This is only a small portion of the large number of talented people we have already lost this year — musicians, composers, songwriters, creators — but I thought 13 would be an appropriate sample.
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a.k.a. “Another One Bites The Dust”, in this case being Terry & Patty Laban’s Edge City strip, which just finished a 15 year run in far too typical a manner: A good strip, well drawn, well written, a core base of fans & readers, but never enough to break mainstream consciousness and, in the end, not nearly enough to justify the syndicator keeping them on.
Last November, as some of you may recall, Dinette Set went under without so much as an official nod from either artist or syndicator.
And several other strips are missing the occasional daily post; in a world where fewer and fewer newspapers carry fewer and fewer strips, these features are often found only online, and the blessing / curse of online media is that one doesn’t have to consume it on the creator/s schedule.
I mean, c’mon, folks, that’s what
binge watching on Hulu or Netflix
is all about, am I right?
The classic one-to-four panel daily comic strip is an artifact of the past, and even while new ones are being tried out, the sad truth is there is no real place for them.
Their offspring, the webcomic, may survive, but to do so it will probably have to evolve, both in terms of content and presentation.
While cartoons have been around since before Gutenberg, and had certainly been appearing in print as long as there were people making prints of anything, they certainly flowered during the heyday of printed media in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Comic strips were published (along with other regular features) with the intent of enticing casual readers back again and again to a daily newspaper.
While they certainly included younger kids in their audience, truth be told they had adult readers from the gitgo.
At their high water mark (roughly late 1920s to mid-1960s) they were essential cultural touchstones: Regardless of who you were or where you lived, everybody was familiar with the comic strips that defined their culture (i.e., specific time and place in world history).
Foreign readers may have had an entirely different batch of strips but nonetheless they had strips that defined their lives for them.
And regardless of whether the strips were gag-a-day, soap operas, adventures, or fantasy, something about them linked you to other people in your community / culture.
Even to this day, long after they have ceased to appear in print on a regular basis, certain comics strips still inform the national discourse: “That crazy Buck Rogers stuff”, “Well, blow me down!”, “It was a dark and stormy night…”, etc., etc., and of course, etc.
They were an odd form of niche marketing: There was seemingly a comic strip for every specific taste and interest and audience and if one was willing to look, ample places for them to appear.
But nothing remains static and the days when the bulk of America gleaned its cultural clues through daily newspapers has long since passed.
And while many are fond of the format of the old comic strips, there’s really no compelling reason to stick with that format in today’s media world.
Today’s webcomics don’t set the terms of the cultural debates, they only reinforce our pre-existing prejudices and biases, “prejudices and biases” here not necessarily referring to anything negative but rather the presumptions we live with in our daily lives.
We follow webcomics because they agree with our points of view, we do not turn to them to see what other people are thinking.
There’s no real innovation on the
remaining comics page anymore.
I read Peanuts Begins and get more out of it than any contemporary strip (and I do enjoy a number of contemporary strips).
As the writer Jack Enyart once observed, the best work in any medium is done at the very start and the very end of that medium’s dominance; the former breaking boundaries with new ideas, the latter distilling those ideas down to their perfect core.
We are enjoying the long wake of the comic strip; we will not see its like again.
But nobody really wants to
close the bar and go home…
 Tho not necessarily; a lot of American strips found loyal audiences in some truly oddball places, such as the Nordic countries really glomming onto The Phantom.
 As a young boy, I followed Dondi religiously; the stories of a young Italian-American refugee trying to find his place in America resonated with me as my own mother was an Italian who met my American father during WWII. Dondi is not held in very high esteem by most comic strip fans / historians, but it made a difference to me, dammit!
 Indeed, a strong argument can and has been made for more experimentation, but we’ll leave that topic for another day.
 Bloom County is back with new material online, and I read it, but it’s more for nostalgia than any real enjoyment.
Edge City © Terry and Patty Laban
“The Force awakens” can mean
“the Force itself wakes up” or
“the Force wakes up others.”
SPOILERICIOUS AFTER THE JUMP
Like many others in my generation, I grew up watching old B-Westerns on TV. Hopalong Cassidy was my favorite, narrowly beating out the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers (though I loved them as well).
When a friend informed me he’d purchased Classic Westerns: 50 Films, I felt I had to give it a try, too. What follows are the films as I viewed them in the order they play on the DVDs. Although I’m calling this a B-Western Round-up, there are some Italian Westerns and a few Hollywood A-Westerns than fell into public domain included as well.
The round-up starts after the jump.
(Will I do this next year with other megapacks? Maybe, I dunno…)
A story of two Hollywood street hustlers on Christmas Eve, it has everything you could want in a holiday film: Inventively obscene language, rampant prostitution, startling displays of nudity, and horrifying-yet-hilarious street violence.
Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is barely out of jail when friend & fellow street hustler Alexandra (Mya Taylor) informs her that her fiancé / pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan).
