PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

Avast Ye Maties!

The latest trend that’s threatening to make the leap from geek-culture (my home base) into the mainstream is something called the “Constructible Strategy Game” or “CSG.” This is basically a hybrid of role-playing games (think “Dungeons and Dragons”), collectible card games (think “Pokemon” or “Yu-Gi-Oh”) and good old-fashioned model kit building. The “CSG” that blazed the trail for the phenomenon is called “Pirates Of The Spanish Main”. Made by Wiz Kids, the folks behind the popular MechWarrior and HeroClix games, and introduced just a year-and-a-half ago, this game is a work of pure genius.

In each pack of cards (four bucks at most stores) you get enough pieces to play a short game. As you accumulate more cards, you can expand the game, build fleets and play with more complex rules. The kicker here is that the cards are plastic, and you punch out pieces that you assemble into tiny pirate ships. You actually play on a table top, using the assembled ships as playing pieces. It’s like a ‘build-it-yourself” version of “Risk” or “Stratego.” Building these things can be addictive. I’m hooked, and I have yet to even try to actually play the game. I just love assembling the little ships. They look really cool when put together, and if you’re cramped for space, they can be disassembled and put back into the cards.

I’ve been getting these for a few weeks. They’re a great way to pass a few stray minutes, and if you’re into gaming, they’re a cool new twist. And they’ve been very successful. Wiz Kids is preparing to release the fourth new edition of the Pirates line, “Pirates of the South China Sea,” next month, with a fifth edition scheduled for May. There are now other CSGs like “Rocketmen,” with cool Flash Gordon-type rocketships, and “Race Day,” a NASCAR racing game.

Locally, there must be loads of folks who are into these things. All the stores that carry them seem to sell out very quickly. That’s one reason why I think these are poised to cross over into the mainstream. The fact that they’re so damned cool is another. There are weekly Pirates tournaments every Wednesday at Treasures in the Kanawha Mall. Call (304) 925-9090 for more details. You can find the cards at Target, Wal Mart, K Mart, Toys R Us, Hobby World and most area hobby card shops. This could be a big trend in 2006. Or at least a cool way to pass the time and yell “Arrrrrrr” a lot.

Local Notes

This month’s “Briefs and Shorts” program from Kanawha Players features IMPROV, as the No Pants Players present an evening of improvisational comedy at the Charleston Ballet (822 Virginia Street E.). They promise to drag audience members up on stage so they can force them to become part of the show. A fun night of comedy is promised for all. It’s five bucks at the door, and the program is held this Thursday, following the Art Walk downtown. This is the kind of quirky entertainment that Charleston could use more of, so why not give it a shot.

It is a bit distressing that they’re going from “Briefs and Shorts” to “The No Pants Players.” These budget cuts in the arts are disgraceful. Seriously, though, they will be selling “Briefs and Shorts” shorts, 10 dollars a pop, for those you who want to show you support of the local scene by running around in shorts. In January.

This weekend the big Auto show hits the Civic Center. While it’s cool to get an advance look at all the new models of cars, and some folks will be enthralled at the new assortment of pickup trucks to choose from, the real kick is the concept cars, like the Chrysler Phaeton and the Dodge Slingshot. Even if these really cool cars never make it into production, it’s still neat to see what Hot Wheels will look like in a couple of years.

I’ve been meaning to mention Rick Lee’s Blog for some time now. Rick is a Charleston-based photographer who posts a steady stream of beautiful and intriguing images. In addition to his fine photography, Rick is also an accomplished pastel artist. His work is currently on display at the Taylor Books Annex Gallery, alongside works by my fellow Gazzblogger Charles Hamilton, and my old GI Joe collecting buddy, Eric Pardue, among other area artists. The Taylor Annex Gallery is a hidden gem downtown, and well worth checking out the next time you’re picking up reading material or caffeinated beverages. The last time I popped in, they were blasting Sinatra over the gallery speakers. You can’t beat that!

