Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club - May 23, 2008



What exactly is a "character actor"? I've seen this phrase used hundreds of times, both on the A.V. Club website and others, and it's a bit perplexing if you ponder its use. If you're NOT a character actor, what kind of actor are you? Actually, I think I have a fairly good idea of what this means, but I wanted to hear your perspective. Every time it's used, it is in reference to an actor who occupies the lower rungs of the ladder. Philip Baker Hall, Charles Durning, M. Emmet Walsh, and even Stephen Root (who recently spoke at length to The A.V. Club about being a character actor) are all usually thought of as character actors. As respected as they may be, they're still not household names. You never hear of Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, or Julia Roberts called this. It seems to imply one of two things (or both): That a character actor has not yet achieved enough fame and respect to be deemed a "legitimate" actor, OR a character actor is not talented enough to ever attain legit status. ("She's not that great. She's just a character actor.") Either way, it seems at least slightly pejorative. What say you A.V. Clubbers of my pointless semantic wanking? Why are we using this term to describe people we respect?



"Character" writer Steven Hyden pauses dramatically, and responds:

"Character actor" is a pejorative term? Since when? Let me ask you this, Boo: Do you think Tom Cruise is a better actor than Philip Baker Hall? I don't know, maybe you do, but I think a lot of movie buffs would say no. (Especially those that have seen Hall's astonishing one-man Nixon movie Secret Honor, or his lead turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's wonderful debut film Hard Eight.) The difference between Cruise and Hall isn't that Cruise is a more "legitimate" actor than Hall, it's that Cruise is a movie star and Hall isn't, which allows Hall to slip in and out of different characters with relative ease. That's what makes Hall a character actor—he's a familiar face who's believable no matter what character he happens to be playing. Tom Cruise is always "Tom Cruise," a larger-than-life screen persona shoehorned into big-budget projects. That's not to say that Cruise is a bad actor, just that he's so famous that he can no longer convincingly disappear into a role. Rather, he ends up playing variations of the same cocky, boyishly handsome hero with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues. If anything, it's movie stars who usually get accused of not being "legitimate" actors, even if they got their start as character actors. (Think Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman.) That's not really fair, especially since character actors sometimes develop personas of their own. (Hall, for one, has carved out a career playing haunted old men with dirty secrets.) But your so-called "pointless semantic wanking" is really off here: "character actor" is intended as a term of endearment for so-called "actors' actors" who are more about the work than the fame of moviemaking. Movie stars sell the tickets, but character actors sell the story.

Rock For Choice

I'm just wondering how you guys decide what new releases are deemed worthy enough to get a music review each week? I understand some major acts (Britney and Madonna, though I didn't need your reviews to convince me not to buy them) and some personal favorites amongst the reviewers will obviously get pushed to the front of the list, but how do the rest get decided? I was prompted to ask this because the new Bonnie "Prince" William album just came out and it wasn't reviewed. I thought he was a big enough/indie enough artist to get a write-up and was curious why, apart from issues of space, time, and staffing, he and many other worthy acts get left aside.


Josh Modell manages our music:

Thanks for the question; it's been asked before (along with similar questions) in the comments, with varying degrees of hostility.


There's no real science to deciding what music gets reviewed at The A.V. Club, though there are several factors that go into the decision. With regard to major releases like Madonna or Britney, I just find it interesting to see what our individual reviewers will think of them. I'm with you—I don't need to know that I probably don't want to own the new Britney or Madonna records, but I'm curious what somebody with a pretty deep knowledge of dance music (that'd be reviewer Andy Battaglia) thinks of them. The interesting part for me is reading his review; that's the end in itself. If it's positive, I might be tempted to check out some tracks. If it's negative, I probably enjoyed reading why it was bad. You could make the same argument for lots of criticism—in a sense, it's what they call "service journalism," but we hope it's more than that.

As for the stuff we review on a more regular basis, well, some of the selection comes from our reviewers, whose tastes often lean heavily toward what loosely gets called "indie-rock." It's funny, though, because looking at a sampling of what we review in a week, there's actually a pretty broad variety of sounds, from electronica (James Pants) to indie-folk (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) to more mainstream-leaning pop (Death Cab For Cutie) to, umm, Scarlett Johansson. (You could argue we reviewed that because it's of pop-cultural interest more than musical worthiness, and you'd be right.)


You mention Bonnie "Prince" Billy specifically—that was kind of a funny case. In general, we get albums well in advance of their release dates, and we try to time the music reviews with the release of the disc. Eighty-five to 90 percent of what we review is reviewed on the actual day it hits stores, and we're able to do that because we get music in advance. With Billy, the label basically kept the record under wraps until a few days before it was released—no advance music, no word that it was even coming out. We got a copy the Friday before its release, which is too late to get it in the paper. We got a review online the day after its release, in order to give the reviewer enough time to check it out.

A big exception to the pre-release music rule is hip-hop. Most big hip-hop records are kept under lock and key until very close to their release dates. That's why you'll often see us (and other publications) a little late to the party on those.


But to answer the meat of your question: Music reviews are mostly chosen based on what we're knowledgeable about and/or interested in. We don't write many metal, country, or classical reviews, because we don't really have the experts to cover them. (And because there are entire specialty publications out there devoted to them that can do a much better job than we can!) Also keep in mind that we have space/staff for about six to eight music reviews per week, but there are 100 or more CDs released per week. (Movies are a whole different animal—we try to review every theatrically released movie, because there are far fewer of those.) I hope that answers your question to some small degree of satisfaction.

