Monday, January 30, 2012

The Kinks’ “Village Green”: An Appreciation

Is there any song that has more going on in a shorter length of time than the Kinks’ “Village Green”? Clocking in at a mere 2:09 on the Kinks’ celebrated 1968 album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, “Village Green” provides a sweeping vista of British culture that equals, if not surpasses, the other 37-or-so minutes that surround it. As a record, the only thing that touches it is Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ 1960 “Stay [Just a Little Bit Longer],” which, at 1:37, remains the shortest number-one pop single ever. Only where “Stay” feels longer because of all of the different musical things it contains (all of which are cleverly enhanced by the lyrics), “Village Green” feels longer because of the scope of its vision; thus, where “Stay” belies its brevity with the illusion of length, “Village Green” belies its brevity with the depth of its story.

“Village Green” can best be described as an epic (albeit a very, very short epic), following in the grand tradition of Homer’s Odyssey on down through Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane: It begins in the present, flashes back to the past to tell its tale, and brings the story back up to the present in which it began. Doing so is no small feat. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is, as the title suggests, an album celebrating the preservation of time and memory, the act of growing wistful for an England that is long gone – if it ever, as has often been pointed out, even existed in the first place. What gives “Village Green” its power is that it goes farther than any other song on the album, reaching back into the past and pulling it into the present, placing them side-by-side until the two become one.

It also helps that the song’s music is as distinctive as its tale. Taken strictly as a sound, “Village Green” doesn’t really sound like anything else on the album, let alone in the Kinks’ catalogue. The harpsichord churns with a thick sea of stringed instruments and culminates in a slithering clarinet figure can only be described as gothic, a Victorian Age ghost story with the production values of the Jaynettes’ bizarrely ominous 1963 hit, “Sally, Go ’Round the Roses.”

The lyrics are among the most nostalgic Ray Davies ever wrote (which is to say, among the most nostalgic in rock and roll) winding prepositional phrases capturing a lost era of country glens and rolling hills, which have long since been sacrificed to the steel jaws of industry and the empty profits of tourism. The singer’s words are simple yet dramatic. They take us out into the country, away from the soot and noise of the city, and into the church with the steeple that sits in the village green. Once upon a time, the singer knew a girl named Daisy, who he kissed by the old oak tree. “Although I love my Daisy,” he sings, “I sought fame, and so I left the village green.”

This is the most telling line of the entire song – in order to seek fame, the singer must leave the village green; the two notions are by definition mutually exclusive entities. They also set up the chief emotion that drives the song (and, in turn, the entire album): A bittersweet sense of longing. The singer expresses this in the song’s beautiful stream-of-conscious bridge:

I miss the village green, and all the simple people
I miss the village green, the church the clock the steeple
I miss morning dew, fresh air, and Sunday School...

But now the houses have become “rare antiquities” as the singer sneers with disgust at the American tourists who flood them, snap photos, and say, “Gawd darn it, isn’t it a pretty scene?” “And Daisy’s married Tom, the grocer’s boy,” he observes in phrases that feel modeled on the rhythms of ancient scripture, “And now he owns a grocery.”

The bridge kicks in a second time, this time accented by the plucking arpeggio of strings, which only makes the words sound that much more stately. All of the same elements scurry by – the simple people, the church and clock, the morning dew, fresh air, Sunday school – in a way that somehow elevates the mundane to the regal.

The song closes exactly where it should, with the singer deciding to return to the village green and see Daisy, as they drink tea and laugh while talking about the village green. “We will laugh,” the singer closes with a slight sense of gravity that counters the phrase, “and talk about the village green.”

Like so many great songs, there is a deceptive simplicity that asks more questions than it answers. For instance, did the singer ever achieve the fame he sought? Did Daisy know that he was returning? Does he still (or did he ever) love Daisy? Does she still (or did she ever) love him? And what about that ending: What exactly are they laughing and talking about (apparently in that order)? When taken in this light, the song is indeed like a British “Sally, Go ’Round the Roses.”

And yet, its closest parallel is a country song that came a decade before “Village Green” was released: Johnny Cash’s 1958 country song, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” It is perhaps Cash’s biggest early hit that is least familiar today, and it’s easy to hear why: After the timeless shuffle of songs like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” is one of the most dated things that Johnny Cash ever recorded. Trying to broaden his signature “hillbilly” sound, the song featured a cloying barbershop quartet echoing the lyrics and subject matter about girls and fame that reached for Chuck Berry but hit closer to Pat Boone. (Modern tastes aside, the ploy did work: “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” was one of Cash’s biggest hits of the ’50s, hitting number one on the country charts and crossing over to 14 on the pop charts.)

