Y Marks the Spot: The Worst Nation In the World…

…is hibernation.

I’m not sure when the exact moment the rage which recently smashed around inside me like an uneven spin cycle dropped out.  I do know that it was replaced by one of the most complete bouts of apathy I’ve ever felt.  Perhaps this extreme polar switch makes sense.  During the fall I was on a hair trigger: working a job in which every second was a brand new source of inept hatred, hallucinating through my grandmother’s death in a hometown that was no longer home, punching out a comrade while blacked out, getting ready to brawl with liquor store employees who gave me shit over my peeling ID, trembling with rage at any real or perceived judgments, growing terrified that the budding pain in my chest was going to bloom into a heart attack.  And then, perhaps with the onset of the always rainy, gloomy Washington winter, I shorted out.

This isn’t to say that I stopped getting pissed and became an android.  I was just as paranoid about being judged by other people as before, but the urge toward violence vanished.  The problem was that all my urges toward greatness had been swept alongside.  I stopped doing anything, and furthermore, I stopped caring.

Not doing anything isn’t that much of a stretch for me, but this was different.  Usually when I’m not living up to my potential, potential which usually involves translating all my big thoughts into writing, there’s a scathing voice in my head which points out my shortcomings.  In the last few months, that voice has been silent.  I’d get through an increasingly judgmental day of work, come home, and be a bland, mediocre receptor for entertainment for the rest of the day without a shred of guilt.  In a tribute to my mind’s keen ability to subvert and sabotage anything, my psyche became a hall of mirrors in which I felt guilty for not feeling guilty.

The mantra I ended up hanging onto during this dead winter was a piece of advice given to me in my preceding anger, something which has haunted me ever since.  I was in the midst of a series of improv classes when my grandma died and I went back to Wisconsin to have my brainbreak.  When I returned to class, I was pretty much done as a person.  My improv work was shit, not simply from a lack of experience and refinement but because I had run out of joy.

After one particularly wooden and defensive scene, my instructor addressed me as I fidgeted about on stage.  You don’t play characters who allow themselves to be affected, he said.  You don’t play characters who can change, he said.

And he was absolutely right.

The problem is that, had this bit of criticism merely been limited to my ability to carry a scene, it wouldn’t have been so damning.  But to me improv is therapy, an evolution of all the guidance counselors and psychiatry of my youth.  As such, it’s almost always true that my flaws in improv are my flaws everywhere else.  So I took this advice and kind of broke myself applying it to the rest of my life.  I didn’t feel guilty about doing nothing, but I sure as hell put myself into a coma wondering where my ability to change and to grow and to care and to be affected went.  Seems pretty self-fulfilling.

I’ve continued with improv, but during this winter it began to feel like an obligation I analyzed to death.  My big stupid energy had been replaced by methodical paranoia which I used to dissect my work into meaninglessness.  I coldly resolved to coldly improve my technique, attempting to impress my fellow chaos seekers with my logical, sensible stagework.  I doubt I impressed anyone.  While logical and sensible aren’t bad tools to have as a performer, they mean nothing if a person doesn’t give a shit ‒ and I was all out of shit.

I became envious of people who cared about anything.

March was perhaps the worst and best month of my hibernation.  It began with me attempting to dredge up some semblance of joy to unleash for my improv theatre’s auditions to join its mainstage group.  It didn’t really work.  I don’t think I was horrible, but my audition was a rambling mess surrounded by people who were clearly more invested than I was.  I can’t say I wasn’t very bummed out when I found out that I hadn’t made the cut, but what was worse was that I knew, without a shred of forced humility or self-abasement, that I hadn’t done my best.  I certainly wouldn’t have voted for me, and that’s much worse than whether everyone else thought I was terrible.

I wallowed in that failure for a bit, but thankfully March is always my best time of the year, and this time around it didn’t disappoint.  The easy reasons were all there: I spent my birthday getting ridiculous among friends, my parents loaded me up with birthday cash, and my tax returns rolled in.  More importantly, spring finally came, and few things in life make me feel as calm as the warming of winter.

