Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bored of the Rings (Book)

Bored of the rings (1969)
by Henry Beard and Doug Kenney
Wikipedia Entry

I first discovered Lord of the Rings when I found a hardcover copy of The Fellowship of the Ring in the library.  I liked science fiction and fantasy and thought this was just my thing. I took it home, got seriously bored about the time they were traipsing around with Tom Bombazine, and took it back.  It was the first book I ever started reading without finishing.

A few years later, some friends of mine were discussing Bored of the Rings.  It sounded pretty damn funny, but they told me I'd miss most of the jokes if I hadn't read Tolkien.  A friend gave me The Fellowship again, and I bought the rest of the trilogy and started slogging through it*.  But, to reward myself, I also bought a copy of Bored of the Rings and kept it wrapped up in a stapled paper bag until I was finished.

It was worth it.

Bored of the Rings is one of the greatest book-length parodies ever written.  Authors Henry Beard and Doug Kenney wrote it at Harvard, where they were editors of The Harvard Lampoon.  The character names, for instance, are all tradmarks:  Goodgulf, Frito, Spam, Pepsi and Moxie, etc.** The book summarized the plot of the trilogy, of course, with some really off-the-wall humor.  Say, for instance the prophecy about Bromosel was the immortal poem:

Five nine is your height and 180's your weight.
You cash in your chips about page 88.***

The book was silly, quite suggestive, and funny from start to finish.  And,yes, it helped to have read the trilogy.

Authors Henry Beard and Doug Kenney went on to further triumphs, forming the original National Lampoon.  Later, Kinney helped write Animal House.

If you love the trilogy, and don't mind laughing about it, try to track down a copy.


*I liked it better this time.  I had already tried and liked The Hobbit, so I also held out that the trilogy would be as good as that.  It wasn't overall, but it's a book I respect, even if I don't love it.

**I didn't get the joke of the name Dildo Bugger at the time.  Life in the 60s was much more innocent.

***And they later had him looking nervously at the top of the page to check the number.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Men with Guns

Men with guns (1997)
Written and Directed by
John Sayles
Starring Fredrico Luppi, Damien Delgado, Damián Alcázar, Dan Rivera Gonzalez, Tania Cruz.
IMDB Entry

I live in Schenectady, NY. And Schenectady's biggest contribution to movies is John Sayles.

Sayles is one of the top independent filmmakers.  He started as a writer, and began working with Roger Corman on Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars. He also wrote and directed his first independent feature about this time with Return of the Secaucus Seven, sort of a template for The Big Chill. He continued with many indie successes in 80s and 90s.

Sayles never looked to be popular.  So when he had his a moderate success with Lone Star -- probably enough to go Hollywood -- he followed it up with as un-Hollywood a film as could be made:  Men with Guns.

The film is set in an unnamed Latin American country.  After the death of his wife, Dr. Humberto Fuentes (Fredrico Luppi) goes into a remote village to search for some former students who are reported lost.  As he travels, he meets with other along the way through the war-torn countryside, showing things to the doctor that he never imagined in his comfortable life. The title refers to the facts of life in the countryside:  men with guns come and order people around.

Sayles went far off the beaten path for this. First of all, the movie was shot in Spanish, with actors unknown to US audiences (other than a small role for Mandy Patankin, probably to get funding).  And he suffered the consequences:  poor box office, of course.  Despite some very good reviews, there was little interest in the US in a foreign language film by an American director.

Sayles, of course, isn't interested in making blockbusters.  He continues to work, scraping up money writing screenplays and occasionally acting, as he finances some of the best independent films you'll ever see.

But the result is stunning.  The ending especially is a very surprising twist, and Sayles leads you to it perfectly.

