Thursday, December 30, 2010

Culture Shock 12.30.10: Summer will determine superhero supremacy

Looking ahead to summer 2011, it seems like the new year will bring the ultimate battle for superhero supremacy.

Three movies from two rival studios will slug it out to see which one can jump-start a franchise that will keep moviegoers flocking to theaters for summers to come.

In one corner are "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger," both produced by Marvel Studios, which is a newly inducted subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co. empire. And while Paramount Pictures is releasing the films under Marvel's pre-buyout distribution deal, both movies still mean a lot to Disney. The House of Mouse is depending on them to be strong lead-ins for 2012's all-star Marvel movie, "The Avengers," which will feature the bulk of Marvel's flagship superheroes — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk — together for the first time on the big screen.

Paramount was originally signed to distribute "The Avengers," too. But in October, Disney agreed to pay Paramount $115 million to get back the distribution rights to "The Avengers" and "Iron Man 3." Disney has a lot riding on "Thor" and "Captain America" doing well, and it's a real gamble because neither film has "Iron Man's" secret weapon: Robert Downey Jr.

"Thor" is scheduled for release May 6, while "Captain America" unspools July 22. Sandwiched in the middle is "Green Lantern," based on one of DC Comics' most venerable superheroes and produced by DC's parent company, Warner Bros. "Green Lantern" is set for release June 17.

"Green Lantern" may be a bigger test for Warner Bros. than "Thor" and "Captain America" are for Disney. With the exception of the Batman franchise — currently going strong despite Joel Schumacher's attempts to kill it in the late '90s — Warner has had rotten luck of lateturning DC's stable of characters into successful film franchises.

"Superman Returns" (2006) was a misguided bore that portrayed the Man of Steel as one-half Christ figure and one-half deadbeat dad, which isn't a winning combination. And the studio's attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen have all been dead ends. One false start was to be helmed by Joss Whedon, who is now in the Marvel/Disney camp writing and directing "The Avengers."

With a likable and, more importantly, bankable leading man in Ryan Reynolds, "Green Lantern" is the best chance for Warner to finally find the hidden potential in all of those superheroes it owns. The Flash is already up next with a tentative 2013 release date.

The bad news for Warner Bros., however, is the fanboy reaction to the first "Green Lantern" footage is mixed. Green Lantern's CGI costume doesn't look quite right, and Reynolds seems miscast as the square-jawed superhero/test pilot Hal Jordan.

The good news for Warner is fanboys don't matter. If they did, "Scott Pilgrim" would have been a huge hit this year rather than a box-office dud. You can make a movie that appeals both to staunch comic-book fans and general audiences, as "Iron Man," "The Dark Knight" and Sam Raimi's first two "Spider-Man" movies prove. But you don't have to cave to fanboy demands to get a hit (for example, the first "X-Men" film).

The better news is, miscast or not, Reynolds at least seems to have the right idea about how to play Green Lantern. He's reportedly described the role as a cross between Han Solo and Chuck Yeager. And as long as his Jordan ends up a bit more Yeager than Solo, that's not a bad combo.

With the summer movie season having become the playground of superheroes and sequels, how these movies fare could determine what movies Hollywood's major studios make for years to come. They will certainly determine whether DC/Warner remains just an also-ran to Marvel/Disney.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Culture Shock 12.23.10: Take Christmas Eve Eve to heart

Time is almost up, because today is Christmas Eve Eve.

It's not an official holiday. It's not even a semi-official holiday like Christmas Eve or Groundhog Day.

But lots of people observe it — unknowingly — nevertheless.

Unsurprisingly, Dec. 23 — or Christmas Eve Eve, as I like to call it — is one of the busiest shopping days of the holiday season, easily outperforming the day that has traditionally held the title of busiest shopping day, the day after Thanksgiving, or "Black Friday."

