Thursday, January 17, 2019


The (eventual) semi-subject of this piece, practicing what he'll do if he ever finds me.

Can't sleep. Trying to work off my performance adrenaline - yes, apparently I'm so sedentary that even the exertions of doing a radio show, all that pressing of buttons and occasional wheezing into microphones, raises my pulse to above that of a sea slug, and there's no easy way down from that thrill ride. (And yeah, I still have a radio show - the sole, reliable constant of my life over the last 12 and a half years, where I can still be counted on to deliver a serviceable facsimile of entertainment for two hours in the dead center of every week. Thank you, Marconi.) Anyway, that's why I'm back with another post so soon after the last one, even if it's only to display a glittering shard from another broken project, which is laid out in the last two paragraphs if you can hack through the verbal kudzu enough to find it. But the only reason those two paragraphs are still here is to give it the impression of, if not an ending, at least a stopping point, so I'll save you the bother: basically I was going to analyze every piece of Albert Brooks' career from when it started in the late sixties to now, every movie role, record album, print piece and bit part and talk show appearance, everything. Which went the way of all the other ludicrously ambitious projects I've mooted here, i.e. Nowheresville city limits. And it really only started out to be what it more or less turned out to be: an over-the-top overexamination of the only ten minutes of the forgotten Saturday morning cartoon Hot Wheels that existed on the web at the time. So much time has passed since I started this that full episodes have started drifting onto YouTube, but I refuse to watch them and sully the purity of the existing work. Which I hacked away at obsessively, mostly on sleepless late late nights like this one, until I drifted away into other distractions. There's something slightly insane about all this, but it gave me more joy than anything I'd written in a long while, at a time I could have used all the joy I could fabricate, so I should pay it the honor of bringing it out into the light. So dig! (And I do mean dig - it'll take a bit of spadework to get to the good parts, but they're there, really.)

And now it's time for another installment of Things That Inexplicably Fascinate And Delight Me. Had an idea for my newest perpetually-unfinished, overambitious analysis/retrospective project, which, in a roundabout way, led me to this segment from Hot Wheels, a Saturday-morning cartoon which debuted the same month I did and ran a scant seventeen episodes (parceled out over a two-year period, undoubtedly due to the stringent demands of their pioneering Perspectavision animation technique, recognized by scholars of the form for redefining the state of the art of immobile, expressionless people blinking a couple of times) before getting unceremoniously yanked off the air and suppressed forever after for being too controversial, too daring, too much like a half-hour commercial for Mattel.  This ten-minute fragment is all that remains.

Points For Further Discussion:

1) The numerous examples of anti-formalist daring on display - the use of identical shots to represent the same character in two completely different locations, lines of uninflected dialogue spoken as if facing away from the mic, and the whip pan serving as a bridge between one setting and the same setting five seconds later - not only reflects the innovations of the Nouvelle Vague, but likely surpasses them.  Which leads one to the obvious conclusion - Godard compared this exploration of vehicle culture to the one he had just done, realized he had finally been shown up by the Americans at his own game, and decided to ditch narrative altogether in favor of political pedantry.  And if he had thought about the continuity "error" where five interchangeable youngsters mysteriously become four in the course of a single cutaway - obviously a comment on Vietnam, or capitalism, or the fallacy of representative government - he probably wouldn't even have done that.

2) Of course, that was far from the only influence at work here - the meaningless plot, protracted silences and characters frozen in existential terror, as if saying, "I am trapped in a cel.  But are we all not trapped in cells of our own?  The ones spelled with an extra 'l', at least?" owe a clear debt to the Theater of the Absurd, a debt acknowledged by adding a character whose gait recalls the pained limp of Vladimir in Waiting For Godot and whose accent was clearly devised in honor of that play's Dublin-born author.  Why else would they have chosen to give him the otherwise-unlikely character of an "Irish cop"?

3) The existential malaise hardly stops there, either.  That highway the characters drive on?  No exit.

