Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Testing Post

An exercise in imagination
NPR Promo Poster
NPR Poster
Another Saturday come and gone, another new Star Wars collectible has found a home on my shelf.  The last few yard sales have produced some interesting items, perhaps none more so than the Star Wars radio dramas on cassette. Although I've seen the movies countless times, I never had the opportunity to experience them in this format.  After the runaway success of Star Wars in 1977, director George Lucas gave away the rights to produce a dramatized audio version of the movie to his alma mater's public radio affiliate, KUSC-FM.  Science fiction writer Brian Daley was given the arduous task of expanding the two hour special effects-driven film into a six hour, 13 part radio serial.
 A team of talented voice actors was assembled to bring the story to life, including original cast members Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels.  Lucas also gave the producers permission to use John William's classic score and Ben Burtt's Oscar-winning sound effects.  Sound engineer Tom Voegeli would spend months melding the three elements together. Released in 1981, the initial broadcast was a runaway smash, with 750,000 tuning in and NPR listenership spiking 40%*.  The Empire Strikes Back was given similar treatment in 1986, when cast member Billy Dee Williams joined the mix.  In 1996, HighBridge audio (who purchased the rights to the first two) produced Return of the Jedi, completing the trilogy.

I was fortunate to land all three dramas on cassette, and I've been listening to them on my ride to and from work the past few weeks.  I'll admit listening to Star Wars without seeing the signature visuals takes some getting used to. Many of the characters' voices and dialogue are different, and certain scenes have been shifted to accommodate the radio serial format. A childhood spent endlessly watching these films on VHS have left an indelible mark, making it difficult to let go of each actor's unique vocal inflections and delivery.  If put to the test, I could probably recite 80% of the movie's dialogue.  That type of conditioning is difficult to break.  You have to listen to a few episodes before you finally began to relax your ears.  Once you do, your mind is anxious to fill in the details with its own imagery.

I listened to The Empire Strikes Back first (my favorite film of the series).  The narrative changes focus by expanding on the rebel's occupation and eventual exodus from Hoth; included are exchanges between Han and Luke before their rescue as well as Luke's 'promotion' to the head of Rogue Squadron.  In fact, so much time is spent expanding on the first third of the film that the drama is forced to gloss over the emotional 'meat' of the story, namely the burgeoning love affair between Han and Leia and Luke's Jedi training.  In particular, actors Perry King and Ann Sachs do a competent job of voicing Han Solo and Princess Leia, but they have little time to develop the chemistry necessary to make us believe the princess has fallen for the pirate. Likewise, John Lithgow does a surprisingly good impression of Yoda, but it's difficult (and sometimes even comical) to describe the force.  In the end, the program is interesting but feels somewhat derivative.

By contrast, the radio drama of Star Wars is something wholly original.  Perhaps because the first narrative was so tight, the drama's 13 episodes have plenty of time to expand on the characters. Luke, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 are all flushed out in greater detail, providing us with the reasons behind their motivation. Luke comes across less like a restless farm boy and more like a young man caught between family obligations and his own destiny.  The actions that lead to Leia joining the rebellion are also described, giving her character a certain vulnerability missing from the film.  The Darth Vader torture sequence aboard the Death Star is particularly gut-wrenching, far too visceral for a movie aimed at children. 

In total, these changes make the story feel richer and help the audience connect with the characters on a deeper level.  After listening to the drama, I can say I have a renewed appreciation for the film.  I strongly recommend them to any Star Wars fan, casual or otherwise.  The tag line used to originally promote the broadcast, “wait until you hear it”, is apt in this case.

Fun Fact: The director of the first two entries in the series, John Madden, would later go on to direct Oscar Winner Shakespeare in Love.