According to the myth-busting website, Black Friday hasn't done much in recent years to deserve its reputation. Between 1993 and 2002, for example, the day after Thanksgiving placed no better than No. 4 and as low as eighth on the list of busiest Christmas shopping days. Christmas Eve Eve, meanwhile, was the busiest shopping day of the year four times during the same period: 1993, 1994, 1995 and 2000.

The real pattern, according to Snopes, is the final Saturday before Christmas usually claims the top spot, which makes sense. However, Thursdays and Fridays hold their own when they fall on Christmas Eve Eve, like this year.

When I was a child, I thought I was the one who first came up with calling Dec. 23 "Christmas Eve Eve." It seemed totally natural and pure genius. Plus, I'd never heard anyone use the term before.

Unfortunately, since then, I've learned other people have had the same idea. As with most of my best ideas, I eventually found out that someone else had managed to steal it before I'd even thought of it. I blame time-traveling thieves. (Sure enough, someone else also already thought up time-traveling thieves. Is nothing safe?)

While Christmas Eve Eve still lacks the respect of mainstream lexicographers, it does merit an entry in that most indispensable of dictionaries in the 21st century, the Urban Dictionary, online at Go there, and you'll find this straightforward definition of Christmas Eve Eve: "The day before Christmas Eve, 2 days before Christmas." You'll also see it used in a sentence: "Stay away from the malls on Christmas Eve Eve."

Now, this being the Urban Dictionary, you'll also find some — how to put it? — unconventional and highly suspect definitions. For example: "an attractive woman you meet on the first pages of the Bible and on Christmas Eve; some people have got the daft idea that she's Father Christmas' niece."

OK, I have no idea what that means. However the terms "daft" and "Father Christmas" indicate it's possibly some odd British usage, like how the British insist on calling french fries "chips" and potato chips "crisps," or like how they call apartments "flats" and automobile trunks "boots." Really, there is no excuse for this. As long as the English have been speaking English, you'd think they'd be better at it.

Christmas Eve Eve has, over the years, become the true Christmas Eve.

That's because Christmas Eve has halfway joined with Christmas Day to become a kind of super-sized Christmas Day that lasts at least 30 hours. Like the Christmas shopping season, Christmas Day itself is expanding to fill more of the calendar.

By sundown on Christmas Eve, everything is already closed and everyone has finished their shopping — unless they're buying a tacky hat for Cousin Earl at the truck stop. Some families even open gifts on Christmas Eve because they have to hit the road to Grandma's house first thing in the morning. All of that, for a lot people, makes Christmas Eve Eve the real day for last-minute shopping and children's breathless anticipation.

Yes, Christmas Eve Eve even has its own song, titled "Christmas Eve Eve," performed by the musical duo of Paul and Storm, whom I found on YouTube just after I wrote the above paragraph. Also, Paul and Storm had the idea of comparing Christmas Eve Eve to Groundhog Day before I did. (Will this temporal thievery never end?) It's a fun little song, and it should be because it's a lot like "Dead" by They Might Be Giants, which is not the greatest song in the world, but it is close enough that Tenacious D might have had it in mind when they wrote their song "Tribute."

Or maybe not.

So, here's to Christmas Eve Eve. Thankfully, you come only once a year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Culture Shock 12.16.10: It's not just a telethon; it's an 'Americathon'

As the "great recession" lingers on, it's hard to imagine a time when things were, in some ways, even worse.

Sure, the Great Depression was worse. Everyone knows that. But I'm talking about the 1970s, when, apart from the music and the movies, everything pretty much sucked.

Kids today, you think you've got it bad, but at least you're not waiting in line for gasoline. Now that was bad. OK, maybe I didn't wait in line for gasoline, but my parents did. And I had to listen to them complain, which was almost as bad. And between Watergate, the hangover from Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, stagflation and polyester fashions, it seemed like the United States was on its last legs.

The whole country was in the dumps, and if you didn't think so, President Jimmy Carter was there to remind you.

So, in 1979, along came a movie that seemed to sum up how the country felt about itself. It was a screwball comedy called "Americathon," written by Firesign Theatre's Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman.

