Tag Archives: television

Spooky Specials: An Introduction

When I was very young and the leaves would fade from vibrant green to burnt orange, excitement would stir in my little gut. The air, heavy with the smells of cider and pumpkin, would become chillier, crisper. It was October. You learn pretty early on that everything suddenly becomes spooky in October: themed cereals pop up everywhere; ghost-shaped chocolates are being sold in bulk; aisle after aisle of costumes and decorations pop up overnight in local stores. And it all culminates in that one blissful night of decadence, running door to door in disguise to get tons of candy. It’s enough to send any little kid into paroxysms of joy.

One of my favorite parts of the Halloween season was how almost every single cartoon I loved suddenly had a scary special to serve up. Otherwise normal cartoons had stories about ghosts, monsters, vampires and often the very holiday itself. And I don’t just mean The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror.” I vividly recall Halloween specials for shows on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and other kids’ channels. I’m especially fascinated by how these cartoons, and really the whole holiday, teach young children to be okay with scary ideas and images.

Often tame by adult standards, these specials were still sometimes a little too disturbing for kids. They often made references that I didn’t understand until adulthood. I think these special episodes deserve a little loving recognition, so throughout this most sacred of months, I’m going to write about some of my favorite spooky specials!

First up: Rugrats’ “Candy Bar Creepshow/Monster in the Garage”!

Stay tuned!

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Clowning Around

Back when I was in elementary school, Stephen King’s It (1990) was considered the ne plus ultra of scary movies. I’m not sure where this impression came from, but to us kids, it was The Scary Movie We Were Not Allowed To Watch. I suspect that this bit of received wisdom has something to do with It’s title: any movie named for a pronoun so short and ubiquitous had to be the scariest thing ever, right? Over a decade later, I’ve finally caught up with It, and been retroactively disappointed: it’s not especially scary, but it is also a drab, never-ending slog of a movie.

Both layers of my disappointment stem primarily from It’s made-for-TV nature. Being an ABC miniseries meant that 1) it couldn’t indulge in the gore afforded to theatrically released horror movies and 2) the lack of limitations on its running time allowed the screenwriters to faithfully adapt King’s mammoth novel. Consequently, It has more generation-spanning subplots and character arcs than any viewer could ever desire. The end product is a toothless, miserably paced PSA about the power of friendship, made watchable only by Tim Curry’s child- and scenery-chewing performance as the killer clown Pennywise.

And ohhh, what a performance it is! Curry dances, prances, guffaws, and hams it up for three solid hours, telling corny jokes when he’s not somberly intoning, “Oh yes… they float!” But, to my eternal consternation, It’s marathon duration works against Curry’s makeup-slathered menace as well. Contrary to the “hide the monster” wisdom* of classics like Jaws and Alien, It overexposes Pennywise; he’s onscreen nonstop, and eventually I became inured to him—hell, even annoyed by him. Curry makes a terrifying clown, it’s true, but 3 hours of the same schtick gets tiresome.

Unfortunately, that schtick is the glue that holds It together. When Curry’s not around, the film cycles through its seven misfit protagonists—The One Who Was Fat as a Child, The Mama’s Boy with Asthma, The Jokey One, The One Who’s Obviously Stephen King, The Jewish One, and The Girl—as they flash back to the unforgettable summer of 1960, deal with Pennywise’s return in 1990, hallucinate, go through sketchily defined crises, etc., etc. These parts are fatally repetitive, ridiculously melodramatic, and contain risible overacting like, uh, this:

That’s Ryan Michael as The Girl’s abusive, possessive boyfriend, who can only communicate in shouted dialogue taken from a Lifetime original movie. Granted, most of the acting is at least mildly subtler than this; as a matter of fact, the child actors playing the protagonists’ young selves acquit themselves quite well and demonstrate an endearing Stand by Me-style camaraderie. Alas, their collective rapport is pretty much the only sign of a light, careful touch in a movie full of absurdly broad strokes.

