Let's Have A Partita!

Get the respite you deserve another time.

Location: Cantonment, Florida, United States

Well, uh, hmm...

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Self as an Idol

Anyone who walks into the art department of any given University is greeted by an overwhelming sensation that the focus is not on art, but the self. All paintings, sculptures, videos, collages, and the like are about the individual artist's struggles. Upon meeting the so-called artists, one finds human beings that revel in faux depression as expressed through self indulgent "art" (the truly depressed seek real help). The images are sometimes clever, always literal, steeped in the arbitrary, and never reflect a universal problem. All the images that hang on the walls have rejected any notions of beauty, instead throwing off any use of the word "representation" in favor of real ugliness. Beauty is the new ugly. If one calls these peoples' work "ugly," it is a compliment because they feel that "ugly" is "real."

Even Oscar Wilde, bizarre and radical as he was, understood that aesthetics is not just a pleasing pursuit like it's a hobby, but something necessary for human happiness. The choice to focus on something outside ourselves that lifts us up rather than adhering to some humanist notion of staring in at our ugliness in a losing battle to make it go away, was at the center of every art for millenia. As I walk outside, I see life and death. In the garden behind my house, there are beautiful and exotic plants and trees that take my breath away. There are also plants that are dying, but their seeds have already been sewn, bringing forth more of its kind. It lives, having been given life by something long dead, and now it gives life facing its own death. I see carnivores that devour helpless herbivores, but in the process feed their own carnivore young. At every stage, death brings forth life, ugliness transformed and seen through the veil of beauty. The artist has a similar task; giving his own life to create the beautiful. Even in the representation of the hideous and grotesque, he does so with skill, imagination, and yes, even beauty. These are lost concepts now, as navel staring rules over all.

The reason I bring this up is because I had really come to accept it. Movies come out that make comments and references to things that are so current the movies will be incomprehensible five years from now. Art is reduced to inane concepts such as "painted sculpture" and "video collage." Acting is reduced to the representation of the actor's feelings, and actors wonder why they're typecast. Music must be automatic and spontaneous, thus any sort of training is seen as stifling creativity. Writing must be automatic or else a story idea is scrapped. One is not considered a writer unless he has vomited forth three books by the time he's twelve. Time, honing, work, it's not valued. I found myself face to face with my unspoken belief that unless I accomplished a goal inside five minutes, it would never happen. That is, until I started reading Michael Chekhov's To The Actor.

I read about Michael Chekhov, who had trial after trial, and only found the success he had been seeking much later in life. He abhorred the notion that the actor must rely only on his own experiences in order to be able to portray a character. Focusing inward to be able to reflect universals is a sure way to find artistic incest, but not a way to develop a character. Chekhov differed in this from his teacher and mentor, Konstantin Stanislavsky, inventor of method acting. I believe Chekhov was correct in his break from Stanislavsky's method acting, and the proof is in Chekhov himself. His characterizations were often preferred over Stanislavsky's, and Stanislavsky gave Chekhov the highest compliment, "He is my most gifted student."

I would like to reproduce some of Chekhov's writings on art and imagination. I found it to be very enlightening. I hope you do, too.

Chekhov's To The Actor - Chapter One: Imagination and Concentration

The great German director Max Reinhardt confessed, "I am always surrounded by images." Charles Dickens wrote in his journal, "I have been sitting here in my study all morning, waiting for Oliver Twist who has not yet arrived!" Goethe declared that inspiring images must appear before us as God's children and call to us, "We are here!" Raphael saw an image moving within his room that later became the Sistine Madonna on his canvas. Michelangelo complained despairingly that images pursued him and forced him to sculpt in all sorts of materials, even solid rock.

How can we question the beliefs of these master artists and writers that their imaginative life came to them from outside themselves? And would they not scorn the narrow conception of creativity that relies solely upon personal memories and efforts? They would undoubtedly feel that today we deny our communication with the objective world of imagination, in direct contrast to their free excursions into it. The creative impulse of the masters was an expansion toward the world beyond them, while ours is often a contraction within ourselves.

The old masters of European and Asian culture might even shout to us, "Look at your creations. They are not confined to reproductions of our petty, personal lives, desires, and limited surroundings. Unlike the artists of today, we forgot our individual selves in order to be conscious and active servants of otherworldly images. Truly, we did not want to be slaves to these unguided visions. But in our work, we incorporated them like an unexpected blessing. Why are you then creating so many specimens of ugliness, disease, and chaotic contortions? Is it not simply because you are too concerned with yourselves alone and not your art?"

The conviction that there is an objective world in which our images lead their independent life widens our horizon and strengthens our creative will. Developing and assuming new conceptions concerning the creative process in art is the way for the artist to grow and to understand his or her talent. One of those new conceptions is the objective existence of the world of the artist's creative images. What is the reward of artists brave enough to acknowledge the objectivity of the world of imagination? They free themselves from the constant pressure of their too personal, too intellectual interference with the creative process, the greater part of which is intensely personal and takes place in the sphere that lies beyond the intellect.

Later, Chekhov writes:

Poor indeed is the imagination that leaves the artist's mind cold, and poor indeed is the influx of wisdom to such an artist, when one hears him say, "I have built my art upon my convictions." Would it not be better for an artist to say that he has built his convictions upon his art? But this is only true of the artist who is really gifted. Haven't we noticed that the less talented the person is, the earlier he forms his "convictions" and the longer he tenaciously clings to them?

