Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Home Alone 4

The Kid and the Butler

Film: Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House (2002)

Director: Rod Daniel

Starring: French Stewart, Erick Avari, Michael Weinberg

Written by: Debra Frank, Steve L. Hayes

So there’s a story between me and this film that took place years before I actually watched it, and this may be my best display of customer service, ever.  It happened on Christmas Eve, appropriately enough, and I was mopping up the last minute shoppers at my retail environment.  The store phone rang, and the customer had one of the weirdest requests I’ve ever fielded.  She was looking for Home Alone 4, and she had to have it.  Her entire spiritual well-being, apparently, depended on it.  Well, it was an ordeal tacking down the cultural artifact, a time in which she grew more and more frantic, but I found it at last – and when I did, she screamed, screamed, in delight.

I never expected anyone to be that excited about Home Alone 4.

Having finally watched this rapture-inducing film years later, I still don’t quite get it.  Alongside a contrived divorce plot and a contrived royal kidnapping plot, a lot of the responsibility for this falls upon the shoulders of the child actor hired to battle the burglars.  To his credit, young Michael Weinberg steps into the Kevin McCallister role and makes it his own, but the problem is that, while he’s by no means horrible, he’s no Macauley Culkin.  What made the first two films in the Home Alone series work was Culkin’s wry and reluctant heroism.  As unfair as this may be to say – especially concerning a movie that takes place on Christmas – Weinberg rushes through almost every scene as wide-eyed as a kid on Christmas.

Still, a few factors keep this from becoming a disaster sequel.  Squinty-eyed French Stewart is a great fill-in as old Kevin Arnold Joe Pesci’s former henchman, whose latest bumbling caper involves his snarly new wife riding shotgun.  Chief among the newcomers is the fussy and potentially sinister old butler of dad’s new girlfriend.  As she descends from would-be stepmom to exasperated socialite, the butler, played by Erick Avari, becomes the film’s most realized character.  Figuring out his agenda becomes the most interesting aspect of the film.

The final thing going for Home Alone 4 is the smart house which Kevin turns against Mr. Stewart and Company.  While the core formula hasn’t much changed, the high-tech battleground plays with the template enough to give the film some inventiveness.

No, it doesn’t come close to matching the original, but Home Alone 4 is a perfectly serviceable sequel.  I probably wouldn’t call up a store and scream its magnificence, but I’d watch it again without complaint.

The big question: why has this man not starred in a B-52s biopic?

The Designer’s Drugs: Monday Night Jihad


Medium:  Literature

Jason Elam and Steve Yohn – Monday Night Jihad

Anno: 2008

I don’t remember ever finding a book with a title this absurd and this appropriate.  In case there was any confusion as to the plot, we’re dealing with a story that combines our country’s two national pastimes – football and counterterrorism – into one awesome package!  Yee-haw!  Does this book already sound like the kind of thing I would groin-punch myself with out of weirdness?  Of course!

A special ops guy turns football star in a fictitious pro league (because apparently the NFL found this idea too “fringe” to carry their prestigious banner).  Then things in America start blowing up.  Then guy goes back to special ops to shine the Lion-O beacon of Christ and kick terrorist butt.  Didn’t they do an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger about this?

By the way, our hero’s name is Riley Covington.  I’m not going to fault the authors for this; I suppose that all the good porno names like Tom Hung and Reid Liberty were taken.

Aside from the sheer ridiculousness of the concept itself, the book suffers from the comparatively smaller drawback of having a case-breaking plot twist that a Mack Truck could drive through.  Seriously, the book is 368 pages, and if the swerve hasn’t been figured out by page fifty, well, there’s a lobotomy joke in there somewhere.

Having vented all that incredulousness, I do want to be fair about the upside of this book.  Starting off at the ground level, I will say that the authors could have made this thing a whole lot worse.  With a title like Monday Night Jihad, it’s easy to envision this as a drooling G.I. Joe fantasy, full of “U.S.A!” pro wrestling chants and square-jaws playing Mushy Cookie on the Qur’an.  And it’s really not.  There’s a great deal of sympathy for just about every character in the book, even for a few of the terrorists involved.  The authors, despite having slanted American perspectives, tried to tell this story from all angles.  The high point of this comes in a face to face confrontation between hero and villain, where both realize that, while they want to understand each other, they simply cannot.  Furthermore, the authors show thoughtfulness in containing their condemnation to violence itself; Monday Night Jihad never becomes a close-eyed rant against Islam.  Ultimately, everyone is human, frightened, and unsure, and this awareness makes a ludicrous idea more sympathetic.  And the action is pretty well done, in a sweet-ass Con Air sort of way.

Still, it’s a book about football and counterterrorism.  Either it will be laughed into obscurity, or it will join the ranks of The Great American Novels.  Myself, I’m kind of hoping for the latter.  But then again, I’m pretty strange.

Freezepop: After Keytarmageddon

Freezepop: Liz Enthusiasm, Bananas Foster, Sean Drinkwater, and Christmas Disco Marie Sagan

Freezepop was created with the purpose of being a side project.  At the time of its inception, its three members – vocalist Liz Enthusiasm and producers/instrumentalists The Duke of Pannekoeken and “The Other” Sean Drinkwater – were wrapped up in other, more pressing engagements.  The original mission statement of the band was to play a few parties and have a few laughs.

Yet for the better part of a decade, the Freezepop trio’s hyper-whimsical brand of electro-pop endured.  The band’s appearances on rhythm videogames like Amplitude, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band – owing largely to the Duke’s day job at game developer Harmonix – gave it a much higher profile that certainly helped turn it into the main attraction.  But Freezepop wouldn’t have lasted this long if that’s all it had going for it.

The past few years have proven this point.  One of the greatest turning points in Freezepop’s history came with the departure of the Duke a few years ago.  With the loss of this core member, the entire band’s future was called into question, yet the band weathered the change, regrouped, and is now in the process of releasing a new album, titled Imaginary Friends.

“I wouldn’t have wished it this way,” Sean Drinkwater said, “though it’s turned out great.”

