Alan Mandell as Rabbi Marshak

“Be a good boy.”

A common question asked when the credits roll on a Coen brothers movie is, “That’s it?” This is because their films are often mysterious, ambiguous, and just plain confusing. I wouldn’t place them beside the masturbatory ciphers of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch, as Coen brothers movies are actually enjoyable and funny. However, this makes them all the more frustrating when they invariably yank the rug out from under us. A Serious Man is one of their most mystifying films. It begins with a short story that has no connection to the main one, and ends with several plot threads just waving in the air.

Probably the heaviest of these is the growing desire of its hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, to make some sense out of the worst two weeks of his life. With a divorce, bratty children, pushy neighbors, fender benders, student bribes, and felony charges all growling at his door, Larry is sinking in tsuris. He receives mounting advice from friends and acquaintances, alive and dead, to seek the counsel of his local rabbis. The most renowned of these is Rabbi Marshak, an ancient man who may well have the answers to Larry’s questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Unfortunately, the man is quite difficult to get a hold of. In fact, Larry never actually gets to meet Marshak. To Larry, the rabbi is but a tiny face at the end of a dark hallway, a hall he may not enter out of concern for Marshak’s thinking time.

This precious privilege goes instead to Larry’s son Danny, as a post-bar mitzvah blessing. Having suffered through the ceremony while heroically stoned, Danny finds Marshak’s chamber to be an eclectic laboratory. Inside are stacks of what could only be described as “tomes,” grave paintings of Isaac and Abraham, and biological samples suspended in jars. Then, at last, Danny takes his seat before this bearded font of wisdom, to receive the pearls we’ve waited the whole film to hear.

And they’re paraphrased lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song.

See, this is why Marshak is so great: he’s a pure example of the Coen brothers’ inimitable talent for making the profound seem absurd, and the absurd seem profound. Even after Marshak gives the emptiest blessing one can imagine, we, as an audience, can’t help but feel that we’ve experienced something soul-changing.

The plot’s buildup, Mandell’s enigmatic performance, and our own collective respect for our elders are masterfully harnessed to fashion a joke that doesn’t feel like a joke at all. Is Marshak messing with Danny? It doesn’t seem that way: the reference to Danny’s favorite band instantly connects the two. Is Marshak senile? It doesn’t seem that way: he knows who Danny is, and returns a precious MacGuffin to him. Is Marshak, maybe, not quite as wise as we’ve been led to believe? It doesn’t seem that way, either: there’s a playfulness about him, one found only in the greatest of gurus, that says he knows better.

I don’t know if any of this is what the Coens intended their viewers to feel, but all great art allows for interpretation. I believe that Marshak, and the terrific galaxy of storytelling at which he is centered, prove the Coens to be great artists after all.

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George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer

“Can’t always wear a condom, right?”

Here’s a certainty for you: George Clooney, once known as the mom’s-fantasy pediatrician on the TV series ER, will instead be remembered — unquestionably, unarguably, and immovably — as an idiot.

Thank the Coens for this, as they sought Clooney out to play no fewer than four total dopes: Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Miles Massey in Intolerable Cruelty, Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!, and Harry Pfarrer, my favorite of the four, in Burn After Reading.

Like the other idiots on his Coen resume, Pfarrer is genial, persuasive, and very concerned with his personal appearance. Unlike them, he’s obsessed with floors, philandering, and food allergies. When he’s not drawing ladies into his bed while his wife is out of town, he’s boasting about his work as a bodyguard, or constructing sex devices in his basement.

There’s no way to put a nice face on it; the man is simply weird. He might be a perfect example of a sociopath coasting by on charm and good looks.

Now, is that the sort of man who should be trusted with a big gun? Ask Brad Pitt, who also stars in this movie. As you might expect, this is no Ocean’s Eleven: the single exchange between the two men is wordless and brief. It always yanks a gasp from its audience, though, and Harry’s subsequent breakdown is both confusing and hilarious. Clooney may not be too proud of these roles (he famously proclaimed upon finishing this movie that “I’ve played my last idiot!”), but I think he should be grateful for them. Any good-lookin’ Joe can make a drama or romance; it takes a real actor to do funny. Good on ya, George, we love you and your idiocy.

