Thursday, October 31, 2019

Candyland

I've discussed this at previous Halloweens--a map of the most popular Halloween candy, state by state. But looking at it, I really have to question the data. They say it's a survey of 2004 people across the nation.  Who are these people?  Are they truly representative?

Reese's is quite popular in many sections of the country: the northeast, the northwest, the southeast, the Great Plains and my home state of Michigan.

On the other hand, plain M&M's are huge in highly populous states such as New York, Florida and Texas, not to mention Virginia, Indiana and Nevada. Why plain M&M's but not peanut? (Oh, right, allergies.)  Yet, somehow, pretzel M&M's (really?) are number one in Wisconsin and Rhode Island. And Peanut Butter M&M's (aren't they allergic to that?) are the favorite in Utah (is it a Mormon thing?).

You'd think Snickers, the most popular chocolate bar in the land, would be big, but it only registers in Hawaii, Georgia, Minnesota, New Jersey and Connecticut. Meanwhile, most of the Deep South loves to hand out...Milk Duds?  Really?  And Ohio plus Pennsylvania form a solid if lonely bloc for Mars Bars.

Then there are surprise choices that have taken over certain states.  Montana and Vermont--Tootsie Roll Pops.  North Dakota, Nebraska and Oklahoma--Hot Tamales (maybe the preference skips a state).  South Dakota--Gummy Worms.  Wyoming--SweeTARTS.  Colorado--Nerds.  Louisiana--Air Heads.  Tennessee--Red Hots.  Kentucky--Swedish Fish (hey, this is an American holiday--at least we do it different).  Illinois--Jolly Ranchers.

I don't know.  I find it fishy.  Swedish Fishy.

If you were wondering, the state I live in prefers Kit Kats.  That I can sort of see.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

EH

Happy 80th, Eddie Holland.  He's part of Holland-Dozier-Holland (I think he's the second one), maybe the greatest songwriters at Motown, which is saying something, considering the competition.









Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Mr. Big

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, was born on October 29th, 1897.  As you probably know, he died in 1945, committing suicide the day after Hitler shot himself. I don't have much to say about Goebbels.  He was one of the great villains of World War II, of course, but I can't add much to what countless others have said.

I would like to comment, though, on a phrase that's often attributed to him, the "Big Lie." (It's also attributed to Hitler.) The idea is if you tell a lie that's big enough, and keep repeating it, people will believe it.  After all, who would say something so outrageous if it weren't true?  Thus, Nazi propaganda.

Actually, there's no solid evidence he wrote anything like this.  What he is known to have written is that the British lied, and lied big. (Meanwhile, Hitler accused the Jews of spreading big lies.)

I question if Goebbels knowingly used the Big Lie technique.  Why would he rise so high in the Nazi ranks, and fight so hard for them, even die for them, if he didn't essentially believe in their cause?  The Nazis were hateful, but that doesn't mean they were cynical.

In a larger sense, does the Big Lie work?  I don't think so.  I mean, looking at history, nonsense can succeed as much as truth, but it probably helps if you believe what you're saying. And then it's not a lie. (I'm not claiming, by the way, you can't force people into submission by saying things that are clearly false when those lies are backed with tremendous, crushing power. But in that case the people are just pretending something is true, and know better.)

No, the Big Lie is not a phrase people use about themselves.  They save it to attack people they disagree with.  You can make the charge cynically--say they're lying when you don't think they are--or you can do it honestly--believe they're lying whether they are or not.  But either way, it's become an overused rhetorical device that I wish we'd retire.

Monday, October 28, 2019

A Billion Here, A Billion There, It Starts To Add Up

Bill Gates turns 64 today.  That's pretty close to retirement age--I hope he's got a nice nest egg.

While the numbers change day to day, I believe he's worth over $100 billion at present.  That may sound impressive, but is it that different from being worth $100 million?  I couldn't tell the difference.  Maybe he could, but at a certain point--let's say when you can afford to lose a few billion--the number just doesn't matter any more.

For much of his adult life Gates was the richest man in the world.  Now he's #2 behind Jeff Bezos.  Does he care?  I wouldn't. In fact, being anywhere in the top ten would be good enough.

He made his money as the main founder of Microsoft, of course.  It was one of the most successful stocks of the 1990s, going up in that decade about 10,000%.  The weird thing is, to a lot of people, being head of Microsoft makes him uncool. The company is allegedly boring, whereas Apple is fascinating. For that matter, Facebook and Google are also pretty cool, at least compared to Microsoft.  I don't know why, but that's how it works.

When Gates was in his 30s, he wasn't just one of the richest guys around, he was also one of--maybe the--youngest billionaire around.  Now, younger than Gates, is the Amazon billionaire (Bezos) in his 50s, the Google billionaires (Page and Brin) in their 40s and the youngest multiple billionaire on the block from Facebook (Zuckerberg) in his 30s.

Oh well, you can't stay young forever.  But you can stay rich.  By the way, the other major Microsoft billionaire, Steve Ballmer, is only worth half as much as Gates.  Must be tough.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Four Score Of Something Different

Believe it or not, John Cleese turns 80 today.  If I had to name the funniest person of the past 50 years, he'd certainly be up there--might even win.

In the 60s, after showing his talent in Cambridge, he became a successful writer and performer for British television and radio.  This put him in the position to create--with fellow writer-performers Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam--Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969.

Python was as TV show at first, though ultimately the troupe would put out books, records, movies and do live performances. One could write a book on the group--many have--but let's just note it was one of the funniest, most groundbreaking TV shows ever. And as good as the others were, I think Cleese takes top honors, both as a performer and writer.

There are numerous famous routines he took part in--the Dead Parrot Sketch, the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Argument Clinic, the Cheese Shop and so on--but even in lesser material he was also top notch.

