Friday, December 20, 2002

Holidaze Review: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

One day last week while surfing the, I mean, while hard at work, I ran across a scan of the ad you see at the left and forwarded it to a coworker who has a vast appreciation for bad cinema. His response? "What the fuck? Is this something from the '70s?"

He didn't know. He had no awareness of The Star Wars Holiday Special. His life was blessed.

I took it upon myself to put an end to his innocence (in this regard, at least) and explained to him "what the fuck" The Star Wars Holiday Special was.

Imagine, if you will, being an impressionable, semi-sentient youth at holiday time circa 1978. You've seen the original "Star Wars" at least once, if not several times, on the big screen. You've read the comic books and fan magazines. And if you don't own most of the toys, you've at least played with the ones the neighbor kid has. So when you hear that CBS is to run a two-hour-long all-new adventure featuring all of the main characters from "Star Wars" (except for Obi-Wan Kenobi because he's, y'know, like cut in half and seriously dead and stuff), you're thrilled to pieces. And the Friday beofre Thanksgiving at eight o'clock, you curl up in front of the 13" Sankyo (not Sanyo, but Sankyo) color TV and wait for the magic to unfold.

Two hours later, you find yourself feeling sad, depressed, even a little violated. Such is the "magic" of The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Obviously, I wasn't the only one who had that reaction. The Star Wars Holiday Special only ran that one time, on November 17, 1978, and then vanished into the relative oblivion of the hazy memories on the impressionable, semi-sentient children who saw it that night.

At least until the bootlegs started turning up.

About three years ago, a friend gave me his copy of the Special for my viewing pleasure. I had no fond memories of it--just vague twitches of displeasure--but sometimes the distance between childhood and adulthood has a lot of fog lingering over it, and things that seemed good then were really bad, and vice versa. So I sat down, popped the top off a bottle of Red Dog and stretched out on the couch. Two hours later, I felt violated all over again. It wasn't as bad as I remembered--it was worse.

And this week, I helped scar the psyches of a whole new generation.

After describing the Special in detail to coworkers and receiving looks of disbelief mingled with grim fascination, I was asked--no, more like ordered--to bring in a copy of it for lunchtime viewing purposes. Two days later, we sat down in the company lunch area for a public viewing--the first time I'd watched it fully sober since that fateful day in 1978. And after this viewing, I really wished that my company would let me drink on the job.

The Star Wars Holiday Special begins promisingly enough, with footage of the Millennium Falcon tooling through space while being fired upon by Imperial TIE fighters--footage the viewer quickly realizes is really just recycled from the movie when the clasp of Han Solo and Chewbacca is on videotape and looks like it was shot in somebody's darkroom. (And yep, that's really Harrison Ford in that darkroom, kids--the viewers expressing amazement that he'd have anything to do with this trash should remember that, at this point in his acting career, Harrison Ford was still a bit player on the brink of stardom, a few years away from Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan.) Han and Chewie are having a very animated discussion about getting Chewie back to his home planet--seems he has some big to-do called "Life Day" to get back for, and these Empire goons are in the way, dammit. So the Falcon jumps into hyperspace, the familiar music swells, and the words "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." come up on the screen. So far, so good.

The announcer's voice--one of those booming, throaty voices one usually doesn't find outside of game shows--hits, rolling out the now-familiar names of the actors reprising their roles from the original movie (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, "the voice of James Earl Jones," etc.) and introducing us to Chewbacca's family: His wife, Mala (who looks like Chewie, but with an apron--'cause she's, y'know, female--and...lipstick?); his dad, Itchy (looks like a walnut with hair); and his son, Lumpy (Lumpy? Chewie named his kid Lumpy? I see years and years of therapy ahead for this poor furball). As if that's not enough to set off all your alarms, Mr. Announcer Man launches into the list of guest stars: Beatrice Arthur (Maude?), Diahann Carroll (what?), Art Carney (Ed Norton?), The Jefferson Starship (not just "Jefferson Starship," but "THE Jefferson Starship") and...Harvey Korman? In three different roles? The hell? Did we just wander into an episode of Donnie & Marie or The Brady Bunch Variety Hour? Will Tony Randall and Kristy McNichol be stopping by later?

When we return from commercials, we don't go back to Han and Chewie in the heat of battle. Nope, we instead are treated to a clasp of a treehouse--actually, an obvious painting of a treehouse. Inside, we see Chewie's living room--which is carpeted with, oh Lord, Astroturf!--and his family going about their lives: Mala working in the kitchen when not sighing or grunting over Chewie's picture, Itchy carving a wooden x-wing fighter, Lumpy being a precocious pain in the ass who tries to steal cookies and protests loudly when made to do dishes or carry out the garbage...

What? You think I'm making this shit up? I wish. And it's really worse than it sounds: the scenes in which wookiees (and yes, it's spelled with an extra "e"--whose bright idea was that, George?) talk amongst themselves--and there are many of them--have no subtitles or translation. Nope. It's all grunts and snarls and yelps and...absolutely torturous to watch. Watching the wookiees watch some kind of holographic Cirque de Soliel-esque dance troop is about as much fun as watching paint dry while somebody canes your backside. And it takes for-fucking-ever for every scene to end, too.

I wish I could say things improve once humans enter the picture in one way or another, but it just ain't so. Mala dials up the videophone and...why, it's R2D2! And Luke Skywalker! Or at least I think it's Luke; Mark Hamill seems to be wearing an amazing amount of eyeliner--looks like he just finished his shift at the Baton Club. He talks to the Chewie clan while R2 fucks up an engine and makes steam shoot out or something.

Then Mala makes another videophone call...hey look! It's Art Carney! With his shirt open! Ew! I know it's the '70s and all, Art, but geez, this "Special" has enough hair with all these wookiees running around, so close that thing up, would you?--people are trying to eat here! And the next videophone call? Princess Leia with C3PO in some sterile office! Wow, Carrie Fisher's eyes sure are glassy. She looks sedated. (Too bad she couldn't have shared her stash with the viewing audience.) And is it just me, she sure isn't wearing a bra. Hope that polyester outfit doesn't chafe. C3P0 tries to translate for Leia, but she just looks like she wants to slap his stupid gold-plated ass across the room.

Art Carney (playing a friendly trader who runs what looks like the intergalactic equivalent of a dollar store) stops by the treehouse with some gifties for Chewie's family. And what does one give to a Wookiee on Life Day? Depends on the wookiee in question (man, is it annoying to type that extra "e" on "wookiee" every damn time). Li'l Lumpy gets a funky electronics kit. Mala gets a holographic projector that plays music (or, at least, "The Jefferson Starship," with the lead singer yelping into a microphone that looks like a glow-in-the-dark vibrator).

And Itchy? Lucky ol' Itchy gets porn.

No. Really. Interactive porn.

Itchy puts on this virtual reality helmet and plays the program Art gives him, describing it only as "Wow!" "Wow!" turns out to be Diahann Carroll in a form-fitting white sequin outfit, cooing sweet nothings into a visibly excited Itchy's ears! "Oooo, you ARE excited! I find you irresistable!" And this was supposed to be a children's special? Double ew! And he's watching this in the living room, where Lumpy or Mala could walk in at any moment--an exhibitionist fossil wookiee! (My eyes! My beautiful eyes!) Diahann Carroll then goes into a ballad that sounds like a rejected James Bond theme and seems to last for hours. By the time she's done crooning, Itchy is spent and the audience is fast asleep.

And as if crappy holographic musical numbers weren't awful enough, there's also a cartoon thrown in for good measure with absolutely no heed to logic or reason. When some stormtroopers, led by a Nazi-looking evil dude (how do we know he's evil? he's got a scar on chis cheek--EVIL!) who gives orders like "Search upstairs!" and then snaps his fingers for emphasis (you just know the stormtrooper want to pants him), come to search the Chewbacca household and generally harass the wookiee family (even going as far as tearing through Lumpy's room and ripping the head off his stuffed bantha--EVIL!), Lumpy sits down to enjoy a cartoon featuring the adventures of Luke, Han, Chewie, etc.

Now, the cartoon itself is probably the best thing in the Special by default--it has a funky, squiggly look to it that differentiates it from other '70s animation, and it introduces the fan favorite character of master bounty hunter Boba Fett. But its inclusion in the Special makes no sense: Why is Lumpy watching an animated story about his dad? Why does he freak when a stormtrooper almost looks over his shoulder to see the cartoon, like it's some kind of live transmission? My theory: George Lucas tried to sell the network on a Star Wars animated series and comissioned this cartoon as a pilot; when the cartoon series wasn't picked up, the network threw it into the Special as filler, regardless of how little sense it made.

And if wookieespeak, bad music and animation aren't enough to make your skin crawl, how 'bout the comedy stylings of Harvey Korman? To be fair, Korman is a more-than-capable comedian who spent years yucking it up on The Carol Burnett Show and in Mel Brooks movies, but even more-than-capable comedians need good material to be funny, and nothing about his two solo skits qualifies as anything remotely near "good": he plays a TV chef/drag queen whose use of extra arms frustrates Mala to no end as she tries to prepare "Batha Surprise" for her Life Day celebration (the "Surprise" part being how miserably unfunny and long this bit is) and a malfunctioning android who tries to explain how to assemble the electronics kit Lumpy got from Art Carney, which Lumpy later uses to send a false signal to the stormtroopers to get them the hell outta his treehouse.

