Greg Stacy’s FAT LOT OF GOOD

February 16, 2007

EYEBALL FOOD: NO GNUS ARE GOOD GNUS

Filed under: Eyeball Food,Geekery,TV,Weird — gregstacy @ 10:08 pm

Here’s one for my fellow aging Gen-X’ers. You know that crazy-ass kiddie show that was on in the morning when you were a kid, the one that nobody but you seems to remember? With the kids on the asteroid and the weird-looking puppets and the cartoons and stuff? Well, here are the psychedelic credits. And here’s Knock Knock the bird busting Goriddle Gorilla’s balls. And one of those freaking cartoons about the the little line man with the gibbering baby nightmare voice. And finally, Gary Gnu! (“I’m a gnu! How do you do?”)

Weird bit of trivia: Kevin Clash, the guy who did the voice of Goriddle, went on to do the voice of Elmo. While normally Elmo would be enough to earn somebody a piece of prime real estate by the Lake of Fire in Hell, it’s possible that Clash has earned a free pass through the pearly gates thanks to Goriddle. We’ll just have to wait until the Day of Judgement to know for sure.

February 14, 2007

Life without Flash is a gas, gas, gas

Filed under: Games and tech,Geekery — gregstacy @ 9:50 am

I am about to make your internet experience so, so much better.

What if I told you that with the click of a button, you could make all of that horrible Flash go away? No more blinky banner ads. No more “punch this monkey and win a brand new car!!!!” No more three-minute trailers for the latest Ashton Kutcher movie sneakily downloading themselves to your desktop. No more dealing with an internet that increasingly resembles one huge, noisy, ugly-as-hell MySpace page. 

Well, that sounds great, you say, but what about when you actually need Flash? Like, to see stuff on Youtube, for instance? What about that, then? Huh?

Ah, friend, I’m not talking about doing away with Flash altogether. (Although that idea is certainly tempting.) No, I’m talking about the the power to turn Flash on and off at will. You turn Flash on to see somebody’s grandma breakdancing on Youtube, then turn it off so you don’t have to look at all the winky, blinky, noisy crap everywhere else! Just imagine it! It’d be an earthly paradise!

Well, friend, you don’t have to imagine it… just click here and take you first step into a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

February 10, 2007

EYEBALL FOOD

Filed under: Eyeball Food,Geekery,Music,Weird — gregstacy @ 10:27 am

Just reprinting my old articles is getting a little tired, so I’m going to start up a new section here on FAT LOT OF GOOD. EYEBALL FOOD will showcase all sorts of interesting video crap I find online: obscure music videos, geeky tech stuff, people in gorilla suits… whatever the heck I feel like, really. So, here is today’s deliciousness.

MARGO GURYAM’S AMAZING, TERRY GILLIAM/YELLOW SUBMARINE-ESQUE, ANTI-W MUSIC VIDEO . As much as I love this thing, even a pinko like me has to admit the last few seconds are rather thumpingly unsubtle. (Spoiler warning!) Either show the dummy growing devil horns, or have its nose grow, but both? Why not go all out, and show him speaking with a forked tongue while his pants catch on fire?

DINOSAURS! LIVING! LIVE DINOSAURS! This thing sure makes the modern Hollywood CGI crap look like the crappy crap it is. I almost want to hop on a flight to freakin’ Australia, just so I can see this show in person.

HOW THEY BROUGHT THE DINOSAURS BACK TO LIFE. Behind the scenes special effects geekery, with giant rubber lizards. Heaven.

NORA, THE PIANO-PLAYING CAT. Admittedly her music is an aquired taste… but what stage presence!

February 6, 2007

Pop Will Eat Itself: The movies that stopped living and became mixed-up zombies

Filed under: Humor,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 10:21 pm

(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, 06-09-05)

Every year, it seems like we suffer through more and more woefully ill-conceived, big-screen remakes of old movies and TV shows. This summer’s outbreak began with The Longest Yard, which we shall not sully ourselves to comment upon save for noting that the Hollywood hack who pitched this film should have been immediately escorted off the studio lot, tossed into the back of an unmarked van, roughed up for a few hours and then deposited, dazed and bloody, in a trash bin behind the Denny’s on Sunset.

