Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rex Navarrete's Badly Browned: The first Filipino American stand-up album

'Oh, you want dra-mateeks? You want dra-mateeks? I give you dra-mateeks right here!'"You're gonna piss me out!"
--one of many Rex Navarrete character malapropisms during
Badly Browned

While watching a back-to-back KQED evening marathon of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month-themed documentary programming (Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese and Jeff Adachi's The Slanted Screen, a doc that both PBS and TCM seem to air a million times), I thought to myself, "These APAHM nights on KQED could really use a doc about Asian American comedians like Adachi's other doc, You Don't Know Jack. Why are minority history months always so damn reverent and serious?"

I wonder when You Don't Know Jack--the doc about comedian and Barney Miller scene-stealer Jack Soo, not the recently greenlit Pacino-as-Jack Kevorkian biopic of the same title--will show up on KQED and add some much-needed humor to their often stuffy APAHM programming.

(Somebody ought to make a doc about present-day Asian American stand-ups, and it better not be in the style of annoying and vapid reality shows about stand-ups like Last Comic Standing or any other show that's not the short-lived Comedians of Comedy, still the only reality show about stand-ups that's worth a damn. The doc ought to be more like Comedian, the smart 2002 doc about Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams and the difficulties of the craft of stand-up. The Asian American stand-up scene has enough fascinating stories, interesting ideological disagreements and juicy rivalries to fill an entire edition of Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America.)

Comedians of color don't get enough praise or props during minority history months, which is why I'm devoting this post to the first Filipino American live stand-up comedy album, a 1998 CD that's a solid knee-slapper for almost all of its 65 minutes. It's even got kickass scratch instrumental interludes provided by DJ Qbert too.

I used to play Rex Navarrete's Badly Browned CD all the time on my university radio station. Navarrete is the first Filipino American stand-up I've seen who's represented us--a certain generation of Empire Strikes Back-watching, Skratch Piklz alumni album-buying Filipinos who grew up on Pryor, Mooney, Cosby and Murphy instead of Dolphy. For a while, I used to be able to recite huge chunks of Badly Browned tracks like the Star Wars bit, the ad-libbed "KBOY with Mr. Bolisario" skit ("Long time ago, when I was a childrens, uh, the, uh, Aquaman, uh, Sunday afternoon, used to cook me chee-ken!"), "Maritess vs. the Superfriends" and "Mrs. Scott's ESL Class," about a rambling Pinay ESL teacher named Mrs. Scott who makes hilariously ditzy statements like "the Philippines is the southernmost island of Spain" (I love hearing the mostly Fil-Am San Francisco State audience boo after that line).

On his site, Navarrete recalled the recording of Badly Browned:
Kormann Roque of Classified Records and I came up with the same idea, why don't we experiment and record a live show of mine and see how it sounds? So we did. My buddy, Elrik Jundis, produced a venue and a show for me at UC Berkeley's International House on November 1st, 1997. A one-night only, two show evening. This was where "Maritess" was taped. The best thing about accomplishing that feat was helping one of my best friends give birth to her son, Lakas, earlier that afternoon. I became an instant godfather. I named one of Q-bert's tracks after him on BADLY BROWNED. I'd say that that day had to be one of the most blessed days of my life and my career.

On April 20th, 1998, the same production team, now with full support from Classified Records, came together to bring to SF State's McKenna Theater the live taping of BADLY BROWNED in a packed, standing room only house of 700 plus fans. This was so awesome, I never thought so many Filipinos would dig Flip comedy this much and this intensely. Nevertheless, we finished that night exhausted and a couple months later came our with that first live comedy CD. It featured scratch tracks from DJ Q-bert from the Invisibl Skratch Piklz which gave it a Def Comedy Jam kind of feel to it. It still remains to be a great seller online and at my gigs, thanks to your support. I think BADLY BROWNED contains some of my most favorite material to that point in my career.
I wish I had more to say about this milestone CD that had me rolling during much of my senior year, other than I'm looking forward to Navarrete's fourth stand-up album, and I could never view Starship Troopers the same way again after Navarrete squashed the movie version with his big tsinelas.

Minority Militant "Project X" T-shirt design sketches

The Minority Militant, a Chicago blogger who's a fan of my webcomic The Palace, recently asked me to design a T-shirt for his Project X fund, which he'll use to "reward any independent film director or producer with an outstanding treatment that casts at least one lead role for an Asian American male or female."

Check out the evolution of my Project X shirt design.

