Monday, October 31, 2016

Born Julius

Happy Halloween, everyone, but while we're all celebrating the holiday, let me mention the new book by my friend Matthew Coniam, That's Me, Groucho!  As you might guess, it's the story of Groucho's solo career.  As such, it's a worthy successor to Coniam's last book, The Annotated Marx Brothers.

Coniam is one of the most thoughtful writers on the Marx Boys.  For decades, critics looked back at them and their career as if it were a smooth and pre-ordained ride.  Coniam's best quality may be his ability to look at them afresh.  Groucho was the first Marx Brother to go on the stage, and the others joined him through the years.  It wasn't a plan, it just worked out that way.  Same with their characters.

For that matter, we don't know when Groucho realized he was now, for better or worse, tied to his brothers.  It would seem he always thought he might be a solo act again, and, indeed, spent much of his career--and a highly successful part of it--on his own.  And the character he developed was related to, but different from, the one in the brother act who'd been so popular on Broadway and in movies.  For that matter, the character he created was related to himself, but wasn't the same thing (though perhaps the man, Julius Henry Marx, grew more and more like the Groucho everyone knew).

So if you're a fan of the Marx Brothers, or even if you just want to know more about them, you'd do well to check out his books.  And they make great gifts.  With Halloween soon behind us, Christmas can't be far away.

Spooktacular

Hey, I hear people are giving away candy for free today. Sounds crazy, but I'd check it out.














Sunday, October 30, 2016

Macaroons*

I just watched a BBC-produced documentary on IFC about how the Michelin star system affects restaurants and chefs.  It concentrated mostly on the situation in England, but the effect is worldwide.

It's an odd story how a tire manufacturer became the arbiter of fine dining.  The Michelin brothers founded their tire company in the late 1800s. In 1900, they published a free guide for French motorists, featuring maps, places they could get gas, nearby hotels and restaurants, and so on.  There weren't many automobiles on the road yet, and the brothers wanted to encourage them.

The Guide spread to other countries.  Eventually they started charging for it.  But the big moment came in 1926 when they started awarding restaurants stars.  In 1931, the system of one, two or three stars (or none) was created.  In 1936, the Guide explained what they stood for:

One star is a very good restaurant.
Two stars is an excellent restaurant, worth a detour.
Three stars is an exceptional restaurant, worth a special journey.

Today, the Guide, which comes out annually, is all about the restaurant ratings.  Michelin employs anonymous inspectors around the world.  They visit restaurants more than once, trying to get a sense of the menu, to make their appraisals.  Just getting to the one-star level takes some doing, and most restaurants can't manage it.  To get to the three-star level requires something approaching perfection--according to the inspectors.  There are less than 100 three-star restaurants in the world.  I don't think Los Angeles has any.

The documentary follows particular chefs trying to climb.  One chef hopes to get his first star, but fails.  A chef with two-stars--a high achievement indeed--works to get his third, but fails.  That's what happens in documentaries when you follow people not knowing how they'll end up.

But there are some who feel the system makes no sense. First, there is, or at least has been, a general bias toward French cooking in the Guide, which is only one cuisine among many, after all.  Second, when it began it was about the cooking, but has it now become about the money?--an extra star has people flocking to a restaurant and allows the chef to charge more for the same dishes.  Third, who are these inspectors, and how do they know more about food than the chefs?

Then there's the tremendous pressure it puts on the chefs.  Competition can be a good thing, but if it's all you work for, it can become a mania.  The classic example is French chef Bernard Loiseau.  It took him almost twenty years to raise his restaurant to the three-star level, and he maintained that rating for over a decade.  Then he heard rumors he would lose a star, and committed suicide in 2003. The story was front-page news in France, and shocked the world of haute cuisine. (It's not quite that simple, of course--he suffered from depression, didn't like new trends in cooking which meant the foodies were abandoning him, and so on.)  His wife still runs the restaurant, and it still has a three-star rating. Did Michelin feel the pressure?

I rarely go to fancy restaurants.  Few do.  They're too expensive and my palette has trouble telling the difference between what's great and what's good (or fair).  It's a fascinating world, but not one I need to know that much about.  Do we really need to dress for a meal like it's church?  Must we greet the food with hushed tones, and applaud the one who prepared it?

Mind you, I can understand how some people are into it.  I've been accused of being a snob, myself--for instance, when I read fiction it's usually classic novels, not modern trash.  And while I've got nothing against super hero moves, I often prefer art house fare (as some claim my year-end wrap-ups prove).  As long as you come by it honestly--and you've got the money to support your habit--fine, read the Michelin Guide and seek out those fancy places.  But judge for yourself.  I would hope an extra star doesn't convince you something tastes better than it does.

*If you're wondering about the title of this post, in the documentary, one of the chefs says we may call it a star rating, but in the Guide they look like macaroons, which is what many in France call them.  I don't know--they look like asterisks to me.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Fairy tales

"We thought that . . . if you walked through the streets of Copenhagen and drank the municipal water and rode the municipal bus, you’d soon become a Dane."

As John Kasich would say, get on the bus, or we'll throw you under the bus.

Lost Our Ear

I just watched the David Cross comedy concert Making America Great Again! on Netflix.  There's a routine where he recites the most famous part of "The New Colossus," the poem by Emma Lazarus at the Statue Of Liberty.

Here's the entire sonnet, with the part he quotes in bold:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities* frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost [sic] to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I watched the concert with the closed captioning on, and was very disappointed. And not because they spelled it "tossed" rather than "tost."

These are famous words, so you'd think the CC typist would know them.  But instead of "teeming shore," we got "teeming shores." I suppose it's an easy mistake to make if you don't already know the poem, since the next word, "send," starts with an "s."

But that's still no excuse. If you understand basic poetry, or even basic rhyming, you'd see that "shore" rhymes properly and "shores" doesn't.  You even get two words--"poor" and "door"--that it rhymes with, so you can't miss it.

