Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Night Videos

"Weird Al" Yankovic has a new album out, which is reason for celebration. Of all the tracks, "Word Crimes" has got to be my favorite, but while the animated video is clever, it's can't quite match the shameless lunacy of "Tacky."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Hall & Oates.

Now Playing: R.E.M. Dead Letter Office
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bettie Page Reveals All

Bettie Page Reveals All is a fascinating, if flawed, documentary feature about the world's most iconic pin-up and fetish queen. Page died in 2008 at the age of 85, a famous woman who disappeared at the height of her modelling career to become an enigma. Popularized in part by artist Dave Stevens including a Page-like character in his comic The Rocketeer, Bettie Page's pin-up work saw a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s that continued to grow as the years past. For much of this time, Page was unaware of her return to the spotlight, subsisting on Social Security as she lived a life of anonymity. Eventually, she was located and connected with an agent who ensured she received compensation for the rampant use of her likeness. Her later years were comfortable.

Page rarely appeared in public following her rediscovery, and avoided having her picture taken, as she preferred people remember her as she had looked in the 1950s. Fortunately, before she passed away, she gave extensive interviews about her life, which makes up the bulk of this film. Age had turned her voice gravelly, but hearing her southern accent matter-of-factly discuss this topic or that is fascinating, even if the clip art and stock footage used to illustrate her story in the early going is arbitrary at best.

The fact that Page essentially tells her own story is both the film's greatest strength as well as weakness. Many of the topics she touches on are jarring in their abruptness, one or two sentences at best before moving along. Frustratingly, over and over again she makes a comment that begs for a follow-up question that never comes (the interview was conducted in a Q&A format, but apart from a couple of brief interactions, the interviewer is edited out). Speaking as a professional interviewer (is that even a thing?) the myriad things left unsaid and unexplored are maddening. One example come early on, when discussing Page's education. In high school, she desperately worked to become valedictorian, because Vanderbilt guaranteed full ride scholarships to the top student in every Tennessee high school class. Despite her efforts, she ended up salutatorian, mere tenths of a point behind a male classmate. Instead of a full ride to Vandy, she got a $100 scholarship to Peabody College. The immediate thing that leapt to my mind--and The Wife's as well--was that in 1942, women didn't often pursue higher education. In many cases, they were active discouraged. It doesn't take much imagination to picture a school principal in Tennessee tweaking the grades so that the Vandy scholarship wouldn't be "wasted" on a woman. Page would face gender discrimination--if not outright misogyny--time and again throughout her life, and her valedictorian/salutatorian issue would've added an interesting bit of context. Alas, the question remains unasked, that bit of history unexplored.

Despite the wide swath of questions not asked, Page does cover a tremendous amount of territory with her good-humored voice over. Others who played a role in Page's life, from Paula Klaw to Bunny Yeager to Hugh Hefner provide extensive commentary in their own right, either via new or archival footage. Even if their thoughts are not deeply insightful, the anecdotes are certainly entertaining and amusing. A minor annoyance--Paula Klaw actually took the vast majority of the Page photos sold by her brother, Irving Klaw, but the film portrays her more as a business manager than a creative talent. A very interesting revelation involved the mediocre 2005 movie The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol (the film's worth watching for Mol's impressive turn as Page). At the time it came out, Page was very vocal in her displeasure with it, yet certain scenes that were dismissed as fabrication at the time are confirmed here by Page herself. There were several other points where Page seemed to be fudging the truth some, or simply mis-remembering events. It would've been nice to have some cross references, a corroborating witness or document to back Page up, but this is very much her show and what she says goes unquestioned. For the most part, she's bluntly honest, and it's a credit to her that her solo narrative can carry the film so long.

To be honest, as I watched this film, I was struck more and more by the similarities between Bettie Page and Edna Milton, who I interviewed extensively before she died for my book on the infamous Chicken Ranch (which is still sitting on publishers' desks, looking for a home). Both were born in the 1920s in poor, rural America--Milton in Oklahoma, Page in Tennessee--to dysfunctional families with the Great Depression and World War II disrupting their lives. Neither had children, yet both went through a string of tumultuous marriages while making a living as best they could before abruptly disappearing to anonymity at the height of their fame. There's a difference between pin-up modeling and prostitution, but in 1950s America the distinction was a very narrow one. They survived in an era of rampant discrimination and succeeded despite the deck being stacked against them because of their gender. It's a sobering thought to imaging how many times that same story played out across the country in that era, and how many women didn't have the happy ending Page did, or even Milton's relatively soft landing.

