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Category Archives: K. Dale Koontz

The Ten Percent: ‘American Gods’

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

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Greetings and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks (well, roughly), Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was, sadly, right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud – but there has always been that slim slice of sublime. The Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – I think our previous columns have proven that point – and that’s because these rare gems are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

I have, on occasion, discussed an entry that makes the cut on The Ten Percent in more than one category, such as a book and the movie made from the book. It’s hard enough to create ONE fantastic thing; to create a Ten-Percent-worthy work in more than a single medium is truly catching lightning in a bottle.

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The Ten Percent – Beasts, Beauty, and Wonder

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Happy 2017 and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column – well, last year it was more of a semi-regular column, but we’re resolved to change that, now that one gigantic project is wrapping up. Ahem. Let’s start again . . .

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31 Days of Horror 2016: Eek! The Sounds of Horror

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

horror-soundsHello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud.

When it comes to the horror genre, well – there’s a lot of crud. That stands to reason, since horror films can be extra-super-cheap to make (I’ve seen a few that have convinced me that the largest line item on the budget was for Karo syrup and red food coloring), which means they don’t have to do particularly well at the box office to make enough to justify a horde of sequels. Also – to be fair – some of the awful examples from the 1950s and ’60s have a certain charm in their naïveté that elevates them beyond their paltry production values. (Mr. Sardonicus, I’m looking at you. May God bless William Castle.)

One element that is worth discussing in horror movies – the really good ones, anyway – is the use of sound to build the tension and, in some cases, scare the ever-loving bejeezus out of us.

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The Ten Percent – Pay Attention to the Open Sky

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

 

David Lavery bends technology to his indomitable will!

David Lavery bends technology to his indomitable will!

As you know, this column is devoted to the tiny slice of what isn’t crud. Here, Ensley F. Guffey and I discuss examples of films, comics, television, and so on that don’t deserve to be thrown on the ash heap of history, for while Sturgeon was right in thinking that most things are forgettable and disposable, some things transcend their brief time on the air, in print, and – every now and then – on earth.

If you have ever been so hooked on a television show that you wanted to know more, if you ever caught yourself surfing fan websites to find out why a certain piece of music was used over the closing credits, if you ever thought that television could be more than casual entertainment, and if you have ever thought that in this age of Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, (among others), that TV should no longer be called the “boob tube,” take a moment to thank David Lavery, who passed away suddenly on August 30.

David insisted that television – at its best – was worthy of serious study. While television studies is still an emerging field, well, so was film studies forty years ago. It took dedicated, passionate scholars toiling away without much notice and doggedly building a body of superb work to remove the stigma of “only entertainment” from film. David was one of a handful of people putting that same rigor and encyclopedic knowledge into television. He was invited around the world to present his ideas and insights at conferences. While his contributions to the field of television studies are incalculable, I think the human legacy he leaves behind is more important.

David originally trained as an English scholar before he turned his attention to the critical study of popular culture. Over the course of his thirty-year-plus career, he chaired an astonishing number of dissertations and theses. He wrote and edited a bookshelf of books, on topics ranging from the creative process to British philosopher Owen Barfield to Lost. And, along with his wife Joyce, he raised two incredible human beings, who are currently raising the next generation of incredible human beings. His wit was legendary and his praise could make you stop questioning your own abilities, at least for a little while. He loved language, especially the way words could mix meanings and work on multiple levels – and he wasn’t above the groan-worthy pun, either. (See the title of his blog for an example.)

At his memorial, student after student recalled his generosity – he was known for jumping on ideas and then saying, “You ought to write about that!” He felt the security of tenure placed upon him an obligation to champion his students. Far from being the stereotypical grumpy professor who closely guarded his materials out of Gollum-like fear that someone else might steal an idea, David was known for cheerfully sharing quotes (he kept notebooks full of epigrams, just in case the right occasion came along), research suggestions, and entire books. He was about as far from being a stuffed shirt as it is possible to be.

I know all of this because I knew David. He showed faith in me when I was pretty certain that I was an impostor. See, I don’t have a Ph.D. (in horribleness or anything else). I picked up my knowledge of film and television (mostly) on the street, rather than in formal classrooms. David, along with a number of other, equally generous scholars, was my textbook. I may have been a diamond in the rough when I first met David in 2006, but he never made me feel like an untutored lout. His criticism was always wrapped around the desire to make me a better writer and I like to think his time on me was well placed.

At his memorial – which is a story in itself, involving as it did an atheist, a rabbi, and Sufi poetry – I was in too much shock to cry. How was it possible that I was in a David-less world? That I’d never again lean into one of his one-armed side hugs? That he’d never again slyly tell an ever-so-slightly dirty joke and delight in his audience’s reaction? Gorram it, this just wasn’t right! He was supposed to be teaching a course on Game of Thrones this semester.

