Saturday, January 29, 2011

Chairs Can Smile

Hello, Kind Reader.

Apparently I come by my music snobbery quite naturally.  Here's a school essay I wrote at the tender age of seventeen:

The late Seventies ushered in a new wave of music.  Technology had a dramatic impact on our lives and, culturally speaking, music wasn't exempt from this.  The synthesizer was developed and the music we listened to entered new phase.  These devices have sparked a heated debate between those who believe it represents an innovative new sound-scape and those who are dedicated to traditional musicianship.  It is the latter opinion I strongly support: synthesizers remove the human element from music and place programming skills over instrumental talent.

Synthesizers have allowed many "artists" who are completely devoid of musical talent to enter the field.  Today the qualifications seem to lean heavily towards the style and "look" of the group as opposed to musical aptitude.  To illustrate this, let's say a fictional group (usually endowed with an infantile, pop-influenced moniker such as Chairs Can Smile, or whatever inane catch phrase comes to mind) is getting ready to show up at their local recording studio to perfect their latest opus.  They're completely up-to-date on current fashion trends and possess the ability to craft catchy, disco-influenced, formulaic music.  

These embryonic "songs" are heavily dependent on repetitive, "danceable" rhythms, melodic vocal crooning and lyrical fluff.  At the studio, they meet "Eugene", a sound engineer who has developed the band's core material after hours of programming.  His computer is connected to various synthesizers, each one representing a different canned instrument.  

Upon typing a simple "RUN" command, the synthesizers leap into a senseless mish-mash of overlapping racket.  The band's lyricist (who isn't technically a member of the band) soon appears with the album's pesky "words" in tow, a necessary evil that probably kept him busy for an entire evening.  

By now the synthesizers have cooled off and the album's musical tracks have been recorded.  The dulcet voices of our musical heroes are quickly filtered through an equalizer ("Read auto-tuner for any reader under the age of thirty," - Your Humble Narrator), twisting and contorting their harmonic warbling into the realm of annoying perfection.  Lo and behold, with a dash of vocal layering, the latest album from Chairs Can Smile is ready to hit the stands.            

Before the advent of the synthesizer, performers needed vocal and instrumental talent to succeed in the realm of music.  Music of this period is soulful, passionate and decidedly human.  Today's pop music has become the product of a robotic assembly line, mass produced without innovation, genuine skill and creativity.  

Today's groups tend to sell records with their stylish appearances and synthesized, computer-assisted sound.  It shows a severe disregard for the talent traditionally needed to succeed in the realm of music.  These interchangeable bands also tend to lean heavily on music videos to promote their careers.  Mercifully all of these videos, along with television and movie appearances, can be lip-synched with a mimed instrumental performance over a backing track.  

Since many radio stations also find this sort of product very attractive, the lead single from Cats Can Smile will soon see heavy rotation and will be instrumental (no pun intended) to both album sales as well as convincing indiscriminate music fans that what they're listening to isn't total garbage.  This will ensure that the sensitive subject of concert performances (which would surely reveal their complete absence of talent) can be overlooked.  As a result, yet another form of musical expression becomes stagnant.

In a recently released (!) song by The Pet Shop Boys (a group many consider to be a prime example of this new wave of techno-pop) the following lyrics appear: "I've got the brains./You've got the look./Let's make lots of money."  Straight from the horses mouth emerges a confession that the synthesis of sound has been reduced to an investment in illusion and trickery.  I firmly believe that technology has created many damaging effects on the music industry.  What we listen to now is less the product of creative energies and genuine skill and more the symptom of our techno-computer age.  

Perhaps the classic rock sound is unrefined but there is little doubt that it is considerably more...human.

Well, mercifully this trend has since reversed itself and the music industry now actively finds, fosters and bountifully rewards genuine musical and artistic talent.

Man, I'm so glad what I wrote about over twenty years ago didn't come to pass!  We really dodged a pop-culture bullet there, didn't we, folks?   

EPIC:  Not all pop/synth-assisted music in the Eighties was soulless shite.  Witness Nick Kershaw:

Or Soft Cell:

Or A-Ha:

Or Wang Chung ("Dance Hall Days" only, mind you):

Or The Cars:

Or the Alan Parsons Project:

Or Eddy Grant:

Or Thomas Dolby:

FAIL:  The video that inspired my teenage rage.  Now I just think it's ironic...

And here's the kind of vacant, passionless, fluff I was talking about at the time:

Billy ocean - get out of my dreams
Uploaded by kareem93. - Watch more music videos, in HD!

And who could forget this tremendous mound of poop which single-handledly killed Prince's career?

And here's the inspiration for the name "Chairs Can Smile":

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Driving Test

Picture it, Persistent Reader:

Stephenville, Newfoundland, January 12'th, Ninteeen-Eighty-Eight. 

This was back in the day when it used to start snowing in November and didn't let up until April.  It was a time when the word "accumulation" really meant something.  That year winter had run its typical riot across the island, leaving ten foot snow drifts all about and roads dangerously slick with ice.

A perfect day for a driving test.  

Honestly, the roads were so bad that morning, I should have strapped on my Bauer's, skated down to the test site and endangered the structural integrity of one of their cars.  Better that then risk turning my own vehicle into an elaborate luge while en route.

The temperature that day was a balmy thirty-five degrees below zero, which I figure was probably about minus seventy-eight with the wind-chill.  My test was at 8 am and I gave myself a good hour to unearth the Wondercar, which was buried deep under a mound of ice, sleet and hail, perfectly preserved deep beneath the Arctic surface like a some sort of steel mammoth.

After I was finished excavating the vehicle I crawled down from the roof, brought the atomic batteries to power, charged turbines to speed and then prepared to ease her into Warp Factor One.  Given the condition of the roads that morning this translated into flying down the road at a blinding twenty-four klicks an hour.

On the highway.

