Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Don't Have A Cow

The Got Milk people have a series of ads explaining "real milk comes from cows."

Since I don't drink that much milk of any sort, I don't really have a dog (or cow) in this fight. But while these commercials are amusing, are they going to shame us out of soy? Creep us out over coconuts? Awe us out of almond?

Okay, so "real milk" comes from cows.  Who cares?  The questions that matter: What tastes better?  What costs less?  What's healthier?  What's easier to store?  What has a better environmental impact?  And so on.  These ads may win awards, but do they really convince anyone of anything?


You've got to feel sorry for people born on February 29th, only getting to celebrate a real birthday every four years.

I suppose the most famous usage in fiction of such a birthday is from The Pirates Of Penzance, so let's hear a selection.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Notes from the North

I don't often read the Literary Review of Canada. OK-until today, I didn't know it existed. I did see a jump headline however that stirred some interest. As some readers may know, several of the Guys here were fortunate enough to have Judge Richard Posner as a professor many years ago. Along with being a well-known jurist, the Judge is always doing something interesting and saying something provocative. Today, I saw a reference to him which made me have to click on the article.

Specifically, "...
Richard Posner, “a dreary, unreasoning pustule of animus”"

I don't always agree with Judge P but this seemed a bit harsh. Although a fascinating phrase (I do like invective), its almost completely inaccurate as to each word. Turns it was a review of new book by Conrad Black in the aforementioned LRC-he is a [former] media mogul of some sort who got in trouble for monkeying with the books, was targeted by the US Justice System and was punished, perhaps too harshly according to the reviewer.

Mr. Black wrote the book while still serving time (which I'm guessing doesn't help his demeanor) and he apparently has big awful opinions and likes to announce them frequently. (Posner who was the judge on Black's appeal panel is also a "sociopathic personality," press photographers are compared to overweight Jurassic rats and his life is filled with encounters with a
“seemingly endless list of morally deformed people.”) As I said, I like invective but reading this review was exhausting. Even the somewhat sympathetic reviewer comes down squarely against the book although in duly understated terms ("I am sure it is not easy to edit a book by Conrad Black....").

Judge Posner may not have been called worse but I think his rep can stand this one.

Never Too Late

Speaking of horse racing, if you're going to bet on a horse, why not bet on one who comes from behind?  You won't expect much most of the way and can still be hopeful till the end.

Probably the best come-from-behind thoroughbred was Silky Sullivan, born on February 28th, 1955.  Silky ran in the money two-thirds of his races, finishing first in almost half.  He's long gone, but I still wouldn't count him out.

Got Him Pegged

I recently skimmed through Simon Pegg's Nerd Do Well, the story of how he got to be who he is. Pegg was born in England in 1970 and created the British sitcom Spaced.  He's since made films of his own, such as the horror parody Shaun Of The Dead, and appeared in major Hollywood productions, including the recent Star Trek and Mission: Impossible series.

For anyone expecting much discussion of these projects, look elsewhere.  The vast majority of the book is about his childhood--the people he knew, the shows he put on, the pop culture he loved (zombie movies, Woody Allen, above all, Star Wars).

While some of it is fun--and some of it reminds me of what it was like to go crazy for certain things in childhood--I admit a memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 70s isn't really what I was looking for.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Grimm And Gory

Speaking of fairy tales, I've been rereading Grimms'.  It's fun because you forget how much cruelty and violence they contain.

For instance, in "Rapunzel," when the Witch tells the Prince he'll never see his beloved again, he jumps from the tower and is blinded by thorns.  In "Little Red Riding Hoods," the Hunstman cuts open the wolf, and not only do Red and Grandma escape, but they fill the body with stones and when the Wolf tries to run away he dies from the strain. In "Rumpelstiltskin," Rump, who's been a stand-up guy, saving the Daughter of the crazy Miller who makes promises he can't keep, and who's given the Queen (formerly Daughter) an extra chance to save her child when he didn't have to, gets so angry when she discovers his name that he literally tears himself in half.

In most versions today these stories are sanitized, but I wonder. As long as they're old enough to know it's not real, the blood and guts make it all the better for kids to love.

Harvey's Night

Don't have too much to say about the Oscars.  The production was efficient if uninspired.  Billy Crystal did a decent job filling in as host, but it felt as if his time were over.  Maybe no one can replace him, but isn't it time for the Oscars to try?  Some of the speeches were gracious, a few moving, but, once again, nothing that memorable.

As for the awards, when Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress, it was a bad sign.  She did a fine job in The Help, but her pick indicated that every award would be predictable and safe.  The only surprise of the night came almost at the end.  Viola Davis didn't win Best Actress, Meryl Streep did.  Not that she deserved it.  Yes, she was an impressive Margaret Thatcher stranded in a dull movie, but, just to pick impersonations, I thought her turn as Julia Child, or, for that matter, her take on Anna Wintour, were more inspired.  I guess the Academy figures it needs to give her an award about one out of every six nominations.  (Same attitude for Woody Allen when he won Best Screenplay.)

A few sidelights:

The cast of Community can't even get an Emmy nomination, so I wonder if there'll be trouble now that Jim Rash has an Oscar.

For that matter, Bret McKenzie, who wrote one of only two nominees for best song, is one of only two members of Flight Of The Conchords.  Will his new status as Oscar-winner break up the group?

Also, not that it required great foresight, but let me note what I predicted in my 2011 film wrap-up:

Least Deserving Performance Guaranteed To Win An Oscar: Christopher Plummer in Beginners.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Thrice Upon A Time

So the TV season is starting to wind down (not that TV seasons mean anything any more).  I sampled a lot of new network shows, but no longer watch The River, Pan Am, Revenge, Whitney, Up All Night, Smash, New Girl, Alcatraz, Napoleon Dynamite, 2 Broke Girls or Person Of Interest. So what do I still watch?  Once Upon A Time.  (I guess I also watch Suburgatory, but that's mostly because it comes before Modern Family.)

I believe this is the third time I've posted on the show.  And each time I write about it, I can't believe I still watch it.  By any rational analysis, it's horrible.  The acting is mostly bad.  The plot is slow-moving and ridiculous.  And the writing is excruciating, with cardboard characters, generic dialogue and strained parallels between the two worlds. So why do I watch it?

I guess I like the premise.  A town with a huge, intriguing secret that only a few people know, and cracks around the edges.  I guess this shows something important--no matter how much they put into a show, unless the basic situation grabs you, nothing else makes any difference.  But if you've got something that intrigues people, they'll forgive quite a bit.  (But I won't forgive anything.  If the plot doesn't start moving soon, I may not come back for season 2.)

Getting Off At Saratoga

I just caught Saratoga, a 1937 comedy-drama from Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, notable for being her last film. In fact, she died--only 26--during production and some of her scenes were shot with a double.  MGM was going to reshoot the entire film with another actress, but Harlow's fans demanded to see her final appearance.  Here's Jean mostly not appearing in her own film:

The plot has a successful bookie, Gable, trying to set up a rich sucker, Walter Pidgeon.  Harlow, engaged to Pidgeon, is onto Gable.  There's a lot of horse racing, and other MGM names like Lionel Barrymore and Frank Morgan, as well as old reliable (if rarely inspired) director Jack Conway. But the whole thing adds up to very little.