Chelcie Ross as the Trapper

“She was often vexed with me. I seldom knew why.”

After Hail, Caesar! tanked, little was heard from the Coen brothers. For a frightful time, it seemed that they had slunk away forever, to join that gallery of failed directors who’d exhausted their goodwill.

Then Netflix, emboldened by the rising winds of streaming and Peak TV, put faith in the brothers once more. The result was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology that almost feels like the Coens’ revenge. It’s a six-course feast of beautiful shots and bizarre events, extreme violence and playful dialogue, crusty villains and charming cowpokes. And, like all the best Coen movies, it is a meditation on the Struggle — with a capital S — to put a make on that thing that’s always remaking itself.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a little fun.

Buster is rife with Coen-isms, some of them traditional, others esoteric. There’s florid, extensive speech that just kisses the listening ear. There are cold, oblique stabs at the Coens’ staunchest critics. There’s an errant, noisy dog who’s more trouble than he’s worth, and there’s a slow, sad nod to the success of stupid entertainment.

Then there’s the loudmouth: a hairy, ‘coon-hatted man known only as the Trapper. The story is The Mortal Remains: the final, and most mysterious of Buster‘s tales. It plays like a particularly interesting episode of The Twilight Zone. You get five individuals on a long coach trip, one of them the Trapper, who are drawn into an impassioned philosophical discussion. That’s about the size of the whole episode, but that’s all the Coens need to weave many strange and hilarious situations. Indeed, the whole blowup begins with an interminable speech from our feculent friend.

Like Mr. Mohra, the murmuring witness from Fargo, the Trapper tells his tale like a man hurling himself from a cliff, heedless of concerns like points or meaning. Yet, it’s all so very rich: just a minute of his yammering paints years of the man’s life. Through his words, you feel the loneliness, the rejection, and the disgust with mankind that grow out of a life spent in the wild. To him, human beings are really no different from ferrets. He even lifts a romantic anecdote — a period of years spent with a native woman who doesn’t understand English — as further proof of this. After all, the sounds she made during lovemaking weren’t all that different from those an animal would utter.

The other coach riders can barely contain their irritation. This trapper simply won’t shut up — until he does, and the sudden silence is as funny as the speech itself. It bothers me that Buster will never get the audience it truly deserves, as moments like this alone outshine most anything else in theaters right now. Hurry, Netflix, hurry, and get our boys back on the trail! We’d be lost in Fort Morgan without them.

Forget Love

Man, does the internet suck these days. Seems like you can’t go two clicks without running into some hideous argument about vaccinations, corrupt politicians, or Ariana Grande. Grown people everywhere, lured by the siren song of social media, have fallen prey to Early Internet Syndrome: because their words might be seen online, they immediately consider themselves to be superstars. As such, they feel compelled to establish, and defend, their identities in the way that a company does its brands.

What’s that? Keep a private journal? Shit, man, that’s for old people. Nowadays, if you’re not airing your laundry from the battlements of your Facebook stronghold, you’re just not a proper citizen, dammit. Never mind that nobody cares but the few relatives who friended you out of nervous obligation. They, too, must be crushed if they dare opine against you. Cucks! Cucks, the whole lot of ’em!

So, in these hateful times, it’s good to know that there’s a place where folks of all stripes can still gather under one banner…even if that banner bears the logo of a ubiquitous soft drink. I’m being totally serious here: if you’re tired of the childish angst that pervades the net, just do what I do, and make a search for “Pepsiman.” It’s not soda that this superhero distributes — it’s joy.

I’m normally quite vehement in my hatred of superheroes. I’ve always found this nation’s obsession with Batman to be disconcerting, and today’s Cinematic Universes to be empty, formulaic, over-budgeted cartoons. Pepsiman, however, is something else. A late-90s commercial star with silver skin, no face, and a horrifying mouth, he always came a-runnin’ to deliver refreshing cans of Pepsi to parched, sweaty Americans.

This is strange because Pepsiman was created by PepsiCo’s japanese ad department. His spots only ran in East Asia, so they came off as weird commentaries on invasive U.S. corporatism.

