Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween is a Sexy Pumpkin Costume Time

Of all the U.S. holidays, Halloween has shown the most growth in terms of overall market share. Nobody even knows why we celebrate Halloween any more, unless you happen to be a scholar of 16th-century Gaelic Pagan festivals. We just want to bring on the sexy!

So whether you're dressed as a sexy caterpillar,

a sexy penguin,

a sexy squid,

a sexy elephant,

or a sexy hamster wearing sexy sportswear...

...because nothing implies sexy like a hamster—have a glorious all hallows eve, you sexy, sexy pumpkin. And don't forget your Popeye-like foofy legwarmer accessories. They make the costume!

Hey there, sexy pumpkin lady

Thursday, October 24, 2013

First Female Sasquatch Sighted - Photos

Every time someone spies a Bigfoot, we all just assume it's a GUY. These photos beg to differ! Large, hirsute and fashionably attired, this lady Sasquatch is ready for a night out in the forest.

Female Bigfoot's stiletto heel-print is further proof that she is stylin' from head to toe.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Movies You May Have Missed - Baadasssss! (2003)

When taking into account labors of love, Mario Van Peebles' Baadasssss! ranks high. No one is as uniquely qualified to make a movie about his father, Melvin Van Peebles' story of going to hell and back to make his groundbreaking independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Mario, as a teen, played young Sweetback in his dad's film. In Baadasssss!, he portrays his father, and his relationship with his intense, artistic dad is woven throughout the Homeric odyssey that was Sweetback. Mind-fuck!

Melvin Van Peebles is a director, writer, composer and visual artist, who once conducted cable cars in San Francisco. All of these jobs require focus and drive. Now 81 years old, he is still not messing around. He fronts his own band, and is currently headlining his first art show in New York.

Melvin had directed his first studio feature, Watermelon Man in 1970, and rather than continue making more comedies for mass consumption ("How about 'Fried Chicken Man'?" suggests his agent in Baadasssss!), Van Peebles wrote a movie he wanted to not only make, but see. Disgusted by the derogatory African American stereotypes Hollywood had been churning out for decades, 1970 was the perfect time for his cinematic vision. War, assassinations, systematic oppression—people were fed up and tired of feeling that way. Van Peebles' artistic antennae were out, taking it all in. Hollywood, typically, was ten years behind the times.

Sweetback would never be funded by the studio system. It would have to be independent (with the help of a last-minute Hail Mary $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby). When it was released, only two U.S. theaters would initially show it. No papers would accept advertisements for it due to an X rating. Melvin composed all the music for the film (with then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire, who were living in a one-room apartment at the time), and pre-released a soundtrack album as an unprecedented marketing promotion. Huey P. Newton would end up endorsing the film as revolutionary and it became required viewing for new Black Panther recruits. It became the highest grossest independent film of all time and ushered in an era of black action heroes, embraced by the paying movie public.

All film students, if they're attending a decent school, learn of Sweetback because it really did help change the face and business of cinema forever. It ushered in (for better or worse) the popular studio-run blaxploitation genre, And would open the door for more gritty "naturalistic" films directed by mavericks who wanted to tell stories from the street level, including Spike Lee, who is quoted as saying, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film (a real movie), distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid."

Sweetback is as much a sound collage and visual montage, as a portrait of a man on a surreal run from corrupt Johnny Law. The title character, (played by Melvin because he couldn't use union hires or find experienced actors who would settle for only six lines of dialogue), as an orphan growing up in a brothel, uses sex rather than violence as his power. (The very graphic sex scenes ironically kept my film professors from screening the film in class.) Sweetback becomes a folk hero who's running through a nightmare of jarring jump cuts, multiple exposures, disjointed musical and sound cues, frame-within-frame shots, and all manner of strange angles and pistol-whipping mayhem to portray the nightmare of corruption and racism on the streets. It's poetry, jazz riff, gospel choir, and peep show in one, and for the first time in film history at that time, he gets away. He is the hero.

Baadasssss! is the re-enactment of the making Sweetback, as well as a boy-bonds-with-his-father story. But there's another great component: the  trauma and heartbreak of creating a film from start to finish. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go into labor and bring forth new life? The closest thing I can compare it to is working on a low-budget feature. And after the birth, you're not done! There's still distribution and the hope of regaining some of your money back. Your work is never done, raising children, or in filmmaking.

And now:

Mario as Melvin with his ever-present cigar. He looks a lot like his dad, and intercuts actual footage from Sweetback in clever ways for more authenticity. His father's only directive before production, "Don't make me too nice." Mario concurred, portraying his dad as a charismatic, driven, difficult, stubborn, frightening, intense and draining man. Funding this biopic was no doubt a difficult task.