The main trouble is the script.  A fast-talking bookie is a good role for Gable, but the love story between him and Harlow (yes, they get together--wasn't that obvious?) is ridiculous.  She's supposed to be falling for Gable's charm--which is pretty easy when the competition is stuffy Pidgeon--but she keeps turning on a dime, now loving him, now loathing him.  And Gable's plan doesn't make too much sense. He's going to make enough money with a final killing against Pidgeon so he can quit and be with Harlow, but it's the very no-nonsense all-business side of him that's turning her off, and he knows it.

Gable and Harlow made several films together, and were a good team. Too bad they had to bow out with Saratoga.  (I suppose it has some fans, but that's what makes horse races.)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Angry Old Man

Tom Courtenay turns 75 today, but I still think of him as the "Angry Young Man" in those early 60s British movies The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar.

Around the same time, he appeared in a TV play where he sang a song that would become a #1 hit for Herman's Hermits.  I didn't even know it was available, but here it is (with photos from Billy Liar):

I gotta admit, HH does it better--but then, music wasn't Sir Tom's specialty:


The stars of the Hangover movies, Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms, have asked for, and received, $15 million each to star in the third film of the series.  Sounds like a bargain to me. The first film grossed $467 million worldwide.  The second (and much worse) film made $581 million. Even if the third is a relative flop it should still make money.

You know who's probably the least happy about this development?  Justin Bartha.  Don't know who he is?  He plays Doug, the fourth member of The Hangover "Wolf Pack," who gets stuck atop Caesars Palace for most of the first movie while his friends search for him, and then gets to sit out the action again in the second (while they essentially redo the first movie step by step).  If he demands big bucks, they can drop him like they dropped Heather Graham after the first film.  In fact, they need Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow more than they need Doug.

So Doug, sorry buddy. So close to $15 million, yet so far.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Crystal Ball

The Oscars this Sunday.  Some decent nominations, but not too much to get excited about.  The favorites have become clear, though there's hope for some surprises.

Best Picture:  The favorite has become The Artist, but with nine nominees, it's possible to get odd voting patterns, and something like The Help (which is loved by the biggest voting bloc, actors) or Hugo or The Descendants to slip through.  I'd pick The Tree Of Life, but that has no chance.

Best Actor:  Jean Dujardin is the favorite, which might lead to a fascinating acceptance speech.  George Clooney has a shot, though I'd pick Brad Pitt in a weak bunch.

Best Actress:  Viola Davis should win (was she the lead?) though I'd pick Michelle Williams. Another weak group.

Best Director:  Probably Michel Hazanavicius, which might lead to some amusing pronunciations.  I can almost imagine any of them sneaking through to win (especially Scorsese) except for Terrence Malick, the one who deserves it.

Best Supporting Actor:  The lock of the night.  Perhaps the lock of the decade.  There's no way Christopher Plummer won't win.  I'd probably give it to Jonah Hill.

Best Supporting Actress:  Octavia Spencer looks like the winner, though I could see Melissa McCarthy sneaking through.  Spencer would have to defeat her costar Jessica Chastain, but it wouldn't be the first time that happened in this category. I'd give the award to Chastain, though they nominated her for the wrong movie.

Best Original Screenplay:  Woody Allen will win another one of these, though he doesn't deserve it.  (The Academy will give plenty of awards to The Artist, but not for screenplay.)

Best Adapted Screenplay:  Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim (Dean Pelton) Rash will win for apparently capturing the intense boredom of their source material in The Descendants.

The film that will win the most Oscars:  It's between The Artist and Hugo (I'd say they both have a good shot at five), though the latter mostly or entirely in the technical categories.

PS  Okay, the Oscars are over, and every favorite listed above won except for Meryl Streep as Best Actress.  Also, The Artist and Hugo both got five Oscars.


Carol Channing, now in her 90s, is one of those odd creatures who found her niche.  She obviously had something, but it doesn't easily come across on TV or in the movies.  But on stage, she was magnetic.

I recently saw Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, a documentary on her life.  From the start she was special.  She got on Broadway in the revue Lend An Ear in 1948 and won a Tony.  Then she got her first leading role as Lorelei Lee in the 1949 hit Gentleman Prefer Blondes--and it didn't lead to much for another 15 years.  She got the lead in The Vamp in 1955, but that flopped.

Then in 1964, producer David Merrick, composer Jerry Herman and director Gower Champion (who staged Lend An Ear) were looking for a female star to carry their new musical, but the big names turned them down.  So they got Channing to star in Hello Dolly! and it was a perfect match.  The show was a blockbuster, Carol won another Tony and drag queens found another icon. (Though I agree with Harold Prince, who almost directed the show--Dolly Levi was not an habitue of fancy restaurants, so the title number where they welcome her back makes no sense.)

Carol Channing did do some movies, but she wasn't a big enough star to recreate her Broadway hits--Marilyn Monroe played Lorelei Lee and Barbra Streisand, Dolly Levi.  But Channing is still as big as they come on stage, and she's been touring in Dolly for decades.  She never misses a performance--she knows people came to see her.  It must be tough, because the role is exhausting.  (Far better to be Yul Brynner and play in The King And I forever--Anna's the lead, while the King only has two songs.)  But she understands she got the role of a lifetime, and made it her life.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Particular Set Of Skills

I caught the first episode of Life's Too Short, the new Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant series.  It's a pseudo-documentary about the life of Warwick Davis, show biz dwarf.  He also helped create the show.  Following the Gervais/Merchant formula, most of the humor comes from the embarrassing situations the lead is put in--his career is going nowhere, his wife wants him out of the house, his accountant is incompetent and so on.  Even his pals Ricky and Stephen don't really want him around, but Warwick tries to put the best face on everything.

It was passable at best.  Perhaps one episode is too small a sample, but (this being British) there are only seven overall, so it better pick up fast.  Seeing Davis, who played an Ewok and starred as Willow falling on somewhat hard times is a novel premise, but the comedy is so far pretty mild. In fact, by far the funniest stuff in the first show had nothing to do with him--he was merely a bystander as Liam Neeson insisted on practicing improv with Ricky and Steve.

It's Still Winter

I once flew to Detroit and there, on the plane, was Johnny Winter.  (Or was it brother Edgar?  Didn't get a close look.)  Anyway, it's his birthday, so let's hear some tunes:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reason To Be Cheerful

Community gets walloped in the ratings by Big Bang Theory, but if you could measure popularity by fan intensity, it would probably be the #1 show on the nets.  So we happy few fans have finally got the news we've been waiting for--Community will return to the NBC schedule. It'll be back to its old losing ways in its old losing slot at 8 on Thursday starting March 15th.

30 Rock, presently at 8, will be pushed to 8:30, while Parks & Recreation will, alas, disappear until April 19, when Up All Night finishes its run. Why not just finish its run now--burn them off on Saturdays or some other night that's easy to ignore. (Actually, viewers find every night at NBC easy to ignore.)

So they'll make it through their junior year.  But it's still up in the air if they'll be allowed to notch another season and graduate.

I Can't Make Up My Mind About This

A number of pundits look at polls of Obama versus Romney or other Republicans and say if the President is under 50%, he's in trouble, even if he leads.  The argument is everyone already knows what they think of the President so if they don't support him by now, they'll break against him.  They claim this has been proved in previous elections.