However, our rhyming standards, following our popular music, have dropped quite a bit, and I doubt it even occurred to the CC typist that Lazarus had to have used "shore"--that "shores" wouldn't even be considered.

Cross bothered to learn the quote word-perfect. I wonder if I should send him a letter informing him he's been undone by the closed captioning.

*Twin cities?  New York and Newark? New York and Jersey City? Manhattan and Brooklyn? Manhattan and Staten Island?

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bean Scene

With Halloween around the corner, it seems like overkill that today is National Chocolate Day.

Chocolate originated in the New World, where it's thousands of years old, and was brought to Spain five centuries ago by Columbus.  It was originally a drink made from the cacao bean, and, unsweetened, probably didn't taste that great.  Not that you couldn't acquire a taste, though modern chocolate doesn't require any work.

Among the changes that have been made are the addition of sugar and milk (sounds like what people do to their coffee). Today, billions of pounds are manufactured annually. The average U.S. citizen eats a bit under ten pounds per year.  (Sounds on the low side to me, except there are plenty who avoid it entirely.)  The nation with the biggest consumption per capita is Switzerland, where they eat close to twenty pounds a year--guess their stuff tastes better.

There are medical benefits to chocolate, though mostly for dark chocolate.  A lot of the stuff that makes milk chocolate taste so good is bad for you.

The top-selling chocolate product in the U.S. are M&Ms, followed by Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.  Snickers are the most popular candy bar in America, and, for that matter, the world.

These popular chocolates are cheap, but the high quality stuff can cost a pretty penny. Knipschildt Chocolatier's Madeline truffle costs $250.  Then there's the 2014 fifty-gram bar from To'ak Chocolate, which will set you back $260--though to be fair it does include a lengthy booklet from the company's founder (explaining why it costs so much?). Delafee of Switzerland's Gold Chocolate Box costs $330, and the box only has eight pieces.  Of course, the chocolates come with edible gold flakes and the box includes a gold coin (pieces of eight?).

Maybe that's more than you're willing to spend.  But let me suggest an experiment--for the next few months, eat less, but higher quality chocolate.  You may never go back.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

We'll Always Have Paris

Here's a list of the world's least friendly cities.  Alphabetically, they are:

Baku, Azerbaijan
Dallas, U.S.
Prague, Czech Republic
Warsaw, Poland
Miami, U.S.
Macau
Reykjavik, Iceland
Hanoi, Vietnam
Vladikavkaz, Russia

Only nine cities.  They couldn't go for ten?  Good to see America placed twice.

These lists are common enough.  Here's one with the ten most and least friendly cities in the U.S.

Friendly:

Charleston, South Carolina
Park City, Utah
Savannah, George
Nashville, Tennessee
Austin, Texas
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Asheville, North Carolina
Jackson, Wyoming
New Orleans, Louisiana
Burlington, Vermont

Unfriendly:

Newark, New Jersey
Oakland, California
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Detroit, Michigan
Hartford, Connecticut
New Haven, Connecticut
Dover, Delaware
Wilmington, Delaware
Los Angeles, California
Baltimore, Maryland

These lists, even if created through polling, are kind of silly.  If you visit a city you only meet a limited number of people, and your experience with them will determine how the trip goes.

Some of these cities have rough reputations, but do they live up to them?  I've grew up in Detroit and now reside in Los Angeles, and in both places the people are generally friendly.  For that matter, I've spent a few days in places like Dover, Baltimore and New Haven and not run into any problems.

Actually, in my travels, it's been rare that I've met really unfriendly people.  Occasionally it does happen. In fact, I can remember four different occasions where I met people who seemed to me close to psychotic, and I thought there might be serious trouble.  Which cities?  Friendly New Orleans, Grand Rapids, Houston and the ironically named Loveland, Colorado.  But I assume these were just coincidences.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Who Shall Live And Who Shall Die

The heading sounds like I'm going to discuss The Walking Dead.  Actually, this post is about Adventures In The Strand, a book I just read about Arthur Conan Doyle and his writings for Strand Magazine, where he published most of his Sherlock Holmes stories as well as quite a few other pieces.  Conan Doyle was The Strand's greatest attraction from the early 1890s until his death almost 40 years later.

It was a golden age for short story writing.  Think of it--thanks to the industrial revolution and government reforms that followed, you had millions of working class and middle class readers with spare money looking for entertainment.  And this was before TV, before radio, before movies--there was a huge audience out there if you published something gripping.

Conan Doyle wrote war stories, boxing stories, historical romance, science fiction and in other genres, but today he's best known--almost solely known--for his detective fiction with Sherlock Holmes.  It got me thinking about fate.  Conan Doyle felt he wrote better, more important work than Sherlock Holmes (and even killed off Holmes before bringing him back), and his other stuff was popular and well-reviewed in its day.  But it's Holmes that lived.

Indeed, so much that was popular around the turn of the last century is forgotten today.  There were many fictional characters--including some created by Conan Doyle--whom people loved that no one knows today.  And some live on but barely (such as, say, Raffles, gentleman thief, still well known in the 1930s, but not much any more--back then many hoped Holmes would take on Raffles, but Conan Doyle wasn't interested).

So why Holmes?  Well, he was popular from the start, and has never not been popular.  The character is irresistible.  I don't like mysteries, but I've read Holmes. He wasn't the first fictional detective, but he was far more fascinating than previous figures, and has since served as a model for the art of ratiocination.

Even better, Holmes, while excited by the deductive process, is otherwise hard to handle.  He's flinty and condescending, doesn't go in for romance and is a drug addict to boot. Then there's Watson, his chronicler--more the common man, a stand-in for the reader. It's through Watson's words that we get to know Holmes' adventures, while Holmes himself is inscrutable. Characters who come into the scene and solve problems at a high level, but don't give away much of themselves, hold our interest--I'm thinking, for instance, of Jeeves, or Mr. Spock.

