Friday, October 20, 2017

That Beatles Parody You Didn't Know You Needed

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 22
Eric Idle (writer/director), The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Nine
The Rutles, The Rutles

Sometime in the early 1960s, a mop-topped quartet of British musicians took the world by storm. No, not that one. This quartet gained international fame almost overnight, fame for which they proved supremely unprepared. The Rutles, so-named because they began as a one-off sketch on Eric Idle’s show Rutland Television Weekend, hit so close to the Beatles’ actual history that Paul and Ringo supposedly couldn’t watch the finished show.

Eric Idle has a history of weak, uninspiring choices following his Monty Python years. But this one choice probably rescued his name from premature anonymity. Teaming with Neil Innes, who wrote some of Monty Python’s funniest musical segments; Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels; and a selection of top-quality British session musicians, Idle managed to create a band that both honored the Beatles, and challenged Beatlemania’s continuing cult-like adoration.

Emerging from the Cavern Rutland, the band found an unlikely champion in a middle-aged tradesman who didn’t understand music at all. A series of ham-handed business arrangements makes the Rutles a lucrative proposition for record producers, merchandisers, and filmmakers—but the Rutles themselves get ripped off, seeing tiny percentages of the money made off their names. It doesn’t take long before drugs and infighting threaten to overtake the band.

The parallels with the actual Beatles are more than slight. The sudden rise, global popularity, and massive flame-out mirror the Beatles’ trajectory point-for-point. Ringo Starr reported having difficulty watching the finished mockumentary, which hit too close to home, and Paul McCartney had a frosty response. John Lennon, however, called it hilarious, and George Harrison contributed to the production, even appearing onscreen. (The next year, Harrison co-produced Life of Brian.)

Neil Innes’ compositions, most supposedly written during a two-week hot streak in 1977, sound so close to the Beatles, they scarcely count as parody. Early tracks like “Goose-Step Mama” and “Hold My Hand,” mimic the Beatles’ early, American-influenced rock-and-rollers. Later tracks venture into nostalgia with “Doubleback Alley,” psychedelia on “Piggy in the Middle,” and rootless anger on “Get Up and Go.” The soundtrack plays like an unironic Beatles retrospective.

This earnest, ambitious musical texture, available as a separate album for those who appreciate its artistry, contrasts with Idle’s glib tone tone. Idle, who plays both a Rutle and the video host, guides viewers through the Rutles’ tumultuous arc, which we watch with pained awareness of where everything will end. Though Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap is often credited with starting the “mockumentary” fad, Idle pioneered the format five years prior.

Idle’s characters show glib self-awareness, often speaking directly into the camera: they know they’re in a documentary, and probably know where they’re headed. Interviews with the Rutles’ purported contemporaries, including Mick Jagger and Paul Simon, indicate a deep appreciation of the band’s art, but also an awareness that the group was ultimately doomed. With a “knew-it-all-along” shrug, witnesses describe a ship setting sail with its decks already on fire.

The Rutles, from left: Neil Innes, Ricky Fataar, Eric Idle, and John Halsey

Of the actors playing the Rutles, only Idle (who lip-synchs his vocals) and Innes have significant speaking lines. The other band members, bassist Ricky Fataar and drummer John Halsey, speak little; they were hired primarily as musicians. Fataar cut two albums and toured extensively with the Beach Boys, while Halsey was a regular session musician for Lou Reed, Joe Cocker, and Joan Armatrading. Their musical bona fides are unimpeachable.

As stated above, the audience already understands where the Rutles’ trajectory is headed. While happy lyrics and playfully inventive composition keeps Rutlemania fans distracted, the band’s internal dissensions become increasingly visible. As they work less closely, the band’s art starts suffering, and they begin displaying embarrassing, sprawling pseudo-creativity. It becomes clear the band members need one another, but can’t stand each other.

Eventually, we already know, the band splinters. Some members return to the anonymity from which they originated, while others keep trying to produce art, but remain haunted by their past. Asked directly whether the Rutles will ever get back together, Mick Jagger, looking like a man caught with his pants around his ankles, gasps: “I hope not.” So do we, because they’re worth more as a memory than a living force.

Idle and Innes, plus part-time contributors George Harrison and Michael Palin, infuse the Rutles story with fast, Python-esque humor. But it’s the comedy of a perfectly choreographed train wreck. We almost feel guilty taking pleasure in watching the Rutles self-destruct. Yet the Rutles’ tragedy is so woven into our cultural consciousness, we need that laughter, just to understand the depths of our own pain.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

We're All Just Szechuan Sauce Now

Before the Great Szechuan Sauce Meltdown of 2017, I hadn’t thought about Cartoon Network’s breakout hit Rick and Morty for over a year. Having witnessed the Internet sensation around the series, I wanted to understand the fervor it engendered. So I watched two episodes, concluded this series wasn’t for me, and didn’t think about it again. Clearly I overlooked something important, because the Szechuan Sauce debacle chills my bones.

