Saturday, August 31, 2013

Over/Under The Counter

I was in a local drugstore and noticed this large plexiglass case enclosing many of the painkillers and other items.  These were over-the-counter medications, but if you lifted the cover, an alarm would go off--and stop once you closed it.

So you could reach in, take something and buy it no problem.  Why the alarm? Drugs behind the counter are heavily protected, and with good reason, but these were available to anyone.  Who were they trying to scare?  "Hey, we know you've got something perfectly legal, but don't forget we've got our eyes on you!"

The Man

Happy birthday, Van Morrison, one of the top rock/soul singers of all time.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Back Off Man, I'm An Artist

Next week a documentary on J.D. Salinger opens.  I'll check it out, though I read a biography not too long ago so I'm not sure how much new stuff it will have.  In the trailer it's noted Salinger stopped publishing in the 60s, but continued writing until his death a few years back.  It would appear he wasn't interested in having this stuff come out--not while he was alive, anyway. (He was a queer duck who said it was nice to write not for publication, sued to stop an anauthorized underground collection of otherwise uncollected stories, and asked friends to burn their correspondence rather than let it fall into the wrong hands.)  Though, apparently, there will be a series of posthumous releases anyway.

It's ironic. The vast majority of writers struggle to be noticed, but here's a guy at the top who fought to prevent his work from being seen. He's not the only one. I'm reading a biography of my favorite 20th century author, Kafka (who wasn't particularly famous during his life).  He left explicit directions to his friend Max Brod to burn unread all his writings, including his letters. Brod ignored him and published (often in fragmented form) the stuff that made Kafka the name he is today.

It's an interesting question.  Who "owns" the writer's material?  One would think the writer, but what good does it do him dead. If he's of any worth, shouldn't it be out there for the public to read?  Most writers want their work to live on, and most will be forgotten anyway.

Those decades of work Salinger (presumably) did may or may not see the light of day.  Considering how precious and meandering his later material was, especially his last piece, Hapworth 16, 1924, it's possible this is no great loss. Still, it'd be intereting to see for ourselves.

A Few Crumbs

R. Crumb, the most famous underground cartoonist of all, turns 70 today.  While he's best known for his drawings, he recorded a couple albums of his favorite-style music--generally old jazz, blues and novelty 78s--that are a lot of fun (as are the originals).

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Both Sides Now

So now Bradley Manning is Chelsea Manning.  Hmm, Chelsea Manning, Chelsea Manning. Isn't there a song by that name?

Sterling Reputation

Sterling Morrison was born on August 28, 1942 and died on August 30, 1995, so let's remember him on August 29th.

Morrison was one of the original Velvet Underground, the highly influential band that barely sold in its day.  He played guitar and sang, helping to create a distinctive sound that still holds up.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Real Article

A conservative friend was telling me that we need an Article Five convention to fix our problems.  Article Five of the Constitution allows for amendments.  So far, we've ony used the first method, where a supermajority of the Congress passes the new rule before it goes to the states, but there's a second method whereby we propose amendments through a national convention if requested by two-thirds of the states.

I asked what kind of problems. He replied the way the Congress and the courts have taken away our freedom in many particular instances, some of which he listed.  I agree there are a lot of things that could be better, but this isn't the way to do it.

This part of the Constitution is essentially an idea the Founders liked that didn't work out.  Yes, it's still the law of the land, but I wouldn't call the clause dormant so much as hopeless.  Most don't want it, and you need a supermajority to get it off the ground.

That's because no one is sure what would happen with such a convention, even if we believe we could keep it restricted to certain concepts.  Most Americans don't hate things so much that they're willing to take such chances, and are even a little frightened of those who do want to change things.

Really, which side dominates so much that they want to take the chance?  The reason my friend was unhappy was because the White House and the Congress has mostly been controlled by Democrats lately, and sometimes the courts (particularly in the Obamacare case) come out with bad decisions.  But even when he's got the majority on his side, it's not enough.

Right now, there are 30 Republican governors, and 27 states have Republican-controlled legislatures, so by number the states are more red than blue, but that's still not enough--you need a minimum of 34 states' support. And generally the red states don't want to take the leap of faith.

To put it another way, if you're so unhappy with things, then work to get Republicans elected to Congress.  Then take back the White House, and see to it that judges you like are nominated.  If you can't manage that, what chance do you think you have of amending the Constitution in ways you like?

Perk Up

Happy birthday, John Perkins.  He was the lead singer of the Crew-Cuts, a vocal group in the 50s that helped make all that newfangled rock and rhythm stuff acceptable to white people.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Don't Knock It

In a piece by neurologist Richard Restak in The American Scholar called "Laughter And The Brain" we get this in the final paragraph:

Humor is constantly evolving—comics’ tastes change, as does what society considers funny. Our parents and grandparents would have found this sort of joke amusing: Knock knock. Who’s there? Madame. Madame who? Madame foot’s caught in the door!  We no doubt find it juvenile and embarrassing. “Humor” based on racial and ethnic stereotypes or physical or mental disabilities is no longer acceptable, which is all to the good. However humor evolves in the future, neuroscience will attempt to explain its mechanics.

We find it "juvenile and embarrassing"?  What I see is a pretty good knock knock joke, with a decent pun not to mention a meta-reference.  Perhaps it's a bit juvenile, but it's not the least bit embarrassing.

I don't see any racial or ethnic stereotypes, or even physical or mental disabilities.  Yeah, someone's in a bit of pain (not much at that), but jokes often involve some discomfort.

I really don't get what Restak sees here, yet he's the expert on humor.  Does this joke deal with some new sort of political correctness I'm not yet aware of?


Happy birthday, Lester Young, one of the top saxophonists every in the world of jazz.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Age Appropriate

Happy birthday Leon Redbone.  He started as a young guy who performed like an old bluesman.  Now he's old enough that he doesn't have to pretend any more.

I'm Confessin'

This week's episode of Breaking Bad is entitled "Confessions."  So whose confessions will these be?  You'd think Jesse, whom we saw in the interrogation room with Hank when last we left him.  But it doesn't quite turn out that way.

Breaking Bad has always been a show where people have plenty to confess but never quite do.  Indeed, the first moment ever in the series was Walt's confession to his family on a videocamera out in the desert--except he refused to take any legal responsibility even then.

The episode starts with Todd outside a diner in the desert confessing, in a way, to Walter over the phone about the messy fight with Declan and changes in management.  Todd still respects Mr. White, sort of like how Jesse used to.  Next we're in the diner and Todd is telling his slimy relatives about the Great Train Robbery, and how well it worked.  He stops short of telling the true ending, where he shoots an innocent kid.  Either it ruins a good story of Todd doesn't want to confess to murder.  Anyway, Lydia (not in this episode) and Todd now run things, and that can't be good--for Walt or anyone.

Now we're back in the interrogation room with a dazed Jesse barely hearing the feds.  Hank walks in and explains how he was fooled by Walt, too, but now they can help each other.  Jesse may be disenchanted with Walt, but he's not gonna squeal, especially not to the guy who beat him unconcious. (Hank now realized he beat up the wrong guy.)  Before it goes much further, Saul comes in--he heard the story on the news.  He shuts it all down and gets Jesse out of there.

At the White residence, Jr. comes home to see his dead there, not at work.  Flynn gets a call from Marie, who wants him over for something or other.  Walt stops him before he leaves and makes his "confession"--the cancer has returned, but you go help your aunt.  Jr., of course, isn't going to leave dad in his hour of need.  Pretty despicable.  Even when he's telling the truth (partly), Walt is doing it to manipulate his son.

