Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture Shock 12.29.11: Not everything was annoying in 2011

Once again, it's time to say goodbye and good riddance to another year.

As far as years go, 2011 isn't winning any awards, but at least it isn't the end of the world. For that, we have to wait until next December, or so I'm told by people who don't really understand how calendars work.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the Mayan calendar "runs out." This uneventful event is apparently regarded as cosmically significant by people who don't realize that our own Gregorian calendar runs out every Dec. 31 — at which point it cycles back to the beginning, as it has since it was introduced in 1582, replacing the Julian calendar, which ran out with virtually identical frequency, give or take a few doomsdays.

At this point, however, if the world did end, I'd be hard pressed to say we didn't have it coming.

When I look back at 2011 and see that one of the cultural high points was the return of "Beavis and Butt-Head" to MTV, I know the pickings are pretty slim.

Still, in keeping with the spirit of the season, here are a few things that did not annoy me in 2011:

The sixth season of "Doctor Who" was the best since the show's revival in 2005, and Matt Smith firmly established himself as my favorite Doctor since Tom Baker's tenure in the 1970s.

"House" is never going to be as good as the first three seasons were, but at least the current Cuddy-free season is an improvement over last year's. Nothing against departed co-star Lisa Edelstein, but after the writers decided to have House and Cuddy get together — and then break up — her leaving was the only thing that could save the show. It has been more than 20 years since Dave and Maddie's kiss of death on "Moonlighting," yet TV writers still tempt fate.

C'est la vie.

At the movies, the best of the best was Werner Herzog's 3-D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

For superhero movies, it was a down year, with "X-Men: First Class" the best of the bunch, despite glaring flaws like January Jones' non-performance. I have higher hopes in 2012 for "The Avengers," but I'm worried about "The Dark Knight Rises," which seems dangerously close to taking the whole "taking Batman seriously" thing way too seriously.

Apart from "The Avengers," the two films I'm most anticipating are both prequels: Ridley Scott's "Alien" prequel "Prometheus," and Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," featuring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. (If you're honest, you'll admit "The Hobbit" is a much better story than the bloated "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.) Speaking of Martin Freeman, he and Benedict Cumberbatch return next year for a second season of "Sherlock," the BBC's modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes, from the creative team of Mark Gatiss ("League of Gentlemen") and Steven Moffat ("Doctor Who").

The best books I read in 2011 were mostly nonfiction: "The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human" by V.S. Ramachandran and "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark," Brian Kellow's biography of the still-influential New Yorker movie critic whose style the rest of us all lamely try to imitate.

I'll have to take an incomplete on Haruki Murakami's newly translated novel "1Q84," which I've just started and is approximately the length of the Tokyo phone directory.

And lastly, on the music front, a word of advice: If you have a chance to see thepau Alabama Shakes perform live, take it. This little band, originally from Athens — as am I, so I confess a slight bias — is probably about to hit it big, and deservedly so.

For the Shakes, 2011 wasn't a bad year at all. But 2012 will be even better.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Culture Shock 12.22.11: When you wish upon a Wish Book

There it is was, on page 442. Seven and a half feet long, and the Holy Grail of G.I. Joe toys — the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier.

At a retail price of $109.99 — in 1985 dollars — you had to be a very good boy indeed for Santa to leave that under your Christmas tree.

I was never that good, but that's why they called it the "Wish Book," wasn't it?

Before the Internet killed the catalog business, you knew the Christmas shopping season had begun when the Sears Wish Book arrived in your mailbox. There were other catalogs — the J.C. Penny catalog wasn't bad — but none had the allure of the Wish Book. Whether you were a boy or a girl, it had just what you were looking for, whether or not you knew you were looking for it.

That's my idea of an "old-fashioned Christmas."

From remote-controlled airplanes and Teddy Ruxpin storytelling bears to Cabbage Patch Kids and the Atari 2600, the Wish Book was an illustrated guidebook to Christmas bliss.

You leafed through its slick, glossy pages — past the clothes and furniture, bedroom linens and other boring, adult things — and you stared in wonder, not just at the fancy, high-end toys that you suspected might be outside of Santa's price range, but at the elaborate displays of toys in action.

A two-page layout of "Star Wars" action figures might feature dozens of Stormtrooper action figures. Now that was more like it! Not just the one or two Stormtrooper figures you had, but an entire legion!

That was what you needed if you were serious about recreating scenes from the movies.

Just think: It was someone's job to put together those Wish Book photo shoots. Now that must have been a dream job.

The Internet has changed all that. Sears closed its catalog business in the early 1990s.

Nevermore a Wish Book. But while the Internet is great for ordering things, no website has yet come up with a browsing experience that equals sitting down with a fat, heavy catalog in your lap.

But when you had your wish list, what to do next?

Why, time to take it to the man himself, of course. Santa.

Today, you send a letter or email, or maybe you visit Santa's helper in the red suit at the nearest shopping mall. But there used to be a more ostentatious way of going about it.