But if all of this hasn't laid waste to your threshold of pain, the cantina scene. Yes, it's the same setting from original movie with most of the same inhabitants, including Greedo (renamed "Ludlow" here, since Han Solo blasted a hole in Greedo's gut in the movie) and Ponda Baba (who has apparently grown back the arm Obi Wan sliced off). Harvey Korman (again!) enters the scene as a lovesick patron with flowers for bartender Bea Arthur. (Yes, Harvey has the hots for Bea--let's all share a collective shudder, shall we?). Bea wants nothing to do with Harvey, who can pour drinks in through the top of his noggin, and he rests face-down on the bar in dejection while an announcer from the Empire (who looks and sounds suspiciously like Dudley Manlove from Plan 9 from Outer Space) tells everyone that the Tatooine system is under quarantee and, thus, the bar must close. Bea tries to shoo the various creatures toward the door, but nobody budges.

So how do you empty a bar full of unruly freaks? Why, buy them one last round and sing to 'em, of course! Bea belts out a rousing to bar patrons as they run into the night, their ears bleeding uncontrolably, and she dances with "Ludlow" and Ponda Baba. And millions of children in front of TV sets across America threw their frozen dinners at the screen and burned their Star Wars toys into large plastic lumps.

This whole time, Han and Chewie would pop in from time to time, bitching about what a pain in the ass the Empire was being and trying to make it back to Wookieeworld. They do make it back eventually, though, leading to a reunion between Chewie and Mala (her fur bedewed with tears of joy) and a hug-happy Han Solo.

You'd think--hell, you'd hope--that that would be the end. But no. There's one more endurance test to go: the wookiee Life Day celebration, which involves everybody dressing in red robes, carrying little glowing globes and gathering on a dry ice-shrouded set left over from "Star Trek" (you know, one of those planets where Kirk would beam down to face his foe mano-a-mano and rip his shirt open). Han is there, too. So are Luke, C3PO, R2D2 and Princess Leia, who comes charging in with her womanhood waving in the breeze. If it took Han and Chewie three-quarters of the show to make it to Wookieeworld, how'd everybody else get there so fast? Did they take the express bus?

Anyway, Leia delivers a rambling speech about how special Life Day is and then, you guessed it, she breaks into song, singing a holiday ditty to the tune of the Star Wars theme. At the end, she either hugs Chewie or leans on him to keep from falling over, and Chewie has a flashback to scenes from the movie, perhaps to recall a time when things didn't suck so much. And the end credits roll, with George Lucas's name conspicuously absent. But one name pops out among the credited writers: Bruce Vilanch. (Explains a lot, doesn't it?)

As this Special played in the company lunchroom, a crowd gathered behind us, one or two faces added every time I turned around, each with the same stunned expression, and each asking the obvious questions or stating expressions of despair: "What the hell is this?" "This is a joke, right?" "Oh. My. God." "This is so disturbing."

But it was no joke. It really aired on a real network at a time when there were only "The Big Three." And then it vanished into TV oblivion forever. Or so George Lucas had hoped.

Lucas has long tried to distance himself from the Special and has even reportedly said that he'd like to find every bootleg copy of it and smash it with a hammer. His impulse is understandable, especially since this abomination, which he had little to do with beyond writing the basic story on which it was based because he was working on The Empire Strikes Back and didn't have the time to devote to the Special, reflects so poorly on his CGI/Muppet-stuffed universe. (Like Episode One, with its just-barely-not-a-remake-of-the-original-Star-Wars storyline and Jar-Jar-riffic characters, and Episode Two, with its thunderously clunky dialogue, don't.)

But you know what, Uncle George? You should just put the damn Special out on "collector's edition" tapes and DVDs and collect all the money being made off the bootlegs. Imagine the commentary track from Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher:

CARRIE: Man, was I lit in that scene!
MARK: I feel pretty, oh so pretty...

But more important, Mr. Lucas, imagine the millions of dollars LucasFilms will have flung at it--at you--if you put this horror show out officially. Look what happened when Prince's "Black Album" and Bob Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall Concert" were finally released by actual record companies: in each case, the bootleg market would dry up overnight. The same thing would happen with the Special. And all that money that the bootleggers are making? That would go straight into your full-to-overflowing-already wallet.

And the rest of us can have a good laugh. Or a bad one. It depends on your level of intoxication.

A Christmas Casa

There's always an annual self-debate within the walls of La Casa del Terror: to decorate for Christmas, or not to decorate? That is the question. Do I lug out the storage container full of ornaments, garlands and figurines, or do I spare myself the bother? After all, I live alone and don't get many visitors (at least not after the Halloween Movie Bash), so the only person who will see these festive knickknacks will be me and the Girlish Girls, who could not possibly care less--unless I roll the tree in catnip, they'll not be roused to action.

But then I take a walk around my neighborhood, and the debate rapidly ends.

There are a lot of single-family homes in my hood, and many of the owners go all out at Christmastime. From sequential lights rimming the rooftops to inflatable snowmen tucked onto too-small front porches to life-sized illuminated figures of Jesus, Joseph and the Virgin Mary, these homeowners charge into the holiday season with admirable, even enviable vigor. If they can go all out like that, can't I spare a minute or three to dig in my closet and set up a tree? Especially since no one else in my particular apartment building seems to have decorated at all?

So the debate, then, boils down not to whether or not to decorate for Christmas, but the degree to which I decorate: shall I dust off the artificial pine, or will some vintage figurines suffice? Last year, the latter was the case. I set up a small display in the living room, smiled at it occasionally and dismantled it before the sun had set on New Year's Day. But this year, when I could sincerely use some extra cheer and would rather spend the whole season in bed? It would have been easy to blow off decorating entirely. Really, it would have. And it wouldn't have been a network television first, either.

Instead, on Thanksgiving Day, when I was home alone for the first time ever (because Mom's employers, in their eternal wisdom, scheduled her to work both Wednesday second shift and Thursday first shift, thus delaying any cooking till Thanksgiving evening--and don't even ask me why I didn't cook for her: she really enjoys making holiday meals for her sons and likely wouldn't touch any poultry I roasted for her benefit), I lugged out the three-foot-tall wire tree (still haven't upgraded to an antique aluminum tree), popped the top off the clay-green storage container with the Christmas decorations and popped on appropriate holiday music--A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, in this instance. And, over the course of a couple of hours, I transformed La Casa del Terror into a winter wonderland.

Okay, so my apartment isn't quite ready for a presidential visit or scrutiny by Martha Stewart--unless Martha is really into The Nightmare Before Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in which case she might actually dig it. Under the lamp in the living room, Jack Skellington and Sally dolls keep watch over Clarice, Yukon Cornelius and King Moonracer figurines. In the kitchen, a blue-and-silver garland with gifts evenly spaced dangles over the windows while the resin bass ornament (given to me by Mom to remind me of Dad, as if I could forget him) guards the doorway and an angel in gold lame watches from atop the fridge and the Frankenstein Monster, resplendent in a Santa cap, holds down the microwave.

And then there's the bookcase in the southeast corner of the living room, which is currently covered, from left to right and left again, with holiday cards from friends near and far, with animals decorating a pine tree, a Victorian girl writing Santa, purple and silver snowflakes, a pair of imposing nutcrackers, a serene waterfall, a collection of festive puppies, shining deer, a bow from a "Bettie Page in Bondage" alarm clock (which now resides atop my SuperDisk drive, quietly ticking away the time), and lots and lots of snowmen (can one ever have enough?).

And on the top shelf of this bookcase, where Mom's tin dollhouse can usually be found, stands the Christmas tree, such as it is. There are many little figures surrounding it, from hand-painted Santas to elves to Mom's favorite childhood toy, Molly the Dolly. But the tree itself is small--only three feet tall--so I usually have many more ornaments than I have branches. A couple of themes, then, must be selected from the assortment in the storage container. Carousel horses? Cartoon characters? Kittens? Nothing more than shiny balls? All have been past choices, and all served me well. This year, though, I went with an eclectic selection of superheroes (Batman, Wonder Woman, the Tick), personal faves (a holiday unicorn, a chrome-plated Kris Kringle) and a new addition or two (Bettie Page in a leopard-print bikini).

Oh. And angels. Lots and lots of angels.

I've always liked angels, and my Christmas trees have always reflected that--from small porcelain angels found in department stores to angels way too big for this little tree but too pretty to keep in storage to tiny gold cherubs to a cookie-colored angel, cradling a dove in her delicate hands, that had been intended to be given as a gift to a woman I thought I loved at the time, but which wound up staying with me anyway. (Time has healed that, if not all, wounds.)

The most special angel on my tree, though, is also arguably the cheapest: a small cardboard girl, covered in what looks like silver chain mail and holding a tiny candle in each of her pipe-cleaner hands. She's not the largest angel on my tree, nor the most beautiful, nor in the best of shape, her wings held on by Scotch tape. But this humble girl, Angelique by name, always gets the center spot on the front of the tree in those years when I bother to put a tree up, because she was found in a tin can in the wreckage of Grandma's house after it had burned to the ground on a cold February morning. The can contained many decorations that make the tree every year, and more than one angel.

But Angelique is a dead ringer for the angel my parents put on their tree every year--an angel purchased at Jules Five & Dime on Milwaukee Avenue, where Mom had worked as a teen and which is still in business just down the street from the Congress Theatre and just up the street from White Castle. Angelique was a sister to my parents' angel. She was family and deserved to be honored as such. And so she is.

I may be the only person who sees my holiday decorations this year, it's true. But as light my pine-scented candles from Walgreen's (best to be found, I tell you) and go through my demented collection of Christmas programs, from the recent Saturday Night Live clip show to Mr. Krueger's Christmas, a strange half-hour sponsored by the Mormon Church and starring Jimmy Stewart (he has a cat named George--get it?), to the joyfully painful experience that is The Star Wars Holiday Special (if you ever want to feel better about your life, watch this show and be glad you had nothing to do with it), I'll look up from time to time and check out my surroundings, if only momentarily. The tree. The angels. And, for those moments, at least, I'll smile and give myself a damn break. And if this is as good as my life gets, though I certainly hope for more and for better, I don't have too much to complain about. So I won't. For a change. My gift to you. And to myself.

