Defending the E-Book Reader

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A similar controversy plays out in days of old.

After moving from Brooklyn Heights to Forest Hills—a move that was, glamorously enough, reported on in the New York Times—I found myself facing longer subway rides to Manhattan and Brooklyn. What better way to help pass this extra time, I thought, than to get an e-book reader? A fun new gadget would persuade me to read more, I reasoned, and make it more convenient to read during any subway situation, whether it be sitting, standing, or packed into a rush hour cattle car pressed against a steel-jawed hedge fund manager on one side and a Hare Krishna missionary on the other. You gotta love New York.

An e-book reader would also make buying books cheaper, cut down on the mass of my physical belongings (I have enough heavy books already) and allow me to read knowing no trees were killed because of me. What was not to like?

For me, nothing. I have been pleased in every way with my Barnes & Noble Nook (I chose it over the Kindle because I found it more attractive and I figured I might as well support a former employer). But not everyone is so enamored.

Nick Bilton, writing for the Times’ Bits blog, reported that some coffee shops and other eating or drinking establishments around the city have begun instituting no-computer policies which extend to any device that has a screen and requires electricity, including e-book readers. Bilton expressed frustration that he was immediately asked to put his Kindle away when he planned to read while having his drink.

He challenged the shop’s employee to explain what the difference to the shop was between him reading a Kindle or a physical book, and of course got no answer. As a new e-book reader owner myself, I empathized, but many of the blog’s commenters such as someone called JJJ, did not:

“I mean what kind of insecure loser gets bent out of shape because a business won’t let him play with his kindle or gameboy for five minutes? And despite being denied one more opportunity to show-off your latest gadget, was it really necessary to make an honest employee feel small for trying to enforce store policy?”

Bilton’s post was later mentioned on the Times’ City Room blog, and there, some comments, like that of a commenter named George, got downright vicious:

“And, no, a Kindle or iPad etc. is not, a never will be a real book.

A book has substance. A book has a beginning, a middle and an end. A book has context — it is it’s own reference. A reader can flip real pages back and forth, dog-ear them if he likes etc. And there’s yet to be a printed book that cannot be read because its battery just died.

I don’t care if you can carry a “library” of a thousand e-books on your Kindle — chances are you haven’t really read them — you’re just enamored with the gadget.

And that’s the biggest problem. You digi-freaks are enamored with the gadget — not with the content.”

Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple developers are readying a dog-earing app for iBooks as we speak, I doubt that would quell George’s concerns. And while most are probably not as virulent about it as George, I have heard similar anti-e-book opinions from friends, including highly literary-minded ones like Les Chappell.

I have a fundamental issue with opinions like George’s though. To say that an e-book “will never be” a real book implies that e-books have to go through a sort of trial before we know whether they will be accepted as real books. The coffeeshops in Bilton’s piece certainly seem to support that. But to me, it’s clear that a book is a book, whether it’s printed on wood pulp, read by a voice actor on a CD, or typed entirely on a Japanese cellphone. The content is what makes a book. You can’t judge whether something’s a book by its format.

If someone’s personal preference is for traditional books because they value their weight or smell or whatnot, of course that’s their right. And I understand why the e-book might be a bit more jarring to tradtionalists than the mp3 or the blu-ray, because music and movies have always required some form of machinery to experience, while books have not.

But despite that fact, I think that literature is the art form that is in fact the least likely to be substantively changed by its more high-tech form. It’s clear that mp3 downloading has deemphasized complete albums in favor of individual songs. And one could argue that the spate of deleted scenes, alternate endings and who-knows-what-else that is found on DVDs or blu-rays has changed how we experience movies.

And while I’d be reluctant to argue that any of theses changes to music or film are seriously negative, it’s hard for me to see what, if any, similar changes befall a book when it’s formatted as an e-book.

I hardly think book lovers would choose, if given the option, to download just their favorite chapters and read them over and over. And George’s suggestion that the owners of e-book readers download books just to amass the most impressive digital collection is, to me, the most ridiculous claim of all. I believe it is in fact far, far more likely that one would purchase traditional books for this purpose. Stocking a bookcase with impressive-looking, never-opened covers is a believable act of ostentation; downloading digital files onto your e-book reader where they remain essentially invisible until called up is not.

I’ve also heard it said that e-books threaten the publishing industry as a whole, and I have two thoughts on that. First, I generally believe that the public should never be forced or even urged to use older technology for the sake of preserving the economic status quo. And second, I get the feeling that, much like the battle over mp3 file sharing, the people who will really get hurt by a large scale shift to e-books are publishing corporations who fail to adapt rather than authors. The potential the e-book holds for self-publishing seems to me even greater than that of the mp3 for the musician, since literature is less dependent on marketing and whatever else publishing companies do than the music industry is.

When it comes down to it, I don’t think there is anything different going on here than when Johannes Gutenberg first put movable metal letters down on paper in 1439. As the printing press spread and books became common, governments feared they would contain revolutionary ideas and churches feared they would distort the Bible.

The issues today may be different, but the ethic, in my mind, should stay the same: Written information, in any and all of its forms, should be tolerated, uncensored, and free to be read in coffee shops. That’s my position. Others can continue the debate. But in the meantime, I’ll be over here, happily reading an e-book.                  


Written by Dan Wohl

09.09.10 at 2:13 pm

A Retrospective of ’90s Kids’ Sports Movies

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Political scientists say the American political landscape shifts on a predictable 30-year cycle. But I’ve found that the bygone decade that each decade is nostalgic for is even more predictable. The ’00s loved the ’80s. The ’90s loved the ’70s (previous post tie-in alert!). Reagan’s ’80s seemed to mostly buck this trend, but you could definitely argue that the ’70s loved the ’50s.

It’s easy to understand why this cycle happens. Two decades ago tends to be when the current tastemakers grew up. And I’m more than ready to contribute to the ’90s nostalgia that will undoubtedly be a huge deal in the ’10s. When I thought about what this meant, one type of film kept coming up in my mind: the kids’ sports movie.

The ’90s in American sports were, if not altogether hopeful times, at least ambitious, as leagues expanded to include a bevy of Sun Belt and Canadian teams that wore teal or purple or both. I’m not sure if the drive to capture more fans that produced this rapid expansion was the reason, but a whole bunch of movies came out trying to get kids excited about sports. All of them are good for serious ’90s nostalgia, but how do they rate upon viewing today? I watched eight of the best remembered ’90s movies involving kids and sports to see. In chronological order, here’s what I found.

“The Mighty Ducks” (1992) dir. Stephen Herek

"I'm sure this will be a real bonding experience. One day, maybe one of you will even write a book about it in jail."

