Turkey Day Mystery Science Theater 3000 Offering

Enjoy “Johnny at the Fair” and “The Rebel Set” riffed on by Joel and the bots.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that Joel Robinson is stranded on a spaceship with a couple of robots he made himself. A mad scientist and his assistant force Joel and the bots to watch really bad movies, and sell the results to cable TV.

Back in the 90s, Turkey Day often featured a 24-hour marathon of MST3K episodes run back to back. For this Turkey Day, I’m offering just a single episode (#419), consisting of a short and a feature.

The short is about a little boy named Johnny who gets lost at a sort of Canadian World’s Fair, and soon strikes out on his own. (“Haight-Ashbury, please!”)

The feature is a crime drama with a beatnik theme, starring Edward Platt (best known as The Chief in the old Get Smart comedy series). Probably the funniest thing is the coffee house populated by faux Beats, including a really bad poet. As robot Tom Servo riffs: “Cigar, cigarettes, Camus, Sartre, angst, alienation, Wittgenstein…”

One of the cute things about the robots is that they’re often like young children, placing Joel in the role of a parent. In the opening host segment, Joel is reading them scary bedtime stories like In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter, but they’re completely jaded and bored, so he has to look further afield to locate a book that will really frighten them. 😉

The series also includes something called the “Invention Exchange.” In this episode, Joel comes up with a paint-by-numbers kit for color field painters like Mark Rothko.

Please enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000 #419, and don’t eat too much turkey, Tofurkey, or other seasonal delicacy:

MST3K has a homespun quality — sometimes naive, sometimes unexpectedly hip. It was produced in Minnesota, and one of the identifiable modes of riffing is Joel breaking into his Minnesota housewife persona: “Oh, I never go down to the village. They’re too nutty down there…”

The show quickly became an underground hit, based partly on the motto (run during the closing credits) “Keep circulating the tapes.” Nevertheless, for those who prefer DVDs to dodgy VHS copies, DVDs are certainly available. #419 is included in the 4-disc set The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection – Volume 12.


Of Further Interest

Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge
(featuring the MST3K skit “Civil Defense Quiz Bowl”

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Brett Kavanaugh and the Calendar of Evil

One of the more absurd aspects of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings was the calendar he produced to “prove” he hadn’t done anything bad. “Oh, I was much too busy hanging out with Timmy and Lassie and Sandy and Flipper. No sexual assaults on my calendar. See? Not a one!”

Ah, but suppose he had used the “Evil Event Days” calendar created by the mad scientists at Deep 13:

Dating from 1993, it looks a lot like Kavanaugh’s own calendar, with the same lime green trim:

Other parallels? Well, metaphorically speaking the Democrats were loudly tooting their slide whistles, but the Republicans just donned their brass knucks and used brute force to put Kavanaugh on the court. And Mitch McConnell does resemble a colorless, odorless toxic gas.

Apparently, Georgetown preppies were heavily into drinking and throwing up, but perhaps not shooting up; so maybe Used Syringe Night wouldn’t make their calendar.

WANTED BY THE FBI for interfering in an official investigation: The dreaded Alzheimer gang:

They should be viewed as armed (with pacemakers) and considered dangerous.

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Manchester: Hive of Industry

The Internet is all abuzz with this lighthearted tribute to Manchester, Mancunians, science fiction, and bees. But is the author simply winging it?

Last Tuesday was the one year anniversary of the tragic terrorist attack at a Manchester concert venue which killed twenty-two people and injured hundreds more. The day was marked by prayers, speeches, tears, floral tributes, and capped by a mass sing-along in Albert Square estimated at over ten thousand people:

I always think singing says more than sermons, but I did watch part of the services at Manchester Cathedral live via YouTube.

I had written something serious at the time of the event last year. But as laughter is also good medicine, I thought I’d post something funny about Manchester’s renewed identification with the bee as a symbol of– what, exactly?

An article in The Guardian suggests: ‘Peaceful but not to be messed with’ – how the bee came to symbolise Manchester. Apparently, Manchester’s cotton mills were once colloquially known as beehives.

The beehive in pop culture: a hairdo.

But neither industriousness nor spikiness seem the qualities which formed the iconography of bees after the 2017 terrorist attack. Rather, it’s as if the Mancunian hive mind suddenly hit on cheerfulness as a quality of bees. They don’t give in to despair or melancholia, don’t isolate themselves and pine. They stay together, fly right, and keep to their schedules. They carry on producing sweet honey.

A cute, cheerful bee courtesy the People’s History Museum in Manchester

Like Mancunians post May 2017, bees are also an endangered species:

And in a diverse city which can’t always agree on words, the bee may be a shared icon which transcends language, a visual code signifying oneness and positivity. In a city where people practice many religions (or none at all), the bee may have become a universal symbol for feelings that would otherwise get lost in translation.

But how does science fiction treat the bee, particularly bad or camp sci-fi? This pressing question, pondered by sages, is precisely what we’ll tackle in the clips below:

Before viewing our next sci-fi clip, let’s take a short musical break. After all, the lilting melodies of Rimsky-Korsakov might have a soothing effect on bees:

Bees! Are you soothed and sleepy yet? If not, perhaps the style was too vigorous. What we need is a more innocent, childlike approach:

Still not sleepy? Well, tonight’s Late Late Late Show happens to feature:

In response to such an eccentric artefact from the 70s, one can only wax philosophical and say: It be what it be…

Conclusion

Clearly, cheerfulness and industry are not the only qualities we can ascribe to bees. Their hive minds may strike some as a threat to human individuality, and their female superior culture can easily be twisted into a femme fatale meme.

