It Came From Rifftrax: ‘The Myths of Shoplifting’

This week’s offering takes us back to the affluent, synthesized world of the 1980s to learn the truth behind common misconceptions of shoplifting. Like most of these shorts, it’s actually makes a pretty good point, though while being melodramatic and heavy-handed, which makes for a good combination for the Rifftrax crew.

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“For instance, did you know that many security guards are actually deadly cyborgs?”

The short depicts a few different characters (only two of them are actually connected, which admittedly makes the short less contrived than it might otherwise have been if they all knew each other) as they experience the myths of shoplifting (“Is that the one where Hercules picks up a 7-11?”). Among these mythes are that no one gets caught, nothing happens if you do, it doesn’t hurt anyone, and so on. It’s actually rather effective despite the melodramatic tone. The bit where the kid’s parents are called to the store to pick him up does a particularly good job of conveying the discomfort of the situation. It’s followed by a nice bit of the boy telling his friend (who was trying to laugh the situation off) that the worst part was “I felt like a thief.” (“Wait, felt like a thief? You were a thief. Hey, come back here!”).

Incidentally, the boy is Black, the son of two obviously middle-class parents who lay into him when they find out he was stealing, taking the store’s side one hundred percent and pointing out that the kid had no excuse to be doing that. Race is a topic I tend to avoid, since I find it incredibly tedious and I think most of the rhetoric surrounding it is painfully stupid, but to dip in for the moment, it seems to me that this is the kind of thing you don’t see very often anymore. The kid is just presented as a kid; not as a representative of a social class bearing the weight of x, y, and z issues. Same thing with the young woman who loses out on a job when they find out she was picked up for shoplifting as a teenager (“Prepare to live a life haunted by scarves and calculators”). Meanwhile, several of the police and security guards on display are also Black, just mixed in with the other characters. And this is in an extremely casual, educational film from the 1980s (this tallies with my experience of other films of the era, which, by modern standards, were incredibly relaxed about race. They didn’t ignore it, but they tended to relegate it to a secondary issue at best, behind, well things like ethics and the storyline at hand. So…good job with that, intervening years).

Anyway, leaving that aside, this is one of those shorts that is interesting in itself, but very funny for the riffing. The guys glean a lot of humor from the unimpressive leads (“We’re going to turn you over to the Nerd Crimes division”) and the subject matter itself (“Tough place; I’d better tell my cellmate I stole a graphing calculator”). They have fun taking the melodrama to the extreme (“Skulls of the shoplifters are displayed as a reminder”) and on the idea that the merchandise is probably not even worth the effort to begin with. Overall, the humor complements the short very well, letting the message play through while turning it to comedy (“Do you offer a five finger discount?”). The short is competently done enough to be engaging (including giving a realistically stupid portrayal of rebellious teenagers, like when one kid is more excited about having been arrested than concerned about the effect it’ll have on his future), while the Riffers inject supporting humor throughout (“Alright; on to my embezzlement hearing!”).

In short, a fun, engaging little flick enlivened by strong riffing making for another solid short from Rifftrax.

Talking Strength at Catholic Match

Here’s one that was percolating in my mind for a while before I was able to put it up; discussing the concept of strength, some reasons men should seek to acquire it, and, as a byproduct, the contemporary tendency to prioritize comfortably ambiguous ideas of ‘inner strength’ over, you know, the kind you can’t fake.

This danger is to emphasize inner strength to the point of devaluing outer strength. We do the same thing with beauty. It seems we can hardly talk about either without tripping over ourselves to add that we mean primarily “inner” strength or “inner” beauty.

The problem with this is that inner strength is indeed a much more valuable quality than outer strength, but it is also a much more ambiguous one. Anyone who likes can claim that he has inner strength, just as anyone can claim that she has inner beauty, and there isn’t much anyone can do to disprove that.

Nothing is so common as to hear cowards talk about how much courage it took to run away, or degenerates wax lyrical about how brave they were to give into their lowest instincts. Like with school essay questions, it’s fatally easy to fudge the issue—particularly in today’s pluralistic culture—and twist anything and everything we do into an example of great virtue.

This is why it’s important to start with blunt facts, with developing ‘outer’ strength.

It may be lower, but it is also more honest. You can fudge on whether you are in fact a coward or a sincere pacifist, but you can’t fudge on whether that weight came off the ground or not.

Which, of course, is part of the point; not just that physical strength is valuable in itself, but that, like learning Latin or mathematics, it is uncompromising. Either the weight moves or it doesn’t. Either you run the whole mile or you don’t. There is no room for ambiguity, excuses, or uncertainty. Physical strength is an objective quality, meaning that it forces us to learn at least a little of the infinitely valuable skill of facing up to reality.

Read the rest here.

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Courtesy: A Good Eggsample’

So, let’s do one from the ‘completely insane’ school of educational shorts.

This one is well-summed up by Kevin right out of the gate as “Batman villain Egghead’s brief foray into educational films.” That actually would make a lot more sense than the idea that this was seriously intended as an educational film.

