Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pop culture made specifically for me

Kate "Oates" McCucci and Riki "Garfunkel" Lindhome in their IFC series. Also: a baby.

That's all of us. We're all jerks.
We all start out from a place of pure and perfect narcissism. As babies, we first acquire a sense of our own existence, and only later do we realize that -- hey! -- there are other people in the world, too, and they have thoughts and needs and opinions, just like we do. Theirs aren't as important as ours, but we have to care about them anyway or at least pretend to care for reasons of social convenience. That's the entire basis of human civilization -- people acting like they give a shit about other people. It's an extremely precarious situation; society could topple over in a light breeze, folks. Selfishness is our natural state. It's our eternal default. Sympathy and empathy have to be learned, and we have to work on them our whole lives... and that's only if we want to! Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we try and fail. And sometimes, we don't even want to try. That's why I say I'm a believer in what I call "the essential rottenness of the human race." The rottenness is easy to understand, and it's the root cause of wars, crime, bigotry, and all sorts of cruelty. If you're lucky, you have five working senses with which to take in information about the world and one functional brain with which to process that information. You'll never see with anyone else's eyes, hear with anyone else's ears, or think with anyone else's brain. It's only natural, then, that there will be many, many occasions in which we misunderstand each other or disregard one another's needs in favor of our own. I see it in my own life all the time. I can be a completely selfish, nasty, and inconsiderate bastard... and with very little prompting, too. It's not that I want to be one, mind you. Even at my worst, I'm trying to be a good guy. I just don't always (or even often) make it. Other people make niceness seem easy and natural, i.e. not a herculean effort. I envy them. I'll fess up to being a jerk, but I take no pride in my jerkishness. At the same time, I try to forgive others for their jerkishness. That's why I avoid using the term "self-indulgent." Whom can we indulge if not ourselves? Ultimately, no matter what you do, there's some internal motivation for your actions, some need or desire within yourself you are trying to satisfy. Who knows? Maybe Mother Teresa was being self-indulgent when she worked with lepers.

These are basically me at ages 10 and 8, respectively.
As a self-described narcissist , one of my persistent fantasies is that there are certain pop cultural artifacts -- mainly movies, but sometimes books, TV shows, or albums -- which are created specifically for me. The target demographic for these things is Joe Blevins and no one else. If other people like it, great. But Joe is the person we're trying to reach. I realize this is an absurd notion. If a movie or show reaches the public in any kind of mass-produced way, it's because some corporate weasels somewhere think there is a market for it. And this hoped-for market consists of multiple people, ideally thousands or millions of them, not one individual citizen. But, still, its a comforting, reassuring daydream. And it really does explain a lot of pop culture stuff that I enjoy. Before the music industry collapsed and people stopped buying CDs, I can remember long, leisurely trips to a (now long-gone) hipster record store. I'd stroll up and down the aisles, just browsing through the merchandise and occasionally being stunned by what I found. That process led me to the Orgy of the Dead soundtrack album, compilations by forgotten 1950s novelty acts like Nervous Norvus and Patience & Prudence, and two collections of quiz show themes, not to mention the entire canon of the faux-greaser gimmick group Big Daddy. I figured, who else but me would even want this stuff? Naturally, this delusion extends to motion pictures. Every year, I try to select one movie which is geared so specifically to my tastes, interests, and fetishes that I like to pretend it was made just for me. Past honorees of this nature include Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Femme Fatale, Punch Drunk Love, The Royal Tenenbaums, Frost/Nixon, and Room 237. I don't even care what you thought of these. They weren't for you; they were for me and me alone. I knew Tenenbaums was "mine" from the second I saw the poster, because Ben Stiller's two sons look exactly like what I looked like as a kid. It was like seeing a family photo in the marquee of a multiplex. How could I not endorse that movie? This year's most likely candidate for the award? Probably the criminally underrated Muppets Most Wanted. No lie. That film is an incredible achievement.

All paranoid delusions aside, there were two cases in 2014 which made me feel like maybe pop culture was being made specifically for me.

Case #1: Garfunkel & Oates' TV show

Kate McCucci and Riki Lindhome brought their act from YouTube to IFC in 2014.

