Monday, February 28, 2011


From Myrmecos, an ant blog, we get a note on William Dembski, a leading light of the ID (Intelligent Design) movement.  Dembski discovers that ants find the shortest path among various points (known mathematically as the Steiner Problem) and has this to say.

On Darwinian evolutionary grounds [...] one would have to say something like the following: ants are the result of a Darwinian evolutionary process that programmed the ants with, presumably, a genetic algorithm that enables them, when put in separate colonies, to trace out paths that resolve the Steiner Problem. In other words, evolution, by some weird self-similarity, embedded an evolutionary program into the neurophysiology of the ants that enables them to solve the Steiner problem (which, presumably, gives these ants a selective advantage). I trust good Darwinists will take this in without skipping a beat, mumbling something like “evolution sure is amazing” or “natural selection is cleverer than us.” Dispassionate minds might wonder if something deeper is at stake here.

Actually, it's not hard to explain how ant colonies do this, and Myrmecos sets him straight.  In fact, for Dembski not to understand this mechanism almost seems like willful ignorance.

Now Dembski knows, and is not implying otherwise, that ants (or any life aside from humans) don't consciously use higher math to solve problems any more than a baseball studies parabolas. Yet I would also think he must know if he's studied biology that life systems regularly evolve in ways that can be described by complex mathematics.  Insect research is full of examples of bugs evolving mathematically efficient solutions to problems presented by nature.

That's what bothers me most.  Not the specific, mistaken claim, but the general, bad argument.  When faced with the explicable, instead of doing research, Dembski would rather throw up his hands and say such things can't be understood through known natural means.  To back up his claim, he resorts to mockery.  No matter how much his supporters may want him to be right, aren't they embarrassed by this?

James, Anne, The King's Speech

Another Oscar ceremony come and gone.  A year from now who will remember.  Most hope they can forget sooner.

In an attempt to appeal to younger viewers, the Academy hired James Franco and Anne Hathaway to host.  Let's say they did a muted job.  After one of those Billy Crystal opening where they put themselves in nominated films, we got the real thing, live, on stage.  Franco brought all the charisma he's demonstrated in the Spider-Man movies.  Maybe if they'd forced him to perform the entire show with his arm stuck under a rock it would have been better. Hathaway changed dresses numerous times and did an odd number about how Hugh Jackman didn't want to do a number with her.  Franco put on a dress. Funny they weren't, but at least they didn't try too hard to make us laugh, and kept things moving.  (Halfway through the show, Billy Crystal came out and did a tribute to Bob Hope--they didn't need to remind us what we were missing.)

For the most part, the night seemed pretty low on classic Hollywood wattage.  Early on, Kirk Douglas, a stroke victim well into his 90s, came out and livened things up, but there wasn't too much after that.

While the production wasn't much, worse were the awards.   There was not a single real surprise, and all the major Oscars went to the favorites.  During the early technical awards, when The King's Speech was skunked, it looked like maybe there'd be a race, but no, it cleaned up as expected on the big ones--screenplay, director, actor, picture.  (For the two awards it deserved most, supporting actor and actress, nothing.)

Maybe the most annoying award was for Best Documentary.  They had a delightful and different work--Exit Through The Gift Shop--made by a mysterious figure who might or might not show up to accept.  But screw it--let's give the award to a predictable documentary about the financial crash.  Charles Ferguson figured since he won, obviously the whole world wanted to hear his opinion, so he started by asking why hasn't anyone on Wall Street gone to jail yet for "massive fraud." It's like this, Charles: in the real world, it's not just enough to fling accusations--prosecutors have to name the actual crime broken and prove the elements beyond a reasonable doubt.  Amazingly, some in the audience applauded.  People in Hollywood.  A town built on fraudulent bookkeeping.

Meanwhile, in a show of solidarity, a number of winners noted they work with union crews.  That'll sure impress taxpayers in the Midwest.

Then there was Randy Newman, beating an amazingly undistinguished group, and winning another Oscar for another second-hand song for Pixar.

Christian Bale and Melissa Leo won acting honors for their supporting work in The Fighter.  Bale seemed to forget his wife's name.  Hey, it's not like she's his agent.  But the undeniable highlight of the show came early when, during Leo's acceptance speech, the F-word slipped out.  I was highly offended that it was censored.  I thought we were watching a live show, but it was on delay.  That takes all the fun out of it.

All this happened a mile from where I live.  So the good news is tomorrow traffic returns to normal.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Another Poor Decision

IFC has picked up The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret for a second season.  Word is writer and lead actor David Cross is even planning a third. This was sort of inevitable.  Each episode starts with Todd in the dock, his charges being read.  Everything is leading up to his trial, but the first season ended well before it.  If IFC cares about the show at all, it has to at least let Mr. Margaret catch up to the present.

In a way it's a dirty trick.  The show, which I didn't love, seemed to be leading up to something, but the first season turned into a tease.  Some cable shows canceled after one season--John From Cincinnati, The Comeback--at least attempted to give a sense of closure. If Todd Margaret had been canceled, it would have been in the middle of things. But maybe that's what they should do.  It would be a nice, absurdist send-off for a character, and a show, that always seems to be temporizing.

Bring It On

The Oscars are tonight and it could be a good show. Not because of the repartee between James Franco and Anne Hathaway (not that I have anything against them), but the races.  There are some decent nominations and a few that look pretty interesting.

For Best Picture, the favorite is The King's Speech, but it's hardly a lock.  Former favorite The Social Network has a shot, and with ten nominees, if something has intense support, like, say, The Fighter, it just might slip through.

Best Actor looks like Colin Firth, though all of the others seem fine, and anyone winning wouldn't bother me.  For Best Actress, it looks like a battle between favorite Natalie Portman and Annette Bening, though, once again, they all did decent jobs.

The Supporting categories I like less in that in that there'll probably be a double-win for the overrated The Fighter, with Melissa Leo and Christian Bale taking the award. I'd prefer almost anyone else in these categories--maybe the popularity of The King's Speech will give us a Geoffrey Rush or even a Helena Bonham Carter.  Or maybe Hailee Steinfeld, whom everyone knows had the lead in True Grit, will shine through.  But I'm not too hopeful.

The Screenplay awards also seem predictable, with Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network and David Seidler's The King's Speech being the likely winners. Best Director is potentially up for grabs.  Tom Hooper's not especially showy work on The King's Speech won the DGA award, so that makes him the favorite, but David Fincher won everything else. (Heaven help us if they give it to Darren Aronofsky, whose Black Swan was showy enough for all five nominees.)

A lot of the secondary awards are up in the air, so the film that wins the most Oscars overall (sometimes used to settle pools) could be King's Speech, Fighter, Social Network, True Grit, even Inception.

So as long as no one takes the time the give us their thoughts on the world situation, it looks like it might be a decent evening.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Not All There

Haven't caught Thurgood yet, the Laurence Fishburne one-man show on HBO about Thurgood Marshall.  I'll try to check it out, though I'm usually wary of shows that threaten to be good for me. Speaking of which, this review by Kenny Herzog at the A.V. Club has an odd comparison:

...the portrayal is respectfully distant from the sort of hagiographic fantasy often on display in theatrical biopics like, say, I’m Not There.

