It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Flying Stewardess’

This is one of those shorts that’s as fascinating as a window into the past as it is amusing. In this case, a look at air travel in the 1940s. I do not recommend watching this short just before taking a trip, as thinking of the roomy seating, tasty-looking four-course meals, and sleeper berths of the past may make you feel as though you’ve been badly cheated as you wedge yourself onto cramped seats in the packed, germ-ridden, thermostat-challenged tube that will be your world for the next six or seven hours.

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“There’s not a man on the wing of the plane! I just wanted to sound the all-clear on that.”

The short is the documentary of a young stewardess from the classroom to her first solo flight, covering quite a lot of ground (literally and figuratively) in about eleven minutes. Did you know that stewardesses of the era took classes on radio theory? I didn’t. Not to mention that planes of the era flew low enough that you could actually make out key sights on the ground, such as the skylines of major cities and even Niagara Falls (“Oh, my God, you’re taking us to Canada?! Let me off!”). We get a quick cross-country tour of the old America, which is pretty cool, to be honest, including my home-town of Detroit (gets a hilariously underwhelmed “Yay” from Bill).

Though the short itself is pretty interesting, it nevertheless provides lots and lots of good riffing material, from roasting each location in turn (upon arriving in Los Angeles: “The morning vomit has been hosed off the streets and it’s shining like a jewel!”) to the sometimes overblown narration (“No use articles here Chicago”) to just riffing on the passengers and the scenario in general (“I’m Bob Executive; which way is business?”). As usual, there are a few ‘sexist forties’ jokes, but not very many or very notable ones, and the riffing imagines the stewardesses abusing far more than being abused (“try not to snore like a breeder hog, will yah?”).

Air travel in general just lends itself to humor, especially from our perspective given how I don’t think anyone really likes the experience these days (“It’s like eating at ‘Denny’s’, but with a much smaller risk of death”). This short shows us that it, perhaps, wasn’t always like that. I was particularly fascinated by the look at the ‘sleeper’ flight, where face-to-face booths were made up into actual sleeping bunks like on a train car. It’s almost as though the passengers expected a comfortable and convenient flight and the airlines meant to oblige.

Of course, the problem with that is there’s clearly a much lower capacity on each flight, and no doubt they were proportionately much more expensive. It is, I suppose, a trade-off, though I can’t help wondering whether we’ve traded too far in the opposite direction. That’s a whole other issue, of course, but still, looking through this little keyhole into the not-too-distant past, it’s clear to me that we’ve lost something along the way.

Meanwhile, other highlights of the short include a look at the stewardesses on break time, where they keep fit by sailing (amusingly, they really look like they’re about to tip over at one point and there’s an abrupt jump-cut, making me think they had to pause filming for a moment to make sure no one went overboard). The narrator helpfully clarifies that, though most stewardesses marry within a few years, they do not typically marry pilots. Mike gets a great moment with a fussy baby, while Kevin delights in finding synonyms for the solo flight and sniggers when the narrator apparently joins in.

All in all, a very fun short providing a legitimately interesting look into a vanished world amid some solid riffing. Recommended, especially for those who like a little view into the past.

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“The captain thanks you for keeping the plane snake-free.”

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.

 

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!”

 

Thoughts on ‘One Punch Man’

One of the most common complaints about Superman is that he’s boring because he’s too powerful. I don’t buy into this at all; I think that, if you know what you’re doing, you can make Supes’s power level into the very thing that makes him compelling.

One Punch Man is an illustration of that principle.

Meet Saitama; an ordinary salaryman who decides to take up heroism as a hobby, since he loves nothing better than to challenge himself. Somehow or other, he ends up becoming so insanely powerful that he can defeat any foe with only one punch, meaning that, by the time we meet him, hero work has becoming boring and frustrating for him; like a video game where he’s stuck on god-mode with infinite ammo. He ends up more or less going through his days in a stupor, trying to muster the energy to keep himself going while dreaming about facing an opponent who can actually give him a decent fight.

One day he crosses paths with an earnest young hero named Genos, a cyborg seeking vengeance on whoever destroyed his village and whom Saitama more or less stumbles into taking on as an apprentice. Together they enter the official hero organization and begin moving up the ranks and tackling bigger and bigger threats, though to his frustration, none of them prove the slightest obstacle to Saitama (it gets to the point where the camera cuts away when Saitama faces the monster of the week, since we all know what’s going to happen).

The central joke of the series, of course, is that Saitama is really just too darn powerful, which results in a lot of gleefully over-the-top results when the monsters explode into gory chunks when he hits them. The show also finds various creative ways to show off his insane strength, as when he carves a hole in a mountain just with the wind off of one of his punches (though a particularly funny gag has him taking on a single mosquito, which proves to be one of his greatest challenges).

Once he enters the official hero ranks, in fact, Saitama proves so powerful and so disinterested that he soon gains a reputation as a cheat or a fraud; it’s all so easy for him that people suspect he’s not really doing any of it and he gets no credit for his heroics. This further frustrates him, as one of the main reasons he entered the program in the first place was so that people might finally start to appreciate him.