Project X T-shirt design by Jimmy J. Aquino, phase 1
Project X T-shirt design by Jimmy J. Aquino, phase 2
Project X T-shirt design by Jimmy J. Aquino, phase 3
Project X T-shirt design by Jimmy J. Aquino, phase 4
Project X T-shirt design by Jimmy J. Aquino, phase 5
Because Project X is about supporting Asian American cinema, I originally wanted to draw an image of the Minority Militant literally kicking the backside of a white actor who's in yellowface and dressed up as the very dated Charlie Chan, whom Hollywood studios keep threatening to revive every few years (last failed attempt: that time when 20th Century Fox tried to get Lucy Liu to star as Chan's granddaughter). The image of Chan with a foot in his ass had stemmed from an idea I've had for a teaser trailer for the Asian American private eye movie or TV series I always wanted to create, in case it would ever get greenlit. The trailer, which would be a sendup of Chan movies, would show a white actor as a Chan-esque character who's trying to reveal the killer in a roomful of suspects, but before the Chan-esque detective can finish his corny, Confucius quotation-laden summation, he gets run over by a car driven by the movie's real hero, whom the trailer announcer would describe as not being "the same old Asian detective played by a guy who's as Asian as a Dutch clog dancer."

I told TMM my initial concept for the Project X drawing, and he joked that he's non-violent, which gave me an idea for the pose that became part of the tee's final design. I based TMM's pose on the famous 1964 "By Any Means Necessary" photo of an armed Malcolm X peering through window curtains, which an Uzi-wielding KRS-One memorably imitated on the cover of Boogie Down Productions' By All Means Necessary album. But instead of a rifle or an Uzi, TMM is holding his preferred weapon, his blog, which is represented by a laptop.

Malcolm XBDP's By All Means Necessary cover

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sampler by Jimmy J. Aquino, take 5

Sampler by Jimmy J. Aquino, take 5

Ain't that a kick in the head: Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon still amaze

Exit the screenwriter. Bruce Lee disagreed with Enter the Dragon's scriptwriter so much he ordered him off the set.
Throughout this year, I'm posting older material--like non-Blogspot posts from a few years ago, unpublished writing I've kept hidden in my computer and transcripts of Q&As from A Fistful of Soundtracks' terrestrial radio years.

Because it's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I've dug up a 1998 article that I wrote for the UC Santa Cruz publication Primer to celebrate what was then the 25th anniversary of a pivotal movie in the history of Asian American cinema, as well as one of the few martial arts flicks I like (just because I'm Asian doesn't mean I have to be a fan of the martial arts genre). Some hardcore martial arts genre fans will argue that Enter the Dragon shortchanges Bruce Lee or that it's too Hollywood and too derivative of the 007 franchise, but because I'm not a hardcore martial arts fan, I don't have the same gripes as they do.

Okay, maybe I'm with them on the "What the hell is John Saxon doing here?" thing. ("America had no idea that [Saxon] was also a practicing martial artist... He first became involved in the martial arts when he was 15 years old, initially studying judo and then taking up karate," wrote author John Little in the Enter the Dragon: The Making of a Classic Motion Picture book that Warner Home Video included in the 1998 Enter the Dragon VHS and DVD gift sets.) But otherwise, Enter the Dragon never fails to entertain, and it features the most badass score ever written for an Asian American action hero: the frequently sampled score by Lalo Schifrin, whose Mission: Impossible theme was one of Lee's favorite pieces of workout music.

---------------

Bruce Lee wipes the floor with a young Jackie Chan's ass.
Ain't that a kick in the head: Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon still amaze after 25 years

By Jimmy Aquino


Bruce Lee made only five films and the then-unfinished Game of Death before he died from a mysterious swelling of the brain (or died from a curse or was assassinated, if you believe the conspiracy theorists) in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973, but 25 years later, fans are still flocking to his movies and kneeling at the church of jeet kune do, Lee's revolutionary kung fu technique emphasizing "the way of the intercepting fist."

Lee's female admirers make pilgrimages to Hong Kong. Men of all colors want to be like Lee, who taught martial arts to students of all races, creeds, genders and backgrounds, unlike his kung fu teacher elders, who were opposed to teaching students who weren't Chinese.

The first martial arts superstar, Lee was a genuine fighter and a charismatic actor (I'm not saying Lee was De Niro, but his "emotional content" speech in Enter the Dragon has more soul and passion than what passes for acting in Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal movies). Not even charismatically challenged poseurs like Van Damme, the faded Seagal and David Carradine could erase the memory of the lightning-quick legend nicknamed the Dragon, a pioneer in Asian American cinema who sought stardom on his own when racist Hollywood spurned him because producers didn't think an Asian man could sell tickets or rack up Nielsens. (Van Damme, the post-Under Siege Seagal and Carradine are to martial arts what Vanilla Ice was to hip-hop. Put these has-beens in a room with Lee, and he'd automatically win the throwdown, with moves like the 13 punches he could throw in half a second.)