Stats taken from Star Wars. HighBridge Audio. http://www.highbridgeaudio.com/starwars.html

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Another Man's Trash

I collect sports cards and have been doing so in some fashion my entire life.  The fact that local hobby shops still exist and annual card shows draw a crowd would lead you to believe the hobby is healthy.  Try to find that hobby shop or attend that card show, however and you'll find dwindling attendance and a noticeable lack of new product.  The major players in card manufacturing have gobbled up their competitors and secured sport-exclusive license deals (Topps has baseball, while Panini has basketball).  Like it or not, these monopolies exist as a result of the card boom and subsequent market crash of the early to mid-1990s.  Back then, it was a sellers’ market; buyers motivated by speculation began to scout draft classes for the next Ken Griffey, Jr., Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky.  They paid premium prices on packs for a chance to land a hot rookie or a randomly inserted card sporting an autograph or memorabilia. Dozens of companies printed millions of cards, severely saturating the market.  Without scarcity, the cards became practically worthless.  The 1994-1995baseball strike and NHL lockout did little to help matters, either.  Collectors became jaded as the hobby introduced redemption cards (IOUs from athletes who did not sign their cards in time for insertion). Casual fans, who were buying cards by the truckload, became disinterested and stopped collecting.  Manufacturers went bankrupt or consolidated and hundreds of card shops around the country closed their doors forever. 

Today, the hobby is a shadow of its former self.  Hobby shops are limited in number and operate on banker's hours.  Card shows focus on consignments, grading and autograph sessions instead of selling boxed product.  The manufacturers left are shrewd, separating their limited product lines into low, middle and high-end.  The majority of adult collectors in the top two tiers "bust" boxes or cases for the chance at a handful of inserts or rookie cards. When it comes to today's sports card collector, it's less about the sport and more about ROI. 

It's not all doom and gloom, however.  Manufacturers managed to keep kids interested by introducing gaming elements into their lines (e.g. Topps Attax® , Panini Adrenalyn®).  They also keep prices low so children (and their parents) can afford them.  Although technology and the Internet has an upper hand on today's youth, there are still plenty of kids excited about playing sports and following their favorite pro athletes. The ideals the hobby was founded on are still around; you just have to look harder to find them.  Here's a prime example.

While my wife and were still dating in college, she would go yard-saling and try to find things for me that I was interested in.  One particular Saturday, she proudly came back to school with a few dusty binders full of old football cards.  I wasn't particularly interested in card collecting at the time, and the cards were mass-produced and in rough shape.  It pains me to say it, but I wasn't very grateful.  Instead of taking it to heart and tossing them, however, she decided to keep them herself, storing them in her parent's attic.

Flash forward eight years, and my wife and I share a home of our own.  Her parents, anxious to clean out that attic, dropped off my wife's childhood on our doorstep. Amid a sea of old stuffed animals, knick-knacks and books, I noticed the binders I blew off years earlier.  I flipped through the pages again looking for cards of note.  Unfortunately, my initial suspicions years earlier were confirmed; the books have little monetary value.  I quickly put them on the shelf and waited for a chance to get rid of them for good.  A few weeks ago, I got ambitious and put the cards into the trunk of our car.  I soon forgot about them, and it wasn't until my wife sent a text to ask if she could give them away to her co-worker's son that I remembered again.  Busy at work, I told her to go ahead.  

The following day, I got another text from her.  It read as follows:

"You made a little kid very, very happy...he was so excited, he couldn't sleep.  He spent all night picking out cards in his room and telling (his parents) all the stats he knew for the player.  He said he doesn't need anything else for his birthday."

It turns out her co-worker gave her son the binders the night before his birthday.  He spent hours poring over the cards and reading stat lines from the players he knew.  In just one night, he had more fun with those cards that I've ever had with my meticulously organized binders of prized rookie cards and autographs.  Here was something I was anxious to get rid of, and yet it made a child so happy and content that he was willing to forgo his birthday presents. I realized then I'd forgotten what the hobby was all about: celebrating our heroes and their athletic accomplishments.   Suddenly, memories of my childhood came flooding back.  I remembered back to when my father's co-worker gave me a set of dog-eared Donruss baseball cards (my first ones) when I was about five.  I cherished those cards, reading the words on the back that I could make out to anyone who would listen.  That simple gesture started a lifelong interest in the hobby and the sport of baseball itself that continues to this day.  Somewhere along the way, however, I became a speculator; I can see now I treat the hobby as a marketplace and the cards as a commodity.  The passion for the sport and its players has slowly disappeared.  I don't even remember the day I stopped collecting baseball cards altogether and choose football instead, but I do know why (the quick maturation rate of their rookie card values).  In the end, I gave up something I cared about simply because it wasn't worth enough.    But all hobbies share one thing in the common; their true value cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