The song is simple enough, telling of a small-town teenage queen who fell in love with the boy next door (who worked at the candy store), until one day a talent scout whisks her far away to Hollywood, where she finds fame, riches, and anything she could possibly ever want. Everything, of course, except the boy next door (who worked at the candy store). “Do I have to tell you more?” the singer asks at the end, “She came back to the boy next door.” And you guessed it, he still worked at the candy store.

Given the similarities between the two songs’ subject matter (boy and girl fall in love until one leaves on a quest for fame, only to return years later), length (Cash’s song is exactly one second shorter than the Kinks’ song), and title (think about it: “Village Green” and “Teenage Queen” – they’re only six letters apart), I can’t help but wonder if Ray Davies didn’t consciously model “Village Green” on “Teenage Queen.” The former is subtle where the latter is obvious, inventive where the latter is trite, and, most tellingly, British where the latter is American. Is it any wonder that the British song is quieter and more open-ended while the American song is brasher and with a happy ending?

If this is the case, Ray Davies took a line drawing and made it into an oil painting, layering music and lyric, love and loss, youth and adulthood, religion and faith, dreams and reality, and British culture and American rock and roll – a British reimagining of what America’s greatest president once termed “the mystic chords of memory.”

And Daisy’s married Tom, the grocer’s boy, and now he owns a grocery.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Random Thoughts, Vol. 6: The “Dinner Party” Question & The Elusive Third Chair

Probably the most underutilized question in social interaction is the old “dinner party” question – that is, what three people, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

For me, I’ve had two-thirds of the answer down for quite some time now: Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Could you imagine sitting down to eat between these two men? On the left side you have Jefferson, the first Democratic president, red-headed and rigid, a taciturn and shy man who actively avoided the political stage only to serve in virtually every major governmental office, a man who owned slaves yet canonized the concept that all men are created equal; on the right side you have Lincoln, the first Republican president, dark-haired and lanky, limbs going every which way as he fills in the silences with country yarns and dirty jokes, a career politician who endlessly courted the political stage despite losing nearly every office he ran for, a man who proved that all men were created equal by freeing the slaves.

To call such a meal epic would be an understatement; with any luck, the discussion might unfold into a discourse about the values upon which the country was founded and the price of what those values turned out to be, the sins of the father atoned by the bloody actions of the son. It would be the two most unknowable and enigmatic men America has ever produced, sitting face-to-face and breaking bread.

But what to do about the elusive third chair? Who could go there? With my historical/cultural desires satiated by Jefferson and Lincoln, it seems like throwing a third American historical giant (Washington? Franklin? A Roosevelt?) in the mix would be too much. After all, even the Marx Brothers had Zeppo.

The third chair also allows me to get a bit of a “freebie,” a chance to take a risk on someone who might not fit in with my first two choices. There’s always the temptation to do a great-grandfather or some relative you always heard about but never knew, but I would feel weird having a mini-family reunion in the middle of what could be a fascinating political discourse. I also feel like the idea of choosing someone who’s a near-complete historical enigma – such as, say, the obscure blues singer Geeshie Wiley or the archetypal media mogul Johannes Gutenberg – could be a major risk, especially if that person turned out to be thoroughly uninteresting.

They say that Elvis was always a disappointment to meet in real life (I mean, how could any man live up to ELVIS, the idea?), so he’s out. Plus, it might be unnerving to Jefferson and Lincoln, who would have no frame of reference for this strange-looking person who might as well be a man from space. Also, I’d probably embarrass myself by spending too much time studying his hair or gazing into his eyes.

Shakespeare’s too much of a crapshoot, especially if you call into question the authorship of his plays. What if it turns out that the plays were in fact written by someone else? Would you want to share your epic dinner with a crooked theater owner who left his widow a “second-best bed” in his will? So foul and unfair a dinner-guest I have not seen. Shakepeare’s out.

I am also striking out all biblical figures because they could be potentially distracting. There’s too great a chance that both Jefferson and Lincoln would rather speak to this person rather than to each other; plus, they might be too overly guarded in terms of what they say in front of them. I mean, who wants to drop an F-bomb in front of Moses? Certainly not Abraham Lincoln.