Forgotten since the 1980s, "Americathon" is back and available as a manufacture-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive, online at And it seems just as relevant now as when it was in theaters.

Set in the then future year of 1998, "Americathon" depicts the United States as flat broke, and the mortgage is coming due.

No one can afford a house, so everyone lives in their cars. But that's OK, because no one can afford gasoline, either, and everyone rides bicycles or jogs to work. (Conveniently, everyone also wears track suits, because riding a bike in slacks is just asking for trouble.)

The dollar is worthless, and everyone has to pay for everything — including phone calls — in gold. (Ron Paul called to say, "I told you so.") Meanwhile, the Chinese have become successful capitalists, Vietnam is a vacation and entertainment hot spot, and the Jews and Arabs have put aside their differences to create one huge country, the United Hebrab Republic.

You know, apart from that last bit about the Jews and Arabs, none of it seems that farfetched now, does it?

Presiding over America's decline is President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter), a former California governor apparently based on once and future California Gov. Jerry "Governor Moonbeam" Brown. Needless to say, President Roosevelt got elected solely due to name recognition, and his solution to the country's fiscal woes is to spout New Age platitudes and raffle off the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He's already moved the White House into a Los Angeles condo.

Time, however, is running out, because the president got a $400 billion emergency loan from Native American billionaire Sam Birdwater, played by the late, great Chief Dan George ("The Outlaw Josey Wales").

And Sam wants his money back in 30 days or he'll foreclose.

Frankly, I think we could do a lot worse than Chief Dan George running the country, but nobody asked me.

Anyway, the president's new media adviser (Peter Riegert) has an idea that just might work: a telethon. So, they recruit pill-popping actor Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) to act as emcee, and the Americathon takes off.

Unfortunately, some of the acts are a lot like the opening round of "American Idol."

Can the Americathon succeed? Who are the shady characters working behind the scenes to sabotage it? Is that really a young Jay Leno in a boxing match with his mom? (Hey, I'll fork over a donation if it means I get to see Leno beat up by his mother.)

With 30 years' hindsight, "Americathon" is probably funnier now than it was in 1979. Plus, it's always great to see what amounts to an all-star cast of '70s television stars — Ritter, Korman and Fred Willard — in the sort of roles they do best.

And George Carlin narrates the whole thing, which is appropriate, because he spent the last decade of his life telling us all just how doomed we are.

In summation: "Americathon." It's funny, and maybe you should order a copy. Just do it while your money is still worth something.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Culture Shock 12.09.10: 'Smallville' embraces tights for all (except Clark Kent)

You will believe a man can fly. Eventually.

Since its debut in 2001, "Smallville" has been bound by the "no tights, no flights" rule instituted by the show's original producers, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar.

Now, as "Smallville" approaches the end of its 10th and final season, Gough and Millar are gone, having departed after season 7. And the show's new producers seem fed up with the "no tights, no flights" premise of focusing on Clark Kent and his journey to becoming Superman.

Ten years is a long time, especially for a TV show, and "Smallville's" star, Tom Welling, is 33 years old. By any reasonable measure, he should have started wearing the Man of Steel's red-and-blue tights years ago.

Ah, but that stupid rule...

So, even though they're stuck with "no tights, no flights," Gough and Millar's successors have, improbably, managed to cheat their way around it. In the process, "Smallville" has become something I never would have expected in a network TV show.

It's become a showcase for Superhero fetishism.

For the past two seasons, "Smallville" has been all about Superman. You're just not allowed to call him that yet. Clark has left behind Smallville High School and his high school sweetheart, Lana Lang. He has moved on to Metropolis, The Daily Planet and a relationship with Lois Lane, who already knows Clark's secret identity, even though he doesn't have one. Clark has even joined with other superheroes to form the Justice League, which is weird because Clark is the only one who doesn't wear a costume.

The "no tights, no flights" rule is still in place, but it applies only to Clark. If Hawkman shows up, he's allowed to fly. And regular guest stars Green Arrow and Aquaman definitely don't have a problem with tights, except when they're not wearing much of anything at all, because "Smallville" averages the most beefcake per episode of any show not called "True Blood."