He always looked for new challenges, and got tired of doing the same thing faster than the rest of the troupe.  Though there have never been anything like it before, after 39 episodes of Python, Cleese was ready to leave (so the troupe did a final season of six episodes without him).  Cleese then went on to create another classic series, Fawlty Towers. He played Basil Fawlty, a man who ran a (second-rate) hotel where he seemed annoyed that he had customers at all, and was generally filled with (impotent) rage.

There were two seasons, 12 episodes overall, and each one is a classic example of farcical construction.  My favorite episode is the final one, "Basil The Rat," where the hotel team does its best to keep a rat away from a health inspector.

If Cleese had done nothing else but create these two series, he'd be a comedy giant.  But then there are the great Python movies, such as Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975) and Life Of Brian (1979).  And some fine films, such as his big hit A Fish Called Wanda (1988), which he also wrote, and the little seen Clockwise (1986).

Cleese has done many other things-book-writing, political activism and so on.  Good for him.  But I think it's all the brilliant comedy for which he'll be remembered.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Hirsute

It must have been a tricky decision to make a movie version of Hair. The musical was of its time, the late 60s.  When they made it ten years later, it must have seemed hopelessly dated. Who cared about hippies, or Vietnam?

Also, the original stage version barely had a plot.  The hippy-dippy dialogue mostly served to introduce a score with about thirty songs.  So the movie had to add an actual plot.  The funny thing is, this new plot works pretty well, even though the creators of the original were unhappy their ragtag story wasn't followed.

Hair's time probably had passed.  The film wasn't a hit. But it holds up fairly well. The main problem is the cheesy 70s backing to the wonderful Galt MacDermot songs.  But the cast is game, the songs are staged with some imagination (including some choreography from Twyla Tharp), and director Milos Forman keeps the story afloat.

And nowadays, who cares whether it reflects the 60s or the 70s.  It works.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Why A Duck?

One of my favorite movies of the 1960s is Lord Love A Duck.  Written and directed by George Axelrod, it's a take-no-prisoners satire of America at the time.  The movie is in some ways a mess, with a misshapen plot that lurches from one subject to the next, yet manages to be very funny and surprisingly powerful.  And it features fine performances from stars Roddy McDowall and Tuesday Weld, and good supporting work by Ruth Gordon (playing one of the first of what would become a series of batty old ladies) and Lola Albright, among others.

I've been fascinated by it for years, so was excited when I finally tracked down a copy of the Al Hine novel it's based on. It's not as if the novel is a classic--it would be forgotten if not for the film.  But it was interesting to see what Axelrod, an experienced Hollywood screenwriter, did with the source material.  (I guess it goes without saying there'll be spoilers for both the movie and the book.)

The movie has the same basic plot as the novel.  Barbara Ann (Anne in the novel) Greene and Alan "Mollymauk" Musgrave meet in high school.  He's a brainiac while she's the cheerleader type.  He hypnotizes her and puts her under his control, and uses this control to get her what she wants.  This includes matching her up with a handsome husband, but ends in his attempt to kill the husband to help her get a Hollywood career.

Of necessity, the movie simplifies the plot.  The novel, after all, is more than 350 pages, while the movie is 105 minutes.  The book takes place during a year of high school, while the book starts in high school but spends about half its time in the year after graduation.

The book, written in the third person, tells most of the story from Barbara's point of view, but more and more as it goes along let's us in on what Alan is thinking. Perhaps this is necessary in a novel, where you don't want one of two main characters to be a total cipher.  But I think the movie actually improves on the book by making Alan mostly unknowable, and while his jail cell confession (the whole story is told by Alan looking back on why he committed his crimes) quickly mentions his motive, we're not sure it's that simple.  For that matter, we learn a lot more about Alan's family in the book, especially his mentally troubled sister, whereas the mysterious movie Alan has no family we know of--he could be a guardian angel for Barbara, or more likely the devil.

The book is satirical, as is the movie, though the satire is aimed at somewhat different targets.  It had to be this way, since the book came out in 1961 and is set in 1950s Iowa, while the movie is set in mid-60s Southern California.  This means, for instance, the film parodies the popular beach movies of the time (some mistakenly think Lord Love A Duck is a beach movie) which didn't exist a decade earlier.  Both book and movie satirize the emptiness of the American dream, mostly through the vacuous things Barbara wishes for, but I think the movie is a bit more ferocious, though the novel does have the advantage of accumulated detail.  The novel also sometimes stops you short with the casual bigotry of the times--I believe Al Hine is mostly making fun of it, but he's also faithfully representing how people felt and talked back then.

Then there's sex.  The novel, while tame by today's standards, doesn't hold back.  In fact, some women are pretty ill-used.  The movie, while it kids sex, doesn't have much of it simply because Hollywood films in 1966 weren't allowed to.

On the other hand, Axelrod knows you need a big finish, and while the novel ends with Mollymauk committing suicide in jail after he has failed to murder Barbara's husband, the movie ends with Mollymauk wreaking havoc at graduation, killing several people.  (We don't see Mollymauk dying in the movie--his fate is still open--but in both cases, the trouble he's caused will lead Barbara to Hollywood stardom--her ultimate, empty dream--which was Mollymauk's intention.)

I'd recommend the book, though I like the movie better.  I wonder what I'd think if I read the book first?

Thursday, October 24, 2019

FD

Fats Domino died two years ago today.  He was one of the greatest rock and rollers of all.










Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Timing

I've been reading David Evanier's Woody: The Biography.  That's Woody Allen, if you were wondering.  The book is copyrighted in 2015.  I'm reminded of Mark Whitaker's major bio of Bill Cosby, which was published in 2014.  Both came out just before the storm broke.

In Bill Cosby's case, it was considerably more serious, as demonstrated by the fact he's now behind bars.  But Woody has become persona non grata to much of show biz, which is its own kind of punishment. (He's always gone his own way, and acted as if he were above it all, but he still needs funding, and actors willing to work with him.)

It must be tough on the writer to work for years on something only to find, once it's out that it's immediately dated, and that no one can read your book the way you intended.  Well, as they say, the most important thing in comedy is timing.

