Sanderson Jones: Taking Liberties

August is a painful month for Edinburgh locals. Not only do some bastards bugger off for the entire month, renting their homes out as “party flats,” but every nook of the city is hastily transformed into a dozen-seat venue for a variety of talent, all of whom spends 12 hours a day ambushing passers-by with advertisement postcards.

Getting into any of these shows is a trial, as the Fringe follows the typical UK festival tradition of nurturing a cramped, surly chaotic atmosphere all but devoid of accessible bathrooms. Sanderson Jones‘ show, tucked away in the Five Pound Fringe ghetto, initially was no exception. The venue was on the top floor of a hole in a wall, the door to which was completely blocked by amateurs with power tools bashing a groove in their stoop and pulling out the wall’s wiring. Customers who dared approach at the show’s start time were snapped at to go into a nearby bar to wait, then thirty seconds later were snapped at to form a queue up the stairs and go go go! Since this has happened at every Fringe show we’ve attended (aside from the power tools, a nice improvisation) in the past three years, I’ve come to assume there’s special courses in July, where staff have to act this scenario out again and again through intensive role-play until they’ve got it note-perfect. Bravo, GRV staff – your hard rehearsals were not wasted. Once in the small venue, piercing electropop was playing at roughly six billion decibels while a webcam projected the growing audience’s image on a small screen. Our hopes were no longer high.

But then! Sanderson Jones leapt out, with his lovely red beard and skinny jeans that removed all threat of progeny from his future, and accused my husband of pedophilia. It was funnier than it sounds. His loose theme was how prurient hysteria and paranoia threaten freedom of speech for all, and he approached a genuinely uncomfortable audience threshold with his “I’m drawing a children’s book about prophets of monotheistic Middle Eastern religions, guess which one this is!” bit. He compared the concept of fatwās to cynical advertising campaigns (drawing on his experience as an advertising seller for the Economist magazine), which was a little Bill Hicks, and used Venn diagrams to illustrate the problems of being both a comedian trying to connect to audiences via funny and being a human being trying to connect to other human beings by any means necessary.

And, to make some point or other, the webcam turned out to be a chekov’s gun, ambushing unsuspecting wankers on chatroulette with the sight of a couple dozen strangers waving cheerfully, or wearing creepy masks. I sincerely believe he was making a real point, but was too amused by the half-dozen or so naked cocks that came on screen and rapidly nexted away from us. (For once, South Park didn’t lie to me.)

There were some weak points in the show. A long segment on the Brook Shields photograph removed from the Tate Modern didn’t entirely pan out, despite Jones’ offering of one of his own nude baby pictures as an alternative (awwwww…the cute little ginger toddler). Having that photo up on stillscreen was too creepy to laugh around – which may have been his point, so, good attempt there. And, while his material is generally innovative and personal (despite a few seemingly mandatory “women I want to fuck don’t want to fuck me” bits…which Hicks himself regrettably fell into too damn often for me to deify that talented man), he doesn’t seem quite confident enough. He encouraged audience involvement but was rattled several times afterward at then being talked back to, calling fairly quiet “I want to play too!” outbursts “heckling.” You try to break through the audience’s individual shyness…meh, that’s what you get. It’s just seeking approval from the man in the spotlight everyone’s paying attention to, not repeated drunken screams of “free bird!”

Overall, the guy’s got a lot of potential, and I hope to see more of him.

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reasons to be cheerful #2

Tom Wait’s I Don’t Wanna Grow Up. Perfect Friday song, making the trudge to another day being ground in the gears a little lighter.

This isn’t a music video. This is a dreamscape id-dump via Jim Jarmusch. Waits stuffs himself onto a tiny set, defiantly attempting to remain in the cramped world of adolescent fantasy – the rock god on stage with a guitar and a frame of lights. Intercut with this image is a spacious envisioning of the same concept – Waits trundling around his backyard (…probably, given that there’s a thousand photos of him and that tree) on a kid’s bike in a devil-horn cape, a red fuck-me pump on one foot and his usual black boot on the other, showing off a rather tragic set of teeth. Other times, in the same outfit, he’s enjoying a martini and cigar in a Coffee and Cigarettes bar. If there’s any message in this beautiful mess, it’s to leave nostalgic sets adolescent freedom in the attic and start defying whatever rigid definitions of an adult man or woman piss you off most in the now.

