Category Archives: Pop Culture

Remasters gone wild

I’m a bit of a sucker for remastered music. I’ve rejoined the BMG music club three times for the remastered Paul Simon and Bob Dylan libraries alone. I’ve bought The Who’s Live at Leeds twice (expanded CD reissue and Deluxe Edition 2-CD set); The Clash’s London Calling twice (pre-remaster CD and 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition 2-CD/1-DVD set); and The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet twice (original CD and remastered CD/SACD hybrid), among others — though I’ve largely resisted the shameless re-rerepackaging of Elvis Costello’s albums. (Out of all my cremastered CDs, the only ones I can truly tell are an upgrade are The Band’s first two albums.)

I’ve also avoided the even more shameless repackaging of movies for various DVD reissues. So while I understand the intended audience of the Criterion Collection’s two-disc reissue of The Ice Storm (i.e. suckers like me), I couldn’t help but laugh when I read this in the Washington Post’s review:

Thanks to the Criterion Collection, releasing “The Ice Storm” today in a two-disc set ($39.95), the movie has a shot at rediscovery. The restored digital transfer, accompanied by audio commentary from Lee and screenwriter/producer James Schamus, allows viewers to see every detail in all its exquisite, retro glory. (emphasis added)

Keep in mind that The Ice Storm came out in 1997. I love the implication that the original print was found peeling and crumbling in some dank movie studio vault, and had to be restored to its full glory … 11 years after it originally came out.

And now that Sony has won the high-def DVD war, I guess we should brace ourselves for the coming Blu-ray remasters. Imagine the ad copy for the 2010 Transformers Blu-ray Legacy Edition: “You’ve never seen imaginary giant talking robot trucks like this before! Watch Shia LaBeouf talk to a car in this high-definition, luminously restored digital transfer that rescues a modern classic from the blurry, fading, what-were-they-thinking 2007 original digital file!”

David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle, revisited

So The Wire is over, and there’s no shortage of response around the Web. I’ll post my thoughts shortly about the show overall and how it stacks up to Sopranos/Deadwood, but for now I want to address David Simon’s assessment of the ills of modern journalism.

After the season’s first episode aired, Simon responded to Slate’s TV Club discussion of the show by saying: “The Wire’s depiction of the multitude of problems facing newspapers and high-end journalism will either stand or fall on what happens on screen, not on the back-hallway debate over the past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities of those who create it.” Well, he’s had his on-screen say. And all it did was nearly ruin one of the best shows on TV and prove that David Simon has either no clue or simply nothing interesting to say about the very real, very serious problems facing newspapers in 2008.

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Hey, Smithsonian: How about an American Amusements exhibit?

Over at Kotaku, Maggie Greene highlights a recently launched cultural project: Preserving Virtual Worlds, an attempt to collect and preserve video games before they’re lost to the ages. It’s an important undertaking, and unlike other massive entertainment archives could be relatively easy to complete and bring to the public. After all, video games are only decades old, whereas recorded music and film are more than a century old. And old video games would become the tiniest of files, making it easy to make nearly anything pre-PlayStation available without crashing servers. (Go here for an in-depth look at the project.)

But as far as I can tell, the project only covers video games from the modern era — and the history of video games is much older than Pong. I was reminded of this when I visited Musee Mecanique in San Francisco last year. The attraction is the closest thing I’ve seen to a museum of American amusuments: modern-day arcade games and pinball machines sit beside 80-year-old cast-iron baseball games, penny-movie players, and moving dioramas — nearly all of them playable. I wrote about Musee Mecanique when I returned home:

The saddest part of Musee Mecanique is how unique it is. These games are a vital part of modern America’s entertainment history, but I’ve never seen a place besides this one that understands that and takes the kind of curatorial approach to old amusements that is necessary to preserve and show them to future generations. … It’s tough to think that most of the old machines that haven’t long since been trashed are probably just sitting in someone’s attic fading into a rust-and-dust obscurity.