Given the empire this movie spawned, including two sequels (more on those later), an animated series starring anthropomorphic ducks and—this is still unbelievable to me, 17 years and a Stanley Cup championship later—an actual National Hockey League franchise, it’s easy to forget how much heart the original had. I know I did.

My recollection of Emilio Estevez’s Coach Bombay, for instance, having been mostly informed by the sequels, was certainly not that of the hilariously acerbic bastard he is at the beginning. He tells his driver, trying to find the team he’s been sentenced to coach after a DUI, “Just look for the sign that says ‘Personal Hell.'”

“I’m sure this will be a real bonding experience,” he tells the kids, who have been reacting negatively to his cold demeanor. “One day, maybe one of you will even write a book about it in jail.”

The kids also seem, if not necessarily three-dimensional, realer than your standard hard-luck preteen street gang. They also routinely use the term “cake eater,” which I had to look up to learn is apparently a pejorative Minnesota term for someone rich; that being said, I polled several of my numerous Minnesotan friends on the term, and none of them professed to have ever heard of it.

Of course, the trashtalking kids from the streets of Minneapolis eventually teach him the meaning of fun, and Bombay, being the cutthroat trial lawyer that he is, teaches the kids about winning. It’s a terrific combination.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Minnesota North Stars players Basil McRae and Mike Modano show up, saying they played with Bombay when they were kids.

Quality of Sports Action: Solid, though not spectacular. At least it seems that everyone can skate. Many wide shots look good, and that’s probably because they used doubles. At one point a particularly hard slapshot breaks the net completely though, which takes the film down a few pegs on the realism scale. Also, the vaunted “Flying V” formation is, I’m sorry to say, definitely an interference-and-offsides double helping of illegality.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Charlie (Joshua Jackson), the Ducks’ captain, lives in a spacious art-filled apartment that his single mom can afford working as a waitress at Mickey’s Diner. Bombay acts as a father figure to Charlie, leading to him getting together with Charlie’s mom at the end.

“Rookie of the Year” (1993) dir. Daniel Stern

"If we don't sell out every game for the rest of the year, we're going to have to, uh, forfeit the franchise."

After a miraculous injection of talent, a 12-year-old, Henry Rowengartner, gets to play in the major leagues. What baseball-loving kid wouldn’t love that premise? I certainly did, and I recalled the film vaguely but fondly.

Boy, did my perceptions change on viewing it today. This is one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever seen, in the ’90s kids’ sports movies department or otherwise.

Even if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief that it’s possible for a tendon injury to heal so “tight” that it gives one’s elbow a slingshot-like ability to make 103-mph snap throws—believe me, I am—this film is still riddled with conflicts that have some of the most absurd stakes ever.

If the Cubs don’t sell out every game for the rest of the season, they’ll forfeit the franchise! If Henry doesn’t complete the save in his second major league game, he won’t get an endorsement deal with Pepsi! If the Cubs’ owner doesn’t find out first, the slimy GM will “sell” Henry to the Yankees for $25 million behind his back! Despite now being the only professional baseball player at his school, if Henry doesn’t successfully build a boat with his friends, he won’t get to hang out with his dream girl!

Daniel Stern, who also directed the film, plays the Cubs’ pitching coach, who never displays any indication of knowing a single thing about pitching. At one point, he takes a few hacks during batting practice, and manages to pop three balls in a row directly above him, hitting himself in the head each time. I suppose this is meant to show how hapless he is, but if I saw it in real life, I would probably assume it to be a Harlem Globetrotterian display of skill.

This sums up the film well for me: it seems like a sports film made by people who know zero about sports.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Pedro Guerrero, Bobby Bonilla, and pre-steroidal Pittsburgh-era Barry Bonds are all shown whiffing at Henry’s fastball.

Quality of Sports Action: Atrocious, even amongst the non-child actors. Gary Busey, who is supposed to be an aging star pitcher, has mechanics akin to this guy. There is also a breathtakingly illegal hidden-ball trick in which Henry: one, stands on the rubber without the ball (balk) and two, holds the rosin bag in his glove to make it look like he has the ball (probably grounds for an ejection).

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Henry’s single mom, has regaled him with stories of a supposedly great baseball-playing absentee father throughout his life. Meanwhile, her current boyfriend becomes Henry’s evil manager, colluding on the Henry-to-the-Yankees conspiracy, leading to Mom dumping him just as she starts to get together with Busey’s character. Finally, in his very last appearance for the Cubs, Henry pulls a patch off his glove to reveal his mother’s name, realizing that all along, the great baseball or softball player was HER, not his father, producing that rare plot element that is sexist, illogical, and detrimental to the film’s premise all at once.

“The Sandlot” (1993) dir. David Mickey Evans

"You bob for apples in the toilet..."

My completely non-scientific sense is that it’s this film that holds the most nostalgia for children of the ’90s of all the films on this list. I could say that’s curious since it’s the only one that doesn’t take place in the ’90s (it’s set in 1962), but the movie’s strength is in capturing the timeless essence of being a preteen on summer vacation.

It’s probably the least sports-dependent of any of these sports films. The journey of Scott Smalls as he discovers good friends and independence for the first time takes place on a baseball field, but it’s relatable in any context. Sure, some things seem stupid now, such as the way Smalls initially gains acceptance among his baseball peers—he stands in the outfield, with arm outstretched and eyes closed, while Benny magically guides the ball right into his glove—but they feel forgivable.

"...and you LIKE IT."

“The Sandlot” shares with “The Mighty Ducks” an excellent sense of the often brilliant, sometimes bizarre way that kids are liable to talk and trashtalk to each other when no adults are around. My favorite line is when a member of a rival team insults a Sandlot kid by saying, “You bob for apples in the toilet..and you like it.” As if grudgingly bobbing for apples in the toilet is a normal and expected state of affairs, but to enjoy it is the real disgrace.

The entire film feels like a hazy memory from years in the future. Witness the beautifully shot slow-motion fireworks-lit game scene, or the comically large size of the dog the kids try to rescue the Babe Ruth-signed ball from. When the dog is finally befriended at the end, he becomes smaller and realer, kind of like the rest of the world does as we grow up too.

Pro Athlete Cameos: No actual pro athletes appear, but Babe Ruth does show up in a dream sequence.

Quality of Sports Action: Truth be told, actually pretty terrible. When the ball comes off Ham’s bat in the first home run of the movie, it is quite obviously heading toward the right field side before a new shot shows it sailing over the left field fence. And everyone that swings and misses does so by about four feet. But it’s hard to be bothered by it when the baseball is so un-central to the plot.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Scotty’s mom is not quite single, but she has apparently remarried very recently to a man Scotty is struggling to connect with. Stealing his Babe Ruth-signed ball and ultimately covering it in mud and dog slobber doesn’t seem to be the way to do it, but everything works out in the end between them.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Brandon Adams, who plays Kenny DeNunez, also plays Jesse Hall in “The Mighty Ducks.” In both films, he wears some sort of headwear—a black-green-yellow-and-red knit hat in “Mighty Ducks,” and a Kansas City Monarchs cap here—emphasizing his position as one of the one or two African-American kids in the group.

