Thursday, October 28, 2010

I might not know art...

...But I know what I like.

It's the great dilemma of the self-affirmed intellectual: Is it wrong to like low-brow things? Is there something out there that a person can enjoy even if it has little to no artistic or intellectual merit? And then the possible answer comes: "Well, maybe there is art/high ideas to be found even in the low-brow and, in fact, it creators, when confronted, may turn out to be highly intelligent themselves!"

I consider myself something of an intellectual and academic: I have two university degrees, I can understand Joyce's Ulysses (barely), and I can successfully debate just about anything.

But I sure do love me some lowbrow! So today's entry is a discussion of some of my favourite 'non-intellectual' pursuits, and some insight that might reveal why they shouldn't necessarily be thrown in the rubbish bin of cultural examination. Let's say these are so-called 'guilty pleasures' that I feel no guilt about whatsoever.

October 24 2010

1 - Pro Wrestling

Let's start with the guiltiest of all my pleasures: pro wrestling. It was late 1987, I was 13, Hulk Hogan had done the impossible and slammed André the Giant at that year's Wrestlemania and pro wrestling was at the peak of its 'golden age'. Reagan was in the White House and Ah-nuld was going toe-to-toe with the Predator. Not surprisingly, ex-wrestler, current announcer and future Minnesota governor, Jesse 'the Body' Ventura was also featured in said film, spawning two of history's greatest macho one-liners: 1) "This stuff will make you a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus, just like me." and 2) "I ain't got time to bleed.". This was the culture of the day.

Now, everyone and their dog knows about Hulk Hogan and his impact on the zeitgeist. But, personally, my interest in wrestling came in the afterglow of Hogan's peak. I avoided wrestling before then because I thought the main players at the time, Hogan and André the Giant, were kind of slow and boring to watch. But, one afternoon watching the old Maple Leaf Wrestling program on CHRO changed that. Why? Because I got to see Macho Man Randy Savage do his thing. His flying elbow off the top rope was the first of hundreds of "cooooooooooolllll..." moments that wrestling has since provided.

Also, the Ultimate Warrior has just hit the scene and for a comic-book, fantasy crazy pre-teen, he seemed like a real-life Conan the Barbarian, complete with metaphor-laden speeches about tapping into the cosmic energy vortex, or somesuch madness...

So, I started watching 'rasslin' with great relish and fervour every Saturday at noon (much to the chagrin of my sister and mother). Years would go by and Canada finally got coverage of Monday Night Raw in the mid-90s, just in time for the renaissance of its popularity that spanned from 1997 to 2001. Ironically, I had always been a 'out-of-the-closet' wrestling fan, as were my co-workers at the time. People looked at us a bit cock-eyed, but we stood our ground! We even secured tickets to the 1997 Survivor Series in Montreal, site of one of the most interesting and pivotal moments in wrestling history:

After '97 and the rise in prominence of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, being a wrestling fan was no longer a taboo. Eventually this second golden age would fade by 2002, but  I was still hooked. I remain so to this day.

Now, the thing about wrestlers and wrestling is that it's not populated by a bunch of blockheads. Just look at Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Here's a smart, funny guy that is, yes, not quite a Shakesperean level thespian, but he's hard not to like. Same with Mick Foley (although Mick is about the polar opposite of the Rock in terms of looks and charm). Not all wrestlers are 'roided-up muscleheads (although a lot of them are). And, certainly, some of the writers can themselves be considered highly intelligent individuals. Paul Heyman is a good example of this.

What really makes wrestling fun for me isn't the promos (basically monologues), it isn't the storylines, it's the actual feats of athleticism performed by those involved. When a 200 pound-plus man takes a flying leap off of a 15 foot ladder, does some kind of somersault and lands on that poor shmuck in the ring, don't tell me you aren't thinking "Holy sh*t!".