If The Longest Yard seems to set a new low for human artistic endeavor, it looks like freaking Macbeth compared to this week’s all-black remake of The Honeymooners. Now, was anybody on earth clamoring for a Honeymooners movie? Are Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton beloved comic icons of the African-American community? No, and no. But some coked-up studio marketing exec apparently calculated that a cheaply produced, crassly written urban comedy, plus the gutted shell of an established property, plus presumed insufficient audience familiarity with the original property to know what they’re missing, might just equal the cash to acquire enough coke to get through the next weekend. If there’s any justice, The Honeymooners will bomb so big that that exec will finally experience his personal Moment of Clarity and immediately check himself into rehab, vowing to mend his wicked ways. And then three weeks later he’ll fall off the wagon, overdose and die.

Another upcoming remake looks a little more promising from a distance, but take heed of the suggestion contained within this movie’s tagline: “Be Warned. Be Ready.” A big-screen version of the goofily charming ’60s sitcom Bewitched, with Nicole Kidman as Samantha and Will Ferrell as Darrin, might have been a frothy cauldron of supernatural comedy goodness. But sadly, director/co-writer Nora Ephron (You’ve Got Mail and other crimes against humanity) decided to stir some of her own crappy ideas into the brew. You see, this is not actually a remake of the sitcom: it’s a movie about the making of a movie remake of the sitcom, with Ferrell as the actor playing Darrin and Kidman as the actress playing Samantha. Except it turns out that the actress (the actress played by Kidman, I mean, not Kidman herself) really is a witch! Yes, I can hear you scratching your head from here, and I don’t blame you. It takes real black magic to assemble such talents as Amy Sedaris, Michael Caine, Jason Schwartzman, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell and waste them all in a plot this dopey. After Bewitched hits theaters, audiences will surely be calling for Ephron to be burned at the stake.

Johnny Knoxville exploited his masochistic compulsions for plenty of good, sick laughs back in the Jackass days, but when he took a baseball bat to the crotch on that show, nobody was harmed except him and his future progeny. Since Jackass wrapped, Knoxville has been getting his self-hating kicks by starring in one absolutely wretched movie after another, making us all suffer along with him. Now he and that Dude, Where’s My Car lunk who isn’t Ashton Kutcher are co-starring in the peerlessly unnecessary big-screen version of The Dukes of Hazzard, with a supporting cast that makes you pine for the days of Sorrell Booke. No matter how cutely she fills out her Daisy Duke short-shorts, Jessica Simpson is a RealDoll© who simply doesn’t deserve to be in the same room (let alone the same movie) as Willie Nelson, while we can only forgive Willie’s involvement in this fiasco if we tell ourselves he’s still desperately struggling to pay off the IRS. The casting of Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg is particularly dispiriting, since between this and The Longest Yard Burt’s now dangerously close to a comeback, just when we were almost rid of him. Besides, he’s not even fat. Boss Hogg is supposed to be a fat cracker whose chins quiver when he hollers, “Them Dukes! Them Dukes!”—not some gaunt senior citizen who looks like a walking Madame Tussaud’s exhibit. I don’t want to believe that a movie version of The Dukes of Hazzard could possibly be a hit, because that would say things about where we are as a culture that are simply too terrible to accept. Between that and W’s re-election, the rest of the world would be justified in concluding that we’re a nation of trogs running around in torn overalls and rope belts.

But there is hope on the horizon. Eventually Hollywood will run out of old movies and TV shows to remake . . . and it looks like the day is arriving very soon. There are now plans afoot for a sequel to Zack Snyder’s recent version of Dawn of the Dead, a film that was itself a remake of George Romero’s 1978 sequel to his own film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead (which was itself remade in 1990). That’s right, this new film would be a sequel to a remake of a sequel to a movie about (all too appropriately) ravenous, unstoppable, undead cannibals. Should this new film actually reach theaters, scientists predict that it will result in what has been described as “a massively recursive, apocalyptic aesthetic event,” at which point mainstream Hollywood will vanish from the space-time continuum, traveling at warp speed directly up its own asshole.