PS  I'm the last person who should be making fun of someone's looks, but the photo of Evanier on the book jacket reminds me of Alfred E. Neuman.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Do The Hustle

I was watching The Hustler recently. It's a film at odds with itself.  This doesn't prevent it from being a great film.  In fact, it's a common formula in Hollywood.  Think of gangster films, where we get to enjoy the outrageous lifestyle of the criminal before he gets his comeuppance, and we can pretend we've been taught a moral lesson.

In the case of Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), he's not exactly a crook. Perhaps you could call him a lowlife by the standards of the day--rather than seek a respectable job, he earns his keep hustling pool.  And, in the end, it destroys his life--his girlfriend kills herself and he himself will be leaving the game.  But this fights against the essence of the film

Because Eddie is a great pool player, and that's worth something.  It's a specialized skill, and it lights up his life when he's playing the game at a high level.  In the most truthful speech in the movie (as opposed to the scolding ones from his girlfriend Sarah (Piper Laurie)), he says:

Anything can be great.  I don't care--bricklaying can be great.  If a guy knows.  If he knows what he's doing and why and if he can make it come off.  When I'm goin', I mean, when I'm really goin' I feel like a...like a jockey must feel. He's sittin' on his horse, he's got all that speed and the power underneath him...he's comin' into the stretch, the pressure's on him, and he knows...just feels...when to let it go, and how much.  Cause he's got everything workin' for him, timing, touch.  It's a great feeling, boy, it's a real great feeling when you're right and you know you're right.  It's like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm.  The pool cue's part of me. You know, it's a pool cue, it's got nerves in it. It's a piece of wood, it's go nerves in it.  Feel the roll of those balls, you don't have to look, you just know.  You make shots that nobody's ever made before.  I can play that game the way nobody's every played it before.

Even girlfriend Sarah tells him he's a winner at that point.  He may just be a pool hustler.  And it may bring him into the orbit of nasty people like Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who bankrolls him.  But it's an exalted feeling that few get.  So why, when his girlfriend spends a lot of time trying to argue him out of it, does the film expect us to agree?

Of course, The Hustler has it both ways.  Fast Eddie gets one more chance to face Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and beat him, before he has to put away his stick.  But in the end, we're supposed to see that he's learned a lesson and he's right to move on.  Except that the heart of the film argues against it.

Monday, October 21, 2019

It's The Bomb

I finally got around to watching HBO's Chernobyl, the show that won 10 Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series. What held me back for so long was that I already know the basic story, and it's really depressing.  But the show is quite well done, and worth watching.

I don't know if it's accurate in every historical detail, but Chernobyl is certainly compelling.  It explains, with some (but not too much) technical detail, just what happened in the nuclear disaster of 1986, and its aftermath.  The main characters are Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), the nuclear scientist brought in to deal with the catastrophe, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), the bureaucrat in charge of the situation and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist who's actually a composite character based on the many physicists who worked on the problem.

But we also meet a lot of side characters--the workers at the plant, the firefighters who deal with the immediate problem, the miners who dig a tunnel to deal with the meltdown, and numerous others called in to clear up the mess (including a military detail that does nothing but shoot contaminated animals so they can be buried in cement).

There's the explanation of the nuclear problem itself--how the plant exploded--and, maybe more important, the stifling communist bureaucracy that helped guarantee the worst.  Every bureaucracy tries to protect itself, but when it takes over a country and becomes the only power recognized, disaster is waiting to happen.

The acting is solid throughout, with special plaudits to Skarsgard as a timeserver at first not convinced the problem is worth worrying about but who comes to understand just what is happening, physically and politically. (And who would die prematurely, like so many others, due to the radiation he was exposed to.)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Is It Getting Dewey In Here?

Today is the 160th birthday of John Dewey.  A noted public intellectual, he taught at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago (two institutions I attended, which is why I'm mentioning them).

A prominent American philosopher of pragmatism, he did important work in the areas of education and psychology.  He also wrote on many other issues in his long life, including art, ethics and metaphysics.

And he looks exactly like you'd expect him to look. Perhaps that's part of his pragmatism.

And yet, I bet today he's best known as the guy who invented the Dewey Decimal System.  Which he did not do.  That was Melvil Dewey, one of the founders of the American Library Association.  He was born December 10, 1851, so you'll have to wait a month and a half to celebrate that.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

True Independence

There are a lot of important dates in the founding of this country, but in some ways, nothing tops October 19th, 1781.  That was the day the British surrendered at Yorktown.  Sure, we'd declared independence five years earlier, but nothing counted until the war was won.

 
It was at Yorktown, Virginia where a siege by the Continental Army, with help from naval forces and French troops, eventually made the British Army give up.  The siege started in late September and by the 17th of October, their commanding officer, General Cornwallis, capitulated.

According to a legend--which may not be true--the British military band played "The World Turn'd Upside Down," a fitting tune.  It took two days to negotiate a surrender.  Cornwallis refused to appear at the ceremony.

This was the final straw for Great Britain.  They started negotiations with this upstart nation which resulted in the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, acknowledging the United States of America as a sovereign state.  So time to celebrate.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Alan's Day

I've read all of Neil Simon's plays, so maybe I should start reading Alan Ayckbourn's. Just turned 80 this year, he's often been called the Neil Simon of England. It's true both are highly prolific playwrights who specialize in comedy, but their styles are quite different. For one thing, Simon is a master of the wisecrack, while Ayckbourn rarely has funny lines, getting his laughs from the situation.  Also, Simon specializes in Americans, especially New Yorkers (generally Jewish), while Ayckbourn explores the British mindset.

Ayckbourn has completed over 70 works for the stage.  However, he's rarely performed in America.  Some of his earlier work, particularly The Norman ConquestsAbsurd Person Singular and Bedroom Farce, have been seen a fair amount, but not the stuff he's written since the 1980s.  Maybe it's considered too British to be commercial.

