Author Archives: jpicco

Unpublished Godzilla Capsule

I wrote this capsule blurb thing for inclusion in a list of Essential Monster Movies for the Armchair Reader Goes Hollywood book, but another editor’s version got used instead (it was good but not fittingly humorous the way mine is, if you’re asking me). This doesn’t really fit the theme of my blog at all. Lately, nothing really does, though, does it? Or had you not yet noticed?

Godzilla (1954)

Created as much by radioactive fallout as by Japan’s still-fresh unease concerning nuclear destruction, Godzilla screamed and stomped his way out of the ocean and all over Tokyo in this 1954 classic. You could call Gojira by his Japanese name, but he wouldn’t hear you—he’s several hundred feet tall and busy melting man’s barriers with his atomic breath. Even in black and white, the not-very-jolly green giant lizard scared up a host of sequels and copycats: 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla featured a robotic Godzilla clone, while 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla handed Godzilla a stinging defeat at the hands of a big ape. Though mostly entertaining, no follow-up ever matched the original’s mix of monster thrills with post-World War II political and scientific paranoia.


A Big Fan of the Genre

I woke up this morning and, first thing, fired up an old VHS tape:Death Blow: A Cry For Justice (Raphael Nussbaum, 1987).

The night before, Amazon Marketplace had informed me that some kind soul in Ootawara-Shi, Japan, had purchased my copy of Death Blow from me. It takes a while to get things shipped over there, so I wanted this videotape packed and in the mail that day. Work was in 45 minutes, so I had to use that handy FF>> button quite a good deal to get through (most) of it. It’s the kind of movie where you can just catch one line of dialogue per scene and pretty much know the deal.

Actually, it was technically not my VHS tape. It was my brother’s; I’ve been selling some tapes for him. When I told him that Death Blow had sold to a man in Japan, he texted me back to inform me that: “Thats the one the bootlegger records on seinfeld.” I thought about it a minute. He was right. In The Little Kicks, a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld gains some fleeting street fame as a wunderkind theatrical bootlegger, for his work on the cam version of the fictional film Death Blow, then in fictional theaters in Seinfeld‘s fictional Manhattan.

But I knew, from looking over Death Blow‘s VHS slipcase that very morning, that the real Death Blow had been released in 1987. We we’re obviously dealing with more than one Death Blow here.

This all got me thinking. They made up a whole hell of a lot of movies over the course of the Seinfeld series run, their titles ranging from Too Dull To Give a Crap About all the way to So Bad I’d Love To See an Actual Movie Called That.

But how many of those other Fake Seinfeld Movies had real world counterparts the way Death Blow did? All it took to find out was an internet list of all Fake Seinfeld Movies and some hard IMDB digging. Enjoy:

1. Agent ZeroNot Real: Zero hits returned by IMDB.

2. Blame it on the RainNot Real: I’d probably blame this one on Milli Vanilli. Luckily, it’s not a mistake yet made by Hollywood.

3. Blimp: The Hindenberg StoryNot Real: Time to explode the myth on this one.

4. Brown-Eyed GirlReal: Too sick of this song to ever watch a movie called it.

5. CheckmateVery Real: Jeez, there’s like a million of these. ALL GREAT!

6. Chow FunNot Real: And I have to say I’m not too upset about this one.

7. ChunnelNot Real: Seems like they must’ve been going for a CHUD-meets-England/France-transit type thing with this one.

8. Cold FusionReal: Made twice since 2001.

9. Cry, Cry AgainNot Real: Though there is a Hungarian movie called Kiáltás és kiáltás, directed by Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács. I love Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács. His movies rule.

10. Cupid’s RifleNot Real: Cupid’s Rival, though, was made in 1917.

11. Death BlowReal: As described above and below. “The zoomings, the framings…I was enchanted!”

12. Extreme MeasuresReal, a few times: In Japan, they called the 1996 one Body Bunk. Total Seinfeld Fake Movie Name, right?

