November 30, 2008

Back to Basics

Dear friends and other patient readers,

Despite appearances, I'm working on part 3 of my series on the deceptiveness of communication. I'm trying to whip it into readability, so I can deceive you better.

In the meantime, let me take a moment to remind you all what this website owes its existence to.

Ten years ago this month -- or maybe last month? -- I was out shopping for groceries. The same way I do every ten years. On the way home, I turned on the radio and heard three guys talking about vampires, or snow, or something. They mentioned a couple of area villages where the peasantry was dumbfounded by the vampires and snow.

Soon, I caught on that they were pretending to read fake news items that reflected poorly on the small towns surrounding our community. Naturally, I fell in love.

This radio show was a recent startup on community station 90.1 FM, a replacement for the recently departed "Eclectic Seizure" program. The new show featured three guys doing improv comedy for two hours, with music breaks.

At that point, the show didn't have a name. The hosts dubbed it The Unnamed Comedy Show and solicited suggestions from their audience. After a while they came up with their own name and switched to soliciting milkshakes from their audience.

Which turned out to be the right thing to do. World leaders, take note. You can do better than exchanging food for oil, or blood for oil, or even blood for cookies & OJ. Comedy for milkshakes is the key to our energy future.

As of now, What Jail Is Like has been on the air for ten years, and off the air for eight years. Things can only get better from here.

The What Jail Is Like FAQ has a lot more information on how these comedic radio prodigies conquered our nation's domestic and foreign policy. I'm not here to provide information, just to bear witness.

And post some long-delayed episodes.

The FAQ contains general information about what's in the episodes and how to get them.

These episodes are from the long-ago era of 1999. To give you some idea of how long ago that is, 1999 was before terrorists discovered America. Before they waded ashore and planted the proud banner of exploding airliners across the land. When colors like yellow and orange, and even red, roamed free instead of being brutally enslaved for "terror alerts".

Peaceful natives grew corn and exchanged primitive "emails" -- and even "letters" -- that had yet to replace all vowels with the letter Z. And black gold was almost free for the pumping, although some folk whispered legends of an ancient, forgotten ritual known only as "full service".

Little did they know that full service had not disappeared, but was in full flower in the form of What Jail Is Like.

These particular episodes are pretty timely. For instance, they talk about certain holidays that we share with our distant ancestors of 1999. And the improv-comedy shenanigans are way ahead of their time.

Seriously, I know of no other show like What Jail Is Like. I basically owe whatever sense of humor I have to this show. Every so often I have to go back, listen, and remind myself that giants once walked the earth -- and be thankful that I was there to witness it. I hope you will join me.

April 29, 2007

Things I Love

What I love about film festivals:

I love to watch great, little-known movies. Then, afterward, I love to listen to panel discussions where the writers, directors, producers, critics, and fans exclaim over how amazing it is that no one knows about these movies.

Frequently blamed is the lack of know-how on the part of marketers about how to publicize a film that doesn't fit into a genre. That is -- a film that's not copying a whole series of prior films, which is what a genre is.

Whoever is to blame, when I see these movies I feel like the universe is finally allowing me to glimpse secrets worth knowing.

Another thing I love: festival passes. Not only do I and the rest of the truth-seekers get a brightly-colored piece of plastic to dangle from our necks. We also get a cord to hang the plastic from. What's special about the cords? Well, if they're black and made of cloth-type material, then from the back they look like chokers.

Choker: an unsexy name for a sexy piece of apparel. Basically, chokers are bikinis for necks.

Why is this important for a film fest? Well, when 1600 people are packed into a 1600-seat theater where each seat is designed for someone four feet tall, and those people are packed together for three-plus hours at a stretch, it becomes very important to have something sexy to look at.

What a feeling, to sit with my face a foot behind an attractive young neck with a choker around it. Almost like being back in school, except the slide shows are way cooler.

So that's what I love about film festivals.

What I love about Roger Ebert's film festival:

I love the fact that it happened at all this year. For months, Mr. Ebert's neck has been clothed in a decidedly unsexy brace. He's been in the hospital for most of a year -- first for salivary cancer, then for a number of burst blood vessels. He has had a tracheotomy. He has had part of his jaw removed. He cannot talk. How he eats, God only knows.

He still produced this film festival.

When in the best of health, Roger basically volunteers to be Superman for not less than five days a year. For his annual festival he chooses and introduces fourteen or so films, interviews the guests, conducts morning panels for aspiring filmmakers, and still finds time to hobnob with the hoi-polloi at Steak 'n Shake. I have no idea when he sleeps. Perhaps he doesn't need to, because the movies are his dreams.

Certainly, if the flat expanse of a movie screen was a sovereign country, its own nation -- and who's to say it's not, given that every one of us has longed, at some point in our lives, to emigrate to the dream land we saw advertised on that expanse of silver, to seek a better life, to become the respected and successful citizens we always thought we could be -- then Roger would be the screen's ambassador, its elder statesman: witty, diplomatic, authoritative, loyal.