His plays are often structured like puzzles.  For instance, The Norman Conquests mentioned above is three plays with the same six characters that takes place over the same general time period but in different parts of a house.  Intimate Exchanges is a play with eight separate stories all starting with the same opening, and each one of which can go in two different directions.  And in House & Garden he goes all the way with The Norman Conquests concept, with two plays meant to be staged simultaneously on two stages with the same cast performing in both.

I'm fairly familiar with his early stuff, but only know a handful of the titles he's written over the past 40 years. (Partly because it's hard to find his work, on stage or in the library.) I did just read a play he produced in 2009, when he was 70.  It's called My Wonderful Day--a full length piece in one act.

It's about a nine-year old girl who doesn't feel well enough to go to school, so her cleaning-lady mom takes her to work.  The girl has to create a composition for class the next day--"My Wonderful Day."  So she writes about the goings-on in the household, which get crazier as the play moves forward.

We follow the story from the nine-year-old's point of view, as she deals with the adult world and they try to deal with her. (Part of the plot has her speaking French a lot, though it's basic enough French that anyone could understand it.)  I can see how it would be pretty funny, though, this being an Ayckbourn play, a lot of the humor depends on the staging.  Ayckbourn directs most of his plays, so I'm sure the original production gave him what he wanted.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Premise Promise

I recently saw (on cable) two big-budget sci-fi films that flopped. Figured I'd give them a chance.

First there's Upside Down, a 2012 romance about two planets right next to each other.  They're the same size and at the closest are about thousand feet apart, so the planets make up each other's sky.  (The planets seem to both revolve around a common sun, but don't seem to rotate, since the same portions are always across from each other.)

Each planet has its own gravity, pulling items (living or dead) toward its center.  If something or someone from the other planet was put on the surface of the opposite planet, it would rise into the sky and drop onto the other planet.

There are two societies.  One planet (Up Top) is rich and the other (Down Below) is poor.  People from Up Top--snore--exploit the people Down Below.  There's a building connecting the two worlds, with a huge office on the middle floor which contains a huge office where both sides work on the other side's ceiling.

That's the set-up. (There's an awful lot of narration at the beginning explaining the system--I get the feeling this was a late addition for confused audiences.) The actual story involves a boy (Jim Sturgess) who falls in love with a girl (Kirsten Dunst).  They meet as kids when both climb a mountain and are about a hundred feet apart.  They fall in love but are split apart by others.  Years later, they meet while he's working on material that can reverse the other side's gravitational effect.

I could go into the particulars of the story, but that's the part that doesn't work.  What does work is the premise (as absurd as it is) and the beautiful visuals.  You can literally see why director/writer Juan Diego Solanas wanted to make the film.  But then it goes on and on and doesn't really go anywhere.

The other film is Mortal Engines from 2018.  It's a post-apocalyptic adventure story based on a series of novels set in a world where cities have engines and wheels and move across the land attacking and sometimes capturing other cities.

The movie starts with the city of London, on what was formerly the European continent, capturing a small mining town.  We meet Tom (Robert Sheehan), an apprentice historian for London who collects old technology like smart phones and toasters.  However, he finds out to much and is thrown off the city by its powerful ruler.  Also thrown out is Hester, an assassin from the village that was taken over who tried to kill the leader.

The rest of the film has Tom and Hester trying to get back and right all the wrongs of this world.  Once again, I don't want to go into it, not to avoid spoilers, but because it got more ridiculous as it went along.

A lot of money was spent on this film and you can see it on the screen.  The images of London are pretty impressive.  The story might have worked on paper (or in a Young Adult novel) but doesn't really play onscreen.

I'm glad when money is spent on expensive sci-fi films that aren't major brands or franchises.  (I'm glad when anyone takes a chance on a film these days.)  But it takes more than design to make a sci-fi film work.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Brig

I just heard that an old friend, Brig Gulya, has died.

Her full name was Brigitta.  I met her in law school when I was a third year student and she was a first year.  We were both performing in the law school musical.  I thought she was funny, smart and beautiful.  I asked her out and we started dating.  We had some good times. 

I started a trivia contest at the law school and handed it off to her when I left.  She would send me tapes of her contests.  I thought she wrote great questions.  I still remember a few of them:

Q:  What is the subject of the magazine Bondage?
A:  It's the official magazine of the James Bond Fan Club.
(A very religious professor guessed it was about S&M.)

Q:  Name the seven dwarfs...in alphabetical order.
A:  Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy
(She waited until someone buzzed in before mentioning alphabetical order.  What makes this especially hard is that the first dwarf, Bashful, is the one you always forget.)

Eventually, I moved to the West Coast and she moved to the East Coast, so we rarely saw each other.  She did come to visit me once.  We went to Disneyland (and saw the seven dwarfs).  She looked great in her princess hat.

A bit later, she got married.  She had a magnificent wedding at a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Entertainment was provided by Lester Lanin and his Orchestra.  After that, I sort of lost touch. (Not uncommon when an old girlfriend gets married.)

Luckily, last year, I took a trip to Washington.  I'd heard she had been working for the federal government, so I looked her up.  We had lunch at a very nice country club in Arlington.  We hadn't seen each other in a long time, but she still looked great, and was as charming as ever.

We talked about old times, of course.  And we caught up.  She had gotten divorced, but seemed happy with her life, and was looking forward to a lot of things, including some charity work she was organizing. (She was always good at organizing things.) I left that lunch glad we'd finally reconnected.  We did talk on the phone after that, but I never saw her again.

She did mention she was having some medical problems.  I didn't realize how ill she was till I heard she died of cancer.  So here's to you, Briggie.  I won't forget you.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Get The Picture?

I just read The Big Picture: The Fight For The Future Of Movies. It by Ben Fritz, who covers the entertainment and media business for The Wall Street Journal.  His argument is the film industry has changed significantly in the past decade. Much of his book compares the fates of two major studios, Sony/Columbia and Disney.