Peace to you and yours this holiday season.

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Dad's Winter Coat

Lately, I've been restless, prowling. I don't like to go straight home after work anymore. I have to get there sometime, of course--at least until Lottie and Ms. Christopher figure out how to open the tins of Friskies Senior themselves, anyway. But these days, I make stops on the way home: at book stores, record shops, movie theaters, bars. (Yes, restlessness can get expensive.) But last night, after a quick sightseeing tour through Borders at State and Randolph, I wandered over to Daley Plaza.

Daley Plaza, named for the longtime mayor of Chicago (and father of the current longtime mayor of Chicago), is best known for the Picasso sculpture that stands there--a sculpture so initially befuddling to natives that there was a strong temptation to send it back for a refund. In the summer, farmers markets are held there--great source for fresh apples, spices and catnip (not to be used all at the same time, you understand). And at this time of year, an enormous tree (itself composed of 80 or so smaller trees) stands at the south end of the Plaza with a German-style marketplace occupies much of the rest of the space. The marketplace consists of small shops selling seasonal goods, traditional foods and drinks to either warm you (cider) or make you not care so much that you're cold (beer).

I walked around the Plaza for a while, the scents of brats and cinnamon weaving around me, the sight of glass angels tempting my wallet and my heart, the sound of couples cooing over the size of the tree sending my hands ever deeper into my pockets. Snowflakes tumbled down around the Christmas tree, through the ribs of the Picasso and onto the Plaza, its booths, me. I barely noticed. Maybe because I was lost in thought. Maybe because the smells, sights, sounds distracted me. Or maybe because of Dad's winter coat.

Dad's winter coat is an ugly brute. It must have been a deep blue bordering on navy at some point in its distant past, but now it's faded almost to the point of pastel. Its lining isn't much better: what had once been dark red was now more of a medium-rare pink. And the overall condition of the coat? Like its wearer had tumbled down a hill, gotten up, and repeated the process--a few thousand times. Small rips in the corners of the pockets. A bit of insulation dangling from the medium-rare lining. A 90-degree gash on the left shoulder (more on that in a moment). And the right armpit has a split that I have yet to sew. (Yes, I can sew. Why do you ask?)

Overall, the poor thing is by no means fashionable and looks like the Salvation Army would reject it.

Then again, it doesn't look that much different than it did 30 years ago--when Dad stopped wearing it entirely.

Back then, Dad worked as a switchman for one of the major rail lines, usually pulling second or third shift. Even with that schedule, though, he always found an open bar to spend some time at before coming home and having a few more brews. Sometimes the bar was a neighborhood joint, like Tuman's Alcohol Abuse Center (no, really, that's what it's called), but sometimes he'd sit in whatever was open at those less-than-godly hours. He was an alcoholic, and it cost him big time in the end, with his body giving out on him at age 60, even though he had been clean and sober for more than a decade beforehand. The damage had been done--it just took that long to catch up.

But his drinking cost him in the short run, too, putting him in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

One winter morning after finishing his shift, Dad was in a bar on the South Side--don't ask me the name of the place, because if I ever did know it I forgot it long ago--when a fight broke out, as will happen after too many hours of too much drinking among too many with too few brain cells when they're sober. Dad wasn't the barroom brawl type. Just not his style. No doubt, he was just drinking quietly and not bothering a soul when the fists started to fly.

And it didn't matter a damn anyway. Somebody still grabbed him and threw him head-first out of the plate glass window at the front of the bar.

He didn't spend much time in the hospital. Didn't need to. He got cut up pretty well on his hands and was still pulling stitches out years later. His face didn't get slashed, but a piece of glass found the optic nerve of his right eye and severed it. (At least I think it was his right eye--he didn't lose the eye itself, so no one would know he was blind in either eye unless he told them.) The rest of his body was fairly well protected--by the winter coat. Only that 90-degree gash on the left shoulder remains as evidence of what happened to Dad that cold morning.

Without the sight in his eye, Dad couldn't work as a switchman anymore. Never mind that the man could see better with that one functioning eye than most folks can with two good ones--he somehow always saw the bus coming before I did at the stop and could eye a storm on the far horizon hours before a single raindrop fell. But rules are rules. Dad got a pension and went on to do other things with his life, chiefly working jobs in factories where his lack of vision wasn't an obstacle to doing good work. And he did well enough, helping to support his family and put one child all the way through college.

But the winter coat? It didn't fare so well. After the incident at the bar, it was relegated to a hanger at the back of the closet in his bedroom. And when we moved into our house, the same coat stayed on the same hanger and went to the same position of the new closet, which is where Mom and I found it after he died in 1995.

I guess I understand why he didn't want to wear the coat anymore after that night. The coat as a whole, and the gash on the left shoulder in particular, no doubt reminded him of what had happened, what he had lost, what that night had cost him--even though the coat had likely saved him from further debilitating damage, if not death itself. Why, then, didn't Dad just throw the coat away? Or donate it to charity? Or give it to one of his strapping sons? Was it a reminder of good times as well? Did he not want to throw the good away for the sake of the bad? I'll never know--Dad took that tidbit, and so many others, to his grave.

Once Mom and I had found the coat in the back of that bedroom closet, though, she had no objections to letting me take it, if I wanted it. And it wasn't like I didn't have winter coats of my own. But it was his. It had history, both good and bad. And it was warm.

So as I did circles around Daley Plaza last night, I might have felt melancholy or restlessness or happiness or whatever. But I sure as hell didn't feel cold.

Thanks, Dad.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Grandma's House

I still see it in my dreams, when exhaustion, background noise from the box fan or the Girlish Girls chasing phantom mice in the middle of the night conspire to bring dreams on--the house on McLean Avenue where Grandma used to live.

Now, I admit that calling it a "house" might be overstating things a bit. It was really a small, gray cottage on the edge of an empty lot used as parking space for the cleaners across the alley (thus inviting injudicious drivers to occasionally bump the brick wall and knock chunks of gray brick and mortar out). A thin rectangle of yard flowed behind it, with a lilac bush tucked against the enclosed porch and various stumps and pits dotting their way back to the garage, which had never been used for anything but lumber storage for as far back as I could remember and which always had a curious, though not precarious, lean to the east, as if inclining toward the rising sun.

The yard needed frequent weeding, if only to keep city inspectors from issuing tickets or gangbangers from crouching in wait until the cops had passed them by, and I spent many a summer afternoon with shears and hatchet in hand, laying waste to mint and dandelions and young but sturdy sumac trees.

Once, while clearing brush from the empty-lot side, I found what appeared to be a thick mound of spider web, only to discover that it was really the remaining fur of a long-deceased cat. Another time, I found a spider web (a real one this time) stretched between a particularly large stump and the aforementioned lilac bush. And in the center of this web resided the largest spider I have ever seen outside of a Bert I. Gordon movie: to my prepubescent perspective, its black-and-yellow legs appeared to span at least a foot, though it's a good deal more likely that it measured no more than six inches from tip to tip, still a considerable size for something that clearly wasn't native to this, if any, hemisphere. (My attempts as an adult to describe this enormous arachnid to friends have been universally met with cries of "No fucking way!" or "You must have imagined it"; I regret that I was not into photography at that time, so that I could provide an image of reality to accompany the image that has rested in my all-too-vivid imagination to this very day.) Needless to say, not much foliage got trimmed in Grandma's backyard that day.

The interior of the cottage was modest as well, with mint green or canary yellow paint on the walls, embossed tin on the ceilings (long since painted over in layers of white latex) and linoleum on the floors. The rooms were mostly small, but Grandma didn't need much space. Since Grandpa died in 1968 (his wake a vague sepia memory in my adult brain), she'd lived alone with two or three cats, the last of which were a long-haired calico named Squeaky (for the sound she made whenever she opened her mouth) and a thin, skittish gray male known most popularly as "The Rat" (because...well, he looked like one.) There was a space heater in the modest dining room (which replaced the coal-fueled heater that ran into the 1970s until home coal deliveries finally stopped), two unused bedrooms (Grandma preferred sleeping on the couch in the living room) and a tiny, frigid room that passed for an toilet. (There was no bathtub--Grandma washed herself at the kitchen sink.) A wedding portrait of her and Grandpa hung on one of the living room walls, and a crystal chandelier that was just low enough for me to walk into face-first dangled from the ceiling. And even though her house was small, Grandma didn't need a lot of room anyway: her legs were badly swollen, so she never strayed far from home and, in most of her later years, never went beyond the front gate, and even then only to put down food for the neighborhood strays.

We visited Grandma--Mom, my brother and I--once a week or so, with Dad tagging along sometimes, usually on holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas Day or whenever Grandma needed a handyman about the house for plumbing or carpentry or electrical work. (Dad was quite the "jack of all trades"; I sometimes wish I knew half as much as he did about repair work and half as little about writing and movies and action figures--I might be less interesting that way, but more employable.) Grandma would always offer us food, no matter what time of day we visited or what Mom said about when we'd last eaten. She'd always offer us oranges or bananas or Easter ham--whatever she had to give. She ate off of small tin tray tables and drank her instant coffee or tea with honey from cups with elaborate, pink Japanese designs--odd china for a small, stout Polish woman to have, it seemed. But Grandma had many such odd things, accumulated over years of buying things from catalogs or department stores and rarely if ever using them.