4) It took no fewer than twelve writers to script this program - more than most shows on the air at the time, even the one-hour comedy/variety shows.  Which may seem excessive until you realize it would take at least that many to devise a mise en scene as meticulously crafted as this.  One can only imagine the accumulated brainpower needed to hone a piece of neo-Joycean wordplay as inspired as "Wheeler Motors Sports Cars" - most would have stopped at the genius-level pun at the beginning (cars historically have been equipped with tires, or "wheels"); not so this twelvetet, determined as they were to go the extra mile (a unit of distance of the sort that many cars are alleged to travel) for the careful viewer.  Diligent analysis and a disdain for the common strictures of kerning reveal a message hidden in plain sight (sight being an ability prized by the majority of drivers): "Wheeler Motors Sport Scars," a statement of deep metaphorical significance.  If our temporal body can be thought of as the vehicle that carries the passenger that is our soul, the hitchhikers that are our regrets and longings, and the pine-tree air freshener that is our sense of ethical egoism, then it is a body that retains myriad scratches, dings and rust spots the longer it is out on the road, for that is our lot in life.  Our parking lot in life, mayhap.  (NOTE: if our temporal body cannot be thought of that way, please disregard the preceding paragraph; please go ahead and disregard that last sentence either way.)

5) A great deal of effort was obviously expended to make sure that all contemporary details were just right, thus shoring up Hot Wheels' countercultural bona fides (while taking care to avoid the more overt radicalism that led to the abrupt cancellation of its time-slot predecessor Magilla Guerrilla).  No other show based on a line of toy cars and broadcast by ABC on the weekends better reflected that charged, contentious, triumphant moment in American history, unless there are others I haven't heard about.  This made Hot Wheels both of-the-moment and an invaluable historical document, barring the existence of actual historical documents.  Without it, for example, we might not recall the ubiquity of the shag haircut/down-lined jacket/yellow ascot combination (a detail shamefully overlooked in most studies of the period, which means everything else in them is probably a lie as well).  And the writers' grasp of idiom and ear for nuance (which remains nailed to the Pantomime Pictures conference room wall to this day) ensured that the dialogue had the ring of authenticity (later stolen after it was sent out to be resized).  And, at a time when TV censorship was at its strictest, the writers were able to slip lines like "Dig!  It's The Man!" past Standards & Practices, cleverly taking advantage of the loophole that there was nothing offensive about the line in any way.  All of which contributed to Hot Wheels' reputation as a show that held a mirror up to society.  At least until the second season, when arm cramps led the producers to strongly advise society to hold up its own damn mirror if it likes looking at itself so much.

6) "Theme Music by Mike Curb and the Curbstones."  Of course it is.

7) If the above examples of Hot Wheels' forward-looking approach weren't enough, they proved to be ahead of the curve (a curve being something that cars might drive ar- OWCH!) in another crucial way: it was among the first animated shows with an integrated cast, thanks to the producers' passionate support of civil rights and the bulk discount they got on brown ink.  All involved with the production looked with pride at Kip Chogi, the character that broke the color barrier of Saturday morning TV once and for all. (Unfortunately, black voice artists weren't allowed in the building where the show was recorded - a prohibition declared unlawful in 1978, and scheduled to take effect any day now as soon as Ted finds the time to get the paperwork notarized - a potential public relations nightmare neatly avoided by casting a young, up-and-coming comedian named Albert Brooks with a prodigious talent for mimicry and the curliest hair allowed under California law.)  Chogi was originally written as the son of an African ambassador, but a hasty re-think was in order when it was discovered that Chogi's outfit, which designers claimed was patterned after Tanzanian ceremonial garb, was actually based on a picture of an organ grinder's monkey someone left lying around.  A full character redesign was out of the question, as it would have required completely reanimating all seventeen episodes, and the art department adamantly refused to stay the extra half hour. 

Embarrassed and desperate to save face - co-creator Eddie Smardan didn't improve matters when, at a hastily-convened meeting with representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored-In People, he spent forty-five minutes apologizing for using the word "stymied" in his opening sentence - producers cobbled together a new, inspirational backstory for Chogi.  Now, not only was he a gifted mechanic with a kind word for everyone he meets and a ball and shuffle worthy of the greats, but he would be making history all over again as the first person of African descent to join the Shriners.  (This also handily answered the sticky question of why he had the tiniest car in the group.)  

This led to what many consider the most poignant moment in the entire series.  Asked why he didn’t have a tassel in his fez like the other Shriners, he replied simply, “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”  A look of deep sadness crosses his face for a moment, but Kip refuses to cry, partly owing to a deep sense of stoic pride and partly because none of the animators knew how to draw tears.  Truly a powerful, unexpected moment, worthy of its 1970 Open Hand Award For Inspirational Social Commentary In Vehicular-Focused Animation Programming (devised by and presented to Pantomime Pictures in self-recognition of their brave stance against the withholding of tassels from ethnic minorities; the award itself, designed and manufactured by Mattel to resemble a human arm with an outstretched hand which extends at the press of a button to enable the recipient to pat himself on the back, was nominated for a Best Mattel Award award given by Mattel that same year, only to lose in a surprise upset to the Best Mattel Award award itself).  The producers, satisfied that their point had been made, pulled the award-winning episode shortly before transmission and replaced it with one where the Hot Wheels gang win a big race with the help of a jive-talking See & Say.  

