Jun 15th, 2005 by Clark Humphrey

book cover…sooner, but I’ve got another Seattle Times book review online now. It’s about Finding Betty Crocker, depicting a Minneapolis women’s-history expert’s search for the legend, and the reality, behind the brand name.

Jun 5th, 2005 by Clark Humphrey

…Seattle Times book review today. It’s about Love’s Confusions, a delightful little academic treatise comparing how various thinkers have thought about desire and devotion over the centuries.

Oct 30th, 2004 by Clark Humphrey

…in the SeaTimes, on a funny little slacker novel called Bald.

Sep 19th, 2004 by Clark Humphrey

…in the Seattle Times today. This one’s about Selling Seattle, a British academician’s view of the ’90s national-media hype about our once-fair city.

Aug 27th, 2004 by Clark Humphrey

…in the Seattle Times today, this one on the McSweeney’s “humor” anthology.

Jul 16th, 2004 by Clark Humphrey

Yr. obt. cor’s’p’n’d’nt is once again providing freelance book reviews to The Seattle Times. The first of the new batch is out today, concerning Chuck Klosterman’s essay collection Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.

Feb 10th, 2004 by Clark Humphrey

The world of alterna-comix is filled with endearing characters on the page and intriguing characters off the page. One of the trade’s oddest tales is that of Dave Sim. In 1977 he started Cerebus the Aardvark, a funny-animal parody of Conan the Barbarian. A year or two into the title, and supposedly after an acid trip that sent him to a hospital, he proclaimed he’d put out 300 issues and then kill off the title character.

A quarter century later, he’s done it. Along the way, he’s turned into a recluse, an outspoken misogynist, and one of the industry’s top advocates for creators’ rights. His comic book has veered from social satire to epic adventure to meandering ideological rants. By the end, its circulation had dropped from 35,000 to 7,000.

The Canadian newspaper supplement Saturday Night ran a fascinating piece about Sim’s triumphs and struggles, suggesting the stress of his self-imposed task pushed him to the edge of insanity. The comics weblog Sequential has posted image files of the five-page article (one, two, three, four, five).

Here’s Sim’s own “Hail and Farewell” essay from a wholesaler’s catalog.

I was never into Conan, or parodies of Conan, so Sim’s early work made no impact on me. The later, longer stories became so slowly-paced, you pretty much had to read them in the paperback reprint collections for them to make sense. But Sim’s brave and/or silly perserverence as a writer/artist/self-publisher may never be repeated.

Should it?

Sim employed several strategies to survive as a self-publisher. He started at the beginning of the specialty comic-book-store circuit, and maintained his place within it, even as he alienated most of his now-former friends and industry allies. He kept his famous-among-a-cult-audience title and lead character, long after he’d outgrown talking-animal stories. He wrote, drew, inked, and lettered 12 issues a year, usually with 20 pages of art plus a cover, collaborating only with background artist Gerhard; thus pushing as much quantity of product out at his audience as he physically could produce. He maintained his creative freedom and achieved a solid middle-class income; at the expense of potentially greater works he might have done if he’d had longer lead times and didn’t have to stay in the Cerebus universe.

Feb 4th, 2004 by Clark Humphrey

Someone at Slashdot, in a comment that seems to have scrolled off the site, wrote:

“In a country where it’s okay to fry mentally ill people to death, let any eejit carry a gun, consume a huge proportion of the world’s resources and invade a country for dubious reasons, exposing a bit of human flesh is greeted with the sort of outrage that you’d think would be reserved for the end of the world.”

Of course, that’s the whole point. The right-wing sleaze machine loves violence (physical, verbal, emotional, etc.) and loathes sex (especially pleasurable, loving, or otherwise “girly” sex).

And the youth-marketing industry, which devised the Super Bowl halftime and most of the Super Bowl commercials, loves everything hard and “edgy” and hates anything soft and subtle. Faced with record-low TV viewership levels among the corporately-prized young male demographic, marketers are trying to outdo one another in vulgarity and desperation. It’s not that their audiences want this; it’s what they, the marketers, want their would-be audiences to want.

