Friday, December 21, 2012

5 pop-culture baby names my son almost got stuck with


My son Selby was born three years ago today. His name was inspired by Selby Avenue, a major thoroughfare in our neighborhood of Saint Paul. My wife and I chose it because we wanted to give our boy a constant reminder of his roots and the city that spawned him. As he’s grown older, our strategy seems to be working. Now that he’s a cognizant toddler, he is delighted to know that there’s a street with his name.

Many of my writerly friends assumed that the name was a tribute to the late author Hubert Selby, Jr. I’ve never been a huge fan of that Selby’s work, but I can see why they’d think that. For one, Hubert Selby was a major influence on Lou Reed, and my dedication to all things Lou is well documented. For two, Mr. Selby was writer in residence at Columbia College Chicago not long before I started grad school there, and served as a mentor to many of my most beloved and respected colleagues. For three, I’m exactly the kind of pop-culture spewing dweeb who would saddle his kid with a sly tribute to some book, TV show or movie. As proof, here are five baby names that got strong consideration before Selby was born.

Gobias
In its original airing, Arrested Development was something like a religion in my household, so it was only natural that it would come into consideration when baby names were on the table. We talked about “GOB,” we talked about “Tobias,” and then we remembered that duo’s ill-fated business partnership, Gobias Industries. (“As in, ‘Gobias some coffee!’”) I don’t  recall the specific reason that this delightful portmanteau got bumped from the list. I suspect it was mainly on grounds of sheer goofiness, and the knowledge that no one would ever pronounce it correctly.


Omar
My wife will tell you that she immediately vetoed this pick, but I still spent a few weeks brainstorming ways to win her over to naming our innocent newborn after The Wire’s shotgun-toting anti-hero. Now that I’m a few years removed from watching The Wire, I can admit that I’m glad she prevailed, especially since seemingly half of my friends have named household pets after Wire characters. At the time, though, I thought we were doing a serious disservice to the boy’s future street cred.


Jasper
Jasper is a fine, old-fashioned name with a certain elegance about it. It’s also the name of a weird old man on The Simpsons, which is what brought it into serious contention for us. Unfortunately, it’s also also the name of a character in the Twilight novels. When we added that connection to the current upswell in old-timey baby names, we decided there was just too great a chance of a Jasper boom. (I do frequently employ Jasper’s immortal quote, “Sidewalk’s for regular walkin’, not fancy walkin’” when we take the boy out for strolls around the neighborhood.


Bachmann
My wife introduced me to the music of Archers of Loaf during my freshman year of college, and our admiration of Archers front man Eric Bachmann only grew when he launched the incredible Crooked Fingers. “Bachmann” looked like a clear front-runner for roughly one afternoon. Then we remembered that we lived in Minnesota, where people would almost certainly assume our son was named after another, considerably less awesome Bachmann.


Venture
My wife and I are both huge fans of The Venture Bros, Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick’s reliably brilliant action-adventure parody cartoon. Even though 90% of the characters on the show are reprehensible failures, the series – as well as the word “venture” itself – still maintains a sense of wonder, innovation and excitement that we wanted to instill in our son. 


This name actually made our final two. It wasn’t until we were all alone with our brand new baby boy that we were able to make a decision. Looking at that weird little lump of wrinkly pink flesh taking his first nap on his mother’s chest, we both agreed that he was Selby, not Venture. In the end it was the only name that fit, and now I can’t imagine calling him anything else.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Goodbye, Mr. Phipps" or "My Life With The AV Club"


One summer day in 1996 my pal Nathan came home from a trip to Madison with a stack of hard-to-find CDs, all-natural cigarettes and free alternative newspapers. While we listened to the CDs in his parents’ living room, I flipped through the papers. It was mostly the usual political ranting and ponderous stabs at art that I’d come to expect from college-town publications, but one paper grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. It was, of course, The Onion.

I’d never seen anything like The Onion. It was satire so well-written and straight-faced that it took me half an article to realize that it actually was satire. I spent the better part of the afternoon cracking the hell up and quoting lines at an increasingly annoyed Nathan, who had already read and had his own laugh at all of the articles.

Not long after that I started dating a girl who owned a huge stash of Onion back issues, sent to her by a friend at the University of Wisconsin. I started making a habit of dropping by her house when I knew she had violin practice so I could head up to her room and dig through the stack of homegrown comic genius uninterrupted. Somewhere around the middle of that stack, I launched my love affair with The AV Club.

If you’ve only come to The Onion in the internet age, let me explain the workings of the old print edition. In its earliest days, the paper was available only on newsstands in Madison, Wisconsin. (I believe it expanded to a number of metro regions and the internet some time in the mid ‘90s.) The front half of the paper featured the now-familiar satirical news articles and doctored photographs. The back end was dedicated to comics like Red Meat and Pathetic Geek Stories, Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” column and an assemblage of pop-culture reviews, interviews and features known as The AV Club.

At first the sudden shift from the twisted comedy of The Onion to the funny but straightforward arts journalism of The AV Club was a bit jarring. Before long, though, the writing in The AV Club became every bit as revelatory to me as that of its flashier counterpart. I was 18 and just starting to think seriously about a future as a film critic. Up until this point, my only real influence was Roger Ebert. I read and re-read my local library’s scanty selection of Ebert’s film essay collections until I could quote them as readily as I could the films he wrote about. I learned scads about the craft of arts writing from those books, but it wasn’t until I discovered The AV Club that I saw film criticism as something I might actually be able to do.

The writing in The AV Club was briefer, more sardonic and generally less self-referential than Ebert’s. Ebert wrote thoughtful, passionate essays drawn from years of life experience and an endless font of cinematic knowledge. I loved reading it, but it was more than a little intimidating. The AV Club, on the other hand, was almost as brilliant yet still felt like something I could write myself.

Their reviews in particular struck me as utterly fearless. Their Happy Gilmore review, for instance, just read (and I’m paraphrasing) “Fuck golf, fuck Adam Sandler and fuck this movie.” That type of dismissive scatology is par for the internet course nowadays, but at the time I’d never seen anything of the sort. Likewise, I can’t say for sure that the AV Club writers coined the now ubiquitous practice of referring to all ill-conceived movie sequels as “[Movie Title] 2: Electric Boogaloo,” but I know I first saw it in their write-up of Lawnmower Man 2. (The review itself was just a non-verbal jumble of letters, another brilliant touch.)

