Sunday, March 31, 2013

April Madness

Let me congratulate the Michigan Wolverines basketball team for making the Elite Eight.  The game against the #3 ranked Kansas Jayhawks was a stunning upset.  Michigan came back against what seemed like a better team, and won 87-85 in overtime.

Higher-ranked Big Ten teams Indiana and Michigan State are already out, and Ohio State made it as far as Michigan but then bought it.  Too bad.  There could have been an amazing championship game.

Michigan has already gone further than expected, and they seem to me evenly matched with their next opponent, Florida, so a Final Four appearance is a distinct possibility.

If they make it that far, Louisville or Duke is next, both of which would be expected to win.  But if somehow they can get past that, the teams they might face in the final would probably be easier to deal with.  I doubt they'll make it all the way, but if they can take on Kansas, they can beat anyone.

PS  Michigan had an easy time with Florida and will be going to the Final Four.  If they continue to play this well, they've got a decent chance of going all the way.  First they face Syracuse, a team they can definitely beat.  Then it'll either be Louisville, one of the toughest teams around, or Wichita State, a team that's been playing above its head the entire tournament.

Shirley You're Joking

Is it possible? Shirley Jones turns 79 today (some sources say 80, but I don't believe them).

A beauty who could sing, she started in Broadway musicals and so impressed Rodgers and Hammerstein that they chose her to play the lead in the film versions of Oklahoma! and Carousel.  She'd go on to star in other musicals, such as The Music Man, as well as comedies like The Courtship Of Eddie's Father and even dramas like Elmer Gantry, for which she won an Oscar.

She may be best known today for the sitcom The Partridge Family, where she's the mother of a musical brood (and where real-life stepson David Cassidy plays her TV son).





She and David Cassidy were the only members of the Partridge Family to actually sing (and none of them played instruments--that was top LA studio musicians).  I doubt Shirley sings in the following video, but what the heck, it demonstrates what the show was about.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Do We Need This?

I suppose today we should celebrate Eric Clapton's birthday, but he doesn't need any help. Instead, let's look at poor Randy VanWarmer (I remember when I bought my first van warmer), who died in 2004 at the age of 48.

Randy was a singer and songwriter who found some success in the late 70s and 80s.  If you know him at all, it's for this top ten hit, an adult contemporary number that a lot of people probably wish they could forget:


Yeah, It's Cool

Good piece in The Hollywood Reporter on Harry Knowles.  There have always been fanboys around, but he revolutionized the concept with Ain't It Cool News.  But lately, in addition to health problems that have plagued him for years, he's having financial worries.  Some of it is due to simple mismanagement, but some of it is due to the internet industry he helped spawned--his website isn't the only game in town any more.

The funny thing is though Harry's the Matt Drudge of the film world, he's actually pretty awful at everything.  He can't write worth a damn.  His taste is poor.  His "analysis" of almost anything is so solipsistic that it's rarely worth reading.  And when he ventures beyond the movies he loves, he evinces a huge ignorance of the world in general.  But I still admire him for creating and consolidating something that ran for years on his shear enthusiasm.

Of course, it helped that his website was soon peopled by friends and others who could write circles around him.  And it soon became the place to talk about one's favorite fanboy movies and TV shows, and, even with lower traffic, still is.  So here's to you Harry.  I hope you get past your current problems and keep Ain't It Cool alive.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Eminem

Let's say happy birthday to Moon Mullican, the master of Hillbilly boogie.





Busy Idle

Eric Idle turns 70 today.  Of the five British Monty Python members, he was odd man out.  Terry Jones and Michael Palin were one team and John Cleese and Graham Chapman another. Idle generally wrote alone, coming up with his own bits to impress the rest, full of wordplay and oddly insistent characters.

He was also the most musical of the Pythons, writing a bunch of songs.  Not too long ago, in fact, he went on tour performing many of those numbers.  He also (because the others weren't interested) was the one who created Monty Python's Spamalot, the stage musical adaptation of their Holy Grail film that became a huge hit.





Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Middle Name

This week's episode of The Middle, "The Name," dealt with teenage daughter Sue Heck choosing her middle name.  When she was born her parents made a mistake on the form and she's been "Sue Sue Heck" ever since.  Now that she'll be getting a driver's license, it's time to fix the problem.

At the Heck dinner table, Sue makes various suggestions and the family is no help, so she says if they don't care she'll just randomly choose something from the name book.

She picks a name blindly.  Bertha.  Okay, she'll try again.  Gertrude.  One more time.  Sylvia.  "What year is this book from?" she exclaims.

I admit Bertha's pretty awful, but I didn't know Gertrude and Sylvia were so bad. Of course, I may be prejudiced.  My mom's named Gertrude and my aunt's named Sylvia.

Spoiler PS:  Somewhat predictably, Sue decided to keep the second Sue, which makes her name unique.  Of course, calling someone Susu isn't that unusual.  That's what they used to call my sister Sue.

Raped From The Headlines

I missed Law & Order: SVU last night, as I've been faithfully doing for fourteen years.  But I saw a promo that almost made me watch just to see if I heard right.

The episode was entitled "Legitimate Rape" and, according to Mediaite:

"It’s nearly impossible for a victim of legitimate rape to get pregnant,” says one actor playing an expert witness testifying in court.

This is actually part of a real plot of a TV show?!  We all know Todd Akin made this idiotic statement when running for Senate last year, but it's not like anyone--even Akin any more--believes it.  Okay, perhaps it was an underground folk belief, created to blame women who get pregnant, but I can't imagine any "expert" in court would make this claim.

Trying to build an episode around people saying absurd things that would be shot down immediately in a real court promises a complete lack of drama.  Are we supposed to get mad and feel self-righteous on behalf of the pregnant woman?

"A mother to be fights back,” the narrator declares in the promo.

Yeah, I guess we are.

Meanwhile, real, elected politicians are saying idiotic things all the time.  SVU, where are you?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Slava

I've always thought the cello was the coolest instrument in the string section. (Least cool?  Viola. It's not even close.)  And perhaps the greatest cellist of our time is Mstislav Rostropovich, today's birthday boy.





Constitution Evolution

That the judicial understanding of the Constitution evolves is not really in question.  The courts are constantly facing situations not contemplated by the Framers (or the Amenders) and have to figure out, one way or another, how our founding document applies to modern situations.  The Constitution mentions the army and the navy but what power does Congress have over an air force?  The Constitution mentions copyrights but how should the law (which isn't mandatory) apply to digital information?  The Bill Of Rights guarantees freedom of speech but how does it handle words sent to everyone's home via electronic wavelengths?

No one seems to be arguing that every time something novel occurs, you have to amend the Constitution or Congress has to leave the issue alone.  But what seems to bother people most is when the courts deal with evolving morality in their decisions.  Many laws refer to moral issues and utilize standards that deal with what a reasonable person might expect or believe.  To properly interpret the Constitution, do we have to accept the morality and beliefs of the people who wrote it as a fixed feature, or accept that their abstract words can change meaning over time?  (Note either way we've got to read people's minds.) The danger of the former interpretation is it may end up in results that are too strict and brittle (and even going against the intentions of the original lawmakers) while the latter could open up a free-for-all where anyone can get anything they want out of the document

Yesterday's Supreme Court debate over same-sex marriage--in an appeal of the overturning of California's Prop 8--brought these issues to the fore. (By the way, I've been predicting the Court will punt, and that's where the smart money is right now, but you never know.)  The argument itself showed how when the times change, the stance of the parties change. Here's attorney Charles Cooper for the "traditional" position:

MR. COOPER: The accepted truth that — that the New York high court observed is one that is changing and changing rapidly in this country as people throughout the country engage in an earnest debate over whether the age-old definition of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples.
The question before this Court is whether the Constitution puts a stop to that ongoing democratic debate and answers this question for all 50 States. And it does so only if the Respondents are correct that no rational, thoughtful person of goodwill could possibly disagree with them in good faith on this agonizingly difficult issue.