For those playing the home game, the third-season Rick and Morty opener included an extended gag pleading for McDonald's to bring back “Szechuan”-flavored McNugget dipping sauce, a short-lived promotional item from 1998. McDonald’s, without consulting the production house, went along with a one-day gimmick resurrection. But they didn’t plan appropriately, distributed sauce haphazardly, and fans were disappointed. Worse, many were outraged. Some fan protests turned into mini-riots.

We could calibrate how imbecilic this debacle really is. Multiple sources have published open-source sauce recipes, which have mostly been around since the sauce first gained admirers nineteen years ago. But for fans, the sauce as comestible doesn’t really matter; geek culture is clearly about shared experiences—and the experience of getting Rick Sanchez’s favorite dipping sauce from his favorite restaurant matters to show fans more than the food.

Never mind that audiences understand Rich Sanchez is supposed to be an obnoxious human being. Never mind that, in pursuit of his appetites, he broke up his daughter’s marriage in that episode, and prior episodes have included murder and implications of incest. The series anti-hero wanted a specific experience, and fans wanted to share that experience. And McDonald’s failed to anticipate the zeal fans bring to having sharing their goals.

Unfortunately, McDonald’s apparently doesn’t understand new manifestations of fan culture. Until this week, McDonald’s, like me, thought fan culture still revolves around small handfuls of geeks wearing Star Trek uniforms or Jedi robes, hand-distributing mimeographed fanzines which only a handful of friends would probably ever see. I've personally excused revolting fan behavior in the past, largely because my belief in fan culture hadn’t much evolved since 1991.

But those days are gone.The Internet now permits fans to organize without regard for geography. No more do fans need to organize conventions in hotel ballrooms in hopes of meeting fellow Trekkers beyond those they attended high school with; I could meet Trekkers in London, Sydney, Trinidad, and the Ross Ice Shelf by logging on. The capacity for unified fan action has never been greater… which is awesome, for essentially benign fandoms.

But we’re not talking about Star Trek, or its uplifting humanist values, anymore. The spread of organized fan culture has coincided with some pretty terrible fan objects. Some of fandom’s most influential properties, like Mad Men, Arrested Development, and Game of Thrones, star characters who exist specifically to be revolting, amoral throwbacks. But fans don’t make that distinction. So we get nerdboys deliberately mimicking Rick Sanchez.

Rick and Morty’s creators have tried to distance themselves from their fandom, especially as the primarily male base has reacted violently to hiring women writers for Season Three. But that’s too little, too late. The entire show exists to spotlight a sociopath whose sense of entitlement overwhelms things like family, common decency, and human life. And it’s attracted a fandom which, to a shocking degree, shares these values.

McDonald’s learned to ignore fan dynamics at their peril. Entitled fans screamed abuse at minimum-wage workers, disrupted business, and demanded their wants be treated as sacrosanct. I could understand such disruptions for noble ends, for instance, protesting that a corporation which claims billions of dollars’ profit every quarter claims it can’t afford giving front-line workers a modest raise. But this was idiot man-children throwing a tantrum over a cartoon.

This isn’t a McDonald’s problem, friends. Recent accusations of sociopathic behavior from superstars like Harvey Weinstein and Ben Affleck have gotten papered over to keep money rolling in, while controversies haven’t stuck to Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Because hey, the fan base prints money. And this same appeal to sociopathy has given powerful, culture-defining careers to Roger Ailes, Bill “Falafel” O’Reilly, and Donald Trump.

McDonald’s will shrug this controversy off. As the only ready source of cheap, ready-to-eat food in many poor neighborhoods and overbuilt suburbs, its principal customers can’t afford a meaningful boycott. But the images of screaming, entitled fans will remain an American shame for years. Because this fandom didn’t happen; it was cultivated for profit. And fandoms like it will arise as long as there’re man-babies with money.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Maybe the Problem Is Just Men Having Power

Harvey Weinstein
Hollywood greasebag Harvey Weinstein’s descent into pariah status has happened with haste I never expected. It took months for Bill Cosby’s rape accusations to gain sticking power, and he even headlined a successful tour while accusations kept dribbling out. How people feel about Bill Clinton, even after DNA evidence, still largely breaks along party lines. Malcolm Forbes and Jimmy Savile didn’t even get seriously accused until they were dead.

This happens so consistently, though, that we should contemplate the moral. We keep discovering powerful men with their trousers around their ankles. This may mean literally, as with former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, or figuratively, like JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Either way, we face a discomforting reality: men with egos big enough to pursue and achieve global power, have egos big enough to consider themselves immune from consequences.