If you ever get the chance to suspend your disbelief and watch a match or two purely for the entertainment value, I suggest any or all of the following matches:

- Shawn Michaels vs. Mankind - 1997
- Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart (Submission Match - Wrestlemania 13)- 1997
- Undertaker vs. Jeff Hardy (Ladder Match - Monday Night Raw) - 2002 (not sure exactly when)
- Chris Jericho vs. Shawn Michaels - 2003 (Wrestlemania 19)
- anything from the WCW Cruiserweight division circa 1997-1998
- Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock - 2002 (Wrestlemania 18, which I attended) - I only suggest this one for the crowd dynamic. A fascinating study of how fan loyalty works.

2 - Comic Books

I'm lucky, I'm the youngest of seven children, six of whom are boys. So, I got exposed to a lot of 'boy' central stuff at a very young age. One of these was comic books. When I was 3-4 years old, my older brothers were knee-deep in some of best stuff Marvel's ever issued. Think Chris Claremont/John Byrne's X-Men and Frank Miller's Daredevil (which is often touted as the best comic book run ever produced). The late 70s/early 80s could be considered a peak period in the history of comic books. Somewhere in there their popularity waned as did my interest. By 1987, I started to regain interest after reading an issue of The Avengers at summer camp. Within a matter of months, I was collecting ten or so titles; within a year, dozens. By the time I was 15, I was a full-fledged comic geek.

What really did it for me, what made me realize that the comic book medium speaks truths that other art forms might try to understate or avoid, was a couple of mini-series in the early 90s about a death-obsessed alien pseudo-god named Thanos.

In the Thanos Quest, Thanos decides to prove his loyalty and love to the Marvel Universe's embodiment of Death by seeking objects that will make him all-powerful and fulfill his promise of wiping out half the population of the universe. He finds them and in doing so, becomes more powerful than the object of his affections. In the follow-up series, The Infinity Gauntlet, he acts and with a snap of his fingers, essentially 'unmakes' half the life in the universe. The good guys eventually save the day, but the idea has never left.

This concept made me realize the necessity of a massive die-out if the population of this planet is to remain sustainable. Just think how many of the world's problems would go away if, boom, at random, half the Earth's human and animal population simply vanished?

Anyone who tells you comics are kids' entertainment and not worth taking seriously obviously hasn't been reading. Now, I'm talking PURELY about the superhero comic genre. Obviously titles like 'Maus' are given much more credence than Spider-Man or Green Lantern and are considered high art. And then there's Watchmen, which most critics use as a way of saying "See? We're cool, we think this is ART!". Yeah, that's Alan Moore, he's Odin reincarnated and doesn't count, he wrecks the curve too much.

Seriously, crack open Marvel's Civil War mini-series from 2006-2007, or the Inferno cross-over from the X-Men family of titles from back in 1988. Or anything featuring Venom or the Joker. I challenge anyone to dismiss the value of the superhero comic book completely. You have an argument as to why they aren't worthwhile? I have ten counter-arguments.

I had thousands of comic books at one point, but they've vanished due to my adventures overseas and friends losing track... Luckily, the public library collects a lot of trade paperbacks so I'm kept in the loop. Right now I'm eagerly awaiting last year's Blackest Night series from DC, centering on the Green Lantern characters. Apparently there's a lot of undead supers in it...

Maybe this gripe is outdated. After all, how many top grossing movies of the past 5-6 years are based on comic books?

3 - Cartoons

I've come to an important discovery in the past few years: I really don't like much that's on TV. There's the occasional hockey game (Go Sens GO! Please? For God's sake! FRAKKING GO!), wrestling (see above), the Food Network, Daily Show and Colbert and that's about it (I was addicted to the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, but I now have all the DVDs, so I'm kinda set...)

Except for cartoons. And by cartoons, I mean one of two kinds: either the more adult-oriented 'animated series', such as the Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, etc.; OR cartoons featuring super-heroes I grew up with. But even the latter is a once-in-a-while kind of deal.

So, really, I'm mainly talking about the former. Admit it, no matter how snobby you are, you've taken some guilty pleasure in an episode of Family Guy or South Park. The Simpsons is something different and in a category all to itself. Too bad it isn't very funny anymore.

