The pop-culture gifts we’d like to give everyone
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you were Santa and you could gift everyone in the world with just one book, film, comic, TV series, album, or what-have-you, with the implicit understanding that they’d definitely read/watch/listen to it, what would you give them? In other words, what personal favorite of yours would you like to foist off on everyone else?
I spent 15 minutes after sending out this question thinking about books like A People’s History Of The United States (too America-centric) and Lies My Teacher Told Me (already mentioned in an earlier AVQ&A about mandatory pop-culture for high-schoolers), the kind of thing I’d like to force-feed people in hopes of teaching more of them critical thinking and a the healthy analytical distrust that counteracts propaganda and self-serving lies. But you know what? Fuck it. It’s the holiday season, no one wants homework, and you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him think. I say everyone in the world gets a copy of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro with my compliments. It isn’t going to teach anyone Important Adult Things, but it’s just about the most joyous, happy, beautiful movie I know, and families can enjoy it together. If I absolutely must use this platform to make people learn, I’ll at least make ‘em learn that foreign films aren’t boring or scary or difficult, and that animation doesn’t have to be violent or silly to be huge fun.
Seeing as how I’ve already been pushing Gene Clark’s White Light on friends and family for 15 years, I don’t see a reason to stop now. The 1971 album by the late Byrds founding member has been overlooked and underappreciated since its release, although it’s become a cult favorite over the decades. Which is curious, seeing as how there’s nothing cultish about it; like Clark’s early compositions for The Byrds, White Light has a warm, universal appeal. Granted, the skeletal acoustic arrangements are stark and bit bleak, but Clark’s lonesome moan, soulful twang, and classic sensibilities should appeal to everyone from Eagles fans to Gram Parsons fans to Bon Iver fans. Or at least in my gifting experience it has.
Ever since I first read Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt: Confessions Of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, I’ve wanted to talk about it with every single person I’ve encountered. I’ve made my whole family read it, which is pretty impressive, if you know my family. I’ve bought it for friends and co-workers, and I’ve been mulling over the idea of, when invited to a party, bringing a copy of The Dirt instead of a six-pack or bottle of wine. The cost is about the same, but the benefits of owning the book would be much greater than owning something you’re just going to piss out hours later. Everyone’s life could be made better by knowing about Tommy Lee’s groupie exploits or Vince Neil’s horrible car crash. Plus, I bet if I gave everyone in the world a copy of The Dirt, I could get a really good bulk rate.
Way to de-personalize Christmas, whoever asked his question. Isn’t the whole point to give people things that they might actually want, rather than things you like? Didn’t Homer Simpson fail miserably by gifting a personalized bowling ball to his beloved wife, sending her into the arms of a lover who knew the ways of cantaloupe? But if I have to give everyone just one thing, I’ll say the Richard Pryor CD box set, …And It’s Deep Too! There’s something in there for everybody to love, I think, except total assholes. And it’s fun to make them mad over the holidays anyway, right?
Over at The Gameological Society—our sister site for all things gaming-related and awesome—I get made fun of a lot for the fact that I bring up the game Dark Souls all the time. Actually, now that I think about it, John Teti is the only one making fun of me. Teti! [Shakes controller.] But I love that game so, so much, and not just because it hits the sweet spot of my gaming desires for medieval fantasy and menacing role-playing action. (’Sup, ladies?) It’s because the game presents the purest form of why I love videogames to begin with. It compels me forward with little to no demanding. It’s constantly surprising and unpredictable, but demonstrates a willingness to let me leave a mark on the world. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun, even though it can be crushingly difficult at times—all the sweeter when I emerge victorious. So my holiday wish is that everyone out there finds—maybe not Dark Souls specifically, but your version of Dark Souls: a game that you love so much more than its fighting mechanics and talking heads telling made-up stories. A game that’s immersive and wonderful. Start wherever! The Legend Of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 3, Super Mario World, Dishonored, Fez, Braid…any of my other favorites will do. Look, all I’m saying is vacation + games = a vacation worth having.
