So Many Snowbirds, So Little Freezer Space

One of the things I was happiest to leave behind in Britain were the tourists. Be they rampaging backpackers, knocking out three people every time they turned around, or organised groups of Japanese, frantically photographing “amusing” street entertainers, they were the main reason why going into the center of London was a chore rather than a pleasure. Entire swathes of territory were no-go areas, particularly in the summer, e.g. from Piccadilly Circus, through Leicester Square to Covent Garden, and north to Oxford Street.

Phoenix is nowhere near as much of a tourist destination, lacking much in the way of attractions or history (it was only incorporated in 1881). What it does have going for it, particularly in the winter, is a wonderful climate, and this is what draws in the “snowbirds” – the bane of all locals, and possibly even worse than any tourist, because they actually live here. Well, for four months of the year at least.

These people are the ones too wussy to cope with an Arizonan summer, even with air-conditioning, but come flocking like flies to horse-shit from about Thanksgiving (the end of November) through to Easter – or whenever the temperature goes above 100F. The vast majority are retired, it being much harder for actual working people to take four months off. And the mindset they bring is equally and relentlessly retired – at times, it’s as if the entire state smells of wee.

These estimated 300,000 visitors a year inevitably place a severe burden on every aspect of Arizonan life. Imagine London, with every Premiership team playing at home, and the FA Cup final at Wembley too – every day, for four months. Restaurants, which the rest of the year are quiet and peaceful, suddenly become jammed with shambling geriatric zombies, ordering the senior citizen specials and gumming up the works for those of us with jobs, who are only able to have their breakfasts somewhere near breakfast-time.

Post-offices, banks, supermarkets, doctors – it’s all the same. But it’s on the road that perhaps the worst carnage takes place. All residents know to give cars with out-of-state number plates a wide berth because, put bluntly, they haven’t got a fucking clue. They don’t know where they’re going, half of them can’t see further than the end of the bonnet, and their average speed is a resolute ten miles per hour below the speed limit. “I haven’t had an accident in fifty years,” they’ll say – no, but how many have you caused frustrated drivers behind you?

The comforting thing is that, like locusts and diarrhoea, you know they’ll be gone eventually – well, save the ones who keeled over during a session at Marie Callender’s all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch. Though given how most of them look nearly-dead anyway, not sure how you’d tell the difference. Until then, I guess we’ll just have to grin and bear it, at least until we can sweep past them with a victorious cry of “Go back to Illinoooooooois…”.

Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! The Joy of Jerry Springer

Christmas with the Klan. I’m Pregnant by a Transsexual. Get Your Mitts Off My Man. And not to mention the infamous, I Married a Horse. Ah, there is nothing quite like the American talk show in its finest, most distilled form: The Jerry Springer Show.

I’ve been a fan since first stumbling across the My Teen Worships Satan episode, in a Phoenix hotel back in October 1997. But Springer has been delighting his fans, and appalling everyone else, with a steadily- mix of softcore sex ‘n’ violence, and hardcore freakishness, providing an insight into the shallow end of the gene pool, that horrifies and amuses in equal measure.

We recently rediscovered the show, courtesy of Chris’s mother, who used to sit in the living-room and watch, calling us through for any particularly startling moments. Now, we have a tiny portable screen of our own in the kitchen, and it’s somehow appropriate to watch it in flickery Grey-o-vision. The show’s credits start zooming down a back-street alley, to a trash can with a television set in it… it’s clear Springer isn’t taking himself too seriously.

It seemed a little restrained, compared to what I used to remember, and a comparison with The Best of Jerry Springer tape revealed this not to be mere nostalgia. Though if the violence was trimmed, every other guest took their clothes off instead, usually for no readily apparent reason. And, in a lot of cases, you would be looking for severe and detailed explanation to justify seeing these citizens in the flesh.

As the photo (right) shows, it hasn’t always been so: back when the show started in September 1991, Jerry was just another talking-head. It was only really when executive producer Richard Dominick came on board in 1994, that the direction changed, and things gradually evolved from there. The show is a cocktail of multiple ingredients, without which, while it would still work, the taste would be that much poorer.