Two things stood out to me about this series. The first was how they managed to keep his victories satisfying, even as he’s never in the slightest danger at any point in the story. Mostly this is done by making the monsters as smug, as boastful, and as brutal as possible. We see them tearing through civilians and the other heroes, while laughing and giving grandiose speeches about how terrifying and unstoppable they are. Then Saitama shows up, they laugh at him, and…

(I also appreciate that Saitama spares enemies who surrender or admit defeat)

A late-season two-part storyline about a sea monster is particularly good in this regard. We see this thing beating hero after hero, each of whom is fighting his hardest, but can’t cause any serious damage to this smug, arrogant creature. Then, partway through the battle, he finds his way to a shelter for civilians and proceeds to try to kill them all for no reason, even spitting an acid glob at a little girl for no other reason than that she was cheering for the heroes. The good guys are pouring everything they have into stopping him, but he just keeps coming, keeps knocking them around almost without even trying. Genos is the only one who even seems to give him a challenge. Then, just when things are at their worst, Saitama shows up and lets the thing have a free shot at him without any effect before…well, doing what he does.

The show lets us experience that sense of desperation, of hopelessness, and of just how hateful the monster is. It shows off what is basically an unstoppable bully preying on helpless innocents and then just as things look hopeless, it confronts him with a hero that he has absolutely no chance of defeating. We know that the good guys have won and the day is saved the moment Saitama arrives, but the monster doesn’t, and so we get to enjoy the prospect of him gloating while knowing he’s about to get his comeuppance.

This sequence also shows off the other aspect that stood out to me. As noted, the other heroes throw everything they have against the sea monster, all to no avail. Then, after Genos has been beaten and is about to be killed, one final hero shows up: Mumen Rider, the Cyclist for Justice! He is literally nothing but a guy on a bike, and not even a particularly skilled or strong guy on a bike. He shows up to a fight with a monster that has recently shrugged off blows sufficient to vaporize a skyscraper, and he throws his bike at it. He then takes it on in a one-on-one fight to try to save the cowering civilians and his crippled fellow hero.

Now, in just about any other show, especially a comedy, the point would be how stupid and suicidally overconfident Mumen Rider was, and how ridiculous the whole idea of costumed heroes is to begin with. But not here. Here it’s one of the most heartfelt and moving scenes in the show, as the man stands up knowing full well that he will lose this fight, but he still gives it everything he has. Because that’s what heroes do.

The point, the show argues, is not whether you win or lose; it’s not about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about your willingness to show up and give it your all; to “muddle through” as one character puts it. The heroes are heroes, not because they always win, but because they always fight.

Saitama himself sums it up perfectly: “If the heroes run and hide, who will stand and fight?”  You see what I’m talking about? The show is basically a parody, but it knows what real heroism is and it succeeds in making it appear truly admirable even amidst all the comedy and absurdity.

Then, after the battle, Saitama does something else truly heroic. I won’t spoil it, because it’s a great moment, but it’s a reminder that heroism isn’t just a matter of standing up to danger. Saitama’s physically invincible, for all we can see. But he can still be heroic by laying down his own cares, his own desires, and his own comfort for the good of others.

This, by the way, was what Captain Marvel was missing (well, one of many, many things): Danvers never makes a sacrifice, never gives up anything she wanted, never puts other people’s interests or needs before her own even once, meaning that her ‘heroism,’ such as it is, is purely a matter of her powers; because she can do things no one else can simply because the script says she can, so the ‘inspiring’ conclusion is that she realizes she has the power to blow up alien space ships without breaking a sweat. With One-Punch Man, that’s the premise and the question is how he can actually be heroic or even invested when he’s all-powerful, which leads to the question of what makes a hero in the first place.

Of course, the show is primarily a comedy, and a lot of the humor revolves around the show recognizing and having fun with its own absurdities. At one point, Saitama meets “the most powerful telekinetic in the universe!” And proceeds to comment, “you’re just throwing pebbles around. Anyone can do that.” One of my favorite moments has Saitama revealing the secret of his strength, which is so ridiculously anti-climactic that Genos starts angrily pointing out that it’s literally impossible that that’s the truth of his power.

Also a lot of humor comes from Saitama’s asocial, detached personality, especially in contrast with the earnest Genos. With his extreme power, Saitama often ends up getting preoccupied with seemingly meaningless details, such as when a monster bursts into his apartment and he punches its head off…because it broke his ceiling. This then becomes his primary motivation for the ensuring battle. Later, in the midst of a battle with an immensely powerful foe, he realizes he may have made a crucial mistake; he may have missed bargain day!

I also like the gags involving Saitama’s would-be rival Speed-of-Sound Sonic (“Who would have such a redundant name?”), a ninja for hire who, finding that his super-speed and ninja skills don’t work on Saitama, determines that he will beat him some day! Needless to say, though he always escapes with his life, it is rarely with his dignity. Meanwhile, Saitama really cannot be bothered and treats the whole thing as a minor annoyance at best.

There is also some more…off-color humor. Saitama and some of the other characters end up naked a few times when their clothes get blasted off. A character called ‘Puri-Puri Prisoner’ is a hulking, flamboyantly homosexual superhero who ends up naked every time he appears (nothing graphic, thanks to some strategic camera angles) and has a good deal of related humor (he is played mostly for laugh, though is a very powerful hero).

Of course there’s the gore factor as well, as Saitama’s punches turn his enemies into bloody chunks or splatters them into red smears against a wall, while the monsters themselves are often gleefully grotesque and produce effects to match. Basically, the content is something to be aware of before you go in.

Then of course, the whole story isn’t told in the first season, and there are some big threads left hanging and several characters who are clearly being set up for roles later on, but since I’ve only seen the first season, I can’t comment on what happens later on. Personally, I found the story I got satisfying enough as it that I don’t feel any urgent need to press on despite the poor word on the subsequent seasons. That is to say, the first season of One Punch Man is an excellent piece of work, both very funny and surprisingly heartfelt, and that’s good enough for me.