Monday, March 30, 2009

The Core 2006

FROM THE ARCHIVES, MAR. 30 - This originally posted on sammcpheeters.com, 2/26/06.

2005 was a bad year for the film industry, perhaps a mortal one. American box office sales have dropped nine percent in twelve months. Teenagers, seduced by portable gaming and cell phones and their own budding physiques, are finding less and less time for the rituals of the silver screen. Adults, beset by teenagers playing video games and talking on phones and having sex in their theaters, are staying away from the movies in droves. Barring some sort of self-referential Hollywood comeback, the cinema of the early aughties - "Scooby Doo" and "Analyze That" and "Freddy Vs. Jason" - will be remembered as the swan songs of the Talkies Era.

2003's "The Core" holds an extra distinction, being the first film after 9/11 to resume pummeling American cities (although Manhattan and DC are tenderly left offscreen). Its story reflects the fragile state of the union in the early days of this century; spurred by a rash of baffling magnetic mishaps, scientists discover that the core of the Earth has stopped rotating. Inertia below means death from above; soon, the planet will shed its electromagnetic skin, leaving humanity to roast by microwave. Against a backdrop of ominous skies and smited national monuments, The U.S. government commissions a $15 billion laser-drilling super-subway named The Virgil, capable of leading the team of "terranauts" down into the world's bowels to shock the core back into motion with a boiler room full of atomic weapons. Time is running out!

This film was not loved. Blasted by critics, sniffed at by the American public, little gratitude was shown for the saving of all humanity. Reviewers railed against The Core's dopey implausibility without noting the script's nods to a half century of disparate pop culture ("Journey To The Center Of the Earth", "Das Boot", "Silver Streak", the opening salvo of "Soul Train"), or its status as a time capsule of the best of American stagecraft in 2003. We may never see Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Alfre Woodard, Stanley Tucci, and Delroy Lindo on the same screen again. Tongues wagged at Eckhart's Bushlike mangling of "nuclear", but stayed strangely silent at Stanley Tucci's delicious enunciation of "cook" (a precise homage to Delbert Grady of "The Shining") that redeemed a matinee admission. The old boot of Delroy Lindo's face was worth four regular admissions, plus drinks and Twizzlers and a clean men's room. Lindo is one of those rare actors who can play amoral thug or doddering, lovable scientist with equal ease; he automatically justifies the existence of any film he touches.


Not that there weren't flaws. Obviously, this film needed Jeremy Piven as a penny-pinching Government Accountability Office bureaucrat sent along to make sure the mission didn't run a dollar over budget. But where was the Thug Life? Where was Ice-T as the streetwise theology expert brought along to steer the craft clear of Hell? If audiences could stomach the cornball tokenism of Lindo's martyrdom, we certainly could've handled Mekhi Phifer or Terry Crews or a digitally resurrected Tupac as an escaped rapist stowaway. And while we're discussing raw Hollywood racism, why was Alfre Woodard kept on the Earth's surface and out of Aaron Eckhart's arms? Is it so much to ask that these two share an explicit interracial sex scene, available in its entirety only on specially stickered DVDs?


If anything, the producers weren't garish enough. Or thorough enough. Except for the fact that there is a planet called Earth which does indeed possess a core, the film has apparently gotten every single bit of its physics wrong. Internet cranks tell us that the discharged kinetic energy of a stalled core would be enough to vaporize all the Earth's oceans tenfold. This should have been in the film. It seems strange that Paramount would drop tens of millions of dollars only to balk at a few meager minutes of CGI fun. A screenwriter named John Rogers has since made public hints of backstage battles between visionaries and 'suits', alluding to his own fight to keep the physics real, to keep a windshield off the Virgil and dinosaurs out of the inner earth.

But dinosaurs are exactly what this film lacked, along with demon dogs and oompa loompas and giant neon mushrooms and vast subterranean lakes of screaming maggots. Realism is what we grapple with every morning in the bathroom mirror; it has no place in cinema. There should have been savage, elaborately choreographed violence in jeweled underground cities, uncomfortable stretches of full-frontal nudity, an Agatha Christie-style murder subplot aboard the cramped compartments of the moleship. A few musical numbers wouldn't have killed anybody, perhaps sung by passing upside-down volcanoes, or the lonely Virgil itself. Again; Thug Life needed. Where was the voice of Ja Rule in all of this?

