Comedy review: Quincy Jones—Burning The Light

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First the backstory, then a bit of whining.

I wrote this review of Quincy Jones’ standup special for The AV Club. A little inside baseball: Each week, we freelancers lucky enough to write there (I am still really quite proud of that) get the “pitch email.” It lists all the upcoming week’s TV stuff available for review, and we immediately pitch to cover like hungry dogs (or, you know, freelancers). I love reviewing standup for the site, and fancy myself pretty good at it, so I generally pitch for any that come up, unless there’s something especially offputting about what I learn about the often-unknown-to-me comics. (“Tired of being PC!” is a big ol’ red flag.) But I didn’t know anything about Jones and, more to the point, pitched without Googling him.

When I did, I almost begged off the assignment. Something I’ve never done before.

See, what I found is that Jones is dying. Like, he has cancer and isn’t expected to live more than a year. The further backstory: He was the subject of a successful crowdsourcing campaign to film an hour-long standup special, something that blossomed into something else entirely once Ellen DeGeneres heard about it and got Jones not only a whole lot more money than he was asking for, but a plum HBO standup special slot. There should be a term for a feel-good story that also makes your heart cry all over itself.

Perhaps “unreviewable” would work.

Anyway, I took a deep breath and dove in—and, thankfully, Jones’ special wasn’t bad. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done had it been terrible. Although reviewing a good but not great standup special dream project from a terminally ill comedian was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. I think It came out okay. There’s nothing I take more seriously, weirdly, than standup comedy, and I felt like it would have been the greatest disrespect to Jones to take it easy on him. So I didn’t. It’s a decent set, nothing more. There’s nothing wrong with that—a good standup set is a rare and difficult thing to accomplish, under any circumstances.

Now the bitching.

As I said, I agonized over this, trying to balance professionalism and, you know, humanity. It was hard, and I am proud of how I managed it. So, naturally, the commenters, almost to a let’s call them person, whine about how it’s all confusing that this isn’t “the” Quincy Jones and that it was so confusing for them and I should have put a disclaimer right up at the top so their sensitive commenter brains wouldn’t be all unsettled.

C’mon, people. C’mon.

Anyway, here’s the review:

Quincy Jones was an aspiring L.A. stand-up comic, working the requisite barista job while at one point meeting a goal of doing 1,000 gigs in one year. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015. He’s undergoing chemotherapy and has a year to live, say doctors. A pair of comic friends (Nicole Blaine and her husband,Burning The Light director Mickey Blaine), knowing that Jones’ final wish was to have his own hour-long stand-up special, set up a Kickstarter to raise the estimated $5,000 budget. After the story was picked up by Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show, they raised 10 times that amount. DeGeneres helped Jones’ special,Burning The Light, secure a spot on HBO. The widely seen clip of him getting the news is here, in case you want a good cry.

The story is both inspirational and wrenching, especially once you see clips of the pre-diagnosis Jones onstage. Just another young, working comic, tall and easygoing, with a winning smile and a relaxed presence. Cancer sucks—and it sucks that Jones will never get to develop as a comic, which is what he’s always wanted to be. It makes evaluating Burning The Light that much more difficult, as separating Jones’ work from the special’s effusive audience and the looming circumstance of his impending death becomes all but impossible.

To his credit, Jones isn’t milking that response. Burning The Light sees the comic referencing his situation from time to time (speaking of his unique difficulties related to online dating, he muses over his OkCupid profile, “define ‘long-term’”), but without letting his and his audience’s shared knowledge subsume his desire to show what he can do on the biggest stage of his career. Jones toys deftly throughout with making the audience uncomfortable with some solid dark comedy. Speaking of his “relief” at his cancer diagnosis (he was originally thought to have coeliac disease), he talks of being able to eat real spaghetti again, and of how embarrassed he used to be going out to restaurants (“Look man, you got any gluten-free pasta in the back?”). He references Ellen (“white Oprah”) and her largesse, before swerving to claim that he’d stick with his current success over a cure any day. (“With all these credits I’m getting right now? Keep the cure—moreEllen money.”) And, noting all the attention his story has gotten, he confesses that he’d better die soon, or people are going to get angry (“I can’t be the Magic Johnson of cancer.”) This bold material succeeds in getting on top of a subject that otherwise could become the whole show. Like all comedians, Jones is incorporating his life into his material. His life just so happens to include a horrifying truth that he nonetheless manages to mine for laughs.