These days, there are any number of collections of 80s video games available. Anybody interested in seeing what the early games were like can download Joust from Xbox Live Arcade or try GameTap. But the arcade dates back much further, and it’s a shame there are so few places where we can see that earlier history. The Smithsonian should be collecting these cultural artifacts; given the growth of video games in the last 20 years, the American History Museum should have a permanent exhibit dedicated to American amusements and include a room with playable games like the ones at Musee Mecanique so kids can see what their great-great-grandparents played long before there was Mario and Grand Theft Auto.

After reading Maggie Greene’s post, I am officially resurrecting this idea. At first I thought it might be a tough sell to get the government to put its imprimatur on video games, but the Library of Congress is already behind the Preserving Virtual Worlds project. And after major exhibits on Star Wars and Star Trek, not to mention all the pop culture artifacts that are in the American History Museum’s permanent collection, the idea of video games in the Smithsonian isn’t so far-fetched.

What would this entail? For funding, it would be relatively easy to assemble an industry-spanning lineup of companies and groups eager to see video games get the kind of cultural acceptance that only the Smithsonian can bequeath. Say Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, the Entertainment Software Association, plus MIT and Stanford for some academic heft. Get a Henry Jenkins or Ian Bogost figure to co-curate with someone from the Smithsonian.

The exhibit could combine traditional historical artifacts behind glass — like those from the Sackler Gallery’s 2005 Asian Games exhibition — with cultural history (trace the fear of pool halls and pinball to today’s worries over violent video games) and, crucially, a room of playable amusements and video games spanning the last century. Include some pachinko machines and other foreign amusements for some global flare. And bring in Shigeru Miyamoto and Nolan Bushnell for the grand opening. It would be the most popular exhibit the Smithsonian’s ever had (take that, Vermeer!).

The need for an exhibit like this will only become more pressing as video games become ever more popular and sophisticated. And old, forgotten amusements are only going to get rustier. Movies, TV, and comics have all been embraced by the curators of American culture. It’s high time video games had the same chance.

Jimmy Kimmel is engaging in coital relations with Ben Affleck

The New York Times provided a hilarious example of newspapers’ selfenforced irrelevancy the other day, when they attempted to write about Jimmy Kimmel’s “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck” response to Sarah Silverman’s “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” video. The article is meant to show the Times is totally plugged into the viral vidgeist — but of course it serves only to show how out of touch and prude newspapers are.

As Vulture points out, “The entire article is a masterpiece of tortured syntax that deftly removes all humor from the videos.” Here are the best parts, as flagged by Vulture:

“A satiric video in which Mr. Kimmel, the host of the ABC late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, talks enthusiastically — jokingly, we are led to believe — about his sexual relationship with Ben Affleck, has been a huge hit online. …

“After Ms. Silverman revealed that she was hooking up with Mr. Damon — everywhere, it seemed, and all the time — Mr. Kimmel vowed to take his revenge. … Most of the lyrics of Mr. Kimmel’s and Ms. Silverman’s songs are too graphic to be repeated here. One vulgar word describing the coital relations between, on the one bed, Ms. Silverman and Mr. Damon, and on the other, Mr. Kimmel and Mr. Affleck, was repeatedly bleeped out for the broadcast of each video.”

Never mind the priceless juxtaposition of New York Times second-reference style with the subject (Mr. Kimmel is fucking Mr. Affleck — must show the proper deference!). Could the Times possibly have written a more unironic, monocle-wearing ode to their own dowdiness? It’s not just the language dodge, which is bad enough. They’re still writing about comedy bits with a straight face — the way the Times probably wrote about that just wonderfully droll Church Lady in 1988.

This was a one-off (two-off, really) viral video attempt. Proper responses include laughing and forwarding to a friend; watching a second time; ignoring; and writing a blog post about the inevitable and annoying response videos. Responses that show you don’t get it include: writing a long article simply summarizing the videos — even while blushing and hiding from the central joke — and treating them like big productions that need to be explained and reported on.