Futurama, the return

Futurama: Rebirth

Futurama returned from a long hiatus and a series of gleefully canon-burning dvd-movies with the soothing burr of Hypno-toad, Bender’s voiceover assuring viewers there had been no gap:  “On the count of three, you will awaken feeling refreshed, as if Futurama  had never been canceled by idiots, then brought back by bigger idiots.”

I don’t usually review pure comedies (unless they’re offensively terrible), because I love them, and I can’t bear to dissect and thus kill what I love. Futurama has a special place in my pantheon of favorites, up there with The Simpsons, Wonderfalls, Firefly, and many other mandatory beloveds of rapidly aging pseudo-intellectual hispter douchebags. It beat them all, though, by intelligently lampooning hard scifi and actual science and philosophy amidst the sitcom buffoonery and many, many dick jokes. If I’m a sucker for anything, its geek in-jokes and any phrase that ends in “…shiny metal ass!”

The inner critical snob wonders if it isn’t better to leave the original seasons of Futurama as a perfectly imperfect whole, the AV nerd bullied out of the picture as often as possible by the big jock network but infinitely rewarding when taken on its own, socially malformed, D&D-loving, terms. Mainstream culture has moved on since the show premiered in 1999 (aie…has it ever…), and the ticklish postmodern combination of rarified booklearning with joyfully stupid pop-culture has been declared passé. By stupid people, I say, who want nothing more than laughs there’s no chance they’ll need explained to them. Snark is still on the menu, jah, and subculture elitism, in spades, but giddy intellectualism motivated purely by free-ranging interest? That’s just suspect. I re-watched Waking Life a couple of weeks ago for the first time since seeing it in Baltimore’s Charles Theatre as a recent grad, and was struck by terrorist gestures being referenced in positive liberal terms. I remember being dead bored in art classes, some paunchy 40ish professor exhorting us to get out there and be “cultural bombs,” that anti-consumerist revolutionary thought and art was nothing without the sincere efforts of Shiva-style destruction.

Now, when the cultural dialogue has been dominated by a nearly decade-old act of actual terrorism – can you imagine? While studying for a later degree, professors advised young artists to keep our heads down, politically, and focus on inoffensive commercial impact.

But I digress, per usual. The question in mind – can Futurama be Futurama in a era that doesn’t tolerate the tipping of genuine sacred cows?

Who am I kidding? I’m elated we’re getting more. I watched the hell out of the movies, despite their variable quality, and the nagging feeling I was seeing creator-produced fanfic. They were fun because they grabbed the chance to rip apart the world built up over four years, deconstructing deconstructions – with dick jokes. And I’ll love each new episode that comes out like minutes in a stay of execution.

The new episodes are promising, and chock full of memorable quotes. And, particularly in the pilot, they do their best without resorting to Patrick Duffy dreaming away an entire season. Futurama has had two definitive endings. Both identically tied up the Sam-and-Diane relationship of Leela and Fry, and the latter left the entire crew as hotly pursued fugitives diving into a mysterious wormhole. There’s no possibility of returning from that burned bridge to anything like the previous status quo without a ridiculous asspull.

And they did, but at least they hung a lampshade on it. It’s hard to hate an episode that morphs from Philip K Dick to Terminator in less than a minute. And the status, it’s somewhat quo. Fry and Leela seemed poised to venture into a relationship, potentially mining a new ore of scifi parody (how hard is it to maintain a LTR in a genre dominated by green alien babes?), but Leela’s shotgun fornication with her first-season one-night-stand appears to have derailed that. Maybe.

The lower budget shows at times, mostly in the background quality. There’s a lot of generic color swoops representing greenery on exotic planets. It’s not as visually fancy as the later seasons and movies.