I elevated the names of the regular AV Club contributors – Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, Scott Tobias – to my personal pantheon of writerly heroes. I’d even say their work played a big role in emboldening me to go out and grab my first paid writing gig. A week or two after graduating high school, I strolled into my local newspaper and asked the editor for a weekly movie review column. To my surprise, he accepted my demands, and my career was thus launched. In hindsight, my first reviews were a shameless, shoddy pastiche of Roger Ebert and the AV Club house style, but a fair number of people in the greater Sparta, Wisconsin area read them and liked them.

I’ve been writing about the arts professionally ever since – film, music, books and now theater – and I’ve never let The AV Club out of my sights. It’s grown along with me, moving from an afterthought for Onion fans to a stand-alone site to something of a pop culture juggernaut. Stephen Thompson’s expert editorial guidance gave the site its unique voice in the early years before giving way to founding writer Keith Phipps. On Phipps’ watch, the Club quickly evolved beyond its irreverent roots and became one of the web’s most dependable fonts of thoughtful, readable cultural analysis. The staff too moved beyond that early house style and developed distinctive voices. Nathan Rabin took a page from Roger Ebert and started to blend personal essays into his reliably hilarious film analyses. Noel Murray got even more personal as he used pop-culture as a jumping off point for insightful penetrations into American identity. Donna Bowman introduced a more scholarly tone that ripped open familiar entertainments and exposed the complex, fascinating inner workings that made them tick. (Her enthralling analysis of all five seasons of NewsRadio remains perhaps my favorite bit of pop culture writing ever.)

Heck, the AV Club comments section even led me to a vast network of online friends, many of whom I talk to nearly daily on Twitter and Facebook. Those interactions have confirmed for me that the AV Club attracts one of the wittiest, most intelligent fan bases on the web – in other words, people like me (he said humbly). I can’t think of another community that would have brought together so many people who can engage me in debates about the best David Bowie album (It’s Diamond Dogs, obviously), take my advice on what book to read next (some good Faulkner or Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter) or actually derive mild amusement from my jokes about Robert Altman’s Quintet.

Even though The AV Club brought us together, there’s a sizable contingent of folks who have drifted away from the site. There are a few who never miss a chance to denigrate the direction it’s taken in recent years. The standard roster of complaints holds that the writers spend too much time navel-gazing, that the site leans too heavily on side projects like podcasts and videos, that corporate sponsorships have tainted the arts coverage, and that the expansion of the writing staff has watered down the overall quality of the journalism.

I suppose I can see where they’re coming from, but I mostly chalk it up to the American tendency to attack greatness for not being perfection. For one thing, I know how hard it is for anyone to make anything like a living in the arts-writing world, and it makes me happy to see some of the good ones pulling it off. For another thing, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the AV Club world over the past decade and a half, but never anything that made me think the site was losing its luster.

When Keith Phipps announced last week that he was leaving his editorial position with The AV Club, it marked the undeniable end of an era for me, as it know it did to thousands of other loyal readers. As both an editor and a writer, Phipps steered the site smoothly through an era of unprecedented journalistic change, building it into a thriving online enterprise while hundreds of similar publications crumpled into obscurity. He leaves it in as strong a shape as it’s ever been in.

I don’t know what direction the site will take in Phipps’ absence, but I have faith that it’ll remain on the straight and narrow. Sure, not everything they publish is to my tastes, nor should it be. But so long as they keep producing inventories that guide me to previously undiscovered films and music, so long as they provide thoughtful, thought-provoking analyses of the artistic endeavors that color my world, so long as they run ridiculously engaging features like Will Harris’ incomparable “Random Roles” interviews, the AV Club will have a home in my bookmarks.

Goodbye, Mr. Phipps, and thanks for all you’ve given me.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The 6 most inexplicable LPs in my record collection

As has been well documented, I am a man with a considerable record collection. Many of my records are very, very good. Even more of them are solid if not outstanding. There are a select few, though, that I simply cannot offer a reasonable justification for having in my possession. Gaze upon the following and marvel at their inessentiality.

Hammer - The Funky Headhunter
All right, look. It was 1998, it was a radio station record sale in Madison, it was three dollars, and it was pretty much the ultimate trophy for an ironic record shopper of that era. There was no way I wasn’t gonna buy this.



Various Automobiles - Sounds of Speed 
Some people bag on auto racing because they think the concept of watching cars endlessly circling an ovular track sounds mind-numbingly boring. That’s ridiculous. You know what’s really mind-numbingly boring? A long-playing record consisting solely of the sound of cars endlessly circling an ovular track, that’s what.



Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Perfect
“Hey Sid, I was thinking: it’s 1985. The window’s probably closing on being able to turn a profit from an aerobics movie. We better get on that. Who looks good in a leotard? Maybe Tony’s kid, one who flashed her cans in Trading Places. Pair her up with that pretty boy from the mechanical bull movie, see if Jan Wenner wants to bankroll it for easy publicity. Oh, and get a bunch of that pop crap workout music for the soundtrack album: Thompson Twins, Pointer Sisters, one of the lesser Jacksons. Who else we got on contract? Lou Reed? I hate the son of a bitch. Let’s make him crap something out for this just to knock him down a peg. Hell, maybe 15 years from now there’ll be some poor sap Lou Reed completist who’ll feel obligated to buy this garbage just for that one song. I wanna make that kid feel some shame. Hey, have Donna send out for some coke, would ya? It’s 1985!”


Lou Reed - The Blue Mask Interview Disc
Speaking of Lou Reed completism, this is an interview disc from the early ‘80s. It contains no music, just recordings of Lou Reed offering brief answers to pre-written interview questions about his then-new album The Blue Mask. The idea was to have a DJ fake an in-studio conversation with Lou by reading off the script and then dropping the needle on this disc. It is not one of the most frequently played albums in my Lou Reed collection.