Liz Enthusiasm explained the circumstances.  “[The Duke’s] job is insanely demanding.  He hasn’t had time to tour with us in a couple of years, so he just needed to bow out of the day to day process.  He’s still pretty involved with the band in terms of back catalogue and is still on board doing remixes and surprise guest appearances.”

Still, it wasn’t as though the Duke’s bandmates didn’t see this coming.  “Six months leading up to [his departure],” Drinkwater said, “we were trying to make a record.  Our label Ryko, which had licensed [Freezepop’s third album] Future Future Future Perfect, wanted to hear our new music and offer us a more straight-up record deal.  Even at that time, the Duke didn’t really have time to do any of that, so we were forced to write all the songs at that time.  Liz and I came up with 20 songs over the course of a couple months and sent everything to Ryko, and they loved it, so we thought it would work.  The idea was to use six or seven of ours, and he’d come in with four or five to round it out, and we’d have an album.  But it didn’t work out that way.”

Drinkwater went on to describe the impact of the Duke’s departure.  “To lose your primary songwriter, your producer, your sonic architect – there were some questions as to what the hell we were going to do.  Luckily I happen to have those skills, so it wasn’t like we were totally left out in the dark, but the transition was a lot slower than I had thought.”

Part of the rebuilding process was seeking out the Duke’s replacement, yet Enthusiasm and Drinkwater went further and expanded the band’s roster to four.  Keytarist and electropercussionist, codenamed Robert John “Bananas” Foster, was an old hand on the job, having spent years filling in for the Duke when needed.  His promotion to official member was largely a formality.  Less inevitable was the recruiting of Freezepop’s new synth player and supporting vocalist, codenamed Christmas Disco Marie Sagan.

“Once the Duke told us he was going to go, we asked Bananas within a few days so we’d have that anchored,” Drinkwater said.  “We’ve been touring for 2½ to 3 years without [the Duke] at this point, and [Bananas] had been touring with us that whole time, and he was probably going to join the band anyway.  There was definitely talk of it being a four-piece with Bananas and the Duke.”

“As for Christmas,” Enthusiasm continued, “she was a friend of ours.  We knew that we wanted another person, and we knew that we wanted a girl, somebody who could do backing vocals, and she was on our shortlist.  We found out that she was classically trained on piano.  It just seemed to fall into place.

“We were kind of amazed because she had never been in a band at all.  She made her debut on stage in front of several hundred people.  It must have been really nerve-wracking, but she handled it pretty well.  She learned her parts so quickly, so it’s really been as seamless as one could hope for.”

Freezepop 2010

Following the reassembly came the practice.  “It was months and months of rehearsing,” Drinkwater said.  “It takes a while to get a real dynamic formed with people, to make sure that it’s the right thing, getting everyone comfortable and figuring out people’s roles.  Then we had to go back and revise the record a little bit here and there.  That’s kind of been the transition.”

“We did a mini-tour this April, going out with the new lineup to get things up and running,” Enthusiasm said.  “There are a lot of technical considerations now: we’ve brought in video, new person, new gear, different arrangements of the songs.  We did that week and a half in April to get going, and it went really well.”

On that tour – which included one reportedly bizarre night featuring the band performing at a bowling alley – Freezepop toured with its optimum setup, as described by Drinkwater:  “Christmas is playing video and doing vocoder and synth stuff.  Bananas is playing an actual v-drum kit where he sits down to play, and keytar as well.  I’m doing pretty much the same stuff; I play guitar on a few songs, but mostly play keyboard.  So there are certain songs where there are three keyboard players.  It’s nice because we can use fewer preprogrammed things, which we’ve always wanted to do.  Musicially, it’s a little bit more live, and the record reflects that a little bit.”

However, he admitted that Freezepop’s current west coast tour will be much lighter in terms of equipment.  “The problem is that we can’t quite bring the whole rig when we tour certain places.  We’re not gonna be able to bring the video screens, and we’re not gonna do the drum set, because we’re gonna fly out there and have to strip the gear down.”

“Now it’s getting a little more tricky because we do have a new person and different gear,” Enthusiasm noted.  “We used to be a lot more portable.  If we got an offer to do a single show, we would be able to do it.  We used to be able to fit in a car and go places, to be able to fly in and out of shows.  Now, maybe the four of us could fit in a minivan.  We’re going to figure out how much we can pare it down without going back to the old ultraportable setup.”

Still, there are advantages.  “Touring is definitely way more fun for me now,” Enthusiasm said.  “I like not being the only girl anymore.  It’s interesting stepping back and seeing the band through the eyes of somebody who’s involved with it for the first time.  [Christmas] gets so excited about everything.  She started out as a fan of our band, so now whenever we play super old school songs she gets very excited about it.  It’s not like we’re jaded, but we’ve played “Science Genius Girl” three million times.”

“There are only so many hands that [Bananas] and I, or the Duke and I, have had on our own,” Drinkwater added.  “It’s been nice to have a little more musical flexibility.  We actually have played a couple of songs just straight-up live without using sequencers, which we’ve done pretty uncommonly in the past.  It probably seems more complicated, but if we didn’t think it was worth it we wouldn’t have done it.  I feel pretty confident that this is the right thing to do.  In terms of the record it’s definitely the right way to go.”

That record, Imaginary Friends, is set for release in November.  When asked to describe its sound, both Enthusiasm and Drinkwater emphasized its advancement of the established formula yet also noted a completely different approach to the hows and whys of its making.

“[The Duke’s] compositional style is certainly characteristic of the band,” Drinkwater said, “and you don’t want to go too far and alienate everybody.  We were certainly making a Freezepop album; we were not making a new project.  That’s the reason we didn’t change the name.  It’s not like we were fighting our own instincts, but there is sort of a template.  We stretched it a little bit, but I don’t think our fans are going to be scratching their heads over it.”

“For a long time I thought it was like the second record, Fancy Ultra-Fresh, which is a little lighter than the third record.  But at the end of it that wasn’t as true as we originally thought.  It certainly has some hallmark Freezepop stuff on it; it’s not like we reinvented the wheel too much.  It’s a little more discoey in places, maybe.

