Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Closed

James Fallows take Ross Douthat to task for his latest in The New York Times.  Douthat's piece (which I don't agree with, btw) deals with how the right and left have changed places now that Obama is in charge of the security state.  Fallows says nuh-uh--the right has, not the left.

Here's some of Fallows' evidence:

There are many instances of the partisan dynamic working in one direction here. That is, conservatives and Republicans who had no problem with strong-arm security measures back in the Bush 43 days but are upset now. Charles Krauthammer is the classic example: forthrightly defending torture as, in limited circumstances, a necessary tool against terrorism, yet now outraged about "touching my junk" as a symbol of the intrusive state.

That's Fallows' idea of hypocrisy?  If you say we should be tough on captured terrorists you can't get mad over invasive searches of millions of innocent citizens?

As for the left not changing, that's because Fallows hasn't noticed any examples, so he assumes there aren't any.  That's funny, since I can find plenty of editorials saying shut up and take it--many from papers that opposed Bush's enhanced interrogation techniques (I know it's not the same thing, but this is Fallows' comparison).  As for politicians, quite a few who would shout from the rooftops about Bush's tactics are suddenly silent--and I don't think they're silent because they're consistent so much as they know what's good for them.  (I don't mean they fear Obama, I mean they know how the people feel.)

Fallows uses this case an example of a bigger point:

So: it's nice and fair-sounding to say that the party-first principle applies to all sides in today's political debate. Like it would be nice and fair-sounding to say that Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress are contributing to obstructionism and party-bloc voting. [...] But it looks to me as if we're mostly talking about the way one side operates. Recognizing that is part of facing the reality of today's politics.

This is astounding.  It's one thing to miss the point about a particular issue, but to say in general one side is fair and reasonable and the other side isn't shows, at the very least, a shocking lack of perspective.

Speaking of which, at The New Republic, Jonathan Chait discusses an alleged smear against Obama.  Many on the right say he doesn't believe in American exceptionalism.  That's because when he was asked about the issue, he said: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."  When everyone's special, no one is special.

But wait, Chait says.  Obama is much more nuanced.  If you look at the whole statement, he's standing up for exceptionalism:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.

You say nuanced, I say mealy-mouthed.  This is how all politicians talk when they don't want to say anything.  On the one hand, but on the other...  Obama wouldn't mind if you believe he's an exceptionalist--unless that bothers you, in which case you can say he's not going that far. (My guess is if a person were truly an American exceptionalist, he'd be more likely to state it without ambiguity (pardon me, nuance), but I generally try to avoid mindreading.)

Yet Chait considers it so self-evident that Obama is defending American exceptionalism that he believes anyone who says otherwise is close-minded or lying.  He notes "There's been a debate about epistemic closure on the right, and this is a prominent example."

Yes, there's been a debate, and it's held entirely on the left.  They just can't understand how anyone would have the nerve to disagree with them.  Ironically, there aren't many better examples of how close-minded the left is than their debate about the right's epistemic closure.

PS  Douthat responds to Fallows.

Bait

Two of my favorite young female stars--Anne Hathaway and Rachel McAdams--both have movies out now.  Rachel's in Morning Glory while Anne's in Love And Other Drugs.  If you didn't play close attention, based on the  ads and even the trailers, you might think these two films were upbeat romantic comedies.  I think a lot of people who went to see these films were surprised.  (Neither is much of a hit--perhaps that's what you get for defying expectations.)  BTW, spoilers ahead.

Morning Glory is in the Devil Wears Prada mode--a young gal in the city trying to make it big in NYC.  There is a romance, but it's cursory. The relationship that counts--really the heart of the film--is between McAdam's perky TV morning show producer and Harrison Ford's irascible newscaster.  Of course, in Prada the boyfriend wasn't much and the real story was about the young woman dealing with her nasty boss, but everyone knew that coming in. Besides, that was set in the world of fashion, so lead Anne Hathaway got to wear all those cool clothes and travel to Paris. Of course, it was also a far better movie.  Meryl Streep was scary but interesting, while Harrison Ford's character is mostly cold and angry.

Far more of a bait and switch is Love And Other Drugs.  Let's watch the trailer:



It looks like a romp about a guy who sells Viagra and the girl he meets cute.  There is no indication of what's actually going on--she's got early-onset Parkinson's and the couple spend the movie figuring out how to deal with it.  Maybe the creators thought they had another Love Story, but I'm guessing the people in charge of promotion didn't want any suggestion this was a downer.

Incidentally, it's just been announced Anne Hathaway and James Franco will host the Oscars.  First, usually the host is a comedian.  I think these two are talented, but can they be entertaining?  Second, they're very young to host, which I'm guessing is a conscious decision to try to get younger viewers.  Third, it's possible one of both will be nominated.  Wouldn't that be weighing on their minds all night, and mightn't the viewer feel the strain?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Boy On The Edge

I just saw Nowhere Boy, a film about John Lennon's teen years that's been flying under the radar.  It's well done, but since I knew the story so well already it didn't offer any surprises.  Not to me, anyway, though some in the audience gasped when John's mom Julia was hit by a car.

That got me thinking.  If I'd been back there on that day, I could have prevented the accident, and John would have been spared all that pain.  But then would The Beatles have happened as they did, or at all?  Knowing that, would I have interfered?

Then it occurred to me, this is the plot of "The City On The Edge Of Forever."

Which made me think further:  if you're ever lucky enough to go back in time, better make the first change a good one, because everything after that will be affected, and may not go as you expect.  Saving Lincoln?  That might work, though who knows what happens after, good or bad. Killing Hitler? A popular choice, but Hitler didn't exist in a vacuum, so it makes you wonder if something similar could have happened in Germany anyway.  Stopping 9/11?  Worth a shot, though I wonder if that wouldn't just give the terrorists another chance.

If, like Biff in Back To The Future Part II, you're given the results of a bunch of sporting events in the future, I'd suggest you keep a low profile; even betting on the games anonymously will change things, but if you become rich and famous for doing it, well, then all bets are off.

Surely This Is A Sad Day

Leslie Nielsen has died.  F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed there are no second acts in American lives, but Nielsen proved him wrong.

As a young man, Nielsen played romantic and action leads in numerous films and TV shows. His most famous early role is probably Commander John J. Adams, leader of the mission in the classic 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet.  He worked regularly, but never quite reached top star status.  To be honest, Nielsen was usually pretty bland, often coming across as just an other pretty face.

Then, well into his 50s, he got a part in Airplane! (1980).  It was a spoof of action films that featured many formerly serious actors, all playing the anything-for-a-laugh comedy i perfect deadpan style.  The film was a huge hit and launched Nielsen into a career in comedy.