Few pop-culture experiences of the past year have moved me on a visceral, emotional level like being exposed to the music of Rodriguez, the enigmatic Detroit folk singer whose stranger-than-fiction journey from obscurity in his native land to super-stardom in South Africa was movingly chronicled in Searching For Sugar Man, a crowd-pleasing hit documentary that resurrected its subject’s music and career the same way Anvil! The Story Of Anvil sent its similarly forgotten subjects back on the comeback trail. I saw Searching For Sugar Man three times, saw Rodriguez live in person at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall (easily one of the best concerts of my life, and a borderline-spiritual experience) and have listened to his studio albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, countless times. In the process, I’ve become something of an evangelist for Rodriguez’s music, which is lovely, poetic, soulful, and incredibly catchy in a way that makes it difficult to believe that it never caught on in the States. When I interviewed RZA in person not too long ago I thought, “I bet RZA would love Rodriguez’s music. I should give him the soundtrack to Searching For Sugar Man.” I chickened out during the actual interview, but if I was going to give RZA the album, then dammit, I should give everyone the album. I think the whole world would love his music if they had a chance to listen to it.
For years, I’ve been trying to convince everyone of the genius of Kids In The Hall’s Brain Candy, so I think I should just take this magical Santa opportunity to stuff everyone’s stocking with their very own DVD copy. Like the Kids’ best material, it’s a tight blend of pitch-black humor and utter absurdity, used here to relate a tale of a wonder-drug that “keeps your happy happy”—at least, until it puts you in a coma. Full of endlessly quotable lines, clever sight gags, and a fair bit of good-hearted (though ham-fisted) commentary, it’s a genuinely funny and even warm film that can be watched over and over. (Well, I can watch it over and over again; your mileage may vary.) Still, everyone should see it at least once, and nothing would make me happier than to share it with everyone I know and love via the kind of Christmas miracle that powers schmaltzy movies everywhere.
This is kinda sorta an easy question to answer, since I’m constantly tempted to buy every copy of these two albums I see in thrift stores. But for the purposes of this forum, I’m going to have to create an item that somehow has yet to actually come into existence: a two-fer of Jellyfish’s Bellybutton and Spilt Milk albums. When Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning, Jr. first teamed up in 1988 to form the core of Jellyfish, their sound—equal parts ’60s pop,’70s rock, and late-’80s/early-’90s production—was dismissed by many old-timers as being too derivative for their tastes, which may be why the band never succeeded in earning the commercial breakthrough they needed to keep their spirits up and stay together. But for kids just opening their minds to the possibilities of power-pop, the band’s small but solid discography was the start of an ongoing education in the genre, one still paying catchy dividends to this day. That’s not to say that everyone in the world would embrace either of Jellyfish’s two studio albums, but with the sunshiny hooks offered up by their songs, I’d like to think that we’d at least end up with a happier planet in the long run.
Nothing soothes me during tough times like good memories from childhood. But now that I’ve been an adult longer than I was a kid, I usually gravitate toward childhood memories that contain something the adult in me can latch onto. Which is why I would always recommend people get the DVD sets for the first three seasons of The Muppet Show. (Seasons four and five aren’t out yet.) My wife and I pop those DVDs in at random whenever we’re particularly stressed out. And while we remember and laugh with the attempts Kermit made to put on a show in that decrepit theater, even with the likes of Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the whole crazy gang to contend with, we appreciate Jim Henson and company’s desire to air sophisticated humor in a kid-friendly variety format. Besides, when you look at the guest list, it’s like a ’70s time machine. (Leo Sayer? Shields and Yarnell? Jaye P. Morgan?), and with it I can play the very adult game of “Who’s dead?” Of course, this gets me tense again, so I have to watch another episode to calm down. See? It’s layers upon layers of fun!
I have been doing this for years with mixtapes, which are always 90 percent songs for the person receiving it and 10 percent “please just love this thing I love.” It has never ever worked once. So seeing as this is the whole world, and music is incredibly personal, I’ll strike that off the list. I would love to be really obnoxious and give everyone a copy of the Constitution, or a copy of Epic Mickey so they can all learn how to be good. But since I can already hear everyone I know groaning, I won’t. Instead, I will give Chicago: City On The Make by Nelson Algren. I don’t think everyone will like it—in fact, I’m sure a lot of people won’t. It is tied to its time and place—Chicago in the first half of the 20th century—more than any other book I’ve ever read, so much so that newer editions had to be footnoted. It is short, though, and beautifully written. It’ll still be a chore, but if it could make just a few people understand how where we live affects who we are, then maybe we could all take a step toward understanding each other better. Okay, now I’m groaning again. At least it would make Nelson Algren more popular than he ever was in life.