Anyone who is a fan of Bettie Page--devoted or casual--will enjoy this documentary. After a bit of a slow start, it builds momentum and simply dazzles with hundreds of still photographs of Page (many of which I'd never seen, and some never-before published). Her sad descent into schizophrenia is well-chronicled, as is her religious beliefs and efforts to become a missionary. It's all here. Check it out. You'll be glad you did.

Now Playing: Michael E. Johnson Love Songs for Amerika
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Friday, July 11, 2014

What's Jayme drinking?

Tonight's beer is (take a deep breath) "Harpoon Black Forest Imperial Cherry Chocolate Porter." Whew! That's a mouthful! I'm drinking this beer because... well, upon seeing this in the store, how could I not pick it up? I like good porters. Chocolate and cherry can both be done well. Imperial is more iffy, because often it's just code for "high alcohol, hopped-up IPA." But with luck, those others would balance that element out. I'm not terribly familiar with imperial porters, but my expectation is that it should be pretty malty and roasty, which is right up my alley.

The beer poured a a clear, dark caramel with a thin, transient head. Despite this, it appears almost black in the glass. No lacing to speak of. Right away, this beer is defying my expectations--especially for one with an alcohol content of 9.8 percent! The nose is odd as well--some toasty malt, yes, but also alcohol and cola. First sip, the mouthfeel is thin. Not watery thin or Bud Light thin, but thinner than I'd think a beer with all this going on should be. There's a definite Coke-a-cola flavoring on the front end, that quickly segues into Cherry Coke. The comes malt, then deep, dark chocolate. Alcohol is well-hidden. This doesn't taste hot at all, which is a surprise given the prominent alcohol scent in the nose. Finally, there's a resurgent cola aftertaste. This is a sweet beer, with only a little bit of burnt bitterness. To be honest, it could stand a bit of sharpening more hops would give it (and given my dislike of over-hopped beers, that's saying something). Right now, hops are pretty much absent from the profile. It's not a terrible beer--they certainly managed to get the chocolate flavor right--but it is stratified, for lack of a better word. There are a number of different flavors at work here, but they're all separate, layered atop each other very distinctly rather than blended. There's no real interaction amongst them, no complexity to make this beer interesting. And an imperial cherry chocolate porter should be interesting, if nothing else. Subdued carbonation doesn't help much, either.

Harpoon Black Forest Imperial Cherry Chocolate Porter should've been a winner, in my estimation. It's got all the pieces in place, but ultimately the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Now Playing: Florence + the Machine Ceremonials
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Friday Night Videos

Hall & Oates had a big year in 1984, with the release of their album Big Bam Boom. It was a change of pace for them, breaking away from their blue-eyes soul sound of previous albums. The lead single, "Out of Touch, was but the first in a string of hits from the album. The video for it was perfect for the era, gaining very heavy airplay on MTV, Night Tracks and Friday Night Videos. It's not hard to see why: Despite being filled with skads of 80s excess and questionable fashion choices, it is inventive and a whole lot of fun. The giant drum kit alone is iconic in music video history. And the song's not half bad, either.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Chris Rea.

Now Playing: Florence + the Machine Lungs
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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Farscape: Till the Blood Runs Clear

Farscape Till The Blood Runs Clear
My Farscape rewatch continues with "Till the Blood Runs Clear," a reference to an earlier-revealed fact that when cut, Luxans must stimulate the wound to bleed otherwise they'd suffer a kind of septic shock. While D'Argo is indeed injured in this episode, and his wound is stimulated to make the blood run clear, that event is incidental to the plot, marking this as another of Farscape's throw-away episode titles.