R2-D2 and the siny guy

I’m probably a little late to this party, but this is just too cute.

She’s right: The siny guy always worries, that pansy!

Diablo Cody wins for Lamest Punk Oscar Statement

Few things are more annoying than celebrities-slash-“artists” taking meaningless faux-stands against the celebrity and public relations machines that drive American pop culture. My all-time favorite example is Kurt Cobain wearing a “Corporate magazines still suck” T-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone. Because, you know, that’s so much more punk than simply turning down requests for an interview and not appearing on the cover of the country’s biggest music magazine. He took a stand, maaaan.

Anyway, Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody joined these esteemed ranks when she totally refused to wear designer Stuart Weitzman’s diamond-studded shoes on the Oscars red carpet Sunday. See, she found out they cost like a million dollars — and there are people starving in Haiti, maaaan. I totally believe her when she writes things like this on her MySpace blog:

I must have somehow missed the part where my shoes cost a MILLION FUCKING DOLLARS and my “choice” of footwear would be publicized nationwide. I honestly thought they were just sparkly shoes. Mr. Weitzman did mention that the diamonds were real when I tried them on, but I’m not Nancy Rockman, Expert Gemologist. I didn’t, you know, bust out my miniature spyglass and assess the potential worth of my kicks.

She just thought that they were sparkly shoes, people! How could she possibly have known that Weitzman makes a special pair of shoes for one rising star every year?! Doesn’t every actress wear zirconia-encrusted shoes on the red carpet? It’s not like Weitzman told her how expensive the shoes were, right? Oh, he did? Okay, well at least she wouldn’t participate in any other over-extravagant red carpet traditions, right? Uh — wearing a Dior dress doesn’t count, does it? Surely those sparkly things at the neckline were just zirconia! And anyway, why would she have agreed to wear the shoes when she’s doing everything possible to stay out of the public eye? According to her blog,

I would never consent to a lame publicity stunt at a time when I already want to hide.

Really, folks, just leave her alone! She doesn’t want to talk anymore about how she was just a li’l stripper-turned-blogger-turned-screenwriter before Juno, or about her book, or her Entertainment Weekly column. She’s way too real and punk for any of that kind of self-promotion.

Just leave her alone and let her wear her Dior and act like she’s Avril Lavigne’s punker/realer big sister in peace. And then read her blog about it.

SNL’s ‘Milkshake’ miss and the limits of viral video fads

Saturday Night Live’s first post-strike episode was surprisingly solid, thanks to Tina Fey and her love of slightly sexist humor and poop jokes. Only one sketch bombed (a TMI drunken wedding toast) and an otherwise brilliant Rock of Love parody was ruined by Amy Poehler’s annoying one-legged farter (topic for future consideration: why SNL still bothers to come up with “characters” and why SNL characters and catch phrases were ever big deals in the first place).

The most interesting sketch came near the end, when a scene opened on Bill Hader doing a spot-on Daniel Plainview impression inside what turned out to be an old-fashioned soda shop. Sure enough, it was an “I Drink Your Milkshake” sketch. And it got an interesting audience response — not crickets or forced laughter, but what seemed to me to be chuckles of sheer bafflement. Most of the audience simply didn’t know what was going on. (The biggest laugh line was Kenan Thompson joking that Hader would get a cold from his shake — hardly a reference to the original gag or the movie.) It was a great lesson in the limited reach of Internet fads and viral video.

The sketch is based on a scene from There Will Be Blood in which Daniel Day-Lewis’ crazed oilman shouts “I drink your milkshake!” I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I gather it’s roughly equivalent to Borat saying “I crush her” only more violent. Various geniuses made viral videos parodying the line, or mashing it up with the Kelis song “Milkshake,” or otherwise creating Internet hilarity. New York Magazine’s Vulture blog called it (only semi-sarcastically, as far as I can tell) “2008’s fastest-growing catchphrase” and provided a guide to its proper usage. Various non-NYC-insidery-blog media outlets picked up on what the cool kids were blogging about, and soon you had the Associated Press noting in its Oscar roundup:

Despite the art-house nature of “There Will Be Blood,” Day-Lewis’ performance has seeped its way into popular culture. A line he bellows during the film’s stunningly violent climax — “I drink your milkshake!” — has become a bit of a catch phrase.