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the dopest of them all?
Enter the Dragon made Hollywood put its foot in its mouth. Released a few weeks after Lee's death, the film was his most popular work, and it made him the first Asian male sex symbol. (Bruce's son Brandon also found stardom posthumously, with 1994's The Crow.) To mark its 25th anniversary, Warner Bros. re-released Enter the Dragon in Lee's birthplace, San Francisco, and put out a highly anticipated DVD. The movie still holds up well today. The script is standard kung fu B-movie material, but Lee is at his most charismatic, the production values are stunning and the martial arts choreography is legendary. As SF Weekly's Michael Sragow said, Lee makes his choreographed moves look spontaneous. Lee's fighting style is, as his character describes it in the film, "the art of fighting without fighting."

Primer dedicates this page to the man who once said, "The end of heroes is the same as ordinary men. They all die and gradually fade away in the memory of man." Famous last words from someone whose memory has hardly faded at all. (To the managers of the Nickelodeon or the Rio, if you're reading this, please bring Enter the Dragon to Santa Cruz or we're gonna have to get kung fu on your asses!)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sampler by Jimmy J. Aquino, take 4

Sampler by Jimmy J. Aquino, take 4

Star Trek: Three out of five ain't bad

From Ward Sutton's Village Voice cartoon about Star Trek.
Throughout this year, I'm posting older material--like non-Blogspot posts from a few years ago, unpublished writing I've kept buried in my computer and transcripts of interviews from A Fistful of Soundtracks' terrestrial radio years.

In the summer of 2007, Cinematical was looking for some new bloggers. One of the posts I submitted to them was a list of things I hoped to see in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek film. Cinematical didn't hire me, and I never posted that Trek wish list--until now.

From 2007, here are "Five things that ought to be in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek flick." It's amusing to see which wishes came true (#4, #5 and #1--I was surprised by how well the movie pulled off #1) and which ones didn't (#2 and #3). I'm posting this never-before-published article word-for-word and without any revisions or changes.

---------------

The advance one-sheet that gave Trekkies a nerdgasm in 2007.
Batman Begins brought new life to a moribund movie series, as did Casino Royale. Will J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot do the same for a franchise that's been marred by illogical big-screen installments (any Next Generation flick except First Contact) and bland spinoffs (Enterprise)? As we await the Christmas 2008 release date, here's a wish list of things I'd like to see in Abrams' Trek.

1. Uniforms that actually look like uniforms. The Starfleet shirts that William Ware Theiss designed for the male officers on the original series always bugged me because they don't look like uniforms made for a futuristic space Navy. They look more like softball ringer tees. I keep expecting to see Spock run out a bunt.

The advance one-sheet hints that Abrams is retaining the gold/blue/red color scheme of the old uniforms. The Dick Tracy-colored shirts would look better if they were worn under a badass single-breasted jacket, like costumer Robert Fletcher's more cinematic-looking (and fat-friendly) Wrath of Khan uniforms.

As for the sexy miniskirts Theiss created for the female officers, I've always been a leg man, so those can stay.

2. No time travel. Trek's most overused plot gimmick doesn't need another rehashing.

3. Exploration of strange new worlds. When was the last time anybody did some exploring in these movies? Well, First Contact showed the Vulcans discovering Earth, and...that's about it.

4. Genuine chemistry between the new Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Who cares how the Enterprise's nacelles will look, fanboys? I'm more concerned about whether or not Zachary "Sylar" Quinto--the new Spock--and his two not-yet-cast co-stars will be able to sell the friendship between these characters like William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley did.

5. A great balance of action, science and character development. If the film is all action, you wind up with something like Nemesis, which tried to recapture the excitement of the starship battles in Nicholas Meyer's Trek installments but had none of the tension and wit Meyer brought to those sequences. Too much science and Treknobabble and the film turns into the tedious Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sampler by Jimmy J. Aquino, take 3

Sampler by Jimmy J. Aquino, take 3

Transformers: Revenge of The Onion

Michael Bay and Optimus Prime, from SuperNews!' Transformers spoof.
Here's the best one-paragraph summary of Michael Bay's Transformers I've ever come across (while reading the A.V. Club):
Everyone complaining that Michael Bay's 2007 blockbuster Transformers had inappropriate sexual contact with their childhoods is forgetting one thing: The original '80s cartoon had an awful lot of problems too, starting with wildly inconsistent animation and some pretty basic '80s cartoon plots, in which the bad guys engaged in generally harebrained schemes unworthy of titanic alien-robot forces of destruction. That said, Bay's movie should have been a slam-dunk in the "scary robots" department, simply by virtue of introducing giant, homicidal, heavily armed metal men to Earth. Instead, much like Lucas in Phantom Menace, Bay went for goofy designs and goofier behavior. His Autobots and Decepticons look like unassembled, building-sized Erector sets, and their use of already-dated human slang and contemporary references, plus the generally insipid, adolescent tone of the movie, robbed them of all majesty and menace. And hey, more of them are on the way this summer.
It's as if the A.V. Club read my mind. The '80s Transformers cartoon's animation was choppier than whatever the ShamWow guy does to his nuts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sampler by Jimmy J. Aquino, take 2

Sampler by Jimmy J. Aquino, take 2

June Park of "Sampler" delivers a birthday greeting to my older brother

In a foul-mouthed birthday card I made for my older brother last month, June Park, the heroine of my Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology story "Sampler," gets to spout dialogue she wasn't allowed to say in the all-ages graphic novel.

