Y Marks the Spot: The December Experiment, Part One: 80 Degrees and Snowing

Leaving Washington - the rare and noble Lubemobile.

Despite being broke, I managed to spend the last month riding parental goodwill throughout the country, attempting to cure my growing insomnia, frustration, and sloth. These travels took me through a lot of airports. Luckily, I never got groped by any TSA agents – but I did play Seven Minutes in Heaven with a baggage handler. At least I didn’t have to take my shoes off.

My first trip took me to the rocky deserts of Phoenix, where I hung out with my dad and two sisters in the unholy 80 degrees of December. As I flew over the city, I came to a realization that the main difference between Phoenix and the Middle East – both barren, highly conservative regions led by corrupt officials who have at best a heavy disdain for egalitarian human rights – is swimming pools. Maybe I was simply flying over a good neighborhood, but every other house had a backyard that was half turquoise with irrigated water. It got me to thinking: maybe to create peace in the Middle East, we should give the people there swimming pools.

I saw a few strange things while in Phoenix that had nothing to do with the local culture: a television remote that had Braille on it, a basketball game on the Cartoon Network, a video of the Metrodome caving in from a Minnesota blizzard. But the strangest thing I saw on this trip was my dad.

In all his glory.

My old man is a professional gambler, and like all professional gamblers he aspires to be one of two people: Kenny Rogers or Confucius. Like most gamblers, he was never a source of family stability – or anything not resembling sloth – so I found it weird that my old man was now the caretaker of a new puppy which had the horrible name of Baby. Despite having years ago sent me a weird email in which he considered getting some tropical fish to fill some void in his life, this is the first living creature he has been responsible for since my parents got divorced 13 years ago. Surprisingly, he seemed to enjoy the responsibility – though I fear that the dog will get less attention once it gets older and less cute.

Odder still was some of the shit that came out of his mouth while I was there. My dad is one of those strange and outlandish people who doesn’t get how he could have strange and outlandish children (and all three of us are). He derides my warped sense of humor, yet a decade ago called me in the middle of the night, stoned and telling me terrible jokes about cow tits and poor Mexicans. During the brief period I lived with him in Phoenix, he got stoned (again) and started freaking out about how amazing the live-action Flintstones movie was. In another late-night phone call, he told me that he signed me up to be a salesman for some acai berry energy drink because (he said) he thought it was a fantastic product. But no, I’m the weird one.

One of the main topics of conversation during this trip was my dad’s shut-in gambler girlfriend, an old oxygen-huffing gold digger who had dated my old man on and off for the better part of a decade. The recent drama involved this prune suckering my dad into buying her a phone, following that up with some ungrateful shit-talking. My sisters and I ganged up on him, ultimately convincing him to get back the phone and kick her to the curb, but he weakly defended his troubled relationship by calling her “the hottest 64 year old on oxygen.”

He followed up that gem by diving one of my sisters and I around town, ultimately taking us to eat at a well known Chinese restaurant he kept mistakenly referring to as PG Chang’s. On the ride there, he proclaimed his faith in a god of some sort before loudly pondering the possibility of what his life would have been like if he was gay. Um… I guess that since I owe my existence to the fact that he boned my mom, I should say… thanks?

He would follow this up by saying that if he had been gay, he would have gone for our slick as oil waiter. After a few drinks, he got weird and started talking about his marriages. Of my sister’s mother, my old man gloated that he had fooled her into thinking that he wasn’t one of the biggest potheads in town, which seemed kind of sketchy to say. Of my own, he bragged: “When we first met, your mom and I had a lot of sex!”

It was at this moment when my selfish gratitude for my dad’s heterosexuality began to wane.

The Singing Cowboy helped, though.

The old man went on to suggest that I write his biography, but, in so many words – and no doubt never having read a word of anything I’ve written – he wanted me to tone down my weirdness and make it more accessible. The first hitch came quickly, as he recounted his side of the story of when I got kicked out of a casino for pissing in an empty parking lot and embarrassing him in front of all his fellow gamblers – conveniently forgetting the part of the story in which I watched him play poker for 14 hours straight and would have rammed my head through a wall to get out of the casino. Oh well; a modern classic fails.

I like my dad, and we had a good time in total, but it helps if there’s a slight barrier between us. As such, I’m glad I stayed at my local sister’s place, where I slept on her gigantic couch and beat back sleeplessness. And after our time was over, the old man took me to the airport, and after a few days at home in Washington, I set out again and exchanged the desert for the snow.

 

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Gentlemen Broncos

RUN!!!

Film: Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

Director: Jared Hess

Starring: Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell

Written by: Jared & Jerusha Hess

Imagine what would happen if Napoleon Dynamite – the film in total, not only the frizzy-haired embodiment of geek irony –  was plunged into a barrel of toxic ooze, then set loose to shamble around as its cinematic flesh rotted and peeled from its body. Along with recreating an excellent scene from Robocop, you’d also get something very similar to Gentlemen Broncos. This is one of the most hideous films I’ve seen in a while – and I mean that in the best way.