So, in the commercials, we got “jokes” about the following: A farting horse, little children saying a bleeped-out cussword, a wheelchair crash, a dog biting a man’s testicles, a talking monkey hitting on a woman, an old man beating an old woman, a football referee refusing to talk to a nagging wife, a man getting an unexpected bikini wax, and the very idea that a skinny man could love a heavy woman. All of these were just fine-‘n’-dandy with CBS and the NFL. (As were the two erectile-dysfunction-drug commercials, one of which included explicit language.)

In a further attempt to attract young nonviewers, CBS turned the halftime festivities over to sister company MTV. It staged a predictably rude and trite affair with mercifully short performances by has-beens Kid Rock, P. Diddy, Justin Timberlake, and Janet Jackson. Aside from Jackson’s reprise of the oldie “Rhythm Nation,” all the lyrics were about rude dudes boasting of their sexual-conquistadory prowess. Again, all that was OK’d in advance by all concerned.

Then, in the last dance move of the show, Timberlake (a mediocre dancer-singer known primarily for his write-ups in the gossip pages as the first boy to spear Britney) ripped open Jackson’s tear-away blouse and, officially “accidentally,” slipped her bra off as well.

This is far from the first “costume accident” on broadcast TV. (Remember Lucy Lawless’s rendition of the U.S. national anthem at a hockey game back in ’99?)

And CBS has been willing to show seminude women in recent years–as C.S.I. corpses, or as Chicago Hope hospital patients. And the network runs the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, but that’s all edgy and teasy, the way the Super Bowl was supposed to be.

But, like that other youth-marketing vehicle Maxim, rude-‘n’-crude’s OK, but pure physical beauty’s taboo beyond taboo.

Jeff Laurie at Sex News Daily claims the Jackson flash was newsworthy because “like most breasts, it’s scarce, and seeing it is getting a sneak peak at the forbidden fruit.” Uncovered breasts, of course, are far less scarce than they used to be. They’re in fashion magazines, in Oscar-winning movies, on Emmy-winning cable shows, and all over the Internet. But they’re not in “edgy” youth marketing, which is all about forever teasing and never pleasing.

And they’re not in the right-wing bombast culture, forever stuck in the sixth-grade notion that boys who like to blow stuff up are Real Men, but that boys who like girls are faggots.

So now we have, as a blatantly cynical election-year stunt, the Bush FCC promising a swift and thorough investigation into the incident; all while the Bushies keep stalling about 9/11, the Cheney energy plan, and the lack of real causes for invading Iraq.

What does it all prove? That in a supposedly sexed-up pop culture, one of the purest, simplest forms of sexual expression still threatens certain powerful interests–precisely because it threatens the premises of their power.

Jun 5th, 2003 by Clark Humphrey

Bluebottle Gallery logoA new alt-art boutique just opened on East Pine Street called the Bluebottle Art Gallery and Store. It’s a nice little place and you oughta see it, even though it’s only peripheral to today’s topic.

When I first went there a couple of months back, I asked the co-owner if the store was named after Peter Sellers’s beloved Bluebottle character on the old BBC Radio Goon Show. It was. I immediately appreciated the place even more, though I neglected to go into my impersonation of the character’s squeaky boy-falsetto (“Yew FEEL-thy SWINE! Yew have DEADED me again!”) on the store’s premises.

I instead went home and, over the several following weeks, downloaded and listened to all 150 or so still-existing Goon Show episodes.

The Goon Show Nearly half a century after they were made, these comedy classics still stand up. Not just because they were the famous Sellers’s first springboard to global stardom, and not just because their inspired nonsense heavily influenced everybody from the Monty Python boys to the Beatles (whose record producer George Martin and favorite filmmaker Richard Lester had been involved in Goon side projects).