A long time ago, on a website far, far away, I used to do reviews of movies and their source material—a bit like Tasha’s Book Vs. Film column, although I also did the Super Mario Bros. movie, because why not. The site’s dead now, victim of shifting ownership and some moderate embarrassment on my part (so many typos), but I do miss a couple of those essays. The one I miss the most is probably a piece I did on The Cat In The Hat, by Dr. Seuss. This was back when that hideous Mike Myers movie came out, and the less said about that, the better. But it did give me an excuse to do some actual research on how and why the original book was written. In response to a Life magazine article bemoaning the ponderousness of grade-school reading primers, Theodor Geisel (with an assist from William Ellsworth Spaulding, then the head of Houghton Mifflin’s education division) set out to tell an interesting, funny, unexpected, and cleverly illustrated story using just 225 distinct words (the finished book has 236), to help children learn to read. I think that’s neat, and if I had to give everyone in the world a present, I would give them a copy of the book. It’s short, wonderful proof that it’s possible to create art under even the most pragmatic circumstances.
The past few years have seen a number of handsomely produced, library-quality archival projects devoted to ratty little comedy projects that were intended to be the definition of ephemeral, and boy, I can live with the paradox. My last couple of Christmas presents to myself were the Ernie Kovacs and Mel Brooks DVD sets from Shout! Factory, and no one I might receive a gift from this year is likely to be perceptive and generous enough to improve on them. But the gift in this vein that I most wish I could give myself all over again is Fantagraphics’ two-volume set of the complete Humbug, the brilliant humor magazine that was Harvey Kurtzman’s last real gasp as an editor, after his self-exile from the landmark Mad, and before he settled for the better-known but far lesser Help! (On the way to the self-published, toilet-paper-quality Humbug, Kurtzman put out two issues of the gorgeous, Hugh Hefner-financed Trump, which I see Amazon has finally stopped pretending is ever going to be reprinted.) For years, I used to buy these issues at yard sales and on eBay, then file them carefully away, for fear they’d turn to ash if I breathed on them. So getting them in a format that I can actually hold in my hands and read was like scratching an itch I could never reach.
This is a tough one, because I feel like I need a gift-pack option, which would include a few things I think the world should check out. But if I had to settle, I think I’d go with Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. It was the first book of his I read, and it hooked me so quickly that I ended up reading it in one sitting. It’s also a perfect introduction to one of the most important writers of the 20th century: It has elements of science fiction (a genre he liked to dabble in), a funny critique of religion (another favorite topic of his), and a wit that will click with smartasses everywhere. I’ve had my copy for more than half my life at this point, and I’ve referred to it many times. It’s a keeper. But still no damn cat, no damn cradle.
I considered any number of different albums, comics, movies and TV shows as an answer to this, but since I spend all year jabbering away about my favorites among all of those, instead I’m going to give everyone one of my favorite card games, which I first encountered under the name Take 6 (though on Amazon, it’s currently available under its original German name, 6 Nimmt!). The game has one of the best combinations of luck and strategy of any family card game of its type: players fill out four rows by playing cards in ascending order, trying to avoid being the person to play the sixth card in a row, which forces that player to take the entire row and be stuck with points. Anyone who can count to 104 can play; everyone who plays once will want to keep playing all night.
I’m going to join Noel in giving away a game, but it’s going to be a tabletop RPG, to cap off a year that largely began with my trip to an RPG convention for the first installment of Nerd Curious. The game is called Fiasco, and playing it is really easy. You just need some notecards, a bunch of dice, and the rule book. The rules are simple to figure out, there’s a miniscule learning curve for those who’ve never played an RPG, and the game rewards weirdness, which is something more of us could use in our lives. Getting three or four friends together to sit around a table and play out a Coen brothers movie or rural noir novel over two hours is a lot of fun; it’s somehow even better when you’re playing with strangers, because you can’t figure out which ways they’ll zig and zag. Anyway, no other RPGs out there have the pick-up-and-playability of this one, so check it out.
I’m not a comic-book expert by any means. I’ll cede that territory to many fine colleagues here at The A.V. Club. Still, if there’s one thing I could hand out this year, it would be Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s masterpiece Y: The Last Man. It depicts the world after all living men suddenly, simultaneously die save one, a young man named Yorrick. Together with his pet monkey Ampersand and a woman he knows as Agent 355, he starts a long journey to find his girlfriend halfway around the world. The mystery surrounding the “plague” that kills every living mammal with a Y chromosome is compelling, but ultimately beside the point. This epic story deals with issues of gender, power, politics, and human morality in ways that are compelling and often funny. For those often burned by long-running stories that fizzle out near the end, take note: This 60-issue series (available in many collected editions) has one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking endings of any story in any medium. Just be warned: Once you start the story, you’ll have a hard time doing almost anything else until you’ve turned the last page.