My Entertainment Dollar

At the beginning of the show, Doughty promised we’d all get big value from our entertainment dollar, and I got that this weekend.

First was Serenity on Friday night at the Northgate. It was awesome. Sure, I’d been looking forward to it, but once I actually got there, I was going into it as critical as I get. I wanted to find stuff to complain about, if only to talk about on the internets. And I had nothing to criticize.

The closest I can get to a criticism of the movie is that it’s pretty much all science fiction — the western element of the setting gets a little bit of attention at the beginning, but is quickly lost in everything but the clothes. When you lose the “Western in Space” angle, the characters lose a little bit of their depth, because you can’t see that they’re all twists on archetypes — the embittered war vet who becomes an outlaw, the hooker with the heart of gold, the preacher, the citified doctor, the optimistic prairie girl, the untrustworthy hired gun (Jayne is supposed to be “the Bad,” I think), and the genius psychic girl with superhuman fighting abilities. (All right, that’s not Western, but it’s still a Joss Whedon production.) And the Reavers, who are central to the plot of the movie, stop being “The Injuns.”

All the characters still work, and I think they work well — except for Wash and Inara, who are left a little underdeveloped — but they’re just not as strong as they were in the series. Which is perfectly understandable, because there’s stuff you can do in even 15 hours of a prematurely cancelled TV series that you just can’t do in a 2-hour movie.

And the movie is just great. Not only did it stand up as a movie, but it tied up elements of the series. And the most impressive part about that is that it ties them up without feeling either too pat, too forced, or too final, and it leaves plenty of room to grow. I read a review that said that it felt like an expanded episode of a TV show, which is just bullshit — not only does the movie have a complete arc, but really big, significant stuff happens in it. Not significant in the sense of a series, like the “Star Trek” movies, where they blow up the ship or kill off a character just because they can’t do that on the show but can in a big-budget movie. Significant in the sense of the overall story. I loved that. We got answers to some major elements of the series, but not everything was answered, and there’s no sense of its being over. Just this part of the story is over.

Also, I never would’ve expected a large-scale space battle, and it delivers on that. Until now, the most impressive space battle I’d ever seen in a movie was in Return of the Jedi, and the one in Serenity tops that, not only in the scale and quality of the effects, but in that you actually give a damn what’s going on. It fits in with the plot and it doesn’t feel like a big battle for its own sake because they’ve finally got the budget for it. And it doesn’t suffer from car chase syndrome — usually, when a movie has an action sequence like a car chase, the story just pauses for a while to let you watch a bunch of crashes or explosions or stunts, then picks up again when they’re done.

Now I just have to figure out when to see it again. And maybe a third time.

Saturday was the aforementioned Mike Doughty concert at the Independent in San Francisco. Great show, in particular the stuff he did from Skittish and Rockity Roll was better than on the albums. He did my two favorite songs from Haughty Melodic (“Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells,” in case anyone’s curious), plus his cover of “The Gambler.” Other covers were “Hungry Like the Wolf” and a little bit of “It’s Raining Men” (dude knows how to play a San Francisco crowd, I guess). The only Soul Coughing song he did was “St. Louise is Listening,” which I like better than the original but is still one of my least favorite Soul Coughing songs.

We were noticing that the whole crowd was made up of the people who are usually standing at the back of other concerts. “Lots of people dancing with their hands in their pockets,” said Mac, “and the reflection off all the horn-rimmed glasses must’ve been blinding.”

Remixed, Remastered, and Bewildered

Rum, Sodomy, and the LashA while ago, my hero and name-dropping victim Steve Purcell was talking about some toys he’d seen at a store and said, “I liked them so much, I wished I hadn’t bought them already so I could buy them again.” Today I got to do exactly that, because of the media companies who’ve hatched an evil scheme to make me spend more of my money.

First I was at the Best Buy looking for We Love Katamari, but apparently Best Buy doesn’t love it as much as everyone else, because they weren’t selling it yet. But luckily for Bandai, they had the first of the new Cowboy Bebop Remix DVDs. This is the same as the earlier DVDs that I’ve already bought and watched repeatedly, it just remasters the audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and adds some commentaries from the voice actors.

Of course I had to get it, partly because the audio is such a big deal on the series, and I’m looking forward to hearing it in surround sound. But mostly for the I-liked-it-so-much-I-want-to-buy-it-again factor. It’s not just the best anime I’ve ever seen, and it’s not just the best animated series I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best television series of any kind that I’ve ever seen. The music is phenomenal, the setting is cool, the tone is just right and manages to swing between the genuinely scary, moving, and funny. And a couple of the episodes have actually made me cry (which isn’t that big a feat, I guess, but it’s still worth pointing out). At least the first DVD has five episodes on it, instead of the four that was on the first issue — I’m hoping that this means there are fewer discs for me to have to get this go-round.

And I can more than make up for that by buying all of the Pogues albums a third time. I wasn’t aware that there was even a division called “Warner Strategic Marketing,” but it’s an apt name because I feel like I’ve been the victim of a surgical strike. I first bought the Pogues albums on cassette when I was at school in Athens; I think CDs were a real luxury at the time. I upgraded to getting them all on CD, but could never find two of their EPs — “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” (which has an awesome cover of the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” on it), and “Poguetry in Motion” (which has “Rainy Night in Soho”, one of my favorite Pogues songs) — on anything other than tape. The re-issues have those EPs on them, some of them the first ever released on CD, so as a completist I’ve got to get them.

