Friday, December 31, 2010

2011, A Year For Green Energy

I recently saw trailers for two big new movies, Green Hornet and Green Lantern.  I only wish someone had the foresight to make a Green Arrow picture.  It'd be great to have all three playing at the multiplex and watch the confusion.

2010 Awards

Biggest Story Of The Year:  The comeback of the Republicans.  Written off two years ago, they had victories of historical proportions in 2010.

Biggest Non-story Of The Year:  Tie.  The Ground Zero Mosque.  A lot of excitement over very little.  And LeBron James' "The Decision."

Biggest Medium Story Of The Year:  WikiLeaks.  Yes, it was a big deal, but more about embarrassment than anything earth-shattering.

Biggest Could Have Been Story:  Prop 19, which legalizes marijuana in California, fails.

Biggest Unforced Error:  Just as last year President Obama offered an unsolicited opinion about the Cambridge Police, this year he waded into the Mosque controversy for no good reason.  And just before the year ended, he got involved with the Michael Vick controversy.  (Also see Biggest Survivable Gaffe below.)

Nick Of Time Award:  Lame Duck Congress continues the Bush tax cuts and does a bunch of other stuff in December.

Biggest Future Flashpoint:  Korea.

Biggest Political Miscalculation: Dems believe passing Obamacare would make it more popular

Day Late And Dollar Short Award:  A bunch of conservatives (e.g., Peggy Noonan) who'd backed Obama realize he's not so great after all.

Biggest Survivable Gaffe:  Rand Paul wins his primary and immediately gets involved in a discussion with Rachel Maddow about what part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be repealed.

Most Useless Political Strategy:  Blame It On Bush.

Worst Reported Story Of The Year:  FCC and net neutrality.  Not generally explained that well.

Most Overhyped Story:  Bed bugs.

Biggest Waste Of Time:  Stephen Colbert testifies on the Hill.  Why?

Loser Of The Year:  Tie.  Joe Miller beats Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the Alaskan senate primary, only to have her beat him in the general election by running as an independemt.  On the other hand, Republican governor of Florida Charlie Crist loses in the senate primary to upstart Marco Rubio, runs as an independent and is crushed.

Winner Of The Year:  Tie.  Harry Reid.  As his party falls apart, he pulls out all the stops and massages yet another Senate victory for himself.  Plus he gets to remain Senate Majority Leader for at least two more years.  Scott Brown.  A Republican takes Ted Kennedy's (excuse me, the people's) seat, and signals this year will be different.

Biggest Up And Comer:  Tie.  Marco Rubio and Chris Christie.

Political Comeback Of The Year:  Jerry Brown was first elected Governor of California in 1974.  Now, 36 years later, he's elected again.  We'll have him to kick around for four more years.

Court Case Of The YearCitizen's United.

Political Ad Of The Year:

Celebrity Meltdown Of The Year:  Mel Gibson.

Biggest Media Person Meltdown:  Helen Thomas.

Biggest Regular Person Meltdown:  Flight attendant Steven Slater swears at the passengers over the PA, grabs a couple beers and jumps out of the plane on the inflatable slide.

Soap Opera Of The Year:  Chilean miners rescued.

Best Loss Of The Year:  Alan Grayson's.  It's not easy to be an embarrassment to the Congress.

Political Party Of The Year

The Biggest Battle Of 2011 (And Beyond):  Tie.  The attempt to chip away at Obamacare.  The crusade for same-sex marriage.

Story That Wouldn't Go Away Award:  BP oil spill.

Best Use Of Technology Award:  Brett Favre.

Worst Trend: Continued high unemployment.  It just won't drop.  This hasn't happened since the Depression.

Gadget Of The Year Award:  iPad.

Worst Scientific Analysis Award:

Song Of The Year:

Fad Of The Year:  Four Loko.

Already Forgotten Award: Eyjafjallajökull. (Look it up if this means nothing to you.)

Best Celebrity Comeback:  Betty White

Least Impressive Celebrity Comeback:  Conan O'Brien.

Biggest Disappointment: The final season of Lost didn't live up to the first five.

Person Of The Year:  Antoine Dodson

Thursday, December 30, 2010

She Is Re-Creation

Happy Birthday, Patti Smith. Raised in New Jersey, she moved to New York and became a poet/ rock star, then moved to Detroit where her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith (no relation) of the MC5, was from.

Must be great to have someone write a song like that for you.

The first time I met her was at a record signing at a Harmony House. I still remember what she said to me: "You've got to take off the wrapping before I sign it."

I also remember the first time I heard "Dancing Barefoot." I thought it might be the best song ever.

Come Back, Jack

Amidst all the birthdays, December 30th is also a deathday.  Today, in 1996, actor Jack Nance died.  He had gotten into a fight at the local Winchell's Donuts in Pasadena on Fair Oaks (I've driven by it many times) the day before.  He was probably drunk, and the next day told his friends he'd mouthed off and gotten hit. He said he had a headache, went home and died alone in his apartment of a subdural hematoma.

His first big role was the lead, Henry X, in David Lynch's Eraserhead.  Much of his later work was also with Lynch, but if he'd only made that first film, he'd deserve to be remembered.

Here's Henry at his girlfriend's place for dinner.  It's atypical of the movie--a fair amount of dialogue and reasonably coherent action.  Really Eraserhead needs to be experienced all at once.

Marcia Brady's Favorite

Davy Jones, star of The Monkees, turns 65 today. The band was considered a joke, musically, but with the top songwriters around, some of their stuff isn't bad.

As a bonus, here's Davy singing a Monkees song before he was on the Monkees:

Wool Hat

Believe it or not, two Monkees were born on this day. If dark horse candidate Mike Nesmith hadn't been cast on the show (and, for that matter, if his mom hadn't invented Liquid Paper), he's still have been a successful songwriter. And bands you never heard of across America would be covering his songs.

A Generation Ago

Jesse Walker has put up his top films for 1990.  It wasn't much of a year. I remember two films were released about the non-existent Lambada dance craze, and they were among the better films out.  Here's Jesse's top ten.

1. Miller's Crossing
2. Ju Dou
3. The Reflecting Skin
4. An Angel at My Table
5. Jacob's Ladder
6. Europa Europa
7. The Nasty Girl
8. Sink or Swim
9. Quick Change
10. To Sleep with Anger

Two of these films I don't go for at all.  I've never understood the fondness so many have for Miller's Crossing, which has always seemed an empty exercise to me.  I've given it three separate chances and it hasn't gotten better.  And even ignoring the ending, I've always found Jacob's Ladder an annoying film.

I haven't seen The Reflecting Skin or Sink Or Swim.  I like the rest, and at least Ju Dou, Europa Europa and Quick Change would make my top ten.