The rest of the time, Jones (it’s mandatory at this point to mention that he’s no relation to another Quincy Jones) is just what he is—a young stand-up comic trying to do a great set. There are reminders of his condition, sure—Jones jokes about how winded he got just running out from the wings, and his delivery has a breathy quality to it throughout. (He confesses that he has another round of chemo scheduled for the next day.) And director Blaine doesn’t cut away from the long minute where Jones laboriously uncaps his bottled water, a poignant choice that he acknowledges with the puncturing laugh line, “I wish I had opened these waters before I came on stage. I was really struggling.”

But, if achieving an HBO special on the basis of his comedy alone was something Jones was striving for, it wouldn’t be fair to judge his performance on any other basis. And if Jones’ material isn’t stellar, it’s certainly consistently funny, with plenty of potential. There’s a fair amount of relationship material (about “celebrity cheat lists,” and storming out on a fight when you don’t own a car) and “white people and black people are different” jokes that aren’t exactly revelatory, but coast along on Jones’ easy charisma. His observational material is likewise pleasant, with occasional flashes. (Regarding the discount supermarket Food 4 Less, Jones proclaims it’s like “if a grocery store building could sigh in defeat.”) He skates over some political material with thoughts on how to get police to stop shooting black people (always carry little dogs, so that PETA gets involved) and the idea that “all bad things in history started with a white girl crying” without delving too deeply. Jones has a way with patience that works for him—he knows when to wait for a laugh, and when to let a joke breathe. But there’s a choppiness to the segues, with premises being picked up and dropped sometimes without developing sufficiently.

Burning The Light is an entertaining, solid set from a charismatic comic (he does some fine crowd work all through the special) who will never have a chance to develop better ones. When Jones, having carried his appreciative audience along with him to the end of the hour, basks in their immediate and emotional standing ovation, it’s hard not to be swept up in the moment. Burning The Light is a good story, a decent comedy special, and a creditable way for a promising comic to go out.

 

 

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Comedy Review: Patton Oswalt—Talking For Clapping

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I’ve been a fan of Patton Oswalt’s comedy (and acting, and writing) for a long time now, so I pitched like hell to cover his new standup special for The AV Club and got it, to my great pride—and, you know, anxiety. For one thing, reviewing standup comedy is an intensely personal and important thing for me. For another, Patton (yeah, I’m calling him Patton) is someone I respect a great deal as an artist (I said it) and a person. He swings his mighty little morning star around on Twitter against the abusive and hurtful ignoramuses of the world far more than is healthy for him, and far more than someone with his accomplishments and schedule needs to. Clearly, he just can’t help but talk about things that are important, no matter how much misspelled, personally insulting invective he gets for it. But also, Patton and I have written back and forth on said Twitter and he once sent me, unsolicited, one of the kindest and most flattering things anyone’s ever said about me and my writing in response to my review of a completely unrelated-to-him comedian. No, you can’t read it. That one’s just for me.

But I’m one of those professionals. And so the prospect of reviewing Patton’s new standup was filling me with—what’s that stuff?—oh, terror. I’ve had to review things made by actual friends—you know, people I’d have to see in my actual life—before, and it multiplies my anxiety about writing (always pretty high to begin with) by a factor of about 37. Luckily, I loved Talking For Clapping. As smart as ever, and better integrating his evolving sensibilities than I thought his last two albums did (although they were pretty great, really), the special is a warmly, wryly, geekily pissed off paean (not to say elegy) to common sense in a world that defiantly blows fart noises at common sense. (Or calls out “faggot” to a young Patton in one of his earliest standup gigs, as he relates with signature bemused virtuosity here.) Speaking about getting older (he’s about my age), Oswalt examines how things—even for an arrested manboy trapped in his obsessions with pop culture—irrevocably change, just as they, in sneaky ways, never change at all. You are who you are, your life just forces you to deform yourself into new shapes to accommodate you. I laughed, I related, I sat in something like awe at the unexpected run about his young daughter’s preference for her own chosen geek universe over the one he’d prefer, wherein he—naw, I’m not going to spoil that one. I appreciated. Here was one of the best standup comedians I’ve ever loved, doing what the best standups do, laying out his evolving sensibilities in original thought. It’s great.