After hearing about that boys' reaction, I can take solace in the fact that the spirit of the hobby is still alive and well.  Now I need to tap into some of that spirit inside me, if there's any left.  I think the first step is to spend less time thinking like an investor and more about what created my drive to collect in the first place: a genuine love of the game. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

When Christmas Goes Pop

Album Cover
Perhaps it's the sweltering heat of late Spring/early Summer here in the Northeastern US that has me longing for cold, crisp December days.  Whatever the catalyst, I made an impulse buy a few Saturdays ago when I saw a shiny red Christmas album sitting in the milk crate of a church community yard sale.  As I mentioned before, yard and rummage sales are notorious for poor vinyl (both in condition and taste). There are usually plenty of holiday-themed albums from famous crooners like Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Andy Williams, but I rarely feel compelled to buy.  In this case, however, I decided to make an exception.  The album in question, A Very Special Christmas, is a compilation of Christmas songs recorded in 1987 to benefit the Special Olympics.  The brainchild of record producer and current A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine and his ex-wife Vicky (a former model and bestselling author), the album and its successors have earned over $100 million for the disabled children’s’ charity.  Here are four reasons why I couldn't pass it up:

The Artists
With artists like Madonna, Sting, the Pointer Sisters and the Eurhythmics (just to name a few), the album is a veritable who’s-who of 80's pop.  The majority of the contributors were peaking or at the height of their fame when the record was released.  To help put it in perspective, here are some highlights from 1987:

·         Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet becomes the top selling album of the year.
·         U2 releases Joshua Tree in March, catapulting the band to superstardom.  The record would later take home the Grammy for album of the year.
·         Whitney Houston's Whitney produces 4 chart topping singles, including “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “Didn't We Almost Have It All” on its way to 9x platinum.
·         Sting's Nothing Like the Sun, featuring “Englishman in New York”, legitimizes his solo efforts after the breakup of the Police and a lackluster movie career.  It would go double platinum.
·         Madonna kicks off the Who's that Girl World Tour, fresh off the success of True Blue.  Ironically, Madonna and actor Sean Penn would file for divorce in December.

The Songs
Outside of the artists themselves, many of the songs have gone on to become timeless holiday classics, perhaps none more so than Madonna's playful take on Eartha Kitt's previously sultry Santa Baby.  See if you can spot some of your favorites from this track list:

1. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town - The Pointer Sisters
2. Winter Wonderland - Eurythmics
3. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
4. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - The Pretenders
6. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Cougar Mellencamp
7. Gabriel's Message - Sting
8. Christmas in Hollis - Run–D.M.C.
9. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
10. Santa Baby - Madonna
11. The Little Drummer Boy - Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
12. Run Rudolph Run - Bryan Adams
13. Back Door Santa - Bon Jovi
14. The Coventry Carol - Alison Moyet
15. Silent Night - Stevie Nicks

The Cover Art

Pop artist Keith Haring, whose distinctive designs caught the eye of the international art world and earned him critical acclaim before his death of AIDS in 1990, illustrated the album cover. The playful gold lettering and messianic imagery is in perfect contrast to the stunning red background.  Fortunately, my album jacket is in excellent shape.