At the Department of Motor Vehicles & Child Endangerment I was "warmly" greeted by "Officer X" (name withheld by request).  Instantly I was terrified by how sharp this guy seemed to be, despite the early hour.  My barely-conscious seventeen year old brain marveled at how anyone could be moving upright at such an ungodly hour, so I just assumed that he must have been hooked up to a coffee IV drip before I'd arrived.  Despite his irritating mutant ability to catalog every single mistake I made, his sloth-like demeanor kinda reminded me of Benicio Del Toro on Quaaludes.           

The test officer and I tried to pick our path carefully across the parking lot to get to the Ninjamobile.  I'd hoped to slowly drift into the driver's side door like a curling rock, but instead I lost my footing and power-bombed myself onto the ice-covered asphalt.  This promptly knocked the wind out of me and all I could do for about forty seconds was lay there make a mournful "hup, hup" noise as "Officer X" came to tower above me.  While I was ordering the bridge crew of my body to give me a damage report, "Mr. Helpful" just stood there staring at me, threatening to bombard my upturned face with nasal drip runoff if I didn't hurry get up and get out from underneath him.

I got to my feet and gingerly scuffed the rest of the way.  All this time I knew the instructor was probably thinking:

'Jesus Christ, he can't even walk his uncoordinated ass across the parking lot and I'm supposed to get into a car with him?  F$#@, I don't get paid enough to do this!'

When we were safely ensconced in our bucket seats, "Officer X" helpfully reminded me: 'Now, this is a driving test, not a flying test'.  He told me in no uncertain terms that any more deviations from standard procedure would result in instant failure.

Despite the dire warning, my confidence spiked.  After all I was now hermetically sealed in my familiar power armor; a steel roll cage of invulnerability.  In an instant I'd gone from being a soft target to feeling that regardless of whatever came next I'd certainly give just as good (if not better) than anything I could possibly get.  My instructor seemed to sense this unwarranted delusion of grandeur and despite the frigid temperatures, beads of cold began to manifest on his forehead.

Seat belt...check, mirrors...check, lights...check, tray tables stowed and seats in the upright and locked position...check, emergency exits and safety features of the vehicle illustrated...check.  The flight attendants in my mind completed final cross-check for departure and I began to taxi away from the terminal.

I began to come hard about at a sharp angle in order to give sufficient clearance to the vehicles parked behind me.  I brazenly turned to check the "objects-are-a-helluva-lot-closer-then-they-appear" rear-view mirror when suddenly I heard:

"Hay!  Hay!  Hay!  Hay!  Hay!  Hay!  HAY! HAY! HAY!!!"

Assuming that the dude didn't have a fetish for equine dietary preferences, I whipped my head back around.  It didn't look good.  If not for the dulcet screams of my terrified passenger, the portside bow of my Autobot would have taken the side off of a Porsche 944.

After a reproving and somewhat dazed frown from "Officer X" I gave the drunken helmsman in my brain a hasty course correction and slowly edged out straight.  But I was now coming out too straight and I narrowly grazed the ass-end of Datsun pickup truck behind me.  Honestly, there was less room in that place then the average impound lot.

With me nerves already on life support, I didn't like my chances with the next vehicular Olympic event: parallel parking.   Undaunted, I edged up,  my bumper next to the far pipe representing the boundaries of the sweet spot.  I rammed her in reverse, cut her hard, and then slowly rolled back.  Satisfied by my depth in the spot, I cranked the wheel in the opposite direction, leveled her out, pulled ahead a bit for good measure and put her in park.  My self-satisfied grin quickly withered when I turned to see my instructor looking as me like Ben Stein.

"The pipes are supposed to indicate where cars are parked both in front and behind you.  The white line on the ground by the bank right there is meant to represent the curb.  The idea is to park directly between the pipes and not on the curb."     

"Okay," I replied, suddenly alarmed by the white line intersecting my front windshield.  "If that's the case, where would I be now?"

"You'd probably be in somebody's mailbox," came the deadpan reply. 

'Your sister's a mailbox...' I muttered just under my breath.

Despite the double-barreled blast of wide-assery I still managed to nail it on the second attempt.

"Haw!  In yo' face, dawg!" I shouted at my tormentor.  He said nothing in response, choosing instead to etch a cryptic note on his little wiener clipboard with his little wiener pen.

The next Herculean trial was backing into a spot, once again represented by four impossibly-skewed metal poles, conveniently camouflaged by some chucklehead who obviously decided it was a bright idea to paint them all snowdrift white.

But as I got ready for my own version of the Death Star trench run, I heard my Dad's voice whisper in my ear, Ben Kenobi-style: "Remember...Use the Rear Brake Light, Luke!"

As a side note, dontcha think it's kinda weird that my own Dad used to call me Luke?  I know we didn't hang out together constantly or always see eye to eye, but, c'mon!  You think he'd remember the name of his only son!  Hell, his only kid!   

Sorry.  Regardless of this heinous insult my Dad had been an incessantly patient and wise driving teacher.  One of his best chestnuts of sage advice (besides "Y'know, you can always drive ten kilometers over the speed limit on the highway and the cops won't stop you") was: "When backing up, just make sure that the brake light in the middle of the rear window is positioned exactly between the white lines of the space."

So, I took a deep breath, let go of my conscious self and acted on instinct.

"Wait!" yelled my instructor as I started to edge back.  "Are your eyes closed?"

"Well, yeah," I said plaintively.  "My eyes can deceive me.  I shouldn't trust them."

"Really?  Is that so?  Well, I'm tellin' you to keep your friggin' eyes open, there, Dr. Spock."

Despite being handicapped by having my peepers at maximum aperture I still backed up perfectly between the pipes!  It was on to the road test...

Intoxicated by a heady draught of self-confidence I also killed on my road test.  Not, killed, literally as in vehicular manslaughter/ran over a pregnant woman, I mean that I did so good that my instructor had to pass me!