This year, he could not conduct interviews or panels. But he still attended the festival, selected the films, and through the power of his name attracted guests who otherwise would never have a reason to make any kind of journey to a place like Champaign-Urbana. After this, I have no complaints to make.

Except -- I missed his voice. I missed it in the interviews and introductions. I missed having it inform my thoughts on a movie as I watched it. His voice is almost a separate presence. When he talks about a movie he loves, his voice radiates a thoughtful but unreserved warmth. His voice makes whatever he loves seem deserving of our love too.

His voice wasn't completely absent, though. I could hear bits of it in the delighted voices of the filmmakers who had, often for the first time, seen a large, appreciative audience bask in the movies they had made. I could hear it in the audience, eager to be amazed, to gasp or giggle, to collapse from hours of laughter. I could hear it in the voice of his wife Chaz, who did most of the introductions and many of the interviews, and who seemed to love these movies as much as Roger did.

I could hear it in the stories of the guests. I heard it from Werner Herzog when he explained why he could not explain the dancing chicken at the end of his movie Stroszek -- and then when he went on to talk about how, in one of his past jobs as a parking-lot attendant, he would sometimes set unmanned vehicles circling around and around. I heard it from Joey Lauren Adams as she described how the location of her film Come Early Morning was chosen partly so that her grandmother could bring cookies. I heard it from Jim White, musician, narrator and inspiration for the movie Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, as he talked about how, in the rural South, one is either saved, a criminal, or a golfer.

I could hear it in Roger's own screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was a blast. As Roger said: it was his happening, and it freaked him out.

I could hear it in the gifts that showered down from the stage. In the astonishing ending of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which must be seen on a big screen -- but, I'm guessing, probably never will be again. In the fantastic score for full, live orchestra which accompanied Gloria Swanson's Sadie Thompson. In the music of the band Strawberry Alarm Clock, which provided songs for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and which reunited for the first time in 37 years -- just for Roger's festival. Just imagine: all five guitar players survived, and all were on stage!

I could hear Roger's voice in how, even if I wasn't crazy about a particular movie, it was still a unique experience, different from anything I'd ever seen before or will ever see again.

Every year, Mr. Ebert comes home to Champaign-Urbana, and asks those of us who never left if there is room in our lives for his film festival.

To which I reply, paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut: Mr. Ebert, my life is nothing but room for your film festival.

Here's to a better year for you and yours. See you soon.

January 25, 2004

Rory Revisited

Rory Leahy needs a much better introduction than what I gave him in my last post. So -- Rory Intro, Mach 2.

I met him four years ago, when he was a member of the Penny Dreadful Players. To be more exact, I became acquainted with Rory's work, and then a few months later I met the man himself. His work was a terrific introduction. Art not only speaks for itself. If it's good, it says great things about the artist too.

Rory was incredibly prolific. He never let up. He was a theater-dwelling giant who made the stage toss with his words like the Mongol invasion fleet in the monster waves of the typhoon of 1281.

At that time --three/four years ago, not 1281 -- the Penny Dreadful Players were a close-knit group who were constantly writing, and producing, and starring in each other's work. So I saw Rory doing something cool on a pretty regular basis. I saw him in many places and many guises. From a small turn as Blackbeard on the arm of a woman trying to make her ex-boyfriend jealous; to singing Marc Heiden's words about we'll never be receptive to truth because, well, we can't stop staring at teen celebrity hinders; to exploring the origin of evil as a viable personal philosophy in Turok the Inadequate; to exploring what would happen if Byron and Shelley, those Romantics with outsized appetites for life, rose from the grave with, well -- outsized appetites for life; to writing, producing, directing, and starring in full-length barrages of ideas and human conflict, set in the post-Apocalyptic future and in Evanston, Illinois.

Rory's work is verbal and clever. But the clever words aren't in the service of cleverness itself. His plays are densely populated, and almost every character has a lot to say. His dialogue, I think, is born out of a sense that almost everyone has something to say that's worth listening to. Except the mad scientists, of course.

Now, after ages of being trapped in the belly of the U of I, then cutting his way out and charting a raft for Chicago, he's got a crew together. Once again, his voice booms across the waves, strong and sure. Next month he's producing his play Lysistrata 3000. And he's joined us as the newest member of the What Jail Is Like collective. I couldn't be happier.

For all his work, this is one of Rory's first appearances in the online world. Technically, I've got his website only as far as the larval stage. But his weblog is up and wriggling healthily. And he's got the first two scenes of Lysistrata 3000 online. Take a look when you get a chance.

When I used to go see Rory's plays in Champaign/Urbana, I'd know how good they were by how depressed I was after seeing them. How, I would think, can someone ten years younger than me have such poise and grace, and be so far ahead? And, folks, he's still going. Next month, I look forward to being depressed. Just like old times.