A decade ago, Sony was the studio you wanted to be. (That's one reason Fritz chose Sony.  The other is that it was the victim of a major hack in 2014, and countless emails showing the inner workings of a studio became available for the first time.)  Creative head Amy Pascal and business head Michael Lynton were a formidable team.  She was a hands-on executive with a passion for movies who was able to develop solid relationships with the A-list, while he watched out for the potential market of each film and kept control of the spending.

For years Pascal oversaw a diverse slate of titles, some big, some small, enough hitting the mark to show a solid profit for the studio.  The first decade of the century was a good time for star vehicles, and here's where Sony excelled.  Names like Adam Sandler and Will Smith were reliable hit makers helping to keep the studio afloat in-between the occasional blockbuster.

That was a decade ago.  Now every studio wants to be Disney, which dominates with an unheard of profit margin.  What changed?  A number of things.

Ten or fifteen years ago, there was a huge home video market, so all sorts of movies could make money, and a star was insurance that your title got noticed.  But then that market dried up.  Meanwhile, the foreign market exploded--what was once almost an afterthought became the main financial reason for making movies, which meant spectacle (lots of action, not much dialogue) became the most marketable type of film.  Stars, and directors for that matter, didn't matter as much as franchises.

In the 1990s Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg wrote a famous memo arguing it was too risky to count on a few big motion pictures to guarantee your profits--Disney (which had had some major flops) would now put out more films from a wider range of genres.  But around a decade ago, Bob Iger, the new head of Disney, reversed that formula.  The studio started making less and less films, concentrating more and more on franchises. In fact, not even franchises, but brands. Instead of spending time and money on Hollywood mainstays such as romantic comedy or thrillers or adult drama, Disney would make a handful of high-budget films, all designed to be blockbusters.  The brands are Pixar (Disney bought it and brought it into the fold under Iger), a revitalized animation department (thanks to input from Pixar, and giving us titles like Frozen), live-action versions of Disney classics such as The Jungle Book and The Lion King, and Star Wars films (Disney bought Lucasfilm).  Oh yeah, Disney also bought Marvel and its cinematic universe, which has resulted in an almost unbroken string of megahits.

And that's how it works today.  Sure, there were franchises ten, twenty, thirty years ago, but they didn't dominate the box office like they do now--star vehicles, breakout dramas and comedies, etc., were up there as well.  But look at the list today.  Here are the top six moneymakers so far this year, each grossing more than a billion worldwide: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Aladdin.  Get the picture?  By the way, five of these six are from Disney.  The odd film out is Spider-Man, from Sony, and that's only because Sony bought the rights to Spider-Man years ago for $20 million when Marvel needed the money. (For a bit more they could have had all the Marvel characters but they only wanted Spider-Man.) And Disney still has a few more major titles to release this year, including Frozen 2 and the latest Star Wars.

Fritz talks about other factors as well.  The hardest films to get made these days are mid-range dramas, partly because viewers who want that now get it on TV.  It may be the most respected, Oscar-winning genre, but something has to be really special to break through.  Witness the recent horrific debut of The Goldfinch--studios see those numbers and run the other way.

Then there's Netflix, which, when studios didn't want to sell them content, started making their own.  It changed TV, but also movies.  When Sony stars like Adam Sandler and Will Smith started turning out flops, they went to Netflix--the one place that would pay them top dollar up front (but no points on the back end because there is no back end). Netflix was happy to pay, knowing these actors' fans may not always go out to theatres, but love to see their new content on the small screen. There's also Amazon, a huge company that's spending the money for art films and dramas because it can afford to--a yearly budget for a large studio is a rounding error to Amazon.

Then add China into the mix.  It's now the second-biggest film market in the world, so the studios want to make stuff that the Chinese want to see (and that their government is willing to show--studios censor themselves to fit that market). Plus China is putting money into Hollywood product as well as trying to create Chinese-based film production--two of the top ten grossers so far this year are Ne Zha and The Wandering Earth, which did astonishing business in China but hardly made a ripple in the U.S.

But even with all this, the movie audience is slowly evaporating.  Not due to lack of diversity of product, since audiences still reject much well-reviewed original material in favor of the latest Fast & Furious romp. It's just that people have more media choices, and the audience doesn't feel it has to see everything (or anything) on the big screen.

I like some of the superhero movies, but you can't live on dessert alone. So I'm glad, for now, there's still a fair amount of choice.  And I hope they keep projecting these films in movie theatres, since, no matter what the trends are, there's nothing like going out to see something on a big screen with a bunch of other people.

PS  Amy Pascal was let go by Sony (and by Michael Lynton) in 2015 and has since become a producer. Some of her titles: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Molly's Game and The Post.  Getting fired may have been the best thing that could have happened to her.  She probably wouldn't want to head a studio in today's atmosphere.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Dutch Treat

It took years for George Bernard Shaw to become a successful playwright in London.  In fact, before he was big in his own country, he found popular audiences in America and in the German-speaking world, the latter due to the indefatigable efforts of his translator Siegfried Trebistch.  This helps explain why the premiere of perhaps his most popular play, Pygmalion, took place in Vienna in 1913.

It's probably not his best play, or his deepest, but Pygmalion may have the most delightful plot, so it was a natural for the movies once sound came in.  And the 1938 British version, with Shaw helping in the screenplay, is generally thought to be the most successful translation of his work to film.  But even before it was made, there was a German Pygmalion movie in 1935 and one from the Netherlands in 1937.

I've always been curious to see either one.  I don't know if the German film is available, but I was thrilled to discover the version from the Netherlands on YouTube. It has English subtitles, thank goodness.

It's fascinating to see what they do with the story.  The action is set in the present (1937, that is) and in the Netherlands, though I don't know how all that stuff with accents and dialects, found in the original, plays in another language. They follow Shaw's plot, for the most part--indeed, if the subtitles are accurate, in many scenes it's line for line. But they fill in action only suggested in the play.  The British version would do this as well, and that film helped lead to My Fair Lady, since the original play is missing lots of big moments (there are no speech lessons, for instance, and no embassy ball).

