Welcome back to "Ask The A.V. Club," your source for obscure pop-culture knowledge and depressing life lessons. We've got a little from both columns this week. Let's start with the obscurity.
Keep On Truckin'
I am trying to remember the name of a cartoon I used to watch as a kid and I think it came on USA's Cartoon Express. The only things I remember was that it was a cartoon about the monster truck Bigfoot, and it came on either before or after Jem And The Holograms. I just wanted to know if this show really existed, or was it just my young subconscious trying to compensate for watching Jem? Thanks.
Tasha Robinson remembers it well:
Oh, it existed, Zach. But only barely. Bigfoot And The Muscle Machines was a miniseries consisting of nine six-minute snippets that told a complete story. It was part of a syndication package that included Robotix (which also aired in six-minute chunks) and the 30-minute shows Jem and Inhumanoids. All four cartoons were produced by Marvel, and they all perched clumsily on the dividing line between kids' entertainment and program-length commercial–Hasbro had a toy line for each show. All four series emerged from a company called Sunbow Productions (also the house behind Hasbro's G.I. Joe and The Transformers) and there tended to be quite a bit of small-shop crossover between them–for instance, Walt Burr, the voice of Bigfoot's sorta-edgy sorta-good guy Close McCall, also did voices for Jem while directing Robotix.
Viewed in order, the episodes add up to a 54-minute story about a team of monster truckers (Yank Justice, identical twins Red and Redder, their associates, and their lovingly named giant vehicles, like Warlord and Orange Blossom Special) who accidentally wind up with a map that supposedly leads to the Fountain Of Youth. That leads them to lock horns with aging billionaire Mr. Big, who sends an endless wave of goons after them, permitting a steady stream of low-grade '80s-style cartoon violence. The series first aired in 1985 as part of a package sold as "Super Sunday," so you might well have caught it on USA. There's no official DVD or VHS release in print, but as with so many other bits of animated flotsam from our childhoods, it's pretty easy to find in bootleg form on eBay or with a simple Google search. But be warned: '80s cartoons are generally painful things to revisit without proper safety gear. They never age well.
I Want To Be A Critic. What Now?
Q: What advice could you give to an amateur film critic considering a career in the field?
A: Film editor Scott Tobias has advice on how to make it in the business. Sort of:
In all honesty, my advice would be to consider doing something else. Film criticism is a dying field: In an effort to cut costs due to dwindling subscriptions and circulation numbers, smaller newspapers and alternative weeklies have decided that locally based critics aren't terribly important. The newspapers have surrendered their entertainment sections to wire reviews from prominent writers like Roger Ebert. And the recent buyout of Village Voice Media by the New Times syndicate has had a sweeping, devastating effect on film critics: Once-vital local film sections like those in the Voice, City Pages in Minneapolis, the Nashville Scene, and others have been funneled into a "syndication pool," meaning that a review by one critic will run in every VV/New Times paper across the country. (Disclaimer: This is how the print editions of The A.V. Club work too, but we're kind of a horse of a different color.)
I won't get into what this development means for local independent film culture–needless to say, I'm not happy with it–but for critics who are just starting out, it's a serious crisis. The effects of syndication are particularly troubling for people like yourself who have no experience and are looking to break into the field. Novice critics used to be able to cut their teeth by freelancing, but when newspapers are running off the wire and alt-weeklies are drawing from the same pool of writers, how are newbies going to get a chance to find work and hone their craft? Beats me.
Another consideration is long-term viability. Unless your name is Roger Ebert, a full-time critic cannot expect much more than a modest living wage, which is fine when you're a single, unattached twentysomething holding down a studio apartment in the city, but more problematic when you have a spouse, kids, and a mortgage. (Disclaimer the second: I happen to be lucky enough to work at a publication where I can write what I want and how I want, and get amply compensated. But then, I lead a charmed life.) Over the past year or two, I've seen many established, respected middle-aged critics bounced from their jobs with little fanfare, left without the skills to ply their trades in another field. Getting paid to write movie reviews full-time can be the greatest job in the world, but only a lucky few get the opportunity (and far fewer than ever before), and even those cannot always expect to hold on their jobs forever.
Still here? Okay, if you're really determined to become a film critic in spite of all the caveats listed above, I do have some advice for you. First of all, you need to become a serious film obsessive, if you haven't already. Film criticism isn't something you just decide to do one day, because your understanding of film history and how the medium works should inform every review you write. Anyone can have an opinion; yours has to stand out as well-informed and particular in its insights. As for how to break in, I'd highly recommend cutting your teeth at the student newspaper if you're still in school. The A.V. Club's Noel Murray, Andy Battaglia, and I all logged time at The Red & Black at the University Of Georgia, and it was invaluable experience–you learn how to hit deadlines and word counts, and how to work with editors. Most of all, you can start the long process of figuring out how to be a half-decent writer. (I saved my clips from my student-writing days and every one of them embarrasses the hell out of me, which is gratifying now. I may still suck, but I don't suck that bad.) If you don't have a student newspaper, I'd recommend starting a blog and publishing your own reviews and essays on a regular basis. In order to get a job in film criticism, you need to accumulate clips, and in the absence of an established outlet, a blog isn't a half-bad DIY solution. If you can get other cineastes and professionals to notice your work and that work is strong, then maybe you'll have a shot somewhere down the line.
Until then, don't quit your day job.
Stumped No More!
Whew. Well that was fun. Thanks Scott!
We got a flood of responses to the questions that stumped us last week, showing once again that our readers are smarter than we are. Let's revisit those questions one by one.
I have a couple vivid memories of cheesy, probably made-for-TV movies from the '80s, and I can't for the life of me figure out what they're from. The first was about a group of kids who are able to talk to each other through blinking their eyes. No superpowers or anything, they've just all memorized Morse code or something and can communicate this way.
Several of you wrote in to identify this as the 1986 TV-movie The B.R.A.T. Patrol. (Here's a link to the IMDB entry.) "B.R.A.T." is an acronym for "Born Raised And Trapped," and the show featured up-and-coming stars Sean Astin and Nia Long. X-Files creator Chris Carter is one of two credited writers. Next…
This was a sci-fi-type Saturday-morning, live-action show from the early '80s, I reckon, with a team exploring the countryside and doing good. The most prominent element is they drove a white RV, laden with antenna and all sorts of other cool stuff to make it look like it came from the future. I'm sure they also wore white suits, probably tight-fitting in an early-'80s sort of way. I'm also sure the show was bad, but can't remember anything else.
For the answer to this question, readers stretched their minds back to 1976 to recall Ark II, a series set in a 25th century devastated by pollution (but still able to sustain RVs). It ran for 15 episodes and featured a talking chimpanzee. And its credits looked like this:
Finally, there was this question:
This primetime, mid-'80s show was called Phoenix Rising or some such nonsense, and featured this guy (you'd recognize him if you saw him) as some sort of mystic traveling the countryside helping people. But he could call the spirits of his ancestors or some such nonsense, and I seem to also remember there were lots of moments with glowing things he used when needing help from beyond. Or some such nonsense.
All that nonsense belongs to The Phoenix, a short-lived ABC series that aired in 1982. The guy you refer to could be Judson Scott. He was best known at the time for an uncredited part in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, and he's subsequently gone on to appear in everything from Blade to The X-Files to Jake And The Fatman. Or it could be E.G. Marshall, a veteran character actor added to the cast in a transparent attempt to draw in the ladies.
And that does it for this week. Next week, more questions and more answers. But you need to help us out. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.