That’s okay, though, because as shameless spokespersons go, Pepsiman is easily the company’s most successful. Fuck Britney Spears; nobody buys into that head-tilting, eye-rolling, pop-star bullshit. But give us a klutzy delivery boy who only wants to make dumpy guys in baseball caps smile, and I’m sold. He even has an awesome theme song with a surf-rock bass-line.

Pepsiman became a minor sensation in his day, spawning merchandise that included action figures, bottle toppers, and even a (quite good) PlayStation game. No joke! Believe it or not, it’s an automatic runner that’s a precursor to Temple Run. It also has hilarious FMV that maintains the kooky, nigh-misanthropic nature of the commercials.

Now here’s the best part: even though Pepsiman is nearly twenty years old, the peculiar style of his campaign was so knowing that the meme-hungry netizens of today absolutely adore him. Remember that YouTube video I embedded a few paragraphs back? Its comments are nothing but positive. I can’t find a shred of hatred in it, not even from Coke-drinkers. There are people expressing cheer and amazement, comments of “2019,” and jokes building on jokes. But most of all, there are people celebrating their love of the one-time digestive cure that is Pepsi. It’s really quite astonishing.

Indeed, the public has embraced Pepsiman as the anti-spokesperson: a figure who, like Duffman of The Simpsons, not only raises awareness of his brand, but somehow derides it. I won’t go into what Pepsiman says about the corporation that oozed over an ocean to bring him to life; I think the commercials do that better than I ever could.

The point is that we mustn’t lose heart: cultural fixtures and icons can bring us together, but only if they avoid taking themselves so damn seriously. I’m sorry to say it, Miss Jenner, but love doesn’t really conquer all. Sometimes, in order to accomplish something, you have to work with people you hate. The best way to do that is find a shared experience that we can all laugh about. If it’s a dopey corporate symbol who pushes an inescapable, mediocre product on us, so be it. Love is hard to find, but humor is everywhere.

Top Cartoons: Aqua Teen Hunger Force – Total Recarl

While I’ve always enjoyed the dark humor of Williams Street, I feel like they kind of lost their way as time went on. Take the later seasons of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. They fell back on gimmicks, fourth-wall breakage, dick jokes, and guest voices. There’s a sense of growing frustration, or maybe boredom, about them, and it just got tiresome. The show wasn’t about the characters anymore, and it was disappointing.

The first three seasons, however, are where it’s at. In place of the cynicism of the later days, you’ll find real excitement and joy in the early Aqua Teens, and Total Recarl is one of the best.

There are really only two kinds of scripts in the the Aqua Teen toolbox:

1.) Weird creatures show up. Carl is victimized. Master Shake makes sarcastic comments. Meatwad tries to make friends with the creatures. Frylock eventually disposes of them.

2.) Frylock invents dangerous device. Carl is victimized. Shake makes sarcastic comments. Meatwad stands by in fear. Frylock eventually disposes of the invention.

This doesn’t signify a lack of imagination on the writers’ part, of course. These guys held nothing back once a plot got started. Total Recarl is particularly nuts, with characters dying in horrible bloody ways, and then coping with awful attempts at reanimation. The moment when Carl is asked to “try to take another step towards” Frylock is one of the funniest in animated history. It was the moment that cemented Aqua Teen Hunger Force as a new favorite of mine, even if the celebration wasn’t to last. Daniel says, “check it out.”

Tits and Erudition

Man, movies and TV take themselves way too seriously these days. I can’t pinpoint the timing of it, but someone pulled a switch, and turned the Idiot Box into the Auteur’s Monolith. The programming is as stupid as it’s ever been, but none of it really knows how stupid it is anymore. Think about it. The Living Dead is now The Walking Dead. Most X-treme Elimination Challenge is now American Ninja Warrior. The movie Westworld is now the series Westworld. Producers are now “show-runners.” Aquaman is now…ugh…Aquaman.

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Grr.

So it’s good that we have people like Joe Bob Briggs to bring us back to reality. To remind us that television’s purpose is to patronize, pacify, and pander to us, but so long as we remain aware of it, it’s really not so badrksven.jpg.

Briggs is the latest and greatest of the classic horror hosts, a family that began with Maila Nurmi’s Vampira (though Joe Bob has some contention about that). A comic essayist featured in newspapers and magazines, Briggs was so funny that he was eventually given a series on TMC called Drive-In Theater.