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“I mean, we ordered up a thing for kids about courtesy; this is just a bunch of crap about eggs!”

Basically, it’s a stop-motion short about sentient eggs who, we are told, learn about courtesy. Mostly it just amounts to the antagonist Benedict being discourteous while protagonist Eggbert (“If your name is Eggbert, you’re pretty much required to wear a bowtie”) models courtesy to a much lesser extent. There’s little through line or thesis to it; Benedict is a jerk for most of the short, then falls off the slide and cracks (“Fry him up so we can feast on his innards!”), so Eggbert takes him to the nurse’s office, which somehow results in them becoming friends because Benedict has learned about courtesy (though very reluctantly, to gauge by his subsequent behavior).

See, the thing is, no one ever actually learns anything, despite Eggbert’s assertion to the contrary; we just see Benedict and a few others being discourteous, Benedict suffers an injury in part because of it, then he reluctantly behaves better. We’re never actually told what courtesy is, or how to show it, except for a since line where the teacher assures Benedict that, “if you show consideration for others, they’ll show consideration for you.” Something that is never demonstrated in the short, since Benedict is more or less just punished into being sort-of courteous, and Eggbert shows him consideration regardless. I’m not even sure how many of Eggbert’s actions are meant to be models of courtesy. Even if you re-filmed the exact same script with human characters, it still wouldn’t make much sense. As the guys point out more than once, it’s basically just a pointless exercise in egg-puns, even though someone evidently spent a lot of time making it (“I’m managing to have the courtesy not to call this short a cheap, annoying waste of time”).

Naturally, this results in a lot of very funny riffing on the sheer insanity of it all, such as commenting on how everything is egg-shaped (“Those green egg trees are missing something…”), or the logic of an egg-based society (“Remembering the dead egg Marines who died in the mess-kits at Normandy”). The extremely basic music gets a lot of good humor as well, not to mention Mike’s Vincent Price imitation. On top of that, just the utter madness and pointlessness of the short itself is good for a laugh; it would be funny even without the riffing just for the sheer weirdness. A definite recommendation if you like utterly bizarre, misfired ideas.

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“Horrible. None of them know they’re headed to the omelette bar.”

New Catholic Match Post

I saw some people discussing this on the Catholic Match forums a while back and gave the question some thought. The results are now up:

The basic version is that men are more physically oriented, women more relationally oriented. A woman typically wants to learn more about a man’s character, personality, and capabilities. Thus, what a man fundamentally looks for is signs that a woman is studying his character, trying to dig out more of his personality, and liking what she sees.

Here are some specific, simple signs you can give to let the man you’re talking to know that you’re interested in him.

  1. Talk about yourself.

Sounds a little counter-intuitive, but there is a method to the myopia.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean talking non-stop about yourself, or making the relationship all about you. It means sharing your personal concerns, your ideas, and what’s going on in your life and (this is important) seeking his input and support. By talking about your own life, you signal that you want him involved in your life; that this isn’t just a means of passing the time for you, but that you want him to take an interest in you, personally.

Read the rest here.

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Understanding Your Ideals’

One of the hundreds of educational films made by Coronet (not an exaggeration, by the way), this is kind of a special case. Typically, these ’50s educational shorts are centered around basically ordinary, blandly decent kids dealing with a single, common problem (how to ask a girl out, being shy, etc.). Not this one! This one has an actively unpleasant, selfish, and moronic young man at its center.

Meet Jeff; a bow-tie wearing high schooler chasing the ideal of popularity. He does this by paying close attention to his wardrobe (“thank you, unmonitored clothing drive drop-off box!”), pinning up a photo of the football captain (but apparently not actually observing his behavior, to judge by his late-game realization that the guy does none of the things that he’s been trying), and dating a girl he admits he isn’t all that attracted to, but who everyone likes, all while daydreaming about how many people would want to be his friend if only he had a snazzy car and the right clothes. Then, the night of the school dance, his father (who had promised to loan him the family car) tells him that he’ll have to go back on the promise because grandmother had a fall and his mother has to rush out to take care of her for a few days. Jeff spares not a breath of concern for his aged, injured grandmother, but just keeps whining that his dad promised he could have the car, finally concluding “they just don’t want me to be popular” (“Right. They pushed grandma down and broke her hip to hurt you“). So, rather than take the bus to the dance, he calls his girlfriend and cancels with a lie about being sick.

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“Grandma’s last act was to write you out of her will.”

Does he then do the sensible thing and stay home? Maybe reflect upon his life choices and what a selfish little brat he has become? No! He goes out to the local malt shop, where he tries to show off to a bunch of Freshmen, who proceed to mock him mercilessly (no, seriously; that’s what happens). Then, predictably, his girlfriend walks in (you will be amazed at how sick you get of the word ‘popular’ before this film is over).

The short proceeds to have his father explain the concept of ‘ideals’ to him, though the short doesn’t have a particularly clear view of the subject. ‘Ideals’ end up meaning ‘vision’ or ‘drive’ or just about anything positive.