Thus in the 1937 film we see Liza at home deciding to visit Higgins.  We see Liza shopping for new clothes and meeting children who know her from the old days.  And we certainly get a lot of elocution lessons.

More novel, we see Alfred Doolittle (I'm using the names from Shaw's play--they're spelled differently in the foreign film) actually giving a lecture. In the play and the movie and the musical, Higgins suggests that Doolittle should speak on moral topics and we see how it changes him, but we don't see any lectures.

There's also a scene, found no place else, where Liza leaves Higgins and goes to his mother's place. In the play, Higgins goes to his mother's to tell her Liza is missing, and is surprised to see her there.  In the Netherlands' version, we not only see Liza get there first, but we have Mrs. Higgins sit her down and tell her the story of Pygmalion, though the myth is never mentioned in the play.

On the other hand, they pretty much drop poor Freddy Eynsford-Hill. In the play he's charmed by Liza when he sees her the first time she mingles in society.  He's so impressed he moons about outside Higgins' place, even in the play.  In the British movie, we see more of him.  In the musical, yet more (he gets his own song).  But in the 1937 movie, once he's been impressed by Liza, the plot drops him.

This may be because the Netherlands' version is a bit stronger on the romance between Higgins and Liza.  Shaw had written an anti-romance romantic comedy.  He thought it absurd that the two would fall in love, and for the rest of his life insisted they would never end up together.  But from the earliest theatrical productions the actors tried to suggest a romance, despite their lines.  In the 1938 film, the producer essentially put one over on Shaw and ended his movie with the two reunited.  (Shaw, in the final published version of the play, incorporated much of what was added in the British film, but ends with several pages of prose describing Liza life after the story is over, and it's definitely not a courtship with Higgins. The musical, of course, adopted the 1938 movie ending.)

If anything, the Netherlands version is even worse. Higgins and Liza have their showdown, just as in Shaw.  But then Liza accompanies Mrs. Higgins and Pickering to Alfred Doolittle's wedding (a scene not in the play or any other version).  And what should happen next but Higgins rushes in and proposes to Lisa.  Shaw hated it, but romantic comedy has its own logic, and the film was a major hit.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Jesse's Journey

Breaking Bad told the story of Walter White, from beginning to end--his first steps into criminal activity up to his death.  In the finale, when he releases Jesse Pinkman from captivity after spending most of the season at odds with him, that's all we need to know about his sidekick.  We can imagine the various things Jesse might do, but the main thing is he's free and has a second chance.

But there is another way of looking at the series--Walter has his arc, but so does Jesse.  Wouldn't we want to know where he ultimately ends up?  Vince Gilligan did, and had some ideas about what happened to Jesse afterward (and he should know, being the creator of the show).  Fully aware there's still a huge demand for Breaking Bad-related stories, Gilligan decided to turn those ideas into El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, now available on Netflix.

In fact, El Camino is, at least in part, fan service, and not just another chance to see Aaron Paul as Jesse.  Thus, a fair amount of familiar faces from Breaking Bad show up. I won't list any since the movie only dropped a couple days ago, except I'll note the great Robert Forster, who just died, returns as Ed Galbraith, the vacuum repairman who specializes in helping wanted men disappear.

The story starts where we left off, with Jesse escaping the neo-Nazi compound in Todd Alquist's El Camino just as the police are closing in.  The mass slaughter (including Walter White's death, verified for any of those who still believe he's alive) is all the news can talk about, and the search for Jesse is top priority.

So the story is Jesse trying to remain one step ahead of the law, while avoiding other threats, in his search for freedom.  There are also copious flashbacks (shot for the movie, not from the original series) that relate to present-day action.

I enjoyed El Camino, but it didn't quite have the urgency of Breaking Bad.  For one thing, as noted above, the main story is already over. Walter White is dead, and while it'd be nice to see Jesse make it, we already saw him escape.  Further, the original show had cumulative power with an arc that lasted over five seasons--every week we'd tune in to see how Walter White and Jesse Pinkman would get out of their latest scrape, and also to discover which characters would die along the way and how it would all end.  This one-off has some fascinating details, but the pressure isn't quite there like it was before.

So El Camino is certainly worth watching for Breaking Bad fans.  But if it didn't exist, you wouldn't miss it.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Pearl, Alabaster, Egg Shell, Ivory, Salt, Linen, Bone, Cream, Cotton, Old Lace

I'd guess most Americans think the White House was always the White House, but, in fact, it was on this date in 1901 that it got the name.

George Washington himself selected the land where it would be built.  John Adams moved into it even before it was finished.  It was burned down during the War of 1812.  When it was rebuilt, President Monroe moved in.  There's a legend it was named the White House when it was repainted after that war, but if you read the paragraph above, you know that's not true.

New sections were added over time.  There were also some plans to build a new house for the Prez, but it never happened.  President Theodore Roosevelt, who renovated the structure, named it the White House.  Before then it was variously called the President's House, the Executive Mansion and, my favorite, the President's Palace.

The Vice President officially lives at Number One Observatory Circle on the northeast grounds of the Naval Observatory.  No one cares.

Friday, October 11, 2019

NH

Composer Neal Hefti died eleven years ago today.  He might not be as famous as someone like Henry Mancini, but he certainly contributed some memorable melodies to the world.









Thursday, October 10, 2019

Black Is Back

Months after it dropped, I've finally watched the fifth season of Black Mirror.  It was only three episodes, as opposed to the six of the previous two seasons.  I suppose this was because the standalone interactive episode, "Bandersnatch," which dropped late last year, required them to shoot enough material for three average episodes.

The first new episode (though all three dropped at the same time) is "Striking Vipers," the story of two friends who start playing a virtual reality game.  The game allows them to feel their avatars' actions, and what starts as fighting soon turns into sex.  This complicates the marriage of main character Danny (Anthony Mackie).