So, folks, the lesson of the story is: even when you seriously cock up at the start of something, just keep pluggin' away!  Sometimes when you think you've already failed, the pressure is suddenly off and you end up pulling through.  Or, at the very least, keep on sloggin' through 'cuz it's always good experience for next time!

Or, maybe the lesson of the story is: don't be afraid to really suck at something in the beginning 'cuz then there's no where to go but up. 

Whatever.  Happy motoring, folks!

EPIC: My Dad was a cool teacher an all, but nowhere as pimp as this dude:

FAIL:  I can't tell if this kid is a genius or deserves a kick in the knutz...

Monday, January 17, 2011

T.V. or not T.V.? - Part III - Hope Springs Eternal

Bonjour, Mes Amis!

Despite lamenting the amount of time I'd spent watching the boob tube as a kid, every once in a blue moon a television show would come down the pike that would re-instate my faith that not all programs were craptacular.

The show that forever changed my perception of what prime time television could be capable of was David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-1991):

Every episode of this show was like a brilliant short film.  The murder of Laura Palmer and the hunt for her killer kept audiences on pins and needles for two seasons.  The labyrinthine plot, memorable dialogue, evocative soundtrack, iconic imagery and host of quirky and darkly humorous characters always seemed oddly out of place on prime time T.V., especially when juxtaposed against crap like Perfect Strangers and Major Dad.

Nowadays, Twin Peaks would have been better served as, say, a finite HBO miniseries.  After all, it dealt with some pretty harrowing subject matter: murder, assault, drug addiction, prostitution, spousal abuse, and moments of abject terror (courtesy of uber-bogeyman Killer Bob).  In many ways it was kinda like Blue Velvet: The Series.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the dark subject matter, Twin Peaks wormed its way into the zeitgeist of pop culture and became an unlikely hit.  So much so that a handful of us living in residence at the time became obsessed with trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer, even purchasing and pouring over her tie-in diary book release.

Regrettably, the show's producers decided mid-way through the second season that people had been tortured enough and let the cat out of the bag.  As expected, the revelation was psychologically punishing and kept right in line with the show's assertion that every small town has more then it's share of skeleton-filled closets.

Although brilliant, by disclosing the central mystery plot, the show's raison d'etre melted away like air from a tire.  I stayed to the end, still fascinated with the show's turn towards the philosophical and the paranormal.  But most of the audience had tuned out and the cliffhanger at the end of Season Two was never resolved.

Twin Peaks really deserves tremendous praise for moving television away from its perception, whether real or imagined, as a ghetto medium.  I really believe that the keen aesthetics of the show (cinematography, scripting, performances) really had a positive impact on modern-day HBO-style television dramas.             

In my opinion, nothing really worthwhile came down the pike until two years later when I first heard the following haunting strains:

Xfiles intro
Uploaded by deathnetworks. - News videos from around the world.

So began a six year love affair with one of the ballsyist, quirkiest, funniest, scariest shows ever to grace the glass teat.  "Wait!" I can hear you saying out there, "X-Files lasted for eight seasons!" to which I would reply: "Nope.  Not in my book."

Sadly, X-Files was partly undone by David Duchovny, who practically held the show runners hostage by threatening to leave if the entire production didn't up and migrate from atmospheric (but incessantly rainy) Vancouver, to sunny California where "Double D" could be closer to his wife Tea Leone.

Well, the show eventually did move, losing a tremendous amount of character in the process.  It still managed to crank out the goods for another two seasons until Duchovny decided he was going to take his ball and go home anyway at the conclusion of Season Seven.  But as much as I think that Duchovny's a bit of a d-bag, his presence on the show was sorely missed and it really hobbled the proceedings somewhat.

But before that happened, X-Files was a real winner.  The one-off M.O.T.W. (that's Monster of The Week for the uninformed) episodes could be uproariously funny (like "Bad Blood" or "Jose Chung's From Outer Space") or scare the friggin' poop out of you (witness "Home" or "Folie a Deux").  And the so-called "mythology" eps dealing with the government concealing plans from the unsuspecting public about aliens colonizing earth, were always a treat for die-hard X-Philes who wanted to see just how much farther the rabbit hole could go.

But, as much as I want to bash Duchovny for ruining X-Files, it's the show runners and writers that eventually resulted in this:

There was a time when I had the mythology and all of it's players (the colonists, the alien bounty hunters, the black oil, the rebels) but eventually you got the distinct impression that the writers themselves were painting themselves into a corner.  Eventually the mythology collapsed under it's own convoluted weight.

The real death knell came when the entire impetus of the show, I.E. Fox Mulder's quest to discover what happened to his sister, was dispatched in the ironically named episode "Closure" which saddled the character with a very mundane and decidedly terrestrial fate.  Boo-urns

Nevertheless, for treating audiences as if they were smart enough to remember what happened two episodes ago (not to mention accelerating the role of women in television into the 20'th century courtesy of the courageous, intelligent and resourceful incarnation of Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully), The X-Files deserves some major props.

A few years ticked by and I really saw nothing else to catch my attention.  I recall one night when I was sitting at my computer playing Warcraft I caught my soon-to-be-proven-infinitely-smarter wife watching a new show featuring former soap star Sarah Michelle Gellar wrestling with a stuntman wearing some kind of facial appliance like a overwrought Bajoran on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

That show was Buffy The Vampire Slayer:  (1997-2003)

I actually remember tormenting her by saying: (in my most pompous British accent): "Honestly, My Deah, why do you persist in watching such tripe?"

"It's a good show!" she'd shout back.

"S-u-u-u-u-re it is," I sniffed, turning my nose up and immersing myself back into the infinitely more mature world of Azaroth.

It wasn't until I got into a heated argument with a hardcore Buffy fan at work before I decided to give the show a whirl.

"But you've gotta watch it from the first episode!" she wailed.