13. FirestormVery Real: Six Firestorms is too many Firestorms.

14. Means to an EndReal: Twice

15. Mountain HighReal: Or so IMDB barely claims.

16. The Muted HeartNot Real

17. The Other Side of DarknessNot Real

18. Ponce de LeonReal: And real old. The 1924 version (a short film) starred Monte Brice, writer of A Whole Bunch of Crap I Never Heard Of.

19. Prognosis: NegativeNot Real: I like it when a movie’s title is also a review of that movie. Diagnosis: Fabricated

20. Rochelle, RochelleNot Real: But America has already imagined this “young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk” in such great detail, and so many billions of times, does it really matter?

21. Sack LunchNot Real: Sorry. You can never go see a movie called Sack Lunch that you yourself did not conceive, write, direct, edit, and screen for yourself.


I’m sure I forgot a few. Give me hell about it in the Comments and I’ll add ’em, but please: “Not because of who I am, but because of different reasons….

Shall I Get In The Hot Tub?

Without question…if by “Hot Tub” you mean Hot Tub Time Machine. It’s a really funny movie, like some kind of impossible mash-up of Better Off Dead, Back to the Futures I and II, and Big….in reverse.

But is Hot Tub Time Machine the only time travel movie of its kind? I mean the specifics of the time travel. The hot tub in question sends each main character’s 2010 consciousness back into the driver’s seat of their 1986 selves, but kind of leaves their 2010 bodies in some sort of limbo, to be returned to when each 1986 Body/2010 Consciousness returns to the hot tub.

Come to think of it, the hot tub must somehow temporarily turn off each 1986 Consciousness, too.

Do other movies do this? Have I seen one of them and I’m just totally forgetting it, like an idiot? Totally possible.

Screwball Existentialism

Don’t ask me why I went and looked at my own dormant myspace page, for the first time in several years. Long ago, in 2005, in fact, I posted this there; seems worthy of replication on this under-nourished blog, so here goes:

Yeah, so I just want to put this out there so that 40 years from now, when people are trying to define and codify and write lots of vague, boring stuff about the films that exemplify (-fied) the millennial transition we’re even now struggling through, I’ll get credit for coining the genre term they overuse. How serious am I about all of this? Nowhere near as serious as a heart attack. We’ll call the genre “screwball existentialism” and include willfully strange, almost-slapstick, highly original movies that deal intensely with the nature of being, memory, and identity. Here are the big ones:

Being John Malkovich
Donnie Darko
Human Nature
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
I Heart Huckabees
Mulholland Drive
Waking Life

A few that I’d say kinda fit much more loosely into the genre:

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Cast Away
Groundhog Day
Flirting With Disaster (big on the “searching for one’s own identity” tip)
• Altman’s 3 Women (again with identity thing, easy on the slapstick/screwball)

Maybe, need to see again:

About Schmidt
Fight Club

I’ll edit this and add more as they come to me. And, hey, suggest obvious ones I’ve missed. I was in a hurry, OK, I’m trying to coin a genre term here, not spell the whole thing out for you. Jeez.

“But, hey,” I can hear you asking, “why don’t you just call it ‘The Charlie Kaufman Genre,’ I mean he wrote like half of ’em?” Do not make me stop this car, do you hear me? If I have to even consider pulling over, so help me, you will not enjoy the results, mister.

By the way, if we ever get this to become a “household term” and people, like, refer to their favorite directors and, hell, even themselves as “screwball existentialists” that’d be fine by me, because I know lots of people whose personal philosophies I’d say fit the bill (I may even go so far as to say those are my favorite “kinds” of people), and, yeah, I’d like to think I more often than not fall darn nicely into that category along with them. I got a monumentally good Reuben sandwich today from a deli in a dying strip mall.

Biggest addition to the genre since I wrote this way back when? Probably Where the Wild Things Are. Yes, it’s another Spike Jonze movie, but it’s so this genre. Max discovers a fantasy land in which he’s both king and heel, an amalgam of several fragments of his current and future selves, his family, his homelife, and his distant emotions. You laugh and cry with him about who everyone thinks they were as a kid and might eclipse as a grown-up but never did.