I'm Not There is a movie about Bob Dylan that featured six actors--including a woman and an African-American child--portraying different, often fictional, aspects of the man. It makes him out to be a lot of things, but never a saint.

It's not uncommon for a show based on someone's life to idealize the central character.  I'm Not There was doing something entirely different. That Thurgood--or any one-man show--would or could do anything similar is bizarre.

PS  I watched Thurgood.  Very well done.

Oh Domino

A lot of the original rockers are gone, so it's good to know Fats Domino is still around.  Happy birthday, Fats.

My guess is he sang more about walking than he actually walked:

Friday, February 25, 2011

Could Be Wrong

Toy Caldwell died February 25th, 1993, only 45 years old.  He was a founder of the Marshall Tucker Band and wrote their biggest hit, "Heard It In A Love Song." (I think more country songs need flute solos.) I heard the song recently and decided to actually check out what it said.

Like most people, the only part I really knew was the chorus, which is, in its entirety:

Heard it in a love song
Heard it in a love song
Heard it in a love song
Can't be wrong

I kind of figured the song, then, had something to do with a love song.  But this is not a love song.  It's about a guy who's leaving his girl.  He likes her, but they've been together long enough and it's time to sneak out.  So when he sings "heard it in a love song," he's referring, I assume, to one of those sad country "love songs" about moving on.  Or is what he's singing the titular love song?  Either way, good to know this isn't just another sap-fest.

However, even by the stadards of country music, the grammar is atrocious.  For instance, the first couplet:

I ain't never been with a woman long enough for my boots to get old
We've been together so long now they both need resoled

Is he trying to say "they both need to be resoled"?  And don't tell me Caldwell didn't have room for the syllables--in general the lines don't scan, and a few times the singer's gotta rush to fit them all in.

Speaking of which, this is from the final verse:

Always something greener on the other side of that hill
I was born a wrangler and a rambler and I guess I always will

"Always will" what?  You'll always be born a wrangler and a rambler?  How Hindu of you.


It's February 25th, birthday of the fourth funniest man in the world, Zeppo Marx.  Zeppo, as the youngest of the four Marx Brother, never really got time to develop a stage character except as straight man.  By most accounts, he was the funniest brother offstage--perhaps because he wasn't allowed to be funny on.  He appeared in their first five--and best--movies, but figured that was enough.

It's true, he gets very few jokes, but he knows how to play off Groucho--look at the dictation scene in Animal Crackers--and is a charming leading man when he gets the chance (such as in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers). 

Here's something on the religious lessons we can learn from Zeppo:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hey U

I caught the last few minutes of Wheel Of Fortune yesterday.  Here's what the board showed:


The contestants were flummoxed.  All three started to randomly guess letters.  One guessed C, so now they had A_C_LAND.  Still no good. Soon they had A_CKLAND.  Still not sure.  Pat Sajak noted there was only a vowel left. So one contestant meekly guessed U and was surprised to find there was such a place.


Barry Bostwick turns 66 today.  In the 70s, he was one of the hottest actors on Broadway, getting three Tony nominations for Grease (originating the role of Danny Zuko), a revival of They Knew What They Wanted and The Robber Bridegroom (winning Best Actor in a Musical).   Later, he appeared in numerous movies and TV shows.  But he'll always be known as Asshole.

That's what the crowd calls him at The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Too bad, because he does a great job--he's supposed to be a jerk.

I couldn't find a straight film version of "Dammit Janet" (even the title doesn't rhyme), but here's an audio version:

And here's the visual, sped up:

I Used To Like Mitch Hedberg. I Still Do, But I Used To, Too.

Hard to believe Mitch Hedberg is gone. If he were still alive, today would be his 42nd birthday.

He was one of the few standups who regularly made me laugh. I have a friend who met him after a gig in Ann Arbor. Guess what? They did drugs. It was ultimately Hedberg's undoing. But at least he left behind a lot of brilliant material.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

King Me

With The King's Speech poised to win major Oscar, some are coming out to state certain imperfections.  Most notable is Christopher Hitchens in Slate, who points out historical errors and omissions. (Then there's Katherine Preston in Salon, noting it gets the pathology of stuttering wrong.)

I've always had problems with films based on actual incidents, since they're just excuses to lie while getting extra credit for telling the truth. (And when the story is boring, you can also say "hey, that's how it happened.") The only solution is to treat all non-documentaries as entirely fictional.

So lord help us if we learn history from movies, but there's no point in complaining, as Hitchens does, that The King's Speech didn't properly explain actual facts.  Screenwriter David Seidler has noted certain scenes that had historical information Hitchen's refers to were cut because they made the film drag, but Hitchens says that's no excuse--write the scene so that it doesn't drag.  That's not how it works.  When you start with an historical story, you have a ton of material.  With each draft, interesting and even important but non-essential information falls away.  During production and editing, this happens even faster--scenes that don't feed the main story and characters kill momentum.

If Hitchens wants to tell us what the film missed, or got wrong, fine.  But while that would be a serious criticism of an historical volume, it doesn't say much about The King's Speech as art or entertainment.

Yes Indeedy

I'm just a few days late to wish Dodie Stevens a happy 65th.  Hope she doesn't mind.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Four And Out

I always thought it strange that Star Trek started each episode with the Captain explaining the ship was on a five-year mission.  This seems to limit how long the show can run.  Lucky for Roddenberry, Trek was canceled after three years so that took care of that. (Later Trek shows had continuing missions.)

So it's even odder that two relatively new prime time shows have greater limitations, Community and Glee.  The first is set in a community college, and the cast should graduate after four years.  Glee is a high school, so the same deal.  I know when money is at stake a show can run as long as it needs to, but do these shows have contingency plans for long runs?

In Community, it's not just college, it's a particular study group.  Will they fail a class together and have to take it over?  Will they graduate and stay together?  Will they become professors?

For Glee, will they replace ths students with new classmates?  Will they be held back?  Will they go to college?  Will they run out of songs to sing?

Or will both shows follow Star Trek and take the easy way out?


Excellent oral history in Details of Party Down, the poorly-rated Starz sitcom that lasted only 20 episodes.  The actors and producers recognize it was something special, and to this day I don't understand why it didn't get the numbers it deserved.

The article describes the show thus:

Combining shades of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, Judd Apatow's slacker heroes, and the painful reality-based humor of The Office, Party Down was textbook cutting-edge comedy.

I think this is missing something.  First, it's misleading to compare it to Christopher Guest's work (even if both share Jane Lynch) since Party Down was very much a written show. In fact, one of the great things about it was the plotting.  From the simple premise of a new party for the caterers to work at each week came cleverly designed and well-played farcical situations--a good show to compare it to, in fact, would be Fawlty Towers.

The producer and actors drop a lot of names, too, but it's odd they don't mention Party Down's most obvious antecedent.  This is a workplace sitcom about people with unfilfilled dreams taking an easy job to pay the rent, and at the center is a guy who's given up.  The exact same situation as Taxi.  And Party Down also shares Taxi's unusual plots at changing locales.  (The dumb pretty-boy actor, played by Ryan Hansen, is sort of a cross between Taxi's Tony and Bobby; of course, he's also similar to Joey on Friends.)