The second episode is "Smithereens," about a taxi driver (Andrew Scott of Fleabag) who picks up an employee from a multi-billion dollar computer company (Damson Idris of Snowfall) and holds him hostage until he gets to speak to the head of the company (Topher Grace of That '70s Show).

The third episode is "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," about two teenage daughters who live with their father after their mother's death.  One daughter is a big fan of the teen idol Ashley O (Miley Cyrus) and gets an Ashley Too for her birthday--a doll that gives her advice supposedly as Ashely O would.  Meanwhile, the actual Ashley is unhappy that she's required to do mindless poppy material and starts to rebel against her management.  The plot deals with how the two separate storylines become intertwined.

The winner of the three is "Smithereens." It's a rare episode of Black Mirror set in the present, with the technology no better than what's available today.  The plot keeps moving forward as the hostage drama spreads to become an international story.  Tension is kept at high level as we slowly come to understand the motivations of the taxi driver.

The other two stories are enjoyable, but not up to the standard of Black Mirror's best.  The "Ashley Too" story uses the concept of downloading someone's brain into a device--perhaps Black Mirror's favorite plotline.  I would say it's the seventh time they've done it in in 23 episodes.

Overall, an average season, without the highs (and lows) the last couple have offered.  It's still probably the smartest, best-written show around.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Not Eating Either

Today is Yom Kippur (until sunset), the holiest of holidays.  So I'm taking this day off.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

JG

Happy 70th, Jay Graydon. Not the most familiar name, but he was one of the top session guitarists around.  Maybe his finest moment is his solo in Steely Dan's "Peg." The band went through six other guitarists before they decided Graydon's work made the cut.



He was also a top-notch producer, arranger and songwriter.  He even wrote some tunes that won Grammys:



Monday, October 07, 2019

Choosy

James Buchanan was born 100 years ago (and a few days ago--this piece was bumped). Not the president, who died over 100 years ago, but the economist, who won the Nobel Prize in 1986.  I don't understand his parents--why would you name your kid after a president? Even if he becomes famous, like Buchanan did, people will hear his name and still think of someone else. (I almost decided to use a picture of the president to teach them a lesson.)

I don't claim to know much about Buchanan, or economics for that matter, but it's my understanding that he's best known for his work in Public Choice theory.  In fact, I think it's pretty much his baby. Public Choice theory deals with how people make political decisions the same way they make economic decisions.

I wouldn't have been thinking at all about Buchanan except a couple years ago a book came out attacking him and his followers.  Democracy In Chains. The book seems to claim, among other things, that Buchanan gave the American right (particularly libertarians) an excuse to indulge in racism. Even though I know little about Buchanan, I know enough to get that this book is nonsense.  As far as I can tell, it's a poorly-researched partisan attack. (Actually, that's not uncommon in the academic world.  It happens often enough, in fact, that you just pray for a well-researched partisan attack.)

Sunday, October 06, 2019

All That Jazz

In 1927, on this day, The Jazz Singer was released.  It's actually not much of a film--a so-so drama about a young man who comes from a devout Jewish family but wants to sing modern popular songs.

But the film changed Hollywood, and movies in general, because it was the first major feature release with sound.  And it was a huge hit.  The writing was on the wall--there was no going back to silence.  By the way, it's not a sound film--most of it is silent. But certain section have sound, and not just sound, but songs.  From Al Jolson.

Jolson seems rather dated today, and not just because he often works in blackface.  He's hammy in a way that seems almost silly.  But he can still be electrifying, and it's not hard to imagine how strong his performance hit back then.

The film was based on a Broadway play (not musical) by Samson Raphaelson, starring George Jessel.  Jessel was offered the lead in the film, but turned it down when he wasn't happy with the pay.  Also, he wasn't thrilled with how the film changed the ending--in the play, the young man returns to his synagogue, while in the movie, he triumphs on stage.  That's Hollywood.

It's a good thing Jessel didn't play the part, since no one but Jolson could have made the same hit with it.  He sings some traditional Jewish music, but really goes all out with pop (i.e., jazz) songs such as "Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye," "Blue Skies," and "My Mammy."

Jolson's follow-up sound film in 1928, The Singing Fool, was an even bigger hit--one of the biggest Warner Brothers ever had.  If it wasn't clear before, now it was.  Sound was here to stay.  Within a year or two, Hollywood stopped making silent films.

Sounds created a lot of new stars.  However, Jolson didn't remain on top.  Perhaps his personality was too big (and too obnoxious) to stay on top in the intimate medium of film.  But he had his moment in the sun, and changed the world.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

A Game Of Numbers

It's Bill James' 70th birthday!  He's a guy who dug deep into baseball statistics, or sabermetrics as he called it--named from the Society For America Baseball Research founded in 1971, of which he was a member.

Stats are a big deal in any team sport, but nowhere are they more prominent than in baseball.  Even the most basic fans follow batting average, home runs, RBIs, ERA, wins versus losses, shutouts, strikeouts, errors, etc. But if you really want to get into it, there are all sorts of complex, special statistics out there--often invented by sabermetricians.

And that's what so great about James and his ilk.  Sure, baseball, like football, basketball, etc., is played by athletes, but the number guys add an extra dimension to it all.  And not just by supplying the stats--their analysis can make you look at the sport differently.

Sure, all the guys who played and worked in pro sports had a feel for it, and no doubt laughed when nerds with computers started to analyze the game.  But the truth was for too long, people believed things because it felt right, or because legend had it that way.  James said let's delve deep and see if your beliefs hold up.

For instance, everyone used to look at batting average.  A useful approximation, but isn't how often a player gets on base more important--and the batting average doesn't include walks and being hit by a pitch.  And then there's slugging average, which takes into account not just the number of hits, but what sort of hits they are.  James did the same analysis for pitchers, as well.

