Sunday, May 31, 2009

Plunged them down a thousand feet below

Last week, Sci-Fi aired a Land of the Lost marathon on Memorial Day.

(Here's the first episode from Hulu, in case you don't remember it, or weren't born yet, and want to see what you missed.)

Remembering it fondly from my childhood, I flipped by and nostalgia got the better of me. Sure, it was cheesy as hell, with special effects that seem archaic by contemporary standards, and the acting was melodramatic as hell. However, the story had something that, in its own way, had bits of mythology and metaphysics that reminded me of the appeal of Lost.

Of course, from a name standpoint, the latter is the former, just with the first three words excised. Coincidence?

Both have people who crash into a land where the usual rules don't quite apply, and they're trying to get back home. Both have indigenous people who don't care for the newcomers (the sleestak and the Others).

Both make a bit more sense when... chemically enhanced.

Most important: Both are way better than I get the feeling will be the upcoming Will Ferrell wacky-fest--that, for some reason, is also called Land of the Lost. That Sci-Fi was showing episodes of the '70s Saturday morning program must have been coincidence; the pending movie certainly doesn't appear to be based on the show.


For every step forward in technology over the last 35 years, it seems there's been several steps back in regarding the audience's intelligence.

Monday, May 25, 2009

We all feel it coming (in the air tonight)

In the last couple weeks I heard the Phil Collins' song "In the Air Tonight" twice. Once on the clock radio one morning while getting dressed for work, and then once while standing in a downtown McDonald's restaurant, playing over the speakers in the lobby. In both instances when it got to that part of the song—and unless you've never heard the song, you know exactly what I mean by that part of the song—I could not help but respond.

When the big drum fill kicked in (at 3:41 into the song), I had to air drum on invisible toms hanging in the air. (Well, in the McDonald's I only tapped my foot on each hit and tapped my hands in my pant pockets, but I did move it from left to right to approximate the relative positions of the toms in a drum kit.) In neither case did I consciously decide to perform this; in my mind it's as automatic as blinking to be moved to that action by that part of the song. The shifting dynamics of the track operate on an unconscious level. Frankly, it would take specific effort to prevent myself from initiating some drum-related response in that moment.

Then recently I saw a commercial for the upcoming movie The Hangover. One of the featured scenes in the trailer shows the protagonists in a Las Vegas hotel suite with Mike Tyson (yes, the Mike Tyson). In the background "In the Air Tonight" plays. And then Tyson says "Wait, I love this part" and when the drum fill starts he launched into air drumming that concludes with him punching one of the protagonists; he's simply too caught up in the moment to control himself. Not that "Iron Mike" is known for his self control, admittedly, but this is not animalistic rage—it's the power of music.

I'm sure the joke is supposed to be the seeming incongruity of the brutish reputation of the former heavyweight champ played against the cool temperament suggested by the Genesis singer/drummer. How silly that Mike Tyson would like that song!

No. The humor stems from the unspoken truth revealed in that scene. Even if you don't like that song overall you love that part of the song. Heck, even if you like the song, you still are essentially putting up with the rest of the song as prelude to that sequence.

In the scene, presumably the only reason the protagonists don't respond similarly is because they're scared shitless by Tyson. But that doesn't mean they don't have the impulse to join in; they merely allow their fear to suppress the physical manifestation everyone is inclined to do (whether you've ever bitten off another man's ear or not).

I don't plan on seeing the movie, because the rest of the trailer leaves me completely unimpressed, but I must applaud that bit. Whether the rest of the film is as lame as I suspect or is actually funny, the makers did get one thing right: There is no resisting the most important few seconds of drumming Phil Collins ever laid down.


You'll notice I call it a "drum fill" and not a "drum solo." There's a simple reason: It's not a solo.

It's not.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Peeling away the layers of The Onion

For quite some time I'd heard on TV or read on the 'net about how newspapers were going through particularly tough economic times, but still each day I'd walk past dispensaries with the day's L.A. Times, and each week I'd see the free weeklies like the L.A. Weekly, L.A. City Beat, and the one that I looked forward to, the L.A. print edition of The Onion. The print media's demise was foretold, but it didn't appear to be hitting those papers. What could put these out of business?
Back when The Onion launched its print edition here in Los Angeles back in 2006 I wrote a post about how paper was the latest thing for the web, given that their website was how most people outside Wisconsin accessed them. (Yes, they did have books in print, but that's not the same as a weekly paper. And granted, what was in the weekly print edition were stories that also appeared on the site, but they were in the same week rather than much later.)

The thing about the website: I couldn't fold it up and put it in my back pocket when I headed out for lunch. (Yes, the availability of the mobile web does allow for accessing sites on devices that fit in one's pocket, but that's hardly the same experience.) Thus, I rarely actually visited the website; I'd wait for the print edition to appear in the bin each Thursday.

Not only would I read each issue cover to cover (including even the small bits), I'd keep a copy in the corner of my cubicle at work. At first it was so I could refer to a story if I was telling someone else about it, but then it became a simple matter of keeping the collection intact.