And, in a horrifying coincidence that knocked me back on my ass far more than I expected, Patton’s wife, writer Michelle McNamara, died the day before his special (and my review) came out. I was having a nice evening with Emily and our friend and fellow AV Clubber Zack Handlen when he checked his phone. We were all shocked—people our (mine and Emily’s age) don’t just die. But we moved on with our night. It’s only when we got home that I read what I could and it really hit me. I spent the rest of the morning (we stay up late) feeling gutted. It was a strange, again horrifying, coincidence, nothing more. And certainly, Patton Oswalt and I have no more actual friendship than a few Tweets and online chats. He was suffering an unthinkable tragedy. I was feeling taken aback. There’s a huge difference.

Still, though—standup comedy is an intensely personal enjoyment. And I’d spent a week or so listening and re-listening to Patton’s new special—wherein he talks, as ever with nimble turns of phrase and undisguised warmth about his often bewildered love of his role as husband and father, among other things. It was baffling to get this terrible news. I felt the foolish, distant grief you get when someone’s work (seasoned here by the smallest dash of personal connection) truly touches you, and they suffer an unimaginable loss. I sent a two line DM (and, fuck, does the phrase “two-line DM” sound especially, modern-ly ludicrous) expressing love, and sorrow. I wrote a paragraph more expressing same in the comments for the review when it went up that morning, adding that I hoped the internet, collectively, found a way to not be its braying, vindictive, soulless self for a while. (The AV Club commenters, at least, seem to have risen to the occasion.) I cried a little. I felt foolish, of course. But then I chose to forgive the tears—someone whose work, no matter what it is, truly touches you is someone who’s important in your life. Doesn’t matter if the connection is only deeply, commercially impersonal or if he once sent you a kind note one time.

Anyway, here’s my review, for what it’s worth after all this. I’m glad I liked the special so much, and relieved. In the grand scheme of things, neither it, nor this, mean anything to Patton, of course. In the end, it’s a funny special from a great comedian, and I’m happy I got to write about it.

And, just in case I thought I was done with crying, Patton just published this obituary of Michelle. The grief of a writer is a potent, powerful thing, and not to be taken lightly. 

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I’ll be honest… this is just restlessness talking

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In these eight months as a no-bullshit, no-safety-net fulltime freelance writer, I haven’t written here much. I don’t know what I intended in starting this blog—apart from being a launching pad for all the fascinating, voluminous offers of work my genius would no doubt attract. Honestly, it’s mainly sat. Which isn’t a problem, really. It means I’ve been keeping busy. Busy enough, and usually actually busy, full stop.

This week has been a lull, though. Which, again, isn’t really a problem. One show (Vikings) ended for the time being, two others (SNL, The Simpsons) are taking the week off. So I find THE BIG BOARD (the whiteboard where I keep track of all of my and Emily’s monthly deadlines) largely empty. Last week, I had six pieces. This week—two.

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[Insert of my fingers twiddling jumpily on the keyboard.]

Which is, I must reiterate, fine. Nature of the job, which is going, even I must be honest, fine. Steady work, decent feedback, no current need financially*. The issue I find myself struggling with is more that I feel I should be doing more. When I have five reviews, an article, a “what’s on tonight” feature, a newswire piece, all in the same week, it’s easy to listen to the voice always whispering in my head. A constant companion—and constant enemy of true productiveness—it goes something like this: “You did what they demand of you. Now it’s your time.”

Of course, there is no they. Not in any existential sense—that sort of dichotomy is one I adopted for reasons neither I nor my assiduous therapist have yet to figure out. And, now that I work from home, for myself, not in any sense at all. I ask for work, and seek it out. When it’s given to me, it’s my choice. Which is sort of a problem, since my mindset—picture a resentful, deliberately inarticulate teenager—demands a them to shrug and grunt at in spiteful silence.

I love what I do. And I love this life I’m living. Apart from the unimagined freedom of having only to deal with my lovely wife every day, rather than bosses, customers, phone calls, and, essentially any yahoo who might wander in off the street, it’s, well, all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Sounds hyperbolic and facile, I know, but true nonetheless. I’m a writer. So far, I’m making a living at it, in the sense that I can do something I have always wanted to do—and nothing else. And not starve. It should be a lot more buoying than it is, but that’s partly thanks to that super brain o’mine. It resists such things. And, sure, was reviewing Workaholics my dream of dreams? Well, no offense, but how incredibly sad would that be?

