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DVD O.D. : Heavy Metal Parking Lot

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 6, 2007

Props to Jeff Weiss on this one

I can’t help but wonder how actual metalheads find Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Cruelly condescending? Horribly offensive? Poorly representative? Laughably accurate? If few genres speak for themselves as much as metal does, then certainly no genres’ fans speak for themselves as much as metal fans. But at least that other big late-80s metal doc (The Decline of Western Civilization, Pt. II) threw in Megadeth at the end to prove that metal musicians existed who could complete sentences and thoughts with reliable consistency. Heavy Metal Parking Lot does its subject matter no such favors.

To be fair, though, it’s possible they just didn’t find any such fans in time. This is one of many things I didn’t understand about Heavy Metal Parking Lot going into it–it’s one of the least ambitious films I’ve ever seen, its low production values (choppy editing, shaky cinematography, poor title effects) making it look more like an undergrad video project than an actual documentary. And length has a lot to do with that too–for some reason I was under the impression it was a full-length film, when it actually runs a scant 15 minutes, being culled from a mere two hours of shot footage, and no pre-conceived notions of what the film was going to be like.

Frankly, it’s kind of amazing they got as much good stuff as they did. And the stuff is definitely good–the dude who plays air guitar on his girlfriend (while singing the chorus to “I Get Around,” of all songs), the gentleman pictured above, who declares that punk rock “belongs on fuckin’ mars, man” (and with his zebra-pattern shirt and pot-glazed eyes has become the movie’s lasting visual icon) and of course, the dozens of guys assembled to just shout “PRIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEST!!!” The interviewers barely make their presence felt at all (one thing you gotta say for metal fans, they don’t need to much prompting to speak their mind), and unlike Penelope Spheeris in Decline II, they never seem to cast judgement on their subjects–frankly, if it wasn’t for listening to the directors’ commentary on the DVD, I dunno if I could have even said with complete authority that this wasn’t just made by a couple of overzealous Priest fans looking to document just how awesome metal tailgating is.

Speaking of overzealous Priest fans–there’s a definite retrospective hilarity to be found in watching these meatheads gushing about Halford and Co., knowing what we know now. Especially the female fan who proclaims that she would “jump his bones” if she saw Halford right then, and the guy towards the end who talks about the excellence of the band but makes an exception for the singer, saying “Robert Halford…I don’t know about you…”–this shit couldn’t possibly have been scripted so well. I’d love to see a “20 Years Later” edition where the dudes featured in the original movie talk about their reactions to the realization that they were worshipping a band led by a homosexual. Outraged? Unsurprised? In denial?
The best “20 Years Later” the movie got, though, came from a rather unexpected source. I had seen the video for Backstreet Boys’ “Just Want You to Know” before–actually, I think it’s one of the most underrated singles of 2005–but I didn’t quite get that it was a throwbackto HMPL. No idea why they thought this was a good idea–none of their old fans could possibly have understood or appreciated the reference, and no possible converts that would get it would ever give a BSB vid the time of day–but the effort is appreciated nonetheless. Check it out–hell, it’s about a third of the length of the film itself.

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DVD O.D. : Air Guitar Nation

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 15, 2007

To err is human, to air guitar divine…

Maybe the thing that Air Guitar Nation does best is to express the stimultaneous awesomeness and shamefulness of the practice in question. It’s an art, sure, but the overwhelming majority of the time, it’s an art that satisfies only the artist–you may feel like Eddie Van Halen while doing it, but the great majority of the time, you come off about as cool as Michael Anthony* while doing it. To demonstrate it as performance is generally terrible, but also inspiring–since for one who doesn’t enjoy or excel at dancing, it can be the single most invigorating physical extension of music appreciation one is likely to express. And it’s hard to look down on that, especially for those of us who can’t play Guitar Hero without the requisite jumping, strutting, kicking and headbanging.

Air Guitar Nation follows the days up to the 2004 Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland, with a focus on the US regional and national competitions and two players in particular. One is David Jung, better known as the kimono and Hello Kitty-adorned “C-Diddy,” who prefers a virtuoso style, complete with imaginary pick-scraping, two-finger tapping and faux-classical riffing. The other is Dan Crane, also known as the frequently shirtless “Bjorn Turoque” (say it out loud), who does a rawer, more physical style with jerky body movements and occasional fake guitar tosses. The two eventually make it to Finland–one through achievement, one through sheer stubbornness–and there they act as America’s representatives in the competition, our nation’s first submissions to the tournament.

It’s a pretty great rivalry at the film’s core–Diddy/Jung is a ridiculously cool guy that really makes the art form his own, running through Extreme’s rapid-fire “Play With Me” (which, combined with its use as the GH Rocks the 80s finale, is now firmly entrenched in the fake-rock pantheon) with enough verve, creativity and charisma (Jung is an actor in his day job) in his performance to be almost as stunning as watching the song actually being played–watch him win over an initially hostile West Coast audience for proof of his power. Yet, despite Jung’s Hiro Nakamura-like naive enthusiasm for his craft, he comes off as a fly-by-nighter compared to Bjorn/Crane’s “it’s all about the music, maaaaaaaaaaaaaan” type devotion to his mime-axing. At one point in the movie, Bjorn actually sulks about how “fake” Diddy’s air guitaring is, bemoaning that his own art, while being less flashy, is more real. That the irony of this statement is completely and thoroughly lost on Bjorn is what keeps the movie from ever being a waste of time.