While studying the formation of wormholes around a star that's throwing off massive solar flares, Crichton's Farscape module is damaged and he, along with Aeryn, are forced to land on an arid planet for repairs. The radiation-blasted planet looks suspiciously like the one Aeryn (ie Claudia Black) visited in the movie Pitch Black, but Vin Diesel doesn't turn up and Aeryn doesn't get dismembered. Yay! Crichton and Aeryn discover Mrs. Hoggett--apparently traumatized after the events of Babe: Pig in the City--working as a starship mechanic going by the name of Furlow. Furlow agrees to fix the ship, but there's something shifty about her. Aeryn and Crichton then discover a Peacekeeper beacon in the middle of the outpost broadcasting a wanted alert for Zhaan, D'Argo and Rygel, three escaped prisoners. Bounty hunters--the dog-life Vorcarian blood trackers--are already there, anticipating the fugitives' arrival. Crichton bluffs them into thinking he and Aeryn are bounty hunters as well, and the four agree to cooperate for the time being. Aeryn discovers a coded message for her in the Peacekeeper beacon--Crais promising her "retirement" with full rank restored if she helps turn over Moya and the escaped prisoners. Aeryn explains that Crais' "retirement" means execution. While this is going on, D'Argo lands in search of Crichton and Aeryn. The Vorcarians pick up his scent, ambush and capture him. Crichton discovers the Vorcarians torturing D'Argo. They've cut the Luxan, so Crichton punches and squeezes the wound on D'Argo's tentacle in the guise of torture so the blood will run clear and D'Argo won't die. More and more people are poking around the Farscape module, as word has apparently got out that it's been exposed to wormholes. Aeryn fights one, and is subsequently blinded by a solar flare. Crichton rescues D'Argo, but D'Argo, furious about the whole torture thing, fights Crichton. They do the macho thing until coming to a truce, and them promptly get into a firefight with the Vorcarians. Things get nasty, but Aeryn reprograms the Peacekeeper beacon to project Crais cancelling the bounty on the escapees. With no more bounty at stake, the Vorcarians disengage and let Crichton and D'Argo be on their way. Furlow does indeed complete the repairs to the Farscape module, but demands Crichton's accumulated wormhole research as payment, to which he reluctantly agrees.

Commentary: Not a terribly tight episode as far as plotting goes, this one is still a fun ride. The desert location and over-exposed scenes do a good job at conveying an alien world on a limited budget. Furlow is a simply repulsive character that has a certain charisma about her. The Vorcarians are incredibly stupid--they so easily and repeatedly duped by Crichton and Aeryn that it's a wonder how they don't starve to death as bounty hunters. Indeed, it's a wonder how they ever got off whatever world they evolved on. That's good for some cheap jokes, but doesn't make for a very logical episode. There's a minor subplot in the episode regarding the star's massive flares giving Zhaan "photogasms," which is the first hint in the series that Zhaan is a plant-based life form. Crichton's trading away his wormhole research will come back to bite him in the future, but the whole incident with Crais' offer to Aeryn pretty much closes the book on her long-running internal conflict over her break with the Peacekeepers. Not a great episode overall, but entertaining, in a silly way.

Crichton Quote of the Episode: "I’m Butch. This is Sundance. We're the Hole in the Sky gang."

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Monday, July 07, 2014

Babylon 5: Infection

Babylon 5 Infection
I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: Dr. Vance Hendricks, a former professor of Dr. Stephen Franklin's, shows up on Babylon 5 for what is presumably a pleasant reunion with his formal pupil. Down in the station's docking bays, however, Hendricks' henchman Nelson Drake kills a station worker in order to smuggle an alien artifact through customs, which sets an ominous tone. Hendricks explains to Franklin he's returned from an archaeological expedition to the dead world of Ikarra VII, where he's discovered pristine artifacts buried deep underground. The artifacts, left by the advanced Ikarran civilization, are based on organic technology, and he needs Franklin's xenobiology expertise--not to mention advance Babylon 5 medlab--to analyze the find. Despite his misgivings--likening the corporate-sponsored rush to explore dead worlds to grave-robbing--Franklin agrees to help. Shortly thereafter, as Drake is unpacking the artifacts, one discharges, affecting Drake. Franklin returns to medlab and is shot by the transforming Drake with an energy blast, knocking him out. The next day, having regained consciousness, Franklin explains to Commander Sinclair and Garibaldi how it appears the alien artifacts are grafting themselves onto Drake and transforming him into some sort of alien warrior. Garibaldi casts doubt on the idea that the artifacts actually cleared customs like Hendricks claimed, to which Hendricks says, "Yo, that was my evil henchman's job. If he killed your dockworker to smuggle them in, I had nothing to do with it." Meanwhile, Drake/Warrior is getting more powerful, and his battle mode recharge time is decreasing. Franklin, studying the remaining artifacts, discovers what is going on: Ikarra had been invaded so many times that the civilization developed technology to create unstoppable warriors to defend their world. Unfortunately, zealots programmed them to destroy anything that wasn't "pure Ikarran," an ideological definition. Naturally, once the alien invasion was beaten back the warriors turned on the Ikarran population, finding none of them "pure." The only warrior not deployed was, in fact, the one Hendricks had discovered and smuggled onto Babylon 5. Realizing the warrior's mission is now to destroy everyone on Babylon 5, Sinclair arms himself and attacks the Ikarran, luring it into a docking bay where it can be vented into space. Once there, Sinclair begins arguing with the warrior, insisting it failed in its mission to defend Ikarra VII, and instead destroyed the world it was created to protect. The artifact accesses the memories of Drake, who'd seen the dead world, and in grief the artifact deactivates itself and separates from Drake. Hendricks explains to Franklin that the corporation funding his research is actually a front for a bioweapons developer, and that if he could confirm the artifacts' use as weapons technology, he could claim a much higher finder's fee. He offers to split the money with Franklin, but Franklin declines the bribe and two security guards take him away. Later, two agents from Earthforce Intelligence show up and confiscate the artifacts for "research."