Not so long ago, the idea of gay marriage would have seemed absurd, not worthy to even consider as a Constitutional issue.  Now the best the defenders of traditional marriage can say is please let the public decide this tricky question on their own--though it would, in fact, be decided by the Constitution if our side can't come up with a rational argument.

A bit later:

MR. COOPER: We — we are saying the interest in marriage and the — and the State 's interest and society's interest in what we have framed as responsible pro -­ procreation is — is vital, but at bottom, with respect to those interests, our submission is that same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are simply not similarly situated.

Once again, we see how evolving standards affect legal understanding.  Just a few decades ago society's interest in (exclusive) heterosexual marriage would have seemed so obvious no one would have to defend it, but today, Mr. Cooper has to huff and puff to demonstrate what society once assumed.

A lot of pundits--especially conservatives--have been quoting this exchange with attorney Theodore Olson.

JUSTICE SCALIA: We don't prescribe law for the future. We — we decide what the law is. I'm curious, when -­when did — when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791? 1868, when the 14th Amendment was adopted? Sometimes — some time after Baker, where we said it didn't even raise a substantial Federal question? When — when — when did the law become this?
MR. OLSON: When — may I answer this in the form of a rhetorical question? When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages? When did it become unconstitutional to assign children to separate schools.
JUSTICE SCALIA: It's an easy question, I think, for that one. At — at the time that the Equal Protection Clause was adopted. That's absolutely true. But don't give me a question to my question.
(Laughter.)
[....]
JUSTICE SCALIA: I'm talking about your argument. You say it is now unconstitutional.
MR. OLSON: Yes.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Was it always unconstitutional?
MR. OLSON: It was constitutional when we -­ as a culture determined that sexual orientation is a characteristic of individuals that they cannot control, and that that -­
JUSTICE SCALIA: I see. When did that happen? When did that happen?
MR. OLSON: There's no specific date in time. This is an evolutionary cycle.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, how am I supposed to know how to decide a case, then -­
MR. OLSON: Because the case that's before you -­
JUSTICE SCALIA: — if you can't give me a date when the Constitution changes?

Defenders of traditional marriage seem to think this is game, set and match for Scalia.  To them, Olson is admitting the Constitution means whatever we feel like it means, based on which way the wind is blowing.

But is this belief, even when expressed in such a blatant and extreme manner, obviously wrong?  Justice Scalia believes that laws mean what the lawmakers meant them to mean (whatever that is) when they passed the them.

So how then does Scalia answer Olson's challenge?  He says that interracial marriage (or racial segregation in school or both) became illegal when the Fourteenth Amendment passed.  But how does that help us?  It still took decades for the result he supports to be achieved.  Is Scalia saying, like Dorothy's ruby slippers, the courts had the power to allow interracial marriage all along, it just took a century for them to realize it?  Doesn't it seem more likely that due to changing political and moral beliefs, laws against interracial marriage--at one time acceptable to the majority--became considered so wrong that a century later the Supreme Court finally declared an amendment passed in the 1860s now makes all such laws unconstitutional?

I'm writing this sentence because I don't want to end on a rhetorical question which some may not find rhetorical.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Musical Leigh

Birthday boy Leigh Harline is rarely seen on lists of great American songwriters, but his movie work, especially for Disney, continues to be enjoyed by hundreds of millions.



(His work on Snow White was uncredited.)



Stump The Stars

On my cable system, I can press the info button for movies and see how many stars they get.  The system is one through four, with nothing in between.  I read that as meaning four stars is a classic (or at least excellent), three is good, two not so good, one a disaster.  I also assume they're not meant to be idiosyncratic ratings, but something close to critical consensus.  Which is why I'm so often surprised.

Here's are some ranking for a recent Saturday night, with many films, new and old, playing. I'm just going to go down the list and see what my cable tells me (with my comments in parentheses):

Tootsie--three stars (Really?  I'd call this a comedy classic deserving four stars.)

Little Big Man--four stars (I wasn't aware this film was thought of so highly.  It's not bad, but I don't think it should get more than three stars)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel--four stars (What?  It was well-reviewed and a hit, but not a great film--three stars is enough)

Sucker Punch--one star (Not too many films get one star.  You've got to be at the bottom of the barrel.  And Sucker Punch is.)

The Five-Year Engagement--three stars (not that well-received, I would have expected two.)

While You Were Sleeping--two stars (This was a charming little comedy, and a hit in its day.  Three stars seems right.)

Rounders--two stars (Not a hit in its day, but it's become a cult classic--I'd have expected three stars and four wouldn't have been out of the question.)

Road House--two stars (Because it's a raucous, silly film, it only gets two?  There's plenty of modern grindhouse stuff out there and this is about as good as it gets. Three stars--at least.)

Die Hard--three stars (Don't like the genre?  Die Hard may be the greatest action film of the past few decades.  Four stars.)

Contagion--four stars (A reasonably well-done, quiet film with a big cast, but a classic?  Three stars, and, as so many found it dull, I wouldn't have been surprised to see two.)

The Help --four stars (A crowd-pleasing hit, but more three-star material.)

The Muppets--four stars (It performed disappointingly and was only lightly liked by critics.  Three stars seems enough.  Maybe more than enough.)

War Horse--four stars (Not much of a hit and not much of a film--is every passable movie from the past few years going to get four stars?)

Men In Black II--two stars (The first was a classic, this was a letdown, but it was still fun. Three stars wouldn't have been shocking, but two isn't either.)

Men In Black III--four stars (I'm dumbfounded.  MIB3 was about as big a letdown as MIB2.  Who's doing these ratings?)

PS  Right now I'm watching Three O'Clock High.  I consider it a classic, and it gets one star!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Clubbing

In the late 70s and 80s, there was a boom in stand-up comedy.  In fact, there was so much out there we're still living in the aftermath of the oversaturation.  Anyway, in that era there were a few comedy clubs in the big cities that did amazing work developing new names.  Out here in LA, three clubs above all--The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory and the (West Coast) Improv--saw the start of numerous careers.  Back in New York, you had the original Improv, Catch A Rising Star, and the newest, The Comic Strip.

Now there's a book out relating the story of that last place--Make 'Em Laugh: 35 Years Of The Comic Strip, The Greatest Comedy Club Of All Time.  Whether it's the greatest or not you can judge for yourself.  Alas, rather than making the case, the authors, Jeffrey Gurian and Richie Tienken--both associated with the club--have taken the easy way out and tell the story through a series of interviews with comics who've appeared there.  They were right to do the interviews, and I'm sure it took a lot of coordination, but they then should have weaved the material into a compelling tale.