Important Note: There is a second Men with Guns -- a routine ultraviolent gangster shootup film.  Don't be confused.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Space Angel (TV)

Produced by
Cambria Productions
Created by Dick Darley
Voice actors:  Ned Lefebvre, Margaret Kerry, Hal Smith
Wikipedia Page

If you've ever seen it, one of the most memorably bizarre animation techniques in early TV (or ever) was Syncho-Vox.  Cambria Productions invented the technique because it was a cutting edge way to ... oh, hell -- they did it because it was cheap.  It's expensive to animate lip movements, so Cambria came up with the next best thing:  live action lips superimposed over a cartoon face. To save even more money, many scenes hid the characters mouths completely.

The effect was bizarre. Not only were the lips coated with dark lipstick to make it stand out, but the actors spoke with exaggerated lip movements so the audience could see the technique.  Of course, the name most closely associated with this was Clutch Cargo. It was a big enough success to spawn Space Angel.

Ta Space Angel was a code name of Scott McCloud, a square-jawed and eyepatched astronaut and investigator for the Earth Bureau of Investigation.  With his crew Crystal and Taurus**, they faced threats throughout the solar system.

The science fiction angle caught my attention, of course, but the show also looked better than most cartoons of the time.  Oh, the animation was lousy and the Synchro-Vox just plain weird, but the drawings had a look to them unlike anything else.  And for good reason.  The show was an early assignment for Alex Toth.  Toth was very important both in comics and animation, and his designs for the show really stood out.

The plots were standard science fiction, with each adventure running five minutes a day for five days.  Stations would run it Monday through Friday on their kid's shows; the Friday show would resolve the story. 

The show ran for a couple of years before moving on. To a budding science fiction fan like me, it will always be a fond memory.


*With his pals Spinner and Paddlefoot.

** Whose accent is quite reminiscent  of Scotty's from Star Trek.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Fink Along With MAD (music)

Sung by
The Dellwoods, Mike Russo, Jeanne Hayes, and Alfred E. Neumann

MAD Magazine was a revolution when it came along.  The story is well known -- William M. Gaines, publisher of horror comics, decided to produce a comic that was, well, comic.  His first two editors, Harvey  Kurtzman (whose importance to the magazine was overstated) and Al Feldstein (whose importance is often overlooked), created a juggernaut of low brow bust-a-gut humor. 

It was wildly successful.  And MAD succeeded just about everywhere.* Reprints of the magazine were made into books. There was a successful off-Broadway show (The MAD Show).**  They made their mark on the legal system with a Supreme Court ruling that allowed people to write comedy lyrics to popular songs.

Fink Along With MAD And, of course, they did music.  Fink Along With MAD is one result***.

The first single from it was massively popular, even if it never made the charts.  MAD would repackage their best articles into "Annuals." And, in order to get people to buy materials that they probably had already read, they would throw in special features.  For The Worst of MAD #9, they included a flexi-disk**** of "It's a Gas," billed as "Alfred E. Neuman vocalizes!"

The song was a  peppy tune.  After each musical phrase, the band would stop and you'd hear a burp.*****  For Mad's audience, that was hilarious.******

So Mad also released an album:  Fink Along With Mad.

The title is a reference to the Sing Along with Mitch albums of the period and was filled with classic Mad humor. Mad had a very odd way of looking at teenagers that probably wasn't ever true, but which they constantly used for jokes.

There are twelve songs on the record:

  • Let's do the Fink - Actually, a pretty odd song, reminiscent in theme to Tom Lehrer's "Masochism Tango."
  • I'll Never Make Fun of Her Moustache Again. -- self-explanatory
  • The Biggest Mouth in Town - About a girl in love with a guy who blabs about everything they do.  It actually taught me not to so anything like this.
  • Her Dad's Got Money cha-cha-cha -- the basis of true love (see "First I Look at the Purse")
  • I accidentally messed up his hair -- tragedy, sung in an "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To" manner.
  • It's a Gas 
  • Don't Put Onions on your Hamburger -- which leads to obvious problems.
  • Loving a Siamese Twin - far less kinky that it would be today
  • She Lets Me Watch her Mom and Pop Fight -- a bit disturbing; he thinks it's more fun than sex.
  • When the Braces on our Teeth Lock -- For some reason, this scenario was an obsession of the magazine.  Has it ever happened in real life?
  • Contact Lenses
  • The Neighborhood Draft Board - - Less controversial than it would have been a few years later, but a concern for older male teens of the time
  • A Mad Extra -  starts out with the song "She Got a Nose Job," but the record scratches in the middle.