"Yeah, I'm sure that's gonna make all the difference," I said, rolling my eyes.

But I'm not one to pass up free potential entertainment value so when she offered to bring in her VHS (!) copy of the pilot, I gave it a spin.  Although the show's production values looked a little dodgy, I could easily look beyond that in light of the rampant wise-assery on display from the characters.

Case in point, I love this line by rich-bitch Cordelia to nerdy Willow:

"Willow! Nice dress! Good to know you've seen the softer side of Sears."

After hearing this (and toiling away at Sears at the time) I decided on the spot that this was surely the greatest television show ever created.

It became the only show that I went out of my way to watch religiously.  Regardless of where we were or what we were doing that day, you could rest assured that Monday (then Tuesday) night I'd be ensconced in front of the T.V., getting a status report from Buffy and her Scooby Gang as they squared off against what ever Big Bad the current season was throwing their way.

Series creator Joss Whedon is a frikkin' genius.  Not only did the word-play of his characters reflect the vibrant, informal and innovative way in which young people could sometime speak, it actually changed our language.  Witness the following clever quotes:

Xander: "I laugh in the face of danger. And then I hide until it goes away."

Riley:  "Besides, 'I'm here to violate your firstborn' never goes over with parents. Not sure why."

Buffy: “Because I don’t trust you. You’re a vampire. Oh, I’m sorry, was that an offensive term? Should I say ‘undead American’?”

Spike: "You Englishmen are always so...Bloody hell! Sodding, blimey, shagging, knickers, bollocks, oh God! I'm English!"

Dawn: ""It's like there's a meat party in my mouth. Wow, I'm young and even I know how wrong that sounds."

Willow: "It's horrible. That's me as a vampire? I'm so evil and skanky. And I think I'm kind of gay."

Angelus: "I wanna torture you.  I used to love it, and it's been such a long time.  I mean, the last time I tortured someone, they didn't even have chainsaws."

Giles: "He's clearly a bad influence on himself". 

Now as funny and original as the dialogue was, the show was also responsible for adding now-famous phrases to our lexicon, like: " What’s your damage?", "Morbid much?" or brilliantly transforming proper nouns into verbs, such as when Xander asks plaintively: "Does anyone feel like we’ve been Keyser Sozed?".  It's always a high testimony to the writers when the lines they forge worm their way into our everyday discourse.

Joss Whedon is one of the best nuts-n'-bolts writers out there right now.  In addition to having an ear for clever dialogue he's also quite adept at crafting a solid, stand-alone forty minute episode as well as building a compelling story arc throughout twenty-two episodes.  In fact, the second and third seasons of the show still stand as one of my all-time favorite television experiences EVAR.

Whedon also loves to screw around with audience expectations.  Who would have thought that a show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer would feature such genuinely unnerving fare as the mostly silent episode "Hush"?  Or produce an entire soundtrack loaded with ear-worms in the musical episode "Once More With Feeling"?  Or put audiences through an emotional wringer and evoked David Lynchian-levels of discord with the tragic demise of Buffy's mom in "The Body"?

The man is a masochist when it comes to creating a beloved character and them killing with the same neutral regard Alfred Hitchcock had for Janet Leigh.   

A lot of credit is also due to the show's three principal actors.  Sarah Michelle Gellar's  Buffy went from vapid valley girl to motivated leader.  Alyson Hannigan's shy and sweet Willow overcame terrible self-doubt, went over to the "Dark Side" at one point and was redeemed in the end.  Nicholas Brendon's Xander evolved nicely from a dorky, wise-cracking fifth wheel to an undead-killing morale officer.

The real testament to the show is the variety of answers you'll get from fans when asked who their favorite characters are.  Even second-tier players like the Billy Idol-esque vamp Spike, laconic Oz, stuffy Watcher Giles, tough and sexy alterna-Slayer Faith, bitchy Cordelia, brutally blunt Anya and sensitive Tara have massive followings.

The show peaked early with a stellar third season which saw the kids graduate from High School and battle the town's incongruously germ-phobic, demonic Mayor.  Although the last four seasons weren't quite as good in comparison, I've always said that relatively weak episodes of Buffy was still better then 90% of everything else on television.

It could be argued that the show took a dip in quality when Whedon and company decided to spin the character of Angel off into his own show.  Frankly, I can't get behind that, mainly because the show that resulted (aptly titled Angel 1999-2004) almost eclipsed my love for its parent.

Let's be upfront here, folks: Twilight totally ripped off these shows.  Angel was the original tortured vampire, but unlike Edward Cullen, he wasn't a whingey, emo twat about it.  In fact, his original incarnation of Angelus was a ripe evil bastard, who cut a swath of death and misery across the globe before gypsies cursed him with a soul.  Now burdened by a conscience, Angel attempts to reconcile himself for his past transgressions, "help the helpless" as atonement and puzzle out if he's doing good by choice or because of divine intervention. 

All throughout the first season and a half of Buffy, the relationship between Angel and the titular Slayer slowly evolved into a burgeoning romance.  Whedon and his script-writers continued to give us brief glimpses into  Angel's dark past as one of the most sadistic and evil vampires in history.  But we got a helluva lot more than flashbacks when Buffy and Angel consummated their relationship midway through season two.  By experiencing a moment of "pure happiness" the gypsy curse is revoked and Angel reverts back to his soulless persona.

For the balance of season two we get to see just how unremittingly nasty Angelus truly is.  He gleefully terrorizes Buffy and her friends, murders Giles' main squeeze Jenny Calender and attempts to destroy the world by raising a demon.  Tragically, Buffy delivers a killing blow and sends Angel to H-E-double hockey sticks just as neophyte witch Willow manages to re-instate his soul.

I'm tellin' ya, this is some classic, Shakespearean, tragic star-cross'ed lovers s$#% right here!