"Smallville" has finally shed its high-school-based, monster-of-the-week formula to become the closest thing television has ever seen to a live-action comic book.

Clark's world is full of heroes and villains and spandex tights. It's often over-the-top, sometimes even absurd — but in a good way — and it is increasingly filled with Easter eggs intended to please fans of DC Comics.

Nobody but us fanboys cared when longtime Teen Titans adversary Slade "Deathstroke" Wilson showed up to threaten Clark a couple of weeks ago. But for us, it was a geektastic moment, made even better by the fact that Slade was played by "Battlestar Galactica's" Col. Tigh, Michael Hogan. (Both Tigh and Slade wear eye patches, which is what makes it really cool, if obvious casting.)

The same episode that gave us Deathstroke also introduced Aquaman's wife, Mera, played by Elena Satine, who showed few inhibitions as the Queen of the Sea. (If Elena needs a fan club, I volunteer to serve as its president.)

I've long maintained that superhero comics are, intentionally or not, thinly veiled fetish fantasies, which is why they're read mostly by adults. Think about it: Superheroes are, for the most part, incredible physical specimens who run around in skintight costumes and beat each other up. Along the way, they routinely find themselves captured, tied up, caged, tortured or mind controlled — just like all this season on "Smallville."

By embracing the tights for everyone but Clark, "Smallville" has also embraced all of that. It has, in its PG-13, broadcast-standards-compliant way, become the kinkiest show on television. And this time I am including "True Blood."

Clark may not have put on his cape yet, but he's definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Culture Shock 12.02.10: Keeping the Krampus in Christmas

Editor's note: This column was originally published Dec. 3, 2009.

An old tradition that's seeing renewed popularity amounts to Christmas' own version of the good cop/bad cop routine.

The good cop is Santa Claus, aka Kris Kringle, aka St. Nicholas, aka Father Christmas. He's the "jolly old elf" known for his vast, global surveillance system — which he uses to keep track of who's been "naughty" and who's been "nice" — and his knack for breaking and entering.

Everyone has heard of Santa. But probably few have heard of his partner, the "bad cop" in our little tale. He goes by the name Krampus.

A scary, devilish, goat-like fellow with long horns and a bad attitude, Krampus originated centuries ago in German-speaking areas of Europe, where he was especially popular in the Alps.

While Santa bribes children into good behavior with the promise of presents, Krampus keeps them in line with threats of punishment. Santa carries a bag full of toys. Krampus carries a bag filled with naughty boys and girls.

Christmas is rife with Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, some of which, in different forms, go back to pagan solstice celebrations that predate Christianity's arrival in northern Europe. Evergreen trees, Yule logs and mistletoe come to mind. Long before people used mistletoe to steal kisses from the unwary, the plant was best known for killing Baldr, the Norse god of light and beauty.

As years passed, these traditions became part of Christmas, as did, for a while at least, Krampus. But Krampus was perhaps just a bit too wild to settle down in what was becoming an increasingly Christian holiday season. As National Geographic blogger Marc Silver writes, by the 1800s church leaders had marginalized Krampus, making St. Nick a solo act.

By the time German Christmas traditions made their way to England, and later America, Krampus was no longer a major part of the festivities.

Anglo-American Christmas celebrations began adopting German customs like Christmas trees in the 1800s, after Great Britain had resorted to importing monarchs from Germany. German practices became even more prominent following Queen Victoria's marriage to the German-born Prince Albert.

By the time Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, Christmas looked much like it does now, with no Krampus in sight.

Ebenezer Scrooge had to get by with three Christmas ghosts instead — or four, if you count Jacob Marley.

That, however, has started to change.

According to Silver, the Austrian state of Salzburg now has more than 180 Krampus clubs devoted to celebrating the long-lost Christmas figure.

Most have sprung up in just the past 20 years.