“I think there was an effort to simplify it a little bit, to strip it down somewhat.  Rather than a lot of intricate, frenetic programming, there is a lot more playing, which is one thing we set out to do so it would work better live.  Some of the old Freezepop music, as much as I love the records, there are times when you start to play a song and it’s really tough to play and have it maintain any rhythmic balance.  For example: maybe “I Am Not Your Gameboy.”  It’s become a cornerstone because of the video game references and because it’s very synthy.  People really like that song, and they request it all the time.  It just never works live.

“With this, we tried to make it a little more direct.  That’s possibly the result of having played these songs before we recorded them, which we’ve never done before.  Normal bands write their songs and go on the road before they record; we’ve always had our albums manufactured before we went into rehearsal to take it apart.  This time we got to tour and figure out what was working and what wasn’t before we recorded.”

Though the new members make appearances on the album, the songwriting process was run entirely by Enthusiasm and Drinkwater, the latter having detailed each person’s role.  “Christmas sings on it a lot, which is kind of neat.  They sound great together.  [Bananas] sings on it a bit.  I sing on it a teeny bit – I’m probably less vocally present than I’ve ever been – but I just wanted it to be [Liz] on this one.  We all play on it a little bit, but mostly it’s Liz and me.  We needed that; we didn’t want to rely on anybody too much.  Hopefully the next one will be completely different, and we’ll do it in a much more collaborative way, but it wasn’t really time.”

This slow move toward a more band-like songwriting process doesn’t so much imply a disdain of democracy as much it shows the way the band has traditionally worked best.  “The Duke was the primary songwriter in the band,” Drinkwater began.  “My contributions to Freezepop had been sprinkled around here and there.  I don’t appear on the second album much at all, which is odd because it’s probably my favorite one.  The collaborations between the three of us had been few and far between.  It’s usually been one of us producing music, but the three of us collaborating is pretty rare.

“There was a time right after the first album where we tried to do it a bunch, and it didn’t go that well.  It was one of those things where if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I backed off and let him do his thing on the second record.  On the third record, he wanted to do some songs that I had, so I sent in a few things and we decided what fit well and recorded them.  We’re both credited on a couple of songs, but we didn’t sit down together and write.  We’re both production minded in that sense.”

Yet following the end of that routine, Drinkwater has stepped out from the Duke’s shadow and cast off his old role as “The Other,” helping to ready Freezepop for a new, unwandered phase in its existence.

“Not by choice,” he was quick to add.   “If he called tomorrow and said he’d like to be back in the band, I think it would happen.  I have enjoyed how it has been up until now, and when he left it was a bummer, but this is pretty satisfying now that I’ve done it.  I might have a slightly harder time giving it up.”

* * *

So with the ending of this transitional phase, will Freezepop’s next work come out sooner than the last?  Drinkwater made no promises.

“After every album, we’ve always said that the next one will be out sooner, but that never happens.  I would love to do a Freezepop record next summer, if we all got to go into a farm somewhere for a month and made a record really fast.  Even if it was a weird one in the catalogue, just to do it.  Will that happen?  Not very likely.

“We’re not insane perfectionists, but in terms of this it took longer because we were trying to make sure that it was pretty right.  We didn’t want to release three good songs and a bunch of garbage.  It had to be a real album or we’d be digging our graves, especially since we had lost a key guy.  If you’re not making your best album at this point, you better do something else.

“On the next one, will we be a little easier on ourselves and be a little more experimental?  I kind of hope so.”

Imaginary Friends

Freezepop will be playing El Corazon in Seattle on Monday, September 27th with Ming & Ping and Aerodrone.  Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.

The Designer’s Drugs: Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story

Anno: 2010

This title lies.  Though the desperate, clinging search for love is what drives this book’s protagonist, this isn’t much of a romance.  Romance isn’t even the point.  More important than the boy-meets-girl drama that keeps the characters in Super Sad True Love Story busy is the setting in which all of this happens – a self-obsessed, totalitarian America of the future that is about to die.  It’s a country and culture in all ways bankrupt: in which everybody wants to be a teenager, in which Facebooking permeates every aspect of real life, and in which the Chinese are the debtmasters of the United States.  In other words, it’s frighteningly plausible.

Anchoring this bleak vision is a pudgy old schmuck named Lenny, a spinster in his late 30s who is as pathetic a specimen as can be found in these slick ruins.  He spends his days selling the promise of immortality to “High Net Worth Individuals” while simpering toward his boss, an old man made young whom Lenny has elevated into a father figure.  He also reads, which has become a serious social taboo.  His ratings in Personality and Fuckability – both real and legitimate assessments in this world – are doomed to always be low.

Yet in the midst of an exile to Rome – a place which, he notes, has accepted its decay with dignity – his life changes.  While wading through all the resigned, mechanical hedonism of the place, he meets Eunice Park, a hot mess of baggage who nonetheless inspires Lenny to never die.  In a match of convenience, Eunice moves into Lenny’s New York pad, and they begin an awkward, bumbling relationship.

The purpose of their union is not to incite Lenny and Eunice to grow together, but rather to refine their senses of alienation while around one another.  Part of this separateness comes from the fact that almost everybody in this story is disgustingly loathsome, yet another key reinforcement is the fact that both are children of immigrants (Lenny is Russian Jewish; Eunice is Korean).  Their America has become increasingly unfriendly to new faces, and so their parents are breathing reminders that they do not belong.  It’s oddly appropriate that Eunice’s family causes more damage to her than Lenny’s does to him, yet she is the person who better fits in with the pricks and sleazes.  Nonetheless, both ultimately act on their estrangement, and while they come to different conclusions they both become better for the change.

Super Sad True Love Story certainly qualifies as a sharp satire of the current (and probable) state of American culture.  Yet there’s an urgency to its depiction of America’s last shuddering moments that gives it an unexpected weight and sympathy.  It’s this end which proves most fascinating.

Bill Hicks: Still Essential

The Hicks Family

There are more than a few great artists whose legacies might have been handled dubiously.  The easy cynicisms fall on the estates of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Tupac Shakur, whose copious musical output from beyond the grave can’t help but arouse suspicion.  That posthumous skepticism is wholly absent from the domain of comedian Bill Hicks, whose family he left in charge of caretaking his legacy.  Rather than cashing in on the fame that was still in the process of explosion at the time of Bill’s death in 1994, the Hicks family has spent the sixteen years between then and now as modest curators of a massive library of Bill’s work, neither opportunistic, nor starstruck, nor pretentious, nor shy about sharing Bill with any who ask.  Their most recent project is Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, an extensive audio/video anthology which goes well beyond the established Bill Hicks routines.