Hank, disappointed he got nothing from Jesse when he felt so close, comes home and tells Marie he hasn't talked about the investigation yet.  Marie doesn't understand, but Hank isn't ready to confess yet.  Back at the White's, Walt tells Skyler a taped confession is the "only way." We see them start the tape, but it's hard to believe Walt is telling the truth.

The White's know something must be done, with Hank investigating and Marie trying to steal their kids.  They meet in a loud, brightly-lit public place--a Mexican restaurant with a chirpy waiter. This is the first time all four have been together since they all found out. (Did Marie grow six inches since the last episode?  When she and Hank walk to the table she towers over him.) Walt tries to get them to drop it, rather than break apart their family. Skyler plays the good crime wife and backs up her husband, explaining how pointless it is.  Hank says he will never stop until Walt pays, and Marie says Walt should just kill himself.  The negotiations ended, the White's exit with Walt leaving a DVD on the table.

At home, Hank and Marie view Walt's "confession." He's using all the evidence Hank has gathered to prove that Hank himself is the head of the meth empire and has forced Walt to cook for him. It all makes sense. His trump card is the six figures they spent on Hank's recovery after his alleged differences with Gus Fring.  Marie had been hiding that she took the money, and now Hank feels sunk.

Glad to see Heisenberg is still thinking, still twisting and turning to get out of every situation.  We expect nothing less.  Last thing we wanted was some teary actual confession, only to be used after his death, or something like that.

Saul and Jesse are waiting for another trademarked Breaking Bad desert meet. Walt pulls up and tries to sell Jesse on disappearing. Jesse says stop playing me, just tell the truth--this is for you, not me.  Walt hugs him in a Good Will Hunting sort of moment, and I guess Jesse is out of there. Pretty extreme (even if the other choice is death).

Now Walt is back working at the car wash. He's put out the various fires so I guess the show's over. Meanwhile, Skyler is distracted. Perhaps thinking of her life after Walt dies.  Who knows, Hank may keep investigating and she's probably lost her sister for life.  But at least Walt got what he wanted.  At the DEA, Gomie asks Hank why his guys have been sent to tail Pinkman.  He and Hank have a history, and Pinkman's criminal problems aren't for the DEA anyway.  Hank has lost his fight and pulls the guys.  (He's also doing a rotten job--wonder if he'll get fired soon.)

Just in time to miss the fireworks.  Jesse's going through with the disappearance, though we're pretty sure he's not leaving the series just yet.  Before he leaves, Saul has Huell lift Jesses' grass so the deal with the finicky guy who makes you disappear goes through.  While Jesse's waiting by the road with a bag full of money, he realizes what Huell did, and of course then knows that they're the ones who took his ricin and poisoned Brock.  Jesse goes ape shit.  He rushes back to Saul's office, easily getting by Huell (Goodman may need to look into hiring a new guard) and forces Saul to confess at gunpoint.  Yes, he did it, but Walter made him--he thought he was helping Jesse, he had no idea it was to poison a kid.

Jesse rushes out to do whatever crazy retaliation he's planning. (He's dangerous, but this is better than the mopey Jesse.)  Poor Jesse. More than once, if he'd run he might have managed to be okay, but this isn't gonna work for anyone.  Saul calls Walt, who rushes to the car wash to pick up the frozen gun he hides in the Coke machine. (He's out of the meth business, but you gotta have a gat lying around somewhere, just like you need a vial of ricin if it comes to it.) Skyler doesn't know what's going on, which is just as well, but it turns out her house--as Marie has predicted--is not safe. (Of course, the reason it's not safe is because Hank has opened up this investigation.) Jesse breaks into the White residence with a big container of gas. End of show.

So we're finally starting to see some hints about the endgame. We can at least see how the house gets boarded up.  Does Jesse also write all the graffiti about Heisenberg? Doesn't make too much sense, actually.

Anyway, Heisenberg, who looked just about safe halfway through the episode, now has his hands full.  Hank is stymied, but it's hard to believe he'll give up.  Jesse, who could blow up the plan a bunch of different ways, is on the loose. (Imagine what he'd do if he found out Walt let Jane die.)  And certainly Lydia, Todd and the gang are willing to do whatever's necessary to get what they want.

Five hours to go, and it's not looking good.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Oh Kaye

I wasn't expecting much of David Koenig's biography of Danny Kaye, King Of Jesters but I was pleasantly surprised. Koenig says in the introduction he wants to avoid a "mean-spirited collection of tawdry tales" that was Martin Gottfried's bio in 1994, but the book's format--the chapters are subdivided by one Kaye project after another--threatens to be by-the-numbers. Instead, Koenig has done his research, and goes into some detail--generally interesting detail--about how Kaye's film and other work was created and how it was received.

I don't consider Kaye a classic, but find him a talented and genial presence in his movies.  He was born David Daniel Kaminski in Brooklyn in 1911 (not 1913 as he'd later claim).  By his late teens he was performing in summer camps in the Catskills, where many big names got their start.  For years he developed his talents--singing, dancing, acting, accents and doing fast-talk and double-talk numbers.  He slowly worked his way up the ladder and people started to take notice.  He even got to make a few low-budget film shorts in the late 30s, but still hadn't made it big.

Then he met Sylvia Fine, a songwriter and pianist a few years younger who'd actually grown up across the street from him.  She helped devise some of the shows at the high-class Camp Tamiment, and her style was perfect for creating specialty numbers for Danny. She helped him develop routines for a nightclub act and by 1939 he was performing her material on Broadway in The Straw Hat Revue. (Oh yeah, they also got married.)

He snagged a small part in Lady In The Dark in 1941, a big-budget Broadway musical created by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill, starring Gertrude Lawrence.  The show was a hit, and Danny almost stole the show with "Tschaikowsky," a comic solo where he sang the names of 47 Russian composers in well under a minute.  Now he was in demand, and got the lead in Cole Porter's Let's Fact It.  It's one of Porter's weaker scores, but Kaye's cavorting helped turn it into a hit--especially with his wife's specialty material, including the classic doubletalk number "Melody In 4F."

Hollywood came calling, but Kaye and his wife were worried he'd be lost in the crowd as a featured comic in a small role.  They waited and got an offer they liked--from independent producer Sam Goldwyn, who made one film at a time, always an A picture.  Goldwyn wanted to build Kaye into a movie star, as he'd done with another big Broadway comic Eddie Cantor.  Danny had his own style, but Goldwyn generally had him play meek characters that could have been envisioned for Cantor.  Though, on top of that, Kaye got to do his specialty numbers.

Goldwyn would hire numerous writers to work on scripts, and constantly made changes.  It turned out, though, that Kaye's talents were special and almost every film he did, with or without Goldwyn, went through numerous rewrites. (Partly because wife Fine also insisted on having her say.) Kaye's first film, Up In Arms, came out in 1944 and was a hit. The audience liked this multi-talented but fairly unassuming redhead.  He followed it up with other hits Wonder Man, The Kid From Brooklyn and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. Kaye and his team took their time--at a time when comedians like Bob Hope or Abbot and Costello were turning out two or more films a year, Danny would do only one. However, Kaye's last film for Goldwyn--a dispiriting musical remake of the Howard Hawks' hit Ball Of Fire called A Song Is Born--flopped. (It was directed by Howard Hawks as well, though he was clearly doing it for the money.)