The Goon Show is timeless. Even the topical references (such as those to consumer-goods shortages, “early closing days,” and other miseries of postwar Britain) have now seamlessly blended in with the rest of the show’s detailed (if irrational) fictional universe.

Absurdity and nonsense have long been staple ingredients of British and Irish humor (Lewis Carroll, Flann O’Brien, et al.). But the Goons (Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Sellers) put a modern spin on it. When it launched in 1951 it was a breakthrough of modern-day illogic against the stuffy Music Hall-era Brit comedy of the time.

Milligan wrote or co-wrote almost all the scripts (nearly 250 over 10 years). They were set in assorted times and places, but almost always revolved around the basic contradiction between WWII-era British heroic pomposity and the hellish realities of war, followed by the decade-long postwar recession.

Yet there’s an upbeat air to the show. The characters (even Milligan’s drag spinster Minnie Bannister) are energetic and boistrous. The “trad jazz” interludes and big-band musical scores are brash and brassy. I’ve written in the past that every successful satire contains, in its aesthetic, the spirit of the satirist’s preferred alternative world. In this case, The Goon Show’s sauciness posited a modernist, populist alternative to the tired, caste-ridden old Britain. Some critics have even traced the whole subsequent “Swinging London” explosion back to the Goons.

But Milligan’s perfectionism, and the sheer volume of the writing work involved, led him to a nervous breakdown midway through the show’s third season. He was hospitalized for over two months. After Milligan got back to the show full-time, he transformed its structure from a melange of self-contained skits into full half-hour adventure farces that built absurdities upon one another, complete with lengthy asides and subplots and sidetracks.

The underlying premise behind most episodes: Patriotic, ambitious everyman Neddy Seagoon (voiced in a melodrama tenor by Harry Secombe) wants to be a hero (or at least be perceived as one) by performing various courageous acts. But his own greed and vanity hinder him as much as the impossibility of his quests and the villainy and/or idiocy of the supporting players (almost all played by Sellers and Milligan).

The proceedings played out like an audio cartoon, buoyed by the familiarity-building catch phrases, the frequent asides for wordplay, the clever-silly sound effects, and the cheery upbeat attitude held by almost all the characters—even when threatened with what Bluebottle called (and usually received) “the dreaded deading.”

By 1960, the show was finally put to pasture. (There were three made-for-TV reunions, the last in 1972). Sellers’s astounding film career had already taken off. Secombe held a variety of TV jobs, before and behind the cameras, until his death in 2001. (Secombe’s son Andrew played the voice of Annakin Skywalker’s junkyard boss in The Phantom Menace.)

Milligan had several more manic-depressive episodes over the next four decades, but he also wrote more than 50 books (war memoirs, children’s nonsense verse, political satires, parodies of great novels, etc.), wrote and/or acted in dozens of radio and TV shows, and appeared in a handful of films.

When Milligan succumbed to liver failure in March 2002, an era passed with him. An era of sophistication and, despite everything, optimism in humor. An era when official corruption and the futility of war were such publicly-acknowledged “givens” that they fit right in on the same script with groaner puns and sniggering references to movie starlets.

At a time when radio comedy has degenerated to creepy insult gags and film comedy has degenerated to dorky gross-out routines, we could sure use more of the Goons’ progressive chaos.

(In addiiton to the file-trading networks, Goon Show recordings can be had at this site and on this streaming online radio station. Eighty-one episodes are also available, in pristinely restored versions, on import CDs.)

May 4th, 2003 by Clark Humphrey

AS YOU MIGHT KNOW, we at MISC aren’t reallly big poetry fans. But we’ve just been turned on to a poet we can truly appreciate.

Scottish epic versifier William McGonagall (1825?-1902), whose vast output can be read at the above link, is described on the linked site as “a man without talent who thought he was a great poet and tragedian and only needed an opportunity to prove it.”