Here are four things to be aware of as you're reading "Gi Power" because you may not know the subject of "Gi Power" all that well: 1) he's a Star Wars fan (his love for the SW flicks, which actually has never veered into cosplay, was slightly exaggerated for the purposes of this mini-comic), 2) he took a judo class when he was younger, 3) he likes to play volleyball, and 4) he puts more gel in his hair than Brian Grazer and the fauxhawked contestants on Top Chef combined.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Secret Identities "Sampler" gallery

A panel from 'Sampler' by Jimmy J. Aquino and Erwin Haya

Here are four different interpretations of June Park, the dry cleaning store worker heroine I created for my Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology short story "Sampler." The "I suck at math" T-shirt-wearing June works at a store where many of the customers are superheroes.

June Park of 'Sampler' illustrated by Erwin Haya

June, as drawn by Erwin Haya in the story itself.

June Park of 'Sampler' illustrated by A.L. Baroza
June, by Secret Identities: TAASA co-artist A.L. Baroza. It's a spectacular pinup by A.L., and it's nice to see June in color for a change.

June Park of 'Sampler' illustrated by Jerry Ma
June, by Secret Identities: TAASA art director Jerry Ma (the full version of his portrait of all the Secret Identities characters can be viewed here).

June Park of 'Sampler' illustrated by Jimmy J. Aquino

June, specially drawn for this blog by her creator, writer and occasional, not-exactly-seasoned-and-professional cartoonist Jimmy J. Aquino, a.k.a. me.

I came up with several different captions to accompany my illustration of June. Yesterday, I had a hard time deciding which caption to post under it (I asked a friend to pick which one, and she said, "Any of them!"), so throughout this week, I'll be posting each of the other captions under the same illustration.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rattle and hurm: My Watchmen movie soundtrack (if I got to pick out the songs)

'Say hurm!'
Even though the Watchmen feature film doesn't hit DVD and Blu-ray until July, I want to look at one of my quibbles with the much-discussed box-office dud: its not-very-imaginative soundtrack.

It's rare to see a comic book that comes with its own soundtrack. Lalo Schifrin composed some themes for his son Ryan's Devil's Due comic Spooks, Rob Schrab picked out several songs or themes from movies like The Empire Strikes Back to accompany pages of Scud: The Disposable Assassin, and of course, eight years before Schrab introduced the indie rock-and-John Williams-scored Scud, Alan Moore's groundbreaking Watchmen quoted from "All Along the Watchtower," "Neighborhood Threat" by Iggy Pop, "You're My Thrill" by Billie Holliday, "Sanities" by John Cale and "The Comedians" by Declan McManus, international art thief. Moore made diegetic use of "Neighborhood Threat" (Dan Dreiberg's lonely walk back to his apartment) and "You're My Thrill" (the Owl Ship tenement rescue sequence).

Punks blast Iggy Pop in the Watchmen comic.
(A complete list of the tunes that Moore's Watchmen referenced was posted by Shawn from thus spake drake, who notes that "The chapter and title uses [in which lyrics by the likes of Cale and Bob Dylan were quoted], while they work lyrically with the story, don't necessarily correspond musically with the tone of the comic, so they're best as a reference and not a literal backing track.")

The British comics author's song references captured quite well the anxiety and sadness of the paranoid times Moore's screwed-up superheroes lived in. So what does Zack Snyder--who said he wanted to be as faithful to the DC miniseries as possible, save for a few exceptions like the omission of the big-ass squid, which pissed off the most hardcore Watchmen fanboys while I had no problems at all with the squidless climax--do with the song soundtrack for his adaptation? He keeps key songs like "All Along the Watchtower" and "You're My Thrill" but omits other tunes from the comic and sprinkles the soundtrack with tired and overused existing songs like Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence."

"Ride of the Valkyries" was a clever choice for Apocalypse Now's copter attack sequence. But thanks to countless movies and shows with Wagner-scored Vietnam War sequences like Watchmen, I now wish I could hop into a time machine to 1978 and kill Francis Ford Coppola so that he never puts "Valkyries" on his Apocalypse Now soundtrack.

