Join Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt for a special "snake draft," where we take turns picking the holiday films and TV specials that we think are (or should be) part of America's yearly viewing traditions.
Were I to list all the shows and films we mention, that would give away our picks now, wouldn't it? Compare your intuitions about what is classic or seminal or over-rated with ours!
Here are some articles with most of the likely suspects to get you warmed up:
When does A Christmas Story take place? 1940; read trivia about that film. The Dare Daniel podcast has a brutal take-down of the little-seen 2012 sequel that serves as a great substitute for actually viewing that pile of garbage.
When David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks premiered on ABC in 1990, viewers across America were treated to a televisual experience like none they'd ever had before. Four years earlier, something similar had happened to the unsuspecting moviegoers who went to see Lynch's breakout feature Blue Velvet, an experience described as eye-opening by even David Foster Wallace. A dedicated meditator with an interest in plunging into unexplored realms of consciousness, Lynch tends to bring his audience right along with him in his work, whether that work be cinema, television, visual art, music, or comic strips. Only natural, then, that Lynch would take an interest in the artistic and experiential possibilities of virtual reality.
Last year we featured the first glimpse of a Twin Peaks virtual reality experience in development, revealed at Lynch's Festival of Disruption in Los Angeles. "The best news is that the company developing the game, Collider Games, is giving creative control to Lynch," wrote Ted Mills, and now, with the release of Twin Peaks VR's official trailer, we can get a clearer idea of what Lynch has planned for players. As Laura Snoad writes at It's Nice That, Lynch has used the opportunity to revisit "well-known environments featured in the series, such as the iconic Red Room (the stripy-floored, velvet curtain-clad parallel universe where Agent Cooper meets murdered teen Laura Palmer), the Twin Peaks’ Sheriff’s Department and the pine-filled forest around the fictional Washington town."
This will come as good news indeed to those of us Twin Peaks enthusiasts who've made the pilgrimage to Snoqualmie, North Bend, and Fall City, the real-life Washington towns where Lynch and his collaborators shot the series. But Twin Peak VR will offer a greater variety of challenges than snapping photos of the series' locations and chatting with bemused locals: Snoad writes that each environment is constructed like an escape room. "Solving puzzles to help Agent Cooper and Gordon Cole (the FBI agent played by Lynch himself), players will also meet some of the show’s weird and terrifying characters, from the backwards-speaking inhabitants of the Black Lodge to the terrifying Bob himself."
Available via Steam on Oculus Rift, Vive, and Valve Index this month, with Oculus Quest and PlayStation VR versions scheduled, Twin Peaks VR should give a fair few virtual-reality holdouts a compelling reason to put on the goggles — much as Twin Peaks the show caused the cinéastes of the 1990s to break down and watch evening TV. Enjoying Lynch's work, whatever its medium, has always felt like plunging into a dream: not like watching his dream, but experiencing a dream he's made for us. If virtual-reality technology has finally come anywhere close to the vividness of Lynch's imagination, Twin Peaks VR will mark the next step in his artistic evolution. But for now, to paraphrase no less a Lynch fan than Wallace, the one thing we can say with total confidence is that it will be... Lynchian.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
Time-travel rules in The Terminator franchise are notoriously inconsistent. Is it possible for someone from the future to travel backwards to change events, given the paradox that with a changed future, the traveler wouldn't then have had the problem to try to come back and fix? Neither the closed-loop series of events in the first Terminator film nor the changed (postponed) future in the second make sense, and matters just get worse through the subsequent films.
Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Brian's brother and co-author Ken Gerber to talk through the various time travel rulesets and plot scenarios (a good starter list is at tvtropes.org), covering Dr. Who, Back to the Future, Looper, Dark (the German TV show), time loop films a la Groundhog Day (Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day), time-travel comedies (Future Man), historical tourism (Mr. Peabody and Sherman), Timecop's "The same matter cannot occupy the same space," using time-travel to sentimentalize (About Time) or clone yourself (see that Brak Show episode about avoiding homework), and freezing time (like in the old Twilight Zone).