I would also rule out figures like Genghis Khan or Cleopatra because of the language barrier. Joan of Arc is an exception, since she’s French, and Jefferson could translate. But once again, we run the risk of Jefferson and Lincoln being more interested in speaking to someone else rather than to each other; plus, I hate the idea of giving Jefferson an extra job. I mean, it’s not like there’ll be rails to split right by the dinner table.

All of which leaves me with one name: Will Rogers. Think about it – he comes after Jefferson and Lincoln, knows each of their contexts, and would be hilarious about it at the same time. If things got heated or awkward at any point, I could just turn to Will Rogers and get him to jump in with a quick look or a nod. He would basically be just another modern spectator, much like myself. Only about a thousand times funnier.

Now, who’s gonna pick up the check…?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Gimme Gimme Shlock Tweet-ment

I realized that Twitter had jumped the shark when I went to get my driver’s license changed over after moving to Washington, D.C.

After you go and register at the front door of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, you are handed a small ticket with a number on it, much like what you get while waiting for meat at a supermarket deli counter. It had a printed number and an arrow to help you to know to pull out (as opposed to push back in?) the ticket, as well as a small message written at the bottom. It read: “Follow us on Twitter @dcdmv.”

Such an idea seemed preposterous. I had a Twitter account where I followed several close friends, a few admired celebrities, and Britney Spears, for no apparent reason. All of which made sense, except for Britney Spears. But the DC DMV? Why would anyone want to follow that? But soon my feigned perplexity gave way to detached bemusement, as I stared down the invitation like an arrogant challenge. I thought to myself, “You know what? I will follow DC DMV on Twitter!” I got out my phone, signed up for their feed, and resolved to keep the ticket as a trinket of the absurdity of postwar American culture.

Only I wasn’t allowed to keep the ticket. It turns out that after they call you up to the registry counter, they take the ticket from you, presumably to prevent you hawking it in the parking lot for something more valuable than knockoff designer purses or bootleg movies: Jumping ahead in the DMV line. Thus, my already absurd assessment of the situation was rendered even more so: The Twitter message was not for you to crumple up in your pocket and carry around all day, but rather for the 7-to-75-minute wait between putting your name in at the door and going about your DMV business at the counter. This made little to no sense. Who would think to heed this message, assuming they had even happened to catch it in the first place, what while sorting out their one-to-three forms of state-issued identification, signed lease contract or further proof of residence, and letter from their second-grade teacher certifying their blood-type?

Well, me, apparently.

And, I’d like to add, exactly 700 others.

There are currently 701 people (I like to think of myself as the “and one”) following the DC DMV on Twitter – well over twice as many as it deems worthy to follow itself (253) – as lured in by the message at the bottom of a precious number ticket and choosing to stay at the prospect of a glamorous mission statement: “DC DMV is here to promote public safety. Tweet questions and follow us for service and program updates. We normally respond to tweets Mon-Fri from 8am – 5pm.”

As Twitter feeds go, the DC DMV is far from the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It tweets far more regularly than the official accounts of Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Biden, and Thomas Jefferson (“from the good people at Monticello”) combined, and is often more informative than the countless obscure-to-quasi-famous musicians who post a never-ending stream of setlists and generic messages about being “in the studio.”

The DC DMV Twitter feed can perhaps best be described as competent – and about as exciting as a glass of milk. It tweets some sort of usually-obvious safety tip or not-so-fun fact every few hours (“If you don’t respond to a ticket by adjudicating it or playing the fine, it will be referred to a collections agency”) or gives you the second half of some question asked by somebody cool enough to think to message them publicly (“You’re welcome. Follow us and tell your friends to follow us too!”). As modern culture goes, posting a question to the DC DMV is only one step above writing a letter to one of those complimentary airline travel magazines that are located in the seat pocket in front of you.

But then again, what was I expecting? The whole thing makes me think of the New Yorker cartoon of the two hipper-than-thou hipster men speaking to each other as they walk through Brooklyn with their small babies. The caption reads: “What’s the right age to tell a child that she’s ironic?”

I think I was doing something similar in following the DC DMV Twitter feed: Holding on to something for the cheap thrill of basking in its irony.

All of which sounds well and good, but it turns out that waiting around for irony can get pretty boring.