“D2: The Mighty Ducks” (1994) dir. Sam Weisman

"No! It was me!"

I won’t say that this movie is everything bad the first one wasn’t, but it’s close. I actually had a lot more memories of this one since I owned it on VHS, and could quote it even to this day. For example, I established a tradition among the kids I was a counselor for at Camp Tawonga of yelling “Goldberg!” every time a fart was smelled, after which the culprit had to declare with arms raised, “No! It was me!” But does it hold up?

Well, the premise is ludicrous even for a kids’ sports movie. The idea that a coach who had a single court-ordered successful season under his belt would be chosen to coach the national team at the Junior Goodwill Games is silly. The idea that the team itself would be made up primarily of the kids from the Pee Wee team he coached, several of whom possess quite limited talent, is absurd. And the idea that this coach—again, a youth hockey coach—would be able to sign a lucrative endorsement contract (including his own signature shoe model) and become a household name is truly laughable.

All of which could be forgiven if “D2” delivered the same heart and humor that the first does, but it doesn’t. There is considerably more filler and crass humor, nowhere near as many good one-liners, and Bombay’s arc, going from good guy to vapid celeb-coach and back again, is a lot less interesting or relatable.

I did, however, find the choices of the Ducks’ international opponents to be rather fascinating. Had this film come out 10 years earlier, I think that the evil juggernaut European team would likely have been portrayed as the Soviet Union. But with the dust still settling from the dissolution of the USSR, the role is filled here by Iceland, which is not exactly a hockey powerhouse in real life. I assume the writers figured Iceland, given its name, to be a land of powerful dark sorcery concerning anything involving ice. Also, I really want an authentic jersey of the film’s inexplicable Trinidad & Tobago team.

Pro Athlete Cameos: NHL stars Chris Chelios, Cam Neely and Luc Robitaille make appearances, as does NHL GOAT Wayne Gretzky, as do, rather randomly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Greg Louganis, and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Quality of Sports Action: On par with the first for the most part, but with a few extremely cartoonish/unrealistic gags thrown in. Fulton ruptures a net in the first film; in this one, his shot produces an inches-deep indentation on a goalie’s hand. The Ducks deceive Iceland by somehow dressing Kenan Thompson’s character in goalie pads during a 30 second timeout without anyone noticing. And in the deciding shootout shot, suspense is milked incredibly cheaply by the film implying that no one is sure whether the Julie “the Cat,” the goalie, stopped the shot or not before she flips it out of her glove. Isn’t that what the goal siren is for?

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? It’s only mentioned in passing, but apparently Bombay and Charlie’s mom broke up and she married someone else.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Mike Vitar, who plays Miami speedster Luis Mendoza, also played Scotty’s mentor Benny Rodriguez in “The Sandlot,” and Natalie Portman lookalike Colombe Jacobsen, who plays Julie “the Cat,” plays Henry’s dream girl in “Rookie of the Year.”

“Little Big League” (1994) dir. Andrew Scheinman

"Lou? You can marry her even if you don't hit a homer."

I didn’t remember this film very well, but after watching it, I’m convinced it’s the cream of this eight-movie crop. It shares many similarities with “Rookie of the Year”: a prodigious kid is handed an incredible opportunity involving an MLB team (in this case, inheritance of the Minnesota Twins and subsequently naming himself as manager); he has two best friends who bemoan him spending less time with them; a hidden-ball trick figures prominently at a crucial moment; his single mother hooks up with someone on the team (although, as you might have noticed by now, that one is not exactly unusual for this type of film).

So what’s the difference? Everything. When “Rookie of the Year” is crass, “Little Big League” is remarkably restrained. This is by far the most intelligent, subdued and mature film on the list. Take, for example, the exchange that the kid owner/manager, Billy, has with his star player (who is dating Billy’s mother) before his at bat that will determine the fate of the season. The player, Lou, says he’s asked Billy’s mom to marry him, and she told him to ask Billy first. Billy tells him, rather melodramatically, that he can—if he hits a home run.

Now, this is the point when 99 out of 100 kids’ sports films would take you into the at bat, fully expecting you to experience the suspense of both the team’s fortunes and Lou’s future married life hanging in the balance. Maybe he’d hit the home run and everything turns out perfectly. Maybe he wouldn’t, and Billy would then sappily tell him that he can marry his mom anyway, because, “I know you’ll always hit a home run for her” or something.

But in this movie, Billy calls out to Lou a second after his first statement, seeming embarrassed for thinking to set up such a scenario, and says, “Lou? You can marry her even if you don’t hit a homer.” Some might think this anticlimactic, but I thought it was a wonderfully organic-feeling exchange to be plopped in the midst of such a crazy situation.

This quality is what I love about the film as a whole. It extends to the entire premise. The concept behind “Rookie of the Year” is effective wish fulfillment, but it isn’t possible without a totally hackneyed medical-marvel plot device. The circumstances which lead Billy to own and manage the Twins are unlikely to say the least, but after accepting them, I honestly find his success almost fully believable. Who hasn’t known a 12-year-old kid who displays a joyfully obsessive devotion to baseball stats, strategy and history? I knew one in particular very well. Maybe that’s one reason this film resonated with me as much as it did.

Pro Athlete Cameos: A whole slew of actual MLB players of the time portray themselves, including Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, and in the climactic final game, Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr.

Quality of Sports Action: In another opposite from “Rookie of the Year,” the baseball action in this film is exceptionally realistic. The director seems to know it and shows this off with a ton of slow motion action shots. And the hidden-ball trick in this one is legal and in fact based on an actual play from the 1982 College World Series known as “the Grand Illusion,” which is surely one of the greater baseball moments to be named after a Jean Renoir film.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? I basically already covered this, but I will add that Lou and Billy’s mom clearly have known each other for some time before the events of the movie take place, making their romance rather less cringeworthy than those in some of these other films.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: John Beasley, who plays a fieldside security guard who’s complicit in the hidden ball trick, also plays Jesse’s dad in “The Mighty Ducks,” and Brock Pierce, who plays a stickball-playing kid here, plays young Bombay in “The Mighty Ducks” as well.

“Little Giants” (1994) dir. Duwayne Dunham

"I call it...The Annexation of Puerto Rico."

This movie might not be quite as bad as “Rookie of the Year,” but it’s definitely more crass than any film on the list. I’m not sure if five minutes goes by in this film without someone falling over, passing gas or getting hit in the testicles. Yes, “The Mighty Ducks” has a character whose flatulence is an occasional source of humor, but “Little Giants” has one whose farts are actually used as an in-game offensive weapon.

