Sunday, July 30, 2006

BOOK: The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo by Al Capp

The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo
by Al Capp, foreword by Harlan Ellison
The Overlook Press, Woodstock & New York, 2002

My familiarity with the shmoo (plural “shmoon) was tangential at best. I vaguely recalled the shmoo as part of two different Flintstone “comedy hour” re-hashes from the late 1970’s. Only slightly less-removed was a passing mention from the television series MASH. In one later episode, Colonel Potter is painting a portrait of a piece of shmoo merchandising and explains to Radar O’Reilly the shmoo craze that is in full swing back in the states.

My first reaction, decades later, upon picking up The Short Life and Happy Time of The Shmoo, a collection of the shmoo story arcs from the Li’l Abner comics of the 40’s and 50’s, was to marvel that so little has been heard of the shmoo since.

For those unfamiliar, shmoon are cute, gourd-shaped blobs that are, depending on one’s outlook, the ultimate boon to or bane of mankind. Shmoon make loving pets, and are happiest serving people; if you are cold, they will cuddle, if you are bored they will stage races and shows for your entertainment. But, their real benefit is they are so damned delicious. They produce the richest milk, cheese and butter imaginable, dozens of eggs in a heartbeat, and require no sustenance but air. Better still, they reproduce like mad, die of sheer happiness when someone looks at them hungrily, and when fried taste like chicken, when roasted taste like pork, when broiled like steak. Their skin makes durable building materials, their whiskers excellent toothpicks, their eyes perfect buttons. A poor family could live a life of luxury for the gift of six shmoon.

And that’s the problem. Nobody has to work for the measly wages industry provides or buy the inflated, dismal products industry sells, and so industry decides the shmoo must die for the good of us all.

The shmoo were interpreted as a symbol of the expendability of industry by some and the expendability of workers by other, and it is this potentially contradictory nature of the shmoo that makes it such a compelling character. Even to the issue of benefit, they are open to interpretation; the residents of Dogpatch are happier after the shmoon arrive, but also fat and lazy. And it seems a question long pondered – is it in the best interest of human beings to have all they desire acquired so easily?

Harlan Ellison’s quixotic and rambling foreword to the collection both confuses and delights, taking wild digressions (as Li’l Abner was wont to) before settling in to assert that it is difficult for anyone that didn’t live through it to understand the magnitude of the shmoo craze.

I have no reason to doubt it, and instead wonder why that mania played itself out, and how one might go about re-igniting critical academic study of the shmoo. Analysis is surely complicated by Capp’s abandonment of political satire in the face of McCarthyism and subsequent shilling for conservative ideology and politicians, but to my mind that only makes this bizarre little character all the more compelling.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 500 words


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Film: World Trade Center dir. by Oliver Stone

World Trade Center
directed by Oliver Stone

A few disclaimers. I hate Oliver Stone due to my intense annoyance at being whacked with Stone’s thematic Gallagher-sized mallet. I also am criminally uninformed about movie news, so when a friend called and asked if I wanted to see a free sneak preview of World Trade Center with him, I agreed while knowing nothing of the film. Not even the director until a few hours before the screening.

And, for the first time, Stone’s name actually gave me hope. Aren’t movies with an edge of social-political commentary what Stone should be good at? Is not his own strength a willingness to court controversy?

The hope was woefully misplaced.

Stone doesn’t rely on his usual cinematic hyperbole with WTC, a story of two Port Authority cops among the twenty survivors pulled from the wreckage. The collapse of the towers is surprisingly understated, as Stone seems to recognize that the power of the events is already established.

But this inspired another bout of empty hope, as the story focuses, from the moment the first tower falls, on the two trapped policemen and their families. The heartstrings plucked are easy notes (who won’t be moved by a four-year-old perhaps soon to lose a father) and the light moments tedious affectations (Nicholas Cage’s trapped sergeant frets over his unfinished kitchen).

Where are the conspiracy theories? The alternate explorations of the day’s events and their ramifications? Hell, where is the jingoistic support for the narratives that day has spawned or allowed to prosper? Even that would have been more substance than what is here.

Instead, Stone has crafted what I imagine he sees as an affirming story about the power of the human spirit, designed to sell to those with an uncomplicated view of 9-11 and its aftermath and a need to consume simple affirmations of the mythological (and admittedly well-deserved) status of first-responders: when others rushed out, they rushed in. It is a one-note symphony, struck repeatedly for two hours .

The only interesting character in the movie is retired Marine Staff Sergeant Karnes, wonderfully creepily played by Michael Shannon. Watching the events unfold on TV, he suits up in uniform, travels to Ground Zero, and makes his way into the wreckage, eventually discovering the trapped officers. He never drops his Marine persona once he re-adopts it, and never alludes to anyone that he has retired, setting him up as an odd and unlikely hero. And then it comes. At the close of the rescue, he looks up at the wreckage and says that they will need good men to avenge this. Moments later, the epilogue informs us that he re-enlisted and served two tours in Iraq, subtly reinforcing the specious 9-11/Iraq connection hawked by the administration.

But, an interesting moment doesn’t make an interesting movie. WTC will play well in those communities already gobbling up such narrative, but has little to offer those with a complex worldview. It is Stone-lite at best, which says very little coming from me.

