That Darn Cat: Silly Done Right

Welcome to Cat Week, or Cat Fortnight, depending on how long it takes me to write these and how long it takes you to read them. My family has been enjoying, or at least consuming, various feline-themed entertainments, and I'm back with the results.

That Darn Cat

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A Comic Strip That Will Live in Infamy

So I'm reading the comic strip "Frazz" today, and a teacher at the school where Frazz works is asking for the difference between famous and infamous. Right away, this seems a little odd, because the words aren't similar. It's like asking for the difference between heinous and popular. Frazz says he can demonstrate using a quote from George Carlin, and the teacher recoils, thinking, I guess, that the quote will use some salty language or something like that. Frazz says that's the point; the teacher knows who George Carlin is because Carlin is famous, but is worried about the quote, because Carlin is infamous.

Let's just set the record straight right here: George Carlin is not infamous, not by a country mile. Carlin was a comedian who sometimes created controversy with his act. That's all.

Other things that are not infamous:

  • the "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl with Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake
  • the Neil Young album Trans
  • George Lucas's decision to edit Star Wars so that Greedo shoots first

Infamy, properly used, is a very heavy label. To gain some perspective, remember the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: "this is a day which will live in infamy." That's the standard. Infamy is not merely being famous in a controversial way. It's not properly applied to an act merely because it is famous for stupidity, silliness, bad taste, or offensiveness.

Of course, words like infamous are misused all the time in the haste of ordinary speech, and no great harm is caused. But is it too much to ask that Frazz take a little more care when directly asked for a definition?

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Glam-Rock Bass Players Who Are Clearly High

Bass players get no respect. This is been an understood rule of rock bands for as long as there have been rock bands. The best possible exception to the rule comes when the bass player is also the front man, like Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee, or that guy from Night Ranger who was also that guy in that other band. Those guys got respect because they were the face of the band. And of course, Suzy Quattro, who was not only the singer, but she was also a hot chick in leather. She probably could have played a tuba and looked cool. But most bass players know that they are forgotten men. Sonically, they are the foundation of the music, but to the audience, they can be all but invisible.

It's no wonder, then, that so many of them have fallen into the smoky embrace of marijuana, presumably as a means of coping with their sad anonymity. This proclivity was most pronounced during the glam-rock era, as my research as uncovered.

Exhibit A.

Steve Priest, Sweet, "Blockbuster"

Steve Priest is clearly high. First, he's dressed like a Nazi (in an alternate take he's sporting a drawn-on Hitler mustache), in England, within living memory of World War II, while the band sings a song called "Blockbuster." Although the name is a pun here, a "blockbuster" was a Wehrmacht bomb big enough to destroy an entire London block. You'd have to be pretty high to think this was acceptable behavior.

Secondly, he makes a "toke" sign to the audience, and more than once, too.

I personally oppose drug use of any kind, but one has to feel for Mr. Priest. When does the camera focus on him during the song? Only when it's time for him to deliver a line sounding like a fey Count Chocula. This is the same voice he is required to use in "Ballroom Blitz." Such humiliation is the regular pattern for bassists. When there's a goofy voice or other musically embarrassing job to be performed, it's always the bassist who gets roped in.

Exhibit B.

Charlie Tumahai, Be-Bop Deluxe, "Fair Exchange"

If you're not sure you agree with me that Charlie is high during the song, wait around until 1:20 or so.

Be-Bop Deluxe was a great band, not very well known in America, and this is a great track. But Charlie is clearly high. Why is he so upset? I think he's just overshadowed, even though he is a very talented musician. Bill Nelson is a fantastic guitarist, and Simon Fox on the drums is no slouch, either. So the camera's rarely going to be checking out poor Charlie. Heck, at one point (around 2:00) the camera lingers for several seconds on the keyboardist, when he's not even playing anything. The bassist would never get that kind of attention.

Exhibit C.

George Ford, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, "Make Me Smile"

Okay, George is so high in this video that I'm getting a contact buzz just watching him. The best evidence is right at the end of the first chorus, around 1:10. Taste the rainbow, man.