Pantomime Pictures attempted to award themselves the Open Hand the following year, both for their brave stance the previous year and for withholding all evidence of that brave stance for fear that impressionable children might start making inspirational social commentary of their own and parade it around like a bunch of little show-offs, but the statuette disappeared two weeks before the awards banquet, only to be recovered in a highly unpresentable state in a motel room rented by "Special" Assistant Fred Lorenzen (currently serving a seventy-five year sentence for theft, lewd and lascivious behavior with a spring-loaded limb replica, creeping out a police officer, and corrupting the finish of a non-Academy statuette).  The resulting scandal sent shockwaves through the seven people who knew about it.  Production came to an immediate halt (over the strong objections of the network, which had already cancelled Hot Wheels the year before). Soon thereafter, Pantomime Pictures shuttered their animation department; there are no known survivors. 

Mattel crumbled under the FCC’s finding that Hot Wheels was essentially a half-hour commercial for their product and their insistence that they use its former time-slot to present an apology; the ratings were so impressive that ABC reran the apology every Saturday for six seasons under the title The Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots Smash Bang Contrition Hour.  (Mint-condition Executive Vice President Seymour Rosenberg action figures are known to fetch four-figure prices at auction sites, even more if the Jive-Talking Annual Report and Audit Stopper Laser Ledger accessories are included.)  The company’s 1972 purchase of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus was rumored to be a spiteful attempt to run the Shriners out of business.   The ban on ethnic minorities in Saturday morning programming was reinstated and remained in force for the next ten years, since it was clearly their fault that all this happened in the first place.  And the voice actors… um…

8) ...oh yes, that’s right, I just remembered why I wrote all this to begin with.  See, I’m always looking for a new, hyper-ambitious project for one of my various web-entangled outlets - something that will utilize my God-given talents for pop-culture hyper-obsessiveness, stringent analytical focus, and flagrant abuse of basic tenets of sentence structure and parenthesis usage in order to a) get my voice to ring out loud and clear amid the pervasive white noise of the Internet and gain me the respect I deserve, like the guy who writes the David Bowie blog or that one fellow who came up with that thing that I believe has something to do with cats and/or b) give the world that approximation of what David Foster Wallace would be like after being struck in the head with a brick it’s been crying for.  Not content with my three or four (or five or six or…) long-form concepts of mighty scope and scheme for various platforms, all still being lovingly if not smotheringly nurtured in my own tardy-minded way even if they seem for all the world to have been abandoned by the side of the road or callously aborted or left to drift forward with excruciating slowness toward oncoming web traffic as I, cheerfully oblivious, keep tinkering ‘neath the hood or stalled at the blueprint stage while I schizophrenetically bicker amongst myself over which shade of blue the print should be (went from Prussian to Cerulean to just plain Dufy), I came up with another: a comprehensive, nay exhaustive, analysis of the entire career of one of my Comedy Icons, the great Albert Brooks.  And when I say exhaustive, I mean exhaustive, otherwise I would have used a different word - I would analyze every single credited appearance of Brooks’ 45-year career, no matter how fleeting or insignificant, in an effort to trace his full trajectory from teen yuk-prodigy to deconstructionist stand-up to inspired cine-satirist to in-demand voice talent to Oscar-nominated supporting actor, with stops at the points of the arc denoting brilliant-if-short-lived recording artist, world’s greatest talk-show guest, semi-forgotten casualty of a TV-comedy revolution, sitcom-theme composer (!!), and quite likely at least adequate first-time novelist (haven’t read 2030 yet - must hedge my bets).  In other words, a marathon tribute to one of the top assumed names in modern comedy.

And thank god I was able to retrofit a foot-racing metaphor into the preceding sentence to offset the cliche at the end of this one, because I fell at the first hurdle.

...and from there, we crumble into dust, with a couple of bloated paragraphs attempting to establish the concept of American showbiz as a dark, blighted locale few travelers escape unscathed, or some such thing. (The last thing I did was set the Eye of Sauron and the CBS eye side by side, so you just know I was onto something.) I'm pretty sure I'd have worked Albert Brooks into this scenario eventually, but who the hell knows. All I know is that the above gave me a few chortles, and if I can't use this platform to luxuriate in my own cleverness, then I don't know what purpose it serves. I mean, it's not as if anybody else is reading this shit.

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