Category Archives: entertainment

Kevin Smith’s Second Act

To the untrained eye — one without twenty years of 20/20 hindsight — it probably seemed as if Kevin Smith was just building a body of work. From 1994 to 1999, he wrote and directed Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. If critics and audiences took that as the beginning of a film career, hey, that’s their bad. What Kevin Smith was really doing in the 1990s was building a platform for the business of Kevin Smith.

“He’s still the casual, improvisational creator who slapped together Clerks,” Abraham Riesman writes in his profile of Smith for Vulture, “only now, his professional project isn’t a movie. It’s his existence.”

To call him a filmmaker as of now would be either misleading or misguided. Sure, he still makes movies on occasion — weird ones, deliciously weird, completely unlike the slacker comedies that made him the peer of Tarantino, Linklater, and other indie luminaries — but they’re intermittent affairs. Nowadays, his primary stream of income comes from live performances to sold-out theaters, ones where he typically just gets on stage and talks about whatever for a few hours.

His other outlet for work is similarly based on rambling: podcasts, six of which he personally hosts — discussing topics ranging from Batman to addiction recovery — and many more of which he distributes as part of his imperial “SModcast” brand. He produces and appears on an AMC reality show that just got renewed for a seventh season. He preaches to a congregation of 3.24 million on Twitter and 2.8 million on Facebook. He tours the world. He’s in the business of giving his followers more and more Kevin Smith, and business is quite good.

That’s the key: everything comes back to Smith’s talent for and fixation on talking. Directing a TV show, going on a trip, having sex with his wife — it all provides content for him to speak to his devotees in live shows and on podcasts. “Especially at the theater shows, I think he puts it all out there and he doesn’t really shy away from talking about every aspect of his life,” says friend and Comic Book Men co-host Walt Flanagan. “And bringing it honesty, along with humor. I just think it makes an audience just sit there and become fully engulfed in what he’s saying.”

In other words, Smith has transformed himself into the perfect figure for our current media landscape. Audiences have a decreasing tolerance for entertainment that feels practiced and rehearsed — they want people who shoot from the hip, say what they mean, and mean what they say. Smith delivers all of that. In an informational ecosystem where there are far too many chattering voices, people want someone who speaks loudly and directly to their interests and worldview, and Smith and the SModcast empire do that. We’re all forced to self-promote and self-start these days, and Smith is a patron saint in that realm. Even if his time in the spotlight is in the past, few artists have more expertly navigated the present.

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Remembering ‘Ally McBeal’s’ Creepy Dancing Baby

Twenty years ago, a quirky, hour-long dramedy about a young woman working at a law firm in Boston debuted and became a cultural phenomenon. The cast of that show, “Ally McBeal,” recently spoke with the Hollywood Reporter about how the show was developed, behind-the-scenes antics, and one very memorable dancing baby:

Gil Bellows (Billy Thomas): And then there was the Dancing Baby. I’m glad it brought attention to the show, but out of all the things that we explored, that was one of my least favorites.

Sandy Grushow (then-president, 20th Century Fox Television): I remember seeing a rough cut with the Dancing Baby when I was at home one night and I nearly fell out of bed. It was somewhere between creepy and charming.

David E. Kelley (executive producer/creator): The Dancing Baby scared and inspired us all! My assistant had come into my office one day and showed it to me on the computer. As soon as I saw it, I asked, “How do we get it into [the] show?” It may have been terrifying and hypnotic but it was also perfect for Ally. It tapped in to her internal war. She knew that on paper, a woman her age was supposed to be married with a child, but that wasn’t how she felt she wanted to be. The Dancing Baby represented that feeling.

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Failed Promises: A ‘Bachelorette’ Reading List

The Bachelorette came to an end on Monday when Rachel Lindsay, the first black Bachelorette, broke up with Peter and chose Bryan. Seven million viewers collectively released the most exasperated sigh they could muster in an already-exhausting year. Lost love is as horrible to experience on a television screen as it is in real life. 

As a first-time viewer, Rachel Lindsay drew me in with her easy smile, fiery confidence, and honest vulnerability. It felt powerful; a woman of color commanding both the camera and a palette of men eager to woo her. Watching the show was like vicariously living what I thought my twenties would be like: fun, flirty, and carefree. Her dark skin was a desired luxury in Bachelorette paradise. Rachel played the rejecter, not the rejected, and she didn’t have to gloss over her race with her suitors or the viewers. 