His stuff isn’t all that bad really; well maybe largely bad, but not as completely insuffrable as a lot of present-day poesy. For one thing, his poems had stories and at least one-dimensional characters, rather than being limited in scope to the poet’s own viewpoints. A lot of them are about turgid events (shipwrecks, battles, tornadoes, domestic melodramas), instead of the smug flower-gazing of nature poets or the self-aggrandizement of slam poets. His execution of these plots and his verbal stylings might seem less than imaginative by the standards of the classicists, but he remains his own man, with his own inimitable manner.

And his stuff all rhymes too.

Mar 24th, 2003 by Clark Humphrey

FRANK RICH isn’t the first one to notice how the Chicago movie reflects today’s cynical media manipulations. But I haven’t yet read of anybody who’s noticed the political relevance that almost redeems Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. A republic slowly devolves into an empire while fighting both large-scale battles and sneak terror attacks–and while its supposed leaders are actually conspiring with the attackers, to generate an atmosphere of instability and to promote the “emergency” suspension of democracy. Lucasfilm is now filming the next sequel, in which (as we all already know) the forces of empire win and the defenders of freedom scatter into far-flung exiles. Let’s hope we can improvise a happier ending to our real-life clone wars.

Mar 18th, 2003 by Clark Humphrey

WIRED MAGAZINE put out its tenth-anniversary issue last month. Its contents will appear on its website once the issue disappears from the stands.

The issue contains a big section in which the mag, now run by the Conde Nast empire, relived its heritage as the most rah-rah, corporate-hip, cheerleader of the ’90s tech boom in all its manifestations. Particularly noticable are all the excerpts from pieces in which the magazine’s original regime emphatically insisted that “the old rules” of just about everything no longer applied. (With one exception: It once insisted the only way Microsoft could become a company it could approve of was to move to Silicon Valley, because “the Evergreen State is still the sticks.”)

In the world of the old Wired, everything was either Wired (hip) or Tired (square).

What was invariably deemed “Wired:” Giant corporations built up from nothing. Hyper-luxury lifestyles. CEO celebrity cults. Stratospheric stock prices for companies that had never earned a dime. Stock markets that would rise, rise, and keep rising into infinity. Unabashed greed and individual ambition. Power tripping. The relentless thumpa-thumpa of generic techno music. Sex redefined as individual pleasure (hence the “dildonics” fantasies for futuristic elaborate masturbation machines).

What was invariably deemed “Tired:” Thrift. Quiet dignity. Long-term relationships, other than with financial advisors. Labor unions. Health-care reform. Poor people. Caring about poor people. People in rural areas who didn’t move there from a city. Cities in North America that weren’t San Francisco. The “old media.” France. Environmental laws. Minimum-wage laws. Governments in general, except when subsidizing businesses. Literary genres other than science fiction. Movies without special effects.

True to past form, the magazine follows this nudge at its old arrogance with a big bit of new arrogance, in the form of a long cover story extolling hydrogen power, for cars and just about everything else. It’s a nice idea (a clean-burning fuel-O-the-future that emits only water vapor).

But you have to use some other generation system to make hydrogen. Windmills and solar panels could be used for that; but the corporate energy czars would rather promote “more fully developed” technologies—petroleum, coal, and especially nuclear power. The Wired piece goes on to suggest environmentalists should start loving nukes, as long as they’re being used to make hydrogen, and insists there are no safety or waste-disposal problems with today’s nuke-plant designs.

But then an article in the back of the same issue, about the eternally pesky issues regarding permanent radioactive-waste disposal, reminds us we’ve heard those no-problem promises before.

Feb 8th, 2003 by Clark Humphrey

The normally at-least-semi-lucid New York magazine media critic Michael Wolff has gone mildly insane in his most recent essay.

He took the firing of an editor at a big NYC book company, something that happens darn near every month at one of those places, and whipped up a big concoction of a piece claiming the whole book biz is an old-media dinosaur stuck in a permanent death spiral.

This is the sort of fluff I’ve been hearing for eight years from the Wired dorks (hey, just ’cause their own book division went sternum-up…) and for over twenty years from the disgruntled-hippie-curmudgeon set. But from where I sit, books (as a fiscal if not a creative endeavor) are about as strong as any media endeavor during our current Great Depression Lite.

