Thursday, August 25, 2011

Culture Shock 08.25.11: Discovering the uncanny truth about Canada

Let's get ready to fumble!

Even as football season begins in earnest tonight with the start of high school football in Alabama, to be joined by college football next week and the NFL the week after that, there's one place where they've been playing football all summer.

The Great White North. America's Hat. Canada.

Most Americans think of the Canadian Football League — when they think of it at all, which isn't often — as a kind of purgatory, to which players who can't hack it in the NFL are sentenced for an indeterminate time, and from whence only a lucky few (namely Doug Flutie) ever return.

Briefly, during an ill-fated expansion attempt, there was a CFL team in Birmingham. But it folded because Alabama is already home to two semi-professional teams and doesn't need a third.

Currently, CFL games air in the U.S. on NFL Network, which could help the league's profile here. Or not.

You see, I've watched several CFL games over the past few weeks, and I've reached a conclusion: Canadian football is creepy.

The CFL is a lot like U.S. football. After all, the U.S. and Canada are the only countries on Earth where "football" doesn't mean "soccer." So, we have that in common.

But there are slight yet unmistakable differences: the goal posts at the front of the end zones instead of at the back, the 110-yard fields with the C-line in the center, teams having only three downs (not four) to make a first down.

I mean, who puts goal posts at the goal line where players can run into them?

Watching the CFL, I was struck by how odd these small changes made the game. It was weird. Then I realized I'd had this feeling before.

I was watching an ABC cop show called "Rookie Blue." At first, it seemed like an ordinary police drama, but I soon noticed there was something different. The police cars and the uniforms weren't quite right. I felt uneasy. Then it hit me: "Rookie Blue" is actually Canadian.

Between "Rookie Blue" and the CFL, I had an epiphany. Canada is America's uncanny valley.

Think of a human being. Next, think of a cartoon character, like Elmer Fudd. Now think of an almost-human CGI character, like the Tom Hanks clones in "The Polar Express." The Hanks clones exist in the middle, between the two extremes of reality and unreality. They look almost human, but not quite, and their almost-but-not-quite appearance makes them creepy. They're too plastic, too artificial. They scare small children.

They fall into what scientists call "the uncanny valley."

For many Americans, Canada is like that. Sorry, Canada, but that's the truth. And that's coming from an American who can name two, maybe three Canadian prime ministers.

For someone from the U.S., I'm relatively Canada-savvy. One of my favorite comic books growing up was "Alpha Fight," which is about a team of Canadian superheroes. Later, I learned most of the characters were broad, possibly even insulting stereotypes. But, hey, it's the thought that counts.

Despite that, I get weirded out by how Canadians are so like us — more so, I suspect, than many Canadians would care to admit — and yet so different. It's the uncanny valley, like Angelina Jolie in "Beowulf," where you're attracted to her CGI double even as you're dimly aware it's a CGI double.

Yet I doubt Canadians feel the same unease about us. Roughly 90 percent of Canadians live within about 100 miles of the U.S. border.

Whether they like it or not, for better or worse, they're are a lot more familiar with us than most of us are with them.

And that, Canada, is why Americans act so strange whenever we come to visit. But we do appreciate you, even if we don't say so.

Who else could we pretend to be when vacationing in countries where everyone hates us?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Culture Shock 08.18.11: Of course you know this means 'war'

When they said "Storage Wars," I was expecting something
more like this.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered "Storage Wars" wasn't a sci-fi series about warring gangs of motorcycle-riding marauders vying for control of abandoned storage buildings in a near-future, post-apocalyptic wasteland.

At the very least, a TV series named "Storage Wars" should be a situation comedy about twin sisters locked in a life-or-death struggle for use of the walk-in closet.

Instead, "Storage Wars" is a "reality" show on A&E about people who bid at auction for the contents of foreclosed storage rental units in the hope of selling the glorified grab bag of items at a profit.

Since these guys are now reality TV stars, you'll have to forgive my inability to get overly enthused about their financial solvency, especially when their job involves picking over the former belongings of people who couldn't pay their storage fees.

In any case, while I understand rival buyers are trying to snag stuff at a bargain, to call this "Storage Wars" seems like overkill.

Is this really a war? Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — now those are wars.

This isn't even a "police action."

Yet "wars" are breaking out all over my television, and that's not even counting Cartoon Network's "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," which actually is about a war, albeit a fictional one and one that George Lucas killed my interest in the first time Jar Jar Binks stepped in bantha poo.

In fairness, Travel Channel's "Food Wars" does make some sense. Two restaurants face off over which one is better at making their city's signature dish. When it comes to restaurants and food, sometimes the rivalries and customer loyalties do remind you of opposing sides in an armed conflict.

But the Travel Channel canceled "Food Wars" after one season, although it still airs in reruns.

Maybe "Food Wars" was just too generic, because Food Network has found success with "Cupcake Wars," which is currently filming its third season.

I don't get America's recent fascination with cupcakes and trendy cupcake bakeries. Cupcakes are what you settle for when you can't get a real cake. So, I certainly don't get a show about teams of pastry chefs trying to make the best (and most) cupcakes.