The biggest change is the tonal dominance of good old-fashioned raunchy humor, from the repeated Leela and Amy partial nudity (…not that I’m complaining, mind you), to a two-headed goat vomiting from both ends, to a singing boil referencing an already stale pop-cultural phenomenon. Part of this is the move to cable, requiring less deft censor-dodging, and part is a mass cultural shift epitomised by the success of Sacha Baron Cohen, pure adolescent envelope-pushing. I’m a big fan of dick jokes and mind-bending sexual entendres (seriously, how did Bender and Amy even…nevermind), but they’re funnier when set off by humor that doesn’t depend solely on infantile shock. If I wanted a half hour of nothing but half-rate dada-esque offense, I’d watch Family Guy.

Which I do, actually. But Family Guy is never going to have a Heidegger joke, or reference Stephen Hawking, unless it’s to make fun of the man’s super-sweet wheelchair and speaking software.

So, to sum up: yay, more Futurama!  …please don’t let it suck, because I will love it regardless, and would like to have some respect for my critical faculties.

reasons to be cheerful #1

This song – I defy you to not be humming “inky dinky doo dah morning (inky dinky doo dah! doo dah!)” for the rest of the day your life.

Thank you, Cinema Snob. I kinda love you.

Volver: for the love of Woman

Agustina, alone

Pedro Almodóvar is best known among international film fans as a director and writer who loves women, making films with prominent roles for mothers, lovers, and prostitutes. I would agree with this, to the degree that he loves looking at women’s bodies, the potential for fucking those bodies, and most importantly the roles they play in building men’s lives and sparking the fantasies of men’s inner worlds.

I’ll be honest: I’ve held a grudge since 2002’s Hable con ella, which first turned out to not be about the fascinating, fierce bullfighter (who is gored and silenced early in the first act), and then literally made two women into the voiceless objects that allow their creepy male paramours to bond with each other. The only woman who can truly listen and be loved is one in a coma, unable to interfere in a man’s fantasy of his relationship. Thanks, Pedro!

I am being unfair to that film’s characters and rich plot – after all, one of these men does save his beloved, by raping her comatose body and impregnating her with the stillborn infant whose birth will “wake her up.” What a hero!

Volver is less infuriating, but also less interesting in general.  Almodóvar wrote and directed a film about close relationships between women and their lives in the oppressive shadow of death-focused superstitions in Almodóvar’s native La Mancha. The men in their lives are almost incidental – almost.

There are many, many female characters – two sisters, their mother and aunt, a teenage daughter, assorted friends (one of whom is, of course, a prostitute) – but not much characterisation spread thinly between them. They have scandalous secrets, and the slow revelation of these secrets is what passes for a plot – when all has been revealed to the audience, the film ends, leaving all other threads still undeveloped. For instance, the daughter demands to know who her biological father is, and her mother promises to tell her, but the film ends without that revelation. The audience has learned the shocking truth – she is the product of incestuous rape, both her mother’s daughter and half-sister – but she does not. Her arc is a flat line that peters out, like those of every other character.

There are a few keenly observed scenes, particularly in the emptiness and omnipresence of female socialising. Women meet, all kiss each other several times, polite words are shared but not engaged with, and they move on to the next visit, all busy-ness without purpose. At a funeral, the women squish together into a small room and the background conversation is like the buzz of a hive, oppressive and breathless. The buzz is silenced while one women tells a dramatic ghost story, and immediately starts up again at the story’s end. Moments of lives tick away in this, as wasted and ritualistic as the intense cleaning of graves that opens the film.

But none of these women are individual people. They are fractions of Woman, coming together seamlessly when needed, much like Voltron. This claustrophobic, demanding scene is their natural environment. When one demands they hand over their groceries, shelter a murderer, or help bury their husband’s body, they do so immediately. Conflicts are brief and aborted, immediately forgiven in the next scene with a hug and sloppy kisses, never to be mentioned again.