Stern Words

This was the week that Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed “King Of All Media,” made the leap from terrestrial radio to the brave new world of Sirius satellite radio. The press attention would make you think that this was a major cultural event. Through the magic of the Internet, I was able to listen to Stern’s first broadcast. I just can’t bring myself to pay money to listen to radio. I haven’t listened to commercial radio since I left the air 16 years ago. To me, when radio is not being employed as a music delivery system, it’s being horribly abused and misused.

So, you’re wondering what I thought of Stern’s first uncensored broadcast. Well, I can’t, for the love of God, understand why people would pay money to listen to this crap for four hours each day. Stern can be funny, in very short bursts, and he’s a top-notch interviewer, when he has a fascinating subject, but this self-involved garbage with Stern talking about his “new venture,” all the while surrounded by sophomoric sycophants is just UNBEARABLE. It just seemed to go on forever.

The changes from his old show are that he isn’t censored, and there are no commercials. Sadly, the censorship was the only reason to listen to his show. It was a kick to see how far he could push the envelope. Now there is no envelope. F-Bombs fly left and right. After a few minutes of that, you don’t care anymore. The shock value is gone. And that was the show’s raison d’etre. My reaction to the show is “eh.”

Once you get past the shock value being gone, you’re left with Howard’s gang of sidekicks, and his shtick of being misogynistic and making fun of the handicapped. Oh, and there are the porn stars and strippers he brings on his show, which, being on the radio, can only titillate the most desperate of listeners.

If you like Stern, now you can get him uncut and unadulterated. You have to pay for it, but maybe you can look at it as a tax on people with horrible taste. I fairly well despise all morning “shock jock” radio, and have no use for radio as long as I have a CD player in my car, so this show ain’t gonna make me run out and buy a satellite radio system. This block of morning misery is not a selling point for me. Maybe I’m not the right person to critique this program, but faced with the prospect of having to listen to the Howard Stern Show every morning, I’d rather chew my right arm off, just below the elbow.

Art Blogging

Red Ballz

Pencil Sketch 1980

Digitally manipulated October 2005

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

….five days late.

See, here’s what happened. I lost last week trying to sort out my mother’s new Medicare drug plan. There has not been a government program initiated with this level of preparedness and expertise since the Bay of Pigs invasion. Lucky for you, Rant Week is over. Now to catch up with the Culture Populaire:

The latest on DEVO

DEVO has devolved into DEVO 2.0, a group of kids performing vocals for DEVO classics, produced by Mark Mothersbaugh, with videos by Jerry Casale. DEVO themselves play all the instruments. The album and an accompanying DVD, including two brand new DEVO songs, will be released by Walt Disney Records on March 17. Yes, DEVO and Disney–together at last.

In other DEVO trivia, Jerry Casale directed many of those creepy commercials for Burger King. You know, the ones with the Burger King mascot showing up and just staring at people while holding one of those artery-clogging monstrosities that they sell. You can check out Casale’s latest side project here.

Lastly in DEVO news, you can read my review of the DEVO action figures over at Mastercollector.com.

Miyazaki Reminder

Way back in November, I told you about Turner Classic Movies running a festival of films by acclaimed Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki. That festival started last week, with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. It continues Thursday with Naussicca Of The Valley Of The Wind, and Castle In The Sky. You can catch classics by Miyazaki every Thursday night in January. They’re showing the English dubbed versions at 8 p.m., followed by the subtitled versions later that evening.

Speaking of Animation

Animated Discussions will return next week. In the meantime, be sure to catch Melanie’s and my review of Hoodwinked in the Gazz this Thursday.

And for a brief animated tidbit, there’s going to be a new Tom and Jerry short, The KarateGuard directed by the cat and mouse team’s legendary co-creator Joe Barbera, debuting on Cartoon Network January 27. At 94 years old, Barbera may not have too many cartoons left in him. This will be a rare chance to witness a new work by one of the last living animators from Hollywood’s golden age.

Comic Book Guys…and Girls

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the land of comic books.

Richard Branson is leaping into the four-color fray, starting up Virgin Comics with some help from Deepak Chopra’s kid and director John Woo.