George, like all bassists, gets no respect, but he is clearly beyond caring. Really, the whole band is beyond caring, as you can see during the song's break, when the keyboardist makes absolutely no attempt to pretend that he playing what we are hearing. You see, the band was originally simply called Cockney Rebel, but Steve Harley cheesed off the band enough times that all the other guys quit, then he hired these replacements, and expanded the name so that everybody would be clear about who was in charge.

There's probably lots more evidence out there, but I think I've made my point. Pot-smoking glam rock bass players, I salute you. May you one day get the respect you deserve.

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Camp Scare and Abracadabra-Doo: You've Come a Long Way, Scooby

Scooby-Doo Camp ScareImage

The original Scooby-Doo shows were famously repetitive. The basic plot structure was identical for every episode, but besides that, they also would repeat the same (crummy) animation sequences. One particular animation sequence, of the whole gang walking from left-to-right, is usually played at least twice per episode. Every possible trick was employed to keep the number of animation frames to a minimum, like when someone crashes into something, we usually see a reaction shot instead of the crash.

Since then, much has changed. Starting in 1998 with Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, Scooby and the rest of the gang began appearing in a series of direct-to-DVD films. In some cases, the tried-and-true plot formula was followed, but not always. Perhaps more striking, though, was the upgrade in animation quality. The two films made in 2010, Scooby Doo: Camp Scare and Scooby Doo: Abracadabra-Doo, are very well animated. I don't want to oversell this -- don't expect something on par with Disney feature animation. But when you consider where the series started, it's an amazing transformation. In these two films, characters are shadowed and shaded, richly animated, travel freely in three dimensions, and I spot lots of computer-assist, like lens flares on flashlights in the dark. I honestly haven't been this impressed by t.v.-grade animation since the original Batman: The Animated Series. What's also great is that although the quality of the animation is updated, the characters have their classic look and feel. I can imagine the temptation was great to modernize the look, but that's been wisely avoided.

Okay, so the films look great, but what about the rest of it? Both of these films have good stories. I mean, let's face it, in the end we are still talking about Scooby Doo, and it's foolish to expect a plot worthy of G. K. Chesterton. All of the films in this series suffer from a basic problem, namely that some guy wearing a mask scaring people for nefarious ends really isn't enough of a story to fill out a 90 minute film. Some of the films handled this problem badly, namely by adding truly supernatural elements or idiotic subplots. But Camp Scare and Abracadabra-Doo come by their lengths honestly, by letting events unfold gradually, and allowing little character moments to fill in time. My only plot complaint is that the villain of Abracadabra-Doo is apparently motivated by the desire to make a little cash, which is fine, but is employing a scheme that looks like it would cost millions of dollars to implement. It's like a guy trying to transmute gold back to lead or something.

The characters are fun, with more depth than you might expect from the old show. Fred in particular has blossomed from the leader who never missed an opportunity to split the group up, to an over-eager, sweet-hearted goof. In Camp Scare, there's a running gag about Fred wanting to be a great counselor at the camp he attended as a boy, and gosh if I didn't almost start to care a little about Fred before I came to my senses and remembered I was watching a Scooby-Doo movie. And while Shaggy and Scooby are always the most annoying elements of any Scooby-Doo story, there are moments in Abracadabra-Doo where the pair are downright heroic.

Some notes on the casting: Casey Kasem has retired, and Matthew Lilliard, from the live-action Scooby films, has taken over voice duties for Shaggy. Although he has the vocal tics down, he doesn't really sound anything like Kasem. It's just something you have to accept. Also, Velma is now voiced by Mindy Cohn, best known as Natalie from The Facts of Life. It turns out to be a great fit. I was surprised--other than using Velma's trademark vocabulary ("Jinkies!"), she uses her normal voice, and she doesn't really sound like the original Velma. Even so, she sounds very natural for the character.

Rating for both films: 3/4. Bottom line: these two films are about as good as Scooby-Doo can get. They are still too much of a formula children's adventure to be worthy of the fourth star, as I can't imagine sitting through an entire 90 minute Scooby film without my daughter on the couch next to me. But for what they're aiming to be, they hit the mark. Bravo, Scooby! Have yourself a scooby-snack.

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