The Sunday Magazine: Strong Women in Pop Culture

In 2006 writer-director Joss Whedon received an award from Equality Now. His acceptance speech is one of the funnier things I’ve read. In it he talks about going on press junkets and being asked the same question over and over, “Why do you write these strong women characters?” Over the course of answering the question multiple times in the speech it is his final answer that was most telling of the way things were in 2006, “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

In 2006 characters like Mr. Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the women on his show Firefly were anomalies. Now in 2017 we are a week removed from a movie which featured the original pop culture strong woman, Wonder Woman. Which was directed by a female director, Patty Jenkins; becoming the biggest box office opening for a female directed movie.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

In the eleven years since 2006 there has been a steady increase in women taking on starring roles in some of our biggest pop culture mediums. Besides Wonder Woman the character Rey in the new Star Wars movies is as big as any hero in any movie coming out in 2017. The heroine of the storybook television show Once Upon a Time is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. Supergirl has her own show. In comics, a woman wields Mjolnir as Thor. The most interesting thing is I could keep going on and on with examples. In 2006, I would have had trouble writing a paragraph as long.

Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars

What changed? I don’t think anything changed. What I think happened is a generation of creative minds were influenced by the opportunity to work in the unexplored territory of writing for strong women. If you’re going to tell the tale of the Hero’s Journey why not make it the Heroine’s Journey and claim it for your own? Which is why we have this growing sector of strong women in pop culture. It is also why this will be an enduring change because it has emerged in a natural way driven by the writers, directors, and artists looking for their story to tell.

In 2006, I think we were just beginning to take the first steps to rounding the corner. In 2017, I think we are almost at the point that the change is complete. Which means the question of “Why do you write these strong women characters?” will disappear sooner rather than later.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris

You know when you receive something you connect with that time stands still. The movie seems over before it has begun. You walk away from the sculpture or painting on display only to find that an hour has passed. You can’t sleep until you finish the book. It is why art is so important; this ability to draw on our innermost feelings taking them out for us to examine. In this age of storytelling the graphic form of it has become a new place to find something original. The new graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris is a new height in this area.

Emil Ferris

The book is semi-autobiographical as Ms. Ferris who was making a living as an illustrator came down with West Nile Virus; paralyzing her from the waist down while making her unable to draw. Through laborious effort she trained herself to overcome the pain. Sometime during this came the story which she is now telling in My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

That story takes place in 1968 Chicago as we meet 10-year old Karen Reyes who has a mother fighting cancer. She projects her belief in a cure on the idea a monster, from her beloved monster comic books, will bite her mother turning her into a monster who will no longer have cancer. As she searches for these monsters she meets her upstairs neighbor Anka. When Anka is found dead in her bed after being shot in the heart Karen begins to look for real monsters as she investigates. She delves in to Anka’s past in Nazi Germany juxtaposed against the societal changes taking place in late 1960’s Chicago. The story is fascinating enough if it was just a novel. The graphic elements are what elevate it to something amazing.

Throughout high school and college I had contemporaries who drew with a ballpoint pen in a notebook using dense cross hatched lines to achieve their drawing. The graphic part of My Favorite Thing is Monsters is Karen’s notebook which is what we are reading with the prose interspersed. It is so perfect as the diary of a ten-year old. One of the devices used by Ms. Ferris is we see how Karen sees herself as one of the monsters, in a trenchcoat, in her view of herself among the illustrations. There are reproductions of horror comic book covers. There are portraits drawn with emotion of those Karen connects with. In the sample pages, you see here you get the idea.

Reading My Favorite Thing is Monsters reminded me of reading the first volume of Art Spigelman’s Maus or the first issues of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It is what happens when a style of storytelling is beginning an evolution. Ms. Ferris is taking graphic novels to a better place.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Tom Collins

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It was a couple weeks after Labor Day 2016 and we were having our last backyard soiree. I had an array of new botanical gins I had just unearthed. I asked one of the later arrivals to please bring some tonic water. As sometimes happens tonic water turns to soda water in the process which happened this time. Faced with a dilemma I decided to try out my panel of gins on a different cocktail. What happened would remind me that the best answers are sometimes the standards as I re-discovered the cocktail known as the Tom Collins that day.