Meanwhile, Kaye was performing one-man shows to great acclaim, both in America and overseas.  He began to relax in-between routines and learned to establish a rapport with the audience, talking to them and even bringing them up on stage.  Many said Kaye's films never captured the magic of the live performer.  He also managed to do some radio work that didn't go over well, which made sense, as much of his appeal was visual.

He decided to leave Goldwyn so he and his wife would have more control.  His first new film was at Warner Brothers, a shaky version of The Inspector General which didn't do particularly well.  Things improved a bit with On The Riviera and then he had a huge hit in 1952 when he worked again with Goldwyn (teamed with RKO) on Hans Christian Andersen. The script, by old acquaintance Moss Hart (the writer of record--all told, fifteen other writers took a whack), is a bit too sentimental and bears little resemblance to the real Andersen, but what did that matter when Danny got to sing classic Frank Loesser songs such as "Wonderful Copenhagen," "Inch Worm," "Thumbelina," "No Two People"" and "Anywhere I Wander"?  Not only was the movie a hit, an album of Kaye singing its songs was also huge.

Danny was on a roll, making another hit, Knock On Wood, at Paramount, followed by his biggest hit by far, White Christmas.  Next he did the film he's best remembered for, The Court Jester. It was a colossal flop. In fact, he'd never star in a major hit again.  Court Jester, like many Kaye films, had trouble getting put together in pre-production, and the budget ballooned, but in the past it hadn't matter if the grosses were big enough. Not this time.

It's hard to understand why the film didn't do better.  Perhaps the audience didn't want to see him in a costume piece.  And it's true that in 1955 movies were having a tough time against TV, and musicals generally weren't doing that well.  But still, the film seems to me--and to many Kaye fans--his best, so the failure remains a mystery.  In any case, it was eventually rediscovered on television, and has attained classic status.

He starred in five more films--Merry Andrew, Me And The Colonel, The Five Pennies, On The Double and The Man From The Diner's Club.  There's some good work here, but it really doesn't compare to his earlier stuff.

He was plenty busy elsewhere.  There were always his personal appearances. And he did a lot of work for UNICEF.  In the early 60s he started doing TV specials.  After a few of those (and a diminishing film career), he was ready to jump in with both feet, and did four seasons of The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963 to 1967. It was a high-class effort, with top writers and guest stars  I've seen a few and they're pretty good--I'm sorry they've never been regularly repeated.  Maybe it's a money thing, but, in general, old variety shows are just not shown.

He did a few more movies in smaller roles, but maybe the most notable project in his later years was a return to Broadway in the 1970 Richard Rodger's musical about Noah, Two By Two. It wasn't much of a show, but Kaye, returning to the Great White Way after a few decades' absence, was big news.  Ticket sales were brisk. Early in the run he tore some ligaments and from then on did the show in a wheelchair.  He notoriously started adlibbing and fooling around onstage, much to the audience's delight, but to the consternation of the show's creators.  (Koenig's book is generally positive, but he doesn't deny that Kaye could be a handful--sometimes prickly or moody.) After ten months Kaye left the show, and so did the audience.  It made money, but it didn't make anyone proud.

In his final years Kaye would continue to appear on television, often on children's specials. He also did some dramatic work in the 1981 TV movie Skokie, and made his last appearance a year before his death playing a dentist on The Cosby Show.

Kaye's films still pop up on TV, and he's fondly remembered.  I don't know if anyone has ever really replaced him.

So Like Elvis

Let's say happy birthday to Elvis Costello, who's composed, played and sung a lot of great music over the past 40 years.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


I was looking at a list of songs people over fifty should have.  Seems to me music knows no age, but what the heck, let's see what they've got. There's not much to the list actually, and a lot of the choices seem to be about looking back, often in regret.  Is that what you really want on your iPod (or Walkman, or Victrola)?

But what really caught my eye was song #2.  Here's what the listmaker had to say:

Both written and sung by Neil Young, "Harvest Moon" is one of the most beautiful waltzes about the September years.

I'm sorry, if you can't tell 4/4 time from 3/4 time, you shouldn't be writing about music.

Soul Music

Happy birthday, Jimmy Soul.  In the 60s he had a major hit, a minor hit and a lot of non-hits.  See if you can tell which is which:

Friday, August 23, 2013


I just saw the trailer for Anchorman 2 (narrated by Bill Kurtis):

So the plot seems to be about the comeback, in the 80s, of San Diego's favorite news team of the 70s.  But how do they put it, regarding the old days? "They rose like the phoenix and then they were gone."

What?  No.  The whole point of the phoenix is that it rises from its ashes.  They didn't rise like the phoenix (as far as we know) in the 70s--that was their heyday.  In this sequel, after having been forgotten, they're rising up again.  Now they're like the phoenix. If someone demanded a phoenix reference, it was waiting for them, but they blew it.


Happy birthday, Keith Moon, maybe the greatest drummer rock has ever known. He died many years ago at age 32, but his drums still echo.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

It Doesn't Ad Up

I cringe every time I drive by a billboard that has the "Nobody's Gonna Lay A Finger On My Butterfinger" ad.  It's a horrible line for a lot of reasons, but worst of all is the non-rhyme which they seem to believe is one.

I'm not expecting Cole Porter, but certainly they can do better.  I mean a near-rhyme I can handle (okay, I cringe a little, but you can't expect much more these days), but rhyming "finger" with "finger"?  And the second one isn't even stressed the same!

I guess this campaign will have to join the other identity problems, "you've got a right to chicken done right" and the all-time winner...

Dante's Purgatory

Happy birthday, Ron Dante.  He sang on  hits, but no one really knew him since he was essentially a session singer. They'd slap the name of a band on the record, but not necessarily any credit for Ron.

For instance, the Cuff Links--a studio band.  They had a huge hit, "Tracy," and Dante sang all the parts:

But his biggest hit was as lead singer to the fictional Archies. In fact, it was the biggest hit of 1969.  People knew the cartoon characters, but not Ron.  Here's the man himself singing it himself:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Jumping The Gun

I know August is a slow news month, but I'm getting tired of pieces about the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and others.  It's 2013, way too early to worry about that.  There's plenty to deal with now, whether you're on the right or left--Obamacare's roll-out, immigration law, unemployment, international unrest, etc.

The horse race is fun to report on, and fun to follow since it's relatively meaningless most of the way.  But really, can't we pace ourselves a bit?

How about for the rest of the year we'll take the news as it comes.  Then, in 2014, we can start looking at the November election.  Then, after it's over, we can spend the next six months discussing the meaning of the new Congress.  And only after that might we even begin to discuss 2016.  Still too early, but we'd be moving in the right direction.

Jackie D

Happy birthday Jackie DeShannon, a singer-songwriter who had a few hits, mostly in the 60s.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Moanin' Malone

Happy birthday, J. J. Malone.  a soul musician and singer who had some success in his day.

Cut To The Chase

I just read Difficult Men, Brett Martin's book about the showrunners behind the recent revolution in TV drama.  According to Martin, while there were new signs of life throughout the 90s in already in broadcast TV, but the real flowering started with David Chase's The Sopranos.  HBO needed something to justify its fees--above movies and sports--and this show broke the rules. The main character was a killer who lied all the time, and the people who surrounded him were no better. Yet it became a huge hit and social phenomenon.

Chase himself, like so many of the other showrunners in this book, is an unusual type.  You've got to be to run one of these shows, but Chase didn't even like TV. It was selling out--movies were the real thing.  He wasn't even sure he wanted to do a series. But, as the book notes, if he hadn't done The Sopranos, just what movies would have have made?  Anyway, he groaned his way through six seasons and changed everything.

