Archive for March, 2013

[50/50] Songs #40 & #41: Guilty Pleasure

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Song #40: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — Bonnie Tyler (1984)
Song #41: “Closer” — Nine Inch Nails (1994)

“We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks!”

Ahhhh, the Guilty Pleasure. A song so bad it comes back around to something — sublime. Well okay, maybe not sublime, but awe inspiring for sure, as in your jaw will drop for sure. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is just such a song, one so bombastic and ridiculous it achieves something akin to greatness. Or, something.

The Bonnie Tyler hit came out the semester my girlfriend at IUP broke up with me, and my rampant self-pity initially gave me little defense against its purple prose. And then I saw — the video. One night at a house party I was forced to take refuge from my ex and her new boyfriend, and hid out in a room where someone had left MTV on. “WHAT the HELL was THAT?” was all I could muster after it was done. The… it… uh… oh just watch it:

There is no possible response to this other than bafflement and derision.

The thing is, you make fun of something long enough, you begin to appreciate it in a way. For years, whenever we popped our ‘guilty pleasure’ quiz on friends, this was my pick. It’s awful, in that overly-earnest way so many Meatloaf songs are rendered, but, like Mr. Loaf’s operatic delivery, it can also be quite a bit of fun. And of course, it was eminently entertaining to mock, as so many people have done so well since the arrival of youtube:

Strangely enough, TEOTH developed a cult following among musicians, even if it was mostly ironic, and there are now dozens — dozens! — of cover versions available for sale on iTunes. After a while I realized “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was popular enough I could no longer claim it as a guilty pleasure on my tax return. (It has since been replaced by “anything from The Alan Parson’s Project.”)

If the angsty Judy Blume-stylings of “Total Eclipse” represent one end of the pop culture spectrum of what love is ‘supposed’ to be, then Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” is at the other. Pure. Animal. Sex. Nothing hidden, nothing held back. Passion so naked and raw it leaves scratch marks on your back. Then there’s the video, which also held nothing back. (VNSFW, as if you didn’t know). I rather like this artsy take on the unrated director’s cut though:

Unapologetic, “Closer” is a master’s degree in carnal knowledge. And, for as disturbing as some of the imagery is in the video, it is far more honest about love and relationships and the pain they bring than the cheese sandwich that is “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

[50/50] Video Games #10 & #11: Tanks for the memories

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Video Game #10: Battle Zone (1980)
Video Game #11: Assault (1988)

Tank_01What’s better than one joystick? Two joysticks. Two joysticks were exactly what was needed to control the tank tracks in Tank (1974), the second smash arcade hit from Atari. Push both to move forward, pull both to go in reverse, and alternate to rotate left or right. Easy peasy.  Oh yeah, and the big red button was TO BLAST YOUR KID BROTHER OFF THE SCREEN.

You have no idea how many quarters we borrowed from my grandmother to play this thing when it first came out.

Tank narrowly missed making this list, but only because two of its descendants placed higher. While Atari’s Battle Zone sorely lacked the player v. player aspect of Tank, it made up for it with a targeting periscope you had to lean into that cut off your peripheral vision and effectively gave you the illusion you were gazing out a viewport onto the green glow of a future battlefield. The stereo speakers on either side of your head didn’t hurt either. Even though the landscape was a simple wireframe of vector graphics, if you had a really good run and got immersed in the game, stepping back from the machine into the real world would often be disorienting. Battle Zone was so realistic the U.S. Army had a version built to train gunners on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

What’s better than a tank that can turn left and right? One that can roll over like slinky, sit up like a spitting cobra and pogo into the atmosphere to single-handedly take on an entire army! Namco’s Assault took the twin yoke control of Battle Zone to the next logical step, allowing you to move sideways and meticulously dodge the concentrated fire of dozens of turrets and waves of enemy tanks. The launch pads were a nice touch too, flinging your tank skyward to rain shells on distant opponents and allowing you to recon the road ahead. Assault wasn’t deep, but it was stylish, slickly designed and blew up shit real good.

Tank image courtesy of the 20th Century Tech Museum

[50/50] Comedies #10 & #11: Sport!