I especially have to single out the direction by Tommy Lee Wallace, famed for playing Michael Myers in the original Halloween. At best, it’s lackluster; at worst, antagonistic toward the audience. It is peppered with gratuitous camera movement, from slight angle changes to pointlessly mobile crane shots. The gang’s dinner at a Chinese restaurant is in theory a great horror set-piece, but the camera inexplicably circles the table, as if Wallace was trying to make us dizzy. It’s frustrating, and diminishes the impact of the grotesque imagery that follows. It is also a bland, ugly movie. Consider, for example, my favorite image from It’s three hours:

Pretty slow week at Time, eh? Nothing to report on but architects and, um, architects. So slow, in fact, that they let their graphic designers take the week off, which would explain this hideous cover and its photo of Ben (The One Who Was Fat as a Child) scowling. The cover’s complemented by the awfulness of the shot containing it; together, they form an aesthetic monstrosity worse than anything Pennywise could hope to unleash. That’s the real horor of It.

Also the way it forces me to use “It’s” as a possessive instead of a contraction. It’s the kind of grammatical disorientation that could drive someone mad. Compared to that, what’s one demonic clown here or there? (Even if he does transform the neighborhood bully into Jim Jarmusch.)

*Of course, other horror classics (like The Exorcist and The Thing) have opted for a “show the monster” approach and been equally successful. I’m just saying that It would’ve been better off with any choice but “have the monster giggling in plain sight for most of the movie.”

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Oscar Grouching ’10: The Aftermath

The Oscars are over. I promise I will shut up about them. After I have my quick say about the show itself. And what better format for that than a bulleted list? So here you are, item by item: My Thoughts on the 83rd Academy Awards (most of which were already pointed out by everyone else yesterday).

  • First off, it’s sad but true: Anne Hathaway tried her darndest, but James Franco was dead weight. His delivery was flat, their repartee went nowhere, and the material wasn’t especially good to begin with. (As many pundits have pointed out, saying “He made out with my co-host… in a movie” about Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t even a joke, let alone a funny one.)
  • One more dig at the hosts’ disappointing suckiness: I love it when people show up in drag, and I enjoyed Hathaway in a tuxedo, but Franco’s Marilyn Monroe costume was so half-assed, and he was only wearing it for one tiny segment. This is the fucking Oscars; they have all the fashion resources in the world at their disposal. If they can only do crossdressing in the laziest, shoddiest of ways, they just shouldn’t try.
  • Oh, and why did three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood have to read her speech off of notecards? It was (probably) the night’s most awkward acceptance.
  • The attempts at incorporating Hollywood history into the ceremony were similarly pointless. All we got were some slideshows to the effect of “There’s a theater!” and “Movies made a transition to sound!” So informative.
  • All the Best Song nominees sucked. Including and especially the eventual winner, Randy Newman’s generic jingle for Toy Story 3. Live performances of forgettable songs is not the right way to light up the evening.
  • Like everyone, I’m glad they took the yucky popularity contest clapping out of the In Memoriam section, but I feel like they missed quite a few recently deceased heavyweights—e.g., where were late, great directors like Éric Rohmer and Satoshi Kon?
  • Seriously, Franco’s bad dress pissed me off. It all just smacks of apathy, when you’re putting on a show for zillions of people!
  • Finally, as others have noted: the Best Picture nominees montage. FAIL: 1) why so many spoiler-heavy moments? and 2) why oh why use the climactic King’s Speech speech as the soundtrack for every single clip? Some questions, no one can answer. Except that little golden man we call Oscar… and he ain’t talking.
  • For all my vented spleen, though, I did like a few parts: Kirk Douglas & Melissa Leo; Javier Bardem & Josh Brolin; and Robert Downey, Jr. & Jude Law, to be specific. All good, entertaining pairings. That was about it, though. What can I say? Like most online commentators, I’m a born malcontent.