Rosario Dawson is stretching her creative abilities by creating and co-writing a new comic book.

Peter Bagge, the cartoonist behind HATE, has given up his gig chronicling the adventures of Bat Boy for the Weekly World News. Newsarama has an interview with his replacement.

Bonzo Reunion!

The surviving members of the legendary Bonzo Dog Band will reunite on January 28 at the Astoria in London. This performance will be recorded for a future DVD release. The show is being billed as a tribute to the late Viv Stanshall, a co-founder of the band who died in 1995 in a house fire (another senseless cigarette-related death). Opening for the Bonzos will be The Rutles, the band that former Bonzo Neil Innes created with Eric Idle to parody a certain group of Liverpudlian mop-tops. This will be their first live performance in decades.

That’s enough for today. PopCult plays catch up this week with upcoming posts on Howard Stern and Pirates.

Rant Week: Day Four/ Vandalism!

While walking through Davis Square one day avoiding smokers, I happened to glance up at the Equestrian Statue of Henry Gassaway Davis, and noticed an act of shocking, SHOCKING, vandalism. At some point, at least as early as late summer, some hooligan scaled the statue (under cover of darkness in the dead of night, no doubt) and placed a sticker in a delicate place on the statue’s anatomy.

Someone felt the urge to put a sticker on the….bump between the rear legs of the horse. It’s a simple sticker, just a lower-case “h” on a white background. One of those ovals with a “W” would have made more sense, but it’s not the content that’s disturbing. It’s the location.

Startling, I know. I didn’t notice this until a few weeks ago, but when I checked my files, I discovered that you could see blurry evidence of this sticker in photographs I took back in September. I would have taken a better photo, but the thought of standing in Davis Square with my camera carefully focused on the crotch of a statue of a horse was just a little too embarrassing for me to follow through.

And it occurs to me that there are two reasons that this act of blatant equine genital humiliation has not yet been rectified.

First: Who really wants to admit that they just happened to be looking at the doodle of the horse statue. It’s entirely possible that this crime has gone unreported until now. I mean, I’m brave enough to bring this story to light, but I hope my readers don’t think I go around checking out horse statue packages.

Second: If this crime has been reported to the proper authorities at City Hall, it’s quite possible that there are no city employees whose job description encompasses them removing illegally-placed stickers from statues of horse members.

Either way, it’s a small act of humiliation that might explain the forlorn look on old Henry Gassaway Davis’ face. How would you feel if you had to ride around downtown Charleston on a horse with a sticker on his naughty bits?

Rant Week: Tiny Bonus Rant

This is just a quickie to wrap up Rant Week here at PopCult. And it’s really not a full-tilt rant. It’s more of a rhetorical question.

It’s a fact that many of the people who fully support Charleston’s user fee also fully support the idea of a Metro Government, where Charleston would merge with the surrounding towns, and perhaps even the County government to form one big Metrosexual community, or something. Do these people realize what a strong impediment the user fee will be to convincing other cities to join up with Charleston? Not only will non-Charleston residents balk at the idea of raising their own out-of-pocket expenses, they’ll also enjoy the chance to stick it to city for the user fee if they work in Charleston and have to pay the fee already.

The question is: Are the short-term gains from the user fee more important than the long-term gains from a Metro government?

OK, PopCult now reverts back to talking about animation, comic books, toys and movies, and will leave all this ranty stuff to the adults. My spleen is plenty vented now.

Rant Week: Day Three/ WHCP’s Newscast

Okay, I’m not going to waste valuable cyberspace going over how bad the WB News program is in great detail. Except for Tom McGee and Scott Roberts, the staff seems like they came straight out of high school. The technical side, while improving, is still a disaster. This is a news show that delivers just enough to keep the die-hard fans of Tom McGee happy, but not enough to attract other viewers. Here’s a list of things that they need to fix if they want to compete with the other area newscasts:

The set is claustrophobic: They were evidently limited by the size of the room, but the cameras are far too close to the on-air talent, and the lighting is atrocious. The newscast looks like it’s being broadcast from somebody’s living room. I think they need to find a new studio with adequate space.