But at least in the meantime, I won’t have to wonder how the District of Columbia’s traffic ticket amnesty program works.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Top 5 Greatest Rock and Roll Sitcom Episodes

Ever since April 10, 1957 – the day that Ricky Nelson picked up his guitar to sing “I’m Walking” on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet – rock and roll has been a fixture on the sitcom screen. But what have been the finest, most rockin’ episodes? After much extensive research and analysis, I have boiled them down to the top five.

As always, I had to set some guidelines. Many shows skirted fees and copyrights by creating fictionalized stars (such as teenage heartthrob Johnny Poke on The Beverly Hillbillies or Bobby Fleet and His Band with a Beat on The Andy Griffith Show). I also avoided guest shots on animated shows, since the rock stars didn’t actually appear. Hence no Beau Brummels (sorry, I mean the Beau Brummelstones) on The Flintstones and no Aerosmith (or Stones, Ramones, or ex-Beatles) on The Simpsons. Finally, I also kept a fairly strict definition of rock and roll (hence no B.B. King on Sandford and Son, since King’s more blues than rock) as well as a fairly strict definition of sitcom (hence no Alice Cooper on The Muppet Show, since that was essentially structured as a variety show with a featured guest host).

As for criteria, I just tried to meet the spirit (no pun intended, as you will see) of my list’s honorable mention, the Standells 1965 appearance on The Munsters, in which the group plays a ramshackle cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the Munsters’ beatnik party. While Herman declares the band almost as good as Kate Smith, little Eddie marvels at the rock and roll music.

Eddie: “Grampa, doesn’t that send you out of this world?”

Grampa: “So what, I’ve been there before.”

We should all be so lucky.

5. Spencer Davis, Richie Havens, Robby Krieger, Mark Lindsay, Peter Noone, and John Sebastian on Married…With Children, “Rock of Ages,” November 15, 1992.

“Hope I die before I get old” goes the eternal rock and roll rallying cry, but in the decades following Woodstock, it became increasingly clear that not everyone would get off that easy. Married…With Children, which centered around the rare baby boomer-era parents who never wallowed in their era’s nostalgia (as opposed to shows as diverse as Family Ties, ALF, Head of the Class, and The Fresh Prince of Bell-Air, all of which had at least one wistful boomer-driven hippie episode that usually consisted of Generation X stumbling upon some ’60s relics, learning about the era, and then using a good ol’ fashioned sit-in to save whatever thing was about to be demolished by greedy money-hungry yuppies); in hindsight, perhaps the Bundys were the living embodiment of the Age of Aquarius’ failures, but I digress. In this episode, the Bundys fake being a rock and roll band so that they can get on a first class flight with other rock and roll stars. Granted, some of these are stars in the loosest sense (would’ve Al Bundy really been able to recognize the Doors’ keyboardist at the drop of a hat?), but that’s the joke and everybody is gamely in on it. It’s all worth it to see their “We Are the World”-mocking finale “Old Aid” (sample lyric: “We are the old/We have arthritis/Our gums are weak/From gingivitis”) and, of course, Al Bundy doing that amazing sandwich solo.

4. Davy Jones on The Brady Bunch, “Getting Davy Jones,” December 10, 1971.

For kids like myself watching reruns of The Brady Bunch after school, the various dimensions of time and space converge in ways that create their own pockets of reality. Take, for instance, this classic episode in which Marsha claims she can get Davy Jones to perform at the prom before she even knows how to get in touch with him. Now, as a huge fan of the Monkees (their 20th anniversary reruns in ’86 were the only MTV I was allowed to watch), I just took for granted that Davy was a superstar, as famous and fantastic as Marsha treated him in the episode. Little did I know that by the time this episode aired in 1971, The Monkees had been off the air for almost three years, and the Monkees – which was reduced to a duo after Peter and Mike left the band in 1968 and 1969, respectively – had ceased to exist in any form for over a year, and its members, including heartthrob Davy Jones, were now lingering on the brink of obscurity. Enter Marsha Brady. The Brady Bunch had always depicted a world in which fantasy trumped reality; hence, Davy Jones could be treated like the biggest star in the world and make Marsha Brady’s world by kissing her on the cheek. I can’t decide which is better – Marsha’s spying siblings mocking them by pretending to kiss each other (oddly foreshadowing the relationships they would have in real life amongst each other) or Davy Jones rehashing the whole thing in The Brady Bunch Movie in 1995, while Marsha once again swoons…along with the adult chaperones.