I really enjoyed this section of the book, not because I enjoy being proved right and only read things that "preach to the choir," but because it forced me to accept that I had become complacent in my pursuit of my crafts, be they music, writing, or acting. If I really want to hone my abilities, I have to sacrifice to do it, to accept that I must study, practice, and work in order that the force of creative imagination might work through me to its highest degree. I must adhere to time honored principles, humbling myself to accept that I must learn before I can contribute. Instead of thinking that I'm going to throw out all the work done by previous generations and replace it with my own ideas, I have to look to what is done, what is universally accepted as master work by master craftsmen. That is the only way I can grow. Indeed, it is the only way anyone can grow.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Domesticated Animals that Didn't Work Out.

1. Carrier Pythons
2. Lap-Horses
3. Teacup Bobcats
4. Bomb Squad Sloths
5. Drug Sniffing Tarantulas
6. Guard Plankton
7. Attack Yeast
8. Truffle tracking Gorillas
9. Seeing Eye Baboons
10. Cart pulling Blue Whales

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Would you like another Pabst, sir?

Here's an article I wrote several months ago. I wrote it before I learned the custom of writing a query letter, then writing the article. Oh well, it was a bit of therapy for me anyway. Every time I go into a restaurant, I see people sucking down Coors Lights, Bud Lights, Miller Lites, and Michelob Lights, all of which have the rich bold taste of distilled sweat. Fabulous. At family functions, I will ask for a beer and am always greeted with choices that range from "flavorless" to "not quite so flavorless as the last choice, but still rather flavorless." Meanwhile, the wine fans are sipping on a bottle of Pinot Noir that would have sucked my bank account dry had I brushed past it in the liquor store. I don't want to get ahead of myself, so just read.

Recently, while watching television, I saw a commercial. A misleading commercial. A commercial filled with vicious lies. Lies that made me want to weep in front of even my most manly friends. It featured a man and his wife at a neighborhood barbecue. Let's call the man "Gary." Gary looked rather jolly, at least as jolly as anyone can be at your average barbecue. In the middle of a conversation with some friends, he glanced over to see a guy, let's call him "Steve," about to drink a NONDESCRIPT WATERY BEER. That's not actually what it said on the bottle, but work with me here. You get the idea.

Gary's face turned to a look of sheer horror (wouldn't yours?) and he began to sprint toward Steve, who was about to take a sip of some WATERY BEER. Our hero, Gary, got there just in time to stop his friend from sucking down an inferior generic beer. I was happy at this point. He did what any of us would have done; keep a horrible macro-brew from soiling a beloved compadre's gullet. I waited for Gary to hand Steve an Ommegang Three Philosophers, a North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, or perhaps a Stone Ruination Imperial Pale Ale. It was a moment of joy, perhaps some real breweries were beginning to advertise on TV! Then, a bottle of Miller Lite appeared. What? What was that doing there? I kept my fears at bay with the thought that there could be some sort of ironic twist. Maybe Steve would look really disappointed and slap the Miller Lite to the ground, pulling out a Three Floyds Behemoth Barleywine from some hidden pocket. But no, he looked thankful! Gary, the jerk, walked away satisfied with himself. A NONDESCRIPT WATERY BEER was replaced by a VERY SPECIFIC AND QUITE OVERHYPED WATERY BEER.

The problem is that most people think beer is supposed be thin, highly carbonated, and taste vaguely of gym socks. When wine enters a conversation, it is spoken of in glowing terms befitting saints and organ donors. Everyone understands that a great bottle of wine must be several years old, carry a high price tag, have a ridiculously long name, and originate from some manner of valley, preferably a "Napa." Someone mentions that he's spent $125 for a 2003 Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and no one bats an eye. I mention that I've spent $10 on an Alesmith Speedway Stout and the entire table looks at me as though small, screaming monkeys are trying to extricate themselves from my nostrils. "Couldn't you have gone to the corner store and spent the same amount of money on a case of Miller?" they'll say to me. For some reason, people know that there are vast, unending differences between various brands of things in every other aspect of life, such as cars and toothpaste. However, the same person that will, with his dying breath, swear Colgate is the Balm of Gilead, will also claim that all beer is identical, save the label.

I think most of the confusion about beer comes from the fact that people don't know what they're missing. Most corner stores only carry brands such as Budweiser, Miller, Yeungling, and Coors. Shoppers see these "beers," and think that's all that exists. Now, I'm not here to judge anyone, that is not my goal. I think Old Milwaukee tastes like weasel vomit, but if other people like it, great. The problem is, people buy Pabst, Michelob, Colt 45, and the like, and they compound several problems:

Liquor Stores think that since these beers are selling like crazy, that's all they need to order. Supply and Demand. As long as we demand skunky seltzer water, they'll supply skunky seltzer water.

Those who only drink macro-swill and never taste the real stuff do themselves a disservice by becoming trained to like low quality beer. Imagine a person who's only ever eaten McDonald's hamburgers but has never tasted a filet mignon and you'll get the idea.

The macro-breweries will continue to think that they can keep making yellow fizz water, label it beer, and rake in obscene profits. I like to call it "Aggressive Stagnation."