In other words, Grandma was a master packrat. So much so, in fact, that until she took ill and had to be hospitalized in 1975, her house was piled floor-to-ceiling with all manner of dark, dusty items, with one narrow pathway through the middle of it that allowed her to get about. During that hospital stay, though, Mom decided to do something "nice" for Grandma: she decided to clean Grandma's house. And so we did. My brother and I spent the better part of three weeks excavating the site, with "shovels and rakes and implements of destruction," as Arlo Guthrie would say. Had we known about collectors markets then what we know now, we could have made a buck or two off of some of the "trash" we hauled out that summer, like cereal boxes from the '50s or newspapers going back decades, touching on the events that shaped world history (then and now).

Some of the stuff mysteriously survived the purge, like two huge old radios that hadn't worked in decades or the can of vintage Christmas ornaments, or the movie magazines dating back to the dawn of the Sound Era (including one with a stunning painted portrait of Barbara Stanwyck), or a tin dollhouse in more or less playable shape, or hundreds of 78s and a hand-cranked portable turntable to play them on. Maybe Mom just couldn't part with these things; maybe there wasn't enough time to toss them out before Grandma got home and Mom just shoved them into closets to avoid dealing with them; maybe some (like the radios) reminded her of Grandpa, by all accounts a gentle soul who was never, ever sick until the end, when he went quickly and far too early.

Whatever the reason, Mom and I found all of these things in Grandma's house after she died in 1990 after a lifetime of varied illnesses--so many that Grandma, a devout Catholic, was given the last rites nine different times (appropriate for a woman who loved cats so much). And yet, the woman lived to be 85--tough old bird, that Grandma.

But it wasn't for the things in Grandma's house that we went once a week or so--not for the cats, not the Japanese teacups, nor the various other things tucked into gray/brown corners of gray/brown rooms. No. We went to see the woman herself, always kind to us, the kids, even when she and Mom were going at each other over one thing or another. Both were stubborn and set in their ways, and many a visit turned uncomfortable as they argued back and forth over something Mom wanted Grandma to do and Grandma didn't want to do at any cost.

Yet, even this arguing was an expression of love, of sorts: would they have bickered so if they didn't care deeply for one another? Would Mom have visited every week? Would she have gone to the trouble of making Grandma dinner, including kidney stew--the most foul-smalling food product on the planet, whose stench permeated our house whenever Mom simmered it--for each visit? Or would she have decorated Grandma's house for the holidays with garlands and ornaments and a small, lighted tree that she put up in the center window every Christmas?

Grandma's house still stands on McLean Avenue, albeit barely. A fire broke out in the house about six months after Grandma died, though the cause was never determined with any certainty. (The house appeared to have been broken into at least once, if not several times, and someone smoking on the living room couch may have started it, though whether this was intentional or not was unclear.) The front of the house suffered the worst of it: the living room was all but destroyed, the wedding portrait consumed, the crystal chandelier ground to dust beneath the collapsed tin ceiling. I spent two of the most miserable days of my existence in that house, hauling out whatever was deemed salvagable in 20-degree February weather. I've never felt an ache like that, before or since: a weariness and sadness well beyond the bone and marrow down to whatever limp dishrag passes for my soul.

Maybe that's why the house still haunts my dreams--because I parted company with it on such bad terms, especially since I wanted to buy the house from Mom, if only to rehab it and sell it again (unlikely, though, since the admittedly sentimental idea of carrying it forward as some sort of ancestral home appealed to me then), but she would not hear of it. We never spoke of why that was--maybe the memories were too much for her and she wanted no direct connection with it anymore. Whatever the reason, she sold it quickly after the fire, and the new owners rehabbed it, gutting the interior and adding a second story. But these days, it sits boarded up, probably awaiting a backhoe to clear the plot for one of the ugly, cheap, concrete block-intensive condo developments so prevelant on the North Side these days.

But even though Grandma has been gone for a while now and her house has been out of family hands for about a decade, reminders of her surround me in La Casa del Terror: the huge old radios are on a bookshelf; the tin dollhouse stands on another; the 78s and turntable are in a closet just off the bathroom; the Japanese teacups are in the kitchen cabinet. And the small, lighted Christmas tree? It gets hauled out every holiday season and sits in the center window of my living room.

Being a packrat is genetic, I guess.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

All Hallow's Eve

I never really got into the dress-up aspect of Halloween. Not that I didn't have the desire to be someone else as a child--when you spend as much time getting your ass kicked at school as I did, you spend most of your time wishing you were anyone else but that goofy-looking kid with the corkscrew teeth and the Jerry Lewis crewcut staring back at you from the mirror every morning. The costume choices of my misspent youth, however, did little to alleviate the situation--somehow, hiding yourself in a Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp costume just made the bigger kids want to chase me down the block that much more.

Even my one arguably successful costume--a homemade getup intended to bear some resemblance, however slight, to Elwood Blues--still brought more grief than reward, since the one question I got all day long was, "Where's Jake?" Telling the other kids that Jake was "still in the joint" or that he was "on a mission from God" just didn't do the trick. At least I got to wear sunglasses and a porkpie hat in school all day long.

So, perhaps understandably, throwing on a mask or makeup has little to no appeal for me, even as a relatively burly adult.

But decorating my swingin' bachelor pad for Halloween and watching funny/frightening/frighteningly funny movies with my friends? Does that appeal to me at all?

Oh. Hell. Yeah.

So if you are ever, um, unfortunate enough to be walking through La Casa del Terrorany night immediately before All Hallows Eve, you're likely to see any or all of the following:

Rubber bats dangling from the ceiling and affixed to the bathroom mirror (though, to be briefly fair, the bats on the mirror are there year-round); Godzilla duking it out with Gamera atop the refrigerator (which is decorated with old-fashioned Halloween postcards) while King Kong and Fay Wray look on in fascination/disgust; a glow-in-the-dark paper skeleton taped to a closet door; Mars Attacks lights wound around the shower curtain pole; a skull with a Weiner Whistle clenched between its teeth; a Bride of Frankenstein doll whose hair looks more mussed than usual (maybe she and the Monster had been vigorously shagging the night before? are my action figures getting more action than I am?); 18-inch tall figures of Bruce Campbell and Bruce Lee standing back to back under the living room lamp, with the Tick and the Terminator guarding them from behind; an honest-to-badness Ouiji Board, vintage 1937, with a crystal ball and a tarot deck before it, all waiting for the wrong person to ask the wrong question at the wrong time; pumpkin lights strung across the living room windows; a tin dollhouse, played with by Mom in her misspent youth, now desecrated with Blade climbing out of the chimney, Skeletor and the Shadow leaning out of the windows, and Winona Ryder and a Dalek on the balcony; posters for The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project bookending the living room; and more monster toys, movies and postcards than you ever thought one person could reasonably possess.

You're also just as likely to see good friends parked on the couches or the futon or walking about the apartment, marveling at the display and wondering aloud if it looks like this all year round. (No, it really doesn't. As I told one friend this past Saturday, "For Halloween, I dail it up to eleven.") They come. They watch movies with me. They share my joy. They share my holiday. And those bittersweet memories of bad Halloweens past? They fade away like a vampire at sunrise.

I like Thanksgiving. I love Christmas. But Halloween? That's my day. And I hope it's yours, too. Have a happy and safe one, kids. And eat much, much more candy than you should--the sugar buzz will do you good.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Nudge the World

As I compose this week's update at Polly Jean, the lime green e-mail machine, and sit in this desk chair whose springs have long since sprung and now threaten to depants me every time I sit in it, there is a coffee cup sitting on a Tiki-themed coaster atop my SuperDisk drive. Unfortunately, the cup does not contain coffee tonight, but, rather, Apple Cinnamon TheraFlu; I've been fighting a cold for the better part of a week, and as my sinuses remain jam-packed with fluids best not seen by human (or even nonhuman) eyes, I fear the cold is winning.

But it's not the cold, nor the coaster, nor the computer, nor the chair, nor even the sizable backside in the chair, that hold my attention tonight. No. It's the coffee cup, which came to me through a job I worked in one of Chicago's northern suburbs for just under five years (or about three years too long, depending on how you care to look at it) that has my eye--maybe even both of them.

Actually, though, even that's not entirely true: It's the words on the coffee cup that command me to stare at them in wonder. The cup itself is off-white (whether the "off-" part is by design or by age, I'm not certain) with a blue corporate logo on the side facing the Elizabeth poster (Ah, Cate Blanchett) on my "office" wall. (My "office" is really a bedroom which, since I now sleep on the increasingly uncomfortable futon in the living room, has been converted to house Polly Jean, the desk beneath her, the desk chair before her, and whatever other shit I can't fit into other rooms in La Casa del Terror--plants, action figures, free weights, comic books, clothing, porn tapes, a bicycle that hasn't been ridden in at least two years, etc.)

Facing me, though, are words in the same shade of pale blue as the logo. The words are attributed to the playwright Tom Stoppard: "...Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little."

I stare at those words often and remember that, when I graduated from college, I thought my fellow poetry mates and I were going to change the American literary landscape. No. Really. I thought that. Then I remember that, in one of my midterm conferences, my instructor told me, quite out of the blue, that the poet Wallace Stevens didn't have his first book of poetry published until he was 35. (Was he trying to tell me something?) The fact is, we didn't change the American literary landscape. Some tried, but failed. Others died before they could finish what they started. And still others abandoned the effort altogether and concentrated on children or careers or significant something-or-others. The arrogance and energy of youth settled into the bump-and-grind of everyday living.