When the Kmart Corp. began its current tailspin, what was the first asset it sold, the one most certain to fetch a premium price? The Borders bookstores. That tactic’s what the financially sicker-than-sick AOL Time Warner is doing now. The AOL Internet racket wound’t fetch ’em the price of a measly banner ad; but the conglomerate’s book units (including Little, Brown and Time-Life Books) would, so they’re what AOLTW’s putting up for sale.

The ol’ dead-tree-lit biz has certain advantages in the current marketplace. Unlike websites, it puts out a tangible physical product (that can even be resold on the used market). Unlike periodicals, its products have relatively indefinite shelf lives. Unlike periodicals or broadcasters, books aren’t dependent upon slump-prone ad sales. Books can be “affordable luxuries,” little treats you can give yourself or loved ones.

Wolff claims there’s no need to romanticize The Book anymore, because it’s become just another lowest-common-denominator, dumbed-down product. But then he claims nobody’s buying books (or at least caring about them) except a little Northeastern elite (that happens to coincide with his own readership). There wouldn’t be mass-market books if mass markets weren’t buying them.

There are a few problems besetting the book biz these days, above the general economic malaise. Wolff’s just mistaken about what they are.

First, book publishing can’t be run on a healthy, long-term basis on the kind of profit margins demanded by media conglomerates obsessed with The Almighty Stock Price. Thus, even the making and selling of highly commercial titles is best handled by independent firms. (Thus, the spinoff of AOLTW’s book arm might be better for both the seller and the sold.)

Second, there’s the little matter known as Serious Literature. Like “independent” film and “alternative” music, it’s a niche genre that appeals to customers who think they’re hipper and smarter than any dumb ol’ corporation. (Whether the customers really are all that hip or intelligent doesn’t really matter.) They’re a piece of the business even more apt to be better serviced by the non-conglomerates.

Wolff sneeringly dismisses serious-lit lovers as passé crackpots, out of tune with the 21st century. Actually these are the gals n’ guys who, when they’re doing their jobs right (as writers, editors, sellers, and readers), unearth and reveal the truths about our age.

It’s the media hype speed-freaks like Wolff who, from this corner, seem more like relics of a discredited time.

Feb 7th, 2003 by Clark Humphrey

Last weekend, the newspaper pundits were full of ponderings concerning the state of “independent” film, following the end of the past Sundance Festival in Utah.

Reality check time.

Sundance, now either part- or majority-owned by Viacom, is not really about independent filmmaking and hasn’t been since at least 1997. At best, one can say it’s about “art house” film marketing, the sort of thing at which Roger Corman, Sam Goldwyn Jr., and their cronies used to excel. At worst, it’s just another excuse for celebrity gossip bullshit and studio dealmaking corruption—precisely what truly independent film is a rebellion against.

K Records cofounder Calvin Johnson has defined an independent record label as a record label that’s neither owned, financed, nor distributed by one of the five majors. A similarly simple demarcation could be made for independent movies, except for the huge gray area between a film’s production and its distribution.

The days of such indie-film companies as Goldwyn, Cinecom, Cannon, DeLaurentiis, Hemdale, and Atlantic Releasing have gone the way of RKO and Monogram. Nowadays, only three truly independent theatrical distributors in North America are big enough for Variety to notice—IFC Films (owned by big cable-TV-system operator Cablevision), Lions Gate, and Alliance Atlantis. All the bigger “indie” distributors are merely niche-market (and non-union) subsidiaries of the intellectual-property conglomerates: Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, Miramax (Disney), New Line (AOL Time Warner), and Focus Features (Vivendi Universal).