Maybe it works sometimes, but as a rule, as far as I can tell, it's nonsense. I've watched politics long enough to see if you're ahead in every poll 47% to 42%, you're probably going to win.  Yet no matter how many times the incumbent rule is disproved, certain "experts" keep it alive.

The real question is why are people undecided.  Is it because they hate the incumbent and are waiting to make sure the challenger isn't too crazy?  Or because they don't like either candidate?  Or because they don't pay attention to politics and wait till the last second to decide anything, based on flawed information and prejudices?  Each election makes its own rules.  The only rule you need to follow is try to be ahead in the polls.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jerry's Heads

Talking Heads started as a trio, but they needed a fourth to fill out their sound.  Jerry Harrison, who'd already played with the Modern Lovers, auditioned and got in just before their first album.  He played guitar and keyboards and became an essential part of the band. Happy birthday, Jerry.

Of course, in later years they made the sound even fuller.

Artistry And The Artist

With The Artist apparently the favorite to take the Best Picture Oscar, The New Yorker has a timely piece on silent acting.  David Denby, whom I've taken to task for dragging politics into his reviews, sticks to the art form here.

The Artist is charming and enjoyable, but it's not as powerful as the best silent drama.  Here's how Denby puts it:

In “The Artist,” there is nothing close to the intensity of the work of [Louise Brooks, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo or Emil Jannings]. The movie’s principals—Jean Dujardin, as George Valentin, a swaggering silent-movie idol who is ruined by the advent of sound, and Bérénice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, the girl from nowhere who loves him and becomes a star herself—are eager, likable performers. But both characters, and both actors, move in a straight line in each scene; they stay within a single mood. The great silent actors did so much more.

[....] “The Artist,” a likable spoof, doesn’t acknowledge that world of heroic ambition and madness—it’s bland, sexless, and too simple. For all its genuine charm, it left me restless and dissatisfied, dreaming of those wilder and grander movies.

It's not that The Artist is trying to be an old-style silent drama, but that's part of the problem.  It's going for something pretty basic, and, at its best, that's what it achieves.  The main thing it has going for it is the central stunt of not using sound--if a similar film were served up in the 20s, it would have seemed rather bland.

Denby notes, and I agree, that Martin Scorsese--using color, widescreen, CGI and sound--captures the magic and artistry of the silent era far better in Hugo.  If the Oscar really wants to honor a film that honors film, this is the one.

Monday, February 20, 2012

KC, No Sunshine

Kurt Cobain would have turned 45 today.  What a waste.

Halfway To A Thousand

When The Cosby Show ended in the 90s, Bart and Homer Simpson were watching over at Fox.  Bart told his dad that if he ever had a show, he'd ride it into the ground.  He wasn't kidding.  The Simpsons just broadcast its 500th show in a medium where 100 is an achievement.

As a regular sitcom (and not just a cartoon on The Tracey Ullman Show) the Simpsons have been airing in four different decades--just making it by starting in December 1989.  If you'd asked me in the mid to late 90s, I'd probably have said it's the greatest show ever, or at least in the top five.  But I have to admit while the show has never been bad, exactly, it has gotten tired (or maybe I've gotten tired of it).  Its reputation has been tarnished by sticking around for those last 350 episodes or so.

I can't blame them.  The show makes money.  But it's impossible to keep a sitcom fresh forever.  I'd say about seven years (as long as The Mary Tyler Moore Show lasted) is the limit.  All scripted shows go through phases, but after 100 episodes, we've pretty much seen what everyone can do and are starting to get into the decadent phase.

The 500th episode was better than usual for what we've seen lately. The story was fairly fresh, rather than just a seeming amalgam of old plots.  Or should I say they seemed to be stealing from other shows rather than self-plundering.  The Simpsons find out a secret meeting is being held when they're away because everyone hates them (Malcolm In The Middle) and they're being held accountable for all the awful things they do (the Seinfeld finale--though it works better in a cartoon where it's easier to be fantastic) and are thus forced to live off the grid (Weeds).  It wasn't until the end, when the town moved to take over the outland area (like another episode where the whole town moved because of too much garbage) that I felt it was pretty close to an old episode.

But the trouble is no matter what they do, almost every moment feels vaguely like we've seen it before.  Yes, the show has gone through changes.  They have literally hundreds of characters on their roster, a new title sequence, and four acts instead of three, but it's stil based on the Simpson family, and they can hardly do a joke that we haven't seen before in some way--just because they mention a Kindle this time, or whatever else is new, doesn't change the substance.  Also, with four acts, the story jumps around more.  I used to like how they'd take the first of three acts to finally get to the real plot, but now it's like having four mini-stories, so there's little cumulative impact.

They ended the show with a card stating:

Thanks for 500 Shows.

All we ask is that you go out and get some fresh air before logging on the internet and saying how much this sucked.

No need to be so defensive. I liked your 500th.  It didn't thrill me like the show did when it was new, but it was hardly the worst episode ever.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Inspiration Location

I just read Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, a book by Will Hermes about the music scene in New York from 1973 to 1977.  It offers a cross section of the amazing ferment going on then, though I mostly read it for the development of punk, centered at CBGBs (and central to the book--you might recognize the title as being inspired by Talking Heads' first single).  Full of entertaining anecdotes and a solid sense of history, I'd recommend it.

What's different about the book is instead of following one story at a time, we get short sections--sometimes paragraphs--jumping from one scene in the city to another.  This was happening here while this was happening here while this was happening here (sometimes including what the author was doing as a young fan).

Having it presented this way, I have to wonder, was this a special time, or just a time interesting to Hermes (and me)? Certainly for punk it was special, but are there always all sorts of musical and artistic currents sweeping over NYC, or does the inspiration wax and wane?

And if it was special, is it no longer quite the same because conditions have changed?  You've always got young, ambitious people (don't you?) without much money, but was New York more amenable to a new scene back then? Sure, the up and comers lived in horrible places when they were starting out, but could anyone still move into Manhattan, or has it become so expensive that new artistic movements have to be born in Brooklyn, or Hoboken, or even farther away?

PS  The song in the video was not on Talking Heads: 77, though it was included in the reissue a few years back.

I Know A Place

So Roger Ebert is a fan of Downton Abbey.  He's an Anglophile, and this is the sort of show he watches when he bothers to watch TV.  I've always been fascinated how others are fascinated by the whole upstairs/downstairs thing.  Shows like Downton Abbey are popular because they create an odd sense of nostalgia--odd because it's a nostalgia for a time and place viewers have never directly experienced.

...although my politics are liberal my tastes in fiction respond to the conservative stability of the Downton world. [...] To be sure, there is monstrous unfairness in the British class system, and one of the series themes is income inequality. What must be observed, however, is that all the players agree to play by the same rules. In modern America the rich jump through every loophole in the tax code.

Well, sure the rich played by the rules back then.  They made the rules, which were designed to keep them on top. (That's why they were called the Ruling Class.) The entire system was a loophole. The servants may not have been quite so thrilled, but they had no say.