Another factor in his popularity are the dramatic portrayals.  Originally it was thought Holmes would not work on the stage, but then actor William Gillette figured out how to play him and by the late 1890s had tremendous success with the character, performing as Holmes across England and America for over 1300 performances.  Other actors followed suit.  When the cinema started telling longer stories, Holmes was a natural, and it's believed he is the character most portrayed in movie history.  Gillette made his first Sherlock Holmes movie in 1916.  Perhaps the actor most associated with Holmes was Basil Rathbone, who appeared as the detective more than fifteen times.  Today, we've got a highly successful series of Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.

So Holmes lives on. But it's not just those movies. The books keep selling, and they've never been out of print.  Conan Doyle went in for spiritualism--was actually a sucker for it.  But he's been proven right, in a way, since Sherlock Holmes demonstrates there's life after death.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Chick Click

Jack Chick has died.  Didn't even know he was still alive.

He created those cartoon tracts that gave the fundamentalist Christian view on numerous issues.  I've known of his work since I was in high school.  People would just leave them lying around for others to read.  The basic message was if you didn't follow his way, things didn't look good.

Many found his work offensive, but I found it fascinating.  I can't blame him for putting forth his views if he honestly felt how he did.  And (as far as I know), he only tried to convince others through his comics, not through violence.


 

Bye Bye Bobby

Bobby Vee has died.  I was a big fan, though I always wondered if people confused him much with Bobby Vinton.









Monday, October 24, 2016

ACL Yoo-Hoo

I can't believe how lucky I am! I just got a special packet from the ACLU.  They note on the envelope that I've been selected to represent California by sharing my opinion in an enclosed survey.  What an awesome duty.

Before the survey, they explain, "Nationwide, we're seeing a relentless and wide-ranging assault on our fundamental freedoms." Sounds like a good cause.  Much of the survey is about "Religious Freedom In California," which they set up with a prologue:

Across the country, we're seeing efforts to twist the meaning of religious liberty to allow people and businesses to use religion as a license to discriminate and a means to impose religious beliefs on others.

So what, according to the survey, bothers them?  People not being forced to make pastry for others with an agenda they don't approve of.  Companies with religious objections not being forced to provide access to contraceptives.  That sort of stuff.

But it's not all religion. For instance, there's stuff about voting rights. Or as they put it, "Efforts across the states to increase voting barriers, making it harder and often impossible for poor, minority,* and elderly citizens to make it to the polls."

I kept waiting for something about how one of the candidates for president has specifically promised to try to limit our First Amendment rights if elected, but nothing.  I guess you can only have so many priorities.

At the end of the survey there's a form to send in a donation to the ACLU--they suggest a minimum of $35.  I can send it back postage paid!  I haven't decided how much to send, yet, but I better act soon--apparently they need this information by mid-November.  I'd hate to be late and not have any influence in the fight for religious liberty and other basic rights.

*How classy, an Oxford comma.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ghosts Of Elections Past

One nice thing about blogging for so long is you've got archives, so you can look back and see what you thought, and how it holds up.  Since we're close to a presidential election, I figured I'd look back at how we covered the last few around this time of year.

I didn't want to get bogged down with lengthy arguments, so here are some posts that are relatively straightforward.

October 2012:

We'll have the final presidential debate tonight.  The Washington Post suggests it'll be pivotal, but I doubt it.  First, the candidates have created strong impressions from the first two debates that likely won't change short of some sort of meltdown.  Second, this debate is about foreign policy, which is simply not as pressing as domestic issues right now.

As the race comes down to these final days, I only hope the polls stay close.  For a while there it looked like it might be an easy victory for Obama, and it brought back memories of how boring it was four years ago when election night was over before it began.  I just want some excitement.

We'll likely have a pretty good idea who'll win when the eastern states come in--Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio (not to mention New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan). But at least before then both sides can hope. And who knows, it could even be a late-night race that comes down to Colorado and Nevada.


October 2008:

There are some who claim the polls showing Obama clearly ahead are wrong. It's true different polls use different methods, so some of them must be a little off, but they can't all be wrong. I'd say every poll being way off is about as likely as McCain winning right now.

PS One of the more positive polls for McCain is
this one, but I wouldn't call it reliable. Listen to this: "[McCain is] also gaining momentum in the suburbs, where he's gone from dead even a week ago to a 20-point lead." Do you believe that? Would anyone?

October 2004:

The latest Harris Poll gives us two choices for potential likely voters, with greatly varying leads (2% and 8%) for Bush. Apparently, they're not sure if they should measure likely voters in a new or traditional mode.

This won't do. Any pollster (heck, any person) can give you a bunch of different results based on different methods saying one of them is probably correct. The Harris Poll is a venerable institution, but if they can't tell us what they actually think is the best data, then who needs 'em?

Saturday, October 22, 2016

October Oldies

Happy birthday to these musical boys and girls:

Dory Previn



Hikaru Hayashi



Tony Roberts



Bobby Fuller



Annette Funicello



Leslie West


Friday, October 21, 2016

Guns kill kittens

I have to say, I'm LMAO over Hillary picking up the toddler remarks.

What's next? Fetuses? No, we subsidize that, until we mandate it, soon enough.

Critical Thinking

I just read Cynthia Ozick's latest, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, And Other Literary Essays.  As the title suggests, it's a collection of her writings on literary figures--thirteen pieces, to be exact, plus introductions to various sections.  She takes on a lot of big names, such as Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and others.

Among my favorite pieces:

Lionel Trilling.  Once a name to conjure with, now all but forgotten.  He was a noted critic, but Ozick reveals he wished he were a novelist.  She discusses his first novel, which isn't nearly so bad as critics of the time said (perhaps because he was too tough on communists), and the second, unfinished novel, that wasn't working at all.

Kafka.  She notes that Kafka needs to be saved from "Kafkaesque"--there are none who can capture his lucid yet ineffable mood, so why claim so much is like him? He also needs to be saved from those who say he transcends his era--of course he does, but that doesn't mean the facts of his life are irrelevant, and that, for example, his Jewishness doesn't come into play in his work.

Harold Bloom.  Probably the most noted living American literary critic.  And yet why does he get to decide which authors are taken up by the daemon, as he would have it?  And those more orderly authors who seem to write well, but don't receive his approval, what of them?