HBO would follow with other unusual and critically admired shows, such as Six Feet Under, The Wire and Deadwood, created by other larger-than-life figures such as David Simon and David Milch. (Not everyone who creates shows is named David but it helps.)

But soon it wasn't just HBO, or even premium channels, that entered this brave new world.  Floundering channels like FX and AMC helped get new identities with shows like The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Most of the book is how these shows were created and developed, with the emphasis on the difficult men who had a vision they struggled to get onto the small screen. And Martin isn't above criticizing shows--even something as great as The Wire had a weak final season where former journalist David Simon seemed to be settling some scores by a major subplot set at a newspaper.

Martin only have sapce to go in depth on a limited number of series. It's possible he'll skip over some of your favorites.  But the stories he does tell are fascinating.  He claims now these showrunners are the stores. It's true they're a lot more visible than they used to be.  But the cover of the book is instructive  It features a photo of Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad and James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos.  Somehow, I don't think a cover with Vince Gilligan or David Chase would get the same attention.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Dash Of Ginger

Happy birthday, Ginger Baker. He's a drummer best known for his work with Cream and the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith.

Buried Bad

Walter White's ascent on Breaking Bad took four and a half seasons, but his descent has been swift.  Two episodes in on the final eight and he's on the run.

In "Buried," the noose is tightening.  We start where we left off.  We see the aftermath of Jesse tossing out millions.  And Jesse himself is found by a beneficiary.  That's not good. The lesson is, as Homer Simpson once said, "never help anyone."

But it's Walt and Hank we want to kow about.  Last we saw they had a confrontation in Hank's garage, and we pick up from there.  Walt is leaving and he calls Skyler, but too late, Hank is already on the phone with her. By the time he gets to the car wash, she's gone.  She meets Hank in yet another ABQ diner--just how many have we seen over the years?  Hank talks about helping her and her family, and he probably believes it, but down deep he's still an agent who wants to crack this case--before Walt dies of his recurring cancer, as he notes--so he wants Skyler to talk right away. Let's not get lawyers involved and all that messy stuff.  But Skyler isn't ready and has a scene with him before she leaves.

Meanwhile, Walt has gone to Saul.  Definitely time for a lawyer.  Saul sends the A-Team to retrieve the hundreds of millions Skyler has hidden--it's the only real evidence Hank might be able to find.  Walt knows Skyler has gone to Hank and thinks she might be talking.  Saul's even more sure.  Walt--after assuring Saul he won't kill Hank (funny where he draws the line)--takes the barrels of money and buries them in a portion of the desert only he knows about, one of those parts of the deserts where you can work with a pickaxe all day long and not have anyone notice. (Too bad he killed Mike, who had a bunch of spots in the desert where you could hide things).

While Walt is out Marie pays a visit to Skyler.  Hank, waiting outside, has told her his suspicions and now she knows. It's not pretty. She even wants to take the baby, though Hank breaks that up.   She now wants to get Walt as much as Hank.

Walt returns home after a long day of digging and hiding.  Skyler waits at home and wants to know where he's been. He collapses. So the cancer has come back.  Walt believes she's made a deal, but she goes full on Lady MacBeth and says Hank probably doesn't have enough so they should keep their mouths shut.  Even if turns himself in, as he suggested, there's no way anyone is getting that money.

Back in the business, the meth has to keep flowing. Lydia, who failed to get Walt back last week, visits her partners and their substandard lab--in the desert, where everything seems to happen.  She's brought in blindfolded to keep the location secret, but it's no secret she's losing Czech business because of their weak stuff.  They fired Todd, who was no Walt but was still better than these guys.  Turns out Todd and his awful family followed Lydia and wipe everyone out.  Guess they're taking back the business.   In a show full of psychopaths, Lydia and Todd may be to two with the least conscience.  (At least Walt stops at killing relatives--not sure if these two would.) Still, Lydia is squeamish and has to close her eyes as she walks amongst the corpses.

Next day, Hank, stymied, is still working on the case.  He wants it airtight before he brings it in.  Marie helps convince him to tell the office about Walt.  Hank knows it's the end of his career, having a brother-in-law under his nose all along, but it's time (and if they find him without Hank he might be under suspicion).  He returns to the office and is ready to start talking when who should turn up but Jesse Pinkman.  His old friends, the Feds, are interrogating him about driving along tossing money.  They're willing to give an even older friend, Hank, his chance to loosen Jesse up.  And the show ends.

So is Jesse going to be the weak link that ends this game? Perhaps.  Though it was a pretty dumb move on his part.  Walt tells Skyler he blew it, and perhaps he did, but keeping Leaves Of Grass with an inscription in his bathroom I can buy.  Jesse has just stopped thinking.

It's good the show is ending soon.  We're still wondering how it'll play out, but before, there were always secrets.  The more everyting is out in the open, the harder it is to keep up the tension.

PS  I caught Talking Bad, the AMC show where they talk about the most recent episode of Breaking Bad.  This week featured Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn. It was weird, because if it were fans speculating, you could speculate right along.  Instead, we've got two stars from the show who know exactly what's going to happen over the next six weeks, but they've got to keep their mouths shut.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Murder Was The Case

In the latest LA Weekly we have a film review of Lee Daniels' The Butler, which includes this line:

When [the title character] says, in voice-over, "Any white man can kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it," it's impossible not to think of Florida today.

Yes, you'd probably think of Florida, but there's no reason to put it in your review, since, upon reflection (and reviews are a chance for reflection) you'd also think "of course, the Zimmerman case really isn't the same situation as what the movie is referring to."

Next, we get this in a short review of Kick-Ass 2:

[...] the impulse toward costumed do-goodery isn't far removed from the impulses of the sons of bitches who argue that Trayvon Martin had it coming.

I don't recall anyone saying Martin had it coming, but I do recall a lot of people--including the jury--saying Zimmerman had a solid claim for self-defense.  According to the defense--and their claims were consistent with the evidence and certainly not disproved by the prosecution--there was a physical confrontation initiated by Martin.  Martin hit Zimmerman, pinned Zimmerman, and beat his head against the ground.  Zimmerman couldn't get away, cried for help, had reason to believe he was in grave physical danger, and then shot Martin once, killing him.

But apparently, in the reflexive politics of some who review films, the Trayvon Martin case has come to symbolize something about race relations.  And they're so self-righteous about their political stance that they don't have to concern themselves with anyone who wants to discuss the actual facts.

Mull It Over

Believe it or not, and why wouldn't you believe it, Martin Mull turns 70 today.  A decent actor, comedian, guitarist and painter, he's had an odd but enjoyable career.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Junior Achievement

So Jesse Jackson Jr. has been sentenced to thirty months for spending three-quarters of a million in campaign funds on personal expenses.  Such as? A cruise, spa treatments, fancy restaurant tabs, flat-screen TVs, clothing, movie tickets, Bruce Lee and Michael Jackson memorabilia, elk heads, cigars and a Build-A-Bear workshop.

I don't understand why any of this is illegal. It's his campaign.  If people want to give him money, that's their choice.  Hey, he got elected, so I guess his strategy worked.  Were the donors unhappy with him as a representative?  If they liked him, what's the problem?  If they didn't, then they should stop donating money, or give it to his competitors.

Politicians regularly make bad choices that hurt us--after they're elected.  That's what we should be watching out for.  But no one's forced to give a campaign money.  Jackson should have been allowed to spend it however he liked.