Introductions are in order: The stylistic choice of having the reporters introduce their own stories is a mess. There isn’t enough room in the studio for them, so they have to stand outside, “on location, live in Charleston,” which is obviously just as far as the cables will reach outside of their West Side studio. And there’s no lighting out there. Half the time, the reporters miss their cues. And their microphones pick up other radio frequencies, so we hear police calls in the background. All this does is make the newscast look shoddy and waste air time. We can see the same buildings and roads in the background every day. At least build a newsroom set that you can cut to instead of doing these bad “remote” bits. If you can’t just have the anchors introduce the report, at least let those poor reporters stand inside the building.

If you don’t have teleprompters, buy some: If you do have them, start using them properly. I’ve overheard people in grocery stores commenting on how bad it looks.

For God’s sake get Scott Roberts a desk! The poor guy has no idea what to do with himself as he stands there giving the sports report. He fidgets, keeps glancing down at his notes, and winds up dancing around the set like a lummox. Scott’s a likeable guy, well-known to area fans. Don’t make him look like an idiot.

To whomever is writing the copy for the anchors to read: West Virginia State University offers classes in writing for television. If you’re not willing to take a class, at least take some advice: read your copy aloud to see if it sounds natural coming out of somebody’s mouth. I’ve watched your poor anchors stumble over some of the most poorly-written links and teases that I’ve ever heard. If they’re writing the copy themselves, they have no one to blame, but if somebody else is doing it, they need help, quick.

The McGee Factor: Finally, Tom McGee……he’s actually doing great. Despite all his well-documented off-screen bad behavior, the man can deliver on camera. Even when he’s delivering copy that appears to be written at a fifth-grade level, he does his best to make it work. His other anchor and the rest of the reporters are green as hell, but the only way to overcome that is to go out there every day and do their jobs.

I sort of want to root for this newscast. It doesn’t have the questionable, corporate-ordered ideological bias of WCHS or WOWK, and it’s cool to have a newscast originating from the West Side. But they really need to work on the technical issues, and let their staff grow into their jobs. I just don’t know if they’ve produced a professional enough product to compete with the other stations.

Tomorrow: The Rant that dare not speak its name (that means I haven’t decided which one to do yet).

Rant Week: Day Two/ Smoking

As mentioned in yesterday’s rant, I’ve been spending a lot of time in downtown Charleston lately, and it’s distressing how much horrid tobacco smoke is spewed into the air by the hapless addicts who wander our streets.

On the one hand, I’ve got slight libertarian leanings, and feel that anyone should be allowed to kill themselves by ingesting poison, if that’s what they really want to do. On the other, I feel my right to breath supersedes their right to smoke. I have severe allergies to tobacco, and if I have to breathe too much of the stuff, it makes me very sick. Unlike smokers, I do not choose to be very sick.

Smokers can commit slow suicide if they want, but they shouldn’t be allowed to take other people with them. Smoking does just that. Smokers are like suicide bombers. Nobody cares if they want to end their own life, but you have to draw the line at the point where they claim innocent victims. I know that a complete ban on smoking won’t work, and I believe in personal freedoms enough that I can’t really endorse total prohibition. However, I do have a question that puts the situation into perspective:

Why should smoking be any more legal than sex?

Think about it. Why should smoking, a vile act known to kill people, be any more legal than sex, a natural act that expresses love, or at least intimate human contact? Consenting adults, in the privacy of their own home, can have just about any kind of sex they want. So why shouldn’t the same rules be applied to smoking?

Consenting adults, in the privacy of their own home should be able to smoke all they want. They can smoke all night, smoke their brains out, smoke like there’s no tomorrow. However, they shouldn’t smoke in public, or in front of the kids, or with animals. And smoking while driving is right out! Why is it that smokers, who are addicted to a carcinogen, aren’t expected to exert the same amount of self-control that horny and/or perverted people do?