  • Jerry Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati, who once paid a prostitute with a rubber cheque, is the perfect host for this kind of show. He knows when to lob in one of his barbed comments and, remarkably for a talk-host, when to shut up.
  • Steve – the bald security chief – came on board as a one-off for a KKK episode when trouble was feared. The Chicago cop (who still pounds the beat!) has become a cult icon himself, even cameoing on The Simpsons.
  • The Audience have become a Greek chorus with their various chants for all occasions. Whether it’s a simple “Je-rry, Je-rry…” or the ever-popular “We Love Lesbians!”, they’re a group never shy to voice their feelings, much like a WWF crowd.

Speaking of wrestling, the question of fakery has to be addressed – though personally, it’s no more relevant to my enjoyment of the show than whether The Rock and Steve Austin really are mortal enemies or not. The lines are more blurred on Jerry, however. While rival channels irregularly reveal guests who are not what they claim (“I was [supposed to] be with someone for two and a half years and I was cheating on him with my photographer. I didn’t even know the two guys.”), there certainly are some real guests involved. In July 2000, only hours after the broadcast of an episode entitled Secret Mistresses Confronted, the body of one participant was found in Florida. Another guest, the victim’s former husband is currently in jail awaiting trial for her murder. If this is fake, it’s pretty convincing.

Great Springer Episode Titles

  • I Gave Myself an Abortion
  • Dwarves are People Too
  • Dads Who Hate Barney
  • I Got My Mom Off Crack
  • You Look Like a Freak
  • I’m a Breeder for the Klan
  • You’re Too Fat to Make Porn
  • Lesbian Cousins in Love
  • Honey, I’m Really a Guy!
  • My Parrot Runs My Life

This kind of escapade is why the show represents something of a dilemma for Jerry’s masters at Studios USA, the company that produces and distributes the show. On the one hand, it is a major cash-cow for them, bringing in an estimated $30-40 million per year. Springer even did what no other talk-show in the 90’s managed – he dethroned Empress Oprah from her position atop the ratings, even in previously untouchable demographic groups, such as the prized “women, 18-34” category.

On the other hand, its controversial nature and ability to attract criticism has proved an embarrassment, particularly to head honcho Barry Diller (though hard to see how the man who also owns QVC and the Home Shopping Network could really complain about quality). In April 1998, they vowed to “eliminate all physical violence from the series”, and in May 1999, they said, “We will produce and distribute a program that we feel is responsible – no violence, physical confrontation or profanity.”

The month after the latter statement, they even started shopping the show around to other distributors, hoping to offload what they perhaps say as an embarrassing member of the family. In the end, however, they held onto the show, and though ratings dropped, it now remains a steady #2 behind the Book Club Queen, and is still vastly entertaining.

Though the glory days of I Married A Horse – their never-aired bestiality special from May 1998 – are now perhaps behind it, even in this (slightly!) toned-down version, the show still remains a glimpse into bizarre corners of Americana. Despite what scarily bland shows like Friends would have you think, to quote Richard Dominick, “Life isn’t just a bunch of white, middle-class people living in the city.” For reminding us of this, Jerry Springer and his team can only be applauded.

Call of the Riled

I had a nicely whiny editorial all written, about the ineptness of PayPal and AOL – but then I thought, “You don’t need to hear me complaining about life again”. So, here’s guest columnist Emily Fata to complain about life instead…

A little background first. She has been after us to buy her a cellphone for a while. Precisely why she needs one – apart from the obvious one that ‘all her friends have one’ (a fact open to some dispute, actually) – has yet to be established. But we said that if she worked to pay for it (two hours, twice a week – and work is a loose term, encompassing whining, moaning and complaining about work as well as actually productive and gainful employment), she could have it.

This, however, proved too much for her to cope with – particularly when put alongside shopping at the mall, hanging out with her friends, and so on. The following was received by Chris and I as her letter of resignation – we feel sure she has a great future in front of her, perhaps as a trial lawyer, a diplomat or an enforcer for a loan-shark, guilt-tripping debtors into paying up… Who’d be a parent? 🙂

2001: Cinematic Hits and Misses – The Year We Didn’t Make Contact…

Another year draws to a close, and so while there may be no obelisks on the Moon, that does mean it’s time to inflict another top 10 list on you. I make no claim to have seen every film released during the year, so this is obviously not going to be comprehensive…but I strongly suspect that few of those I didn’t see, would have a snowball’s chance of making it onto here. This is the major benefit of being a non-professional critic – I don’t need to sit through the dreck.

Mind you, even allowing for an informed selection, there were still a number of films which were endured rather than enjoyed. This was particularly true of the multiplex where, especially in the first half of the year, it seemed that the wider the release, the suckier the movie. Comparing it to last year, where even the Oscars showed more taste than usual, it was pretty depressing, and I make no apologies for the fact that you probably haven’t heard of half the films in the list, never mind seeing them.