Who did they hire to be the music supervisor on Watchmen? The narrator of The Wonder Years? Steve West from Radio Nigel or the music supervisor from BBC's Ashes to Ashes would have been a better music supervisor. Snyder's existing song choices in the Dawn of the Dead remake, my favorite Snyder movie, were far less hackneyed (Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," Richard Cheese's cover of Disturbed's "Down with the Sickness"). I'm an Elvis Costello fan, so I'm bummed that Snyder's Watchmen omitted "The Comedians," even though it comes from what Costello considers the worst album of his career, Goodbye Cruel World. However, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which was referenced in the comic's fake Adrian Veidt cologne magazine ad, was perfect for Watchmen's main title sequence, my favorite title sequence in a 2009 movie so far.

I was listening to Prince's "Sign O' the Times" on my iPod earlier today, and I thought, "Man, I would have put that tune on the Watchmen movie soundtrack and swapped selections like 'The Sounds of Silence,' '99 Luftballons' and 'I'm Your Boogie Man' for some lesser-known '80s tunes," so here's the track listing for my alternate Watchmen soundtrack:

1. Nat King Cole, "Unforgettable"
2. Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
3. Prince, "Sign O' the Times"

Sure, "Sign O' the Times" is from 1987, not 1985, the year when most of Watchmen is set, but in the story's alternate universe, I'd like to think Prince came out with Sign O' the Times right after Purple Rain instead of Around the World in a Day.

Killing Joke's 'Eighties' single cover4. Iggy Pop, "Neighborhood Threat"
5. Philip Glass, "Pruit Igoe & Prophecies"
6. Killing Joke, "Eighties"
7. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "The Comedians"
8. The Clash, "White Riot"

A reviewer at Wired's Underwire blog says he would have preferred a tune by the L.A. punk band the Minutemen--also the original name of the Watchmen characters' team--instead of "I'm Your Boogie Man" for the '70s protest sequence. I'm not familiar with the Minutemen, so I'd go with "White Riot," which is often mistaken for being a skinhead anthem. ego trip's Big Book of Racism wryly describes it as the song in which "Class of '77 punk's finest are sick of colored folks hogging all the revolution."

9. The Police, "Walking on the Moon"

I would have used "Walking on the Moon," which is sung in the comic by a nervous soldier who sees Dr. Manhattan teleport himself away, or "You're My Thrill" instead of "99 Luftballons" for the Dan/Laurie diner scene.

10. Billie Holliday, "You're My Thrill"
11. Devo, "Jocko Homo"
12. The Rolling Stones, "Worried About You"(*) (instead of Leonard Cohen's ubiquitous "Hallelujah" during the movie's much-maligned sex scene)
13. Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Happy House" (for the prison sequence)
14. XTC, "All Along the Watchtower"

Jimi Hendrix's cover of "Watchtower" will always be my favorite version of the Dylan song, but let's face it, the Hendrix version is overused these days. Because of Watchmen's '80s setting, I would have picked XTC's 1978 version.

15. Time Zone featuring John Lydon & Afrika Bambaataa, "World Destruction"
16. John Cale, "Sanities"
17. Bob Dylan, "Desolation Row"
18. Leonard Cohen, "First We Take Manhattan" (the IMAX version, which was the version I saw, cut this song from the end credits and ran a sped-up version of the credits because the movie was already too long for IMAX exhibition)

And I would have shown way less schlonggage from Nuclear Smurf and I would have adapted Watchmen into a miniseries for HBO or FX instead of a feature film that's both too long as a film in the theater and too short as an adaptation of such a dense and literate piece of comics writing, but those are discussions for another post.

(*) Self-pimpin' time: "Worried About You" and "World Destruction" can be heard during A Fistful of Soundtracks' "F Zone" block of existing songs that have been used in films and shows. "The F Zone" airs Mondays at 4am, 9am and 3pm, Wednesdays at noon and Fridays at 5am, 9am and 3pm on AFOS.

Friday, May 15, 2009

An old G.I. Joe comic has eerie parallels to Laura Ling's ordeal

G.I. Joe #61 cover by Mike Zeck
I posted about this recently on my Twitter page. While searching my storage boxes in my parents' dusty garage for some old Starlog issues because I wanted to look at a couple of Starlog articles about Gerald Fried and the making of The Rocketeer, I stumbled into a stack of '80s Marvel G.I. Joe comics written by Asian American comics author Larry Hama, whose work is admired by all of us creators from Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology. (Quick Kick--one of the few Asian American heroes in '80s comics and voiced on the original G.I. Joe animated show by none other than Dr. Pierre Chang--was Hama's creation. A chat between Hama and Secret Asian Man creator Tak Toyoshima appears in Secret Identities as an interstitial feature drawn by Tak.)