I’m writing this, as I always am, lying full-out on the living room floor, my laptop propped up on a ring binder holding one of the three hard copies of the one screenplay I’ve written. I wrote it years ago, mainly to see if I could actually complete something, and no, you don’t want to read it. (And the symbolism of its position as foundation to my current writing wasn’t a thing—I just didn’t want my Macbook sitting directly on the floor, and the wedge shape is the perfect angle to type. Don’t psychoanalyze me, you.) The free time I’ve had (again, mainly through a fluke of network programming) isn’t a big deal. But I’m restless nonetheless.

It’s a function of my mind that I view each day as a test, set out for me by someone else, by forces outside myself. I rise, see the tests, score well, and then I’m done, for the rest of the day. Right? Super-healthy. What I want is to fulfill another vision of myself. Dennis the Professional Writer. Getting up each day burning to write. Simply needing to write. Writing until the inspiration runs out, then—just spitballing here—going out for a brisk walk, watching a challenging foreign film, preparing a balanced, adventurous meal from a new recipe, making love, painting a shed, going out for a beer with a friend, keeping up with a few correspondences, maybe a little light gardening.  Then, mind refreshed and energy restored with all the rich, earthy experiences of a life well lived, get back to work on something I simply have to work on before bed. (I am picturing myself as the author photo from an early John Irving novel or Sam Shepard play while I write this. Always.)

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Obviously about to run a quick 5K

Instead, I proceed in reluctant jerks and starts. I get out of bed, check my email and Twitter and Facebook—always, and this is not a joke, thinking I’ll be greeted with the stomach-churning news of a missed deadline or a coldly worded note informing me that the AV Club has taken a long look at my work and decided that they’ve made a four-year mistake in hiring me in the first place. I screw around for a while (Gawker, ESPN, Cracked, Deadspin—all the very essence of screwing around on the internet). Then I take a deep breath and check THE BIG BOARD, even though I’d spent the night worrying over the assignment ahead, and feeling vaguely put out at having to do it at all. I plow ahead, do the work, do it as well as I can. Then I submit it and Surly Teenage Dennis (as opposed to Dennis the Professional Writer) tells me, “You’ve earned it—time to turn off your brain for the night.” Surly Teenage Dennis is a little prick, in other words, and he’s holding me back from making the most of of this life I’ve chosen to go all in on. Prick.

So now I’m here. At least its writing, of a sort. I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to read it, which—not great for the whole “professional writer” thing. But it’s helping to beat back some of the creeping anxiety and self-loathing that comes with inactivity. Too bad we don’t have a shed. I’d paint the fuck out of a shed right now.

*This, it should be noted, comes even after paying this year’s staggering, jaw-clenching tax bill. Hey kids—wanna be a two-freelancer household? Set aside your year’s first two months of hard, passionate work for Uncle Sam! Write two months for free—and buy some damned war bonds, why don’t you?

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Dennis writes stuff for the week of 1/25-1/31

Weeks now are strange. All marked out by deadlines, the need for more deadlines, and fear of both having deadlines and not having deadlines. I joke about being “a gentleman of leisure,” since I work at home (or from home—take your regional pick), which implies a lot more relaxing than is going on in our house. And even fewer silk lounging pajamas. Some, but not a lot. Anyway, here’s how I kept myself alive and beat back the insecurity demons this week!

This week I wrote about:

—The first entry in an AV Club Inventory about people hiding inside animals! Kick that week right off. I wrote about John Irving, which is the first time I got paid to write about John Irving, who is the person who made me want to get paid to write in the first place. This means something.

—An AV Club pre-air review of the WGN America hillbillies are interesting series Outsiders, which was both sillier and a lot more interesting than I thought it’d be.

—The Airplane! entry in this other AV Club Inventory about the very few parody movies that haven’t gotten terribly lame with time.

—This AV Club review of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, promisingly entitled “Dee Makes A Smut Film.” Funny—it’s Sunny after all—but a bit shaky. Still—Greico.

—An AV Club review of this week’s Workaholics, where Blake and Jillian adopt a kitty. It doesn’t go well for the cat, slightly better for the episode.

—An entry in this AV Club AVQ&A about the movie soundtracks you’d like to see performed live. Unsurprisingly (if you’re me), I picked Basquiat.

—This week’s AV Club What’s On Tonight feature, where I squeezed in clips from SCTV, Sleater-Kinney, and Near Dark. Because I’m me. You’ve met me, right?

—And this Portland Press Herald piece on a Portland bar holding weekly Kurosawa movie nights all winter. Portland ain’t bad.

