S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 August 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 

Strange Daze

 

[Illustration of alien asleep in front of the Boob Tube.]

Metastasizing conformity makes

the demand for the strange grow

stronger, so we pepper the

salads of iceberg homogeneity we

dine on with prefab exotica. For

every new Gap fashion that we

package ourselves in, for every

new beer commercial and

housewares catalog that we turn

to for lifestyle guidance, we

seek out a complementary story

about alien-fucking or

trepanation.

 

The success of this cultural

California cuisine creates a

paradox, however: If the strange

is anything that's "quite

unusual or uncommon," can it

also be mainstream? By

normalizing the paranormal via

the familiar atmospherics of the

neo-noir cop drama, and then

folding sci-fi into the mix,

Chris Carter was able to attract

viewers who'd never attend "a

springtime conference on

anomalous phenomena" or ponder

the unspoken relationship

between Kirk and Spock; the

popularity of this fictionalized

strange has led to a glut of

strange that presents itself as

true. Small-circulation pioneers

like Fortean Times and Strange battle

with Time and Popular Science for

Roswell trivia; the strange even

has its own TV news show and

talk show now too: Strange

Universe, which bills itself as

"the phenomenal daily news

magazine," and Oddville, where

purportedly "the strange keeps

getting stranger."

 

It's these two entities that are

straining the genre the most,

sacrificing mystery in return

for five new hours of

programming each week. The pair

do damage in many ways; their

dependence on visuals, for

example, is a drawback neither

successfully overcomes. Moving

pictures are worth well over a

thousand words: They disclose

too much, too quickly,

exhausting the limited

strangeness embodied by hopping

swamis and rum-faced, one-eyed,

New York Yankees-obsessed poets

in a matter of seconds. P.T.

Barnum, pioneer purveyor of the

exceptional, took care to

minimize the exposure of his

Aztec Children and his

Circassian Beauties; he knew

that under too much scrutiny

their supposedly intrinsic

peculiarity could largely be

attributed to funny clothes and

bad haircuts. Barnum also never

unveiled such exhibits without

first engaging in elaborate

verbal foreplay. As odd as some

of his specimens actually were,

their strangeness still could

not compete with the strangeness

his customers conjured in their

own imaginations.

 

[Illustration of a talking doll with pull-string feature in turn illustrating an illustration of a scary green alien.]

Instead of silver-tongued

Barnumesque bluster, however,

Strange Universe gives us the

Rod Serling expressionism of

overachieving department-store

dummy Emmitt Miller. Squinting

judiciously, jutting his chin

forward in an unconvincing swipe

at circumspection, Miller

enunciates every line he speaks

to a slow, sing-song,

silence-of-the-iambs death.

When, we keep wondering, are his

producers going to do a segment

on him? Up next:

Mannequin Boy, abandoned

in the wilds of Macy's at the

tender age of five and raised

entirely by a pack of large

plastic dolls.

 

Oddville's Frank Hope

isn't much better. He

blends all the worst aspects

of Gary Shandling - the pinched

voice, the permanent Maalox

grimace - with all the aspects

of Cliff Stoll - the general

unpreparedness, the willful

monotony, the permanent Maalox

grimace. Hope is the sort of

desultory presence who can

emancipate the interest from any

moment.

 

And while neither show lets the

cameras or the Avids rest for

more than a few seconds, and

rarely spends more than a few

minutes on a story or a guest,

we still see far more of them

than is actually prudent. As

Oddville proves over and over, a

college kid from Long Island

whose profound introversion has

led, say, to a unique ability to

draw badly with her chin, isn't

likely to be much of a

conversationalist - so why

bother with the post-performance

"interview"? Well, there's

screen time to fill. You've got

to keep the Levi's commercials

from bumping into each other

somehow.

 

[Scary illustration of a moebius strip of film, each cel containing a scary myth: the Loch Ness Monster, the Grim Reaper, scary aliens, el Chupacabras, ghosts, ex-President Bush, etc.]