Must-see episodes:

- Simpsons: The one where Homer gets to smoke pot legally. "They call them fingers, but I've never seen them fing. Oh. There they go..."
- South Park: Imaginationland. See it NOW!
- Family Guy: alright, nothing is a 'must-see' from Family Guy, but the 'Bag of Weed' musical number kicks ass!

Recently, a series came out of which I've only seen a couple of episodes, but they were awesome. If you get a chance, check out Ugly Americans.

4 - Zombies

With the TV premiere of "The Walking Dead" coming up on AMC this Sunday at 10 ET and Ottawa's Zombie Walk having just taken place this past Saturday, I might just be in the grips of short-term zombie fever. Add to that the fact that I've fallen for a complete zombophile.

But, in a strange way, no other form of horror staple is as malleable yet simple, straightforward yet allegorical, as our shambling brain-hungry friend, the zombie. But it hasn't been given quite the same reverence as other undead icons. I used to be a HUGE vampire fan, and one could easily consider Dracula a classic novel that anyone should read. It was written in the late 19th Century, but the vampire myth/legend has existed for millenia in numerous cultures (I did a major project on this in high school, so I have some confidence in the topic). Zombies, however, have not been a huge facet of many cultures until the 20th Century (not including cultures that practice voodoo, obviously). That changed with Romero's "...of the Dead" movies and many others (including my favourite, Shaun of the Dead).

But are zombies taken seriously in fiction? Certainly there hasn't been a trend in printed fiction dealing with zombies that rivals the success found in Ann Rice's Vampire Chronicles, or the Twilight series, or the Sookie whatsherface series that inspired True Blood. Curiously though, the comic book genre has taken some fascinating steps with at least two zombie-based series. The first is Marvel Zombies (which I haven't entirely read) and the other is the comic book The Walking Dead upon which the new TV series is based. I've read the first five trade paperbacks and it's BRILLIANCE!

Now, I'm not going to get into the political commentary George Romero was making in Night of the Living Dead or the allegory for mindless subservience that zombies represent. I'm just going to say this to validate them: I'd much rather watch, read or write about people trying to survive hordes of undead corpses trying to eat their brains than see sparkly vampires.

When it comes to monsters, the zombie has come into its own and is the champion of the undead (except liches, but they are barely recognized in pop culture).

5 - Heavy Metal

Is it ironic as I finish discussing zombies that I transition into another form of 'lowbrow' culture where a certain band known as White Zombie might be considered one of the best of their ilk? Interesting... Or maybe I'm just a geek.

I am a die-hard Metalhead, headbanger, horn-throwing hailer of Satan, whatever you wish to call it. And I'm not going to try and bore you with the standard "Oh it's valid music and many of its top performers are classically trained, blah-blah-blah."

The truth is, Metal is music that expresses anger. Punk is as well, but Punk tends to focus on senses of alienation and political issues. Metal touches on these as well, but evokes a nightmarish quality. Metal is about rage. Which is EXACTLY why it's a valid form of music.

Forget about psychotherapy, Prozac, meditation or any 'traditional' panaceas for mental ills, throw on some Slipknot, loosen your neck muscles, and bang your head until it hurts, you'll feel much better. At least it works for me...

There really isn't much I can say about why Metal shouldn't be marginalized that isn't covered in Sam Dunn and Scot MacFadyen's 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. All I can tell you is this: No matter how averse you are to Heavy Metal, listen to Mastodon's Crack the Skye. Trust me.

Here are a few other albums that help cement Metal's awesomeness for me personally:

- Slayer - God Hates Us All
- White Zombie - Astro Creep 2000
- Slipknot - Slipknot
- Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction
- Motorhead - Orgasmatron
- Iron Maiden - Number of the Beast
- Tool - Aenima, Lateralus
- High on Fire - Snakes for the Divine
- Anthrax - Attack of the Killer Bs
- Nailbomb - Point Blank
- Sepultura - Roots
- System of a Down - Toxicity

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