Here are the honorable mentions:

11. Metropolitan
12. King of New York 
13. Goodfellas
14. Miami Blues
15. La Femme Nikita
16. The Freshman
17. The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia
18. White Hunter, Black Heart 
19. Close-Up 
20. To Be 

I can't judge Metropolitan objectively since it featured an old friend of mine, Taylor Nichols, plus Chris Eigeman, whom I've since met.

I think Martin Scorsese is generally overrated, but Goodfellas is one of his best.  I also like Miami Blues and King Of New York.  "The Death Of Stalinism" is a fun short.  Numbers 19 and 20 I don't know. The rest I don't feel strongly about.  White Hunter, Black Heart is pretty weak even for a Clint Eastwood film.

There were a number of films I liked that Jesse didn't mention.

Three that would definitely make my top ten:

Life Is Sweet

The Match Factory Girl

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Here are a bunch that I liked, to one degree or another:

Edward Scissorhands, Back to the Future Part III (weakest of the trilogy, but still fun), The Grifters, House PartyHamlet (Mel Gibson version), Berkeley In The Sixties, Bullet in the Head (we're in the middle of the great HK years, though 1990 wasn't the greatest), Cry-Baby, Joe Versus the Volcano (the best teaming of Hanks and Ryan), Wild at Heart, The Witches, Longtime Companion (one of the first AIDS films, and one of the best), Reversal of Fortune, Total Recall, Tremors, TrustThe Krays, Daddy Nostalgie, Pump Up the Volume, A Chinese Ghost Story II, Paris Is Burning.

At least of interest (sometimes very little interest, sometimes just to see a horrible flop close up):

The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane, Avalon, Awakenings, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Dick Tracy, Die Hard 2, Eating, Ghost, Home Alone, The Hunt for Red October, The Godfather Part III (sounding pretty good till you get to that III), Men Don't Leave, Mo' Better Blues, Mountains of the Moon, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Narrow Margin, Opportunity Knocks, Pacific Heights, Postcards from the Edge, Presumed Innocent, Pretty Woman, Problem Child, Q & A, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, The Sheltering Sky, Texasville, Truly, Madly, Deeply, Where the Heart Is, Without You I'm Nothing, Young Guns II (better than the first)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Losing Their Religion

This is surprising.  According to a recent poll, over half of the British people say they have no religion.  Here's the breakdown:

Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?

50.7 No religion
9.3 Christian - no denomination
8.6 Roman Catholic
20.0 Church of England/Anglican
0.5 Baptist
1.3 Methodist
2.2 Presbyterian/Church of Scotland
0.4 Other Christian
0.9 Hindu
0.4 Jewish
2.4 Islam/Muslim
0.8 Sikh
0.2 Buddhist
0.3 Other non-Christian
0.0 Free Presbyterian
0.0 Brethren
0.2 United Reform Church (URC)/Congregational
1.2 Other Protestant
0.1 (Don't know)

I'm guessing, based on other information, this poll is wrong--that the non-religious are not yet a majority.  Still, there's no question the trend is moving strongly in that direction.  And I don't think this trend is confined to Britain.

I'm not sure what factors lead to this, but it's interesting to contemplate.  How will the world be a different place if the West becomes, essentially, non-religious. (Or Europe does, but not America.)  Outside the lack of attendance at church, would anyone notice?  Will people act differently, or do they act just as they want, regardless of what religion they follow?  Would it allow for other religions to move into the vacuum?  Would it be a major turning point in civilization (good or bad), or would it just be a minor moment of evolution?

It's Official

The National Film Registry has chosen it's latest 25 film to preserve:

Airplane! (1980)
All the President's Men (1976)
The Bargain (1914)
Cry of Jazz (1959)
Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Front Page (1931)
Grey Gardens (1976)
I Am Joaquin (1969)
It's a Gift (1934)
Let There Be Light (1946)
Lonesome (1928)
Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)
Malcolm X (1992)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Newark Athlete (1891)
Our Lady of the Sphere (1969)
The Pink Panther (1964)
Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Study of a River (1966)
Tarantella (1940)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
A Trip Down Market Street (1906)

In addition to their artistic qualities, the films are chosen for their cultural and historical significance.

Many of the films, especially the earlier ones, I haven't seen, or even heard of.  (Newark Athlete from 1891?  Wow!)  The more conventional Hollywood narrative films I know.  It's nice to see something from recently departed Leslie Nielsen and Blake Edwards included.  And two for George Lucas--an early indication of his talent, the first THX 1138 film, and what some might claim to be his last great work, Empire Strikes Back.

The Front Page was highly thought of when it came out, but has long been overshadowed by His Girl Friday.  It's worth looking at, even if the early sound quality isn't great and some of Lewis Milestone's camera tricks are annoying.

And look, two days after I wrote about it, Make Way For Tomorrow makes the list.  Pajama Guy gets results!

I have a few problems.  Spike Lee's biopic of Malcolm X (as opposed to the actual autobiography) doesn't seem that significant to me.  I never thought that much of it, but do even the critics who first defended it think it's held up that well?

I don't like Saturday Night Fever that much, but I suppose it was culturally significant in that it was responsible for a lot of bad music.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was highly regarded in its day, and still has fans, but I've always found it pretty dreary.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Importance Of Casting Earnest

A new Importance Of Being Earnest is opening on Broadway this January.  Fine with me.  But the casting is odd.

The big star is Brian Bedford, playing Lady Bracknell.  It's not unheard of to cast the part with a man, but should it be the biggest name by far?  The other big names are Dana Ivey and Paxton Whitehead (whom I've seen live before--he's always funny) as Prism and Chasuble.  These are secondary roles, but they're billed above the rest.

In fact, I've never heard of the others.  Won't this unbalance the play?  Say what you like, Jack, Algy, Gwendolyn and Cecily are the leads.  If we focus on others, there'll be something missing.

What He Aught To Do

Some time in January I'll put up my 2010 film year in review, but until then, I note my friend Jesse Walker is doing his look back.  Except he doesn't deal with the present year, since he knows it'll be a while before he catches up with so many film from 2010.  Instead, he looks back, decade by decade, to each film year than ends in zero.

He starts with 2000.

Here's his top ten:

1. The Gleaners & I
2. Yi Yi
3. You Can Count On Me
4. Dark Days
5. Rejected
6. Memento
7. High Fidelity
8. Sexy Beast
9. Almost Famous
10. Code Unknown

Most of these I like, but some of them I don't think I like as much as Jesse, such as Gleaners, Yi Yi, Sexy Beast and Code Unknown.

I'm intrigued by the subject of Dark Days but don't think the film is great. 

I'm no fan of Almost Famous, which I consider weakly written and poorly cast.

I love "Rejected" but it's not a feature so wouldn't make my list.