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Bull-Durham-mv01Comedy #10: Bull Durham (1988)
Comedy #11: Slap Shot (1977)

It is not true you are required by law to view “Bull Durham” every year here, but you can’t move to this town without having seen the movie first, and if you somehow manage that feat and someone finds out, you will be immediately sat down and made to watch it. What is true is that this one movie probably did more to help revitalize a dying tobacco town than a dozen chamber of commerces — and is way funnier. Arguably the best sports movie ever made, it is certainly the sexiest, sweetest and most quotable:

Everything associated with the movie is legend around here. For us it was cemented a few months after we moved to Durham and went to the Blues Festival, which used to be held at the same ballpark where they filmed all the games. Somehow we got a spot over home plate, where we laid down a blanket, got drunk with our new neighbors and danced until midnight. The next year they blocked off the infield during concerts, and no one’s been allowed to dance on home plate since.

I guess that makes us lolligaggers.


slapshot1Here’s the thing: you know me, and except for fictional ones like Rollerball, or dead ones like chariot racing, I really could care less about following sports. (Okay, maybe college football, but even that’s a mystery to me, and everything I know I’ve picked up through friends by osmosis. Like a contact high.) Take hockey. Everything I know about hockey, I learned from “Slap Shot,” the incredibly profane, incredibly funny black satire with Paul Newman as the coach of a minor league hockey team. Cynical and very ’70s, it is a major league send-up of violence and money in sports — and America —that is a hoot to watch.

Clips don’t do this flick justice: it is the cumulative effect of Newman’s charming flim-flam and the child-like hyperviolence of the Hanson Brothers that make “Slap Shot” effective. Also, lots of swearing. Lots and lots of swearing. Don’t bother watching it if you come across it on TV … it’s so cut up there’s no point. You’ve been warned. Anyway, here’s a scene of the Hanson Bros. punching someone — sorry, everyone — out.

[50/50] Short Stories #10 & #11: Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Short Story #10: The Ugly Little Boy (1958)
Short Story #11: The Dead Past (1956)

IsaacAsimovIsaac Asimov was astoundingly prolific, writing and editing hundred of books, and several thousand short stories and essays, all while teaching biochemistry at Boston University. (He also wrote a large chunk of his best known work — The Foundation Trilogy — while getting his Pd.D in his early 20s … slacker.) Asimov’s fiction is recognized more for its interesting concepts (such as his Three Laws of Robotics & Psychohistory) than its literary value; most of his novels and short stories are sweeping intellectual exercises, locked room mysteries, puzzles of logic, and celebrations of awful puns. What they are not known for is their depth of emotion.

This was not the case with “The Ugly Little Boy,” a time-travel tale that finds the good professor at his empathic best. A child psychologist is called in to care for a small neanderthal boy swept up in an early experiment with a time machine. She finds she spends more time trying to protect him from scientists who don’t consider him human, and a corporation that plans to exploit him in the media to get more grants. Due to the nature of the temporal device — a particularly clever and original idea of Asimov’s based on the Conservation of Enegry — the boy can never leave the room he is kept in. Asimov uses “The Ugly Little Boy” to raise all sorts of ethical questions about the intersection of science and business, but keeps the maternal relationship that develops between the woman and the boy at the heart of the story (including a kicker of a finish I won’t spoil here.) Needless to say, it is the only Asimov story you are ever in danger of tearing up over.

His most interesting short story, “The Dead Past,” also taps an emotional vein — and in a very real fashion, accurately predicts open source distribution, wikileaks, and modern surveillance issues 50 years before they became reality. It posits a future where the government keeps tight reins on scientific research — a position that is easy to maintain because everyone has become so specialized in their field they can only do one thing. When a historian, physicist and journalist team up to invent a chronoscope, a device to view the distant past, they run afoul of a government agent.