And yet, even with all the years that have passed since then, and even with the time that has gone by since I left that job where I acquired the cup, its words keep coming back to me. "Nudge the world." Not "change." Not "reshape." Not "blow to fucking bits." "Nudge." Maybe that's how you go about changing or reshaping the world (though I'd rather not blow it to fucking bits, thank you)--with one little nudge at a time.

When I started this Web site exactly one year go today, I didn't go into it with the intent of changing anybody's world or mind or whatever; I really had no clue who would want to read what they'd find here (and I still don't); and I wasn't even sure how often I could get around to updating it (though, as it turned out, I posted 26 updates during that year, which averages out to one update every two weeks). More than anything, though, I just wanted a little corner of the Internet on which I could be somewhat creative--write, post photos, have a bit of fun. And if, in the process, I could "nudge the world"? Just a little? Even one tiny bit? All the better.

So here I am, sitting in a cluttered room, letting the springs in this chair eat my ass for dinner, and trying to gulp down the Apple Cinnamon TheraFlu before it goes cold. As good a way to celebrate the one-year anniversary of as any, I guess. And if I have my way--which doesn't happen often, but, every once in a while, the very fabric of reality is split assunder and I do have my way--I'll be trying to nudge the world for a while to come.

Special thanks to JB, VB, Red Secretary, Mr. E, Sister Dee, the Fluffies of St. Joseph, the Grays of Dallas and everybody else who has encouraged, inspired, poked, prodded or otherwise given support over this past year. You all rock.

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

This Sporting Life: Foul Ball

(WARNING: This week's update is entirely about the sucky state of baseball in Chicago. If you don't care about sports in general or baseball in particular, then the following essay will likely bore the shit out of you....which may be a good thing, if you happen to be constipated. Otherwise, this one just ain't for you.)

I'm told that in cities as far apart and different as Atlanta, Oakland, Saint Louis and Minnepolis, base ball fans are awake and alert, cheering their teams on in the playoffs with the hopes that their city will host a World Series next week.

There are no such hopes in Chicago, where, despite the fact that the city claims ownership of not one but two major league franchises, fans have packed away their pennants and gloves, their caps and spring dreams, for a long winter's nap. In truth, though, these fans needn't have waited until the final week of the season, nor even the final month. They could have gone into hybrenation somewhere around the Fourth of July and not have missed a thing.

The baseball season just concluded in the Windy City could easily be described as typical, what with the Cubs finishing near the bottom of their division (and only escaping the cellar due to the epic awfulness of our neighbors to the north, the Milwaukee Brewers) and the White Sox stinking up their sanitary, bland stadium for much of the season, only to come roaring back toward the end to reach the coveted .500 mark--and by losing as many games as they won, they basically could have gone without playing any games at all.

But there were aspects to this excruciatingly long six months that were far from typical. First of all, there was the labor strife all of baseball had to deal with. The idea that millionaire ballplayers would go on strike against billionaire owners was met with a collective "meh" from sports fans everywhere, most of whom simply asked, "So...when does football season start?" This is indicative of the apathy felt toward the game since the last work stoppage in 1994. (Hell, I'm feeling pretty apathetic now as I write reason for caring is what, exactly?) This is also indicative of how ineffective Major League Baseball has been in their attempts to get a grip on our collective attention: an extra round of playoffs, interleague play, brand new ballparks all over the place, etc.

On the North Side, there was the added spectacle of the ownership of the Cubs, the many-tentacled Tribune Company, trying to expand that ivy-covered shrine to all things good in the sport, Wrigley Field, at the expense of the views of some of the owners of apartment buildings across the street from the ballpark--building owners who've installed bleachers on their rooftops and charge big bucks to let people sit up there. When the owners kicked and screamed and filled community meetings with angry villagers, the Tribune Company responded in a mature, professional way--by putting up windscreens to block the sight lines of rooftop viewers, all the while claiming the maneuver was motivated not by pettiness, but by post-9/11 security concerns (like those screens could stop spitballs, much less bullets or worse). At season's end, no compromise or resolution had been reached. But did anybody but the immediate parties really care about this, another case of the rich being pissed off at the richer? Not really.

For added spice, the Cubs fired not one but two managers this season--it's not unusual for one to get whacked every couple years or so, but two in one year is kind of odd. However, it makes more sense when you look at how the team played: with the exceptions of Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood and a few others (mostly younger players), the Cubs showed no hunger, no drive, no spark. And neither manager employed this year--Don Baylor for the first half of the season, Bruce Kimm for the second half--could inspire this sleepy bunch. I doubt if the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost could have gotten more out of these guys, most of whom played like they were anxious to grab their paychecks and walk (why show the energy to run?).

Not that matters were much better on the South Side. Aside from Mark Buerlhe, who won 19 games this season, and Magglio Ordonez, who made the All-Star team (again), the White Sox all looked like they needed compasses to lead them to a clue. The big off-season trade by general manager Kenny Williams of three young pitchers to the Pittsburgh Pirates for veteran Todd Ritchie turned out to be disasterous, as Ritchie lost 16 games and two of the three young pitchers entered the Pirates' starting rotation. And then, there was Frank Thomas, who sat out most of last year with an injury. He came back this year as grouchy and uninspiring as ever, refusing to talk to the media while also, apparently, refusing to figure out how to hit a baseball the way he did in MVP seasons past. His average and production climbed a bit by September--just in time for the team to watch the Minnesota Twins, who were supposed to be contracted out of existence this year, win their division by a wide margin and crawl to within a series, against the Anaheim Angels, of playing in the World Series.

Think about that for a moment, if you would: The Twins haven't been to a World Series since 1991, and the Angels have never been to a World Series. Meanwhile, here in Chicago, not a single World Series game has been in this city in my lifetime. Not. One. And not one World Series has been won in this city on either side of town since 1917. Not. One.

Why, then, do fans still turn out at all? I mean, Sox fans at seem a bit practical, showing up in dwindling numbers at the second Comiskey Park. But Cubs fans? They're like grocery shoppers buying gallons of milk, finding out that the milk is spoiled to the point of being chunky, and going back to the grocery store for more spoiled milk--over and over and over and over again.

But at least their self-inflicted pain is ended for another year, when eternal hopefulness and blind faith will again have a head-on collision with the weight of gloomy history. And who knows? Maybe hope and faith can win for once. Maybe.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

One Year After

The thought has been with me for a while--almost exactly a year, in fact--to write something about the events of 9/11/01. I've sat down to do it at least a dozen times, and I even have a partially completed draft of such sitting at home somewhere in the bowels of poor Polly Jean. But I've never finished it, much less posted it here.

Maybe it's because my account of that day is strictly peripheral--after all, I was in Chicago, where nothing really happened except the fear and panic and sadness that the rest of the nation felt. Maybe it's because there are so many other accounts that covered it better, most especially Sarah Bunting's tale of actually seeing the WTC come down in person. Or maybe I'm just too lazy to sit down and peck out what would surely be my longest essay to date.

And perhaps, some day, I will post that essay here, and you'll get to read about the uneasy feeling of trying to get out a crowded downtown with Red Secretary under an alarmingly clear blue sky; about the epic meeting between RS and my mom; about the fear of hearing planes overhead when none were supposed to flying anymore (turned out to be F-16s patrolling Chicago's airspace); about getting home and watching the footage of the attacks over and over again. But not this week, when everybody is doing some piece on 9/11. As if we could forget what happened. As if we ever will.

Monday, August 26, 2002

The Road More Traveled

It should come as no great surprise that I have a significant attachment to the city of Chicago. After all, I was born here, have lived here all my life and, barring something unforseen like landing a film critic position in Santa Fe or Seattle or some other town whose name begins with "S," will likely stay here for a good while longer.

But it will probably seem at least a little odd that I have an attachment to one particular street in my city. It's not a street I've ever lived on, though I've lived within easy walking distance of it my whole life. And it's not a "great street," as Sammy Cahn once dubbed a certain downtown thoroughfare, but it's a street of historical importance that bisects the city and runs from its northern edge to its southern border, cruising through just about every economic, social, political and ethnic stratum in between.

It's the longest uninterrupted street within a city's limits in the world. That's right--not just the state or the country, but the whole frickin' world.

It's Western Avenue.

It could be that I like Western Avenue so much because I know that its name comes from the fact that it used to be the western border of Chicago. So if you stand at the corner of North and Western, you get an idea of how small Chicago used to be. (Don't ask me why, if there's a North Avenue and a Western Avenue, there's no South Avenue. Maybe there was one, but its name was changed to honor some local political hack.) Or it could merely be familiarity: I've walked on, biked on, ridden by bus or car on Western Avenue all my years, including a four-year stretch in which I rode it to and from my high school, Lane Tech, just about every day; I was on a southbound Western Avenue bus when I heard that John Hinckley had tried to kill Ronald Reagan. Or maybe it's just cool to live near a street that has more used car lots and bars (a bad combo platter) on it than anywehere else on the planet.

But whatever the specific reason, Western Avenue has always played an important role in my life. Still does.