Males don’t fare very well in this film, either. Of the two men who have any driving force on the so-called plot, one is entirely off-screen, and both molested their biological or adopted daughters. The mere presence of pubescent pussy, even attached to someone whose diapers they changed, transforms them into heartless monsters of lust who deserve to die in a fire/leap on a kitchen knife.

Agustina, pictured above, is the best representation of the film. She is a woman who is alone, no family, no children, no job, who nonetheless takes care of an elderly neighbor, checking in on her daily and buying her food. She is tormented by the unknown fate of her mother, who disappeared the night her friends’ parents died together in a mysterious fire. Then, she’s diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer, and when her friends refuse to help her discover only whether her mother is dead or alive, goes on a talk show (in return for money that will allow her to seek life-saving medical attention) to air her story. But, she is too noble to air everyone’s dirty linen, and walks off the set. After all, on some level she knows what everyone else already seems to – her mother was having an affair with her friend’s horrible, daughter-raping father, whose wife set the fire that killed them both and allowed everyone to believe it was her who had died.

Her resolution? The cowardly murderer returns as a “ghost” to take care of Agustina as she dies, rather than confessing and giving the gentle and selfless Agustina some peace, or even providing her with money to receive treatment and potentially live. Er, yay?

This film is much like listening to some blowhard dinosaur expounding on the wonders of women and why he loves them so much: “They share my bed, raise my children, feed me and clean my house, support my community, absorb my abuse, philandering and abandonment, and die overworked and exhausted – such a wonderful mystery Woman is; I, as a mere Man, can never be expected to understand!”

Lost Season 6: winnowing down the Candidates

The Candidate: KwonsLost Season 6: The Candidate

It’s more than a little sad that the most engaging moment of the last several episodes was the mutual death scene of two characters that have been entirely wasted for two seasons: Jin and Sun Kwon. While entire episodes have been devoted to the eternal romantic connection forged by unconsummated crushes, the only enduring marriage among characters was reduced to a pale reflection of the Desmond and Penny saga, leaving Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim little to do but tag along with B-storylines and spout “Have you seen my spouse?” in alternating episodes. Their long-awaited reunion consisted of a beachside embrace and a hurried conversation in a polar bear cage acknowledging that they’ve produced a beautiful child.

It’s wonderfully human that neither of them mention Ji Yeon, carefully, as they argue whether Jin should leave Sun to die alone in the rapidly filling submarine. The right answer is, of course, that Jin try to escape so that their daughter will potentially have one parent to raise her rather than her terrifying and immoral grandfather. But in this moment, neither wants to be without the other, and Jin’s sacrifice of his own life is flawed self-indulgence.

The two of them are losing their hard-earned future, but the fight for the island’s future is losing much more, particularly a woman who was determined to stand against her father’s selfish machinations to align with those who would control its mysterious and dangerous energy source. But who thinks of this as their linked hands come apart – certainly not the plot, which lost this thread two years ago. Sun was no longer a nascent force of big business but a forlorn wife, needing her husband to be a whole person.

A lot happens in this episode – far too much, really. The Kwons wrap up their attenuated  storyline in minutes, and die. Sayid suddenly redeems himself with a heroic sacrifice. Lapidus dies (possibly), practically off-camera and entirely unnoticed by the other survivors. Jack embraces the way of faith, spelling out the rules of engagement Smokey seems to be held to, and Sawyer refuses to play along with anything he doesn’t understand. Boom. More importantly, Smokey himself is finally confirmed to be evil (at least from the survivors’ point of view), as he is a very resentful babysitter saying anything that might manipulate the Candidates into killing themselves off with some handy C-4. After too many episodes of long green walks, separations, reunions, and seemingly portentous chats that are so often retconned as to be meaningless, this episode was felt rushed and almost slapdash, with promised character revelations whizzing past basely seen.

The entire series is feeling like narrative Calvinball, and the final revelation will be the rules we should have been playing along to the entire time.

Iron Man 2: the long-deferred revenge of Joel Robinson

Joel Robinson and 'bots: v1

Before the shiny suits and kill-drones...

It’s not worse than Transformers 2, but only because it’s a law of physics.