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What’s interesting is that, while most horror hosts came off as cheerful psychopaths, Joe Bob was a down-home country boy who shared bemused reactions and obscure trivia with a Roy Rogers-like folksiness. He had flair and pizzazz, but he was also dry and cynical, like a carnival barker who knows that you know he’s running a scam.

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Audiences loved him, and he kept the Drive-In going for nearly ten years before TMC decided to can him. The official story was that the channel was changing formats, but I suspect that its owners just wanted to be taken seriously as presenters of fine cinema. An intellectual in cowboy boots, showcasing cheap-o blood orgies just wasn’t in their interests anymore.

It was far from the end for Joe Bob, however. Four months after his firing, the wily Texan found a new home. The cable channel TNT needed a new host for its Friday-night horror-fest Monstervision, and Joe Bob fit the bill perfectly. He turned the show into a casual, Talk Soup-like hang-out, complete with trademark bits. He joked with his crew, who were often heard laughing, and did poorly-acted, silly skits with his guests. Such guests included stars from the very films he was showing, or else experts who provided commentary on the realism of those films. One night, he got both Rhonda Shear of Up All Night fame, and Joe Flaherty as SCTV’s Count Floyd, to hang out and ad lib with him.

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He also featured viewer mail, which was usually brought in by a sexy babe in hot pants, fresh from America’s finest correctional facilities. Joe Bob was well aware of his awful time slot, and he reveled in the fact that his prime demographic was, in fact, prisoners. He encouraged his “captive audience” to send in their prison cafeteria menus, and even provided facts about the jails that they hailed from.

His most famous bit, however, was the “Drive-In Totals,” a list of every cheap trick the upcoming film had loaded in its chambers. The list always began with a body and breast count, and always included some kind of “Fu” — a play on the Kung variety — based on the themes of the movie’s action sequences. My favorites include Senior Citizen Fu, Curling Iron Fu, and Intestine Fu. All told, MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs was campy fun, but it felt real, like Joe Bob and friends were there on the trail with us, sharing life’s downtime and poking at its absurdity.

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Then, in another effort at “format changing,” TNT cancelled him. As the channel inched away from its initial trove of Turner films, in order to schedule newer, big-budget Hollywood films, it seemed that seriousness would once again topple silliness. In 2000, Joe Bob was fired, and MonsterVision continued without a host for a few miserable months, before fizzling into oblivion.

Seventeen years passed, and horror languished into grim, predictable fare like feardotcom, Don’t Breathe, and The Conjuring 2. But now, in another miraculous 90s resurrection, Joe Bob is back, and he’s bringing the good horror with him. True to his word, Mr. Briggs has refused to let the drive-in die.

The Last Drive-In is a mini-series on the horror streaming service Shudder. Amazingly, it’s the same damn thing as before: full-length, old-school horror films interspersed with trivia and commentary, complete with Drive-In Totals and mail calls. The movies are mostly bad (The Prowler, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), or extremely niche (Legend of Boggy Creek, Daughters of Darkness), but there are some classics sprinkled in there (Hellraiser, Sleepaway Camp). God bless ’em, though: they’re all shamelessly exploitative, and that’s all that matters. We don’t come to the Drive-In to see deep, critical darlings (though there are still some fascinating ideas in these movies), we’re here to laugh at some cheeseball stinkers, and the myriad methods they employ to disgust, frighten, and appall.

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The Last Drive-In originally aired as a 24-hour live-streamed marathon, but it’s now available for subscribers to watch in separate episodes. It’s not expensive to sign up: just five bucks a month. It’s totally worth it, and you get a lot of other horror series too!

Joe Bob is, expectedly, a little fat and creaky now, but his style and good humor are unchanged. In fact, now that he has no censors to worry about, I daresay he’s livelier and funnier than ever. The old man lets the “fucks” fly, and shoots straight about the touchiest of topics. From smartphone addiction to L.A. subways to transgender rights, nothing is safe from Joe Bob. He’s as sharp and fun to watch now as he was in the 90s, and it’s a little sad when the party finally ends.