In the meantime, millions of Americans will endure a seemingly endless summer of big-screen reruns, slouched down wearily in our theater seats, trying to work up the courage to demand our money back and hiccupping queasily as our crappy popcorn, like our crappy movies, keeps repeating on us.

Requiem for a Crush: How Jennifer Connelly starved her way to seriousness

Filed under: Humor,Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 10:12 pm

An unrequited crush can be a painful thing, but it’s even worse when the object of your sweaty affections is a movie star you’ve never met, who will never know your name and who is so far out of your league that you may as well be members of different species.

My crush began sometime in early 1991, when I saw the trailer for a dire-looking John Hughes comedy, Career Opportunities. I was barely paying attention, when suddenly there was young Jennifer Connelly, wearing a white tank top that showed off her spectacular curves to perfection. She was bouncing up and down on one of those little mechanical horsy things you see at the mall, and she had this kinda bored, pouty expression that–oh, sweet Jesus, I still get woozy just thinking of it.

I’d first seen the New York native way back in 1986, when she’d starred alongside a fright-wigged David Bowie and a few dozen Muppets in the Jim Henson cult classic Labyrinth. But that Jennifer was just a kid, boobless and buttless, with the big, sad eyes of a lost kitten. She was old enough to be in my same grade at school, but entertaining sexual thoughts about her would’ve felt wrong­—like pedophilia, almost. Now here we were, just a few short years later, and she’d grown up real good. I was instantly smitten, but it didn’t became a full-blown, John Hinkley-esque obsession until a few months later, when she appeared in the Disney bomb The Rocketeer. She spent much of that picture dolled up in this old-timey, low-cut, white dress, and she was simply too gorgeous for this world; it was like the skies had opened and a zaftig angel was walking among us. I saw that stupid movie at least three times in the theater, and I resented every moment when my girl wasn’t onscreen. Who cared about that dork and his jetpack, when we’d just seen Jennifer in her bedroom, putting on her lipstick?

There is a reason why they call a crush a crush: it can be oppressive and exhausting, like a big, fancy, perfumed millstone around your neck. My Connelly crush began before the Internet became ubiquitous, so I couldn’t just hop online for a quick Jennifer fix. I had to stay up to catch her (all-too-brief!) interviews on Letterman, or pounce on any magazine where she appeared on the cover. I never saw any Jennifer Connelly posters for sale, but I wouldn’t have bought them anyhow. Owning posters would’ve been admitting to myself that she was the untouchable star and I was just one of her many anonymous fans, doomed to go to my grave without ever once knowing the smell of her lustrous, midnight-black hair. When I learned that she was studying English at Yale–brains and beauty!–I nearly perished.

I loved everything about Connelly: her smarts (after two years at Yale, she transferred to Stanford), her little mouse voice, her chubby cheeks, her untamed brows, and . . . well, let’s not kid ourselves, the girl was built. On those rare occasions when I confessed to my girlfriends that I was hung-up on Connelly, they invariably sneered, “Oh, of course,” rolling their eyes and cupping their hands about two feet in front of their chests. Sadly, my girlfriends weren’t the only ones who had trouble seeing beyond Jennifer’s double-Ds. Casting directors were equally blind to her other assets, and through most of the ’90s she played a lot of bimbos in a lot of forgettable films. Her talent was obvious even in these thankless roles, and the two words that critics most often used to describe her were voluptuous and underused.

For a long time, Connelly’s sexiness actually worked against her professionally. Sure, Hollywood likes beautiful actresses, and some sexiness is okay. But if an actress is, like, porn-star hot, with big, distracting boobs, it doesn’t matter how talented or ambitious she might be—she’ll still have a hard time ever being more than a pinup. Marilyn Monroe famously struggled with this, and she was cursed by being so far ahead of her time, so desperate to please, and so damn stacked. She was a Lee Strasberg girl in a Jayne Mansfield world. On the contemporary scene, Angelina Jolie strains the limits of acceptable sexiness. Usually, American leading ladies are the “pert,” willowy, girl-next-door type: your Megs, your Julias, your Camerons, girls so well-scrubbed it’s hard to imagine them ever getting dirty. The only time anybody noticed Julia Roberts’ rack was when she shoved it in our faces in Erin Brockovich, and that was pure stunt casting. Roberts’ utilitarian prettiness left her free to do drama, comedy, romance or whatever she felt like, while Connelly, Roberts’ contemporary, spent much of her career playing pillowy girlfriends in whatever movie she could get.