These niche divisions don’t sit around buying up movies completed by rugged individualist filmmakers (despite the Sundance Festival’s mythology). More and more, they’re financing, packaging, and asserting total creative control over the products they release. (Miramax bankrolled the last Broadway revival of the musical Chicago to spur interest in its now-current film version.) They package mid-budget films as career-enhancing vehicles for stars under contract to the parent company. They crank out movies in fad genres for as long as the fads last (Pulp Fiction-esque hip violence, black-middle-class relationship comedies).

Some of the films but out by the big studios’ farm-team units are at least sort-of cool.

But they’re not independent films.

So what exactly is an independent film?

Here are a few guidelines:

  • If it was made in Britain in the past ten years and doesn’t have James Bond in it, it’s probably independent.
  • If it was filmed in Canada and actually set in Canada, it’s probably independent.
  • If Tom Hanks was involved in any aspect of its production, it’s absolutely, positively not independent.
  • If no cast or crew members have ever been on Jay Leno, it stands a good chance of being independent.
  • If it stars a current or past boyfriend of Jennifer Lopez, it’s probably not independent (if it was made after or shortly before said Lopez hookup).
  • If it’s all about the wacky travails besetting an independent filmmaker, it’s almost certainly an independent film (albeit a trite one).
  • If it was directed by a woman who isn’t also an actress, it’s likely to be independent.
  • If it was directed by an African American whose surname is neither Lee nor Wayans, it’s almost assuredly independent.
  • If it’s about racial struggles but doesn’t have a noble white hero, it’s apt to be independent.
  • If it includes a female character who both takes her clothes off and has actual speaking lines, it’s more likely these days to be independent.
  • If it includes a male character who takes his clothes off (without being hidden by a dresser drawer or a potted plant), it’s undoubtedly independent.
Dec 4th, 2002 by Clark Humphrey

video coverOn one of Cinemax’s tertiary channels late Monday night, I finally saw Highway, a pathetic little action-thriller movie filmed three and a half years ago under the working title A Leonard Cohen Afterworld.

It’s an awful low-budget (yet completely corporate) “Gen X” movie like hundreds of others. It starts in Las Vegas with Jared Leto getting caught schtumping a mobster’s wife. Leto and pal Jake Gyllenhaal run from the mobster’s hired thugs by taking a road trip, ending in Seattle. Along the way they have unimaginative misadventures, punctuated by unimaginative cuss words that are apparently meant to be funny just because they’re really loud.

It only qualifies for mention here because of one scene toward the end—a full-scale re-creation of the Kurt Cobain memorial at the Seattle Center International Fountain. I saw it being filmed—that’s the only reason I can tell you it was a full-scale re-creation. All you see on screen are a few close-ups of the actors. Leto is heard complaining that Kurt’s death meant nothing to him compared with the demise of “that Led Zeppelin guy.” The thugs promptly show up. The dudes run off. One shot later and we’re a mile and a half away in Pioneer Square, where the thugs (in cars) finally catch up to, and beat the metaphoric crap out of, the dudes (who’ve presumably been running all that way).

Naturally, neither Nirvana nor any other Seattle act is heard on the soundtrack, a pseudo-“grunge” guitar pastiche created by a member of the more Hollywood-acceptable Black Crowes.

Not only does the story have nothing to do with Cobain, it contradicts almost everything he stood for. It treats its characters as one-dimensional stereotypes. It treats young-adult males in general as a target market to be cynically marketed to. It insults the intelligence of its would-be audience. It glorifies violence and stupidity. Its “heroes” are just the sort of jocks-in-punk-clothing Cobain had repeatedly denounced.

A much better version of the same premise can be found in the 1998 Canadian indie drama The Vigil (for Kurt Cobain).

The guys n’ gals on that film’s road trip are depicted as human beings, who loved Cobain’s music and learn to love one another. The Vigil doesn’t actually show the vigil. To re-create it the way Highway did would’ve busted The Vigil‘s tiny budget. So instead its road-trippers show up in Seattle a day late, but decide they’ve had an invaluable learning and coming-O-age experience from the journey itself.

Nobody learns anything in Highway, except perhaps not to get caught schtumping a mobster’s wife.

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