Jeremy's Ramblings, Babblings, and Other Pretentious Bullshit.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Today I was navigating the website www.homestarrunner.com, as I'm wont to do a few times every week. While watching one particular cartoon, I suddenly realized that the Homestar Runner cartoons capture my generation's voice better than perhaps any other piece of art or entertainment out there.
To explain, Homestar Runner is a web site that premiered in January of 2000 (making it a true product of the 21st century) filled with games and cartoons that center around an unusual cast of characters. There is the dim-witted athlete Homestar, his hippie girlfriend Marzipan, the Mexican wrestler Strong Bad, his brothers Strong Mad and Strong Sad, his furry yellow sidekick The Cheat, the concession stand owner Bubs, the hip-hop loving Coach Z, the obese King of Town and his Poopsmith, and the out-of-left-field Homsar.
So I was watching a cartoon called "Shopping For Danger", which was an obvious spoof of the "G.I. Joe" cartoons from the 1980's (Reagan-era references abound throughout this site, mostly in the form of Atari and NES games. This tells me all I need to know about the site's creators). In the cartoon, a troop of freedom fighters known as the Cheat Commandos find out their archnemesis Blue Laser is shopping at the grocery store on Double Coupon Day.
They decide to check it out, coming up with the reason that "with the money Blue Laser could potentially save from those double coupons they could buy all kinds of super weapons that, like, turn babies into gold or screw with the weather!" Upon investigating, the leader of the troop states, "It looks like Blue Laser's going to take advantage of Price Style's already low, low prices on paper towels and grout cleaner and use all the savings to make a button that will make it snow at the beach!" They swiftly attack, only to find out that Blue Laser is, in fact, just going shopping. Still, they congratulate themselves on a job well done.
I used to simply enjoy the cartoon for its spoof of "G.I. Joe"'s convoluted plots and crass commercialism (they call their headquarters "The Playset" and their theme song ends with "Buy all our playsets and toys!"). But today, I had a revelation that usually comes from smoking copious amounts of pot. That cartoon is about a group of overpatriotic soldiers attacking an evil tyrant based on insufficient evidence and false pretense. Sound familiar?
I suddenly started taking a second look at the characters and plotlines throughout the site, and I realized that Homestar Runner is a sly, clever skewering of 21st century culture (is it just coincidence that these characters live in Freetown, USA?). Underneath the random humor, simple stories and charming music, there is a subtext of satire that I did not catch the first time around. Here are but a few instances:
* Bubs, who owns the local concession stand, sells cheap overpriced junk. He finds any opportunity to charge his customers, going so far as to charge five dollars to wait in line or run into the wall (commercialism is a recurring theme in Homestar Runner).
* The cartoons that the characters watch are either "Sweet Cuppin' Cakes" (a plotless piece of surrealism) or a lame Japanese import set in the year 20X6. This parallels the sorry state of children's television, which is dominated by Teletubbies and Pokemon.
* Coach Z, in an attempt to get the younger members of the community to like him, is constantly reciting old school hip hop lyrics and mangles his voice, perhaps in an attempt to sound more urban. However, the lyrics go over everyone's heads and his voice sounds like a Chicagoan imitating Jerry Lewis. Anyone who has heard a middle-aged person attempt to recite rap lyrics will understand this.
* Strong Bad, the site's most popular character, has an anti-authority attitude. However, he is too lazy to put it to any good use, and so he spends his days checking his e-mail and ordering people to get him things while he watches TV. This is very similar to the college students of today, who grew up in the Me Decade and are not as concerned with non-personal issues as their parents of the '60's.
* Strong Bad's brother Strong Sad is part of the Goth Movement, but about fifteen years too late. As such, he is constantly mocked and teased by his brothers and everyone else in the town. This reflects how the Goth Movement has lost its edge.
* Strong Bad draws a comic called Teen Girl Squad, which consists of poorly drawn teenage girls trying hard to be popular and getting killed in juvenile ways. Strong Bad claims that he is going to sell these comics to "a snoody independent record store". Anybody who has been into a Tower Records lately can attest to the sudden surge in random, simplistic entertainment such as Adult Swim, Red Meat and, yes, Homestar Runner.
To paraphrase Chekhov (sorry, my copy of "The Seagull" is not within my reach): We should not show the world as it is, but the way it is in dreams. Homestar Runner does exactly that. It is very popular with the college-age crowd perhaps not only because it's funny and original, but because what the dim athlete, hippie girl and Mexican wrestler are saying sounds very familiar. This is what I love about art.