This sets off the erratically bi-polar Sin-Dee on a one-transgender woman mission of vengeance to track down Mickey and confront Chester with her. Alexandra tags along, first trying to calm Sin-Dee down, but also trying to promote her own one-person show at a local bar later that night.
Add to this basic Frankie & Johnny mix —
- (a) Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a roving cabbie who pines for Sin-Dee and hopes to keep his wife from finding out,
- (b) Ashken (Alla Tumanian), his vengeful mother-in-law who has found out about his dalliances with transgender hustlers, and
- (c) a third complication which we’ll refrain from mentioning as it’s a spoiler
— and Tangerine rockets off on a howling funny erratic roller coaster ride which, like all good roller coasters, convinces us at times it’s about to fly off the tracks but in reality is always skillfully and deliberately operating exactly as intended.
Big kudos to writer / director / photographer Sean S. Baker, co-writer Chris Bergoch, co-photographer Radium Cheung, their production team, and the remarkable cast, especially Rodriguez and Taylor who brought a lot of their own real life experience and insight to the production. The sassy but savvy minority sexual nonconformist is a well established trope in films and drama now, threatening to become a full fledged stereotype. Rodriguez and Taylor occasionally get close enough to that trope to wave and yell hello from the other side of the street, but they never actually embrace it.
The relationship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra shows how diametrically opposite personalities can find solace and companionship in one another. Alexandra, for all her street cred, at heart harbors a bittersweet yet very conventional ambition, and despite her failure to gain traction towards her ultimate goal she never seems foolish in her pursuit.
She wants a very conventional form of success and acceptance, and one senses she would cheerfully leave the street far behind if she could find even a modicum of success as a performer.
Sin-Dee, on the other hand, is the most outrageous street hustler since Pam Grier’s Charlotte, the gold standard of psychotic street hustlers from 1981’s Fort Apache: The Bronx. If Rodriguez was not able to lace Sin-Dee’s anger and hurt with inventive humor, she would have been as terrifying as Grier was.
But despite her intense emotional pain, Sin-Dee will not abandon a friend, and even though she’s kidnapped Dinah and is en route to confront Chester (via public transit!), she nonetheless finds time to drag her hostage into the bar where Alexandra is singing so as to support her friend’s performance to a room full of barflies.
Indeed, not only has Sin-Dee compassion for her friend, but she even shows compassion to Dinah, helping her clean up a bit and become more presentable for their inevitable confrontation with Chester.
And in the end, when she is feeling at her worse — abandoned, shamed, betrayed, friendless — she finds Alexandra genuinely cares about her, and is literally willing to give her the shirt off her back (or rather, the wig off her own head) to comfort her.
The film intercuts between that and Razmik sitting in his brightly lit apartment, his life and marriage not exactly destroyed but certainly irreparably damaged, and Dinah facing one of the emotionally coldest and bleakest Christmas Eve’s imaginable, and let’s us know what is truly important in our lives. It strips away all the surface distinctions that we get hung up on and let’s us see people relating to others as people, not objects to be used.
Merry Christmas indeed.
Now, some will wonder why I’m celebrating a grim & gritty / down & dirty film about low lifes instead of more upbeat / happy / zesty holiday fare ala White Christmas.
And I love White Christmas.
It’s a family favorite we
watch every year.
But the big difference between White Christmas (specifically) and other films like it is that they very rarely touch on real life.
White Christmas is a good counterpoint to Tangerine: It also deals with betrayal and trust and compassion, and like Tangerine ends up with an affirmative scene.
But it’s also a fantasy, wholly unrealistic, a lifeless product of the studio system that, while absolutely entertaining on the surface, really doesn’t carry a very deeply resonating meaning.
Yeah, it turns out Rosemary Clooney
could trust Bing Crosby after all,
But there was nothing real about their on-screen personas, nothing real about the characters they played.
They were perfect happy characters with perfect happy lives that had Some Whacky Complications but in the end everything turned out even more perfectly happier than everything that had happened before.
And that’s fine in a film that is just light entertainment; we certainly don’t need to be stretching our intellectual muscles over a movie designed to shoehorn as many Irving Berlin songs as possible into a single production.
But while the characters’ conflicts symbolized similar problems audiences might face, there is precious little in White Christmas itself that people then or now could recognize in their own lives.
It’s like a Saturday Evening Post illustration come to life: It pretends to depict reality but in actuality it’s a highly stylized interpretation of same.
Tangerine, on the other hand, may exaggerate reality by cramming so many wild incidents into a single night, but it never depicts anything, no matter how outre’, that doesn’t seem to be 100% authentic.
Which is what makes the reconciliation and forgiveness and compassion at the end so refreshing and — heaven help us — heartwarming.
It doesn’t ring of triteness,
but of real, genuine feeling.
A further word on Tangerine, this wholly unrelated to the dramatic aspect of the picture.
O’Hagan and Rodriguez preparing to shoot
a scene with photographer Radium Cheung and
writer / director / photographer Sean S. Baker (right).