The creators of Airplane! hired him to star in Police Squad!, a sitcom that mocked TV cop shows in the same style.  The show was a cult item, beloved by a coterie but canceled after six episodes. It's still very much worth watching. That could have been the end, but a few years later the producers made a film based on the series, The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad!.  It was a hit, followed by two sequels, The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell Of Fear and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.
From that point on, Nielsen became the go-to guy for spoofs.  Even though these films were not as well-received as his earlier comedies, his new persona just about wiped out memories of his older work.  It sometimes seemed he was a man set free, as his joking around on talk shows (including a fondness for whoopee cushions) demonstrated.

I love Airplane! and a lot of the Police Squad! stuff.  Some people think the anything-for-a-laugh style is easy, but when you live or die on each joke, you've got to keep things on a high level.  Nielsen at his height was probably the best at performing this kind of comedy.  If I have any complaints, it's that in later years he resorted to mugging, when playing it straight is half the fun.



Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mao-Maoed

Found something in my mailbox the other day--a menu for Mao's Kitchen, a restaurant just opening nearby.  It's "Chinese Country Cooking With Red Memories." The theme continues throughout the menu:

Mao loved to say "Wei renmin fuwul!"--so here we say the same, "Serve the people!"

They offer "Lunch Combination for the Masses." Items include "Gang of Four Fried Shrimp," "Model Citizen Noodle Soup," "Countryside Commune Eggs," and "Long March Camp Fry."

I understand people who call fascism worse than communism, but I don't understand people who think communism is cute.  Mao himself was one of the greatest monsters in history, probably responsible for more deaths than any other leader of the 20th century

Could anyone get away with naming a restaurant for Hitler?

There Goes Reviewin' Simon

The New York Times has Paul Simon review Finishing The Hat, Stephen Sondheim's collected lyrics, featuring Sondheim's commentary. (No doubt I'll be writing about it soon.) I suppose someone figured "Why not get the smartest pop songwriter to review the smartest Broadway songwriter?" Not a good idea.

First, it feels like a stunt.  I'm always leery when a big name in a field reviews a book by or about another big name.  It's one thing to hear such a person's opinion, it's another to have him do something outside his specialty, such as write a review. (I make an exception for writers reviewing other writers.)

Worse, far worse, the two don't really match up.  Simon may be a geat songsmith, but he's really operating in a different medium.  Simon writes songs that are complete in themselves, often full of poetic evocation.  Sondheim writes songs for characters in particular situations, meant to operate within a dramatic context, and for all his wordplay and deep vocabulary, tries to keep the language simple.  Sondheim believes fervently in proper rhyming and scanning, while Simon, as literate as he may be for pop, regularly breaks rules in ways that would leave Sondheim aghast if he heard such lines in a show.  And Sondheim is accused, with some justification, of being cold--brilliant, but cold.  He approaches lyrics the way others approach a crossword puzzle.  Simon, if maybe not quite so "warm" as a lot of rock composers, still works in a style where feeling rules above all.

So if they're going to get a name to do the review, why not pick one of the many (unemployed) Broadway lyricists available?

By the way, Simon likes the book.  Was he really going to say anything else?

Here's one of my favorite Sondheim songs, "Pretty Little Picture." (I got to perform it in front of an audience years ago.) It's unimaginable Paul Simon could write anything like it.  I was pleased to discover it's one of Sondheim's favorites, even if he believes the song doesn't work as a dramatic moment.  Here are two high school productions to choose from.  The first is more imaginatively staged, while in the second the lead at least tries to hit the notes.





For reference, here are the words:

[PSEUDOLUS]
In the Tiber there sits a boat,
Gently dipping its bow,
Trim and tidy and built to float.
Pretty little picture?
Now:
Put a boy on the starboard side,
Leaning out of the rail.
Next to him put a blushing bride,
Slim and slender and starry-eyed,
Down below put a tiny bed.
The sun gets pale,
The sea gets red,
And off they sail
On the first high tide:
The boat and the bed and the boy and the bride.

It's a pretty little picture, oh my!
Pretty little picture, how true!
Pretty little picture, which I,
Pseudo-little-us, give to you!

Feel the roll of the playful waves,
See the sails as they swell,
Hear the whips on the galley slaves.
Pretty little picture?
Well:
Let it carry your cares away,
Out of sight, out of mind,
Past the buoy and through the bay,
Soon there's nothing but sea and spray.
Night descends and the moon's aglow--
Your arms entwined,
You steal below,
And far behind,
At the edge of day,
The bong of the bell of the buoy in the bay,
And the boy and the bride and the boat are away.

It's a pretty little picture to share
As your little boat sails to sea.
Take a little trip free as air--
Have a little freedom on me!

[HERO & PHILIA]
No worries, no bothers,
No captains, no fathers...

[PSEUDOLUS]
In the ocean an island waits,
Smooth and sandy and pink,
Filled with lemons and nuts and dates.
Pretty little picture?
Think:
In a cottage of cypress trees,
Seashells dotting the door,
Boy and bride live a life of ease--
Doing nothing but what they please.
And every night when the stars appear,
There's nothing more
To see or hear,
Just the shore
Where the lovers lie--
The sand and the sea and the stars and the sky--
And the sound of a soft little satisfied sigh.

[PSEUDOLUS, HERO & PHILIA]
All your/our petty little problems will cease,
And your/our little blessings will flow,
And your/our little family increase--
Pretty little picture?

[PSEUDOLUS]
No, no!

[PSEUDOLUS, HERO & PHILIA]
Pretty little masterpiece!
Pretty little picture.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sparting Your Face

There's a long history of the UM-OSU game determining who goes to the Rose Bowl.  It's true again today.  OSU has to win or they're out of the running. If UM wins, that means...MSU goes to the Rose Bowl (probably).

This isn't a big deal for Wolverine fans.  Beating OSU takes precedence over all else.  But Spartan fans have feared this possibility for decades.  Now it's finally happening--they have to root for Meeechigan!

Or do they? I've heard that polls taken among in-state Spartans show they're split down the middle on what they want from the Buckeye game.  This is insanity.  I don't care how much you hate Michgan--time to win the Big Ten and go to the top Bowl possible.

Anyway, it's moot.  Today will be a great day for Jim Tressel and the dumbest MSU fans.

Desert Island Disc

"Liar, Liar" by the Castaways.  I get it.

Through Being Cool

A lot of libertarians have been discussing Mark Ames' bizarre essay on what the Left needs to do. Ames doesn't believe Gen X or Y are up the task.  Stop worrying about being cool and start getting organized.  Organized for what?  Don't worry, Ames gives you your marching orders. In fact, he summarizes them at the end.  Here are some excerpts, with comments:

1. Collective action is the only possible way to change shit. Large numbers of collectivized nobodies rallying to demand what they want–a better cut of the pie, and a better world to live in....