 

And that’s it. A healthy number that week, but less than the week before—which does not make me feel very leisurely, frankly. (No Simpsons and SNL last week might be an excuse, but if you think that comforts me, you really don’t know me.) Back to work.

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Dennis writes stuff for the week of 1/18-1/24

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I keep all my assignments for the week (and Emily’s) on a whiteboard I redo every month. I call it The Big Board and refer to it several times a day, both to reassure myself that I am making my nut for the week and to reassure myself that I am not punting a deadline. (I need a lot of reassurance.) So, in keeping with the first goal anyway, here’s a rundown (complete with links you can click to bump up Dennis’ pageviews and reassure him some more) of everything I did last week. I’m going Sunday-Monday because it’s Sunday and I thought of it today.

This week, I wrote about:

—An interesting episode of The Simpsons for the AV Club that addressed the show’s ongoing Apu problem in a thoughtful and funny way.

—A mini-retrospective of David Bowie’s film roles for the Portland Press Herald. David Bowie is dead, by the way, which is the pits.

—Speaking of, a couple of entries in this poll of the best Bowie songs ever, thanks to my AV Club colleague and Sports Alcohol founder Jesse Hassenger. I was honored and it took over my brain for a few days.

—A Press Herald review of a thoughtful little documentary about Black History Month. Please watch it instead of anything Fox News dum-dum Stacey Dash had to say on the subject.

—An AV Club review of the new Workaholics, which continued the new season’s ill-advised choice of bringing in the most annoying guest stars they can think of.

—An AV Club review of the new It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia which sent The Gang into an 80s ski movie. Funny, but the show needs to get back to basics for this 11th season.

—My AV Club review of the new Saturday Night Live, hosted by kicking person Ronda Rousey. It went about as you’d expect.

—An AV Club Newswire (my first one!) about Tina Fey’s semi-triumphant return to SNL, attempting to out-crazy Sarah Palin, who may have gone beyond satire.

—A pre-air AV Club review of the new Amazon “aging bros in the jungle” drama Mad Dogs. Romany Malco is great in it—the show genuinely tried my patience.

—My weekly What’s On Tonight AV Club feature, wherein I use dumb jokes and random clips to make what’s essentially just the TV Guide entertaining enough to read.

—And an entry in this AV Club AVQ&A about terrible characters that damage your enjoyment of good shows. Nope—you have to click it to find out.

There, brain. There, Big Board. Leave me alone ’til tomorrow.

 

 

 

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TV Review: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia— “Chardee MacDennis 2: Electric Boogaloo”

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I’ve written—at length—about how this show is a uniquely impressive outlier in TV comedy history. Sure, it seems, on the surface, like coming out of the starting gate for its eleventh season with a sequel to a beloved episode is a softball. But you can’t argue with results.

From my review at the AV Club:

Apart from being a sequel to a popular episode, the premiere doesn’t go out of its way to stake out any new territory (horrific new minigames aside), and that’s a good thing. The only other new wrinkle is a sixth player, in the form of Andy Buckley’s Andy, a potential investor from the Mattel corporation whose respectable demeanor in looking for new, more adult board game fare “that’s out of the box” doesn’t prevent him from getting fully and good-naturedly into the booze-fueled, flailing swing of things. Buckley is a canny choice for the episode’s interloper, the actor’s innately decent yet sneakily untrustworthy button-down persona admitting all manner of possibilities for his presence. Now, when an outsider is pulled into the Gang’s orbit, there are only a few conceivable outcomes. For the even-keeled Andy, the episode deftly sets up that he could be just what he says he is (which would probably entail his humiliation, if not serious injury or death), or that he could be another in the long line of scammers and manipulators that have preyed on the Gang’s overreaching, ill-advised ambition (which would mean it’s the Gang that gets abused and humiliated). In the end, though, the fact that the genial Andy is an actor hired by Frank to get Frank’s ideas into Chardee MacDennis makes perfect sense for an episode about Chardee MacDennis.

I missed you, Sunny.

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Every smart thing I can write down in the last hour of 2015

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Because humans love round numbers and artificial markers in our lives, here’s everything I can think of noting in the last 60 minutes of 2015.

I am now a full time writer. Sure, I had to wait until getting kicked out of the nest (see #2) instead of striding manfully into my lifelong dream like a manly man. Still, since August my only source of income (and thus sustenance, money, and food, and stuff) has been what comes out of my own head (that I can get people to pay me for). It’s gone well enough, especially since I don’t spend much, and my bank account sits about where it was in August. So, win, Dennis. Keep it up, tiger.