Actually, no. Biggest Recent Addition to the Genre is Synecdoche, New York. I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Everyone is reflected in a broken mirror of themselves. It’s a great movie, one I kind of hated on the first go-round. I swung and missed at the Screwball elements and was initially hurt and betrayed by the harrowing Existentialism. I’m better now.

Seems now that the dead-center of this genre happened when, in I Heart Huckabees, Brad, played by Jude Law, repeatedly asks “How am I not myself?” Screwball Existentialist movies address this question by trying to make us laugh at our own fractured identities.

A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Where the Wild Things Are…


Sometimes, movies fail in almost every way to meet the expectations their genius posters create; other times, they’re about as good any possible poster might’ve made me imagine.

Strictly Commercial


My frustrating 2009 Chicago Cubs won their series against the Reds last weekend in Cincinnati, three games to two, and I watched a lot of it on TV, but all I kept seeing was that eerily familiar Toyota Tundra ad on the wall behind home plate.


A few corners of the internet have already noticed how deeply Zappaesque the Toyota logo is, and it’s from those corners that I rip off this perfect comparison image:

Really perfect, because that mustache shot is a detail of the cover image from a 1974 Frank Zappa album, the one that’s really called but is best known (and pronounced) as Apostrophe.

And it was right at the very beginning of Apostrophe that Zappa “dreamed he was an Eskimo,” in the song “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” first in a four-part suite of connected story songs about stupid things going on way up in the frozen north. Second in that suite is the brilliant “Nanook Rubs It.” Listen to ’em both right here.

The story in these songs is rather dumb, and it goes like this: Nanook the Eskimo boy is hanging around the igloo, debating about whether to go to “the show,” when a fur trapper comes up and starts beating Nanook’s favorite baby seal. Nanook, real pissed, blinds the fur trapper with snow yellowed by huskie whizz and pounces on him too. The blinded fur trapper wonders what the hell to do, then recalls an “ancient Eskimo legend” about how, if you ever get blinded in a conflict with someone named Nanook, you must go on a very specific sort of quest.

If fact, according to Zappa’s ridiculous lyrics, you have to

“…go trudgin’ across the mile after mile…”

I guess Toyota's marketing geniuses felt like they could save some Arctic trudging time for that all-important "Blinded by Nanook" sector of the American truck-buyer demographic.

I guess Toyota's marketing geniuses felt like they could save some Arctic trudging time for that all-important "Blinded by Nanook" sector of the American truck-buyer demographic.

–Pancake Dominion would like to thank and Scott Robbin for access to the linked Zappa songs and for pointing us toward “Nanook Rubs It” after our shared realization about the Toyota logo.

Canadian In Vader



I’ve never heard the band Japandroids, and, to be real frank with you, I don’t plan to hear them, unless I happen to walk by their set at the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival. But that indie music review site’s own write-up of the act clued me in to a fact I haven’t really stopped coming back to for a few weeks:


Now, for me and about 75 billion other movie nerds, the name David Prowse doesn’t exactly put us in mind of some Canadian garage rock duo who haven’t released an album yet. We’re reminded instead of things like blowing up the planet Alderaan, choking people from across the room without touching them, and saying things like “YOU ARE PART OF THE REBEL ALLIANCE AND A TRAITOR. TAKE HER AWAY!”

Because to us, David Prowse has always been the 6 foot, 7 inch bodybuilding British actor who was inside the Darth Vader costume for the first three Star Wars movies!

Normally, that alone would be enough to make mention on this blog, but…well….The story just doesn’t end there, despite the fact that Prowse of Japandroids isn’t related to Prowse of Star Wars and, in interviews, he has sighed and said that “Every time I go into a video store I get that.”

But think about the name “Japandroids.” It’s an example of what’s called “portmanteau,” wherein two distinct words are mushed together to make a new one. The two words here are pretty easy to parse:


Yeah, it’d be great if Darth Vader was himself an android, but he’s not. He’s a human being who’s been augmented with mechanical/robotic parts, perhaps more machine than man, but expressly not an android….Those are all robot.