As for the awards themselves, the only (mild) surprises appeared very early on, like when Alice in Wonderland—a film roundly condemned for its garish ugliness—got two awards associated with visual beauty. (Which is two more than The Kids Are All Right or Winter’s Bone ended up receiving.) It was also cool when Reznor and Ross deservingly won for The Social Network‘s moody score. Beyond that, all the winners were about as predictable and unimaginative as the nominees. At least I got to play Statler and Waldorf to the Oscars’ Muppet Show; that was fun. And if you haven’t checked out my Oscar-themed “Mix Tape” articles for The Film Experience, there’s still time to go read the ones on The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, and Inception.

So awards season has arrived at its bitter end, and The King’s Speech has finally taken its rightful place as another totally mediocre Best Picture winner, alongside the distinguished likes of Around the World in 80 Days and Forrest Gump. Thus, we enter a new year of film (that started two months ago), one with new movies by Alexander Payne, David Cronenberg, Pedro Almodóvar, and even Terence Malick. Wow, awesome! GTFO, 2010. Fuck you, lousy Oscars. It’s time to move on.

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Link Dump: #12

As you may have noticed, Pussy Goes Grrr has been lying dormant for the past full week. A lot of complicated factors led to this, but they can all be boiled down to one word: academics. Both Ashley and I are full-time college students, which means (as you can imagine) that we’re both busy as hell. Right now is especially bad, as I’m cruising through finals week and struggling to help publish a collaborative graphic novella. That said, we should be back to full speed ahead as early as next Tuesday. In the meantime, feel free to browse our back catalog for old, fun posts, and wish me luck on this 12-page paper about Divine in Pink Flamingos. [Special fun fact: we currently have 666 comments! Spooky!]

  • Watch/hear A.O. Scott talk about American Psycho, a movie that just keeps getting better and better. [Also, I share Scott’s initials. I doubt, however, whether this will help me get employment at the NYT.]
  • From the “Spelling the Downfall of Humanity” file: some models choose to not shave their legs. GASP!
  • Here’s a long, detailed piece on Joseph Cornell’s classic avant-garde short film Rose Cornell.
  • David Thomson has a movie quiz for you – and it’s not an easy one. However, you could win a copy of his Biographical Dictionary of Film. I got 20 of them off the top of my head; can you beat that?
  • Via Jezebel, I saw this video from the NOH8 campaign. It’s powerful and speaks truth to power. Go them!
  • Paul Brunick of Slant writes about Todd Haynes’ Poison in the context of the AIDS crisis. (This is a seriously good essay.)
  • Courtesy of The Huffington Post, here’s a video called “10 centuries in 5 minutes” that shows Europe’s fluctuating borders over the past 1,000 years.
  • And here, from Gawker, is “60 Years of Television’s Most Memorable Catch Phrases in 146 Seconds“!
  • Criterion’s releasing a high-quality DVD of The Night of the Hunter, and the LA Times helps us celebrate with this second look at the movie! (Here’s hoping we get tons of extra featurettes with Charles Laughton interviews.)
  • Film blogger extraordinaire David Cairns of Shadowplay is inaugurating a “Late Show” blogathon devoted to directors’ late or last films, set for this December 14-20! Everybody should participate; I know I will, since the options are endless!
  • True Classics has a neat essay on one of my perennial favorites, Mildred Pierce. It’s always worth reading about Joan Crawford.

For search terms, we haven’t had a whole lot in the way of weird-as-fuck outliers lately, but here’s a sampling: one person looked for the ultra-superlative phrase “extremingly fucking.” You hear that? EXTREMINGLY. Someone else searched for the ever-popular “mother sucks cocks” – presumably in relation to the Exorcist quote “Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras…”, but possibly in relation to some incest fantasies. Finally, another intrepid searcher offers up this solid advice: “dont shave your daughters pussy.” Well-put.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Bill Nye and The Magic School Bus

Sorry about last weekend’s lack of a theme song, but this should more than make up for it: a double feature! It’s like chocolate plus vanilla. Or in this case, Bill Nye the Science Guy plus The Magic School Bus. They’re both über-educational PBS shows that got me into science at an early age. Both shows’ main tactic was to prove to kids that, as Nye would say, “science rules!” I’m so grateful to have grown up in an era when educational initiatives were filling the airwaves. Every time I turn on PBS now, it’s nothing but Caillou and Clifford. I have nothing against those shows, but they’re indisputably missing the je ne sais awesome that defined my pre-preschool weekday mornings.

