Quick Hits (July 2007)

Not much preamble this time, and not much fuss. Let’s go.

Home on the Range (2004), dir. Will Finn and John Sanford: Thank God Home on the Range is only 80 minutes long—another ten minutes, and I might have fired buckshot at the screen. Not content to tell its slight, clichéd story with a modicum of grace and intelligence, the cartoon buzzes with catchphrases (“Boo-yah!”; “Let’s bust a can of whoop-hide on him!”; etc.) and gestures that were played out a decade ago. It substitutes sitcom lingo for real wit, and feels a desperate need to keep us thrilled. The movie refuses to trust patience or to pause, and thus ends up winded and empty. It’s constantly on the go, like a forty-something fashionista trying to keep up with the kids, without realizing how pathetic and outdated she looks. The colors don’t just pop, but razzle-dazzle, with ridiculous pastels and candy colors—it’s the Great Southwest hijacked by Miami Vice. The voice actors never just speak when they can yell instead. The filmmakers elbow us in the ribs with every joke they tell. (Did you get what I said? Did you catch my reference to another western? Don’t you loooooooove me?) The camera constantly zooms in, swoops high and low, and whirrs to catch something else, but it uncovers no surprises. There’s no winks, no nudges—just bludgeoning. The effect is the opposite of what’s intended. Despite the jazzy thin lines of the character animation and the throttling colors, Home on the Range is dead in the water. Even Jennifer Tilly, with her lovely helium rasp of a voice, is curiously flat here. Roseanne Barr is just obnoxious, braying and strutting like a drunken Jersey girl at a strip-mall bar. There’s no time devoted to developing characters, plot, or even basic conflicts. The obligatory fight between the headstrong sassy cow (Barr) and the uptight prissybritches bovine (Judi Dench) underwhelms because we don’t know enough about them to care. Since Home on the Range revolves around a trite rescue plot, it needs nuances and subtleties to deepen our viewing, to make us empathize. Instead, every frame makes us care less, and I spent most of my time imagining those antic animals as tasty dinners. F

Black Books: Series 1 and 2 (2000, 2002), created by Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan: An anti-social, alcoholic Irish asshole runs—or, rather, lets fester—a secondhand bookshop in London. Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) growls, gnashes his teeth, drinks wine every waking moment, corrupts everyone he comes into contact with, and never seems happy about anything. I love him; he’s well-read (he’s always reading), abrasively funny, and would be quite the looker if he ever bathed or changed clothes. His accountant/assistant Manny (Bill Bailey) proves to be only mildly more competent than the owner. His best friend Fran (Tamsin Grieg) runs a shop of unidentified knick-knacks—the first episode revolves around her trying to figure out what a particular item she sells actually does—and seems the voice of sanity. That’s a lie, of course; she’s as neurotic as the other two, and is mostly an unemployed layabout by the second series. The British TV show shines with a dark, viscous wit that grows on—well, attaches itself to—me. Black Books features inventive photography, bizarre plotting, and dialogue as bitter and funny as a priest in the Playboy Mansion after three glasses of absinthe. What’s refreshing is the lack of sentimentality, and its willingness to satirize modern life and contemporary TV genres without flinching. The show doesn’t so much have a caustic edge as a caustic core. (Thanks, C.) A-

Theories of Everything: Cartoons by Roz Chast (1978-2006): After the clear-line technique and dry, sophisticated wit of New Yorker cartoons pre-1970 or so, Roz Chast seems like a breath of fresh air. Her nervous and jittery drawings, full of bizarre juxtapositions and outright weird “jokes,” engage topics that the New Yorker comic ethos often pretended did not exist—mothers, quotidian family life, suburbia, fashion and décor not seen in glamour magazines. Her main mood is anxious, and so’s her mode. She subverts everything about the everyday—she draws collectible “hypochondria” cards (actually, there are LOTS of “cards” cartoons); two-page comics about standard-issue family vacations or drives home from parties; devotes a drawing to a park statue of “Doris K. Elston: Brain Surgeon, Professional Model, Artist, Lawyer, plus MOTHER OF FOUR” (emphasis Chast’s); and a cat’s diary. Every humdrum activity gets its own set of cards, or a menu, or a statue, or a plaque. By heightening the ordinary, and doing so with her queasiness-inducing line, Chast undermines our solemnity and pomposity. (One of my favorites is a panel from the “Recipes from the ‘I Really, Really Hate to Cook’ Cookbook” cartoon: The recipe is “Ma Bell’s Special,” and calls for a telephone and a takeout menu. Even then, the woman under the “recipe” can’t decide between pizza and Chinese.) Her frame of reference is suburban, but her drawing is pure urban anxiety, as idiosyncratic as that of Saul Steinberg. This big retrospective collects the best of Chast, in chronological order—sorta unnecessary, since her themes and drawing style are pretty well-established from the get-go. Still, there’s a generous sampling of her New Yorker covers and color cartoons, and all of it’s either hilarious or befuddling, and usually both at once. A

Moondance (1970) by Van Morrison: Some white musicians hop aboard the black-music caravan with patronization, carefully enunciating every strain of dialect, so that you absolutely know that they’re not really, you know, black, but rather taking on a popular genre that’s obviously beneath them, but somehow invigorating. Others go native, giving in to the blackface impulse so thoroughly that it comes off as unintentional parody. And then there’s Van Morrison, who clearly loves not only the music but the ideas and people behind it, but is (thank god) unwilling to part with his own heritage. Morrison synthesizes black soul, gospel, and his hometown Irish folk. The result is an R&B showcase—complete with cooing backing singers—whose arrangements would be right at home in a Dublin pub. I can’t say enough about Morrison’s voice—deep, soulful, supple, and in range of a surprising range of octaves and tempos. There’s nothing here that you think you haven’t heard before—“And It Stoned Me,” “Caravan,” “Crazy Love” and “Come Running” leave me humming by the end of the first verse, though I had only actually heard the third one before—but also nothing that sounds derivative. “Moondance” has, perhaps, been covered by too many lounge lizards to have much impact now, though the flute and Morrison’s earnest, un-ironic vocals make it fresh. For my money, the best track is “Everyone,” which soars into the stratosphere from the get-go, like a Bach harpsichord piece gone bouncy and poppy. (If you’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums, you’ve heard it.) In such a cornucopia, though, discerning the “best” is pointless. Why did it take me so long to listen to this? A+

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Quick Hits (July 2007)

  1. Darren says:

    I’m not a serious or even a particularly well-informed fan of Van Morrison, but I have a well-worn copy of Moondance, and I think the opening moments of “Into the Mystic” are among the best-delivered lyrics in all of pop music. I tend to lose interest in the song after the sax comes in, but, good lord, Van Morrison’s voice is a thing of beauty.

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