Ozick is what you want in a critic--knowledgeable (a good critic doesn't just know literature, but biography, history and philosophy at the very least), erudite, complex but always clear.  And she doesn't shy away from judgment--she explains her thinking, but doesn't feel the need to qualify it.  I'm not saying I always agree with her, but it's good to know where she stands.

Her opening essay is about the need for a culture of serious criticism in the literary world.  I suppose this book is a good start, which may be its intent.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Life Of Lieber

Stan Lee may be the biggest name in comics, so I checked out his memoir, Amazing Fantastic Incredible, to see how he got where he is.  This being Stan Lee's life, it's told in comic book form--with help from writer Peter David and cartoonist Colleen Doran.

Stanley Lieber was born in 1922 in New York to Jewish immigrant parents.  They didn't have much during the Depression, but Stanley had a lively imaginary life through the many books he read and movies he saw.  He took a variety of jobs as a teenager to help with the money situation.

In 1939 he got a job as a gofer at a comics company.  Comic books were still fairly new then, as were superheroes.  A hard worker, and a smart one, he rose quickly through the ranks.  During this time he adopted his pen name Stan Lee.  When two big names, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, left the company, Lee, just 18, became an editor.

Then America entered World War II, and he joined the army.  He worked on manuals and training films. (Others who worked in his unit making films:William Saroyan, Charles Addams, Frank Capra and Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel).

When the war ended, Lee met and married wife Joan, and returned to his old job.  However, the 1950s were not a great time for comic books. Many believed they were a bad influence on children, and the industry voluntarily created the Comics Code Authority to stave off government censorship, which left most material toothless.

In the late 1950s, there seemed to be a return in popularity of superhero comics.  Still, Lee, approaching 40, wondered if he was too old for the industry.  He thought of quitting, but instead demanded he be allowed to do comics his way, figuring the worst that could happen was he'd be fired.  Marvel (as the comic book company was now called) let him have his way, and thus began one of the most creative periods in the history of comic books.

Lee (with the assistance of artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) created one classic title after another, including The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Dr. Strange and The X-Men.  These comics broke the rules.  For instance, Spider-Man, Lee's biggest hit, was a teenager when teenagers were supposed to be sidekicks.  He had a troubled personal life and, as a superhero, was attacked as a dangerous vigilante.  He was also a wisecracker, as were many of Lee's creations.

Lee understood he was writing fantasy, but wanted to ground his work in reality more than was usual in his medium.  Readers responded.  His titles were popular, and not just with kids--Marvel started being read on college campuses.  Lee also created a personal connection with the fans, including a letters section and Stan's Soapbox--where he'd discuss various items--in each issue.  He later created the Merry Marvel Marching Society, a fan club that lasted five years until his publisher shut it down.

This was the golden age of Stan Lee.  He would continue working on various projects for many more years, but never again would there be such an outburst of inventiveness.

Marvel (the ownership of the brand changed hands numerous times through the years, but they kept the name) tried to expand into new territory with Hulk and Spider-Man TV shows in the 1970s.  They also tried to make it in movies, and finally succeeded about fifteen years ago.  Since the beginning of this century, the Marvel name has become one of the most potent commercial forces in cinema, with blockbusters based on Spider-Man, Iron Man, The X-Men, Thor, The Avengers and others.  And Stan Lee--still active in his 90s--has become more famous than ever thanks to his cameo appearances in these films.

While the book is mostly about Lee's comic book work, there is plenty of personal stuff--things you'd expect, such as life growing up, and how he wooed his wife. There's also a fair amount of name-dropping.  We hear how he met Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, rock stars such as Paul McCartney and movie stars such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt.  Then there's the time he was invited to the Carter White House and a guy dressed as Green Goblin tried to attack Amy Carter and almost got everyone shot.

Like his comic book work, his story is told in a snappy manner, which makes it a quick, enjoyable read, though you do get the feeling he skims over many sad moments: the death of his second baby, breakups with people on his creative team, bad business decisions and so on.

But hey, it's a comic book, and Stan is the hero.  If you want to find out about his life from the man himself, this is the place.  Nuff said.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Academic

I was watching Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), a movie that's held up pretty well.  It's fairly faithful to the play, as you might expect, since David Mamet adapted his own work.

The biggest change is Alec Baldwin's character, who comes in at the beginning to explain that whoever sells the most real estate gets a car, and whoever sells the least is fired.  It's a highlight of the film, but the character doesn't exist in the play, where the contest is only mentioned in the program.  (I think Mamet should update his play to add this scene, but I guess he figures the original version won a Pulitzer, so why mess with it?)

Anyway, while watching, I was thinking has any cast ever been filled with so many Oscar winners and nominees (not necessarily at the time, but looked at from today)? To demonstrate, here are the actors who play the main characters, along with their awards:

Alan Arkin: one Oscar, four nominations

Alec Baldwin: one Oscar nomination (and he's won some Emmys)

Ed Harris: four Oscar nominations

Jack Lemmon: two Oscars, eight nominations

Al Pacino: One Oscar and eight nominations, including one for this film

Jonathan Pryce: no Oscar nominations (but he has won a couple Tonys)

Kevin Spacey: two Oscars

Perhaps there have been more Oscar nominees in some films, but never this high a concentration. The Oscar-to-leads ratio is off the charts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Man

If there's one man who invented rock and roll, it would be Chuck Berry.  Happy 90th, Chuck.
















Monday, October 17, 2016

Having A Ball

I recently watched Howard Hawks' Ball Of Fire (1941*).  I don't know how many times I've seen it, but it's always a delight.  Hawks was a master of comedy in the screwball age, and BOF stands up with the best of his work. Yet, for decades, many critics have given this film the back of the hand.  Why?

For those who haven't seen it, the plot involves Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea, girlfriend of mob boss Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews).  He's under investigation, and to avoid the DA, she hides out at a Manhattan townhouse where eight professors live.  They've been busy for years compiling an encyclopedia.  She was invited by Gary Cooper's character, the shy Professor Bertram Potts, to help him in his study of current slang.

