The Art of the Sell: “Limousines for Your Feet”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

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I can’t overstate the primacy of Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars in my day-to-day fashion choices. My default icon on social media outlets provides some insight as to dominance of the footwear brand on the lower level of my closet. Accordingly, I have a perpetual weakness for the various print ads over the years that promoted the brand, largely because of how ridiculously off-base they often were. Few please me more than the mid-eighties campaign that posited Chucks as “Limousines for Your Feet,” maybe because it was so close to correct and yet flat-footed in their wrongness. It notes the style statement that was (and is) tied up in Chucks for so many of us devotees, but positioning as upscale in any way is borderline laughable. Comfortable, cool, or rebellious? Sure. Somehow the equivalent of an overlong automobile parked outside a posh hotel? Um, no. There were plenty of reasons Converse went bankrupt, despite delivering a product as iconic as any piece of footwear in the U.S. of A. Confused marketing was surely one of them. Still, “Reach for the Stars”? That’s a pretty good tagline.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 175 – 173

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175. Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, “Elvis Is Everywhere”

Neill Kirby McMillian, Jr. was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1957. Years later, he found his true self as Mojo Nixon. Though the exact moment of identity epiphany is elusive, it was undoubtedly somewhere around the point he teamed up with multi-instrumentalist Skid Roper (née Richard Banke). The two started playing gigs together in San Diego, California, in the early nineteen-eighties, in a place that undoubtedly felt a million miles away from their freewheeling, psychobilly musical sensibility. Though Nixon quickly became a cult hero, thanks to songs that indulged in a raucous, raunchy, uncouth approach to assessing the world. The closest Mojo and Skid ever came to having a true hit was “Elvis is Everywhere,” the lead single from their 1987 album, Bo-Day-Shus!!! The song was at once a celebration of Elvis Presley and a spirited mockery of the small but passionate cohort of the endlessly distraught fan base that was susceptible to tabloid stories claiming the famed performer had faked his death and was living a secret life in some locale of pastoral isolation. Lest anyone think Nixon’s satirical swipes were meant for Presley himself, he took to an unlikely platform to correct the record. The cornpone chanter devoted one of his MTV bumper spots, which proliferated on the cable network in the late-eighties, to naming the King as one-third of his personal holy trinity, alongside Foghorn Leghorn and Otis Campbell, the town drunk character played by Hal Smith on The Andy Griffith Show, as part of his own holy trinity.

 

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174. Let’s Active, “Blue Line”

By the time Mitch Easter started making albums with the band Let’s Active, his talents and the physical location where he plied his trade were both in high enough demand that he had difficulty finding the time to record his own music. The band’s debut EP, Afoot, was knocked out in about a week’s time after Easter wedged it it between other groups coming in and out of his space. Buoyed in part by Easter’s reputation as one of producers behind the records of the insurgent college rock sensation R.E.M., Afoot became a left of the dial hit in its own right, topping the college charts upon its release, in the fall of 1983. One year later, Let’s Active’s first full-length, Cypress, was issued by I.R.S. Records. Easter and his bandmates allowed themselves a little more time in the creative process (at least some of the material was developed while the toured as an opening act with Echo & the Bunnymen), there was still a rough and ready quality at play when they put the stuff down on tape. At the time, Easter explained, “It’s sort of deeper and darker than the EP. On the other hand, it’s not a tribute to Pink Floyd. Many of the cuts were done on the first take.” Though the bulk of the album was penned by Easter (with a couple of assists by Faye Hunter, the band’s bassist), the first single was a cover song, albeit one derived from a fairly obscure original. “Blue Line” began life as a 1981 single from the U.K. band the Outskirts, written by guitarist/vocalist Maggie Beck. The Let’s Active take is faithful and yet slicked up in a understated way. Basically,  it’s perfectly representative of the prevailing style that made Easter a towering figure when college radio was in its most ascendent phase.