Their industriousness might be given a murderous bent by the perennial mad beekeeper. And even the casual stray bee has proven a nuisance to Wimbledon competitors. But I think Mancunians have the right idea in staying busy and cheerful.

The Manchester Evening News reports that the Tree of Hope established after the Manchester bombing is now home to a colony of bees.

Bonus Clip
Potent Quote

“But I still don’t understand what motivated them.” –Captain Peters (Cliff Osmond) at the end of Invasion of the Bee Girls

MSTie Trivia

When riffing on The Deadly Bees, Crow T. Robot suggests these book titles:

  • How To Raise Bees To Kill People
  • Beekeeping for Lunatics
  • Apiaries for the Criminally Insane

Mike Nelson: Just for today I thought I’d communicate as the bees do.
Tom Servo: Bees communicate through movement and odour.
Mike Nelson: I’ll just be using movement.

MST3K’s Michael J. Nelson dressed as a bee, flanked by robots Crow and Tom Servo.

Souvenir Shop

This lovely bee girl ring as worn by Anitra Ford is available from manchestersouvenirs.co.uk. JK

Barnburner Encore
Riddle

What does this post have in common with the New Testament?
Answer: They’re both concerned with bee attitudes!

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Top 5 Retro Snow Videos from UK

Enjoy this ultra cool retrospective, plus discussion of The Twilight Zone, Doctor Who, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and The Bobbsey Twins. More Storm Emma too.
“Snowmen of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your carrot noses!”

Snowman figure with carrot nose at Mount Selwyn snowfields, New South Wales. Courtesy http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-08-15/snowman-with-carrot-nose-at-mt-selwyn-nsw/2840274

UPDATED! It’s no secret that I love snow. As we close out winter once and for all (a freak May Day snowstorm notwithstanding), I wanted to post these Top 5 Retro Snow Videos from the UK. I’d already stumbled on them when doing my earlier top snow videos post, themed on Storm Emma and Beast from the East. I hope you saw it, because in addition to some really beautiful snow scenes shot by everyday people, it also included a laugh-out-loud clip of Piers Morgan doing his Yorkshire and Hampshire accents, bringing ITV’s Good Morning Britain to a grinding (but hilarious) halt.

These retro clips have a different character, putting us in touch with snows that fell long ago on a different world. Why should we care about a snow that fell in 1947 or 1963?

Writing in an American populist vein, W.P. Kinsella — author of Shoeless Joe (later made into the film Field of Dreams) — suggested that “the one constant through all the years has been baseball.” A romantic notion that works fantastically well in the film, but may have less than worldwide appeal. Snow is another great constant, and as I wrote in Storm Emma and the Meaning of Snow:

There is an individual occurrence of snow, and then there is the archetype of snow. What we want to do is move from the individual to the archetype. Everything has its essential nature, and the nature of snow is that it is holy. Believe in this, and contemplate the falling snow as it blankets even one lone tree.

Viewing snow that fell long ago — before there were things like smartphones, Internet, Brexit, and Trumpkins — may link us with the past and invoke that universal archetype. (In modern parlance, Trumpkins are Donald Trump die-hard supporters; but of course, there was a dwarf named Trumpkin in The Chronicles of Narnia.)

Here then, are my Top 5 Retro Snow Videos from the UK:

The Midnight Sun – Before Global Warming Was a Thing

Science fiction is often good at predicting coming trends and reacting to them emotionally, politically, and sociologically. We are just entering the era of robots as a widespread form of replacement workers, but Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel Player Piano is one of many SF works which dealt with the consequences of automation long before the reality was upon us. Even earlier were Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, nine of which were collected and reframed for the 1950 book I, Robot.

So it is with global warming, which wasn’t a thing in 1961 when Rod Serling penned “The Midnight Sun” for an episode of The Twilight Zone:

Here, the cause of global warming is not environmental abuse and neglect (nod to Scott Pruit), but rather a one-off event: a sudden change in the Earth’s orbit bringing it ever closer to the sun. Through this device, Serling mostly avoided the politics but dealt with the emotional and sociological effects of a superheating planet.

Scary Snow in Doctor Who

New Who famously takes things we think of as pleasing or comforting, and makes them scary — snowmen and angels being two examples. The Doctor Who 2012 Christmas Special (called, appropriately enough, “The Snowmen”) serves up this chilling view:

Richard E. Grant is only slightly less scary in Posh Nosh:

And not at all scary in Agatha Christie’s Marple:

MST3K and Space Technology

The idea of retro clips naturally calls forth its opposite: modern inventions which are offshoots of the Space Race. This riotous clip from Mystery Science Theater 3000 #401 (where the movie riffed on is Space Travelers a.k.a. Marooned) lists a bewildering variety of inventions supposedly spurred by the Space Race. “Swirled yogurt: essential for space flight!”

LibriVox vs. the Bobbsey Twins

No, it’s not a Japanese sci-fi title. LibriVox is a wonderful project that makes public domain audio recordings of classic literature readily available on the Internet. The Bobbsey Twins are characters from a long-running series of children’s books written under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope.

As a child, I inherited a good many hand-me-downs from my aunt on my father’s side, whose cellar piled up with books and toys that her own children had outgrown. So I got an Erector set (an original A.C. Gilbert one), which the British and French would know better as Meccano. I also inherited an ever-burgeoning collection of Bobbsey Twins books, such as The Bobbsey Twins in Tulip Land — a title which promised amazing adventures to my young mind.

