"It seems that we don't see enough support for the guys in harm's way. The freedoms that we have here come at a price . . ." Raquel Welch paused a beat and looked around at the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills. ". . . And those boys over there are paying a price."
The crowd attending "Yellow Ribbon Sunday" numbered about two dozen three, if you counted the dog walkers but the Will Rogers Park event was covered by at least 10 photographers and camcorder crew members. KABC was there, as was KCAL, FOX 11, Noticias 34, Liquid BBC and others. It was the kind of story local media can't guzzle enough of, with lots of yellow ribbons and some celebrities, although not the kind of stars who say discomfiting things about the war.
Welch wore a black, cavalry Stetson with gold braid and major's insignia. She had seen plenty of war on the USO tours in Southeast Asia, as had Nancy Sinatra, who was here today sporting a black-leather corset vest emblazoned with Vietnam emblems. Soon the gals were joining co-organizers Alana Stewart and Lorna Luft to pose for pictures. Crooner Al Martino was spotted among the onlookers, and Sinatra began a chant: "C'mon, Al! Come up here, Al!" Then the women inaugurated the business at hand tying the first of many yellow ribbons around palm trees lining Beverly Drive.
"Today is not about us," Luft announced, just in case any passerby imagined it was. Rather, the event was for the troops of America, Britain and Australia. There was no politicking, no mention of the peace demonstrations that dwarf pro-war rallies yet receive less media attention.
"This is about caring for the men and women who are protecting our rights," said B.H. Mayor Tom Levyn. "This is democracy in action."
Perhaps, but it's still hard to imagine how our rights are more protected today, with thousands of Iraqis dead, than they were a few weeks ago when those same people were alive. We certainly don't feel freer, especially since we have fewer of those rights than we did 18 months ago. The brute fact is that supporting the troops has become the equivalent of playing the child card (that is, "We're building this freeway to safeguard our children's future") in an election campaign it's a seemingly neutral impulse intended to silence all debate. In this age of world policing, you either back the badge or you don't. Nothing is more politically weaponized than yellow ribbons and banners reading "Support Our Troops" a slogan that certainly sounds savvier than some old-school chant like "Today Poland, Tomorrow the World."
More important, by equating support for those carrying out the White House's imperial project with the project itself, the war party can shield itself from public and congressional criticism, and shake a finger at the critics as well. Of all the yarns and ghost stories told around the campfire of historical revision, none stirs more outrage than the tale of How Americans Spat on Their War Heroes. Once upon a time, according to hard-right mythologists, ungrateful citizens lined up at airports and harbors for the chance to spit on soldiers and sailors returning from Vietnam. This never happened in any real sense, but no matter a powerful blood libel against the left had been created, which to this day neutralizes effective dissent against war.
While the rally was still in full swing, a small car painted in leopard-skin print and kissing cupids parked nearby. Out stepped Monti Rock III, wearing his own black cowboy hat and lots of zebra and other faux skins. The 1970s hairdresser/entertainer was on his way to the park but paused to tell a reporter that he was about to open a one-man show soon in Hollywood.
"It's my 45th comeback in 42 years!" Mr. Rock said.
Why was he going to the rally?
"For Lorna Luft!" he replied, as though that were reason enough.
In the foothills of Griffith Park, evil comedy geniuses gather on random Saturdays to don mjolnir suits, take up plasma weapons and battle a coalition of angry space aliens bent on human subjugation. Luckily, most of them don't have girlfriends, so they can keep at it long into the evening, if necessary.
In their day jobs (as evil comedy geniuses), many work as sitcom writers, character actors and standup comedians. The group's members come out of the Mr. Show nexus, and so they wish to be identified only by their official Halo names. Halo is an extreme FPS (first-person shooter) videogame exclusive to the Microsoft Xbox (designed by Bungie, which Microsoft has since purchased). But unlike rival platforms PlayStation 2 and GameCube, the Xbox allows up to four separate consoles to be networked through an Ethernet hub, while each console supports four controllers, enabling 16 players at one time.
Eight players per room (den vs. dining room) face off on four large-screen TVs, each divided into quadrants. Players are armed with Ghost (hovercraft), Warthog (Jeep) and Scorpion (tank) not to mention shotguns, plasma rifles and (when allowed) something called an infinite grenade to wage varying degrees of strategic warfare for up to 12 hours at a sitting, breaking only when the pizza delivery guy arrives around midnight. Aside from the occasional palate-cleansing bloodbath, this group favors a Capture the Flag variant, staged in Blood Gulch, a box canyon closely resembling Monument Valley with bunker-style forts at either end.
Jack Black has been a guest, as have both Bob Odenkirk and David Cross from Mr. Show. Recently, our host Captain Oopsie and Deems, one of the ranking players, devised a special lottery so that players would be randomly assigned to one team or another, to avoid some rather unpleasant experiences in the past. "They used to go out on the deck and choose up sides, but it was too much like sad junior high," says Captain Oopsie's significant other, a sitcom actress who occasionally sits in but more often slips away to the bedroom to watch Saturday Night Live.
During a break, Dr. Takahashi, the resident historian, explains some of the elaborate cosmogony of the game, having just read Halo: The Fall of Reach, the official 340-page "prequel" by Eric Nylund, who has degrees in chemistry and theoretical physics and is the author of five other virtual-reality thrillers.
"It is the middle of the 26th century," states Takahashi. "A band of augmented Marines, or bioengineered humans known as Spartans, use their technologically enhanced skills and exoskeletons of armor in the tactical mission of their lives battling the Covenant, a cartel of aliens bent on annihilating humankind due to some obscure religious doctrine. The book follows the career of John 117, who later becomes known by his Spartan name, Master Chief. The Halo Ring, where the fighting takes place, is neither Covenant nor human."