Before I could slip fully into this idealized universe, the rosé-tinted veil parted. Instead of the other, better world I’d hoped for, the past nine weeks brought unnamed racial tensions masked as entertainment, a hazy divide between reality and reality television, and millions of regular viewers questioning the morality of the network. 

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Billy Bragg: Skiffle Songs Are Railroad Songs

Musicians Billy Bragg and Joe Henry

I tagged along with a friend to see Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s “Shine a Light” tour. I knew nothing about the project in advance but “Don’t Try This at Home” remains one of my favorite albums. I was so happy to see Bragg and his battered guitar on stage in a small Seattle theater.

“Shine a Light” is all railroad songs. From the stage Henry and Bragg told stories of the adventures they had recording the album and I thought, “Oh, what a great book this would make!” Bragg’s love for music and the messy tapestry that is America was so apparent. And it’s a steady companion to his leftist politics, his passion for the working man and woman.

There is a book; of course there is, it’s called Roots, Radicals and Rockers How Skiffle Changed the World.  The Paris Review talked with Billy Bragg about the book, skiffle, the history of music, and duck jokes. Really.

I would occasionally have conversations with people like John Peel that led me to realize that skiffle had a huge effect on these people—Morrison, McCartney. Perhaps bigger than the effect punk had on me. The significant thing about the skiffle generation is that they’re our first teenagers. Our first generation to define themselves through their own culture. Previously, there were adults and there were children. Adults listened to crooners, children listened to novelty records, there was no intermediate space until Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan came along in ’55. And that’s just a year after food rationing ends in the UK. I think it’s significant that this happens when the skiffle kids are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. John Lennon is fourteen when rationing ends. He’s had his entire childhood without being able to go into a sweet shop to buy whatever he wants. There’s that pent-up desire to escape having to wear hand-me-downs—because clothing was rationed as well—to get away from the rubble of the war, to make the future happen. And for that generation, the guitar was a symbol of the future arriving. The members of that generation were trying to escape their drab world, their past, by taking up the guitar and playing American roots music—which is paradoxically the opposite of what folk fans were doing in the U.S. In the U.S., they were trying to hark back. Groups like the New Lost City Ramblers were looking to reconnect with the past. The British kids were trying to escape the past as quickly as they could and the guitar offered them the best means to do that.

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Miles to Go Before You Sleep

a very dark cave, with some light shining in from a far-off entrance

A new Discovery Channel show, Darkness, sends three strangers into a cave or abandoned mineshaft, giving them six days to find each other and a way out — with no light, at all, at any time. For Esquire, Patrick Blanchfield takes a deep look at the premise, the participants, and the crew, who also have to spend the week in the dark. Leaving aside the cold, and the hallucinations, and the high potential for physical injury, there’s the issue of sleep: how do you sleep normally with no light or social cues? You don’t.

Brandon’s experience gets at another challenge of surviving underground, in the dark or otherwise: what happens to your sense of time. Brandon fell asleep twice, and only for thirty or forty minutes at a go. But when he awoke, he was certain that he’d been asleep for two eight-to-ten-hour stretches. When the safety crew came to retrieve him, Brandon was adamant he’d been underground for two full days. In reality, he’d only been below for twelve hours.

Scientists have documented this phenomenon extensively. Researchers who have undertaken simultaneous but separate sojourns into caves for extended periods will emerge with radically different estimates of how long they’ve been below—different from one another by weeks, and different from the calendar by yet more. Absent cues from the aboveground natural world or data from clocks or phones, our conscious perception of time can get weird, fast.