Note Ames doesn't want his people to do anything to make the world better--he just wants them to demand others do it for them.  And don't ever let him catch you trying to change the world by creating something of value all by your lonesome.

2. [...] What does the Left stand for? [...] first, people need money. Then if they have money, they need Life.

I can see people demanding more money, but more Life?

Then they might be interested in “ideals” set out in the contract that this country is founded on. Ever read the preamble to the Constitution?

Uh-oh, he's bringing up the vague and unenforceable Preamble, a favorite talking point of kooks everywhere.

There’s nothing about private property there and self-interest. Nothing at all about that. It’s a contract whose purpose is clearly spelled out, and it’s a purpose that’s the very opposite of the purpose [...] driving the libertarian ideology so dominant over the past few generations.

Libertarian ideology has been dominant?  If only.

...This country, by contract, was founded in order to strive for a “more Perfect Union”—that’s “union,” as in the pairing of the words “perfect” and “union”—not sovereign, not states, not local, not selfish, but “union.” And that other purpose at the end of the Constitution’s contractual obligations: promote the “General Welfare.” That means “welfare.” Not “everyone for himself” but “General Welfare.” That’s what it is to be American: to strive to form the most perfect union with each other, and to promote everyone’s general betterment. That’s it. The definition of an American patriot is anyone promoting the General Welfare of every single American, and anyone helping to form the most perfect Union—that’s “union”, repeat, “Union” you dumb fucks....

I apologize for taking this argument seriously, but even if we accept his understanding of "union" (in a document that mostly deals, rather drily, with the three branches of the federal goverment and how they interact with the states), and "welfare" (in a document that doesn't seem to care much about the modern concept of welfare as in redistribution of wealth), Ames does rather conveniently leave out other parts of the Preamble. For instance, no reference to the one item that most obviously points money in a certain direction--the need to "provide for the common defence." Worse, he ignores the desire to "secure the Blessings of Liberty." Hmm, what other word sounds like "liberty"?  Oh yeah, libertarian.

3. Anytime anyone says anything libertarian, spit on them. Libertarians are by definition enemies of the state: they are against promoting American citizens’ general welfare and against policies that create a perfect union. Like Communists before them, they are actively subverting the Constitution and the American Dream, and replacing it with a Kleptocratic Nightmare.

This part's gotten the most attention.  I'll ignore the last line since it's just his opinion (though it is nice to see someone on the left so visibly condemn communism).  However, after he's done spitting on people, the second line tells them what they believe.  Maybe before he expectorates, he can ask these people if he's properly characterized their beliefs--he might be surprised to learn libertarians believe their way promotes the general welfare and even makes this country a better (or more perfect, if you will) place to live.

And was it that long ago that George W. Bush was in office?  I swear I can remember back then any time people went up against the state that made them patriots.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bad Films Never Die

From a terrific interview with Billy Wilder:

Sure, I’ve made blunders, for God’s sake. Sometimes you lay an egg, and people will say, It was too early. Audiences weren’t ready for it. Bullshit. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad.

The tragedy of the picture maker, as opposed to the playwright, is that for the playwright the play debuts in Bedford, Massachusetts, and then you take it to Pittsburgh. If it stinks you bury it. If you examine the credits of Moss Hart or George Kaufman, no one ever brings up the play that bombed in the provinces and was buried after four shows.


With a picture that doesn’t work, no matter how stupid and how bad, they’re still going to try to squeeze every single penny out of it. You go home one night and turn on the TV and suddenly, there on television, staring back at you, on prime time, that lousy picture, that
thing, is back! We don’t bury our dead; we keep them around smelling badly.

You can read the whole interview here.

Tight Five

I saw Jerry Seinfeld in concert earlier this year.  He did a routine about how "sucks" and "great" are the same thing.  I didn't particularly like it.  The premise was more based on semantic smokescreen than true insight.  He notes in the final punchline when you drop an ice cream cone and think it sucks you say "great!"  Yes, you say it ironically.  (I've had the same problem with people who note that "slim chance" and "fat chance"  mean the same thing, along with "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less"--in both cases, the latter phrase is a sarcastic version of the former.)

Seinfeld was just on Letterman doing the same routine.  And it killed.  I have to admit I enjoyed it more, even knowing some of what was coming.  I assume he tightened up the lines, changed or added bits, and got better in his delievery.  I guess that's what professional comedy is about.  Still didn't like the topper, though.

Every Picture Tells A Story

I just read Daniel Clowes graphic novel Wilson.  Didn't take long.  At 77 pages and not that many words, it can easily be read in a sitting.  (Though at 12 by 9 inches, it's won't fit so easily on a shelf.)

Each page shows a self-contained comic strip, usually six panels, starring the sad-sack Wilson.  Making each feel even more separate, they're done in diferent graphic styles.  But taken as a whole, they tell a story.  Though it's short, it covers a lot of ground--years in the life of the protagonist, as he struggles to make sense of his life.

Wilson is a self-righteous, self-doubting and bitter man who leads a fairly miserable life.  You wouldn't expect anything less from Clowes.  Wilson goes from one unfortunate experiences to another, but he manages to find some meaning.  Or at least tries.  I don't want to give away the whole thing, so check it out yourself.

PS  Looks like Wilson may become an Alexander Payne movie.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Plenty

Happy Thanksgiving.



Enjoy the bird.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thinking Of You

Obama recently said "I don't think of Sarah Palin."  A lot of right-wing pundits claim the Left is doing everything it can to set her up for 2012 as the default Republican candidate.

I don't know about that, but I did feel when Obama said the line that I'd heard it before.  Where could that be?  Oh yeah:

Great Mix

Look, it's my favorite subject on my favorite template, The Marx Brothers Council Of Britain blog.  We salute you.  You can't have too much of a good thing.  Love their annotations of the classics.

Let The Old Times Roll

The revival in 50s music arguably started in the early 60s. There was a doo-wop comeback, not to mention the song "Those Oldies But Goodies" in 1961. But that was more a hiccup. The true revival started in earnest about a decade later, and continued throughout the 70s--and then some.

The ultimate 50s revival band Sha Na Na performed at Woodstock in 1969, a clear harbinger. By the early 70s there were collections of 50s hits galore. Then came American Graffiti (1973), a quantum leap in interest for everything 50s. Soon after you had the TV show Happy Days and the spread of 50s-themed restaurants which, amazingly, live on to this day. (Why don't we see diners from other eras?)