Melvin writes his screenplay. I'm working on a screenplay now and my brain feels just like this. How do you make the act of writing cinematic? With a days-long montage and a stroll into a mirror of neighborhood characters—one of the few effects shots, perhaps in honor of Melvin's many effects shots in Sweetback.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 70s. This was a low-budget independent film, like its predecessor—not an easy thing for a period production. Good set design lets you thoroughly know where you are in time and place.

Rainn Philips as Bill, the hippie who wants to be an executive producer. He adds the element of goofiness in every scene, including his attempts at finding financial backing through the counter-culture.

Look at these guys. The guy on the right's definitely on MDMA and wants to finance a movie that will "change human consciousness not only horizontally but vertically" (I paraphrase). His lawyer on the left looks like Night Stalker killer Richard Ramirez. The romance of producing a film definitely ends here.

One of Melvin's directives for Sweetback is to include the people he grew up with, from Chicago's South Side, to South Central L.A. "All the people Norman Rockwell never painted."

Another crucial element - a crew that would reflect the diversity of the U.S. Not only were the studio bosses solidly white but so were the unions. Most of his crew would be new to filmmaking and working under the radar to avoid union fines. They pretended to be making a porn film, which wasn't union mandated—truly underground, guerrilla cinema.

Casting call - young Mario (Klheo Thomas) is taking it all in on the counter-top right. His dad would cast him as young Sweetback, placing him in the raw opening scene, losing his virginity with a prostitute. For Sweetback, sex is his power (as much power a poor, silent-man-running can have). But I can't imagine Mario at 14 felt powerful making that scene. Thomas, a very good child actor, has a talent for projecting his inner emotional world, whether he has dialogue or not.

Melvin confronts his alter-ego—his own self-doubt, before shooting without sufficient funds. Over the course of the production he will lose almost everything, his savings, his family, his sight. But somehow never his drive and vision. A genius-or-madman situation.

Anyone who doubts Melvin's artistry—look at his title. Only an artist could come up with such a name. Yet he made all his money back and then some. Rare.

Baadasssss! has a brilliantly edited scene of Sweetback's opening night in Detroit. Melvin, in his DVD interview, likens it to "two-legged horse race." The agony and ecstasy of seeing your art on the big screen while praying to some unheeding God that someone will show up to see your work is all encapsulated here.

According to Melvin, he stood clear so Mario could tell the story his own way. Most fathers would have a hard time doing that and it's a form of collaboration, in a way.

Melvin Van Peebles

Baadasssss! trailer (with *sigh* white narrator)

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song trailer

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Playland-Not-At-The-Beach all-you-can-play pinball and more

I don't have a lot of vices (anymore) so how do I expand my mind to escape the mundane tasks of everyday life? I choose Playland-Not-At-The-Beach in El Cerrito, California. A museum, historical arcade, magic-show theater, diorama exhibit space and home to the Eartha Kitt Fan Club. Yes, I know, it's like a dream on Earth.

Pay your entry fee, then play free pinball until you get repetitive-stress disorder (I'm typing with it right now!). Nostalgia buffs and arcade hounds—welcome home. An homage to San Francisco's long-gone Playland At The Beach amusement park, Playland NATB is a labor of love and perhaps obsession, combined with magical realism. Bring the entire family (probably not toddlers—let's be realistic), and everyone will no doubt have a good time.

I was so busy playing pinball I didn't take many photos. But that's good—better to do than to chronicle, in this case. Plus the lighting can be tricky. Playland's 9,000-foot labyrinth-like warehouse has four arcades dedicated to pinball. Two are dark rooms with glowing lights coming from the games or from blacklight (for 3D pinball action). Plus my hands were trembling from all the excitement. ALL-YOU-CAN-PLAY-PINBALL! Although my forearms are beyond sore, it was totally worth it.

Many machines are of the ancient variety. Gottlieb's Gigi is from 1963. Here, we see the center clown being tormented by Gigi, who's a stand-in for Marilyn Monroe. I'm sure no one wanted to pay licensing fees to have a real rendition of Marilyn Monroe torturing a clown with her explosive sexuality. This is just as good, if not better.

It's very satisfying to hear the ding ding ding bong! of actual bells as the balls bop around on these old machines. The flippers can be weak though, so don't expect a ton of macho pinball action on these classic models. Unless you have special tilt-avoiding skills, which I don't. I play good, clean, straight pinball, and that's why I scored a big 320 here. The oldest machine I played on was Barnacle Bill from 1948 and it featured a sailor entering a cathouse. Those were fun times all right!