Now, every Dec. 5, club members recreate the traditional Krampus celebration. They dress in ghoulish Krampus costumes and head out for a night of carousing, which sounds a lot like how adults currently celebrate Halloween in the United States.

Here in America, Krampus is still virtually unknown. And if he weren't, he would add a new wrinkle to the annual debate about the true meaning of Christmas.

But with the Christmas season now starting even before Thanksgiving, maybe there is room for one more Christmas tradition. You don't want to end up on Krampus' list, do you?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Culture Shock 11.25.10: Celebrate Thanksgiving with some cinematic turkey

Thanksgiving brings with it lots of traditions, mostly involving food, football and long-standing family grievances.

My favorite Thanksgiving tradition, however, began in the early 1990s, when Comedy Central aired its annual "Turkey Day" marathons of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Nothing went better with Turkey Day stuffing than generous helpings of cinematic turkeys, all lovingly riffed by Joel, Mike and their robot pals aboard the Satellite of Love.

It has been more than a decade since "Mystery Science Theater" left the airwaves, but with all the episodes available on DVD and streaming on Netflix, you can still program your own private MST3K Turkey Day marathon. And that sure beats taking a long trip over the river and through the woods just to put up with Uncle Buck having a drunken meltdown, while Aunt Sue and Aunt Evelyn argue about which of them most deserves to inherit Grandma's good silverware.

As it has for the past several years, Shout! Factory greets the holiday season with a new, four-disc MST3K DVD box set. And this year's set includes two bad-movie classics, as well as a gullet full of bonus features.

As with past releases from Shout! Factory, "Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX" features two episodes each from original host Joel Hodgson and his successor, Michael J. Nelson. Joel's episodes are "Robot Monster" from season 1 and director Edward D. Wood Jr.'s "Bride of the Monster," starring Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson.

"Robot Monster" and "Bride of the Monster" have both, at various times, been saddled with the designation of "worst movie ever," making them prime candidates for the MST3K treatment.

While not as deliriously loopy as "Plan 9 from Outer Space," "Bride of the Monster" is probably Ed Wood's best-made film, although that's not saying much. It's definitely entertaining, even without Joel, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo providing a running commentary on its shortcomings, from the inane dialog and the rubber octopus to the poorly integrated stock footage and Lugosi's unconvincing stand-in.

The "Bride of the Monster" disc also includes the set's best bonus feature, "Citizen Wood," an informative documentary featurette by Chattanooga-based filmmaker Daniel Griffith, which chronicles the making of Wood's second-most-infamous film. "Citizen Wood" is a must for anyone who knows Wood primarily from Tim Burton's Oscar-winning 1994 biopic.

"Robot Monster" is the timeless story of an alien robot named Ro-Man, who looks suspiciously like a guy wearing a gorilla suit and a cheap 1950s sci-fi space helmet. Ro-Man is all-powerful, and he succeeds in wiping out the entire human race except for six people living in the middle of nowhere.

It turns out killing a few billion people is easy, but killing six is really hard, especially if they include two annoying children you'd really like to see dead.

Rounding out the set are two Mike Nelson episodes, "Devil Doll," a 1964 horror movie about a sinister ventriloquist and a dummy with a will of its own; and "Devil Fish," a 1984 Italian-made shlocker — to coin a term — in which a shark/octopus hybrid terrorizes Italians pretending to be Americans off the Florida coast.

The only recognizable actor in either film is William Sylvester in "Devil Doll." He delivers exactly the same smug performance he does as Dr. Heywood Floyd in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"Devil Doll" is a bit bland, even with the riffing, but "Devil Fish" is one of MST3K's better Sci-Fi Channel-era episodes.

Other extras include a panel discussion with cast members Hodgson, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, and, for a limited time, a collectible Gypsy figurine to go along with the previously released Crow and Tom Servo.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX" retails for $69.97. It's worth every penny, but you're a sucker if you pay full retail.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Culture Shock 11.18.10: 'Pretty Maids All in a Row' does exploitation with some class

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" may be a major-studio film with a high-class pedigree, but it has a lot in common with the low-budget, independently produced exploitation movies that populated drive-ins in the 1970s.