True, sometimes the rich followed the rules even to their detriment, but let's not get too sappy--they not only were in charge, they didn't have to work! In fact, Gentlemen looked down on those who had regular jobs. Today's rich, not to mention all the other tens of millions who enjoy tax loopholes, generally earn their money.  And those loopholes?--they're also known as laws, and are voted on by representatives of the popular will.

I think people enjoy stories about a well-run English home because, as Roger notes, everyone had their place, and had a sense of pride about their position. (Of course, let's not forget back in those days people idealized the lord/serf and master/slave relationship, claiming they were harmonious systems.) But part of that is being in service was a great gig back then.  Poverty was the rule, not the exception, and getting a job as a valet or butler or footman or chef or maid in a great home was a nice sinecure, and so I wouldn't be surprised if many of the empoyees identified with the Lords and Ladies who ran things, happy to live in their reflected glory.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Late Rally Fails

Leo McCarey helped create the Laurel and Hardy team and directed the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933). For that work alone he deserves to be remembered.  He'd go on to become one of Hollywood's preeminent directors, helming huge hits and winning Oscars for The Awful Truth (1937) and Going My Way (1944).  However, after the war, he made fewer films and the ones he did make were less notable.  He seemed to be running out of ideas.

Take his next-to-last film, Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys! (1958), which I recently saw.  His previous film, An Affair To Remember (1957), was a remake of the superior Love Affair (1939), and RRTFB seems to be an attempt to return to an all-out, wilder comedy style.

The film is based on a satirical novel by Max Shulman.  This was the 50s, and writers were mocking suburbia.  Unfortunately, McCarey seems to have lost a step, and is a bit too obvious in his approach.  I'm glad he's trying, but like other great directors of the 30s (Capra, Hawks), he's finding out comedy is a young man's game.

He's not helped by star Paul Newman, who doesn't quite have the chops to pull off the farce.  Joanne Woodward as the wife and Joan Collins as the hot-to-trot neighbor are better, but it still doesn't quite work.  And when the military plot comes in (the army is building a secret base in their town) the satire and general lunacy is too much to take.

PS  Tuesday Weld and Dwayne Hickman have small roles as a couple.  They'd star next year in the Dobie Gillis TV show, also based on the work of Max Shulman.

Desert Island Music

Sometimes I listen to the background music from Lost as part of my background.  It's amazing how it still conjures up so many moments and emotions.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Morals

There's an interesting website, YourMorals.Org, where they're trying to understand people's morality.  It's run by a bunch of academics studying psychology.  They offer numerous questionnaires dealing with various issues.  This month's offerings include questions about:

--What do you find disgusting and how does it relate to morality?

--What type of city would you like to live in?

--What is your attitude on crime and punishment?

--Compare your values on 10 dimensions from hedonism to benevolence.

--What is your "style"' of relating in romantic/love relationships, and how does that relate to morality?

Unfortunately, in their desire for rigor, they demand you register before you answer any questions.  Even though they promise privacy, I generally prefer not to register at websites.  So it occurred to me, are their results going to be skewed because their samples will be missing paranoid people like me?

Almost Twice As Old As Sid Vicious

Billie Joe Armstrong turns 40 today.  He's the lead guitarist, singer and songwriter for Green Day.  Guess we'll find out if punks can age gracefully.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Stray Thought

I saw a bumper sticker that read "People Before Profits."

I thought "that's the kind of slogan that could sell a lot of products."

View From Below

Around the same time the new Joseph Heller bio came out, so did Yossarian Slept Here by Heller's daughter Erica.  It's a memoir about growing up with the famous author as head of the household.

Of course, she was born in 1952, so until Catch-22 was published in 1961, daddy was just a middle-class guy living on the Upper West Side who was taking an awfully long time to write his first novel.  Suddenly, he became THE Joseph Heller and Erica was now the daughter of a Great Man.

The book talks about his ways.  How he ate so much.  How he could hand out insults without thinking.  How he loved his fame.  How it wasn't easy to grow up with a father who was an intellectual celebrity. There's no doubt she loved him, but he could be irascible and impossible to reason with. Erica also spends time sketching her mother Shirley, her eccentric grandparents, and her younger brother, Ted.  But Erica knows if it weren't for her father no one would be reading the book.

Erica herself sounds like a handful, and seems willing to admit it.  For example, on a big family trip to Europe in 1966, she had a miserable time and seemed to make sure her parents were just as miserable.  She also was an indifferent student who could barely get into college, though she eventually became a writer herself.

Then there's the story of her father's second novel, Something Happened, published in 1974.  The main character is a middle-aged man who, among other things, bemoans his relationship with his sullen, uncommunicative teenage daughter:

There was a cheerful baby girl in a high chair in my house once who ate and drank with a hearty appetite and laughed a lot with spontaneous zest: she isn't here now; and there is no trace of her anywhere.

It was hard for Erica not to believe it was about her--and the whole world was reading it.  That's the kind of problem only children of famous writers have.

The second half of her memoir bogs down a bit.  It deals with Erica's travails as an adult, and also dwells on the sad story of her parents' ugly breakup, as well as their deaths.  She's taking us all the way up to the present (2011--the 50th anniversary of Catch-22), but if you want a jauntier read, you might consider putitng the book down when she leaves the nest.  That may seem unfair, but hey, Erica herself admits she's never read Catch-22.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NG is NG

A few years back, when Bush was President, I'd occasionally document how popular entertainment critics would drag him into their reviews just to remind you they didn't like him.  I could have done it every day, so deep was their hatred, so tangential the connections.  Since Obama has been elected, they don't seem so interested in mentioning the President (except for the occasional analogy to characters held down by the small-minded masses).

Now with Republicans trying to choose a new candidate, the critics seem ready for a new name to kick around. At present, the favorite seems to be Newt Gingrich.  For instance, there's David Denby noting--in his New Yorker review of Chronicle, where three teens gain supernatural powers--that one of the things they don't do is levitate Newt Gingrich to the moon so he can build a colony.  Meanwhile, in Meredith Blake's take on the latest Dowton Abbey, we get (spoiler):

At the funeral, Matthew tells Mary he believed Lavinia died of a broken heart. “We’re the ones that killed her. We’re cursed, you and I.” Now, a little remorse is understandable; after all, it’s not like Matthew is Newt Gingrich or something. But come on, really?

I understand how proud they are of their political views, and how hard it is to hold them in, but do they really think this makes their writing better?  Or is it they believe Newt will be gone soon enough and are frightened he might leave the national stage without everyone knowing how they feel?

Keeping Up With Smith

Patti Smith was the first of the CBGB acts to put out an album--Horses, in 1975.  And quite an album it is.  Decades later it still sounds great.  Dancing Barefoot, Dave Thompson's biography of Patti Smith, does a good job showing how she got to that point.  In fact, most of the book is her pre-1980 life when, let's face it, she did her best work.

Born in 1946, Patti grew up in New Jersey, loving Rimbaud and Baudelaire but also Little Richard, Dylan and the Stones.  In 1967 she left for New York City with very little money and no guaranteed place to sleep.  She spent years there being part of--though slightly outside--the scene, especially the Warhol crowd.  She met people like Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Shepard while developing as an artist herself.  She started to perform her poetry and soon married it to rock and roll, assembling a band, starting with Lenny Kaye and eventually including Ivan Kral, Jay Dee Daugherty and Richard Sohl.  After years of a tough apprenticeship, she wasn't an outsider, she was the scene.