Soundtrack Not Available In Stores

I'm not a big soundtrack purchaser, but the few times I have bought them, I ended up a bit mystified. Recently, I went looking for the Something Wild soundtrack, hoping that some of the cover tunes performed by The Feelies in the movie might be on it. I could tell from reading the track list that none were, but I bought it anyway because I remembered a lot of other great music in the movie. (Plus it was only $2.) I was dismayed to find that very few of the songs I enjoyed in the movie were on the soundtrack, but a bunch of songs I don't even remember from the movie were on there. What's the criteria for putting a song on a soundtrack? Why do some songs get left off? Why do some songs make it on when they're barely audible in the movie? Is there anything to keep a label from releasing a "soundtrack" from a movie with no actual songs from the movie?


Pete Deeble

Noel Murray is available on CD and cassette from Morgan Creek:

There are a couple of issues at work here, Pete. The primary reason for the disconnect between the music in movies and the music on their "original soundtracks" (a.k.a. OSTs) is that movie producers make separate licensing deals for the music they're going to use in their film and the music they're going to sell. (Which makes sense, because a 30-second snippet of a song in a movie doesn't represent a real competitive threat to the original album version of the song, while a track on the OST most definitely would.) Yet it's not always a matter of some studio and/or label representative cherry-picking the songs from a movie that they can legally clear. Ever since the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack made OSTs a significant ancillary revenue stream for motion pictures, studios have looked for ways to maximize soundtrack sales, by getting the songs lined up first, then finding ways to work them into the film—often by dumping them all over the end credits in a kind of medley. Sometimes you'll even see a phrase like this on an OST cover: "music from and inspired by the movie." And while that may seem like a terrible bait-and-switch, I'd rather have whatever Evanescence B-side the studio licensed wind up consigned exclusively to the OST, instead of having it awkwardly shoehorned into the blockbuster du jour.


Monster Mash-Up

I'm looking for the name of a book I read when I was about 9 years old. Forgive me if I'm a little foggy on the details. It was about this kid who is followed around by Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolfman, and Dracula all the time. I believe the implication was that they were imaginary, but they must have been inconvenient, because he hits upon the idea of getting rid of them by creating an angel to chase them off. (I seem to recall the angel had a balloon for a brain.) He and a young female compatriot of his set about bringing this angel to life during a lightning storm, ironically much like the one of the monsters he was trying to get rid of. I just re-read that summary and am retroactively judging it to be a terrible book, but my curiosity burns nonetheless. Does that sound familiar to anyone?



Tasha Robinson has a balloon for a—oh, never mind:

Yes, Tony, that sounded familiar… hauntingly, irritatingly so. As soon as I read your letter, I knew I'd read your book when I was young. And apart from a vague mental image of that crazy balloon-brained angel, I knew absolutely no more about it than you did. And Google searches mostly led me to pages on how to make angel balloon animals.


So I bugged some of my online friends about it, because I was positive it was the kind of book that would have made an impression on one or more of them the way it made one on me. And one of them pointed out that Google Book Search was more accurate than a generic Google search at pinpointing book plots. Sure enough, "angel balloon brain" as search items popped it up right away: Hope Campbell's Peter's Angel: A Story About Monsters, also known as The Monsters' Room. It's a 1976 book that's hugely out of print, with copies running around $20 online. Fortunately, our local library system has it, and I'm about to go revisit it. Thanks for the memory. (And thanks to my online friend for giving me the "Do your own Googling" treatment we've given other people here.)

STUMPED NO MORE! Except for some.

Almost always, when we run a series of ID-my-memory letters that have stumped us, one or two of them draw all the attention, but someone sneaks in at some point to fill in the rest of the blanks. The first half of that formula applied this time around, but not the second, leaving us with some unanswered queries. Here's what we've got:

Riblets asked about a book in which a woman accused of witchcraft is left to be eaten by dragons, but winds up teaming up with one instead. There were a few dissenting voices, but the vast majority of respondents think this would be Vivian Vande's Dragon's Bait, and the plot description on Amazon matches to an absolute T. And for once, the book in question is even in print, so Riblets can confirm without paying $50 for the privilege at some online used-book dealery.


Not as lucky: JChase, who asked about "a young-adult novel about a fog that turned people into cactuses as it passed over them." That one's apparently The Plant People by Dale Bick Carlson. Still in print? Not so much. Instead, perhaps JChase could be content with Carlson's still-in-print "Found A Baby" series, which instructs kids how to rehabilitate abandoned animals. The list of titles—starting with I Found A Baby Raccoon, What Do I Do? and moving on through I Found A Baby Opossum, I Found A Baby Squirrel, I Found A Baby Bird, and more—looks pretty plaintive on the screen. Who are all these damned deadbeat animal parents? There oughta be a law.

Bene Gesserit Witch was looking for an anime movie that… oh, fuck it. It's Unico. It's always Unico. We promise, no more Stumped! anime questions until someone on staff has watched freakin' Unico. Maybe no more Stumped! anime questions ever. You've spoiled it for the rest of us, Unico. Are you happy now?


Ryan inquired after an early-'90s special about a teenage boy on a high-school spitting team. Popular wisdom says this would be The Great O'Grady, a 20-minute, 1993 HBO special that sounds entirely gross.

Finally, David was stressing about a movie in which a crazy hag saws off a girl's hand. And here's where we fall down—the only person who answered the question suggested that it might be Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, but the fairly thorough plot description on Wikipedia doesn't say anything about arm-sawing, or any of the other events David describes in the film: a mother handing off the girl to the hag, for instance. Unless someone's been holding out on us because they don't want to share their awesome hand-sawing film, or there's more to Auntie Roo than Wikipedia knows, we may have to let this one go.


Next week: More on song publishing rights. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.