The primary kid protagonist in this film is a girl, Becky “Icebox” O’Shea, which it might deserve a bit of credit for, if her character arc wasn’t played out as dumbly as it is.

Figuring that Junior, the Devon Sawa-played quarterback she has a crush on, will want to date “a girl, not a teammate,” this tomboy succumbs to a sudden attack of femininity and decides to become a cheerleader rather than a player…literally on the day of the climactic game, and without telling any of her teammates first.

Even when a rare moment of genuine sweetness sneaks in, like when the team carries the smallest member of the team on their shoulders after he does something good in practice, the film still can’t resist the call of the slapstick: they drop him.

There is one element of this film that I found interesting though, which is the character of Nubie, the team’s nerdy play-designing mastermind. With his large glasses, sideswept straight blonde hair and everpresent button-down shirt and tie, the filmmakers probably figured he was the epitome of archetypal dweebiness, but in fact, he ends up looking exactly like Andy Warhol. Also, I find the name he gives to the gamechanging secret play—”The Annexation of Puerto Rico”—to be the funniest thing in the entire film. I’m not quite sure why. But I’d definitely like to hear what was going through Nubie’s mind when he deemed it as such.

Pro Athlete Cameos: NFL players Tim Brown, Steve Emtman, Bruce Smith and Emmitt Smith, along with coach/broadcaster/Outback Steakhouse pitchman John Madden, show up for one reason or another to inspire the kids.

Quality of Sports Action: Could be worse I suppose, although the relentless sight gags (a barrelled-over defender leaving a full-body imprint in the turf, a receiver whose hands are glued onto his jersey by stickum, etc.) erase any chance of it seeming realistic.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Icebox’s single dad, played by Rick Moranis, apparently hits a raw nerve when he calls her “my little fullback.” Icebox remembers how her mother called her “my little princess” which is part of what ignites her half-day-long girly-girl phase. In the end, it’s left unsaid whether re-tomboyified Icebox and Junior get together, but Icebox’s dad and Junior’s mom, painfully, do.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Actually, this is the only movie of these eight that does not share at least one actor with another film on the list.

“The Big Green” (1995) dir. Holly Goldberg Sloan

"There's not much to do in Elma."

I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that this film was greenlit during the 1994 World Cup, the excitement of which also led to the founding of Major League Soccer in 1996. I found it interesting that the movie does not, however, take place in the middle-class suburban setting that came to be associated with soccer in the ’90s. It actually takes place in a tiny dying rural Texas town, which is definitely a more daring choice.

In the first scene of the movie, some of the kids who later become part of the Big Green are shown dumping a bag of cheese puffs onto themselves and waiting for the circling birds to eat them off their bodies. “There’s not much to do in Elma,” they say, and it at first seems that these are the type of futureless screw-ups who will grow up to operate meth labs in their garages.

Luckily, a teacher from England arrives and teaches them about soccer, which the kids have barely ever heard of at first. What follows is mostly a paint-by-numbers rehash of the triumphant-underdog plot. But the way that soccer gives some purpose to the kids’ lives, and especially, their genuinely loving appreciation toward their teacher because of it, is very sweet.

Despite what the unfortunate poster—which features more goats than girls—suggests, this film is also the most gender-equal on the list. And perhaps most interestingly and unexpectedly, it dips a toe into the illegal immigration debate. The Big Green’s best player, Juan, is an American-born citizen, but his mother is undocumented. The cutthroat coach of the team’s ultimate rival tries to get her deported, but the plan fails, the family gets to stay together, the Big Green win, and Juan and the main girl, Kate, maintain their cute flirtation. (See Icebox? Sometimes guys do want to date a teammate.)

Pro Athlete Cameos: I was totally ready for a cameo from some American from the ’94 Cup such as former free-spirit wild man and current unfailingly negative ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, but none materialized.

Quality of Sports Action: I got the feeling watching this movie that soccer is probably the easiest kids’ sports film to make look good on film. It’s clear that, aside from Juan, none of the characters (or the actors who play them) are very good, but the simplicity of basic soccer ensures that nothing looks too bad.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Kate’s single father is an alcoholic deadbeat who doesn’t care about her soccer exploits at first, but they ultimately bond over it. Although the setup is sad, it was kind of refreshing to see his character find redemption by reconnecting with his daughter rather than getting a girlfriend. Unfortunately there is a gratuitous relationship between the teacher and the town sheriff, though.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Big Green players Chauncey Leopardi and Patrick Renna are also “Sandlot” kids, having played Squints and Ham respectively. And another teammate, Billy L. Sullivan, plays one of Billy’s friends in “Little Big League.”

“D3: The Mighty Ducks” (1996) dir. Robert Lieberman

"It's only a letter, Charlie. Here. I have hundreds of them."

One year, they defeat the world. The next year…they struggle to usurp the varsity team at the private school they’ve become the JV team for. It’s a bit of a step down for the Ducks, but least the scope of the conflict is a bit more believable this time around.

The feel of this film reminded me of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” and not just because of the academic setting. Loyalties are tested. A mentor character dies. Romantic relationships become important. A mysterious forbidden prophecy is finally revealed. (Okay, maybe not that one.) In short, this is the Ducks’ growing up moment.

On the one hand, there is a bit of potential in this idea. I was struck by one scene in Charlie (who goes through a similar phase as Bombay did in “D2,” forgetting the game is supposed to be fun) bemoans the team’s new coach stripping him of the C he gets to wear on his jersey for being the Ducks’ captain. Hans, the team’s elderly and soon-to-die equipment supplier/mentor, tells Charlie that if he wants a cloth applique C, he has hundreds—and we, and Charlie, understand the point that being a leader is not about titles or honorifics.

But on the other hand, this film doesn’t have the same sense of fun of the original or even, despite its flaws, “D2.” It has to resort to “Rookie of the Year”-esque conflicts such as the threat of the team’s scholarships being revoked in the midst of their first season just because they aren’t playing well. In a sense I’m glad that this movie exists just to prove that stories of kids’ sports don’t have to end with puberty, but unfortunately it also proves that even strong concepts usually get stretched way too thin by the second sequel.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Paul Kariya, who was the captain of the NHL’s Mighty Ducks at the time, is interviewed for some reason by the school’s hockey announcer.

Quality of Sports Action: On par with the other two, and at least Julie “the Cat” finally takes over from the obviously inferior Goldberg in goal. Goldberg is converted to a defenseman, and in a nice touch, scores the climactic goal of the film in a last-second-of-the-game sequence in which time moves slower than the third dream level in “Inception.”

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? We assume that Charlie’s mom is still married, although at one point she’s seen talking with Bombay (who is barely in the film, by the way) so who’s to say whether something’s been rekindled there?

