Friday, March 31, 2006

Celebrity Packs

Spork grew up in a magical time called the 80’s. Music was danceable, cable was expanding, and the drab golds, greens, and oranges of the 70’s were replaced by vivid reds, royal purples, and electric blues. Hair and earrings were big, stores began aging your denim for you, and lots of people wore hats.

It was a fine time, and its cinema was dominated by the Brat Pack. Who was the Brat Pack? Now that was a loosely defined group! If you look at the cast of St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club, you are off to a good start, but that is only the starting point. Twice in my lifetime I have vague memories of people asking about it in “Walter Scott's Personality Parade” (PARADE), and him saying that originally it referred to a specific group of actors, which included Nicolas Cage, and then it just expanded.

I never thought too much about it, until I read somewhere else that the Rat Pack originally referred to a bunch of buddies that Humphrey Bogart hung out with, and Sinatra was the only person in the popularly perceived Rat Pack who was in the original Rat Pack.

Now the nice thing about the two Rat Packs is that they are pretty well documented, between biographies, autobiographies, and film footage. I don’t know that people will really be looking for biographies of Andrew McCarthy ten years from now, but I could be wrong.

The important thing is, I sensed a trend. Nicknames are assigned, and then the assignation mutates. I waited for the next one, and it came along sometime after the release of Good Will Hunting, with attempts to bring the Frat Pack into usage. It fizzled, if for no other reason than that you need more than two people in a pack. If they had tried to bring in everyone from the cast of School Ties, they probably could have made it work. A more appropriate addition would have been Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson, school buddies who work together, and that it is interesting because when the term Frat Pack was resurrected, Owen Wilson was in it.

This group is also known as the Slacker Pack, and brings in Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and for some reason Jack Black even though I can’t really see that he has done that much with them. Then again, these packs tend to have loose boundaries.

I have thought about this a lot, and I think one issue is that gossip columnists and entertainment writers are going to have different perceptions than the movie-going public. People may party together more than they work together. Also, two or three people with things in common may draw attention, but it doesn’t really stick together until you have at least four.

Here’s what I think went down with the original Brat Pack. I think someone was seeing this rising generation of actors with Hollywood bloodlines. Nicolas Cage is a Coppola, I am willing to bet that Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen were in it, as sons of Martin Sheen, and there was probably at least one other. Maybe Robert Downey Jr. I’d say Jamie Lee Curtis if she was a little younger. Anyway, it makes sense, it has a nice hook, but Cage is off the beaten track while the other two are making teen movies in this group where not only do the same people keep acting together, but some of them are dating each other. Let’s not forget that your film roles dictate your placement in teen magazines. I don’t think I ever saw a pin-up of Cage in Tiger Beat.

Now we could go back and forth about who belongs in which pack or how to classify the recurring tertiary characters, but do not expect it to become concrete. Just remember that in Hollywood, it really is not what you know, but whom.

That being said, I’d like to make some predictions about future packs.

In 2007, Colin Farrell, Jesse James, and Dennis Rodman form the Tat Pack. Since there are only three of them, they don’t do the same type of work, and it’s a gross thing to celebrate, they are quickly disbanded.

In 2008, a passel of new actors hailing from Riga is christened the Latt Pack. Later on as other South Eastern Europeans break into American Cinema, even Croats and Serbs are referred to as Latt Packers. Since a few of them are every bit as dreamy as Goran Visnjic, people are too distracted to complain.

In 2009, as eating and exercise disorders take their toll, a gossip columnist snickeringly refers to a quartet of anorexic and underdeveloped actresses as the Flat Pack. Derided for his cruelty and sexism, he still escapes with minor injuries compared to what would have happened if he had named a Fat Pack.

In 2010, several actors who aren’t getting parts anyway begin acquiring vineyards and producing wine (because everyone knows there is a shortage of alcohol in Hollywood). They are nick named the Vat Pack.

In 2011, a bunch of big-pimpin’ hip-hop artists form the Phat Pack, riding around in stretch HumVees and buying gold together. Things end on a bloody note when a disagreement on ornamental dentistry turns violent at their Labor Day barbecue.

In 2011, the Farrelly Brothers and the Wayans Brothers address the need for more toilet humor in movies, forming the Scat Pack. Sick at heart, Spork retires to a cave with a DVD player and waits for things to blow over.

Yeah, yeah. Just be glad I decided to stick to one-syllable words ending in “at”. I was also looking at Nougat, Zagat, and Latka packs. (Not the potato pancakes. That would be Jim Carrey, feeling that his career is dead, so hitting the road with a group of Andy Kaufman impersonators.)

Additional reading:

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Down Mexico Way

I’m not being as regular about these updates as I had intended.

First of all, as an aside I have to say that this is a marvelous time for discovery. First they find new and rare species in an area of New Guinea practically untouched by man, then they find the first new un-raided Egyptian tomb since King Tut. That seemed pretty cool all by itself, but suddenly there is a new cave so large that you can fly two helicopters inside of it with more new species in Venezuela, and the largest Macedonian tomb ever gets unearthed shortly after that. Finally, diatomyids are discovered in Laos, a species that was thought to have gone into extinction about 11 million years ago. A lot more could be said on that, but I will only make two points.

One, I hope this is cheering for all the scientists and academics who are seeing their work ignored and insulted for political reasons. They could use the boost.

Secondly, there is so much to see and do that perhaps we should all make a point of exploring more in this large and interesting world. With that, I shall tidily segue into my time in Mexico.

I won’t be doing this in the tips format, though I may throw in some good advice here and there. I am just going to tell you what happened, and the order it happened in.

Let me backtrack to say that when I first started wanting to go to Mexico, it was a dark and gloomy November. The newspaper had a travel insert from American Express featuring Mexico, and there were just some gorgeous photos of wonderful things. I began to think, hey, maybe I could get away for my birthday. Well, I didn’t that year. It goes back to the whole rotten January, need to change my birthday thing. (By the way, I have decided that yes, I will celebrate my birthday this May, and that it will involve karaoke. More details will follow.)

Anyway, I did not get my tropical vacation that year, but I was left with the desire to go, and I knew that my ideal trip would have to involve two things, Xcaret and Mayan ruins.

Xcaret is an ecological park, which is right up my alley anyway, but the part that especially caught my attention was floating down an underground river. That was our first day on shore.

Technically, the port of call was Cozumel. Essentially we parked at sea, and you could take a seven minute tender (that’s what they call the shuttle boats) ride to the island of Cozumel, known as an excellent place for shopping, or you could take a forty minute tender ride to Playa del Carmen on the mainland.

I was very grateful to have picked up prescription sunglasses before the trip. It is really nice to be able to both keep your eyes open and make out shapes more than five feet away. It would not have hurt to have a good wide-brimmed hat. I picked up a little sunburn just on the way over.

We debarked at the end of a pier, and tour guides for the various excursions were waiting for us. Our guide was Caspar, who added “the friendly ghost” every time he introduced himself. There was a short wait for our bus, and while we waited two different men came by selling hats and a guitarist came and started singing Cielito Lindo. I found it charming, and I bought a hat, though the second guy’s hats were better. You can’t always predict that though.

The area where we waited had some really nice hotels, and the beach looked great. In addition to the regular beach chairs, there were mattresses with posts and curtains that looked really inviting, but our bus was there and it was time to go.

One thing we saw in both Playa del Carmen and Progreso was a great amount of hurricane damage. Some places were under repair or already repaired, but there were spots that were just rubble and probably going to remain that way for a while. Caspar told us that when he is heading to Tulum there are places where he just needs to close his eyes because it is so sad.

There was a lot of construction going on in the park itself, and I believe some of this was for repair of storm damage. It made it a little harder to get around, so we did not get to see as much of the park as would have been nice. We decided to do the swim first, and could just not find a place to change without going all the way back to the entrance. In retrospect, I would have gone wearing my swimsuit beneath my clothes.

There are two other things that I would have changed. One is that I had read that you could not have sunscreen in the park, to protect the environment. This is true, but you can wear biodegradable sunscreen, and if you take your regular sunscreen and turn it in at the gate, they will give you sample packets of the biodegradable kind, and then you can pick up your own bottle on the way out. This is the way to go, because buying a new bottle of the eco-friendly kind in the park is expensive.

In addition, I would have worn my Tevas instead of my sneakers, and kept them on in the river. There were areas where I scraped my feet a little. It wasn’t bad but as they would not have impeded my swimming much, the tradeoff for the extra protection would have been okay.

The way it works is that you put all of your stuff into a big back that they lock up, and give you the key. The bags are then sent to the end of the passage, more than a kilometer away. You must wear a life jacket, which does impede the swimming, but then they don’t have to watch you every single minute, so it works out better for everyone.

We had unusually warm weather for that time of year, so stepping into the cool, underground water, and just floating on down was great. The current was not as strong as I expected, so you did have to propel yourself, but we were pretty much taking it easy anyway. This was just as well, as anytime I was attempting faster or more precise movements, I was appalled at how clumsy the life jacket made me. They do make you stop and pose for pictures at a few places, so that was usually when the maneuvering was worst.