On the day after April Fool’s, I started a new round of improv classes with the same teacher who sent me down my ruthless path of self-examination.  This time around, I feel brilliant.  And, as this serves as evidence of, I’m starting to write again.

I’m starting to care again.  Feels like I’m waking up.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Kung Pow! Enter the Fist

 

Film: Kung Pow! Enter the Fist (2002)

Written by, Starring, and Directed by: Steve Oedekerk

 

The great (and frustrating) thing about this sendup of martial arts cinema is that it’s actually two movies in one.  The first style drowns in CG, offering ham-fisted renditions of a murderous cow, a kung fu baby, and a tongue which has its own tongue.  Oh, and there’s a lady ninja with one boob right in the center of her chest, which is kind of unsettling.

The second aspect of Kung Pow! is much more interesting, involving the restoration and appropriation of an old Hong Kong martial arts flick known as Tiger and Crane Fist.  Director and star Steve Oedekerk warped and cut this classic into all that modern footage, making a new tale of a Chosen One (that’s his name) out of the old video.

What’s weird is the contrast in restraint between the film’s two styles.  While Oedekerks’ original footage looks rather lame and brash in its technophilia, the subtle way he inserts his face onto the hero of Tiger and Crane Fist is very well executed.  On first look, one might miss some of the Easter eggs planted into the old footage, such as a Hooters storefront and a crap music aficionado who gyrates to the anachronistic tunes coming from the ghetto blaster on his shoulder.

The thing that really sells Kung Pow!, however, is Oedekerk’s use of dialogue.  With the exception of Titty-Cyclops, every character in the film was voiced by the director.  The film becomes something of a Mystery Science Theatre episode, with Oedekerk’s brilliantly silly lines encompassing almost all of the film’s hilarity.  A conversation between Chosen One and his sexually demented sensei, which was probably a routine bit of scenework in Tiger and Crane Fist, becomes wholly absurd in the best way.  Likewise, any scene featuring the dastardly Master Betty (the villain formerly known as Master Pain), is rendered brilliant due to Oedekerk’s revoicing the brutal gang leader as an adorably creepy dweeb.  Master Betty is the best.

If Kung Pow! has one point to make, it is that dialogue and context in film are at least as important as the visuals.  If you can get past all those crappy 21st Century visuals in this film, it can be quite a joyous little parody, on par with the Fistful of Yen chapter of Kentucky Fried Movie.

 

The Designer’s Drugs: Josh Olsen – Six Months

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Josh Olsen ‒ Six Months

 

 

I half expected this book’s back cover declaration of returning to the womb every six months to refer to some transgressive trans-vaginal exploitation film scene.  The funny thing about my Rorschach reaction to the noirish packaging of Six Months is that the true meaning behind that line became the thing in this excellent book of one page stories which resonated with me most.  Instead of being a tale of sexy sadist slapstick, the title story tells of the author’s biannual returns to his hometown, which is also my hometown.

My fellow expatriate describes the sadness found in returning to La Crosse only to discover that nobody there has improved in any significant way.  The only changes to the author’s friends and family are those of age.  This saddens him in part because he can’t join in with their lack of success, that he can’t find the old camaraderie and fellowship within shared disappointments, that he can no longer be a lifer.  He’s become a visitor, and every six months he leaves the old world behind.

If I hadn’t felt exactly those things about exactly this place, “Six Months” may have simply been one more very good story.  But as I’m also filled with that same sort of self-nullified nostalgia for our hopeless hometown in western Wisconsin, the story picked up a really powerful, fascinating sense of despair.

Beyond this, Olsen fills the rest of this quick book with the sort of warped yarns that will appeal to a certain sort of man approaching middle age.  Most of these tales are presented as stories from the author’s life, anecdotes about his messed up life and his attempts to square being a respectable father and neighbor with the deviant malcontent (and husband) within.  The perv is certainly on display in the showroom, though these tales steer far from becoming grotesque and trans-vaginal, and this warped Ward Cleaver is most interesting when he’s not being a little hard on the beaver.