I was thinking about all this while watching Let The Good Times Roll, a major piece of 50s nostalgia from 1973. It's a concert film featuring Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard and many others. Watching it today, however, you can't help but think that the performers were so much closer to their heyday than they are to 2010. Or 2000, for that matter.

PBS stations show a lot of music specials appealing to nostalgia, including more than a few with 50s rockers. A lot of the original artists are gone, and those that have hung in are now past retirement age. The audiences tend to be successful baby boomers, just about ready to retire themselves. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that--rock and roll never forgets. But watching Let The Good Times Roll, what hit me was how vital everything still was. Back then it may have seemed like nostalgia, but now you look at it, see that audience in their 20s, maybe 30s, and think these people are still young enough to Twist.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Polyglot Plight

While shopping at my favorite retail establishment, I heard two women speaking in a foreign tongue. I said "what language are you speaking?--sounds Eastern European." One of them said, somewhat curtly, "it's Russian."

They seemed insulted.  Why?  Does Russia have nothing to do with Eastern Europe?  Did they think it so obvious they were speaking Russian that it'd be like not knowing Spanish when you hear it? (The store bordered on a heavily Russian area.) Were they thinking "dumb American, I bet he can't tell Latvian from Estonian"?

Lerner's Permit

I just read Alan Jay Lerner's The Musical Theatre:  A Celebration.  He finished the book (or the publisher claims it was finished) a only a few weeks before he died in 1986.

Lerner starts with operetta, but soon gets to Broadway. However--or maybe this is the point--whenever he has a personal story, he stops the narrative and tells it.  He discusses almost almost all the top songwriters and shows on Broadway up to the 1980s, giving us his opinions, which are fun, and sometimes tales of his personal involvement, which makes the book lopsided. (If you want to know about his show biz life, better to read The Street Where I Live.)  Even weirder, he'll drop in paragraphs about his political views--how FDR saved democracy, how Oswald didn't act alone, etc.

So thumbs up for a quirky look at the musical, but it's way back on the list if you want a book that actually informs you about the musical theatre.  Still, who'd want Lerner to write a standard text?  I guess you have to allow him his stories.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Better Than Elvis

Singer-songwriter Terry Stafford was born 79 years ago today.  (He died in 1996.) He's not that well remembered, but he did record one major hit. It's a cover of a non-hit for Elvis, "Suspicion."  Stafford's version went to #3.  (When the Beatles held the top 5 slots in 1964, "Suspicion" was #6.)

Better than Elvis?  Radio listeners thought so.  You decide:



From Houyhnhnm To Ho-hum

The Invention Of Lying (2009), written, directed and produced by its star, Ricky Gervais, wasn't a hit. I'd guess much of its relative failure is that Gervais wasn't a big star and people didn't want to see him as a romantic lead.

I saw the film in a theatre and have been watching it lately on TV, and I'll admit it's got some decent laughs, but I don't think it quite works. The concept is a world approximately the same as ours, except no one can lie. No one even understands what a lie is. There's a lot of comic mileage gotten from characters being, by our standards, absurdly blunt. I especially like Tina Fey in a small role.

Gervais plays a screenwriter (films in this world are a guy in a chair reading
a script about what happened in the past) who figures out how to lie and suddenly can do anything. I think the film raises interesting philosphical questions. Is it conceivable that there could be a land where people have abstract intelligence and (I assume) free will, but not be able to lie, or even understand the concept? I'm reminded a bit of Gulliver meeting the Houyhnhnms--a population of horses who, arguably, represent a perfect society. (Some see them as a satirical look at a world based on pure reason.) They are so honest that they have no word for "lie," and have to resort to phrases like "to say a thing which is not." But note even the Houyhnhnms can recognize a lie, even if they consider it unusual.

Roger Ebert, who liked the movie, called it "remarkably radical" and he has a point. What makes it most radical is a turn in the plot which is interesting but ultimately derails the film. Gervais is a loser who pines after Jennifer Garner. She likes Gervais, but can't see bearing his ugly children, and would much rather form a family with handsome, successful Rob Lowe. So far, so good--a classic triangle in a new setting.

Then Gervais, in essentially a separate plot, starts making up stories about a Man In The Sky who will reward us if we live a good life. This satire of religion is fairly radical, and many found it offensive. But I was more troubled by how it hurt the plot. Gervais introduces this concept into his world but soon the plot is back to chasing after Garner. Sorry, but you can't go back. He's opened up a huge can of worms. To forget about it, or treat it as a side-story, doesn't work. The movie becomes unbalanced with the plot going in the wrong direction. The romantic plot was having enough trouble anyway, and the ending, where Gervais predictably gets the girl, ends up being ho-hum.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Make Way For Marlo

I see Marlo Thomas is promoting her memoir Growing Up Laughing.  Actually sounds interesting.  Like her dad Danny, she was born in Detroit--wonder if that's in the book?

She turns 73 today, so happy birthday!

How Novel

When I heard about Gatz, a 6 and a half hour theatrical reading of The Great Gatsby, now playing in New York at the Public Theatre, I felt I'd seen it somewhere before.  Oh yeah:

Step By Step

When you hear about the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, you figure it's made up of very distinct, how-to steps.  Everyone (who watches TV or movies) knows certain parts, like admitting you have a problem, and apologizing to everyone you harmed, so they sound like real, practical moves.  And then, when you're done with twelve, boom, you're cured.

So when I finally read them I was surprised to discover how much they have to do with spirituality, and how little they have to do with, well, actually doing stuff.  Here they are:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I was disappointed how little can-do there was in this, and how much help-me.  I realize if you're not religious, you can see these steps as being "inner" steps that you yourself actually do, but if you believe that, why not just say it.

Rule one starts with admitting you can't solve your own problem, so I guess they give up the game there.   (I'd prefer just admitting you have a problem.)  Two and three deal with a power outside ourselves.  Four seems a better idea--making a moral inventory.  Once again, you're doing something.  Five, six and seven have a lot of stuff about asking a Supreme Being for help (I bet we could cut one of these and no one would notice), though they also have you dealing with another human.  Eight and nine is the apology phase.  Ten is more inventory--couldn't we cut this one as well and have a ten-step program?  Eleven is more praying and twelve is goodbye, keep it up.

I have no idea how effective this is, but there are a lot of doubts

One measurement problem is do you count the people who leave early, or only those who stay through all the steps?  In any case, I think a fair measurement would compare this against a program that says you have to solve your own problems, and no program at all, just an individual who wants to change--after all, the AA sample is presumably motivated people.

I'm sure AA has helped millions, as probably would any program that's had so many pass through its doors.  Whatever works is fine with me, but if proper research suggested AA's program doesn't help that much, would they consider changing it?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Call Me

On NBC's Thursday night lineup, a slight coincidence.  30 Rock featured a gag where the guys in the office use top boss Jack's computer voice over the phone to fool their boss Pete.  Then on The Office Jim used top boss Jo's computer voice over the phone to fool his boss Gabe.  (And the next show was Outsourced, all about voices on phones.)