3. The Doobie Brothers on What’s Happening!!, “Doobie or Not Doobie, Part II,” February 4, 1978.

There are rock and roll television episodes where a group essentially shows up to play a song. And then there are episodes where a group hangs out and gets to do some awkward banter and/or relevant public service announcements (usually something about how school is good or drugs are bad), with little or no stage time shown in the program. And then there’s this, in which the Doobie Brothers pull off the rock and roll sitcom trifecta on What’s Happening!!, spending ample time performing, bantering, and teaching the gang an important moral lesson. The latter is what drives the episode, as Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne get conned into bootlegging the Doobies’ homecoming show at their high school, where the band also used to attend. The band closes with “Takin’ It to the Streets,” Rerun begins to jump up and down, and the rest is history. The 1978 “portable” tape recorder Rerun has been hiding in his overcoat falls out as everyone in the auditorium somehow falls instantly silent and the band points at him in disbelief. Cut to the backroom, where the Doobies are leveling with the What’s Happening!! gang about what a serious offense bootlegging is. Well, it just so happens the bootlegger who set the guys up is someone who has bootlegged the band before. And it just so happens that the guys are planning to meet him at the soda shop. And it also just so happens that the Doobie Brothers have apparently nothing else to do after a show than wait in the various doorways of said soda shop (thankfully, there are about 37 members in this band) and orchestrate a small sting operation to catch the crook. And the final gag? When they play back the tape, all that can be heard is Rerun eating popcorn! Well, at least that’s better than having to listen to Michael McDonald’s vocals.

2. The Beach Boys on Full House, “Beach Boy Bingo,” November 18, 1988.

I know what you’re thinking – which time that the Beach Boys were on Full House? (I mean, how cool did you feel when you noticed that John “Uncle Jesse” Stamos could be seen playing percussion in the background of their comeback video, “Kokomo”?) Well, even though the Beach Boys appeared on the show several times (albeit in different conglomerations), this is likely the episode you are thinking of; there’s just so much that happens, it seems like it must have been more. The plot is as simple as can be – DJ wins tickets to see the Beach Boys but can’t decide who to take as her plus one – but it yields countless memorable moments: Danny trying to sing the overlapping parts of “Good Vibrations” with an acoustic guitar on his morning talk show, the Beach Boys showing up at the Tanners’ house and shaking each other’s hands when Joey exclaims, “Wow! You’re Al, you’re Bruce, you’re Brian, you’re Carl, you’re Mike!,” the “Kokomo” jam session in the living room where Joey almost gets Jesse to give the band their demo just before Mike Love thanks them for not bugging them to hear a song they’ve written, and of course, the finale, later that night, where the Beach Boys call their new friends, the Tanner family, onstage to sing “Barbara-Ann” with them while Joey slyly slips the demo tape into Mike Love’s shirt pocket. Wow, so much happens I forgot to resolve the plot that started it all [spoiler alert!]: The Beach Boys let DJ take the entire family to the concert! But then again, such minor details like plotlines and character development take the backseat when you can watch Brian Wilson do his equivalent of hamming it up – DJ: “It’s a long story.” Brian: “They never start the show without us!” Classic rock meets classic television with six Tanners, five Beach Boys, four songs, three commercial breaks, two tickets, and one vegetarian pizza? You got it, dude.