Instead, we get one comic after another telling a fairly similar story of how they got started, and what The Strip was like.  Furthermore, in practically every interview they ask the subject about author Tienken as well as Lucien Hold, another major figure at the club. Never heard of them?  Neither had I, but now I know what 20 comics think of the two.

Not that the book is useless.  There are some entertaining anecdotes, and plenty of stories about how tough, but fun, it was to get started. And it's got quite a roster, including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Ray Romano and Paul Reiser.  I think my favorite interview is Gilbert Gottfried, who refuses to take any question seriously and just cracks jokes. We've already heard the story by that point. I'd rather hear jokes.

One-Hit Horror

Happy birthday, Richard O'Brien.  He's a writer, actor and composer who'd be little known in America except for one hit show he wrote that, I assume, set him for life.  I'm talking about a small musical that premiered in a tiny theatre in London and ended up being the biggest cult film of all, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.





Sunday, March 24, 2013

Biting Questions

I was thinking about vampires.  They've got all sorts of crazy rules.  Sunlight hurts them.  Crosses hurt them.  Garlic hurts them. (These are general rules--not all vampires follow them).  A stake through the heart kills them (ditto for regular people).  For beings so tough they've certainly got a lot of weaknesses.

They also have a bloodlust that can't be denied, which makes me wonder how long they can last without feeding? Which brings us to the problem of geometric growth.  Seems to me vampires need a large source of living souls to feed on.  But since getting bitten by one (and not dying) turns you irrevocably in a vampire, I don't think it would take too long for vampires to take over society, and wipe out the human population. (I'm talking about vampires who only drink human blood.) Once that happens, do the vampires die?  Or do they just live on (in their undead way), constantly hungry with no food source?

But the biggest question I have is about mirrors. How come they don't have any reflection?  Is it because they don't have souls, and you need one for a reflection? That can't be, since you can see non-living things in a mirror.  And is this rule just for mirrors--what about glass, or any shiny surface where you might see yourself?   And vampires usually have such neatly done hair?  How?

For that matter, do vampires cast shadows?  I know that's a different thing, but it seems to me if you don't have a reflection, you might as well not have a shadow.

Wireless

The drought of great hourlongs will end next Sunday with the start of the third season of Game Of Thrones. (Then in April we get new Mad Men and new Breaking Bad in the summer.) To help fill the lacuna I've been re-upping on The Wire.

I could go through a long review about how this is as good a show as TV has ever seen, but you already know that.  So I'll just note two entirely trivial things.

First, I haven't watched The Wire in years, and have since seen a number of the regulars in other roles.  The first time I saw it, I didn't know, for instance, that tough-talking Idris Elba and Dominic West as Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty were Britishers. But weirdest of all is another actor from across the pond, Aidan Gillen. After watching him for three seasons as Baltimore politician Tommy Carcetti it's going to be odd to see him once again on Game Of Thrones as the sly, soft-talking Littlefinger.

Second, I watch with the CC on--very helpful with all the street language.  In Season 5 there's a scene with Omar and old-schooler Donnie sitting in a car, casing an apartment.  Donnie listens to old-school soul music (of course) and Omar asks Is that Eddie Kendricks?  Donnie says no.

But the CC typist couldn't quite make out the name.  So it reads "Is that Eddie Cantor?"  Eddie Cantor?  That's a little too old-school even for Donnie.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Demanding

I recently checked out my On Demand cable site  I went to the ABC page and the shows were listed alphabetically.  But I noticed titles like The Middle and The Neighbors were under the letter T.

Odd.  Generally, articles like "a" and "the" are ignored in alphabetical listings since they're so common all it means is once you get to that letter you start a secondary alphabetical search.  But the tide seems to be turning, and I'm seeing "the" and "a" being used more and more.

Perhaps the idea is simplification.  Just put it in alphabetical order with no exceptions. But even then there are tricky decisions to make.  For instance, what do you do with apostrophes?  For that matter, how do you deal with spaces between words?  I've seen some sources that just ignore them and, in essence, shove all the letters together, come what may.

Then there's the case of surnames starting with Mac and Mc.  Traditionally (and by that I mean the way I was taught), such names come before all the other M names, but that rule seems to have fallen by the wayside, by and large.

I don't mind changes in the rules.  I'd just like everyone to agree to the same conventions so I don't have to spend extra time looking things up.

Chunk A Chaka

Chaka Khan turns 60 today.  A great soul and funk singer, she started with the band Rufus in the 70s and eventually broke into a major solo career which continues to this day.





Friday, March 22, 2013

Open And Shut Case

At the AV Club they have a list of "27 opening-credits sequences that evolved with their series."  When I saw this I figured they had to have The Mary Tyler Moore Show or the whole list is a sham. And sure enough, there it is at #11:

When Mary Tyler Moore’s classic sitcom debuted in 1970, the show’s intro depicted a young, mini-skirted, beret-wearing Mary Richards walking around downtown Minneapolis, enamored by the fact that she’s landed in the big city, at a job producing the news at a big-time TV station. She’s looking in windows, and generally exploring her new surroundings. Her exuberance culminates in her tossing her beret in the air. While the beret-toss remained in subsequent years, the intro morphed into scenes of Mary at ease in the big city, looking more sophisticated while doing things like shopping for meat at the supermarket and interacting with Lou, Murray, Ted, and the rest of the folks in her second home, the newsroom of WJM.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. This misses the huge change. In the first season, the show felt it necessary to introduce its concept, so the words to the famous theme song were about whether our Mary could make it on her own, and there were shots of a going-away party and her driving to her new home. In later seasons, once everyone knew she was going to make it after all, the lyric was changed to the famous "Who can turn the world on with her smile?"

Here's the first season song, though I can't find the visuals:



These aren't the correct visuals either, but once again, the words are there:

Shooting The Keys

It's the birthday of my favorite pianist, Chico Marx.  Born Leonard Marx in 1887, he was the oldest of the Marx Brothers and the one who successfully managed the team to Broadway and Hollywood success.

He's also one of the funniest men ever in movies.  He might be overshadowed by his brothers, but even then, he helps bring out their comedy better than anyone else.  But for now, let's just watch him play.






Thursday, March 21, 2013

Unanimous Decision

This is from Steve Heisler's review of the Fight Club videogame:

“The first rule of Fight Club is…you do not talk about Fight Club.” This is probably the most famous line in David Fincher’s 1999 film, and not just because it’s repeated moments later as rule No. 2. [....] 

In Fight Club, when two guys are fighting, they can be individuals. The crowd cheers as they, the only two people who matter, size each other up. The fighters are no longer looking into a foggy mirror; they’re seeing, in their opponent, all the parts of themselves they hate (or love) and punching the hell out of those things. It’s a form of introspection—a form of therapy. So nobody talked about Fight Club. On the path to enlightenment and individuality, the fighting itself was all the talking you needed to do.

That's why you don't talk about Fight Club?  And all these years I thought it was because Fight Club was illegal and if people started talking about it everyone would get arrested.

Shocked, Shocked

One of the odder show biz stories of the year: in a recent concert, Michelle Shocked went on a rant about homosexuality, stating "When they stop Prop 8 and force priests at gunpoint to marry gays, it will be the downfall of civilization, and Jesus will come back," among other things.