I have always loved the story of how this cocktail came to be. In 1874, there was a joke that the men who were out in bars played on each other. It went like this. As a friend would walk in to the bar you would begin to shake your head in dismay. As your friend arrived and asked what the look was for you would tell him this guy Tom Collins is telling people you have the ankles of a girl and your father was a blacksmith. In 1874 that would send our dishonored man off in search of Tom Collins who did not exist. Somewhere during the heyday of this prank an enterprising New York bartender decided to make a drink named after the man everyone was looking for.

What this bartender came up with is the best alternative to Gin & Tonic for a summer drink. It is simple as you add a shot of gin, an equal amount of lemon juice, and a half shot of simple syrup into a glass filled with ice. Stir. Then top off with soda water. What I discovered last year is with the advent of the small-batch botanical gins that are out there the Tom Collins is an excellent platform on which to display them. For alterations, you can substitute lime juice for the lemon juice. You can add in almost any herb growing in the garden. I’ve found a bit of crushed basil, thyme, and rosemary add a lot. This is especially true with the new gins. We also found a float of St. Germain elderflower liqueur or Crème de Violette also added something to the mix.

As I spend the first summer weekend looking out over the backyard as the poodles run, the ribs smoke, and the sun shines on Poodlesville I am purposefully buying soda water; for this is going to be a Tom Collins summer.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Return of Twin Peaks

On April 8, 1990 I sat down in front of my television to watch the first episode of something claimed to be, “The Series That Will Change TV Forever”. With the discovery of the body of Laura Palmer that lofty goal would be lived up, and down, to over two years by Twin Peaks.

The question of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” would become a societal phenomenon while creators Mark Frost and David Lynch took us on a circuitous path to that answer. By the time, we got to the end of the first nine episodes we had become drawn into a new storytelling format for the small screen. It was unclear if Mr. Lynch’s cinematic style would work on something much smaller. Turns out the claustrophobia of the typical 19-inch television added to it. Working with Mr. Frost every step closer to answering the central question added more texture to the story. Every visual that could be tweaked for comedic or dramatic effect was. The music by Angelo Badalamente was its own character providing the ratcheting nature of tension within some of the key scenes. Those first nine episodes were something that was going to change TV except they forgot to tell us who the killer was leaving us hanging until many episodes into the second season to find out. The answer was worth the wait.

The problem was for this show was what was next? Over much of the rest of the second season Twin Peaks was weird and disturbing but without a central narrative it became more fractured in nature. It also suffered from Mr. Lynch not being as constant a presence. That lack would be confirmed as he came back for the final episodes. During the final episode, the spirit of Laura Palmer tells our hero “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years”. That was in June of 1991. In May of 2017 it turns out she will be off by a year as Twin Peaks makes its return on Showtime.

We were left on a pretty big cliffhanger which I suspect will be where this new run of episodes will begin. I sit here hours before finding out the answer but I think Mr. Lynch and Mr. Frost helped to create the television environment which will allow Twin Peaks to thrive in. The impact of the original two seasons showed those who approve new shows audiences would flock to, and stick with, something completely different. This allowed for the great run of television drama we are in right now. Almost to a man or woman the creative teams mention Twin Peaks as a source of inspiration.

The great thing for this new 18-episode season all of them were written by Mr. Lynch and Mr. Frost; with every episode directed by Mr. Lynch. Many of the original actors are returning to their roles while new characters are introduced. I’m not sure what to expect which is one of the reasons I can’t wait to find out. Okay Laura I’m here; it’s been twenty-five years, tell me a story.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Three years ago, if I had asked anyone to name the members of the Guardians of the Galaxy I am pretty certain the most common response would have been, “Who?” Now I think I would get the correct answer from a large majority. It is credit to director/writer James Gunn and the actors who made the roles that this is so. Now comes the opportunity to see if they can do it a second time with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

This second version picks up after our band of misfit heroes have been living together a while. One of the main themes of this movie is the concept that the family you choose is as important as the family you are born into. The Guardians are family by choice; every decision they make throughout the movie is meant to protect that. The forces trying to wedge themselves in between are the family by blood of some of the characters. As each of these characters are faced with an option it plays on the idea of friendship over genetics. Mr. Gunn pens a funny fast-moving story but throughout is the same heart of a group of outcasts having found a home. It is that heart which makes both movies stand out among the other movies concerned with those who save the galaxy, world, city, or neighborhood.