And for a film burdened with such unbridled confidence in American ingenuity, the producers showed a startling lack of belief in their own franchise. Lesser films have left their spoor in our nation's landfills for eons to come, so why no The Core acrylic figurines and plush dolls and Happy Meal surprises? 2005 should have been the summer of Core II The Return. It is no stretch to picture the Virgil riding on, Mystery-Machine style, dispatched to save the world from future threats. Maybe the crust is coming loose, or clumps of mantle are bubbling up through New Jersey sewer grates. Perhaps a rival Chinese terranaut crew must be battled deep within the Earth with H-bomb cannons, I don't know, it's not my job to figure these things out.

Then there's the issue of timing. Released in theaters one week after the invasion of Iraq, the script's economics already seem quaint. $15 billion to save an entire planet has the flinty ring of pre-war prices. We blow fifteen big ones every twelve weeks in Baghdad. Surely a few more after-school programs and farm subsidies could have been sacrificed for the integrity of our magnetosphere.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Booting 2002

FROM THE ARCHIVES, MAR. 22 - This originally ran in Punk Planet 54.

A BOOTING

Timing’s always the thing with this column. I’m writing from mid-November 2002, six weeks before my record label gets the boot from Mordam Records. My assumption that all readers of this magazine are familiar with Mordam – its wooly integrity, its history – is probably inaccurate. Mordam is, after all, only a distributor, a backstage player. I’ve long been awed by the availability of bottled Frappucinos in every gas station in America, but I couldn’t for the life of me name the corporation that works this magic (perhaps I should find out in the next six weeks). So I will say that Mordam is the 16-year old music company that, starting with Alternative Tentacles and MRR and $1000, has risen to eminence as the most revered independent record distributor in the world. I should add that, for reasons of propriety, I’m not supposed to be mentioning my discharge publicly until after the fact. So this column has the chintzy gloom of Yul Brenner’s posthumously aired anti-smoking commercials, a bit of kvetching from the past.

This would certainly be the appropriate place to start complaining bitterly over the split. Such complaints would be following in a grand tradition. I can count a half dozen labels, magazines and ex-employees that have felt the need to vent their bottled spleen along these lines. MRR’s Tim Yohannon and Hit List’s Jeff Bale both took regular potshots at their own distributor. Lefty Hooligan, a hapless, middle-aged communist who ran accounting at Mordam for a great many years, sent several anonymous emails to all the labels after he was fired, urging them to jump ship. Just this last year I received a more somber and signed mass mailing from one of their ex-employees, angered at Mordam’s decision to carry a label with links to GG Allin (over the issue of Allin’s sexual assault & torture of the employee’s cousin - a fair plea, yet a confusing one; like the Sept 11 hijackers, GG has placed himself beyond prosecutorial reach. All we can do now is go after the associates).

But I have nothing bad to say. Mordam gave me a fair deal. I’m proud to have been associated with them. The heave-ho six weeks hence is at least justifiable, if not deserved. When one pays no bills and cleans no catboxes, one eventually gets kicked out of their parent’s garage. This is a bedrock principle of America. Only assholes challenge this principle. When my label started with Mordam in 1994, I’d already known half of the staff. I had far fewer friends on hand when the ax fell earlier this fall. And no business is immortal. To a time traveler of the latter 20th century, McDonalds’ stock value beating of the past eight quarters would probably be a bit of a shocker. All things are temporary.

Actually, I’m in awe of Mordam’s staying power. In the last three years, this company has lost Lookout Records, Kill Rock Stars, Man’s Ruin (twice), and the Dead Kennedys and White Stripes catalog, a several million dollar chain of doom that would have creamed a lesser company. Add to that the San Francisco real estate explosion, the budding gravity of digital music and the stresses of interacting with the punk community on a financial level… well, it’s mind grinding. The Green Day boom of the year of my arrival left impossible expectations in its wake. The tightening cash flow could be traced through the catering of Mordam’s annual conventions: in 1995, a massive gourmet buffet spread at a Japantown bowlery, in ’96 a nice meal in a bar’s backyard, in ’97 a less nice bar in the Mission with stray dog poop under the tables. 2001’s convention picnic was held in a public park.