Michelle Shocked is generally thought to be of the left--certainly her fans tend to be--but apparently she's got religious beliefs that go strongly against her audience's regarding homosexual issues.

Anyway, reaction was swift, and now ten of eleven upcoming concert dates have been canceled by the venues. I guess they're free to decide whom to schedule, just as people are free to listen to what music they like, but this leaves a bad taste.  It's straightforward blacklisting for political beliefs.

About ten years back, in the early days of the Iraq War, you might recall Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks insulted George Bush and the war at a concert in England, which led to some boycotting their music.  Others sprang to their defense.  They ended up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, naked except for tattoos essentially proclaiming them free speech martyrs.

Around the same time, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon were disinvited from a celebration of Bull Durham at the baseball Hall of Fame due to their very vocal opposition to Bush and the Iraq War.  Many thought this action against them was foolish, and Robbins got to speak at the National Press Club where he stated "A chill wind is blowing in this nation."

So here it is, a decade later, and someone else is being punished for speaking her mind in a way many find offensive.  Shocked seems to be apologizing (as did Natalie Maines).  It'll be interesting to see what happens next.  Will the venues change their minds?  Will her fans stick with her?  Will any big names come to her defense--not agree with her, but simply say she should be allowed to speak her mind without being afraid for her livelihood?



PS  The video above was a Michelle Shocked fan methodically destroying one of her CDs.  Didn't take long for him to take it down.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Women Aren't Bad Either

Hey, it's hump day.  I think that's a good enough excuse to show one of my favorite videos:

Same Old Same Sex

Hillary Clinton has just officially changed her mind on same-sex marriage (not long after husband Bill explained why he now opposes his Defense Of Marriage Act).  Republican Senator Rob Portman has also come out in favor of gay marriage.  And President Obama famously changed his view on the issue last year.

Regardless of the personal reasons for these conversions, there's no question the American public is coming around. The general trend over the past couple decades has turned gay marriage from being politically poisonous to popular.  We seem to have reached the tipping point where more support the idea than oppose it, and it seems unlikely the trend won't continue.

It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.  It means we'll never again have a Democrat candidate for President who doesn't support marriage for gay couples.  The bigger question is how long will it take for Republicans to do what Democrats are doing right now.  I suspect the change will be swift--that within a decade we'll have a Republican candidate for the White House who supports gay marriage.

But perhaps social conservatives--still the base of the GOP--won't be so easily moved, which will make it harder for Republicans with national ambition to straddle the difference.  But if the Republicans don't change, there may be serious consequences.  The question, I suppose, is how powerful is the issue--is gay marriage a dealbreaker (for either type of voter)?  It would seem the dilemma will only get worse for Republicans if they can't figure out a solution--older voters hve trouble accepting gay marriage, but the younger generation just can't understsand the opposition.

PS  I see Dennis Prager, a strong opponent of same-sex marriage, has just written about Portman's change of heart:

In this regard, Mr. Portman speaks for virtually every progressive/left/liberal position on virtually every subject. To understand leftism — not that the senator has become a leftist, but he has taken the left-wing position on redefining marriage — one must understand that above all else leftism is rooted in emotion, not reason. That is why left-wingers discussing their social positions always refer to compassion and fairness — for blacks, for illegal immigrants, for poor people, and, of course, for gays. Whether a progressive position will improve or harm society is not a progressive question. That is a conservative question. What matters to progressives is whether a position emanates from compassion.

This is news to leftists.  I think they believe they've got a clearer understanding of how the world works and if anything it's the right's argument that are based on emotion.  But when either side argues, they should explain why the other side's argument fails, not insult the other side by saying they're too filled with emotion to think clearly.  (I'm not saying emotion plays no role in political fights--it's probably the most important factor. I'm just saying one shouldn't claim the other side is emotional while your side is just being rational.)

The idea that progressives don't ask if programs they support will improve or harm society is bizarre.  I would assume it's the first and perhaps only question they ask. The difference between "progressives" and conservatives is a difference, mainly, in what they value. They also have different assumptions (related to their values) regarding how the world works, so they can often start with the same set of facts and come to different conclusions.

As far as "compassion and fairness," don't both sides favor that?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Let's Make Comparisons

Some weird stuff from a discussion of neoliberalism in the Los Angeles Review Of Books. (I'm not going to get much into the content of neoliberalism itself--the word, like neocon, might have been useful once but is now pointless):

Discussions of neoliberalism, on both the left and the right, suffer from what Paul Krugman and others have called “zombie” ideas. These are economic concepts that have been long discredited, but continue to shamble on. On the right, a central zombie idea is that reduced state regulation of markets leads to sustainable economic growth. If you believe this, then the rise of neoliberalism is a no-brainer. Neoliberalism is simply the economic philosophy that works. But why should anyone believe this? The idea that unleashing free markets then leads to good economic times should never have survived the Great Depression, and should surely be killed for good by the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Meanwhile, a new generation of leftist economists has discovered that their progressive brethren suffer from a zombie idea of their own. Mike Beggs, for example, has recently argued that the Marxist economics many on the left continue to find attractive has a fatal flaw. Marx believed in the labor theory of value, the idea that a commodity’s value is equal to the labor that goes into it. Generations of Marxist thinkers have built on this foundation to form a picture of the way the world’s economy works. Thinkers like David Harvey have used this theory to create a sophisticated explanation of neoliberalism as the natural response of capital to changing conditions. If you subscribe to Harvey’s Marxist theory, then the rise of neoliberalism is, again, a no-brainer. But as Beggs points out, the concept underlying theories like Harvey’s was decisively disproved over a century ago, and no one has ever come up with a persuasive defense.

Pardon me?  Reduced state regulation of markets doesn't lead to growth?  I would think the record pretty consistently shows it does.  Yes, you need some regulation, but generally, free markets are the best, perhaps only, road to prosperity, and freer markets perform better than heavily regulated ones. Why else would countries with a commitment to socialist or quasi-socialist concepts resort to free market reforms when they need better performance?

Of course in a dynamic economy there'll be booms and busts, but does that somehow disprove the efficacy of free markets?  The idea that you can somehow regulate your way into avoiding any serious problems at all is absurd, unless you tamp down on the economy so hard that there's practically no room to operate and almost everyone is poorer. (And let's not even get into what caused the Great Depression and the Great Recession, and what led to how long the bad times lasted when we were able to grow quickly out of other crashes.)

Meanwhile, Marxism fails miserably every time and place it's tried.  The article tries to set up an equivalence between the flaws of the right and left, but the idea there's some balance between those who support "unleashing" free markets on a society and those who have a Marxist perspective is absurd.  It's as if someone says if you watch what you eat and exercise regularly, you'll be healthier, and someone else complains hey, I know people who did that and still got sick.  Meanwhile, the other side is claiming if you cut off your oxygen supply you'll do just fine, even though it hasn't worked well in the past, and the complainer says yeah, that's wrong, too, but let's talk about that first guy again.

Who It Is

Of all the great rock bands, probably none was made up of completely different individuals more than The Who.  Each of the four members probably saw the whole amazing journey in their own, non-overlapping way.  But if I wanted to hear from one, it would have to be Pete Townshend, who wrote most of their songs. And now he's come out with an autobiography, Who I Am--over a decade in the writing--which goes into great detail about his life, before, during and after The Who.