George Segal - A Touch of Ragtime
George Segal is an interesting actor, a man with the presence to pull off comedy and drama with equal aplomb. (Seriously, check him out in King Rat. Homeboy just oozes charisma.) He also plays the banjo. For a period in the 1970s, Americans were deeply fascinated with both George Segal and nostalgia for the Scott Joplin era. In that light, it makes sense that Segal would cash in by putting out a record of ragtime banjo standards. What doesn’t make sense is me owning said record.

This is a recording of a man playing a flute in a pyramid. It is a double LP. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you it was recorded in 1976.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Strutting, fretting: A brief history of my dalliances in drama


I’ve generally been content to keep my creative output grounded on the printed page. Every now and then, though, I’ve been gripped by the allure of the livelier arts. Here’s a brief spin through my none-too-impressive career as a playwright, thespian and general defacer of the legitimate stage.

This play was front page news. Seriously.
Trouble in Toothopolis (1987)
I took my first bow as the telejournalistic soul of the besieged city of Toothopolis, ace reporter Sidney Smiles. Toothopolis was a community on the cutting edge of dental hygiene, and thus a constant target for the Cavity Creeps, a shadowy terrorist organization bent on spreading its dogma of mandatory sugar consumption and minimal tooth-brushing for all citizens.

The play captured young Sidney’s career-making exclusive interview with the boastful Chief Creep, played by a burly fifth-grader named Clay. As I attended an elementary school with a collective body of 90-odd students, grades 1 through 6, the cast was a curious jumble of body sizes and stages of maturity. I believe that jarring visual was immensely effective in capturing the subtly surrealist vision of the team of self-loathing Crest marketing interns who crafted this opus.

Portrait of the artist as... well, something or other.
Sadly, I don’t remember any of Sidney’s lines, but I do know that I got to carry an old-timey microphone and wear a tie, a button-down shirt and a fishing hat with a “PRESS” badge. Despite those fancy trappings, I managed to avoid the pitfalls of child stardom. On the other hand, at least one of my co-stars went on to become a registered sex offender, and I have no evidence that it wasn’t tangentially related to Trouble in Toothopolis.


Baseball play whose title I've scrubbed from my memory (1990)
By fourth grade I was fairly well established as the leading literatus of my 14-student class at Leon Elementary. As such, Ms. Schuttemeier paired me up with Katie Pottinger to write a sketch for our end-of-the-year field day. The only thing I recall about our joint writing sessions is arguing about who was better, The Beach Boys or Michael Jackson (I voted for the former), but if I know my 10-year-old self I probably steamrolled most, if not all, of Katie’s suggestions. I certainly doubt it was her idea to write a zero-to-hero story about a hapless baseball team.

The plot was essentially this: a losing baseball team practices hard. A rival team steals their signals. The two teams meet in the big game. The worst player on the losing team hits a home run and they win. If you have to wonder who played that home run hitter, you didn’t know me before the realities of adulthood drained the bulk of the arrogance out of me. I named the character “Lefty” because it sounded like a good baseball name. When Ms. Schuttemeier suggested that Chad Anderson, who was actually left-handed, play the role, I claimed that the kid got the nickname because he had “two left feet.”

The final production was a cosmic rebuke of my youthful hubris. When I wrote the climactic scene, I failed to take into account the fact that I was a terrible baseball player. Even for a skilled batter, hitting home runs on command in front of an audience is a difficult task. For me it was impossible. Ms. Schuttemeier clearly recognized this in rehearsal, when she told the actress playing the umpire to fake losing track of the count if I exceeded my three-strike limit. As it turned out, I swung and missed no less than six times. On the seventh pitch, I managed a meager foul tip. I squared up to take another cut, but Ms. Schuttemeier bellowed, “RUN, LEFTY! RUN!” I lurched out of the batter’s box and circled the bases as my co-stars committed an impressive series of intentional errors to avoid tagging me out and negating the premise. Everybody cheered when I crossed home plate, as the script demanded, but at that point it was all I could do not to cry.
  
Mr. Clinton’s Neighborhood (1992)
1992 was the year when I discovered late night talk shows. It was also the first year of the Clinton presidency. Both of those factors informed the sketch I wrote for my 8th grade talent show, a gag-packed spin through the Clinton White House. I didn’t outright steal any jokes from David Letterman or Jay Leno, but I definitely mined their pop-culture riffing and established caricatures of the presidential household. 

I played Bill Clinton (oh yeah, like I was going to let anybody else grab that plum role) as a put-upon schlub who just wanted to get away from the hassles of office and enjoy some junk food and saxophonery. Unfortunately, he had to contend with a stream of stereotypical complaints from his family and hangers-on. (Tipper Gore, for instance, stopped by the office to gripe about Bill spending too much time with those devil-rockers Fleetwood Mac.) The show was ultimately stolen by Matt Swigart as a poorly housebroken Socks the cat and Justin Carlisle in drag as a mopey Chelsea. The Sparta Middle School gymnasium roared with laughter as Justin flopped into my lap, flipped his kinky blonde wig out of his face and told me all about the mean kids at school. It was possibly the most validating moment of my budding writing career.

Arne and Ole. Seriously.
Last Chance High (1993)
My middle school’s theatrical productions were purchased from an educational company that specialized in bland musicals designed to showcase a full classroom of unambitious junior high schoolers. This particular play was about juvenile delinquents attending a “Maximum Security Public High School” run by a fascist principal named Bronco Ranchwear (played by the inimitable Matt Swigart). It was an awful play, most notable for having music and lyrics written by the team of Arne Christiansen and Ole Kittleson, which are pretty clearly pseudonyms adopted by Scandinavian fugitives.

I played Bobo Elliott, a punch-drunk former prizefighter working as the school’s “fire drill instructor.” (Yeah, I don’t know.) Bobo’s defining trait was having taken too many blows to the head. My characterization drew heavily upon Big Moose from Archie comics, in that I spoke slowly and said “Duh” a lot. I thought my performance came off OK, but the show was again stolen by Justin Carlisle in drag, this time as an insane lunch lady with a passion for spaghetti pie.

Star Trek sketch (1996)
I’ve never been much more than a casual Star Trek fan, but when I was called upon to write the senior skit for Sparta High School’s homecoming assembly, something about the Roddenberryverse just clicked. I wrote up a little trifle about life on the U.S.S. Hilltopper (named for our rival school’s mascot) and, as usual, gave myself the best role: Mr. Spock.