The show took an episode or two to find its footing, but there are no bad ones, and no weak characters.  I was pleased to see general agreement that the Steve Guttenberg half-hour in season 2 is the best the show did.  We've seen other TV shows where something someone writes is acted out, but in this one the script within the script--and how it's rewritten--is both funny and fascinating in how it helps the plot unfold and reveal the characters.

By season 2, Party Down had the critics, and a cult following, but with a new administration coming in, the show simply didn't have the ratings for a pick-up.  It's sad to read how the cast knew the show was on life support, and started drifting away.  As a ten-hour art project, though--actually longer than Britain's The Office or Fawlty Towers--it has an arc that gives us a sense of closure.

On the other hand, some of the people involved talk about a movie.  I'm not sure where they'll find the investors, but I'd pay to see it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Little R&R

Turning 50 today, Ranking Roger, singer for The English Beat (or as they're known in England, The Beat).

Movies, Morality And Money

Curious article in The Hollywood Reporter on the "Movieguide Faith and Value Awards." A bunch of Hollywood people met last week to honor films that "promote Judeo-Christian ethics." The big winners were The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Toy Story 3, Secretariat and Mao's Last Dancer.

Since they do nothing but give awards out here, there's no reason this group shouldn't get in on it.  But they also claim it's good box office:

Movies with pro-atheism messages in 2010, for example, earned an average $6.6 million while movies portraying "very strong Biblical morality" earned $78 million. Movies with lots of profanity earned $23 million and movies without profanity earned $50 million. Movies with messages advocating a "Christian" worldview earned $105 million and those advocating "miscellaneous morality" earned $10 million, according to the study.

First question--what movies with pro-atheism messages?  I don't recall a single one last year, so I'd love to see their list.

Anyway, this sort of analysis is weak.  In general, yes, people have always preferred movies with heroes who do the right thing.  But is that what they mean by "Biblical morality"?  The top five films last year were Toy Story 3, Alice In Wonderland, Iron Man 2, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1.  So I guess Biblical morality means witchcraft, vampires, werewolfs, crazy people, toys coming alive and iconoclastic billionaires.

As for profanity, once again, it's true that some are turned off by swearing, but there's also some self-selection here.  If you swear more than a few times (as the makers of The King's Speech have discovered), you get an R-rating.  This artificially limits your audience, and makes producers who are behind big-budgets films that require huge grosses usually see to it their films don't have a lot of profanity.  Meanwhile, lower-budget films, and artier films with adult themes, which are far less likely to make more money to begin with, can swear as much as they like.

As for "Christian" versus "miscellaneous" morality, I wish they'd give some examples.  I honestly don't know what they're referring to.  Explicitly "Christian" films rarely do that well at the box office.  In fact, once you get past The Passion Of The Christ and The Chronicles Of Narnia series (which I'll call Christian--and note the latest has performed disappointingly), there aren't any Christian films in the past few decades that could be called major hits.

If you look at the charts, the clearest message is probably to make cartoons.  The other is make visually strong films if you want them to do well overseas.  I liked the Movieguide award-winning Secretariat, but it only made half as much as a film that cost half as much to make--Jackass 3-D.  So it takes all kinds. By all means, if you want to make money, employ conventional morality, but people who think they've found a formula can easily lose their shirts.  The only real formula is good storytelling, hopefully on a project you're passionate about.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Swing And A Miss?

I saw this ad for optimism. It's part of a series of inspirational ads from the Foundation For A Better Life:

I suppose optimism is a good thing, but is there a problem today with kids being too pessmistic? I've heard it's more that kids think too highly of their accomplishments. And while people should look at the bright side, there's a fine line between seeing the glass half full and being delusional.

Alt. Man

It's the birthday of Robert Altman, one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last 40 years.  He died a few years back, and if there's any guy who did it his way, it's Altman.  He kicked around doing industrial films and TV until he broke into features.  Even then it wasn't until he did MASH, in his mid-40s, that he really established himself.

Little did producers know it was an anomaly.  The timing was right, everything came together, and this little-heralded film became one of the biggest hits of 1970.  So he was able to make a whole bunch of films (including McCabe And Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split and Nashville) before everyone figured out by the time he did Popeye in 1980 that the guy was a commercial disaster.

Still he kept plugging away, taking theatre gigs and whatever was available through a decade he spent outside the spotlight.  Then he made a comeback and ended his career with highly-respected films that even made small profits, such as The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park.

He was beloved by actors, because he'd give them a lot of freedom.  He'd also stick by them, even if they weren't stars.  He wasn't so loved by the suits, whom he despised (even though, let's face it, they allowed him to make his films).  His relationship with writers were ambivalent.  They generally admired his talent, but Altman, more than any other director I can think of, wasn't kidding when he said scripts are just blueprints.  He would rewrite dialogue and redo, or throw out, entire scenes, including endings.  Really the blueprint line is too kind--he was the kind of guy who'd come in one day and tear down the porch so he could put in a swimming pool.

It led to a lot of fascinating films, and even his worst are interesting. Still, a lot of his stuff doesn't quite play, and often meanders, and you wonder if he couldn't have put out more satisfying (though conventional) stuff if he'd just stuck to the script.

I thought writer Julian Fellowes (a guy with very little experience whom Altman took a chance on), who won an Oscar for Gosford Park, summed it up pretty well:

[Two actresses in Gosford Park] ad-libbed [a nice bit in the movie]  But for the most part of the film that was not so.  This was very difficult for Bob in a way.  I think he wanted to be an auteur director and it was hard for him to accept the importance of script.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

No One Can Sing Like...

There were a lot of great singers at Motown, but none of them topped Smokey Robinson. Happy birthday, Smokey.

Two Voices Have I

It's the birthday of the great falsetto singer Lou Christie.  He had a handful of top 40 hits, but lightning struck only once:

Friday, February 18, 2011

I've Got No Strings

I live a mile or two from West Hollywood, a separate, incorporated city located within Los Angeles.  It's a fairly rich, highly gay area that offers decent restaurants and shops and a good night life.  Now it seems some people are unhappy about its leaders, according to the LA Weekly's cover story "Dethroning West Hollywood's Martinets."

Apparently the City Council members have been in charge for decades and some young Turks wish to challenge them.  Fine by me, but I must confess, after reading the article, I don't get why those in charge are called "martinets." They seem a bit huffy, inaccessible and used to having their way, but they don't strike me as rigid disciplinarians or sticklers for rules and form.

I can only guess, based on the cover photo of Mito Aviles and his collectible mannequins, which appear to be held up by rope, that someone has confused martinets with marionettes, or those who operate the marionettes.  (The picture above is not the cover photo, but it's more publicity for Mito Aviles, who's running for City Council, and is well-known for his life-sized figures, so you get the idea.)

PS  In more local art news, street artist Banksy is in town, presumably for the Oscars, and he's been doing mischief to some of the many billboards around.  When people tear down his stuff, he can't complain, can he?

Another Layer To The Onion

I've watched the first several episodes of the Onion News Network, the TV branch of The Onion. I like it, though not as much as the newspaper.  It's pretty much the same material--deadpan news items, where everyday things are treated as important and unusual or important things are treated as normal.  The formula works, the visuals are good and the writing is generally there.  The best addition is all the satire of TV news, especially vain anchor Brooke Alvarez (played superbly by Suzanne Sena) and her interaction with other reporters.