Rousing Rowland

Happy 60th, Kevin Rowland.  He's the singer-songwriter who leads Dexys Midnight Runners.  They only had one hit in the U.S., but it went to #1.  See if you can guess which one.

Friday, August 16, 2013

To B.E.

Seem to be a lot of jazz pianist birthdays lately.  Anyway, today is Bill Evans, who had a cool sound like no one else.

Bad Breaks

With Breaking Bad coming to a close, TV pundits are figuring where to place it in the pantheon.  Almost everyone puts it near the top, along with such titles as The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men.

It's my favorite show on the air these days, but is it overrated?  My answer is no, for the most part.  It's well-acted, well-written and has more thrills than anything else out there.  But I can still see flaws, even serious ones.

Unlike the three shows listed above, Breaking Bad is a small show.  It's really about one man, Walter White, and almost everyone else, for the most part, exists in how they relate to him.  Compare this to Tony Soprano or Don Draper--they're central characters, but there's a whole world they live in that goes on when they're not around.  This isn't necessarily a flaw, but when you look at something like The Wire, you realize how much Breaking Bad concentrates on something fairly small and specific.

Also, with this concentration on Walt, any plot not directly about him sometimes goes astray.   Early on when they were creating these characters the show gave them sideplots to fill them out, but most of these turned out to be dead ends.  Most obviously, I guess, would be Marie and her crime spree.  Or there's Skyler's affair with Ted.  It has its moments, and leads to other things, but a lot of the time spent at Beneke's is downtime. Then there Jesse's problems with his parents. I don't deny it helps explain his character, but it doesn't add that much to the arc of the show.  And there's Hank's adventures in El Paso, which certainly had memorable moments, but didn't help much in the overall effect of the series.

Another problem is one that happens to any series that lasts long enough.  These sorts of serial dramas are fresh in their first 13-episode season, and often in their second, but sooner or later start repeating themselves.  Look at Hank.  His main drive is to catch Heisenberg, but he can't always be frothing at the mouth, so at least three times they've had him doubt his commitment, only to be drawn back in.  Worse is Jesse, who may now be the moral center of the show, but has spent an awful lot of time moping around.  It's okay for a character to become a little troubled every now and then, but Jesse's been on this kick so many times there doesn't seem that much more the show can do with it.  For that matter, there's the marriage of Walt and Skyler.  A broken marriage is a good for drama, but it's gone up and down so many times you just want them to make up their minds.

Then there's how Walt climbs the ladder. In the earliest days when he was smalltime and had lots of trouble, it was more believable.  As we've gotten bigger, the show is sometime too grand, and less believable that anyone could operate at this level.  The show has also gotten more grandiose in its looks.  They use the New Mexico scenery, and that's fine, but too often the cinematographer seems to be showing off.  In the first season, when Walt holds a meeting at a garbage dump outside town because he thinks that's how gangsters roll, Jesse says it makes more sense to do it at a mall.  In later seasons, however, we get lots of meeting in grand vistas where's there's no one around for miles. Looks beautiful, but is that really how they play it?

Since shows like Breaking Bad are generally made up as they go along, there'll always be flaws.  When Dickens serialized his novels, before he gathered all the chapters together to be sold in one volume, he'd rewrite it to make the story work better.  Sometimes I wish these shows had the time and money to go back and fix the parts that didn't work as well as they might have.  Until then, though, I'll keep watching.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar

Happy birthday, Oscar Peterson, one of the top jazz pianists of all.  I always liked his style--solid, imaginative but not too flashy.

Lift Your Lamp

I just read That's Not Funny, That's Sick, a book about the history of The National Lampoon*. There have already been other books about the Lampoon, including a couple from insiders Tony Hendra and Matty Simmons, but this one, by journalist Ellin Stein, is, at the very least, the most comprehensive.

It all started at the Harvard Lampoon, which had been around for decades, but was more a club than a place that created memorable humor.  Then it was revivified in the 60s, and a Playboy parody and later a Time Magazine parody and a Lord Of The Rings parody all sold well.  Some of the Pooners started wondering if they couldn't make money doing this in real life--who doesn't dream of continuing their college days?

In particular, three alums--two of the best writers (Henry Beard and Doug Kenney) and one guy with business sense (Rob Hoffman) negotiated a deal with Matty Simmons and Len Mogel, business partners who were interested in publishing something new.  They thought there was a place for a humor periodical that could capture the hip, youthful crowd.  Hoffman negotiated a great deal (as it turned out)--he, Beard and Kenney would receive one-third interest in the magazine, and after five years they could demand a buyout based on 16 to 18 times earnings.

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The magazine first appeared in 1970, with a writing staff mostly of former Lampoon people, as well as one brilliant outsider, Michael O'Donoghue.  There were a few stutter steps--soon the hippie-dippy house they'd hired for graphics had to be replaced with a more professional team--but within six months the magazine was turning a profit.  And for the next five years circulation increased until it reached over a million per issue.

National Lampoon made a name for itself, especially on campuses.  Smart and raunchy, it didn't really compete with Mad, or The New Yorker.  The closest competition probably came from Rolling Stone.  The average reader was in his (definitely a him) early 20s, either in college or just out, and was perhaps a bit nerdy. A good demographic.  And not that far from the staff's demo.

As word got out, more writers joined, including Sean Kelly, Tony Hendra and, a bit later, P. J. O'Rourke.  The group wasn't what you might expect.  A fair amount of Canadians, a lot of Irish Catholics, very few Jews and almost no women. It was really a boys club--tough and smart but unforgiving.  And the material was fearless--nothing was sacred--sometimes verging on the ugly.  The same for personal relationships there: the feud between O'Donoghue and Hendra was legendary.

Soon National Lampoon branched out, sometimes into moneymaking ventures, but always, if nothing else, spreading the word of the magazine itself.  There were records, compendiums, books (including, if you call it a book, the brilliant 1964 Yearbook parody, edited by Kenney and O'Rourke), a radio show and the successful off-Broadway show Lemmings, featuring John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest.

It was hard work, and Beard seemed to be the one man who could keep it together.  Kenney was equally brilliant, but always trying to find himself, which meant he'd take long leaves of absence.  Money was rolling in and when it came time for the automatic buyout NatLamp was worth more than ever. It would cost Simmons $9 million, in fact.  Money he didn't have lying around.  So Beard, Kenney and Hoffman agreed to take $7.5 million, $4 million right away and the rest over the next five years.

Once Beard got his payoff he walked out, shocking some by saying it was the most unpleasant experience of his life.  Kenney left too, though he'd drop by sometimes, especially for the more show bizzy stuff.  The Golden Age was over.  Not only did the top brains leave, they took most of the money with them. Other writers left, and those who stayed were bitter that they weren't getting a piece of the pie.  Meanwhile, making them even more bitter, all the heat went across-town to Saturday Night Live, just starting up with Lampoon writers O'Donoghue and his girlfriend Ann Beatts involved, as well as Belushi and Chase, and later Bill Murray, who also had worked on Lampoon projects.

Back at the magazine, Kelly and Hendra became the two lead editors.  New writers like Ted Mann and Jeff Greenfield came aboard.  There were plenty of good issues ahead--let's call it the Silver Age--but it wasn't the same.  The Lampoon didn't have the same cachet and old readers were growing out of the magazine without necessarily being replaced by new ones.  Meanwhile, Kelly and Hendra didn't quite have the editing skills of the men they replaced, not were they as skillful at dealing with publisher Simmons.  In a few years, they were replaced themselves by Matty's favorite, P.J. O'Rourke, who did a decent job as well, and brought in new writers like John Hughes, but, as a magazine, National Lampoon was essentially spent by 1980, even if it lasted in the 90s.