Well, of course, Angel eventually comes back but he decides to leave town when being so close to his forbidden love proved to be just too torturous.  So, he re-locates to Los Angeles and opens up a supernatural detective agency with the aid of several Buffy alumni and an Irish half-demon with psychic powers named Doyle (Glenn Quinn).  Over the course of six seasons, our heroes struggle as pawns of the fickle Powers That Be as they face off against such diverse opponents as the more-evil-then-average law firm Wolfram & Hart, Angel's twisted sire Darla and the demonic Beast.

Whedon brought his stellar penchant for character development to Angel as well.   As the titular character, David Boreanaz went from a brooding, laconic, loner to a leader, father (!) and a true champion.  Charisma Carpenter completed her evolution as Cordelia Chase, going from superficial and snotty to heroic and self-sacrificing.  J. August Richard's Charles Gunn transformed from street slayer to suave executive.  And in a heart-rending twist the benevolent and prescient lounge-singing demon Lorne (the late Andy Hallett) was finally forced to embrace his considerable dark side.      

But perhaps the most amazing transformation was that of Wesley Windam-Price, as portrayed by Alexis Denisof.  The character was first introduced on Buffy as a know-it-all replacement Watcher, essentially a foil for Giles.  He was portrayed as pompous, inflexible and completely useless.  Except for his intrinsic value for comedic effect, fans despised him.  So, naturally, when he first turned up on Angel driving a motorbike, clad in leather and referring to himself as a "Rogue Demon Hunter", you could almost hear a chorus of disappointed groans.

But then something amazing happened.  Over the course of five seasons, Whedon and company subjected the character to unimaginable torment.  He gets tortured, shot, ends up in wheelchair, gets his heart shattered and even manages to generate audience sympathy when he's forced to betray his friends.  These heady twists (not to mention Denisof's consistently strong performances) turned the character of Wesley into a grizzled, world-weary veteran and, subsequently, a fan favorite.      

Also I can't talk about the cast without mentioning the winsome and super-cute Amy Acker as Winnifred "Fred" Burkle.  Talk about your character transformations!  Amy is a delight to watch as she takes Fred from socially stunted hermit to nerd hottie to prime real estate for demonic possession.  Again, here's another example of Whedon taking a sweet, innocent, shy character and really putting them through the proverbial wringer.

Begging the question is there a more sadistic writer then Joss Whedon?  Hmmmmm.  Well, maybe Ken Follett....  

Whereas Buffy started to flag a little bit in it's later seasons, the quality of Angel just kept getting better and better.  Unfortunately the show's so-so ratings always kept it on the bubble of cancellation.  As you can imagine, the show runners soon became weary of the network's incessant eleventh hour renewals.  Rumor has it that when Joss Whedon tried to play hardball with the network to get confirmation for a season six (and ensure members of his cast and crew didn't turn down jobs ) the then-head of the WB network Jordan Levin called back the next morning and told him they were done.

According to head writer David Fury:  "I guarantee that, if we waited as we normally did, by the time May had come around they would have picked up Angel. I can guarantee that."  He also said that not long after "The WB said that it was a big mistake to cancel Angel."  Kinda sad that one of my all-time favorite television shows ultimately became a casualty due to a game of "ratings chicken" between frustrated artistic types and corporate pinheads.    

What followed in the mid-to-late 2000's only served to justify my opinion that the reality-show glutted prime-time network television vista was nothing but a vast wasteland.

But little did I know, there was still a promise of hope.  In 2006, a former co-worker became my television Jedi Master and I would soon take my first tentative steps into a larger world.

Twin Peaks - The Definitive Gold Box Edition (The Complete Series)The X-Files: The Complete First SeasonBuffy the Vampire Slayer - The Complete Series (Seasons 1-7)Angel: Seasons 1-5 (Collectors Set)

ALSO IN THE EPIC CATEGORY: Clip for a proposed Buffy animated series. It's still not too late, people!

RESEMBLING SOMETHING EPIC:  Don't even bother watching this unless you've seen at least one episode of Twin Peaks.  Look for Conan O'Brien as a Deputy!

FAIL:  Whedonless, I fear this is destined to fail...



Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Oasis

Hey, Party Peoples.

A part of me was hoping to get into Corner Brook one of the days I was home during Christmas but it just wasn't in the cards.  Considering the last time I was there, however, perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.

Y'see, growing up in Stephenville (a small town on the west coast of Newfoundland) in the Eighties was tough for an imaginative (read: "geeky") kid.  If you were lucky and you could time it just right, you might score a few dog-eared comic books at the Sweet Shoppe or A.V. Gallant's variety stores, but it was hit or miss.  It's not like you could have set up a subscription service with a corner store.     

I personally kept VHS rental joints like The Video Screen and Debbie's Video Shoppe (hmmm, was that a "shop" or a "shoppe"?  I can't remember now...) in business single-handedly.  It's because of awesome mom n' pop places like this that I first saw all the sc-fi, horror, drama, action, comedy and fantasy confections that gave me an imagination and creative spark as an adult.

But if you wanted comics, cassette tapes, board games, toys or any other flights of fantasy flotsam you were kinda S.O.L.  After all, these were the days before E-Bay and well, er...the internet.  Me and my circle of peeps would speak in hushed tones about stores in far-away lands where you could just walk in and procure The Dark Knight Returns trade paperback, a copy of Ronnie James Dio's Sacred Heart album or Leading Edge's Aliens board game all in one fell swoop.

But in Stephenville, if you wanted shit like that you had to mail away orders to places like American Comics.  Often times your order had to be sent in with a list of alternates in case what you were asking for was sold out by the time they got your letter.  I don't know how many times I'd get a delivery, feverishly rip open the box and be crushed because three-quarters of what I ordered wasn't there.

Listen, I'm not one to get all sanguine and sentimental about growing up in a small town in the Eighties, folks.  Frankly, if you had interest or hobbies like mine, it kinda sucked.

But there was hope.  There was a reprieve.  There was...