Two of my favorite stories are clever little bits of weird, the first involving the author attempting to meet the great Captain Lou Albano and the second being a musing over the creator of the classic Holocaust comic book memoir Maus and my beloved, forbidden Garbage Pail Kids.  Until here, I didn’t know that the creator of these vastly different cultural artifacts was the same person.

I’m also a fan of Olsen’s hateful reminiscences of his own father figures, as well as his adventure in shitting in a sandbox.

Much of what makes this mishmash of bizarre stories function is that there’s a humor and humanity to them that doesn’t wallow in the sordid details.  I suppose that the fact that each story is but one page long helps this.  I definitely want to read something longer from Josh Olsen, but this quick, fascinating burst of screwball tales is captivating enough on its own.

The Designer’s Drugs: Foxy Shazam/Conspirator

Image

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Foxy Shazam ‒ Church of Rock & Roll

The way I’ve described this album in my head is that Church of Rock & Roll is what would happen if Mindless Self Indulgence decided to become the Darkness.  Sometimes Foxy Shazam throws out the Darkness milk jug and goes straight for the Queen cow’s tit, but as a whole this album isn’t grandiose or conceptual so much as it is a no bullshit, straight up amazing rock and roll album.

The only drawback to be found in this wailing tribute to the spirit of rock and roll is that Foxy seems to have chucked out most of its delightful weird in making a beeline for rock legitimacy.  In contrast with its previous works of high quirk, the strangest thing to be found here comes in Foxy’s merger of ten pound ball rock swagger and Sir Mix-a-lot’s love of big butts in “I Like It,” a track which is far and away the album’s best.  Yet for as much as Eric Sean Nally continues to wail like rock’s gospel diva (the track “Last Chance At Love” reads like triumphant Joan Jett Top 40), the words which accompany his frenetic tones and the music to surround it all is pretty straightforward even while it tears up the walls.  No complaints from Nally about hipsters calling him gay here.  Oh well.  It’s a more than fair tradeoff.

Image

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Conspirator ‒ Unlocked – Live from the Georgia Theatre

“Park Ave,” the track which kicks off this collection of electronic instrumentals filtered through rock instrumentation, is kind of a false start.  As opposed to the rest of the album, which reads like a very workmanlike DJ set, this first song meanders and sways around, giving the impression that Conspirator is something of a jam band.  Nothing that follows sounds anything like that first track, but for some reason I couldn’t shake that jammy first impression.

To call Unlocked a serviceable performance is no insult, especially since Conspirator proves here that it’s a hell of a band.  There is a well-executed musical theme which runs throughout the set which makes a lot of its chapters sound quite similar both in sound and tempo.  Even Conspirator’s appropriation of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” fits the style, chugging away with so much of the usual march that the end result is much less cover than sample contorted to fit the overlying musical agenda.  In such a world, the final song, “Retrograde,” could have been notable for little more than bucking the formula and being a rock song with its own time signature.  Luckily, it’s also a really good track in its own right, a concise conclusion that answers the album’s spaced out opening by being both unique and connected with everything prior.

It’s probably true that had the music of Unlocked been released as a studio album with the same structures, it wouldn’t have worked out as well.  The fact that Conspirator released this as a live performance gives all its familiar themes and beats a legitimacy and excitement that would have had us music critics bitching about everything sounding the same had it come in the studio pill.  In any event, the band sounds fantastic, rendering such distinctions pointless.  Here, excitement trumps architecture.

Krangbang

Shredder!  You lured me from Dimension X

With the promise of conquest and hot Foot Clan sex

Now my Technodrome’s home is in Earth’s molten magma,

And those turtles stay triumphant while I still haven’t shagged a

Single purple robo-ninja, shit, I’m still just a brain!

I wanna get mindfucked, but all you do is complain

Cause you can’t get your turtle soup, and the fights you always lose,

While I sit around here waiting for the secret of your ooze.

 

Shredder!  Build me a body so you can bone it!