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There were some troubles with the initial stream, of course. Anyone who remembers the disastrous debuts of Diablo III, healthcare.gov, and Amazon’s Prime Day won’t be surprised to learn that The Last Drive-In suffered from lengthy server outages as a result of overwhelming demand. Most folks who tried to sit in on the marathon simply couldn’t. That’s okay, though, because despite Joe Bob’s insistence that this was his final bow, Shudder quickly recognized his value to their service, and renewed him for another go-round. Let’s hope they’ll be prepared this time. We need more stuff like this.

I’ve already given my reasons for why we need more stuff like this, but I can’t compete with the man himself. Before The Last Drive-In was recorded, Joe Bob wrote a brilliant essay explaining his success, and it tops anything I could ever put out on the subject. Daniel says, check it out.

Now, there’s something else I wanted to mention.

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The whole reason I’m even talking about Shudder is that I found an interesting tidbit of news recently. Turns out that master monster-maker Greg Nicotero, whose work can be seen in Evil Dead II, Day of the Dead, and The Walking Dead, is working to revive the classic horror film Creepshow. He’s building it as a series that will appear on none other than Shudder, hopefully in 2019. He’s quoted as saying that he wants to recover the stylish, comic-book feel of the first movie in honor of the great George Romero. Here’s hoping he pulls it off; the horror whores are watching!

Oh, and Mr. Nicotero, in case you somehow come across this goofy little blog post, I beg that you retain John Harrison for the show’s musical score. If that’s not possible, I recommend the great Franz Falckenhaus, (a.k.a. Legowelt), who specializes in lo-fi, scary synth. The music of Creepshow is critical to its effect; don’t fuck it up!

Top Cartoons: Man’s Best Friend

The Ren & Stimpy Show built its success on its disturbing scenarios and unique direction, so imagine my curiosity when I learned that Nickelodeon banned one of its episodes for “excessive violence.” I just had to see this sucker for myself.

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John Kricfalusi, who directed and co-wrote this cartoon, says it was one of the reasons that Nickelodeon fired him. Without his influence, the Ren & Stimpy Show would go on to slowly disintegrate. Is Man’s Best Friend really that bad? Even for its time (1992), I don’t believe it was.

It stars the terrifying George Liquor (American), who is voiced by the late Michael Pataki. Liquor is a ferociously conservative man ever lost in the fabled glory days of the 40s and 50s. To him, a man is no man without discipline, and when he adopts Ren and Stimpy from the local pet shop, he quickly puts them through a strenuous — and bizarre — training regimen.4073630_l3

My favorite scene is when Liquor teaches his pets to stay off of his couch. “In order to learn discipline,” he says, “you must learn to misbehave.” He frightens the poor animals by telling them that he hates it when his “lower life-forms” sit on his “non-living possessions.” Then, in the next instant, he tells them to do just that!

Confused and afraid, Ren and Stimpy cling to each other desperately, while Liquor commands them to break his rules. Meanwhile, this intense production music is pounding away in the background. I love this music, and I want it. If anyone, anyone knows what this musical theme is called, please tell me. I really want to know.

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The cartoon hits a climax when Liquor dons a ridiculously huge bite suit and orders Stimpy to attack him. Stimpy won’t comply, however, as he cannot bring himself to harm his master. Ren, on the other hand, is thrilled at this opportunity, and he proceeds to whale on Liquor with his “Prize Bludgeoning Oar.”

This is the violent scene that Nickelodeon objected to, but it’s far from uncomfortable. In fact, it’s quite cathartic to see the put-upon chihuahua take revenge on Liquor. There are a couple of graphic shots, but they’re hilariously over-the-top, and most of the beating takes place offscreen. In other words, it’s no worse than anything else the show got away with, so the banning leaves me scratching my head.

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Now, if the network had complained about the undertones of this cartoon, I’d be a little more understanding. Man’s Best Friend is, on paper, a story about child abuse. Liquor’s mixed-up lessons and harsh treatment are tantamount to psychological torture, but in animating this material, Kricfalusi manages to make it funny. Typical gags are forgone, replaced with shockingly tense and wild scenes that viewers can only respond to by laughing. I consider Man’s Best Friend a masterwork, a perfect expression of John K.’s one-of-a-kind style, made legendary by its “too hot for TV” status. He’s never topped it, but I don’t think he really needs to.