I talked recently with fellow bootnick Bob, owner of Vinyl Communications, and we agreed that there was an element of relief in expulsion. Mordam’s monthly catalogs, filled with a merciless tide of mediocre independent music, has long since been a harbinger of mild clinical depression. At conventions, I’d hear about the commercial viability of something called “street punk” that, like the existence of “pogs” ten years earlier, made me feel disoriented and elderly. “Street punk”… is that what those menacing teenagers down on Holt avenue listen to? I don’t think I like that one bit – are there any workshops I can sign up for that tell us how to stop this sort of thing? And the element of community is a hard thing to nourish. My first convention was also the first in years without hostility – Tim Yohannon and Jello Biafra had already decided to avoid each other – and, consequently, the least exciting in years. Karin Gembus left in the late 90’s, and with her the most vocal conscience of the Mordam machine. Gembus was once responsible for Bob VC having to fly from San Diego to San Francisco to defend a rather innocuous porn star’s techno record. I didn’t always agree with her, but the pesky straightforwardness was refreshing (disclosure; Karin once told me, in response to a procedural question concerning a UPC check digit, that she “eschewed” bar codes… forcing me to look the word up in a dictionary, feeling embarrassed but unsure of for whom).

And I am going to miss Ruth. Ruth Schwartz, owner of Mordam, the closest indie music will ever get to a Winston Churchill, was the only person on Earth with whom I could plausibly use the sentence “I don’t want to get buttfucked on the shipping”. That this heartfelt sentiment – I don’t want to get buttfucked on the shipping, not now, not ever - no longer has a proper conversation outlet in my life is… heartrending. I once shared a surreal car ride with Ruth and her husband Rene (the former lead singer of BGK) up front, sitting in back while their precocious grade school daughter and Suzanne, my daily contact, leafed through color proofs from Suzanne’s lingerie photo shoot. Just another wild day at Mordam was the implied message. We’re unpredictable folks, we lead exciting, rich lives and we’re glad to have you on board, McPheeters.

Ruth is also a connection to a Mordam, to an underground, I was more comfortable with. In Loud 3D, The incredible book of 3D photographs of early 80’s hardcore bands (Gary Robert, Rob Kulakofsky and Mike Arredondo, IN3D publications…. the patient seeker can find a battered copy on Ebay 3 or 4 times a year for $30) there’s a 1984 photo of the MaximumRocknroll crew on Page 21. In the picture, a radio studio is crowded with a dozen people, only a few I recognize – Jeff Bale is the most prominent, arms stretched towards the viewer like a stoned grad student. Ruth is in the corner of the frame, wearing a DRI shirt, beaming towards her buddies. Tim Yo is directly behind her, frozen in time with a pair of headphones suspended over Ruth’s head. Everyone in the photo is smiling, at ease with each other. That a future Ruth never once took the public bait for a feud from either Jeff or Tim was admirable. That I actually became friends with two people from this book meant a great deal to me. Ruth and I remain friends now. And she probably wouldn’t mind if I called from time to time to tell her how very much I still do not want to get buttfucked on the shipping. But, frankly: it won’t be the same.

The year I started with Mordam I tracked down the equipment used to shoot Loud 3D. This was in the final days before the internet (for me), and many months were spent searching. The camera is a Stereo Realist, manufactured by the David White company of Milwaukee. They stopped making these things thirty years ago, so one is reliant on a small and cranky crowd of 3D enthusiasts for tech support. Far from being a nifty gizmo, I found the camera painful, un-ergonomic, probably the kind of thing that would draw fatal attention to me in foreign countries. It resembles antiquated optometry equipment and taking a picture felt like shooting a daguerreotype. I had an impossible time finding anyone who would develop the oddly spaced negatives. Digital three dimensional cameras have already arrived in this country. There’s no reason for me to keep it.

But I haven’t sold it yet. This month, facing an impending Ebay auction of the sacred relic, I find myself seeped in sadness, all that lost potential. As with all things, the time has come to let it go.