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Scott Whyte, who plays the Icelandic team’s best player in “D2,” also plays a snobbish varsity player here.

So there you have it—my survey of ’90s kids’ sports movies. I said at the beginning that ’90s nostalgia is going to be huge in this decade, and I think it’s true not just because of the two-decade-rule I mentioned before. As we mercifully exit the decade from hell that was the ’00s and beseech the gods to let the next one be better, I imagine there will be great interest in a time when everyone first learned about the Internet, the Twin Towers still stood and the government produced a budget surplus. For whatever reason, I think these films capture those times pretty well. So I hope we keep watching them, to remember that even kids that at first have mud on their faces, are big disgraces and have their cans kicked all over the place(s), can still end up as champions—even if it takes a few fart jokes to get there.

Fascinating Art, Unobjectionable Fare, Lazy Garbage and Artistic Terrorism: A Sampling

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Biz Markie, whose song "Alone Again" was the subject of the lawsuit that fundamentally altered the direction of hip hop.

I remember very well the first time I became aware of sampling in music. “Wild Wild West” had just come out, and I had the CD with Will Smith’s tie-in song. I put it on and my dad said it sounded exactly like “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder. He was right. I Googled it (actually, in those days, I probably Alta Vista’d or Excite’d it) and discovered the truth. The reason the two songs sounded so alike was that “Wild Wild West” sampled “I Wish”; meaning the producers of the former paid the copyright holders of the latter to, basically, rip it off.

And so began my long and fraught relationship with this now-pervasive element of popular music composition. My gut reaction to a song that bluntly samples an older song is intense. I hurt. I feel physically ill. I am dumbfounded by its audacity. And I can’t believe we let them get away with it.

When I say that I can’t believe musical artists get away with it, I mean it in an artistic sense, not a legal sense. Working at ASCAP, I’m well aware that there is an established legal framework for sampling that most producers who do it follow. But it wasn’t always this way. One of the reasons sampling arose in the hip hop scene of the late ’70s was precisely because hip hop began in an environment that didn’t worry at all about copyright issues. Until the Sugarhill Gang set hip hop slowly but surely down the path of commercialization and world domination, the genre was nowhere to be found on records, but exclusive to parties in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. You had to be there to experience it. Recording hip hop tracks was barely a thought then, because, perhaps uniquely among pop music styles, hip hop music evolved out of something that wasn’t really definable as “music” at all; namely, rapping with existing music happening to play in the background.

Raymond "Gilbert" O'Sullivan, whose song "Alone Again (Naturally)" was sampled in Biz's song.

It was only when DJs began to get more creative with the backing tracks they spinned for MCs, scratching, looping, blending songs together, that hip hop began to establish itself as its own musical style. As hip hop records started to be made and gain mainstream popularity throughout the ’80s, copyright issues continued to be ignored (since there was no law on the books covering sampling yet) which allowed DJs to get ever more creative. Late ’80s and early ’90s hip hop, led by producers like Public Enemy’s The Bomb Squad, featured some dizzyingly complex multimedia tornadoes that could sample dozens of songs (or films, comedy routines, news broadcasts, etc.) and, in my opinion, did not give any sense of anything being ripped off, had plenty of artistic merit on their own, and had little in common with the kind of sampling that later became the norm.

What changed?

To make a long story short, copyright law caught up with what was going on, and the legal verdict was not favorable to samplers. In a landmark case concerning a Biz Markie song that sampled a Gilbert O’Sullivan one, a federal court in New York’s ruling set a precedent establishing that any unlicensed sampling could be considered copyright infringement. The case had a seismic effect on hip hop production. Now that producers were facing the prospect of paying royalties to everyone they sampled—not to mention the time-consuming process of securing licenses from all of them—most producers figured songs built on complex layers of many samples were just not worth the time, effort or money.

Some producers didn’t stop sampling, though; they just refocused their efforts onto much fewer samples at a time, making the sampling songs sound much more like the sampled ones. And although this type of song did exist before, this is what led us to the current preponderance of lazy, detestable songs like the ones I highlighted earlier.

So, my gut reaction is to say I hate sampling because of the examples that insult my intelligence as a music consumer, expecting me to either be unfamiliar with, or indifferent toward the repurposing of, classics like “I Wish” or “Tainted Love,” or (for God’s sake!) “Eleanor Rigby.” I shouldn’t emphasize the classic nature of some sampled songs though; I might argue that it’s even worse to heavily sample a more unknown track and hoodwink the listener into thinking it’s original.

But, I can’t condemn all of today’s sampling as bad, because I have to admit I find some of it acceptable to me as a listener and even quite interesting sometimes. Truly fascinating, in the case of “plunderphonics” groups like The Avalanches, who brave the legal briar patch to construct albums made of literally thousands of obscure samples. (Check out this video for a rundown of some of the samples used in that song.) Melora Creager included a chilling vocal sample from a Nazi-era German opera recording in one of the songs I praised in my recent post about Rasputina, “Hunter’s Kiss,” a fact that I finally learned (after wondering for a long time) by asking her about it on FanBridge. And some mainstream rap songs that use only one sample, like, say, this one, I listen to and have no problem with.

I’ve thought long and hard about why some sampling doesn’t bother me and some makes me want to chop my ears off, and I have come up with what I think is a reasonably effective two-pronged test for what, for me, constitutes “acceptable” sampling. Compare “Hate It or Love It” with the sampled song. Listening to the two, you can tell their connection, but it isn’t particularly obvious. Cool & Dre, the production team who created “Hate It or Love It,” clearly didn’t just hear “Rubber Band” and decide they wanted to ape the melody wholesale. They found one section of the song, probably only about 5 seconds long, and carved another hook out of it. But at the same time, it’s obvious it’s a sample; they aren’t trying to pass it off as completely their creation, either.

In my mind, then, this song satisfied the two criteria I think need to be present for sampling to seem acceptable to me. It A, acknowledges that it is a sample, preserving the murky fidelity of the original and using a clear “looped” structure; and B, does something with the sample more than just xeroxing the riff altogether. There are songs that do A but not B, and there are also songs that manage to do B but not A, making it sound as if the rhythm did not come from another song, usually by dint of what’s called an interpolation (which means the original copyright holders are paid for the rights to the song, but the sampling artist doesn’t actually use the master recording; they just play it over however they want it).

After that, though, there are songs that might satisfy both conditions that I still can’t be okay with. I am always disturbed by songs in which the singer/rapper interacts with the vocal element of the sampled song. I highly doubt that when Michael Karoli of Can—who has, by the way, been dead for years—sung the phrase “drunky hot bowls” he felt fine with the idea that years later Kanye West would condition you to hear him say “drunk and hot girls” instead. That makes me feel very weird, and reminds me of something else I am deeply troubled by: commercials featuring dead celebrities through the digital manipulation of old footage.