Weinstein’s described behavior should sound familiar to people who follow these issues. Like Malcolm Forbes, he greeted targets wearing only a bathrobe, or less, and when his targets refused his advances, he’d masturbate, or otherwise gratify himself, in front of them. Like James Woods, he evidently approached very young women with grandiose offers in exchange for favors. Like Joss Whedon, he did this while publicly ballyhooing his progressive credentials.

In fact, the described behavior is so similar that, like medieval witch hunts, I’d almost believe the accusers were jumping on public hysteria and repeating claims they’d already heard from others. Except that we keep seeing the same behavior emerge from their mouths. They, or a handful of paid shills, deny the accusations and disparage the accusers. They throw themselves on the mercy of the courts. Then, they get convicted.

02102We’re still so early in the Weinstein scandal that we’re just seeing the “non-denial denial” stage. That’s when the accused insist they… something. At this stage, Bill Cosby simply went quiet, refusing to confirm or deny anything. Donald Trump issued a statement insisting that his recorded boasts don’t really reflect his identity. Bill Clinton took the unusual step of out-and-out lying. The effect is identical, however: “It’s not my fault!”

There’s also the attempt to paint oneself as the victim. Weinstein has issued a statement complaining that his wife and children left him, while his board fired him from the company bearing his name. Sob. Donald Trump mustered several of Bill Clinton’s accusers to redirect his story onto “crooked Hillary.” Roman Polanski fled the country and made several award-winning films to distract Americans from his rape confession.

Often, but not always, the accused gets found guilty. After DNA proved the stain on Monica’s dress really came from Bill Clinton’s peter, Clinton admitted his lies, but evaded impeachment, retired at the peak of his poll numbers, and made a cushy bankroll on corporate speaking engagements. Marv Albert pled to a lesser charge to avoid a trial. Mike Tyson did three years on a six-year sentence.

But too often, the accused skate. Sometimes they should; accusations against Tucker Carlson, Jerry Lawler, and Kobe Bryant were deemed baseless. But Michael Jackson stood trial twice without a conviction, and R. Kelly pushed procedural options so far that his ultimate trial became tragicomic, with a pre-written conclusion. And Woody Allen, Errol Flynn, and Al Gore? Hell, they just skated. It’s hard to prove sexual crimes, especially against famous people.

Any individual accused of sex crimes, of course, represents only himself. There’s no magic individual who represents the entire male population, even that male subset comprising the famous, wealthy, and powerful. No stink of sexual impropriety ever clung to Barack Obama or George W. Bush. And the occasional woman has been accused (Britney Spears). So it’s wrong to draw hasty conclusions, or assume all rich, powerful men are guilty.

However, after enough accusations, the pattern becomes visible. Men who grow accustomed to thinking of themselves as bigger than the general rabble, who believe their impulses more worthy of satisfaction, will eventually believe themselves bulletproof. Harvey Weinstein has been in the media production business for forty-eight years, and evidently considered himself a kingmaker. Maybe he started to believe that “divine right of kings” bullshit.

Plato wrote, over two millennia ago, that those most eager to achieve power, deserve it least. This applies in politics, finance, or pop culture. The young, hungry Harvey Weinstein may have produced decades of culture-defining hits; but accusations of impropriety now go back two decades, to when he became an institution. Maybe we need a statute of limitations on power. Maybe we need more women.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Little Pieces of America All Around Us

Yeah? What America is that?
(click to enlarge)
I really, really like Creedence Clearwater Revival. But the reason why is pretty embarrassing: when, at sixteen, I rebelled against my parents’ popular culture, as sixteen-year-olds do, I wasn’t ready to embrace Nirvana and Pearl Jam like my peers. I feared getting into anything “new,” and getting left behind, like my friends who’d previously enjoyed Nu Shooz or Duran Duran. Novelty was risky; old stuff came pre-screened. So I started listening to the oldies station.

As half-hearted rebellions go, mine probably seems mild. Given the recent popularity of steampunk, crypto-fascism, and hipsters dressed as Canadian loggers, digging the rock’n’roll of a prior generation isn’t that bad. Except, I’ve increasingly realized, I didn’t really embrace that generation’s vision. Any listen through Casey Kasem’s back catalog reveals that American Top Forty radio has long been dominated by tedious music, driven by labels and producers who manipulate, rather than listen to, the market.

So yeah, I understand the impulse driving people made uncomfortable by today’s cultural divides. I witness friends, people I like and trust, embracing the “Make America Great Again” motto, creating excuses for everyone from Bill Cosby to Peter Cvjetanovic, and calling anything that doesn’t support their power structure “fake news.” Meanwhile, the political party that represents organized progressives offered voters a choice, in the last presidential primary, between nostalgia for the 1990s or the 1950s.