Basically, Captain Kirk (Matt Swigart again) was at wit’s end dealing with a crumbling ship, an incompetent crew and a secretly treacherous First Officer. Eventually the ship was stormed by the invading Spartan hordes (the senior football players in a pandering cameo) and Kirk was carried away screaming. It was jingoist hokum – the whole thing ended with me literally waving a Sparta High flag – but I was pleased with the mild subversion of casting my school in the villain’s role. Plus I got to dye my hair black and wear big, fake pointy ears over my big, real pointy ears! (Sparta lost the actual football game, incidentally. We were pretty consistent at that.)

Talent show sketch (1997)
Speed parodies were old hat even in 1997, but rural Wisconsin is pretty lenient in its demands for currency. So when I was called on to write some filler material for the Sparta High School talent show, I cast myself as the Dennis Hopper to Steph Wachter’s Sandra Bullock and Matt Swigart’s (of course) Keanu Reeves. The premise was that some unseen psycho was threatening to derail the talent show if the hosts didn’t complete a bizarre scavenger hunt. I can’t recall the specific threat. I want to say it was a bomb, but that seems like it would’ve been ixnayed even in the pre-Columbine era.

Anyhow, my actual performance was mostly limited to mock-menacing voiceovers in between acts. We also shot several video remotes following Steph and Matt’s quest for triple-buttered popcorn, Kathie Lee Gifford brand pantyhose and other sundries. This was mostly an excuse to showcase a number of Sparta’s cherished cultural hubs, like the movieplex, the grocery store and Wal-Mart, but it also gave me a chance to make winking background cameos in each scene. I am nothing if not Hitchcockian.

Café Tertiary (2004)
As a final project for a grad school short story class, I decided to explore the roles of tertiary characters in short fiction. My bright idea was to write up a short play in which background players from many of the short stories we’d read over the course of the class gathered in a small cafe to discuss their lots in life. I tried to write each character in the style and dialect of his or her original story, which made for an odd jumble of Flannery O’Connor, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov and others. My professor liked it enough to stage an impromptu reading in our next class. As much as I relished the opportunity to chew the scenery as Colonel Sartoris from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” I can't imagine the audience for a play featuring a major role for Angry Sandwich Man from Aleksander Hemon’s “The Question of Bruno” extending much beyond the door of Megan Stielstra’s Thursday morning Short Story class.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The many demands of John Carradine

John Carradine was a fine actor and the sire of a prodigious line of cinematic talent, but for fans of trash cinema his lasting legacy is his apparent willingness to appear in virtually any film so long as the check cleared. Z-grade directors looking to bolster their casts with some name recognition could always count on John. One would think that drive-in audiences would have eventually caught on that John Carradine’s name on a movie poster usually meant little more than three minutes’ worth of a gaunt old man putting forth the least possible effort, but somehow filmmakers considered this sneaky Carradinery a viable strategy for at least three decades.


But was John Carradine really all about the money, as popular opinion would have it? Looking over his filmography, one might draw the conclusion that Mr. Carradine was actually a prima donna on par with Marlon Brando, and that the low-budget likes of Fred Olen Ray and Coleman Francis were the only directors willing to cater to his insane demands. Let’s take a look at some of his defining roles and the caveats that presumably came with each.

Frankenstein Island (1981, directed by Jerry Warren)
“I’ll do it… but only if I don’t have to have any contact with the other actors! Or change out of my pajamas!”

See some prime pajama-ranting at 1:18:44

Invisible Invaders (1959, directed by Edward L. Cahn)
“I’ll do it… but only if my character is dead and/or invisible for the bulk of my performance!”

See regular John from 1:58 to 2:10 , Invisi-John starting at 18:30

The Tomb (1986, directed by Fred Olen Ray)
“I’ll do it… but only if I don’t have to get out of my chair or deliver more than half my lines remotely intelligibly!”



Monstroid: It Came from the Lake (1980, directed by Kenneth Hartford)
"I'll do it... But I'm not shaving this dopey mustache! And everybody else has to grow one too!"

See the 'stache at 9:54

Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966, directed by Coleman Francis)
“I’ll do it… but only as a completely gratuitous framing device. And I get to SING!”



Friday, August 24, 2012

A modest proposal regarding kid pictures on Facebook


Pictures of kids on Facebook, or POKOF, is a national epidemic, costing every American worker an average of several seconds a week of otherwise productive Facebook browsing. Browse any social media outlet and you’ll see the stories of trauma inflicted on innocent observers. According to no less an authority than Mashable, parents of small children are the number one source of annoyance on Facebook. Every day untold scores of childless Facebook users report mild psychological duress after being exposed to dozens of photos of babies who all look the same and are not nearly as special as the children’s parents believe them to be. Fortunately, most of these offenses are quickly reported to the authorities and/or the victims’ Twitter followers, but the problem continues to expand every day.

An innovative tech company recently tried to assist victims of POKOF by introducing UnBaby.Me, a Google Chrome extension that detects pictures of small children in your Facebook feed and replaces the offending images with photos of attractive women, dogs and other infinitely less scarring material. As beneficial as this app is, many Facebook users don’t realize that the social network already features a much more effective tool to end the suffering. Here’s a step by step solution to banish babies, toddlers and other undesirables from your feed.


  1. When a friend posts a kid pic, click on his or her name. This will take you to a profile page. Move quickly, as prolonged exposure to the offending material can have long-term side-effects.
  2. Hover your cursor over the “Friends” box underneath his or her banner photo.
  3. A menu will pop up. Scroll down to the option that reads “Unfriend.” Click it.
  4. Refresh your browser. The kid pictures should be gone, along with all other updates from and Facebook contact with that particular friend.

Some may think it harsh to ban a friend from your feed entirely, but it is a small price to pay for your peace of mind. Your friends are bearing daily witness to one of the most life-changing, awe-inspiring experiences existence has to offer. The care and upbringing of the children in those photos likely occupies 95% of their non-working hours, to the point that their kids are very nearly the only topic about which they can converse with any authority. Their sleep-deprived, monomaniacal thought processes may even assume that sharing an occasional glimpse into the joys and frustrations of their new lives might bring some happiness to their purported friends.

Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth. It is your right and responsibility as an internet user to make sure that you are exposed only to images and experiences that are exactly tailored to your own tastes and interests. Remember that your friends’ children are in no way special. Only you are special, and it is your solemn duty to remind the internet of that at each and every opportunity.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Andy Milligan is ruining me: A trash film fan finally meets his match


I’ve mentioned before how influential the Videohound Golden Movie Retriever was in shaping my cinematic tastes, partially because it alerted me to the existence of so many obscure films with wonderfully elaborate titles. I’ve been slowly tracking down my favorites over the past decade, always taking an unreasonable amount of joy in finding a terrible transfer of a film like Door-to-Door Maniac or The Severed Arm. When I recently discovered the long sought-after The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! tucked away in my beloved Internet Archive, I was beside myself. Little did I know that I was opening the door to perhaps the grimmest chapter in my life as a film buff.


See, TRAC!TWAH! was directed by one Andy Milligan. That didn’t mean anything to me when I started watching it, but it’s become highly significant in the subsequent weeks. Andy Milligan, as it turns out, is something of a notorious figure in the world of trash cinema. He started out making arty exploitation films (none of which I’ve been able to track down… yet) but is now probably best known for his peculiar brand of horror. He’s sort of a poor man’s John Waters, a gutter-dwelling auteur with a unique vision, an unmistakable style and a thirst for sleaze. The big difference is that Milligan lacked the playful wit and self-awareness that made Waters an icon. In its place lay a gaping chasm of bitterness and loathing.

By all reports I’ve read, Andy Milligan was a very unpleasant person. The product of a broken, abusive home (and, on a personal note, a native of my current hometown of Saint Paul), he was reputedly a mean, misogynistic sadist who used his art as an outlet for all of his worst tendencies. There are plenty of artists out there who fit that profile, but there aren’t many who approached their art so vigorously or viciously. Andy Milligan made movies like he was mad at the very existence of film. His cinematic world is an unholy marriage of spite and incompetence, but I’ll be damned if I don’t find it strangely compelling.


And “compelling” really is the only word for it. I don’t watch Andy Milligan movies because I enjoy them, or because I think they’re an important piece of my pop cultural education. I watch them because, now that I know they exist, I feel weirdly driven to subject myself to as many as I can. “Subject” is also the right word, because these movies are not fun to watch by any recognizable measure. Here are a few things you can expect from your average Andy Milligan movie.

Elaborate period costumes that feel slightly “off.”
Milligan apparently loved making clothes and proudly handled costume design for most of his films, despite being only OK at it.

Endless, breathless conversations with little to no bearing on anything.
In Milligan’s world, couples and families spend most of their free time talking and talking and talking in florid language about one of two topics: how much they love each other or how much they hate each other.

Exposition. So, so much exposition.
When they’re not waxing purple about love and hate, Milligan’s people are helpfully filling us in on back story with a heavy handedness that would make a Law & Order writer retch.

Physical abuse of a male invalid.
As I mentioned, Milligan was a real-life sadist. His dedication to filming his fetishes makes Quentin Tarantino’s obsession with ladies’ feet look downright subtle.

Really bad gore effects.
Onscreen gore was still coming into its own during Milligan’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s heyday, but his low-grade splatter wouldn’t have passed muster in even the earliest Herschel Gordon Lewis features.

Awful monster make-up.
Not every Milligan movie has a supernatural plot, but those that do tend to end up with somebody donning a really unfortunate werewolf mask or goofy vampire teeth.

The darkness.
I think I’ve covered the figurative darkness of Milligan’s films already, but they’re also physically dark, to the point that it’s often impossible to suss out what the hell is happening onscreen. That’s not always a bad thing.

All of that might give you the impression that Andy Milligan made “so bad it’s good” movies. (I’m not a fan of that term in any situation, but getting into that would require too much digression.) That isn’t the case. Andy Milligan made bad movies, plain and simple. They aren’t fun to watch, nor are they memorable in the way transcendently bad films like Frankenstein Island or the Ed Wood oeuvre are. He’s the rare director whose films are improved by distraction. I often wash dishes or perform other household chores while tackling a Milligan.

Nevertheless, Milligan’s films are fascinating to me because they reflect an undeniable artistic vision. Nothing else looks or feels quite like an Andy Milligan movie. Guru the Mad Monk and The Ghastly Ones, to pick two random examples, are set centuries apart on different continents, and filmed with an entirely different cast (unlike most cult directors, Milligan didn’t retain much of a stable of actors – understandable if his reputation for personal unpleasantness is to be believed). Even so, the production and tone of both films are so similar that they’re unmistakably the work of the same creator.


There just aren’t many directors who can place such an inimitable stamp so plainly across a three-decade body of work. When I think of truly distinctive directors like, say, Robert Altman or Frederico Fellini, I can usually also point to a slew of knock-offs and homages that get the style almost but not quite right. Even legendarily “bad” directors like Ed Wood and Bert I. Gordon, for all their distinctive trademarks, don’t stand nearly as far apart from their peers as does Milligan. I can’t even imagine how you’d approach making a Milligan rip-off, although it has been done. Odd as it may sound, I find that kind of dedication to one’s own artistic vision – even a cruel, monotonous, incoherent one – immensely inspiring.

I’m not alone in my unfortunate appreciation of Mr. Milligan. He’s inspired at least one book-length biography and a slew of blogs and essays. (My personal favorite is Joseph A. Ziemba’s dishearteningly thorough rundown of Milligan’s horror films for bleedingskull.com.) He also has a celebrity champion in Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has dedicated a great deal of time and money to getting Milligan’s films back into the public eye. I’ve noticed that there don’t seem to be a lot of casual Milligan fans. There are those who remain blissfully unaware of his body of work, and there are those who become obsessed by it.

Once you have a few Milligans under your belt, you can even begin to find some pleasures in them. For instance, I don’t know if John Miranda’s bitterly unhinged performance as Sweeney Todd in The Bloodthirsty Butchers is really all that good, but seeing someone act with even a hint of nuance felt like a revelation after watching dozens of other Milliganders alternate between lifelessness and histrionics. Likewise, if I’d gone into Blood cold, it may not have made much of an impression on me. Seeing it after a string of even shoddier Milligan films, however, made its relative – very relative – competence feel like a blessed relief.