However, just when you think it’s going to be a straight-forward tale of “bad bureaucracy/good scientists,” it turns out everyone has ulterior motives: the historian is obsessed with finding out if he was responsible for a house fire that killed his only daughter decades before, an tragedy that has ruined his marriage and nearly driven his wife insane with grief. The physicist and journalist, frustrated by what they see as the oppression of knowledge, have released the plans for the chronoscope without thinking of the consequences, insuring anyone can build one and spy on their neighbors. And it turns out the government agent had everyone’s best interest in mind all along, hoping to protect the public. As he says in the closing paragraph:

“When people think of the past, they think of it as dead, far away and gone, long ago. . . . But when did the past begin? A year ago? Five minutes ago? One second ago? Isn’t it obvious that the past begins an instant ago? The dead past is just another name for the living present. What if you focus the chronoscope in the past of one-hundredth of a second ago? Aren’t you watching the present? . . . . There will be no such thing as privacy.”

[50/50] Albums #21 & #42: Ambient & Electronic

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Album #42: “Man in Space with Sounds” — Attilio Mineo (1962)
Album #21: “Switched-on Bach” — Walter/Wendy Carlos (1968)

Mineo Attilio - Man In Space With Sound (Front)Echoes, one of the oldest ambient music shows in the country, airs from a station in Pennsylvania — as I discovered soon after graduating from college. I stumbled across it one night looking for Hearts of Space, THE oldest ambient show, which has been placidly broadcasting from San Francisco for almost 40 years. Losing track of both when I moved away from Central PA and WITF, I joyfully rediscovered them once internet radio had been established. All-nighters went so much easier with these shows, I’d track them to different online stations as the timezones rolled on…

Switched_On_BachOf course, it turned out I’d been listening to ambient and electronic music from the very beginning. One of our favorite albums, one that my brother asked my dad to play again and again, was “Man in Space with Sounds,” a record he had brought back from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Originally recorded in the early 1950s, it is pure space age lounge music, sweeping orchestrals punctuated by moody electronic sound effects. Released at the height of the space race, and with back-to-back World Fairs showing Americans the promise of a shiny future, “Man in Space with Sounds” was the perfect soundtrack for its time.

Created when composers were beginning to experiment with new technologies — such as the all-electronic soundtrack of “Forbidden Planet” — Attilio Mineo’s album had to have been an influence on Alexander Courage, the original composer on Star Trek, as several of Mineo’s effects sound eerily similar to those on the TV show.

Here’s a little video I did in 2011 while simultaneously watching an online conference and the last space shuttle launch, set to the track “Gayway to Heaven” (that’s not a typo — apparently the amusement park area of the Fair was called the “gayway.” Oh, you people of the past!)

Which brings us to the next album, the first best-selling record composed entirely on the Moog Synthesizer. Walter Carlos’ Switched-On Bach was a huge hit for Carlos and Moog, and in our house, where it endlessly fascinated us — especially my brother, who went on to later try and and recreate the sound on his DX-7. Carlos went on to do the soundtrack for Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” but not before becoming better known for changing his sex and name to Wendy Carlos.

The future had clearly arrived.

[50/50] Two-fer

Monday, March 25th, 2013

“Science Fiction/Double Feature” inspired me to do double features all this week on the 50/50 countdown, so you’ll get your Two-fer-Tuesday. (It also helps me catch up on some listings I’m behind on)…

[50/50] Song #42: “Science Fiction/Double Feature”

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

rocky-horror-picture-show lipsSong #42:  “Science Fiction / Double Feature” — Richard O’Brien, from the Soundtrack to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)

With songs like “Sweet Transvestite” and “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me,” The Rocky Horror Picture Show is strangely the one rock opera I can still take seriously — it’s also the only one that has held up over time. While I never got caught up in the costumes and the whole cult of it,* I also can’t tell you how many times I went to see it.

Strangely enough, the movie flopped when it first came out. Eventually, when the midnight showings caught on, it would help launch a half dozen careers, including Susan Sarandon, Tim Curry, and, yeah, Meatloaf. It’s appeal was obvious — the soundtrack fucking rocked. I remember driving back from a party in Philly one weekend with a carload of friends who belted out the songs as we careened down the turnpike (well, at least until the denouement … we all agreed the musical falls apart toward the end.)