Don't get me wrong: I've eaten a lot of cupcakes. I've just never eaten one worth fighting for.

Then there is A&E's "Parking Wars," which sounds like someone turned that episode of "Seinfeld" where George spends all day arguing over a parking space into an epic, 12-part miniseries like "War and Remembrance." But no. It's a series about traffic cops who tow vehicles, which has got to make for the least sympathetic cast of characters since "Sex and the City."

Ready to give peace a chance? Too bad, because I haven't even gotten to Animal Planet's "Whale Wars," which isn't really a war and barely even qualifies as a minor inconvenience for the Japanese whaling fleet. Fortunately, "South Park" has already said all that needs to be said here.

VH1 has something called "Wedding Wars," which seems redundant to me, and IFC airs a show called "Whisker Wars" about the world of competitive facial hair.

Seriously. Competitive facial hair. I would not have believed such contests exist, never mind are the stuff of television, if I hadn't just Googled it. There was video and everything. And there was this man with, like, tentacles growing out of his face. It was frightening.

Then again, maybe "wars" is the right word for these shows, at least in one respect: You'd have to draft me to get me to watch another minute of any of them.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Culture Shock 08.11.11: Does anyone really still want their MTV?

"I am The Great Cornholio!"
Aug. 1 marked the 30th birthday of MTV, not that you'd know that from watching MTV. The network's birthday passed virtually unremarked.

Maybe that's because MTV, a channel identified with youth and youth culture, can't bring itself to admit it has entered adulthood. If real life were "Logan's Run," MTV would be running for Sanctuary.
Or maybe it's just that there isn't much to celebrate now that MTV is little more than the shambling zombie husk of the once vibrant, groundbreaking cable station that helped define the 1980s.

MTV has been on the receiving end of jokes for so long, it's hard even to recall, much less appreciate, just how relevant it once was. Professional "concerned parents" used to drum up hysteria about how "Beavis and Butt-Head" and racy Madonna videos were corrupting an entire generation. (Generation X turned out just fine. Thanks for asking.) Now, the most controversy MTV can manage is a few critics writing boilerplate articles about whether "Jersey Shore" makes everyone from New Jersey look bad or is offensive to Italian Americans.

Well, it does make Jersey look bad, but we've all got our stereotypes to bear, OK?

And if you are looking for a music video that tries way too hard to be edgy and "transgressive," well I suppose you can find some of Lady Gaga’s on the Internet. But you won't find them on MTV, which stopped airing music videos so long ago that the joke about there being no music on Music Television stopped being funny a decade ago.

But, hey, at least Mike Judge is back. After 13 seasons of "King of the Hill" on Fox — a successful run by any standard, but a wildly successful one given Fox's track record of canceling shows — he has returned to MTV with new episodes of "Beavis and Butt-Head." And this time around, Beavis and Butt-Head will be making fun on MTV’s current programming, including "Jersey Shore."

That merits repeating: Two animated cartoon characters once thought to be horrible, even dangerous role models for children will be dishing out insults at the expense of a cast of flesh-and-blood cartoon characters, one of whom looks like an Oompa Loompa.

What do you get from too much MTV? A pain in the neck and an IQ of three.

At 30, MTV looks old, tired, worn out. It's like 30 is the new 80. And for being MTV's signature show, "Jersey Shore" isn't even all that distinctive. Every cable channel has some fake "reality" show about awful people, whether it's "The Real Housewives" or "Mob Wives" or "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." It's all so homogenized, I had to double check that "Jersey Shore" is an MTV show. It could easily be on E! or Bravo or SyFy or History or any of a dozen channels that, like MTV, no longer have anything to do with their name or initials.

We're far removed from when MTV invented the modern reality TV show with "The Real World," which, now a quaint relic, is entering its 26th season — another zombie that just won't die.

And the days when MTV's music videos provided a new and exciting artistic format, which served as a proving ground for future movie directors like Spike Jonze ("Where the Wild Things Are"), Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and David Fincher ("Fight Club"), are now the stuff of legend.

Thirty years after it shook the world, MTV looks like just another cable channel that has lost its identity. Sure, people still watch. But it's just not important anymore.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Manos: The sequel of fate strikes in 2013

The sequel no one expected is now set to be released in 2013.

According to a post at Horror Society, Manos: The Search For Valley Lodge  will star the WWE's Gene Snitsky and Maria Kanellis, horror-movie actresses Helene Udy (the original My Bloody Valentine) and Tara Cardinal (Song of The Shattered), as well as original-film cast members Jackey Neyman (Debbie), Bernie Rosenblum (the teenage guy who really liked kissing) and Tom Neyman (The Master).

Written, produced, directed by, and starring Hal P. Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas, Manos: The Hands of Fate languished in bad-movie obscurity until it was resurrected as one of the most memorable episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The sequel's plot synopsis:
A woman battling mental illness regains her memory and heads into the deserts of El Paso, Texas to confront her inner demons and discover her mysterious past.
Just guessing, but the woman there is probably the original movie's Debbie, who remembers her traumatic childhood experiences in the first film:

So much trauma.