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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christmas Present Revue

Or Review. This is an annual feature in which I brag about my Christmas presents. As always, the four main present groups -- books, movies, music, and software -- were well-represented, but this year's haul has something different: a theme!

And our theme is: cruel mockery of the past.

We begin with this year's popular favorite, James Lileks's Mommy Knows Worst: Highlights from the Golden Age of Parenting. I was a bit disappointed in his last book, Interior Desecrations, mostly because it was too short (maybe the all-color illustrations shot the cost way up). Also, some of the interiors were not really hideous enough.

Here, though, is a rich vein of horror in glorious gray and darker gray. Dismal childbirth rooms in which all surfaces are covered by newspapers, which was apparently the cleanest substance available in some poorer homes. Frightening contraptions for airing, sunning, bathing, and entertaining baby, and pinning back his annoying, obtrusive ears. Gag-inducing meat by-products and meat by-product stretchers. Car baby seats, guaranteed to fling Junior into oncoming traffic, if the unpadded metal tubing doesn't impale him first.

Part of the fun of Regrettable Food and Interior Desecrations was seeing bits of my own childhood mocked: the jello salads, the faux-country decor. But I'm too young for most of this stuff. I considered getting this book for my mother, but decided against it. There are too many naughty bits for Grandma, although I wonder what she'd make of it. Mom was born at home, and I'm curious to know whether she was born in an iron bedstead with boxes around the legs (Lileks facetiously suggests they keep the bed from floating away when the water breaks, but I wonder if they're meant to keep out the ants), or in the kitchen, with a big enamel tub set aside for "emergency", whatever that might mean. Emergency fetus disposal, I'm guessing. Brrr.

In all, a very enlightening yet terrifying read.

Next we turn to Happy Kitty Pony Bunny, which I keep calling Happy Kitty Boney Punny, so beware of brain glitches. This is a Lileks rip-off, in that it presents a bunch of seemingly-innocuous images from bygone days and shows us the fetid dark side that slithers just below the surface. In this case, the images are of cute kitties, ponies, bunnies, and other friendly childhood icons. The (too sparse) commentary in this case is by Michael J. Nelson of MST3K fame. The book as a whole is "the result of over two decades of work by the Charles S. Anderson Design Company", which -- I'm sorry -- is just really sad. The CSADC is headquartered in Minneapolis, which explains where they got Mike Nelson. Poor guy must be hard up for work. I empathize.

Anyhow, Mike's commentary suggests that behind the enormous kitten eyes lurks the mind of a Bond villain, and reminds us that pretty ponies have gigantic teeth that can easily rend human flesh. Occasionally the pictures show us mounted Bambi heads, chainsaw-wielding squirrels, and cute l'il baby animals contemplating a tasteful pile of poo. 'Cause, you know, these things are ironic.

I was with Niles when he bought this book. I did try to dissuade him.

And, finally, there's Reefer Madness. This is a colorized (boo! hiss!) version of the cult classic from Off-Color Films. The original B&W version is on the disk, too, but it doesn't give you the audio track by Mike Nelson (yes! him again!).

I'd never seen this old chestnut all the way through. It's a short 1936 film on the dangers of "marihuana". It starts with a crawl even more boring, and yet far clearer, than that which opens Revenge of the Sith. The actual movie begins with a pinched-faced old coot (Dr. Carroll) gassing away to an audience of PTA types who act as if they'd all toked up before the meeting. At random intervals the director apparently urges them to show some life signs, and they all turn to each other and start nodding like drinking birds. The story really begins when Carroll says he's going to tell us about a kid he knows...

Mary is a high school student, and high school student Bill is sweet on her. She has a high school brother, Jimmy. Also hankering after Mary is Ralph, a pot fiend who helps Blanche and her assistant/squeeze/boss, hatchet-faced serial snacker Jack, lure high school students to Blanche's apartment to introduce them to Mr. Weed. Another hanger-on at Blanche's is Mae, who might be Ralph's girlfriend, but it's hard to tell.

Jimmy frequents the corner malt shop, which doubles as a haunt for the drug dealers. A malt shop is Satan's Foyer, kids. Never forget that. The pot pushers have no trouble luring Jimmy into their web. At one point, having borrowed Mary's car, he takes Jack out to get more "product". Stoned out of his gourd, he runs down an old man and speeds off.

His sister Mary, on the other hand, will have nothing to do with the "older" crowd, and cheerfully brushes them off. Bill, too, is virtuous, until one day the gang catches him unawares at the malt shop, preying upon his natural politeness to get him to come along.

They go over to Blanche's apartment, which as usual is filled with grass guzzlers, undergoing spasms which they believe to be dance moves. Bill is disgusted at first, but Mae offers him a joint, which he politely takes, and soon he's giggling and twitching with the veterans. And he's instantly hooked.

His schoolwork suffers, and we get another appearance by Dr. Carroll, from the beginning, who's principal of Bill's school, or something. Carroll is concered about Bill, and tries to draw him out, to no avail. I figure he would've tried harder, but realized that he'd be missing out on an opportunity for some sour-pussed moralizing, so lets it drop.

One day Bill is over at Blanche's when the dancing and the toking are in high gear. Bill pulls the classic smooooth mooove of dancing Mae into the bedroom where, we are led to surmise, weed-fueled coitus occurs, after which Bill and Mae climb back into their unwrinkled clothing and stand around awkwardly.