Note before you click: This is not just a clip. This is the entire movie. You may not be able to extract yourself once you enter.

So what do I want you to take away from this little essay? Hell, I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted to share the misery. Maybe this is my way of trying to get a grip on what I find so inspiring about this dreadful body of work. Maybe I just want to know that something has come of the hours I’ve dedicated to Andy Milligan while countless genuine classics remain unseen by my eyes. One thing I know for certain: there’s a full-length print of Milligan's reputedly unwatchable Surgikill up on YouTube right now that demands my attention. Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers.

Special thanks to my man Joe Gibson for alerting me to that Nicolas Winding Refn article, and for putting up with my regular Milligan venting on Twitter.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Four works of art inspired by an unwelcome growth in my head

There are some downsides to palling around primarily with artistic types – everyone’s broke, it’s hard to pull together a pick-up basketball team, your social media streams are clogged with Kickstarter requests, etc. – but there are plenty of positives as well. For instance, when I was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor last month, I was greeted with a humbling outpouring of love and charity from my friends and family. Support came in the form of food, flowers, cards, good vibes and, of course, artwork.


In the interest of spreading the love, here are four of the wonderful works of art inspired by my bout with brain surgery.

  • I was initially diagnosed with a pituitary edenoma, which is a kind of benign tumor. Once the surgeons had me opened up, they discovered it was actually something called a Rathke’s cleft cyst, which has virtually the same symptoms and side-effects of its tumescent sibling but is both a little bit grosser and easier to recover from. I mention this because my friend Christopher “Patch” Conner’s immediate response to reading the phrase “pituitary edenoma” was to run it through an anagram generator. He came up with “a nude tiara poem.” A few hours later he wrote one. A few days later he recruited his guitarist friend Oren Rabinowitz to set it to music and record it. It’s a coffee shop head-bobber for sure.

A Tiara Nudity Poem/Ira's Brain Tumor by Oren Rabinowitz on Grooveshark

  • The multi-pronged creative force that is Oswald Hobbes also found a musical muse in my head, crafting an ambient soundscape called "Is Something on Your Mind, Ira." It kind of puts me in mind of Goblin’s soundtrack work from the ‘70s, which is of course a heck of a compliment.


  • Oswald and his colleague/familiar Joe Gibson also invited me onto their delightful Audio Assault podcast, where we winnowed away an hour or so talking about brain tumors, Lou Reed and splatter movies. I also talk about what I wore to prom, the time I cut my toe half off and my personal bathing preferences. Must-hear stuff across the board, obviously.

  • My godfather Jeff Wilcox – a working visual artist for four decades – is a reliable source of wonderful, weird imagery. He regularly posts photos from his Thrift Store Gallery series, in which he finds compelling objects at his local thrift store and juxtaposes them in intriguing ways. His latest was dedicated to me. It finds a young Justin Timberlake trouncing a circus clown and a hobo sailor in a creep-off for the ages. It is a thing of ineffable beauty.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The story of my pituitary tumor, as told by 'Simpsons' screengrabs

A few Thursdays ago I woke up feeling moderately hungover. This struck me as odd, since I hadn’t even had my usual beer with dinner the night before. When the feeling didn’t fade over the course of the day, I presumed I was coming down with whatever dread malady my son had brought home from day care this time.




I woke up Friday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. It was a constant, pulsating ache that ran straight through my head from temple to temple.



The headache lasted all weekend and kept intensifying until finally I went to the after hours clinic on Sunday. The doctor there prescribed me some Vicodin and told me to see my regular physician if it hadn’t improved the next day. On Monday my family doctor examined me again, gave me a shot of pain medication and sent me for an MRI. By Tuesday the headache had faded somewhat, but I was still shambling around my office dizzy, queasy and on the verge of collapse.



That afternoon my doctor called me down to his office, where he explained that my MRI had revealed a macroedenoma – a small, benign tumor growing on my pituitary gland. It was located just behind my sinus cavity, pressing up against my optic nerve.


The next day I went to see a neurosurgeon (an actual neurosurgeon!), who confirmed the diagnosis and reassured me that these tumors were almost invariably benign and relatively easy to remove. It was about as routine as brain surgery can be, in other words. Still, it was imperative to have it operated upon quickly. Left unchecked, an adenoma can cause permanent damage to the optic nerve and play hell with the brain’s hormone production. Potential side effects include blindness and – no kidding – gigantism.



I’ve navigated a battery of physicians over the past couple of weeks, including neurosurgeons, optometrists, endocrinologists, opticians, family practitioners, an ear-nose-throat specialist and something called a “tumor nurse.” I’ve been uniformly impressed with their knowledge and professionalism. They’ve boosted my confidence to the point where I can hardly imagine anything going wrong.


The procedure, as I understand it, involves drilling into my upper gumline and slicing out the tumor, then plugging the hole in my sinuses with a chunk of muscle tissue extracted from my thigh. As unpleasant as that sounds, it beats the alternative method, in which doctors go in through the nose. That often leaves the patient with distended nostrils and an unsightly flap of septum hanging down. Heck, my neurosurgeon says that when he started doing this 35 years ago, the standard was to open up the front of the skull, lift up the brain and carve out the tumor. I can at least be thankful that they’re not doing anything that invasive.


When all that’s over with, they drill a little hole in my back to shunt off overflow spinal fluid, which can build up and cause complications following this kind of surgery. Then it’s off to a hospital bed for three to seven days of recovery. And no, sadly, they don’t let me keep the tumor after they’re done.



Once I’m out of the hospital, I should be back to relative normalcy within a week or so, although I have to refrain from strenuous physical activity for the next couple of months. That’s a real bummer, as I had planned to spend much of the summer running, playing basketball and chasing after my toddler. I do have to go in for extensive follow-ups, and if it turns out they didn't get all of the tumor on the first pass they'll likely have to zap my pituitary with radiation. I figure that would give me about a 75% chance of developing Incredible Hulkism.