Videoport died. I worked at a great indie video store for 15 years. I loved it, despite the million daily indignities that go along with working when you’re not just typing away at home in your underpants all day. I met my incalculably amazing wife and life-wife, and partner-in-life, Emily there, when I wowed her with movie knowledge and she decided she liked my butt. (She tells me that all the time, still.) I even got paid, and got some serious, brain-career-aiding publicity out of the deal, writing about how much it sucked when Videoport died.

Everyone I love lived through 2015. Let’s keep it up, people.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is coming back in 2016. That’s a good thing. I donated to the Kickstarter. I’m oddly prideful about that.

On the brain-money front, I’m still writing at the AV Club, which is still, some three-plus years in, incredibly, bewilderingly flattering. It also builds up my self-esteem on a daily basis, which takes some of the edge off.

And thanks to the Portland Press Herald, which has employed me to write even longer. I always think I’m going to run out of Maine movie news to write about, but those crazy kids in the Maine film scene just aren’t gonna stop.

Emily and I are making a shockingly good go of it living in the same apartment literally 24 hours a day, every day. At least since August. If you knew the size of our apartment, you’d be asking us to host a marriage advice podcast, or flooding us with desperate emails and letters begging us to give out our secret. My take: We like each other, we both have our own work to do (Emily’s a writer too—also at the AV Club most of the time—and she’s much better at it than I am even though she started much later), and our individual crazinesses generally synch up so that there’s at least one sane person around at any one time. She also has a great butt, so we agree on that point, all around.

Therapy’s a good, helpful thing. I feel more together than I ever have, ever. So, thanks, Doc. I’m still fucking nuts (depression isn’t going anywhere, despite your efforts), but I feel better equipped to handle it than at any time in my life.

Thanks to Twitter mostly, I’ve better gotten to know a lot of my AV Club colleagues, and various other smart and talented people better this year. It’s made me feel more like I belong, both at the AV Club and as a writer in general. I was worried (a euphemism for fucking petrified) of the transition. There was the fear that Emily and I would drive each other crazy (a euphemism for Emily realizing that having me underfoot every day is far too much Dennis in life), and the equal fear that I wouldn’t be able to harness enough discipline to write as much as I had to to stay alive. Oh, and let’s not forget the ever-present terror of everyone realizing I’m a hack and all work drying up forever. But I’ve loved living what I call being “a gentleman of leisure” but what I really picture, especially when I’m in the middle of a ten-day streaming series binge-review, is this:

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I do have things I want and plan to do better in 2016. I want to see my friends more, especially now that I—theoretically—have so much more free time. (I don’t actually have that much free time, even as a full time writer-guy, which baffles me, really. I was working full time at Videoport and doing all this writing? Really? Was everything I wrote just hastily scribbled nonsense? Don’t answer that.) I want to use my theoretical free time more wisely, getting outside more instead of allowing the life of the mind to completely envelop the life of the body. I have this picture in my head of the ideal writer’s life—John Irving got imprinted pretty early on—and I want to get on that. A busy writing life, spread over a number of disciplines and projects, coupled with sport and friends and life and love! (See any John Irving author photo for a sense of what I’m getting at.)

Carrying on the 2016 tip, there’s always the idea of making dumbass New Year’s Eve promises to myself, so here are a few, dumbass! Starting a file of memorable moments from movies/TV/books to aid in year-end lists and broader, overarching, and lucrative thinkpiece articles. Watch more movies—I’m not complaining, but all this AV Club TV reviewing has made me TV boy. I used to be,  almost exclusively, movie boy. I miss movie boy. Learn to cook new things (I have a few solid standbys, but I want to expand the repertoire. (I’m sure Emily will appreciate that.) I want to read more, too, but who are we kidding.

In general, I want to be more engaged in my life. It’s always been my safe little shell, cultivated and protected, of scurrying out into the world to do all the things that it or “they” (whoever I imaged they are) had set out for me and then scurrying back home again where I could do… nothing. It’s not a way to live, born as I’ve come to understand it is of some childish, fearful need for isolation, and safety. I want to live like the person I feel like I could be. I’ve taken steps this year, my hand forced or not, and I’ve derived no insignificant slice of courage and self-regard from what I’ve done. I don’t imagine—the good Doctor’s best efforts notwithstanding—that I’ll ever see myself as a “grown-up” (a loaded term ever in my head). I feel like the awkward goof, the overachieving faker who’s run too far out and is waiting for the ice to crack. But I’m here, and I’m better, and I’m making a living as a writer. That’s been my dream since I was twelve—and I talked a librarian into letting me take The World According To Garp out of the grown-up library. It’s take a long time, much longer than it should have, maybe. But I’m here. It’s 2016, and I’m a writer. I like that.