The concerns are dated, though in a charming way, since the record assumes that all that dating teens did was a little bit of necking and going further than heavy kissing was unthinkable.

The album didn't seem to be particularly successful.  Probably any real teen would have found the jokes more about dating ten years earlier.  But the tunes were catchy fifties rock 'n roll and doo-wop, and the lyrics are pretty funny if you're willing to accept the basis for the humor.

This was the last stand alone album MAD did (there were soundtracks for The MAD Show and MAD Presents Up the Academy******).  I have no idea what happened to the vocalists on the disk (other than Neumann); they were probably hired for the occasion and have long since left the music industry.

Of course, MAD started declining a bit in the 70s, when it was eclipsed by The National Lampoon. It's still going strong, but seems a bit formulaic, and I find it sad that I usually enjoy Cracked (MAD's second-rate competitor for many years*******) online more than anything I've read in MAD in years.

Society has changed, of course, but Fink Along with MAD is still a very funny album.


*A good thing for Gaines, whose horror titles were killed by the anti-comic hysteria of the mid-50s.

**The cast included Linda Lavin, Paul Sand, Richard Libertini, and Jo Anne Worley.

***There were a couple of earlier records:  Musically MAD and MAD "Twists" Rock 'n Roll.

***A record on thin plastic. This was a common giveaway of the time -- I've seen them on the back of cereal boxes, for instance.  Usually, they were square instead of round, since that was easier to make.

****If the record were done today, it would include farts instead. What this says about changes in humor over the past 40 years I don't want to know.

*****Our gym teacher once played it as we did calisthenics.  One more my more memorable school workouts.

******An attempt to put the Mad brand on an Animal House type movie. It flopped and MAD savaged it and later paid to have their name removed from it, though that's been restored and has developed some cult interest.  Though it seems every movie has developed a cult.

*******Remember Sylvester P. Smythe?  (I promise, no more footnotes after this.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Endless Summer

Endless Summer (1966)
Written and Directed by
Bruce Brown
Starring Micheal Hynson, Robert August, Bruce Brown
IMDB Entry
Bruce Brown Films

Lots of great directors had themes running through their work.  There's Hitchcock's "innocent man on the run" or Orson Welles's "lives of larger-than-life figures."  Bruce Brown had more than just a theme: he had an obsession.


Bruce Brown Brown directed surf documentaries. Or, rather, he showed up with his camera, edited them, added narration, and made films of the whole experience. He loved the sport.

The Endless Summer was his big splash.  The idea is simple:  Mike and Robert go on a trip around the world looking for the perfect wave, visiting Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii and California.  Brown filmed their trip, their disappointments, and finally their triumph. 

Of course, it shows a lot of surfing, but the footage is well chosen and never becomes dull. If the waves are no good, then there were other things to shoot.  In a way, he was a precursor to modern "follow someone around" documentaries, since he tended to keep the camera running to see what might happen.

The film is especially entertaining due to Brown's narration.  He has a nice ironic sense of humor and isn't afraid to laugh at some of the quirks of the sport.  The line "You guys really missed it.  You should have been here yesterday" shows up a lot, and always brings a smile.

The film was a big success. Brown's earlier films shows only in surfing hotbeds, but this broke through to the general public.  People who knew nothing about the sport showed up, and some even took it up.  As much as anything, it contributed to the rise of surfing over the years and the movie poster, in various forms, has become an icon.

Brown made other surfing films, and his sequel The Endless Summer II, did even better than the first. Now, however, the movie is like it was in the beginning -- known to surfers, but not the world in general.**

It's a perfect film to recall how special the summer can be -- whether you're a surfer or not.


*To get the full Bruce Brown treatment, say the word in an excited falsetto.

**This despite the fact it's been selected for the Library of Congress's film registry, an astute choice.