He's pretty open about his early days, with a mom and dad who kept breaking up and getting back together, not to mention the horrifying year he was sent off to live with his crazy grandmother.  He was interested in music, and sometimes would have magical moments, not quite in this world, when listening.  He liked rocked, but it didn't seem to effect like it did John Lennon or Keith Richards--he was just as moved, it would seem, by jazz and even classical work.

As a teen, art-school Pete was invited by tough-guy Roger Daltrey into his band, The Detours, after Pete's friend and fellow Detour John Entwistle talked him up.  They played a wide variety of music, but soon the rise of British bands started and they were swept up in the world of rock and roll.  They changed their name, dropped some players and at the last second (shades of The Beatles) replaced their old drummer with a wild young kid named Keith Moon.

They all had their musical preferences, but at first Roger, with his maximum R&B approach, held sway. The band had a strong following in London, started recording and Pete discovered he was the one with the talent for songwriting.

In the mid-60s they recorded a series of singles--singles still mattered more than albums--that did okay in Britain but not much in the U.S.  Pete realized, with songs like "I Can't Explain" and "My Generation" that, unexpectedly, he was speaking for the kids he knew who didn't have a voice.  But Pete, with his arty ways, saw The Who as a way station before he moved on to other projects.  Meanwhile, The Who got a reputation for loudness and wildness--Pete started destroying his guitars, even though he could hardly afford it.

To fill up space left on an album Pete wrote the mini-opera "A Quick One While He's Away," which was just the beginning of his ambtions.  Next came the rock opera that put them on the map, Tommy. It broke them big in America and The Who would be a major band from then on. (Though they'd still had money problems, partly due to bad management, partly due to British taxes.) They famously appeared at Woodstock, performing selections from Tommy just as the sun was coming up--and Pete kicked an obnoxious Abbie Hoffman offstage.

After releasing a classic concert album Live At Leeds, Pete came up with another grand concept--Lifehouse, a futuristic rock opera that he hoped to develop with Who fans in a series of concerts.  The whole thing fell apart, which was crushing, but out of it came what's probably considered the band's greatest album, Who's Next, which features songs such as "Baba O'Riley," "Behind Blue Eyes," and "We Won't Get Fooled Again."

Next Pete tried to develop a show based on the four personalities of the band, which ultimately evolved (or devolved) into Quadrophenia, another rock opera hit, if not quite as beloved on Tommy (though it made a better movie).

The next few albums by the band, though they sold well, did not have the same grand ambitions. Then Keith Moon died in 1978, only 32, after years of drug and alcohol abuse.  The band continued on for a few years and put out some new, decent albums, but it was never the same.

Pete went on to new projects, including solo albums, but also movies and books and stage shows and so on.  Many were successful, but his new book reveals the sometimes sad private life behind it all.

He seems to have been manic-depressive, or at least went through a lot of highs and lows. On stage, he was noted for his wild performances, but off he could be quiet and subdued.  Also, through much of his life, he was a heavy drinker, not to mention someone who took a fair amount of illicit drugs (though compared to Keith and John he was a piker).

Then there's the story of his long-suffering wife, Karen. For years he went out touring while she stayed home taking care of the kids.  And though he tried to be a good husband, he regularly chased after women. I suppose for most men it would be hard not to succumb--women fling themselves at rock stars.  After many years, he and Karen divorced and he married again.

He also, recently, was involved in a scandal where he downloaded child pornography. The book explains how it was for research, but the cloud still hangs over him.  In general, Pete was an activist working for many causes, in addition to all his other work. He was also a follower of Indian mystic Meher Baba (even as he drank and chased women and so on--he was a seeker, but he was also a man).

He worked hard and is proud of his legacy.  And he should be.  When all is said and done, he's the man most responsible for The Who, and it looks like their music will live on for a long time to come.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bible Libel

I recently heard Jeff Foxworthy on a radio ad promoting the return of his quiz show The American Bible Challenge.  He said something like "the Bible doesn't have a sequel, but my show does."

The Bible has no sequel?  I'd think the host of a Bible trivia show would know better.

First, of course, is the New Testament, which is the Christian sequel to the Old Testament--and I assume Foxworthy asks questions about both.

But if you want to go on, there are more sequels.  One obvious example is the Koran, which follows in the tradition of the Old and New Testament, and even mentions its relationship to the Torah and the Gospels.

Then there's the Book of Mormon, which is an explicit continuation of and addition to the Bible.

On top of which, you've got countless revelations, many of which have been bestsellers in their time, where someone allegedly adds to the knowledge set down in the Bible.

In other words, I don't know if anything has ever had so many sequels as the Bible.  Not even Star Wars and Star Trek combined.  So it's odd that Foxworthy, or whoever wrote the ad, would start with such an ignorant statement.

Come Hear The Music Play

Happy birthday John Kander, the musical half of the songwriting team Kander and Ebb.  They're best known for Broadway musicals, such as Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss Of The Spider Woman, though they occasionally branched out into movies (their "Theme From New York, New York" was not even nominated for an Oscar--if it'd won Kander and Ebb would be EGOT people) and TV.





Sunday, March 17, 2013

Unkindest Cut

I think we're overdoing security at airports and applaud measures to allow items like small knives back on planes.  But even this slight opening is too much for Senator Chuck Schumer.  This is the man who, years ago, demanded the Justice Department investigate the high price of breakfast cereal (and, amazingly, is still proud of it), and he continues to save us from phantom problems.

He says "very small knives [were] used by Mohammed Atta and other hijackers on 9/11" and the TSA "ought to immediately repeal this rule."

Schumer held up a shampoo bottle and an X-Acto knife and said that he had a hard time understanding how the TSA considers the small blade less dangerous than liquid personal care products, which remain banned in containers over certain volumes. "Everyone is befuddled," Schumer said.

[....] Schumer said that if the TSA didn't reinstate the ban on small knives before then, he would consider legislative action, which he expects to have broad bipartisan support.

Chuck, pay attention.  Even if you think a Swiss Army knife is as dangerous as a box cutter, the truth is no one can take over a plane any more with a blade of any sort. (Or a gun, for that matter.) Anyone who pulls out a knife will be swamped by passengers and beaten senseless.  Certainly he can't get into the locked cockpit.

Can he take a slash at passengers?  Sure.  He can also punch them, choke them or knock them unconscious with his laptop.

You know what is dangerous?  Alas, though it's highly unlikely it'll happen, explosives of the kind the shoe bomber attempted to use--the kind that can be hidden in a bottle of shampoo--are the greatest threat for a passenger to take down a plane these days. The TSA knows this and would rather concentrate on finding the deadly stuff while trying to make flying just a bit less unpleasant.

By the way, does Schumer even have to fly commercial? Or do taxpayers pick up the tab as he crusades around the country protecting us from ourselves?

Plain Singing

Andy Parker was born 100 years ago today!  He was a singing cowboy and head of his band the Plainsmen.






Saturday, March 16, 2013

Leftover Vanity Plates Of The Month

I saw SAVZNRG. This is why we hate Prius owners.

DOE DOE:  An extinct female deer?

EZ8GOER.  Don't really know what this means.  But it goes easily, somehow.

MARKEST:  There are a lot of Marks out there, but this guy is the Markest.

DRUM:  I still bet this guy wouldn't like it if I beat on his car.