 

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173. Let’s Active, “Every Word Means No”

Let’s Active were beneficiaries of MTV’s early need for visual product to fill their program schedule. Before the band was even officially signed for I.R.S. Records, they appeared on The Cutting Edge, a program the label created that aired on the network from 1983 to 1987. As part of the process, Let’s Active were invited to film what Easter termed an “econo-video,” really just the group miming to one of their songs in a fairly empty studio space. According to Easter, it was probably a fortuitous meeting with an MTV representative that gave the clip life beyond a single episode. He later explained, “On the same trip we were in Pasadena at some fabulous party, and some lady came up to us – and this was kind of unbelievable to think about it now – and was like,’Hi, I’m from MTV Music Television and were looking for bands!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, you are?’ And it’s so funny, because of course a year later bands were spending more than their record cost to record to make a video because it was this ‘make or break thing.’ But it was so new in ‘83 that they were actually soliciting videos! So IRS just chopped that segment out of the show and said, ‘Here you go,’ and they ran it.” The unexpected prominence of the video also meant that a relatively casual decision helped define the image of Let’s Active from there on in. The band was tickled by the idea of having groups of dogs romp through the set while they played, reasoning it would create utter chaos. When full-grown canines weren’t available, they opted for puppies instead. According to Easter, that “changed the vibe considerably – and changed the worldview of our band for all eternity, because these puppies were just so adorable.”

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Sibling Rivalry

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In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my unkind words for Summer School don’t properly acknowledge how weirdly watchable I find that comedy to be. On the other hand, I stand by my praise for Kirstie Alley in this review. I still think the only thing separating her from a dandy film career was the right part.  

For being a very funny man, Carl Reiner is not exactly the most dependable comedy director working in Hollywood. Even though he’s had such terrific efforts as All of Me and The Man with Two Brains, he’s also managed to lend his talents to some films of lesser quality, like Summer School and the film that leads off the show this week, Sibling Rivalry. In this latest effort, he’s once again working with Summer School co-star Kirstie Alley, who plays a woman stuck in a boring, repetitive marriage to a doctor played by Scott Bakula, of TV’s Quantum Leap. Alley decides to seek a bit of adventure by having an affair. The big problem arises when she discovers that the man she has just slept with has died of a heart attack. The rest of the film revolves around the attempts by Alley and a local vertical blinds salesman who gets himself tied up in the whole mess to keep the affair and death from the police and her family.

The script is packed with all sorts of twists, turns, and overly complex relationships. In fact, about the only thing the script doesn’t have are funny jokes. To be fair, there are a few funny scenes, including one that involves Bill Pullman using a pencil to force-feed laxative pills to the corpse in a botched attempt to make it look like suicide and Alley and Pullman’s search for some missing, as she puts it, “protection.” The film also suffers from subpar performances, such as that of Jami Gertz as Alley’s sister. Alley herself manages to exude some charm in this thankless role. If she ever manages to get a part with real substance, one imagines she may actually be able to create some sort of respectable film career. But as long as she keeps working in mindless fluff like this, she’s wasting her time. And wasting ours.

1 and 1/2 stars, out of 4.

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One for Friday: Swamp Thing, “Learning to Disintegrate”

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It’s been almost exactly a year since my household began the segmented process of returning from a decade and a half living in southern states, resettling in our homeland of Wisconsin. During that span, I think it’s fair to say that each of us has occasionally felt the sensation of a unique culture doing its damnedest to welcome us back. The winter was milder, the beer has gotten better, the city has been alive and accommodating. Maybe best of all, there have been a handful of entirely unexpected musical gifts.

When I was at my college radio station, Swamp Thing was a band I longed to see live. It was also a band that I never expected to see before me on stage. I consider myself lucky that I arrived at college radio when I did, in 1988. Just a couple years later, and I would have been forced to contend with KoЯn. Still, sometimes I wish I’d gotten there just a couple years sooner, when I might have had a chance to play a Hüsker Dü album while it was in the new music rotation and experience some of the bigger college radio bands before they outgrew dingy little clubs. And, always lurking as a enormous missed opportunity, Swamp Thing wasn’t playing gigs anymore, at least as far as I could tell. Had I been a cooler high school kid, I might have gotten to see them, since their hometown was right up the highway from the crummy little town where I scowled toward my diploma. By the time I had cohorts who introduced me to the grand, goofy wonders of the band, their time had passed. 

