Thursday, December 25, 2014

Culture Shock 12.25.14: The accidental Christmas song

The hills are alive with the sound of Christmas.
"My Favorite Things" originated in 1959 as part of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music." By the time the film version of "The Sound of Music" premiered six years later, the song was well on its way to becoming a Christmas standard.

The funny thing is, "My Favorite Things" isn't really a Christmas song.

Yes, the song uses lots of wintertime imagery, such as sleigh bells and snowflakes. It also invokes ponies, kittens and bees. No matter how you look at it, "My Favorite Things" doesn't have anything to do with Christmas. Nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with Hanukkah, the solstice or Kwanzaa. It has no part in a Festivus for the rest of us.

To this day, the best version of "My Favorite Things" remains the 13-minute tour de force of modal jazz improvisation that John Coltrane released in 1961. No one mistakes it for a Christmas song.

None of that, however, has kept other versions out of the annual Christmas rotation.

It's not unlike how "Die Hard" has become a Christmas movie, even though the only part of the plot that's Christmas related is the office Christmas party. A good screenwriter could easily come up with a plausible substitute, and a bad screenwriter could come up with a dozen implausible ones.

For the why of it all, I turned to Wikipedia, which as everyone knows is a wholly reliable source of information and not just a convenient way to settle bar bets.

There I learned Julie Andrews performed "My Favorite Things" during the 1961 Christmas episode of "The Garry Moore Show," a variety program today best remembered for helping give Carol Burnett her start in television. Evidently, "The Garry Moore Show" also gave "My Favorite Things" its start as a Christmas song.

Soon afterward, the song began appearing on Christmas albums, and it has been doing so ever since. The earliest example Wikipedia cites is 1964's "The Jack Jones Christmas Album," where it is performed by "Love Boat Theme" crooner Jack Jones.

A year later, it was everywhere, and by "everywhere" I mean it appeared on a Diana Ross and the Supremes album titled "Merry Christmas," an Andy Williams album titled "Merry Christmas," and an Eddie Fisher album titled, for a change of pace, "Mary Christmas."

So, when it comes to stamping the label "Christmas music" on "My Favorite Things," there is a lot of credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — to go around. Like Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, I put most of the blame for everything bad on Eddie Fisher.

He was a real piece of work.

Not that "My Favorite Things" is a bad Christmas song, despite its not being a Christmas song at all. There certainly are worse Christmas songs, most of which get a lot more airplay.

Despite their best efforts, not even the unlikely pair of Bing Crosby and David Bowie can do much with the soul-crushing monotony of "The Little Drummer Boy." And when it comes to maddening repetition, it's hard to top José Feliciano's novelty hit "Feliz Navidad."

Still, neither of those songs is the worst. When it comes to bad Christmas songs, ex-Beatles are experts. No one could turn noble sentiments into saccharine sentimentality faster than John Lennon during his Plastic Ono Band phase, and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" is Exhibit A, co-produced by convicted murder Phil Spector, who currently is serving 19 to life. But worse still is Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," which isn't so much a song as it is the sound of joy dying.

Yet even John and Paul can't top the sheer awfulness and condescension of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure's patronizing famine-relief fundraiser "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

The answer, Bob, is "yes." People in Africa might be starving, but they're not stupid. They know when it's Christmas. I suspect some even know when it's Boxing Day.

Compared to all that rot, "My Favorite Things" isn't bad at all, even if it's a Christmas song that's not really a Christmas song.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Culture Shock 12.18.14: 2014 was the year of 'Weird Al'

Who would have thought going into it that 2014 would turn out to be the year of one Alfred Matthew "Weird Al" Yankovic?

Weird Al burst onto the music scene in the 1980s with a string of hits, from "Eat It" and "Fat," which parodied the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, to "Like a Surgeon," inspired by the Material Girl, Madonna. But as the age of music videos faded into the past, so too, it seemed, did Weird Al.

Now the King is dead, and whenever Madonna tries to be naughty and outrageous, her longtime fans beg her to stop.

Through it all, though, Weird Al was still out there, parodying everything from grunge to hip hop, and quietly producing albums, some of which charted in Billboard's top 10. We just weren't paying as much attention. Now we are.

Promoted with a batch of music videos released online, "Mandatory Fun," Yankovic's 14th studio album, peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It became the first Weird Al album to take the chart's top spot and the first comedy album to do so since Allan Sherman's "My Son, the Nut" in 1963. (Hey, hipster! Now there's an album that's probably missing from your vinyl collection.)

Creatively, Yankovic still has it. "Mandatory Fun" is his cleverest, most listenable album since those halcyon days when MTV still played music.

As is his habit, Weird Al doesn't satirize the songs he parodies but uses them instead to poke fun at other things going on in the culture.

"Tacky," Weird Al's parody of Pharrell Williams' inescapable mega-hit "Happy," takes the prize as the track you're most likely to listen to on an infinite loop until your roommate goes insane or smashes your speakers. As the name implies, "Tacky" targets people with the bad taste to wear socks with sandals or twerk in public.