'S.A.M. Meets Larry Hama' by Tak Toyoshima
At the top of the stack of G.I. Joe comics I unearthed from the garage was one of the first comics I bought for myself, G.I. Joe #61 from July 1987, which is notable for two things: a badass Mike Zeck cover depicting Snow Job, a wounded Quick Kick and a mad-as-hell Stalker in the middle of a shootout (one of my all-time favorite comics covers) and some early Todd McFarlane artwork that Marvel rejected because it didn't meet their standards. Marvel replaced the future Amazing Spider-Man and Spawn illustrator with Marshall Rogers, whose late '70s Batman comics I've always dug (one of Rogers' Batman stories was later adapted by Batman: The Animated Series into "The Laughing Fish").

But McFarlane's scrapped art actually isn't the most interesting thing about issue #61, which, like many of Hama's other G.I. Joe comics, is grittier than the bloodless, Star Wars-like '80s animated series and Paramount's upcoming G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. (Uh, Stephen Sommers, I think you've gotten your '80s cartoons mixed up. The shiny skintight power suits aren't G.I. Joe. That's Silverhawks, pal. And that long-winded Rise of Cobra title is terrible. It's not going to attract non-fans who think it's a documentary about health insurance for the unemployed.)

Hama's story in #61 centers on the Joe unit's attempted rescue of an American reporter who's arrested on trumped-up espionage charges in the fictional country of Borovia.

G.I. Joe #61 page 1 by Larry Hama and Marshall Rogers
While re-reading #61, I couldn't help but think of recent headlines involving captured journalists, like the North Korean detainment of Current TV staffers Laura Ling--a correspondent for Current's Vanguard and the younger sister of reporter and ex-View co-host Lisa Ling--and Euna Lee.

G.I. Joe #61 page 2 by Larry Hama and Marshall Rogers
Hama's comic makes me wish that a special ops unit would sneak into North Korea and bust them the hell out of there.

Those of us former or current journos who are worried about Ling and Lee's impending trial (and hope they are released like captured Iranian American journo Roxana Saberi recently was) should read the LiberateLaura Twitter page, which has been posting both updates on Ling and Lee's case and links to candlelight vigil announcements and press coverage. I first learned about the page when its tweeter replied to my tweets about the 1987 G.I. Joe issue.

Laura LingA lot of bloggers are blasting the Al Gore-owned channel for not publicly acknowledging the ordeal. Current continues to air Ling's past Vanguard segments as if nothing awful has happened to her. For instance, the channel has lately put Ling's segment about Vietnamese bird flu into heavy rotation because of its relevance to the swine flu problem, but Current Tonight host Rawley Valverde didn't mention his colleague's present situation at all during a recently recorded intro that preceded the bird flu segment. The channel's silence must be due to legal reasons--as angry asian man notes, not even Ling's family members can publicly "go into detail regarding her ordeal due to the sensitive nature of the case"--and what I assume is the Current staff's discomfort with having two of its reporters become the story.

By the way, when will newspapers and blogs stop posting the same two blurry DMV driver's license photo-quality pictures of Ling and Lee? Are these papers and blogs lazy or what? Ling wasn't exactly reclusive in her line of work, so how can that be the only picture these papers and blogs have of her?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Classic Star Trek now remastered with added lens flares

'Cadet Kirk, I'd be able to spot the mining ship's position on screen if these damn lens flares weren't fucking blinding me.'
This YouTube video by user "partmor" cracked me up--it's the vintage 1967 trailer for the old-school Star Trek episode "Space Seed," but what if it were filled with the lens flares that cinematographer Daniel Mindel (Enemy of the State, Mission: Impossible III) made heavy use of during J.J. Abrams' Star Trek(*)? Someone was obsessed with Holly Valance's naked "Kiss Kiss" video, All Saints' "Never Ever" video and Jay-Z's "Jigga What, Jigga Who" video while working on the new Star Trek.



[Via Geeks of Doom]

And this concludes today's edition of "Stuff That's Funny Only to Cinematography Geeks."

(*) Abrams' Trek is the best Trek feature film since 1996's First Contact. Michael Giacchino's exciting Trek score is a nice throwback to the epic sounds of '80s Trek film composers Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner after years of yawn-inducing, tinny-sounding musical wallpaper by Rick Berman's stable of composers. Giacchino's "That New Car Smell" cue (track 13 on the Varèse Sarabande score album) is straight out of those '80s Goldsmith/Horner Trek scores.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Gerald's game: Star Trek composer Gerald Fried opened hailing frequencies with A Fistful of Soundtracks back in 1999

Gerald FriedIn his stand-up act, Dana Gould hilariously envisioned the composer of the Spock bass guitar theme from the original Star Trek as a tortured drug addict cursing loudly at four in the morning like a junkie version of Don Music from Sesame Street while trying to come up with the perfect theme for Spock. The calm and genial Gerald Fried--the now-retired TV and film composer who penned both Spock's theme and Kirk's frequently spoofed fight theme for Star Trek's 1967 "Amok Time" episode--isn't exactly Don Music on smack.