Unfortunately, there's only so

many varieties of strange:

aliens, angels, and other

religious phenomena, ghosts,

rogue animal species, psychics,

and government conspiracies

pretty much complete the gamut.

In its worst moments, Strange

Universe retreads video

shamelessly; it recently

dedicated an entire show to the

Visible Human Project, repeating

the same footage of lab workers

blithely deconstructing a frozen

corpse with a hacksaw at least

four times. On first viewing, it

was a great TV moment - safely

abstract, and at the same time,

with hacksaws rasping and icy

chips of human sawdust sparkling

across the screen, gratuitously

visceral. But after repeated

viewings it was just vivisection

as usual; no one believes in

restraint anymore.

 

Ironically, the one place where

Strange Universe does show

restraint is exactly where it

shouldn't; the show consistently

refuses to take a point of view.

Normally, we'd applaud laziness

masquerading as objectivity -

because, you know, who wants to

go to all that trouble to find

enough evidence to actually

prove or disprove something? In

the case of strange, though,

perspective provides much of the

interest. Whether it's Fox

Mulder deadpandering to Area 51

acolytes or James Randi flirting

with apoplexy over faith

healers, it's the conviction

that believers and debunkers

bring to their obsessions that

gives the genre its real drama.

Strange Universe has no

perceptible convictions, and

thus dooms itself to

inconsequence.

 

[Illustration of three cross-legged aliens, side by side, each one representing one of the 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' monkey symbols.]

In the neo-funhouse glasses

Oddville's producers view the

world through, inconsequence is

the apparent goal; the show's

like David Lynch at his least

inspired, determined to prove

that strange can be just as

tiresomely trivial as everyday

life. But strange, at its best,

isn't trivial at all. Instead,

it addresses life's most

pressing mysteries: Is there

life after death? Are there

species out there man has yet to

discover, much less exterminate?

The earnest scope of such

questions exiles them from the

Oddville universe, where

earnestness only exists as an

ironic fist that host Frank Hope

uses to sucker-punch the

schmaltzy showbiz conventions he

both mocks and venerates. On

Oddville, strange is reduced to

an accoutrement of kitsch; like

the chicken puppets, fuzzy dice,

and pachinko machines that

clutter the show's set, it's

just one more thing to consume.

 

In this case, such mindless

consumption has at least one

blessing: The guests'

performances are relatively

short, because there are always

more human pretzels, cowbell

virtuosos, and garbage-mouthed

grandmas waiting in the wings to

taunt our attention spans. That

these quotidian Gong Show

refugees define strange is

Oddville's one joke: In our

over-mediated,

celebrity-obsessed world, where

everyone's ready and waiting to

be famous should opportunity

finally return one's faxes, the

freaks of today are those tragic

few who are so televisually

impaired they can't even manage

to pull off two polished minutes

of patter. This cynical

perspective contradicts the

sense of hope and wonder that

lies at the heart of strange,

but then again, that's the sort

of innovation that makes MTV so

cutting-edge.

 

[Illustration of an argument between a conservative, yuppy-looking cartoon, and a tatooed, alternative one.]

And, of course, by eliminating

the truly bizarre or impossible

to explain, Oddville extends the

marketability of strange even

further. Documentaries like

Wonderland, which looks at the

more peculiar aspects of the

just-add-people culture of

famous planned community

Levittown, and events like the

SF Cacophony Society's field

trip to a San Francisco

burbclave suggest the potential

of this process: By viewing the

suburbs through the ironic

perspective of strange, urban

hipsters are allowed to

re-embrace the comforting

conformities of their

tract-house childhoods without

impinging on their carefully

purchased coolness. "Same Old

Universe" lacks the sexy snap

that makes for good marketing,

but what TV programmer would

deny the efficacy of its

premise?



courtesy of St. Huck
 
 
 

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