Released by MGM in 1971, "Pretty Maids All in a Row" is helmed by French director Roger Vadim, who blessed the world with Brigitte Bardot in his 1956 film, "... And God Created Woman" and hit the heights of pop art in 1968 with "Barbarella," starring Jane Fonda.

The screenplay for "Pretty Maids" comes courtesy of Gene Roddenberry — yes, "Star Trek's" Gene Roddenberry — who is also the film's producer. And the music is by "Mission Impossible" composer Lalo Schifrin.

And I haven't even gotten to the cast yet. It's an all-star affair headlined by Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson and Telly Savalas.

But for all of its star power, "Pretty Maids All in a Row" is an exploitation movie — a glossy, strange and darkly comic exploitation movie, but an exploitation movie nonetheless, which is a major part of its charm.

Despite having fallen into near obscurity in the decades since its release, "Pretty Maids" is back and available on DVD from Warner Archive at

High school guidance counselor/football coach "Tiger" McDrew has it all: a perfect family, a winning football team and the affections of every female in the student body. Student bodies, indeed.

His No. 1 student, the unfortunately named Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson), however, is another case. It seems Ponce gets just a little bit too excited — if you know what I mean — whenever he is around any of the campus' attractive co-eds, which, by the way, is all of them. And he gets way too excited around the sexy new substitute teacher, Betty Smith (Dickinson).

So, like any concerned guidance counselor, Tiger decides to help Ponce with his problem. Tiger's solution: have Betty give Ponce a little after-school "tutoring" — if you know what I mean.

Yes, there's enough inappropriate student/teacher sex going on at this high school to keep Maury Povich busy for an entire season.

And as if that weren't scandalous enough, there's also the little matter of the female students who keep turning up dead, much to the chagrin of the principal (Roddy McDowall).

As the murders mount, state police Capt. Sam Surcher (Savalas in a pre-"Kojak" cop role) narrows down his list of suspects, and Tiger is at the top of it.

Is Tiger really guilty, or does he just seem really guilty? Of murder, I mean. Obviously, he's guilty of other stuff — if you know what I mean.

Also, keep a lookout for a few unexpected faces, including James Doohan (Scotty from "Star Trek") and JoAnna Cameron, future star of the Saturday-morning adventure series "Isis," as one of Tiger's pretty maids.

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" is a funny, clever black comedy with some truly great dialog, like when one student reminds the other football players that they never have practice after a murder.

It is also a rare example in the 1970s of a studio film beating the low-budget filmmakers to the punch. It predates other films about illicit student/teacher relationships like 1974's "The Teacher," with former "Dennis the Menace" child star Jay North as the lucky student, and 1978's "Coach," a Quentin Tarantino favorite starring Cathy Lee Crosby ("That's Incredible") and Michael Biehn ("Terminator").

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" has been lost in Hollywood's film vault for too long, and it's great to have it back.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Culture Shock 11.11.10: Alabamians react to bad laws in their own way

Say what you will about Alabama, but the state does take a pragmatic approach to enforcing stupid laws. In general, it doesn't.

So, in that regard, you could say Alabama is more progressive — in the true sense of the term — than San Francisco, which currently is in the process of enacting a really, really silly law that officials there will definitely enforce.

This week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors formally adopted what has become known as the "Happy Meal ban." The ban forbids restaurants from giving out toys with children's meals that contain "too much" fat, sugar or sodium.

Like a lot of dubious laws, the ban is intended to protect children, or so its supporters claim.

"It's time for fast-food companies to stop exploiting children in order to sell more junk food, and this measure would at least set basic nutrition standards for meals sold with toys," said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a misnamed group of Washington, D.C., busybodies bent on regulating just about all human behavior.

I guess it's just too much to expect parents to ever tell their children "no." So, San Francisco will just have to save them from themselves.