Connelly briefly dropped off my radar in the late ’90s, and the next time I saw her, sometime in the new millennium, I literally didn’t recognize her at first. She’d lost so much weight I wondered if she’d been ill. (Seriously, she could practically live in one of her old bras now.) She looked grumpy, like she’d kill for a Twinkie. But what do you know, suddenly people were treating her like a “serious” actress, and she was winning awards. She won an Oscar, for Christ’s sake! My Jennifer!

In interviews today, Connelly talks about how she almost gave up acting in the ’90s because she was so frustrated with the unchallenging roles she was getting, how she’s never been happier than she is right now and never felt more like herself. Even if looking at her just makes me sad now, if starving away her curves made her happy, if she did it for herself, well, God bless her. Still, I have this awful feeling that sometime around 1999, Connelly’s agent took her aside and told her she was never gonna win an Academy Award with those boobs. She’s so grimly, insistently thin. It looks like hard work. I miss her old, crazy brows, too.

The Jennifer I fell for, half a lifetime ago, was too big for the movies she was in. It was like they could hardly fit her on the screen. Today’s Jennifer actually looks much more like the teenage Jennifer of Labyrinth: tentative and wispy, like a strong wind could blow her away. You see her in some grim, big-deal drama like Blood Diamond, and there’s absolutely nothing, at all, to distract you from her performance. I still respect her talent, but her makeover has brought her full circle, and once again, entertaining sexual thoughts about her feels wrong somehow. Sadly, I suspect that was kind of the point.

IT’S A LIVING – online exclusive!

Filed under: It's a Living,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 10:09 pm

I turned in the following It’s a Living column just before Christmas, but it didn’t reach the right editor in time and never ran.

It’s a Living: Santa Claus
Joe Bays is a seasonal Santa and W.C. Fields impersonator
By Greg Stacy

Do you mostly appear at malls or kid’s parties, or what?

Mostly private parties, for adults and children. I haven’t done a mall in I don’t know how long, maybe a decade. I just did a Chamber of Commerce this last Wednesday – in Artesia, I believe it was.

How are the kid parties different from the adult ones?

Well, you give out nicer presents (at the adult ones), I’ll tell you that! Mostly you’re there to take pictures… it serves as a kind of yardstick to measure kids as they’re growing up. You can look back, year by year, at the child with Santa, and you see the attitudes change, as the child goes from total belief, to not believing or being skeptical and somewhat standoffish, to then, when they’re older, they want to sit on your lap so they can be a child again, and pretend they believe, even if it’s only for a moment.

Do you get a lot of smart-aleck questions? “How can Santa visit every house in one night?”

Well, the obvious answer to that question is that it’s magic. Kids will ask, “If you know everything, what’s my name?” Kids can ask some very difficult questions. One time, a child asked if I could bring his dad back to life.

What did you say?

I told him there are some things Santa can’t do. I said, “Always value yourself, and take care of yourself, and do the right thing, because as long as you’re alive, a part of your dad is alive.”

Wow. That’s amazing.

Well, it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. But there are no stock answers.

What about when a kid asks if you know their name?

You look at the child for cues, to see if they’re actually testing you, or if it’s a game you can both play. They have such a short shelf life of belief, and you never want to do anything to break the magic of the moment. In modern life, I think we’ve lost the ability to believe in something yet not believe in it. The ancient Greeks didn’t think Zeus literally existed, but they believed in the power of him, as an idea. Santa is one of the last myths like that, where we know he doesn’t literally exist… but we want our picture taken with him anyway! He appeals to the better angels of our natures, and we look for a part of him in ourselves. I’ve had everybody on my lap from 10 days to 80 years, and I’ll tell you, an octogenarian’s giggle sound a lot like a 5-year-old’s!

January 4, 2007

There’s a Shadow on the Fair…

Filed under: Art,OC Weekly,Weird — gregstacy @ 11:05 pm

(Published in OC WEEKLY… Oh, let’s say 1998 or so.)