Believe it or not, there was a time when TV stations aired shows that were nothing but young children sitting on Santa's lap and telling him what they wanted for Christmas. One of these was "The Santa Show," which aired Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in December on WAAY-31, taking half of the half-hour time slot usually devoted to cartoons.

A similar show aired for a time on what was then the Shoals area's NBC affiliate, WOWL-15.

Unfortunately, little video evidence of "The Santa Show" remains. You can find almost anything on the Internet, but the only video footage I could locate was a partial episode from 1982 (see vimeo.com/24661874).

I can only assume that most children whose parents videotaped their appearance on "The Santa Show" either destroyed the evidence or are too embarrassed by it to upload it to YouTube.

As I explain to my younger friends who don't remember much of the 1980s, to say nothing of the '70s, it was a different time back then.

Local TV stations were desperate for programming and would air almost anything.

It was a strange time in American history: getting big books in the mail, writing lists on paper and sitting on Santa's lap on local television.

Our children will never believe it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Culture Shock 12.15.11: Superheroes are real, and they look like us

Phoenix Jones is a superhero, or a reasonable facsimile.

For the past year, he has patrolled the neighborhoods of Seattle, stopping fights, changing tires and staring down drug dealers.

Despite incidents that have landed him in the emergency room, he has, amazingly, avoided a trip to the morgue.

Even more amazing, Phoenix Jones isn't alone.

According to journalist Jon Ronson, Phoenix Jones is one of about 200 self-styled, costumed superheroes operating from the Pacific Northwest to Florida.

None, however, embraces the calling as thoroughly as Phoenix Jones.

Ronson explores their comic-book-come-to-life world in his new e-book, "The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: And the Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real-Life Superheroes."

Phoenix Jones doesn't have any super powers. He hasn't been bitten by a radioactive spider or survived a gamma-bomb explosion.

He isn't a billionaire with a cave full of high-tech equipment, which makes you wonder why billionaire do-gooders such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are such slackers. He isn't even a strange visitor from another planet, although that seems almost plausible compared to the truth.

Phoenix Jones does, however, have an origin story of sorts.

After someone broke into his car and his stepson cut his knee on the shattered glass, the man who would become Phoenix Jones took the mask the robber left behind and made it part of a costume.

"They use the mask to conceal their identity," Phoenix Jones tells Ronson. "I use the mask to become an identity."

That's how superheroes talk.

Ronson is no stranger to true stories that are nearly impossible to believe. He also is the author of "The Men Who Stare at Goats," the true story of the U.S. military's forays into spending your tax dollars on paranormal research. (That book was turned into a disappointing movie starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.)

As advertised, Phoenix Jones' adventures are amazing — and baffling.

In his spare time, he is a mixed martial arts fighter, and until recently his civilian alter ego worked at a home for autistic children. But he lost that job after he was arrested for using pepper spray to break up a fight.

He was never charged, but now the world knows his secret identity: Benjamin Fodor.

Most of the time, Fodor seems to be acting purely to help others. Then he does something that makes you wonder, such as stopping to have his photograph taken with a fan while letting a suspect get away.

You wonder if maybe being a masked "superhero" isn't a kind of narcissism for the terminally shy.

"When I wear this I don't have to react to you in any way," says another costumed vigilante, Urban Avenger. "Nobody knows what I'm thinking for feeling. ... Sometimes I wish I never had to take the mask off."

In New York, Ronson encounters a group of "heroes" who seem anything but.

"These men just seemed menacing," he writes, "with no fun to them. I don't want my superheroes to be bullies."

Whatever his faults, Phoenix Jones is no bully, but he is imposing.

After watching Phoenix Jones intimidate — by sheer willpower — armed drug dealers into leaving a neighborhood, Ronson becomes a fan.

Whether he is really a superhero or just an arrested adolescent who has let his love of comic books go too far, it's hard not to be a fan of Phoenix Jones.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Culture Shock 12.08.11: These 'Dreams' old but not forgotten

The one thing that strikes me as off about Werner Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is the title.

As we see, these dreams have not been forgotten. They've lived on, surfacing at other times and in other places, long after the cave vanished beneath a rock slide some 20,000 years ago, to be rediscovered only in 1994.

Maybe "Dreams of the Forgotten Cave" is the more accurate title, even if it sounds a bit too much like an Indiana Jones movie crossed with an H.P. Lovecraft story.

The cave is Chauvet Cave, located in southern France and site of the earliest known cave paintings, some of which are between 30,000 and 33,000 years old. As Herzog tells us, that makes them twice as old as any other known prehistoric paintings.

The cave of Altamira in northern Spain — subject of an admiring Steely Dan song, "The Caves of Altamira" — contains paintings generally thought to be about 15,000 years old, although some researchers argue for some of them being as old as the oldest Chauvet paintings.

That, however, is an archaeological dispute for another day, and one that probably doesn't interest Herzog in the slightest.

Given special permission to film in Chauvet — under severe restrictions — Herzog descended with a small crew and advanced 3-D cameras. Confined to a narrow walkway and limited to just four hours a day during six shooting days, Herzog and company nevertheless emerged with remarkable footage that Herzog has fashioned into an equally remarkable film, enhanced by Ernst Reijseger's melancholy score.