His honorable mentions:

11. Panic
12. Brave New World
13. Wonder Boys 
14. Amores Perros 
15. The Heart of the World
16. Faithless
17. Tragos
18. The Cell
19. The Boy Who Saw the Iceberg 
20. George Washington 

Half of them--11, 12, 16, 17 and 19--I haven't seen.

I liked the subject of Wonder Boys but don't think it goes anywhere.  The Cell didn't strike me as anything special.  Amores Perros and George Washington would probably make my top ten.

Looking back at 2000, it wasn't a great year for Hollywood.  Most of the big hits, like Mission: Impossible II, X-Men, Meet The Parents, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Perfect Storm and What Women Want weren't much. Still, there were some films worth looking at that didn't make Jesse's list.

Here are some he left out that would make my top ten:

Battle Royale
Best in Show
Chicken Run
Dancer in the Dark

Here are others I liked, to varying degrees:

Bring it On (I was as surprised as anyone), In The Mood For Love, Italian for Beginners, Me, Myself, And Irene (a disappointing follow-up to There's Something About Mary, but still funny), The Emperor's New Groove, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (not great, but fun, and a soundtrack that made it a hit), Quills, Space Cowboys (a rare Clint Eastwood film I liked), The Specials, The Tao of Steve, Traffic

Here are some films that are at least of interest:

Billy Elliot, Cast Away (flawed but fascinating), Chocolat, Dude, Where's My Car?, Duets, Erin Brockovich (a big year for Soderbergh), The Family Man (has moments that work surprisingly well), Fantasia 2000, Frequency, Pollock, Small Time Crooks, Songcatcher, Unbreakable, What Lies Beneath (a big year for Zemeckis), What Planet Are You From?

A couple films I detested but had great critical and/or public approval:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Nurse Betty

Monday, December 27, 2010


I just read Paul Shaffer's We'll Be Here For The Rest Of Our Lives.  He takes us chronologically through the big moments of his life, interspersed with tales of various celebrities he's met.

I thought a large chunk would be about being bandleader for David Letterman, which is, after all, what he's known for, but he doesn't really get that job until about two-thirds in.  Before then, we get to find out about the young Jewish kid from Thunder Bay who loved music.  All kinds.  Learning piano as a kid, he plays the classics.  But his parents teach him a love of glitzy Sinatra-style show biz, and he's also taken by R&B and rock.

Paul never draws attention to how talented he is, but obviously he had something going for him.  When he was young he played at clubs in Toronto.  He accompanied a friend trying out for a production of Godspell, and composer Stephen Schwartz was so impressed he asked him to play for the show.  It was an impressive production, featuring then-unknown Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Martin Short and Dave Thomas.  They'd soon all join the Toronto version of Second City and go on to bigger things.
Paul eventually got to New York, a city with a show biz history that made him swoon. He became a session man and joined the band of this new show Saturday Night Live.  He started playing characters too, especially famous record producer (and personal acquaintance) Don Kirshner.  He also became bandleader for the Blues Brothers (though he was busy on a project for Gilda and missed the movie).  And starred in an ill-fated Norman Lear sitcom about old guys reincarnated into a modern rock band.

He was hired by Letterman for his new, late-night NBC show in 1982.  Dave had no sidekick, and it wasn't long before Paul starting supplying badinage in-between his musical duties.  The two clicked and Paul has been his second-in-command ever since.  A regular highlight of the show are the songs Paul chooses to introduce guests or bits--they're almost always puns, and it's fun to figure out the connection.

Paul is an odd character.  They way he acts and talks seem like a permanent parody of show biz.  It's hard to believe he believes what he's saying.  But I see it as a patina of irony covering for a kid who's never completely lost his awe of what's going on around him.  (It's gotten him in trouble.  He idolizes Jerry Lewis but Lewis believes that Paul, who belongs to a group who loves watching the Labor Day telethon for its odd vibe, was making fun of him.)  And whatever you think of his banter, he's always taken the music seriously.

This being the holiday season, let's watch his annual tribute to Cher:


I caught the HBO documentary about Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking.  I remember liking her first slim volume of humor, Metropolitan Life, years ago and wondering what she'd write next.  Well, she put one more book together, Social Studies, and in the decades since has had writer's block.

Not that she's been silent.  She just hasn't been able to finish a book (for adults).  Public Speaking catches us up with Fran, following her around as she lectures (mostly by answering questions) and sits down to talk to the show's director Martin Scorsese.  I was worried we'd see a bitter old woman with a tired act, but she's as funny and enjoyable cranky as ever.

She tells her story. She was a rarity, a successful humorists.  Even rarer, she turned down offers from Hollywood because she wasn't sure what she wanted.  Fine, but it'd be nice if she could finish something.  Or is all we're going to get from now the occasional HBO special?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Larry The Cable Guy

The day after Christmas seems a fine time to go down to Seal Beach and watch the Marx Brothers in A Night At The Opera.  Here's how the Orange County Weekly describes the team:  "They were the original Blue Collar Comedians..."

Come again?  There's nothing particularly blue collar about them. Groucho's usually an important person, Harpo is practically feral, and Chico wouldn't be caught dead doing honest work.  And their comedy is even less Blue Collar.

The weird thing is I think the Weekly is attempting a compliment.

Tomorrow Is Here

What did I do late on Christmas Eve?  Watched Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow (1937).  I hadn't seen it in years, and it's rarely on TV.

It was McCarey's personal favorite.  When he won the Oscar for The Awful Truth that year, he said "you gave it to me for the wrong picture." It's a story about an old couple who lose their house and have to live separately with their adult children.  The final third of the film has their last outing before they're split apart.

The film was not a hit, and I can see why.  People like tearjerkers, but not this kind.  (It also features only characters actors, no stars--Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell.) McCarey was no doubt pressured to create a happy ending, but he knew that would be a cheat.

The film isn't that well known, but is held in high esteem among those who've seen it.  Still, I wouldn't recommend it for the holidays.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Should Be On Halloween

Happy Birthday, Rod Serling.  He died in 1975, only 50 years old--probably didn't help that he smoked like a chimney.

He was a great scriptwriter in general, but became known for hosting spooky (and thoughtful) anthology shows Twilight Zone and later Night Gallery.  His character was so omnipresent that while running a comedy troupe in college I had to ban any "surprise" appearances by Serling to end a sketch.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

It occurs to me, if anyone wanted to attack the U.S. by air, Christmas Eve is the night since NORAD is busy then tacking Santa.

Boxing Day

W. C. Fields died on December 25th.  Somehow that seems appropriate.

For a guy with such a famous voice, he rose to prominence as a dumb act.  He was one of the top jugglers in Vaudeville and later Broadway.  He was best known for his work with cigar boxes.  Eventually he started talking.