Having mastered the complexities of killing in organized packs, four of the better players Captain Oopsie, Deems, Evelyn and A Cute Baby - attended a Halo competition at Badlanz, an Internet café on Cahuenga. Calling themselves the Senior Citizens, a team name they initially thought was ironic, they were instead dealt an emphatic lesson in hubris.
"We got our asses so kicked," recalls Captain Oopsie. "We had a strategy going in, and they just adapted our strategy and used it against us. As we were leaving, one of them told us, 'I don't want to be rude, but, you know, we play every day.'"
"They were basically beaten by Chinese children," says the sitcom actress. "But they're going back again. You gotta admire that."
Gliding between the screens, following the game from multiple perspectives, you quickly learn the strategies of individual gamers. Captain Oopsie is one of the strongest players as well as one of the most aggressive, and rallies his teammates accordingly. Chili Mac is a top-notch field lieutenant. Takahashi is good with the sniper rifle and frequently hides out up in the mountains, while Chimp Nugget prefers to climb up on the roof and slaughter everything in sight. Sicky, the one girl who plays regularly, is a master of stealing behind enemy lines in a Ghost, while Mucho plays an organized defense, even if he once fell asleep on patrol. Every game ends with an automated carnage report: When four people die, it's a killing spree, and when six or more die, a disembodied voice announces, "Kill-tacular!"
Despite the graphic blood and gore, players are instantly regenerated at the moment of death, although in some variations, they must suffer a cumbersome five-second "re-spawn" penalty.
The best players quickly learn to avoid death altogether.
There's been an emergency. Thirty-eight seconds of Moe, Larry and Curly must be cut in order to squeeze in another commercial for The Three Stooges 75th Anniversary television special which aired last week. Chip Pauken, the editor, comes to the rescue.
Rewind. Chip, a med-school dropout from Toledo, Ohio, arrived in L.A. during the late '70s doing disco lighting that caught the attention of the industry. Now, he's one of the top television editors in Hollywood, having done nostalgic specials on I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore and Disney. Currently, he's working on a Bob Hope hour. He just finished five months working on The Three Stooges.
Chip doesn't understand why I want to interview him. He keeps asking if I need to know the specs, when NBC runs its special, who directed the special, is there anyone else I need to talk to?
"What's your angle, why do you want to talk to me?" he asks.
"Because you just spent five months watching The Three Stooges every day for over eight hours a day!"
This does not compute. Chip's just an ordinary behind-the-scenes guy. He's reserved but polite. He invites me to his editing bay.
Ask for Chip Pauken at Matchframe Video Studios in Burbank and they'll direct you to the "Three Stooges editing bay" (they actually say things like that). There, at least four monitors are showing America's favorite nitwits, poking and jabbing and yukking. Chip and another guy are steadfast at the Avid keyboards as they settle into fine-tuning a frame where Larry is at a cashier's counter pointing out each food stain on a customer's tie, counting out, "Roast beef, two dollars. Green beans, 50 cents. Mashed potatoes . . . ," etc. The editors are down to the last dribble, custard pie, and going back and forth between frames. Finally, they nail the edit and give each other high-fives. Then they back up to a scene of Moe striking Larry on the head with a hammer. I laugh out loud. The two editors look back at me, startled. They then turn their attention to another clip of Curly doing his rub-a-dub-dub shtick. I'm howling. They shoot me another look of surprise.
"What's your favorite episode?" I ask Chip.
"I always like when they're doing some wacky occupation, like when they become doctors," says Chip. "Men in Black is an episode that was the only short that was up for an Academy Award. They just caused craziness and hysteria and chaos. They pretended to be doctors, and it featured some of their wacky wordplay, which was just absolutely brilliant."
Chip's on a roll now. "I remember another scene from another episode [he mimics a Stooge]: 'The prime relation of the pedal extremity is impeded by a foreign botanical offshoot,' and they're merely taking a splinter out of a dog's paw! That just shows you the brilliance . . . it's all great. Even though they spend all the time whacking the heck out of each other, it's timeless humor."
Chip pauses a moment and shifts gears. "I should have been in this business from the start, because I remember back in 1965, I'm in a theater with my brother and it's some afternoon matinee, and I saw these images of Coca-Cola and popcorn on the screen, and I looked at my brother and I said, 'Did you see that?' He said, 'What are you talking about?' 'Well, there's Coca-Cola on the screen.' My brother said, 'You're out of your mind!' And I found out later that they were subliminal images, and I remember people getting up and going to get Coke and popcorn. I saw it. It stuck out like a sore thumb. Those are called flash frames in the business."
Whenever Chip takes a gig, he insists on watching the entire work in order to become informed by the subject matter. I ask if he still likes his work. "I still can't believe I get paid!" he beams.
I wonder if that much television affects one's personality. Chip admits that "Now that you can go so much faster on a digital editing system, sometimes I go home at night and there's bpa-bpa-bpa-bpa-bpa-bpa going off in my brain of these images just playing over and over in my head. But you just learn how to turn it off."
And what did Chip learn from spending almost half a year with the Three Stooges and their antics?
"I think I have a deeper understanding of Shemp."
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LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS OF L.A. WEEKLY
I wonder what kind of lovemaking occurred around the world on the night of January 16: I imagine intertwined bodies lit not by candlelight but by the pale glow of television screens. There is something deeply disturbing about a war turned aesthetic experience. It is impossible to experience the suffering of others through an audio hookup that bounces energy from source to microwave dish to satellite to network headquarters to local transmitter to one's home. Inevitably, then, the war turns inward.
January 25, 1991