Just look at Bill Nye, for example. The show ran from 1993-98, with a total of 100 episodes, but no amount of Bill Nye could be enough. The man was a born TV personality – wise, trustworthy, and believable – as well as an honest-to-goodness scientist with a BA in engineering from Cornell. He could poke fun at himself, make science-themed song parodies, and point out all of science’s cool everyday applications, but still retain a veneer of serious authority. He coupled funny sound effects with real, repeatable scientific experiments like no one else ever has. The intro, with a theme song by Mike Greene, showed kids all the trappings of science – from telescopes to dinosaurs – before any of them had a chance to change the channel.

The Magic School Bus had a similar mission, to teach kids fun science and real science at the same time. But instead of doing it directly through flashy tutorials and montages, its technique was somewhat more… immersive. I.e., it made its cast of third-graders participate in whatever scientific phenomenon was being discussed. They turned into bats, lizards, and salmon; they traveled across the solar system; they delved quite literally into the specifics of the human digestive system. Basically, MSB was the narrative counterpart to Bill Nye’s didacticism. But the show wasn’t just about learning through magic-enabled experience; it too had an authority figure in the form of Mrs. Frizzle, or “The Frizz,” voiced by the wonderful Lily Tomlin. Eccentric and lovable, she was without a doubt the teacher every kid wanted to have.

I should also mention an awesome recurring feature of The Magic School Bus, in which “The Producer” (voiced by Malcolm Jamal Warner) would field phone calls and admit which parts of the episode were scientifically inaccurate. Not only was the show a fantastic blend of fun and education, but it also pointed out its own inconsistencies! And I could listen to that theme song, performed by the great Little Richard, until I wear out the YouTube video. Both of these shows were perfect introductions to the world of science, using quirky characters to teach kids that science does, in fact, rule. Did you know that? Well, now you know.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Children’s television, obviously, is not always cute and friendly. Sometimes it can be a little dark or daring. But one children’s show surpassed all others, to the point that it was explicitly nothing but a bottomless source of Nightmare Fuel. Are You Afraid of the Dark? debuted on Nickelodeon in 1990, and was basically a Twilight Zone-style horror anthology series for kids. Each episode was pretty formulaic: a different member of the Midnight Society would tell a story, in which an average preteen would be put into a strange or scary situation. Each episode would generally have a moral about overcoming personal weaknesses, making a sacrifice, or befriending someone you’d previously disliked. All pretty typical stuff for child-oriented storytelling in the ’90s.

Alongside these morals were the scares, which were equally relevant to the target audience (i.e., kids age 7-12). The show was carefully based around their fears, which usually involved middle school, parents, friends, etc. Look at “The Tale of the Vacant Lot” (season 5, episode 10) for example: a girl trades herself away in exchange for everything she needs to be popular. Eventually, though, she has to pay the price in the form of hideous sores across her face, and is only redeemed when she gives up her most prized possession for her sister. It’s pretty straightforward, fable-like storytelling, where selfish behavior leads to negative consequences. The selling point is the sores across her face, and by extension, the money shot of something terrifying at the climax of each episode.

For me, the creepiest of these came from “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” (season 4, episode 9), where a drooling Joker-like supervillain stepped out of a microwaved comic book, but everyone who watched the show had their own favorite AYAOTD? moments. (Ashley mentions “The Tale of the Dollmaker,” in which a girl turns into a porcelain doll.) But the show’s opening sequence preemptively beat out everything, since it’s 30 pure seconds of audiovisual terror. It’s the ultimate hook for the whole series, a catalog of everything that makes us afraid of the dark. Creaking swing set? Check. Windows slamming shut in the rain? Check. Childish laughter from nowhere? Shaft of eerie light through a window? Scary clown doll?? Check, check, and double check.