 Circuses scare the heck out of me, they scare the heck out of you, and they scare the heck out of everybody else. Let’s all just admit that right now. Hapless drifters being fired out of cannons, men with greased mustaches snapping whips at surly beasts, guys with missing (or extra) fingers trying to sell you bags of greasy, overpriced popcorn. And the clowns! Lord, don’t even get me started on the damned clowns. Those floppy shoes, the greasepaint dripping down their necks and staining their hideous clownsuits, the mirthless cackling. Oh, the horror, the horror.

Roy Hassett’s art achieves the seemingly impossible; he takes the world of circus and carny folk and somehow makes it seem three times as skuzzy and nightmarish as it already is. A typical Hassett composition features a sneering, troll-like little girl-creature riding a swing that hangs from the gaping, toothless maw of a wild-eyed elephant. The colors are psychedelic in their intensity, and the linework squiggles across the page like thousands of little neon worms. The clowns and other carny folk in Hassett’s art reek of failure and perversion and shame; you get the feeling that they’ve run away with the circus because they had nowhere else to go. If you took way too much acid and stayed up all night reading Something Wicked This Way Comes, the resulting hallucinations would play like a particularly chipper Disney cartoon compared to the freaky world to be glimpsed through the window of Hassett’s work.

Drawn with those eyeball-blistering, citric colors that only magic markers can provide, Hassett’s work has the weird, crude vitality of the best outsider art. But this outsider is actually an insider; in real life, the weirdest thing about Hasett is how very unweird he apparently is. Yes, Hasett does work for the circus (at least in a sense), but no, despite what his drawings would lead you to imagine, he’s not the salty, half-mad old cuss who sweeps up after the animal acts. As half of the Hasett and Davis Co., Hasett is a marketing whiz who books games and rides for fairs and carnivals all over the land. In a wacky little twist of fate, one of Hasset’s recent gigs was Long Beach’s Fourth Street Fair, which took place a few weeks back and mere yards away from Artscape, the delightfully funky little gallery-boutique where Hasett’s art is currently on display. Step through Artscape (be sure to check out Rick Frausto’s fantastic little monster-robot sculptures, recently raved about in these pages by our own Rebecca Shoenkopf) to the little room-within-a-room at the back of the gallery; journey within, and you’ll be surrounded on all sides by Hasett’s work, an experience I suggest you prepare yourself for with a strong meal and perhaps a shot of liquid courage. Hasett has somehow taken the colorful, corrupt spirit of every circus everywhere and penned it up in one little room, and those four walls are putting out some NASTY energy.

There’s plenty of nastiness to be found just a few doors down from Artscape at The Metamorphosis show at the cavernous Long Beach studio gallery recently re-christened The Space (it was previously known as the ARK Gallery), along with lots of charm, some real stunners, and a dab of the usual art-school bullshit. As soon as you enter, your eye is caught by two works zig-zagging across the floor like big origami snakes; Carol Powell’s Girls in T-Shirts & Underwear and Girls with Teddy Bears feature depictions of preadolescent girlie hijinx drawn in a moody, noodly style with what appears to be a bic pen. It’s more subtly disturbing, and more poignant, than Hasett’s work, calling to mind some of the best prisoner art. By comparison David Knight’s two paintings, Jump and Dream, are more technically accomplished yet infinitely less interesting; Jump depicts a chair engaged in an Evel Knevel-style daredevil act, jumping through a flaming hoop and emerging with its upholstery unsinged, while Dream shows a chair in the midst of a Henri Rousseau-like mirage. Knight’s obviously grasping for surrealism here, but unfortunately these paintings do not so much evoke the dream-state as they simply make you drowsy.