The power to entertain someone while holding a mirror up to them is the joy of art. And better than any other piece of art or entertainment that I've seen. So check it out (also, Matt Chapman's voices are some of the finest cartoon voicework this side of "The Simpsons"). www.homestarrunner.com
Oh, and see "Marat.Sade" in its closing weekend, to be entertained by crazy people while shedding a light on the ways of the current administration of our government. Shameless plug.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Why do people twice my age feel the need to "connect" with me? I find myself to be a pretty easy-going, well-educated guy, and am perfectly able to get along with most people. You want to talk about the music of the '70's, the movies of the '50's, what happened when you were my age in 1943? Sure, I'd be glad to. Just please stay your age.
At my work, I have lunch with a couple of my co-workers. The number and identity of lunchmates changes from day to day, and every so often, I find myself talking to a woman who is old enough to be my mother (I usually eat with women, because with the guys in my office, I find myself constantly having to prove that I'm not gay by talking about professional sports and Jessica Alba. It's just not worth the effort). And these women always feel the need to show me that they're...Well, one of them put it best.
She was talking about a rap artist that her son had her listen to (50 Cent? Nelly? Tupac? Some other incredibly mainstream artist that you don't need a 17 year-old son to have heard of? Get back to me when you have listened to Arcade Fire or Nellie McKay). And she was saying, "I liked him. I don't like a lot of rap, because it's just the same thing over and over. The sex, and the drugs, and the shooting, and the hitting the women. But this guy was cool."
She then turns to me and says, "Bet you didn't think I could like a guy like that, huh? I'm down. I'm down in the diggity!"
Did she really say "down in the diggity" (a phrase that, even if it were correct, would still be outdated by at least fifteen years)? For that matter did she really say that she was "down" in the first place? And was she trying to somehow connect to me and get me to think that she was cool by telling me that she liked 50 Cent? Do I look like the kind of guy that could talk to you about the modern state of hip hop?
She then proceeded to have a conversation with another woman (again, old enough to be Mother Gable) about her sexual practices. Both were peppering their conversation with the exclamation "girl": "Oh, girl, men are just as bad!" "Girl, I'm telling you!" It was really quite unsettling to sit at the cafeteria table and watch these two grown women with middle-class jobs speaking like nineteen year-olds at a mall food court.
Then, I was suddenly struck by a premonition. I saw myself twenty years from now. I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sandals, and I was talking to my daughter's friends, telling them about how I "appreciate" the crappy mainstream bands that I heard on Top 40 Radio and hearing them snicker as I left her room. Then I retreated to my son's room to try and talk to him about "that cool new video game". And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't possibly connect to them in any way.
I was reminded of the several sad figures that I've seen in my life. The middle-aged D.J. of a Top 40 radio station in Spokane. The high school science teacher that was all too willing to have his crappy oldies band play at a school dance. The kung fu- and porn-obsessed store manager at the local Hollywood Video who would keep customers in the store just so they could listen to him talk about Bruce Lee. It was a scary notion. Someone I know is actually scared of getting older. I didn't really understand her until now. If getting old means desperately trying to prove that you're not old, that's a good argument for the benefits of euthanasia.
I was reminded of one of the most embarrassing things that I have ever seen. I was watching a commercial for Teen Jeopardy, which consisted of several bookish teenagers (including with a cute Asian girl wearing glasses. *Daydreaming sigh*) talking about the virtues of Jeopardy in Smart Kid Speak ("Teen Jeopardy is the paradigm of the entertainment-education coalescence"). Then, in what must be the single most embarrassing moment in his career, Alex Trebek appeared in a leather jacket and sunglasses and said, I swear to god, "Teen Jeopardy is da bomb! See, I'm down!" I know that it was supposed to be a joke, but that went so far into Not Funny Territory that it went back to Funny Territory before finally settling back into Not Funny Territory, Embarrassment Division.
This is not to say that as people get older they should be humorless and mature. I just think that people should act how they feel. Do not try to "connect" to me. Instead of trying to talk to me about 50 Cent (when both of us have only heard the same two songs), show me the dance you took from The Jackson 5 when you watched them on Ed Sullivan. I'll enjoy that much more. Tell me what's interesting to you, not what you think is interesting to me. It is the young that should be following the elder's example, not the other way around.
Just be yourself, girl, even if you're not down in the diggity.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
I knew it was bound to happen. I had managed to wait until video to see "Gladiator", and I had managed to avoid "Troy", "Alexander" and "King Arthur" altogether. But it was only a matter of time before I succumbed to the Costume Epic and found myself sitting in a theater, watching "Kingdom of Heaven".
