Category Archives: Television and Movies

Remember When You Could Twerk and Not Cause a Worldwide Scandal?

I was setting the table, trying to decide whether to fold the napkins in the shape of a rectangle or a triangle, when my wife came home from work.

“Hi honey!” I said.  “What do you think?  Rectangle or triangle?” I asked, holding up an example of each.

“Did you hear about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards?”

“No, I didn’t.  What happened?”

“You didn’t hear about it!  Do you live under a rock?  All over the news, all over the internet, all over Facebook, it’s all anyone is talking about.”

“Really?  There wasn’t anything in the Times about it.”

She rolled her eyes, and I made a mental note to never again come to dinner unprepared.  There is certainly no lack of coverage of the event.  Here are just some of the recent headlines:

“Miley Cyrus’s twerking routine was cultural appropriation at its worst” (The Guardian)

“Miley Cyrus, twerking, and the ‘sexual hazing’ of American pop stars” (Christian Science Monitor)

“Justin Timberlake Is Cool With Miley Cyrus Twerking” (Vibe)

“Miley Cyrus to Lead US Attack on Iran” (Bayard & Holmes)

Young people have always used dancing to meet other young people.  I remember the dance scene from the 1987 film Can’t Buy Me Love, where Patrick Dempsey thinks he’s doing the latest dance from American Bandstand.  He doesn’t know that he was watching some educational program instead of American Bandstand, and that it was the African Anteater ritual he was learning, and when he performs the ritual at his high school, all the other students think it’s just the latest dance that all the cool kids are doing, and soon they are all doing the African Anteater ritual.  Miley Cyrus should have done that at the Video Music Awards.

When I was in middle school I learned something called the Chicken Dance.  First you held your hands out in front of you and clapped your fingers and thumb together, like you had lobster claws.  Next you tucked each fist into the adjacent armpit and flapped your elbows, like you had chicken wings and were trying to fly.  Then you crouched down a little while simultaneously moving your rear end from side to side.  Finally, you stood straight up and clapped your hands four times.  There was a song that went with it so that you knew when to do the moves.

The venerable Oxford English Dictionary is apparently going to add “twerk” to its list, defining it as a verb meaning to “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.”  Based on my years of experience, I am comfortable saying that the third movement of the Chicken Dance qualifies as a kind of proto-twerk.

But when I think of dances that involve hip movements and squatting stances, the kind of dances that, pretty much, anyone can do, I think most fondly of the Macarena, which rocked the world around the year 1996.  Like the Chicken Dance, the Macarena also involved a repetitive series of dance moves that progressed from putting the hands out, to placing the hands on the body, to rotating the hips with twerk-like elements, and then ending with a clap.  But the Macarena, which was named after the song that inspired the well-structured, was far more complex than the Chicken Dance, and represented a great leap forward in the evolution of dignified group-dancing.

Like scientists seeking a purer form of a metal, the twerkers have stripped dancing of the unnecessary hand and arm movements and unduly formalistic sequences, and distilled what was really its essence all along.  So when you watch Miley Cyrus again, squatting and thrusting and unfurling her tongue, know that you are not watching a garish display of celebrity sexuality in cable television’s race to the bottom, but natural selection at its finest.

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Remember When There Weren’t All These Crasher Shows?

The other night I was hoping to catch Civil Servants From Outer Space on the Science Channel, but instead my wife had already asserted dominion over the television with a program called Yard Crashers.  Have you ever seen this show?  The host of the show, Ahmed Hassan, is a licensed contractor, who loiters, along with a camera crew, at a giant home improvement megastore in search of someone with a pathetic yard.  Usually there is a multitude of customers begging Ahmed to crash their yards, and he chooses a winner by selecting the yard with the most unreturned propane tanks.

The first time I saw Ahmed accost a potential yard crashee, I thought that he was just going to mow their lawn for them, perhaps mowing it in a cool checkerboard design instead of the swirling splotches that have become my voice in the neighborhood landscape.  But I was wrong, as I spent the next half-hour of my life watching Ahmed and his crew help these poor homeowners turn their dump with a swing set into Six Flags Great Adventure, complete with turnstiles and rotating racks of signs that say things like “Jennifer’s Room.”