Thankfully, micro-breweries are slowly restoring the respect for American beer. While their outputs may be small, their impact has been huge. No longer do beer geeks turn their noses up at the thought of drinking a Stateside brew. Quite the contrary, the majority of the world's best beers are crafted in America. Unfortunately, finding them is rather tricky because quality beer has an uphill battle. First, it's always difficult to locate expensive luxuries, no matter what that luxury might be. Where's the nearest Ferrari dealer? I don't know, either. Where can I buy a Faberge Egg? Probably not within a hundred miles. Second, most people already think beer is fit for frat boys on benders, so why would a liquor store carry a beer that costs $8 per 11 ounce bottle? As far as they're concerned, that's like carrying $100 bratwurst.

We, as consumers, need to send a message to the macros by refusing to buy their products. Money talks, and when Anheuser-Busch realizes that ridiculous notions of alcoholic energy drinks simply aren't viable, they'll understand a change is in order. Yes, you read that right, in 2005 they introduced a caffeinated beer, Bud Extra, to a very confused public. So, it keeps people awake while they get drunk? The macros apparently have no idea what people want. If they realize they are losing business to the micros, they will begin to change their tune. Don't believe me? There was another much maligned market that decided enough was enough and opened their eyes to reality: Fast Food.

Mainstream hamburgers recently had a revolution, thanks in large part to Hardee's. They proved that corporate owned burger joints don't have to be plebian sanctities of cheapness. Why not have %100 Angus Beef hamburgers made to order? Just because people are in a hurry, don't have a lot of money, and need quantity over quality doesn't mean that fast food has to be garbage, right? Yeah, Taco Bell tacos will keep me alive, they're cheap, and I can pack 'em down my esophagus like nobody's business, but I'd much rather spend the extra dollar and get a Hardee's Six Dollar Burger. Why? Because I want the things in my life to be high quality. It's a mindset that is the antithesis of "buying in bulk." Ironically, it's also the mindset that will save macro-brewing.

As much as I criticize the corporate beers, I must admit they have the wherewithal to brew consistently, it's just that they brew consistent crap. If they turned their focus to improving the recipe of their generic pale lagers into something closer to what Sam Adams makes, they would not only stay viable in the face of increasing heat from micro breweries such as Dogfish Head, Southampton, Founders, and Three Floyds, they would flourish. The Hardee's model is the only way to longevity for the macro-breweries. If Miller could brew the beer equivalent to Arby's Market-Fresh sandwiches, and kept the price under $6 per six pack, I'd drink it. Flavor is king for me. I don't care if Miller can make beer that sells for $10 a case. If I don't enjoy drinking it, why bother?

So far, the macros haven't been challenged into caring. I often see people walking out of the liquor store carrying cases of Natural Ice to their cars, and I want to intervene. "For the love of all that is holy and good," I scream in my imagination, "what are you doing to yourselves? It's alcoholic corn water!" But I bite my tongue and let them get on with their lives. I drive home hoping they have friends in their lives that will share the truth. This scenario wouldn't even be an issue if corporate brewing would give a care about upping the character of the end product to something that we as a nation could be proud of.

What's the solution? Start spending your money on real beer. I know it will hurt at first, but you'll not only get used to stronger brews, you'll come to realize there's been a void in your life. Yes, I'm being dramatic, but it's to make a point. What we spend our hard earned money on should not be cheap, low quality garbage. I don't want to drive a 1973 Ford Pinto, I don't want to eat Ramen Noodles three times a day, I don't want grade F meat in my sandwiches, and I certainly don't want to drink beer that can only be described as "vague." Life is too short to waste on blandness. Send the macros a message, force them to improve. They will. Trust me, they'll have to.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Telepathy: Could we achieve it?

I'm always very wary about modifying the human body. God made us the way he made us, and other than taking care of our bodies, I'm not sure that we should be doing much. There are scientists who are interested in modifying how our cells replicate so that we can live as long as we want, maybe 1,000 years or more. There are others who would like to implant devices inside the human body, such as new limbs and new eyes. Some even suggest that nano-technology would replace our white blood cells because such a system would be able to destroy any disease without being fooled by diseases such as AIDS, where the virus takes on new shapes the white blood cells don't recognize.

I've been wondering recently about something we've all read about in science fiction and fantasy, and I've been wondering if it's possible; Telepathy. There are never any real explanations given in any of the books I've read as to how telepathy works, it just does. So, I began thinking of an explanation. Now, I don't think this would be a good idea to implement on the general public because thoughts are such a private thing. You think lots of people are in therapy now... But, if we could find a non invasive way to read thoughts and kept such technology out of the wrong hands, the judicial system in this country would all but disappear. Why worry about a jury when we could read the thoughts of the defendant? Nikola Tesla was working on a form on mind reading, but it was more "thought projection" than mind reading. He thought that if we could convert electrical signals that our brain is giving to our eyes into a data stream that could be translated by a receiver, we could have a television output of someone's imagination. Also, a new lie detection system has been developed where a suspect is made to wear a hat-like electrode covered patch on his head, and the device monitors which parts of the brain are active as he gives his story. If the memory center is the most active part, he's telling the truth. If the part of the brain reponsible for imagination and, for a lack of a better word, storytelling is the most active part, he's making up everything he's saying. It's pretty neat, but it's still not true telepathy. What I'm suggesting goes a bit further.