Roger Ebert, a critic who I have a lot of respect for (and whose taste usually reflect mine) said of the movie, "better than 'Gladiator' -- deeper, more thoughtful, more about human motivation and less about action." Perhaps he accidentally walked into the wrong theater and saw "Million Dollar Baby", because what I saw was an overacted, overwritten, overdirected "epic" that had the most boring action sequences since "Bad Boys II" (and that's saying something).
The movie was made by Ripley Scott, whose known for being one of the most hit-and-miss of current Hollywood directors. Either he shoots a bullseye ("Alien", "Blade Runner", "Black Hawk Down", "Matchstick Men") or he's off-target to a frustrating degree ("Legend", "Hannibal", "Gladiator"). "Kingdom of Heaven" can be put in the latter.
The story is basically "Gladiator: Special Crusades Unit". The slave-turned-celebrity device is now bestowed upon Orlando Bloom, who goes from being a 12th-century French blacksmith to the defender of Jerusalem. All the while, he glances this way and that, fighting for honor and looking pensive. It's Bloom's best performance since that last one where he was holding a sword (I swear, that guy would carry a sword in a romantic comedy).
Bloom, however, did give me an idea. Most of his performance was not based on natural emotion, but more on physical agility (running around, horse riding, swordfighting, etc.), speech-shouting ("We fight for the glory...of JERUSALEM!!! Today we celebrate...our INDEPENDENCE DAY!!! I have always depended on the kindness...of STRANGERS!!!" Okay, I stole those last two lines), and staring off into the distance with a look that says, "God, I'm a sexy bitch!"
It's not really a breathtaking performance. I think that I, along with most of the actors that I know, could have given the same performance with some sword training and a halfway decent director. I decided that I really want to see a director make a movie like this with Pauly Shore in the lead role. I honestly think that he could have given just as good of a performance, and it would make the movie that much better if you were saying, "Wow, Pauly Shore's actually decent" (although I'm sure he would be billed simply as "Paul Shore"). Please, Hollywood, give Pauly a chance!
Otherwise, the film has everything you would expect: A king with leprosy (played in a useless piece of casting by Edward Norton wearing a shiny silver mask), an exotic beauty (though she's no Shannyn Sossamon in "A Knight's Tale"...yes, of course I'm kidding), CGI battle scenes up the yin-yang (did Scott really expect us to go "Ooooh!" every single time he showed us the enormous Muslim army?), a scene with Eva Green cutting her hair with scissors that hadn't been invented yet (hell, even Mulan used a sword and that movie ended with a disco party), and the requisite cheesy dialogue (everybody liked to speak in contradictions, saying things like "No one has claim! All have claim!" and "Jerusalem is worth nothing. Everything").
Two of the best unintentionally funny moments were the Green-Bloom kiss, where what I could only describe as Arabian porn music started playing (and since the film already had an R rating, why didn't they take that scene further?), and a part where Bloom asks, "Old man, can you tell me where Christ was crucified?" and the man points to the large cross on top of the tallest hill in the area. I half expected Bloom to reply with, "Oh, right, the large cross on the hill! Whoops, my goof!"
By the time we get to the big climactic Christian-Muslim fight for Jerusalem, there are swords clashing, arrows flying, fireballs exploding, men shouting, horses neighing, walls tumbling, actors ACTING (what was with Jeremy Irons punctuating his sentences with jerks of his head?)...and all the while, I sat watching with eyes glazing, legs numbing, brain melting, stomach growling. When the movie ended, I had seen a great many things over the course of 150 minutes, and I didn't feel like I watched anything at all.
Hopefully, though, "Kingdom of Heaven" will serve a very useful purpose. It was budgeted around 130 million dollars, and made only 20 million dollars in its opening weekend. Following the disappointing box-office of "Troy" (Budget: $185 million; Gross: $133 million), "Alexander" (Budget: $150 million; Gross: $34 million) and "King Arthur" (Budget: $90 million; Gross: $51 million), this may just be the end of the Costume Epic until its next resurrection in another 30 years.
On a final, completely unrelated note, it's my birthday today, and I keep having to remind myself of this fact (the blue and oddly suggestive purple balloons that the co-workers taped to my desk are making it very easy to remember). I'm hoping that this isn't a sign of my becoming too adult. Aren't I supposed to be excited two weeks before hand that my birthday is coming up? Shouldn't the idea of cake and presents excite me? At least I'm excited about the prospect of going to Disneyland tonight (Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, here I come!). Maybe hitting the big 2-3 won't be so bad.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Yesterday, I had several moments of clarity. My different moods and emotions were playing tag with each other, and I could only be described as a mess.