I soon learned that Yard Crashers was only one of several members of the crasher genre of home improvement shows.  House Crashers, where Josh Temple shows homeowners that the secret to having the house of your dreams is a liberal use of the sledgehammer.  Bath Crashers, where Matt Muenster trains homeowners to hang up wet towels instead of leaving them crumpled up on the bathroom floor.  And, of course, Kitchen Crashers, where Alison Victoria proves that there is a God, and that His name is Granite Countertops.

The current slate of crasher shows might only be the beginning.  There could be crasher crossovers, the Yard Crashers and the House Crashers unwittingly crash the same house, and everyone’s embarrassed because there’s not enough pizza to go around.

Or a reverse crash, where the crew chooses a home with a perfect, modern kitchen and after three days the kitchen has warped cabinets with peeling paint, a cracked white sink, and the same gold-flecked Formica countertops that belonged to the homeowner’s mother.

There could even be a crasher show where someone literally crashes a truck through the front of a house, as a way of demonstrating that a home improvement project can always be found.

But why limit ourselves to home improvement?  There are other areas of human endeavor that could use some crashing.  For example, there could be a show on the Learning Channel called Book Crashers, where people who are behind on their Chaucer are invaded by a literature professor who stays with them for three days, and then sends them a bill for $40,000.

A personal favorite of mine would be a show called Crasher Crashers, were a husband who doesn’t like his wife’s crasher shows is visited by a home channel producer executive who teaches the husband to appreciate crasher shows, and to form an independent opinion of proper home décor that just happens to be identical to his wife’s tastes.  And the show would air on ESPN.

The ultimate crasher show, however, would be called Human Crashers.  A house inhabited with humans with antiquated ideas, habits, and looks, is crashed by a crew of other houses who help to renovate the humans, giving them new ears and mouths, updating them on the latest trends in fashion and music, and getting them to stop saying things like “a knock is a boost” and “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and from refusing to see the Christopher Nolan Batman movies because “nothing compares” to the 1989 Tim Burton film.

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Remember When There Weren’t All These Mediums?

The other night I caught a show on TLC called “Long Island Medium.”  Being from Long Island myself, I thought that this might be a show about the first Long Islander to pass on the largest size of food or drink offered at a restaurant.  But no, it was about the life and work of a woman named Theresa Caputo, who goes around speaking to the deceased and asking them if the parking situation is any better in the afterlife.

Mediumship has been around as long as there have been human beings willing to connect with their departed loved ones and pay a medium’s hourly rate plus expenses.  I’m sure that if we had a video of Ancient Athens, we could see a medium walking into a fish market, and saying, “I’m feeling something…some here recently lost someone…who was into togas.  Am I right?  What can I say?  It’s a gift.”

Communicating with the dead reached a peak in the 19th Century, especially in the English-speaking countries, where spirits were found hiding in Ulysses S. Grant’s beard and books by Charles Dickens.  Although there were some high-profile hoaxes—most notably one where a medium went several months without bathing and convinced clients that the arresting body odor was their deceased relative reeking from the Other Side—a large group of believers remained.

Perhaps it is because of the popularity of medium John Edward, who is also from Long Island and is particularly adept at channeling television ratings, that it seems like mediums have staged a comeback in recent years.  Reality television has certainly facilitated the growth, and I’m waiting for a show where spirits compete in a series of physical trials and then vote each other out of the afterlife.

My own experience with mediums is rather limited.  As I once traversed the grounds at a local fair after a harrowing experience with cotton candy, I was called to by a woman standing in a tent.

“Sir, have you recently lost someone?”

I told her that I wasn’t interested in any coupons, but she was insistent that I had recently lost someone.  I told her that I had not.

“Really?  Are you sure?”

I again answered that I hadn’t lost anyone.  She bit her lip and furrowed her brow for a few seconds.

“Are you absolutely sure you haven’t lost anyone recently?”

“All right, all right,” I said.  “You got me.  Yes, I recently lost someone.”

“I knew it,” she said.  “Now tell me, was this person into…uh…eating food?”

“It wasn’t a person.  It was a squirrel.  And yes, the squirrel liked to eat food.”