Some of his movies feature his routines.  The best example is in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tell Us A Story

I recently watched A Christmas Story for the first time since it opened.  It was pretty much as I remembered, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

The movie has become a classic, I suppose, but it has some pretty glaring weaknesses.  First, far too much of the comedy is carried by Jean Shepherd's mannered narration, where he explains what's going on rather than the movie showing it.  Second, there's an annoying score, way too busy and not that well done.  Third, the various fantasy sequences don't add much.  Fourth, as might be expected from the director of Porky's, much of the humor is fairly crude slapstick.

I could go on, but it's the holiday season, so let's be charitable.  The movie does capture a feeling of what it's like to be a kid.  And it does have some decent gags--the decoder pin, the F-word.  Then there's the desire for a BB gun, which could have been just a gag, but amounts to the main plot, and has a great payoff.

So my feeling is the same as when I first saw it--I could do without many of the parts, but I like the sum.

Try To Remember

Facing a Senate with 47 Republicans (they're lucky it's that low), the Democrats are now talking about changing the filibuster rules.  It's hard to say if they'll succeed, or how far they'll go.  For those with short memories, here's what they said five years ago.

Oh, but it's different this time.  This time, it'll help, we mean, the Republican abused the rules so badly all former statements are inoperative.

By the way, even though I think the last two years were a disaster because of all the dumb laws Congress passed, I've always thought the filibuster rules are absurd.  The only reason they're even constitutional is because the Senate can make its own procedural rules by majority vote, and as long both sides worry about losing the majority, they want to ensure they'll still have some control.

How Wonderful

Harry Warren, born on Christmas Eve (and originally named Salvatore Antonio Guaragna), was a gift to us all.  He was the most successful songwriter that no one heard of.  From the 20s through the 50s, he had as many hits as Irving Berlin, or Richard Rodgers, but because he wrote for that anonymous medium the movies, and not the stage, he never had the same name recognition.

He composed so many great tunes, in so many styles, it's hard to know where to begin, so I'll do one per decade.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Losing Your Census

The census is in.  America is just short of 310 million.

What everyone's talking about is the political fallout.  It seems good news for Republicans, since mostly red states are gaining Representatives and blue states losing them:

Texas will gain four new House seats, and Florida will gain two. Gaining one each are Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington.

Ohio and New York will lose two House seats each. Losing one House seat are Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

But where did all these new people come from?  (I know where babies come from--that's a different question.)  How much is due to immigration?  I'd be surprised if a fair amount of new citizens aren't Latino, first, second or third generation, who tend to favor the Democrats.  Are the rest due to higher birth rates among conservatives?  Or is the change in state populations more about people searching for better places to live?  (I wouldn't be surprised if the next census shows California losing seats for the first time ever.)

I wonder how this effects the odds for Obama's reelection? Actually, the Republicans need all the help they can get.  They haven't had an Electoral College blowout since 1988.

Let's Play An EP

Esther Phillips would have been 75 today.

Check Back With Me

I just received a letter from my bank.  Unless I jump through a bunch of hoops, they'll start charging me for checking in 2011.  (I'm not special.  Everyone got this letter.) Funny, since the reason I changed banks a few years back was for the guaranteed free checking.

It would seem this is a consequence of new financial regulations.  If there's another reason I'd like to hear it.  The government was mad at banks for "gouging" customers through special fees, so they changed the rules.  At least under the old system, everyone knew what the deal was (or could know if they checked).  If you played by the rules, it was easy enough to avoid the fees.

(This is a bit reminiscent of the latest FCC news, without the First Amendment implications.  The government starts passing regulations to "protect" people and before you know it everyone has to pay.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

4 Outta 5 Ain't Bad

Quite likely the most productive lame duck session of Congress ever for the outgoing majority party, unless you count impeaching Bill Clinton as exceptionally "productive." Obama came into out of a punishing loss at the midterm polls pushing for (1) repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell; (2) the DREAM Act for illegal alien kids; (3) extending tax breaks for the middle class; (4) confirming the START nuclear missile treaty with Russia; and (5) the 9/11 responder compensation fund. Pretty ambitious, and I thought he'd do well to get 2 or 3 of them done. Interesting to see what actual bipartisanship can accomplish, eh?

Tuning In

It's Puccini's birthday.  Having written Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot, I wouldn't be surprised if he's the most-performed opera composer of all.

Net Result

The internet is one of the freest places on earth.  Apparently this really bothered three out of five FCC commissioners, so they voted themselves regulatory power to fix a problem that doesn't exist.  What's scarier is two of those yesses were disappointed they didn't vote themselves more power.

Remind me again why we need the FCC?

Gleeless Non-Event

The A.V. Club just put up its list of the top 25 TV series of 2010:

1. Breaking Bad
2. Community
3. Parks And Recreation
4. Louie
5. Mad Men
6. Party Down
7. Terriers
8. Lost
9. The Good Wife
10. Cougar Town
11. Friday Night Lights
12. The Daily Show
13. Modern Family
14. Justifed
15. Fringe
16. Boardwalk Empire
17. Sherlock
18. Children's Hospital
19. 30 Rock
20. Huge
21. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
22. Archer
23. Eastbound & Down
24. United States Of Tara
25. Doctor Who

I'm not too impressed with the lower rungs, but I'll give them credit for some excellent picks at the top.

Some of the shows I haven't seen, but a fair number I've given a chance to.  A few I've given a bunch of chances, but I haven't been able to get into them.  These include United States Of Tara, Eastbound & Down, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Children's Hospital, Boardwalk Empire (at least they didn't pick Treme), Fringe, Friday Night Lights and Cougar Town.  I'm not saying all these shows are terrible--they're probably all better than Nurse Jackie--I just don't think they're worth making time for.

They list 30 Rock but not The Office.  Both shows are getting tired, but you might as well have both if you have one.

Modern Family at #13?  The show is overpraised, but still a little low.

Lost at #8?  That seems fair.  The show may be my favorite of all time, but its final season was the weakest.

I like The Daily Show, but not as much as they do.  And they like it for the wrong reason--they actually think it gives out useful information.

I've avoided The Good Wife.  Maybe I should take a look.

A very impressive top six.  Parks And Recreation doesn't fit, but the others may be the top five shows of the year.  I know they have a thing for Community at the A.V. Club (so do I), so it wasn't a complete surprise to see it ranked so high, but let's hear if for the equally great and mostly forgotten Party Down.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

FuZzy Dice And Bongos

Frank Zappa would have been 70 today. He was taken much too soon.

If anyone ever marched the beat of a different drummer, it was Zappa. He was the Howard Roark of music. He did it his way, and waited for the world to catch up. (He also smoked a lot--Ayn Rand would have liked that.)