Still, when all is said and done, it beats any of the alternatives. I’m just grateful that it’s nothing more serious. This is pretty much the best-case scenario when you get a call saying an MRI of your head has turned up something troubling. I’m also thankful that I have such a loving and supportive network of family and friends. I’m a little embarrassed by the outpouring of love and well-wishes I’ve received since this started. I’m not complaining, though, not by a long shot. Come Monday evening, you folks will have made me the happiest man in United Hospital’s recovery ward.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What I believe 'Mad Men' is about, courtesy of my Twitter feed


I have never seen an episode of the acclaimed dramatic series Mad Men. This isn’t due to any specific bias against the show (although I suspect it’s one of those things I wouldn’t get into as much as I feel like I’m supposed to). It’s more that my satellite package does not include AMC and there are several series ahead of it on my DVD must-watch list. Nevertheless, I’ve picked up quite a few details about Mad Men over the years, thanks largely to federal regulations requiring every person who watches the show to talk about it incessantly on Twitter. Using only information gleaned via my social media wanderings, I’ve pieced together this invaluable viewing guide for other neophytes who may wish to join the show already in progress.

A cool, stylized, animated opening sequence ripe for lazy parodies introduces us to Don Draper, a ludicrously handsome ad executive working for an agency called Sterling Cooper in early 1960s New York. Eventually he becomes a partner and the agency’s name is changed to Sterling Cooper Draper Somebodyelse. Don’s rise is unimpeded by his tendency to digitally pleasure every comely woman who crosses his path, but he still hides significant self-loathing beneath his slick Madison Avenue exterior.

Don has a wife named Betty and a daughter named Sally, or possibly vice-versa. Betty Draper, who is occasionally fat, is one of the most loathsome people who has ever walked the Earth. Don’s bespectacled* co-worker Pete Campbell is also in competition for that title, although his despicability ranges on pitiable. Don’s other co-worker Peggy Olsen, on the other hand, is a delightful human being who radiates ass-kickery and sometimes smokes marijuana. Speaking of narcotics, Don’s silver-foxy boss Roger Sterling took LSD this one time and it was pretty awesome. Also awesome: the red-headed curvaceousness of whatever Christina Hendricks’ character’s name is. Not so awesome: voiceover narration.

Most if not all of the abovementioned people drink heavily, engage in infidelity and were profoundly affected by the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Oh, and Annie from Community is in there somewhere too.

*I have been informed that the one with glasses is actually Harry, not Pete. This may invalidate my entire thesis. Apologies.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Lou Reed's 25 greatest songs (a thoroughly subjective selection)

It's Lou Reed's birthday, and that means it's time for my annual birthday blog. This being his 70th, I've decided to skip the irreverence and go with some full-on fanboy gushing. In the nearly two decades that Lou's been a big part of my life I've developed a go-to roster of favorite songs that could easily stretch into the hundreds. For this blog, I've culled the field to a lean 25, presented more or less in the order of my preference. (Here's a Grooveshark playlist for easy consumption.)

A couple of caveats: I'm excluding Velvet Underground songs and covers in the interest of making this list as as Lou-ish as possible. Feel free to disagree with me or make your own additions in the comments. And happy birthday, Lou. May there be many more to come.

Romeo Had Juliette (from New York, 1989)
Most short story writers would kill to pen one perfect opening or closing line. Here Lou Reed pulls off both in less than four minutes. (Respectively, “Caught between the twisted stars, the plotted lines, the faulty map / That brought Columbus to New York” and “Something flickered for a minute / Then it vanished and was gone.”) This scuzzy-sweet story of young loves, street corner hoodlums and urban decay is the essence of Lou. His wit, his poetry, his vitality, his eye for finding beauty in ugliness – they’re all showcased in one perfectly crafted masterpiece.

Street Hassle (from Street Hassle, 1978)
It was the late ‘70s. Everybody was doing rock operas. Not everybody, however, was condensing them into a single, string-driven 11-minute song packed full of death, drugs, prostitution, misogyny and junkie philosophy, with a little space left over for a Bruce Springsteen cameo. The dealer’s shockingly callous spoken word set piece in the middle (called “Street Hassle” on the album sleeve, making it the titular movement of the record’s titular song) is the highlight for me, but this is genius from start to finish.

Kill Your Sons (from Sally Can’t Dance, 1974)
What do you do when your parents commit you to an electroshock ward at age 17 in an attempt to cure your homosexual tendencies? Write it all up into a searing, sardonic howl of nihilistic numbness, of course. Lou was never punker than he is here, nor were many others.

Baton Rouge (from Ecstasy, 2000)
I count this as one of the saddest, loveliest songs I’ve ever heard. Lou fills this disarmingly honest reminiscence of a failed marriage with quickly sketched images both wistful and painful. Perhaps the most affecting element is the narrator’s not-quite regret upon seeing photos from his ex’s daughter’s wedding. As he momentarily loses himself in a fantasy of the all-American family he’ll never have (nor honestly want), the bittersweetness becomes almost unbearable. Maybe the most underrated song in Lou’s entire canon.

Magic and Loss (from Magic and Loss, 1993)
I hold Magic and Loss as the finest album about death anyone’s ever made. Whenever someone close to me dies, I make a point of sitting down and listening to it front-to-back as soon as I have the chance. The album as a whole, and this closing track in particular, goes a long way toward easing the pain. In my hour of darkness, I can’t tell you how reassuring it is for me to hear Lou repeating his gentle reminder that “there’s a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out.”

Caroline Says II (from Berlin, 1973)
I rank Berlin as one of the three greatest records Lou ever made, but the album is such an organic whole that it’s tough to single out any one song. This heartbreaker stands out as a severely damaged woman’s deceptively pretty send-off to the abusive husband she can’t abide any longer. “You can hit me all you want to / But I don’t love you any more.” Just devastating.

Like a Possum (from Ecstasy, 2000)
I can understand why some people might find 18-minutes of Lou Reed bellowing about possums over a droning, repetitive guitar riff unappealing. Those people are dead wrong, of course, but I can understand where they’re coming from. Personally, I can’t get enough of it. I have a pet theory that Lou’s much-maligned Metallica collaboration Lulu (which I’m on record as kind of liking) was his attempt at expanding the magic of “Like a Possum” across an entire album. Sadly, it didn’t quite work.