Potts falls in love with O'Shea, and unwittingly brings her to Lilac, where the plan is she'll marry the gangster so she won't have to testify.  But at some point, she falls in love with Potts, and, after Potts deals with Lilac, they end up together.

The screenplay is by one of the top writing teams in Hollywood at the time (or any time), Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.  This was around the time they wrote other comedy classics, such as Midnight and the first Hollywood film Wilder directed, The Major And The Minor.  And I think this is why the critics have some trouble with Ball Of Fire.  It isn't a pure Hawks, it's a hybrid.

Hawks' earlier classic comedies--Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday--are a lot faster than Ball Of Fire.  Their dialogue and stories moves like few other films.  Ball Of Fire is willing to take its time. It's an hour and fifty-one minutes in an era when most comedies weren't much longer than ninety.

Also, Hawksian comedy--not unlike his drama--is no-nonsense. It's not particularly sentimental.  In fact, it can be fairly heartless.  His romantic comedies feature couples who do nothing but fight for the entire movie until the last moment when they realize they love each other.  Wilder, for all his cynicism, is much warmer, and his scripts are clear in their romantic development: start with two opposites and have them slowly realize how much they mean to each other.

(Also, Hawks' comedies don't feature that many wisecracks, preferring the laughter arise from character and situation.  Brackett and Wilder love wisecracks.  For instance, when Sugarpuss is trying to convince the professors she's sick, she shows them her throat and says "it's as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore.")

Brackett and Wilder know how to pull off a romantic comedy.  The trouble with Ball Of Fire is it's just not Hawks.  So critics who are fans of Hawks see a comedy that takes its time and is full of sentiment and are put off.  But why let that get in the way?  Forget who's behind it, and just enjoy the film.

*1941 was an amazing year for Stanwyck, Cooper and Hawks.  Not only did they make Ball Of Fire, which is enough for any year, but Stanwyck appeared in another classic, The Lady Eve, and also co-starred with Cooper in Capra's Meet John Doe.  In addition, Cooper appeared in another film, directed by Hawks--the biggest hit of the year, in fact--Sergeant York, for which he won an Oscar.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Race To The Bottom

I was at a local mall when I saw one of those spiral wishing wells. If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's some video:



This is literally throwing your money away.  But then, I guess that's what wishing wells are all about.  And, to be fair, you do get a bit of a show--more than what a regular wishing well, or a fountain, provide.

There's a little card there suggesting you try different coins to see if they go down at different rates.  I don't think so. I'm willing to try a penny--after all, they're worthless--but I'll keep the quarters. And dimes.  And even nickels.  They disappear quickly enough without any help.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

From The 70s to 70

The 1970s was the heyday of soft rock, and perhaps no group exemplified it better than The Carpenters.  Alas, Karen died many years ago, but brother and partner Richard, who produced, arranged, played, composed and sang, turns 70 today.













Friday, October 14, 2016

Let It Shine

Today, believe it or not, is Be Bald And Be Free Day.  Having a full head of hair, I'm not sure if I can fully sympathize.  Is baldness such a catastrophe that those who suffer from this malady need a day to celebrate their affliction?

There are a fair number of nicknames for the follicly challenged.  Chrome dome.  Cue ball (does this only apply to Caucasians?).  The ever-popular baldy.  Skinhead (though that comes with a whiff of politics).  Sir Baldamere, meet Sir Hairnomore.

There are tons of jokes:

What did the bald man say when he got a comb for his birthday? I'll never part with it.

Don't look at it as baldness, look at it as a great cure for dandruff.

Is my hairline receding?  No, your scalp is advancing.

I don't believe there's any consensus among scientists as to the evolutionary point of baldness. It may just be a sign of aging--most male pattern baldness comes after the prime mating years, when many parts of the body change.  Some believe it's a marker of maturity, so women will think, as a man goes bald, that he's less aggressive and more socially responsible.

Regardless, let's observe BBABF Day.  Now is the time to let your bald flag fly.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob's Your Nobel

Forget Paul Simon, Bob Dylan just picked up the Nobel Prize in Literature (New York Times link).  I honestly don't know what to say, except Philip Roth must be pissed off.




I'm so confused

Which is it?

Mr. Trump’s comment was “a threat to the rule of law, a threat to the stability of our institutions, a threat to basic agreements that are necessary for democracy to function”

 Or

It is more important than ever that the high court affirm that government officials, especially those at the highest levels, can be held accountable when they break the law,”

One More Year On The Line

Happy 75th, Paul Simon (the musician, not the senator). When he was 35, people wondered if he wasn't getting too old to still write pop songs.  Actually, it didn't matter--anything he did at that point was gravy.


















Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Short lived victory

Obviously true: the structure of CFPB is unconstitutional

But, Hillary's supreme court will fix this.

YK

Today is Yom Kippur. (Okay, it started last evening.) I'm not supposed to do anything today, so let's have a doctor talk to us about fasting:


The Little Show That Couldn't But Did

Just before sundown on Tuesday, hours before the third season finale, I see that one of my favorite shows, AMC's Halt And Catch Fire, has been renewed for a fourth and final season.  Great news, to be sure, but bizarre.  Someone at AMC must love this show, because if they made decisions based on ratings, it would have been canceled after season one.

The show is about the computer world of the 1980s.  It stars Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe and Toby Huss.  Each season the basic plot and location changes as the characters try to make their way in a fast-developing industry.

The premiere episode got 1.2 million viewers.  It hasn't come close since. By the end of the first season, in fact, there were half as many people watching.  And it's been downhill since.  In the present season, they're averaging about a third of a million per episode.

Compare this to AMC's biggest hit, The Walking Dead, which started with over 5 million viewers and now can expect to start season seven with 14 or 15 million.  Then there are the class shows--which win lots of Emmys (unlike Halt And Catch Fire)--Mad Men and Breaking Bad, shows that started with about the same viewership as HACF, but ended up doubling or tripling their audiences.