Much like myself, the Bobbsey Twins exist in a kind of chronological stasis, with the older pair of twins (Nan and Bert) frozen at 12, and the younger pair (Freddie and Flossie) perpetually 6 years old. I, of course, am perpetually 5, so still look up to my elder literary siblings. 😉

I don’t recall ever owning The Bobbsey Twins at Snow Lodge (1913), but it’s a title that does turn up on LibriVox. So here’s an audio-only retro snow clip read by Rachel and SuperCoconut:

Cute, but definitely riffable MST3K style! In her “7 Bits About the Amazing Bobbsey Twins,” Ann Silverthorn notes:

The Bobbsey family was in the 1%. The Bobbsey’s were blessed with the services of an elderly “colored” couple, Dinah and Sam, that had been with them for many years. Dinah did all the cooking for the family, including some tasty fried chicken, and Sam drove a truck for Mr. Bobbsey’s lumber business. If the family lived today, they’d never use the term “colored,” and they’d never remark that the couple had the “whitest teeth the children had ever seen.”

We’re not quite finished with Storm Emma…

I observed no palpable cheering up after my last batch of Storm Emma videos, so here’s a couple more I really like. I’m a city boy, and am moved to see how rural folk (including farmers) cope with massive snow. I also love seeing the seas grown all wild, breaching the borders which men have set for them:

If YouTube often appears to be a vast wasteland, yet it remains a medium for people to share homespun images which can move us by their honesty, and which present an unmediated view of nature.

As the weather heats up, I hope the snow-themed media clips will help you keep cool. I pity NYC carriage horses working when the temperature climbs to 99 in midtown; but they also have to work in snow, as my short film Salvation illustrates.

Michael Howard

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Donald Trump’s Fave New Fast Food: The Nothingburger

Though Trump TV continues to hose it down with gallons of special sauce and haul in truckloads of onions, the memo Trump hoped would somehow discredit the Mueller investigation has turned out to be a huge, gaping, humongous, colossal, double-with-cheese-and-hot-apple-pie-on-the-side, supersized nothingburger.

That may not dissuade Trump and congressional Republicans from continuing to scarf it down like beer nuts and force-feed it to anyone whose jaws are not firmly wired shut. But even a dish so lacking in substance may have unforseen health consequences. For as Bob Dylan so wisely penned in 1967: Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease.

As for the women named in the song and the instruction to “send them all my salary,” I think Trump’s already halfway there with the Stormy Daniels blowup. No shortage of buns around the nothingburger, but each day El Presidente edges closer to “the waters of oblivion.” Hand puppetry is just around the corner.

Do you have a favourite dud meme? I think mine is from an episode of M*A*S*H:

As in the above clip, turns out what we’re dealing with is a propaganda bomb devised by idiots.

Even a wet, runny blister of growth compost couldn’t salvage the Nunes memo, and last I checked he wasn’t offering fries. He has, however, been skanked while he slept.

If queried on the memo, future historians can do no better than to quote the Roches’ elegant summary: “It was a big nuthin’.” I guess I just never knew how big nuthin’ could be!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Al Franken, Sexual McCarthyism, and Moral Panics

More on the Al Franken/Leeaan Tweeden blowup, plus film & TV clips exploring moral panics and McCarthyism from different angles.

About ten days ago, Huffington Post contributor David Fagin penned a searing screed decrying the alleged framing of Al Franken by Trump supporters. It seems to have gotten pulled by Fagin or HuffPo. It was pretty over-the-top (perhaps written in haste or anger), but Fagin made some good points about the propagandistic nature of Tweeden’s attack on Franken:

Then, there is the way [Tweeden’s] piece is constructed. Anyone else find it a bit odd she mentions her father, Vietnam, her husband, the Air Force, the troops in the Middle East, and 9/11, all in the first paragraph? If one didn’t know better, one would think she was going for the easy sympathy play and using the military service of her father and husband, as well as the rest of the armed forces overseas, to further ingratiate herself to the reader. Almost like a calling card to other right-wing MAGA’s out there. “My father, brother, husband, cousin, neighbor’s nephew’s dog, and piano teacher’s great grandson are all in the military, so that means you should believe me no matter what.”

Al Franken allegedly kissing a woman during a rehearsal of a skit ten years ago is exactly what Congress should be using tax payer dollars to investigate at this moment in time.

There’s another dimension to the optics here. Leeann Tweeden is a sort of Miss America type. Al Franken is a sort of Woody Allen type. So I thought of this clip from Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas:

To overthink it would spoil the humor, which is delicious, though not always politically correct. Political correctness will be the death of the American left. Right now Al Franken is being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness by people who should know better. It’s not a pretty thing to watch. Harry Truman once said (or possibly didn’t say), “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

I might not agree with David Fagin on everything, but he tweeted that “#AlFranken is the first victim of sexual McCarthyism.” There’s probably some truth in that. I find myself recalling the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”:

First airing in 1960, its subtext was nothing other than McCarthyism viewed as a moral panic (though the term “moral panic” would not come into widespread use in the social sciences for another decade).

As in much late 50s/early 60s sci-fi, the theme is aliens in our midst, as a metaphor for fear of communist infiltration. In a moral panic, fear of a problem (which may be a real problem) becomes exaggerated to the point of rampant paranoia and a frenzy of finger-pointing — much like the present culture of public accusation. “Look! Under that rock! It’s another sexual abuser! Everybody run, run, run, and grab a few stones while you are running. We shall stone the Canaanite!” Or as the old adage goes: “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” (The adage has been quoted by everyone from Herman Wouk to Robert Heinlein to Spider John Koerner.)