“See?  I knew I was feeling something.  Now, did your squirrel pass after a very long illness?”

“He was flattened by a Civic.”

“Ah yes, that was going to be my next guess.  Well, the squirrel wants me to tell you that it’s okay to let go, that it wasn’t your fault.”

I thanked the medium for her time and didn’t tell her that the reason the squirrel was in the way of the car was because I had thrown a handful of Honey Bunches of Oats into the street.  I thanked her for her time and gave her a handful of Honey Bunches of Oats.

Despite all of the evidence that spirits are all around us and giving the endings of movies that we haven’t seen, I remain a skeptic.  If there is an afterlife, where you can float around to wherever you want, see and hear anything without having to look around for a bathroom…why on Earth would you want to talk to the living?

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Remember When You Didn’t Hunger For The Hunger Games?

Yesterday’s “Today” show featured Jennifer Lawrence, the star of “The Hunger Games,” the movie version of the latest series of books for adults who like to read kids’ books.  I was all set to scoff until they started showing clips of the film, where kids have to do battle on television in a dystopian future.  The story seemed so compelling that I wanted to read the book and be that guy who tells everyone that the book was better than the movie.

My library had no copies on the shelf, and when I tried to put myself on the wait list the librarian led me into a room in the back, where, she said, I would “have an opportunity to borrow the book.”

In this room were 11 other library patrons.   We were told that there was one copy of “The Hunger Games” and that we were going to have to compete for it in a series of events.  I wanted to ask why they had jettisoned the usual wait list procedure, but a bell rang and each of the other contestants picked up a bow and arrow.  I picked up mine, and was a little worried because the last arrow I shot had been four inches thick and had “Nerf” printed along its side.  But when everyone started running into the main part of the library, my animal nature took over.

Like every time I go into the library, even the times when I’m not doing battle, I headed to the fiction section.  I always like to look at the classic novels that I haven’t read, and imagine that I’ve read them.  An arrow came flying at me, but I blocked it with a copy of “Ulysses.”  Then I fell and rolled over to some Cormac McCarthy books, and was so entranced by the lyrical descriptions of the west that I forgot about the people trying to kill me.  I guess they forgot about me too, because a little later I was told to return to the room in the back.  Now there were only six of us, all trying not to look at the pile of bloodied library cards in the corner.

The next event involved a pool of raging water in the east wing of the building.  I never noticed this before, but now I understood why the budget vote had been so close.  We were told that the first three people to swim to the other side would be lifted out of the pool, while the remaining three…the librarian held her nose and pantomimed sinking.  That bell rang again and we all jumped in the water.  Luckily for me, my wife doesn’t let me wear shoes in the house, and so I wear loafers for convenient de-shoeing.  These loafers I easily kicked off before getting in the pool, and was the first to reach the other side while the others were delayed untying their laces.

For the final event I was placed at a round table with the other two remaining contestants.  We were each handed a copy of “Ivanhoe,” and told that the first one to finish reading it would be the victor.  The previous trials had been nothing.  “I don’t think I can do it,” said one of the others, a middle-aged man.  The woman to his right kept shaking her head, tears coming to her eyes.  I, too, thought I would die before I got through this book again.  And then I remembered how my English teacher schooled me on it after I proved to have not read it very closely.  I could just pretend to read it.  This I did, and passed the quiz at the end with flying colors.  The other two contestants barely even tried.

I came home with my copy of “The Hunger Games.”  As I kicked off my shoes in the doorway, my wife asked me if she could read it after I was done.  I told her that I was probably just going to see the movie.

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Remember Renting Movies At the Video Store?

The video rental store near my home had a room in the back that you entered through a pair of saloon-style swinging half-doors.  The room was low-lit with a reddish tint and greeted customers with a sign, set at eye-level for the average 11-year-old boy, that read, “Must Be 18 or Older to Enter This Room.”  My under-18 friends and I would pretend to be really interested in the titles adjacent to this room.

“Oh, wow, I didn’t know that this, uh, French film was available already,” I would say, studying the cover of the movie and glancing sideways every few seconds like I’d been electrocuted.