The pieces vary (occasionally they get a little too political, which is actually when the Onion is at its worst), but overall the quality is high.  I suppose I like the paper better because I can pick and choose what I read, and only go as far in any piece as I want.  Still, the TV version is recommended.

On the other hand, I can't really tell you much about Portlandia, the thematic sketch show starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Browstein that follows the Onion News on IFC, since I haven't been able to make it through an entire episode.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Song Without Pity

Today is Gene Pitney's birthday. He had one of the most distinctive voices in rock music. I'm not sure if he liked how he sounded, but it sure was memorable.

Computers Overlords For $2000, Alex

IBM supercomputer Watson easily bested Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter this week.  In a two-match tournament, it won a combined amount of $77,147 (yes, it makes odd bets) while Jennings won $24,000 and Rutter $21,600.  Note they weren't playing for the money, but for position, with the top winner getting a million dollars.

It was a fascinating display, overall, though I'm still not entirely clear on the logistics.  Unfortunately, I missed the first of the three telecasts while the second had technical glitches, so I missed much of the explanation of how Watson worked.  I don't know how Watson "heard" or "read" the clues, and how it knew when to buzz in.  The key to the game, especially when all the players know most of the correct responses, is to buzz in first, except you can't buzz in until the game allows it.  It seemed that Watson could buzz in before the other two players at will (as it were).  This would pretty much hand any good player the match.  The rest of what Watson did was impressive, but then it has a lot of information it can dip into, with a lot of parallel processing.  I can beat anybody in the world in a trivia contest if you give me access to Google.

TV viewers saw on-screen Watson's top three choices for each response, plus its confidence level.  I couldn't help but notice that when Watson had high confidence--say 80% or more--it almost always buzzed in first, but when it was low, especially below 50%, the other players usually beat it.  I have to assume there's a built-in algorithm that makes Watson buzz in fast when it's sure, but hold back when it isn't.  Odd, but effective, I suppose.  This obviously prevents it from giving more wrong responses.

Which means one potential strategy, which the two humans probably couldn't have been aware of, is to do the exact opposite of what they'd normally do.  Normally, you buzz in as fast as you can, hoping to beat the others.  Here, you can't possible beat Watson when it has the right response, so it may be a good idea to lay back and also let it give out some wrong answers, too--not only do you pick up the money after, but Watson has the same amount subtracted.

The final numbers make it appear to be a rout, but I don't think it was hopeless for the humans.  First, note Watson's strategy made it attempt to find the Daily Doubles, and it got almost all of them.  This is partly due to luck, and in a game such as this, where good strategy for humans is to double up when possible, not getting them probably hurt quite a bit.  Also notice two humans against one machine makes humans split the correct responses that are easier for people.  One human against Waston would have been a closer match--and one human against two computers would have made it even easier for the carbon-based life form.

In the first game, the computer had such a lead at Final Jeopardy that there wasn't much strategy involved in the betting.  (There was a little, since it was a tournament and the point was to add up the two days' winnings.)  But the first day's Final Jeopardy was quite telling.  The computer knew almost everything (as did the humans), but when it was wrong, it could still make mistakes no human would.  The final category the first day was U.S. Cities.  The clue was easy to solve (well, I got it, as did the two people on the show), but not only did the computer miss, it guessed "Toronto."  If the humans had even half of what Watson had at this point, as happened in the second match, one or both of them would probably have prevailed in the first game (which would have affected Watson's betting stategy in the second game).

I'm only sorry they didn't play five games this week.  The programmers have taught the computer quite a bit, but I'd like to see if the human master-players adapt as they go.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I recently rewatched the 90s movie version of The Fanstasticks. I'm one of the few people who saw it in a cinema. Though it's the longest-running Off-Broadway show ever, it was dumped in the movie theatres.

With good reason. The film just doesn't work. It probably couldn't work. (Not that it's relevant, but I did the show in community theatre years ago.)  It's a charming piece, but very small, and precious. The story is symbolic, and the characters archetypes. Movies work better with real people.

It's about a boy and a girl. What else? Their fathers design to bring them together, but the couple needs more experience before they're ready. Unfortunately, when you move this simple story into a world with solid farmhouses and huge, empty fields, it's all but swallowed up. A little more imagination, or perhaps a bigger budget, could have helped fill it, I suppose. I still like some of the tunes, but it's not enough.

Jean Louisa Kelly as the fresh-faced girl isn't bad, but the rest of the cast is so-so, and El Gallo (the swashbuckler hired by the fathers to help the kids out) is weak.

(Here's a regular guy doing the four-part number that opens Act 2 all by himself.)

Mars Mission

Kenneth Mars has died.  A few months ago I heard he was very ill, so I'm not surprised. He was a great comic character actor, and I've always felt a special connection to him.  I played Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in a high school production of Anything Goes, and listened to the cast album of the 1962 off-Broadway revival to learn the songs.  On it, playing Oakleigh, is Mars--I copied his voice for my characterization.  (I still have a fake life preservers in the back of the closet with the name "Sir Evelyn" on it.)  He played the part with a pretty extravagant British accent (so I did, too), and looking at his career, most of his best known roles have accents.

He started working on TV in the 60s and did hundreds of guest shots.  My favorite character might have been W. D. "Bud" Prize on Fernwood Tonight, sort of a hick, but nevertheless Ambassador at Large for the Fernwood Chamber of Commerce.  He always came on spreading bad ideas, and wore a very obvious chin-adjuster from his chinadontist.

One of his later TV roles that got him a lot of attention was the kindly, almost gullible Otto Mannkusser on Malcolm In The Middle.  He was Francis's boss and put up with almost anything.

He's best known for his film work.  Above all, for the first movie he did, Mel Brooks' The Producers.  He was Franz Liebkind, the Nazi playwright.  Mars more than holds his own with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.  Here, without context, are some of his more famous lines:

Hitler... there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in ONE afternoon! TWO coats!

Baby! Baby!... Why does he say this "baby"? The Führer has never said "baby". I did not write, "baby". What is it with this, "baby"?

You will please be unconscious.

You shut up! You are the audience! I am the author! I OUTRANK you!

Almost as well known is Inspector Kemp from another Mel Brooks' film, Young Frankenstein.  Kemp is the local constable who investigates Dr. Frankenstein.  Mars takes this character, whose main comic features are a fake arm and an impenetrable accent, and spins it into comic gold.

Kemp: A riot is an ugly sink, unt, I think that it is just about time dat ve had vone!
[Crowd cheers.]
Kemp: Vith heaven as my vitness, ve vill curse de day dat dere vas born a Frankenschtein!
Crowd: What?
Kemp: I said ve vill curse de day dat dere vas born a Frankenschtein!
[Crowd cheers again.]

Kemp: As ze leader of zis community, may I be de first to offer you my hant in friendship.
[Kemp shakes the monster's hand; the crowd cheers.]
Monster: Thank you.
Kemp: You are entirely velcome. Unt now, let us all go to my house for a little spongecake unt a little vine, unt--
[As Kemp turns to leave, his wooden arm -- still grasping the monster's hand -- pops out.]
Kemp: --unt shit!
[He takes the arm and looks at it ponderingly.]
Kemp: To ze lumberyard!
[Crowd cheers and follows him out.]