There are two incredible performances which illustrate this quality. The first is the one you’ve seen in many of the commercials, Baby Groot; voiced by Vin Diesel. After Groot sacrificed himself to save everyone in the first movie he is growing back from a twig. In Vol. 2 he is a precocious toddler doing the things which end up on Facebook feeds i.e. being generally cute. It is the subtler moments as the rest of the crew protects him from danger and he reaches out for all of them, not just Rocket, for comfort. Groot saved them last time and this time he is their responsibility.

Michael Rooker as Yondu

The other performance is Michael Rooker as Yondu the Ravager who captured Peter/Star-Lord on Earth and instead of delivering him to his father kept him as part of his crew. That choice was part of something broader which is not fully explained until midway through the story. When that happens Yondu becomes something else than what we have seen previously. Mr. Rooker portrays the character quite beautifully becoming the largest confirmation that family by choice is best.

Mr. Gunn has written and directed a sequel which takes us deeper into every one of the Guardians past; providing new perspectives on each character. The fusion of seventies pop music with 2017 action moves is better this time. The title sequence done to the music of Mr. Blue Sky by ELO sets the mood and re-introduces us to the gang all in the time it takes to list the stars’ names.  

I thought Vol.2 was better than the original movie because this time the Guardians were at risk of losing this family they chose. The personal stakes were higher even if the galaxy was once again being threatened. Mr. Gunn has made a movie about how he feels about that well worth spending a couple hours with. Just remember to sit through the credits as there are five extra scenes sprinkled throughout.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Colognoisseur Awesome Mix Vol. 2

Yes, I’ve already seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. No, this is not the time I will talk about the movie itself, check back next week for that. As one who grew up during the time period of the music which is featured in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies I walk away thinking of other songs from the era. Three years ago, when the original movie came out I came out with my own version of Awesome Mix Vol. 1. I thought I’d do it again for Vol. 2 so here is Colognoisseur Awesome Mix Vol. 2.

Le Freak-Chic: As disco became the dominant pop music form of the 1970’s one critique was so much of it was disposable. Forty years on it is easy to pick out the true gems. Le Freak was the biggest hit for the band founded by Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards, and Tony Thompson. It combines everything into a song which makes you wanna dance.

Tonight’s the Night- Rod Stewart: The prototypical double entendre laden ballad about making love endemic to the 1970’s. Rod the Mod’s bedroom eyes and raspy vocals had lots of women imagining him singing it to them.

I’ll Be There- The Jackson 5: This is my favorite Jackson 5 song it came off their third album and was the fourth in a string of Number One hits starting with “I Want You Back”. In many ways, the lyrics will come to represent the brothers as the future begins to splinter the family and their popularity wanes as Michael goes off on his own.

Don’t Fear The Reaper- Blue Oyster Cult: This song is an example of how one song can make a band’s reputation. As rock music was getting more and more symphonic Blue Oyster Cult tried to bring it back to the garage from the concert hall. Don’t Fear the Reaper has throwback 60’s guitar lines over a fabulously intense middle section.

Senses Working Overtime-XTC: XTC was one of those bands which almost had too many influences and sometimes needed to trim one or two off of a particular song. Every once in a while, they could synthesize all of it into a joyous catchy pop song like Senses Working Overtime.

Train In Vain- The Clash: The Clash were the contemporaries to The Sex Pistols as the leading edge of Punk Rock. By the time the double album “London Calling” came out everyone discovered there was a song there that wasn’t on the listing. There were rumors that the band didn’t want it there and the label added it behind their back. The reason for the conspiracy theory is Train in Vain was easily the most accessible song The Clash had released. A radio friendly version of punk rock. It is that, it is also a damn fine song all on its own.  

The Bitch Is Back- Elton John: I have always been a big fan of Elton John from the beginning to now. After the monster success of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” everyone was waiting for the next new album. When “Caribou” was released “The Bitch is Back” was the first track which lead with primary guitar line over Elton’s piano playing. A hard-biting reminder that there was still some bitch in the artist even after the success.