But the show has gotten critical respect, and a committed (if small) fan base.  Indeed, I don't care if I'm the only one watching.  I'm just glad that AMC is making enough money that they can do things like this.

PS  In other Tuesday TV news, this year's schedule has The Middle and Brooklyn Nine-Nine going up against each other at 8 pm.  I don't watch that many sitcoms, so why do two that I try to catch have to be on at the same time?.

The last time this happened was when The Big Bang Theory went up against Community.  I decided to watch Community and catch The Big Bang Theory later.  I haven't decided which to watch in this new faceoff, but considering how it worked out last time, I assume both shows would rather I watch the other.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sunday Mourning

The big new show on HBO is Westworld.  They spent a lot of time and money on it, and so far it's doing well. But the channel keeps moving ahead, and has unveiled two new half-hours with a lot less fanfare, Divorce and Insecure.

The title pretty much tells it all in Divorce.  Created by British writer Sharon Horgan, it's about Frances and Robert (Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church--two leads with enough names for three people), a middle-aged couple with kids, stuck in the doldrums.  They attend a party at Diane and Nick's (Molly Shannon and Tracy Letts), a couple not getting along. Diane gets drunk, shoots off a gun and Nick has a heart attack.

This gives Frances and Roberts a chance to take stock, and Frances decides maybe it's time to move on.  Robert is shocked.  As it is, she's been having an affair with Julian (Jemaine Clement).  When Frances starts to take it back, Robert finds out about the affair and decides now he wants a messy divorce.

While there's humor in the show, it's hard to laugh.  In fact, it's sort of hard to watch.  While professionally done, do they expect us, week after week, to watch the dissolution of an acrimonious marriage?

Insecure is a little bouncier, but, so far, not much.  Created by lead Issa Rae (based on her web series) and veteran writer Larry Wilmore, it's about an African-American woman (named Issa) in her late 20s whose life isn't turning out like she hoped.

She's got a job helping underprivileged schoolkids, which sounds like it could be rewarding, but--at least in the show's pilot--doesn't look like it amounts to much.  As far as her personal life, she lives with a guy, but he just hangs out on her couch and doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  She's thinking of dropping him, in fact.

Then there's best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), who would seem to be doing better--she's a popular, respected corporate attorney. But Molly can't seem to manage a long-term relationship and wonders why she isn't happier.

The series will apparently explore their lives as young black women in Los Angeles (who live not far from where I do--I recognized a lot of the scenery).  The two main actresses do decent work, but I would hope there's going to be some forward movement--just seeing two women complain about men week in, week out, could get pretty tiresome.

So, two new shows after Westworld (that would seem to attract a very different audience).  I might give them another chance, but isn't Sunday already depressing enough?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Coinkidink

Once when I was in Vegas playing Twenty-One, the dealer got three blackjacks in a row.  The people at the table started grumbling.  The pit boss came over and said "hey, that could even happen in an honest game."

I put the odds at over 70,000 to 1, but the pit boss is right.  If you play long enough, you'll notice all sorts of statistical anomalies.  That's part of the point of Fluke, a new book by mathematician Joseph Mazur.  People look at mysterious coincidences and often see something deeper, though if they properly analyze them they might not be so mystified.

Still, as Mazur admits, such moments are fascinating.  So I thought I'd mention the two biggest coincidences in my life I can remember.  Perhaps others were just as big, but these are the two that stick with me.

1) Years ago I was walking around Ann Arbor, thinking about an old friend from high school.  Next thing you know, I bump into him.  There was no reason to expect him to be there. He didn't live there and had not attended the University of Michigan.  But there he was, nonetheless.  The next week I flew to Los Angeles.  Walking around Venice Beach, I ran into him again.  Once again, no reason to expect him to be there--he didn't live anywhere near California.

2)  I met a stranger in a used bookstore in Pasadena.  He told me he had some old CDs I might want to look at and consider purchasing. I gave him my number and told him to call me and we could plan to meet.  The next day I get a call and he says meet him at a certain corner in Hollywood.  It happened to be the corner where I lived.  I thought he must have somehow looked up my address (this is before it was easy to do this from a phone number) and was sort of creeped out.  But as it happened, he lived on the same corner, just in a different apartment building.  So I went outside to meet him, and while waiting decided to sit down at a bench outside the local convenience store.  I looked at the guy sitting across from me, drinking a Coke.  It was an old friend from college.  I had no reason to expect he was visiting Los Angeles, and, in fact, he was not in town to see me.  He didn't even know where I lived.  It was a hot day and he had simply stopped there to get a Coke. 

Maybe these two stories are so memorable because they're double coincidences.

By the way, when I was looking at new books in the library and saw Fluke: The Math And Myth Of Coincidence, next on the bookshelf was The Math Myth.  What are the odds two books using the same play on words would be published around the same time?

Sunday, October 09, 2016

What's That Sound?

I recently heard Simon & Garfunkel's original "The Sound Of Silence" with a modern beat added to the background.  I can't seem to find it, but here is a version with a new beat to give you an idea:



At first, I was offended--partly on behalf of songwriter Paul Simon.  Who are they to change his song and recording (assuming he didn't give permission).  But then I thought about the history of the song.  It was originally done as a folk song, and was a commercial failure.



In fact, after the group's first album didn't sell, Simon went to England and recorded a solo album. Meanwhile, producer Tom Wilson added a rock sound to their single, hopping on the folk-rock bandwagon.



The idea succeeded beyond expectations.  It went to #1, Simon & Garfunkel got back together, and become one of the biggest groups of the 60s.  So if someone wants to turn the beat around one more time, how can he complain?

Saturday, October 08, 2016

No Song Should Be Over Three Minutes

Happy birthday, Johnny Ramone. Hard to believe he died over ten years ago.  He was the captain of The Ramones, keeping them in line, as well as their all-downstroke guitarist who, as much as any band member, gave them their signature sound.  He also wrote some of their best songs.  (I own a videotape that used to be in his private collection of movies.  I won it in a raffle.)