As I await both J.J. Abrams' new Star Trek feature film and its Michael Giacchino score--which I've refused to hear excerpts from until I see the film itself--I thought it would be the perfect time to transcribe half of a phoner I recorded with Fried (pronounced "freed") for the terrestrial radio incarnation of A Fistful of Soundtracks in 1999. (Almost all the pre-2000 broadcasts of A Fistful of Soundtracks were pre-recorded on audiocassette, and I don't have the equipment to transfer audiocassette content to computer--the audio quality would suck anyway--so I'd rather just post text of the interview below.)

During our conversation, Fried promoted the 1999 Silva Screen Records release Dr. Strangelove: Music from the Films of Stanley Kubrick, which contained re-recordings of themes Fried composed for the first few films of his childhood friend Kubrick. But what I was most interested in was Fried's TV work, which he loved doing despite the rushed schedules and older TV's tendency to recycle score music to cut costs ("As a composer, it's disturbing to hear music I wrote for one scene appear somewhere else," said Fried in a 1991 Starlog magazine interview). I particularly enjoyed talking with Fried about his scores for the Roots miniseries, which I first caught when the Family Channel (now ABC Family) reran it while I was in high school, and the original Star Trek, which I grew up watching and is now being relaunched by Abrams on the big screen.

Young Spock gives 90210 Kirk an 'Amok Time'-style ass-whupping.
(Photo source: TrekCore)
Jimmy J. Aquino: Now Jerry Goldsmith wrote the theme to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Lalo Schifrin wrote the theme to Mission: Impossible. Alexander Courage wrote the theme to Star Trek. When you worked on those shows, were you ordered by the producers to compose in their styles or were you allowed artistic freedom?

Gerald Fried: We had to refer to the theme, which was okay with me. I think both those themes... The Sandy Courage thing, you know, that female voice--that was kind of stupid to me. Jerry's theme and Lalo's theme from Mission: Impossible are just fine. I had no problem using them.

As far as style goes, the first year, Jerry Goldsmith, I think, scored most of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.s, and it was a kind of symphonic style. Then they brought me in the second year, and Lalo also did a few of them, and we were the ones who changed it into a kind of Latino jazz... you know, the... [Hums his faster-paced arrangement of Goldsmith's U.N.C.L.E. main title theme.] That was my kind of contribution. They wanted style change from Jerry's style, and then it stuck pretty much like that for the next two or three years, however long the series ran.

JJA: Yeah, when it changed to color, they got campier and less serious.

GF: Yeah, which was part of the joy of doing it.

JJA: Now I want to talk about what I remember you the most for, your work for Star Trek. You did a total of five episodes: "Shore Leave," "Amok Time" I remember most fondly, as well as "Catspaw," "Friday's Child" and "The Paradise Syndrome." Was Star Trek taken seriously in the industry when it initially aired on NBC like it was by the sci-fi community or did everybody you know in the industry dismiss it as, you know, shallow, Flash Gordon-type hokum?

GF: Somewhere in between. They had no idea that it would become part of Americana. But neither did they see it as a piece of junk. You got some pretty classy writers--Harlan Ellison and some of the big sci-fi writers--so I think it was respected, and Gene Roddenberry was kind of an impressive guy. But certainly, they had no idea that it was going to take hold as it did.

JJA: I remember reading reviews from the '60s when it premiered, and Variety and TV Guide dismissed it as being shallow and just another space opera.

GF: Heh! Okay. I hope Gene Roddenberry is enjoying that statistic wherever he is.

JJA: He got the last laugh.

GF: Yes, he sure did.

JJA: Now for "Shore Leave," you wrote two unforgettable themes: the love theme for when Kirk is reunited with Ruth, his first love, and the Irish tune for Finnegan, Kirk's bully from his academy days. Tell me about writing those themes.

GF: Well, the love theme--the flute solo--was just kind of a movie-type pop thing, which I thought was appropriate and immediately accessible. The other one--I figured, well, how do you do it? It was an opportunity to write something special, kind of like an epic Irish fistfight. Remember the movie The Quiet Man? Something like that. To keep it Irish and keep it large and keep it insouciant like the Finnegan character was. So it seemed like a jig would be a good idea, and I was nervous about it because whenever you take a gamble, you're always in danger of having some conservative person throw it out. Well, [Bob] Justman and Roddenberry did not throw it out. But you do get nervous when you take chances like that, which I always do because I think any good composer... Jerry Goldsmith is the greatest chance-taker, probably of all time, and Elmer Bernstein... Yeah, I love them for that, for letting me do something with some kind of left-field imagination.

JJA: Now in "Amok Time," you created a theme for Spock for bass guitar. Let's talk about that. Why a bass guitar for Spock?