I grew up around Ukrainian Village on the Near West Side, and my mom still has a house in the area. I try to be a good son and visit once a week, and I usually take the Western Avenue bus back to my own neighborhood. Thus, I get a weekly tour of signposts from my younger days:

Like the Hi-Fi Video at Augusta, where I rented my first three videos when I got my first VCR: Day of the Dead (unspeakably awful flesh-eating zombie flick), The Hidden (passable sci-fi flick with lots of loud rock-n-roll on the soundtrack) and Sex Star (a, um, handlotionvideonasty);

Or Robert Clemente High School at Division, named for the Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder who, in addition to being a perennial All-Star with a Howitzer for a throwing arm, collected his 3,000th career hit in his last Major League at-bat (he died in a plane crash while on his way to help disaster victim right around Christmas 1972);

Or the El station at Milwaukee, which was recently rebuilt almost from scratch, only retaining the terra cotta Art Deco facade from the original station;

Or Margie's Candies at Armitage, where the Beatles came for sundaes when touring the U.S. in 1964--and where developed have tried to grab the land so they can build some fugly condo development (so far, they've failed);

Or the bank parking lot right across the street from Margie's, where the Oak Theatre, a family movie house in Mom's youth and a porno house where Marilyn Chambers danced in mine, once stood;

Or just off Western on McLean, where Grandma's cottage still stands, though not for long from the look of it--its windows are covered in plywood, and with the small properties tend to get swallowed up on the North Side, I fully expect to find some concrete-block monstrosity in its place sometime soon;

Or the Golden Nugget at the three-way intersection of Elston, Diversey and Western (an intersection with some of the worst traffic jams in all of creation), where my best friend from high school and I spent many a 3 a.m. solving the problems of the world over meat loaf and bottomless cups of coffee, and where my family and I went for dinner after my father's wake;

Or the police station at Belmont, which sits where Riverview Park used to stand;

Or the aforementioned Lane Technical High School at Addison, where four years of my life felt a lot more like ten;

Or the Penny Lane Lounge, where the CD box has lots of Beatles (duh) and the vodka-and-tonics keep coming at you till 4 a.m.;

Or Welles Park, where fun can be had on an August afternoon just by standing in the freshly minted gazebo (or is it a music pavilion? I'm not really sure) and watching the soccer boys bounce balls back and forth with their floppy-haired head while small children make the water fountains jet out endless streams of droplets onto the parched and dusty baseball diamonds.

Western Avenue runs for miles south and north of the section descibed above, of course, but this is the stretch I know the best. The one I've traveled most of my days. The one I remember the most about. The one that always leads me close to home, both then and now.

Friday, August 16, 2002

What's My Motivation in This Scene?

Okay. Yeah. I know. I haven't updated this site in a while. The last real "update" I wrote, in fact, was about my iMac, Polly Jean, blowing up on the 3rd of July. (The essay that followed it, Hot Child in the City, was a repost of something that was supposed to appear here the week before, but, for reasons that still escape me, didn't.)

But I can't blame my lack of attention here on poor PJ: she's been reasonably well behaved since she returned from the Apple Store, even though the scanner software is still fucked up and I can't find the CD so that I can reinstall it (hence the same picture of Lottie that adorned my last post here--get used to her, 'cause she may be there a while).

Nor can I blame the dust gathering here on the weather. Sure, it's been hot enough to fry eggs on the pavement (and some bacon and sausage to go with 'em), and I don't have AC. But neither do a lot of other people, and they still get their shit done.

The only excuse that comes close to being legit, in fact, is that it's been busy as hell at work of late, and that takes a lot of energy out of me. But when you get down to it, that's all it is--an excuse. These Web site updates aren't literary masterpieces; in most cases, they're an hour or two of solid typing, followed by a few minutes of HTML coding and a few more minutes of uploading (when I can concentrate long enough to actually get it right--I suspect "Hot Child in the City" was initially lost through my lack of uploading ability).

That's it. Really. Why do you think so many people have their own sites on the Web--sites that don't sell or buy or do any damned thing other than spit opinions into the great void?

So. Why, then, have I not gotten off of my ass (or, more literally, on it) to say something here?

Don't really have an answer for you. Emotional inertia. Mental calcification. Stuff. Pick one.

The point is, I've been lax in keeping this poor thing going, and "not feeling up to it" isn't much of an excuse. I'll try to be more diligent--and, one hopes, entertainingly so--in future.

That's all.

No. Really. That's it. That's all I have to say.

Really. I'm not kidding.

Why are you still here? Don't you have someplace to go? Something (or someone) to do?

What? You don't? Really? Huh.

Guess things could always be worse. I'd just rather not find out how.

Wednesday, July 3, 2002

Hot Child in the City

It's a sweltering July night in La Casa del Terror, and every fan I own is going--one ceiling fan in the kitchen; another in the living room; a box fan in the window above the futon I (try to) sleep on; and another moved to "the office" (a.k.a., "the place where I dump shit when company comes a-callin'") specifically so that I could write this update without turning into a puddle in my desk chair. (And considering that said desk chair has decided that it doesn't want its springs to cushion my overly ample backside anymore and would rather have said springs fly out in all directions from beneath the chair, rendering them a hazard to uncovered flesh, the chair has more than enough problems already.)

I'm stripped down to my burgundy boxers as I write this, and I wouldn't even be wearing those if not for the possibility, however remote, that one of my neighbors in the apartment building across the street might strain to look through the locust trees, catch a glimpse of a Fully Monty me and call the proper authorities (most likely the EPA). I'm dabbing the sweat Niagaraing my forehead with a dishtowel, and my hair has gone Greg Brady on me and will not be tamed by anything short of a chainsaw.

The Girlish Girls have, very sensibly, made themselves scarce: Lottie is sprawled on the relatively cool bathroom tile floor (I'm considering joining her there), and Ms. Christopher has crawled beneath one of the living room couches, probably to commune with the leftover Christmas cards and dust bunnies the size of boulders under there. They know enough not to cling to me in this heat, unlike Sars's demented felines, who either are too dim to realize that cuddling and flopping about on their owner could bring about her demise, or they're actively attempting to assassinate Ms. Bunting and therefore are diabolically clever.

That I feel like I should be served up with butter sauce and a wedge of lemon is, when you get down to it, my own damn fault. I didn't have to move out of Mom's house, which normally has substantial air conditioning going in the summer--a fact she reminds me of regularly, when she's not expressing the wish that I "find someone" because she wants me "to be happy" or urging me to be "less nice" to women so that "they'll like you more." (She means well. Really.) I could also spring for my own AC unit, but I doubt that the ancient wiring of my apartment could stand the strain. Hell, I can't run the coffee maker and the microwave at the same time without blowing the circuit, so I could just imagine the cloth-encrusted copper wires just laughing till they spew at the thought of something that energy-draining being hooked up to them for even a few seconds, much less for days on end. Other tenants in my building have AC units hooked up, though, so maybe it's not a hopeless cause. Maybe I should pry the wallet open, slouch down to the nearest Circuit City and do what must be done.

For the moment, though, I fight the heat however I can. The fans turn furiously. The dishtowel soaks up another torrent from my forehead. The ice in the green tumbler resting on the Tiki coaster on my SuperDisk drive shrink with every passing minute like friendly faces receding into darkness as the car pulls out of the drive (where the car is going, I have no idea--it's just a fucked-up metaphor). And once I finish typing this page, maybe I'll pull on some pants, refill the tumbler with some fresh ice and filtered water (which I drink because the water that comes out of my faucets is usually tinted orange or brown), and head out onto the back porch for a few minutes.

Maybe I'll smoke a cig from the pack of Camel Ultra Lights I've been working through slowly but surely for the last month, if only so that the searing of my lungs will make me momentarily forget all that brings discomfort to body and mind. Maybe I'll look for a star peeking through the haze hanging over the city. And, if I find one, maybe I'll make a wish on it.

More likely, though, I'll just give up entirely: kill the lights and the ceiling fans, toss the burgundy boxers into the pile of undone laundry beside the desk, drag the office fan back out into the living room, flop down on the futon, spritz myself with the water bottle once used to keep the Girls from clawing the furniture, and sacrifice myself on the alter of air, hoping that sleep will come quickly and without dreams, but knowing full well that such is unlikely.

Not in Chicago in July.

Not in La Casa del Terror.

Not this night.

Thursday, June 27, 2002

Vanishing Chicago: Ghosts Along the Midway

If you stand on the northwest corner of the intersection of Irving Park Road and Western Avenue and look directly north, you'll see a bar sign. The bar beneath it is no longer of consequence; it closed a while ago, and the building that houses it has been on the market for some time. And for most people who walk under the sign itself, it would have no significance whatsoever unless it broke free from the thin chains holding it aloft and clocked them in the noggin. But for the few "in the know," this particular bar sign is a sad, dirtied reminder of what once was and is no more.

The name of the bar, the Riverview Bar & Grille (I would point out that "Grille" is actually a misspelling and would be most proper without the "e" at the end, but I would surely be accused, by certain individuals, of being a "smitty" yet again, and therefore I'll let it go), very probably goes without remark from anyone who'd bother to look at it at all, except, perhaps, to note that the bar has no view of the Chicago River at all. For that, you'd need to trek west down Irving Park Road for a couple of blocks, where you'll find a bridge passing over the spot where ducks feed (on what, I'm not sure), debris floats by at a remarkable pace and the occasional dead body washes up. Even the roller coaster shape of the faded red lettering on the sign wouldn't mean much to most wandering up Western--unless, of course, you knew that, just about six blocks south of that sign, there used to be one of the largest amusement parks in the world: Riverview Park.

For those who aren't yiffy for Chicago history, a quick history lesson: Riverview Park sat on Chicago's Northwest Side, bordered by Belmont, Western, the south end of Lane Tech High School's parking lot and the river (hence, the name of the park) from 1904 until it closed in the fall of 1967. In the intervening years, Riverview delighted millions of patrons with its funhouse, its games and its numerous thrill rides, from the gentle glide of the Velvet Coaster to the wet wonder of the Chutes to the abrupt twists, turns, dips and dives of the famous (or, more appropriately, infamous) Bobs, which many a loving bruise on many a wooden roller coaster aficionado.