There was, however, one project that became so big that money poured in as never before--the movie National Lampoon's Animal House. It was the idea (depending on who you talk to) of Matty Simmons and/or Ivan Reitman, a producer who'd worked on a Lampoon stage show and was always looking to do more with these people.  The writers were Kenney (who'd play Stork in the movie) and two other Lampoon associates, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller.  The top brass at Universal didn't think much of the low budget project, but some lower level people knew they had something. It turned into the biggest comedy hit of all time.  Suddenly, National Lampoon was more about movies than a magazine.

Some turned to Hollywood and didn't look back, such as Ramis and Reitman.  Doug Kenney was the golden boy, and he produced Caddyshack.  But he didn't seem to be able to handle the pressure, or the drugs, and, while on a trip in Hawaii, fell off a cliff and died.  It wasn't clear if he meant to do it--some at the Lampoon, with their typical black humor, joked he fell while looking for a good spot to commit suicide.

It happened in 1980, and it's essentially the end of the story, and the end of the book.

It's not a bad book, but I have certain cavils.  First, there are no photos or illustrations.  That may be a financial decision, but much of the magazine's comedy was visual, and only hearing things described doesn't do it.

Then there's the author Ellin Stein, a journalist from Britain, who often judges the material and finds it wanting.  That's her business, but I'm not sure if we can trust her taste. For instance, she takes to task a radio bit about hillbillies, saying she's not sure if they're playing off stereotypes or just mocking hillbillies (she makes similar complaints elsewhere).  I think she misses the point a bit (and also doesn't seem to know the narrator is based on Gregory Peck), since the overall concept is bizarre, even surreal, with the whole thing done as a documentary about immigrants--yes, much of the humor is based on hillbilly stereotypes, but the essence of the bit is the idea of hillbillies living in France, Switzerland, Italy, Russia and adapting their hillbilly culture to America. It also ends with more bizarre humor, where the narrator's list of hillbillies includes Mel Torme, Buddy Hackett, Julian Bond and others (until he wakes up).

Also, Stein makes little errors that make one wonder.  For example, she claims Paul Shaffer wrote the music to Stephen Schwartz's The Magic Show, when he merely played in the pit band.  She claims that Which Way Is Up?--"like so many Richard Pryor movies"--flopped, when it did okay during a period when Pryor films were generally profitable.  She claims Meatballs takes place in a plush summer camp where, quoting the movie, a camper can "stalk and kill his own bear in our private wildlife preserve," when, in fact, this is Bill Murray in the film joking about the hated, fancy camp.  She even spells "minuscule" wrong (though "miniscule" is so common I'm not sure if it's wrong any more).

Then there are many snide political comments made in passing that add nothing to the book. In a discussion of  post-Watergate satire, she states "the Justice Department had temporarily suspended its attack on the First, Fourth, and Nineteenth Amendments..."  The Nineteenth Amendment? It's not enough that she can assume we all believe Nixon was far more evil than any other politician, but we've also got to agree he fought against women's suffrage?  Or in discussing a project "looking back" at the 80s before the decade began, she claims Jeff Greenfield's parody of a town lifting all zoning requirements is a "neoconservative utopia." Neoconservative?  Maybe libertarian, or anarchist, but what's this got to do with neoconservatives except they're a group that Stein, from her British vantage point, believes she can flay without any disagreement.   Later she assumes not only did we have complete deregulation (supported by neoconservatives, of course) but that it's obviously what's responsible for our bad economic times. (She also has time to take an irrelevant swipe at Citizen's United.)

Nevertheless, the book is overall a pretty good look at The National Lampoon.  If you want to know about the behind-the-scenes story, this is probably your best bet.

*Actually, according to the subtitle, it's about The National Lampoon "and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured The Mainstream"  Maybe the publishers thought this would be a commercial choice, but what you get is a book that's 80% about the Lampoon and its assorted offshoots, and then a minibook erupting within about Saturday Night Live, which employed several people who worked a the Lampoon but was not a Lampoon project.  Bit of a mess.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

That Seals It

Happy birthday, Dash (born Darrell) Crofts, of Seals and Crofts.  The duo had and their jazzy soft-rock sound popped up on the radio throughout the 70s, and forever will be connected with that era. Crofts was the one with the long hair and beard.

The Great Little Fellow

I was recently going over The Essential Chaplin, a thoughtful collection of essays on the man who's arguably the greatest star and most iconic figure in the history of film.  There are a lot of ways to divide Charlie Chaplin's work into different periods, but the biggest break is between silence and sound.

The vast majority of his output were silents, but since he took so long to make his later films, he actually spent more years working on talkies.  I'm of the camp that feels not just his best work, but his only great work, was done before his character started to speak. In fact, it's hard for me to understand how anyone could think otherwise.  Richard Schickel, who edited the compendium, essentially agrees (even though we've disagreed over Chaplin elsewhere), as explained in his introduction.

Yet we still differ on Chaplin's first talkie, The Great Dictator.  I agree that the film was brave, made at a time when Hollywood didn't want to offend Germany. (But then, Chaplin always went his own way.  He was immensely popular but didn't try to bend to the public will--his previous film was a silent released about a decade into the sound era.) And Chaplin was rewarded with his greatest commercial success.

But while Shickel doesn't think the film works, I think he's still being too kind.  He even compares the film favorably to Modern Times, Chaplin's last silent film and last classic.  Here's his take: "...The Great Dictator, for all its felicities, ultimately fails--because Chaplin horribly botched its concluding sequence." Shickel is referring to the big speech at the end, where Chaplin essentially stops the film dead and addresses the audience directly.  I agree the speech is ridiculous, both in content--it's little but empty, incoherent pieties (though Chaplin thought so much of it he reproduced it in full in his autobiography)--and as a plot moment.

But in a film that's an overlong 124 minutes, the speech takes up about five.  If we'd been watching a great (or even good) comedy up until then, I could excuse Chaplin his indulgence.  Instead, we've been watching a mostly so-so film with almost all the Chaplin magic gone.

Chaplin plays two roles in Dictator. The first is the Jewish Barber and the second is the title role, Adenoid Hynkel, based on Hitler.  In addition to Chaplin's intellectual ambitions--his genius was in his movement, not his thinking--and a plot that stops and starts, there are two serious problems with the comedy.  First, Chaplin is in his 50s.  I'm not saying older guys can't be funny, but when so much of your comedy is based on being spry, losing a step makes a difference.  Second, you can't get around this is a sound film.  This doesn't just lead to a lot of dialogue, at which Chaplin is not a master, but also means the blanket of silence that contributes so much to the magical mood of the earlier comedies is gone.   Now, with sound effects and groans and shouts and so on, the real world has intruded.  Some of the bits are reasonably well thought out, and his work as dictator Hynkel (as opposed to his other role as the Jewish barber) has some decent payoffs, but almost none of it reaches the heights he regularly attained in his earlier work.

The Great Dictator is superior to the rest of his talkies, but that's faint praise.  The later films are oddities, bizarre and generally awful works by a genius working outside his milieu.  If they had been made by anyone else, they'd be forgotten today.  The Geat Dictator might still be remembered, but if it was the best Chaplin had to offer, he wouldn't have much of a reputation.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Shear Delight

Happy birthday, George Shearing.  Born blind, he became a popular jazz pianist as a young man and stayed on top for over 50 years.  He also wrote the occasional tune, such as "Lullaby Of Birdland."