Taken

Happy birthday, Henny Youngman (who, by the way, has a fun autobiography, if you can find a copy, about his surprisingly colorful life).

We live in an age of observational humor. Which is why it's so great to see an old Youngman routine. He just tells jokes.  Short ones, no stories.  He could keep it up for hours.  Even play the violin if he feels like it.  It's good to remind yourself of the classics.



Friday, March 15, 2013

I've Been Taken

I was just watching Taken, a surprise hit from a few years back that's turned into a franchise and made Liam Neeson an action star. On paper it's not much--a low-budget film about a father searching for his kidnaped daughter.  But the filmmakers work the cliches so brilliantly, especially in the first act where they set up Neeson's character and situation, that you're more involved in the plot than normal.



Watching it again, something struck me. Neeson plays an ex-CIA operative who's a master at his craft.  His daughter calls from where she's staying in Paris just before she's kidnaped.  He immediately goes into action and tells her to run from the bathroom to the nearest bedroom and go under the bed.  He then explains she will be taken.

Okay.  Let's recall he doesn't know the layout of her place, though he knows it's huge, since at the start of her call she's looking through a window into another room where her friend is being kidnaped.  I don't have a CIA background, but my advice would be, if at all possible, dash to the front door, get out in the hallway, and start running and screaming.  And while you're at it, you might want to hang up and call the cops (even though you may not know the number in Paris).

Instead, he guarantees she'll be kidnaped.  He even admits hiding under the bed won't protect her. He also says he has no money for ransom, though he knows his daughter's stepfather is loaded.  Is this some sort of sick way to have a shot at getting his kid and ex-wife back by creating a situation where he gets to play the hero?

Crafty Rock

Happy 70th, Sly Stone.  As leader of Sly And The Family Stone, his sinuous, funky soul music was a mainstay on radio in the late 60s/early 70s (even as his personal life was falling apart from drugs).








Thursday, March 14, 2013

Had Your Phil?

Happy birthday, Phil Phillips.  He was a popular singer for decades, but is almost entirely known for one big hit in 1959 (for which he never felt he was paid properly).

Kaus Grouse

The central plank in pundit Mickey Kaus's philosophy is social equality.  We may not be able to stop income inequality (at least Kaus admits this--stopping it is high on the agenda of much of the left) but we should at least know we're all equal.

That's why Kaus is worried about Obamacare. (That's why?) 

Without national service, it’s not easy to come up with new institutions that might help reconnect a nation being slowly pulled apart along class lines. Health care is probably the biggest candidate left. If rich and poor use the same doctors and hospitals, wait in the same waiting rooms, etc., it will be harder for some people to think they are better than anyone else–even if some leave by bus and others in Porsches. That’s the theory, anyway.

If you entertain this theory, as I do, Obamacare is a troubling solution to the health care problem. Yes, it more or less insures everyone, but at the price of assigning people to different programs based on their income. If you are upper middle class and uninsured, you can buy insurance on the Obamacare “exchanges.” If you are non-upper middle class (under 400% of the poverty line–about $90,000 for a family of four) your purchase will be subsidized, even heavily subsidized. But if you are poor–less than 100% of poverty–you can’t get a subsidy through the Affordable Care Act. You will probably be shunted into a different system, Medicaid, which many consider inferior.

I think social equality is a great thing about America, but I believe it's based on attitude more than anything else.  We're all peers in this country.  There are people richer than I am, but I don't think they're better than I am.  In the other direction, if I meet someone making a low (or no) wage, I don't think I'm that person's social better.

We take this in with our mother's milk.  I'm not saying there are no class differences, but I don't think it compares to long-ingrained systems in other countries.  (One of the reasons I support small government is to avoid creating a ruling class that feels it deserves its perks as it tells everyone else how to live.)

But trying to make sure everyone gets essentially the same medical care?  Sounds dumb.  I accept that people with more money can buy a bigger house or a nicer car or a better vacation.  That's how it goes.  If they want to get extra care above and beyond what's normally available, that's also how it goes.

I'm not talking about lousy care for others, or for the poor. I can understand a system where we work to ensure an acceptable amount of medical care for everyone, but if you want all care to be exactly equal, the most likely outcome (if you manage to pull it off--which you probably can't) is to pull down the quality of care for the well-off, not raise the quality of care for others (unless perhaps you're willing to take away an awful lot of other things).

It's a good incentive for hard work and innovation if people are rewarded for making more money. And if the rich can pay extra for certain types of care, it will help spur on research that will eventually be available to all--it works in other parts of the economy, and as long as we have market forces in the medical field, it'll happen there.  In the long run, if you force equality on a system, it'll likely guarantee everyone gets worse care than they'd get otherwise.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sam He Is

It's been a rough time for sitcom people. First Valerie Harper announces she's got terminal cancer, and now Sam Simon says he has a few months to live.

You may not be familiar with the name, but he's known around town as one of the best TV comedy writers ever.  Simon wrote for shows like Barney MillerTaxi, Cheers, and It's Garry Shandling's Show, but the greatest work he ever did was probably for The Simpsons.

He helped develop the show with Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, and you can see their name on the credits of every show.  Groening may have created the basic characters and situation, and Brooks, a big name in TV and movies, helped shepherd the show through the process, but it was Simon, in the trenches during the early years, who really saw it through.  He brought in the first generation of writers and supervised them in the early years.  Hundreds of actors, animators and writers have worked at The Simpsons, but if there was one person who made the show what it is (or at least was), it's Simon.

There are stories that Simon is hard to work with, but I wouldn't know.  In fact, I've heared tales from a few friends about what a good guy he is.  Whatever the truth, his work speaks for itself.

Roller Stoller

Happy 80th, Mike Stoller. He was the musical half of Lieber and Stoller, one of the greatest rock and roll songwriting teams of all time.





Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Live from The Conclave

I swear this is not from the Daily Currant, The Onion or Breitbart

And in a bizarre twist, basketball star Dennis Rodman is expected to arrive in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday in a makeshift popemobile as he campaigns for Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana to become the church’s first black pope.
 
After seeing him suck up to Kim Jong Un, George Stephanopoulos and Donald Trump last week-end, I didn't think Dennis could top his successive lows.   BTW, I checked out a local sports pub- some 25 years later, they are still serving the Rodman Sandwich (though it may have been named the Laimbeer or Piston at one point)- all turkey.

PS- my money is on Cardinal Toppo.  The name seems to be divine guidance. 

Terminal Care

In the New York Post a former TSA screener claims airport security is too lax.  For instance, one undercover agent sneaked through Newark Airport's security with an IED. Also, it turns out pat-downs done with the back of the hand aren't good enough.

Just what we need.  As if airport security weren't annoying enough, this guy wants to make it tougher.  As I've said before, let's have two security systems--one with all the bells and whistles, one basic and quick.  I'll take the second for the convenience and for what I presume will be lower prices since they won't have to pay for all those fancy machines and government employees.  And if anyone tries anything fishy on the plane, we'll be ready.

Don't Bother Me At All

Happy birthday, Lew DeWitt, one of the members of the Statler Brothers (no Statlers involved).  Lew sang tenor and also wrote some of their best songs.