He belonged to no genre. He played rock, jazz, modern classical, R&B and whatever else felt right at the moment.

He's been gone 17 years, but I still listen to his stuff all the time.

Liberal Or Libel?

Someone sent me an "Are You A Liberal?" test from conservative talk show host Dennis Prager.  The test has a number of statements that you can agree or disagree with.  The idea is that people will take it and realize they're not, in fact, liberal.  I have no doubt Prager honestly believes the test is fair, but it's not, for several reasons:

1)  He gets to pick which issues to discuss.  The majority sometimes agrees with conservatives, sometimes with liberals. I've seen liberals argue if people actually voted for what they believed, liberals would win every time, and then they pull out the cherry-picked polling to prove it.

2)  It's not the number of things you agree or disagree with, but where you are on a handful of important issues.  Prager's test makes no distinction between what's essential and what's tangential.

3)  Above all, the wording of the statements is grossly unfair.  The arguments are made with a tin ear (or worse, a biased ear).  The phrasing tends to be off, and often put in such a way to make the liberal position sound more extreme than it is, saving the broad middle ground for everyone else.  It's no good to note some (or even a lot of ) liberals would agree with this particular statement--yes, you can find extreme statements from either side.  I'm sure plenty of self-identified conservatives don't agree with many things conservative politicians, or for that matter conservative talk show hosts, say.  So what?

Anyway, here's what was sent.  I was going to go into great detail explaining how many of the statements are unfair, but I think you can see for yourself:

It is my belief that about half of the Americans who call themselves liberal do not hold the great majority of positions held by mainstream liberal institutions such as the New York Times editorial page, People for the American Way, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. So here is a test of this thesis to be given to anyone who believes he or she is a liberal. If you feel I have omitted a liberal position or have unfairly characterized any of them here, please email me. This is still a work in progress.

Thank you,
Dennis Prager

You say you are a liberal.

Do you believe the following?

1.Standards for admissions to universities, fire departments, etc. should be lowered for people of color.
2.Bilingual education for children of immigrants, rather than immersion in English, is good for them and for America.
3.Murderers should never be put to death.
4.During the Cold War, America should have adopted a nuclear arms freeze.
5.Colleges should not allow ROTC programs.
6.It was wrong to wage war against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.
7.Poor parents should not be allowed to have vouchers to send their children to private schools.
8.It is good that trial lawyers and teachers unions are the two biggest contributors to the Democratic Party.
9.Marriage should be redefined from male-female to any two people.
10.A married couple should not have more of a right to adopt a child than two men or two women.
11.The Boy Scouts should not be allowed to use parks or any other public places and should be prohibited from using churches and synagogues for their meetings.
12.The present high tax rates are good.
13.Speech codes on college campuses are good and American values are bad.
14.The Israelis and Palestinians are morally equivalent.
15.The United Nations is a moral force for good in the world, and therefore America should be subservient to it and such international institutions as a world court.
16.It is good that colleges have dropped hundreds of men's sports teams in order to meet gender-based quotas.
17.No abortions can be labeled immoral.
18.Restaurants should be prohibited by law from allowing customers to choose between a smoking and a non-smoking section.
19.High schools should make condoms available to students and teach them how to use them.
20.Racial profiling for terrorists is wrong -- a white American grandmother should as likely be searched as a Saudi young male.
21.Racism and poverty -- not a lack of fathers and a crisis of values -- are the primary causes of violent crime in the inner city.
22.It is wrong and unconstitutional for students to be told, "God bless you" at their graduation.
23.No culture is morally superior to any other.

Those are all liberal positions. How many of them do you hold?

So that's it.  I'm thinking of coming up with my own "Are you a conservative?" test.  Here are the first six questions.  What do you think?

1.  Big corporations should be left alone by the government to do as they please.

2.  The richest in our society should have their tax costs lowered more than the middle class.

3.  It should be unconstitutional to make even the slightest legal acknowledgement of the legacy of racism.

4.  People who have been out of work for more than a year should have their government assistance cut off.

5.  Women who are raped and have an abortion should be prosecuted.

6.  Schools should teach as an alternative scientific theory that humans first appeared on Earth approximately 6000 years ago.

PS  Prager has since updated the test at his website,  It's tighter and better phrased, but my criticism still stands.

PPS By the way, most people don't identify themselves as liberal.  The term has taken a beating and most would rather not be called one.  For decades the Gallup Poll has shown that about 40% of the public self-identify as conservative, 40% as moderate, and 20% as liberal.  It doesn't matter in elections, since plenty of moderates and, for that matter, a fair number of conservatives, have no trouble voting Democrat.

So Long

Steve Landesberg has died. Reading about him, the first thing I noticed is no one's sure of his age.  He seems to have listed himself as being born in 1945, but others claim he was actually born in 1936.

He was a fine stand-up comedian who became best known for playing the well-read detective Dietrich on Barney Miller.  In fact, when the show went off the air in the early 80s, it almost seemed like he disappeared.  He kept working, but never in anything so high-profile.  I don't think it was typecasting so much as his never finding another role that fit him so well.

PS  Maybe now is not the time to bring this up, but I don't know when else.  One of his stand-up bits made fun of how pointless and trivial country music lyrics were.  In particular, he'd quote the line "pass the biscuits, please" from Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billy Joe."

This is a false-premise joke.  The song was a number one hit in 1967, mostly due, I'd say, to its evocative and unorthodox lyric.  People spent weeks trying to parse it.  (Weeks?  They're still talking about it.) Much of the power of the song comes from the contrast between the everyday setting and the big event they're talking about.  The last thing anyone should do is use this as an example of an average country music lyric.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Duck This Book

What's this, a new book on the Marx Brothers?  Hail, Hail Euphoria!, all about Duck Soup?  Normally this would be cause for celebration.  But this, from The New York Times review, stopped me short:

To call this 144-page essay informal would be a Groucho-esque understatement. [Author Roy] Blount, by his own admission, opens up the movie in a window on his computer and, in essence, “live blogs” it, free-associating in the raggedly discursive style proper to that form. [....] An eagle-shaped logo that appears on screen for a few seconds before the movie begins — the symbol of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration — gets four pages, while whole scenes from the film rush by in a quick sentence or two.

This doesn't sound good.  I don't mind having a free-flowing discussion on the Marx Brothers, but buying a book of one?  I've read every book I could find on the team, but they usually weren't done on the fly.  The Marx movies, for all their seeming free-association, were painstakingly put together.  I expect a little effort from analysts as well if they want me to cough up money.

Sounds like I'll wait till my local library purchases it.

What Do Actors Know?

The SAG nominations are out.  Nothing too surprising, or inspiring, but helpful in discovering which way the Oscars might go.