She and her group released four albums in the 70s, and with their third, Easter, even had a mainstream hit, "Because The Night." She had mixed feelings about conventional pop star success.  Some claim she was ruthless in her rise, stepping over others, though I have to wonder, since she certainly put in her time when there was little chance she'd be big.  Then, at the end of the decade, she gave it all up.

Maybe she was burned out, but according to Patti herself, she did it to be with her true love, musician Fred "Sonic" Smith.  She flew directly from a successful tour in Europe straight to Detroit, where she and Fred made a home and raised their children.  Over the next fifteen years, she almost disappeared from sight, releasing only one album.

Then, tragedy. Mapplethorpe died in the late 80s, a few years later Richard Sohl was gone.  But the big year was 1994, when her husband died, followed by her brother Todd's death.  To climb out of the devastation, she started performing and recording again.  I've seen her show a couple of times since, and she genuinely seems to be enjoying herself.  Her new stuff isn't bad, but it's the earlier work which is magical.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mugged By Reality

Justice Stephen Breyer was robbed last week by a machete-wielding intruder at his vacation home in the West Indies, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said Monday.

If you thought rights of the accused were taking a beating with this Court already, wait and see what happens next.

By the way, a machete? That the weapon of choice out there?

Ups And Downs

Happy birthday, Hugh Downs. In his 90s now, he's been everywhere as a broadcaster.  He announced for Jack Paar and hosted Concentration, Today, Over Easy and 20/20, to name only his biggest credits.

Here's Hugh reporting in 1979 on Star Trek.

Here's something from 20/20 that has little to do with Hugh, but I couldn't resist. Also from 1979, it's a piece the show did on new wave and punk at a time when you didn't hear much about such music on network TV (and all there was then were the networks).

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tork Of The Monkees

Believe it or not, Peter Tork turns 70 today.  He played the dumb one on The Monkees, and often got the short end of the stick when it came to songs (because he was the worst singer), but was a decent musician nd not a bad actor.

Here he is getting a rare lead vocal:

Here's a clip from a rare episode where the plot centers on him:

Here's a song he wrote that they liked so much they played it under the end credits in the show's second season:

For their trippy movie Head he wrote a couple of trippy songs, including this rocker:

Not So Good

I just saw Good Sam, a Leo McCarey comedy from 1948.  I think I saw it years ago, but I'm not sure.  Must not have made much of an impression.  Unlike many McCarey films, this one has no reputation.  He made it coming off Going My Way and The Bells Of St. Mary's, two gigantic hits, and Good Sam was a big disappointment.

It stars Gary Cooper as a man who's always helping others, so much that his wife, played by Ann Sheridan, is driven to distraction. It's not a bad premise, actually--can someone live like a saint and get away with it?  But the pace is so lesiurely (it's 114 minutes and the original cut was even longer) and the story so sentimental that it doesn't play.  Cooper had done naive and distracted before, but there's not enough here--his character seems so passive that he barely exists. And that doesn't help when it comes to chemistry with the sly Sheridan. You wonder how they ever got together.

McCarey had never minded a deliberate pace.  He used pauses famously well in his days with Laurel and Hardy, and his hits in the 30s, like Ruggles Of Red Gap, The Awful Truth and Love Affair allowed his actors to take time with scenes, and often relied on their reactions for his best effects.  But by the 40s, he slowed down even more, and, in Going My Way, was willing to get sappier than was good for him.  He also tried to deal with social issues, which make his films play even less well today.

McCarey would only make a handful of films in his last decade and a half directing.  They're a varied bunch, but he'd never again regain the touch he'd had in the 30s.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Essential Viewing

Here's an AV Club post about what episode to recommend to a friend to introduce them to your favorite show. What's weird is most of the suggestions are for hourlong serials. With shows of this type, you should just tell them to start at the beginning.

Once you're invested in the plot and the characters, not only is the story easier to follow, but it means more.  I don't know if the suggestion for a season six episode of Buffy makes any sense, since I've never seen the show, but recommending something like "The Constant"?  It's considered a classic Lost episode, and probably works better as a stand-alone than most, but still, if you didn't understand about the Island, or the freighter, or the history of Desmond and Penny, would it play as well? (It certainly wouldn't teach you too much about the show itself.) Or The Sopranos "Long Term Parking." We're in season five, and unless you'd been watching Adriana and Christopher through the years, it won't be nearly so powerful.  Or "Half Measures" from Breaking Bad.  A classic, but half the point is how Walt got to where he is by the end of season three.

On the other hand, I agree that "Marge Vs. The Monorail" is a good place to start with The Simpsons.  "Bambi" is definitely my favorite Young Ones (though being a British series there are only 12 episodes overall anyway).  Still, "The Cheever Letters" strikes me as an odd choice to introduce Seinfeld.

No. One Is Not Alone

I just finished Look, I Made A Hat, Stephen Sondheim's sequel to Finishing The Hat. I can't quite say I read it because it's a collection of his lyrics, along with his comments on them, his shows, and various other topics.

The first book took us up to 1981, this latest takes us up to the present, and also picks up miscellanea passed over the first time. As I predicted, the second book isn't quite as fascinating.  This is because, even though Sondheim continued to write decent shows with new collaborators (particularly James Lapine), they're just not as good as his earlier work. He may feel differently, of course, but I'm just not as interested in Sunday In The Park With George, Into The Woods or Passion as I am with Gypsy, Forum, Company and Sweeney Todd. Also--partly thanks to Lapine--his songs are often more fragmentary in later years, which may work within the shows, but are less interesting to read.

Also, in the first book, we get stories of his apprenticeship with other names as big or bigger than he.  By the 80s, he was the biggest name in the field, and being the top dog (no matter how he viewed himself) means others had to work to please him, which leads to less interesting anecdotes.  Furthermore, the first book featured--I'm tempted to say notoriously--short essays on how he viewed the top lyricists of Broadway past.  This time we get various pieces on the value of awards, critics and so on, which are fun, but can't quite compare.

I definitely recommend the book--it's still Sondheim, and if you've got the first volume, you might as well be a completist and spring for the second.  It's good to have all his lyrics in one place.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Almost Grown

Michelle Shocked turns 50 this month.  She always had plans for when she grew up.  I wonder how it's turned out.

Halo Effect

Since the new year, the Thursday night NBC comedy lineup is 30 Rock, Parks And Recreation, The Office and, brought over from Wednesday, Up All Night.  What's missing, for the first time in two and a half years, is Community--the second half of its third season is being held up by the network.

As faithful readers know. Community is my favorite sitcom in production.  What I didn't realize is without it, the whole lineup sags.  I like, in varying degrees, the first three shows above, but it's no longer...what's the phrase?...oh yeah, Must See TV.  Let's face it, 30 Rock and The Office are both past their prime, and Parks And Recreation, though still at its height, has significant flaws, including a central couple I don't buy and characters who seem to be working in different shows.  But somehow, when Community was part of that group, everything seemed better, and I looked forward to the full two hours.  Now if I miss it, no big deal.

PS  I don't believe the new strategy is paying off that well.  Community never had good numbers, but 30 Rock is also getting crushed (or is that papered?) by Big Bang Theory and American Idol.