Similar gags are invented independently all the time, but it's rare they're aired one after the next.  (Or was it a theme night?)

PS  The last couple years I haven't paid as much attention to American Idol as I used to.  Now that it's moving to Wednesday and Thursday, I wonder if I'll watch it at all.

Over Exposure

Charlie Crist, on his way out as governor of Florida, may pardon Jim Morrison for exposing himself onstage back in 1969. I've always felt the case was trumped up, but regardless, it's time to forgive and forget.

[Morrison bandmate Ray] Manzarek spoke for many survivors of the Woodstock era when he suggested that a pardon for Morrison would help offset the persecution that the ’60s-era counterculture felt it suffered at the hands of the American mainstream.

Hey, give Jim a break, but have these hippies honestly not gotten over those times yet?

On the other hand, I'm amazed that some people can get exercised about a pardon.  Do they think if Crist grants the pardon we're gonna see a bunch of Mr. Mojos rising?

Friday, November 19, 2010

B&B

I wouldn't necessarily have thought Bollywood and the Beatles would mix, but after this sample, I have to say, not bad.  Little did India know that the Beatles would return the favor in a few years.

HA

Just finished Nick Dawson's bio of Hal Ashby.  The 70s was a time when Hollywood directors got to express themselves, and few have a resume from that decade as intriguing as Ashby's.

Ashby spent a long apprenticeship as an editor, working with William Wyler, George Stevens and, above all, Norman Jewison, a good friend who who helped get him his directing gig.  Jewison's great decade was the 60s, and he fell off in the 70s--it's almost as if he passed on the torch.

Ashby was a contradiction.  A millionaire who didn't care about money.  A monumentally hard worker who spent a lot of time getting high. A sweet, loving man who had numerous wives and affairs.  But he got into directing just as Hollywood was allowing more experimental work, perfect
for his laid-back style and interest in the personal.  Ashby would play things loose--perhaps coming up as an editor he figured he could always fix things in post. And for a while, anyway, it worked.

His film of the 70s make an impressive list:  The Landlord (1970), Harold And Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound For Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979).  I don't love them all (don't get the Harold And Maude cult and find Bound For Glory boring) but each one is notable.

Then, as quickly as he had it, he lost it.  All his films in the 80s were commercial and (most would say) artistic failures: Second-Hand Hearts (1981, though shot before Being There), Lookin' To Get Out (1982), The Slugger's Wife (1985) and 8 Million Ways To Die (1986).  He may have been at the top of the heap, but he got involved in projects that were ill-considered, with producers who took the final cut away from him.  Perhaps he would have recovered from this tailspin, but after a couple TV pilots (Beverly Hills Buntz and Jake's Journey) he died, not yet 60.

His artistic story isn't that uncommon.  There were a fair number of Hollywood directors who flourished in the free-flowing 70s but never reached those heights again:  Bogdanovich, Lucas, Friedkin, Mazursky, Rafelson, Coppola, Altman.  (Dawson notes this but then goes on to say they "hit a slump during the 'me' decade of the 1980s from which most would never recover."  I'm used to easy swipes at the 80s, but the "me" decade was the 1970s.)

I think Ashby's masterpiece is Being There.  It gives Peter Sellers a chance to show what he can do, but it's an odd piece that requires perfect tone and pacing.  Without a director or editor like Ashby to keep it under control, it could easily get too silly on one side or boring on the other.  Instead, he ended up with a classic comedy, unlike any other. (Though I'm not sure of the ending, which was Ashby's idea.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bend Down And Pick Up The Money

Some people think I'm too skeptical of supernatural phenomena, but all I ask for is evidence.  Here's a cartoon that puts it pretty well.

Son Of Savannah

Hey, it's Johnny Mercer's birthday.  A great lyricist, and a pretty decent songwriter on his own.

He wrote a bunch of wonderful songs.  Here are two of my favorites, as different as can be:



Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Case Of PC

It's Peter Cook's birthday.  I think if you took a vote of British comedians of the past 50 years as to who was the funniest, he'd win.  (John Cleese would be close, but Cleese himself would cast his tie-breaking vote for Cook.)



Underneath It All

I recently watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show on TV. I think it's the first time I saw it all the way through without sitting amidst people screaming at the screen. I realize those fans made it an event, but stripped of all that noise, there's a decent little film underneath.

Rocky Horror started as a spunky little show playing the equivalent of an off-off-Broadway in early-70s London.theatre.  Not a lot of money behind it, but it was fun and smart and its reputation grew.  It moved to a bigger theatre and ran almost 3000 performances.  Written by Richard O'Brien and directed by Jim Sharman (just like the movie), they brought it to Broadway where it laid an egg.

Nevertheless, it was made into a very low budget film in 1975. It retained much of the original British cast--lead Tim Curry and supporting cast Richard O'Brien, Patricia Quinn and Little Nell--and added Meatloaf (who'd played his role in Los Angeles) and, to star alongisde Currie, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as the all-American couple Brad and Janet.  The script opens up the plot a bit, but mostly stays faithful to the stage show.

Predictably, it flopped.  A little-known rock musical/horror film parody with no stars and kinky sexual implications didn't have a built-in audience.  But it started playing midnight shows and became the biggest hit ever of that genre, making well over $100 million domestically.

Watching it as if I'd never seen it before (if that's possible--I saw it at many a midnight show and it's hard not to talk back), it was very entertaining. The plot is silly, even campy, but the actors commit to their characters and the parody works.  Holding it together are the catchy rock songs (even if the lyrics are abysmal).  I can see how a little show like this got a reputation as the smart thing to see.

Especially good are the leads. Tim Currie, who created the role on stage, holds the fim together as an upper-class British mad scientist (and transvestite).  Susan Sarandon is sexy and funny as the outraged Janet who learns how to give in to her impulses.  Barry Bostwick is especially good as the square-jawed and square Brad.  (Quite the opposite of the Danny Zuko lead role in Grease he created on Broadway.)

A lot of people think the whole Rocky Horror phenomenon happened because it's a bad movie. They don't get it.  Why it really works is, underneath, it's a film that works.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

D'Oh.

Old news but news to me. According to feature on men growing mustaches for "Movember," Donald Sutherland's moustachioed character in "The Day of the Locust" was named Homer Simpson. I never saw saw the film (but remember being very intrigued by its ad campaign as a young teen) and I read Nathaniel West's novel a few years back but entirely missed this name.