1. Stevie Wonder on The Cosby Show, “A Touch of Wonder,” February 20, 1986.

This is not just the greatest rock and roll sitcom episode, it’s one of the best sitcom episodes, period, as well as the best use of a musical guest star ever, outside of Sammy Davis, Jr. popping up at Archie Bunker’s house in All in the Family. Again, the plotline is rudimentary – Denise’s car collides with Stevie’s limo, prompting Stevie to invite the family to a recording session – but the result is timeless. Watching it again, I am struck by what a great episode of The Cosby Show this is, with many great elements that don’t directly involve Stevie at all: Cliff’s interplay with Rudy when she attempts to fix the grandfather clock (it ends with a “zerbert”), Cliff’s shoddy re-gluing of Claire’s mug to look like one of the kids broke it, Theo answering the phone with the classic “Huxtable residence” twice…the list goes on and on. But of course, it’s the Huxtables’ visit to Stevie’s studio that makes this episode go from great to classic. For a rare time, a rock and roller is at ease with himself and the cast, and is genuinely funny without sounding completely awkward. We also get a look at Stevie Wonder in the recording studio, circa 1986, which would be a treat for any major musician, but is even more so because it gives us an idea of how Stevie records despite his blindness. Watching him with all of those then-state-of-the-art computers didn’t make me wonder what he’s using now, but rather how he made Innervisions over a decade earlier. The studio time is then taken up by two parts: In the first, Stevie interacts with the kids to record samples for his new album (which prompts one of the greatest television lines ever, when Stevie asks Theo what he would say at a party: “Jammin’ on the one!”), and in the second, Stevie sings a duet with Claire (who can actually sing) on “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” his then-recent number one hit. Stevie’s playful joy combined with Claire’s realistic performance (initially reserved and caught off-guard, but slowly warming up in both feeling and vocal) combine into a great moment, and by the time the rest of the kids jump in to sing and clap along with the refrain, you can’t help but wish that this was something that could happen to you and your family. Need to feel a bit better about the world? Try jammin’ on this one.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Films vs. Movies: A Spotter’s Guide

Most people assume that the words “film” and “movie” are synonymous, but these people are wrong.

A film is a movie at its most artistically successful, while a movie is an entertaining diversion captured on film. The greatest film of all time is “Citizen Kane” (ambitious, innovative, and artistically successful), while the greatest movie of all time is “King Kong” (bigger-than-life cheap thrills-n-chills).

Films are generally in black-and-white, often foreign, and are almost always more “appreciated” than they are thoroughly “enjoyed.” Films are usually longer than movies, and get much better reviews. They also tend to underperform at the box office, in part because nobody goes to see them.

Movies are usually in color, reek of Hollywood, and often utilize the fleeting thrill of the present to the point of dating light-years sooner than films do. They usually follow storylines that are predicable and trite, and take the form of popular genres like science fiction and romantic comedy. They also make a ton of money, even though they often serve as an excuse to either eat popcorn or make out.

One of the surest signs that a film is a film is that it’s made it into the Criterion Collection. Their catalogue includes some of the filmiest films ever made – artsy stuff like “The Seventh Seal,” foreign stuff like “The Bicycle Thief,” influential stuff like “Breathless,” and artsy influential foreign stuff like “8 ½” (and, in varying degrees, all of the above). Sometimes you don’t even need to be able to read to enjoy one of their films (i.e., it’s either British or American), but even then, context is often just as crucial as what’s happening on screen. I mean, how enjoyable is Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” without foreknowledge of where it stands in the canon of filmed Shakespeare? And when was the last time you got together with friends to watch John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln”? (Okay, so I did that once, and then got made fun of by the time the movie was over; turns out that, classic Americanism and cinematography aside, the film can seem pretty damn hokey to the uninitiated. For the record, I still stand by it, even though I probably never would’ve seen it if it wasn’t a Criterion. But I digress.)

Movies, on the other hand, are enjoyed by people who have never heard of the Criterion Collection. Another term for these people is the vast majority. They are a special group of people who know what they like and often just want more of it. As a result, many of the best-remembered movies come with two or more sequels, usually with diminishing returns, which is to say, the movies become increasingly more movie-y. These are things like “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Die Hard,” and anything that is animated without subtitles. There is often a film for every great type of movie – a “2001: A Space Odyssey” for every “Star Wars” – but these are usually seen more as academic necessaries than things to be cherished and shared with each new generation.

Sometimes a film can seem like a movie or a movie can seem like a film. Some of the best battles between the two have occurred at the Academy Awards, an institution that likes to think of itself as the chief vehicle for judging film, but more often than not gets sweep up by the populism of movies. How else to explain “Shakespeare in Love,” a movie that was dressed up like a film, beating out “Saving Private Ryan,” a film that moved like a movie, for Best Picture? Or the unprecedented success of “Titanic,” which is either the most self-serious movie or the funniest film ever made? (I mean, the protagonist almost doesn’t get saved because she is making out with a frozen corpse!) However, enough film Davids have overpowered movie Goliaths to give the Academy the illusion that they always know what they’re doing, as when “Annie Hall” and “The Hurt Locker” beat out “Star Wars” and “Avatar,” respectively, for Best Picture; in both cases, the lowest-grossing Best Picture up to that point won by beating out the highest-grossing movie ever up to that point.

Such moments are what give the Academy credibility, at least until you’re reminded that “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Network” all lost Best Picture to “Rocky.” But many credit the success of “Rocky” to the fact that it was America’s bicentennial year, and the Academy wanted to go with something more optimistic than a film that invoked the sins of Vietnam (“Taxi Driver”), Watergate (“All the President’s Men”), or the modern media (“Network”).

And perhaps that says it all: Movies are the welcome escape from the starker film-like world we live in.

Just ask Travis Bickle.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Muppets: An Appreciation

So I finally got a chance to catch The Muppets, which I am pleased to report more than lived up to the hype. This is no small feat – for fans of the Muppet empire, they are something very special indeed.

For the uninitiated, the Muppets are a group of puppets created by Jim Henson in the 1950s. The first Muppet project was the local Washington, D.C. show Sam and Friends in the ’50s, followed by appearances on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and the Jimmy Dean Show in the ’60s, and then a collaboration with the Children’s Television Workshop to create Sesame Street in 1969.

But the centerpiece of the Muppet franchise has always been The Muppet Show, which ran for five seasons in syndication from 1976 to 1981. This show and the original three films it spawned – The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) – create the backbone of the Muppet canon.

But ever since Jim Henson passed away in 1990, the Muppets have been in a precarious state. Beginning in 1992 with A Muppet Christmas Carol, the Muppets lost their way in films like Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and Muppets from Space (1999), as well as on latter-day television shows like Muppets Tonight (1996-1998). By the time more recent fare like It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005) appeared, the producers didn’t even bother to release them theatrically.

In 2002, the Walt Disney Company was finally able to buy the Muppet franchise after several attempts. But they didn’t really do anything with them. In an interview with Jason Segel, the driving force behind The Muppets, he remembered how, after scripting and starring in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he was called in by Disney to make a more family-oriented film for them. They offered him things like Herbie the Lovebug, but Segel maintained that the untapped goldmine they were sitting on was the Muppets. He pitched making a film that would restart the Muppet franchise and be a worthy addition to the Muppet canon.

To do so was no simple task; Segel had to create something that could meet the expectations of the original Muppet fans, as well as something that played well to their children, who may have never heard of them before. In short, he had to make it funny, hip, self-deprecating, and self-referential, while still being wholesome and witty enough to fit under the Disney label.

Which is exactly what he pulled off – in my estimation, with The Muppets, Segel spearheaded the finest Muppet project since 1987’s excellent-though-largely-forgotten television special, A Muppet Family Christmas.

What makes The Muppets so effective is that it understands that the Muppets have always been powered by nostalgia. The original Muppet Show brings to mind the old joke by Bob Hope he used to tell about (and I believe on) television: “You remember vaudeville? Well, now they’ve put it in a box.” Hope was referring to the vast number of early television stars – people such as Milton Berle, George Burns, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, and Hope himself, all of who would go on to host The Muppet Show – that had cut their teeth in vaudeville. Like characters from the vaudeville era, the Muppets themselves were often little more than brightly-colored, stage-door tropes.

Kermit is the straight man, Miss Piggy is the diva, Fozzie is the groan-inducing comic, Gonzo is the death-defying stuntman, Rowlf is the gravely-voiced piano man, Scooter is the bookish stage manager, and Animal is the manically out-of-control drummer. These seven characters are among the simplest ever conceived, on par with the original Winnie the Pooh gang, Walt Disney characters, or Gilligan’s Island cast; if Freud was to have a look at them, he’d smugly dub Kermit as the Ego, Animal as the Id, and either Miss Piggy or Gonzo as the Superego, depending on what his definition of “Super” and/or “Ego” might be.

Many other well-loved characters who weren’t as central to the original program are featured prominently in the new movie: The Swedish Chef, Bunsen and Beaker, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, among others. This was a shrewd move because, by featuring these players who always seemed bigger than they actually were, the film favors the mystic chords of memory over the truer chords of reality.

Which brings it all back to nostalgia. While The Muppet Show ran like a tribute to the then-relics of vaudeville, the movie’s central joke is that now it’s the Muppets themselves who are the relics, trying to compete in a world that has moved on without them. The clip where a kid asks Kermit if he is one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was likely included in the television ads not because it’s one of the funniest moments in the film, but because it’s one of the most telling.

It also speaks to the Muppets’ trademark elimination of the fourth wall. Again, this ground had been pioneered by the vaudevillians – such as George Burns, who directly addressed the camera in his television show – but hit a new level of irony and complexity with the Muppets. Theirs was a show about putting on a show, both in terms of the audience in the theater (comprised of Muppets) and the greater world outside (comprised of real people). The fact that The Muppet Show took the time to create a false audience for their false show – which included two of their most durable characters, hecklers Statler and Waldorf – only reinforces how complete the show was unto itself; the equivalent would be if The Flintstones’ animators had taken the time to draw reaction shots of laughing cartoon people to go with the laugh track heard throughout the show.

Presumably for the “live” Muppet audience, they only saw the official sketches of the show, but as the “real” outside audience, we were given the chance to see backstage as well. Each episode usually had a subplot about what was going on behind the curtain, which is part of what made it so interesting. In this regard, The Muppet Show’s closest contemporary would have been The Mary Tyler Moore Show, although its absurdist bent sets it better as the precursor of a show like 30 Rock. Regardless, the backstage element of The Muppet Show is what ultimately set it apart from the vaudeville-influenced ’50s television fare like The Milton Berle Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, because these earlier programs merely showed what was happening on stage. The only thing that comes close to The Muppet Show from this era is Ernie Kovacs’ television specials, which was taking the camera backstage while David Letterman was still in grade school.

So how did The Muppets enter into this world of nostalgia-driven, fourth wall complexities and pull it all off so successfully? By keeping it simple. The entire movie is built around what is basically one big episode of The Muppet Show, that is, a big Muppet telethon to save their Muppet Theater from the takeover and destruction of an evil oil baron (is there really any other kind?). The self-deprecating balance between success and failure that had always marked the Muppets’ humor takes on a new level of meaning as everything hangs on the line depending on whether or not they can pull off their big show.

Meanwhile, the fourth wall grows even more complicated: This is a movie about the Muppets putting on a show for an in-house audience, as well as a wider television audience within the movie, and then finally us, the audience of people actually watching the movie. It is the most complicated fourth wall scenario I have encountered in popular culture since I saw Grey Gardens on Broadway, which was a musical about a documentary in which a woman performed dance routines for an imagined audience as a real actress performing real dance routines for an imagined audience, which now also happened to be a real audience. To quote the great Sir Paul: “And though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.”

All of which frames The Muppets as the all-American fairy tale of show business: A ragtag group of underdogs band together against all odds and, after teetering on the brink of complete and utter failure, they [spoiler alert?] succeed beyond their wildest hopes and dreams.

Which brings the final layer of the great fourth wall onion: Through the box office success and critical acclaim of the movie The Muppets, the Muppets were able to prove themselves as significant pop cultural players in the real, modern show business world.

And this is something that is most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, and, of course, Muppetational.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Random Thoughts, Vol. 5: “National Talk Like Snagglepuss Day”

In line with the recent surge in popularity for “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” (September 19th, as if you didn’t already know), I would like to propose a “National Talk Like Snagglepuss Day,” to commemorate the revolutionary vernacular of the most influential pink mountain lion this nation has ever seen.

It would be amazing...fantastic...wonderful, even.

According to the cultural center of all things Snagglepuss (okay, his Wikipedia page), his show first began its run on January 30, 1961. While it’s sad that we just missed this date’s 50th anniversary, we can make up for it by making the first “National Talk Like Snagglepuss Day” that much bigger of a deal this January 30th. This gives us some time, but not a lot — some 28 days, according to my calculations — but like all commemorative events, the day is only as big as the people who choose to celebrate it.

I mean, can you imagine the president giving a press conference on such an occasion, trying to walk the fine line between proving that he is “with it” with the regular people while still maintaining the dignity of the office?

It might begin something like this:

“The war in Iraq has been sad. It has been tragic. It has been devastating, even.”

And then he could switch it up a bit and say:

“But the strength and valor shown by our brave men and women in uniform has been nothing if not noble. In fact, it has been amazing, courageous, inspiring, even.”

And then he could go on and wrap up his thoughts in an un-Snagglepuss way, which might divert any attention drawn by the “with it”-yet-distracting cadences of “National Talk Like Snagglepuss Day.” In fact, he could go on and say pretty much whatever he wanted, however he wanted. Until, of course, it is time for him to leave the podium; at this point there are only three words he can say.

Exit stage left!