This is not to underestimate the importance of taking sane, rational steps to create a culture in which sexual abuse of women and girls is not tolerated. The problem is real. But the present media frenzy is not helpful, and may even be counterproductive in relation to genuine change, since outrage may be a substitute for action, and can lead to outrage fatigue.

I think there are two extremes to be avoided: one where women never talk about sexual abuse, so nothing ever gets done; and the other where every woman has to have a story of abuse in order to be admitted to the sisterhood, and every edition of The View, Good Morning America, or Hannity must have its Leeann Tweeden wannabe rabbiting on about a misplaced kiss in the distant past, in between autographing copies of Playboy.

Of course, in the midst of a moral panic it may do little good to say, “Hey people, check yourselves out.” A moral panic is a form of collective insanity, and one feature of that insanity is the inability to hear voices of calm and reason. It’s a little like this ancient tale about the wise king and the poisoned well, which was reprised in the 1973 film Serpico, about a New York City cop who fights against police corruption and is hated for it. If you don’t drink from the same well as everyone else, they’ll simply say you’re crazy or don’t understand the frightful danger they’re responding to, or the overwhelming need (and greed).

A classic symptom of a moral panic is that the major media, while acting as if they are arbiters of what is reasonable, are actually fuelling or even constructing the moral panic.

A panic differs from a short-lived hoax in which the true facts are quickly brought to bear. Consider the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Broadcast in 1938, it was presented in such a way that many casual listeners really believed the Earth was being invaded by Martians:

According to a short article on History.com:

Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!” [Editor’s note: Similar sentiments were voiced just after the November 2016 presidential election.]

The broadcast may not even rise to the level of a hoax, since those who listened from the outset knew it was only a radio play, and announcements to that effect were inserted at intervals.

What’s different about a moral panic is that it often concerns a perceived problem about which there is limited or sketchy information, and the facts or true dimensions of the problem remain difficult to ascertain. This may lead to an extended period of wild speculation, acts of vigilantism, and harsh social control measures which later turn out to have been uncalled for.

The panic over alleged satanic ritual abuse of children at preschools in the 1980s is a classic example of a moral panic. This New York Times book review of We Believe The Children  includes an excellent summary, and notes:

Elaine Showalter, in “Hystories” (1997), showed how the psychological establishment, and feminists within it, intrigued by trauma theory, so-called multiple personalities and a new belief in recovered memories, was primed to believe outlandish stories of abuse, especially from women. Believing the victim became nonnegotiable — with adult female patients, then with children and even toddlers.

Moral panics tend to occur in cycles, and are not understood by the average participant in them; so in the present phase, hashtags like #MeToo and #BelieveTheWomen are not viewed as problematic by those who fail to study history.

Those remembering The X-Files might have gleaned something of the flavour of moral panics from the episode “Syzygy” (s3e13), which combines analysis of the Satanic Panic phenom with humor. Like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it captures the quality of frantic finger-pointing and mob rule in which everyone is suspect, especially those who are different in some way. In “Maple Street,” the first suspect is a stargazer who suffers from insomnia, while in “Syzygy,” the crowd storms the house of a cross-dresser.

From the study of moral panics we observe that the media as a whole is not an impartial body standing apart from the fray and carefully disseminating accurate accounts. The media get caught up in the frenzy, and become a major force in stirring it to fever pitch, perhaps providing moral cover for vigilantes.

If a moral panic is a type of madness of crowds, people in media hardly seem immune to that madness. Some of what they do is no doubt intentional profiteering off a craze, but some is personal surrender to an easy narrative that arouses passion. For all their journalistic training, they are carried away by the same tide as non-media actors. In some cases they are responsible for constructing the moral panic. Indeed, some theorists define moral panics as a media phenomenon:

A moral panic may be defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.

To a great degree, moral panics take place in the media. During moral panics, media coverage, rousing public fears over a reputed social problem, also assists appreciably in constructing that problem.

Charles Krinsky, “Introduction: The Moral Panic Concept”

Take the panic over violence between between Mods and Rockers in 1960s Britain:

Interviewed in the video, moral panic theorist Stanley Cohen says: “The media, by their reaction, kept the panic going, and therefore in a sense amplified it.”

In the argot of moral panic theory, Al Franken has been transformed into a “folk devil” by hysterical media coverage. The extent and nature of that coverage, particularly in right-wing media, seems quite out of kilter with the alleged wrongdoing.

Though an incompetent and odious president, Donald Trump has always shown a talent for media manipulation. He helped spur the transformation of Franken into a “folk devil” by referring to him as “Al Frankenstien” [sic] in a tweet.

The “folk devil” spoken of in moral panic theory bears some resemblance to what we might today call a “meme.” Memes and folk devils have little regard for individuals and their differences, tending to act the like the whale which swallowed Jonah. The individual is swallowed by a meme or folk devil characterization, and his or her qualities are conflated with those of a large number of other individuals, many (perhaps most) of whom bear little true relation to one another. Thus Al Franken is conflated with Roy Moore.

In the 1980s there was a panic concerning new religious movements (sometimes redefined pejoratively as “cults”). While most religious and spiritual groups are peace-loving and law-abiding, the events at Jonestown in 1978 (where about 900 people perished) crystallized sentiment against new religious movements, causing virtually any such movement (no matter how pacific) to be conflated with the horror at Jonestown.

Fundraising letters from anti-cult groups in the 80s hypothesized that millions of Americans belonged to purported “cults” without even knowing it, and suggested that the church or temple down the street — the one your neighbour goes to — might be a secret hotbed of cult activity. Like communists and alien invaders, cults were said to possess the power to brainwash innocent youth and turn them into mindless robots hell-bent on destruction.

To be sure they weren’t unwitting members of a “cult,” readers of anti-cult tracts were urged to subject their faith to a “cult checklist” which, being composed by secular rationalists, was sure to test positive for virtually any faith held deeply and actually practiced in real life. Although the panic has died down since the 80s, the prejudice against minority faiths persists, and the notion that faith groups must pass a test devised by secular rationalists is still popularized in some periodicals and on the Internet.

Those spiritual groups which had their roots in Hinduism and Buddhism were often singled out for special vitriol, and the practice of meditation — which has since gained widespread appeal for its benefits — was branded as extremely dangerous, a tool used by “cults” to exercise “destructive mind control.” In retrospect, this seems like the paranoid fantasy of ultra-rationalists who couldn’t cope with the insights that Eastern philosophy and practice bestowed upon the West. Consider by contrast this (more recent) NBC Nightly News report on meditation in the schools:

Returning to the matter nearer at hand: During a moral panic, people who understand the media can manipulate events; so the claim is made that Leeann Tweeden is part of a cynical effort to take down Sen. Al Franken, and does not make a very convincing victim. In my post “Of Senators and Playmates,” I closed with an uncaptioned image of Raquel Welch performing for the troops in a bygone era:

But looked at symbolically, the pic can also represent Leeann Tweeden and the media. She’s a bright shiny object which the media find irresistible. She elicits from them the same mindless drooling and circling reaction you see from the troops in the photo. Someone who understands media can count on that almost Pavlovian response, and orchestrate it in a Machiavellian (or Rimsky-Korsakovian) way.

During a moral panic, satire is one element that can help restore perspective. The above-mentioned David Fagin recently tweeted:

We have nearly reached that point.

As for the more serious implications, in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, writer-narrator Rod Serling closes like so:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record: prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.


Sidebar: MST3k Satire on the McCarthy Era

According to one theory, the reason so many people were taken in by the Mercury Theatre’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast is that they tuned in late — having been listening on another network to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. The latter is not to be confused with Sen. Joe McCarthy, the legendary figure behind the Army-McCarthy hearings which came to be regarded as a “witch hunt” for communists in the 1950s (along with HUAC).

Leveraging this coincidence of names, the MST3k gang did a satire of the McCarthy era based on supposed testimony from a variety of puppets and cartoon characters:

This is hysterically funny if you know a little about a) the real McCarthy and HUAC hearings, and b) the cited puppet/cartoon characters. I’ll stop short of providing a monograph on the subject, but may add a list of characters and links. The sketch appears in Mystery Science Theater 3000 #205, where the main feature is Rocket Attack U.S.A., a low-budget cold war spy drama.

The McCarthy era was one in which many left-leaning writers (some mentioned in the sketch) were blacklisted and couldn’t work. Bringing us full circle, this was the subject of Martin Ritt’s 1976 film The Front (starring Woody Allen), which ended with a cheeky (but funny!) rebuke to the men who interrogated witnesses in a manner so lacking in decency (NSFW):

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Links

The Front – Official Trailer
At The Circus with Topo Gigio

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Ruminations on Trump’s Visit to Japan

Updated! From “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” with stopovers to sing the Jet Jaguar song, eat at Alice’s Restaurant, battle smog coming from PR flacks, and hear the Heart Sutra performed in four different languages.

President Trump got everything from Prime Minister Abe but a piggyback ride, which put me in mind of this classic send-up by the MST3k gang:

MST3k is known for its obscure references which people love tracking down. The last line, “Don’t touch my bags if you please, Mr. customs man” is from an old Arlo Guthrie song called “Comin’ Into Los Angeles.” Arlo is the son of Woody Guthrie, and had a big hit with “Alice’s Restaurant,” a satirical talking antiwar song that was later made into a ramblin’ film by Arthur Penn, a veritable paean to anti-authoritarianism.

At his presser with Prime Minister Abe, President Trump spoke slowly and quietly, looking rather tired and restrained. It could just be jet lag (or Jet Jaguar lag), but I wonder if any of the Washington press corps have the nerve to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders (a.k.a. “Clarice”) if the president is on meds to calm him down and keep him from uttering phrases like “little rocket man” and “total destruction of North Korea.” (They should also ask Sanders whether she still hears the screaming of the lambs.)

The MST3k send-up of Godzilla movies from the 1970s (in this case, Godzilla vs. Megalon) is a lowbrow poke at our brethren from the land of the rising sun. One could discover from Wim Wenders’ outstanding film Tokyo-Ga that Japan is a nation of contradictions. Fifty years ago they were famous for turning out cheap transistor radios and bad monster movies, but this stereotype fails to reflect the hidden (or at least less visible) Japan — a highly cultured Japan rich in noble traditions worthy of study and emulation.

Japanese Zen Buddhism (with its “no gate” philosophy) has had a profound effect on spiritual seekers in the West, and on the New York School of artists and composers. The venerable American literary character Suzuki Beane was probably named after Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki. But even Godzilla, tacky though he was, has become a meme ranging from the computer world (Filezilla, Clonezilla) to the Thanksgiving oven (“Birdzilla” in a classic episode of Cheers). Maybe we should refer to our president’s huge ego as “Trumpzilla.” It can only be tamed by leading it around golf courses until it is tired and spent and requires Bosco. (Maybe a metaphor for spiritual practice?)

Apropos of the MST3k line “He crimefighting covers up a basic insecurity,” what do we make of Trump’s speech to the military at Yokota Air Base?

We dominate the sky. We dominate the sea. We dominate the land and space,” the president said. “Not merely because we have the best equipment, which we do, and by the way, a lot of it’s coming in. You saw that budget. That’s a lot different than in the past. A lot of beautiful brand new equipment is coming in. And nobody makes it like they make it in the United States. Nobody.”

“No one, no dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate ever American resolve,” the president said, standing on a stage in an airplane hangar on the base. “Every once in a while in the past they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them. Was it? It was not pleasant. We will never yield. Never waiver, and never falter in defense of our people, our freedom and our great American flag.”

— Donald J. Trump to troops stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, as reported by abcnews.go.com.

While it’s good to have an effective military, bragging about one’s domination and equipment does suggest an underlying insecurity as well as being in bad taste for a superpower. Military force alone is brute force, ignorant force, unenlightened force. There is no such thing as a “smart bomb,” and while Trump’s words may have been aimed at North Korea, they were doubtless a grim reminder to the Japanese people about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Military force should always be tempered by wisdom, compassion, keen insight into subtle aspects of diplomacy, and an overarching desire for peace — all qualities Trump seems to lack, but tries to make up for with braggadocio.

We have yet to see Trump go on a Godzilla-style rampage, but the prospect is not encouraging, and Republican Senator Bob Corker recently vowed to hold a hearing examining such questions as whether Trump has the power to unilaterally start World War III (perhaps in response to a Twitter spat).

Outsized American politicians and Japanese monsters

When George H. W. Bush visited Japan in 1992, he famously vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Urban legend has it that this gave birth to a cheap Japanese toy, a likeness of Bush 41 which spewed vomit on cue. Whether or not this toy ever existed, the underlying incident reinforced Japanese perceptions of American politicians as oversized entities capable of extreme behaviour.

President Trump did little to overcome the American oaf complex when feeding fish in a koi pond at Akasaka Palace. Oblivious to their true needs and natural limitations, he quickly emptied the entire box — possibly causing the same malreaction in the fish as Bush 41 had shown 25 years earlier. If a fish could sing, it might have sung to Trump “I need a slow hand!”

But is Fishgate real or fake news? It could be yet another Rorschach test in which we see a reflection of our own internalized views about Dear Leader (or as Schubert would say, “Dear Lieder”). Country Joe and the Fish might dutifully enquire “What’s that spell?” Japan clearly has Donald Trump all a-cluster.

The original 1954 Godzilla movie sported an anti-nuclear theme, and some later tokusatsu films had environmental themes, with pollution poisoning the fish so vital to Japan’s culture, economy and diet. Given Trump’s choice of anti-environmentalists to head environmental agencies, poisoning fish is something we more or less expect of him, and are quick to believe. But until we see a reliable body count from the pond in question, we ought not carp, lest the scales of justice be wrongly tipped. 😉

Speaking of outsized Americans who lack subtlety, the purely technical question has arisen as to what audio format should be used when archiving press conferences held by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The answer? Definitely FLAC. (For Obama speeches, use OPUS.)

When Sanders walks out, you get the impression she turns on the smoke & fog machine. It’s rather like air pollution or toxic sludge, which were subjects of the environmentally conscious Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Hedorah).

Hey, maybe instead of calling Sanders “Clarice” (from Silence of the Lambs) I should call her “Hedorah.” I suppose after a press conference, reporters are left flopping like fish in a polluted sea.

The Smog Monster flick is strange and wonderful, full of bizarre animated sequences, nods to 60s psychedelia, and a cheesy “Save The Earth!” song in one U.S. release, replacing “Return the Sun!” in the Japanese version. And let’s face it, sunlight is the best disinfectant for political malfeasance.

With its smörgåsbord (or sushi bucket) of influences and techniques, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster confounded critics. Legendary killjoys the Medved Brothers ranked it one of the worst of all time, but Andrew Pragasam writes:

The movie isn’t that bad. Its schizophrenic tone is born of a desire to please three wildly divergent markets: the kiddie matinee crowd, ecologically conscious students, and counterculture party hounds… Japanese cinema was facing such a financial crisis, Toho Studios were willing to try anything to rake in the yen. However, [director] Yoshimitsu Banno was entirely sincere.

One short animation from the film looks like it might have been influenced by Heinz Edelmann, the graphic designer behind Yellow Submarine:

In the Japanese clip, notice the dark, shadowy cityscape with “lonely people” wearing gas masks. Two tall European women enter, walk towards each other, get vaporized by smog, and merge into a single, two-headed image, which then becomes a crosshatched marking on a map showing the area affected by Hedorah’s pollution.

In “Godzilla is a Radical Environmentalist,” Daniel Oberhaus opines:

Although [Japan] is not without its environmental problems, today Japanese cities are among the least polluted in the world. This is due in part to the swift action against industrial pollution orchestrated by its government nearly 50 years ago, and was reinforced by Banno’s unique take on a Japanese icon in Godzilla vs. Hedorah. For all its corniness and pulpy action sequences, at the film’s core is a radical message that still resonates with modern audiences: the only way to take meaningful action against climate change is to stomp out the main problem — complacency.

Elsewhere, Oberhaus points out limitations of the approach taken by youth in the film:

Half [of it] takes place in a Japanese rock club, where Yano’s older son grapples with psychedelic hallucinations as Hedorah takes over the city. The smog monster eventually makes its way into the club and ends the party prematurely, at which point the elder Yano and his fellow students decide to take action by organizing a “million man march” against the smog monster.

Despite their good intentions, the students’ march is woefully under-attended and devolves into yet another dance party. Banno’s satire has a clear target and message — the impotence of well-intentioned environmentalists who naively believe that they can reverse the damage of industrial pollution with enough marches and bonfires.

Or maybe they just needed a better song! (“Big Yellow Buddha” is one title that comes to mind.)

“No Gate” philosophy and the Heart Sutra

Since I couldn’t resist a header promising a journey from “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” here’s more about the “no gate”* philosophy found in most strains of Buddhism, whether Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, or Japanese.

The terms “no gate,” “gateless gate,” and “gate of emptiness” are used to describe a particular Buddhist teaching. It is not easily grasped, but the essence of it is that the final void reached through meditation is not different from the phenomenological world. Zen is sometimes called the “gateless gate” because compared with some other religions (or non-religions), it’s viewed as non-dualistic.

Discussion of the gateless gate is sometimes connected with study of the Heart Sutra, a scripture accepted by most schools of Buddhism, translated into various languages, and often sung or chanted:

The Heart Sutra in Mandarin:

The Heart Sutra in Tibetan:

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (1):

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (2):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (1):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (2):

The first version, sung by Taiwan-born folk-pop icon Chyi Yu in Mandarin Chinese, might be described as “rich”; while the last version, chanted in Japanese by a group under the direction of Taisen Deshimaru, may strike us as more austere. But at the core is the same mystical teaching that “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.”

Somehow I can’t imagine Donald Trump grasping the concept of shunyata.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo.

*Not to be confused with “No Gates!” — a chant popular among anti-Microsoft activists and Linux aficionados.

Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge

Boning up on essential skills for coping with nuclear Armageddon

With the recent dramatic lack of brinksmanship by the Donald, people of Guam have needed a refresher course on what to do in case of nuclear attack. But have government brochures really provided adequate information?

The following video offers a quick drill on essential aspects of civil defense, with multiple choice questions designed to test your knowledge. Example:

How do you protect yourself from fallout?

A. Hide in the basement until it goes away.
B. Wear protective rubber underwear, and simply brush yourself off at the end of the day.
C. Run naked through a field of sorghum.

After viewing the video, you should at least be able to answer this question: What is the most practical thing you can do in the event of a total thermonuclear war?

Sidebar: Guam facts

Guam is not a state, but a U.S. protectorate. As such, it sends one delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. The current delegate is Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, but according to tourists she’s not the only Bordallo in Guam. More Guam facts from The Colbert Report: Better Know a Protectorate. More Mystery Science Theater 3000: Rocket Attack U.S.A. on YouTube.

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Breaking News: Trump Team Snags A-List Inauguration Talent

Though not well-liked in the performing arts community, Donald Trump once again confounded critics by snagging A-list talent for his inauguration festivities. While some artists like Elton John and Celine Dion declined to appear on ethical grounds, their absence was hardly noticed among the bevy of stars who did turn out to help make America great again. Here’s just a small sampling of the star-studded entertainment to which Trump fans were treated:




These entertainers were spread out over three inaugural balls. The initial plan was to have only one (but small). However, this reminded too many people of a song they used to sing in elementary school…

Still, you have to admit that with artists like these who are commercially viable, the Trump plan to end arts funding should have no meaningful impact on cultural life in America.

But seriously, folks… Judging by Joshua Bright’s lead photo for a New York Times piece on “Who Is Performing at Donald Trump’s Inauguration?” we may be headed for an era of crypto-Aryan art not unlike Germany in the early thirties. Bright’s pic of The Rockettes kicking their heels in front of a fantasy backdrop sporting a flower-bedecked Statue of Liberty seems more satire than reality, evoking a “Springtime For Hitler” meme. Trumpsters, go into your dance!

On a more positive note, Father Patrick Conroy offered this inauguration prayer:

We ask a special blessing upon our new president, Donald Trump. Give him an understanding heart to discern between good and evil. May he be strengthened in his work and grow in understanding as he proves ever attentive to the American people. We pray that he might become his best self.

I would like to be constructive and prayerful in response to the present day situation, but sometimes find it difficult.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

See Also

“What Art Under Trump?” in The Nation

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!

Children’s entertainers, performance artists, or simply lunatics?

Just before my winter hibernation, while foraging through YouTube looking for raw material for one of my mashups, I stumbled on these two vids:

Thank you to the New South Wales Centre for that inspiring presentation. 😉

Anyway, these videos do raise the conundrum posed in the subhead. On the one hand, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a children’s story by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, first published in 1989. So there’s that. On the other hand, when performing it these artists seem to let loose their natural craziness and touch on aspects of the human condition as well as political realities.

I suppose the spiritual lesson is that some people go on the spiritual quest with a pollyannish attitude, assuming that nothing could possibly go wrong. Then, when they realize they’ll have to pass through various difficulties and that their nature will be tested, they end up running back to their bedrooms and throwing the covers over their heads! (I am not immune to this phenomenon.)

The political lesson is that just when you’re thinking “Oh no! They couldn’t possibly elect so-and-so,” suddenly you come face-to-face with a big orange bear and find that it’ll be living in your big white house for at least four years. The scream let out by Sophie in the first vid says it all…

Sophie Maletsky channels the collective liberal scream

Sophie Maletsky channels the collective liberal scream

Compare for reference The Scream, by Edvard Munch:

the-scream-by-edvard-munchMore scariness for children: Count Floyd

Count Floyd (played by actor Joe Flaherty) was a regular character on the old SCTV comedy series which aired in the 1980s. I suppose he’s funny on his own, but it helps to know that at one time in America, in small towns with only one TV station, the same guy who was the newsreader was also required to do double duty hosting the Saturday kiddie show, which typically ran a B-movie of the monster variety (such as Invasion of the Bee Girls, which was hardly suitable for children).

So if there’s a sad, desperate quality to Count Floyd, it’s because he’s really a reserved newsreader forced to make a spectacle of himself by dressing in a black cape and pretending that the incredibly bad movies they send him (or sometimes fail to deliver) would actually scare a child.

count-floyd-06

Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty), b. 1941

Such frightful multitasking was required even in large markets like New York, where John Zacherle (R.I.P.) came to ply his trade as a combination progressive DJ, weatherman, and “cool ghoul.” Not an unwilling conscript, Zacherle made a name for himself by combining horror, sardonic humour, and rock music, as in the 1958 novelty song “Dinner With Drac,” whose most memorable verse goes:

For dessert there was batwing confetti,
And the veins of a mummy named Betty;
I first frowned upon it,
But put ketchup on it;
It tasted very much like spaghetti!

John Zacherle, 1918-2016

John Zacherle, 1918-2016

Presaging the Donald Trump phenom, Zacherle actually ran for president in 1960, under the banner of Transylvania’s People’s Party. According to this New York Times obit, one of his gags was pretending to give lessons in conversational Transylvanian. (“The skull of my aunt is on the table.”)

Though less frightening than Nixon, he failed to garner the same popular support evinced by more recent political bloodsuckers whose names now drip from the headlines. By the way, has anyone checked Kellyanne Conway’s hotel room for vials of B-Negative? I’d also check the bedpost for bite marks. (There’s got to be a joke in here somewhere about lawyers who “pound the table.”)

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway vamps it up a notch for her interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo. Lucrezia Borgia ring obscured by comfy chair.

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway vamps it up a notch for her interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Lucrezia Borgia ring obscured by comfy chair.

For more on Zacherle, Count Floyd, and other purveyors of televisual horror, see fellow blogger The Impractical Cogitator here. Note that kiddie horror shows migrated to late night TV and were watched by adults. This helped pave the way for a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000, which has elements of a children’s puppet show, but where most of the obscure references are aimed squarely at adults:

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Children also watched the show and sent in drawings of Joel and the bots,

mst3k-kid-drawings_v05c

but I doubt many kids knew enough about the film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to glom onto the whole Richard Burton thing. Adults, on the other hand, were soiling their Underoos listening to a dead-on Burton impression interspersed with references to Gamera turtle — the main character in the dodgy Japanese monster flick being screened that week (MST3K Episode 312, Gamera vs. Guiron).

mst3k-joel-and-bots-watch-gamera

For comparison purposes, here’s Richard Burton from Camelot:

Conclusion

So are the characters in question children’s entertainers, performance artists, or simply lunatics? The answer is D. all of the above! Particularly in the case of Zacherle, he no doubt had his schtick, but like comedian Andy Kaufmann perhaps needed to be a bit crazy to fully embrace and manifest it. This could easily lead us to a discussion of actors, artists, and sanity. I’m reminded of Werner Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend, about the notoriously mercurial Klaus Kinski. Also Richard Curtis’s sensitive portrayal of Van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor.”

But perhaps it’s best to go out on a comedic note. After all, the marriage of horror and comedy gives us the comedy villain. The late Douglas Adams was a master at writing such, like the Vogons who torture their victims by reading them bad poetry. (I always credit my mentors!) Douglas also wrote for Doctor Who, his first effort being “The Pirate Planet,” where Bruce Purchase and Tom Baker vie to see who can take it furthest over the top. Memorable quote: “Douglas had a strange relationship with parrots…”

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But one of the most entertaining essays on the comedy villain comes from an earlier epoch of Doctor Who, from the William Hartnell era:

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Kinda makes you wonder whether Donald Trump has dodgy feetTake all those illegal aliens to the security kitchen, or I shall be forced to have Kellyanne Conway throw flowers menacingly on the floor. Or would flowers simply wilt in her hand, as with Beatrice in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”?

Oooh kids, it’s gonna be scary!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

More TV/Movie Trivia

The Count Floyd skit (embedded earlier) showcases a “scary” movie called Whispers of the Wolf, which is actually a parody of Ingmar Bergman films like Cries and Whispers and Hour of the Wolf. It apes many of the cinematic devices found in actual Bergman films. See also SCTV’s Rome, Italian Style, which successfully parodies a number of stylish Italian films from the 60s and 70s, including The Tenth Victim.

The “Rappacini’s Daughter” clip is from a 1980 television production starring Kristoffer Tabori and Kathleen Beller. Beller often played an innocent, and the contrast is striking here between her innocent nature and poisonous touch. In 1987, she snagged a role in Bronx Zoo, a TV series which was arguably the prototype for Boston Public.

Beller played Mary Caitlin Callahan (her parents should only plotz!), a vegetarian, non-smoking art teacher who rides a motorcycle, but still struggles with her Catholic roots. It was one of her more sensitive roles, and Beller herself said it surpassed 90% of her feature film roles. Despite being married to Thomas Dolby, she clearly wasn’t “blinding them with science.” The science teacher was Victor Ginelli, played by Peter Hobbs. After Ginelli died, gym teacher Gus Butterfield (played by Mykelti Williamson) took over his classes.

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