You can find the Brian and Ken short stories we talk about at gerberbrothers.net. Listen to them podcast together and read the science fiction stories they publish at constellary.com. The Partially Examined Life podcast episode Mark hosted where the dangers of AI are discussed is #108 with Nick Bostrom.
What role does improv comedy play in popular culture? It shows up in the work of certain film directors (like Christopher Guest, Adam McKay, and Robert Altman) and has surfaced in some of the TV work of Larry David, Robin Williams, et al. But only in the rare case of a show like Whose Line Is It Anyway? is the presence of improvisation obvious. So is this art form doomed to live on the fringes of entertainment? Is it maybe of more apparent benefit to its practitioners than to audiences?
Here are more improv podcasts; Paul F. Tompkins has probably been a guest on all of them. Though really, aren’t nearly all podcasts (and reality TV shows, for that matter) improv? There are several other lists of best improv podcasts you can easily find with a quick web search.
Were Ebert alive today would he still express himself thusly in a recorded interview? His remarks are specific to his cinematic passion, but still. As a smart Midwesterner, he would have realized that the corn has ears and the potatoes have eyes. Remarks can be taken out of context. (Witness the above.)
Recent history has shown that not everyone is keen to roll back the clock—women, people of color, and gender non-conforming individuals have been reclaiming their narratives in record numbers, airing secrets, exposing injustice, and articulating offenses that can no longer stand.
If powerful, older, white heterosexual men in the entertainment business are exercising verbal caution these days when speaking as a matter of public record, there’s some goodly cause for that.
His musings on how differently the public would have viewed him had he been born white seem even more relevant today. Readers who are only passingly acquainted with his artistic output and legend may be surprised to hear him tracing his allegiance to “thug life” to the positive role he saw the Black Panthers playing in his single mother’s life when he was a child.
On the other hand, Shakur’s lavish and freely expressed self pity at the way the press reported on his rape charge (for which he eventually served 9 months) does not sit at all well in 2019, nor did it in 1994.
Like the majority of Blank on Blank entries, the recording was not the interview’s final form, but rather a journalistic reference. Animator Patrick Smith may add a layer of visual editorial, but in terms of narration, every subject is telling their own undiluted truth.
It is interesting to keep in mind that this was one of the first interviews the Blank on Blank team tackled, in 2013.
Six years later, it’s hard to imagine they would risk choosing that portion of the interview to animate. Had Shakur lived, would he be cancelled?
Broadcaster and television host Larry King. While King has steadfastly rebutted accusations of groping, we suspect that if the Blank on Blank team was just now getting around to this subject, they’d focus on a different part of his 2001 Esquire profile than the part where he regales interviewer Cal Fussman with tales of pre-cellphone “seduction.”
It’s only been six years since the series’ debut, but it’s a different world for sure.
If you’re among the easily triggered, living legend Meryl Streep’s thoughts on beauty, harvested in 2014 from a 2008 conversation with Entertainment Weekly’s Christine Spines, won’t offer total respite, but any indignation you feel will be in support of, not because of this celebrity subject.
For even more evidence of “a different world,” check out interviewer Howard Smith’s remark to Janis Joplin in her final interview-cum-Blank-on-Blank episode, four days before here 1970 death:
A lot of women have been saying that the whole field of rock music is nothing more than a big male chauvinist rip off and when I say, “Yeah, what about Janis Joplin? She made it,” they say, “Oh…her.” It seems to bother a lot of women’s lib people that you’re kind of so up front sexually.
Joplin, stung, unleashes a string of invectives against feminists and women, in general. One has to wonder if this reaction was Smith’s goal all along. Or maybe I’m just having flashbacks to middle school, when the popular girls would always send a delegate disguised as a concerned friend to tell you why you were being shunned, preferably in a highly public gladiatorial arena such as the lunchroom.
I presume that sort of stuff occurs primarily over social media these days.
Good on the Blank on Blank staff for picking up on the tenor of this interview and titling it “Janis Joplin on Rejection.”
We’ve all felt at various points (maybe at most points) that some media creation has reached us by mistake, that we are not the target audience. 20th century American TV was aimed largely at a white majority, with a parallel, underfunded channel of content aimed at people of color.
So how have things changed? There still seem to be “black shows,” but how do they fit in to a landscape where inclusiveness is a tool by which shows attempt to appeal to everyone (i.e. get all the money)? Comedian/actor/writer/producer Rodney Ramsey joins Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss the experience of watching outside your demographic, whether identifying with characters requires physical commonalities, “black voice,” and the evolving TV landscape.
We touch on Watchmen, Atlanta, Black Panther, Insecure, Sorry to Bother You, BlacKkKlansman, Tyler Perry, Dear White People, Black Jesus, and the black Herminone issue.
“Fame is a prison,” tweeted Lady Gaga, and many Twitter wars ensued. She was only echoing an old sentiment passed down through the entertainment ages, from Greta Garbo (“I detest crowds”) to Don Johnson. The emotional toll of celebrity is so well-known as to have become a standard, almost cliché, theme in storytelling, and no recent artist has exemplified the tortured, reluctant celebrity more prominently than Kurt Cobain.
Cobain may have wanted to be famous when Nirvana broke out of Washington State and signed with major label Geffen, but he did not want the kind of thing he got. At the end 1993, when the band recorded their MTV Unplugged in New Yorkspecial, he seemed positively suffocated by stardom. “We knew Cobain didn't seem all that happy being a rock star,” recalls music journalist David Browne, who sat in the audience for that legendary performance, “and that Nirvana was essentially acquiescing to industry dictates by taping one of these shows.”
Cobain’s rare talent was to take his bitterness, despair, and rage and turn them back into deftly arranged melodic songs, stripped down in “one of the greatest live albums ever,” writes Andrew Wallace Chamings at The Atlantic. “An unforgettable document of raw tension and artistic genius. While intimacy was an intended part of the [Unplugged] concept… parts of the Nirvana set at Sony’s Hells Kitchen studio feel so personal it’s awkward.”
The performance reveals “a singer uncomfortable in his own skin, through addiction and depression” and the continued demands that he make nice for the crowds. The clipped interactions between Cobain and his bandmates, especially Dave Grohl, have become as much a part of the Nirvana Unplugged mythology as that frumpy green thrift-store cardigan (which recently sold at auction for $137,500).
Kurt’s disheveled crankiness may have been part of Nirvana’s act, but he also never seemed more authentically himself than in these performances, and it’s riveting, if painful, to see and hear. Five months later, he was dead, and. Unplugged would become Nirvana’s first posthumous release in November 1994. In the quarter century since, “accounts have emerged,” writes Browne, that show exactly “what was taking place in the days leading up to that taping.”
“The rehearsals were tense,” Browne continues, “MTV brass weren’t thrilled when the promised guests turned out to be the Meat Puppets and not, say, anyone from Pearl Jam. Cobain was going through withdrawal that morning.” And yet every song came together in one take—only one of three Unplugged specials in which that had ever happened. “The entire performance made you feel as if Cobain would perhaps survive…. The quiet seemed to be his salvation, until it wasn’t.”
Marking the album’s 25th anniversary this month, Geffen has rereleased Unplugged in New York both digitally and as a 2 LP set, announcing the event with more behind-the-scenes glimpses in the rehearsal footage here, previously only available on DVD. At the top, see the band practice “Polly,” and see a frustrated Grohl, whom Cobain considered leaving out of the show entirely, smoke and joke behind the scowling singer.
Further up, see Cobain strain at the vocals in “Come as You Are,” while Grohl shows off his newfound restraint and the band makes the song sound as watery and wobbly as it does fully electrified. Above, Cobain and guitarist Pat Smear work out their dynamic on Bowie’s “The Man Whole Sold the World,” while cellist Lori Goldston helps them create “the prettiest noise the band has ever made,” writes Chamings. Even 25 years on, “there is no way of listening to Unplugged in New York without invoking death; it’s in every note.” Somehow, this grim intensity made these performances the most vital of Nirvana’s career.
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