I wanna unzip your fly like it was Baxter Stockman

And then I’ll make you crumble like you were one of my rock men

I’ll keep your cock Rocksteady while I Bebop your balls

And gnaw like Rat King on your fat thing in the Technodrome halls

I’ll give you schizophrenia like it was VD

Then we can teabag the Neutrinos and drop deuce on Usagi

So go ninja go ninja go!  Respect what I’m sayin’

Cause you ain’t Tatsu, bitch, and I ain’t goin’ or playin’.

 

Shredder!  Build me a body so you can bone it!

Now is the Splinter of my discontent!

Yeah, I wanted a body, but this is where you went?

Great, you can finally can open my can

But it’s attached to a tubby rubber bald eunuch man!

I’m a galactic fucking warlord, no one’s running because

You dressed me like a go-go dancing punker from Zardoz!

So stop the stomach skullfucking and give me some dread

Or I will toss your fucking salad with the fork on my head

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Beavis and Butt-Head, Vol. 4

 

That Mike Judge has returned to where his bread was first buttered and resurrected Beavis and Butt-Head to self-satirize yet another MTV generation is cause for celebration.  This collection of the show’s first revival season shows that this isn’t a mere retro-humping cash grab; in fact, Judge’s years of work on the more straight-laced King of the Hill has clearly made him a better storyteller, and the evidence is that these new stories of his bastard boys are some of the best Beavis and Butt-Head tales to date.  Beavis and Butt-Head are the same chuckling, hopeless white trash they’ve always been, and their misadventures are no less pointless or destructive as before, but now there’s definitely a much smarter sense of comedic timing in their antics.

Watching Beavis spaz out into his caffeinated alter ego Cornholio and become a cult’s messiah may feel sort of inevitable, but the twist in which he gets bored and unknowingly sets his loser friend Stewart up for hot culty group sex is kind of a nice payoff.  Showing Beavis and Butt-Head as unwitting pawns of the Intelligent Design and anti-Planned Parenthood movements makes for some bizarrely pointed social commentary.  (In the latter, the pair take a Jesus fundie’s assertion that a women’s health clinic is a whorehouse seriously and enthusiastically, with delightfully painful results.)  The episode in which Beavis and Butt-Head confuse a field trip to an old timey tourist village with time travel results in some hilariously dim-witted attempts at causing time paradox.

Yet the best episodes are the same now as before, featuring the idiots rambling around town with no agenda, warping their environments with their askew worldviews.  Nothing in this collection was so delightful as the episode in which Beavis and Butt-Head reacting to a supposed apocalypse by raiding a 7-11, or the one when they simply wandered around the mall like gleeful teenage perverts, or Butt-Head making fun of Beavis for the rest of their lives because an onion made him cry.

If there is a problem with the revival of Beavis and Butt-Head, it’s that everyone is now in on the joke.  Like the metal bands they revere, age has made these two moron savants respectable.  Where once Beavis’ wide-eyed pyromania had to be hushed and up due to a kid supposedly self-immolating in imitation, and the pair’s destructive tendencies had to be preceded by a Don’t Do This At Home disclaimer, our twitchy friends are once more given free reign to smash shit and shout that fire is cool.  (Beavis also makes a few references to being molested, which comes off as disturbingly comedic.)  And today, I doubt that anyone howls that Beavis and Butt-Head is poisoning the youth of America.  People have finally caught on that the show is at its core Looney Tunes in human form, giving it an aura of benign slapstick.

Where this becomes a problem is when Beavis and Butt-Head know they’re cool.  Despite being from a time when MTV had total control over youth pop culture, the old series wasn’t big on name-dropping pop culture to prove its cred.  Instead, they cheered for the awesome videos and verbally mauled everything that didn’t pass their standards of cool.  As such, the show became something of a musical tastemaker in its own right.

Today’s Beavis and Butt-Head are much more with the times and behind the curve.  They riff on Twilight.  They reference Grand Theft Auto.  They know the entire cast of Sex and the City.  (Sure, that knowledge is only used to suggest a mash-up sequel to Sex and the City and The Human Centipede, but still).  Worst of all, they watch a lot of Jersey Shore.