Note the hedge “a bit.” Judging by the response to SNL’s milkshake sketch, the catch phrase hasn’t seeped very far beyond the in-the-know audience from which it came. It’s saying a lot if Saturday Night Live’s audience — not a hip bunch like the Daily Show crowd, but probably a good barometer of general pop culture awareness — missed the joke.

The sketch is a good reminder of how even the Internet’s top pop culture blogs are still pretty self-contained and inter-referential and off the general population’s radar. The same thing happened last year when Best Week Ever discovered “Chocolate Rain.” They tried to turn their discovery into a pop culture phenomenon; viral vid parodies ensued; and “Chocolate Rain” singer Tay Zonday appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show — again, to the audience’s utter bafflement.

I Drink Your Milkshake and Chocolate Rain are both fascinating examples of pop culture’s real-time, Internet-era metamorphosis. Their narrow reach, and the hipster blogs’ attempts to recreate old-school fads like catch phrases and characters in viral video form, show that maybe things aren’t changing as quickly as we thought.

Some honest comics nostalgia, for once

Over at Slate, Grady Hendrix has written a nice appreciation of Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, who died last week. I’ve never read the comic book (nor have I seen the notorious George Lucas movie “adaptation”), but I’ll definitely be looking for the Essential collection after reading Hendrix’s piece:

Howard the Duck sent up the ’70s and parodied Marvel’s purple prose style (“The ghastly rumble of the explosion reverberates off the Pocono mountainsides—a sonorous death burp echoing into eternity. …”), but the book grew into something deeper. Howard raged against the glorification of violence, had a nervous breakdown, lost Beverly to Dr. Bong, was transformed into a man, and, in the end, rejected his friends and bitterly set out on his own, trying to forget a past of pointless superfights. One issue was all text; another took place entirely on a long bus trip. These were surreal flights of fancy with razor-tipped wings, America’s answer to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

What I like most about the piece is that it dispenses with the post-Kavalier and Clay veneration of golden and silver age comics and recognizes that, at heart, they aren’t much more than fun cultural artifacts:

The clunky comic books written for Marvel and DC (the two biggest comic book companies) in the 1960s and ’70s may have acquired a certain retro chic, yet they bear almost no relation to the comic books of today. Marvel was the House That Squares Built, and in the kingdom of the unhip, Gerber was the only writer who had a clue.

[large snip]

Gerber was the amphibian stage in the evolution of comic books, from when they swam in the funny-book oceans to the modern age, when graphic novels walk the earth and earn glowing reviews in the New York Times.

The early superhero books were obviously important to their historical contexts. And I like a good old-school Justice League of America 100-Page Super Spectacular as much as anyone. But the deification of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Siegel & Shuster, et. al. can be tiresome. This is a nice, if minor, corrective.

In other comics news, I’m definitely going to get this book.

Nerd alert!

I’m surprised to find that I subscribe fully to only one of the Onion A.V. Club’s “20 pop-cultural obsessions even geekier than Monty Python.

I stopped being a Simpsons nerd after circa season 10 (though I still have plenty of Milhouse in me), and my Magic the Gathering obsession lasted less than two years back in high school. Now if I quit my fantasy baseball league like I promised myself I’d do, I’ll be nerd-free!

He looks like a cross between …

One game I like to play is to figure out which famous people another famous person looks like. So I will make this a recurring blog feature: “He looks like a cross between…” (Hmm … probably deserves a pithier name.)

First up: Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. (I’ve only just started watching, but it’s great so far. Like The [BBC] Office and Curb, but without the misanthropy and self-loathing!) He looks like a cross between Benicio Del Toro and Peter Gallagher, with a dash of They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh.