Saturday, February 13, 2016


Today is the birthday of Grant Wood.  He trained in Europe, but was part of the American Regionalism movement in the first half of the 1900s.  Not that many paintings from that movement have survived in the public consciousness, yet Wood managed to create one of the most iconic images ever, "American Gothic."

The woman in the painting, by the way, is based on his sister Nan, while the man is based on his dentist.  The painting was first displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago.  They decided to buy it and it's still there. Many Iowans of the time weren't happy at how they were being portrayed. Whether the piece honors or mocks the people it represents, I couldn't say.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Clever Hans

Ethan On Stephen

Ethan Mordden has written a lot of books about show biz, and most of that has been about musicals, and a fair amount of that has been about Stephen Sondheim.  So maybe it was inevitable he'd write a book solely about Sondheim one day, and now he has, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide.

It's a short book--under 200 pages.  When he gets down to discussing Sondheim's shows, he averages about six or seven pages per.  If you collected everything he's written about Sondheim in the past, it would probably be close to the same length.

Mordden has long worshiped Sondheim, and he's hardly alone.  Sondheim towers above his contemporaries, and it can be claimed most musicals written since 1970 are a response to him one way or another.

Of course, Sondheim's rise corresponds with the death of the musical as THE music of America.  In the 20s and 30s, the point of a score was to get a hit or two.  Even in the integrated era of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 40s and 50s, when songs now had to fit the character and further the plot, songwriters still hoped to make the hit parade.  And Sondheim did his apprentice work during these times, writing the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as the full score to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.  But by the time Sondheim was in full flower, rock music had taken over and the landscape was different.

Sondheim was famously mentored by next-door neighbor Oscar Hammerstein.  Mordden notes that Rodgers and Hammerstein's first five musicals--Oklahoma!, Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific and The King And I--changed everything.  But on top of that, with the exception of Allegro, they were all blockbusters that provided hit tunes.  On the other hand, the big five shows that Sondheim presented in the 70s (with producer/director Harold Prince)--Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd--were just as revolutionary, yet none were blockbusters and, in fact, only two showed a profit.  In addition, they produced only one true hit among them--"Send In The Clowns."

These shows made Sondheim a divisive name.  He allegedly didn't provide the fun or melody people sought in musicals.  His work was difficult; the "tired businessman" didn't want to be challenged by a "concept musical." As a teen, Sondheim had actually worked backstage on Allegro--the one flop Rodgers and Hammerstein had in their early days, and their one "concept " show.  Some suggest Sondheim has spent his career trying to fix Allegro.

According to Mordden, though, Sondheim gets his revenge.  His shows may first seem divisive and even unpopular, but they go on to be revived regularly and treated as classics.  And as the score becomes more familiar, the tunes become more hummable.  So who cares if you have a hit today--Sondheim is for posterity.

Even after he stopped working with Harold Prince, Sondheim kept stretching the boundaries, with shows like Sunday In The Park With GeorgeInto The Woods, Assassins and Passion.  To Mordden, this all adds up to an unparalleled record.

I certainly agree there's no one like Sondheim, and he's done amazing work through much of his career.  But does Mordden overpraise him?  I like his tunes, yes, and admire his witty words, but I wouldn't say he has the melodic inspiration of a Richard Rodgers. Of course, few do.  But am I failing to fully appreciate it because Sondheim's music, and his harmonies, are more sophisticated compared to earlier composers of the Great American Songbook?  In other words, have I failed him, or has he failed me?

People are still performing Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, though the two are long gone. For that matter, they're still singing Rodgers and Hart tunes, even though that duo's first hits are now almost a century old. So the real question is will Sondheim live for decades after his heyday.  I don't know and neither does Mordden, but we can enjoy him now, anyway.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mr. Majestyk

The Evolution of the Pickup Buyer Told Through 30 Years of Commercials.

I haven't viewed this yet, but I've got a dollar that says Charles Bronson plays a prominent role.

UPDATE: Well, I viewed it, and I lost my dollar. I should have done the math.

But c'mon. Who talks about pickup commercials and uses freakin Chevy? Pussies, that's who. (Hey, Trump said it, not me.)

Now that's a leader we can get behind

Mount St. Mary’s University’s president liken[ed] struggling freshmen to bunnies that should be drowned . . .

I think we've found the guy who can take out Trump.

Head Of The NSA

I just read Word Nerd by John D. Williams Jr., former executive director of the National Scrabble Association.  I'm a big fan of the game and was looking forward to it, but the book didn't live up to my expectations.  Much better--a classic, really--is Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, published over a decade ago.