This massive aversion to risk comes at a time when America’s structure is already changing. Our demographics are in motion, as immigration from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East give this country an increasingly brown complexion. Our range of media options continues to increase as the carrying capacity of TV and Internet sources improves, and we’re drowning in new ideas. Even commerce has become chaotic, with the hectic panoply of chains and online retailers.

Naturally, a large fraction of Americans retreat into what’s comfortable. Whether that means pining for a sunlit Norman Rockwell townscape, or voting for the candidate who promises to restore what we consider our glory days, or listening to “Bad Moon Rising” with the volume at eleven, we’re seeing the same motivation. People intimidated by change, which happens faster now that we can (or choose to) manage, naturally retreat into their favorite version of the past.

I understand this impulse, but I fear it, too. Back in the 1980s, when I began paying attention to social issues, I remember people already complaining that suburban sprawl, with its lack of shared common spaces like parks and downtowns, created vast “communities” bound together only by geographical proximity. Residents sorted themselves into real communities by their workplaces, churches, watering holes, and their children’s schools. Ideas, like people, became unofficially segregated in our diverse America.

Today’s media landscape sees that segregation happening even more quickly. We watch Fox News or MSNBC and have our favorite prejudices ratified by well-coiffed pundits, and equally importantly, we see our ideological challengers reduced to manageable caricatures. We choose our radio stations to ensure we hear only what we know we already enjoy, and, as Gretchen Rubin writes, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify actually narrow our exposure. We’ve improved innovation exposure to a science.

Nor am I immune to this. After resisting new culture for decades, I embraced indie rock when I was pushing forty. But at a recent concert, I realized: this audience is almost as white as the Charlottesville Nazi rally. I could excuse even that as the natural self-sorting nature of crowds, except that I’d driven over 320 miles to see this concert, which I’d heard advertized on an out-of-town radio station I listen to online.

Sadly, I have no ready solutions. I see how aversion to novelty reduces me to a stereotype, the middle-aged white “kid” listening to indie with other honkies. But the alternative is switching my listening habits to locally available radio, which not only bores me, but is overwhelmingly owned by out-of-town corporations famously unresponsive to local needs. I could complain that corporations shattered my community… but I’d have to admit they did it with my assistance.

If America is shattered, as the nostalgia vendors claim, then we have broken it, you and I. We could, as many do, pin responsibility on corporations, or government, or millennials. But that’s just punting the issue down the field. We elect a government, but we lack leaders. We join social networks, but we don’t organize. We look at the little pieces of America all around us and, like good little passive citizens, we do… nothing.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

One Million Ways To Die in the Star Wars Universe

Greg Stones, 99 Stormtroopers Join the Empire

One stormtrooper fails to shoot first.
One stormtrooper doesn’t let the Wookie win.
One stormtrooper fails Lord Vader for the last time.

Back in 1963, macabre cartoonist Edward Gorey published a storybook for grown-ups called The Gashlycrumb Tinies, in which twenty-six children meet horrible ends. Did you ever wonder how that would look if nerds rewrote it for their favorite franchise? Yeah, me neither. But Greg Stones, author of Zombies Hate Stuff and Sock Monkeys Have Issues, apparently did. And boy am I glad, because this book is funny.

Stones imagines different ways stormtroopers die grisly deaths. Stomped by AT-AT Walkers; frozen in carbonite; fed to the Sarlacc; stationed on Alderaan. The deaths incorporate images from all eight live-action movies, though mostly the original trilogy. Some deaths probably refer to ancillary material I haven’t read yet. All are hilarious in the deadpan delivery of frankly gruesome content that the characters probably hated.

click to enlarge

As with Gorey, however, the real life comes from Stones’ illustrations. His flat, cartoonish look contrasts with the three-dimensional, computer-generated style favored in so many picture books these days, a deliberate nod to his adult audience’s nostalgia for their childhood reading. The approach is playful, with oversaturated colors and not-quite realistic proportions (nobody casts a shadow). The stormtroopers are drawn wearing armor from the original trilogy.

Stones’ poker-faced prose, never more than one sentence per page, and childlike folk illustrations, give the gruesome content its ironic comedy. There’s always something hilarious about stating awful things like you’re discussing the weather, especially when you know it’s fiction. Stones’ understatement of the truly awful gives his storybook a Gary Larson-ish tone of gallows hilarity. Who doesn’t love laughing in the face of certain death?

This book is, undoubtedly, part of a marketing push to make Star Wars timely with Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm. Funny enough, I’m okay with that.  Despite the cynical marketing edge, if publishers can release books that bring happiness into customers’ lives, I say let them. Stones’ playfully grim take on Imperial incompetence will give nostalgic grown-ups the boost they need while awaiting the next movie release.