I was just three when Riverview closed and just shy of my fourth birthday when demolition began, so I never got to go there. My brother, however, still likes to tell stories about riding the rides and walking the brightly lit midway, even though he's only three years my senior. (And yes, I burn with envy every time he brings it up.) Nobody seems to know the "real" reason Riverview closed, though: Some say the park was closed due to recurring safety code violations (though its owners vehemently denied this); others claim that a land deal was worked with political insiders with ties to Mayor Richard J. Daley (also known as "Richard the First," in order to distinguish him from the current mayor, Richard M. Daley, also known as "Richard the Second"); still others maintain that racial tensions (black youths coming in numbers into an overwhelmingly white neighborhood on hot summer nights) caused the demise of Riverview.

Whatever the cause, the park was closed, razed and replaced by various facilities: A senior citizens' apartment complex; a Devry Institute of Technology campus; a police station; and a shopping mall named for the amusement park that once stood on site (whether that qualifies as a tribute or an insult is up to you). No signs of an amusement park at all.

Unless, of course, you know where to look.

It really should have occurred to me sometime during my four years of attending Lane Tech. I may never have gone to Riverview, but I knew that it had been there: I'd seen old 16mm films taken by teachers during football games at Lane Tech stadium that showed rides just beyond the southern end zone--one of my teachers told me that faculty would, during graduation ceremonies, place bets on which one of the Pair-O-Chutes would make it to the ground first; and I saw the vacant land that would eventually become the shopping mall in my freshman year.

But I was an English major, not a math whiz--two plus two doesn't always equal four in my tangled brain. So it never occurred to me to wander through the small parcel of undeveloped land adjacent to a ribbon of park land that hugs the river between Belmont and Addison to look for signs of Chicago past. And it wasn't until I watched an episode of Chicago Stories, a terrific documentary series produced by one of the local public television stations, that I found out that hidden in that thicket were the remnants of Riverview Park.

It's not a very big plot of land--no more than a couple of ratty acres, probably--but it's been overtaken by trees, bushes and trash in the 30-plus years since Riverview fought the wrecking ball and lost. Beer cans and water bottles litter the plot. An impromptu camping ground shows signs of having been inhabited recently--probably a few of the homeless chased out of Downtown by the City. I even ran across a skull lying in the brush--too large to be a cat, but about right for a medium-sized dog. (I know little about animal forensics--anyone able to identify the subject of the picture at the left is free to do so.) As I wandered the area that day, I ran across that skull several times. I guess it wanted its picture taken. So I pointed, I clicked, and I stumbled on to other things. I never saw that skull again.

There are few obvious indications of what had been there--you won't come across any toppled roller coaster supports or signs lying in the soil. I once met a couple of men--father and son, I think--who, after having seen the same episode of Chicago Stories that I had, were looking for souvenirs with a metal detector: A token for an arcade game, maybe, or some little prize with the Riverview name stenciled on it. I wished them well and we went our separate ways, but I doubted then (and doubt now) that they found what they were looking for; after so much time had elapsed, I imagine that the site has been picked pretty clean of anything readily identifiable.

Still, there is evidence, slight as it might be, of what once was. My favorite time to go to this patch of woods is in the spring, when the trees have just begun to bud and sunlight streams down onto the site, where what's left of the midway peeks out from beneath the dirt and fallen leaves, where various phantoms of structures remain (a foundation here, a post there, an enormous chunk of concrete that belonged to...what?), where pleasant memories murmur through the branches above. The carousel has long since departed--for, of all places, Six Flags Over Georgia (why it didn't land closer to home--say, at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee or Navy Pier, which has its own old-fashioned carousel--I'll never know)--but the circular sidewalk surrounding its former location can still be clearly seen.

It's a melancholy place, this graveyard of gaity past. That anything remains here at all is something of a minor miracle. That this is all that remains of such a place is a major disappointment. (I was going to say "tragedy," but with so many actual tragedies happening on our violent little planet--and so many so uncomfortably close to home--the loss of an amusement park, sad though it might be, just didn't seem to measure up.) And yet, as I walk along the fractured asphalt or run soft fingers along the rough, lone post or straddle the dueling, grafitti-marked foundations closest to the river (leftovers from the Chutes, perhaps?), I can't help but smile. Great times were had on these now-disheveled grounds. Fun was had here for years.

And, in an odd way, fun is still had here. On the northern end of the plot, mounds of dirt have been constructed by BMX biker riders around a tree that looks to be either dead or drying--its twisted limbs and its open maw of a trunk suggest something out of a H.P. Lovecraft story. The BMX bikers spend their afternoons--or, on weekends, whole days--jumping the mounds. Flipping. Falling. Getting back up for more. They ride their thick-tired bikes over the mounds at shocking speeds until they no longer have the light to so so--and then they probably pedal for a while after that. Their adreneline pumps madly. They're enjoying the ride.

I have little doubt that these bike riders are entirely clueless regarding the history of the place where they play. But I wonder sometimes if, on some level, they hear the whispers of the ghosts along the midway. I wonder if that's why they come back for more, day in and day out. I wonder if they are cognizant at all of the tradition that, in their own fashion, they carry on.

There are still thrills to be had at old Riverview Park, apparently. And, somehow, that seems just about right.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Of Possums and Procrastinators

Anyone who has visited this site on even a most casual basis has probably figured out that I like taking pictures. How and why I started carrying a Canon AE-1 everywhere I go and snapping shots of whatever grabbed my eye at any given moment is not the story I tell today--some other time, maybe. No, today's story has more to do with what I don't do and should do than with what I actually do.

Because even though I love taking pictures and showing them off like a mother putting her newborn on display for the cooing masses, I'm lazy as hell when it comes to getting my film developed. This, I fear, is because, as a college student and, subsequently and presumably, an adult, I was and am a master procrastinator. If it can be put off, it will be. I once wrote three term papers in one night, turned them in to the respective instructors the following day, turned right around and went back home, where I slept for about 18 hours. So it has always been, and though I'm not nearly as bad as I used to be (in a lot of respects, not just this one), the habit still manifests itself in various forms--like stockpiling rolls of film like I plan on erecting a pyramid of them in my living room. (Bet that cats would just love that.)

So it came to pass that I'd managed to accumulate more than a dozen rolls of film on the small ledge beneath my living room video collection. This is, by no means, a record for me; I've gotten up to a couple dozen full rolls patiently waiting their turns to reveal their wonders--or horrors--to my sometimes-brown eyes. And I must admit, this process (if you can even call it a "process," since that word implies something structured or planned or even regulated in some half-assed way) can be a kick. Grabbing a handful of rolls--and my hands are pretty damn big, so that can mean a lot pictures and, consequently, money--and getting developed can yield great surprises, usually of the "Oh man, I don't even fucking remember taking this shot!" variety.

Once, while cleaning one of my closets--okay, I wasn't actually cleaning it, unless you want to define "cleaning" loosely enough to include digging through the heaps of action figures, video tapes and long-fallen wire hangers to find one particular thing that, more than likely, I never found anyway--I ran across my first camera, a boxy little Kodak that took 126 film, which came in bulky, awkward cartridges and which, to my knowledge, isn't even manufactured anymore (though the smaller, similar 110 film can still be found in most drugstores). I'd finished the roll, set the camera aside--and forgotten it completely. I wasn't even sure I could get the damn thing developed. But I took it to Osco and, sure enough, they were able to process the film and return to me a set of prints. The pictures weren't of anything extraordinary and would likely have just been looked at once, shrugged over and shoved in a drawer, never to be contemplated again.

But now, years after they'd been taken, these shots, mundane as they were, fascinated me. The pictures on this roll had been taken about five years earlier, when I was still living with my parents in Ukrainian Village. Damn. I had taken these shots, packed the camera with me when I moved, thrown the camera in the closet and forgotten all about it. But now the square little color shots were in my hands, recalling a a time in my life that wasn't necessarily better or worse than my life was the day I got the pictures back, but somehow remote, alien...just different. Some of the occasions portrayed were obvious--a chocolate cake, a stiff-backed pose and a glazed, reluctant smile I'd seen staring back at me from countless photographs could only have been from some past birthday. Other shots were more difficult to place in the timestream: kitties who'd long since passed away; roses in my mother's garden; the vivid hues of a now-forgotten sunset. It was like I was looking at someone else's life, even though the signposts of my past were visible all over these shots and I must have been the one who'd taken most of them (except for the birthday shots--only my mother could coax that particular fixed stare onto my face).

So, with the intent of, at the very least, culling the herd, I took six rolls to a camera shop downtown and dropped them off for pickup the next day at the same time. None of these rolls were nearly as ancient as the roll described above--the oldest couldn't have dated further back than, say, last September. But the fact that I'd accumulated that many rolls over such a span of time sent my imagination off and running. What would I find in the pictures I got back? Christmas decorations along Michigan Avenue? A sojourn among the ruins of Riverview Park? Lottie and Ms. Christopher contorted into seemingly impossible shapes? Some bizarre self-portrait?

At this point, allow me to direct your attention to the upper left-hand corner of this page, just in case you hadn't already glance up there and recoiled in horror. You know, the place where you'd usually find a cute kitty picture or a kitchy bar sign or a seasonal trifle. Go on. Take a look. What do you see?

That's right. It's an opossum, or "possum" for shory. A particularly pissed-off possum at that.