A few blessed music videos show up for Mystery Science Theater-style mockery in Volume 4, but far more often, the modern Beavis and Butt-Head watch a lot of shitty MTV shows.  I know that between the old series and now, MTV all but killed off music videos ‒ which, by the way, isn’t to say that the art form no longer exists ‒ but having Beavis and Butt-head instead make fun of MTV’s post-video programming isn’t an adequate replacement.  No matter how fine the ridicule, it’s not biting or edgy.  It’s redundant advertisement.

Furthermore, flooding this show with clips from those shows ‒ even if it’s to burn them with some pretty genius wit ‒ makes this show secondary to those ones.  The fifth time I heard Beavis and Butt-Head refer to The Jersey Shore’s “Smoosh room,” I began to wonder if I was watching a commercial for those guidos, juiceheads, and gorillas, if the true goal of reviving Beavis and Butt-Head was merely to raise the profile of all of MTV’s other shit.

I watch the old series for the video mockery first and the cartoon episodes second, and in the new series my preferences are somewhat reversed.  Nonetheless, the new series is a much more clever, focused, and polished animal than its wild beast predecessor.  Take that for what it’s worth to you, but there is a great humor in noting that a show once hailed as a sign of pop culture’s apocalypse is now one of pop culture’s best shows.

 

The Designer’s Drugs: Chuck Palahniuk – Damned

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Chuch Palahniuk ‒ Damned

 

 

In Chuck Palahniuk’s new world, Hell is Hollywood.  Hell is also Hell, full of the typical wailing, gnashing teeth, and rising lakes of wasted jizz that serve as Hell’s equivalent of global warming.  But if we’re stacking up the hierarchy of the awful, consider this ‒ even Palahniuk’s Satan has a script he’s trying to sell.

Damned promotes itself as The Breakfast Club in Hell, and if Madison, its pudgy, oft-neglected hero, resembles any member of that Saturday morning detention crowd, it’s the Ally Sheedy neurotic girl.  (In discussing that 80s film classic, our girl notes that she howls with terror when the popular cheerleader gives said outcast a condescending makeover.)  Madison’s quite a bit more than that dark, mousy type, however.  In true Palahniuk fashion, this preteen is quick to assert that she knows middle of the road words like gender, excrement, tenacious, and feign ‒ yet in casual moments she nonchalantly drops bigger words and phrases like colonoscopies, biological imperatives, vivandiers, and coals-to-Newcastle.  I have no idea what that last phrase even means.

This newly lost soul spent life as an unloved prop to her vapid Hollywood parents, the sort of people who adopt kids from around the world shortly before shipping them off to boarding school, the sort of people who fly their kids via private jet to ecology retreats.  I get the impression that there’s a healthy portion of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in these absurdly cosmopolitan celebrity caricatures.

After dying from a marijuana overdose, Madison meets up with the requisite Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Judd Nelson characters, and this infernal Breakfast Club goes traipsing around the hoary netherworld in search of misadventure.  As time goes by, Madison gets kind of awesome.  She preaches the joys of damnation in her telemarketing job, beats up Hitler in grand, hilarious style, and goes on a spew-soaked revenge haunting.

The last book of Chuck’s that I picked up before this one was Snuff, whose porno gangbang setting was the most obvious and inevitable thing an author inclined toward burying his readers in freakshows and trivia could have produced.  That book was so over the top as to become really, really boring.  In contrast, Damned is kind of delightful.  Perhaps the choice of setting absorbs some of that stereotypical shock.  Sure, Palahniuk’s paintbrush colors up a pretty disturbing landscape of the inferno, but it’s Hell, so that’s kind of expected.  With the need to shock sort of canceled out, the story ends up relying on wit and characterization, and Palahniuk, perhaps having no choice, ended up writing a book combining the scope and cleverness of Robert Olen Butler’s Hell with the innocent charm of Judy Blume, right down to beginning each chapter with “Are you there, Satan?  It’s me, Madison.”  Damned seems to be a reworking ‒ if not total subversion ‒ of Chuck Palahniuk’s established formula, and as such, it made me a fan again.