Perhaps it's my sentimentality toward 1980s popular culture, but the infamous ‘Me’ decade certainly made altruism and philanthropy chic.  Who can forget Band Aid, Live Aid or Farm Aid, which brought together musical acts to raise money for various causes (e.g. the depressed American farm industry or the Ethiopian famine in Africa)?  There's something to be said for celebrities taking time away from globe- trotting and self-promotion to donate their time and effort to charity. It is both touching and somewhat artificial, which I guess can be said about the decade itself.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What it means to be human...

In a quest to find meaning in the action figures piled neatly in the closet, it's inevitable that you come across details you did not expect.  For example, here's a question that held little meaning until a few days ago:

What do Sue Richards (the Invisible Woman), Daredevil and the US Agent all have in common?

If you said all three are Marvel comic book heroes, you wouldn't be wrong.  I imagine you would be hard-pressed to link them together in some another way, however (aside from some obscure issue perhaps).  Sue is part of the Fantastic Four, wife to stretchy scientist Reed Richards and sister to the Human Torch (the Partridge family of the Marvel Universe). Daredevil, the man without fear, is more of a self-made hero (along the lines of Batman), who relies on his heightened senses and martial arts to fight crime.  US Agent is a veritable clone of Captain America, who spends his time moving from team to team trying to find his own identity.   Although all three characters have called New York City home at some point, what makes them truly special is how the US Customs Service views them: as human beings.

Although obviously not literal, that distinction was at the heart of a landmark trade case pitting former toy manufacturer Toy Biz (now Marvel Toys) against the United States for reparation of import taxes. Without boring you with too many details (click here to read them), here's a brief summary of both Toy Biz and the case itself:

The comic book explosion and speculative market of the early 90s made anything superhero-related a hot commodity.  Issues of X-men, Spiderman, Superman and Batman were being printed and collected by the millions, and publishers were quick to license their properties to other media. Toy Biz, a former subsidiary of Canadian licensor Charan Industries, managed to secure royalty-free license rights to Marvel's stable of characters in exchange for a large chunk of their equity. Investor Isaac Pearlmutter then restructured the company, bringing in spend-thrift CEO Joseph Ahern to outsource manufacturing to China and cut costs to improve margins.  Avid Arad (who was busy overseeing Marvel's animation division at the time) came onboard to form an unholy marketing juggernaut: the popular Saturday morning cartoons become vehicles to market new Marvel characters (and their action figure counterparts).  Profits skyrocket as a result, opening the door to additional properties (owned by former board chairmen Ron Perelman) including Hercules/Xena, NASCAR and even candy and learning aids.
Not surprisingly, the good times came to an end when the comic book bubble burst.  Oversaturation coupled with waning public interest forced Marvel to file for bankruptcy in 1996.  Various attempts at investor takeovers were thwarted as Toy Biz merged with Marvel Entertainment to force Marvel Enterprises.  Avi Arad took the reins of the newly minted Marvel Studios, and was given the go ahead to pursue film opportunities.  Their first licensed film, Blade, became a sleeper hit in 1998, and the rest is history.

Getting back to the court case, US customs officials classified the action figures that came over from China as dolls, possessing human qualities.  This effectively doubled the tariff rate (12%); robots and monster toys are generally classified as other, taxable at 6.9%.  If you consider the millions of toys that were imported between 1994-2003 (when the judgment was finally handed down), that's a considerable sum of money.  Toy Biz argued the Marvel characters possessed nonhuman qualities (e.g. tentacles, claws, wings, etc.).  Further, they stipulated these features effectively made them animals or non-human creatures  and were therefore not classifiable as dolls.  After studying 60+ figures, judge Judith Barzilay sided with Toy Biz.  Toy Biz was a division of Marvel, so this resulted in a public outcry from fans (who found humanity to be a central theme among Marvel superheroes).