PPS  This effect is sort of like ABC on Wednesday.  I like Modern Family, which makes me more willing to watch The Middle and Suburgatory, which I only mildly enjoy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

It's Only The River

I just caught the first two hours of The River, yet another entry in the recreate Lost sweepstakes.  Dr. Emmet Cole is a famous TV naturalist who disappears one day while traveling up the Amazon.  His wife and grown son, who appeared with him on his show, star in a new show (which bankrolls them) to find him.  The first season--which will only be eight hours--is about mom, son and crew as they travel through an uncharted bend of the Amazon (do uncharted sections exist?) and uncover the deeper mystery.

I suppose it's well done for what it is, but what it is isn't something I generally go for.  It's created by the guys who did Paranormal Activity, and has a similar format in that everything we see is shot by cameras that exist within the story.  Maybe putting up with that as a one-time twist in a movie can work, but it gets tiresome week after week (and also makes it hard to buy--the camera always conveniently catches what it needs to?).

What they find is an awful lot of magical stuff, which, as a plot device, tends to cheapen drama unless handled well--there are no rules, after all.  Also, it's horror, one of my least favorite genres, and as such often relies on cheap tricks to give us a jolt.

I could forgive everything if it had solid characters, but so far, I don't particularly like these people, nor do I find them that interesting.  I'm sure much more will be revealed, but I think I'll disembark now. (I watch too much TV anyway.)


It's the birthday of Jerry Goldsmith, one of the top film and TV composers of the 20th century. He was nominated for 18 Oscars, winning once for his score to The Omen. He was also nominated for seven Emmys, winning five times.

Of the many TV themes he composed, my favorite is probably Room 222, a gentle melody with a tricky time signature. (This was back in the days before cable and remotes, when they could afford to have long themes since no one was going anywhere.)

He could write traditional music, but was also capable of doing the unusual, such as his sometimes dissonant score for the original Planet Of The Apes:

My favorite theme of his might be from Gremlins, where he captured the ominous yet comic tone of the film:

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Sing, Sing A Song

This year's Oscar telecast will not feature the nominees for Best Song.  Normally, I'd say huzzah--not only are all those songs the most boring part of the show, but just knowing you'll have to sit through them drags down the rest of the evening.

But this year it's a mistake.  First, for some reason, only two songs are nominated, so it's not that daunting.  Second, the two songs might even be fun this year.

One of them, from Rio, is by Sergio Mendes, and would allow for an exotic, colorful number.  The other is from The Muppets--"Man Or Muppet"--which, pretty obviously, would allow a performance from the Muppets. Why turn down a chance to feature the Muppets?  Afraid they'll outclass Billy Crystal?

Pauline's Greatest Hits

I just read Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark.  You wouldn't think too many film critics deserve a full-length biography, but Kael was the preeminent voice of the past fifty years.  She was widely read, highly influential and almost as big as the movies she reviewed.

Still, such a biography raises certain problems. As the title notes, much of her life was spent in the dark, watching movies, and even more spent in a room writing down her thoughts on these movies. Kellow deals with this problem by concentrating on her reviews, not on what she did otherwise.  So the first 100 pages has conventional biographical material--raised in the West, failed in New York, had a baby out of wedlock, ran a successful revival house in Berkeley, started publishing articles on movies--but once she gets her roost at The New Yorker, the rest is mostly a recital of her views on various films.

Some would see this as a failing, but really it's as it should be.  Her life became about her reviews.  And anyone who's read her will recall the many famous raves and pans that had everybody talking.  Films like Hud, The Group, Bonnie And Clyde, Last Tango In Paris, Nashville, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Warriors, Rich And Famous, Shoah, Casualties Of War and so many others will bring back memories not only of what she wrote about, but how others reacted.

Not that she didn't have a life, but it revolved around seeing movies. She lived with her daughter Gina and didn't seem to have romantic relationships with men once she was a full-time critic (which was late in life--she didn't make a living at it until she was hired at The New Yorker when she was almost 50). She got to know many filmmakers--some would say too well, often dining and drinking with them.  And many others in the industry would write her, sometimes congratulating her on her perception, but just as often condemn her for her nastiness or misinterpretation.  And almost from the start she was involved in feuds, for want of a better word.  In the early 60s she published a well-considered attack on auteurists, "Circles And Squares," and became the nemesis of Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris.  They were the two poles of American film criticism for the next generation.  She also published a book in the early 70s questioning Orson Welles' contribution to Citizen Kane which created a lot of anger, especially from Peter Bogdanovich, who published a point-by-point refutation.  Then there was Renata Adler's lengthy piece in The New York Review Of Books in 1980 where she called Kael's latest collection of reviews worthless, and took Kael to task for both her taste and writing style.

Adler made some good points.  Kael was a smart, lively writer but she had serious flaws, some of which only worsened through time. She was vulgar, regularly included audience reaction in her reviews (or actually, what Kael claimed the audience was feeling) and was hyperbolic, looking to puff up what she liked into the "best" this or that.  She also seemed to play favorites, picking certain actors or directors--say, Altman, De Palma, Streisand, Travolta--and praising them to the skies, while others were on her hit list. (Not that she couldn't change her mind--many of her favorites would eventually let her down, and occasionally she'd say something nice about old enemies.)

In the late 70s, Warren Beatty offered her a job in Hollywood as a producer.  She took it, though many warned Kael he was playing her.  She was 60 and maybe figured it'd be nice to make really big money, and also to try something different. But after half a year in Los Angeles, beating her head against the wall (and often against executive Don Simpson, who saw to it nothing she recommended got produced), she beat a hasty retreat to The New Yorker (though it took some convincing to get editor William Shawn to take her back).

Though she was back, things were never the same, even as she took sole proprietorship of "The Current Cinema" for the magazine (she'd previously split the year with Shawn favorite Penelope Gilliatt).  Her later reviews sometimes seem more tired, and her position less influential.  Some of this may have to do with the times--when she started, it was a period where American filmmaking was going into all sorts of new and different areas, and these films inspired her best work.  By the 1980s, Hollywood was firmly in the grip of blockbuster mania (partly thanks to executives like Simpson) and not only were quirky, exciting films rarer, they were also less likely to hit it big.

She was getting tired of the job (and also was diagnosed with Parkinson's) and eventually quit in 1991, but not before remaking film criticism.  And not just through her writing.  She gathered many acolytes--known as the Paulettes--whom she'd encourage in their careers, often into criticism.  To this day, many top essayists at major magazines started as Paulettes.  She also dropped many along the way.  You didn't always have to agree with her, but you generally had to defer to her.

I liked how Kellow generally avoided putting in his own opinions of the films in question--there are already enough opinions floating around.  He does a good job placing Kael in her time, and showing some of the behind-the-scenes stories of her most celebrated work.  I don't know if Kael will be remembered as well as the films she wrote about, but at the very least those who follow cinema will remember her for being at the center of a time when films seemed to be at the center of the world.

PS  One mysterious flaw in the book.  Pauline Kael is famous for claiming she was surprised Nixon won the election in 1972 since everbody she knew didn't vote for them.  This is supposed to show the insularity and cluelessness of  the eastest intellectual elite (which is funny in itself since Pauline saw herself as a regular girl from the West who, if anything, resented the Eastern intellectual world).  But another version of the story has a fuller quote where Kael is laughing at herself and her insularity, saying she recognizes how small her world is in some ways in that she only knew people who didn't vote for Nixon.