Sir Duke

I almost missed this.  Keyboard master George Duke died last week.  He played with a lot of well-known artists, from Miles Davis to Michael Jackson, and did plenty of solo work, but my favorite stuff of his was with Frank Zappa.

Monday, August 12, 2013

He Knows All The Chords

Happy birthday, Mark Knopfler.  The founder of the suprisingly successful band Dire Straits (considering their laid-back sound), he sings, plays guitar and composes.

Bad Blood

One down, seven to go.  Breaking Bad is back on Sundays and the end is in sight.  Last night's episode, "Blood Money," takes up where the last one left off.  Actually, it starts with a teaser showing the same hairy Walt we saw at the beginning of season five.  He now returns to his old home on his 52nd birthday.  Heisenbeg has been discovered and the place is abandoned.  He returns to pick up the ricin he left behind.  For whom, who knows--though Hank seems as likely as anyone.

Anyway, after that the show starts with Hank coming out of the bathroom, having had the moment we've been waiting for the whole series--he knows (or strongly suspects at this point) Walt is Heisenberg.  Now the question is what sort of cat and mouse game are we playing.  Turns out, by the end of the show, not the one we suspect.

Hank has to get home. He can hardly breathe, or drive.  He claims he's sick, but he needs to know the truth, and stays home looking over the Heisenberg files to figure it all out.  Meanwhile, Walt is now helping out at the car wash, out of the meth biz, and who should show up but Lydia.  He left her the business, but the purity of their product is down to 68% and apparently the customers aren't happy.  I guess Todd is a slow learner.  Walt says it's not his concern and Skyler, once she finds out who this is, kicks her off the lot, but I feel we haven't heard the last of her (especially now that she's a series regular).

At Jesse's place, he's got the $5 million Walt gave him, but it's blood money.  He goes to Saul and wants him to distribute half to Mike's granddaughter and half to the family of the kid they shot in the desert.  Saul has done this gig before, but this is just asking for trouble.  Saul calls Walt who drops by Jesse's place, returns the money and wants to discuss it.  Jesse has figured--correctly--that Walt killed Mike, but Walt tries to reassure him it's not so.  It's doubtful Jesse believes him.  And he sure isn't gonna keep the money. Before too long Jesse is driving around throwing the money out the car like he's on a paper route.  You may be the moral conscience of the show, but not smart, Jesse.

Walt is back on chemo, and at dinner rushes to the bathroom to vomit.  He puts a towel on the floor for his knees.  Not so long ago it was Gus vomiting like this--heavy is the crown.  Walt notices Leaves Of Grass is missing. He can't find it.  Walt figures something's afoot.  He goes to check his car and sure enough Hank has placed a GPS tracker on it, just like he did with Gus.  Gus saw this as an opportunity to mislead Hank, but Walt's already been the Jesse's place.  What to do?

What else?  He goes to Hank's place to confront his brother-in-law.  Walt figures he can talk anybody out of anything.  By this point, Hank has figured out all the damage Walt has done to him, his family and the world at large.   Previously, the Walt/Hank scenes had been fun since Walt knew he was Heisenberg and Hank knew nothing.  During most of this show, we got another layer--Walt knows he knows and doesn't think Hank knows, but Hank knows and also knows that Walt doesn't know he knows.  Now we've got yet another layer--Walt knows that Hank knows, and knows that Hank thinks he doesn't know.  How will Walt play him?

His strategy was the high point of the episode. Walt decides (not sure if it was the plan all along, or he just figured once there it was the best way to go) to show Hank the GPS tracker and let it all hang out.  Wow--that scene might not have happened till the finale.

Hanks punches him, though it's nothing like the workout he gave Jesse for doing a lot less.  Walt has an argument, though. He's dying, and even if Hank could prove anything Walt would be long gone before he's inside a cell--meanwhile Hank would be destroying their family. (He could mention it would also destroy Walt's career, just like his former boss was thrown under the boss for not seeing through Gus.)

So, as Walt eloquently puts it, "What's the point?"  Leave things alone, they'll settle better that way.  Hard to believe a hardnose like Hank would listen, but I've heard worse arguments.  Hanks says have Skyler bring over the kids and they'll talk.  Walt says no what.  Hank responds "I don't even know who I'm talking to" which leads to the final line, and perhaps the best of the night: "If you don't know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly"

That's it Walt.  If appeals to reason don't work, threaten him.  To be continued (as Walt said at the car wash--oh yeah, and someone said "bitch," but it was Skinny Pete).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

High Pitch Eric

Happy birthday, Eric Carmen.  He's a singer, songwriter and musician who was the lead man for the Raspberries before starting a solo career.

Here He Comes To Save The Day

Metamaus is an odd project, when you think about it.  I just read the book, which is all about the  making of the comic book Maus, but Maus was already about the making of itself.

Let me back up a little.  Art Spiegelman was a cartoonist of some renown in underground circles when he came up with the idea of Maus.  He was born in the late 40s to two Holocaust survivors, and grew up in the U.S.  In 1972 he did a three-page cartoon about his father Vladek's experience in the war.  He thought the subject could be turned into a graphic book--I don't call it a graphic novel since it's not really fiction, even though it's often categorized as such.  What Spiegelman believed might take a couple years turned into a major project that wasn't published until 1986 (and that was part I--the second part came out in 1991).

Maus told the story of his father and the Nazis, but much more.  While much of the narrative takes up Vladek's tale, there's a concurrent story regarding Art's interviews and sometimes troubled relations with his father in the present.  We also learn about his mother, Anja, who committed suicide when Art was 20; Vladek's second wife--also a survivor--Mala; and Spiegelman's French wife Francoise.

So the book itself is told from a meta point of view, which means this new book might be called Metametamaus.

Most of the book is an interview with Spiegelman by Hillary Chute, a literature professor at the University of Chicago.  As you might expect, the book is lavishly illustrated, with much work from Spiegelman but also many drawings and photos from other sources.

Spiegelman has had years to think about Maus and is articulate and well-reasoned.  He explains why he chose the project, how he did it (lots of drawing and lots of research), why he chose to do it in comic form and why the animals. Oh yes, if you're not aware, in Maus the Jews are drawn as mice, the Germans are cats, the Poles are pigs and so on.

Maus was a major success, selling in the millions and winning many awards, including a Pulitzer.  It made Spiegelman famous and (I assume) rich, but when he started the project, there was no reason to believe it would be a life-changing event.  Spiegelman figured it'd maybe sell a few thousand copies and he'd move on to his next project.  He'd published chapters in his magazine, Raw, but had trouble selling the whole thing as one piece--it was turned down by almost every major publishing house. Only through connections he had at Pantheon was any publisher willing to take a chance.

Spiegelman's interview is the most compelling part of the book, but there's plenty more, including short interviews with his wife, son and daughter, a Spiegelman family tree, a transcript of interviews with Vladek and a timeline of Maus-related events.  There's even a DVD with more extras.

I recommend this book, though I'd more strongly recommend you read the original Maus--now readily available in one volume--before you check this out.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Fertile Imagination

Over at the A.V. Club they've got 17 songs about sperm. They could have had an even 18 if they hadn't left out my favorite, Joe Jackson's "Biology."