The beginning on the other hand … the first number for “Rocky Horror” is still one of the greatest opening credits of any movie ever: just a red mouth and white teeth chomping in the dark, lip synching to the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature” and perfectly setting the mood:

*Ok, I did bring rice. And toast. And maybe a squirt gun. But that’s it.

[50/50] Video Game #12: Tetris

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Video Game #12: Tetris (1984)

tetris1_img6080Speaking of Tetris

I once tried to convince my boss back in the ’80s to let us get Tetris for the computer at work because it was a great design training tool. He didn’t buy it. Which is a shame, because I learned as much about page layout from Tetris as I did from any class at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I felt vindicated again when, just recently, I saw the checkout guy at the supermarket carefully stacking and packing the grocery bags in a particular order. “You’ve got a good system there,” I said. “I play a lot of Tetris,” he replied. I laughed and we ended up holding up the line as we talked. It turned out he worked for UPS during the week and that his boss actively encouraged his employees to play Tetris — it helped them pack the trucks more efficiently.

It is addictive and useful and still wildly popular — not bad for a title that’s almost 30 years old. Unlike virtually every other video game, Tetris has had an exceptionally long life with very little change in its design, across numerous platform evolutions. (And now it’s having another resurgence on smart phones worldwide.)

It is also one of the rare gems that’s become a pop culture touchstone — certainly in geek culture. Last year students at MIT programed lights in a 20-story campus building so they could play the game. On the side of the building. It frequently shows up in memes, like this so-obvious-you-can’t-believe-you-didn’t-think-of-it-yourself cartoon.


Again, not bad for a 30-year-old video game.

[50/50] Comedy #12: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Comedy #12: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982)


“That was my skull!”

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” came out the summer I graduated high school. I went to see it with my good friend Lisa Calkin, who had shared most of the same classes as me since 6th grade. It was a week before the both of us left for different colleges. Coming out of the theater afterward, I was stunned. I said something like ‘you know, except for the sex and drugs, that WAS our high school experience.’

Okay, I may have wrecked my car a little differently.

30 years later and this is still one of the best depictions of high school life — albeit now a lovely time capsule of life in the early ’80s —  and still one of the best comedies out there, period: forget prefixes like “teen-” or “sex-” or even “teen-sex-” comedy. (Although, thanks to changing technology, some jokes need to be deconstructed to the youngin’s … like the time we watched it when Bettina was living with us, and we had to explain to her teenage son why it was funny when all the students sniffed the mimeographed tests … trust me kid, that killed in 1982!)

This movie is tight, too — not an ounce of fat on it, and yet it is full of relatable characters moments, cringe-inducing memories of awkward adolescence that are dead on, and an awesome soundtrack (most of which, alas, is not on the official soundtrack album.) It’s the kind of movie that, a quarter century later, compels someone to create this trailer mashup:

[50/50] Short Story #12: “Count the Clock That Tells the Time”

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Short Story #12: “Count the Clock That Tells the Time” — Harlan Ellison (1979)

tumblr_mb16rsR2rw1qaik2to1_1280It would be a dull world indeed without Harlan Ellison. The guy who wrote a thousand or more short stories, angry screeds and TV scripts, including the basis for the most famous Star Trek episode of all, “City on the Edge of Forever,” was an unstoppable voice in 20th century science fiction. Which is not to say he couldn’t be, and still often is, a complete asshole — an anti-Asimov if you will. That appears, however, along with talent, drive and volume, to be an inseparable part of his L’enfant terrible package.

Which makes this next story all the more amazing.

“Count the Clock That Tells the Time,” which first appeared in Omni magaine (the beautifully designed, very serious bid for respectability by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione), quietly plumbs the depths of human loneliness and despair. It is quite possibly the best exploration of depression I’ve ever read: it’s protagonist, a lost everyman who drifts through life without purpose, wasting away the hours that make up a dull day (sorry, couldn’t resist), discovers the universe has a Law of Conservation of Time as well as one of Energy. One day he is pulled into a dimension where all wasted time goes to be recycled. And it is there, in limbo, after it is all too late, he meets a girl and falls in love.

It is sad and sweet and poignant, and it somehow came from the angry typewriter of Harlan Ellison.

[Clock image via dharmaworks]