In the course of speaking with Bill’s mother, Mary Hicks, and his brother, Steve Hicks, it became clear that both of these very warm and engaging people are enthusiastic about Bill’s work and treat the responsibility of preserving it as a humbling honor.

Currently living in Little Rock, Mary Hicks spends her time maintaining the Bill Hicks archives.  Before having children she worked as a teacher, but she stayed at home with the kids after their birth.  “Other than substituting,” Mary said, “I had not really done anything until after Bill died.  Since [then], I have been working with his material to be sure that it’s used correctly and that it gets out.”

Steve Hicks is Bill’s older brother by five years.  He lives in Michigan, works in retail, and is married with two kids and a dog.  “My life is very unexciting during the day, but on nights and weekends, along with my mother and sister, I also get to help manage Bill’s stuff.  It’s a labor of love, and it’s great for us to be able to share Bill with the rest of the world.  As long as people are interested, we’ll keep sharing what we have of Bill with them, and that seems to be the case.  Actually, the interest has increased over the years.”

Mary remembered Bill’s formative years as tumultuous, with the future Outlaw Comic developing his sense of insurrection.  “Bill was a sweet, loving little boy,” she said.  “He was that way until he hit his teenage years.  While we had some rough times, we had some fun times.  We could always find a laugh in there, but I would have liked for him to not gone down some of the paths he did.  But he was trying to find his way; he was not going the 9 to 5 route and he didn’t know what he was going to do.  We were trying to keep him on the path that we thought he should follow, which was to finish high school and go to college and discover something that he was interested in.”

Bill wasn’t keen on that route, but his parents forced him to graduate high school – sort of.  “The teachers loved him, but they did not want him in their class,” Mary said.  “He did what he wanted to do, which was mostly to sit in the back of the room and read.  Yet he passed, but just passed.  He knew exactly how many points he had, and how many he needed to make a passing grade.  But Bill was smart.

“He told me one time that he was going to drop out of high school.  I said ‘you’re going to graduate if I have to push you across the stage to get your diploma.’  Well, he did not go to his high school graduation; he went to the comedy club.  I think they were having ‘Pajama Night’ that night.  His dad and I went to his graduation, and it wasn’t too long after that when he went to L.A.”

“He had a funny joke about that where he’d say he graduated 481 out of 490, just ahead of the AC/DC fan club,” Steve added.  “But he did end up graduating.”

Being quite a bit older than Bill, Steve’s involvement with his brother came later.  “I think our time and togetherness moved in and out until we got in our adult years,” he said.  “I went to college when I was 16 and Bill was 11, so I’d see him on weekends when I came home and summers.  But I was finding my own way in life, and he was just a little kid.  But it was around that time when he told me to come down to the comedy club in Houston where we were living.  I went down there, and Bill was performing.  The place was sold out, and he was hilarious.  He must have been 15 years old.

“I got married three years later, and he was the best man in my wedding.  I often traveled to where he was performing to see him perform and to hang out with my brother.  There was a stretch of time when I lived in Austin, Texas with my family.  Austin was kind of a second home to Bill; he never lived there, but he was there often because he performed a lot and had friends there.  For those five years we saw each other multiple times a year.  He spoiled my kids; they loved Uncle Bill.  He knew all the cheat codes for the Mario games, so they’d sit up all night and Bill would show them how to beat the games.  He was a great brother and a great uncle.”

Bill Hicks: Nintendo Master

Both Mary and Steve admit to not following stand-up comedy outside of Bill’s work.  Perhaps owing in part to this, his choice in careers came as a surprise.  Nonetheless, both noted and supported his certainty in his calling.

“It was different,” Mary said.  “Bill asked me one time if anybody in the family had been in show business.  He would ask if anybody had done public speaking.  Well, there are some preachers way back.  He was always curious about why he was so led to do what he was doing.  It was like he couldn’t not do it.”

“He did it since he was 12 years old in some form or fashion,” Steve added.  “I think it’s pretty rare for anybody so early in their lives to find that thing that they wanted to do, and he never really wavered from that.”

Yet despite his unusual occupation, the comedian was treated no different from the rest of the Hicks family.  “Bill was a stand-up comedian,” Steve said, “so he had a job that you could go see, but what we remember most out of that were the times when he was just being that family member.  Our family got together for holidays, and whenever Bill was not on the road performing somewhere he would be there with us too.  Since show business wasn’t in our background it was certainly unusual that that’s what he did, but beyond that he was just a guy in our family that we enjoyed spending time with.”

As Bill developed as a comedian, he developed the reputation of a philosopher working with the courage of his convictions.  In his high-minded work as well as in the rest of his comedy, the Hicks family wasn’t spared from his wit.  In one of his pieces, for example, Bill calls his father to task for being a fan of Rush Limbaugh.  Yet when asked their points of view on Bill’s various beliefs, both Mary and Steve found very little they disagree with in total, and a lot in which they had common ground.  Furthermore, even within topics they disagree with, they praised the open-minded stance from which Bill advanced his arguments.

“Bill – and all of my children – are not that crazy about organized religion,” Mary said.  “I think they all are Christians and live that way.  To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that I’m crazy about organized religion either, but I am a Christian and I do go to church and I do enjoy the fellowship with people in my little Sunday school group.”

If there was one topic which she disagrees with, it would be Bill’s frankness about his drug use. “I’m not into drugs, and I don’t know that they do good or don’t do good.  I do know that there are people whose lives are ruined by them, but if marijuana really could help people who have cancer, then I think it should be used.  I’m not against using things to benefit people, but I would be against them if they ruin lives.  I don’t know how you’d know whether it would benefit.”

“I think it’s an individual thing,” Steve added, “and I think that’s what Bill’s message was.  He didn’t tell us to take drugs or not to take drugs.  He said find your own way in life, and here’s my story.”