But that’s nothing compared to what goes on inside our bodies. When people talk about your “circadian rhythm,” they’re actually referring to dozens of different physiological processes, cycles governing everything from your heart rate to your breathing to your immune system to your digestion to your body temperature. These sub-systems operate on their own timelines, but are largely kept in sync with each other as long as the body follows a roughly 24-hour cycle that tracks changes in ambient light and various social cues. In situations of irregular light and darkness, everything goes out of whack within a couple of days. It is not uncommon for test subjects living underground to start sleeping and waking in forty-eight-hour cycles, or to experience bizarre changes in their behavior or sense of self. Michel Siffre, a European scientist, spent months at a time in half-lit caves in the Alps and Texas as part of research he carried out for NASA. Siffre not only got hypothermia, but also went off the rails, in one instance desperately trying to befriend a mouse for companionship but instead accidentally crushing it and falling into near-suicidal despair. When asked about the impact of those experiments on his mind and body, Siffre, who’s now in his seventies, describes it as “hell” and speaks of feeling like “a semi-detached marionette.”

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The Gossip Columnist Who Became the News

“If you were a woman and wrote about politics and D.C., you were a Washington gossip. If you were a man, you were a columnist,” explained Rona Barrett, the television presenter and celebrity gossip queen of the 1970s and ’80s, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen last year. Gossip—he said, she said, who was there, who was he with, what did they talk about—is the official currency of the Trump Administration, and any reporter who thinks they are above it is going to lose the newspaper war.

The women who became the great gossip columnists of the late twentieth century knew they weren’t above it—a reporter merely reported what their sources told them, a gossip columnist psychoanalyzed them.

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In a League of His Own: One Man’s Mission to Make Moviegoing Fun Again

Launched in Austin 20 years ago by Tim League, the Alamo Drafthouse chain of cinemas has spread to 27 locations and 20 cities, serving up League’s fun, eclectic blend of film, food, and entertainment: a Vin Diesel trivia contest before the screening of The Fast and the Furious. A DeLorean displayed during a run of Back to the Future. Food and drink menus curated for the films. Super-fans dressed in costumes.

But as more people stream movies on their TVs and tablets at home than ever before, traditional theaters face an uncertain future. And League, as Dan Solomon writes in Texas Monthly, believes he can bring us back into theaters — and make moviegoing great again.

In recent years, box office receipts have been high—2015 shattered the previous record, nudging past $11 billion—but much of that profit is based on people paying higher prices. The average cost of a movie ticket has spiked by more than $2.50 since 2004; it is now $8.84. But the number of tickets sold—the number of people going to the movies—has been declining. Except at certain theaters, like the Alamo, which are consistently selling out.

All of which highlights what Tim League and the Alamo Drafthouse are really selling. You can see a movie anywhere, but anyone who’s had to buy tickets weeks or months in advance for the opening night of a movie at the Drafthouse, a movie that will also be playing at every theater in town, knows that, like Marcus Loew, League doesn’t sell tickets to movies, he sells tickets to theaters—to an experience.

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The Making of ‘Meatballs’: Is Bill Murray Even Going to Show Up?

Ivan Reitman and his crew didn’t have a solid script for the screwball 1979 summer camp comedy Meatballs. They didn’t have Bill Murray. They had a few months to film, and most of the camps they asked to use as sets thought they were nuts. Yet the movie they made stands as one of Hollywood’s enduring comedies, a surprisingly sensitive look at one teenager’s rite of passage through summer camp. At Vanity Fair, the always spicy Eric Spitznagel talks with cast and crew in a revealing oral history of the making of Meatballs. As they say in the movie, “Are you ready for the summer?”

Goldberg: We had our cast, but there was still the matter of Bill [Murray]. “Is Bill going to do it? Will he show up?” I didn’t know if he ever read the script. Then he kind of committed, but not really. Three days before we start shooting, we have no idea if it’s going to happen.

Banham: Dan Aykroyd was supposed to play the part. That’s what I heard. And that’s what we all believed. Most of us in the cast, we would talk about it. “Can you believe we’re in a movie with Dan Aykroyd?” Everybody knew who Dan Aykroyd was. And then we show up for the movie, and there’s Bill Murray. And we’re like, [deflated] “Oh. It’s the new guy from S.N.L. [Sighs] O.K.”

Blum: Bill turned up in this Hawaiian shirt and red shorts, wearing an alarm clock on his wrist, which eventually found its way into the film.

Reitman: I remember how amazing he was that first day he showed up. I handed him the script—I think it was the first time he was reading it—he flipped through it and said, “Eh.” And he very theatrically threw it into a nearby trash can. [Laughs] That’s kind of terrifying to see an actor do that just minutes before you’re going to shoot your first scene with him.