I'd just about forgotten this scary fucker. I had other pictures of him (her? it?) taken with a 110 camera Mom had given me one Christmas when I unwisely requested a simple point-and-click camera that I could pull out of my pocket and use anywhere, anytime, and thus wound up with this clunky little thing that was, maybe, one step removed from that Kodak 126 she'd bought me 25 years earlier. But I'd forgotten about the black-and-white shots I'd taken right afterwards, getting as close to the critter as I felt I safely could without risking having it charge me in a fit of camera flash-induced rage. (I had no idea how fast possums could really move, but I had no burning desire to find out.)

It was just before Halloween (which I know only because some shots from my apartment decorations for the annual Halloween Movie Bash JB and I usually host, like the nearly life-sized Bruce Campbell action figure at the right, were on the same roll), and the particular possum had trundled all the way up my back stairs and was rooting around on my porch. Now, this was unusual, but not unheard of--my neighborhood is host to various creatures one would not think of as being urban dwellers, like raccoons, rabbits and, obviously, possums.

But it was quite a surprise to find one of the little buggers making the substantial effort to walk up three stories just to find nothing of interest. It moved slowly, but quietly--I'd never have know it was there at all if not for the fact that the Girlish Girls, both of whom are relatively placid, relatively lazy balls of fur, transformed into tumbleweeds of rage, their tails inflated to several times their normal size as if someone had hooked the Girls up to jumper cables and switched on the juice. Oh, that and the fact that their loud, yowling protests against the invader on their porch made a sound similar to what I imagine World War III will sound like when it finally breaks out.

So there it was. A possum. On my top step. Checking out the view. And Lottie and Ms. Christopher were charging the door and making remarkably effective attempts to launch themselves at the screen door in an effort to defend their turf. Eventually, either one of them would succeed and wind up tangling with a wild animal that could have any number of diseases or, more likely, they'd wind up hurting themselves or getting splinters or ripping down the screen or some such thing. So the possum had to go. Um, right. Like, exactly how?

My first thought had some logic to it. The Girls hated getting shot with the water bottle; that usually made them run for the figurative hills. So why wouldn't the possum react the same way? Maybe because it's a possum, not a cat: it blinked at the first shot and the second, but stood there resolutely as I pumped what must have been twenty shots of water at the hearty, determined little beasty. Okay, that was a huge success, not. So what next? Where logic failed, perhaps technology might succeed. That's where the cameras came it. I mean, people who actually pose for pictures don't like flashes directed at them, so why would the possum?

Obviously, it didn't care for the flash one bit. After a couple of shots, its mouth opened into the soundless hiss you see above and started to turn--toward me, not away. I backed up the stairs slowly. It didn't follow, but it didn't leave, either. Sometimes, it takes doing something--or several somethings--stupid to get around to doing something smart. Why had the possum climbed three flights of stairs? To play with my shamrocks? To piss off my cats? To help me set up Halloween decorations? To be a Halloween decoration? No. It was just hungry. I threw it the ends of a loaf of Brownberry Oatnut Bread and closed the inside door. When I checked again about half an hour later, there was no possum--and no bread. Not a single crumb. The porch had been licked clean.

The possum hasn't come back since. And, considering the, um, hospitality I showed it upon its last visit, I can't say I blame it. But I'll always have the shot you see above. I'll always have that moment, frozen in time, and all of the ridiculous memories and emotions that the shot recalls. And most of the shots you see on this site carry similar loads. Each one has a story, a memory, a set of memories, a smile or a wince of recognition. And I still have pile of rolls--smaller than before, but still more substantial than it ought to be. More smiles and winces to come.

I can't wait.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Review: Scooby-Doo (2002)

When I was very young, my favorite Saturday morning cartoon show was Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Sure, the animation was limited, with the same sequences repeating frequently, and the plots were simple to the point of being simplistic--if you hadn't figured out who was smuggling the gold/stealing the jewels/scaring everyone off the unexpectedly valuable property by the first commercial break, you really weren't paying enough attention. And the overall concept had its flaws: What were these kids (Teenagers? College students? We were never sure) doing just cruising around the country in a van? Didn't they have jobs? Where were their parents? Why were Shaggy and Scooby always so hungry? (Insert drug usage rumor here.) Were Fred and Daphne getting it on? And what was the deal with Velma? (Insert ambiguous sexuality rumor here.)

But Scooby-Doo still had its merits: the monsters were usually cool and just scary enough to make the five-year-olds (the very age I was at when the show premiered on CBS in 1969) watching over breakfast duck behind their cereal bowls; the antics of Shaggy and Scooby were amusing enough; and the mystery was almost always solved by Velma, the brainy, nerdy girl with the thick glasses.

Scooby-Doo survived through various incarnations in subsequent years, like when Scooby and the gang had an odd combination of real guest stars (Don Knotts, Mama Cass, Sonny & Cher) and fictional characters (Batman & Robin, Josie & the Pussycats), or when Scooby's nephew Scrappy-Doo (who was roughly as enjoyable as listening to a garden rake being dragged across a chalkboard over and over and over again), or, most recently, as a series of made-for-video movies.

Which brings us to the current incarnation, the big-screen, mostly live-action adaptation of Scooby-Doo, a project that lingered "in development" for years, with the most persistent rumor involving Mike Myers writing the script and playing Shaggy. The limbo state of Scooby-Doo shouldn't surprise anyone. The cartoon-to-live-action subgenre is littered with megabombs from The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle to Josie & the Pussycats to the two--count 'em, two--Flintstones flicks; hell, even Robert Altman couldn't make Popeye work right. But considering that what actually made it to the local multiplex is so uncertain about what audience it's trying to play to and what tone to approach its material with, maybe Scooby-Doo would have been better off remaining "in development" indefinitely.

The story, in keeping with the TV show, is simple to the point of being simplistic: The Scooby gang--Freddie Prinze Jr. as Fred, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne, Linda Cardellini as Velma and Matthew Lillard as Shaggy--crack yet another case, but then crack themselves under the weight of Fred's ego, which requires him to take solo credit for the work of the gang (okay, mostly Velma). Velma walks, immediately followed by Daphne and Fred himself, leaving only Shaggy and the title great dane himself to tool around in the gang's van, the Mystery Machine, and hang out at the beach for cookouts. But the gang is soon reunited by an invitation from the mysterious Mr. Mondavarious, played by Rowan Atkinson as if medicated into a stupor. (Or perhaps he was just depressed because he'd just taken a peak at his listing on the Internet Movie Database and realized that he's on quite a cinematic losing streak, what with Bean, Rat Race and now this mess--please, Rowan, go back to doing brilliant TV shows in the UK and leave the crappy supporting roles in stinky American movies to other, less talented, less funny individuals--you know, like Billy Crystal.) Mondavarious runs an amusement park called Spooky Island, where the spring break crowd comes ready to party hard, but leaves mesmerized and talking incomprehensible Gen Y slang. Reluctantly, the gang dives in, facing death traps, possessed partygoers, exploding demons and, of course, a fiend intent on taking over the world.

It's not as if there isn't any fun to be had with this scenario--there are, in fact, quite a few moments to keep the kids giggling (like the farting contest between Shaggy and Scooby), while others are aimed squarely at their adult escorts (like the fact that nearly every female character in the movie is required to wear at least one outfit with a plunging neckline--yes, even Velma). And it's this uncertainty in tone that is the most insurmountable barrier to enjoying Scooby-Doo. Is this movie supposed to be a staightforward adaptation of the beloved cartoon, or is it supposed to be a self-parody along the lines of Back to the Beach or the Brady Bunch movies? Because director Raja Gosnell and his screenwriters can't decide what audience they want to aim for, they try to throw out something for everyone--and, thus, satisfy no one. Scooby-Doo isn't cartoonish enough to keep the little ones engaged isn't nearly snarky enough to keep their parents awake.

The performances don't help much, either. While Lillard is about as perfect a live-action Shaggy as you could hope for--managing to not only match his character's scruffy, lanky physical presence, but also to come close to the vocal style of voiceover veteran Casey Kasem, who has been Shaggy's cartoon voice from the very start--and Cardellini has her moments as Velma, Prinze and Gellar are painfully miscast as the lunkheaded Fred and pretty-but-vacant Daphne, respectively. Neither one of them ever gets a handle on the scattershot approach of the direction and script and just wind up standing around looking confused. Was the audience supposed to take the casting as some kind of inside joke--you know, Gellar and Prinze are engaged in real life and are playing a couple on the big screen, get it? And on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gellar's on-screen cohorts are known as "The Scooby Gang." Get it? Um, no. It also might have been better for all of the lead actors if less cash had been dropped on the CGI and more had been spent on hairpieces--everybody looks like they're wearing a bad wig, perhaps because they are.

And then there's the matter of the title character himself, poor old Scooby-Doo. The filmmakers could have chosen a 3D animated style for Scooby like what was employed for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Space Jam, but instead opted for a more realistic style that nonetheless shows that Scooby is clearly animated, not real. The choice is disasterous: Scooby winds up looking like some horrible visual merging of a real great dane with the much-reviled Jar-Jar Binks. Scooby deserved better. Hell, we all did.

It's obvious that the folks behind Scooby-Doo have at least watched the cartoons and have affection for them--the way Velma loses her glasses only to recover them in time to see something scary is just about right, as is Scooby's obliviousness to danger when there's food to be had. While it's probably impossible to totally hate a movie that manages to include a segue from the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" to a scene of Scrappy-Doo abuse, it's just as impossible to recommend a movie so uncertain in presentation and execution. Scooby-Doo isn't nearly as bad as it could have been (or as terrible as some critics have labelled it). But when the kindest comment one can muster for a movie is, "It could have been worse," you're really better off not saying anything at all and just moving up the multiplex in the hopes that the next "kids" movie you encounter is made with just a little more care than Scooby-Doo.