Corner Brook

Now, I'm pretty sure that if you search the town's website or pour through it's tourism brochures, you won't see Corner Brook described as an 'Oasis' anywhere.  But I'm tellin' you right now, in all honesty, as a kid, a trip to Corner Brook was akin to going to friggin' Manhattan.

I have very precious memories of being taken out of school on a Friday afternoon by my folks.  My Dad would use the weak-ass excuse that he had business in town.  Business that apparently couldn't have been done on, say, Saturday or any other day of the week, but I certainly didn't complain. 

Makes me wonder if Math class was in the afternoon.  It would certainly explain my deplorable showing in that particular subject.

Anyhoo, as soon as the announcement was made, I'd be so giddy with excitement that I could barely pay attention in class that morning.  Er, more so than usual, I mean.  The forty-five minute pilgrimage would often be spent looking at indistinguishable tree-packed scenery, reading stale magazines or adding fuel to the fire if one of my parents was tormenting the other.

The last ten minutes before arrival was allocated to preparation of singing the official "Corner Brook Arrival Celebratory Anthem".  Just as we cleared city limits me and Dad would strike up with our respective tunes.  If I remember correctly, my selection was an original composition called "We're Here Because We're Here" (which, co-incidentally, was the extent of the lyrics for the entire song) and Dad's contribution was that timeless, yet unheard-of classic "Down on the Labrador".  Mom added her own two-cents by shaking her head and maintaining that we were all "touched".

Eventually we realized just how stupid and juvenile this was, so we stopped doing it about three years ago.

Our first stop would typically be at The Glynmill Inn, a beautiful, Victorian-style manor overlooking Glynmill Pond.  To me, it always seemed like an incongruous oasis within itself: a pretty, picturesque, sylvan garden and manor smack-dab in the middle of mountainous, serpentine streets, strip malls, Honda dealerships and the omnipresent sulfurous reek of the nearby Abitibi Price pulp and paper mill.

The Inn was the home of The Ewing Gallery, presided over in the Eighties by Lance and Tess Ewing.  I always though that this stately couple were as out of place amongst the indigenous population as the Inn was amongst the city.  I always wanted to know if they were natives.  I always suspected that they were exiled "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"-style retired American Secret Agents who had chosen to go incognito in Corner Brook because they thought it was "quaint".         

Lance always reminded me of a gregarious, rugged version of Heinein-award winning science fiction writer Arthur C.Clarke.  Tess (who I'd nick-named "Tessica" for some reason) was considerably more ethereal.  Whenever we had to swing by their house instead of the galley we would sometimes get a rare glimpse of her in a window or doorway: a slender apparition in a housecoat.  At my Dad's art exhibits, however, she was always elegant, well-spoken and dignified.

I have the utmost warm feelings for these virtual strangers.  It's because of their sponsorship of my Dad's artwork he managed to help me pay for university and as a result I didn't graduate under an insurmountable avalanche of debt.

After all the professional artist business was concluded, we'd often have lunch at the relatively opulent Carriage House dining room at the Inn.  Being a stupid kid with a woefully underdeveloped palate I'd often opt for just a simple muffin so I wouldn't spoil my appetite for the eagerly awaited repast which would inevitably conclude out visit.

Just for the record, though, the last time I checked about three years ago, they still made the best apple cinnamon muffins in the galaxy.

The highlight of our trip would follow soon after: a trip to The Valley Mall.  Speaking as someone who absolutely hates venturing into a mall now, it's amusing in retrospect when I think about how important this place was to me once.  In the Eighties, the Valley Mall was the friggin' shiznit.

It was a little slice of nirvana.  There was an A&A record store, a place where I could easily procure the latest metal opus.  Leisure World had a back shelf well-stocked with Avalon Hill wargames like Squad Leader ( and Panzerblitz (, fantasy games like The Creature that Ate Sheboygan ( and a slew of intriguing-looking but intimidating Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hard cover books.

Coles bookstore was another highlight.  Here I might find a trashy compendium of sci-fi or horror films, a movie review guide or a  Star Wars book (which, towards the end of the decade became increasingly scarce as people became all Star Wars-ed out).

Another lynchpin for me: The Fun Villa arcade.  It was great being in an arcade which was the antithesis of the one in Stephenville.  It wasn't dirty, smoky or a place where I'd be offered weed every two minutes.  Here I could watch teenagers play Pac-Man (the machine was always w-a-a-a-a-a-y too busy for snots like me to even get close to it), destroy the Death star umpteen times in the vector graphics Star Wars game and guide "Winky" the plucky, well-rounded hero of Venture through an electronic, snakealicious, neon maze.

Other stops might include a trip to the pet store to get food for my pet tarantula Max.  I was aware at the time how long these spiders could live and always wondered if she'd still be around when I was forty.  Alas, here I am and she only passed away just recently after being the star attraction at the Deer Lake Insectarium for the past six years!   

When comic books became a hot commodity some enterprising dude had the foresight to open up a shop on Park Street.  I was an easy mark for this guy and my folks would often indulge my weakness for Batman and X-Men comics as well as Empire Strikes Back trading cards and various hard-to-acquire toys.

The last time I went to Corner Brook a few years ago, I went back to his shop at its new location on Broadway.  Much to my disbelief the guy still recognized me.  Either Newfoundlanders are so in tune with people that they never forget a face or I bought so much crap from him in the Eighties that I made a lasting impression.

The store itself was in chaos.  It looked as if someone had dynamited a warehouse of Todd McFarlane toys and then hung up an hours of operation sign.  Nothing was organized.  Nothing was priced.  Thank God he was preoccupied with another customer since I was almost killed in a live-action game of Jenga when I made the mistake of looking for a price tag on some 3.5 edition D&D manuals. 