Meanwhile, the cops are investigating the hit and run. They have a partial plate, which matches Mary's car. She denies lending the car to anyone, and they totally buy her story. She then legs it over to the malt shop, where the soda jerk, aka Satan's Bartender, gives her Blanche's address. Jimmy's not there when she arrives, but the lugubrious Ralph says he'll be back soon, so sit down, relax, have a smoke.

Mary takes a few tokes and gets all giggly. This is Ralph's cue to begin pawing at her. She screams and writhes and scratches, but she can't manage to get away from the dopey, fumble-fingered clod. About this time Bill staggers back into the living room, and in his reefer madness, believes that Mary is willingly undressing herself for Ralph, right there on the couch. Somehow, this is supposed to make him more enraged than out-and-out rape, and he launches himself at Ralph. Jack takes out his piece and advances, meaning to pistol-whip Bill, but Bill's too fast for him, and they wrestle for the gun.

Now, here we know someone is going to catch some hot lead. Will it be Bill? Will it be Jack? Will it be Mae, standing dully in the bedroom doorway? Or perhaps Blanche, dithering behind Jack? Or, at an outside chance, will the two men turn, and hit Ralph? But NO! The bullet travels at a right angle to the axis the two men are making, gets about ten feet, and makes another right angle downward, and it's Mary, swooning face-down on the couch, who is awarded the booby prize. And she's dead, Jimmy. (Who isn't there to witness it.)

Jack, showing admirable sang-froid, quickly frames Bill for the deed, then moseys over to the malt shop to tell Jimmy that his hit-and-run victim has died (which we know to be a lie), but that Jack will be big enough to keep it under his hat, if Jimmy won't ever say anything about being in the apartment.

Jimmy readily agrees, and at Bill's trial is either too stupid or too venal to make the connection that, hey, they must've talked immediately after Mary was killed! Jack and Blanche are keeping Mae and Ralph cooped up somewhere during the trial, so the increasingly-unstable Ralph won't spill his guts. Jack hints darkly about taking care of Ralph, permanently, once the trial is over. While they're waiting for the verdict, Ralph smokes more and more pot while Mae plays piano. If you've seen a clip from the movie with a man smoking and shrieking "Faster! FASTER!", that's the scene.

Well, the jury votes to convict (after brow-beating the lone nebbishy holdout), and Bill's going down for the crime. Jack goes over to tell his associates about the verdict and Ralph, even in his grassy haze, is alert enough to see that his days are numbered. Pulling a riding crop out of nowhere (I think it's supposed to be a fireplace poker, but it's white), he beats Jack to death. Cops spring up out of a trap and take them all in.

Mae is anxious to clear Bill, but the judge tells her she'll have to testify against Ralph in Jack's murder. She agrees, but on the way to her cell -- escorted by a tiny, ancient prison matron who looks as if she's determined to have nothing to do with the movie -- she launches herself out a convenient window and dies.

On the strength of her testimony the judge frees Bill, after compelling him to watch Ralph being sentenced to the nut house. Bill's parents are overjoyed, and even Jimmy and his mother are cool with it. Carroll brings his interminable lecture to a close, and we are free to contemplate his tale of weed and woe.

It's a nice, comfy feeling to watch this old turkey with Mike Nelson's voice droning in your ear. The commentary isn't as dense or funny as it was on MST, but it's better than nothing in these dark, Crow-less days. As on MST, the best part is when Nelson points out something that you were already wondering about, such as the drug pushers' business model, in which they seem to have neglected the need to sell their product. Instead, they give it away. First one's free, kid! And so are the next thousand.

In addition to Nelson's audio the disk contains the original B&W version (without commentary, dammit), a trailer for the colorized version, and another audio track by the color designers. We thought this would be very interesting, but we were mistaken. It was like watching listening to Dr. Carroll pontificate, and we stopped it before the opening crawl had finished. Too bad, because it might have been nice to know what made them give everyone the same orange-peachy complexion. As I've said before, it looks as if they gave a kid a "flesh"-colored crayon and set him to drawing on the film. (And yet the scenes with the judge, near the end of the film, are really quite good.) And what about the eye-poking pastel clothes on Carroll's PTA audience? And why yellow, for Mary's car? If it were really screaming canary yellow, as portrayed, the witnesses would surely have mentioned it, and the cops would demand to get a look at it.

One nice touch is the pot smoke. "Look, man. You can see the colors!" Each smoker's emissions are a different color. Ordinary tobacco smoke is white, and there's plenty of that in the movie, too.

Finally, the disk contains an over-long reefermercial titled "Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook", in which an old coot explains how you, as an old coot, can grow and enjoy your own pot, grass, weed, tea, maryjane, roach, or reefer. Which, of course, reminds me of a poem:

...from the teenies who smoke legal,
to the ones who've done some time
to the old man who smoked "reefer",
back before it was a crime.
--- Shel Silverstein

Anyhow, "Grandpa" gives helpful hints about growing your own pot, e.g., the Feds can take your house if they catch you, so throw the seeds over the fence into your neighbor's yard. About five minutes of this would have been mildly amusing. This stretches out into about five hours. The guy flogs his book -- available at! -- too. I think he must've provided funding or something. There's also a bunch of unfunny outtakes, in case the rest hasn't put you into a coma. Don't say you weren't warned.