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I squeeze the last penny out of the video store I loved

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Thanks to the nice people at Vox.com (and especially the great Todd VanDerWerff who hooked me up) for giving me the last chance I imagine I’ll get to whine about how the video rental industry (and Videoport, the store where I worked for an unconscionably long time) is dying. I got a lot of very kind words (and about 200 Twitter followers) from this, so thanks, Vox. And thanks, Videoport.

From the thing:

Over the years, we’d come to know our customers’ tastes, their pet peeves, and their soft spots. Our experience and movie expertise helped us make informed, intuitive leaps to find and fulfill entertainment needs they didn’t even always know they had. I’ve had parents hug me for introducing their kids to Miyazaki and The Iron Giant. Nice old ladies have baked me cookies for starting them off on The Wire. People knew they could come in with the vaguest description — “This guy has an eye patch, and I think there’s a mariachi band” — and we’d figure out they were looking for Cutter’s Way. Other times, they’d take a recommendation for Walking and Talking and come back saying, “Just give me everything Nicole Holofcener’s ever done.” If someone asked me for a great comedy, my first question was invariably, “What’s one comedy you’ve seen that you think is hilarious?” I’ve spent 20 minutes refining exactly how scary was too scary when picking out a horror movie. It’s a skill set you develop, a sensitivity to just the right vibrations of interest and aversion.

If you still have a video store near you, rent a damned movie. They’ll appreciate it, and you, more than you can know.

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The time I got to interview three MST3k-ers (and didn’t even geek out that much)

Just because the news of the impending new Mystery Science Theater 3000 is consuming my brain at the moment, here’s the time I got to interview Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy for the Portland Press Herald. They were in town for a comicon and were as nice and funny and gracious as you imagine they would be. I count it as a personal victory that I got Mary Jo to laugh (she has a delightful giggle), and that I kept it together in the face of talking to three of my favorite entertainers of all time, on the outside at least.

And yes, they all confirm that Manos is officially the worst movie that they’ve ever done.

Here’s a link to my article, that combines all their MST3k bad movie wisdom into an pitifully short space. And hey, here’s the whole article below, just for you, you knuckleknobs.

 The Coast City Comicon boasts a convention-hall full of great guests this weekend, but for me, the real draw was the chance to talk on the phone with Mary Jo Pehl, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. For MiSTies (fans of the cult classic TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000”), like me, those names (also known as, respectively, Pearl Forrester, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) are comedy gods. Cracking courageously wise at the expense of the worst movies ever made on “MST3k” until 1999, and continuing to the present day in movie-mashing crews like Cinematic Titanic (www.cinematictitanic.com) and Rifftrax (www.rifftrax.com), these three have, alongside their “MST3k” colleagues, mined the cinematic landscape for unlikely laughs for decades. Before their trip to Portland, they were kind enough to share some with us:

Q: What are the essential qualities that make a movie ripe for the MST3k treatment?

MARY JO PEHL: Winnowing down the bad movies became an art form. You needed technical things – like you have to be able to see it, and hear it, for example. Also there needs to be a je ne sais quoi – such as maybe John Agar in tiny, tiny swim trunks (in “Revenge Of The Creature.”) Something to sink your teeth into, so to speak.

KEVIN MURPHY: The best ones are the ones that take themselves really seriously – no matter how competent or incompetent, that’s when we can really have have fun with it. Anything from “Twilight” to “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

Q: Is there a special kind of wisdom that the MST treatment provides that traditional reviewing does not?

BILL CORBETT: I think we spend more time with a movie than a reviewer does. Sometimes I come to resent it, but maybe respect it more than I would otherwise – it’s an intensive way to approach it. And these experiences are not all the same. Seeing the umpteenth “Transformers” movie (for Rifftrax) makes us belligerent, frankly. But a cheesy local filmmaker – I have a little more affection for those things. At least they’re a little more sincere or grassroots.

MJP: I think what it did for me was to start analyzing films a little bit more – you can give a movie so much power because they are so self-serious (and I am so impressionable).

KM: We do a really close reading of the film – for hours and hours. So putting just about any film on the autopsy table like that, it changes it.