The day started out well enough. I was spending my morning going through Bob Dylan's canon. I was attempting to take the fifteen albums of his that I own and condense them into a 75-minute mix CD, with emphasis placed on his extremely potent years between 1963 and 1966. The project filled me with excitement, as I got to revisit the music that I have loved for several years.
Suddenly, while swimming in the brilliance of "Subterranean Homesick Blues", I had a sudden attack of what I can only describe as Tech Week Anxiety (it's Tech Week for "Marat/Sade" at Hunger Artists, opening Friday and running through May 29th...shameless plug).
Tech Week Anxiety is not something that I really experience as an actor. My technique during this time is simply to forge through each rehearsal in a busy-but-optimistic state of mind, not giving myself time to complain or get testy. But as a writer, I basically become, in most uncompromising terms, a sniveling, self-absorbed bitch.
I started doubting the script that I had rewritten for the show. I felt that I had destroyed Peter Weiss's original vision while giving the audiences that would come to see the show nothing more than a pretentious, mildly amusing freak show. The show would be, to quote a playwright who knows a thing or two about people ruining his work, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".
I also started doubting my own performance, which throughout the entire rehearsal process felt stale and wooden. Due to prior commitments, I missed the first two weeks of rehearsal, when all of the tablework was done (tablework is my favorite part of putting up a show). As such, I felt like an outsider, someone who was invited to just tag along with the cool kids, rather than be inducted in their group.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dylan's nasal voice was filling my ears, reminding me that by the end of his 22nd year (I'll be 23 in a week), he had already released three incredible albums and had penned such classics like "Blowin' in the Wind", "Masters of War", "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'". And here I was, the same age, and completely incapable of giving a decent performance while acting out my own shoddy material.
I walked into rehearsal with a significant amount of dread. As I donned my costume and grabbed my walking stick, the director gave me a note. Now the notes that I've received have been on a more technical side (increasing volume and enunciation, throwing in a funny bit, etc.). But this note was different and relatively simple: "I'd like to see more at stake for the Herald. We need to see his fear that the show isn't going well. So just higher stakes."
That did it. I went up on stage and immediately connected to the material. Suddenly I felt vibrant and alive, and most of all, I was having a blast. And since I wasn't trying to figure out what I was doing wrong anymore, I was able to focus on other parts of the show. I watched Christopher Spencer running around panic-stricken while reciting dialogue that was written in the 1960's but is especially relevant today. I watched Mike Caban, my new favorite actor, speak his words as if he were tasting a fine wine. I watched as an entire room full of mental patients stood silently transfixed to the two figures that compose the climactic moment. And I realized that perhaps the script isn't all that bad.
Afterward, I received compliments on the improvement in my performance. Then Jessica Beane, one of the greatest people I've ever known, talked to me about how she wanted to do justice to her first monologue, because it was "poetry". Suddenly, all of my Tech Week Anxiety disappeared into a cloud of smoke.
I realized that I'm the kind of actor that needs a director. There are some actors that can simply get by on their own. I am not one of them. This is not a bad thing, just a true thing. I can throw out ideas and add funny bits, but I really need someone to be my eyes and ears toward my performance. The crucial two weeks that I missed meant that I never got to explore my character with the director. But one small note about the core of the character, and I was off.
I also realized that what I said in an earlier post about acting being a chance to escape oneself and try on a new personality is not happening here. I realized that I am, in real life, a less extreme version of the Herald. I have minor compulsions that I choose to indulge rather than correct (label peeling, paper folding, etc.), and this show does indeed have high personal stakes for me (I have not been satisfied with the last three plays of mine that were staged, and I really want this to be a success). So the closer I channel to the character to my own anxieties and compulsions, the more natural and believable my performance will be.
I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't on the fence about this show for a very long time. But now, I can say with the utmost confidence that we have a fantastic show on our hands, and that this is a project that I am extremely proud of.
Now on to another topic. I am getting extremely tired of personal agendas. In the past twenty-four hours, two people that I have great affection for have been driven to the point of exhaustion by other people taking their personal agendas out on them in a theatre environment. This saddens me because they are both extremely hard-working people who only want the best for the respective theatres to which they volunteer their time.
I'm also frustrated because the people treating them cruelly and stabbing them in the back are people that I've called friends. I've worked on shows with them, given them rides, invited them into my homes and now they have shown me a side of them that I never knew existed. I just don't understand why people can't just stop being malicious, jealous, illogical jerks and act like adults.
*PHEW* I'm being really long-winded here, aren't I? I'm sorry. I'll let you get back to whatever you were doing.