He was also memorable is What's Up, Doc?, Radio Days and even the occasional serious role.  The world is a little less happy place today.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is That A Fact?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

I agree, but this doesn't get us far.  While facts may be facts, there are plenty of opposing groups out there that either pick which facts they believe are significant, or, seem capable of manufacturing their own "facts."

Sentiments color perception.  So it's not always about getting people to agree on the facts, after which they'll argue about interpretation.  Once they have a certain interpretation, that allows them to agree with their group what the facts are.

Brand X

Of all the movie remakes on the horizon, the most ill-advised (and aren't they all?) looks like Arthur, starring Russell Brand in the title role and Helen Mirren as his trusted employee. Yes, it's been thirty years since the original, but what made that work probably can't be re-created.

The first Arthur--a surprise hit--was a bit of a throwback: a romantic comedy focusing on a madcap rich heir who drinks too much. (That'll be the first thing to go--making fun of alcoholism was tricky enough then.)  The plot works, if you don't take it too seriously, and the lead performances, especially from Dudley Moore and John Gielgud--the latter winning an Oscar--are great.  But what really makes the movie are the amazing gag lines. The original Arthur was written and directed by Steve Gordon, a not-especially-distinguished TV comedy writer who made the transition to the big screen look like the easiest thing in the world.  (He then foolishly died very young the next year.)

I assume the remake will not use too many of the old lines--you can't tell a joke twice. But without them, it means they'll have to come up with new stuff.  What are the odds it'll equal the old?  Not good, based on the trailer:

The casting seems uninspired.  I don't like Brand in general, though I'm willing to be surprised.  Helen Mirren seems like a mistake, and, in any case, no one can top Gielgud who, as Arthur's valet Hobson, gets a laugh with practically every line.  (BTW, one of the most common notes writers get in Hollywood is "how about making this character a female?"--this almost never makes a script better, but is something to say when you don't have any real ideas.)

To this day I quote the original.  One line is so famous it's become a cliche: when Arthur tells Hobson he's going to take a bath, Hobson replies "I'll alert the media." Here are a few others, though I admit some of them lose their snap if you don't hear John Gielgud's dry delivery:

Susan: A real woman could stop you from drinking.
Arthur: It'd have to be a real BIG woman.

Arthur: You're a hooker? I thought I was doing GREAT with you!

Hobson: Thrilling to meet you, Gloria.
Gloria: Hi.
Hobson: Yes... You obviously have a wonderful economy with words, Gloria. I look forward to your next syllable with great eagerness.

Hobson: Thank you for a memorable afternoon, usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature.

Arthur: It's terribly small, tiny little country. Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war. THAT'S how small it is...They recently had the whole country carpeted.  This is NOT a big place.

Arthur: What are you doing later tonight?
Linda: Oh, I have plans for tonight. What should I wear?
Hobson: Steal something casual.

Burt Johnson: I never drink. No one in my family ever drinks.
Arthur: That's great! You've probably never run out of ice your whole life!

Arthur: I'm sure he does, madam. For all I know, he shot it while you screamed.

Gloria: My mother died when I was six.
Arthur: Son of a bitch! Don't they know what that does to kids?
Gloria: My father raped me when I was twelve.
Arthur: So, you had six relatively good years.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Star Wars Gets Its Due

A friend just sent me a URL for a YouTube video and I'm spreading the word as well.  It's the first part of a lengthy documentary on Star Wars, as far as I can tell made independently by someone with no official connection to the movie,

I've only watched the first hour (each video is ten minutes) but so far it's an amazing piece of work, as good as or better than any other documentary on the subject.  It goes through the original scene by scene, adding outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage and other related material, and has narration taken from many interviews done over the years by the people who made the film.  This is the kind of detailed documentary the film deserves.

Cover Charge

It's February 14th, which means, of course, it's National Condom Day.  Feel free to celebrate, though I suggest  you do it in private.

And The Award Goes To

The Grammy Awards were a bit better than I expected.  It was fun to see indie rock Arcade Fire beat Eminem, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry for best album.  Was there a vote split, with a large enough minority tired of big names?

And while I would have loved to see "(the song otherwise known as "Forget You")" to have won, it was a bit different to have country music's Lady Antebellum pick up the record and song awards for "Need You Now."

Also, jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding beat Justin Bieber for best new artist.  Sorry Justin, once you lose that, you can never win it.

There were some good performances on the show, but the best, surprisingly, came from an artist who hasn't done much of interest for the past couple decades. Mick Jagger gave tribute to Solomon Burke with a version of "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love." It was the kind of perfomance that reminded you why people were excited about Jagger in the first place.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I live in Hollywood.  Since I moved here, every now and then I read about Hollywood history and discover exciting things.

For instance, not far from where I live is the old Buster Keaton studio (which used to be the old Charlie Chaplin studio).  If you watch his old films, especially his shorts, you can see him run along streets that I walk down every day.

Recently, I was looking at a biography of Sam Goldwyn, and discovered he sent his son, Sam Jr. (Hollywood moguls weren't like other Jews--they loved to name their boys after them) went to a military school located on the corner where I live today.  Unfortunately, I don't know which part of the corner, though I'm guessing it's the part I can see through my window that now has tennis courts.

On Call

We all know how absurd computers in movies can be.  They can do whatever is necessary for the plot, far beyond what real computers can do.  The older the movie the better, since these computers will have ridiculously ancient trappings but still manage something like consciousness.

A prime example is the cautionary tale known as WarGames, a 1983 film starring Matthew Broderick as a whiz kid who hacks into a government computer and almost starts a global nuclear war.  It's actually pretty good if you ignore some of the sillier plot elements.

But watching it recently it struck me that not only will kids today laugh at the computers, they'll look at other stuff and wonder what's going on.  In particular, there's a small scene after Broderick escapes from the feds and needs to call girlfriend Ally Sheedy.  He's dropped off by the side of the road (he hitchhiked!--do people do that any more?) where he finds a phone booth in the middle of nowhere.  We don't have phone booths any more, and what we do have aren't generally just sitting there by themselves along the side of the road.  He doesn't have money so, being a master of technology, unscrews the mouthpiece knowing if he can make some sort electrical arc he'll get a dial tone.  Okay, I'll buy that.  But he needs a piece of metal to do it.  So he goes outside, looks on the ground and finds a pull-tab someone threw away from a beverage can.  What's that?  Finally, he gets the dial tone and next thing you know he's dialing a--huh?--rotary phone.

Why didn't he just pull out his cell?

PS  Lately I've seen a bunch of 80s films reflecting the fear of nuclear war.  I guess it was in the air, with the nuclear freeze movement, the book The Fate Of The Earth, TV's The Day After and opposition to Ronald Reagan.  So we get stuff like WarGames and Miracle Mile and The Manhattan Project.  Nuclear destruction makes for a dramatic situation, though they seem a bit overwrought today.  (Not that there's no threat any more.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Stray Thought

If you say "You're Welcome!" sarcastically to someone who has failed to thank you, you have successfully gotten rid of any reason for this person to thank you in the first place.