Then, driving home from work one day last week, I looked up at the humble marquee of one of my favorite bars. There, in mildly cockeyed letters was an unlikely promise: THIS THU – SWAMP THING. Surely it couldn’t be. While I knew reunion shows had happened previously, it defied belief that another one could be occurring now, when I could actually attend. I dove into the internet as soon as I got home and quickly found a confirming flyer, adorned with a familiar image:

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In the modern manner of bands that can look back across decades to build a set list, Swamp Thing took the angle of performing one of their albums straight through. There were only two albums in the first place, so it was a reasonable enough idea. They opted for their debut, Learning to Disintegrate, which I once found on vinyl in a Raleigh, North Carolina used book and record store, causing me to embarrassingly gasp loudly. To indulge in a hackneyed phrase, it was a dream come true.

So there I was. I was at the Crystal Corner Bar, I had Chuck Taylors on my feet, a 90FM t-shirt under a flannel, and a Point Special in my hand. And, for at least one night, all was right with the world.

Listen or download –> Swamp Thing, “Learning to Disintegrate”

(Disclaimer: At this point, it’s especially important to me that I share that Swamp Thing’s Learning to Disintegrate is available for digital download on a website that is dedicated to making sure artists get proceeds from the sales. It cannot be purchased track by track. Since it is only available as a full album, please view the shared track as an enticement to turn over ten dollars to the best rock band Madison, Wisconsin ever produced. As was the case with the show I attended, proceeds on the sale of the album go toward our local community radio station, the rare current-day media entity that actually cares about its mandate to serve the public. Especially under these circumstances, I will gladly and promptly remove this track from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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My Writers: Joss Whedon

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I was dismissive of Joss Whedon at first, needlessly so. And I probably should have known better.

My first exposure — knowingly anyway — to Whedon’s writing was with the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which arrived with the excited promise of flinty ingenuity. It delivered far less, and Whedon was easy to dismiss as another breathlessly celebrated Hollywood wunderkind who didn’t have that much to contribute beyond a couple hooky notions. The nineties were lousy with those. As opposed to now, there weren’t a fleet of entertainment reporters prepared to dutifully transcribe Whedon’s complaints about how his original conception was mangled by the machine, so I took the drabness of the cinematic Buffy at face value. When, five years later, word came that Whedon was transporting his colorfully-named hunter of blood-sucking fiends to a television series, I instinctively viewed it as an unneeded brand extension rather than a corrective, an earnest attempt at rescue.

Whedon’s worthy motivation of inverting the horror trope of helpless female victim had been lost, or, more precisely, knocked asunder by the callous studio titans who were not interested in anything political — and feminist, no less! — in their bubble gum snap of a summer flick. With greater control over Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the television series, he could bring the material back to his intention. I didn’t know any of this at the time, which is hardly the most monumentally shortcoming on my part. Still, I knew enough about the ways of the showbiz world to have understood that the writer may not have been treated especially well. That the failings of the movie Buffy may not have actually been his fault.

I came to Buffy a little late, in the midst of the third season, well after enough ink had been spread in urgent proclamation of its excellence. When I found it, I fell hard and fast. Mid-season episode “The Zeppo,” a clever showcase for Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) convinced me this was a show I should be watching. Three episodes later, “Doppelgangland” made me a convert for life. “Doppelgangland” was written and directed by Whedon. I would come to learn, as all Buffy fans knew, that Whedon’s name standing alone on that final credit, “Written and Directed by,” meant it was a special episode, either central to the overall story arc or girded on a spectacular structural trick (as with the largely dialogue-free episode “Hush” or the harrowing dreamscapes of “Restless”). When I watched “Doppelgangland,” though, I had no such certainty. Instead, I found an episode that was smart, funny, and played with its alternate reality conceit to deepen understanding of the characters rather than simply distract from them with gimmickry. To put it plainly, it was clearly the work of a writer. At a time when television series still generally endeavored to erase the authorial voice, all the better to preserve the possibility they could run for countless seasons regardless of shifts in behind the scenes personnel, I was enlivened by the idea that Buffy was Whedon making an impassioned, ongoing argument.