Surprising amount of love for Black Swan, seems to me.  Not too much for The Town Inception long forgotten.  Wonder how Julianne Moore is taking Annette Bening getting the nomination for The Kids Are All Right.  Wonder how Marky Mark feels about being left out of all The Fighter nods.

As for TV, they nominated Chris Colger for Glee, who plays one of the most annoying characters on TV.  And not Jim Parsons, who's a good kind of annoying.  Also, only Ty Burrell and Ed O'Neill from the men of Modern Family.  Interesting, since O'Neill was the one guy left out of the Emmys, while Eric Stonestreet won.  (I think they called it right.)

Sofia Vergara but not Julie Bowen from Modern Family makes it.  No room?  They could have cut Edie Falco.  Or Betty White.  Or Jane Lynch.  Or Tina Fey. Or Sofia Vergara.

For shows, did they really need Hot In Cleveland over, say, Community?  Or Boardwalk Empire over Breaking Bad?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Retractions, Anyone?

Yesterday, LAGuy approvingly discussed a WikiLeak-ed diplomatic cable's revelation that Michael Moore's film Sicko was banned in Cuba for being a "mythically" favorable view of Cuban health care that Cubans would naturally recognize as false and reject. One problem -- Michael Moore has since shown that the story told in the leaked cable is wholly false. Moore cites to contemporary news accounts of the film being released in Cuban theaters and shown on Cuban national tv. Who wants to bet that the only thing resembling a retraction from Fox, Reason, American Spectator, Hot Air, LAGuy, NewsPatriot, BackyardConservative, etc. is something along the lines of "Communist dictators will always go for the biggest lies! We should never have doubted that!"

You Always Hurt The One You Love

The DREAM act, which I discussed yesterday, went down in a procedural vote, as expected. There were a few surprise votes, and a bunch of Dem Senators ducked it entirely, but I get the impression no one thought it would go through.

Mickey Kaus, of course, is thrilled.  He notes some of the nasty arguments those voting no had to face--that they were destroying innocent children.

The Daily Kos gives a good example of the rhetoric.  Kos was a big supporter of Jon Tester, the Dem Senator from Montana.  He felt here was a new sort of Democrat who could help his party take over the West.  But now, with a recent election where Dems were destroyed for going too far left, and facing his own election in 2012, Tester understandably voted against DREAM.

Here's Kos's response:

There are Democrats I expect to be assholes. I never thought Jon Tester would be among them.

Anybody who votes to punish innocent kids is an asshole. Plain and simple. And while I expect it from Democrats like Ben Nelson and C-Street denizen Mark Pryor, I honestly thought Jon Tester was different. I was wrong. I am now embarrassed that I worked so hard to help get him elected in 2006. I feel personally betrayed.

Not only will I do absolutely nothing to help his reelection bid, but I will take every opportunity I get to remind people that he is so morally bankrupt that he'll try to score political points off the backs of innocent kids who want to go to college or serve their country in the military.

To me, he is the Blanche Lincoln of 2012 -- the Democrat I will most be happy to see go down in defeat. And he will. Nothing guarantees a Republican victory more than trying to pretend to be one of them.

While this is the kind of emotional reaction you'd expect, let's look a little more closely at the final sentence.  This is the sort of nonsense we hear from both sides after every election.  (Right wing analysts noted, for instance, that the moderate Republicans who ran for senator and governor in California lost.)

Tester, like every Democrat, is a fairly reliable vote for Democrat initiatives so it's silly to say he's pretending to be a Republican just because he doesn't vote your way every time.  But there's an obvious reason why it may seem that Dems who "pretend to be" Republicans often lose.  They're in fairly red states, where it serves them well not to appear too liberal.  That they've been elected at all should be appreciated by Kos, and if they lose an election, it's not because they failed to be too liberal.

Exit The King

I watched the Larry King finale. I was going to do a little tribute about how the guy was in there punching for years, asking the simplest questions (because he didn't know much about the guests) and just letting them talk, which works better than a lot of other styles of interview.  But man did the final show remind me how boring and badly put together his show often was.  You'd figure they could really go out big, but the transitions to all the guests were poorly done and hardly anyone said or did anything memorable.

I was never much in the habit of watching Larry King (his overnight radio show was probably better), but I'd check in occasionally.  I wonder if he didn't overstay his welcome by about a decade.

When Every Show Is Special

I think Community's become my favorite show.  By favorite, I mean the one I most look forward to each week.  I'm not entirely sure why.  (Well, it helps the Lost and Party Down are no longer on and Breaking Bad is on hiatus.) I go over the cast and don't see any classic characters.  Most great sitcoms have at least one--a Lou Grant, a George Costanza, a Homer Simpson.  But character by character, not a single one stands out.  (Maybe they think Abed, but I wouldn't say that.)

Perhaps that's part of the charm.  The show is a true ensemble.  At first it seemed it would be a Cheers-type cast, with Winger and Britta being the central couple--the Sam and Diane--and everyone else revolving around them.  But now it seems all seven characters get their shot.  If they want to play it that way, fine.  It fits the pun in the title.

My main fear is they're going in too much for stunt shows. Their Christmas episode was done in stop-motion animation.  They've had other episodes that were direct parodies of movies.  Some of these worked fine in the first season, such as the Goodfellas episode, and the paintball episode.  But when the occasional stunt becomes the norm, it gets tiresome.  (This happened to The Drew Carey Show, where each week they'd feature another outrageous gimmick.)  The show works already.  No need to make each episode "special," even if they're easier to promote.

PS  Now that Community is in reruns, I've been able to catch up with some Big Bang Theory. In a recent tag, they had Sheldon run as the Flash while they played "Flight Of The Bumblebee." Come on.  Everyone knows that fits the Green Hornet better.  They're usually sticklers for this sort of detail.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Best Medicine

This may be the best story of the year.  Michael Moore contributes 20 Gs to help bail out Jullian Assange.  Moore (pretty blithely) assumes the sexual assault charges against Julian Assange are trumped up, and that the authorities are out to get him.  He goes on to defend Assange's work:

This effects American lives. We should know about these things. And… I think these leaks will save lives. [....] Those secrets… they kill people. They take lives. That's why I’m a huge supporter of what WikiLeaks is doing.

And now, here's the latest from WikiLeaks:

Cuba banned Michael Moore's 2007 documentary, Sicko, because it painted such a "mythically" favourable picture of Cuba's healthcare system that the authorities feared it could lead to a "popular backlash", according to US diplomats in Havana.

This makes sense.  Cubans get rotten health care.  They'd recognize immediately what Moore puts on screen is nonsense.  Moore's claims are still freely floating out there in the rest of the world, however, so it's good that he's been exposed.  Who knows how many lives this will save.