Word Freak takes us into the world of Scrabble (still a trademarked name), both the game and the personalities wrapped up in it.  On the other hand, Word Nerd is written like a corporate brochure--full of stilted language, clichés and punchlines without much punch.   Williams worked for decades as the game's spokesperson, and he still seems to be doing public relations, which makes the book more innocuous than entertaining.

It makes sense, then, that Williams was the guy who removed offensive words from the official Scrabble dictionary when pressure groups got to Hasbro.  He doesn't seem to feel bad about it, but I don't see how anyone could be happy.  Scrabble is a game based on words in dictionaries.  It makes no moral judgment about these words.  In fact, once Williams started removing some of the words* it meant that Scrabble was, for the first time, making value judgments.  So if you find anything in the official dictionary that you think offensive, Hasbro is saying "screw you, you're wrong."

Still, if you like SCRABBLE, you might as well check out the book. Some useful background information, and some nice lists in the back.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Black Knight gets a lick in

"Ohio Gov. John Kasich vaulted into the top tier of GOP presidential contenders."

Plus the Iron Law of Presidents: "Since World War II, either the winner or runner-up in New Hampshire has gone on to take the GOP nomination."

America can only hope that South Carolina voters have more brains than the "Live Free or Expand Medicaid" voters. But even if they do, this blunder means we'll be listening to this guy for weeks.

And now for something completely different

Seems mislabeled, somehow. Shouldn't it be "Certified Professional Innovator Professional Certificate of Innovation Program"?

Late To The Party

For months I've been hearing how good the TV show Jessica Jones is, but I only just got around to watching it.  And since it's on Netflix, I can watch its first season--13 episodes--at any pace I choose.  So far, I've seen the first three hours.

Jessica Jones is based on the Marvel character, but since I've never read any of her adventures, it's all new to me.  Perhaps fans of her comics know what's coming, or at least know what's in the past, but I am blissfully ignorant.  In fact, until she demonstrated her powers halfway into the first episode, I wasn't even sure if I was watching a superhero show.

Jessica Jones is a cynical private eye, who takes sleazy jobs and seems to have a sad and bitter past.  Among the characters in her life are Trish Walker, an old friend who now hosts a popular radio show; Jen Hogarth, a powerful attorney who sometimes hires Jessica; Luke Cage (I'm sure some of you Marvel fans recognize that name) who owns a bar and is sometimes used as a booty call; and Kilgrave, a man with the power to bend other minds to his will, and who once had Jessica under his control.

Though there's action in each episode, the whole show (as much as I can tell) is a long reveal, as each episode teaches you more and more about the characters, though perhaps at a certain point we'll know everything about the past and live strictly in the present.  The main plot of the first season seems to be the return of Kilgrave, whom Jessica thought was dead.  He's back in town (the town is New York, by the way) and using more and more people to do his bidding while Jessica plots to bring him down.

Krysten Ritter (of Breaking Bad) is solid as Jessica.  She plays hard-bitten well enough to hold the show together.  The rest of the cast--including Carrie-Anne Moss, Rachael Taylor and Mike Colter--have had less screen time to establish their characters, though three hours in they're starting to make a clear impression.

So I like it.  I wouldn't call it a revelation, but it's better than most police and/or super hero dramas out there.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

I don't think it means what he think it means

America Is Flint

He's The Queen Of France

The Oscars are always fun (at least them handing out the awards are--the lengthy show surrounding this activity often leaves something to be desired), but they're a lot more fun if you've seen the nominees. I generally see most of the nominated features and performances, but not always the shorts.  But I did get a chance to see the five from the animated category.  Here they are.

Bear Story


Sanjay's Super Team

We Can't Live Without Cosmos

World Of Tomorrow.

If you've seen any, it's probably Sanjay's Super Team, a Pixar short shown before The Good Dinosaur.  Pixar has been nominated--and won--before, but I don't think this is its year. That's because while all the films are well done (Bear Story is especially impressive in its technique and We Can't Live Without Cosmos has a solid story), one truly stands out--World Of Tomorrow.

It could be called a science fiction film, but that doesn't really give you the proper impression.  It's by Don Hertzfeldt, who's been doing his own hand-drawn work for a couple decades.  He started with short, funny films with an absurdist bent, such as Billy's Balloon, the film to first get him a lot of attention.  He followed it by a classic, Rejected, which was nominated in 2000 for an Oscar and (inexplicably in retrospect) didn't win.

Since then his films have gotten a little longer, and more serious, but are still filled with quirky humor.  World Of Tomorrow is a 17 minute film about a little girl being instructed by a woman of the future on what her life will be like.  But that bare bones description misses both how bizarre yet touching the story is, not to mention the look.

Here's a clip:

The Academy blew it last time.  Here's their chance to make it up.