In many science fiction movies, aliens can communicate through telepathy. They are "advanced" and no longer need innefficient speach organs to relay information, they think to each other and can transmit thoughts. How is this being done? I think the most likely explanation is that they have a new part of the brain that can receive projected brain waves and translate them into coherent sentences or images. Just as our brain receives information from our eyes and (through many collaborative parts of the brain that recognize lines, textures, light, and even faces) translates the stimulation of the optic nerve into something we recognize, these aliens can read each others' thoughts. Let's say we can see into their heads. There's a section of the brain that can generate independant waves from the rest of the brain. They are very strong, using quite a bit of electrical energy. They generate very specific waves depending on what message the alien wants to send to his cohorts. Inside the other alien's head, we see a similar organ in the brain, but this one is only for receiving. It picks up the waves given off by the other alien and, just like the eye, forms usable information from it. These organs can receive information from only so far. Just as sound waves dissipate when travelling through the air so that we can perceive distance, the aliens' organs can only receive information from a particular distance. Maybe that distance is different depending on the strength of a given alien's transmission or reception organs, but it's all about the same.

Now, lets say some agnostic/atheist/pragmatist scientist thinks this is a neat idea. Unconcerned with playing God, he decides to begin experimenting on humans to develop such a system. Would he succeed? I don't know. I'd like to think that the human body wouldn't be able to stand such bombardment because it's already designed just fine to begin with, but I'm no scientist. With every leap in technology, what we previously thought impossible becomes matter of fact. Would I want to read other peoples' thoughts? No, I would not. I wouldn't want them reading mine, either. Living in a fallen world, I know my own cynical and black heart. I don't want to see into other peoples'. But, not everyone feels the same way. Would you?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Obscurity is fun! Until one's penchant for obscure stuff causes one to be isolated from the rest of humanity! Whee!

A couple years ago, Suncoast Video produced a series of commercials based around the idea that they carry far more videos than oversized general stores like Wal Mart. In the commercials, a bespectacled fellow walks up to a perpetually stoned employee in what appears to be the afformentioned Wal Mart. Our corrective lensed hero tries describing a movie to the employee due to his poor memory of titles. The employee continues his daunting task of spacing out, and the man with glasses looks at said employee like the brainless horror he is. Then, with the suddenness of an air horn blasted behind the viewer's head from an inconsiderate sports fan at a high school football game (what, that's never happened to you?), the glasses wearing man is teleported to a Suncoast, where he finds a kindred spirit in an overenthusiastic employee who can figure out the title of any movie based on the loosest of descriptions that customers with glasses can offer. He leaves the store with his every hope and dream fulfilled.


If only this were reality. You see, it really stinks being a fan of obscure media. Here's how my average visit to Suncoast Video goes down.

Clerk: Hi, welcome to Suncoast Video. How may I help you?
Me: Hello, I'm looking for a DVD.
Clerk: You've come to the right place. We carry all the most popular titles.
Me: Yeah, I know, but I'm looking for something that's hard to find.
Clerk: (with smugness and disdain for my implication that they may not carry what I want) Well, we'll just see if we have it in stock. What is it you're looking for?
Me: The complete works of Russian animator, Yuri Norstein. Or Image Entertainment's Masters of Russian Animation collection vol. 3, the one that contains Norstein's Tale of Tales.
Clerk: *Awkward silence and obvious hatred*
Me: So, do you have it?
Clerk: It appears we do not. Is there something else I can help you find?
Me: Yes, I'm also looking for the original Orion dub of Akira.
Clerk: We have several copies of Akira, it looks like they were released in 2001. Is that it?
Me: No.
Clerk: Ok, anything else you're looking for?
Me: How about Black and Blue?
Clerk: (The smugness is back because he thinks he's caught me in a mistake) Ah, if you're looking for the N'Sync album, might I suggest a record store?
Me: No, Black and Blue was originally a concert video released in 1980. It features performances of the Dio led version of Black Sabbath interspersed with performances of Blue Oyster Cult. I take it you don't have it.
Clerk: (The hatred is back) No. We don't.
Me: Here's an easy one for you. Do you have Metropolis?
Clerk: That's a Superman movie, right?
Me: Good day to you.

You may think that I am trying to sound superior and more refined than the poor people behind the counters of movie stores. I'm not, I'm just remarking how much it sucks liking things that are obscure or out of print. This is a detriment to getting work, despite what it may seem. Let's say I were going to write a script for a television show. I'd put in all the references and types of jokes that I like. Considering I share interests with about 137 people on the planet, chances are good that my script will be rejected. The average person does not want to hear dialogue like this:

Guy 1: Hey, did you see that special on Bose–Einstein condensation last night?
Guy 2: Totally, almost as interesting as the reproduction of Lon Chaney's London After Midnight that was on after.
Guy 1: Damme! Did I miss that? I'm as disappointed as when I was outbid on that Scott Ross plays Scarlatti Laserdisc on ebay.

See? That's no good.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Just for the sake of adding a photo to my "About Me" space.

Look, it's me! 20 pounds ago! And with much shorter hair! And I have a shirt on! Also, much clearer skin! In case you're wondering, that's my Daphne Blue Fender 50's Strat. I scalloped the fingerboard and added a set of Bill Lawrence pickups, which make it play and sound much better than stock. Also, because of my hand troubles, I'm using Ernie Ball 8 guage strings. They are, in case you are continuing to wonder about the things I'm writing, the thinnest strings on the market.
Looks like I had a slight fisheye effect going on with my camera here, I swear my nose isn't that W.C. Fields-ish. Why do I look annoyed here? I'm the only one in the room.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Saturday Morning Cartoons

Remember when you'd get up early to watch cartoons on Saturday morning? Of course you do. You pine for those days like a mealworm for... meal. I'm out of analogies.

