don’t make sense out of the context of the go-go Reaganomics era of venality. Imagine Wall Street set in the world of tech stocks instead of junk bonds; that would make about as much sense.

Jackie Brown — only a least favorite entry because it’s nowhere near as good as Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarentino took a great opportunity and blew it. Pam Grier is incredible on screen, as is Robert Forster, but the movie drags, and commits the cardinal sin of complicated plot flicks: it shows us the rehearsal for “The Big Heist,” then shows “The Big Heist” being pulled off flawlessly. In other words, we get to watch the same twenty minutes of the movie twice in a row. Boring.

Jurassic (anything) — it was a stupid concept the first time around, and then it just got worse. They’re making another one. Watch for it on my worst of list in 2010. [Jurassic Park III did not disappoint in making my worst of for that decade, either — Ed.]

Pleasantville — a very promising premise that just didn’t pay off, although I don’t know why. I also hear that in real life Tobey Maguire is quite a dickhead, which shouldn’t have any bearing on this film, except that he’s supposed to be such a nice guy here. I couldn’t buy into that.

The Prince of Tides — one of the worst vanity projects ever made, starring Barbra’s hair, nails and nose. Somebody really has to remind her she’s just a singer.

Titanic — yeah, the effects were neat and the ship sank really well, but the ill-fated romance between Leo and Kate upon which James Cameron decided to hang this story really doesn’t do any justice to the scope of the project or the price tag of the film. And if I never hear Céline Dion hyperventilate her way through the title track again, that’ll be just fine with me.

The Truman Show — once again, a good premise utterly squandered. This film started out with a lot of promise, and then the story suddenly screeched to a halt and we were treated to a documentary that essentially told us everything we’d been watching up to that point. To compound the error, it was during this detour that our hero made his most important decision and took his biggest action — and we never fucking saw it happen! It would be comparable to, say, having Russell Crowe’s final Gladiator battle against Joaquin Phoenix happen off-screen. Hm. Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

Twister — a meandering mess with all the Hollywood-obligatory but unnecessary character crap thrown in — they’re going to get divorced but then they chase a tornado together. Will they get back together? Who cares. And when the payoff to your biggest special effect is that your heroes can survive it by holding onto pipes, well, you’ve pretty much taken the wind out of everything else you’ve built up before then.

Original post from filmmonthly.com, © 2000 Jon Bastian. Used with my own permission.

Image by Nikodem Nijaki, used unchanged under (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Momentous Monday: You betcha

Happy 162nd anniversary of statehood, Minnesota! The northernmost continental U.S. state, 22nd most populous, and 12th largest by area, there’s a lot more going on up there than people on the coasts might think.

I know that when a lot of people hear “Minnesota,” they think Coen Brothers, and while those two may be one of its most famous exports, the title of one of their more famous and acclaimed films (later, streaming show), Fargo, doesn’t even refer to a city in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

I have to admit that the closest I’ve ever gotten to Minnesota is passing through Iowa and Wisconsin on the way to visit Chicago, fart through Michigan, then dive via Indiana into Ohio and beyond.

If you visually combine Minnesota and Iowa on an outline map, it looks like a hungry boar trying to eat Wisconsin. Of course, since Wisconsin is made of cheese and men in flannel, who can blame the other two for being peckish? The snack also comes with a free chaser of Great Lakes Water.

Without having gone to the state, the closest I’ve actually gotten there has been the people from there I’ve met and known, and all I can say is that 3M (originally Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company) must be secretly cloning armies of intelligent, creative, funny, friendly, good-looking people and exporting them. And I’ve met a lot of them over the years.

Given the Scandinavian background of the state, this might be a clue to how the Vikings really conquered everything. They didn’t come in as armed invaders killing people. Nah. They sailed in really polite and well-groomed and just sort of hung around. Eventually, they niced everyone into submission, but the conquered people were too embarrassed to admit that this was how it happened, so all of those “Vikings Invade and Take no Prisoners” stories came about.