Shake It Up- The Cars: Ric Ocasek is exhibit A that you don’t need to be good looking to be a rock star. The Cars had been on a steady roll but “Shake It Up” would be the song which propelled them to the top of the pop music world. As New Wave trended towards dance “Shake It Up” would lead the way.

Planet Claire- The B-52’s: The kitschy band known for “Rock Lobster” also has this silly song about driving a Plymouth Satellite faster than the speed of light to a pink air Planet Claire. Fun and funny the Guardians need to visit Planet Claire.

Life During Wartime- Talking Heads: This song showed the direction one of the original New Wave bands would take as they fused punk sensibilities with funk. With lyrics which told everyone; “This ain’t no disco” it still could make you dance.

If you’re in the mood for more music after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 add these to your playlist.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Two Minute Warning

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This past week as the weather turned warmer the need for many people to move faster has taken an upturn. I have always wondered about the things people do in cars to speed up their day. Crossing a double-yellow line to get around a car doing the speed limit. Tailgating on the expressway so the person in front of you will get out of the way. The place where my mind wanders is what does the person who practices this speed do with the extra time their behavior gains them?

If I’m being charitable these kinds of behaviors give them back two minutes. So, I wonder what does a person do with those extra two minutes?

Do they use them to do something on their job for two minutes longer?

Do they use them to think about important things?

Do they save a life?

Do they write an extra line in their literary work?

Do they read an extra two pages?

Do they spend that time in meditation?

Do they spend that time with loved ones?

Or, do they do nothing with this extra time?

If it is the last one what justifies taking a risky behavior like most of the ones in a moving car. Is a mistake when passing on a curve, or following too close, or just plain going too fast, worth it? Is the damage you can do to someone else worth those two minutes?

In the country area, we live in I’ve seen too many close calls with the bicyclists who like to ride outside of the city and the drivers who have to always be going fast.

I know there are reasons to go fast; medical emergencies, picking up children, respecting an appointment made. Even then consider whether those two minutes will change anything at the end of your journey.

As we all start to enter the travel portion of the year please try and remember all the risky speeding behavior behind the wheel of a car probably doesn’t gain you much. Let those two minutes go.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

I am not usually asked what my favorite perfume book is. I do know my answer is one few of my infrequent interrogators expects; Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins.

Jitterbug Perfume was the fourth novel released by Mr. Robbins. By its release in 1984 Mr. Robbins had staked out a reputation as a literary cult author. His most famous book is “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” which is how I first discovered him. Mr. Robbins has a style of writing a tale in multiple layers covering different timeframes and almost always a bit of the fantastical. In between those threads are many laugh out loud moments. I’ve always categorized Mr. Robbins as a writer whom it is best to read over a few days and not in small bits before bed or on the commute. To fully enjoy his writing I think you have to ride the wave of prose until it carries you to the shore. Fortunately, his books are written in such a way that they propel you to wanting to know the answer to the questions of the narrative which keeps you turning pages. There is also some odd focal point which ends up tying many of the protagonists together. In Jitterbug Perfume it is beets.

The first sentence of Jitterbug Perfume informs us, “The beet is the most intense of vegetables.” After a few paragraphs supporting that thesis Mr. Robbins closes the first chapter with, “A tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil. That is a risk we will have to take.” From there a beet is delivered to three protagonists living in the modern-day Seattle, New Orleans, and Paris. All of them are working on making a modern version of Jitterbug Perfume. As the story progresses we learn they are connected by more than the beet they received. Interspersed between their story are chapters of King Alobar and his paramour Kudra. Their story tells of the reason for and the creation of Jitterbug Perfume.

Tom Robbins

When I read it for the first time in 1984 my knowledge of perfume was at an early stage. When reading it twenty years later discussions of Jamaican jasmine and synthetic replacements of the natural ingredients resonated more. The plot drives towards the moment the new Jitterbug Perfume will be revealed while Alobar and Kudra supply the historical foundation.