This film sees director Jared Hess attempting to return to the suburban freakshow style which made him a mint with Mr. Dynamite. Yet instead of legitimizing the fringe as he did in his former film, Hess dives into it. While Gentlemen Broncos has more of a plot than its more Seinfeldian predecessor, that fact almost seems secondary. Instead, Broncos feels like it’s trying harder to freak out its audience than to make it laugh. The plot of a boy author being plagiarized by a famed sci-fi novelist (played with great baritone self-importance by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) pales in comparison to the terrible spectacle of a bowl-cutted, Nosferatu-mouthed Mexican kid (far and away the film’s most hideous creature) blowing into a girl’s ear for way too long. Or a snake suffering diarrhea on a frizzy mulleted creep’s shoulder. Or the hero’s mother – a ridiculous caricature of a Mormon woman – getting hit by blowgun fire. Or a vomit-caked kiss. Or the plagiarized story in question, a sci-fi gem named Yeast Lords in which, depending on each author’s fantasies, Sam Rockwell prances around as either an unkempt carnie or a gay Edgar Winter, riding flying deer and romancing a bald woman. Napoleon Dynamite – ligers, bad hairstyles, and all – comes off as positively Hollywood in comparison.

Edgar Winter - Intergalactic Hero

Hess has always played fast and loose with unnerving characters and situations, something which, combined with his films’ generally optimistic tones, lent his first film the goofball accessibility which made it such a cultural phenomenon. Gentlemen Broncos has no such designs at widespread acclaim, and whether one enjoys this film or not depends entirely upon what connotations one puts upon the word freakshow. Unsurprisingly, it works for me.

The Designer’s Drugs: Cracked.com – You Might Be a Zombie and Other Bad News

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Cracked.com – You Might Be a Zombie and Other Bad News

Anno: 2011

Go to Cracked.com, and you’ll find that the satirical website you were expecting also offers a surprising wealth of real-world information.  While the Cracked brand spent decades viewed as Mad Magazine’s little brother, the Cracked of today is a highly articulate forum discussing history, science, and pop culture.  Were it not for the wisecracks interspersed between each article’s heavy research, Cracked might be mistaken for an offbeat yet respectable tutor.

The most popular feature on the Cracked site is the list, a daily rundown of groups of related subjects which tend to read little more than “X [things] that [do something].” Sounds formulaic, but this simple template has grown to become crack for trivia junkies.

You Might Be a Zombie is an encapsulation of this style, drawing together lists old and new to reward old fans of Cracked and serve as an introduction to everyone else.  It’s really intended to be a taste, a lure to the website which produces the equivalent of this book’s content in about two months.  Yet it’s a great excerpt.  Within, readers will thrill to tales of terrifying animals, all forms of corruption, and the truth behind many of our public myths.  The book’s title describes the final list which explains the ways a zombie attack could actually happen (which is pretty funny, considering that Cracked has also published a list discussing how a zombie attack would utterly fail).

The book works rather well, beyond a few points.  The first is that the transition from website to book takes out the interactivity of reading a Cracked list.  On the website, these lists are heavy with links serving as instant footnotes that back up whatever point is being made.  The book has no footnotes of any kind, and without that array of instant evidence, its content feels much less authoritative.  Also, the web is a cornucopia of strange photographs, which – often accompanied by a snappy caption – are often used by the Cracked writers as punchlines to their points.  Undoubtedly due to the problems involved in acquiring printing rights to such photos, there are no pictures in the book mocking the cast of Jersey Shore; instead, there are sparse exhibits of very basic, captionless drawings which don’t have the same effect.

Yet while the website is superior, these points do little to dim the enjoyment of the book. You Might Be a Zombie is a faithful and fascinating adaptation that captures the Cracked style as well as possible.  Read this, then go to the website and get fully addicted.

The Designer’s Drugs: Sweat Boys – EP

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Sweat Boys – EP

Anno: 2011

This toe in the water by a group of synth-minded La Crosse goons is a damn good introduction, full of new wave swing which transforms from silly and speedy to romantic and grandiose.  The three tracks on this disc remind me a lot of the Human League, bearing a sort of electronic manic depression that loses none of its immediacy by being gloomy.

“Sweat Boys” the song begins the disc with a hyper sense of perversion, giving the imagery of two guys getting drunk, pissed off, and oiled up before wrestling in a dark alley.  Following this is “See You Dance,” a bouncing story of dancefloor rebound which starts to veer the album toward apocalyptic longing.  This mood hits its climax in the striking “Cold War Lovesong,” which soars as it despairs.

The work on this EP is excellent, a perfect example of electronic dance music.  I do have a very slight complaint that the songs’ production sometimes leaves vocalist Ben Koch’s singing feeling less forceful and a bit secondary to the music.  Nonetheless, I cannot wait to hear a full album.

The Designer’s Drugs: Liz Phair – Funstyle

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Liz Phair – Funstyle

Anno: 2010

 

Jesus, this album is bitter.  When Liz Phair sticks to the actual process of writing songs and making music on Funstyle, it’s a wide array of conventional pop music.  There’s little to get excited about, but the album is diverse and slick enough to avoid boredom.  The moody electro-piano track, “Bang! Bang!” is Funstyle’s best track, even if it does sound a bit like Sneaker Pimps meets the instrumental side of Nine Inch Nails.  Add to this a bonus disc featuring old acoustic recordings (including a memorable tune about the white baby black market), and this might have been a good find.

However, this is all torpedoed by the moments in which Phair decides to turn Funstyle into a concept album about getting older and being forgotten by the music industry.  A full fourth of the main disc plays like a series of indignant skits, despite the fact that there is music playing in the background and they are technically songs.  That these tracks are found on both ends of the album colors the entire album into a hate letter written by a fallen princess.

Here’s an idea, applicable here but also to any musician: instead of wasting time whining about how people don’t respect you as an artist, why not shut them up with some convincing evidence?  In this case, Funstyle could have been so much better if Phair had simply acted like a musician and controlled her urge to feed the trolls.