Bizarrely, Air Guitar Nation also doubles as social commentary, as the only thing as important to the movie’s characters as the competition is getting out of Iraq. Several of the tournament’s founders and contestants claim to have invested so much time in their venture as a way to encourage peace–“if everyone was busy air guitaring, they couldn’t be holding a gun,” the echoed sentiment goes. It’s not exactly a brilliant insight, but it’s still sort of heartwarming when coming from such a unified, well-meaning community. And despite the occasional anti-US sentiment (“we’re not exactly popular right now,” Bjorn points out when arriving on foreign soil), the movie comes off as oddly patriotic–the “USA!” chanting at the nationals’ finale, the continued American supremacy at yet another Olympic-like event, and of course, the movie’s title (and title theme, sung and composed by Bjorn himself).

At about 77 minutes, the movie gives the subject just the amount of time and attention it deserves, especially since with the exception of only a few of the contestants, the performing being done never really seems particularly impressive or enjoyable. But with a can’t-miss soundtrack, enough loveable characters and an unmistakable and highly relatable feeling of artistic passion on display, the movie’s certainly worth that much. How long until the inevitable DDR doc, you think? Hope it’s not too late yet.

*(IITS does not mean to wish any further mockery on Michael Anthony in his time of trouble, as Anthony continues to be a stand-up and generally underappreciated human being. We just feel that coolness does not happen to be one of his greater virtues.)

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DVD O.D. : Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 18, 2007

“Are you talking to me or my ass?”

My brother often refers to things as “the Deep Purple of ______.” He uses the term to refer to an artist or work that, while rarely transcendent or terribly notable in its own right, functions as a precursor (and in many cases, direct inspiration) to many more rewarding, long-lasting artists or works. While admittedly a somewhat flawed analogue–I mean c’mon, “Smoke on the Water” and “Highway Star” will never be anything less than awe-inspiring–it’s still an easy and partly accurate way to refer to a rather frequently occuring phenomenon in pop culture history.

And as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, watching a 23-episode greatest hits DVD (as well as hours of special features) of The Larry Sanders Show has led me to conclude that Sanders is the Deep Purple of reality-derived comedy. It got tons of acclaim at the time–a couple of Emmys (Sanders as writer, Rip Torn as supporting actor), claims of being the 90s’ second best sitcom behind Seinfeld, and a relatively respectable six-year run. But though you can obviously see the early glimmers of an entire generation of TV comedy in these 23 episodes, few of the episodes hold up as legitimately wondrous television.

It is somewhat amazing how extreme and how obvious this show’s impact would be on the next decade of TV comedy though. There’s the big two, of course–Curb Your Enthusiasm (stand-ups playing fictionalized variations on their public personas, celebrities making cameos and themselves) and The Office (pseudo-documentary formatting, insecure, occasionally asshole-ish main character surrounded by callous yes-men and smarter people taking the piss out of him, extremely dry humor). But then there’s also Arrested Development (besides the similar humor, Jeffrey Tambor’s character is a proto-GOB, and oh yeah, he was on the show too), Entourage (same sense of star-fuckery and mix of fictional and non-fictional celebrities, as well as a showbizzy Jeremy Piven) and even a couple episodes of Seinfeld (mainly the Puffy Shirt episode where Jerry goes on Bryan Gumbel). Not to mention every show that would follow on HBO–the channel that Larry Sanders would help solidify as a commercially and artistically viable station.

Without all of these shows that followed, it’s entirely possible that Larry Sanders would still seem so mindblowing and funny, but the fact of that matter is that nearly all of these shows have far eclipsed the potential of even Sanders‘ very best episodes. Part of it has to do with the Sanders character himself, who now seems like a sort of relic of the time–nearly everything about the character is dated now, including his talk show (which, while very good at being a satirical example of an unfunny 90s talk show, is not often very funny in itself). Shandling as a comedian I find somewhat grating anyway–once again, he makes for a very good possible 90s talk show host, but I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

Not to say that there aren’t parts of Larry Sanders that hold up. The supporting cast is strong across the board, with special marks going to Jeffrey Tambor’s insecure, dim-witted sidekick Hank Kingsley, Rip Torn’s part-he-was-born-to-play TV superproducer, and a pre-Sherry Palmer Penny Johnson playing Larry’s devoted assistant Beverly (between her and Mary Lynn “Chloe” Rajskub’s role as the show’s booking agent, it’s a veritable 24 reunion in the later episodes). And the late night show stuff, if not always laugh out loud funny, is usually at least clever and occasionally insightful, especially the show’s deservedly Emmy-winning final episode, which plays as both the final episode of The Larry Sanders Show and The Larry Sanders Show (when Shandling/Sanders chokes up during the show’s final monologue, it’s an extremely touching moment–not to mention the bouts of sobbing Torn has throughout the episode).

The comparing and contrasting of this show with Seinfeld is somewhat inevitable–especially since on the DVD’s extra disc, Shandling even has an extended conversation about this with Seinfled himself. Shandling easily seems like the more insecure of the two–both about his show and himself–and it makes sense, as Seinfeld’s show was much less personal, and ultimately much more enduring. But it’s the insecurity (and ingenuity) of Shandling and Sanders that proved enormously important to countless classic shows to follow, while Seinfeld had a Pulp Fiction-like effect of merely inspiring a number of lesser knock-offs.

Of course, his hair was much, much, MUCH worse. So he does have that to be legitimitely embarrassed about.

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