With the May 7 edition, the height of the pile on my desk was just starting to peek over the height of the wall of the cubicle. The next one would be completely above the top of the wall. What would I do?

Then on the morning of May 14 I passed the Onion dispenser, only to find it empty. I didn't think much of it at the time; the delivery had been late on occasion before, or once in a while a given dispenser didn't get filled. At lunch that day I walked a couple blocks over to where I knew another one was, but it too was bare.

On Friday the 15th it was still empty, which made me suspicious. Then that evening as I walked down the street toward the train station something was amiss.

The entire dispenser had been removed from its spot on the sidewalk.
Sure, these stories would have you believe it was merely a financial decision by The Onion's management because ad sales were down for the L.A. edition (and San Fransisco as well), but then it occurred to me. The last edition coincided exactly with how long it took for one copy of each, stacked one on top of another, to reach the height from the desktop to the top of the wall of my cubicle. They'd stopped because somehow they knew I was out of room.

If only I'd realized that was it, I could have unfolded them so they were only half as tall, and they could have published it twice as long. Or heck, I would have cleared space and started a second pile. Ah, but it was too late.

As with most times I have influence, I discovered it only after I've wasted it.

But the recently discontinued City Beat wasn't me.


The photo site has been updated with an artsier shot of these newspapers.


Click here to see all my posts that reference The Onion. This isn't the first time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Send in the clowns

Some of the people in my department like to play good-natured pranks on others. One time while a guy was on vacation they wrapped Do-Not-Cross tape around his cubicle and filled it with items suggesting it was radioactive. Another vacationer's cubicle got every potted plant moved into it along with stuffed animals and a mini-waterfall to approximate a rain forest.

I'm a stick in the mud and don't participate, but that's neither here nor there.

Recently for the birthday of one of the supervisors they brought in a box of plastic clown masks for everyone to put on. They filled his office with balloons and a box that played circus music. The gag all revolved around the supervisor really not liking clowns, and after he opened the door to his office everyone was supposed to put on the masks so after seeing the balloons and coming out he'd see all these unintentionally-but-kind-of-still-creepy masks.

It didn't quite work out that way, but that's probably for the best. And the actual prank is not what I am here to discuss.

In addition to the masks, the guys behind the prank went around early (before I got in) and asked people to come up with their "clown name" which was printed out and taped over each person's name placard. There were obvious ones (like "Bozo" and "Homey") and some merely silly ones ("Lala", "Jimbo").

Standing by someone's desk who already had a name affixed, I asked if anyone had taken "Pagliacci" yet.

I was met with a blank stare clearly indicating the person had no idea what I was talking about.

What made me even think of Pagliacci was this: Each day the mastermind of the prank posted a quote of the day on the outside wall of his cubicle, and that day's quote was from the old SNL "Jack Handey Deep Thoughts": You know what would make a good story? Something about a clown who makes people happy, but inside he's real sad. Also, he has severe diarrhea.

(That's the story in Pagliacci, except for the diarrhea part.)

Over the course of the day I mentioned Pagliacci to several others in the department—college-educated, reasonably cultured individuals—and not one recognized the reference at all. Blank stares. Puzzled looks.

Here's the thing: It's not as though I'm familiar with the story of the sad clown from actually seeing the opera. Primarily I knew the name from the Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' song "Tears of a Clown"—which I know was known by at least some of the people in question. I'd quote the line "Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid." And they'd sort of nod, but mostly in a placating manner than out of recognition.

I'd elaborate by alluding to the episode of The Simpsons (titled "The Italian Bob") where the family goes to Italy and Sideshow Bob is there and is performing in a production of the opera (wherein he and his Italian wife and son get with him to try to kill Bart and the other Simpsons). And the first guy I spoke with is a big fan of The Simpsons, so I know he had seen the episode in question. He'd just never realized that was what they were alluding to.

Worst of all: The mastermind who'd posted the Jack Handey quote which mined the Pagliacci story for its humor didn't even know it.

It wasn't that I was that cultured. A pop song and a cartoon are certainly culture in their own way, but nothing to impress the intelligentsia. Were I at a cocktail party and trying to discuss it with someone who knew the opera well, I could not have B.S.'ed for very long before being revealed. I was below even a dilettante in my concrete knowledge, and that still proved to be more than anyone else around had--and I work with a lot of otherwise smart people.

Although I smiled as I left these people after giving my pop culture explanation, inside I was sad. In part it was for their ignorance, but mostly I felt a bit like a freak for actually paying attention to the tiny bit I had.

In contemporary society, it does seem like having a bit of knowledge in a number of areas, perhaps gained through cultural osmosis, but lacking any approximation of expertise in any area is worse than knowing nothing at all. At least then one doesn't know what one doesn't know, and such ignorance is more blissful than knowing what one doesn't know.

And, alas, that is not a prank.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Glib thought du jour

The glory of the internet is how vastly it increases the size of the audience by which one can be ignored.