Anyway, I long for the old days when I'd look at the TV guide for reasons to lose sleep. The Tick, Pinky and the Brain, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Real Ghostbusters, The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Adventures of Tintin, Garfield and Friends, The Transformers, Tazmania and many more would drag me out of bed when I normally wanted to snooze. It was a time when the Saturday morning cartoon was at a transition period, where the last vestiges of the Rocky and Bullwinkle American pride and history could be seen in shows such as Animaniacs (the president song in particular) and Histeria. Also, it was time when animation quality was beginning to improve over the Hanna-Barbera tripe that had been peddled to kids since the seventies. You know, Josie and the Pusseycats, Scooby Doo, that kind of crap.

Now I get up on Saturday to be greeted by Japanese shows that can loosely be described as "animated." Perhaps I need to be Japanese, but I just don't get them. There must be an ancient tradition going back to the Muromachi period where warriors would do battle with small creatures (that can only say their own names) trapped in red and white orbs. In order for the brave samurai to face off, they would have to shout, "I choose you [name of orb-trapped creature]!" The creatures would battle to the death, and whichever samurai warrior owned the winning animal would get the merchandising rights to sell the creature's likeness to American children in the form of cheap, yet very complicated toys.

I also wake up to see that every show I was convinced would be cancelled mid-pilot is nearing its tenth season. How on earth has the awful Ed, Edd, and Eddy survived? It's animated in faux squiggle vision, but doesn't have the wit or charm of any squiggle vision show. Ed, Edd, and Eddy's main downfall is that it's steeped in neverending frustration. I don't care for a single character, yet we are forced to watch their borderline psychotic lives.

How is it that Courage the Cowardly Dog, Invader Zim, and Dave the Barbarian fizzle like cheap seltzer, but Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends thrives? First, it's animated with Flash. Unless your name is Mike or Matt Chapman, you'd best stay away from Flash. Foster's looks as flat and bland is its namesake, Foster's Lager (at least, it would take me several cases of Foster's Lager to enjoy this show, and, ironically, it would take several cases before I enjoyed the Foster's Lager, too). I had high expecations when I heard that Craig McCracken, of Powerpuff Girls fame, was making a new show. It's rare that my disappointment transcends vague metaphorical feeling to become a tangible entity, but it happened as I watched the one and half hour too long one and half hour pilot/movie. My disappointment oozed out of my left ear, grabbed its hat and coat, and left its first cousin despair to keep me company. After the first strike, the show's use of Flash, the second strike whizzed by home plate in the form of an abusive older brother who never gets caught doing bad stuff, but convinces the parents that the innocent younger brother is the culprit. This is a tired plot device that was worn out the moment it was invented. It's frustrating. It's easy to write. It sucks. Foster's continues, in nearly every episode mind you, to use the "I need to cover up what I've done by lying, though in the end of the episode I'll confess and find out it wasn't that bad in the first place" writing technique. I know my dryer will fold my laundry for me before any of the people who make Foster's ever read my blog, but I need to say it: You can do better, guys.

Honestly. I could explain, in boring detail, all the cartoons I hate and those I love, but I'd prefer to leave you with some numbers to explain my feelings:

The merchandise generator Digimon is still on after 8 years.
The laugh a minute Freakazoid lasted 2 years.
The painful Hey Arnold! lasted 8 years.
The brilliant and hilarious Invader Zim lasted 2 years.
The show that most makes me feel like I've been kneed in the groin, Ed, Edd, and Eddy, lasted 8 years.
The gut busting Dave The Barbarian lasted 2 years.
The spectacularly horrid South Park is still on, after 10 years.
The awesome Megas XLR lasted 2 years.
The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy has been on for 6 years and is inexplicably growing in popularity.
Sonic The Hedgehog (Satam) was dead after 2 seasons.
Pokemon will never die, no matter how much I wish it would.
The Tick, which features the best one liners any cartoon has ever dared to air, was cancelled after 3 seasons.
Catdog somehow lasted for nearly 7 years.
Duck Dodgers in the 24th and halfth Century was too funny and well written, so it had to go after 3 seasons.
Yu-Gi-Oh! hurts, and yet it lives.
Sheep in the Big City apparently didn't cut the mustard and was put to pasture after 2 years.
How long did Scooby Doo run? Decades?
Joe Murray's excellent Rocko's Modern Life left our world after living 3 seasons.
Doug got 7 seasons and a movie.
Futurama got 4 seasons and the boot.
The awful and poorly written Rugrats lasted a baffling 13 years.
Sam and Max, which I consider to be the height of cartoon hilarity (outside of the classic Warner Brothers animated shorts) received only 1 season.

And there are plenty more deserving shows that never got to go to series: Space Usagi, Bloo's Gang, The Ignoramooses, Mina and the Count, Snoot's New Squat, Uncle Gus, and countless others. As much as I complain, there are shows that have slipped through the cracks and managed to last. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was, until the Simpsons overtook it a few years ago, the longest running cartoon ever made. Spongebob Squarepants continues strong, and some of the show's best episodes came from the last couple seasons. The Fairly Oddparents is doing well, despite its quality. The Angry Beavers and Kablam were granted 4 years, pretty good runs for Nickelodeon programs. As it should be, The Powerpuff Girls stayed on for a good 8 years. Other shows that deserved instant death, received it, like the spectacularly awful Atomic Betty and the confusing Yakkity Yak (the confusing part is that it exists, it had to be green lit by somebody). I don't know that anyone was sad about Capitol Critters and Fish Police getting the axe, though I have bit of nostalgia for them because they premiered just as I was getting interested in animation as a separate entity from live action.