In fact, I would easily describe this as the scariest children’s show opening of all time. It’s so well-made, with every sound and shadow calculated to scare the shit out of you before you even meet the Midnight Society. Granted, the show itself was pretty uneven, and the silliness could often drown out the horror, but it basically kept with the spirit of the opening. It was about normal kids being subjected to the world of “the dark,” where something was always slightly off, and where nothing could quite be trusted. Maybe the girl you thought was your sister was actually an alien, or maybe your best friend’s place had been taken by a chameleon. But no matter what the story was about, that opening had you ready to be scared.

So, dear reader, were you afraid of the dark? And if so, any favorite episodes?

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As seen on TV: the style and politics of infomercials

Prepare yourself to enter a strange world. A world where human hands are incapable of accomplishing everyday tasks without creating huge messes. A world where said hands and said messes are in black and white. A world that can only be converted into color by the arrival of some miracle product. This is the world of Direct Response Television, the form of advertising more colloquially known as infomercials. [Infomercials, according to Wikipedia, are specifically long-form ads roughly half an hour long, according to the advertising industry. However, I’ll be using the term in its more general sense here.] Inspired by this amazing video posted by Geekologie, Ashley and I have been studying dozens of informercials in an effort to understand what, exactly, is going on here.

Infomercials are fascinating. Despite offering a diverse array of products, most infomercials follow a surprisingly rigid formula. They have a number of tried-and-true methods that, I assume, have been found to lure in the most customers. But when you look at them outside of this context, they’re just absurd, logically and cinematically. For a good demonstration of these techniques in action, let’s take a look at the Better Burger Maker ad.

Here’s how the infomercial tells its story:

1) (0:00-0:04) We see this hapless, B&W sad sack trying, and failing, to eat a hamburger. His face shows a disappointment with the burger itself. “Burger toppings are tasty, but what a mess!” The mess is presented as a normal part of the burger topping experience, and not as a result of the bearded man’s incompetence.

2) (0:05-0:14) “But not anymore!” Suddenly, the world flashes into the color, the problem (which you didn’t even know you had) is dispelled, and a faceless woman can easily “stuff, stuff, stuff [her] way to the best-tasting burgers ever!” This is the moment of almost spiritual transfiguration, fundamental to the power of the infomercial. The music swells, and the world changes forever through the Better Burger Maker.

3) (0:15-0:35) The ad then explains at length how the Better Burger Maker does what it does, through a mix of industrial and pseudoscientific jargon that puts up a smoke screen of authority. Sensory overload is the infomercial’s main tool, so while the all-knowing narrator talks about the “unique patty press design,” we see a computer-generated schematic, alongside numbers and words like “Infuses” and “Patent-Pending,” all of which sound awful science-y.

4) (0:36-1:06) The next segment combines ideas from the previous three: we see an emphatically happy family enjoying burgers; endless recipe ideas including the curiously bourgeois “ultimate gourmet burger”; and reiterations of how flawed life was before the Better Burger Maker. The question of whether you should buy it is out the window – instead, you must ask yourself when.

5) (1:07-1:20) To strengthen the Better Burger Maker’s credibility, we get some vox populi testimonials from a the customers of a “popular cafe,” the Carousel Cafe, which looks eternally rooted in the late ’80s. White people of all genders and ages add to the consensus: “We love it!”

6) (1:21-1:47) This is it, the final push for the customer to buy now. The constant flow of voiceover and images becomes crucial, as they must overcome all doubts with their sheer repetition. Only $19.96, you’ll also receive, but wait, call now, free, order now – how can you resist that kind of salesmanship? Especially when it’s coupled with dozens of different hamburger variations. We conclude with a slant rhyme over a gleefully munching family: “No matter how you stuff ’em, you’re gonna love ’em.”

(The remaining 12 seconds, when broadcast on TV, would normally be filled with instructions involving what telephone number to call and what credit cards they accept.)