But in a sense, Vader is Japanese. Everybody in Star Wars is sort of Japanese, in fact. Because it’s been really well documented that George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, has admitted to borrowing heavily for his “space opera” from The Hidden Fortress, directed by Akira Kurosawa, perhaps Japan’s single greatest moviemaker. Here’s Lucas himself:

Hidden Fortress was an influence on Star Wars right from the beginning….I was searching around for a story. I had some scenes—the cantina scene and the space battle scene—but I couldn’t think of a basic plot….And then I thought of Hidden Fortress….

It’s not even an “Oh, OK, I can sort of see that…” kind of linkage between the films, either. It’s pretty obvious. Darth Vader is Lucas’s extrapolation of the villainous warrior General Hyo Tadokoro. The Hidden Fortress, from plot to characters, is like watching an early version of Star Wars unfold in Kurosawa’s deft hands, in Japanese, and a long time ago, in a feudal land far, far away.

Even better, though: the two characters from The Hidden Fortress you can most easily see echoed in Star Wars are a pair of bickering peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, from whose perspective the story is told. They wander around, get split up, get tossed into a slave camp by the enemy, are miraculously reunited, and finally hitch up with a princess and a sword-fighting samurai. Starting to sound real familiar? It should. George Lucas turned Tahei and Matashichi into C-3PO and R2-D2. The Droids!


Early in Lucas’s development of Star Wars, he didn’t even turn them into robots. They were just human, “space opera” versions of Kurosawa’s original bickering Japanese peasants. Only later, in the process of outlining, scriptwriting, and mythologizing, did they become droids…or, as we may now forever think of them, “Japandroids.”

Oh, by the way, I lied. During the writing of this post, I stumbled across some Japandroids music, probably on that myspace page of theirs. Eh…not so great. What I heard sounded like Braid recorded onto cassette tape in a closet half-full of aluminum. Trust me, readers: “THESE AREN’T THE DROIDS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.”
obi wan

Alien McSplorers

Here’s an odd one. Watch this British TV spot for McDonalds real quick:

A few things:

A. I barely get the joke about “Four of your funky neons…” and then “Let’s try some of that liquid stuff in them…” Maybe there’s some alien backstory I missed. Do these aliens eat plastic cups? Is that what I’m supposed to assume?

B. What does the British voice-over say at the end? “Not of”? “Not Earth?” UK readers, help me out.

And C. Why do those aliens look so damn familiar?

Actually, I think I’ve got the answer to C locked down. I’m pretty sure McDonalds stole them from Joe Dante.

Remember Explorers (Joe Dante, 1985)? explorers1985dvd

It’s the one where Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and that other kid put a junked Tilt-O-Whirl car inside this computer-generated force field thing dreamed by Hawke and put together by Wolfgang the scientist (Phoenix).


YouTube the whole thing if you feel like it. The computer-controlled force field allows the kids to navigate around town for a while before zooming off into space and being swallowed by a huge spaceship. Inside the spaceship, they meet this nutty alien named Wak:


Now take another look at that commercial if you need to. I really think the McDonalds commercial aliens are just dudes inside slightly remodeled, re-purposed Wak costumes from Explorers. Can’t really prove it, of course, but the evidence is striking. Same green skin. Same long, bony, suction-cup fingers. Same up-curved, creepy, insectoid tail:


The oddest thing about it is that the McDonalds TV commercial borrowed from a movie that’s so critical of TV. Wak and his sibling alien Neek turn out to have gotten really warped ideas about humanity from watching tons of TV via signals broadcast into space. They think we all just talk like talk show hosts and want to kill aliens. The McDonalds aliens, on the other hand, use their 30 seconds to try and convince us that we really need to go out, buy huge sodas, and collect all the neon plastic cups we possibly can. Pretty warped notion there, too.