In short, the majority of the cartoons that defined my Saturdays were the ones that were either too old fashioned to last in this era of politically correct nonsense and trendy commercialism, or were to quirky and imaginative to become mainstream. A shame, because it means quality alone does not guarantee success in the world of television production.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Terrible Travesty Team

I like reading funny columns. Dave Barry... uh... Dave... Barry... Ok. So I like reading funny columns, but the only guy I can think of is Dave Barry. I've read other ones, believe you me, but I can't think of any.


Of course! Ted Stoltz! Ok, so he's not know internationally for his columns, rather he's a video production manager, but he still writes columns. You see, he's a friend from high school, one of the few I still keep in contact with. Indeed, the only one I talk to on any regular basis. He has a blog... forgive me, it's a "Not a Blog"... which I read whenever he updates it. His style of humor is a bit different from mine, and by that I mean he's actually funny.

Lately, he's been doing a bit of reminiscing of the sketch/movie team he was a part of all throughout high school, the Terrible Travesty Team, or TTT for short. Since his last name is very close to mine in the alphabet, he sat only a few seats away in homeroom. Many mornings I would show up and he would be showing a video on the TV that floated above the teacher's desk (The apparatus that held the TV off the ground always looked precarious and flimsy to me. Still, I didn't have to sit underneath it). Over time, I realized that the people who were in those videos were the people crowded around Ted every morning. The regulars were; Dave Casey, Aaron Hendren, Kathie Hendren (Aaron's sister), Graham Woolley, Sean Sethy, and occasionally a few others such as Alexis Gates, Dale Strickler (well, he was a part of our homeroom, but he wasn't always there), Justin Nissley, and Matt Fuhrman. Listening in on their conversations was something else, they were always talking about what their next project would be. "Projects," I thought, "what for projects?"

The first time I engaged any of them was in the cafeteria. Our lunch system worked so that there were three lunch periods; A, B, and C. It so happened that I shared one of them with Ted, Sean, and Dave. Since I didn't recognize anyone else (it was my freshman year and all my old friends had other lunch periods), I sat with them. I remember that 1. Ted looked like Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, 2. Sean inexplicably talked about Zeppelins exploding, and 3. Dave would raise one eyebrow a lot. I had absolutely nothing to say. I think I mentioned Packard Bell computers for some reason, trying to start a conversation. It went over like one of Sean's Zeppelins.

Over time, I got to know them all, and realized that they were a team that made movies. They called themselves the TTT, though I initally heard it as the TTP. "TTP?" I asked, "Like Dilbert's The TTP Project?" "No," Ted said, "TTT, as in the Terrible Travesty Team." "Ah," I replied. End of conversation.

During one lunch, Graham and Aaron were talking about how their band, Kage, needed a singer. I told them that I could sing, and it was as simple as that. I went to their house, brought my guitar (just in case) and we jammed out for hours. It was fun, but later I found out that they were disappointed with my lack of singing and my penchant for wanting to play the guitar. I was fired, though I didn't know for months. I would call up on the Saturday mornings, and was constantly told that they weren't having practice that week. Huh. I was very mad at the time, but I got over it and moved on. They got another friend, Eric Boyd, who turned out to be a better fit, anyway. Eventually, Boyd was their bassist and Aaron moved to vocals. I still have their demo cd, which is enoyable. They were pretty straightforward metal, rather on the harsh side, but good. I don't think they ever released a followup.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the movies.

They would always show the movies in homeroom in the morning. Ted says he didn't like others to see them, but I couldn't tell. I always thought he was proud of his creations. I know I would have been. Everyone seemed enthusiastic and liked to contribute. I thought about asking if I could be in one of the movies, but it looked like such a well oiled machine, I didn't really feel like asking them to install another cog. It would have made life rather difficult on them, and after reading Ted's retropective on their moviemaking experiences, it seems like it was the right choice. Mutual friends were always asking the TTT if they could join, or at least be in one of their productions. It made the productions difficult because there were always too many people, or they slowed things down (monomyth, anyone?) because they didn't know the process.

Over time, I did get to do one thing with a couple of the TTT folks: Unknown Physics Matinee 4000. In case you don't know, that's a slight variation on the name of the cult TV show, St. Elmo's Fire. I mean, Mystery Science Theater 3000. Dave, Ted, and I had access to the TV room and the school, where they shot the morning news, only because Ted had a car and we could stay as long as we wanted. We had stayed after school before because Ted and Dave needed a camera man as they shot some footage for one of their movies. I think it was From Beyond, but I'm not sure. I remember Ted getting irritated as I popped on camera occasionally. I found it hilarious. He didn't.

Anyhow, Ted and I had somehow ended up in the school play, Fahrenheit 451. It was a blast to do, and it gave lots of us an excuse to put off homework. I got to be one of the fireman, which meant I was one of three people that were allowed to use the firepole. Ted and I also had lots of fun mocking the fellow who got to play Guy Montag. His name was Eric, I believe, and was a nice enough guy, but he had some strange acting habits. For one, he made odd choices concerning which words to enunciate. "Why AM I standing HERE?" And then he would bug out his eyes, thrust his head forward, gape his mouth, and adjust his shirt. Ted and I mocked him mercilessly for this, which, in retrospect was probably a bit hypocritical given my limited acting ability at the time. Ted, on the other hand, had landed the role of the main baddy, Beatty. He was fantastic.