Mary agreed.  “That’s exactly what he did.  He never encouraged; he just said his views that he had good times on it.  If he did, I’m glad he did, but I’m glad he got off of them and he said he was too.

“I liked what he said when he quit.  He said: ‘Mom, somebody came in and offered me drugs, and I looked at myself in the mirror in the dressing room and said that was not who I am.  And I quit.’  I liked that he realized that he was not that.”

“Bill and I were closer in age,” Steve said, “so I guess I wasn’t as put off as an older generation might have been at some of the stuff Bill said.  None of it really bothered me; I’m pretty open-minded like he was.

“I will tell you a story, though, how Bill and I might discuss things and disagree.  It’s probably the closest we’d ever gotten to a fight.  He was always checking things out, spiritual things.  He did sensory deprivation things, the drugs for a while, yoga, lots of things trying to tap into the spiritual side of life.  So one time he was at my house, and he was telling me that he had seen people levitate.  I said I don’t believe that; you think if people were levitating, you’d see it somewhere!  It turned into an argument, and he was adamant and wasn’t going to give up without me agreeing that it could be possible.  I was just as strong-headed as he was in my beliefs.  When I see someone levitate, I’ll believe they can levitate!  I don’t care if people levitate or not, but having someone tell me they saw someone levitate doesn’t do it for me.

“That would be an example of our discussions about philosophy, and we’d finish it and it would be fine and that would be that.  As far as his general philosophy of life and his key things that he spoke about in his comedy that resonate with so many people these days, I pretty much agree with most of that.”

Within his act Bill often mentioned unpopular beliefs – such as the idea that children are not special – which he claimed were responsible for keeping him an anonymous figure in American culture.  Yet after his death, Bill Hicks was anything but anonymous.

Considering the role of Bill’s death within the greater scope of his critical acclaim is a fair question to ponder, but the Hicks family doesn’t see his enduring relevance as a product of martyrdom.

“I look at it this way,” Steve said, “I think a lot of untalented people also pass away, and their legacies don’t live on.  Then there are talented people who don’t pass away, and their legacies don’t live on.  While there may be some importance to Bill passing away, I think that his material is so relevant to people years later.

“I always think about Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, locked in time.  You don’t know what would have become of their lives later on.  There’s certainly some of that, but I tend to think that there’s something about Bill’s material and the way he presented it that resonates with people.  If that wasn’t there, I don’t think it would go on like it does.”

“If what Bill said did not have meaning and were just jokes,” Mary added, “I’m not sure that we would be where we are today.  It just so happens that he had some profound thoughts, and he got enough out there that these people come up and send letters and emails telling us what Bill meant.  Bill’s been gone 16 years and on the day of his death I still get emails from people who say they are remembering Bill.  [He] had some points that are going to be relevant till we all die.”

Steve continued: “I think something that’s important is when we meet fans – and this past 18 months we’ve had a lot of opportunity to do that because we’ve been traveling to film festivals to support another Bill project, a film called American: The Bill Hicks Story – what we hear echoing and in everything we get is that people don’t say: ‘We wanted to tell you how funny Bill was.’  What they say is: ‘I wanna tell you how Bill changed my life.’  There’s some way that Bill reaches people on a big level.  Alive or dead, if that wasn’t the case it just wouldn’t have grown into this legacy that it has.”

Taking the question to a close, Steve described a shocking phenomenon within Bill’s renown.   “We still will occasionally – maybe a time or two a year – get an email from somebody finding out about Bill for the first time and asking us for his address, so they can write him a letter, not realizing he’s dead.  What they’ve seen is something so relevant, and current sounding, and moves them on a different level that they want to get in touch with him.  That’s not a frequent occurrence, but it does still happen.”

In compiling the hours of material which comprise The Essential Collection, Bill’s family rewards the dedication of his fans with an in-depth look into his life and work.  The family spared no effort in making this a unique body of work, featuring bootleg videos, a goofy B-film, and a collection of guitar ballads in addition to familiar audio recordings.  Steve summed up the box set’s purpose as such:  “We wanted to have things that fans could discover and see something new about Bill.  That’s how we went about the box set.”

Steve went on to explain its production: “With The Essential Collection, Rykodisc, the label that Bill’s stuff has been on all these years, called us and were interested in putting out a box set to commemorate Bill.  They thought it was time.  It was funny because they asked if we had some unpublished photos sitting around, because fans really like to see things they haven’t seen before.  Yeah!  We’ve also got several hundred hours of video and several hundred hours of audio.  They were very excited about that.

“What we proceeded to do was go through all of this stuff and decide what we wanted to put in this box set.  Our criteria were a couple of things.  We wanted to avoid as much duplication of anything that’s out there commercially, especially on the video side.  We went back through some of Bill’s DVDs, Sane Man and Relentless and Revelations, and tried to pick things that weren’t shown on those DVDs, even though they might be familiar bits off one of his albums like Rant in E-minor and Arizona Bay.  That’s what we did for the later years.  With the early years, the first DVD out there of Bill was Sane Man, and that was 1989, so we focused on the years from 81 to 86, because that’s stuff that hasn’t been seen much.

“We were real excited to find these songs that Bill had recorded.  We went over to Abbey Road Studios in London and had them remastered to include on this download card in the box set.  I think some people know Bill played guitar on Rant and Arizona Bay, but someone who had written and recorded songs, I don’t think people were expecting that.  That was a real bonus discovery.”

As well as working on this ambitious project, the Hicks family opened their vaults to the makers of American: the Bill Hicks Story. Calling this “the definitive documentary of Bill Hicks,” Steve described the making of this film.

“These guys, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, are directors of this documentary.  Bill is huge in England, and for a few years Matt Harlock was doing tribute nights to Bill on the anniversary of his death in London.  The things would sell out, and he’d send the proceeds to the Bill Hicks Wildlife Organization.  Somewhere along the way he got in touch with my mother and father, who was alive at the time, and started communicating with them.