Your senses are jolted back to wakefulness by Jim McCamant’s Self Portrait, a solid gold turd mounted on a wall plaque (I still haven’t figured out if this guy has zero self-esteem or if he really needs to get over himself), while Vladi Komanska’s two works, the pleasantly hideous collage Lovely and the wacky-ass acrylic painting There is a Frog in Everyone, leave you feeling concussed and whoozy, in a good way. Unfortunately somebody has to tell Komanska that the little Black Flys and Parental Advisory stickers he adorns his work with aren’t quite the clever touch he apparently believes them to be. His art isn’t tied to a specific era, yet those stickers ensure that it’ll seem dated by the century’s end, if it’s not already. It might not be too late to save these paintings; I’d strongly reccommend that Komanska gets busy with a razor blade, some sand paper, and a little turpentine… whatever it takes to get those damn stickers off of there. Greg Lama’s Flying Lama is an odd bird, literally; a creature of the air cobbled together out of feathers, little leafy bits from artificial plants, and the remains of a Klingon spaceship model. Can’t say I get his point, but I applaud his ingenuity in devising such a thing. Misha Mar Heo’s Archetypal Barbie, on the other hand, strikes me as being both haphazardly crafted and groaningly obvious. It’s Barbie… and she’s knocked-up! For decades Barbie has endured the barbs of feminists, wise-guys, and snooty cultural critics, and it’s hardly affected her at all; she’s simply gone about her merry way in her fantastic plastic world, working hundreds of careers simultaneously (everything from tending the counter at Mcdonalds to being an astronaut, and this was years before Sally Ride) and yet still finding plenty of time to frolic with all of her little plastic pals. Jeez, no wonder so many little girls grow up to hate her so. Artists can (and do, endlessly) put Barbie in bondage gear, cut off all her hair or smear her with menstrual blood, but they’ll never succeed in wiping that little smirk off her face. If Heo thinks she’s gonna take Barbie down a peg by sticking a bun in the old girl’s oven, she’s got another think coming.

While Heo’s Barbie is about as shocking as buttered wheat toast, the same could hardly be said for Antonio Tomaselli Montalva’s She Waited Screaming, a small treasure hidden in The Space’s east end. Montalva’s sculpture depicts a fearsome, sphinx-like female creature with big cat haunches and wiggly wire claws. She’s not much larger than Heo’s Barbie, which you’re thankful for. This girl eats fellas like you for breakfast and then gobbles up real tough guys for lunch. She’s the scariest little wonder in the dark carnival that’s currently camped on Fourth Street. Step right up!

December 29, 2006

My last film column for OC WEEKLY

Filed under: News and politics,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 2:11 am

Due to the Village Voice chain deciding to stop employing freelancers, I will no longer be covering film for OC Weekly. You can read my last Special Screenings column, featuring some of my musings on getting fired from the gig I’d had for almost 12 years, by clicking here.

The story of my getting axed has also been picked up by Mediabistro.

And it’s on LA Observed.

If you can offer an ongoing, paying writing gig, of any sort, send me a line at gregstacy at earthlink dot net. I will be ridiculously happy to hear from you.

December 28, 2006

Holiday Leftovers

Filed under: Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 5:12 am

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, January 13, 2005)

Come the New Year, we are inevitably left with those forlorn holiday leftovers. No, I’m not talking about the fruitcake turning green at the back of your fridge—although you really should do something about that—but about those holiday movies that are even now still being projected in mostly empty theaters across the land.

Funny thing about Christmas movies: the ones that really linger in the public imagination usually don’t do too well at the box office when they first come out. Either they barely make their costs back or they are career-destroying bombs. It’s a Wonderful Life is only the most famous example of this phenomenon: when first released, it lost money and didn’t win a single Oscar. By 1974, the picture was so obscure that RKO let the copyright lapse and the film entered the public domain. It took years of endless TV reruns to make the film the Yuletide tradition it is today. A Christmas Story was only a modest success in 1983, but now it airs ’round the clock on TV every December and half the people you work with can probably quote the thing from beginning to end. Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas hardly set the box office aflame in 1993, but nowadays Nightmare characters are merchandised to the point of absurdity, turning up on lunch boxes, T-shirts, watches, snow globes, cookie jars, condoms (okay, I made that one up), key chains, panties (I didn’t make that one up), etc. Every winter, Disneyland even gives the Haunted Mansion an elaborate Nightmare makeover, one of the few things the park’s done in recent years you could call an actual success.