Once you get out there is more beach, and it is absolutely gorgeous, but there was not time to enjoy it all. We got to see quail hatchlings, flamingos, macaws, butterflies, pumas, jaguar, and bats, but we missed turtles, manatees, dolphins, bees, deer, and tapirs. Also they have shows and a spa. Given that Playa del Carmen also has access to Tulum, well, it is clear to me that I am just going to have to go back and spend a week there to really get my fill. I can live with that.

For one thing, I need to try the Ah Cacao Chocolate Café. I bough a few bars in the gift shop, and after I tried them I wished I had bought more, but you can only get them in town.

Now, you may have seen models or toys of traditional Mexican buses with ceramic pigs and vegetables on the top. That was what our tour bus was. On the way there we rode inside, and it was nice, and air-conditioned. On the way back on of our fellow cruisers convinced her mother and us to try riding in the open part on the back. This was a little more adventurous but still fun. We probably did look slightly crazy, but I think the woman riding her bike in the traffic was crazier. Apparently, a lot of the things that we feel really firmly about here, like travel in different directions belonging in different lanes, is more of a guideline there. It may be best to leave driving to the professionals.

We would have liked to spend more time in the town, but needed to make the boat. This was the tender ride of the restless tequila. I spoke with and observed many nice and pleasant people on the ride, but that is probably what stood out the most.

During the night we rounded the Yucatan peninsula, docking in Progreso. No tenders were needed here. You merely walked across a short gangway to a longer dock that led to some more beach and shopping, and of course, tour buses. I must say, I thought it was awesome that there was a mariachi band playing. It is also the first time I have seen pelicans in the wild, and they were all over the harbor.

Our tour guide here was Augusto. We had signed up for Mayan ruins and a Mexican rodeo. We went first to Dzibilchaltun, the place of the writing on the flat rock.

I appreciated that the one of the first things they did when they had us all on the bus was hand out water bottles. There was not a lot of hiking for our particular tour, but still it was a hot day, and people collapsing would have ruined it for everyone.

The main area we explored was a gathering area with stone bleachers set up. Our guide told us that inside it was partitioned into different government offices. The dominant building in the area was a church, built with stones taken from the older, Mayan buildings, but you could see bases and other things. The basis for the settlement was a large pool, or cenote, where they believed the rain god lived. As the Catholics continued to interfere with their religious practices, the village was eventually abandoned. At one point the cenote was used to water cattle, so you could see remnants of the old corral as well.

The most amazing structure was one that we only saw from a distance, the Temple of the Seven Dolls. It was actually an observatory, and is structured so as to receive the light in certain ways during the solstices and each equinox. I believe we were not taken there due to time constraints, but they may also try to limit traffic.

They have a museum there as well, where we spent some time, but we soon needed to return to the bus where we were shuttled over to Rancho Tierra Bonita. Here they had set up a nice Mexican buffet lunch for us, to be followed by singing, dancing, and the rodeo.

Rodeo may have been too strong a word. They primarily demonstrated rope tricks and heeling, although that was pretty cool. Nonetheless, I have been given to understand that a real Mexican rodeo is a lot more competitive, dangerous, and intoxicated.

There were also tables set up with various local wares. I bought a tablecloth at the named price, and as the woman took my money to make change, she crossed herself. My first thought was that she was grateful for the sale, but then in my mind I wondered if she was merely grateful for the sucker. I had not bargained at all. So on my next purchase, a toy involving pecking chickens on a paddle, I did bargain and then I felt guilty that I might have been too harsh. Also, I then dropped it, and one of the chickens is kind of broken. I don’t think I am cut out for bargaining.

This time when we got back to the dock, we actually had some time, so we wandered through the shops set there expressly to capitalize on the cruise ship tourists. I bought some Dooney & Bourke stuff, mainly to irritate Little Sister Sporks, but they are so sure the stuff is counterfeit that it didn’t work. It is still not a bad price, but not really my style. You should never shop for spite.

I would not have minded more time at the ruins, but I do not feel the same compulsion to return to Progreso that I do for Playa del Carmen. For now, I still have my memories. (I still have my tan lines too, but that can't last.)

One final fun tidbit: after encountering many iguanas in both spots, running across paths and darting up trees, I now thing of them as Mexican squirrels. In that heat, they are lucky to not have the fur.

Hasta la vista!