Ain't No Sunshine

Matthew Perry's return to the sitcom, Mr. Sunshine, debuted on ABC last Wednesday.  It rated reasonably well, helped by one of the best slots available--9:30 after Modern Family.  (It replaced Cougar Town, starring another Friends alumnus, Courteney Cox.  Meanwhile, Matt LeBlanc is doing Episodes while Jennifer Aniston opens in Just Go For It.)

All the networks wanted Perry in a show, but he's not just the star here.  He helped create, produce and write Mr. Sunshine, so he gets much of the credit or blame.  The situation has possibilitieis--a workplace comedy, but the workplace is the Sunshine Center, an arena in San Diego.  They can have sports, circuses, dog shows, whatever.  I don't recall any TV show taking advantage of such a place before.  Perry runs the arena, and has to deal with the many people under him, as well as owner Allison Janney.  In the pilot, the cynical Perry (so I guess the title is ironic) deals with turning 40 and wondering where his life is going.

Another producer on the show is Thomas Schlamme, who worked with Perry on the ill-fated Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.  Schlamme's best known for his work on West Wing, which starred Janney.  I see he and Perry have brought aboard as regulars two actors who worked on Studio 60--Nate Torrence as Janney's bumbling son, and James Lesure as the happy employee who competes with Perry for a woman.  The love interest is Andrea Anders, who was Matt LeBlanc's love interest on Joey and, even better, the love interest (and relatively normal one compared to Portia de Rossi) on Better Off Ted.  Perry's young assistant is Portia Doubleday, who starred in Youth In Revolt.  (Is "Portia" becoming a popular name?)

We also got Jorge Garcia as one of the arena's employees.  It was nice to see Hurley again, but I'm not sure if he's a regular.

The cast is fine, but the characters aren't great--they're a little too happy, or wacky, or dumb.  At least so far.  The plot didn't move much, though that's always tricky when you've got so much exposition.  I wouldn't have minded if the jokes weren't so obvious.  I don't mind going all out for comedy, but that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice intelligence or consistency.

It's just the pilot.  Some shows take a while to get going.  But from what I've seen so far, Mr. Sunshine isn't going to make it, and doesn't deserve to.

Friday, February 11, 2011

As The Crow Sings

Sheryl Crow is a perfect square today, turning 49.  (Her middle name is Suzanne, and she's almost the same age as Suzanne Crough, who was in the Partridge Family--another bird--years before Crow hit it big.)

After spending years as a songwriter and background singer, she broke through in the mid-90s, and has been making great music ever since.

Reynolds Rap

Burt Reynolds turns 75 today (assuming he's not lying about his age).  He did a ton of TV in the 60s, mostly Westerns, and by the end of the decade had graduated to films.  He may have been the biggest movie star of the 70s and early 80s, doing both action and comedy.  He flirted with respectability, especially after Deliverance (1972), though it probably didn't help he posed semi-nude for Cosmopolitan around the same time.  He was best known for his good ol' boy roles, his biggest hit being Smoky And The Bandit (1977).  He also became one of the top guests on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and was expert at making fun of himself.

I always liked him more than his friend and competitor, Clint Eastwood.  Clint is highly regarded today, but back then, the critics didn't necessarily take him more seriously than Burt.  Then some time in the mid-80s, Burt's fans deserted him.  I don't know if they grew up, or Burt got too old, or whatever, but suddenly he wasn't the Man any more.  (He and Clint made a movie in 1984--City Heat.  It's awful, and maybe that was the dividing line.  He didn't really have any big hits after that. Clint, on the other hand, not only kept making hits, but became more and more respectable.)

In 1997, Burt had a bit of a comeback, playing a porn filmmaker in a relatively small Boogie Nights.  The film was highly praised (deservedly) and, even though Burt didn't particularly like his role, it got him his only Oscar nomination.  It looked like he could have a decent career playing older, supporting parts, but he never really followed Boogie Nights with anything special. For the most part he's appeared in a bunch of films you never heard of.

He may not have been in too many classics, but he made his share of decent entertainments.  Maybe it's time for a reappraisal.  How about an honorary Oscar?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Regarding The Guardsman

I recently watched The Guardsman (1931), the film adapation of the Lunt's best-known vehicle (at the time) and the only film they made.

It makes sense in the early days of talkies that MGM would call on the famous acting couple to recreate their stage roles. And when the film wasn't a hit, I can see why Hollywood didn't use them again, and perhaps why Lynn and Alfred were more than happy to flee to the footlights.

It's a pretty basic story, adapted from the Molnar play.  A well-known stage couple (not unlike the Lunts--in fact, the movie starts with them performing Maxwell's Anderson's Elizabeth The Queen, which they'd just been doing in New York) are fighting backstage.  The husband tests his wife's fidelity by pretending to woo her as a Russian guardsman.

It's not bad, exactly, but it isn't exciting like the best films of the era.  It's opened up, yet the story still seems stagebound.  But the reason to watch it today, and maybe the reason it doesn't work then, is the Lunts.  Talented as they are, they're trying too hard.  Good movie acting usually gives you the feeling the characters are letting you watch them, while the Lunts act at you. (I realize they're playing a theatrical couple--makes you wonder how they'd be in different roles, though the bit of Anderson at the start doesn't give you much hope.)  I can see how a lot of the stuff would be delightful on stage, but that's a different medium.  Indeed, what was considered good stage acting back them seems forced and mannered today, especially with the overdone elocution . (Movie acting has changed, too, but we're used to the styles of the time.)  Also, they're a goodlooking couple, but not quite movie star glamorous.

Perhaps it's because I never got used to the Lunts as screen performers, but they seem pretty easily outclassed by the rest of the cast, character actors we'd see a lot more of--Roland Young, Zasu Pitts, Maude Eburne and Herman Bing.

Song Of The Times

I was talking to an old-time rock and roller who noted her favorite song was "So In Love."  Really, Cole Porter's number from Kiss Me Kate?

Later, I realized she must have meant "So Much In Love" by The Tymes.

Either way, great song.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Oh! Carol

Happy birthday, Carole King (born Carol Klein), maybe the greatest of all the amazing Brill Building songwriters. She started turning out hits in 1960, as a teenager, creating stuff like, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Take Good Care Of My Baby," "Chains," "The Loco-Motion," "Go Away Little Girl," "Crying In The Rain," "Don't Say Nothin' Bad (About My Baby)," "Hey Girl," "One Fine Day," "Up On The Roof," "I'm Into Something Good," "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman."

Her masterful songwriting became (amazingly) overshadowed by her success as a performer in the 70s, with Tapestry--which included "I Feel The Earth Move," "So Far Away," "It's Too Late" and "You've Got A Friend"--becoming one of the biggest albums of all.

She continued to do good work, but like so many rock artists, her best stuff was from her 20s (and maybe a bit of her 30s). Perhaps it's tough hitting your peak so young, but the royalties must soften the blow.

Let's let her sing one herself:

PS Here's an interesting comment from YouTube about the song:

So after almost 10 years of marriage (12/31 anniversary), my wife left me this week. Took all our money and left. While it was true we were having some problems I didn't think it was anything that we couldn't work out. I suspect she will come clean out the house while I'm at work one day this week which is ok as half of it is hers. I'm still glad for what we had, and how I once loved her...This song will help me through it all.