Along those lines, there is one condition that will make any sampling automatically horrendous in my mind: Any song that insults the sampled song or artist. There are famous examples; that one is insulting, as far as I’m concerned, just because I consider it an act of artistic terrorism to push peoples’ associations with something like “Annie” to be even a little bit closer to the line “If you with me mama rub on ya’ tits.” And there are other examples that literally make fun of the original artist. “Whatever she said, then I’m that.” To me that sounds like, “Whatever she said, hahaha! Can you believe this dumb woman who I am making money off of sings in a language I don’t know?” Also, if you make it to the end of the video, you can see that Erick babblingly imitates/mocks the Hindi vocals. Predictably, the joke is on Erick: The line, which was taken from here, translates as, “If someone wants to commit suicide, what can you do?”

What I can do is try to avoid this stuff. Hopefully someday, that will be easier to do than it is now.

I’m Saying That There’s Nobody Meaner (Than The Not-That-Old Lady From Rasputina)

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Rasputina frontwoman Melora Creager, circa 1996.

Most reviews I’ve read of Rasputina albums, such as this rather unexpected piece in the Wall Street Journal, seem to focus on the band’s pillaging of obscure history for song subjects. The standard angle on Rasputina is that they are a less cheerful, less guitar-driven, less male version of They Might Be Giants. And although that statement might be sort of true, I think Rasputina means a lot more than that.

Anyone familiar with my former radio show knows that I’m a big fan of what you might call “dark” music. The truly evil stuff frightens me some of the time and makes me laugh most of the time, but isn’t really my bag; I’m more of an Addams Family/Haunted Mansion person when it comes to what kind of “dark” aesthetic I love. But it doesn’t mean I want it to be a complete joke. Rasputina are among my favorite bands ever: they can be incredibly creepy but also hilarious, often simultaneously, and they have an exceedingly unusual sound for a rock band to boot.

What I’m referring to is the fact that there isn’t a guitar or bass to be found on any Rasputina recording; their primary instrument is the cello. I also want to note that much like Nine Inch Nails or the Streets, calling Rasputina a “band” or using the pronoun “they” when referring to it is basically a formality; the only constant member is former Ultra Vivid Scene member and Nirvana touring cellist Melora Creager, who is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the musical geniuses of the ’00s.

Melora/Rasputina’s new album, Sister Kinderhook, which was recorded with new bandmates Daniel DeJesus (second cello) and Catie D’Amica (drums), came out a few weeks ago. You can listen to the first single, “Holocaust of Giants,” here. Melora seems to have come to that inevitable point in every pop musician’s life when, like a salmon swimming upstream to its birthplace, they feel the urge to “return to their roots.” This is definitely the most uncomplicated Rasputina recording since their 1996 debut Thanks for the Ether. There is little novelty on this crisp, streamlined album beyond cellos playing rock music, which, let’s face it, has been pretty novel the whole time.

Rasputina’s use of the cello is in no way a gimmick. Using it as their (almost) exclusive melody instrument gives their music an anachronistic quality that does more to establish a gothic, steampunkish feel than most lyrics could. I know of no other band who have corralled this grand instrument as affectingly as they have into the framework of rock. (There is one possible exception, but their non-Metallica cover material is lackluster in my opinion.)

I don’t mean to say that I disregard Melora’s lyrics or singing as unimportant. I think “Holocaust of Giants” is a perfect example of her talent in those areas. When she sings, “The Bible speaks of this / There were giants in our midst / But they slaughtered one another in a meaningless war, / Thank your lucky stars that we don’t do that anymore,” she proves in one four-bar sequence to be incredibly adept at writing complex verse structure, tailoring her vibrato voice to fit her music, and, indeed, her aforementioned penchant for obscure history.

Rasputina's current lineup (L to R): Melora Creager, Daniel DeJesus and Catie D'Amica.

Most gothic or otherwise dark and creepy pop cultural movements are significantly informed by one historical era or another. On the surface, “Goth convention” and “Victorian cosplayers meetup” have often been basically synonyms. And even the Misfits and other horror punk bands were obsessed with a specific historical aesthetic, namely horror films from the ’50s and earlier. Why is this? The conventional wisdom would be that these scenes are primarily a form of romanticism, a depressing wistfulness for a mythical past that never existed.

I think the explanation is simpler than that. I think the essence of Gothic culture is in understanding, accepting, and in some cases celebrating, the grim realities of humanity. In this context, human history is not something to be either outrun or returned to; it is simply the most detailed story of the unchanging facts of human nature. For someone who follows this philosophy, history doesn’t inform art; it is art.

In this way, the mere trappings of a historical period are enough to set a song down the path of effective scary goodness. So, while I’m a big fan of historical minutiae myself, I actually think some of Rasputina’s most compelling songs are those that don’t obsess over it. Take two songs from my favorite Rasputina album, 2002’s Cabin Fever!, which was a brief foray into electronica-inspired production.

First, “Thimble Island,” which, like “Holocaust of Giants,” is a great example of Melora’s lyrical dexterity: “I’ve not heard of girls returning / It is a murky mystery place / I may not have had much book learning / But I’ve got charms to win the race.” Again, the intensity of mood and setting that comes across in this very short excerpt is, to me, astounding. By using phrases like “I’ve not” and referencing “book learning” she establishes an old fashioned feeling, and throughout the song, the subtle hints that Thimble Island may be a good deal more sinister than the singer believes are everywhere.

The last Rasputina song I want to mention is from the same album; it’s called “Hunter’s Kiss” and it’s just about the creepiest song I have ever heard. It’s true that a deer being shot is not the least disturbing subject matter imaginable. But the way Melora turns the event into profoundly demented psychosexual soap opera is impressive. It proves that real-life horrors can be just as twisted and unsettling as supernatural ones, and that an extra-dry sense of humor might be the best way of exposing this fact.

In this interview, Melora says that “fame is not a good thing; it’s bad for people. So maybe I haven’t wanted it too much.” I think that had Rasputina been just a tad more accessible during their formative years, they could have been pretty big. As this fascinating Billboard article (on the bottom left of the page) from 1998 proves, early in their career Columbia Records agreed. Rasputina went on tour with Marilyn Manson in an attempt to make them into the next Goth superstars, and even a slick MTV-ified music video was produced. Personally I would have loved to have seen them get more recognition, but it’s clear that Melora is content with Rasputina’s trajectory from major label prospect to self-published indie darling. She knows the music is the most important thing. And for me at least, Rasputina’s music will be important for a very long time.

Written by Dan Wohl

07.12.10 at 11:18 am

Why Do We Like Watching Terrible Movies (Even When NOT Trapped on the Satellite of Love)?

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From the $3.99 bin.