By all reports, though, the Vikings did have amazing hair.

But, come on. Can you imagine any of the following people invading anywhere and violently kicking ass? Al Franken, Prince, Judy Garland, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Schulz, Bob Dylan, and so on? Not likely.

It’s been a popular setting for film and TV programs, with 1970s The Mary Tyler Moore Show being the first example of a series specifically set there, in Minneapolis. Wikipedia tells me that the earliest TV show probably set in the state is the 1959 series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, although that appears to be conjecture — the show is set in the fictitious Central City in the upper Midwest. Only the stories the series was based on were explicitly set in Minnesota.

TV returned to the state in 1974 (while MTM was still airing) with the show Little House on the Prairie, which took place a hundred years earlier, in Walnut Grove, a small town in the southwest corner of the state.

In fact, the town itself was drawn out in 1874 and incorporated in 1879.

And, of course, it’s really hard to ignore the multi-media juggernaut that was Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, partly set in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon. It aired on radio for over 40 years, finally ending in 2016.

As I’ve mentioned, Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but that happens to be a total, bald-faced lie. In fact, the state has at least 11,842 lakes if you go by the standard of a body of water of at least 10 acres.

Wisconsin claims to have more lakes — 15,074 — but their standard is 2.2 acres or more. If you apply Minnesota’s standard to Wisconsin, then the latter only has a mere 5,300 lakes.

And if you apply the U.S. Geological Survey standard, which combines ponds and lakes together as water body features, Minnesota has a staggering 124,522 of them. So 10,000 lakes, indeed. There’s that Minnesota modesty for you right there! Or is it duplicity? I’m not really sure right now.

Here’s another not-real thing related to the state: Minnesota Fats. In real life, he was a professional pool player and hustler, originally named Rudolf Wanderone. Beginning in the 1960s, he became one of the most well-known pool players in the world, eventually being inducted into the billiards hall of fame in the 1980s.

However… this Minnesota Fats was actually born in New York City to Swiss immigrants in 1913. He started playing pool early, managed pool-halls, and went by a series of “Fats” nicknames, none of which involved the name Minnesota. (And the Swiss, not being Scandinavian, were not part of the big influx into that state in the first place.)

Then, in 1959, the book The Hustler. by Walter Tevis, came out. It was soon adapted into a film of the same name starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason as the totally made-up character Minnesota Fats, who had absolutely nothing at all to do with Wanderone.

This didn’t stop Wanderone, though, who quickly adopted the name and claimed that the character was based on him, although both Tevis and the film’s technical advisor, Willie Mosconi, denied it.

Oh… the film itself was shot almost entirely on location in… New York City.

I mentioned at the beginning that I know a lot of people from Minnesota — living in L.A. entails knowing a lot of people from a lot of places — and I reached out to eight of them I could think of off of the top of my head via IM and email, asking for their thoughts and comments on having grown up in the state.

I heard from five, got promises from four… and then nothing. The closest I did get were the comments from a friend who shall remain nameless in accepting the request: “All I ask is that you tell the truth. However dirty, beautiful, or in-between it may be. The world needs to know the truth about Minnesota…

“There’s what you call dry humor and passive aggressiveness we have that you’ll need to absorb here…! Actually I don’t know if that’s a generalization. It could just be me, but there’s certainly something fishy in that ‘Minnesota Nice’ cover we have.”

Then… silence. Which maybe just confirms the short statement from the only one to ultimately respond.

So maybe Minnesota is more like the quiet, shy one you have to watch out for, maybe not. But there is one other detail: It was the next state accepted into the union after California, so in a sense we’re the Gopher State’s big brother. Maybe it’s our responsibility to keep reminding them that they’re supposed to be the nice ones.

Otherwise, people might figure out that it’s actually us, and we can’t have that!

Oh, by the way, that gopher nickname has nothing to do with the actual animal. It came from a political cartoon from 1858, which wasn’t complimentary. So maybe “Minnesota Nasty” is a thing after all.