Another funny thing about Christmas movies: the ones to hit it big on their initial release are usually stupid and obnoxious, and while they make a big splash to start with, they’re quickly forgotten once they leave the multiplexes. Do you think anybody is going to be watching Jingle All the Way 20 years from now? Or The Santa Clause, parts 1 or 2? Or that truly reprehensible Jim Carrey version of The Grinch? We all knew these movies were crap even before we saw them, but somehow we made them into hits anyway. What was wrong with us, anyhow? It’s as if in the midst of all the stress and misery and general hullabaloo of the holidays, we flock to these awful, boorish movies hoping they’ll be loud enough to crowd all the thoughts out of our heads. And then, when we want to actually feel something, we go home and watch the genuinely affecting holiday stuff on DVD, either with our loved ones or all by ourselves with a box of hankies nearby.

This holiday season, Christmas With the Kranks faced off against The Polar Express, and analysts were amazed when Kranks turned out to be a hit and the much-hyped Polar Express fizzled. On paper, Polar Express seemed like such a sure thing (this was Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, remember) that when it opened well below expectations, many observers chalked up the problems to the film’s animation style. The characters looked too creepy, it was said; they were like marionettes made of meat or corpses brought back to a shambling semblance of life through some dark magic. In truth, the film did look a little freaky sometimes, but it was hardly the problem critics made it out to be, and it had little if anything to do with why the expected crowds failed to materialize on opening day.

You could see from miles away that The Polar Express was no Grinch or Jingle All the Way; it wasn’t out to hustle 10 bucks from your pocket and then dump you back on the pavement with nothing to show for your time but greasy popcorn fingers. This was a Christmas movie with ambitions: it wanted to awe you, to spook you, to warm your heart and make you think, too. It wanted to be the next It’s a Wonderful Life. In other words, it was offering more than a nation of frantic, distracted holiday shoppers were interested in, especially when the infinitely less challenging Kranks was playing right next door.

But while Kranks opened big and put that goddamn Tim Allen back on Hollywood’s A-list, by December 2006, it’ll be a dusty obscurity on the shelves of your neighborhood Blockbuster (assuming, of course, we still have Blockbusters by then). Polar Express, meanwhile, had a respectable, if unspectacular, opening and then chugged along at that same respectable, if unspectacular, rate for weeks and weeks like the little engine that could. It now looks likely to cross $160 million in total domestic sales without ever having reached No. 1 at the box office. Not exactly a Christmas miracle on par with George Bailey’s Bedford Falls neighbors saving him from ruin in the final reel of It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s still very impressive.

As we settle into adulthood, the Christmas spirit becomes an increasingly elusive thing. We get lost in the stress and misery and general hullabaloo of the holidays, and sometimes we awake Dec. 26 with the feeling we’ve spent weeks going through the motions and missed the entire party. If that’s what happened to you this year and you’re still yearning for that old Christmas feeling, you still have a chance to catch The Polar Express. Or you could always catch it next year. I’ve a feeling this one’s going to be around for a while.

The Man Behind the Eightball: Dan Clowes dares to keep clowns off drugs

Filed under: Art,Geekery,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 2:00 am

(Published in OC WEEKLY… uh, sometime in the ’90s. Probably ’97 or so, around the same time that Clowes had one of the Ghost World girls declare that they hated anybody who could ever write for an alternative newsweekly. Sigh… I still love you, ladies!)

Picture this: A strange invader – part human, part mid-’50s tin-toy – has just parked his rocketship above the streets of a gray urban metropolis and climbed down a rope ladder. Clearly, he does not come in peace. With one metal claw he beats upon a little war-drum mounted to his belly, with his other claw he brandishes a pistol firing thick spurts of a pink, mutagenic goo vaguely resembling Pepto Bismol. This slimy stuff has already transformed much of the city’s population into grotesque, unhappy-looking freaks, and the homely, inexplicably naked nuclear family cowering in the scene’s foreground are clearly the next in line for transmogrification. All would be lost, but a green ray has just blasted a hole in the stunned spaceman’s groin. The ray is being fired from outside the scene, from just about exactly where we’re standing. The fate of the world, it would seem, rests in our hands. A mysterious apparition hovering over the action complicates things still further: it’s the bland face of a bald, bearded, bespectacled older gentleman who bears a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud. He holds something in his hands that looks like a remote-control device. Does he control the killer spaceman? Or is he us, firing the ray that saves the day?