Robin Thicke's controversial "Blurred Lines" becomes Weird Al's wickedly funny "Word Crimes," which lists in detail all the grammatical sins of which you are no doubt guilty. And "Foil," performed to the tune — what there is of it — of "Royals" by Lorde, starts out as a simple ode to the freshness-preserving properties of aluminum foil before taking a sinister turn into the necessities of wearing a tinfoil-lined hat to protect oneself from the Illuminati's mind-control rays.

Other targets of Yankovic's wit include corporate jargon and people who gripe about their "First World Problems." But Weird Al's most biting satire is also his most subtle.

"Now That's What I Call Polka!" is a polka-style medley of pop songs with their lyrics largely unchanged. It segues through Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," One Direction's "Best Song Ever" and "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, among others. Stripping them of their catchy hooks and dope beats, and leaving only their banal lyrics, Weird Al — deliberately or otherwise — exposes the extent to which pop music has regressed to the naïve bubblegum infantilism of the late '50s and early '60s. The lyrics are often raunchier but just as trite. They amount to sub-Monkees gibberish.

As if delivering the biggest album of Weird Al's career weren't enough, 2014 also delivered an anniversary. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Weird Al's cult-favorite movie "UHF," which makes its Blu-ray debut for the occasion. And, in conjunction, making its DVD debut is Weird Al's 1985 straight-to-video mockumentary "The Compleat Al."

It's all a reminder that, ironically, Yankovic's career has gone on longer and stronger than many of the acts he has satirized. Most pop stars are here today, gone tomorrow. Parody is immortal.

By year's end, floundering electronics retailer RadioShack — whose latest last-ditch strategy to remain solvent bizarrely entails capitalizing on 1980s nostalgia while telling everyone the company is hip and modern — was putting Yankovic in its TV commercials.

I guess if anyone combines hip and modern with '80s nostalgia, it's Weird Al.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Marvel celebrates return of 'Star Wars' license by ruining original books

One bit of fallout from Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm is the return of the "Star Wars" license to Marvel Comics, which published the original "Star Wars" movie adaptation back in 1977.

To celebrate, Marvel is reprinting those original "Star Wars" comics in a collection to be released in May. That's the good news. The bad news is Marvel is giving those comics the "special edition" treatment.

From Marvel's press release: "Written by Roy Thomas with art by Howard Chaykin, this iconic story has been remastered for the modern age [with] all-new coloring by Chris Sotomayor."

As you can see from the before-and-after sample Marvel provided, the re-coloring is a disaster. It's as if George Lucas went back and inserted a lot of new CGI characters for no good reason. Wait. That happened, too. Anyway, here's a look. The re-colored version is on the left (click to enlarge):

I bet "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams appreciates the addition of the gratuitous lens flare in the first panel. Note that in addition to the re-coloring, which completely and anachronistically distorts the original art, the first panel has been partially redrawn and the text box removed. It's not exactly Greedo getting off a shot, but still.

I thought Lucas stepping away from the saga was supposed to put an end to these needless revisions. Guess not.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Culture Shock 12.11.14: Nolan's 'Interstellar' doesn't trust its audience

Christopher Nolan aims so high, and does so with such skill, that often it's only as we're leaving the theater that we realize he's pulled another fast one on us.

Yet as Nolan becomes more confident in his craft, he becomes less confident in his audience. He is a smart filmmaker who treats his audience as if we're a bunch of dummies. More and more, his movies condescend to us. And the more they do so, the more they spoil the illusions essential to moviemaking.

Nolan's latest film, "Interstellar," is mesmerizing in every sense of the word. It's visually and emotionally gripping as it deals with Great Big Ideas. It wants very much to be the kind of science fiction that went out of vogue after "Star Wars," and which is seeing a kind of mini-renaissance now. Ideally, given how its plot unfolds, a better title for "Interstellar" would have been "Gravity." But that name was taken.

I've argued that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" is underrated because almost no one sees it for what it is: a humanist retort to "2001: A Space Odyssey." But there is no mistaking the fact Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother, Jonathan, mean to boldly go down the same path. "Interstellar" is about humanity taking the next step in its evolution, yet while retaining its essential humanity. It is anti-"2001" even as it updates that film's aesthetic for the 21st century.

When it comes to inspiration, Nolan looks not just to Stanley Kubrick's sterile masterpiece but also to its overlooked sequel, Peter Hyams' "2010," borrowing a few of its ideas and one of its stars, the reliable and reassuring John Lithgow.

"Interstellar" begins in our near future, where a blight is wiping out grain crops one by one, threatening the world with starvation and worse. Much of the population is implied to have died already, and all resources are marshaled toward food production, to the point that even the world's armies have been disbanded, which seems the opposite of likely. Otherwise, apart from a jab at American science education, the Nolans are deliberately vague about the political and economic circumstances of their near-future America, which is for the best. It saves them further embarrassment, and it's all merely the backdrop for the premise: The Earth is dying, and humanity needs a new home.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an astronaut-turned-farmer, ends up in the pilot seat for the mission to save humanity, which involves a breathtaking trip through a wormhole to another galaxy, where three planets orbiting the same star are the best candidates for a new world.