Double Teamed

The House is planning to block health care funds, but, regardless of how it plays politically, it seems like an empty effort with the Senate and White House opposed to the plan.  So the real action, for now, is what the Supreme Court will say when they decide on Obamacare's constitutionality.

This won't be for a while, but things are already heating up.  Two top legal profs, Laurence Tribe in The New York Times and Akhil Reed Amar in the LA Times, have put out editorials stating the Supreme Court has to find the law constitutional.  Some of their arguments I find weak, but hey, that's how it goes.  People disagree.  What surprises me is the arrogance with which they state their claims.

Reed treats Judge Vinson's opinion declaring Obamacare unconstitutional as if it were one long, crude error.  Here's how he begins:

Earlier this week, after grading student papers from my Yale Law School class on constitutional law, I began reading federal District Judge Roger Vinson's recent opinion declaring "Obamacare" unconstitutional. One thing was immediately clear: My students understand the Constitution better than the judge.

I strive to be apolitical in evaluating students and judges alike. Over the years, many of my favorite students have been proud conservatives, while others have been flaming liberals. The Constitution belongs to neither party.

As every first-year law student learns, lower court judges must heed Supreme Court precedents.

I like the first clause--just in case you didn't know who he is.

Next thing, he's noting his students know the law better, that first-year students get it while Judge Vinson doesn't, and your mother wears army boots.  If Reed has an argument, perhaps he should make it without a preface of schoolyard taunts.

He notes he strives to be apolitical.  Based on what I read below, he fails.  He also notes the Constitution belongs to neither party.  Correct, but a non sequitur.

I'm not going into the content of his argument, but please read it and see if you feel it's as open and shut as he believes.  Maybe he has a good case, maybe Congress (as his logic dictates) has the power to send every citizen a yearly budget stating how all money must be spent.  But isn't it at least possible this case presents some novel issues that are open to differing opinions?

He ends worse than he begins:

Obamacare's opponents are free to vote for politicians who will repeal it. They should not use seats on lower courts to distort the Constitution, disregard applicable precedents and disrespect a duly elected Congress, which gave Americans in early 2010 exactly what the winning party platform promised in November 2008.

In 1857, another judge named Roger distorted the Constitution, disregarded precedent, disrespected Congress and proclaimed that the basic platform of one of America's two major political parties was unconstitutional. The case was Dred Scott vs. Sanford, involving a slave who sued for his freedom because he had lived with his master in places where Congress had banned slavery. In an opinion by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the court not only ruled against Scott, saying that even free blacks were not citizens and therefore had no right to sue; it also declared the Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed slavery in Northern territories, unconstitutional.

History has not been kind to that judge. Roger Vinson, meet Roger Taney.

The first paragraph claims Congress gave the people what they promised.  First, who cares?  That's not the issue here.  Second, this is close to a lie through implication--that Congress was doing the will of the people and that should be respected--and an unnecessary one for Reed's argument, so I don't understand why he says it.  People voted for the Dems in 2008 for a lot of reasons, but rarely for the vague boilerplate in their platform about health care.  If Reed really wanted to explain what occurred, he would note the law was forced through in a party-line vote against the will of the public, who responded by kicking out large portions of the party in charge, and who oppose the law to this day.  But if it's legal, it's legal, if it's not, it's not.

Then Reed descends about as low as he can go and compares Vinson's opinion to Dred Scott.  Whether Reed has a solid hold on Dred Scott I don't know, but it's irrelevant.  The case is the most reviled in American jurisprudence, and all sides shout imprecations, explaining how whatever it is they don't like at present is the same thing that led to Chief Justice Taney's opinion.

These invocations of Dred Scott are, in every case, shameful.  But, if possible, it's extra shameful to compare a case that supported slavery to a case that says individuals are free to make their own choices.

Perhaps because Tribe knows everyone reads the Times, including the Supreme Court, he goes in another direction.  Rather than attack the lower court, he butters up the high court.  He doesn't even entertain the notion the Supreme Court would be so foolish as to find any part of Obamacare unconstitutional.  They're too smart, rational and fair to every do anything so uncool.

Some samples:

...the predictions of a partisan 5-4 split rest on a misunderstanding of the court and the Constitution. The constitutionality of the health care law is not one of those novel, one-off issues, like the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, that have at times created the impression of Supreme Court justices as political actors rather than legal analysts.

[....] To imagine Justice Scalia would abandon that fundamental understanding of the Constitution’s necessary and proper clause because he was appointed by a Republican president is to insult both his intellect and his integrity.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom many unfairly caricature as the “swing vote,” deserves better as well.

[....] The justices aren’t likely to be misled by the reasoning that prompted two of the four federal courts that have ruled on this legislation to invalidate it...

[....] There is every reason to believe that a strong, nonpartisan majority of justices will do their constitutional duty...

[....] Only a crude prediction that justices will vote based on politics rather than principle would lead anybody to imagine that Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Samuel Alito would agree with the judges in Florida and Virginia who have ruled against the health care law.

He's sending out a message to the Court--especially to Justice Kennedy--letting them know what he expects of them. No one can say how they'll vote, but if Tribe can just move one of Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia or Thomas close enough to the center that the Justice writes one of those worthless "on the one hand..." opinions, mission accomplished.

I don't think I'm reading too much into these pieces to say that Reed and Tribe are nervous.  They know it's actually possible the lower courts will be upheld.  So they don't just make legal arguments, they try to set up the grounds for what is an acceptable argument to begin with.  Combining the two, I get something like this:

We understand the Constitution better than you and we, impartial we, declare there is no serious argument against Obamacare.  Any judge who finds otherwise does so through pure partisanship.  And only one side can be partisan in this case.  If you vote against our beliefs, you're an incompetent boob who will deserve, and most assuredly get, scathing contempt for the rest of your career and beyond.  If you vote our way, you'll be rewarded with loving words in the top papers and periodicals that all your friends read.  Resistance is futile.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Chicagoland News

OK I'm turning into that guy who just posts links to other things but I noticed the following in a story about how the Harry Caray Statue outside Wrigley Field had been vandalized (somebody spray painted "Sox" on it- would've been more interesting if somebody put Packer gear on it)

"It's not the first time the bronze statue has been vandalized. Chicago police removed a dead goat carcass found hanging around it in October 2007."

Small Wonder

I recently saw Alex In Wonderland (1970) , the film Paul Mazursky made after he broke through with his directorial debut Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969).  My main reaction was only in that era would anyone be allowed to make something so self-indulgent. Not that self-indulgence has to be bad.  Just usually.

The plot, as it were, is about Alex Morrison, a director who's just made his first film.  He flies to Hollywood and we get, essentially, a bunch of disconnected scenes (including some fantasy or surrealistic sequences) where he ponders what his next film should be.

He meets a neo-hippie producer (played by Mazursky) who offers him absurd scripts.  He talks about certain biopics that may have seemed wild then, but actually got made--Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce. He interacts withi his wife (played by Ellen Burstyn), his two daughters (one played by Mazursky's daughter) and his mother (played by famed improv teacher Viola Spolin).  He hangs with his entourage on the beach and discusses revolutionary filmmaking. He meets two of his idols, Frederico Fellini and Jeanne Moreau, and the movie stops dead (not that it was too alive to begin with) as he tells them how much he admires them.  And so on.