Granted, this isn’t the narrative structure for every infomercial (and be sure, this is a narrative), but it does contain the general style and motifs that underlie the construction of most infomercials. The contrast between the customer’s lives “before” and “after”; the excessive repetition of the offer; the establishment of the voiceover’s godlike authority; the excessive repetition of the offer; and the message that by not buying it, you’d basically be ripping yourself off. Infomercials are dependent on an appeal to schmuckery. But it goes beyond that, and here’s where I’d like to delve into my broader theory about the sociopolitical meanings of infomercials. To that end, I give you the Smart Spin.

Infomercials sell products for all kinds of needs, but I’ve noticed that they cluster in three gendered categories: kitchen (female), home improvement (male), and fitness (male and female). All three basically point to the infomercial vision of the American dream. The message is that right now, your life is imperfect. You spill things. You can’t crack eggs. Your tiny cookies are so lame. This dysfunction isn’t specific to your household – “we’ve all done this” – but it does mean that you’re as pathetic a homemaker as every other hassled, lower-middle-class mom. Incompetence is the norm. (The home improvement ads say the same thing to dads.)

The miracle product, however, transforms your drab, normal home and unhappy family into a full-color utopian ideal. To buy the product is to teach yourself and your family to smile again, to give your children the childhood they really deserve. There’s an enormous class angle to these ads: one of their central purposes is to let middle-class consumers with upward aspirations feel like they’re rich without spending much money. They talk about how low the price is, but remind viewers that the value is much greater, allowing customers to feel like they’re really taking advantage of something. (This is an old con artist trick: flattering the mark into thinking they’re so smart, even while you’re taking advantage of them.)

Infomercials play on your desires. Sure, we can see that these products are all just unnecessary junk when we’re viewing them critically, but when they’re watched passively amidst the stream of TV programming, they engage you on numerous levels. That junk is transformed into a fundamental lifestyle alteration – the one step for you to go from Willy Loman-like drudgery to household perfection, with a little extra added in FREE! Your life goes from ordinary to extraordinary, and only for the tiniest of investments. Marital discontent (possibly caused by dissatisfying burgers) and the pains of childhood are cast aside as the family unit is solidified through the miracle product. No more embarrassing nonconformists here: you’ll all wear matching tops (or Snuggies) as you find, at last, your common cultural ground.

Overall, I get pretty Stepford Wives vibe from the brave new world envisioned by infomercials. As evidenced by the Smart Spin ad, there’s this sense of regulation and normalization as positive forces. No more unusual or idiosyncratic containers; everything is Smart Spin now. It’s technology overcoming human imperfections – knock it over all you want, it never spills. Infomercials portray true happiness as this white suburban two-child nuclear family, where adult gender roles are strictly segregated, and it’s all contained snugly within the womb of consumerism. I would go so far as to call it fascist.

For me, this view of infomercials is strengthened by way we see these very generic actors modeling “happiness.” They give us a crude pantomime of what life with the miracle product is like, yet they never speak. They’re always spoken for by the absolute authorities: the narrator and the text. Infomercials gush out of the screen with one unanimous voice, often (and strangely) in Seussian rhyme, dictating to you the nature of your life, and how it could – nay, should – change. There’s no consideration that maybe I don’t want the product, or that maybe I’m capable of cracking my goddamn eggs on my own. Because there’s 1 dream on parade here, and it has no room for abnormal thoughts or behavior. All other activities or desires are subordinated to how our houses, our kitchens, and our selves look – what kind of facade we’ve put up.

Infomercials prescribe a single path, and it’s an appealing one: from boredom to fun, from sadness to happiness, to failure to dreams fulfilled. But they’re not just selling some wave-of-the-future with a $40 value, yours free. They’re selling all the meanings and values that the product is visually associated with. They’re selling superficial economic mobility, being a better mother, getting work done without doing any work, giving your kids a life that’s right out of the TV, and the American dream (at least, the dominant iteration of it). They’re selling everything you’ve always been taught to want, finally in a condensed version that even you can afford. Maybe you’ll have to give up all individuality, but won’t it be worth it? Just wait till you see the look on your husband’s face as he takes a bite of that burger.

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