Monday, March 16, 2009

I, Biff Parker 1994

FROM THE ARCHIVES, MAR 16 - Neil Burke asked me to contribute a column for the first issue of his Bladder Pad newsheet, and the editorial career of Biff Parker was born. It's strange, reading this 15 years later, to realize how very little of my mid-90's sense of humor still holds up. Was it ever really funny to intentionally swap "your" for "you're"?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Backgrounding For The Smell 2003

FROM THE ARCHIVES, MAR. 13 - This originally appeared in Punk Planet # 59. I did my best to purge this article of inactive verbs, but it was a long haul. Enjoy.


BACKGROUNDING FOR THE SMELL

As an east coast immigrant to California, I still have a hard time thinking of film crews as a bad thing. And yet there they are, bad news indeed, clogging up streets and office lobbies and public sidewalks. I’ve had walks through Union Station where two completely separate film crews hogged up different parts of the building. A friend once showed me a notice left on his door, informing him that the neighborhood would be subjected to "full-load automatic gunfire". Driving home last spring, a cop stopped me at the intersection of Hope and 6th while a film crew detonated a fireball that climbed to eight stories - I counted windows - leaving flames quickly doused, as if nothing had happened. Under mayors Riordan and Hahn, filming has drastically increased in Los Angeles over the last decade. The exasperation factor has followed close behind.

So when my ex-employee Anthony asked if I wanted a one-day job as an extra, I was startled by my own enthusiasm. Through connections of his own, Anthony had brokered all his friends into a video shoot for rising Australian pop star Holly Valance. And it would all be for a good cause; the filming was to take place at The Smell, the exceptional L.A. nightclub shuttered for six months as a casualty of the post-Great White fire safety crackdown. Much drywall, plumbing, and painting had been done by friends and colleagues to get the place up to code. Being an extra seemed almost an extension of this labor, one final task to be performed before The Smell could reopen.

That Wednesday morning I paid for parking in the L.A. Times lot a block away. I was already down $8 for the day. In the concrete lot two doors down from The Smell, I greeted pals John Fones and Christina Billotte and Kelly Jenkins, the same way one greets friends outside a high school on the first day of a new school year. Christina and Kelly had just moved from the east coast, and I was able to view them as likeminded souls when it came to the mystique of filming. The lot had been filled with trucks and cables and lights and trailers. The theme for the day was “80’s punk".

A large canopy sat on the back of the lot, under which we joined a group of about 50 extras, half Smell regulars, half clients of an L.A. casting company called, sadly, Scotty’s Bodies. Lines were formed, contracts signed, Polaroids taken and costume tent triage performed on the basis of our 1980’s style. I wasn't surprised that John Fones made the cut. With his week-old flattop, upturned jacket collar and square tie, he looked like a Blade Runner impersonator, if there ever was such a thing. That I was deemed sufficiently "80's" seemed strange. I was wearing my lucky cowboy shirt, untucked, and the black frame glasses old age has forced on me. Over the course of the day I would be called many names - “Cowboy Bob”, “Buddy Holly”, “Drew Carey” – with no root in the 1980's. I noticed that women disappeared into the costume tent in a much higher ratio than men. Later, I noticed copies of Jim Jocoy’s We’re Desperate photobook used as reference by the costume department for a particular cheap and exploitative style.
Scotty’s Bodies were indeed desperate. To work in entry-level Hollywood with a straight face requires some stoic insecurity found in few other professions. When we discovered that we were not, for example, to be referred to as "extras" but as some even lower caste called “background”, only The Smell regulars groaned. When young Jeremy, drummer for The Wives, attempted to steal a whole pineapple off the catering table, Scotty's Bodies looked the other way, unwilling to acknowledge any risk to this nano-progression in their acting careers (I looked the other way too, but only because I'm paranoid about getting beaten by key grips).

After two hours of avoiding the sun, my and Christina's names were read off a short list by a crewhand, and we were discretely informed that we would not be offered any work that day, although we could audit the shoot for no money. In anger, I returned to the catering table and crammed as much fruit and goat cheese as I could fit into my mouth. Someone suggested calling Anthony, who was in New York. I did this. Anthony grew enraged, had me find the producer and put him on the phone. I watched this man walk around the set for what seemed like a long time, wondering at what point my life had jumped the tracks so radically that I was fighting to stay on the set. The producer returned and said we could remain. I understood the paradox I'd just set up. If Anthony was once my employee and he now had the power to keep people on movie sets... didn't this chain of command somehow grant me authority over the entire shoot?