Friday, October 07, 2016

Putting the cart before the jet fuel


This reminds me of LAGuy's comments on "best cities to live in" surveys. What makes them a best city? Low housing costs. Why are housing costs low? No one wants to live there. 

Or maybe Glenn Reynolds' distinction between markers and traits. Somebody's poor? Give them a subsidized loan they can't afford and they won't be poor any longer. What's that? They're still poor? Even poorer? Well, it's the damned Republicans in Congress. Let's talk single payer, and give me a flight to San Franciso, willya? Columbus is World Class, because I can fly out of here any ol' damn time I want.

Negative Territory

I recently caught Less Than Zero (1987) on TV.  I'd never seen it before--nor read the Bret Easton Ellis book it's based on (though I am familiar with the Elvis Costello tune it's named after).  In fact, it was not a hit, and was not treated well by the critics, so I wasn't expecting much--and the film delivered on that promise.

The plot is pretty basic.  Clay (Andrew McCarthy as protagonist, proving this is the 1980s) comes back to Los Angeles after his first year of college out East.  He meets old classmates Blair (Jami Gertz) and Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.), both hooked on drugs, mostly cocaine.  Their supplier is another classmate, Rip (James Spader).

Clay starts sleeping with Blair (who's a model, by the way) while Julian goes downhill.  He comes from money, but his family has cut him off, and he can't afford to pay his drug bill.  So Rip forces him into prostitution.  Clay saves him from the life, but Julian dies of heart failure.  Oh well, at least Clay and Blair may turn out okay.

The movie is as much about its look as anything.  Fancy parties at hip clubs and chic houses, bathed in bright, basic colors.  And everyone in cool clothes (circa the 1980s--not quite Miami Vice, but not far from it).  It's all trying to convey glamorous sordidness.  But the trouble is, in making a film about a vacuous lifestyle, the film is as empty as the characters.  Director Marek Kanievska's camera pans and tracks all over the place, but the people he photographs aren't connecting, and have nothing to say.

McCarthy is a problem.  He's the good guy, but has no edge, and little chemistry with his costars.  He and Jamie Gertz bump and grind in all sorts of ways, but their relationship is mostly marking time in-between the actual story.  McCarthy has a red Corvette, practically a character itself, that he keeps stopping in the middle of the streets of Los Angeles (often to fight with or make love to Gertz) which are so oddly underpopulated that no one slams into him.

The music is also weird. Instead of 80s hits, which you'd think the kids would be dancing to, it's more often poorly redone rock classics from earlier years as the soundtrack to their prosperous ennui.

The characters who do register are Downey, Jr. and Spader.  Downey overdoes it, but in a film where so many seem zonked out, at least he gives you something to look at. (Today it also plays as a premonition of the life he was about to lead for some years to come.) And Spader is fun, as you'd expect, since even this early in his career he was playing the "Spader" role.

So I can't recommend it. I doubt many would.  But if you watch it as a bizarre artifact of the 1980s, you might enjoy it.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Love and toasters

. . . they start to become friends with strong emotional bonds . . .

Nope, not gonna happen. You may as well call it insurance.

Now, I would believe it's a diagnosable condition under the DSM V. Or VI, VII, whatever it might be up to now.

Youngest Mat Getting Old

It's Tommy Stinson's 50th birthday.  That strikes me as good a reason as any to salute the Replacements.








\


Wednesday, October 05, 2016

I do not think it means what you think it means

"Parts of the law appear to be here to stay. One such provision, now widely accepted, says that insurers cannot deny coverage because of a person’s medical condition or history."

How can a paper write such a sentence? It's not insurance, then. It's something else. By definition, insurance does not work on certainties; it works on epidemiology, the distribution of incidents in a population.

Call it welfare, call it confiscation, call it fascism, call it the prohibition of insurance, call it what you like, but don't call it insurance.

Go West

There's a lot of interest in HBO's new series Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan (Christopher's brother) and Lisa Joy.  The ratings for the premiere were quite good.  But is it worth watching?

You may recall the original movie, written and directed by Michael Crichton.  It's about a theme park gone bad (not the only time Crichton used that plot).  There are three sections to the park--West World (as in cowboys), Medieval World and Roman World--where adults can frolic.  They're populated by androids and the human visitors can do with them what they will--shoot them, have sex with them, whatever.  Predictably, the androids start malfunctioning and turn on the humans.

It's a decent concept, if not a great movie.  The TV show follows along the same lines, though (as far as we can tell) the only attraction is Westworld--a large area (apparently) that includes an old western town and lots of surrounding land.  There are technicians who work underground making sure the park runs smoothly for the high-paying customers, or newcomers, as they're called.  The androids, or hosts, as they're called, are fairly advanced, but sure enough, seem to be having some problems with their programming.

You can see why.  They mostly exist to get shot or raped.  One of the main characters, Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood in the best performance of the pilot), wakes up every morning full of hope, but the scenario she lives through each day has her family killed, sometimes followed by her being dragged away by a captor.  Another character is Teddy Flood (James Marsden), a gunslinger who tries to help Dolores. (Spoiler: We're led to think he's a newcomer, but discover he's just another android.)

Meanwhile, there's a Man in Black (Ed Harris) who rides around causing mayhem.  He's a guest who wants to understand how things work.  Well, he seems to be a guest, though who knows what he really is.  He's the most mysterious and least interesting character on the show so far.

Then there are technicians, worried about the odd ways the hosts are acting.  The head man, who's been there for decades, is Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and the top programmer and head nerd is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright).  They and their fellow workers try to diagnose what's going on, and what's best for the park.

HBO has spent a lot of time (they've been retooling the show for about a year) and money (reportedly $100 million) to get this on the air.  It looks pretty good, but that's what money can buy--the question is does the story work.

