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.”

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.