The sun crept up and up, eating into our cramped shade. At some point a crew hand led Kelly away. By high noon the breakfast table was broken down and two caterers shoveled food into several oversized trash cans. A bum pushing a shopping cart down Main street halted and stared. Fresh watermelon and cantaloupe and oranges, steaming oatmeal, muffins, croissants, bagels and lox... all wasted.

"There go all the little boxes of Lucky Charms," I mumbled in grief to John Fones.
"They don't toss closed packages of cereal, idiot."
"You want to bet?"
He smiled. "Sure. $5. You have $5?"
We shook hands as the workers carefully bundled up the cereal boxes and returned to their truck. I handed over my last $5. In the distance, the leg-shaped wind sock on the roof of the Ronald Reagan building waggled down at us in mockery. We were to spend nine hours in this parking lot.

Here's what I did with my time: huddled in the shade of the producer’s Toyota 4Runner, read the first eleven pages of Red Badge Of Courage, discussed a one-act musical I want to write starring Bad Brains’ HR and Positive Force DC’s Mark Andersen, listened in to a pair of Scotty's Bodies debate file sharing, ate several hundred Red Vines licorice sticks, Read the entire L.A. Times from cover to cover, attempted to make a paper hat from the Sports section, tipped my chair back into the concrete, hard, smacking myself in the elbow and head for no good reason. Being an extra seems a lot like riding in a van across large states, in that it is very easy to have all motivation sucked from one's soul. It's also probably a lot like prison – long stretches of boredom interrupted by brief, intense spasms of violence. Only without the violence.

And with great food. At two, Background were allowed steaks, pasta, potatoes, Caesar salad, chocolate covered strawberries, fresh milkshakes and pretty much anything else we wanted. I'd seen these types of long tables all over the city, and it was with some sadness that I realized I was now too overheated to enjoy my inclusion. I ate in silence, trying to keep out of the killing sunshine. Kelly returned for lunch. "They wanted me to do a lesbian make-out scene" she said sadly. She'd been in town for than less three days and already the city had shown her its seedy underbelly.

By three, the sun was slanting along the far wall and I needed a vacation. There seemed to be no way for the crew to monitor our comings and goings. In front of the Main Street entrance to The Smell, next to a portable AC unit with its massive outtake hose snaking through the back doors, I saw two forlorn Mexican men selling flowers and eating spaghetti out of Styrofoam boxes. Overhead, pigeons flew in and out of the old Linda Lea sign next door. In the 1960's, the LL theater had been a Japanese Chambara filmhouse, and its faded beauty remains for the observant. Before the Smell's shutdown by fire marshals, plans had been drawn up to buy the Linda Lea theater, knock down some walls and triple The Smell's size, making it a central venue for independent music, film, theater and performance. Now the sign stood as another cracked and spattered relic of ancient Los Angeles, a marker of lost possibilities.

I walked around to the small alley that fronts the club's entrance. There was a lot of debris here. In the absence of clubgoers' urine, chest-high weeds had flourished along the walls. I remembered a day I'd spent working at the place in the spring, when Anthony and I had to access the roof. After hoisting a 100 pound steel fan on a cherry picker, gently pulling aside barbed wire and bridging a two foot gap, we stood for a moment admiring the view, men for a day. Just across Main Street, a billboard for "The Core" had shined at us, and it had been obvious that was where we needed to go next: The Core. This nice moment now seemed inverted in humiliation as I returned to the shady, condom-strewn grove I'd discovered between the catering truck and a brick wall. I realized I had no idea who I was working for.

"Excuse me," I asked a passing crew member. "What's the name of this production company?" The woman looked at me with the hateful disdain of Hollywood middle-management and said, icily, "What?"



