Archive for the 'At the Movies' Category

Yacht Rock Redux

December 23, 2006


Shortly after Channel 101* viewers voted to cancel Yacht Rock following a subpar episode where the Eagles terrorize Steely Dan, a screening of the entire Yacht Rock series packed the Empty Bottle. Writer/director JD Ryznar and four of his cohorts introduced the screening and promised that they would unveil Episode 11 not on the Internet but at Chicago’s own Dark Room in September.

Episode 11 never materialized, although Ryznar began to host events in cities all over the country, screening the shows to rapt audiences. In Austin, a local band called Captain Smooth even covered Yacht Rock tunes “flawlessly,” as Ryznar told me on the phone.

All this excitement for late ‘70s/early ‘80s soft rock seems to have been conjured out of nowhere by the show. Maybe Yacht Rock has catalyzed an Internet-based retro phenomenon, and that Ryznar is doing for Kenny Loggins et al. what Lawrence Kasdan did to Motown when The Big Chill sparked nostalgia for the ‘60s. But that seems unlikely. Tonight’s Empty Bottle event has tagged on glam-rocker Bobby Conn and noisy Fashion Dictator, a far cry from the smooth sounds of Toto or Christopher Cross.

No, what Yacht Rock offers is not mere tributes to artists already bedecked with gold records and Grammys, it’s genuine insight into the creative process and the mysteries by which a handful of hysterical personalities can produce works of genius. Now, if Ryznar and crew would finish basking in their success, get the sack of mustaches back out and get the camera rolling again!

*Channel 101 is an Internet television site that shares five-minute episodes of shows for free, mostly produced by L.A.-based artists. The most popular shows run “prime time,” while failures are “cancelled,” but any show that garners approval from the panel of judges is available for free download. The shows lack the polish of professional TV but make up for it with home-movie style enthusiasm and wacky premises.


Yacht Rock: The Legacy

December 23, 2006


Rampant are the personal mythologies about your favorite showbiz icons. It doesn’t stop at VH1 nostalgia trips—you even see whole feature films dedicated to aggrandizing stars by giving them important struggles to overcome on the road to vast material wealth, e.g. 8 Mile or Get Rich or Die Tryin’. How delicious to see so much rich historical detail in mythologies not about contemporary rappers but instead obsolete soft-rockers.

The Yacht Rock team had minimal wherewithal to make their Internet TV shows, but the no-budget style has plenty of appeal. In Los Angeles, it must not be hard to find the necessities for five-minute Internet TV programs: a camera, a crew of enthusiastic and underemployed actors, a brilliant editor (Lane Farnham), and a sackful of fake mustaches. Yacht Rock drops some zany storytelling while probing the pop music most often found in the dollar bin of record stores. Its heroes are Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Toto and Christopher Cross.

As cheeky as the program may be, it conveys realistic ideas about communities of artists and how they form a style. Competition within their ranks, like the spat between Loggins and McDonald, yields to better and more refined output, a honing of what it means to Yacht Rock. They are also pushed to heights by outside challenges, like Steve Porcaro’s attempt to woo Rosanna Arquette (Episode 3), and from Hall & Oates (a geographic/class-oriented rivalry), and Van Halen and the Eagles, whose antagonism derives from their clashing sounds. Hard rock is presented as the main challenge to smooth music, and the two camps define themselves in relation to one another, while constantly flirting with the barrier that divides the two genres. The artists connive and fret about their success, and in dizzying sequences of brilliant productivity, give birth to beautiful creations like Michael Jackson’s “Believe In It” and the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes.”

The two camps employ supernatural means to thwart each other, first when Michael Jackson has “the smooth spooked into him” in Episode 5, and then in Episode 9 when David Lee Roth hypnotizes Ted Templeman and shows him visions of a harpooned Koko Goldstein (Episode 9).

A powerful actor in the creation of smooth music is the producer. Ted Templeman is perceived to have committed a horrible betrayal when he agrees to produce hard-rocking Van Halen. The producer imbues raw music with qualities of hardness or smoothness, and thus catalyzes the greatness of authentic Yacht Rock.

Even the smallest taste of smoothness can fill the characters with appreciation, as when Michael McDonald hands Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of the Doobie Brothers the sheet music for his new song “What a Fool Believes” (Episode 1). Skunk takes one look at the music and nods with satisfaction.

It’s this relentless pacing and sharp editing that helps Yacht Rock tack into the wind. Narratives overlap, characters are fleshed out, feuds arise and get put to bed in episodes that only last five minutes. Yacht Rock moves at the pace of animated sitcoms like The Simpsons.

Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation

November 11, 2006

Last Monday night the gang and I were treated to a provocative and entertaining DVD projection at our local Czech consulate. Jan Novak, bearded, soft-spoken and ingratiating, introduced the film that he made with his son Adam, Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation. Czech beer was provided free of charge, and the consulate staff was pleasant and well-organized.

During Havel’s farcical car trip through East Bloc Czechoslovakia in 1985, the future president of the Czech Republic was ceaselessly harassed by the Czech secret police. It was just what Havel expected. During this time of intense repression in Czechoslovakia, Havel and the rest of the dissidents who signed Charter 77 made openness their watchword. They sought to provoke and enrage the totalitarian system that stomped on their liberty, and also to publicize their subversive actions to the international community, instead of meeting in secret or communicating in code. With this goal in mind, Havel set out on a summer vacation to purposefully goad the state into throwing him in jail again.

The film depicted Havel’s car trip through Middle European hills and vales in clever reenactments. The anti-drama of a Volkswagen Golf pursued by three cars of somber plainclothesmen brought the viewer into an absurd comedy instead of a harrowing docudrama. “I still remember [Havel’s] license number…” reminisced one cop.

The Czech old-timers who attended the screening knew well the absurdity of total-surveillance state-communism, and they particularly enjoyed the propagandistic Czech news broadcasts that highlighted the ups and downs of that year’s wheat harvest. From occupied France to Pinochet-era Chile, it’s clear that survivors of totalitarianism prefer to think back to the amusing ironies, rather than to the betrayals and the torture and the paranoia.


Another Czech TV sequence showed the Spartakiada, a compulsory gymnastics exhibition in the Strahov Stadium in Prague. It impressed me as a particularly fascistic extravaganza. The Soviets organized the most talented athletes from the Eastern Bloc who would converge in a grand shirtless display of Communist discipline and agility. These overtly nationalistic gymnastics demonstrations seem not to have not caught on in the West.

Hot Wings recommends Citizen Havel Goes on Vacation!