The sad fact is, the odds are that I probably won’t get to see a number of them again either. Five of the ten were seen at film festivals, and only one has actually managed to acquire any kind of distribution since. The advent of digital video has only added weight to the argument which says that anyone can make a movie – but getting it seen by the rest of the population remains a nightmare. It’s possible that with the Internet, distribution will become possible, but the slow growth of broadband, and the problems of getting paid, remain tricky curves on that road. However, for one film on the list, the Internet is the main source of income and sales, pending a general distribution agreement, and this might point the way forward.

The Internet also allowed us to see films I didn’t want to actually pay to see, and it was refreshing to discover that my critical faculties were as sharp as ever. The worst movie of the year goes to Rush Hour 2, for being not just dull, but actively aggravating, with Chris Tucker a fabulous poster child for the KKK. The most over-rated film of the year also reached us down the cable modem: Shrek, a painfully obvious and startlingly unoriginal (oh, look – a Matrix parody) mish-mash of fairy tales and political correctness. Can anyone explain its appeal?

Disappointments came in the form of the two computer game films, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy. Spots for both were being polished up in the top 10, but neither of them remembered that no matter how good you look, you still need a storyline to hang your imagery off. I still like both films, but neither came up to my expectations and hopes.

Onto the brighter side. It was a delight to see both Iron Monkey and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust on the big screen – if the former was really a 2001 movie, it would have been in the top 10, and we can only hope for more of the same in 2002. The re-release of Holy Grail was just what was needed after the events of Sept.11, while Ben Kingsley (or Sir Ben as we must now call him) provided perhaps the most memorable performance of the year in Sexy Beast.

Things also perked up considerably towards the end of the year, with a couple of reasons to make you want to go back to the cinema and eat popcorn. Say what you like, Harry Potter proved you don’t need big American stars to make an engaging film, when you’ve got a good source…and the author hovering over you a hawk! And so, without further ado, here are the top 10 in reverse order, based on the ratings given at the time (more or less!):

#10 – Ginger Snaps. This one just scraped in, displacing Snatch after a watch-off determined it to be the best lycanthrope film since American Werewolf, combining black humour and a good old-fashioned monster movie to great effect.

#9 – 90 Miles. A genuinely touching documentary depicting the life of one man, and his return to his native land. We liked it so much, Chris subsequently worked tirelessly to bring the film and its director to Phoenix – and its impact on me was not much less.

#8 – Revolution #9. An excellent recreation of one man’s descent into paranoia and madness, highlighted by an amazing performance from Michael Risley. He manages to make you feel both sympathetic for, and scared of him, at the same time.

#7 – Cradle of Fear. You’ll be hearing more about this one shortly, but in a year when the peak of horror was Anthony Hopkins eating brains, this was a fabulous breath of foul, blood-spattered and morally upstanding air which made me proud to be British. Pass the six-pack!

#6 – Memento. Undoubted winner of any best script award, this demanded more attention when watching it than any other movie. Beautifully precise, this demands immediate repeat viewing, and will hopefully be just as solid next time.

#5 – Boys From Madrid. A road-movie that gradually slides into a quest for redemption, before an ultimate revelation that makes for the most disturbing viewing of the year. I need a shower just remembering it.

#4 – Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (left). Who’d have thought that the man would go from splatter movies to the most beloved book of the century? And do so almost faultlessly, too, recreating Middle Earth and all its inhabitants to perfection. $300m well spent.

#3 – Versus. Possessing more raw energy and invention than any other movie, this one kept a smile on our faces for two solid hours. We laughed, we cheered, we said, “Fuck me! Rewind that!” A tiny budget, yet full of vim and vigour; this is what cinema is about.

#2 – Monsters Inc.. Call me a softie. Call me a sap. But you know what – I don’t care. This was the only film we paid to see twice at the cinema, and we loved every minute of it on both occasions. Fabulous story, fabulous characters, flawless execution, and perfect timing, both comedic and dramatic.

#1 – Ever Since the World Ended. You know a film is obscure when a Google search for the title has the TC review as the first entry. Regardless, it’s a great twist on the pseudo-documentary entry, and is both spooky and eerily plausible. If ever a movie deserved broader circulation, this is it – ‘cos if nothing else, I want to see it for a second time…