His family did a very David thing at the reception – they took several cartons of books from his office and encouraged all of us to take a few as mementoes. I may have been a little greedy, but I think David would have appreciated me putting aside my usual Southern reserve because, hey, free books! And they do make me feel that he’s maybe a little closer. The service included a handout of the lyrics to Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer,” which now has different, deeper meaning for me than before (The title of this post is a lyric from that song, by the way.)

Also, David’s first book was called Late for the Sky, which is also the title of Jackson Browne’s third album (“For a Dancer” is also on the same album.) I don’t believe in coincidences at that level.

A good man is gone, which is always an occasion worthy of stopping the world for at least a brief moment. So go watch some good TV. And – if you’re so inclined – raise a glass to a man gone too soon, who would have enjoyed watching it with you.

He is most definitely part of the Ten Percent.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017)You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

 

The Ten Percent: Where Scholars Dwell

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent”, a regular column where Ensley F. Guffey and I take turns examining the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. As regular discerning readers of Biff Bam Pop! know, we usually we use this space to discuss a film or television show or comic that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere. The Ten Percent are the works which stand the test of time, and it’s not a question of genre here in the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy has a place, along with high-toned drama. Quality animation rubs shoulders with science fiction and over there you can find show-stopping musicals chatting with bloody horror. The Ten Percent last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

But this is going to be different for, instead of talking about the show, I’m going to discuss the people. See, there is a small, ferocious band of people known as television scholars. They apply critical theories to television, and they’re not kidding about it. Think of it like this. English literature has scholars. Some of these scholars focus intently on the work of one author – let’s say it’s Charles Dickens.  (Remember that, because we’re going to come back to him.) Now, some Dickens scholars dig into his works to see what can be learned about Victorian society by examining the novels (generally called “texts” in this case), while others look at the texts to discover what can be learned about Marxism, philosophy, the class system of England, teaching itself, and so on – there are a lot of different ways of looking at things.

Television scholars do the same thing, but their “texts” are TV shows, with each episode being the equivalent of a chapter. It’s relatively new (certainly compared to English literature as a field of study!), having only been around for 30 years or so.

While plenty of shows (including The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons) have been the subject of scholarly works, including graduate theses and doctoral dissertations, the one that is most often the subject of these studies is –

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

By a long shot.

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Biff Bam Pop’s Alien Invasion – Londo & G’Kar

babylon 5

J. Michael Stracyznski’s Babylon 5 (1994 – 1998) was groundbreaking for a number of reasons – its unified five-year structure, its use of CGI, and Stracyznski’s use of internet forums to engage with fans during the run of the show among them. But what makes the show last nearly 20 years after it left the weekly broadcast schedule has to be the quality of the writing and the skill of its lead actors in bringing these memorable characters – and their relationships – to life. Read the rest of this entry

The Ten Percent – Wake Up!

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks, Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the flip side of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was right –popular culture can be a vast wasteland of bubbling crud – but there is that slim slice of sublime. We’ve used this space to point out the magnificent in genres as diverse as screwball comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, blood-curdling horror, spectacular science fiction, and more besides. We get to do that because the Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – these rare gems last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

And not all entries in The Ten Percent need the passage of time to declare their brilliance. The focus on this column is not even a year old yet, but is already a worthy member of The Ten Percent. Creative, sharply written, well-acted, pointed in its satire, and filmed with care, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is unlike anything else you’re likely to see.

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The Ten Percent – It’s the Cat’s Pajamas!

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks, Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud – but there is that slim slice of sublime that makes sifting through the crud endurable.  In this space, we’ve written about slapstick comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, blood-curdling horror, spectacular science fiction, and more besides. We get to do that because the Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – these rare gems last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

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The Ten Percent – Let the Sunshine In

hair

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks, Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud – but there is that slim slice of sublime. In this space, we’ve talked about slapstick comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, blood-curdling horror, spectacular science fiction, and more besides. We get to do that because the Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – these rare gems last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

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The Ten Percent: Ikiru (1952)

Takashi Shimura in Ikiru, 1952.

Takashi Shimura in Ikiru, 1952.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Usually, this column is a space where K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Sturgeon was right – the vast majority of movies, writing, and stuff in general is pretty awful – but there is that slim slice of the magnificent. The Ten Percent is not limited by genre – there’s room for slapstick comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, spectacular science fiction, and more besides – oh, look over there! You’ll find show-stopping musicals chatting with bloody horror. The Ten Percent last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

By now, regular readers of “The Ten Percent” will know that I can only go so long without talking about the legendary Japanese director and auteur Akira Kurosawa, and the time has come round again. Easily one of the five most influential directors of the 20th century, Kurosawa’s entire body of work is part of the Ten Percent, and remains one of the most achingly honest depictions of humanity of all time. Although I personally consider Akahige (Red Beard) (1965) to be the highest pinnacle of his humanist phase, 1952’s Ikiru (To Live) lives about five millimeters below it. Read the rest of this entry

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