Most cinephiles I know like to watch bad movies. At least, they think they like to.

The $3.99 supermarket movie bin never fails to be oddly alluring. I speak from experience. My good friend and former roommate once acquired a VHS with a flimsy holographic cover called King Cobra at a Cub Foods in Minnesota. The cover promised “30 FEET OF PURE TERROR.” The back cover informed us that the man-eating beast of the title had a hilariously benign proper name: Seth. For months, possibly years, it laid near our TV, unwatched, but not forgotten.

We toasted King Cobra at parties. We practically sung paeans to it. We looked ever forward to finally watching it, but we put it off until about a week before we left and moved to New York. We had sold many of our possessions, said our goodbyes, and finally realized the time had come. We sat down, popped the tape in, and finally experienced King Cobra.

Guess what? It was not very good. There were definitely moments of incredible, breathtaking cheesiness. But was it really worth 90 minutes of my life? Maybe…but probably not.

The compulsion to not only accept but revel in the worst examples of a given art form is more or less specific to film people. It’s true that the Museum of Bad Art exists, but I am sure that music lovers, for instance, don’t derive the same kind of pleasure from, say, “Freaxxx” by Brokencyde as film lovers do from Plan 9 From Outer Space.

If Grindhouse, the Found Footage Festival and the fact that Armageddon is included in the Criterion Collection tell us anything, it’s that filmmakers and film scholars have a respect not just for the great films but for everything else too. Anyone can write a terrible short story, but the complexity of the filmmaking process makes every movie a small miracle.

I suspect this is why people watch bad movies. It’s astounding to witness the basic elements of film production—the use of expensive cameras, the consumption of precious film stock or digital memory, the recitation of lines from a screenplay someone wrote, special effects of any kind—in the employ of something so unworthy. I think there’s a sense that the work it takes to make a film at all is deserving of respect, and when a filmmaker squanders that work in a spectacular way, something entertaining (if not a little sad) comes about.

That’s my main problem with watching the supermarket bin film, or the Salvation Army-bought VHS, or the made-for-Syfy film of the week: At a certain point it stops being funny and starts feeling sort of depressing. That’s where Mystery Science Theater 3000, the sublime show about a man and his robot friends being forced to watch (and make fun of) terrible movies, comes in.

I won’t spend time talking about how funny it is—that’s already been done by everyone from Steven Spielberg to Neil Young. What I think is really significant about the show is how it makes watching bad movies not just fun but comfortable. Once the comical novelty of watching a bad movie (alone) wears off, you’re left with…well, watching a bad movie. But watching it with the company of Joel (or Mike if you must) and his robot friends puts everything in what I find to be an unexpected and pleasant context: where the films’ badness, ironically, is not the point as much as how we’re allowed to wallow in a cinematic arena we usually can’t stand spending much time in.

The theme music that opens MST3K included a line that I always found a bit odd:

If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes

And other science facts

Then repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show,

I should really just relax.”

It may have never been revealed how Joel or Mike ate or breathed, but to say the show didn’t care about its internal mythology would not be right. The living quarters of several characters are shown. Tom Servo being carried into the theater is explained by the fact that an air vent at its entrance that disrupts his hovering mechanism. Their ship travels through time and to the end of the universe on occasion.

Just like the B-movies it gleefully skewers, MST3K is a low-budget story that still cares about being a story. That kind of earnestness is at the heart of why Ed Wood is remembered, MST3K is so appealing, and the supermarket DVD bin remains so strangely tempting.

Written by Dan Wohl

06.26.10 at 12:52 am

Hyperreality, the Impossibility Gap, and the Film-Theme Park Axis

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Pottermanaics make Universal look like the final match of the Quidditch World Cup at the Wizarding World's opening day.

One of the only dreams I still remember years and years after I had it involved me being on a theme park ride. I was in some sort of boat floating on black water in a tunnel with a forest scene painted on the side. I don’t remember if I jumped out voluntarily or if I was somehow bumped out, but I ended up with my face pressed against this fake wall…where I saw that the forest scene was actually painted with unimaginable detail and realism. I felt like I could fall right through it. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

I’ve always been fascinated by theme parks, though I hardly think I’m unique in this respect. What I think is great about that childhood dream I had is how it reminds me of the one-paragraph short story by Jorge Luis Borges about a map so giant and real that it blended into reality. On Exactitude in Science is often mentioned as part of the definition of the concept of hyperreality, and hyperrealist philosophers have always singled out theme parks as prime examples of the idea: that in a media-soaked age like our own, the fake can seem as real, or realer, than reality.

I’ve been thinking about this (and my dream) recently because of the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando. There is Ollivander’s Wand Shop. There is Hagrid’s hut. There is butterbeer (though despite rumors, there is apparently be no alcoholic variant). There are plentiful and exorbitant opportunities to purchase merchandise. On the website, Daniel Radcliffe says the Wizarding World fulfills the wish that the Harry Potter universe “could be real, and [parkgoers] could be a part of it.” Emma Watson says it’s the result of kids saying “I wish Hogwarts could be real, I want to go myself.”

Well, I do want to go myself. But does going to a chunk of Universal Orlando themed like it count? I guess it’s obvious that the answer is, marketing aside, no. But then why am I still so excited to go there?

No theme park attraction can possibly live up to the standard pitch of “stepping into the world” of a movie. But theme parks keep building them, and people (myself included) keep being, depending on how you look at it, enthralled by them, suckered by them, or both.

I’d like to believe that in the Wizarding World I could do more than ride rides, buy stuff, and look at the elaborate façade they’ve constructed. I wish I could hop a fence and discover the gritty parts of Hogsmeade that aren’t meant for tourists, instead of support buildings and a visit from security. But I’ve found that being in a place that even allows me to imagine such a thing has surprising power. That’s why when theme parks add even a drop of unexpected reality, it can be startling. Did you know, for instance, that the very Seussian palm trees at Universal’s Seuss Landing are real living plants (curved by Hurricane Andrew and then uprooted and replanted)? Or that tucked into an unassuming corner of Disney World’s Main Street USA lies an operational period-appropriate barbershop?

Theme parks are hyperrealist capitals because they promise something impossible yet deliver something that seems slightly less than impossible. That impossibility gap is everything. When we walk through the eminently fake streets of Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World, we’re in Borges’ map. We let the fake become realer than the real.

What’s interesting is how theme parks seem to know that there is no stronger medium to tie this myth into than film. This is evident nowhere more than at Walt Disney World, where the powers that be have been busy converting almost every stand-alone ride they have into something related to a film, even when it’s quite awkward. The Enchanted Tiki Room is now “run” by Iago from Aladdin and Zazu from The Lion King. The uncharacteristically terrifying Alien Encounter, which simulated a ferocious extraterrestrial spitting blood at you and breathing on the back of your neck, now uses the same mechanisms for a benign show involving Stitch. The river ride in Epcot’s Mexico, which used to be comprised simply of videos of Mexican life, now involves the Three Caballeros being animated on top of the same video in a manner not unlike a rap song that samples an older track.