My friend would mosey on over to me.  “Ah,” he would say, touching the side of a different movie while he looked over the swinging doors to our neighborhood’s slice of Bourbon Street.  “This is supposed to be really…uh…interesting.  Isn’t it starring someone famous?”

“Yes,” I would answer, pointing to yet a different movie while I peered through the slats in the swinging doors.  “I think this is supposed to be John Candy’s best work.”

But physical video stores started to die long before Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy.  When Netflix hit the market, I was one of the first to sign up.  I remember creating a spreadsheet that would show me how to maximize the number of movies I could see in a month.  After a well-spent hour of my employer’s time setting up the queue of movies I wanted to see, the only step left to execute was to watch the movie the moment I saw that red envelope in my mailbox.  It was perfect.

Perfect, that is, until a movie arrived that I did not want to watch at that particular moment.  When I was choosing the movies, I always had very high standards, and chose movies that close friends had informed me that I absolutely had to see if we were going to continue being friends.  But sometimes, after a hard day in the cubicles, I did not feel like digging in to “Breaking the Waves” or “Mulholland Drive,” but instead wanted to watch a few hours of people on television yelling at each other.

So I would go one day without watching the Netflix movies, and then another day, and another, until I was so depressed about not watching it the moment it came in that I couldn’t even think about the movie without getting sick.  Why, you ask, did I not just return the movie without watching it?  Because that would have been a waste of money.

All that Netflix dysfunctionality is behind me, however.  These days I use Redbox.  Just go to my local supermarket, approach the giant red box, select my movie, and swipe my card.  The movies cost between $1 and $2, and even if I’m late I’m charged only another dollar per day.  I get the instant gratification of Blockbuster, with the low prices of Netflix.  It’s so ideal that I’m wondering how long it will last.

Because history teaches us that convenient and inexpensive sources of movies don’t last.  The price of a Redbox movie will start to climb, or the selection will get worse, or there will be stories of people being swallowed alive by the giant red boxes, and I’ll have to go off in search of another source of movies.

And as I drive around the neighborhood, maybe I’ll come to stop in front of my local movie theater.  As if under a spell, I’ll get out of my car and walk in and pay the exorbitant sum for an adult ticket.  And I’ll sit in the theater, and let the movie envelop me, and I’ll forget all my worries about where to get movies.

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Remember When Television Programs Didn’t Have Animated Promos For Other Programs?

When I was a young whippersnapper and could eat at McDonald’s three times a week without a health care proxy, there was a separation between television programs, the commercials that funded the television programs, and the advertisements for upcoming television programs that would attract more sponsors, who would fund more televisions etc.  I could watch an entire episode of Growing Pains without being distracted by a tiny Tony Danza plugging Who’s the Boss in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, berating Samantha for buying a $300 pair of boots with her modeling money.  I watched shows to be distracted from my life.  I did not need a distraction from the distraction.

The only superfluous animation on television then was the channel with the stock-ticker, and I was subjected to that only on days when school was closed and my grandfather came over to watch me while my parents worked.  I guess he never got the memo that the kids were supposed to choose the show.

But no channel these days leaves the house without distracting animation at the bottom of the screen.  It would be like walking around without pants.  During a show about an elite fighting force that infiltrates terrorist cells by offering discounted driveway sealing, there’s a little bride-to-be trying on a wedding dress in the bottom-right corner.  During a show about how to make zucchini casserole in a coffee cup, there’s a tiny cupcake wearing an even tinier smiley face.  During a sit-com about teenagers mouthing-off to their parents, there is a two-inch promo of a sit-com about teenagers mouthing-off to their parents.

I’m sure that when the networks decided to add the moving miniatures at the bottom of the screen, it was after careful market research that showed the average viewer’s brain could handle this level of multi-tasking.  For to absorb the full meaning of the television program and the promo, the nervous system has some work to do.

In the same amount of time that Derek Jeter has to decide whether to swing at a pitch, the average television viewer has to decide whether the promo is worth the transfer of primary focus from the airing program.  In the time that Derek Jeter has to move his arms, legs, and torso simultaneously to connect the bat squarely with the ball, the average viewer at home has to make note of the name, date, and time of the upcoming show without missing any of the witty dialogue or dramatic irony of the current show in which the viewer has so heavily invested.  That so many millions of people can do this for four to six hours a day without going crazy is a testament to the nobility of the human mind.