Sure, you’ll have thrill seekers
who get off on sneaking a quick puff in a stairwell or in the bushes in the park. But if I can’t smell their smoke, then it isn’t a problem. What bothers me is when I go downtown to meet Melanie for lunch, and I wind up having to move all over Davis Square because the smokers are circling like buzzards. Sometimes, I wind up on the far end of the park, just to get away from the poison.

I don’t have a problem with special clubs or restaurants opening up that allow smoking, just as long as they have a warning sign on the door and don’t allow minors into the establishment. I find it sort of ridiculous that people can’t smoke in a tobacco store. I’m not even suggesting that the tobacco addicts quit cold turkey. All I’m saying is that smoking should be relegated to the privacy of the home. It should be seen as a shameful, dirty act, the same way that Baptists think of sex.

And the next time you see a smoker walking down the street indulging in their habit, imagine that they’re walking around with their hand down their pants, indulging in that other habit. Makes you view them a little differently, doesn’t it?

Tomorrow’s rant: I review the WHCP-TV Newscast with Tom McGee.

Rant Week: Day One/ The Riverfront

I’m going to kick off PopCult’s RANT WEEK with the big one–the Charleston Riverfront Development plan, and a few things that need to be pointed out about it.

The recent burst of irrational exuberance over the proposed riverfront redevelopment plan put forth by Sasaki Associates seems a bit familiar to me. It reminds me of the classic episode of The Simpsons, where a slick out-of-towner convinces the citizens of Springfield that, in order to revitalize their city, they need a Monorail. I find it hard to believe that, in a city where a “user fee” had to be imposed to meet the basic needs of the police department and do street repair, people can seriously consider pouring millions of dollars into enhancing the riverbank. This riverbank is a place that the people of Charleston have spent decades demonstrating that they are not willing to even cross the street to visit.

This is NOT because the street is too wide. It’s because riverbanks aren’t necessarily nice places to pass the time. You see, they tend to slope sharply, ending up in the water. Flat ground is usually one prerequisite for a pleasant recreational area and the riverbank doesn’t have much of that. In addition, the river is not exactly such a wonderful place. For much of the year, the Kanawha’s appearance and odor can best be summed up using scatalogical terminology.

Riverfront parks are great for people who love the water. That might just be as much as ten percent of the population. Can Charleston really afford to spend millions of dollars so that, on maybe four or five quiet evenings each year, a handul of people will say, “Gee, this is nice”? The whole idea of a Green Ribbon sounds nice, until you realize just how few Charlestonians will actually use it. Is it going to be worth the cost? The quality of life in Charleston could be raised higher if the city would spend some money to lure a large grocery store to the East End. I can’t quite grasp the cost-versus-benefit of the riverfront plan.

I also can’t understand
all the complaints about the mere existence of Kanawha Boulevard. It’s one of the rare city projects that made sense and worked. I lean towards siding with the group that wants to declare it an historical structure. It is a modern wonder and it does its job very well. I’ve heard complaints that it never seems congested. That because it works! Perhaps, between Leon Sullivan Way and Greenbriar Street, it could be safely cut down to three lanes, but any plan to reduce it more than that seems absurd on its face. I’m old enough to remember what it was like before the interstate was built, and I can’t understand why reducing the Boulevard to two lanes is even being seriously considered.

There has been a very sensible proposal that, just to test out the current relevance of the Boulevard, temporary barriers be erected to reduce it to two lanes, to see if that idea is feasible. This should be done during the upcoming Legislative Session. If it doesn’t hurt the traffic flow, then, and only then, should reducing the size of the Boulevard be considered. For some reason, this very, very logical idea has gained no traction with the city planners. I can’t understand why. Everyone involved with this project admits that it will take years, possibly decades, to bring it to fruition. Why rush into the most drastic part of the plan without patiently going to the effort to test the basic premise–that Kanawha Boulevard is unnecessary, and that the citizens of Charleston are going to flock to the riverfront and make it the coolest place on Earth and a viable revenue stream for the city.