At dusk we were herded into The Smell. I had been warned that the place had been made unrecognizable. A large fake aluminum light rig bordered the stage, and the walls advertised fake graffiti dada;

NYHC
HATE
187
BLOOD BROTHERS
SCREW THE LAW
PAY TO CUM
NO WAVE
PROTEST & SURVIVE
LEFT TO SUFFER
REAGAN YOUTH

(much later I was to find out that most - but not all - of these slogans had been solicited from Anthony by the authenticity-famished production company; we both lamented that he hadn't slipped a "RAHOWA" on the list). Huge, red-gelled banks of lights pointed at the brick wall like space heaters, and within minutes all of us were dripping sweat. There was no respect for us background. Instead of even a “quiet on the set” - and when will I ever again get the opportunity to hear these words? - we were told to “shut the fuck up if you want to get paid”.

One of Holly Valance’s body doubles came out for light checks. The backup band had been carefully arranged onstage. There was the Fred Durst guy on guitar, the black bassist with dreadlocks and a Motorhead shirt who actually practiced his chops between takes, the butch lady keyboardist who seemed unhappy. Holly arrived to pooped applause. We'd seen her briefly after lunch, good-naturedly bantering with an interviewer at a catering table with a prop bag of fast food. On stage, she appeared nearly naked, an unripe android wearing only a skimpy miniskirt with a sleeveless, braless Ramones shirt slit down both sides. This would be her "punk" video. Staffers kept her breasts concealed with doubled sided tape.

Director Jake Nova arrived. Nova is know for having directed Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love “video, and this shoot was to be the same type of needlessly slutty affair. With one notable difference; Beyonce's song is exceptional and Holly's song is a piece of thudding ass plop. Jake waved his arms a lot and said things like “Ok people, I want to see lots of that crazy, rock-punk energy, wild, wild, wild… just keep moooving” He struck me as one of those fellows about whom it is impossible to tell if they are Australian or British. Smoke machines spewed. Fake set lists were scrawled. With the crew high on stress and the background high on heatstroke, unreality set in and leapt and careened to the cheap music.

The song stopped for a few minutes while technicians frantically checked light levels. I scanned the walls of this now unfamiliar room with a heavy heart. The last band to play the club had been The Whip, four months before their drummer Scott Jernigan was killed in a boating accident. Fire inspectors had arrived after their set, the wages of more tragedy in Rhode Island. This whole video shoot seemed terribly disrespectful to the chain of events that lead to its happening in this building in the first place.

Things went ugly during the “mosh pit” scene. Background were arranged in a circle around a writhing Holly. Stagehands sprayed Holly's arms and face with glycerin for a postcoital sheen, the song was again pumped and we all jumped and surged like morons in a music video. At some point I slipped into the Frankenstein dance. I don't know what this involved, and I haven't been able to replicate it for friends. I think I was on the verge of a stroke at that point, I'm not sure. I do know that I wasn't very happy with the way my life was going at that moment. After the first take I was yanked by an angry cameraman. “We ‘ad our lit’le chat about those lights, din’t we?” he said mysteriously. Not yet knowing that my favorite shirt had been ripped, I felt some relief. More than 1/800th of a second's exposure was more participation than I wanted. Suddenly Jake Nova parted the crowd, pointing at me. “you... Cowboy Bub!" My smile wilted. "Ay... like... yer... ENAGY! Back in!”

After a second dance of doom, this one with Holly Valance wrapped around my leg, Background was allowed backstage. We were greeted by the other end of that lifesaving air conditioning hose I'd seen a few hours earlier. Kelly and I sat, depressed. Scotty's Bodies cheerfully discussed their upcoming gigs.

Afterwards, waiting for our checks, I made a move for a final fistful of catering cookies. "Actually," the woman of hateful professionalism told me, "those are for crew." I collected my $125 check and wrangled an additional $30 from a bald man carrying an impossibly large bankroll, reimbursement for my destroyed cowboy shirt. I did some math. $125 (pay) plus $30 (shirt) minus $8 (parking) minus $5 (wagering) = $142. At thirteen hours, that gave me $10.92/hr, probably union wages in Iowa. So why did I feel dishonored? As if sensing my confusion, a crew member, an American, yelled at me from across the thinning lot. “Holy SHIT dude, I can’t wait to see that fuckin’ Frankenstein dance!! Man your eyes were rolling back in your head bro!”