If the ban survives likely legal challenges — I don't expect Ronald McDonald to take this outrage lying down — and becomes law next year as planned, you can bet San Francisco's food police will enforce it with the ruthless inefficiency one expects of California government. But it will be enforced.

California, you used to be cool. But you've changed, man. You've changed.

In Alabama, we take a different approach.

Contrary to popular opinion, and despite all appearances, the people of Alabama are pretty sensible, at least some of the time. We just do a good job of pretending otherwise. So, when state and local lawmakers pass obviously bad laws, we do what all sensible people do. We just ignore them. That's why every dry county — an endangered species now that the city of Cullman has approved legal liquor sales and sent temperatures in hell plunging — has bootleggers.

For example, in 1998, the Alabama Legislature made the state a national laughingstock by passing a ban on sex toys. Legal challenges to the law failed, and the effort to overturn the statute finally ended when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

So, to this day, the law is still on the books, and no one in the Legislature seems eager to repeal it.

And why bother? Sure, the ban is an embarrassment, but this is Alabama. We've long since become immune to the "black eyes" we continually inflict upon ourselves.

More importantly, there's no pressing need to repeal the sex-toy ban because, at present, it's not being enforced.

Sherri Williams, the business owner who took her fight against the ban all the way to Washington, is still in business. Her Pleasures stores in Decatur and Huntsville are still open and still selling sex toys. Williams is taking advantage of a loophole that allows the sale of sex toys for medical purposes. So, all of her customers fill out the equivalent of a doctor's excuse.

Thus far, local prosecutors and law enforcement officials have shown no desire to press the issue, and Williams is moving her Huntsville store to a more prominent location, complete with drive-thru service.

Some historians think there is something distinctive about the South's attitude toward authority. The theory holds that the South was settled by Scots-Irish immigrants who had rebellion in their blood, and that anti-authoritarian instinct is still part of Southern culture today.

Maybe so. But there is little doubt that we tell authority to take a hike as often as not. And in many cases, that's a good thing.

It's a trait they could use in San Francisco.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Culture Shock 10.28.10: Want a good scare? Send in the clowns

If you're still trying to come up with the perfect Halloween costume — something that will strike fear into even the hardest hearts — here is a suggestion.

Be a clown.

Sure, clowns claim they only want to make you laugh and cheer you up. But that's a ruse to lull you into a false sense of security.

Clowns are creepy, and I'm not the only person who thinks so. Just ask Batman.

While in a costume shop Saturday, I saw a young woman nearly have a panic attack at the mere thought of stumbling upon an empty clown costume. Imagine how she might have freaked out had she encountered a clown costume with someone inside it.

Look closely. You can sense the evil lurking behind those beady little clown eyes. They try to distract you with those big, red, bulbous noses. But I know better. Look into their eyes, and you'll see. Pure evil, I tell you.

Like the fear of spiders, heights and enclosed spaces, the fear of clowns has a technical name. It's called coulrophobia. If you want some real nightmares, think long and hard about being trapped in a free-falling elevator with a clown and his pet tarantula.

None of this has been lost on writers and filmmakers who have long exploited the creepiness of clowns. There's the Joker, obviously. And in Stephen King's "It," the title character appears in many sinister guises, but It most often takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. King has dreamed up a lot of scary things, but few compare to the image of a clown-faced Tim Curry grinning from a storm drain.

Scary clowns dot the Hollywood landscape, from "Clownhouse" and the extraterrestrial clowns of "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" to "Shakes the Clown" and "Patch Adams."

I know what you're going to say. "Shakes the Clown" was a comedy vehicle for Bobcat Goldthwait, while "Patch Adams" was a shameless, if unsuccessful, attempt to snare Robin Williams an Oscar. But watch them again. These movies reek of unmitigated evil. And "Patch Adams" is by far the more insidious of the two. It's pure propaganda for the Clown Industrial Complex.

How pervasive is this clown propaganda? It's everywhere. No matter where you live, you're probably no more than a few blocks from the clowns' most successful attempt at gaining your trust.