Reviewed by Jim Jewell, 499 words


Thursday, July 13, 2006

CD: St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley

Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere
Downtown Records
Produced by Danger Mouse

Danger Mouse is one prolific motherfucker; in the last year alone he has created the impression that he’s doing nothing but sitting in front of his laptop and turntables simply for the purpose of creating beats. In that time, he produced the majority of Gorillaz’ second album Demon Days (working with Blur’s Damon Albarn); released a hip hop collaboration with MF Doom called, obviously enough, Danger Doom; and now Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere, another hip hop producer/rap artist effort, where he teams up with Goodie Mob’s Cee-Lo.

Taken in aggregate, the trio of albums make for an interesting aural beachhead for the man responsible for putting the mash-up genre on the map (the oft-heralded Grey Album, a mix up of the BeatlesWhite Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album; look for it on Ebay). Taken individually, each album represents the baby steps taken by an emergent artist towards establishing his personality.

There’s no arguing that DM has chops. Like Demon Days, St. Elsewhere goes a long way towards proving that DM’s pop sensibilities are sharp and on-point. His work with Cee-Lo feels a lot more unrestrained than that evidenced by Danger Doom (which, for an Adult Swim tie-in, the album certainly doesn’t feel as freewheeling or as fun as it should).

The album does not completely stand up on its own, however. For example, “Go Go Gadget Gospel” may have a smirk-inducing title, but the song itself feels like it belongs in Cee-Lo’s library of hip-hop experimentia (best exemplified by Goodie Mob’s team up with fellow Atlanteans Outkast in Dungeon Family’s Even in Darkness). There's even an unnecessary cover (Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone"). Thankfully, the impulse to skip a song doesn’t happen often.

Not enough has been said about Cee-Lo’s work and influence on this album. His lyrics on this album, both haunting and lyrical in the best sense, achieve a schizophrenic and forlorn effect with a minimum of effort:

I'm a microchip off the old block
You know not but I was a robot

Something that you won't see again
What the hell might as well be a friend
I can transform, I'm a transformer
No telling who I will have to be again

(from “Transformer”)
Ever since breaking off from Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo has been hard at work at re-establishing what his sound is about, and SE makes me excited for his future output. It has been a long time since 60s Soul had a run in the popular landscape, and, in my opinion, it’s about time it did so again.

St. Elsewhere works best when the collaboration between DM’s doodling and Cee-Lo’s neo-classic-soul tendencies mesh. As much as SE has grown on me, however, it still feels incomplete. In the pantheon of hip hop producer/artist collaborations, it can’t compare to previous masterworks (Dan the Automator/Kool Keith’s A Much Better Tomorrow and Madlib/MF Doom’s Madvillainy are personal benchmarks). On the other hand, the album is still a good time to be had, and that ain’t bad.

Reviewed by Jose' Amador, 499 words.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Film: The Proposition

The Proposition
Written by Nick Cave
Directed by John Hillcoat

Nick Cave’s surly, mystical, white-trash magic realism was so easily applied to the landscape of my own observation that the notion of his having a landscape of his own to inspire his fevered visions never crossed my mind. His stories of retribution, mad love, gruesome death and implacable deities had the clear ring of the universal. Of course, the most universal art often emerges from artists telling their own stories, the stories of their own backyards, their own tribes. With Cave’s dazzling screenwriting debut, the grim, lyrical Aussie Western The Proposition, the whole spectrum of Cave’s work will now call to mind the baking Australian desert, the portentous hum of flies on a dead carcass (or its living observers), the piercing shame of colonialism, and the bottled discontent of exploited aboriginals.

Directed with stark delirium by John Hillcoat, The Proposition is built on the simplest of conceits. A lawman, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) makes captured outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) an offer he can’t refuse, sending him on a simple-but-gruesome errand for a simple-but-urgent reward: if he kills his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), Stanley won’t hang Charlie's younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson).

The plot is elemental, but the intricacies of the internal relationships lend the film a stealthy complexity. Rather than the hero, or even the antihero of the story, Charlie is the cipher; Pearce gives him gravitas, but he’s a mythical everyman in a story that indulges in mythological flourish even as it demythologizes its own particular history. Huston and Winstone do the heavy lifting, bringing poignancy and potency to their respective studies of damaged men. Emily Watson, as Stanley’s jittery wife, carries a tremendous thematic burden with aplomb; her comical displacement as a bourgeois wife in the unforgiving wilderness is as nuanced a portrayal as I’ve ever seen of the plight of the colonial wife, separated from her element and increasingly estranged from a husband who fights with every fiber to maintain justice, however convoluted his ideas definition thereof has become. And I won’t even try to explain John Hurt’s giddy cameo: it must be seen to be believed.

The Proposition isn’t for the faint of stomach. Even my desensitized constitution reeled a little when a man wrings blood out of a whip in the midst of a brutal—and revealing—flogging. As with many revisionist Westerns, the impunity with which men kill supersedes moral preoccupation; death relegates all victims to yet more rotting matter in a punishing wilderness. But for all of that, the movie still whispers, croaks and chants its way into the viewer’s consciousness, like Cave’s own muffled voice on the insinuating score, by Cave with longtime collaborator Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds, The Dirty Three). Cave may play the nihilist, but the key to his script, as to his music, is the tiny sliver of hope for redemption that still cries out from its dark, bloody heart.

Reviewed by thelyamhound, 494 words