So what makes the aforementioned heroes so special?  During the proceedings, both sides effectively gave each other 'gimmes': Beast and Robot Wolverine were obviously nonhuman, while characters like Sue Richards, Daredevil, Punisher and US Agent were unquestionably human (and therefore subject to the higher tax rate).  Looking at the toys now, it's weird to think they cost Toy Biz more to distribute. The figures themselves are diminutive: not quite as small as a GI Joe or Star Wars figure, but certainly not large, either.  They are painted simply in muted primary colors, and their accessories are limited.  The US Agent is even a repaint of Captain America (the star is clearly visible on his chest). To think these figures were a staple in many a millennials' toy collection is impressive.  I admit my first toy was the brown and yellow suit Wolverine (with slashing claws that were spring-loaded).   My inner child smiles a little now that I know the US government considers him an animal. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fun with Laserdisc

For those of you that don't take part in the weekly Saturday morning ritual known as yard saling, you may not know the staples that seem to be on everyone's lawn.  Without fail, there's always old books, usually old bestsellers and self-help guides, but sometimes a few hidden gems (I found Harlan Ellison's The Book of Ellison* under some children's books at a church rummage sale a few weeks back).  Glass vases and other faded knick-knacks are also present, plastered with bright orange and pink stickers that say 25 cents or 1 dollar.  Used toys and baby clothes are regularly on display, with young mothers sometimes having whole tables covered in miniature one-piece sundresses, tiny winter jackets and blue corduroy overalls.  Sometimes even used tools or dusty electronics equipment (think old tube TVs) make it out there, if the man (or woman) of the house is feeling ambitious. 
The one item that's almost always there is the milk crate full of old, worn record albums.  Rarely is there a time when I don't flip through the stacks, although it's usually mostly junk (everyone likes Neil Diamond and Fleetwood Mac, it seems).  Sometimes, however, the stack surprises you.  That was my experience last weekend when I wandered over to that familiar bin and noticed it was full of something I didn't expect...laserdiscs. 

For those that are unfamiliar, the laserdisc was the first optical disc video format commercially available in the US (1978)**. Competing with other home video formats of the time (Betamax and VHS), it offered almost double the resolution of tape (420 vs. 250 lines) with unique features like random access, slow motion and freeze frame.  Unfortunately, the disc's unwieldy size (nearly 12" in diameter, 3x that of a CD), expensive media, limited retail support and lack of recording ability doomed the format.  Perhaps the initial name, DiscoVision, didn't help matters, either.  Whatever the case, laserdisc was not a commercial success (at least here in the states), but it proved to be an effective catalyst for the burgeoning niche market of home theater enthusiasts (there was no such thing before laserdisc). Further, movie extras now common place on DVD and Blu-Ray (e.g. trailers, deleted scenes, production artwork and director's commentaries) first appeared on laserdiscs.

As a fan of old, defunct technologies, I happen to have a laserdisc player.  That box of laserdiscs was full of treasures (Criterion collector versions of Snow White, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dracula and Ghostbusters), so it's little surprise that I bought everything they had ($15 for the lot).  After a quick trip up the attic steps to retrieve the player, and another five minutes hooking it up to the 42" plasma, I've been watching the movies ever since.  I'll cover the Criterion discs in a later post, but I wanted to mention my experience with the first movie I watched, Fantasia.  A stereo extended play release, it doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the later deluxe CAV version, but it does have Dolby digital surround sound.  I mention this because the audio mix was superb, much better than I expected.  If you haven't seen Fantasia, it's chock full of classical masterpieces (Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Schubert all make appearances) that provide dramatic background for the stunning animation which can only be described as ahead of its time.  The letterbox picture was warm and muted (hallmarks of an analog transfer), so detail was not razor sharp as it is in high definition playback. There was also a fair amount of crosstalk (laserdiscs tracks were layered in such a way that artifacts from one would be visible in another).  That said, it was still a treat to watch and listen to the movie in this format.  I didn't even mind flipping/changing the discs every forty minutes or so (a necessity with my player).   I look forward to checking out the other discs.
*If you're not an avid reader of science fiction, the name Harlan Ellison may not mean a whole lot.  If you are acquainted with any of his over 1000 works of fiction and non-fiction, however (from short stories to teleplays), you'll know he is a prominent figure in the genre.  Ironic to this post, he was once hired as a writer for Walt Disney Studios but was let go after just one day (he was caught aimlessly wandering the halls, tightening loose screws with a screwdriver).