Monday, March 11, 2013

Not To Worry

Be happy on your birthday, Bobby McFerrin.  He's a vocalist known for performing without accompaniment who, against all odds, charted a #1 hit. But he'd established himself well before.



From The Mouth Of Morris

I know it's pointless to look to Dick Morris for prognostication, but I was intrigued by the promise of the headline: "New Poll Data Shows Republicans Can Win Latino Vote"

That sure sounded anti-intuitive.  So I read the piece.  Here's the argument--a recent poll shows a majority of Republicans supporting legislation* that would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and they support Marco Rubio's somewhat tougher immigration reform plan even more.  To Morris, this shows Republicans are changing and will be able to appeal more to Latino voters.

A poll of Republicans?  Who cares.  The headine is bait and switch.  I was expecting a poll of Latinos showing their vote starting to trend right. Or a poll of Latinos showing they line up with Republicans on a lot of issues so might be convinced to change their voting patterns.  Or just a poll of Latinos, no matter what it showed.

Even if immigration reform was at the top of their list of concerns (and it isn't), they'd still be voting strongly Democrat no matter what the Republicans do--you don't change a pattern like that overnight.  Maybe in the long run Republicans can win their vote, but getting, say, 45%--forget a majority--any time soon in a Presidential election (unless they run a Latino--then who can say?) would be a miracle, and getting even 40% would be highly unlikely. 

Even after Reagan offered flat-out amnesty, Latinos still voted Democrat.  The politics of immigration reform is a zero-sum game, and it's hard to argue that a law that creates net votes for Democrats can somehow help Republicans. (What's good for the country regardless of the political outcome is a different question, of course.)

*Actually, the poll shows about a third strongly support it, about a third vaguely support it and about a third oppose it, but let's give Dick his talking point. And let's also assume this is a change in how Republicans feel though I have no idea if it is.  In general, Americans of both parties oppose amnesty but if you describe a program that sounds like illegal immigrants will have to jump through a lot of hoops to become citizens they like it a lot more.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

NERDS!

I don't watch too many "reality" shows but I checked out (on and off) King Of The Nerds, which just finished its first season.  The idea couldn't be simpler--get a bunch of self-professed nerds together and through elimination rounds, based on nerdy interests, pick the king who'll be head of Nerdvana and sit on the Throne Of Games. Being at least an honorary nerd, it seemed up my alley.

The show reminded me of why I don't generally watch reality TV.  All the wasted time.  Each episodes was an hour, but only two things happened--the first contest where some person or team got immunity, followed by the second contest where someone was eliminated.  The rest is filler, especially all those tiresome confessional moments where the nerds talk directly to the camera about what they were feeling while they played the game.

Also, many of the contests seemed ill-conceived, none more so than the finale, where the knocked-out nerds came back and voted for the winner.  Why should it end in such subjectivity--especially coming from losers who likely have a chip on their shoulder about their mightiest opponent?  I won't spoil it for you, but I was so disgusted by the results that I was sorry I watched at all.

Oh Dean

Happy birthday Dean Torrence, half of Jan and Dean.  After the Beach Boys, they were the best known surfing music act, and I've always though "Surf City" was the best song with "Surf" in the title.





Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Whole Truth

Whole Foods is a clever company.   Founder John Mackey saw a niche in high-end organic and created an empire.  It may be high quality products at premium prices, but shopping there is as much about the feeling it gives you as the produce.  I go there occasionally and can't help but admire their set-up, but generally don't feel the need to spend so much.  However, if it makes millions of crunchy consumers happy, fine by me.

Now Whole Foods is planning to label genetically modified foods.  This is just evil.  Such foods are perfectly safe and labeling them gives consumers no useful information--in fact, by scaring them it gives them bad information.  It could even lead to less development and production of genetically modified foods, which are a boon to the world.

There's a strong whiff of cynicism about the whole thing: 

A. C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, said the new labeling requirement, to be in place within five years, came in response to consumer demand. “We’ve seen how our customers have responded to the products we do have labeled,” Mr. Gallo said. “Some of our manufacturers say they’ve seen a 15 percent increase in sales of products they have labeled.”

So there you have it.  Whole Foods, hurting humanity while fooling (foolish) customers into paying more.

Cale Call

Here it is, a week after Lou Reed's birthday, and we're ready to blow out the candles for John Cale.





Friday, March 08, 2013

It Depends On What You Pay

Every now and then I run into this old line from today's birthday boy Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr"Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society."

A good point.  And my response is let's go back to the tax rates they had when he first said it.


Tis The Season

The latest Community, "Cooperative Escapism In Familial Relations,” may have been the best of the season so far, but still wasn't much.  It had Jeff finally meet his father with therapist Britta helping out, while the rest of the gang attended Shirley's Thanksgiving dinner and then tried to avoid it (with a Shawshank parody that never quite took off).

At the recent Paley Fest (which I didn't attend), the plots of new episodes were revealed: an origin story (wasn't that the pilot?), a story where the study group are puppets and a body-switching episode.

These seem to go along with the rest of the season's on-the-nose exploration of Community tropes--they've already had a plot set in Abed's mind, an Inspector Spacetime convention and the return of the Germans to Greendale.

The trouble is not the plots.  The trouble is they've got the outer trappings of the Community we know and love, but not the inspiration.  Community has always played with the form, but that wouldn't have meant anything if it weren't for the jokes and the character moments.  Also, in general, this season they're overdoing the emotion, almost wallowing in it, rather than letting it rise to the surface from a deeper core.

Okay, I promise I'm going to stop complaining about the fourth season of Community. We've gotten three great seasons and if the last doesn't go as well as hoped, we should just look at the glass as three-quarters full. I'll watch till the end, but when I recommend the box set (or whatever format is favored) I'll have to warn friends to expect a big drop in quality in the final season.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Hugo Gone

I don't have too much to add to what others have been saying about Hugo Chavez (whose death I predicted, not that it took much prescience). The only thing I can't understand is those--and there are many--eulogizing him as a great man and a great leader.

I don't care if you think this is some sort of left/right thing (and it shouldn't be), just paying for social programs (by confiscating other people's money and keeping a billion or so for yourself) and attacking the United States regularly doesn't make you great, or even good.

Chavez not only clamped down on basic freedoms, but brought tremendous violence and, indeed, poverty to his country.  Here's hoping Venezuela finds a way out of this disastrous path that their leader for life led them down.

Magic Peter

Happy birthday, Peter Wolf.  He was the lead singer and one of the main songwriters for the J. Geils Band, and thus as responsible for its sound as anyone. (He also was married to Faye Dunaway in the 70s--not bad.)






Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Man Of Steel

It's the birthday of Ben "Long Grain" Keith.  You may not know the name but you've probably heard him play.  He worked with numerous musicians as a producer and sideman, but the most well-known stuff is probably his pedal steel guitar for Neil Young.




Mare's Best Friend Speaks

I just read Valerie Harper's memoir I, Rhoda.  I like the title.  She'll tell us her life story, but she's not kidding herself as to why we care.  Her Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a classic creation.  She played the part for nine straight years, and won four Emmys doing it.  Not to put down her other work, but it's probably the only part most people know her for.