Now, lest you think that Fahrenheit 451 has nothing to do with UPM4K, it does. Mark my words. You see, some of the cast decided to pull a Mystery Science theater on one of the tapes of the play. They weren't very good. Ted suggested we could do better. I suggested we make fun of the Francois Truffaut movie version. Ted and I wrote comments at my house, Dave came on board, and we shot it at school. Our silhouettes appeared at the bottom of the screen, and the illusion was complete. I remember that our heads looked bizarre; I looked like a pumpkin with ears (I had a caucasian afro at the time), Ted's head looked like pole, and I think Dave's was perfectly spherical. UPM4K was terrible fun, so we decided to keep doing it. All in all, we spoofed most of Fahrenheit 451 (we ran out of time, cutting off my favorite comment), and The Thing From Another World. Dave decided he didn't want to do it anymore, so Ted and I spoofed Them!, and then Matt Fuhrman came in and we did Battlefield Earth. I gave the tapes to a friend, Julius Von Brunk. We never saw Battlefield Earth again. A real shame, because that was probably my favorite one. I stupidly lost it, and I think Julius still has the others. We never made any more, though I really wanted to. Ted and I tried another one about a year ago, where we made fun of the the first episode of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Ted didn't have the appropriate cables to get the video synced, and then he lost the tape. Oh, well. It was fun to make it, anyway.

By the time UPM4K wrapped up, it was the end of senior year, and everybody went their separate ways. Dave moved to California, Graham went to college in the midwest, Kathie got married, Aaron... uh... Alexis... um... Sean... let's see... Ted stayed in town and went to the Pennsylvania Acedemy of Fine arts and got a real job (Unlike myself. I haven't even showered yet and it's noon.). The TTT was over, too, though Dave and Ted kept trying to make things. They occasionally made shorts, but the team as an entity, a collective dedicated to making ever funnier and longer productions, was done. Though I wasn't a part of it, I was sad that there would never be a From Beyond 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Now I sit and write a blog that about 10 people read, thinking of characters for a voice over demo, hoping that I won't have to teach guitar forever (No, put your fingers there. No, there. Fret 5. FRET 5. The silver things on the neck. The neck. The thing sticking out of the guitar. The guitar. The gui... PUT YOUR FINGERS ON FRET 5! DO IT NOW!). The TTT shows me that no matter how silly my voice stuff is, home projects can lead to real jobs. And remember guys, if you ever need an Elroy Jetson or Homer Simspon voice for Fatal Killings 2: Jaw's Revenge, I've got a mic, a computer, a toasty voice, and more free time than any human has a right to.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Silly Rabbit, Shameless Intelligence Insulting is for Corporate Execs!

The latest Trix commercials feature dozens of smiling kids, yet again preventing a relatively innocent hungry rabbit from getting one bowl of cereal. This is no change of pace, but the same commercial states that Trix are in a "New Puff Shape!" To put this in a bit of context, were you to buy a box of Trix no more than two months ago, you would have found that the box contained literally dozens of super sweet fruit shaped cereal pieces. Little bananas, little berries, etc.

It seems however that the execs over at General Mills have decided that maybe Trix are a little too exciting. Or maybe the awkward shapes of the cereal were getting caught when small children failed to chew their Trix into suitable sizes for their narrow throats? Anyhow, the cereal is now in a simple puff shape, much like the far less sweet Kix cereal. Now, according to the commercials, this is exciting and new. Yes, Trix look like pellets that popped out of rabbits that have been eating tie died t-shirts. But, what the commercial doesn't mention is that this is what Trix looked like for decades.

I remember when Trix moved to the fruit shapes it had for the past ten years. "New fruit shapes!" they declared. "Exciting, now your sickening little sugary chunks are shaped like things that, in real life, are healthy!" But, memories are short, especially regarding the cereal's target audience of people who still think members of the opposite sex are infested with cooties. It's obvious that the Overlords at General Mills are betting that no one who remembers the change will care enough to do anything. And they would be correct. This is probably the most you'll ever read on the subject, and even I hardly care. I get a good chuckle out of the commercials when I see them, but that's as far as it goes. Of course, I'm looking forward to, let's say, 2015 when Trix ads will proclaim, "Puffs are out, representations of seeded fruits are in! These exciting, never before seen shapes recall the tastes that inspired the flavors in our cereal!" I for one, am not buying it. Not that I'd purchase Trix anyway, but once I have children, they will know the truth. If I remember. Or care.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Inspiration vs. Imitation

Everyone has been inspired by luminaries in given fields. Animation directors look to people like Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, guitarists to Andres Segovia and Francisco Tarrega, race car drivers to Manuel Fangio and Mario Andretti. As an aspiring voice actor, my heros are people like Mel Blanc, June Foray, Rob Paulsen, Jim Cummings, Bill Scott, and Dan Castellaneta to name but a few. Most people who desire to enter the world of animated voice over start out watching the cartoons they love and trying to imitate the voices they hear. My love for voice over started very young, when I would pour over the one tape of Looney Toons I owned (on Betamax, no less) and start reciting the lines in approximations of the characters' voices. When I learned that most of the cartoons the Warner Brothers produced used one, two, or at most three actors per short, I was suprised, to say the least. How could one person provide three, four, or five distinct voices? Not just voices, either, but convincing voices? What were they doing?