I figured if Kellow did one thing, he'd clear up which version is true.  But he actually tells both versions, and at different points in the book.  I suppose they could both have happened, but I'd wish he'd been more clear about that.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


I almost forgot. Happy 80th, John Williams.  So much to choose from I hardly know where to begin.

By Any Other Name Would Be Just As Old

What the heck.  Guess we might as well note that Axl Rose turned 50 this week.

House Foundation

This season of House has been a bit better than the last two.  It shouldn't be. Not only is the series old and tired, but the new cast--with Odette Annable and Charlene Yi--don't compare to previous diagnosticians played by Jennifer Morrison, Olivia Wilde, Anne Dudek or Amber Tamblyn.  For that matter, Foreman as the hospital administrator and House's nemesis just doesn't work as well as Cuddy.

But the last few years they took the whole House/Cuddy thing in the wrong direction and dragged down the show.  Now they can concentrate better on the patients, and are freer to deal with other issues as well, without House worrying about or mooning over his girlfriend.

This week had an off-series episode, "Nobody's Fault," where they brought in a big name (Jeffrey Wright) to investigate a case that went awry.  So the story was told in flashback. The stakes were high--will Foreman lose his job, will Chase die or become paralyzed, will House go back to jail--but all that couldn't disguise the plot's basic mistake.

Wright looked into how House runs his team, and wondered how he could get away with all those insults, pranks and other outrages.  At this late date, we're still dealing with his technique?  You have to go with it or there's no show.  In real life, a House, no matter how brilliant, could not get away with what he does.  He'd be fired almost immediately for his abusive, not to mention sexist and racist, manner.  He's also be sued on a regular basis, and brought up on ethics charges about as often.  We allow this exaggeration to make for greater drama, so when some character comes in and tries to point this out, he's breaking the compact we've made with the series.

It reminds me of the Seinfeld finale (which was a bigger mistake). The characters got nastier, coarser and more outrageous through the years, but the audience went along with it.  The point was they were reflections on how we deal with the little things in life, but overdone for comic effect.  To have Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer taken to task--in a court, no less--for their lifestyles broke the deal we'd all made with the series.

Perhaps the producers are having trouble coming up with new ideas on House.  But they shouldn't be questioning the very premise of the show.

PS  House won't be around next season.  Not a complete surprise.  Perhaps Hugh Laurie will finally get the Emmy he's deserved all these years.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Prior To Pryor

An interesting discussion at the A.V. Club about the profoundest piece of comedy. Various writers give their opinions. This is from Phil Nugent:

I don’t know where most people nowadays pick up their first bits of precious information about the birds and the bees, whether it’s from their parents or on the streets or the Internet, but when I was growing up in Mississippi, we didn’t have cable or the Internet or even any streets, and my parents were more clueless than I was. Galloping to the rescue came Richard Pryor, an infinite source of clear-eyed wisdom and sound counsel about the sex wars, for all the meager good it did him in his own life. Everything he said on this subject, whether he was demonstrating a man’s absolute inability to hang onto his dignity when his lover is calmly preparing to leave him, or offering a blow-by-blow illustrative lesson on ministering to an unresponsive clitoris (or in Pryor-speak, a “dead pussy”), will at some point be of use to the eager young pupil. But none of it has broader wide-world implications than his suggestion for what to say when caught in flagrante delicto: “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” The underlying idea, that if you just stick to your guns and are consistent in denying all the available scientific evidence, you might be able to brazen through anything, is the same as Hitler’s theory of the big lie, but it has the advantage of being funny, which makes it less depressing whenever I see it playing out, which happens a lot. The next time you see someone on a TV movie-review show playing a clip from Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and talking about its sublime artistry, or a commercial for a new comedy showing Rob Schneider making worn-to-the-stump racial slurs to the accompaniment of a screaming laugh track, or Newt Gingrich on a debate stage talking about his record as a Washington outsider occupying the moral high ground—to raucous applause—don’t hang yourself; just shrug and say, “Hey, who are they supposed to believe, him or their lying eyes?” And then guffaw.

This is actually a pretty old line used by a lot of people.  The most famous version, and the first I'm aware of, comes from a scene in Duck Soup (1933) where Harpo, dressed as Groucho, has just left Margaret Dumont's room, while Chico, dressed as Groucho, is still there:

Mrs. Teasdale: Your Excellency, I thought you'd left!
Chicolini: Oh no, I no leave.
Mrs. Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes!
Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

Apparently growing up in Mississippi makes you miss an awful lot.

Violent Encounter

I just finished Steven Pinker's lengthy and erudite The Better Angels Of Our Nature.  It's about why we're much less violent than we used to be.

First, of course, he has to convince readers of the counterintuitive fact that we're a lot less violent than we once were--a tricky task considering the two world wars in the 20th century, not to mention massive purges and forced starvations.  His response:  1) most of that was a statistical anomaly in the first half of the century, and 2) when you look at the overall scheme of things and adjust for population, these were hardly the worst atrocities in human history.

In general, Pinker agrees with Hobbes.  In a state of nature, we're pretty violent, and the evidence, anthopological and historical, backs this up.  Even with primitive weapons, people were far more likely to die of violence at just about any time in our past than the present.  But as we've gone from living in small groups to a more organized society, we can solve our problems through a rule of law we all agree upon.  You may give up a little to live under such a social contract, but allowing the state (especially a free state) to have a monopoly on legal violence ends up giving you a lot more freedom--or at least, a lot less fear, when you don't have to worry about meting out justice yourself, or others meting it out on you if you're not quick enough.

Pinker has done a lot of research, and his conclusions will probably please neither conservatives or liberals.  For instance, while he doesn't think we should toss aside everything, he thinks a lot of beliefs from the past--even the fairly recent past--have been or should be superseded.  But he certainly doesn't have any patience for a concept like the noble savage (just remove cops from the streets for a few days to find out how noble we can be) and believes all the attacks on Western culture in the 60s went too far and led to a temporary but significant rise in crime.

A lot of the best stuff in the book is a long look at the past--how it's a different country.  People simply had different assumptions about how life should be lived.  And not just in pre-history, or ancient Rome.  Just a hundred years ago, war had a good name--it enlivened society, allowed for glory and offered something greater than the cheap, stagnant, materialistic society we'd have otherwise.  Just fifty years ago, it was still considered pretty normal for men to solve their problems with their fists--not something the law should be concerned with.  This attitude is far from gone, but the less "honor-based" a society is, the more we understand that punching someone, as much fun as it may look like in the movies, is not a proper response to mere provocations.

Pinker believes the trend will continue, but he understands there's no guarantees.  I'd like to think he's right.  The question becomes is there anything we can do to encourage the trend, or will history move the way it does regardless?

Monday, February 06, 2012

Leftover Vanity Plates

As usual, on a Lexus. I GGK.  So it's not enough he announces he's GGK, he wants everyone to know it's him.

On another Lexus:  ABC   1.  Okay, pretty basic.

KMBA.  Really?  You've got plenty of space for that I.

ACURA 1.  I never get the plates announcing the car type. It's already written on the car, why pay for an extra reminder?