So far, it's hard to say.  The pilot wasn't boring, and the story that movie offers has a clear progression--here's the park, here are the signs of rebellion, here's the response.  But how do you keep that going over a number of seasons?  Okay, the androids may be approaching sentience, and may fight back over their plight, but is that it?  Are they just going to keep malfunctioning, while technicians and humans try to deal with it, over and over.  Seems pointless.  (But then, I still don't get how they can keep running from zombies each week on The Walking Dead.)

With the story just starting, there are plenty of questions to answer. One reason to keep watching is to see how successfully they answer them.  Certainly worth further study.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

His metaphor and entire career were an HIV sex roulette party

The Debate was a Political Car Crash

Could you just go away, Karl? Canada? Some rich safe house in New Zealand? Anywhere?

OG

Owen Gleiberman was recently named chief film critic at Variety.  I knew Owen (a little) back in the days when he wrote for the Michigan Daily.  He's written a lot about movies since then, much of it quite good (though his work at Variety has too often been editorials masquerading as film reviews).

But I think his review of Hamilton's America, which just premiered at the New York Film Festival and will soon air on PBS, is a bit much.  It's a documentary about the making of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway blockbuster Hamilton, but Gleiberman gushes so much it's embarrassing.  You can almost quote randomly to see what a fan letter this "review" is:

...you feel as thrillingly enveloped in the soul of [Miranda's vision] as you do when standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting or reading a novel by Jane Austen.

...[Hamilton] has done nothing less than rewrite the way Americans think and feel about the Founding Fathers....

Miranda [...] is a creator of genius ferocity who nevertheless has a disarmingly sweet spirit.  With his long hair and goatee and big glistening dark eyes, he looks like a softer, puppy-dog version of Al Pacino [....] He's got a gregarious smile and a bright, warm, open-for-business charisma [....] Miranda [...] gives off a glow. There's a light of insatiable eagerness inside him.

[Miranda] tosses off a rap of such savage density and insouciance, and makes it look so easy, that we're awed by his gift.  [He is] one of the five or six most virtuoso MCs in the history of hip-hop.

"Hamilton's America," in capturing that journey, turns out to be a thrillingly nimble and moving testament [....] it manages to avoid every cliché pitfall of the standard behind-the-scenes making-of documentary.

I haven't seen Hamilton (much less the documentary about it), but I've heard some numbers that sound pretty good, and I like the idea of making the Founders relevant to today's audience. But is it really that groundbreaking? (You could say the same for 1776.)  History is pretty exciting, but often comes across as boring to younger people--and older people--who can't relate, and every now and then someone has a popular hit that brings history to life.

Gleiberman compares Hamilton to A Chorus Line and Angels In America, though I think he misses the most obvious parallel--HairHair was a 1960s blockbuster, housing a political statement, and done in a radically new style (for Broadway, anyway) that brought a different kind of music to Broadway.  Hair is rock, Hamilton is hip hop, but they both changed how the musical theatre sounded.

So a little perspective, Owen.  Try to contain yourself.

Near the end of his review, he writes:

Is "Hamilton," as a work of art, worthy of comparison to Shakespeare?  Discuss.

Okay.  No.

PS It's spelled "Richard Rodgers"--with a "d." If you don't know that, should you really be writing about Broadway musicals?

Monday, October 03, 2016

Liquidated damages

Saudi princess bodyguard to kill interior decorator

I'm A Believer

I'm still trying not to get too excited.  Too much heartbreak involved.  But it sure looks like the Michigan Wolverines are for real.  They finally had a true test in the Wisconsin game and, despite problems, had what it took.

There have been some tough years lately.  In the Lloyd Carr era, the team averaged only three losses a season, including bowl games.  Then in 2008 came Rich Rodriguez, and a team that always won had two losing seasons in a row.  He was forced out and Brady Hoke took over for four increasingly bad years.  Now we've got Jim Harbaugh, and last year the team was 10-3 (including an opening game that shouldn't have gone that way, and another game that should have been a win which I won't go into.)

So maybe he made a difference.  Or was it a fluke?  This season would tell.

So far, the team has played five game (in Ann Arbor--they really need to get out on the road) and the first four were slaughters.  There was some trouble when Colorado jumped out to a big lead, but Michigan just ground them down and won handily.  But the fifth game against Wisconsin really showed something.  Whether or not the Badgers deserved to be top ten, they're definitely a real team.

Michigan clearly outplayed them:  21 first downs to 8, with over twice as many yards on offense.   Yet for much of the game it looked like Michigan was going to blow it.  After getting a touchdown just as the second quarter started, Michigan had trouble scoring.  They got close a number of times, but had to attempt field goals.  Which they missed.  Three times in a row. (I'm guessing this is something the team will be addressing this week in practice.)

Meanwhile, Wisconsin scored a touchdown in the third quarter and now the game was tied.  It seemed whoever got lucky and scored next would win.  Michigan finally got its second touchdown halfway through the fourth quarter, and thanks to some interceptions, Wisconsin never had a chance to get back.  14-7.  Still, when a game is that close near the end, the winner is almost a coin flip.

But for all the trouble Michigan had, they knew how to play, they kept at it and won. The official season ends in late November against Ohio State.  Till then, it's one week at a time.  But it's not outrageous to think the OSU game will be between two top-ranked, unbeaten teams.  The Buckeyes look pretty good, but there'll be plenty of time to worry about that later.  For now, at least Wolverines fans can dream.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

He does look just like a weasel


I assume this is because, as weasels, you find the statement hurtful. Did Comey work for Nixon?

Stingalingadingdong

Happy 65th, Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting.  He was the main singer and songwriter for the Police before embarking on a successful solo career.










Saturday, October 01, 2016

Speaking truth to power

"Those in the audience were surprised by my candor and gave me a round of applause for the honesty"

"The" honesty? Not "my" honesty? How modest.

I have to admit, though, she did prove her point. She made it over the "quality" bar. And she's sure pasty white; unless she belongs to the same tribe as Elizabeth Warren.

What am I saying? Of course they're of the same tribe.

October Octaves

Some musical birthdays today.  For instance:

Irwin Kostal



Richard Harris



Julie Andrews



Mariska Veres



Cub Koda


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