Even when the film in question is one that is guaranteed to have been seen by virtually no children—such as the racist Song of the South—Disney still has enough faith in the magic of film to base a ride, in this case Splash Mountain, on (the non-racist parts of) it.

It all makes me wonder whether our love of films will one day lead to a virtual reality where we truly do not need to accept the fakeness of theme parks. An artificial world so complex and interactive that I actually could jump over my semi-proverbial Hogsmeade fence. In short, a holodeck. If you ask me, it’s going to be this, and certainly not any ridiculous fad like 3D, that will be the next revolution in cinematic entertainment.

An immersive, photorealistic world, imbued with cinematic depth, that adapts automatically to how the user interacts with it: It would stretch the impossibility gap to a breaking point and make hyperreality indistinguishable from reality in every way except for its fantasticalness. We are a long, long way from that point. But if theme parks let us feel that way for even a moment, then I’m all for them.

Written by Dan Wohl

06.24.10 at 12:05 am

Tim Burton: Spuriouser and Spuriouser

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I do not like you, sir.

Back around the period in which I was Marilyn Manson for three consecutive Halloweens, I used to dream about a dark, weird film version of Alice in Wonderland. I pictured a gray-tinged poster with a vacantly-staring Alice and a real-looking flamingo riffing on this illustration in the Lewis Carroll book. I foresaw a trailer that built to a climax before the soundtrack went silent, a quick zoom went to a closeup of an evil-version-of-Cate-Blanchett-in-Elizabeth-like Queen of Hearts and she growled, “off with her head!” I imagined a film that would retain the genius of Carroll’s world while injecting the character depth and robust plot his stories lacked.

But that’s not what I got. Instead I got Tim Burton’s cinematic brain aneurysm called Alice in Wonderland.

The plot that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton came up with leads Alice to defeat the Jabberwocky, which is all well and good and reminiscent of the climax of the computer game American McGee’s Alice, one of the biggest “twisted Wonderland” influences on my adolescent mind. But things unraveled for me quickly once we learned exactly why Burton’s Alice has to slay the Jabberwock. Apparently, a scroll (don’t ask where it came from) foretells that Alice will do so on a day called… “The Frabjous Day.”

Clearly you’re meant to pat yourself on the back in you recognize the phrase from the Carroll poem:

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

The brilliance of the poem Jabberwocky is the way it proves that because of taken-for-granted linguistic norms, even nonsense words can make perfect sense. Burton and Woolverton don’t get it. The father’s happy exclamation—O frabjous day!— works only in context. If you take it out of its place to somewhere where you aren’t already expecting words like “fabulous” or “joyous,” it’s rendered meaningless, and that’s exactly the point.

It’s a minor point, but I think it’s a perfect representation of Burton’s massive failure in this film, and I’d say, most of his career. Transforming a context-reliant whimsical phrase into a solemn proper noun is exactly the sort of style-above-substance-at-all-costs move that Burton has displayed for a long time. And the worst part is, his style choices seem to be getting worse and worse.

Take the characters in the Alice in Wonderland. Calling them one-note would, for some of them, overstate by one how many notes they’re given. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen does nothing the entire film. I might have completely forgotten Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts except for how revolting his real-head-digital-body pastiche was.  And I’m not sure if I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing a film character as lacking in humanity as Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter.

Look at him. He looks like a combination of Madonna and Tim Curry in It wearing the Joker’s suit and the Cat in the Hat’s tie. And what do we know of his character? He confirms that he’s a hatter. It seems fair to say he’s mad. For some reason his accent jumps from one end of Great Britain to the other and back. And…what else? He isn’t a film character; he’s a piece of expressionist art.

Take a look, if you will, at the first minute or so of the video for Avril Lavigne’s tie-in song, “Alice,” directed by Dave Meyers. It might not be a masterpiece, but I think Meyers has exactly the right idea where Burton doesn’t: A live action remake/sequel to Disney’s original Alice in Wonderland should be more, probably much more, unsettlingly real than a cartoon from the ’50s, not less. Especially when its director accepts the mantle of Hollywood’s go-to “goth” director.

Allow me to make a bold statement: I think Tim Burton is the worst thing to happen to goth culture. Ever. No one is more responsible for its Hot Topicization. In its classic form, goth ideology was about romanticism, artistic intellectualism, and an awareness of the earthly, supernatural and existential horrors humanity finds itself facing. Burton’s work hasn’t seriously explored any of this since what I’d say are his two best films, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. Since then, he’s had one success (Sweeney Todd) and a slew of high-profile adaptations that were either disappointing (Sleepy Hollow) or catastrophic (Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland).

Burton’s rule of making only adaptations of previous work is the reason that I think he’s a corrosive cultural force rather than merely a poor director. Because of his role as THE goth director, he gobbles up most of the remake projects flagged as waiting for a dark, twisted spin, and they end up instead with Burton’s immature drivel when other directors might have done something legitimately interesting with them.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, aside from Alice, the other perfect example for me. Everyone knows the 1971 original has its tremendously disturbing moments. It’s safe to say that the horrifying boat ride scene is the only G-rated movie sequence to inspire a Marilyn Manson video. Many would argue that a remake was unnecessary, but an entire film more in the vein of the boat ride did seem appealing. But Burton’s 2005 version somehow delivered considerably less dark weirdness, or substance at all; it delivered Charlie living in a house designed by Dr. Seuss and a Willy Wonka who recoils from human contact in one scene and asks for high fives in the next.

That kind of contradiction in internal logic is one more thing endemic in Burton’s films. Look at Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow; in one scene he’s a sniveling scaredy-cat terrified of a spider and in the next he’s a suave detective who orders everyone around.

To go back to Alice for a moment: At the beginning of the film, Alice talks to a crazy old aunt of hers who talks about a prince coming to marry her. Then Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a place where flowers talk, caterpillars smoke hookah and fish breathe air and stand erect on their tails. In a big climactic moment, Alice is informed beyond any doubt that Wonderland is real, not a dream. Fair enough, I guess. But then when she returns to our Earth, she is suddenly imbued with wisdom that she imparts via one-sentence morsels of advice to each member of her family. And what does she say to her aunt? “There is no prince. You really need to talk to someone about these delusions.”

The stunning nonsensicality of this made me want to take a vorpal sword to my ears. Maybe I need to talk to someone about my delusions that the general public will one day agree with me that Burton is not a good director. If it ever happened, that would be, for me, quite the frabjous day.

Written by Dan Wohl

06.22.10 at 12:35 am