June 2010 Archives

"Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created woman?" - DARYL VAN HORNE (not pictured)

When one thinks of '80s movies, one name that comes to mind almost immediately is John Hughes. A former writer for National Lampoon who parlayed his work on the humor magazine into film gigs like 1982's National Lampoon's Class Reunion (his screenwriting debut and an unmitigated disaster), Mr. Mom and the first of the long-running Vacation series, Hughes moved into the director's chair with 1984's Sixteen Candles, a seminal teen comedy and cultural touchstone for just about anybody who came of age in the '80s. Its success led to a string of films set in and around the fictional Chicago suburb of Shermer, Illinois, some of which (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) Hughes directed and others (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful) for which he merely wrote the screenplay. And smack dab in the middle of them all was the totally bonkers Weird Science, which is far from Hughes's best work as a writer or a director, but it stretched him in ways that his more ordinary fare did not.

Briefly, the story revolves around a pair of scrawny outcasts (Hughes regular Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who use a computer to create supermodel Kelly LeBrock out of thin air and proceed to have a wild, wild weekend with her. As we noted in our Superman III article, most people who lived in the '80s didn't know what computers were actually capable of, so a film like Weird Science could posit a scenario where a couple of geeks -- inspired by a late-night viewing of the Universal classic Frankenstein (which, incidentally, has suffered the indignity of being colorized) -- could make a working computer simulation of a woman on a 5" floppy disk by scanning a bunch of photographs into a device that looks suspiciously like a printer. Furthermore, when Hall decides they need more power, all they have to do is tap into a local military installation's network (using a primitive phone receiver modem) and it's there at their fingertips. (The sequence where Smith uses his hacking skills to get past the mainframe's security system features some Tron-like CGI and even a Twilight Zone reference.) Of course, simply scanning in a photo of Albert Einstein shouldn't be able to give their simulation Einstein's IQ, nor should hooking up a Barbie doll allow them to transfer it into the body of a real live woman, but there are certain allowances that one simply has to make with a fantasy film, otherwise you might as well just stay home.

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As I was driving to work this morning, I found myself behind a pair of identical yellow trucks. They looked like moving trucks, but with an opening in the back and a tailgate like on a pickup. I couldn't see inside, so I had no idea what they were transporting, but the sign on the tailgate of the one directly in front of me caught my eye, which was unusual because I normally don't concern myself with messages slapped on the backs of trucks. For the most part, trucks either want you to tell them how they're being driven or they want you to become a truck driver yourself. Occasionally you'll find one that wants to be washed. This one was different, though. It had a sign that simply read, "FREE WOOD CHIPS."

I drove behind the truck for a couple of miles, which gave me plenty of time to contemplate what that might mean. By the time it turned off the road (along with its twin, which I noticed didn't have a "FREE WOOD CHIPS" sign on it), I had come to the only conclusion possible: Wood Chips was either the name of a political prisoner like Mumia or a righteous cause like Tibet. The first thing I did when I arrived at work was to flip a coin to determine which one it was. The quarter came up heads, so that meant Wood Chips was a political prisoner. I decided to find out everything I could about him and do whatever I could to help free him.

Shockingly, there was precious little information about Mr. Chips to be found on the Internet. I figured if he was important enough to have a professional-looking sign made up about him, then there would be at least one web site devoted to his cause. After several hours of searching, though, I couldn't even find out where he was incarcerated or on what trumped-up charges he was being held. Was he an accused cop-killer? Was he some sort of radical left over from the Sixties? I had no way of knowing. I did, however, learn more about mulching than I previously imagined -- not that I ever spent much time thinking about mulching before today.

Eventually I had to give up on my impromptu research project -- my work was piling up and my supervisor was none too pleased to find me poring over websites dedicated to tree mulchers -- but I vowed that one day I would uncover the identity of the mysterious Wood Chips and very soon thereafter he would be free. Yes, indeed, he would be free.

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"And you may know how little God thinks of money by observing on what bad and contemptible characters he often bestows it." -- THOMAS GUTHRIE (1865)

Disney's making dirty movies!

Well, no. Not really. But that was the consensus among prudes, alarmists, and moral watchdogs alike in the mid-1980s when the Walt Disney Company began financing a series of R-rated movies through a then-fairly-new subsidiary of theirs called Touchstone Pictures. Never mind that the hallowed "D" word never appeared anywhere in these films' credits or advertising. The evidence was clear: a bastion of good, clean, wholesome family entertainment was now up to its mouse ears in the smut racket. Won't someone please think of the children?

I can still remember then-also-newish Disney CEO Michael Eisner appearing on ABC's 20/20 and squirming genially as a reporter showed him a particularly risque clip from of one of Touchstone's latest offerings, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and asked him if this sort of thing was appropriate for Disney to be releasing. The clip involved Richard Dreyfuss as a wealthy married man having adulterous sex with his maid while the family dog watches through a window. To make matters worse, the maid was actually on top during said fornication, a clear breach of missionary-position-only sexual protocol. (NOTE: This was long before Disney actually owned ABC. Wonder if the same kind of story would air on 20/20 today?) Eisner's answer, as you might guess, was political. Down and Out, he faux-cheerfully explained, was not really a Disney movie per se, at least not in the Bambi/Snow White sense. It was just an adult-oriented comedy which happened to be financed by the Walt Disney Company. That's all.

Disney, you must remember, had spent much of the 1960s and all of the 1970s flooding the film market with gimmick-laden, low-ambition "family comedies" aimed at the notoriously undiscriminating kiddie audience. Think: lots and lots of Herbie sequels and cute-animal flicks. As a result, the term "live-action Disney movie" was not exactly synonymous with "quality," and even that particular teat had run dry by the end of the Carter years. Disney continued to make live-action films in the 1980s, but these tended to be adventure and fantasy stories, like Tron and The Journey of Natty Gann. The only way for Disney to make live-action comedies and dramas that adults might actually pay money to see was to do so under another name. Ergo, Touchstone. And the gambit paid off beautifully with a string of well-received, financially-successful pictures. Today, the familiar circle-and-lightning-bolt insignia of Touchstone is just another meaningless corporate logo, imparting nothing of significance to the average moviegoer. But for a few years there in the mid-to-late 1980s, Touchstone Pictures was something of a brand name to critics and knowledgeable audiences alike, much as, say, Judd Apatow's name is today. A Touchstone comedy was generally expected to be a little sharper, a little fresher, a little funnier than the average multiplex offering. The company even had its own stable of stars, veteran film and TV performers who appealed more to parents than to kids: Richard Dreyfuss, Danny DeVito, and of course the Queen of Touchstone herself, Miss Bette Midler, who vaulted back into stardom with her appearances in Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People, both released in 1986.

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Quick news/good news:


German magazine Spoonfork has kindly featured my art in their latest issue's special guest section. Here it is!


In other news, the T-shirt that is the product of my Artsprojekt Labz T-shirt contest victory has been produced and is ready to buy, if you're interested. Click here for more info.

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