This scene of cartoon carnage graces the cover of Eightball #18, the latest issue of an amazing periodical from cartoonist Dan Clowes, and it serves as an interesting contrast to Clowes’ earlier work. Clowes first made a splash on the comics scene in the late ’80s with the debut of Lloyd Llewellen, a campy, seriously retro comic that chronicled the adventures of the book’s titular character, an early ’60s swinger who was constantly getting entangled in ginchy sci-fi adventures involving aliens and beatniks and curvy dames with big, B-52-style bouffants. The book was one long, snide, adolescent giggle, and when it folded in 1988 Clowes’ small cult of fans must have assumed he’d soon be back with more of the same.

But with the publication of the first issue of Eightball in 1989, it was immediately clear Clowes’ work had undergone a major evolution. Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, the saga Clowes began in issue #1, had a truly nightmarish quality. Velvet Glove began just as Twin Peaks was hitting it big, and the articles comparing Velvet Glove to Lynch’s work were endless. Indeed, there were parallels to be drawn – Clay Loudermilk, Velvet Gloves’ feckless protagonist, lives in an irrational, violent, vaguely Eraserhead-like America where monster births and dismemberment are treated as little more than creepy inconveniences – but while the Lynch of the early ’90s was an artist in rapid decline, Clowes’ talent was just beginning to fully blossom.

Early issues of Eightball featured entertaining but relatively lightweight satirical pieces that might have been more at home in the pages of Lloyd Llewellen. In fact, Lloyd actually starred in a couple of them before Clowes dropped the character for good. The best of these pieces was probably the Dan Pussey stories, which took a long, unblinking look at the absurdities of the comic book industry and its artistic domination by books about super-powered guys in their underwear. (In an interview, Clowes once noted that there’s hardly anything “natural” about the marriage of superheroes and comic books: “What if every novel or film was about clowns who took drugs? It would be just about as strange.”) Clowes later admitted that poor Dan Pussey, the terminally repressed superhero artist who starred in these stories, was a nightmare projection of the geeky hack that he himself nearly became, which perhaps explains the passion, almost hysteria, of these strips’ attacks on the comics industry’s stagnant and polluted “mainstream”.

Once Velvet Glove and the Dan Pussey stories were completed, Clowes’ work underwent yet another startling evolution, as the artist ditched most of the wise-guy attitude that had made his name. Caricature, the main story in Eightball #15, tells the heartbreaking tale of Mal Rosen, a self-deluding soul who travels the land, eking out a meager existence drawing caricatures at county fairs. He’s managed to get by for years without realizing just how desperately lonely and unfulfilled he is, until one day when he meets Theda, a troubled teenaged girl with whom he strikes up an ambiguous friendship. As a recovering caricature artist myself I can say that Clowes gets every miserable detail of the profession exactly right, right down to those awful, all-too-frequent moments when a family plops their literally deformed, developmentally disabled child in your chair and expects you to make the kid look “funny”. The relationship between Mal and Theda feels just as true. Few stories in any medium, and none that I can think of in the tragically underused medium of comics, have handled loneliness and narrowly missed connections with such depth and grace.

As good as Caricature was, it was merely a dry run for Ghost World, a series of interrelated but not exactly serial stories that draws to a close in Eightball #18. Ghost World follows Becky and Enid, two bright, aimless, would-be hipster teens who may or may not be in love with each other. They spend their days watching crappy TV, rummaging through boxes of junk in thrift-store bargain basements and imagining elaborate biographies for the various weirdoes they spot on the street, until the day comes when Enid has to decide whether or not she’s going away to college. This new development puts their friendship to the test, and the fear of losing each other eventually drives both girls to desperate, alarmingly petty behavior.

In Ghost World, Clowes displays such skill that he makes a good case for the argument he puts forth in the Modern Cartoonist booklet included in Eightball #18: “(Comics) are in a sense the ultimate domain of the artist who seeks to wield absolute control over his imagery. Novels are the work of one individual but they require visual collaboration on the part of the reader. Film is by its nature a collaborative endeavor. Comics offer the creator a chance to control the specifics of his world in both abstract and literal terms.”

The pity of it is that so few comics creators take advantage of this absolute control. Clowes does, and in the pages of Eightball he creates work that is the equal of art being done in any medium today.

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