As Todd VanDerWerff once noted, “Whedon has never been particularly great at casting; he usually finds actors who aren’t very good, then writes around their weaknesses, with the occasional Alyson Hannigan or Alexis Denisof slipping through.” More problematically, Whedon has demonstrated no awareness of this shortcoming, devotedly returning to performers who aren’t up to the tasks he writes for them, as when he wrongly believed that Eliza Dushku was equipped to carry Dollhouse, a complicated series that required an actress of Maslanian gifts. I concede these flaws as a means of accentuating a strength. It’s no small feat that Whedon is skilled at crafting material that suits the performers charged with delivering the lines, whether through playing to strengths or disguising weakness (or, realistically, both). In general, long-running shows tend to shift characters to suit the actors who inhabit them. Whedon was better than most at doing it, enough so that he could made middling performers seem positively stellar.

That adeptness at one of the undervalued necessities of building a television series speaks to a particularity of Whedon: he’s a traditionalist, at least in the comparatively short arc of television as a mass medium with its own unique traits. When Whedon was being treated poorly by the broadcast television networks that employed him, a fairly commonplace occurrence during his overlapping tenures as a showrunner, fans openly longed for him to defect to the more generous atmosphere of premium cable. He always resisted. It was clear he had an almost sentimental pining for the rigors of a lengthier season and the more regimented patterns of hitting commercial breaks with precision. Though he bucked against them, he liked the structure and the limitations, qualities that would evaporate if he sauntered onto the HBO or Showtime ranches (when Joss was at peak busyness, the boom for prestige, author-driven fare hadn’t spread to other outlets as thoroughly as it has now). Truth be typed, he probably would have benefited from shorter seasons (Buffy always had problematic stretches where the larger narrative went wandering), but otherwise it’s difficult to imagine him effectively venturing into racier content or the vicious gloom that was a prerequisite on less-regulated parts of the ever expanding television landscape. He’s tethered to a fading but still worthwhile past.

Though he looks backward, he informs his retrospection with a sly modernity. He utilizes narrative tropes with great affection, even as he sets them up just to knock them down. With every beat, he presents the familiar as fun and even comforting while simultaneously pointing out that it’s patently absurd, sometimes almost literally, as with the script (co-written with Drew Goddard, who also directed) for Cabin in the Woods. He presents the cliche, exposes its fakery, then doubles back to presented an revamped version that’s somehow effective. He’s like the writer equivalent of Penn and Teller in that respect. Whedon is a magician who eagerly announces that the real show is up his sleeves. Plot, character, and dialogue are all subject to this revolving door of sincerity, and it is the rush of all them spinning at once that marks Whedon’s pinnacle works. On occasion, he achieves it with the very premise, as with the beloved and network-abused series Firefly, for which he took the famed description of Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars” and made it overt and foundational. If many pop culture science fiction stories that followed Gene Roddenberry’s masterwork followed the same approach of moving a traditional western into an entirely new domain, Whedon’s version of adhering to type involved erasing significant portions of the disguise.

Whedon, maybe more than any other creator of particular significance, wears his own fandom proudly, letting it inform his creativity in ways that are productive rather than insular and stultifying. At its best, the rhythms of Buffy the Vampire Slayer resembled those of the nineteen-sixties and -seventies Marvel comic books that Whedon grew up consuming. When he was first given a chance to play in that universe, as a writer on Astonishing X-Men, he wrote with a true devotee’s certainty of purpose, evoking the most beloved pieces of the lengthy past without becoming derivative. The history was there to be used because the characters remembered it, too. Where other writers use comic book continuity to exploit the nostalgia of an aging readership, Whedon was able to draw on it as lived experience of the characters. That it also served to tickle the fans’ collective desire to have favorite elements echo on into eternity was a wholly expected bonus.

It’s that talent for drawing on the adored and familiar — the dog-eared fantastical fiction that aids in the unpleasant process of growing up — in a manner that is somehow an exuberant statement of originality that made Whedon a natural hire for Marvel Studios when it came time to bring all their varied franchises together in the bustling intersection of The Avengers. He knew down to his bones what would set the fans into frenzies of happiness: which particular pairings of heroes and super-powered tussles needed to be included. Characters like Loki and Black Widow, drab in their theatrical introductions, transformed into figures of fascination.