[photo by Shih-Ching Tsou]
Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhone 5s Smartphones* and that should have traditional production companies and major studios defecating cinderblocks. It gets in and among its characters with astounding ease, and people familiar with the Hollywood / Highland / Santa Monica Blvd area where the film was shot will be amazed at the versatility of the production.
Seriously, you’ve got a film that looks as good as any other low budget feature, and accomplished entirely on a device you are probably already carrying in your pocket. Tangerine had a $100,000 budget, but in a big part that’s because they were filming with permits in Hollywood; I can imagine a production with less scruples and / or shot in a less media savvy area costing but a tiny fraction of that.
What in means in terms of film & media production is that there’s now literally no bar to entry except the imagination and ability of the film maker/s & casts.
* Wikipedia notes “They used the FiLMIC Pro app, a video app (to control focus, aperture and color temperature, as well as capture video clips at higher bit-rates) and an anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs (to capture widescreen). They also used Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee to capture smooth moving shots.)”
It is the lowest acceptable bar for any type or genre of movie:
If you can’t make a film at least as good as this, don’t even try.
The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s MBM. It’s a fun, fast paced, entertaining film, well made and technically flawless.
Why it stumbled is a good question, and I think there are probably several overlapping issues.
First off, while one of the things the movie does perfectly is convey about 90% of the story in purely visual terms, I don’t think many in the audience grasp that the film is supposed to be happening in the present day, specifically in an alternate timeline in which dinosaurs didn’t die out but achieved sentience and Neolithic technology.
Even supposedly scientifically literate people have failed to understand that, complaining that the movie mixes dinos and cavemen.
Well, no: The film is not set 65 million years ago (except for the brief opening gag) but Right Now.
But that leads to problem #2: The world of The Good Dinosaur looks absolutely realistic, some of the best nature effects ever put in a film, but the character design on the dinos is much too cartoony for the world they inhabit.
One may argue over 65 million years that dinos would evolve into odd forms even as they were acquiring intelligence, but they still seem more suitable for The Flintstones.
The third problem is script oriented: Pixar films traditionally are delightfully complex and multi-leveled. Kids can enjoy the basic story line / characters / gags but there’s enough depth / meat for adults. Inside Out is perhaps the most perfect example of this, but the Toy Story movies and Brave are also good examples.
But The Good Dinosaur is rather plain and simple; everything is out there in full view. Scratch these characters and you find just more of what you’ve already seen.
The plot, while working for a specific goal, is still pretty episodic and any number of sequences could be dropped / rearranged / swapped out without affecting the story in total.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing exceptionally compelling about it. To me, that’s what makes this Pixar’s MBM: It’s good enough but not really memorable.
And finally, there’s a fourth element, one that can’t be easily quantified but one I suspected worked against the film’s box office success.
Before the movie begins, there’s a short film called Sanjay’s Super Team about a little Hindu boy whose love for superheroes is at odds with his father’s desire for him to participate in the family’s faith. It gets resolved in seven short minutes, of course, with young Sanjay realizing the Hindu deities Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman are analogous to the Western superheroes he idolizes.
There are a lot of potential ticket buyers in the Bible belt who are doubtlessly taken aback by a sympathetic — and informed — view of a non-Judeo-Christian theology.
Then, in the film itself, there are several pterodactyls who literally worship a rolling storm front that they follow, preying on victims they find trapped in the wreckage the storm leaves behind.
The language and terms the pterodactyls use is very clearly evocative of evangelical rhetoric, and while one can find parallels between them and certain televangelists, I wonder if other Christians in the audience don’t perceive it as a criticism of Christianity as a whole.
This, combined with the other points mentioned above, may have kept a big segment of the early audience from recommending the film as highly as they might have.
No one factor is sufficient to sink the film on itself, of course, but together they may have served as force multipliers that worked against The Good Dinosaur.
Which is a pity, because even for the areas where they don’t hit a home run, Pixar is still batting solid doubles and triples.
 Which, frankly, would make for a helluva an interesting movie if more time had been spent on examining what that culture would be like instead of just focusing on a few isolated individuals.
 I know many Christian artists and creators who strive to do Christian superhero stories. I’m not one to say to another what shouldn’t / couldn’t be done, but for me personally I’ve always had a problem reconciling the inherent violence of superheroics with the explicit non-violence taught by Christ. But where Christianity hinges on Jesus being an actual historical person (such as the Buddha or Muhammad), Hinduism seems more open to metaphorical interpretation, and so the violent / war-like aspects of certain Hindu deities does not necessarily equate to real life militarism.
Josh Hadley interviews me for the Radiodrome podcast. We cover more than just the Sunbow Productions this time around, including Thundarr The Barbarian, Dungeons & Dragons the TV show, and even the short lived Beanie & Cecil revival.
Had a great time recently with Gina Ippolito, Ray Stakenas, and Robert Chan doing first an overview of my work leading up to G.I. Joe for Sunbow Productions and an analysis of my episode “Lights! Camera! Cobra!” This was a great experience and so much fun we didn’t realize we had run waaaaaaay over time so here it is broken into 4 parts!