I managed to extricate myself without too much awkward, "Jedi Mind Trick"-style pushy sales conversation.  Although I found some tempting wares (like a Tony Esposito figure from McFarlane's hockey series, a few Marvel Legends I didn't have and some sweet-ass horror film figs by Neca), the total absence of price tags terrified me.

I also made a tactical error when I mentioned out loud that I'd rabidly collected hockey cards every single year except (for some stupid reason) 1979, which was Wayne Gretzky's rookie year.  Well, when he overheard this, told me that he had it and was willing to part with it for a paltry $600.00.  In retrospect, that probably wasn't such a bad deal.

On the way out, the owner (who's name I've never known), said loudly: "Hey!  Make sure you bring $600.00 back for that set!", half-joking and half deadly serious.

My last tour through the Valley Mall about four years ago was pretty depressing.  The upper level, once dominated by a large Zellers, upscale clothing stores and the entrance to a computer tech school (Keyin Tech?  Beothic Data Processing?) had all been cleared out to make room for the employment equivalent of The House of Pain: an ICT Call Center.  Eeeeesh. 

It wasn't much better downstairs.  Coles bookstore was gone.  The Fun Villa (not to mention 98% of all arcades from the Eighties)...GONE!  A&A Records...GONE!  This was replaced by a CD Plus, where I took pity on the bored staff and bought an Arctic Monkeys CD to give them a highlight for their day.  Leisure World was still hanging on.  I trekked to the back of the store, hoping to find a perfectly preserved mother-lode of  Eighties board gaming artifacts just sitting there, waiting for some savvy collector who knows their value to rescue them from a life of eternal neglect.  Instead all I find are endless, boring shelves of yarn, Styrofoam balls and tole paints.        

Even the food court has been gutted.  For a moment I pause and mourn the Borg-like assimilation of the mom n' pop Burger World into a Tim Horton's kiosk before moving on.

Back in the Eighties, we'd leave the Shangri-La sensory overload of the Valley Mall and make our way up to the Corner Brook Plaza for a meal fit only for an advertisement-indoctrinated twelve year old.  Back then the Plaza was, in the immortal words of Kevin Smith, the 'Dirt Mall'.  At the time it was anchored by a K-Mart on life support and featured cheesy Newfoundland bric-a-brac stores and discount clothing outlets.  The only draw for me in this mall back then was the "methinks thou dost protest too much" Family Bookstore, which was a schizophrenic pastiche of magazines (including some you wouldn't think to find in a so-called "Family" bookstore), pop paperbacks, Newfoundland music tapes, and cake pans (?).            

But the other big pull to visit this mall: they had a real, live McDonald's.

Like so many other kids in the Seventies and Eighties, McDonald's was always a pretty big fixture in my life.  When we moved away from Sydney, Nova Scotia (where a trip to the notorious Sydney River location was quite common) and moved to Stephenville, this childhood institution was ripped away from me.

Exiled from what I considered to be civilization at the time, I lamented the introduction of such major childhood technological developments as the Chicken McNugget.  American-sourced Saturday Morning cartoons were torture for me as Grimace, the Hamburglar and chief ringleader himself Ronald McDonald tempted me with their unattainable, transfat-tastical wares.

The only available option to appease my prepubescent fast-food cravings were home-made, non-flavor engineered burgers which recalled this awesome Eddie Murphy skit:

Or, A&W, which, at the time, I'd dubbed "A & Double-Spew".

Just like everything else, Corner Brook got an A&W first, which resulted in an unfortunate onion-related mishap.  Back then the venerable fast-food franchise was going through a bit of an identity crisis.  In an ill-guaged attempt to be more contemporary (I suppose), they'd eliminated their classic "burger family" menu in lieu of some new taste "treats".  Instead of using yummy, kid-friendly minced onion on their burgers like McDonalds, they started using huge, sauteed, slivered onions.

And let me tell ya folks, nothing says "tastes like evil" to a twelve year old's palate like huge sauteed slivered onions.

I remember one trip when Dad relented and took us to A&W for lunch in Corner Brook.  I got one of these new-fangled burgers and closed by eyes hoping the fast-food trappings (paper wrapper, undeniably burger-like appearance, omnipresent fries) would trick me into thinking I was partaking of my precious McDonalds.

One bite was enough to convince myself otherwise.  I could instantly detect the nauseating texture of huge, slivered, half-cooked onions.  I almost yarfed right there in the back seat of the car.

Dad tried to remedy the situation by scraping most of the onions off.  Unfortunately he scraped them right onto the floor of the car.  Later we tried to find as many as the pungent f&^%$^& as we could, but that car stunk like onions until we unloaded it (at a severely depreciated price) many years later.

I also found out down the road that the only food my Dad hates with a passion is half-cooked, slimy onions.  Co-incidence?  I think not...

So when Stephenville got it's own ersatz A&W years later I never darkened it's doors.  In fact, before the franchise came to it's senses and realized they had an untapped vein of nostalgic gold on their hnads our hometown location soon closed down.  Fast-forward a few years later and A&W experienced a miraculous resuscitation when they re-instituted the old, familiar, raw-onionated Burger clan (The Momma Burger, The Papa Burger, The Teen Burger , The Baby Burger, The Uncle Burger, The Grandpa Burger, The (Obviously Named After A Distant Italian Relative) Mozza Burger, and the presumably forthcoming Second-Cousin- Twice-Removed Burger).   

Well, when Corner Brook got a McDonald's in the early Eighties, that was like taking wonderful and giving it a healthy dollop of awesome sauce.  I have very fond memories of Dad finishing up an exhibit at the Glynmill Inn, taking us up to McDonald's in the plaza parking lot and letting me gorge myself on a twenty pack of Frankensteinian, mechanically separated Chicken McNuggets.

And this was back in the day when you were excited to bite into one that wasn't gray on the inside.