Way back in 2009, when I first saw comedy folk duo Garfunkel & Oates singing "Pregnant Women are Smug" on YouTube in a grainy, underlit homemade video, I thought, "This should be a TV show." And from there, I immediately started embroidering upon that original thought and began "designing" the imaginary TV show in my mind. It should be very loosely based on their real lives, I decided, with the two ladies basically portraying themselves or "TV versions" of themselves: touring musicians who perform risque acoustic folk songs at small theaters and comedy clubs. But it should be heavily fictionalized, too, and occasionally go off on surreal tangents whenever necessary. The tone of the show should generally be sweet and optimistic, but there should be moments of darkness, too, with cheerfully bawdy humor throughout. It should be a weirder, hipper Laverne & Shirley for the new millennium, cross-bred with Flight of the Conchords. The look of the series, meanwhile, should be bright and colorful -- a heightened reality just short of cartoonishness but pleasant to look at. And, of course, there should be guest stars aplenty: cool people from the indie comedy and music scenes. Well, folks, Garfunkel & Oates is just about to wrap up its first season on IFC, and the existing series is uncannily like what I wanted to see back in 2009. Even the show's title sequence seems like a direct nod to Laverne & Shirley, and the roster of guest stars includes Tig Notaro, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Toby Huss, Abby Elliott, and more. This is the clearest example of the Gods of Popular Culture giving me exactly what I wished for. Or at least it was until I found out about...

Case #2: A whole movie about Margaret and Walter Keane

A classic Keane "big eyes" painting from the early 1960s

Tim Burton is really doing a movie about "big eyes" paintings. Yep.
While growing up, I was certainly aware of the so-called "big eyes" paintings of Margaret and Walter Keane, even if I didn't know or care who actually painted them. I'm sure I saw knockoffs of them at thrift stores and flea markets. Then, in 1987, "Weird Al" did a song called "Velvet Elvis" which mentioned "pictures of Mexican kids with those really big eyes" among other examples of tacky wall art. But I wasn't fascinated by these works until I stumbled across a book called The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (Harper Collins, 1990) by Jane and Michael Stern. The Sterns devote two full pages to an entry on "KEANE, MARGARET AND WALTER," and it was there that I learned the truly weird story behind these iconic and much-mocked paintings. Basically, a man and his wife built an incredibly lucrative business in the 1960s out of paintings of children with ludicrously outsized eyeballs. Their work was utterly rejected by the conventional art world, so they built a cottage industry all on their own and made a fortune. Then, at the height of their fame, they split up... acrimoniously. A subsequent trial revealed that the credit for these paintings was very much in dispute, with the wife claiming that all of them were her work, including those credited to her husband. The court proceedings, as described by the Sterns, were highly theatrical, dramatic, and ultimately ridiculous, with Walter Keane emerging as the kind of scoundrel rarely seen outside of Saturday morning kids shows. I thought of him being like the Peculiar Purple Pieman from Strawberry Shortcake. (Hey, my older sister watched that show, okay?) I knew the story of Walter and Margaret Keane needed to be a film, but I figured that the story was too weird and "niche" to get the coveted green light. But now, in 2014, my dreams have come true. Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, is scheduled for release on Christmas Day. The film shares its creative team with Ed Wood (1994): director Tim Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. I simply cannot believe that this movie exists. But it does. And, come hell or high water, I'm going to see it at the earliest possible opportunity and will probably love it even if it stinks. Because, after all, it was made just for me.


  1. Not that you need to know this, but I'm excited about Big Eyes, too. I can't remember the last time I was looking forward to a Tim Burton film this much.

    1. I like to think of this film as much-needed antidote to most of what he's been doing in the last decade, i.e. Alice in Wonderland, a film I liked less and less the more I thought about it. (Did you know there's a scene in that movie of the Mad Hatter doing a pop-and-lock dance routine? There is. It's so cringe-worthy it's become an Internet meme.) The last Tim Burton joint I really liked was Sweeney Todd, though I know some Sondheim purists felt very differently.

      Anyway, if Big Eyes turns out well, I'm willing to let bygones be bygones.

    2. Gah. I swear, the first time the Mad Hatter mentioned that he had a favorite dance that he never got to do anymore, I knew two things: 1) He would eventually get to do it. And 2) I would hate it on sight.