The trip, however, means leaving behind his children, son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who, thanks to the laws of physics, age into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain while Cooper stays the same age. (One suspects the irony would be lost on McConaughey's "Dazed and Confused" character.)

Rounding out the cast are Anne Hathaway (Audrey Hepburn in space), Michael Caine (her scientist father), David Gyasi (another astronaut) and Topher Grace (adult Murph's colleague).

As the movie goes on, the Nolans begin to over-explain everything. To the movie's detriment, the characters start to sound like Wikipedia articles on general relativity and evolutionary psychology.

On a practical level, "Interstellar" is a plea for more NASA funding to safeguard mankind's future. But such pleadings seem myopic when we're on the cusp of an explosion in space travel. NASA and the Soviets no longer monopolize space. It's open to all, from the European Space Agency to the Japanese to too many private concerns to name. People are already making space happen.

On a deeper level, "Interstellar" is about the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring power of love, even against the cold equations of relativity and the savage demands of Darwinian survival. Love, it turns out, is also a survival instinct.

Unfortunately, the Nolans don't trust us to figure this out on our own. Instead, they reduce everything to New Age gibberish no actor can portray convincingly and no one but Deepak Chopra can take seriously. "Interstellar" suffers for it, and so do we.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Culture Shock 12.04.14: 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' turns 35

Kirk inspects the newly remodeled Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." Director Robert Wise added the reflected Enterprise to this shot for his 2001 "director's edition" of the film.
Kirk inspects the newly remodeled Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
Director Robert Wise added the reflected Enterprise to this shot for his 2001
"director's edition" of the film.
Thirty-five years on, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" remains one of the Trek franchise's most under-appreciated and misunderstood entries.

That's understandable. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" — or "TMP," from here on out — was rushed into production, with a script that rehashes Season 2's "The Changeling." As released in theaters and aired on television, TMP seems only partly finished. In truth, that's because it was only partly finished.

Robert Wise's "director's edition," released on DVD in 2001, improves the pacing and completes some effects shots that remained rough in the race to meet TMP's locked-in Dec. 7, 1979, release date.

Yet with or without Wise's touch-ups, TMP deserves reappraisal.

Wise's operatic approach to "Star Trek" makes Alan Dean Foster's story more than "The Changeling, Part 2." In Wise's hands, TMP becomes a humanistic retort to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

In "2001" humanity has lost its sense of wonder, and in the process, its humanity. The most fully realized character is HAL (Douglas Rain), a self-aware computer, who becomes neurotic, then murderous. Emotions, when combined with big brains, are bad news.

While HAL is excited by the prospect of scientific discovery, the humans in "2001" are bored by space. It's simply where they work, as mundane and uninteresting to them as an office cubicle is to us.

Wise's TMP, building on Gene Roddenberry's hopeful vision of the future, flips Kubrick on his head. Harold Michelson's production design has much the same cool, antiseptic look as the production design of "2001," but here it's a setting where humans are still human, even when they're extraterrestrials.

In "2001," Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) naps during his trip to the moon. In TMP, the Enterprise crew stare wide-eyed and mouths agape at the immense living starship V'Ger. Wise drives his point home with an extended scene of the Enterprise flying through the energy cloud that surrounds V'Ger, our point of view shifting between the breathtakingly rendered alien craft and the crew's awestruck faces.

Eventually, the crew learn the ship is, like HAL, a living machine. But unlike HAL, V'Ger is cold, emotionless and searching. Without feelings, V'Ger can find no meaning, even after having traveled the length and breadth of the known universe.

Emotion is at the heart of TMP. The first familiar character we see is Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has returned to his home on Vulcan to undergo a ritual that purges all remaining emotions. But he forgoes the ritual in order to join the Enterprise for its rendezvous with V'Ger, whose powerful consciousness Spock senses across the light years. Later on, Spock, having learned to accept his human half, weeps for the barren V'Ger as he would for a lost brother.

Decker and Ilia finally unite, and in a literal sense, when Decker becomes one with the living machine V'Ger.
Decker and Ilia finally unite, and in a literal sense, when Decker becomes one
with the living machine V'Ger.
When Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) first sees the newly refurbished USS Enterprise, it's like lovers spying one another from across a crowded room. Everyone and everything else disappears.

The scene depicting Kirk's approach to the Enterprise is the film's emotional high point, and Wise milks every second of it, accented by Jerry Goldsmith's sweeping score, making it the science fiction equivalent of the Bernard Herrmann-scored love scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

For Kirk, TMP is a love story that sees him reunited with his one true love. For two new characters, however, TMP is a slightly more conventional romance.

Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (Persis Khambatta) are star-crossed lovers who come together at the end only when Decker volunteers to join with V'Ger, giving V'Ger the emotional capacity it lacks. V'Ger, Decker and Ilia become one, and the emotions that were HAL's undoing become V'Ger's salvation. Love conquers all, and humanity prevails because of its humanity.

V'Ger, like Spock, learns to feel, and the crew of the Enterprise help give birth to a new life form, one that seems far more hopeful than the creepy, ambiguous "star child" at the end of "2001."

Thanks to some "foolish human emotions," the human adventure is still just beginning.