I didn’t do the math correctly in my head, because the bill at Amoeba ended up being 90 bucks. Ouch. (I also got The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds so that I’ll finally have a copy of “Red Right Hand”). And I didn’t even bother getting the two post-Shane MacGowan albums, or the new Ultimate Collection album. And I don’t even listen to the Pogues that much anymore. But at least I can stop thinking I need to keep an eye out for “Poguetry in Motion” every time I go into a used record store. So it’s paying extra for peace of mind.

James Van Der Beek and them sisters from “Sister, Sister”

The title is from Mike Doughty’s song “Busting Up a Starbucks”. If I’m interpreting it correctly, the song’s about impotent outrage at “corporate culture,” pop culture in particular. So at least for the rest of this post, that’s exactly what it’s about.

And what a coincidence, because that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Granted, the whole “high art vs. low art” debate is nothing new, but either I haven’t been paying attention, or within the last decade or so it’s taken a really nasty political turn.

Used to be it was just about intelligence and coolness. So the small nugget inside me which remains in denial and full of hope that I might one day be Cool, forces me to treat everything I like as a guilty pleasure. And I play Diablo while making fun of Dungeons and Dragons. Or I obsess over “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” while mocking both the ones who write fan-fics as “losers” and the ones who write academic books in defense of the show as trying too hard to justify their obsessions. Or I get teary-eyed at the Main Street Electrical Parade while complaining about empty spectacle and meaningless entertainment. I’m not sure exactly why those of us in the nerd and geek communities are so desperate to simultaneously knock down and defend the things we love, but it probably is due to this fantasy we all have of taking off our glasses and showing up for the Big Dance as the coolest kids in the whole school.

But now, to maintain my status as a Well-Mannered, Responsible Liberal, I have to rail against all of it because it’s all the work of the Huge Soul-Crushing Media Companies. Two of which have been my employers, making it even more difficult. Has there always been this gross, simplistic, nasty political tone to it all, or is that a recent partisan development? I mean, I’ve heard simple-minded people shout “television is the opiate of the masses!” and “corporate rock sucks!” and various complaints about media conglomerates and how “indie” automatically equals “better.” And of course I’ve heard plenty of people talk about Disney as if there’s a cabal of Eisner-led liches in Burbank strangling kittens and southeast Asian factory-worker children and using their blood to make pentagrams. (Which of course there isn’t, and I haven’t seen it.)

But now the accusation is that enjoying pop culture means you’re complicit in evil — EEEEEVIL! — for giving money to these horrible companies that you’re just too stupid to see through. We’ve been so indoctrinated with the philosophy that Big Corporations are Bad that it’s gotten mixed in with the high art/low art debate and become yet another way to polarize everyone. Every company larger than 200 employees is now Standard Oil, and there’s no such thing as a good corporation. Our only recourse is to boycott the media, buy organic, and if we must watch films, they should have Parker Posey in them or be directed by Europeans or Canadians. To do otherwise is no longer just stupid, it’s wrong.

Either people are getting more stupid and simple-minded, or the stupid people are getting more vocal, or I’m getting more moderate in my advancing years. I remember back around the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and how self-satisfied I was for boycotting the company; it made me feel as if I were really doing something. And it pains me to realize now that in spite of all the comic books and videogames, I grew up, and realized that it’s not about me and my petty grabs at being important for making meaningful choices against a cruel world. That instead, it’s a huge number of people all trying to make meaningful choices, and frequently making mistakes.

It’s comforting to be able to pick out the villains like Kenneth Lay and put a face to the huge, nebulous injustice, but I suspect that the reality is even more depressing. I believe the reality is that there are indeed many outright self-serving bastards trying to screw everyone else, but they’re outnumbered by the people who are really trying to make a difference (in the case of entertainment, to be creative) but impeded by the sheer size of the machine and its layers of bureaucracy. And all of them are far outnumbered by the people who just really don’t give a damn, but are only trying not to get fired.

As for the song: even if I’m completely off about my interpretation, it’s still a catchy song and a great turn of phrase. You can listen to it on his official site if you’re into that sort of thing.

And while I’m writing, my favorite line from the album is “You snooze you lose, well I snost and lost.”

By the way, Doughty’s in San Francisco September 30th and October 1st, playing at The Independent which is stumbling distance from my apartment. Who wants to go with me?

Haughty Melodic

I listened to Haughty Melodic, Mike Doughty’s new solo album, a lot on the drive from LA back to SF, and it’s great road trip music. Turns out it’s good sitting at the computer doing nothing music, as well. There’s nothing really “astounding” about it, like there is with a Soul Coughing album, because it’s more straightforward melodic (hence the title) instead of being all that experimental. Still, the guy’s a great songwriter — the lyrics are clever in places, and every one of the tracks is catchy at least. A couple of them, like “Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells” are genuinely beautiful.

And the lyrics are predictable in places, and some of the tracks are more repetitive than catchy. So I’d say that it’s not brilliant, but still recommend it. Especially to Soul Coughing fans. (If you know El Oso, I’d say that his solo album is like an entire album of “Circles” and “So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” which isn’t bad unless you were expecting a whole album of “Rolling” and “I Miss the Girl.”)