New Sensations (from New Sensations, 1984)
At its core, this is just an amiable ramble about this one time when Lou had a really fun day riding his motorcycle. Somewhere along the line, though, “New Sensations” becomes a whole lot more than that. Maybe it’s the production, the imagery or just the relative contentment in Lou’s delivery, but it winds up being an exhilarating anthem of feeling good and being free.

Sword of Damocles (from Magic and Loss, 1992)
It takes guts to face down the powerlessness of watching a loved one dying slowly. To do so as honestly and unflinchingly as Lou does here is just plain remarkable. “I’ve seen a lot of people die from car crashes and drugs / Last night on 33rd Street I saw a kid get hit by a bus / But this drawn out torture over which part of you lives is very hard to take.”

Walk on the Wild Side (from Transformer, 1972)
At this point it’s almost enough of a cliché to turn me off, but it’s not for nothing that this remains Lou’s defining song after all these years. The lulling bass line, the skittering guitar, the almost-whispered vocals and of course the Colored Girls and their “doot-d-doot-d-doots” make it every bit the classic it’s cracked up to be. Unlike “Perfect Day,” whose ubiquity has finally made me weary of a song I once loved, this one will never wear out its welcome.

Dirt (from Street Hassle, 1978)
Street Hassle is hands-down Lou’s grimiest album (as well as my personal favorite). Aside from the title track, this is probably the nastiest offering on the record, a spiteful takedown of some unknown poseur. There’s something about Lou inexplicably quoting Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law” in the middle of his tirade that sends chills down my spine every time.

Waves of Fear (from The Blue Mask, 1982)
A harrowing portrait of self-loathing, withdrawal and general misery set to a big, burly guitar riff that eventually devolves into spastic squalling. “I cringe at my tremors / I hate my own smell / I know where I must be / I must be in Hell.” What’s not to love?

Doin’ the Things that We Want To (from New Sensations, 1984)
A celebration of Martin Scorcese, Sam Shepard and the artists who make life worth living, this is an endlessly exhilarating tribute to creative genius. The opening verse, where Lou describes his reaction to watching a live performance of Shepard’s A Fool for Love, is a miracle of minute observation.

Wild Child (from Lou Reed, 1972)
Throughout the early ‘70s, Lou had a weird penchant for songs that strung together a jumble of grotesque character sketches and half-realized puns. (See also: “Andy’s Chest,” “Oh, Sweet Nuthin,” “She’s My Best Friend.” Heck, even “Walk on the Wild Side” could fall under that umbrella.) This is my favorite of the bunch, a darkly cheerful display of wordplay for its own sake. I’m especially fond of “I was talking to Ed, who’d been reported dead by a mutual friend / He thought it was funny that I had no money to spend on him.”

Last Great American Whale (from New York, 1989)
There are a lot of undeniably weird entries in the Lou Reed song book, and this might be the weirdest of all. It’s just your standard story of a story of an endangered, sentient, possibly amphibious whale who seems to moonlight as some sort of anti-racist superhero. Hearing this song for the first time when I was 15 confirmed for me that this Lou Reed cat was somebody I could really get into.

The Power of Positive Drinking (from Growing Up in Public, 1980)
This playful tribute to all things alcoholic is probably the straight-up funniest song in Lou’s repertoire. His snide portraits of various breeds of barfly are as universal as they are well-observed. Drunken self-justification doesn’t come much better than “Some say liquor kills the cells in your head / But for that matter so does getting out of bed.”

I Believe (from Songs for Drella, 1990)
The climax of Lou and John Cale’s brilliant, operatic remembrance of Andy Warhol is this furious piano ballad tracking Valerie Solanis’ botched assassination attempt. Lou’s decades-old indignation is palpable as he takes us inside multiple heads – Valerie’s, Andy’s and his own – in a plainspoken but complex pastiche of the day the Factory dream died.

The Last Shot (from Legendary Hearts, 1983)
Lou’s songs about his long and varied history with substance abuse are always winners for me. The casual matter-of-factness of this one sets it apart from most songs about kicking an addiction. Lou sounds almost blasé delivering theoretically horrific lines like “I shot a vein in my neck and I coughed up a Quaalude.” As the chorus goes, “When you quit, you quit,” and you can almost believe that it’s just that easy.

What’s Good (from Magic and Loss, 1992)
This preamble to what’s arguably Lou’s most powerful album sets the stage for all the confusion and soul-searching to follow, and still allows a little shimmer of hope to seep through all the cynicism. “What’s good? Life’s good (but not fair at all)” pretty much sums up the human experience as I see it.

Egg Cream (from Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996, though I prefer the version from the Blue in the Face soundtrack)
Childhood remembrances in Lou Reed songs are seldom positive things, but this salute to the quintessential New York beverage of his youth is buoyantly infectious.

Growing Up in Public (from Growing Up in Public, 1980)
The title track of an excellent album that’s often unfairly derided, this one features my all-time favorite pseudo-pretentious Lou Reed lyric: “They’re quasi-effeminate characters in love with oral gratification / They edify their integrities so they can prey on your fears.” Who else would have the temerity to slip that onto a major label rock album in the mid-1980s?

Temporary Thing (from Rock and Roll Heart, 1976)
Maybe the best of Lou’s numerous ‘70s “I’m Mr. Big Stuff” songs, this one is all swagger and sneer propelled by a sinister, insistent combination of piano and percussion.

The Heroine (from The Blue Mask, 1982)
This one is an anomaly in the Lou Reed catalog, and especially in the context of The Blue Mask. On an album that veers unpredictably between domesticity and depravity, the last thing one expects to find is Lou murmuring a murky seafaring metaphor accompanied only by a laconic guitar strum. But damned if it isn’t all the more effective for its incongruity.

Riptide (from Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996)
A grim, primal howl of guitar and macabre imagery churning along over Fernando Saunders’ perennially underrated bass work. It’s pretty cool that Lou’s gotten more and more metal as he’s grown older.

Lisa Says (from Lou Reed, 1971)
Lou’s cycle of “__ Says” songs are beloved for good reason, and this is the best of the pre-Berlin bunch. There’s not a whole lot to it, just a character sketch of a lonely young lady, but it’s one of the prettiest little songs Lou ever put together.