Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ghosts Of Elections Past

One nice thing about blogging for so long is you've got archives, so you can look back and see what you thought, and how it holds up.  Since we're close to a presidential election, I figured I'd look back at how we covered the last few around this time of year.

I didn't want to get bogged down with lengthy arguments, so here are some posts that are relatively straightforward.

October 2012:

We'll have the final presidential debate tonight.  The Washington Post suggests it'll be pivotal, but I doubt it.  First, the candidates have created strong impressions from the first two debates that likely won't change short of some sort of meltdown.  Second, this debate is about foreign policy, which is simply not as pressing as domestic issues right now.

As the race comes down to these final days, I only hope the polls stay close.  For a while there it looked like it might be an easy victory for Obama, and it brought back memories of how boring it was four years ago when election night was over before it began.  I just want some excitement.

We'll likely have a pretty good idea who'll win when the eastern states come in--Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio (not to mention New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan). But at least before then both sides can hope. And who knows, it could even be a late-night race that comes down to Colorado and Nevada.

October 2008:

There are some who claim the polls showing Obama clearly ahead are wrong. It's true different polls use different methods, so some of them must be a little off, but they can't all be wrong. I'd say every poll being way off is about as likely as McCain winning right now.

PS One of the more positive polls for McCain is
this one, but I wouldn't call it reliable. Listen to this: "[McCain is] also gaining momentum in the suburbs, where he's gone from dead even a week ago to a 20-point lead." Do you believe that? Would anyone?

October 2004:

The latest Harris Poll gives us two choices for potential likely voters, with greatly varying leads (2% and 8%) for Bush. Apparently, they're not sure if they should measure likely voters in a new or traditional mode.

This won't do. Any pollster (heck, any person) can give you a bunch of different results based on different methods saying one of them is probably correct. The Harris Poll is a venerable institution, but if they can't tell us what they actually think is the best data, then who needs 'em?

Saturday, October 22, 2016

October Oldies

Happy birthday to these musical boys and girls:

Dory Previn

Hikaru Hayashi

Tony Roberts

Bobby Fuller

Annette Funicello

Leslie West

Friday, October 21, 2016

Guns kill kittens

I have to say, I'm LMAO over Hillary picking up the toddler remarks.

What's next? Fetuses? No, we subsidize that, until we mandate it, soon enough.

Critical Thinking

I just read Cynthia Ozick's latest, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, And Other Literary Essays.  As the title suggests, it's a collection of her writings on literary figures--thirteen pieces, to be exact, plus introductions to various sections.  She takes on a lot of big names, such as Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and others.

Among my favorite pieces:

Lionel Trilling.  Once a name to conjure with, now all but forgotten.  He was a noted critic, but Ozick reveals he wished he were a novelist.  She discusses his first novel, which isn't nearly so bad as critics of the time said (perhaps because he was too tough on communists), and the second, unfinished novel, that wasn't working at all.

Kafka.  She notes that Kafka needs to be saved from "Kafkaesque"--there are none who can capture his lucid yet ineffable mood, so why claim so much is like him? He also needs to be saved from those who say he transcends his era--of course he does, but that doesn't mean the facts of his life are irrelevant, and that, for example, his Jewishness doesn't come into play in his work.

Harold Bloom.  Probably the most noted living American literary critic.  And yet why does he get to decide which authors are taken up by the daemon, as he would have it?  And those more orderly authors who seem to write well, but don't receive his approval, what of them?

Ozick is what you want in a critic--knowledgeable (a good critic doesn't just know literature, but biography, history and philosophy at the very least), erudite, complex but always clear.  And she doesn't shy away from judgment--she explains her thinking, but doesn't feel the need to qualify it.  I'm not saying I always agree with her, but it's good to know where she stands.

Her opening essay is about the need for a culture of serious criticism in the literary world.  I suppose this book is a good start, which may be its intent.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Life Of Lieber

Stan Lee may be the biggest name in comics, so I checked out his memoir, Amazing Fantastic Incredible, to see how he got where he is.  This being Stan Lee's life, it's told in comic book form--with help from writer Peter David and cartoonist Colleen Doran.

Stanley Lieber was born in 1922 in New York to Jewish immigrant parents.  They didn't have much during the Depression, but Stanley had a lively imaginary life through the many books he read and movies he saw.  He took a variety of jobs as a teenager to help with the money situation.

In 1939 he got a job as a gofer at a comics company.  Comic books were still fairly new then, as were superheroes.  A hard worker, and a smart one, he rose quickly through the ranks.  During this time he adopted his pen name Stan Lee.  When two big names, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, left the company, Lee, just 18, became an editor.

Then America entered World War II, and he joined the army.  He worked on manuals and training films. (Others who worked in his unit making films:William Saroyan, Charles Addams, Frank Capra and Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel).

When the war ended, Lee met and married wife Joan, and returned to his old job.  However, the 1950s were not a great time for comic books. Many believed they were a bad influence on children, and the industry voluntarily created the Comics Code Authority to stave off government censorship, which left most material toothless.

In the late 1950s, there seemed to be a return in popularity of superhero comics.  Still, Lee, approaching 40, wondered if he was too old for the industry.  He thought of quitting, but instead demanded he be allowed to do comics his way, figuring the worst that could happen was he'd be fired.  Marvel (as the comic book company was now called) let him have his way, and thus began one of the most creative periods in the history of comic books.

Lee (with the assistance of artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) created one classic title after another, including The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Dr. Strange and The X-Men.  These comics broke the rules.  For instance, Spider-Man, Lee's biggest hit, was a teenager when teenagers were supposed to be sidekicks.  He had a troubled personal life and, as a superhero, was attacked as a dangerous vigilante.  He was also a wisecracker, as were many of Lee's creations.