It all sort of makes me wish McDonalds had ripped off a different character from Explorers: Heinlein, the mouse that Wolfgang has trained to touch sensor pads which allow him to speak.


I suppose the most McDonalds-appropriate thing Heinlein says is his meekly delivered “I WOULD LIKE…CHEESE.” But by far the best thing he says—and what we and Joe Dante should’ve probably said to McDonalds a long time ago—is “GO TO HELL.”

Vanishing on VHS

VHS tape entombs so much film content; this monument to <em>2001</em> only mocks the dead.

VHS tape entombs so much film content; this art gallery monument to the already-immortal 2001 only mocks the dead.

I’ve never been to Kim’s Video in New York and I’ve only popped in once or twice at Chicago video treasure troves Facets and Odd Obsession. But I love that they exist at all. We’re on the same team, you might say. Digging undigitized VHS tapes out of thrift stores and failed video stores is impossible for me not to do. I’ve even been known to digitize content myself now and then…often immortalizing movies I have next to no interest in ever seeing again. Seems like somebody has to do it. It’s the principle, you know?

All of which is why Moving Image Source’s pair of stirring articles on the tragedy of film content shipwrecked at the bottom of the VHS ocean struck such chords in me that I had to pass a few quotes along.

“I never understood how this myth that ‘everything is available on DVD’ got started,” agrees critic Dave Kehr, the DVD columnist for The New York Times. [According] to Turner Classic Movies’ database of U.S. feature films—of the 157,068 titles listed as of late February, 2009, fewer than 4 percent are available on home video.

Four lousy percent! That number blew my mind. 96% of all U.S. movies ever made aren’t even  important enough to the culture for anyone to own and distribute them. Makes me feel bad and sad about all the never-on-DVD VHS tapes I’ve found, cherished to one extent or another, and sold without acquiring myself a digital copy to have, if not to hold.

And it’s more to me than just “making a copy”—much more, in fact. I called it “immortalizing” before and so does MIS:

…having been purified down to bits, films are more or less immortal, virtually existent, having a better chance than [ever] before at being universally disseminated, immune to age, and free…from commodification. Copy-blocking programs are always circumventable….Whether a film shows up on TCM or on a DVD or in a torrent download or on a privately burned disc, it is inviolate and as impossible to “withdraw” or even regulate as a revolutionary idea or a piece of aural folklore. No one truly owns a film once it’s been digitized; it belongs to the world.

Which, as Lawrence Lessig has persuasively argued at length, is as it should be, after a reasonable period of profit accumulation by the original creator or owner or what have you.

Huge chunks of my apartment do nothing other than house my ever-morphing collection of VHS tapes, a good many of them I’ll keep specifically because they’re unlikely to ever be digitally mastered for DVD. I’ve gone through two ungodly shitty consumer VHS-to-DVD recorders in salving my need to DVD-R this sort of content for myself (and, in some small way, for others). Here’s a really select portion of my collection:

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is cited as one of those hard-to-find titles that places like Odd Obsession specialize in having.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is cited as one of those hard-to-find titles that places like Odd Obsession specialize in having. All but one of these happen to be in the Top 700 of TCM's Not-On-Home Video Ranking.

One last quote, then I’m out:

With every new shift in media technology, from 16mm to VHS, from traditional broadcast to cable TV, from VHS to DVD, huge numbers of films are lost, says Facets Multi-Media executive director Milos Stehlik, who includes such titles as Robert Downey’s Chafed Elbows, Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House?, Glauber Rocha’s Antonio Das Mortes, and Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT among the films he fears will disappear in a post-VHS culture.

“What irritates me is that with each technology comes all this promise—that you’re going to be able to watch whatever you want, whenever you want. But then it turns out not to be true,” he says. “Because most art films are marginal, financially, to the mainstream culture, they will always get pushed out.”

Ironically, I saw Chafed Elbows (and digitized it myself) on a bootleg VHS that could’ve come from nowhere but the Facets vaults.