What Calista Says: Nothing. Calista has declined to provide further written opinions regarding Babylon 5 episodes. "It's too much like homework." Such are the fickle natures of teenagers.

What Jayme Says: A run-of-the-mill episode. It's not bad and not great, but relies of many science fiction tropes that we've seen time and again. With a cosmetic rewrite, there's nothing to prevent this script from being used for Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate or Battlestar Galactica. It's that generic, and that's the problem. Thus far in the series, there hasn't been an episode that could only exist within the Babylon 5 universe. Everything is so self-contained within this episode--even the evil henchman Drake survives his transformation and gets to recover off-camera. While the stakes are high, there's no indication the show has any teeth. No partial victories or even serious losses or sacrifice from the protagonists to save the rest of the station. It is standard, episodic television. Also, while this is a Franklin-centric episode, the doctor plays no role in the resolution. Sinclair steps in to save the day. It's not quite deus ex machina, but for Franklin's in-episode character arc, it is awkward. Two small touches that are lost amongst the flash and bang of the episode are nice, however. First is the establishing of the theme that Earth is aggressively scouring the galaxy to acquire the technology of lost civilizations so they won't be at such a military disadvantage against the Minbari or any other alien race ever again. In this episode it seems merely incidental to the plot, but the series will return to it time and again in the future. The second is much more self-aware: Garibaldi takes Sinclair to task for risking his life to lure the Ikarran warrior into the docking bay, pointing out that as commander, Sinclair was needlessly putting his life in jeopardy when Garibaldi or any of the security officers could've accomplished the same thing. Garibaldi points out that many survivors of the Earth-Minbari War have a hero complex and put themselves in danger in an attempt to go out in a blaze of glory. Sinclair acknowledges this and promises to work on it. This neatly addresses the Captain Kirk issue, in which the captain of a starship constantly leads exploration teams into potentially hazardous situations away from the ship, whilst in any rational situation the captain would stay aboard the ship and other officers would lead said mission. The answer to this is, of course, that if the captain is the central focus of the television show, then that actor has to be actively engaged in the plot. Babylon 5 acknowledges the irrationality of the captain's actions here, and posits a reasonable explanation for Sinclair's behavior (and Sheridan's to come).

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Friday, July 04, 2014

Friday Night Videos

Happy 4th of July everyone! For the U.S., this is independence day, the one day of the year where we pretend we don't like the British, but in reality just use it as an excuse to eat too much barbecue, drink too much beer and shoot off fireworks illegally within city limits. Whoo hoo!

Beyond that, I'm not sure what Chris Rea's song "Texas" has to do with the holiday, other than the fact that a cliched, stereotyped vision of Texas has come to represent the U.S. in the eyes of much of the world. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the way the rest of the U.S. views Texas, and even many folks who actually live here. In any event, Rea's video has less to do with the song than pretty much any video I've ever seen to any song. What does a U.S. army post in Germany have to do with Texas? Granted, many of the soldiers stationed there likely spent time at Fort Hood, which is undeniably in Texas; and a great number of German immigrants--including Prince Carl Solms, who founded New Braunfels--came from what is now Germany, but somehow I don't think Rea was getting that obscure with his allusions. Maybe they'd already finished a video for some song called "German Family's Car Breaks Down and American Soldiers Give Them a Big-Ass Coke" when the record company decided that wouldn't be a good lead single and instead went with "Texas," forcing them to re-cut the video to fit a different song. Who knows?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Henry Lee Summer.

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