Harper was raised in the 40s and like so many little girls dreamed of being a dancer.  She studied and by the late 50s was appearing in a Broadway chorus.  She regularly worked for famed choreographer Michael Kidd in shows like L'il Abner, Wildcat and Subways Are For Sleeping.  Meanwhile, realizing dancers only last so long, she branched out into acting. Doing improv, she met actor Richard Schaal and they married. Harper was spotted by a casting agent in a play and invited to audition for the new Mary Tyler Moore sitcom.  By this point she'd been to a lot of auditions, and wasn't expecting much, but she was obviously what they were looking for.  The rest of the cast was full of veteran actors, while Harper was a relative novice.

The pilot wasn't scoring that well and some of upper management would have gotten rid of the abrasive Rhoda character, but instead the show's creators--James L. Brooks and Allan Burns--just had Bess, the young daughter of Phyllis (Mary's friend and landlady) say how much she liked Rhoda, so the audience would understand they should like her, too.  The show took a while to become a hit, but almost from the start Mary's sidekick Rhoda was a breakout character.

Harper loved playing Rhoda and found it easy to work with the cast, especially star Moore.  She also helped discover how the character dressed, and Rhoda's head scarf became her trademark.  The real Rhoda had some aspects of Harper, but they weren't that much alike.  For one thing, Harper wasn't Jewish, though to this day fans think she is.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show turned out to be one of the best-written shows ever on television, and wisecracking Rhoda grew into a complex but always funny character.  And as Valerie Harper slimmed down, Rhoda cut down on the self-deprecating gags.

The character was so popular CBS gave her a spinoff.  Instead of Rhoda being unlucky in love, they decided to go in the other direction.  She'd move back to New York and meet the love of her life. Meanwhile, sister Brenda would be the loser--Brenda was the Rhoda of Rhoda.  (A different sister had appeared on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but she went the way of Chuck Cunningham.) The show started out well, and when Rhoda got married in the first season, the ratings were through the roof.  However, a happy Rhoda is not a funny Rhoda, and the writers weren't sure what to do.  They had Rhoda and husband Joe separate, and eventually divorce, to keep things moving forward, but the show was never the same hit.  For that matter, it was never really in the same class as The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  But it made sense for Harper to leave--her sidekick character had probably gone as far as she could (not to mention the bigger paycheck).

Around the same time Rhoda was divorcing Joe, Valerie was divorcing Dick Schaal--though, according to Harper, it was completely amicable.  The spark had simply gone out of their marriage.

The story continues at this point--we're maybe halfway into the book--but I have to admit it's not as interesting as her MTM days.  Harper got married again--this time it stuck--and raised an adopted daughter.  She appeared in movies, on Broadway, had a TV show where she had to sue the studio after she was fired, had a cancer scare and worked at various political activities. It's a perfectly decent life, but creating a timeless character is a hard act to follow.

PS  While checking out the Amazon.com page for the book, I discovered in May there'll be a new book out on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Can't wait.

PPS As noted in the comments, just today it's come out that Valerie Harper has terminal brain cancer. We certainly wish her whatever luck is possible.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Heitor From Across The Equator

Happy birthday, Heitor Villa-Lobos, probably the top serious composer from South America.



Some People Just Can't Let It Be

A friend (and regular reader of Pajama Guy) just sent me an email about how much he enjoys Let It Be...Naked, the rawer version of  the original Beatles' album.  It was released a decade ago and supposedly comes closer to their original intentions.  Here's my reply (and just by chance I'd been listening to a lot of Beatles outtakes and the like on YouTube recently, so I'd been thinking about this album):

I remember when Let It Be...Naked came out a few years ago. I wasn't too excited--not compared to, say, the release of the Anthology series, or their BBC stuff. First, it was only an updated version of what might be their weakest album (though weakest for the Beatles is still better than most--in fact, there was a time "Two Of Us" was my favorite song of theirs, and I actually performed it with a friend at my high school talent show, though I never understood how two people could be "standing solo"), not to mention by this point, much of their studio work was now widely available one way or another.

It's ironic that it took several years after their breakup for Capitol to release a greatest hits album, and then only because, as I understand it, too many bootleg greatest hits collections were out there. Since then, the company has realized the Beatles catalogue is the wonder of the music industry, and has been systematically strip-mining it without ever really destroying the band's reputation or commercial potential.

Much more exciting to me was alternate takes of earlier songs that were finally available, not to mention even a few original songs they never officially released--including one great one. The later years of the Beatles always had the most bootlegs available, because that was when they spent so much time noodling around in the studio (and perhaps people realized how valuable anything they did was), but that music was generally sloppier and less interesting.
 
The idea behind the original Let It Be (or Get Back) album was to strip down the sound and get back to basics. Not a bad idea, but really, their earliest stuff had a rawer feel because that's what they honestly sounded like, whereas the idea of a simpler new album by then was a bit self-conscious. (Actually, many cuts from the recently released White Album were "raw" in that they were kept fairly simple, though they weren't always straightforward rock.) The trouble, from the start, was the songs weren't quite as good as usual. It didn't help that the Beatles weren't organized and were breaking apart and didn't feel like making the album (or the concurrent movie), but that was less important than the songs themselves.
 
I enjoy the album--if nothing else, it's fun to hear somewhat novel versions of old numbers--but it's not a huge leap above the original. Ironically, the songs that had the most stripped from them--the big hit ballads like "The Long And Winding Road" and "Let It Be"--aren't really that much better, or maybe are worse. I wouldn't want Phil Spector to "improve" most Beatles tunes, but a little grandiose production on a few cuts isn't that bad a thing.

By the way, I never feel guilty about listening to music for free on YouTube. Well, not too guilty. First, YouTube has licensing agreements with most big record companies, so this is how they make money now. (No one buys CDs any more.) Plus I've bought the Beatles' music in so many formats for so many years, I don't see why I can't listen to them at my convenience now while I'm on the computer.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Wo-Man

Happy 69th, Bobby Womack--a great singer, songwriter and musician.





The Age Of Miracles

Let's say goodbye to Bobby Rogers, the great Motown singer and songwriter, member of the Miracles, who died yesterday.  (By the way, he was born on the same days as Smokey Robinson.)








Sunday, March 03, 2013

Dave's World

Film scholar David Thompson, in his latest book The Big Screen, attempts nothing less than a history of cinema.  No surprise, actually, since he often goes for the big picture, as demonstrated in his previous titles The Biographical Dictionary Of Film, The Whole Equation: A History Of Hollywood and "Have You Seen...?": A Personal Introduction To 1000 Films.  If anything, he's going over old ground here.

In 500+ pages of text, Thompson starts at the beginning and works his way up to the present, mostly telling his story through directors, but also mentioning plenty of producers, actors and writers.  He spends most of his time in Hollywood, but makes trips to England, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and other places.  It's not even all film, since he devotes a fair number of pages to television.

As often with Thompson, it's an interesting mix of history and idiosyncratic opinion. He writes clearly and entertainingly, and is certainly not afraid of telling you what's good and what isn't.  He also draws analogies to old films and modern ones, which you don't always get in such surveys.

If he has a flaw, it's that he's too ready to relate films to modern-day politics.  He knows the movies inside-out, but that doesn't make him an expert in everything. (The low point of the book is several pages devoted to comparing Ronald Reagan's life to a movie.)

I think he's better on older films--say, stuff before the 1970s--where he seems to have more perspective.  In any case, I wouldn't rely on him as a primary source, but as a guy with his own point of view, he's worth checking out.

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