Flipper buttons on side of cabinet, just so you know.

There's plenty of murals and dioramas at Playland. This is a detail of a 32-foot-long mural by Dan Fontes and Ed Cassel, dedicated to the original Playland and its beach environs. I did attend the original Playland but I was only three or four, so I don't remember the experience. My Mom went as a child. It was very much a staple of the San Francisco's Ocean Beach for decades. The site where it stood is a condominium complex now. I bet you didn't see that coming.

Doggie Diner head looming, God-like, over Playland At The Beach

This is the very fun, Laff in the Dark blacklight arcade of games. Jackson and I love Monster Bash (on the far left). We play that one every chance we get at our local Mountain Mike's Pizza, where the pizza sucks, but the pinball is divine. Monster Bash has models of MGM classic movie-monsters and they pop out and talk to you, especially when you hit them with the ball. The Bride of Frankenstein's head pops up. Dracula complains when you hit him. The Frankenstein monster rises. The mummy emerges from his tomb. There's bloopy sound effects when you land in the Black Lagoon. And all the monsters apparently play in a classic rock band, mixed with theremin music and incidental suspense sounds. I'm telling you: Monster Bash rules.


Jackson likes Monster Bash, and how!

Also in the blacklight room is the excellent Scared Stiff machine, featuring Elvira. Little rubber monsters act as bumpers, and if you hit a crate it releases a whole bunch of balls (or "Spiders!" as Elvira exclaims). You have to hit them back in the crate. There's some kind of skeleton ramp thing—very clever. On matching numbers at the end of the game, Elvira's hand switches a remote and an animated television screen changes channels until you get a match (or more often not, but who cares? Free play!).

This spider spins and you stop it with a flipper—kind of like creepy roulette

Skeleton ramp thing

This is a cool older machine, Haunted House from 1982. It has three levels of play, one of which is a trap-door room, under glass with flippers that point toward you. Oh, it's a challenge!

More favorite pinball machines (not shown): Pinball Magic with magnetic wand, glowing crystal ball and seemingly endless play when I gave it a go; Jackson's favorite, Cirqus Voltaire, with its evil green ringmaster that rises from the playing area until hit with the ball; Rollercoaster Tycoon, think: ramps, lots of ramps, plus bouncy, encouraging troll doll; and the most absurd game in my opinion, Lord of the Rings. What could be more antithetical to pinball than Lord of the Rings?

See for yourself—an epic Middle Earth pinball adventure!

Besides all the pinball your wrists can take, Playland features an ol' fashioned arcade full of games made of wood and metal that require eye-hand coordination and balance, some penny-viewing machines with 3D photos of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and one of those hand-crank movie machines. And don't forget the skeeball lane and the last gasp of Fascination.

Fascination is anything but—a sort of ball-rolling bingo game that is very difficult to find now, but used to be a staple of Playland. There was actually a Market Street arcade in San Francisco called Fascination up until sometime in the 1980s. Sullen teenage boys used to hang out there every afternoon. Gone! All gone now. Whither, Fascination...

There are plenty of art displays and dioramas at Playland as well, including a room dedicated to the circus and sideshow. There's a wing filled with the world of Charles Dickens, a San Francisco diorama with seaport, and Santa's Village. All are behind glass. You push buttons to make the mechanics happen. I'm telling you, it's a good time. I made a brief film of the Dark Mystery diorama—a very impressive view of a haunted town with ghost ships, alien mountain ranges, a spooky amusement park and drive-in movie theater. Can you see the life-sized Laughing Sal reflected in the window?

Friday, October 04, 2013

All the way with the Oakland A's - Superfan Roundup

The Oakland Athletics have made the grade once again. Congratulations, AL West Champs! And now the playoff series begins. Here is a fine team to root for with excellent team dynamics, plenty of charisma, humor and humility. And superfans with enough time on their hands to go the extra mile for their team. Photos below.

I'm not going to write a bunch of facts on the A's. Looks like big media is finally picking up on their story, after the entire season has almost come to an end—right on time. The A's, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, don't get no respect. I hope they win and win big because they're more than deserving. When I watch the A's, I'm reminded of the spirit of baseball—that almost magical alchemy that comes from the field of good play, good intentions, good heart and of course, ability.

Hat's off.

Big-head A's racers - like Mardi Gras every home game

A crafty superfan - make this with items you find around the house

I hope this guy's a real fireman and not just pretending - still, good helmet

The dream parade

Almost scary, but mostly absurd

And these guys... A+

Any team that has Coco Crisp is a worth rooting for.