Thanks for clicking on "Ask The A.V. Club," where we do our best to answer your questions about pop-culture ephemera and not get too testy when we get questions like this:
Those Who Can't Do…
How many of you guys are really frustrated film-school graduates who wished they were making films instead of writing about them? You guys have to be honest about this one.
Let's turn to Noel Murray for the first response:
Gee, there's a couple of loaded words in that question, but let me start with "frustrated." I know critics who've actually directed movies and/or written scripts, and even one or two who've done some acting. Myself, I've thought about writing a screenplay someday, but only because there are stories I'd like to tell (and a few I'd like to adapt). But "frustrated"—as well as "be honest," to be honest—implies that my colleagues and I all wanted to make movies first, but couldn't hack it, and so retreated into criticism. Which would be an insulting perception if it weren't so common. (You left out the phrase, "You're just jealous," which is the standard criticism of critics.)
For my own part, I started watching Siskel and Ebert devoutly when I was eight years old, and at 15, after devouring all the Rolling Stone and Trouser Press record guides, I wrote my own guide on a stack of loose-leaf paper. I went to journalism school—you'll find more journalism and English degrees than film degrees in this business—and well before I became a pro critic, I was reading Greil Marcus, Pauline Kael, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and Danny Peary. I was studying the craft, in other words. And I don't know too many critics who wouldn't tell a similar story. There's a tradition behind what we do, and most of us wanted to be a part of it from a young age. I'd be "frustrated" only if I couldn't do it for a living.
I could just add, "What he said," but instead, I'll mention that I've never wanted to write a screenplay, direct a movie, or cut an album. I was, believe it or not, on my way to studying medieval or early-20th-century literature (I hadn't made up my mind yet) for a living when I got sidetracked into doing this professionally. And I like doing what I do. Like Noel, I thought Siskel and Ebert's show (back when it was on PBS and called Sneak Previews) was a pretty big deal. I remember the first time I stumbled across it, it blew my mind that these guys got paid to watch movies for a living and talk about them. What could be better? Sure, they were reviewing Caveman starring Ringo Starr, but even that looked appealing to me. (For the record, I was 8 at the time, too.) Music critics steered me toward Talking Heads over Bruce Hornsby, and Public Enemy instead of Warrant, and God bless 'em for it. It's a fine profession unto itself, and I'm happy being a critic and an editor of other critics. Honestly.
I may be the closest thing on staff to that oh-so-cliché frustrated-film-major template, in that I did get a double B.A. in film and journalism, and I did take film-production classes in college. But filmmaking was never my skill-set, and never more than a curiosity: Like everybody else at The A.V. Club, I loved movies, and I wanted to know exactly how they were made. At the same time, like Keith and Noel, I grew up on a steady diet of film reviews; when I was still in single digits, I'd pick up The Washington Post every morning solely for the comics and the movie pages, and the Post's Desson Howe was the first byline I ever learned to watch for. And while I was taking those film courses in college, I was also making a poster-sized list of "Films I Gotta See" (FIGS, we called them) for the living-room wall, sitting down every evening with my roommate to watch culturally key movies, and then looking up Ebert's film-guide responses to them, to get a professional's insights—and then debate whether we agreed with them. I won't claim that being a critic was all I ever wanted to do—it's a terribly competitive field, and it pays to have backup plans. But this career, and not filmmaking, was certainly where my experience, my interest, and (I hope) my talents always led.
Bringing Up The Dead
Okay, back to minutiae:
There was some late-'80s or early-'90s short-lived sitcom involving an old dead couple, now ghosts, who are still hanging around their house after a new family has moved in. If I remember correctly, the grandfather lived with the family and was the only one who could see them (since he was on the brink of death himself). Can you help me with this?
The television show you're referring to is 1989's Nearly Departed. It was a short-lived vehicle for Monty Python's Eric Idle, who played the husband half of the ghost couple. The show was cancelled after only four episodes. (Six were filmed.) I dimly recall watching one or two episodes myself as a 13-year-old. As you vaguely remember, the grandfather was the only member of the family who could see and communicate with the ghostly couple, and much of the humor derived from the culture clash between Idle and the gauche new head of the household, Stuart Pankin of No Soap, Radio and Dinosaurs fame.
According to The BBC Comedy Guide, Idle felt the show was improving rapidly and that the two unaired episodes were the best to date. But then, Idle also thought traveling America performing Monty Python skits without, um, any other members of Monty Python was a swell idea.
Accounting For Taste
How come the pop music Hollywood directors/producers pick for their movies is almost always a higher quality than the pop music radio-station programmers pick for their playlists?
Noel Murray again:
Two reasons. The first, less-romantic reason is that hit songs cost a lot of money, while material by local bands can be had 10 for a penny. In fact, I used to know a guy who made a good living packaging songs from indie artists and selling them to the likes of MTV's Road Rules.
The second, nicer reason is that a lot of filmmakers—not to mention MTV segment producers—have good taste. Two of the best soundtracks I've heard lately were to Shortbus (scored by Yo La Tengo, and featuring a couple of key songs by Animal Collective) and Stranger Than Fiction (scored by Spoon's Britt Daniel, and featuring songs by The Jam and The Clash). And in both cases, the music isn't there to show off a director's cool record collections, but to add texture and tone.
Of course, those are higher-profile movies scored by higher-profile alt-rockers. I wish the kind of people who sell songs in bulk to TV producers would start working deals with indie filmmakers, whose movies could usually use some good songs, instead of the formless electric guitar noodling that's become a genre cliché.
Funk It Up
The first song on Red Hot Chili Peppers' Mother's Milk is "Good Time Boys," and around the bridge of the song, there are samples of other songs. I know the first is "Bonin' In The Boneyard" by Fishbone, and the last is "White Girl" by X, but I have no idea about the song in between. (It goes "and I'm gonna cha cha cha cha…")
Extra-helpful this week, Noel has the answer to this one:
Actually, it's "I'm gonna try try try try." The song is "Try," by Thelonious Monster, another L.A. punk-funk band that was pals-y with the Peppers. Personally, my preferred RHCP protégée was Royal Crescent Mob, from Ohio, whose album Spin The World should've been a Mother's Milk-sized hit. Someone should throw a compilation together, if only to revive the R.C. Mob classic "Na Na Na." Add Royal Crescent Mob's "Get On The Bus" to that, and you've got the start of a great punk-funk mixtape.
We might have been a little harsh with Mike in answering that first question, but maybe that's because the other half of his e-mail totally stumped us. Anyone recognize this show?
I fuzzily recall a show from the '80s (I was probably around six when I saw maybe two episodes or so my dad recorded off broadcast TV) about a guy who wears a robot suit as a sort of superhero; I call him a superhero because nobody could recognize him when he was inside the robot suit, even though it had a clear plastic visor over his eyes so he could see. The opening credits had a narrator saying something like "The year is 2020 and the world is changed," and showed a bus exploding, I believe. The particular episode I remember involved aliens masquerading as very Southern California-esque blond bombshells, giving lines about how their incognito skin is disgusting because "It's soft." I think their real alien forms were all slimy, bumpy, and lizard-like. Any ideas as to what this show is called? I have no clue what actors were in it, so I really can't research on IMDB.
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