I watched a lot of cartoons growing up (I still do. I'm grown up physically, but not mentally, I suppose), and though animation is what catches the eye and immediately draws us in, its the voice over work that keeps us there. Without convincing characters and dialogue, we wouldn't watch any form of dramatized fiction. Don't get me wrong, I love animation. Cartoons must be pleasant to look at, and the more epic, the better. But there are plenty of cartoons that have horrible animation and yet are classics because they also have brilliant writing and talented actors behind the mics. Rocky and Bullwinkle, for example. The animation was cheap, looking as though episodes were completed the week they aired. I never watched Rocky and Bullwinkle as though it were Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales, dazzling me with artistic visuals. I watched the silly Jay Ward toon because it was hilarious. I loved June Foray's Rocky and Natasha, Bill Scott's Bullwinkle, Paul Frees' Boris, and the dozens of other excellent characters and voice over artists. Saturday morning animation quality has improved over the years, but writing and voice acting has stayed consistently high.

So, as I started mimicking the voices in these cartoons, I realized that I could pull some of them off with convincing accuracy. For a while, I thought this was as far as I needed to go in order to break into animation. What can I say? I was young and stupid. Now, I'm a little less young, and a little less stupid. It's great to be inspired, but that inspiration can't lead to imitation, or we'll never be successful ourselves. Cover bands never get recording contracts. Dread Zeppelin aside. Even they got contracts because they found their own way of performing Led Zeppelin's music: Reggae with an Elvis impersonator on vocals. I still think that's lame, but it's novelty. Anyway, my point is still valid: They made it because they had something unique to offer. Just because I can pull off a Homer Simpson well doesn't mean I'll get work. Sure, it impresses friends, but why would an agency hire me based on that? Why wouldn't they hire Dan Castellaneta, who not only created the voice, but can deliver consistent quality because he's a seasoned professional?

What we need to do as beginning voice actors is find what our individual voices do best. Start with your natural speaking voice. Listen where it goes up and down, how you begin and end words, and what your accent is like. Do you tend to modulate your voice a lot? Does it go higher as you get more excited? Do you break into falsetto at all? Do you let the ends of words drop off? Do you find that you have a particular accent, such as Southern Drawl, Brooklyn, or Pennsylvania Dutch? I'm from Lancaster Pennsylvania, so I've found that my accent causes me to say a few words in strange ways, unique from anywhere else in the country. I've lived in Pensacola Florida for six years and I've taken in some southern habits, but when I go back to Pennsylvania, I hear my accent "flare up." It was especially telling when I recorded a skit with my friend, Ted Stoltz. He still lives in Pennsylvania, so we decided to record the skit into our respective computers and we would listen to each other over the phone as we said our lines. I sent him the files I made and he edited them together. As I listen to his end of the sketch, I realized he sounds very Lancaster county. I've lost it a bit, not only from having been away for so long, but because I've been trying to get rid of it.

Read this sentence and listen as you say the words:

We'll go because you're going to help them for sure. Are you comfortable with that?

The way I said this before I started working on my diction was:

Wull go becuz yer goin' ta help thum fer sher. Are ya comfterble withat?

Some of the things in there are pretty common, such as comfterble for comfortable, and yer for your. Wull instead of we'll is a hard one to break out of for me. Also, separating words was difficult. With that becomes one word: withat. This mostly happens with words like, "That's stupid," or "hit Tom." They become, "Thatstupid" and "hitom." They need to separate, if only subtly. "But saying them separately doesn't sound conversational," you say, "they're awkward!" True, but you have to be able to pronounce them correct before you can say them in a colloquial way. Besides, this is all about helping you pay attention to your voice. Also, voice quality is important, too. How does your voice sound? Is it raspy? Is it soft? High? Low? These are important things, because you need to know how to market your voice. If you have a good pirate voice, you're not going to get a lot of work in Tampon commercials. Right?

Also, take acting lessons. Learn how to act with your voice. Take dialect lessons, learn how to do different accents. The difference between two of your voices can be as little as a slight English accent on one, and a straight Midwest tone with the other. People are going to hire you based on how well you can be understood, how believable you are, how easy you are to work with, that sort of thing. They don't care how good your Spongebob is if you sound like a guy sitting in a room reading to himself. There are voice over demos that people make which feature them doing hundreds of different voices, but they're all bland and one dimensional. Listen to Richard Horvitz or Jim Cummings, their characters voices are all variations on their natural speaking voices. However, they are very good actors with their voices, and can create many characters by changing how they deliver lines or adding a bit of an accent. Watch The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy (but not for long, otherwise you'll start to claw your eyeballs out) for a good example of Richard Horvitz's voice acting. He plays Billy and Billy's dad on the show. They are two different characters and the audience accepts this because Horvitz gives them unique personalities. "But," you say, "that's a father and son. They're supposed to sound alike!" True, but then there's Jim Cummings in Bonkers. In Bonkers he played both lead characters, Bonkers and Officer Piquel. They both sounded like Jim Cummings, but he performed them as independant entities.

Go ahead, imitate your heros. It's a great way to get yourself inspired to start trying your hand at voice over. Sometimes, your imitations of other characters will help you develop your own. Homer Simpson's voice started out as Dan Castellaneta's impression of Walter Matthau. The Brain is Maurice Lamarche's impression of Orson Welles. But those characters are not ruled by their origins, and neither are the voice actors. They developed those impressions over time so they could become three dimensional. You need to do the same. Heck, I know I need to.