Tattoo Vous

On an escalator recently I noticed the woman in front of me had "Vous etes belle" (pardon my lack of accent circumflex) tattooed on the back of her neck.  Looking it up on the internet I see the phrase is related to some sort of fashion thing, but this young lady wasn't doing advertising, was she?  So I have a few questions.

First, a tattoo is a fairly intimate thing, so why the formal language?  Shouldn't it be "Tu es belle"?

Second, isn't she the beautful one?  Why is she telling others that they're beautiful?  Maybe it should be "Je suis belle."  Or did he boyfriend give her a secret tattoo while she was sleeping.

Third, why put a tattoo on the back of your neck?  Doesn't she ever want to look at it?

Maybe I'm overthinking it.  If you're willing to put a tattoo on the back of your neck for the rest of the world to read, these are probably not the questions you ask yourself.

Friday, August 09, 2013

So Long, Mildred

I recently rewatched Kiss Of Death (1947).  With direction by Henry Hathaway and script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, it's often placed on lists of top films noir. I don't know if I'd call it top tier, but it still holds up.

It's unusual for its day in that there's a lot of location shooting based on the actual places mentioned in the story (though that was a growing trend in the post-war era).  It's also unusual in that the leading man, Victor Mature, plays a stool pigeon.  Even back in the Production Code days it was hard to make a hero of a stoolie.

The other leads are Brian Donlevy as the DA and Coleen Gray as Mature's girlfriend/wife.  But no one remembers them.  It's newcomer Richard Widmark who steals the show as the psychopathic hood with the high-pitched giggle, Tommy Udo.

To this day the performance is creepy.  And there's one moment that defines a new brutality.  Frank Capra says he saw it and felt he was no longer part of Hollywood.  To this day it's still hard to take.  There was a remake in 1995 starring David Caruso, Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson. I don't remember a single thing about it. But this I remember:

Not Run Of The Mill

A century ago today Harry Mills was born.  He sang in the Mills Brothers, one of the earliest and greatest vocal quartets in pop history.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Go Joe Go

Happy birthday, Joe Tex.  A soul singer from the 60s and 70s, he sounded sweet on ballads but could scream with the best of them.

Better Dead Than Read

Here's an interesting infographic on books people don't finish.  I have nothing to say about the modern bestsellers since I haven't read them, and probably won't.  But the list of the five top "abandoned classics" was intriguing: Catch-22, Lord Of The Rings, Ulysses, Moby-Dick, Atlas Shrugged.

The first one is the hardest to understand, since I've read Catch-22 several times and think it's one of the funniest novels ever written, as well as one of the most powerful.  But I guess its almost unending absurdist humor, huge number of characters and plot that twists back upon itself makes it tough going for some. All I can say is don't worry about it--if you're laughing, keep going. (But if you're not laughing after about ten or twenty pages, then maybe you should jump ship).

Lord Of The Rings I can understand better, since I don't like it either.  It's fantasy, a genre I have little patience for, and the trilogy goes on forever.  I'd suggest avoiding it altogether unless you find Hobbits irresistible.

Ulysses is a great book, but it's not hard to see why people give up. It's not only lengthy, it's also experimental, almost impenetrable. But the rewards are great for those who work at it.  (Though even for those Finnegans Wake is often a bridge too far--perhaps that didn't make the list because few even attempt it.)

Moby-Dick is actually a lot of fun, but it's not what people think.  Even back in its day it was not a success. Melville, who had written popular adventure novels, created an audacious work that's bursting in so many directions it often forgets to keep the action going.  In fact, it's fairly meditative, stopping regularly to consider various aspects of the world.  If you're looking for the excitement of chasing a whale, and suddenly get lengthy essays on how whaling works, not to mention a lot of general philosophy, I can see how you'd toss it aside.

Then there's Atlas Shrugged. Very long, and in small print, too.  And full of one-dimensional characters who love to speechify. Also all about a philosophy that a lot of people find repugnant.  It's got all the flaws of The Fountainhead magnified.

I guess, in general, people like plots that carry them along, not to mention protagonists they can root for.  There are readers who like to be challenged, but for most people if they're struggling with a novel--or it seems to be struggling against them--hey, life is short, and if they need to read a classic there's always another Dickens.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Knight Day

Happy birthday, Wayne Knight. He's appeared in hundreds of movies and TV episodes, but he's best known for one recurring role:

I Believe

I just read Neal Thompson's A Curious Man, a biography of Robert Ripley.  He's been dead for more than half a century but his name, attached to Believe It Or Not, lives on.

Ripley was raised in Santa Rosa, a community not far outside San Francisco.  He was born in 1890 and lived through the devastating 1906 earthquake. As a young boy he was good at baseball and drawing.  He opted for a career in the latter, finding some success working for papers in San Francisco before moving the New York--and, he hoped, the big time--in 1912.

Hardworking and talented, he soon established himself as a cartoonist. He also became a world traveler, visiting faraway places and sending cartoons and copy about his adventures.  In 1918, he did a piece entitled "Champs And Chumps" about amazing sports stories, that would eventually become the "Believe It Or Not" feature that made him famous.

In his early years in the Big Apple he lived in a small apartment at the New York Athletic Club, where he also became one of America's top handball players.  A shy sort, and unprepossessing--he had jug ears and buck teeth so bad he couldn't close his mouth--he became increasingly confident with women as be become more successful.  He married and divorced quickly, and from then on was a womanizing bachelor, rarely without a beautiful woman at his side. 

Throughout the 1920s, Believe It Or Not became bigger and bigger.  Ripley loved to make extravagant claims ("Lindbergh was the 67th man to make a non-stop flight over the Atlantic Ocean!") so he could refute the thousands of letters saying he was wrong.  If anything, he became more obsessive about world travel, seeking out the odd and exotic.  He visited over 200 countries, though he seemed drawn to the East, especially China.  In 1929, he started working for William Randolph Hearst, who knew how to exploit the popularity of Ripley, and his work was soon syndicated in hundreds of papers.

The 1930s meant the Depression for most, but it was the height of Ripley's success.  He became one of the top-paid men in America, making well into the six figures, which would mean millions today.  He was everywhere. There was his column, but he also spread out into books, movies, radio and lectures, not to mention his highly popular traveling exhibit, the "Odditorium" (essentially a freak show).  Ripley seemed to be a one-man show to the public, but of course, he had a huge staff--that kept growing--to do his research, manage his career, even in some cases do his drawings.

With his new-found riches he seemed to grow more conservative, hating the New Deal and FDR.  He also decided to "settle down," buying several homes and large apartments, including a mansion on his own "BION Island" in Mamaroneck, New York.  He was an inveterate party-giver--some thought to cover up his essential loneliness.

World War II slowed him down a bit. He certainly couldn't travel as much. And his health started deteriorating. He became portly and was probably a functioning alcoholic.  He also became more irritable, even unstable, according to those close to him.

In the late 40s a new medium, TV, seemed made for him.  It was one thing to describe the amazing on radio, but now he could show it. He started a show in 1949 and completed 13 episodes before dying of a heart attack in his late 50s.

But his work lived on.  One of the earliest books I can remember was a Ripley's Believe It Or Not compendium. (Not even sure if I read it--probably just looked at the pictures). His feature continues on to this day, there are Believe It Or Not museums in several cities (including one up my block) and Believe It Or Not has twice been turned into a TV show since his death.

The book itself is fascinating, though if it has one flaw: after Ripley achieves success, he mostly just continues doing what he was doing--traveling, drinking and discovering weird people.  But the weird, and sometimes sad, life this man lived is worth checking out.

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