Yes, McDonald's seems like such a happy place, with its Happy Meals and such. But what is Ronald McDonald really up to? Why is his best friend named Grimace, which means a facial expression usually of disgust, disapproval or pain? And why do his Fry Goblin pals now call themselves Fry Guys? Was "goblin" giving too much away?

Burger King knows what's really going on. That's why after many years and millions spent on research and development, the No. 2 hamburger chain finally came up with a mascot who is even more sinister than Ronald — The Burger King.

Why are the two top fast-food restaurants in an arms race to determine which one has the scariest mascot, anyway?

And while I don't want to say all clowns are serial killers, there is the example of John Wayne Gacy, aka Pogo the Clown.

Think of that when you go to bed tonight. As for me, I can't sleep.

Clowns will eat me.

This column was originally published Oct. 15, 2009.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Culture Shock 10.21.10: Is the world ready for ‘Legends of the Super Heroes’?

It’s no “Star Wars Holiday Special,” but another bizarre, seemingly forgotten 1970s television oddity has emerged, improbably, from Hollywood’s vaults.

As campy, cheap, absurd and embarrassing for all involved as it was 30 years ago, “Legends of the Super Heroes” must be even more so now.

I was there, and it wasn’t pretty.

Imagine a time before Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. It’s 1979, and despite the worldwide success of “Superman: The Movie” starring Christopher Reeve, when most people think of superheroes, they see in their mind’s eye the “bams” and “pows” of the 1960s “Batman” TV show.

Now imagine something even worse.

That something is “Legends of the Super Heroes,” now available as a made-on-demand DVD, with never-before-seen outtakes, from the Warner Archive online store,

Produced by animation studio Hanna-Barbera as a live-action companion to its “Superfriends” cartoons, “Legends” is comprised of two prime-time TV specials, “The Challenge” and “The Roast,” each featuring a cast of DC Comics superheroes and villains, along with characters created just for the show — characters we’d mercifully never see again.

Along with well-known heroes like Green Lantern and the Flash were B-listers like the Huntress, the Black Canary, the Atom and Hawkman, all portrayed by actors you’ve never heard of. Superman and Wonder Woman are suspiciously absent — in reality because other studios held the rights to use them in live-action productions.

Batman and Robin, however, are not so fortunate. They’re at the center of the proceedings, played once again by the dynamic duo of Adam West and Burt Ward.

A confession: I love the ’60s “Batman” TV show. Is it campy? Sure. But it never insults the audience; it lets you in on the joke. And both West and Ward are perfect in their earnest, deadpan performances.

But watching West and Ward struggle with what they’re given in “Legends” causes me physical discomfort. They deserve better.

In “The Challenge,” the heroes must do battle with the Legion of Doom, a club of villains who include the Riddler (Frank Gorshin reprising his “Batman” role) and Sinestro (comedian Charlie Callas). The plot — we’ll call it that — conveniently involves the heroes losing their super powers, allowing Hanna-Barbera to save money on not-so-special effects.

The second episode, “The Roast,” is a celebrity roast modeled after the old Dean Martin roasts or the recent Comedy Central roasts, only it doesn’t include off-color jokes about sex or race. Actually, I’m not sure it includes any jokes at all. On the plus side, it also doesn’t include Lisa Lampanelli. The villains from “The Challenge,” however, do return to menace our heroes, while other, more obscure heroes, like Retired Man (William Schallert), show up to roast Batman and company under the direction of roastmaster Ed McMahon. Seriously.

I’m amazed Warner Archive has dusted off this show. Obviously, someone demanded it, and bootleg tapes have circulated for years. But “Legends of the Super Heroes” isn’t so bad it’s good. It’s more like a train wreck, in a Third World country, where half of the passengers were riding on top of the train cars.

Is it worth $19.95 to own a pair of TV specials second only to the “Star Wars Holiday Special” in their infamy?

That depends on your tolerance for pain. (Yeah, I’m thinking about it.)