Lee understood he was writing fantasy, but wanted to ground his work in reality more than was usual in his medium.  Readers responded.  His titles were popular, and not just with kids--Marvel started being read on college campuses.  Lee also created a personal connection with the fans, including a letters section and Stan's Soapbox--where he'd discuss various items--in each issue.  He later created the Merry Marvel Marching Society, a fan club that lasted five years until his publisher shut it down.

This was the golden age of Stan Lee.  He would continue working on various projects for many more years, but never again would there be such an outburst of inventiveness.

Marvel (the ownership of the brand changed hands numerous times through the years, but they kept the name) tried to expand into new territory with Hulk and Spider-Man TV shows in the 1970s.  They also tried to make it in movies, and finally succeeded about fifteen years ago.  Since the beginning of this century, the Marvel name has become one of the most potent commercial forces in cinema, with blockbusters based on Spider-Man, Iron Man, The X-Men, Thor, The Avengers and others.  And Stan Lee--still active in his 90s--has become more famous than ever thanks to his cameo appearances in these films.

While the book is mostly about Lee's comic book work, there is plenty of personal stuff--things you'd expect, such as life growing up, and how he wooed his wife. There's also a fair amount of name-dropping.  We hear how he met Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, rock stars such as Paul McCartney and movie stars such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt.  Then there's the time he was invited to the Carter White House and a guy dressed as Green Goblin tried to attack Amy Carter and almost got everyone shot.

Like his comic book work, his story is told in a snappy manner, which makes it a quick, enjoyable read, though you do get the feeling he skims over many sad moments: the death of his second baby, breakups with people on his creative team, bad business decisions and so on.

But hey, it's a comic book, and Stan is the hero.  If you want to find out about his life from the man himself, this is the place.  Nuff said.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


I was watching Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), a movie that's held up pretty well.  It's fairly faithful to the play, as you might expect, since David Mamet adapted his own work.

The biggest change is Alec Baldwin's character, who comes in at the beginning to explain that whoever sells the most real estate gets a car, and whoever sells the least is fired.  It's a highlight of the film, but the character doesn't exist in the play, where the contest is only mentioned in the program.  (I think Mamet should update his play to add this scene, but I guess he figures the original version won a Pulitzer, so why mess with it?)

Anyway, while watching, I was thinking has any cast ever been filled with so many Oscar winners and nominees (not necessarily at the time, but looked at from today)? To demonstrate, here are the actors who play the main characters, along with their awards:

Alan Arkin: one Oscar, four nominations

Alec Baldwin: one Oscar nomination (and he's won some Emmys)

Ed Harris: four Oscar nominations

Jack Lemmon: two Oscars, eight nominations

Al Pacino: One Oscar and eight nominations, including one for this film

Jonathan Pryce: no Oscar nominations (but he has won a couple Tonys)

Kevin Spacey: two Oscars

Perhaps there have been more Oscar nominees in some films, but never this high a concentration. The Oscar-to-leads ratio is off the charts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Man

If there's one man who invented rock and roll, it would be Chuck Berry.  Happy 90th, Chuck.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Having A Ball

I recently watched Howard Hawks' Ball Of Fire (1941*).  I don't know how many times I've seen it, but it's always a delight.  Hawks was a master of comedy in the screwball age, and BOF stands up with the best of his work. Yet, for decades, many critics have given this film the back of the hand.  Why?

For those who haven't seen it, the plot involves Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea, girlfriend of mob boss Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews).  He's under investigation, and to avoid the DA, she hides out at a Manhattan townhouse where eight professors live.  They've been busy for years compiling an encyclopedia.  She was invited by Gary Cooper's character, the shy Professor Bertram Potts, to help him in his study of current slang.

Potts falls in love with O'Shea, and unwittingly brings her to Lilac, where the plan is she'll marry the gangster so she won't have to testify.  But at some point, she falls in love with Potts, and, after Potts deals with Lilac, they end up together.

The screenplay is by one of the top writing teams in Hollywood at the time (or any time), Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.  This was around the time they wrote other comedy classics, such as Midnight and the first Hollywood film Wilder directed, The Major And The Minor.  And I think this is why the critics have some trouble with Ball Of Fire.  It isn't a pure Hawks, it's a hybrid.

Hawks' earlier classic comedies--Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday--are a lot faster than Ball Of Fire.  Their dialogue and stories moves like few other films.  Ball Of Fire is willing to take its time. It's an hour and fifty-one minutes in an era when most comedies weren't much longer than ninety.

Also, Hawksian comedy--not unlike his drama--is no-nonsense. It's not particularly sentimental.  In fact, it can be fairly heartless.  His romantic comedies feature couples who do nothing but fight for the entire movie until the last moment when they realize they love each other.  Wilder, for all his cynicism, is much warmer, and his scripts are clear in their romantic development: start with two opposites and have them slowly realize how much they mean to each other.

(Also, Hawks' comedies don't feature that many wisecracks, preferring the laughter arise from character and situation.  Brackett and Wilder love wisecracks.  For instance, when Sugarpuss is trying to convince the professors she's sick, she shows them her throat and says "it's as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore.")

Brackett and Wilder know how to pull off a romantic comedy.  The trouble with Ball Of Fire is it's just not Hawks.  So critics who are fans of Hawks see a comedy that takes its time and is full of sentiment and are put off.  But why let that get in the way?  Forget who's behind it, and just enjoy the film.

*1941 was an amazing year for Stanwyck, Cooper and Hawks.  Not only did they make Ball Of Fire, which is enough for any year, but Stanwyck appeared in another classic, The Lady Eve, and also co-starred with Cooper in Capra's Meet John Doe.  In addition, Cooper appeared in another film, directed by Hawks--the biggest hit of the year, in fact--Sergeant York, for which he won an Oscar.

web page hit counter