Monday, February 08, 2016

The times, they are a changin'

So I just looked up my record at one of our local libraries. My card there was issued in 2002. It's nice to know that; it makes me remember how I happened to get a card at this library.

But what I really love is the expiration date: 2050.

Say, isn't something important supposed to happen then?

Art Vandalized

A friend sent me this list, from Vulture, ranking all 169 episodes of Seinfeld.  It's so wrong I'm sorry that it exists.  It would be best to just ignore it, but let me note a few things.

I'll start from the bottom and work my way up, as the list does.  The two worst episodes are "The Puerto Rican Day Parade" and "The Outing."  As far as I can tell, they're at the bottom because they're politically incorrect.  It's certainly not about the comedy, as "The Outing" is a classic or at least near-classic. (It's where a newspaper article appears claiming Jerry and George are gay, and they keep noting "not that there's anything wrong with that.")

In general, the first two season, where the show was good but still finding its way, and the last two seasons, where the show was getting tired and Larry David left, should have the most in the bottom half, but there seem to be more that there should be from the middle years.

The fourth worst episode--#166--is "The Jacket," a fine episodes where the guys meet Elaine's tough-guy father, memorably played by Lawrence Tierney.  #160, "The Ex-Girlfriend," has the classic moment where a girlfriend dumps Jerry because his act is not funny enough.

Others in the bottom 69 that shouldn't be there:  "The Gum," where Lloyd Braun is going crazy; "The Shoes," where George looks at Bob Balaban's daughter's breasts; "The Susie," where there's confusion at J. Peterman over Elaine's name; "The Soup Nazi" at #143, when this is top ten for sure!;  "The Watch," where George screws up the NBC deal; "The Big Salad," which is top 100 for the salad stuff alone; "The Wink," one of the better episodes with George and the Yankees; "The Junior Mint," the classic "Mulva" episode which may be top ten and is certainly top 25; "The Strike," which brought us Festivus and has only improved through the years; "The Comeback," where George will go to any lengths to deliver an insult; "The Switch," where Jerry and George plot on how Jerry can change from his girlfriend to his girlfriend's roommate; "The Boyfriend," the one with Keith Hernandez and pretty decent for a two-parter; "The Parking Garage" where they spend the whole episode looking for their car; "The Virgin," where George gets Susan in trouble he kisses her; "The Pitch," where George insists to executives his show is about nothing; "The Andrea Doria," where George tells his sad life stories to win enough sympathy to get an apartment.

(Let me also note they say of the pilot that the Jerry-George scenes don't work but the Jerry-Kramer stuff is good--if anything, the opposite is true.)

Here are episodes listed from #99 to #51 that are either too high or too low:  "The Calzone" where George's tip isn't seen by the employees is too low; "The Junk Mail," where Kramer discovers a conspiracy at the post office, is too low; "The Sponge," where Elaine decides which suitors are "spongeworthy" is too low; "The Yada Yada" is too low; "The Busboy," an early episode, is one of the worst; "The Pony Remark," an early episode where Jerry mistakenly insults a relative, is too low; "The Puffy Shirt," a classic, is too low; "The Chinese Restaurant," a classic, too low; "The Pilot"--not the pilot, but "The Pilot," is too low; "The Dealership," a weak, late episode, is too high; "The Frogger," a weak, late episode, is too high; "The Pool Guy," a weak episode, too high; "The Marine Biologist," a classic where George explains how he found the golf ball, is too low; "The Barber," one of the worst episodes, is way too high.

The top 50:  "The Cigar Store Indian," not a great episode, should be lower;  "The Trip" is okay, but not top 40; "The Voice" is a weaker episode, bottom fifty; "The Bris" is a horrible episode, bottom ten, why is it listed at #35?; "The Stall" is no classic, rated way too high; "The Burning" is not great, far too high; "The Bizarro Jerry" is a top five episode and only makes #27; "The Café" is okay, but shouldn't be anywhere near #21; "The Gymnast" is okay, but not top 20; "The Mom & Pop Store" is okay, but not top 20; "The Conversion" is okay, but not top 20: "The Merv Griffin Show" is okay, but is regularly overrated; "The Secret Code" is good, but not top ten; "The Old Man" should be in the bottom fifty; "The Pen" is a memorable episode, but nowhere near the top ten; "The Subway" is okay, but no way is it #2.

So once again, my main point: ignore this list.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans, Alex

Who are next year's championship game teams? Not hardly.

Self knowledge is the best knowledge

"I ought to be running in a Democrat primary."

Take It Away, LJ

Laurie Johnson turns 89 today.  He's one of the top British composers of TV and production music.  You may not know his name, but you probably know his tunes.

web page hit counter