The paintings are astonishing for their age. These prehistoric artists capture horses, bison, lions, bears, mammoths and woolly rhinos in unmistakable detail. They simulate the movement of fleeing beasts by giving them extra legs.

More remarkable still, they use the irregularities and contours of the cave walls as part of their paintings. In the torchlight, Herzog notes, these creatures must have seemed to come to life.

For once, the 3-D is worth it. Viewing "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" in the standard two dimensions, you miss the three-dimensional tricks that play out over Chauvet's walls, and which Herzog recreates. Leave it to a 3-D skeptic such as Herzog to finally put the technology to good use. I wouldn't suggest purchasing a 3-D TV and Blu-ray player just for this film, but if you have them already, this is a film you must own, if for no other reason than to show off your home theater.

Perhaps the cavemen who left these paintings were showing off, too.

There is no evidence anyone ever inhabited Chauvet, so its purpose was likely ceremonial. Maybe it was the world's first art gallery, or maybe it was just the world's first graffiti.

In evolutionary psychology, there's a hypothesis that art, like the peacock's tail, is something used to attract a mate. Maybe we're looking at the works of prehistoric Don Juans trying to impress a girl.

The normally fatalistic Herzog (see his "Encounters at the End of the World") seems drawn to these artists as kindred spirits. They, too, document the world around them and seek meaning in symbols. The closest thing we find to a depiction of a human among the horses and rhinos is symbolic — part-woman/part-bison. It's the earliest blending of human and beast, starting a tradition that goes through Egyptian hieroglyphs and continues today in the pages of Batman and Spider-Man comic books.

Who were these Ice Age people who left behind only their art and their hand prints? What were their hopes and fears? In the end, they seem very much like us, and their dreams are our dreams.

In his career-long search for what he calls "ecstatic truth," a truth deeper than mere facts, Herzog has never come closer.

Thankfully, he takes us along for the ride.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Culture Shock 12.01.11: Ken Russell was uncompromising in pursuit of excess

Challenged to make a movie so offensive even he would say it should be banned, British director Ken Russell came up with an eight-minute film called "A Kitten for Hitler."

The title is just the beginning. It's downhill from there. And did I mention it's a Christmas movie?

Best known for his adaptations of D.H. Lawrence novels and "Altered States," his psychedelic foray into science fiction, Russell died Sunday at age 84 after a series of strokes.

Many filmmakers are described as "uncompromising," but few have earned that descriptive so thoroughly as Russell, who was uncompromising in his pursuit of cinematic excess.

Baffled audiences? An occupational hazard. Outraged critics? Serves the bums right.

Often, to watch a Ken Russell film is to be assaulted by sight and sound. If film is a visual medium more than a narrative one, Russell carried that to its logical — or is it illogical? — conclusion. In his hands, even so straightforward a genre as the biopic becomes a mad experiment in imagery and symbolism. The facts of the matter, when they matter at all, are in service to what you see.

Russell described "The Music Lovers," his 1970 film about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as a movie about a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac.

That's a cute way of putting it. It's also a story of repression, obsession and madness. One thing it's not is a literal biography of Tchaikovsky. But it shouldn't be taken literally in any case. It's a backdrop on which Russell can project the fantasies, fears, nightmares and delusions of his characters, all set to the compositions of the Russian composer at the center of the proceedings.

By the time the "1812 Overture" inevitably comes along, we're not surprised to see actual canons going off and beheading Tchaikovsky's tormentors.

Even when working with a more traditional narrative, as in "Altered States" or his adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Lair of the White Worm," Russell used dreams and hallucinations to stunning visual and thematic effect.

His frequent collaborator — you might even say "muse" — Glenda Jackson, who won an Oscar for her role in Russell's "Women in Love," called him an "incredible visual genius." But he also was a director who got brave performances from his actors, whether from Jackson, as Tchaikovsky's doomed wife in "The Music Lovers," or the temperamental Oliver Reed, who shared an infamous nude wrestling scene with Alan Bates in "Women in Love."

For all his visual flair, it might still be possible to dismiss Russell if all there were to his films was the extravagance. In some of his movies, such as 1972's "Savage Messiah," it seems the only direction he gave the cast might have been, "Act louder!"

Not all of his experiments are successful. "Gothic," his 1986 retelling of how Mary Shelley came up with "Frankenstein," is absurd fun, but I'm not at all convinced it's actually a good movie.

Russell also tested the boundaries of subjects such as sex and religion, both of which tend to get artists into trouble. "The Devils," Russell's 1971's film set in a nunnery, deals with both, and it has yet to get a proper U.S. release in its uncut form.

When he didn't break a boundary, he at least showed the rest of us where it is.

In his later years, Russell returned to making television documentaries, which is where he started, and the cinema lost one of its most daring, original voices.

Ultimately, I'm not sure the world really knew what hit it when Russell burst upon the scene in the late 1960s.

And I'm not sure it knows now, either.