Postscript: I've since seen the video, and my dance has been recorded, although I'm on screen for less than 24 frames. I can also safely say that the video is misogynist, misanthropic, and the crummiest crumb of crap ever to have tumbled from God's ass. Jake Nova and Holly Valance and myself and all of humanity should be deeply embarrassed.

Except that I am now pulling my Good Deed card. The Smell made almost three months rent. This one goes down as a positive mark on my permanent record.

Plus, it's only being aired in Europe.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

N.O.T.F.15.A.W.M.I.H 2003

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Mar. 9 - This originally posted on vermiform.com, 2/17/03

NOTES ON THE FEBRUARY 15 ANTI WAR MARCH IN HOLLYWOOD

One exits the Hollywood & Vine Red Line stop, with its walls of metal movie reels and aluminum palm trees, and emerges into the light at the actual corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine street. There are a lot of people here! There is a man dressed as a mummy! The weather is nice! All the police officers are good looking!

One is thankful to live in a place where the protest starts not with a somber, snow-draped view of the Capital Building, but a sunny, shorts & t-shirt view of the Capitol Building (as in Capitol Records). The march heads west. Occasional disdainful rocker dudes can be seen from various doorways. The march continues down Hollywood for almost a dozen blocks, passing a barrage of landmarks - Musso & Franks, the Egyptian, the Scientology center, The El Capitan, the Kodak & Grauman’s Chinese theaters. Several different spellings of the word “worgy” can be seen in the signs above the throng. Happy guys sell overpriced souvenirs and star maps from the sidelines. America is great! Fuck you, Al-Qaeda!

For some reason, the event seems far more pleasant than January’s antiwar march in downtown Los Angeles. Perhaps the initial pressure for drama has been removed. This is not the largest march by a longshot (Rob Reiner is the speaker and he hasn’t had a hit in years). DC’s march is many times larger. European capitals are mobbed. Also, the difference of just a few weeks has seemed to infuse far more regular people into the proceedings. The craggy lifers are still here - handing out their flyers attacking shadowy “U.S. bosses” and other antiwar groups and even the events’ own speakers – but their soul-draining humorlessness is not the tone of the day. They’ve been outnumbered by the normal folk.

The march turns south on Hawthorn, which has only two lanes and no landmarks. One overhears the phrase “cockamamie side street” muttered. A man clearly old enough to know better (he has a beard) starts chanting slogans that make the surrounding crowd laugh uncomfortably. “Defend worker’s Iraq”, the man cries. “Defend North Korea from capitalism!” One shares a look of mock horror with their pal Anthony as a middle aged white woman stops rapping through a bullhorn long enough to declare over three hundred million people are marching on Rome!!

Although these scenes seem familiar, there are noticeable differences between 2003 and that last Chinese zodiacal Year Of The Sheep, 1991. There are definitely more signs using bad words now. And more people have Photoshop and fancy laser printers these days (resolving that nagging question of what NSA head Condoleeza Rice would look like in an SS cap). But there are also no counter-protestors to be seen, a strange omission. The big goony guys in flag hats are elsewhere, at home maybe, watching football. Does the silent majority really care about Iraq? Only the planners of this future war seem to have any real enthusiasm for their position.

The march is squeezed off Hawthorne onto the even skinnier Orange drive. Blocks away, one can still hear the white woman rapping. Finally, the rally is dispersed onto Sunset Boulevard, where somber protesters in front of an IHOP hold aloft a banner reading SADDAM = PANCAKES and many signs advertise the new DMX “Cradle 2 The Grave” soundtrack, which will be in stores February 18th.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Super Soaker Flash Flood Blaster 2006

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Mar. 1 - This originally posted on sammcpheeters.com on 3/13/06.

Hasbro's Super Soaker Flash Flood Blaster retails for $19.99 and is designed to resemble the weaponry of the future. Its hard plastic handle and trigger are set between two goofily oversized storage tanks that, between them, can hold up to forty ounces of punishing water. The packaging, covered in pictures of squealing adolescent boys, boasts that the SSFFB is “The ORIGINAL High Performance Blaster” with “Drenching FLASH FLOOD mode or High Powered Streams!” and “CPS”, which stands for “Constant Pressure System”. The box includes a handful of Soaker Tag Elite Body Targets, which look like strange nicotine patches and are for use in frolicking and joshing around.