If you have not discovered Mr. Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume is a great place to start. I consider him to be one of the great American writers. His books are a good choice for vacation reading where you can dive in and spend uninterrupted time with them. Just be ready to have people look at you when you laugh out loud; and ask for beets in your salad.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Acceptance of Passion

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It will be unsurprising to know that my eyes have been turned towards Orlando over the past few days. Since Thursday Star Wars Celebration 2017 has been going on which means news about all things Star Wars has been coming out over the last few days. It is also the 40th anniversary since the release of Star Wars in 1977. To begin the weekend, they had a panel celebrating the original cast. It was bittersweet because of the recent death of actress Carrie Fisher who played Princess Leia in the original movie. The end of the panel was her daughter Billie Lourd appearing dressed in a Tom Ford Leia-inspired dress making her first appearance since her mother’s death. She gave a moving tribute to how much Star Wars and the fans meant to her family. There was one line in the speech (entire text can be found here) which has resonated with me since I saw the video of it. Ms Lourd said to the fans, “That is why she loved you, because you accepted and embraced all of her; the strong soldier of a woman she was, and also the vulnerable side of her, who openly fought her own dark side, knowing early on that we all have a dark side of our own, whatever it may be.”

Billie Lourd at Star Wars Celebration 2017

Those words connected with me because I realize that is what I receive from all of my different communities of which I share passions with others. On the night those words were being spoken I was happily among the local Washington DC perfume group gathered at Arielle Shoshana to meet Robert Gerstner of Aedes de Venustas. The perfume was the focus but it is the camaraderie which means as much to me. I walked away with a glow of friendship mingling with the new perfume.

Attending New York Comic Con connects me with a long-time friend once a year which gives us a chance to catch-up. In between, the different panels connect the passionate to their passion. I sit and talk with people from all over the country about something we adore. That common ground leads to learning there is even more than just the initial connection. Importantly that common ground provides an opportunity for different opinions to be listened to. It is an interesting dynamic that has repeated itself multiple times throughout my over forty years of being a fan.

It is only in these gatherings where I truly feel the acceptance of being passionate about something. Nobody questions why I love perfume as much as I do on Thursday night at Arielle Shoshana. On Friday morning at work that acceptance is more difficult to locate. It is why I look forward to each time I can spend time with people who share my interests because acceptance of passion is also just plain acceptance.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Don Rickles

If there is a subject I have written about most in this column it is my love of late-night television. When I was growing up trying to stay awake until 1AM to see the entire The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was one of those “adult” thing. Only “kids” fell asleep before the end. One of the best guests on the show was Don Rickles.

Mr. Rickles passed away this past week at the age of 90 and there will be who eulogize him for what he meant to stand-up comedy. How his style of insult comedy would spawn hundreds throughout the years. I want to talk about how he nearly single-handedly created the guest-host symbiosis that every late-night show needs to thrive. For it to work there must be two key ingredients respect and friendship. Mr. Carson and Mr. Rickles were the right counterbalance. For Mr. Carson, any appearance of Mr. Rickles allowed his more acerbic wit to surface. It was allowed because his guest was already firing with both barrels. If most of Mr. Carson’s time talking to guests was the equivalent of fast food; any appearance of Mr. Rickles allowed him to up his game.

That give-and-take was the staple of the late-night talk show in the 1960’s and 70’s. What was not at the time was the twist on a remote piece. One of the funniest things I saw when I was 10-years old was Mr. Carson being shown the art of massage as a young woman was walking on his back. He was cracking jokes when suddenly Don Rickles walks in and takes over. Before long Mr. Carson has pushed Mr. Rickles into a tub and they are flinging water at each other. The spontaneity of the comedy and playfulness stood out.

On another occasion, Mr. Rickles had been on with one of the guest hosts while Mr. Carson was away. There was a wooden box that Mr. Carson kept his cigarettes in. On the previous night, Mr. Rickles broke it. When Mr. Carson returned to the studio the next day and noticed the broken box and who had done it he decided it had to be resolved immediately. In 1976 when this happened the portable news cameras were just becoming adopted. Mr. Carson gets one and walks next door to the studio where Mr. Rickles was filming his sitcom CPO Sharkey. Walks on to the set and asks what the hell did you do to my cigarette box. Again, spontaneity and playfulness was on display.

The current evolution of this is the Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Damon feud on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live. A throwaway joke about having to apologize to Matt Damon because they ran out of time at the end of one show has become the best running gag on late-night. Of all the current hosts Mr. Kimmel has the spontaneity and playfulness that you saw with Mr. Carson and Mr. Rickles.

If there is an afterlife I know two old friends have been catching up and probably leaving a mess for others to clean up.

Mark Behnke