I, however, have never been able to do that.  Yes, I am one of those poor souls who was born with a brain incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time.  I cannot even go through the preliminary decision-making stage without shifting my mono-focus.  If I watch a program, and a tiny video or animated graphic appears at the bottom of the screen, I am compelled to convey my full attention to the promo, whether I am interested or not.

And when the brief interlude is over and I just as automatically return my focus to the program I was watching, the program is not the same as it was.  The show is duller in comparison to the new and shiny show that was being advertised at the bottom of the screen.  Sometimes I even forget what I was watching, and can’t remember until I see a promo for the current show during the airing of the promo-ed show.

And then a commercial comes on and I forget about both shows, and focus only on buying something.

N.B. This is a digitally remastered version of an earlier post on the same topic. MK

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Remember What Made You Fall in Love With the Movies?

Last night I swallowed my cynicism and watched the entire airing of the 2012 Academy Awards.  There ought to be an award for watching the whole thing.  I think I would at least get a nomination for Best Academy Awards Watcher in a Supporting Role, but would probably have had to read my prepared acceptance speech to only my mother, during my after-party at Applebee’s, after I lost to someone who did not throw up in his mouth a little bit every time an Oscar-winner used the word “incredible” to describe someone they worked with on the film.

My favorite part of this year’s Oscars, other than that commercial for Hulu where the streaming television service melts someone’s brain, were these little montages, sprinkled about the broadcast like tarragon, of famous actors like Reese Witherspoon, Brad Pitt, and Barbra Streisand, fawning about how they fell in love with the movies.  I was grateful that these busy celebrities took the time to remind me of the power of movies to take me someplace far, far away from $15 and three hours of my life.

The montages got me thinking about the movies that I saw as a child that made me fall in love with the movies.  If I had been sitting in front of the camera and shown a cue card with “SAPPY GUSHING” written on it, I would have had to say something about “Gremlins,” a 1984 Christmas movie about these little cute furry mammals that turn into medium-sized menacing reptilian monsters with homicidal tendencies and depraved indifference to human life.

“When Mrs. Peltzer shoved that Gremlin into the microwave and hit the power button,” I would say, looking slightly off-center, eyes tearing just enough to glisten but not quite filling to the brim, “I knew that these movies…these films…these…moving pictures on moving film had a way of bringing imagination to life and then exploding it all over the inside of a microwave oven.  From that point on, I was hooked.”

Or perhaps I would talk about “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” a partially animated movie about a cartoon rabbit, the eponymous Roger, who is framed with a murder and has to go on the lam with a human detective named Eddie Valiant.

“That scene where Roger Rabbit and Eddie are handcuffed together,” I would say, leaning in towards the camera and shaking my hands, “and Eddie is trying to saw the handcuffs off with a hacksaw, and the box he’s leaning on keeps wobbling, so Roger Rabbit takes his hand out of the handcuffs to hold the box steady, so that now Eddie is sawing off handcuffs that are attached to only his hand, and Roger Rabbit sees that Eddie notices this and that Eddie looks mad, so Roger Rabbit quickly slips his hand back in the cuffs, and smiles, and Eddie yells at him, ‘You mean you could’ve taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?’  And Roger Rabbit replies, ‘No, not at any time.  Only when it was funny.’

“Now,” I’ll say as I nod my head and point with my index finger at nothing, “that cartoon rabbit’s honesty in that scene is, to me, the essence of what it means to be an actor.  That and sunglasses.”

But if I had to pick just one movie that hooked me onto cinema that I can watch in my home for free years after the theater release, it would have to be “The Wizard of Oz.”  I am told that I saw that movie for the first time when I was three years old, and that when Dorothy wakes up at the end, in her home in Kansas, surrounded by loved ones she feared she would never see again, and says, “Oh, Auntie Em—there’s no place like home!” that I started crying, crying the tears of innocent joy that could be brought forth only from that perfect union of human truth and human emotion that is the hallmark of the movies.

Or maybe I knew I was being watched and wanted to give my parents a cute story.

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