I always knewHomer was named after Matt Groening's dad and I guess He has mentioned the connection according the Wiki article, but I don't recall this being discussed- is this well-known?

Floor Plan

Lately I've watched three different black-and-white Billy Wilder films from the 60s, The Apartment, Kiss Me, Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie. Seeing them all in a few days, it hit me how similar the living spaces looked.

We look in from the window at the living room. This is where we get most of the action. There's a door where people enter from outside on the right. To the back on the right is the kitchen. To the back on the left is the bedroom.

Maybe Wilder (or his favorite art director Alexander Trauner) liked a certain style. Or maybe he was just stuck in a rut.

Edgy

A box set devoted to Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album Darkness Of The Edge Of Town goes on sale today.  I watched the documentary about the making of the album that's included.

It was a transitional period for Bruce.  In the beginning he was supposed to be the next big thing, but his first two albums went nowhere. Then he appears on the cover of Time and Newsweek and his third album, Born To Run, in 1975,  makes him a major star.  How will he follow it up?

Well, first, as the doc shows, with a lawsuit against his manager. Until that's cleared up he can't record.  Then, once he gets in the studio, he's looking for a new feeling and a new sound to match.  BTR was urban, this'll be more rural.  BTR had a Wall Of Sound--since then, punk had started and Bruce saw the wisdom of tearing down that wall a bit.

He wanted to reflect upon new experiences, and what maturing meant, but he only had his instincts to go on.  So rather than coming in with a set list he wanted to record, he and the E Street Band spent forever in the studio trying out new songs, casting most aside.  In fact, two he threw out became hits for others--"Fire" and "Because The Night."  Four others he'd put on his next album, The River (which, incidentally, was his first #1).  It wasn't that he felt the songs were inferior so much as he didn't want the new album to be identified by them.

It's a pretty good doc, interviewing all the band members today and going into lots of old video (in black and white) shot at the lengthy sessions.  I've never been as wild about Bruce as a lot of rock critics, but if I had to pick my favorite era of his, it'd be his stuff in the 70s.  And if I had to pick my favorite album, I think Darkness would just edge out Born To Run.

PS  To the closed captioner:  It's "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," not "Tenth Avenue Fever."

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Very Brave Man

A married, prominent Christian pastor in Georgia just came out as gay. This is noteworthy because he is the first one I can think of who didn't have to be outed by a hooker or otherwise caught acting inappropriately before coming out. Rather he did so purely as an act of conscience following some recent gay teen suicides. And he was even open and honest with his wife. I sincerely hope he finds happiness, and that his example serves as inspiration to others. Jim Swilley, thank you for your courage.

Pet

Happy birthday, Petula Clark.

She was a child star who went on to greater fame as an adult. She's best known for her hit songs of the 60s, most written by Tony Hatch. Her biggest number in America was "Downtown," which conjures up an era.

It's since been used by some high profile TV shows:





I believe Lost originally wanted a Talking Heads song (the CD Juliet pulls out is Speaking In Tongues) but couldn't get the rights. Actually, a Tony Hatch song would work better with Desmond.

I think my favorite of hers was "A Sign Of The Times."



Pick up that hat!

The song was eventually used to sell tires in one of the more surrealistic ad campaigns of the late 60s. Was Don Draper behind this?

Great Expectations

Juno was the little film that could.  Low budget, no stars, it came out of nowhere in 2007 to gross $230 million worldwide and win a ton of awards.  Then came the backlash. It's not that good.

I just watched it for the first time since it was in the theatres.  I think it holds up.  Maybe it was so unexpectedly enjoyable the critics overrated it originally, but it's still a lot of fun.  There are plenty of decent jokes and turns of phrase in Diablo Cody's Oscar-winning script.  Ellen Page is cute without being cloying, and the supporting cast, including J. K. Simmons, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner hold their own. Michael Cera even reminds you how his style once seemed fresh.  And the plot, even if it isn't earth-shattering, earns its moments.

Maybe it's all a bit precious, and has too light a tone for a serious problem.  But we can't ask every movie to carry the weight of the world.  Why criticize a film that's this entertaining when so many others try and fail?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

[Title Redacted]

It saddens, but does not surprise me to get apparent confirmation from the Justice Dept. that: (1) the CIA harbored and protected former Nazis within the US after WWII; (2) Switzerland can be tied by documentary evidence to knowingly purchasing Nazi gold stolen from Jews; and (3) the Justice Department lied in court about at least one Nazi's past.

What does surprise and anger me is that there is still no sanction imposed on the Executive branch for redactions of publicly available information when they are sued under FOIA. E.g. here, "[e]ven documents that have long been available to the public are omitted, including court decisions, Congressional testimony and front-page newspaper articles from the 1970s." Any administration lawyer who redacts a public court decision, Congressional testimony or a newspaper article should be fired and possibly fined. Obama vowed to end the culture of secrecy in his administration and have it as the most open administration in history. Prove it. Stop the silly redaction game.

Leap Day

It's the birthday of Freddie Garrity, the short lead singer of Freddie And The Dreamers. Maybe his dream was to be taller.

Freddie was known for his weird sense of humor and wild dancing.



His band didn't duplicate their British success in America, managing only one top ten hit, but it went all the way to the top in 1965. Here he is lip synching that single, being helped out by what looks like Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

Shew Business

It's one of the most bizarre stories in show biz.  A bug-eyed, round-shouldered, mush-mouthed non-talent became the entertainment industry's gatekeeper for over 20 years.  Ed Sullivan.  I suppose he's slowly being forgotten, but throughout the 50s and 60s, his Sunday night TV show was an American ritual.  I just read Gerald Nachman's biography of Ed.  Worth checking out if you're interested in the subject.

If Nachman has a fault, it's that he's better at research than storytelling.  In his last book, Seriously Funny--the story of edgy comedians since the 50s--it didn't hurt as much, since every chapter dealt with a separate comic, whereas this time it's all Ed, so there's a lot of repetition and stops and starts.

Nachman notes today Ed's show is remembered for five things:  Elvis, the Beatles, Topo Gigio, Senor Wences and Ed himself.  But for years, it was so much more.



Ed was raised in Port Chester, New York (where I spent an hour once--that seemed about right).  He started as a sportswriter and moved on to being a show biz columnist, always in the shadow of Walter Winchell.  When TV started in the late 40s, Ed, who'd never made it in radio, was thrilled to be getting in on the ground floor.  His CBS variety show debuted in 1948, only a few weeks after Milton Berle's.  He got the job not because he had any talent, but because he had connections to performers.  Also because the show had almost no budget, and he and his producers were willing to float things for a while.