The fortifying of Natasha Romanoff, as played by Scarlett Johansson was an especially characteristic rescue mission for Whedon the writer, one more thematic reiteration of a creative point he makes repeatedly. While there are increasingly some who push back against the notion that Whedon is a valiant feminist (and he did his defense team no favors with the depiction of the female characters in the deeply flawed Avengers sequel, one of the weakest works he’s signed his name to), I’d still argue that he is more thoughtful, empathetic, and earnestly committed to getting it right than most of his peers with similar combinations of chromosomes.

In a fantastic speech he delivered when he was honored by Equality Now a decade ago, Whedon highlighted a specific choice that wasn’t often remarked upon:

When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but, were in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea.

In sharing this motivation, he credited the influence of his father and stepfather who “were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else’s power does not diminish your own.” In those comments reside the most resilient facet of my appreciation for Whedon, through ups and the occasional down. I have faith that his intent is fair-minded and kind, inclusive and warm, firm and playful. He exhibits a consistent camaraderie with the viewer or reader that is almost conspiratorial. It may have taken me a while to realize it, but those whirling schemes to which he offers an invitation are always worth joining.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

 

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Beers I Have Known: 3 Floyds Brewing Co. Flying Tigersault and Perched Atop the Denim Throne

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

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I am a mediocre beer hunter. I admit this fact with humility and a dollop of shame. Though I take woozy delight in a artfully crafted beer, I am woeful when it comes to holding relevant details in my head about those concoctions that should be chased. I am a willing and eager wingman for those cohorts with encyclopedic knowledge of the breweries and their beers that are simultaneously great and elusive, and therefore worth coveting. It was one of those friends who introduced me to Three Floyds Brewing Co. I take it as a little blessing that I now live in one of the few states on the Indiana brewery’s distribution list.

I’m also terribly unskilled when it comes to tracking the opportunities to sample relatively rare beers in the hometown I’ve returned to. Thus, on a recent Saturday night, when sustenance was needed, I had no idea that a favorite local tavern had turned over several of their taps to Three Floyds. Thankfully, we wound up there anyway. It was an ideal gift given the significance of the day, the culmination of roughly a month of developments that all incrementally helped us finally feel settled anew in this splendid city. I first drank a Flying Tigersault, a crisp and invigorating pilsener, and followed it with a Perched Atop the Denim Throne, an American amber IPA dedicated to a fleet of “fallen heroes,” including “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Both were delicious, gliding across my tongue like a proper reward for a long, tiring day.

What can I say? Sometimes I get lucky.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

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Now Playing: Swiss Army Man

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With Swiss Army Man, the directing duo that bills themselves as simply “Daniels” succumb to a very common shortcoming of first-time feature filmmakers: they’re better at showmanship than storytelling. Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan wrote and directed the film, which begin with a scruffy castaway (Paul Dano) slipping his head into a makeshift noose, fully planning to off himself rather than spend one more moment in stranded isolation. He’s given pause when he spies a body that’s washed up on the beach. Hoping for companionship, he instead finds a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe). As it turns out, this waterlogged cadaver proves to be a far more helpful cohort than any living being could be.

Scheinert and Kwan are fearlessly fascinated with the grotesque pliability of the human form, something that was evident in the vivid short films that first garnered them attention. There’s a headlong inventiveness to the kinetic manipulations of the corpse, all nicely realized by Radcliffe, who gets extra credit for delivering one of those rare performances for which there is little true precedent. Even beyond that, the filmmakers clearly revel in challenging the audience with taboo scatalogical humor. It doesn’t take wild mental gymnastics to think of Swiss Army Man as little more than a lengthy attempt to make a fart joke into something poignant. The ease of that exercise in warped film theory speaks to the thinness of the finished project. Try as they might, Daniels can’t quite get the material to transcend its goofy hook. It’s concept without enough soul.

The film stays stalled in part because the lead character never develops much past the level of cipher. Dano is almost too well cast, locking in on the insular, lonely agony of the role to such a formidable degree that he can’t quite unlock the secret doors that would make him into a recognizable person. Dano carries the conceit of the piece capably, but doesn’t bring the swirl of inner life needed to help elevate the film into more than a cheeky gimmick. While it’s true that Scheinert and Kwan don’t give him much to work with, a little more glint and nuance from Dano would have gone a long way towards imbuing the material with beneficial layers. As it is within the film’s fiction, it’s left to Radcliffe to do all the useful work.

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July 2016
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