The film is clearly inspired by Fellini's 8 1/2 (considered a classic, though not by me), another film about a blocked director, and, in fact, references it directly.  But really, why should we care about Alex and his problems?

Some of the scenes by themselves aren't bad, and comment with sympathy and satire on the world Mazursky was living in.  But as a whole it has no drive.  This is the kind of film that would work best in excerpts.  (It is fascinating to see Hollywood Boulevard in 1970--it's changed a lot, but some things remain.)

Very Fit

Tooling around YouTube, I discovered a tape of my friend, Peter Slutsker (later Peter Marx), performing on Broadway. It's from the stage adaptation of Singin' In The Rain.

He's doing one of my favorite numbers, "Fit As A Fiddle," and reproducing pretty faithfully the choreography from the movie. (Peter's the one who starts out on the left.)  Considering movie dances are top professionals only using their best cuts, not singing live, and with editing allowed, doing it all at once on stage, eight times a week, is quite a feat:

Monday, February 07, 2011

Correction of the Day

Well my team lost the Super Bowl, the halftime show was uninspired, and the whole production had the feel of an overdone expensive mediocrity. Except for the tiny Darth Vader, which could be seen before the game, most of the ads were disappointing or sucked (though I am starting to like the Groupon Ad- the Tibetans can take it (though I don't think they make fish curry)-they've put up with far worse- the real target was Hollywood).

But the real reason for this post was to make fun of, whose interns this morning were either hungover or just not really football fans.

Corrections, Feb. 7, 2011
: A headline on this item originally misidentified the Packers as a Florida team and misspelled Pittsburgh. Also, the item described the Packers as football's "most decorated team." In terms of Super Bowl victories, the Steelers have the more prestigious record.

For Your Lack Of Consideration

Just like the producers, directors and actor, the Writers Guild--the one group of above-the-liners you might thing would do it their own way--picked just what everyone expected them to.

For screenplay, The Social Network (adapated) and Inception (original).  Okay, Inception was a little different, but with no King's Speech available (every year the rules seem to eliminate a likely Academy winner), it was anything goes in that category.  (A great comment from the link calling Inception "Exposition: The Movie.")

Much worse, Inside Job, the simplistic tale of our economic mess that told Hollywood what it wanted to hear, won for documentary screenplay (they have screenplays?).

For TV drama, Mad Men won two awards.  I like Mad Men (see below), but can't we try something else occasionally?  And that something else should not be the new toy on the block, the dull Boardwalk Empire, which won for new series, or The Pacific, which won for long form.

For comedy, the winners were Modern Family and 30 Rock. Hey, good shows, but once again, it'd be nice to see something win that hasn't won everything else. Say, Community, or Louie?

For comedy/variety, we get The Colbert Report.  Isn't this sort of one joke?  If you've got to pick something from Comedy Central (and you shouldn't), Jon Stewart has it all over Colbert.

For animation, an episode of Futurama?  Really?  It wasn't a great season, and there's plenty of stuff from other shows--Family Guy, to pick an obvious choice--that was better.

So there you have it.  I don't want them to make the obvious choices, and when they pick something else, I'm still unhappy.  Damn writers.

Mad Man

Daniel Mendelsohn is making waves with his slam at Mad Men in The New York Review Of Books.  I'm sure he believes what he writes, and it's always good business to attack the critically exalted, but his essay doesn't add up to much.

Mendelsohn likes TV.  He likes The Sopranos and The Wire and Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights.  As for Mad Men, however:

The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues”—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.

He says the plotting is haphazard and preposterous, yet he likes The Sopranos (where Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner got his chops).  Both shows are full of varied characters who go through many crises--that's what drama is about--but Weiner, like David Chase before him, has a different sort of plotting.  He'll often avoid obvious dramatic payoffs by making you expect something and then getting something else.  I guess that can appear haphazard and preposterous, but to a lot of viewers, who can tell you exactly how most plots will end up, it's refreshing, even exhilirating.

Furthermore, when characters don't always respond as you expect (Don's enemy is Duck, but sometimes he supports Duck; Joan's husband is an awful doctor who rapes her, but he's a sweet guy with a great bedside manner), it's a nice change of pace.  Or, if you believe Mendelsohn, it's incoherent.

As for its look at the 60s, yes, the design gets a lot of attention.  And it does tend to play up some things that seem outrageous today--pregnant women smoking, kids playing without proper safety precuation, outrageous sexism, etc.  But the show has to deal with this stuff--it can't ignore them or why bother?  Does it exaggerate?  Perhaps a bit, but drama has to play things up--exaggerate--for effect.  A cop show (like The Wire) has more action in an episode than most real cops see in a year.  What's great about Mad Men is, after a while, you accept much of the behavior, even if you don't excuse it. (And, I would hope, it doesn't make you complacent or smug.  I realize a lot of crusaders believe we have to flagellate ourselves all the time (along the lines they approve of), but I have no trouble with looking at the past and noting, at least in some ways, we have made progress.)  Does it also glorify some of this activity?  Yes, but that's also part of the appeal.  Much of the show is a visit to a different country, so similar, so different.  Noting the strangeness, but making it part of the drama, is a major achievement of the show.  Mendelsohn may not approve how they play up these aspects, but I can tell him if this is all the show had to offer, rather than characters in dramatic the audience cares about in compelling situation, viewership would have dropped off each episode, rather than risen every year.  Shock and decor can only get you so far.

As to the soap opera charge, there's a thin line between drama and melodrama.  It's not necessarily about incident so much as how these incidents are handled.  Mad Men sometimes covers the same territory, and even threatens to go overboard, but it does things real soap operas don't pull off.  (And it does it without the advantage The Sopranos of The Wire have--it can't kill people on the regular basis to keep up the excitement level.) Problems aren't resolved as expected.  Of course there are dramatic situations, but you don't know how Don and gang will respond.  Don certainly doesn't always triumph (as Mendelsohn implies later), and all characters are on edge, ready to do things that we can't foresee, but we understand, after they've done them, that are in character.  And it's all performed with incomparably better dialogue.

As for resolving successive personal crises, there's a certain amount of that--that's what serial drama means.  But, in fact, this is a show, unlike most, where a fact can be forgotten, only to be brought back the next season, and have a devastating effect.  Where character problems are not conveniently solved, but nag at the characters--even when they understand how devastating they are, they still can't always help themselves

I'm not saying the show isn't overpraised.  It has plenty of flaws.  One season offered a whole lot of stuff with Betty at the stables that offered little entertainment and less enlightenment.  It is true sometimes certain 60s themes are dealt with rather glibly (if entertainingly).  And some of the secondary characters, such as Peggy's hipster friends, border on caricature.

Still, I can't think of too many shows in the past decade, during this golden age of television (as Mendelsohn puts it), as gripping as Mad Men, and I can't think of a single one that does it within the given set of limitations it's created for itself.

PS  This essay done properly would point out flaws in specific example Mendelsohn chooses, and note specific counterexamples.  Since I wrote this quickly, and am not planning to come back and do it right, I can only suggest you watch the show and decide for yourself.

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