My business with the device at 2AM on a recent Wednesday involved neither frolicking nor joshing around. A mockingbird had set up shop in the back yard. During the days it slept, or harassed other neighborhoods. At midnight it let loose with an apocalyptic barrage of screeches and shrieks. Sometime halfway through the early morning hours the bird switched to trills, piercing modem spikes that hurt - physically and emotionally – and were high enough to cut through any earplug on the market. Sleep was out of the question. It could go on like this for eight hours, an avian filibuster that was part personal ad, part Craigslist Rant. If it's true that the mockingbird mimics other animals, I hope I never meet the nightmare H.P. Lovecraft creatures this one associated with.

And mockingbirds do have powerful friends. It shouldn't surprise anyone that this haughty little swine is the state bird of both Texas and Florida. What does shock is the animal's continued protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. To kill one is to risk a $15,000 fine and/or 6 months in federal prison. Same goes for nests and eggs. The patient hunter must either employ surgical caution, or slay and obliterate with one shot. Having never actually seen the mockingbird gave it more authority over my life; searching by flashlight only drove the monster into car alarm mode. Anything could have been lurking in that tree. It occurred to me that I had chosen a child's toy for a job requiring the lance of St. George.

Was the Super Soaker Flash Flood Blaster up to the task? Of all the raw elements a gun can shoot – fire, rocks, electricity, hatred – water seemed a wimpy choice of ammo. Still, I could respect its heft. The SSFFB had a nice, heavy grip, like an experimental Navy weapon. Standing in the unfamiliar darkness of my own back yard, it was not hard to picture a high-powered beam of projectile kinetic energy slicing through tree limbs and power lines and rooftops. Legs spread, aiming in the general direction of the disturbance (at that moment alternating screams and 'gaw-gaws' mimicking a torture session at the city zoo), I braced for the recoil.

And here is the first product flaw. For each shot, the Super Soaker Flash Flood Blaster has to be primed thirty times by pumping a long plastic shaft. The squealing adolescent boys on the product box must be very comfortable with their own sexuality. For those hunting the evil that lurks in darkness, the downtime between shots in inexcusable. It took a half minute of pleasuring the weapon to squeeze off a single blast. If this were wartime, or the civil disintegration that seems inevitable, I would have already been beaten to death with my own hardware.

There is a lot of room for a small bird to hide. The house dates back to 1914 and its tree, a massive California Oak that shades half the yard, must be several decades older still. Lovers’ initials have long since sunk into bark. Branches reach in all directions. One of its three master limbs arches over the neighbors yard, and it is in this region the mockingbird likes to hide, forcing me to shoot onto someone else's property. This is Flaw Two. The Super Soaker has an impressive reach of 35 feet, but on a tree this size that's pretty much where the canopy starts. I need a water gun that can blast three times as far. And forty ounces of water would be impressive only in a single shot; at one point I contemplated buying a trunkload of 40 ounce malt liquors and hurling each into the dark branches.

Perspective can fail in these situations. Pumping and firing in a groggy rage, only part of me understood that this struggle was on the low end of many ultimate battles being waged across the planet. Although I proudly support Rhode Island's economy by buying Hasbro whenever possible, tiny type on the packaging warned me that the actual product had been manufactured in China, presumably by imprisoned Falun Gongers. Elsewhere on the packaging, the slogan “unleash a tidal wave” had been carefully concealed by a box-colored sticker, out of respect for the victims of 2004's Indian Ocean tsunami. I thought about these things as I cased the tree for footholds, choreographing my ascent up the trunk to club the bird to death with the Super Soaker itself. Things could be worse.

Except; sleep is a human right. Amnesty International gets involved when there's not enough sleep. And this is both the bird's offense and defense. By the time it gets going, it's too late to fight back. On this particular Wednesday night I finally understood the nature of my enemy, that the bird itself was the Lovecraft villain, something sent from beyond time and space. As with all Earthly firearms, the SSFFB is inadequate firepower. With heaviness in my heart and drippy munitions, I retired to the living room floor, stopples in my ears, sorrow in my heart, and my weapon of choice not yet invented.