Man Of Steel

It's Stalin's birthday. Hardly a time for celebration (except maybe that he's gone). If you've got to make a list of history's bad guys, he's like Citizen Kane--gotta be somewhere high on it.

I recently ran across this footage. I'd never heard him speak before. For some reason, I thought he be a more fiery orator. I guess he saved his fire for all those purges.

And So It Goes

After all the fighting, the tax deal passed pretty easily.  It passed by majorities of both parties in both chambers of Congress.  Makes you wonder what all the fuss was about.  I consider it a political win for the President, though he was one of the people complaining about how awful the deal was. Whether or not it's good for the country, I can't say.  I generally thinks it good when we don't get tax hikes, but even if that's true at present, there's a lot of other unpleasant stuff in the bill.

If it hadn't passed, when people started getting smaller paychecks, there would have been hell to pay for politicians. I think that's the main reason the bill was unstoppable.  Now, the most noticeable change will be the one-year payroll tax cut.  (I thought Social Security was a separate lockbox thing where you paid your own way.)  Someone who earns $50,000 a year will get to keep approximately a thousand bucks more of it in 2011.  Let me suggest we all plow this bounty back into the economy by buying lottery tickets every Friday.

So now Congress is freed up to do whatever it can manage in its final gasps.  Which won't be much, since the 42 Republicans in the Senate seem ready to block any major pork.  So the two big items that everyone's talking about are repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, and passing the DREAM Act, which will give many immigrants here illegally a path to citizenship.  If the Dems can't get these items through this Congress, good luck for the next two years.

Mickey Kaus, who has a lot of trouble with illegal immigration, has been freaking out.  For months he's been warning that DREAM really does have a chance, though insiders have been claiming it's all for show--Dems demonstrating to their Latino base which party will do their bidding.  Though immigration issues don't always split right-left, the DREAM vote strikes me as one of those things that's sold as a principled stand, but is pure self-interest.  To put it another way, if Latinos came here illegally and, when made citizens, voted Republican, Dems would denounce any path to citizenship as pure evil while Republicans would be falling over themselves to grant blanket amnesty.

Back To Frownland

I was all set to celebrate the 70th birthday of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, on January 15th.  But then, like the artist he was, he died before his time.

He grew up southern California.  As a teen, he became friends with Frank Zappa.  They'd listen to R&B records late into the night while they ate day-old buns from his father's bread truck.

He showed a talent for painting and sculpture, but moved toward music, and started singing with the Magic Band in the 60s.  They recorded several albums, with little commercial success.

Frank Zappa, who'd been having a bit more success, produced Beefheart's magnum opus, Trout Mask Replica, in 1969.  Beefheart wrote the music quickly, but the band rehearsed for months, while living together in spartan conditions, not helped by Beefheart's harsh demands.  Later, Beefheart had a falling out with Zappa.  (He fell out with a lot of people.  Seemed to be hard to get along with.)

Nothing Beefheart ever did sold well (except when he performend on a couple Zappa albums), but he was critically respected and intensely admired by a small group of fans.  He gave up music in the early 80s, retiring to the desert to paint.

It's hard to describe his music. It starts with blues, but often goes far beyond. He would avoid repeating rhythms and musical phrases.  Too easy, I guess.  Here's a cut that's a bit different even for him--a cappella for one thing--but it's my favorite number from Trout Mask Replica, "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back."

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Night Out

Here's an odd piece in The New York Times by Christopher Isherwood lamenting the closing of three Broadway productions set in the past and featuring political themes. He's afraid they were too challenging.  As he puts it,

none of these adventurous shows come from the staid, talking-diorama school of theater represented by such recent productions as the revival of “Inherit the Wind” and Aaron Sorkin’s “Farnsworth Invention,” presenting history as a comfortable stroll through a sepia-tinted, safely processed past.

Odd, since these two works both ran approximately three months, about the same time as the three failures.  So I have to ask if Isherwood has been paying attention--most plays fail on Broadway.  It's the handul of hits each season which pay the electric bills.

Worse, he's blaming the audience.  They may not be perfect, but they know when they're entertained.  Why should they be asked to cough up $100 dollars a ticket plus incidentals if they don't enjoy themselves?  Apparently word got out these shows didn't deliver.  Maybe they'd have been better served at smaller, cheaper venues.  Or maybe they were no good.

What shows?  Two musicals, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys, plus John Guare's latest comedy, A Free Man Of Color.  The first is about America's populist President and the forced removal of Indians.  The Scottsboro Boys, of course, is about the black teenagers in the 1930s who were railroaded into rape convictions.  A Free Man Of Color is set during the Louisiana Purchase and deals with its how it helped spread racism.

I haven't seen any of them.  Maybe they're as stimulating as Isherwood claims. But from his descriptions, I can imagine better ways to spend a few hundred bucks for a night out.

For instance, Guare's play is a mix of political satire and sex farce:

Mr. Guare freely mixes blunt lampooning with more sober portraiture in depicting the various statesman [...] Napoleon is portrayed as a bratty egotist who views France’s West Indian properties as a laundry. (He enters in a bathtub.) Toussaint L’Ouverture, on the other hand, the leader of a populist revolt in the French colony of Santo Domingo (later Haiti), might have stepped forth from a Black History Month pageant, with his ringing orations on the evils of tyranny.

I don't know.  The whole thing sounds woozy, and even if the farce works (though it's Isherwoods least favorite part), the last thing it needs is to be interrupted by lectures.

Here's another weird note:

Mr. Guare also strikes a sharp contemporary note when Napoleon, having ceded the Louisiana Territory for the then exorbitant sum of $15 million, predicts that the rapidly expanding country will be riven by irresolvable conflict. “No country can be this big and survive,” he sniffs.

That's contemporary?  Maybe in 1860.  If Guare means this as a cutting thrust, then it's not only your classic bad anachronistic writing in a period piece, it's also wrong.  But maybe the line is there to show what an idiot Napoleon was, and Isherwood doesn't get it.

The Scottsboro story has been dealt with dramatically before, but this time it

...engages [...] more bluntly, and daringly, with winking stereotypes of American culture. The story of one of the most brutal miscarriages of justice in the history of American jurisprudence is presented within the frame of a minstrel show, the disgraced theatrical tradition that traded in outrageous comic caricatures of African-Americans.

I suppose it could work, but even with a score by Kander and Ebb, it sounds like one of those one-note ideas that uses an alienation effect to send a message though ironic presentation. (Come to think of it, this is one of Kander and Ebb's favorite strategies, and I've never especially liked it even when they did it well.)

I haven't seen Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but I've heard the score.  Once again, we have anachronism and blatant message in place of subtlety (but don't you get it, stating things obviously through emo rock is what makes it so clever!).