It also has to be mentioned around this time I developed a debilitating, life-long phobia of drive-thru's thanks to my Dad.  Quite often he'd deliberately mis-pronounce things, make shit up out of the blue, request items that weren't even on the menu or ask for a side-order of "smiles".  The poor girls manning the wickets were probably feeling debased enough in their day-glo, lime-green, MARK I-era uniforms (which, I'm surprised, didn't kill the appetite of the average customer even before they'd ordered) without having to contend with such smart-assery.

Hmmmm, I wonder how many loogie-burgers we ate over the years?

Well, of course, now I live in a place where I could re-enact my very own Super Size-Me experiment every day of the week.  Even Stephenville has it's own McDonald's now.  Between this and digesting such unappetizing but enlightening fare as Fast Food Nation and Food Inc., needless to say, the place holds very little appeal for me anymore.            

Well, the last time I went to Corner Brook Plaza a few years ago it had realized it's revenge by laying low its hated rival, the once-proud Valley Mall.  It had experienced a complete Renaissance, and was now chock-a-block with high end clothing stores and a pilfered and regenerated Coles bookstore.  In other words, it had become just like any other boring, small-town generic mall on the planet.

I haven't been back in a few years, but it's my understanding that the Valley Mall is now entirely dedicated to commercial space.  It's inadvertent role as a haven for geeky childhood interests had been swept away.

Funny how the progress of time can sometimes feel like de-evolution for someone still in commune with their inner child.  Even though everything I could ever want is within my fingertips I still cherish how important these modest touchstones were for a somewhat lonely, awkward, imaginative kid seeking solace and escape from the ordinary.

Farewell, Fun Villa, wherever you are.

EPIC:  Information on the City of Corner Brook.  Please note that the city still seems insistent on using the bland slogan "Our Spirit...Your Success" versus  the considerably more esoteric "Oasis For Geekery in the Eighties".  Oh, well.

ALSO EPIC-ISH:  The Valley Mall doesn't have a website since it's deader than Fatty Arbuckle but it looks like there's a new comics/toys/boardgames store opened up in town.  Good to see that rural Newfoundland geeks still have a home!  

50% BONUS IN THE EPIC DEPARTMENT:  Website for the beautiful Glynmill Inn:

FAIL: Let me tell ya, Kind Readers, I've been there...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reflections on, The Holidays

Hey-Hey, Loyal Readers!

Sorry it's been so long since I've posted.  Here are my prerequisite weak-ass excuses:
  1. I just spent nine days in a place where consistent internet reliability is still in the theoretical stages.
  2. I'm spending all my free time editing a six-hundred and sixty-five page book which is the equivalent of working on a term paper THAT NEVER GOES AWAY.
  3. 'Tis the season for sloth.
  4. Between reading Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth and J.W. Rinzler's amazing The Making of The Empire Strikes Back I've been as distracted as a kid with O.C.D. at Comic-Con.
  5. Nothing of any real pressing import has inspired me to write.
But write I must and write I shall.  I just wanted to take a moment to observe what it was like to spend a brief amount of time back home in Newfoundland for Christma..., er, The Holidays.

According to a census in 2001 the population in Newfoundland and Labrador was 508,875.  Of that population, 187,445 call themselves Catholic and 303,200 were listed as Protestant.   That means that under 2% of the population is of a different faith.  Now, granted, this was ten years ago, but trust me when I tell you that Newfoundland still isn't what I'd describe as a religious melting pot.

Frankly, it's fascinating to spend ten days in a place who's provincial home-grown television station NTV unabashedly wishes all of it's viewers a "Merry Christmas!".  Or the local weekly TV guide The Newfoundland Herald innocently features a nativity scene on the cover.  Everywhere I went people were throwing around the sentiment of "Merry Christmas!" with such gratuitous, gleeful, reckless abandon I felt like I was ten years old again.

Lemme tell ya, folks, these people certainly don't need any tired, cliched signs on the side of a church to be reminded that "Jebus is the Reason for the Aforementioned Season".  They have four-hundred and ninety thousand other residents to do it for them!  

For someone who's worked in anally-retentive/overtly-politically-correct environments for the past fifteen years this was a bit of a system shock.  After all I've witnessed a company's solicitation policies invoked when someone tried to give a co-worker a Christmas card.  I've witnesses the equivalent of a U.N. debate when it was proposed that the name of the annual "Christmas Party" be changed to the blandly non-committal "Winter Gala".  When someone asked if they could "wish their customers 'Merry Christmas'?" the powers-that-be answered "Well, if in doubt go with a nice, generic, non-threatening 'Happy Holidays'!" then I always erred on the side of caution and never said it at all. 

Thanks to a long line of work-related authority figures I came to view those two words as the sentimental equivalent of touching a hot burner on a stove.  

But this really didn't upset me very much.  In a way, I think their concern is justified.  Trust me, I'm not a very religious person (read: at all) and I despise thoughts of exclusion.  I hated it when my Muslim pal Sohail in Grade Four had to put his head down or leave the room when we said the Lord's prayer in school.  I would also cringe when I overheard ignorant yahoos wish their contact at "Meyer & Rabinowitz Law Firm" a Merry Christmas. 

But there's something so charmingly innocent about spending time in Newfoundland during this time of year.  It's like being in an episode of Mad Men with less misogyny and a bit more drinking.

Look, I know our world is more multicultural then ever, and frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way.  I like variety in my fellow global co-inhabitants.  Different people and their beliefs makes living on this particular planet all the more interesting.

But the innocent child in me still wants permission to gleefully and giddily wish people an uninhibited "Merry Christmas".  I don't want to feel as if I've just gotten away with something on those rare occasion when I say it or experience pangs of regret for uttering a sentiment that is, in this day and age, seems almost anarchically naive and exclusive. 

Those days may be gone which makes me a little sad.  And also strangely relieved...

EPIC: The debate rages!

It's okay!  Isn't it?

FAIL:  Completely unrelated, but I can't believe how natural this kid is able to act after smoking his Dad in the head with a DVD: