Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Battlefield Mirth

In an article in the New York Post, the screenwriter of Battlefield Earth sounds like he's accepted his infamous place in cinema history with good humor. Some highlights:
I researched Scientology before signing on to the movie, to make sure I wasn't making anything that would indoctrinate people. I took a few courses, including the Purification Rundown, or Purif. You go to CC every day, take vitamins and go in and out of a sauna so toxins are released from your body. You're supposed to reach an "End Point." I never did, but I was bored so I told them I had a vision of L. Ron. They said, "What did he say?" "Pull my finger," was my response. They said I was done.

During my Scientology research, I met an employee who I instantly had a crush on. She was kind of a priestess, and had dedicated her life to working for the church by becoming a Sea Org member. She said that she signed a billion-year contract. I said, "What! Really?" She said she got paid a small stipend of $50 a week, to which I said, "Can you get an advance on the billion years, like say, a mere $500,000?" And then she said as a Sea Org member, you can't have sex unless you're married. I asked her if she was married. She said yes. So I said, "Great! That means we can have sex!"

My script was very, VERY different than what ended up on the screen. My screenplay was darker, grittier and had a very compelling story with rich characters. What my screenplay didn't have was slow motion at every turn, Dutch tilts, campy dialogue, aliens in KISS boots, and everyone wearing Bob Marley wigs.

The only time I saw the movie was at the premiere, which was one too many times.

In the end, did Scientology get me laid? What do you think? No way do you get any action by boldly going up to a woman and proclaiming, "I wrote Battlefield Earth!" If anything, I'm trying to figure out a way to bottle it and use it as birth control. I'll make a mint!
I like this guy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Air - "Sexy Boy"

I'd like to think that Messieurs Dunckel and Godin's campy fascination with 1970s retro cheese is purely tongue-in-cheek, but my hunch is that on some level they actually dig this stuff. They don't think it's "ironic-cool," they just think it's cool.

Perhaps they are correct. But what Air doesn't know is that their genuine retro-naivete is part of what makes them so charming. They think they are being just a little bit funny, but in the eyes of this American, at least, they are very funny, in a very unintentional way.

Perhaps this video so perfectly matches my image of the song because the graphics are an extended riff on the album artwork for Moon Safari: the crude, discofied stars, the van-slash-spaceship, the blue and yellow watercoloresque geometrical shapes. The monkey, however, is nowhere to be found - in my copy, at least.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Where Oh Where Has Our Cosmic American Logo Gone?

It was always there, glowing gently in the distance, comforting us in its own subtle way. But one day, we realized that something about Cosmic American Blog was not the same. Was it the font? The spacing? Finally it hit us: our treasured Cosmic American logo! Our wonderful satellite image of light pollution across the Great 48, colored a fittingly patriotic red, white, and blue! Where has it gone? Why did it go? Will it ever return?

I'm afraid that, until a suitable explanation can be found, Cosmic American Blog has been rendered a just little less cosmic.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Self-Awareness Can Prevent Silliness

"Considering his wealth and good fortune, you wouldn’t peg Peter Thiel as a prophet of doom. He cofounded PayPal at age 31 and sold it to eBay four years later for $1.5 billion. Two years after that, he became the first investor in Facebook — a wager that earned him another fortune. Today, at 42, he runs a San Francisco venture capital firm and a hedge fund, Clarium Capital. But the past year has not been easy on Thiel. As bailouts and government stimulus policies revived financial markets, the staunch libertarian bet against the rally and lost big. Investors have been pulling their money out of his fund: Clarium has shrunk from $7 billion in assets to about $1.5 billion. Even as he was laying odds against the economy as a fund manager, though, Thiel was pouring money into audacious, futuristic projects as a VC and philanthropist: private space flight, ocean colonies for human habitation, indefinite life extension. Contradiction? He sees none. Behind both his economic skepticism and his radical utopianism is a conviction that the only way to escape a looming social crisis is to revive the science fiction dreams of yesterday."


So-called "Utopian pessimist" and billionaire Peter Thiel complains to a Wired interviewer that we don't have enough visionary scientists/inventors working on things like underwater ocean colonies and life extension. Now I want to live forever beneath 20 feet of beautiful glinting blue water as much as the next guy, but let's think about this for a while.

If you can make 1.5 billion for creating PayPal, a useful but not overwhelmingly visionary service, then why waste your time designing submarine living quarters? Thiel complains that we aren't facing up to the fact that we'll need new technologies to keep growing at the rate we have been for the past 200 years. Maybe this is true, but then don't we need advances in alternatives to fossil-fuels much more urgently than this sci-fi kind of stuff? And if we want this kind of sci-fi stuff and billionaires want to fund it that's great too, but I don't think it makes sense to say that this is more helpful to society than a more productive kind of wheat or a better cancer treatment, or any number of boring things.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Up In The Air (Reitman)

Sometimes I think, if you're not trying to make Apocalypse Now, then what the hell are you doing? Sure, I understand, you can't make Apocalypse Now on the first try; you've got to work your way up to it. But I get the impression that Jason Reitman wouldn't even want to make Apocalypse Now if he actually had the budget. He's just not that ambitious.

So aiming low, he hits his target. I could think of worse outcomes. He probably thinks he's being really profound trying to make a movie about "The Economic Crisis." Honestly, for those of us with some perspective, the "Economic Crisis" is small potatoes compared to other events in human history. Sure, for our generation it's a bit bracing, but if you want to see an "economic crisis," watch The Grapes Of Wrath.

I still have a hard time buying George Clooney as anything other than "glamorous movie star." I can't even remember his character's name; in my recollections he just registers as "George Clooney." His character also feels like a screenplay construction. Are there really people like this? Or, more to the point, does Jason Reitman actually know any people like this?

Maybe I'm being a jerk. This movie was mostly a pleasure to watch. Compared to She's Out Of My League or Hot Tub Time Machine, it probably is Apocalypse Now. A friend of mine was saying, "I think there's room in the world for these little mainstream dramas. In a perfect world a movie like Up In The Air would just be average, instead of really good only because most other movies really suck." All right, well, how about this: if you're not trying to make Apocalypse Now, at least try to make ... The Graduate? Maybe it's not fair to criticize a movie just because you feel like if you met the director you wouldn't have anything in common. Call it what you want.

A final note: there's a character in this movie who says her dream job is in San Francisco. Yeah, well, wait until you ride MUNI for five minutes and have to sit next to 18 smelly quasi-homeless guys on the way to work every morning and try to find an apartment that isn't completely falling apart and isn't bleeding your wallet dry, and tell me if your dream job is in San Francisco then, bitch.

She'd probably just live in the East Bay and work in the city.

Film critic rating: ***1/2
Little Earl rating: **1/2

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lady Gaga has 'It'

Folks, this Lady Gaga has "It". There hasn't been a star like her since, well, Britney first burst on the scene in the late 90s. Seriously. Even Simon Cowell thinks she has 'it'. But where did she come from, who is she, and why the hell is her name Lady Gaga?

I can't answer these questions, and that folks is why she's so appealing. Like rock & rollers of yesteryear where the only thing you knew about that sexy frontman guy was from what you read in music mags or, if you were lucky enough, saw in concert, Lady Gaga has that 'mystique' that's sorely been lacking in music since the birth of music television. And what's truly amazing is that Lady Gaga (Ms. Gaga?) manages to build up this mystique by utilizing all those modern elements that tend to crush it.

Funnily enough I didn't pay the slightest bit of attention to her until just a few weeks ago. I suppose I saw her as the product of celebrity gossip culture. For some reason I always equated her with Perez Hilton, or Access Hollywood and other such drivel. But I didn't realize until recently that Lady Gaga is essentially mocking all of those things. Perennial favorite reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine puts it better than I can:

"The times were crying out for a pop star like Lady GaGa — a self-styled, self-made shooting star, one who mocked the tabloid digital age while still wanting to wallow in it — and one who's smart enough to pull it all off, too. That self-awareness and satire were absent in the pop of the new millennium, where even the best of the lot operated only on one level, which may be why Lady GaGa turned into such a sensation in 2009: everybody was thirsty for music like this, music for and about their lives, both real and virtual."

I think Gaga's biggest strength is that she's a master of both style and substance. Known for wearing truly outrageous costumes and outfits, including a dress made of dead Kermit-the-Frogs, she's the master attention getter. But she also excels at making really damn good pop music. Like I said before, I don't think I've heard pop music that "popped" quite like this since Britney showed up in the school girl dress back in 1998. Even if you've never seen her videos or her wild get-ups, her songs are just marvelously crafted pop songs.

But back to the mystique. I don't know how she does it, but Gaga somehow managed to steal the spotlight last year, yet we don't really know anything about her. Most pop stars do the TV circuit, either promoting a new album on Good Morning America, expressing remorse for a bad deed on Oprah, or hosting Saturday Night Live. We're supposed to "get to know" the artist this way, what drives them, what are they feeling, who are they dating this week? Lady Gaga excels at doing none of this. If it wasn't for her Wikipedia entry I wouldn't have the slightest clue as to her real name, age, or anything else about her. While living in the constant spotlight, she manages to tell us nothing about her personal life, and, really, I just like that.

I've said before that I really can't stand celebrity gossip culture. I've always seen Lady Gaga as affiliated with that culture, but I don't think I ever caught her satire of it until I started listening to her songs. It's difficult to discern, because in one way she's relishing in the whole celebrity culture while simultaneously mocking the whole thing. Once again, Mr. Erlewine comes through better than I: "But where Gwen (Stefani) simply celebrates celeb consumer culture, GaGa bites, her litany of runway models, pornographic girls, and body plastic delivered with an undercurrent of disdain, even as she loves all the glitz." It's a fine line to walk, but she somehow pulls it off.

I decided to write this piece after a house party I went to last weekend. On the way to the party my girlfriend and I were talking about Lady Gaga (while listening to her) and I was telling her how I read that Simon Cowell had high praise for her and that she's got the new 'it' factor. Later that night at the party one of her songs came on and EVERYONE wanted to talk about her - Who is she? Did you see her in that crazy outfit? Did you see that video where she was dressed up like a robot? I'm not kidding. But perhaps more importantly someone said "You know, I've heard this song a hundred times now and it's still not getting old." That's the sign of good pop music.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pet Shop Boys - "West End Girls"

A couple of weeks ago I gave the Pet Shop Boys' Discography a spin, and I was reminded just what an excellent collection that is. I like to think that every generation in the UK has had its own wave of smart, catchy pop. Except for the current generation. I start to feel bad for English kids circa 1986 because they didn't have The Clash, The Jam, The Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, XTC, Squeeze, etc. (1979) or David Bowie, Elton John, T. Rex, Roxy Music, etc. (1972), or Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, etc. (1994), but then I realize that they had The Smiths, The Cure, New Order, The Jesus & Mary Chain, and The Pet Shop Boys, and I don't feel too bad for them.

Like their contemporaries, I think the Pet Shop Boys managed to perfectly capture their time and place, without even seeming to try too hard. I hear "Opportunities," "It's A Sin," or "Always On My Mind" and I am instantly transported to a late 80s urban clubscape. Although the Pet Shop Boys are very British, I am proud of my fellows Americans (for once) because unlike The Smiths or The Jam or Roxy Music, for some reason the Pet Shop Boys were extremely popular in the United States right from the start. "West End Girls" was a #1 hit here. "What Have I Done To Deserve This" peaked at #2, "It's A Sin" at #9, "Always On My Mind" at #4. Americans displayed some taste for once. All the Pet Shop Boys' biggest American hits were early on, though, and I think that's appropriate, because if you ask me the Discography collection loses steam near the end. While the Pet Shop Boys were always known for their irony and supposed "insincerity," they started laying it on pretty thick after a while. Their later material feels more like a formal writing exercise than a genuine expression of emotion. They started suffering from what you might call "Elvis Costello Syndrome." To me the last truly great single on Discography is "So Hard," which contains this lyrical gem: "I'm always hoping/You'd be faithful/But you're not I suppose/We've both given up smoking/Cause it's fatal/So whose matches are those?" Fey Eurodisco covers of "Where The Streets Have No Name," while enjoyable, can only take me so far. Their earlier singles still had some real menace and melancholy, before their style dived headlong into "nod and a wink" territory. I've never heard any Pet Shop Boys material not on Discography; perhaps someone could make the case that I should.

What I do know is that debut singles rarely come more perfect than "West End Girls" (for a better quality video that also runs the proper length, click here). If it sounds too good to be a debut hit single, that's because it is. Or rather, "West End Girls" was their first single, but not the version that we know and love. Here, for your listening pleasure, is the original version of "West End Girls," released a year earlier and sounding for all the world as though it was performed on a Casio keyboard:

Not bad, but I'm glad they gave it another go-round (Tennant doesn't really seem to maximize the chorus at this point, and what's with the James Brown samples?).

How do I love thee, "West End Girls"? Let me count the ways. The song reminds me of Ezra Pound's "In A Station Of The Metro": "The apparition of these faces in a crowd/Petals on a wet, black bough." Appropriately enough, according to Wikipedia, "The lyrics were inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, particularly in the use of different narrative voices and arcane references." I like it!

A song that creates such singular visions in my head would not seem to be a likely candidate for a memorable music video. But I have been proven wrong. Here's what I always pictured in my head when I heard the song's beguiling introduction: random strangers walking down cold London streets. Here's what the video actually shows: random strangers walking down cold London streets! Train stations. Neon signs. Rapid cutting. Shots of the Thames. Give it to me. I don't think the Pet Shop Boys themselves necessarily needed to appear in the video, but they do, and they do so in style. One must admit that Neil Tennant is quite photogenic (Chris Lowe, on the other hand, is somehow translucent.). Tennant also does a terrific job of looking at the camera while singing the chorus and then turning his head away longingly for the final "West End Guuhhls..."

1985. London. Can you taste it?