Needless to say, between the spineless, self-centered protagonist and the vague moralizing, the Rifftrax crew have a field day with this one. “Don’t you see, Dad? I’m the center of the universe!” Things get going right out of the gate when Mike speculates that the overly bombastic title music must be from the sword fight halfway through (prompting Bill to ask, “An educational film with a sword fight?”). The odd framing device of a point-of-view shot from a car driving at night (because ideals are like headlights: “They’re a bit dim”) also prompts some good jokes, as does Jeff’s dog, Stew, who serves as the recipient for his solipsistic musings (“You mean nothing to me”). Meanwhile, the father’s rambling speech on ideals gets a fair number of good jokes (“Aw, now you’re just being socratic and stuff”), though the short’s at its best when Jeff is front and center in his stupendous stupidity (“I’ve got to have ideals like honesty and sincerity…” “A spine and a pair…”).

I have to say, in my experience ’50s educational shorts generally don’t misfire very often. Oh, they can be stupid and ham-fisted, but the basic morals and storylines tend to be solid. This is one of the exceptions; the protagonist is an unlikable idiot whose redemption is far too little, too late, and the thesis is too vague; like they were rushed on this one. The result is a confused, basically pointless short and a very memorable Rifftrax entry.

 

Talking Violence at the Everyman

My latest piece is up at The Everyman, where I share some thoughts on mass shooters and violent crime in general; thoughts that have been percolating one way or another for quite a while.

It is this: back in, say, the 1950s there was comparatively little violent crime in the United States. Oh, there was some, especially in urban areas, but the rates were far, far lower, and mass shooting events were vanishingly rare. Going off of Wikipedia’s list of the 27 deadliest mass shooting events, only one dates from before 1960: the Camden, New Jersey killings of 1949 (the next earliest one is the Charles Whitman murders of 1966).

Today, that is no longer the case and has not been for quite some time; more than half of that list dates from the past fifteen years. Meanwhile the national violent crime rate peaked in 1991 (at nearly five times the 1960 rate) and has been trending slowly downward before rising again in the past couple years, though at its lowest it was still more than double what it was in 1960, according to the FBI crime statistics.

Taking these two facts, there is a single, logical conclusion: something happened between those two periods to change the course of society.

Do you remember those puzzles in children’s magazines which presented two pictures and invited you to spot the differences? Play that game with the two time periods. Between 1958 and 2018, you will find many, many differences. At least one of those differences, and likely many of them, must be why we have mass shootings today.

Read the rest here.

It Came From Rifftrax: You’re the Judge

I would call this one ‘charming;’ vintage 60s high school romance used to promote Crisco shortening (seriously).

The plot has two high school girls trying to tempt the objects of their affections to a party by goading them into a cooking contest. The girls use Crisco and produce a sumptuous meal, while the boys use cooking oil, which, coupled with their general incompetence in the kitchen, results in barely edible mess. (“And he went on to be the head chef at Arby’s”). One girl’s father serves as the judge (despite the title, you the viewer are not the judge) on the grounds that he’s a man and will be prone to side with the boys.

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“Our lives had descended into I Love Lucy-themed madness.”

This is one of those where I enjoy the film itself as much as the riffing. It wouldn’t make for a bad sitcom episode. Not a great one either, but it’s a fun, zany little tale of girls trying to maneuver reluctant boys into romance (“Look, we want to bang you, you thick headed doof!”). The characters even have some personality to them, like when the shorter boy tries to bowl with the pie dough then nervously resumes reading off the direction after he knocks over the flower tin. I also like the brunette’s momentary uncertainty about the correct pronoun in the opening narration (‘personality’ doesn’t necessarily mean I remember their names; this is just an advertising short after all: let’s not go overboard here). At the very least it feels like the actors have all worked together before, which is a point of quality in a film like this.

The riffing mostly complements the story nicely, with comments on both the overcomplicated and seemingly unnecessary nature of the scheme (“See Coronet’s 12-part series ‘Calling Boys at Home'”) and frequent riffs on the Crisco influence, as well as the, shall we say, generous amount of it being used (“Two cups of shortening?! Dear God, they won’t live through the night!”).

They also give some standard ‘sexist 1960s’ jokes, which are admittedly a little annoying, but they don’t pop up too much. It’s somewhat balanced by riffs pointing out how ridiculously incompetent the men are (“Reverting to chimphood before our very eyes”).

Of course, these were the days when there was actually something approaching balance in the comedy; where men and women were about equally likely to be portrayed as ridiculous one way or another, and there seemed to be little to no actual animosity about it (see also The Dick Van Dyke Show and other contemporary sitcoms). We’ve come a long way down since then. But that’s another story.

Overall a very strong short. If you like artifacts from the ‘50s and ‘60s, you’ll probably enjoy the film itself and the riffing just adds an extra layer of fun. Definitely recommended!

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“You realize you have breasts, right? These are teenage boys; it’s not difficult!”