“It just evolved into Matt wanting to do a series of 30-minute documentaries about comedians, and he was going to start with Bill.  That led to him coming over to the States and going to Little Rock, Arkansas to start going through all this stuff.  We just opened everything up to these guys.  I think when they found out how much stuff there was, this thing turned into a four year project.  We support them 100%.  It was their vision, and we would occasionally give them feedback along the way, [but] we didn’t micromanage anything.

“It’s very, very well done, and we’re proud of it.  They’re even getting some notoriety because they enhanced an animation technique they used in the movie to work from all these still photos.  Beyond the fact that people love the documentary because of the story it tells, Matt and Paul are getting an awful lot of interest because of the techniques they used to tell the story.  It’s been showing at film festivals around the world, and it’s won two awards.  They released it theatrically in the U.K. over the summer, and it’s the second-highest grossing documentary of the year.  The DVD is coming out later this month in the U.K., and it probably won’t come out in the U.S. until next March or so.

“On the DVD, they have five hours of extras beyond the documentary – a lot of extended interviews, and only about 30 extra minutes of Bill performing – but even with that we collaborated so there isn’t duplication between that and what we have in The Essential Collection. They really do stand alone and they expose different things about Bill.  Both projects were done from an extreme position of love and respect, and I hope people will enjoy them both.”

If these projects are any indication, Bill Hicks the comedian is as powerful as ever.  But my final question to the Hicks family was what their favorite things were about Bill Hicks the man.

Mary was quick to distinguish between the demeanor of the two.  “I think a lot of people do pick up on the fact that he was – somebody called him a humanitarian.  I asked Steve when he first started seeing Bill before we did what he was like, and Steve said he’s nothing like he is at home.  He was different on stage.  [At home] he was quiet, he was serious, he was very considerate.”

Steve agreed, using a specific example to illustrate his brother’s good nature.  “I’d use compassionate to describe him, not only to his family and friends but to strangers.  When he would come to Austin around Christmas, there were at least two years where we went down to the main drag where the homeless people were, and Bill would hand them five dollar bills and look them in the eye and say Merry Christmas.  He was just a good guy.  Even though his comedy style was in your face, that came through.

“I think that’s what resonates all these years later – there was soul and heart and passion to this guy.  Beyond the iconic comedian, he was just a really kind-hearted, intelligent, passionate guy that made you feel important when you were around him.”

Photos Courtesy of the Hicks Family

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Ninja Bachelor Party


Movie: Ninja Bachelor Party (1991)

By: Bill Hicks, Kevin Booth, David Johndrow

There’s a lot of treasure to be found on Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, the newest retrospective of the famed comedian’s career, but my favorite thing is Ninja Bachelor Party, a brilliant mockery of martial arts cinema.  In this roughly filmed gem, a dirty white boy (tragically) named Clarence Mumford seeks the ancient wisdom of the martial arts in order to become a man and to stop his girlfriend from sleeping with everyone with a pulse.  It should be noted that barely a shred of martial arts ability is present in this film.  Not only is the ninjitsu kept to a minimum, there is no bachelor party either.  Yet what is essentially a tale of guys filming each other fake-fighting is far more hilarious that the usual videos of dudes fake-fighting.

Our hero begins the tale as a Robitussin-addicted wreck, constantly berated by his parents for being a loser.  After witnessing his beloved servicing a roomful of scumbags, Clarence seeks out an even greater scumbag named Dr. Death, M.D. to teach him how to fight.  After that doesn’t turn out so well, our boy follows a mystic communication to Korea.  Whether it was North or South Korea, no one can say, but the landscape looks disturbingly like American woodlands and a golf course.

There, he studies under the tutelage of a badly bald-capped and eyebrowed Asian ninja master.  They train hard to a sweet musical anthem, and they get lit up on magic mushrooms and throw knives at each other.  Finally confirmed as a martial arts master, Clarence returns to the States and busts his old master humping his girlfriend.  After a brawl spanning the entire city, Clarence takes out Dr. Death using the ancient Chinese art of bicycling.

Both Clarence and the two martial arts masters – both gurus played by Bill Hicks – are wonderfully inept kung-fu fighters, but what sets Ninja Bachelor Party over the edge is the absurd dialogue dubbed into the film.  All characters are voiced by the filmmakers, and their stream of consciousness ramblings – especially those of any character voiced by Hicks – soon become the film’s best quality.

Ninja Bachelor Party is low-budget goofball filmmaking at its best.  Throughout his career, Bill Hicks didn’t stray far from stand-up, and in fact this is his only appearance in cinema.  His choice in film roles was extremely wise.

Bow to Your Sensei!

The Designer’s Drugs: Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection

Medium: Multiple

Stimulus: Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

Anno: 2010

The problem with heroes is that after a while – and especially once they’re dead – they don’t get to be anything other than heroes.  Alongside Lenny Bruce, whose myth has him censored to death, Bill Hicks has become one character in the comedian’s world to be saddled with this uncomfortable status.  Yet perhaps more than Bruce himself, Hicks has been elevated to a nigh-messianic plateau, his flaws erased, his comedy bleached into the colors of philosophy.  As a person who often railed against groupthink and blind praise, I don’t think Hicks would accept the crown he’s been bestowed.

The great service provided by Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, the new box set retrospective of the man’s life and work, is that it goes beyond the philosopher mystique.  The two discs of stand-up recordings feature his famed rants on drugs, sex, marketing, and the many ways that society is designed to keep its citizens stupid and obedient.  Within this extensive compilation, the audio is the most familiar.  It’s a natural starting point for those new to Bill’s work, though old fans may have heard most of these pieces before.

There is a swerve in the audio end, however.  Enclosed in the collection is a download card which allows the audience to obtain an album of recorded music from Bill’s website.  As opposed to the faint sounds of acoustic guitar that drifted through his stand-up recordings, this work, titled Lo-Fi Troubadour, is a full album of quietly passionate acoustic ballads.  What’s best about this facet of the compilation is that Troubadour was clearly recorded without an agenda, that it was simply Bill documenting another of his passions.  That said, he’d be a hit at any open mic.  “The Road Can Be Hard” is a beautiful breakup song, whereas “Waiting to Meet You,” despite its surface cheer, is a rather murderous tune.

The Young Outlaw.