And I’d go Milos one further: Most films [period, full stop] are marginal, financially, to the mainstream culture. Take a look at the titles pictured above: At most, only one of them (True West) could be considered an “art film.” On the one hand, it’s sad that America’s film interests are so narrow. I wish people cared enough that they’d pay real money to see a greater breadth of film content. On the other hand, the incontrovertible fact that they don’t means that there will always be something for people like me to scoop up off the sandy bottom of film culture and treasure.

For now, and hopefully forever, America’s thrift stores will keep giving me dirt-cheap VHS tapes I never knew I wanted…and the ones no one else knows they want either. Which, again, is as it should be.

Twin Peaks Steals “The Rye”

The Setup:

By 1996, Twin Peaks had long since packed up and headed off toward staking its claim as perhaps the greatest TV drama/mystery ever aired. That same year, Seinfeld was airing its now-iconic 7th season. The Soup Nazi had de-souped basically everybody; “sponge-worthy” had already entered the American lexicon. And “The Rye” episode was about to A) be flat-out awesome and B) have nothing whatsoever to do with J. D. Salinger.

Oddly enough, it seems now to have had everything to do with Twin Peaks. Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David or maybe casting director Brian Myers had some serious Peaks on the Brain when they put this particular installment together. Prominent former Twin Peaks cast members pop up at basically every turn. Let’s join Elaine as she stares in horror at a big chunk of The Evidence:


On top of that credit list is Grace Zabriskie, who portrayed Mrs. Ross, the mother of George Costanza “love interest” Susan Ross. Grace Zabriskie was also Laura Palmer’s mom (Sarah) on Twin Peaks.


Next up is Warren Frost, who played Mr. Ross, Susan’s dad, on Seinfeld


…and was Dr. Will Hayward, the father of Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) on Twin Peaks. Not at all incidentally, Warren’s also the real-life father of Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost.

You can skip Jeff Yagher, though he was pretty “hot and heavy” as Seinfeld saxophonist John Germaine.

Last but in no way least is Frances Bay, who nobody who’s ever turned on a TV in America doesn’t remember as Mabel Choate, the stubborn old lady who turned down outrageous bucks for a marble rye before Jerry mugged the damn thing right out of her hands and called her an “old bag.”


Frances, bless her heart at age 101 this January, was also Mrs. Tremond—that creepy old lady with the creepy little kid who makes the creepy creamed corn disappear—in that one episode of Twin Peaks, as well as the same Mrs. Tremond in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. You remember her:


And then plus there’s Don Amendolia, credited a bit later in the credits, who kind of is the linchpin of this whole thing, really, just because he’s so easy to miss in “The Rye.” Three actors would’ve been very interesting; four is just blatant. Kramer collides with Don (as Dennis) in the hallway, and then he’s gone forever.


Amendolia was Emory Battis on Twin Peaks, the guy who hired Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) at the perfume counter and then…did…some other things:


Which brings us to some Conclusions:

I mean sure, you could just chalk all this up to coincidence or to incestuous Hollywood casting practices or whatever. But I don’t. No way. It’s a bit more interesting than that.

After all, Twin Peaks was a series motivated almost entirely by the mysterious death of Laura Palmer in the pilot episode. Laura’s mom (Zabriskie) and her doctor (Frost as Dr. Hayward) were huge characters throughout the show. And Seinfeld didn’t cast Zabriskie and Frost as just anybody. This genius show put them in the roles of mother and father to Susan Ross:


Now see it says “Ex-Fiancee” there. But Susan wasn’t any ordinary “ex-fiancee.” She was a TV executive, the one George Costanza kept yearning for long after his own “Show About Nothing” got killed by the fictional NBC of SeinfeldWorld. Also, she’s a dead ex-fiancee. Susan Ross never did get married to George Costanza. Susan Ross died mysteriously. Very mysteriously. Like Laura Palmer before her, Susan Ross was murdered.



You can—and should—watch a season and a half of Twin Peaks to find out who killed Laura Palmer. As for Seinfeld and Susan Ross, I’m not going to make you wait that long:


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