There are several other parts of the proposal that strike me as sillier than normal. The scenic overlook that would allow visitors to gaze at the beautiful Tank Farm on the opposite side of the river comes to mind. And the idea of installing fountains on Magic Island, which is prone to frequent flooding, seems misguided. Boat docks (call them “marinas” if you must), no matter how they’re designed, are among the ugliest man-made structures on the planet–if they add them, they should be hidden under the Southside Bridge.

The most delusional idea is that of turning the Union Building into condominiums. It would take so much money to bring that building up to residential code, that the units would wind up being priced out of any sane person’s range. On top of that, they want to eliminate the parking for the Union Building, and there’s no grocery store handy downtown. The building sways in heavy winds and you hear tugboats going by all the time. Who’s going to want to live like that? That idea is a pipe dream of major proportions. There isn’t even that much demand for downtown condos. The ones that we have now are a hard sell.

A Few Suggestions

Just so I don’t come across as totally negative, I have a few suggestions, which I might humbly offer up as being a million times better than the plan currently in place. And I’m not charging six figures for these, either.

First, take that large parcel of land where the Elk River/Town Center Hotel once stood. Dig up the concrete. Plant grass. Build a stage and band shell facing East, but close enough to the southwest corner of the lot so that it can be seen from the Boulevard. This is the new Haddad Riverfront park. It’s a big, gorgeous, green space where all the nice peoples can go recreate without falling into the river.

The old Haddad Riverfront park should be history. Take the Eastbound lanes of Kanawha Boulevard and move them to the other side of the Union Building. Then they can rejoin the original path of the road as soon as possible. This may mean joining up on either side of the South Side Bridge, but it would be worth doing. You’ve solved the problem of access to the Union Building, and gotten rid of that white elephant of a riverfront “park.”

There will be a triangle of land created by this road diversion. That’s where you build the City Of Charleston Welcome Center. A distinctive building with a decent-sized parking lot to help direct visitors around our city–who could disagree with that being a good thing?

Instead of killing Kanawha Boulevard to improve access to the riverbank, how about building a series of pedestrian walkways crossing over the street? They could be incorporated into sculpted arches and become a distinctive feature for the city. One of the archways could incorporate a rising sun motif, and take the name “The Sunrise Arch.” This one could stretch from the new Riverfront park to the actual riverbank, and maybe its riverside disembarking point could take the place of the scenic tank farm overlook.

Lastly, follow the recommendations of the Army Corps Of Engineers to fix the problems associated with erosion, and try to find a way to improve accessiblity to the riverbank at the same time. But do this without eating into the Boulevard or pumping tons of money into a developing an attraction that nobody will want to visit.

So to review my suggestions: Keep Kanawha Boulevard at four lanes. Relocate Haddad Riverfront park to the other side of Kanawha Boulevard, with plenty of flat green space and a stage that can be used during the Regatta. Divert the Eastbound lanes of Kanawha Boulevard around to the river side of the Union Building. Establish a Welcome center in the new area created by this move. Build arches that cross the Boulevard at key points, and incorporate into them pedestrian walkways. This will give the city a distinctive new feature, and solve the problem of access to the river bank.

Oh, the idea about lining the Boulevard with trees….forget it. Trees look great in concept drawings, but in real life, they need expensive regular care and in the fall, they drop leaves everywhere and aren’t so pretty. There are other forms of greenery that won’t look like hell from the other side of the river for most of the year. I just drove down MacCorkle and glanced across the river to the downtown area, and to be honest, it looks pretty damned good. I can’t see the rush to fix what doesn’t appear to be broken. Minor repairs and regular upkeep might be a heck of a lot more affordable than a drastic overhaul.

I have one final request that sort of ties into tomorrow’s rant. Any new green space in Charleston should be SMOKE FREE! I’ve spent a lot of time downtown lately, and it’s disheartening that Davis Square and the Lee Street Triangle seem to exist primarily to act as giant ashtrays for the tobacco addicts. Tomorrow, we look at smoking.