The best part of The Essential Collection is in fact the video section.  While most such audio/video sets tend to treat the visual as secondary, this collection rewards those who want to go deeper into Bill’s work.  The most fun thing to be found in this anthology is Ninja Bachelor Party, a silly martial arts B-movie made by Bill and a few friends.  Yet the most illuminating artifacts are the many bootleg videos of Bill performing stand-up over the years.  It’s startling to see a young Bill Hicks, just out of high school, clean cut and wearing a tie.  His comedy is largely apolitical, mostly joking about the craziness of his family.  Compared to his later work, it’s very nonthreatening, and yet it’s also incredibly funny.

And here’s the point that the video section drives home: Bill Hicks was a brilliant comedian long before he ever became a social critic.  With all due respect to what he had to say, The Essential Collection rightly maintains that Bill could have said anything and brought the house down.  True to its title, this collection is essential in breaking up the myth of Bill Hicks to show more of the admirable person beyond.

Photo courtesy of the Hicks family.

Y Marks the Spot: Robot Like Me

Kevin the Robot. Hate Crime Target.

CJ Slugger came back into town this past week, and my best friend and I immediately returned to our old bastardries. Friday night marked the continuation of our hazardous and awesome friendship. Accompanied by a Leprechaun in a Batman mask, the rat bastard fired bottle rockets at my apartment, cloaked in the dank shadows of the Salvation Army. After inviting them into my home and belittling Bat-Leprechaun until he danced to Rick Astley, we strolled downtown to meet the rest of our gang of jerks. When we arrived on Pearl Street, they were nowhere to be found. Our Casino enabler informed us that the creeps had gone around the corner to take in the sublime Top 40 metal of Happening’s. And they had taken the robot costume with them.

As a self-respecting homoerotic Saved by the Bell punk band, my Beldings decided that a robot was desperately needed to take our live act to a higher (read: watchable) level. And so, my band mates Dner and the Kolonel crafted one out of silver spray painted boxes and arms of aluminum tubing. Kevin the Robot was reborn, straight from the beautiful Saturday mornings of my pre-teenhood. At our last live show, we garbed the Leprechaun in this mechanical masterpiece and made him dance for the kiddies, accompanied by Rick Astley (again), Ace of Base, and “One Night in Bangkok.” It killed. That night ended with me wearing Kevin while riding a bike around Pearl Street, and finding myself in the Library, grinded upon by floozies. The future of robots looked bright. Friday would prove the folly of our childlike optimism.

We entered the metal bar, where two Beldings and a Reverend stood round the robo-gear, drinking heavily. Evidence of machine rampage was distinctly absent. This uncomfortable situation needed to be taken care of. I put on the costume and started circle pitting in front of the dartboards. Unfortunately, this was when anti-robot prejudice began to rear its ugly hydra heads. Owing in part to the strength of his drink, but also due to his deep-seeded rage against the metal ones, the Reverend leveled a firm punch to my titanium jaw. My heightened android powers could have easily deflected the blow, but for a flap of loose cardboard which caught me in the eye. Enraged, I retaliated with a robo-kick to the Reverend’s nether regions that would have made Mecha-Godzilla proud. Afterwards, some hoser wanted me to deck him, and we decided that it was time to leave.

Dner wore Kevin back to the Casino, where we encountered a truly obscene example of robot hate crime. As one gentleman offered him a dollar to dance, a drunken broad ambled over and began to pummel our robot with fists and purse, while her mongo friends cheered her on. Though we switched Dner out with CJ Slugger, who ultimately bested this tramp, the damage was done. Our circuit board scars would never heal, not even at the best efforts of a nice young gentleman who kowtowed and screamed “Domo Arigato, Mister Roboto!” at us.

Robotkind needed to go to a place where it would be fully accepted – so we decided to go to Players. I suited up as Kevin once again and extended my robo-arms to Doctor Octopus length, determined to prove that not everyone in this town despised Daft Punk and the Short Circuit movies. Yet from the moment of our Casino exodus, we were subject to all kinds of wretched intolerance. Outside of Jeff and Jim’s I was offered a dollar to give some dame an android lap dance, a proposition which I regrettably accepted. Following this, one of my arms was viciously ripped to shreds by the jackals of Pearl Street. My own friends helped in my dismemberment! And when the cops saw this heinous act of violence, did they extract justice from my attackers? No! Instead, the law berated me for cluttering up the sidewalk, and told me to be on my way. Thankfully, I found sanctuary within Players’ disco lights and throbbing dance music. Alongside Bat-Leprechaun, this one-armed automaton danced the night away. But even here, a few hateful pricks felt the need to punch an innocent android, though at this point, I was numb to the insensitivity.

Dner donned the costume again, and we made the most glorious strategic error of the night – we went to Bronco’s. The animosity between country music aficionados and robots was well entrenched in our minds, but we were prepared to extend the olive branch. The apes that jealously guarded the dancing sluts on the pool table had other ideas. We left quickly.

Finally, we went to Yesterdays, where robotkind was finally accepted and welcomed, and more importantly, not punched or assaulted. The night was mercifully over, but from that night on I faced an endless wave of scorn from my fellow humans. “Hey, we heard you dressed up like a robot!” they sneered. “We heard that you danced around like an idiot!” It is a cruel brand that I may never escape.

Friday night exposed us to the sinister underbelly of La Crosse, an event that has eclipsed our collective innocence. As such, we have chosen to side with the machines when they inevitably take over the earth and make you monkeys their smelly pets and cyborg-mommies. I offer our Decepticon overlords one critical piece of advice – don’t look like a 50s sci-fi typecast. If you dress up like an iPod, the humans will tickle you like you were the almighty Pillsbury Doughboy. Nobody will see you coming. Initiate ass kicking sequence. Bzzt.


Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Transformers – The Movie

Transformers - The Movie. The REAL One.

Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Directed by: Nelson Shin

Starring: Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Orson Welles

Written by: Ron Friedman

I held out for as long as I could. When Michael Bay released his update on the robotic heroes of my youth, I expected the worst. The Bruckheimer/Bay school of filmmaking has always been high on shit blowing up, vapid dames, and bad puns. While this formula produces some winners – I’m the only person I know who consistently defends Con-Air as hilariously cool – the average is dumbed down action film self-parody, malformed Rambo spawn. And when the average drops out, we get truly wretched cinema like Armageddon. So when I, a person who owns every single episode of the original Transformers cartoon, heard that Mr. Armageddon was at the helm, I imagined a highly erotic scene in which Optimus Prime paraded animal crackers along Megatron’s exposed midriff. And so I avoided modernity like the plague.

It’s all Mike Nelson’s fault. These days, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 star is doing, well, pretty much the same thing as he did on that show. But as opposed to the old-school skewering of obscure cinema, Nelson’s enterprise, titled RiffTrax, takes a larger aim at Hollywood blockbusters, savaging them alone or with guests including the old MST3K crew and Neil Patrick Harris. Obviously, the studios which produce such wonderful films as Roadhouse and Batman and Robin probably aren’t too keen on some wiseass selling their movies, much less providing them with overdubbed mockery. To get around this, Nelson only provides the commentary, and leaves it to the viewer to supply the movie. Sync the two together (or find an already synced up file), and magic!

One of these movies was the updated, super-cool, Michael Bay Transformers flick. Though I remained fearful of the sure bastardization of my old champions, I figured that if I was going to watch it at all, taking on the ordeal with the RiffTrax choir at my back would be the best way to do it. And being drunk.

Nothing helped. Transformers was a flaming piece of shit, as bad as my worst fears.

Where do I even begin? With the tweeked-out military dudes who kick more ass than the robots? With the cadre of sassy government-appropriated hackers, which of course includes a sultry blonde Australian? Bernie Mac as a scummy used car salesman? Shia LeBeouf as the hope of the universe, albeit one who owns a drugged up Chihuahua? How about the midriff queen who serves as his overtanned love interest? Why be choosy? They’re all assholes. There is no human in this movie that I didn’t want turned into robot hamburger.

Including this fine piece of cinematic cyanide.

The androids aren’t much better. Say what you will about kids’ cartoons designed to pump out toy lines – their characters at least tend to have some shred of personality, traits which set them apart from the rest of the line. The Transformers cartoon mastered this maxim. Among the ranks featured a methodical tape deck, a quixotic UFO, and dim-witted robot dinosaurs. Michael Bay had an evil cop car, an evil helicopter, a token black guy robot (who of course is the token casualty), and an evil ninjabot whom nobody could apparently see, even in plain view. Whoopee. Starscream, a villain on par with the great Skeletor, is reduced from Machiavellian opportunist to one more of the all-grey legion. If the robot isn’t the heroic Optimus Prime, the evil Megatron, or Shia LeBeouf’s Camaro, it’s disposable, and that goes against the spirit of the entire cartoon. Oh, they crash into things, and the violence is all very impressive, but Transformers it ain’t.

So (once again), fuck Michael Bay and his hip fucking movie.

I present an alternative. Straight from the golden age of toy-marketing cartoons, it’s Transformers: The Movie – the original animated one, where the robots have personalities and the humans know their roles and stay out of the main plot. The original cast is far superior. John Bender from The Breakfast Club teams up with Mr. Unsolved Mysteries to take down Mr. Spock and Citizen Kane? A Citizen Kane who is, in fact, a robot planet which devours other planets for sustenance? Hell yes! The story? Everyone dies! In this rare case, the toy marketing demands of the cartoon offered an opportunity to break from the sitcom formula and leap into a drastically new direction. So Optimus Prime gets blown away, and children weep. Gravitas!

Why thousands of kids in the 80s cried themselves to sleep.

And in the course of determining the new order, this movie lays down some musical gold. “The Touch” is a horribly wonderful “Eye of the Tiger” wannabe that later found its way into Mark Wahlberg’s singing repertoire during Boogie Nights. And Weird Al’s greatest song ever, the Devo-robbing “Dare to be Stupid,” accompanies a robotic breakdance-fest on a junkyard planet. The movie could have ended right here, and it would have been perfect.

So that’s it! The old Transformers movie is better than the new one. Bah-weep-granna-wheep-ni-ni-bong, motherfuckers!

This is how it's fucking done.

The Designer’s Drugs: Justin Cronin – The Passage

The Passage

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Justin Cronin – The Passage

Anno: 2010

Like many masterpieces of horror, what makes The Passage one of the finest pieces of vampire literature to come along in a long, long time is that it’s not about the monsters.  So much time is invested into building the pre-bloodsucker world that when the creatures rise up, their presence is both fully formed and yet somewhat secondary.

Though entirely its own story, this first volume in Justin Cronin’s planned vampire trilogy is easily comparable to The Stand, both in plot and scope.  The first act of the tale is set in a United States a few years from now, in a world which has fallen further into the war on terror.  Further acts of mass destruction, committed both inside the country and beyond, have turned America into an ailing police state.  Such a declining state of affairs leads to drastic attempts to reassert American dominance, culminating with a plot to copyright immortality.  You can guess how well that turns out.  A hundred years later, mankind is in its death throes, when a girl from the old world reappears to lead a band of survivors to war.  Their present goal: to travel to ground zero and find the truth about the walking plague.

The main facet of Justin Cronin’s storytelling that sets him apart is his eagerness to infuse his story with consequence.  Too many characters come back when presumed lost, and this does pull the plot into an undue tidiness at times.  That some documents of the times have been preserved as exhibits in a society a thousand years in the future indicates that some form of civilization has survived, which takes away some of the danger.  Then again, Cronin is unafraid to wipe out anyone and everyone, and there’s a lot that could happen in the next millenium.  Despite the hazy future, the suspense in The Passage twists the reader’s expectations right to the very last sentence.

All of which wouldn’t mean a thing if the characters weren’t so well developed.  The people of the old world and the new – both the monsters and their prey – are examined without mercy.  Their flaws are brought into full view, yet at the same time no character, no matter how vile, is without humanity, and one can fully understand where each person is coming from.  The board is black and white, but the pieces are all shades of grey.

The sum total of The Passage is a story that may not reinvent the wheel, but is fully deserving of being called an epic.  If this first offering is any indication of how the rest of Cronin’s trilogy will unfold, this will be the vampire story by which all others will be judged.