**When laserdisc first went on sale in a few Atlanta test stores on December 15th, 1978 (known back then as MCA DiscoVision), the first title available (and the one used to demo the system) was Jaws.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Every Closet Has a Door...

There's a sense of irony knowing the impulse to start up a blog about the various pop culture treasures I keep hidden away in my closet is somehow connected to my latest yard sale haul.  The office floor is now littered with carded action figures, old children's books, DVDs, laserdiscs, etc., and it's painfully obvious how impossible it will be to fit it all without some serious reorganization.   It's not often that I try to deconstruct why I spend so much time trying to reclaim these lost items from my childhood, or why I find it so therapeutic to slide open the door and spend time with them. Now that my closet is overflowing physically, however, I suddenly feel the urge to express my feelings about it emotionally. 

The underlying motivations have always felt innocent and pure.  This hobby, if you could call it that, has proven to be a form of escapism not entirely socially accepted but one relatively free of guilt or risk.  An obsessive person in the most general sense, I do not spend the time others do digging deep into any one area; in fact, people who read comics religiously, unpack and play with their toys or invest hours of time into the latest video game scare me a little.  This is not passing judgment; there's a dedication there I find admirable.  I simply cannot find in me the dedication to invest that much time and energy into any one area, opting instead for a broader focus.

It is this broader focus that keeps me coming back to Ebay, flea markets, and yard sales every week.  I never have one specific thing in mind, and it can appear at first glance that my interest is fast and fleeting.  It has proven over time to be cyclical, however, as the desire for these objects never truly wane.  If anything, there are external factors that happen to be seasonal (e.g. the start and end of various sports seasons, the summertime movie schedule, various monthly/annual comic and card shows, etc.). Dedication at any level requires some level of investment, and these events provide the impetus to become excited again.

Of all the times in the year,  it is perhaps these first few weeks of May that are the most exciting.  There's a new potential blockbuster in theaters each week, similar to the high concept films of my youth.  The bright, sunny weather prompts people to throw open their garages, dust off their wares and pile them onto their front lawns for sale.  Baseball season is in full swing, and fans are excited to bust the latest wax.  It is this air of renewed spirit that motivates me now.

Although the excitement is primal, my interest in the toys, comic books, sports cards, movies and music of my youth is deconstructive (hence the blog's title).  For those that don't know, deconstruction is a school of philosophic thought centered around the principle that words and ideas only have meaning in context, and that meaning is often personal to the reader.  Simply put, a word cannot be truly understood until it means something to you, and it can hold different meanings for different people (particularly the author who wrote it or the person who said it aloud).  Therefore, consider this to be a blog about three key areas when it comes to collectables:

The Factual- The specifics of a particular item that can be referenced (e.g. the stars in a movie or the value of a comic book).  Sometimes reading facts can be interesting because we share an emotion connection with the item itself without further analysis or insight.  For example, I don't need to know anything about the box office success or cultural significance of the movie E.T. to know I saw it at an early age with my aunt.  Simply reading about it is enough to trigger a memory and re-forge that positive connection.

The Trivial- The technical, economic and sociocultural factors that make something enjoyable by a large audience and our appreciation timeless.  The story of how E.T.'s production team decided on Hershey's Reese's Pieces in lieu of Mars M&Ms to is an interesting anecdote that somehow makes you want to do two things: watch the movie again and eat chocolate and peanut butter candies.   I love researching and reading these stories, as they provide the context I need to understand why a film (or book, card, toy or song) is as important to others as it is to me.

The Psychological- Identifying the root causes of why we like what we like, investigating the underpinnings that motivate us to seek something out after years away from it.  Why do memories of past action motivate us to future action?

To start things off, I'm going to blog about the items I landed in this latest haul, listing what they are, how they came to be, and why they remain significant.  My hope is this journey will be a fruitful one of self-discovery, and I welcome you along.