GF: Spock had a lot of trouble with emotion. If he did have any, he hardly knew how to get it out. Now if you try to play a lyrical line on a big thumpy bass guitar, you're gonna have trouble sounding lyrical, so I thought it would be a match to write a lyrical theme but put it on the bass guitar. It somehow parallels Spock's trouble and confusion with emotion.

JJA: Who played the bass guitar?

GF: Barney Kessel.

JJA: What were some of his previous credits? Did he work with you before?

GF: Yeah, he was a studio guitarist by the time I came to him, but before that, he was one of the half-dozen greatest jazz guitarists in history. You'll find him on records like with Art Tatum and Earl "Father" Hines. He's right up on the top. In fact, he, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian--I just named to you the half-dozen great guitar players of all time.

JJA: Before you wrote the scores for the Star Trek episodes, were you handed the script or did you watch the episode first? The dailies?

GF: Yeah, there were no videocassettes in those days, so you get a chance to see... no, not the dailies. They called it then a workprint, and that was usually like about 10 or 12 days before airtime, so it was very scary. You just go home and work practically 22 hours a day for an intensive five or six days. You see it once. At first, Bob Justman--and maybe even Roddenberry for the first one--sit there with you and then we talk about where the music should go. The last few, they were so busy and so tired and so worried about the next show that I just thought by myself with the music editor in the room and just chose where the music goes and what I should do by myself.

'Spock, let go! This big-ass Hershey's Kiss on a stick is MINE!'JJA: Now your music for the Kirk/Spock fight scene in "Amok Time" has been called the greatest fight music ever written for television. It's even been quoted in parodies of Star Trek.

GF: Oh yeah. [Laughs.]

JJA: For instance, the characters on Mystery Science Theater 3000 would hum the fight music whenever they saw a B-movie fight scene.

GF: [Laughs.] That's funny. I know. I get royalties from The Simpsons and The Cable Guy. I know it was used there.

JJA: Do fans at the Star Trek cons come up to you and hum the fight music?

GF: Yeah, I actually attended two or three of those Star Trek conventions. There was a program. I made a suite of all my main themes from Star Trek into sort of a concerto for oboe, which I played myself. I'm still an oboe player. Yeah, some people would come up and talk mostly about those specifically.

JJA: I know that in television, like you said before, composers don't have much time to work with. Do you feel your music is better when it's written in such a limited amount of time or do you feel the opposite?

GF: I had only one opportunity to find out because 100 percent has been on a rushed schedule. The exception is the documentary Birds Do It, Bees Do It. I had lots of time for that. That was my one and only Oscar nomination, so maybe there is a correlation. Except for that, I have no way of knowing!

The 'Amok Time' action figure set: for lonely Trekkie housewives who want to reenact the 'Amok Time' fight with their Kirk and Spock dolls but always thought, 'Oh, why can't it be gayer?'
JJA: Now themes from your Star Trek scores would be recycled in many episodes. Were you flattered by this or did you find that practice inappropriate?

GF: Well, if I were to give a speech on the aesthetics of film composing, I'm sure I would rant and rave about "music must be composed specifically for this and that." But when you get your music, for one thing, played on network television, you've got a helluva lot of money, and that kind of tempers your thinking... It doesn't temper your thinking. It tempers your mouth, so I didn't do any public complaining. Sometimes, I thought it was ludicrous what they did, and sometimes, I think, "Well yeah, alright, it sort of works." But generally, I'd like to go down in the books as saying it's a bad policy. It makes a product out of movie and TV stuff. I still like to consider it a great art form, so with that high road in mind, I come down against it.

JJA: So how do you feel when people come up to you and say, "Oh, I like that love theme from 'This Side of Paradise,'" but it was the love theme from "Shore Leave"?

GF: Yeah. [Laughs.] I smile. What are you gonna do? Read them a lecture on cinematic aesthetics?

JJA: Anybody who has worked on the original Star Trek, whether they're an actor, a writer or a composer, is always stopped on the street and remembered for their contribution even if it was only a guest stint. Why do you think Star Trek has been so popular?

GF: I think the intent and quality of the writing and the concept of it, to try and comment on earthly problems in terms of outer space... The dynamics of jealousy, rage, envy, power, lust and all those things were commented on intelligently and fairly. I think they reflected--as all good writing does--on the conditions of all the people down here on Earth, and I think that came through.

JJA: Any advice for anybody who took one listen to your music from Star Trek and said, "I wanna do that too"?

GF: [Laughs.] Yeah, it's possible. There will always be music for movies and television. It's hard to get into because a lot of people want to do it, but if there's a major motivation, and the person is willing to do the work and the research and become an all-around person in music... The days of having specialists are over. Producers need to hire a composer who they know has enough range, so that they can handle whatever problem might come up. Yeah, my advice is go for it.