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Conservative Values, Meet Drag Values

After dominating in a lip-sync battle last month that quickly became the stuff of legend, Brooklyn-based drag queen Sasha Velour took home the crown on the most-watched and highest-rated season in the history of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In a heartfelt conversation with Joey Nolfi at Entertainment Weekly, Velour — an unapologetic intellectual — discusses the theory behind her unique sense of beauty and drama, and how she uses both to champion a historical, political form of drag.

VELOUR: I believe drag is a form of activism. It centers queer people and queer ways of being beautiful, especially in a political context where beauty is narrowly defined or what’s considered important or valuable is narrowly defined, and drag always offers a different option, or a variety of different options… I took for granted how much drag is still about play, and how playing and being light about your identity and yourself is actually a form of resistance, too.

EW: You said at Nightgowns earlier this year that every person who puts on drag is heroic. Why is it important to remind people of that?

VELOUR: There are lots of ways we can resist conservatism. It’s important queer people do that, especially, but also all of our allies because, in conservative systems, non-binary people, trans people, people of color, and even women are never going to be valued and safe. Drag resists conservatism in the most basic way possible, and also in the most effective way possible because it’s improper when it comes to looks, which is everything in conservative systems. Conservatism is all about surfaces and labels and presentation, and drag says, no, we refuse to follow any rules about that. It’s also fun and freeing, and that, in itself, is oppositional to cultures of fear and hate.

EW: Do you hope that’s what your Drag Race legacy will be?

VELOUR: People before have been eliminated for being over-thinkers, and I’ve succeeded because of it. I’m an over-thinker with a fighter’s spirit. I hope my legacy is that sometimes that level of thought is an asset, especially now in this political moment, because this political moment is very anti-intellectual, anti-information, and anti-historical.

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A (Disney) Pirate’s Life for Me

Pirates of the Caribbean, Wench Market

When my siblings were youngish and my parents still married, we’d have a family vacation nearly every summer near the Magic Kingdom. We’d leave San Jose while the morning was still dark and we’d drive through the California’s Central Valley while the heat and the light came up. My dad had a friend in Anaheim, California; the kids were close to us in age. A day or two later, we’d all be in Disneyland, begging to see the same things — The Haunted House, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and of course the Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course. Every time.

At the LA Times, Todd Martens looks at Disney’s enduring magic and how the Pirates of the Caribbean continues to captivate new generations of park visitors.

“I’ve tried to analyze what is happening in that ride,” says Tony Baxter, a former senior executive at Walt Disney Imagineering and now a creative consultant for the division. “Is it a book report of some movie? I think it’s more metaphorical to falling asleep and having this incredible dream-like experience.”

Years later, my brother and I went with two of his friends from Sweden, towering boys who we insisted wear mouse ears the whole time, including when our tiny Honda Civic crapped out somewhere near Tracy, California. The local sheriff did not like the looks of us, not one bit, but we couldn’t stop laughing at his suspicion. Two nostalgic California 20-somethings and two harmless foreign visitors; I’m sure we were singing “A pirate’s life for me…” for much of the drive.

“If you go back, the amusement business didn’t tell stories,” former Imagineering chief Marty Sklar says of theme parks before Disneyland.

“They were just thrill rides. Walt [Disney] changed that by creating stories. That’s the basis of everything that Imagineering does. When I talk to Imagineers, I always say I’m jealous because they have so many new technologies, but you have to have a good story or else you’re wasting your time.”

Disney is tangled throughout my early childhood memories, and somewhere in my house there are mouse ears with my name in looping script on the back.

The black felt has lost much of its integrity over time. The Disney-Industrial Complex has no place for decay, though.

There also will be a spotlight on Pirates of the Caribbean, which even in its middle age is serving as a microcosm for Disney’s need to adapt to generational shifts. Those who are resistant to change will no doubt have strong opinions about the recent announcement that the bridal auction scene in Pirates will be modified at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris; by the end of next year, looted trinkets, not women, will be on the block.

Those fans who object can console themselves with the knowledge that the red-headed woman, who currently seems to approach her precarious position with a bit of a femme fatale attitude, will be staying.


Related: Podcast The Memory Palace has an excellent episode up about the day the Yippies “invaded” Disneyland. Listen here.


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