ARRRMTY.  Clearly a pirate.

FIRBOLT.  I assume it's firebolt, or maybe the guy just likes trees.

SUNPAC.  Could mean a lot of things.  Likes the sunny Pacific?

Abbey Road

In the middle of the terrible Saturday Night Live this week there was one terrific bit--a Spike TV promo for Downton Abbey:

What makes this work extra well is they didn't take the easy way out.  Normally, all the jokes would be about Spike TV's incomprehension or incompatability with a British import like Downton Abbey--the channel trying to make the series seem sleazier or sexier or more violent than it is, and not understanding its style or plot.  And the promo has that, but they went the extra step and also mocked Downton Abbey, and in ways that required some knowledge of the show. A concept that goes where it's expected to can work well with proper execution, but when they go that extra mile it's something special.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Truth is Up Here

By now, I'm sure most of you have heard about how the image of a pig ended up on the side of a number of Vermont State Police cruisers.

What's surprised me most about it is how many people I've spoken with who can't understand why the whole thing would be upsetting to the law enforcement community. Granted, people don't seem to use the term to describe Police anymore - at least not in Vermont.

Maybe the whole thing is just a ruse to pull attention away from the other image on the cow - the one that looks like E.T.

Because Vermont being the hub of alien activity in the U.S. kinda makes sense, actually.

By My Guest

Happy birthday, Christopher Guest.  He first came to notice in the world of comedy working on The National Lampoon Radio Hour and in their stage show National Lampoon's Lemmings.  He was not only a fine musician, but a master musical impressionist. (He did a Neil Young that's never been topped, though I can't seem to find an example.)

Here he is in Lemmings doing Dylan (both voices), introduced by a pre-fame John Belushi and Chevy Chase.

He's now most famous for the improvisational films he made, started with Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap in 1984.

He later took over the reins and made such great stuff as Waiting For Guffman and A Mighty Wind, both of which took advantage of his musical talents.

Taking Us For A Ride

Dahlia Lithwick's cheerleading for Stephen Colbert's crusade against the Citizens United comes as no surprise.  Both Colbert and Lithwick have a prominent perch from which to speak their minds, and they're incensed that others who have something to say are allowed a sliver of the same attention.

So to mock the system, Colbert formed a Super PAC and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Of course, it's not very effective satire when most of his money comes from non-corporate sources, and thus, as has been noted, almost everything he's doing was legal before Citizens United.

But the ultimate joke is after all Colbert's done, at best his PAC could produce and air a few minutes of commercials, when he already enjoys 30 minutes of TV time five days a week all year around.

Many of the comments to Lithwick's piece keep asking how can a corporation have free speech?  Well, it's just a group of people, and people regularly pool their money to get out their message--why should those who organize as corporations be the one group that loses this basic right?

One commenter asked if a car could also have freedom of speech?  It's supposed to be a rhetorical question showing the absurdity of corporate free speech, but let's look into this.  Imagine if Congress passed a law saying "you as an individual are perfectly free to make political speeches at any organization you like, but it's unfair that those with more money can travel more easily to do this, so from now on, you can drive to the speech, but you can't spend more than $5 on gas to get there." Even though legislators could defend this on the grounds that they're not regulating speech, they're only regulating money, I believe the Supreme Court would overturn it as an impediment on speech.  And then Dahlia Lithwick and her fans could be outraged yet again: "This is ridiculous--now a car has freedom of speech?!"

Saturday, February 04, 2012

That's Rich

John Rich, one of the top TV directors ever, died earlier this week. But until I saw the following video, I had no idea he made this particular contribution to television comedy:

The Price Of Tea In China

Some people have been passing around this piece from Conn Carroll (lot of double letters there) that says "Gallup state numbers predict huge Obama loss." I don't know if Carroll wrote his own headline, but there's a disconnect between it and the body of his piece.

First, of course, these numbers predict nothing.  They're just aggregated data from 2011, and things can easily change by election day.  In fact, they already have.  Last year, Obama averaged 44% approval.  His approval rating is higher at present, so he's already moving back up.

Second, these numbers only show his relative popularity in the 50 states.  What matters is his relative popularity against his opponent.  Even if Obama averaged 30% popularity, if the Republican averaged 20% popularity, Obama would probably beat him.

Even in the weak approval year of 2011, Obama was positioned to do well in states with 159 electoral votes, and to do poorly in states with 153 electoral votes.  The election will probably be determined by 12 swing states, especially highly populated ones such as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.  Yes, it's true, if he's still stuck around 45% approval in such states, he could be in trouble (assuming the Republican candidate doesn't turn people off even more), but he doesn't even need to get above 50% to win.  Bush was reelected in 2004 with only 48% approval.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Shuffle Off

Mary Tyler Moore just received a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. The LA Times celebrates her career in a series of photos.  One of the captions (bold added) reads:

Moore got her second sitcom, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," in 1970. Moore played Mary Richards, a single TV news producer in Minneapolis, in this popular and critically acclaimed sitcom that ran for seven seasons. It won the Emmy Award for best comedy series three years in a row and earned Moore three more Emmys for actress in a comedy series. The series made stars of many people in its supporting cast, including Betty White, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman. The final episode, which aired in 1977, featured the entire cast gathering for a hug and then slowly shuffling off camera together, still in hug formation.

The MTM finale is one of the most famous in TV history.  You tell me if the LA Times, paper of record for the entertainment industry, describes it correctly:

Hasn't Got A Prayer?

At a National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama seemed to say that Jesus supports his political programs.  There's something untoward here.  I understand that religious people--which most presidents claim to be--get their morality, or at least believe they get (some of) their morality, from their faith.  And I suppose it can't help but inform their political choices (though even that makes me a bit wary).

But when a politician starts claiming Jesus, or whomever he prays to, would come down strongly on one side of a partisan issue, it doesn't sit right.  Especially when you're talking about some abstract virtue (charity, responsibility, kindness) that both sides support, but in different ways.

I think I understand why the President said this.  It was at a prayer breakfast, a natural place to talk religion, and seemed to be a political move, since certain policies of his have riled people (especially Catholics) along religious lines.  He wants to assure them, as it were, that he's acting in good faith.

But it's troubling when a politician starts talking about how Jesus would come down on various political issues of the day.  I think it cheapens both religion and politics at the same time.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

When Cultural Idioms Go Bad.

Interesting post this morning in Slate about the use of references to the movie Groundhog Day

Apparently the best romantic comedy of the past 25 years (I must have missed that vote) where world weary weatherman Bill Murray has to relive the same24 hour period - Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney until he learns about life or something- A likeable enough movie I thought but apparently its become a cultural touchstone and journo-types invoke it regularly in connection with anything repetitious or even just happens twice-guaranteed for any politician who has run more than one Presidential campaign. The article has some humorous descriptions of how the reference though apparently widely used has now become close to meaningless. That's a shame because while the movie is in a broad sense about repetition- Bill Murray does relive the same day 100 times or so (I think), its more clearly about endless( &compulsory) second chances. Doing something over and over again is not by itself "Groundhog Day" but doing things again and again and improving each time until you get it right is.

Sorry but the reference, to the extent a rom-com has one, should be more about ultimately practice making perfect rather than that things endlessly repeat.

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