The tunes are actually quite catchy, but if the whole show is like the lyrics, then it's poorly written and fairly childish.  But Isherwood practically falls over himself praising how it comments on today's world:

...this Andrew Jackson is the public figure as American idol and empty vessel for popular dissatisfaction, and, as such, is a clear emissary from the current moment. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” panders cheerfully to the taste for ribald humor that is a primary ingredient in the more frat-boyish elements of late-night comedy. But there is a more mature intelligence at work in the show’s overriding architecture and its analysis of the American scene, then and now.

[The show's creators] evince a canny (and sometimes uncanny) ability to draw connections between the messy, polarized politics of the early 19th century and the last few years of posturing in Washington and on the various Main Streets across America where the malaise of Average Joes is honed to a pitchfork-sharp point by media commentators and Tea Party candidates.

So let me get this straight.  Politics was ugly, dirty and dishonest in the past, and guess what, it still is.

The show was developed and first performed during the Bush years, but thank goodness since then the Tea Party arose to save Isherwood.  After all, an "empty vessel for popular dissatisfaction" so clearly applies to Bush and all those Tea Party candidates, but no one in between.

To BE Or Not To BE

Blake Edwards has died.  He was maybe the preeminent comedy director of his era.  For years I would claim he symbolized the fall of comedy--30s: Lubitsch, 40s: Sturges, 50s: Wilder, 60s: Blake Edwards.  But that's a little unfair.  Perhaps he wasn't the equal of earlier giants, but he held up a tradition that was going through hard times.  (Not that all he did was comedy.  Just his most memorable stuff.)

He started as a scriptwriter and became big in TV, as a writer and director, in the 50s. He started directing films and by the end of the decade was a major figure in movies.  Operation Petticoat, starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, was one of the biggest hits of 1959.  I don't love it--compare it to Grant and Curtis films from the same year, North By Northwest and Some Like It Hot--but it's harmless fun.

In 1961, he made the romantic comedy Breakfast At Tiffany's, with an iconic performance from Audrey Hepburn.  I don't consider it a classic (as some do), but it shows a certain imagination, and I particularly enjoy the sight gags at the big party scene.

In 1962, he tried a couple different things--Experiment In Terror, a not entirely successful attempt at a crime film, and Days Of Wine And Roses, featuring one of Jack Lemmon's best dramatic performances.

Then in 1963 came the film that would shape Edwards' career, The Pink Panther.  It's threatens to be just another continental jewel thief flick, but one character--Peter Sellers' bumbling Inspector Clouseau--would overshadow the rest and start a series of Pink Panther films (though the Panther of the title wasn't about Clouseau, any more than the Thin Man refers to William Powell).  Sellers wasn't even top-billed, and his character isn't fully there--he's almost a normal, rational cop at this point--but there was a comic spark that couldn't be contained.  Sellers was already well known in England, but the Pink Panther films made him an international star.  The Pink Panther Theme, composed by Edwards regular Henry Mancini, also helped.

So they're planning to make a film of the Broadway hit A Shot In The Dark (which featured Julie Harris, Walter Matthau and William Shatner).  Edwards comes aboard, starts working on the script, and figures hey, this'll work for that popular Clouseau character.  So even though it really has nothing to do with him, Edwards completely rewrites the story, Sellers repeats his role, this time as the lead, Mancini writes another great theme, and Edwards has another hit.  It also helped establish his slapstick style, which would often be done at a fairly deliberate pace (he was influenced by Laurel and Hardy, and even made a film in 1986, A Fine Mess, directly based on them), and show things by implication--something would happen, but we would only see the aftermath.

In 1965, Edwards, following in the tradition of films like Around The World In 80 Days, made The Great Race, which features lots of scenery and plenty of actors.  I like this film, though it's a bit too long (especially the Prisoner Of Zenda parody).  However, the critics didn't go for it, and it cost so much it didn't make back its money.  This was the beginning of a series of Edwards films over the next decade that didn't do too well.  Maybe the most interesting of these was The Party (1968), another Peter Sellers comedy (even though Sellers was hard to work with), that was no hit but has since achieved cult status.  The idea is simplicity itself.  Sellers is a naive Indian actor who mistakenly gets invited to an expensive Hollywood party which he proceeds to destroy through a series of slapstick misadventures.  Most of the story is set at the fancy house where the party takes place, and much of the action was improvised.  I find the film a bit too claustrophobic, and not inventive enough, but it's still worth watching.

So had the zeitgeist changed, and left Edwards behind?  Whether or not, he retreated, as did Peter Sellers, and in 1975 made The Return Of The Pink Panther. (Alan Arkin had starred as Inspector Clouseau in a film of the same name in 1968, directed by Bud Yorkin, but that went nowhere.)  It was a hit.  They made The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976 and Revenge Of The Pink Panther in 1978.  Edwards and Sellers were bigger than ever.  Some see these later Panther films as weaker than the 60s version, but, while they're different in style, I think they hold up.  In particular, The Pink Panther Strikes Again has some of the best slapstick sequences Edwards and Sellers ever did.

Edwards was on a roll, and in 1979 created 10, which made Dudley Moore a star, turned cornrowed Bo Derek into a sex symbol and revived interest in Ravel's music. Edwards was once again leading the zeitgeist.

He followed up in 1981 with a bitter comedy about Hollywood, S.O.B.  Richard Mulligan plays a Hollywood director (stand-in for Edwards?) whose latest film is a flop.  He hopes to make it work by adding more explicit sex.  S.O.B. wasn't a hit, but is memorable, if for nothing else, in that a central plot point had Julie Andrews (Edwards' wife), who played a character vaguely based on herself, show her breasts.  The plot is cynical--that new Hollywood is all about sex.  But Edwards was wrong.  Baring Andrews' breasts is supposed to make the film within the film a hit, but the real-world audience didn't care.  Sometimes you get the feeling in his later films that Edwards injects sex into his work because he can--or because he's a dirty old man.  Anyway, haven't seen this films in years, and think it's time for another look.

In between making new Pink Panther films (though Sellers had died), Edwards made another fine farce, Victor Victoria.  Julie Andrews (unconvincingly) plays a woman playing a man playing a woman in 1930s Paris.  There's charm in the setting and costumes, and a nice cast, including James Garner, Robert Preston, Alex Karras and especially Lesley Anne Warren.  The comic complications work pretty well, though there are too many lengthy musical numbers, making the film well over two hours.

Edwards, now in his 60s, made ten more films, none of them of much interest.  They weren't all bad, though none were well-reviewed and none were significant hits.  I'll give him credit for Skin Deep (1989), though, where he had a scene...well, rather than describe it, why not show it to you:

Edwards may not have been a first-tier director or screenwriter, but he did enough good work--some of it iconic--that he deserves to be remembered as a major name.

web page hit counter