Once on the air, he was attacked by the critics, but he perservered.  There were a lot of nasty lines out there, my favorite being "Ed Sullivan will do fine as long as other people have talent." But his producing abilities, and middlebrow taste (he combined high, middle and low on his show, but in general he played it safe for Middle America) turned the show into an institution.  Rival networks tried to knock him off but the viewers would always return to Ed.



In the 50s, Will Jordan famously imitated him.  Many followed, most imitating Jordan imitation.  It helped turn Ed into a popular personality on his own.  Ed himself was an odd guy.  Thin-skinned, he got into a lot of feuds.  He'd also get angry with acts and keep them off the show.  And while he was a family man who insisted his show be sparkling clean, he also chased after women connected to the show, and apparently attacked some.  Also, during his final years on the air, he had early signs of dementia.

Some say his show was simply the return of Vaudeville. That's true, in a way, but he adapted it to television, which requires a different speed and style.  For example, a Vaudeville program could build to its big act, but on TV if you don't grab them right away they change the channel.

Ed didn't discover talent so much as display it after it made good.  While he was no fan of rock and roll, he recognized hot acts. When he put on Elvis in the 50s, it was shocking to a lot of his audience, but it also got him top ratings.  Putting the Beatles on in 1964 got him his biggest ratings ever.  Throughout the rest of the decade, he put on top, if safe, rock acts, because the public demanded it.  But it was also the death knell of his show--the generation gap split the audience, and it wasn't as easily for families to sit down after their Sunday dinner and watch all the same acts.  The show was canceled in 1971.  (It was part of a general purge at CBS--canceling poplar shows for a better demo.  It doesn't help that Nachman writes "Not until the mid-1970s could CBS justify having sacked Sullivan, when it came up with truly groundbreaking hits: All In The Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Columbo."  All In The Family was a huge hit early in its run, hitting #1 in late 1971.  MTM was also a top ten hit by then.  And Columbo was on NBC.  Makes you wonder what else he gets wrong.)

There probably couldn't be another show like Ed's.  The closest is probably something like American Idol.  I suppose this means something is lost, but things move on.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

NG

The trouble with the 5 Neat Guys is they're not worth buying a whole greatest hits collection.  Once you get past "Who Made The Egg Salad Sandwiches?" the pickings are thin. I suppose "Put Some Extra Relish On My Hot Dog" isn't that bad, but that's about it.



Model Citizens

I was recently in a hotel room with nothing to do.  I turned on the TV and there was America's Next Top Model.  I'd heard of the show, but never watched it before.  It must be popular because it's been on for years.

In general, I don't watch reality shows (except American Idol), but I honestly don't get this one.  The plot, such as it is, seems to be a bunch of proto-models living in a house who go out each week to do a photo shoot or a fashion show.  Then they're interviewed about how tricky is it to be photographed or walk in front of people.  Then the judges decide which one to eliminate.

I understand the attraction of watching beautiful women, but something's gotta happen or what's the point?  (I get the impression, by the way, this show is more popular with women.)  Perhaps I'm not sympathetic enough to the rigors of putting on makeup, wearing dresses and having people look at you.



(This looks like the opening for the season.  I don't recommend you watch it unless you want to get an idea of how little is going on.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

No Longer On Sugar Mountain

Neil Young, one of the premier artists of our time, turns 65 today. Don't retire yet, Neil, you still have some good years left.

Here's one of his songs that he should keep singing:

Gross Me Out

I just read George Lucas's Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success.  It's almost a 1000 pages on the biggest movies from the start of Hollywood almost till today.

Most of the book is two-page descriptions of particular movies, decade by decade, though each chapter also includes mini-essays on various aspects of the every-changing film industry.  There's plenty of interesting stuff, but it's marred by the fact this is one of the most indifferently edited books I've ever read: typos, incorrect facts, bad math (particularly serious in this book), improper layout--it's got 'em all.

One thing I like is it attempts to equalize everything by adjusting all figures in terms of 2005 dollars.  However, looking at grosses through the years, obvious problems arise, including changes in the population, competition from TV, different releasing patterns and competition from home video.  This might work in comparing, say, the 70s and the 80s, but there's no way to look at the 90s the same way you look at the 30s.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Simple Boy From Detroit

Happy birthday, Marshall Crenshaw. Never understood why you weren't bigger.

Pick Your Dick or Donner's Pass

The first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve had a strong effect on me.  (Not as strong as Star Wars. Nothing compared to that.)  Until recently, I hadn't watched either in years (though I saw the Brandon Routh debacle).  Then on TV, not long ago, I saw the Richard Donner cut of Superman II.  Like watching footage of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly, but for two straight hours, it was like getting a glimpse into a freaky alternate universe, where things are the same, but different.

What had happened was the Superman producers hired Richard Donner, a decent action director, to shot two Superman films back to back.  (They'd done the same with Richard Lester doing two Musketeer films.)  He shot the first and most of the second, but while taking time to prepare the first for release, he and the producers had a falling out.  Favorite Richard Lester--a quirkier director, more known for comedies (he directed A Hard Day's Night) came aboard to finish the film, using some of Donner's footage, but scrapping most.  Years later, the Donner stuff was unscrapped and put together as well as possible--with whatever Lester footage was needed to hold the story together.

Many Superman fans were thrilled.  They considered Donner the real auteur of the series and Lester and interloper.  I was more ambivalent.  Donner did a great job with the first, and he took the story seriously.  Lester had a jokier (and somewhat campier) attitude, but I consider him the superior director. (Not that a better director always makes the better film.)  For that matter, I'd loved the second Superman, maybe more than the first.

The first was fascinatingly schizoid.  Donner tried to create a sense if size, and awe, and he succeeded (without CGI--imagine that).  But we start with a short sci-fi film starring Marlon Brando.  Followed by a misty origin story set on Earth. Then the real film starts and it turns out to be several balls in the air--we've got a well done romance between Superman and Lois Lane, a pretty well-done action film with the introduction of Superman to the world and large, and some weird, even offputting farcical comedy with Lex Luthor and his odd gang.  The mix still manages to work, until the stupid ending, where Lois dies and Superman spins the Earth in the other direction to turn time backwards.  Now even if this would work, it's an easy out that means Superman never has to worry about anything.  They tried to be awesome, ended up dumb.

The second film, signed by Lester, is more a romantic comedy with plenty of action.  The Kryptonian criminals sent into the phantom zone in the first movie (a big loose end, but sort of makes sense when you realize they're making two films at once) escape to menace Earth. Meanwhile, Lois discover Clark's true identity.  The two fall in love and Superman gives up his power just when the world needs it most.  He eventually gets it back and defeats the supervillains, and returns to fight for humanity (kissing Lois and making her forget what she knows--Superman had so many power in the DC comics I bet he had a superkiss in there somewhere).