Q: Do you find yourself providing commentary even on things you do like?

MJP: Oh yes. Sometimes you can point out something dumb to deflate the intensity of a specific scene. My husband and I might look each other and made some crack – sort of leavening it or deflating the intensity of it

KM: On Rifftrax, we’ve done good movies like “Lord Of The Rings” or “Casablanca”, or “Jaws,” but we approach them more like a roast than a execution. We use the film as a foil to make jokes about ourselves, the world at large. The films end up being our Margaret Dumont.

BC: With Rifftrax, we all operate under premise that something good and classic will not be harmed by what we do – we’re just gnats nibbling at it. We have to be nimble about how we go about it – it’s like doing jazz riffs, but it’s all about the joke. It has to be funny.

Q: The movie-mockery formula MST3k created has proven incredibly durable. What’s so attractive that almost everyone involved is still doing it after all these years?

BC: First – it’s still fun to do and satisfying knowing a lot of people like it. At a certain point, I imagine we’ll be too decrepit for people to want to look at us, but for now we have parents bringing their kids, college students – it’s a narrow slice, but people still respond to this form of comedy.

MJP: For me, I just have a limited skill set. When the opportunity arises, I have to take advantage of it. I get to work with people who are tremendously funny, super smart, and whom I adore, and I get to make the funny with them.

KM: It can either be that we’re experts on subject, or we have bleak, lonely lives. It’s fun, we’re pretty good at it, and it’s a unique world to be the true only experts at it. And there’s still a demand.

Q: OK, what’s the single worst movie you ever did on “MST3k?”

KM: I really hate “Manos. The Hands Of Fate.” It’s just really hard to watch. We’ve done it on “MST3k” and Rifftrax and I’m happy I never have to see it again. Ray Dennis Steckler’s “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies” might be second. It’s almost unwatchable and not in a fun way. Also “Red Zone Cuba,” which is so depraved – it doesn’t have even the stylistic verve of “Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer.”

MJP: I hate to jump on the bandwagon but “Manos” was pretty unbelievable. Just incomprehensible and weird – but not in a good way. At least it has something compelling about it, though. Some, like “Radar Secret Service,” with guys in their big ‘40s suits are just incredibly boring.

BC: “Manos.” We re-riffed on it for Rifftrax. It’s not only bad, it’s so depressing to spend time with.

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The Wire, Tamir Rice, and how art’s instructive and useless

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I wrote this soon after the Tamir Rice shooting. You know, when a 12-year old black kid with a toy gun got shot at distance from a police car when a cop thought he was in so much danger that he had no choice but to gun the boy down. You know—just to be safe. I re-read it today, when Cleveland prosecutor Tim McGinty, in declining to pursue a case against the police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, said in his statement, “We don’t second guess police officers.”

Well, somebody fucking should.

I’m white. I won’t know what I’m talking about. Not really. A lot of cops fit that description, too.

From the thing:

Great art captures the complexities of the human condition — just as all art is almost ludicrously rendered irrelevant by the awfulness of the real life it tries to give meaning. It’s a disheartening collision of hope and reality brought into too-stark relief by a recent TV marathon, of all things.

When HBO ran its marathon of all 60 hours of The Wire last month, it came at a time when the public’s relationship to law enforcement was (and is) as fractious and divided as any time in recent memory. The controversial deaths of unarmed black men like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice (who was 12), and a disheartening number of others have brought the issue of police violence (especially against minorities) into the open. Predictably, the fringes of the debate teem with the worst of us. Racists, opportunists, and careerists all use complex human tragedy to further their own ends and transform public discourse to the polar opposite of The Wire’s layered, nuanced, and deeply humanistic examination of cause and effect.

It did such a good job that it’s almost enough to think that there are real world answers to be found there. It’s like a blueprint for a better society, even though the characters within the show, almost without fail, end up just as lost and disillusioned as they were at the start. It’s a fool’s errand to look to fiction for real life solutions, but if you’re going to do it, The Wire’s complex examination of America’s most seemingly intractable problems is as good a place to start as any.

The idea of looking to The Wire for a critical analysis of the police seems foolish, because at first glance there’s no quality series more sentimental about being a cop. Indeed, the highest compliment paid to any dead or retiring law enforcement official is to be eulogized as “natural born po-lice,” and it’s an admiration the series clearly shares — up to a point.

 

The rest is here. I honestly have no idea what else to do.

 

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