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A Tree of Souls grows in London.

A Tree of Souls grows in London. (photo)

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Amid all the fuss about “Avatar” shattering Blu-ray sales records, there were a few off notes being hit. Some DVDs wouldn’t play, apparently due to anti-piracy software. As one particularly irate customer wrote, “I am so pissed!!! I have spent the whole day trying to get this to play in a LC-42bd80u with no luck!!!” Indeed.

Meanwhile, torrent pirates bragged that they, too, had set a record: “Avatar” is the most pirated Bluray movie ever (perhaps in part by frustrated customers). As “Ernesto” at TorrentFreak.com gloated, we’ve come a long way since “Ice Age 2″ became the first Blu-ray to get BitTorrented: “Piracy was rampant but it has not hindered a film that has broken nearly all sales records in motion picture history. That must be somewhat reassuring for the film industry.”

But the most fun side event was the unveiling of a real-world Pandoran Tree of Souls in London’s Hyde Park — granted, only five meters tall, but it’s the thought that counts. It was metal and plastic, with 20 miles of hanging fiber-optic fables; seen in scale with actor Stephen Lang in the front, it looks kind of dinky.

042922010_pandora.jpgA few years ago, Christo and the late Jeanne-Claude embarked on one of their biggest projects, The Gates, the subject of a Maysles documentary. Their projects tend to make people uneasy, and — despite a fine track record — they must always prove that what they’re trying to do isn’t ecologically harmful. In transforming Central Park with a series of orange gates, they heightened the laid-out artifice of the place Manhattanites like to think of as the closest thing they have to nature, but they also made it a playground. It’s the opposite of the fundamental paradox of “Avatar,” which used megatons of technology to preach for nature and ecological conservation. It’s a tension embodied in the very promotional tree: for every person who connected, wifi-wise, a real tree will be planted.

It’s striking how such a silly concept, replicated at scale, could still bring people out — not just gawkers, but the guy who answered (in full make-up!) “Are you a Na’vi?” with “In a way, yes.” Let’s give appropriate credit to James Cameron for making it possible to entirely transform a physical space for some people not with years of planning and great expense, but with a cheap replica of something that’s not real that’s still more evocative for some.

[Photos: “Avatar,” 20th Century Fox, 2009]

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

ikea heights

IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

invitation

Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

The big-screen afterlife of TV shows.

The big-screen afterlife of TV shows. (photo)

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It’s not entirely clear why canceled TV shows aren’t content to go away and die somewhere quietly, though in today’s world of corporate synergy that values brands, nothing is really ever prepared to die. If they can, they will return as movies, to general public bafflement. Such was the case with “Serenity,” Joss Whedon’s continuation of the culty “Firefly,” which didn’t make back its budget until hitting DVD in spite of a hardcore fanbase. Likewise, there has been more drama surrounding possible big-screen continuations of “Arrested Development,” HBO’s follow-up to “Rome” and “24” (which begs the question wouldn’t a two-hour movie in real time have to take place on one set pretty much?) than any resulting movie could have and like the upcoming “Sex and the City 2,” in which the ladies visit fabulous, alcohol-soaked Abu Dhabi (?),” I’m not sure we really need them.

This is all marginally less cynical than the now-outdated practice of simply repackaging TV series for theaters — something that once happened and now would be laughed off the screen. Yet it worked for the smartly exploitative producers of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” who realized their James Bond-esque universe (logically enough, since Ian Fleming contributed to the show’s creation) could make even more money in the theaters. And so audiences globally were treated to no less than eight “movies” culled from reedited episodes, all of which have entertaining titles, from the straight-up Bond-ly “How To Steal The World” to the mild-mannered “The Spy in the Green Hat” (that’s all? really?).

The selling points of the Frankensteined films were color (the first two “U.N.C.L.E.” episodes turned into movies were shot in color but only broadcast in black-and-white), added sex and violence, and guest stars. Bypassing the big theaters, the movies went directly to neighborhood theaters and eventually skipped American theaters entirely and went straight for the lucrative foreign market, which has always been less than picky about its American imports. This is only slightly less stupid than, say, James Cameron deciding to re-issue “Avatar” with less of those boring war sequences and more of the “deep stuff” about “Pandora’s ecology.”

Another TV series that got the re-edited cinematic treatment was the original “Battlestar Galactica,” which at least could claim a novel justification: the pilot episode was interrupted for an hour by the signing of the Camp David peace accords. (Why there were two more subsequent movies is a different question.)

So let’s give thanks, at least, that TV producers looking to keep a good thing going won’t just splice 15 minutes of “too hot for TV” footage into something; that’s what DVD is for. That said, it’s worth your time to look at the fairly insane trailer for 1967’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” spinoff “The Karate Killers,” which pointedly announces “This may well be one of the most exciting pictures you’ll ever see on any screen.” Indeed. Co-starring Joan Crawford…and Terry-Thomas:

[Photos: “Serenity,” Universal Pictures, 2005; “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” NBC, 1964]

The Mayans predicted it: “Titanic” in 3D.

The Mayans predicted it: “Titanic” in 3D. (photo)

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For his next trick, James Cameron intends to grace us with a 3D version of “Titanic.” He’s aiming for 2012, which he says is both a realistic technical target and the 100th anniversary of the actual Titanic’s sinking.

Cameron seems to have missed a self-aggrandizing trick for once by failing to mention the surprisingly large numbers of people who sincerely believe the Mayans were right and the world will end in 2012 (an idea so surprisingly robust NASA had to issue a statement debunking it). “Titanic” is nothing if not an elegant apocalypse: the destruction of the ship has real heft to it, a bravura extended sequence in which Cameron flexing his action muscles towards a darker purpose.

Despite all those stupid CGI extras, much of “Titanic” has a compelling verisimilitude — few high-grossing blockbusters have ever looked so real. Cameron basically blew up the blockbuster paradigm he helped solidify with “Terminator 2″ — something he’s also done with “Avatar,” which has to be one of the most long and indulgent movies to inspire conversations among complete strangers.

03162010_ghosts.jpgWill people go crazy for “Titanic” all over again? When the film hit theaters in 1997, it was a rare national collective moviegoing moment, and I assume most people have good memories of whenever they saw it (I did). The unusual set-piece nature of the action stuff made it hard to rip off, which will also prove true with “Avatar.”

But it’s fashionable now to hate on the film and call it silly (it’s really not bad at all), so you have to wonder how the re-release will play. James Cameron, for whatever reason, draws even more ire for his ego than George Lucas. A “Titanic” victory lap will probably launch more exclamation points and angry, all-caps posts than you’ve ever seen. Angry online types — you’ve got two years to prep.

[Photos: “Titanic,” Fox, 1997; “Ghosts of the Abyss,” Disney, 2003]

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