The basic plot is the same, but there are some major changes.  First, how Lois tests Clark Kent and eventually discovers his identity is done completely differently.  In the Lester cut, she falls in the river near Niagara Falls and Clark refuses to save her.  Later, he gives away his power by mistake during a scene in the honeymoon suite.  These are far superior to Donner's version, which includes Lois shooting at Clark--with a blank, as it turns out.  But since this scene was allegedly a screen test, maybe we shouldn't expect as much.

The other big difference is Marlon Brando.  There's a major subplot with Brando as Superman's dad giving him advice, and more, from beyond the grave.  Underdisovered Brando!  His role clears up a lot (dealing with losing and gaining power) and completes much that was set up in the first film.  But the producers fought Brando and didn't want to pay him for the second film, so Susannah York, Superman's mother, got to give all the crystal advice in the Fortress of Solitude.  Advantage Donner.

Then there's the ending.  Superman pulls the same trick as in I, reversing time.  I find it hard to believe this was planned for both films. It's bad enough once.  And it once again makes the whole thing ridiculous.  Somehow, reversing the Earth's spin even puts the villains back in the Phantom Zone.  So all that trickery was unneeded. In fact, confronting the villains was a waste of time--just send them back where they belong.

Watching the film I was reminded of how many performances I enjoyed.  Margot Kidder is quirky but surprsingly good as Lois, and Gene Hackman, not having to play the main villain, has fun as Luthor.  Terence Stamp is good as Zod and Sarah Douglas sexy as Ursa.  Holding it all together is Christopher Reeve, who's actually playing two roles and doing a fine job in both.

I'm glad I got to see the new cut.  Large portions of it were completely new.  It was probably a more smoothly told story, though I wouldn't call it better.  But then, the Lester film already owed plenty to the Donner version.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Coulda Had Free Crabs

A week or so ago ColumbusGuy and I were discussing the federal deficit, cutting military and domestic spending, and related trivial topics in the comments to LAGuy's post-election post. I declined his offer of a bet based on our mutual belief that the upcoming presidential deficit commission recommendations would never propose real spending cuts to the sacred cows of Social Security, Medicare and the military. Well, lo and behold:

"The discretionary reductions of $1.4 trillion would be split equally between defense and domestic programs" including reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits. Heck, they even proposed eliminating some of the federal tax code features I hate the most: the mortgage interest and employer healthcare insurance deductions that subsidize some Americans at the expense of others for no good reasons, and proposed substituting lower marginal rates for all. Too bad they didn't propose eliminating the child tax credit and raising standard deductions, but it's close enough to my ideas that it's almost like I wrote the thing myself.

Hey, maybe there are a few grown-ups left in Washington. Not enough to get any of these ideas passed, I'm sure, but at least the conversation can start from reality.

On a related note, I always wonder what will happen to the more complex income state tax codes -- such as mine here in NY -- if they manage to suitably simplify the federal tax code. I can imagine a situation where you don't need an accountant to do your federal taxes, but still have to hire one because of my state income taxes.

Cashing Out

It's Norm Cash's birthday today.  Born in 1934, he was a proud member of the '68 Detroit Tigers.  He's the one who started the rally in game 7 that gave the team the World Series.

He was a great slugger, and had a career year in 1961, hitting .361 and winning the batting title.  More people would have noticed if Roger Maris hadn't hit 61 homers that same season.

He died tragically in 1986, when he slipped off a boat, hit his head and drowned.  But in his day, he was one of the most beloved sports figures in town.  Which is why I was surprised, when looking for some footage of him, to discover this rant:

Midnight Movie

I recently watched Midnight Cowboy (1969).  Hadn't seen it in years.  It brought back memories.

It's still the only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar.  The system was new then and X was still allowable, rather than a commercial kiss of death.  Looked at today, it's fairly open about sex, but the content isn't that shocking, much less pornographic, and the language is fairly clean.

I'd forgotten how many arty affectations the film has.  There are flashbacks (in black and white), dreams, fantasies and a freaky Warholian party (peopled by actual Warhol celebrities).  Hardly ten minutes go by without some reminder that the film is an artifact of the late 60s.  But what works is the relationship between Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, played realistically.  It's what the film's about, and hardly anything else matters (though Voight dealing with some of his "tricks" is fascinating, and in some cases, quite funny).

Voight and Hoffman are both second-rate hustlers, but they manage to build a trust, even love, that allows them to rise above the grimy life of Times Square.  At the time, Hoffman was a big star, having done The Graduate in 1967. The role of low-life Ratso Rizzo, unkempt, sweaty, lame, was perhaps an attempt to show his range--it's about as far as you can get from the young, clean-cut Benjamin Braddock.  Voight, who has the bigger role, if second billing, was essentially unknown at the time, and playing naive-verging-on-stupid Joe Buck made him a star.  Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for Best Actor.  Maybe they canceled each other out, because John Wayne (who's referenced in the movie) won for True Grit.

When I was a kid I borrowed the movie's soundtrack from the library.  It went gold in its day, helped by Harry Nilsson's hit "Everybody's Talkin'" as well as the famous theme.  But other stuff came back to me.  For instance, the bouncy "Florida Fantasy," which I taught myself on guitar.



Or the trippy "Old Man Willow" from the Warholian party, sung by Elephant's Memory.



I love films shot on the streets of New York.  Whether planned or not, they're time capsules.  Though it does make me wonder how, centuries hence, people will view Times Square after watching Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver.

I've met Voight.  A very nice guy.  He's also managed something tricky. He was a top leading man in the 70s, even winning an Oscar for Coming Home.  But when his career didn't go as well in the 80s, he was able to reinvent himself as a top character actor, with memorable work in films such as Mission: Impossible, The Rainmaker, Anaconda, The General, Ali (Oscar nomination for portraying Howard Cosell) and National Treasure.  He got a second act.

Hoffman went on to win two Oscars (Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man) and still works regularly.  I've never met him, but seen him on the street.  Once he was with his family, coming out of Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead And Loving It.  (How did I know what film he'd seen?  He was talking about it.)  There are legendary stories about how hard he is to work with from William Goldman, Larry Gelbart, Richard Matheson...heck, Elmore Leonard wrote a book about it, Get Shorty.  Even if they're true, however, at least the guy's got a lot of great performances to show for it.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Double Triple

Here's a good one. On an internet Scrabble website I visit, there was an E on the edge of the board. Essentially, you had Triple Word Score, Space, Space, Double Letter Score, Space, E, Space, Triple Word Score. On the rack, you had RTDHOAG.

What can you make out of that?

Well, most readers figured out GOATHERD, worth 176 points. In an average Scrabble game, that'll win it for you.

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