And sabermetrics let's you look at certain plays.  When is a good time to bunt?  When is a good time to try to steal a base?  Is it ever a good idea to intentionally walk someone?  Or there's the lineup.  Traditionally, the best hitters are put up early, but who should go first?  Should you wait till the third and fourth batter to put up the power hitters, or used them even earlier?

And this new research had an effect.  It's changed how teams value players and how they use them.  There will always be uncertainty, but if you ignore the stats, in the long run, you will do worse.  So let's hear it for Bill James.  To some people, he took the game way to seriously.  But for millions, he looked at a great game and made it even more interesting.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Smiley Smile

Today is World Smile Day, the first Friday in October.  It's been celebrated since 1999, so this is the 20th anniversary. The idea is to smile.  Supposedly this will spread cheerfulness.  Also, do a good deed and send a nice note to a friend.

While I'm all in favor of good deeds, I wonder about this smiling business.  Should one smile even when one doesn't feel happy?  There are arguments it's a good idea.

Why?  Some claim since a smile comes (involuntarily) when you're happy, it can also work in reverse.  That the mere physical act of smiling relieves stress and makes you feel better.  I've even heard it can boost your immune system and lower your blood pressure.  And that it makes you look younger, thinner and more successful. (I'm not making this up.  Maybe the others who say this are, but I'm not.)

I really don't know what to say.  I mean, what if I don't want to smile. I'm happy to smile when I feel like it, but when I feel miserable, I'd just as soon stay miserable, thank you very much.  In fact, the idea of smiling when I don't feel like it disturbs me.  Who am I, the Joker?

Anyway, it's World Smile Day.  Smile if you like.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Before And After

The Good Place debuted its fourth and final season last week at 9 pm (8 Central) on Thursday.  It's one of the few network shows I never miss, and because of that, I also checked out the new NBC sitcoms at 8:30 and 9:30, Perfect Harmony and Sunnyside.  (Along with The Good Place, all these titles sound so positive.)  Both shows are built around a name as the lead, and filled in with a lesser-known or unknown ensemble cast.

Perfect Harmony stars Bradley Whitford (best known for The West Wing) as Arthur Cochran, a grumpy former music professor at Princeton who moves back to his wife's hometown during her last days.  After she dies (we start the show post-death) he's about to kill himself, but he hears a choir in a church.  A bad choir.  He comes in to insult everyone, but before the show is over, he's in charge--mostly out of spite because he hates the megachurch and its choir up the interstate.

There are a handful of characters in the choir, all with their quirks.  The best known of these actors is Anna Camp of the Pitch Perfect movie series. (I'm assuming the actors do their own singing, though I'm not sure.)  Her character's got a young son and is separated from one man in the choir while another hopes to be with her.  By the end of the premiere, Whitford has whipped the choir into shape--I would think that would require people with good voices to begin with, but I guess he's also sort of a miracle worker.

The show has comedy and music, and goes down easy.  I'm not sure if there's enough there to keep me watching each week, but I suppose I'll give it another chance.  The same goes for Sunnyside.  (I'm feeling pretty charitable in an age of 500 TV shows.)

Sunnyside is created by and stars Kal Penn, who's best known for the Harold & Kumar films (he's Kumar) and for playing Dr. Kutner on House. He also spent some time working in the Office of Public Engagement in the Obama White House.  In his new show, he's Garrett Modi, a former New York City council member who started out idealistic but became corrupt and was kicked out of office.  He has no money and lives with his sister, but hopes to get back into politics.

He'll do anything for money and finds himself with a group of people trying to become citizens.  Once again, they're all quirky--even quirkier than Arthur Cochran's choir.  They include two wealthy, so-hip-they're-out-of-it Asian siblings, a Dominican immigrant who holds down seemingly countless jobs, and a guy who was a surgeon in Ethiopia but now drives a cab.  I didn't know any of the actors, though I'm pretty sure I've seen the Dominican somewhere or other.

Modi is willing to take their money on false pretenses, since he no long has the clout to do much for them.  By the end of the half hour, however, he wants to do the right thing and help them.

As in Perfect Harmony, the cast is game, though I'm not sure how much quirkiness I can take. I assume as the show goes along (if it does go along), we'll discover more facets of these characters and see if they can last the long run.  What I don't quite see is how long you can have people trying to become citizens, even if the process in real life takes a long time. (If the show runs for years, will each season offer new hopeful immigrants while the older ones either make it or get deported?)

For a couple decades the NBC comedy lineup was a powerhouse.  It hasn't been that way since The Big Bang Theory took over the night on CBS.  Now that Big Bang is gone (though Young Sheldon remains), perhaps some new buds can grow in the sunlight.  I guess we'll see.  More important, we'll see if these shows, promising but not yet there, get better.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

KS

Kim Shattuck of The Pandoras and The Muffs (the latter band she led) just died after struggling with ALS for two years.  She represented a poppy punk rock sound that was always worth hearing (and should have been far more popular). Most of her songs are under three minutes, and that's the way it's supposed to be.






Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Four More Years?

Today is Jimmy Carter's birthday. At 95, he's the oldest ex-President ever.

When George Washington died in 1799, two years out of office and almost 68, he was, of course, the oldest ex-President.  And then when the President who followed him, John Adams, lived to be 90 years and 247 days--dying, as you'll recall, on July 4th, 1826--he set the record for oldest President for some time to come. (The two who followed him, Jefferson and Madison, both lived well into their 80s--something very few presidents in the 1800s managed.)

The next President to live 90 years--though not as long as Adams--was Herbert Hoover, who died in 1964.  Adams' record was finally broken by Ronald Reagan, who lived 93 years and 120 days, dying in 2004.  That record was broken soon after by Gerald Ford, who was President before Reagan but born after.  Ford lived to be 93 years and 165 days, dying in 2006.

That record was broken by George H.W. Bush, who lived to be 94 years and 171 days, dying less than a year ago in 2018.  Since then, Jimmy Carter, who was born several months after Bush, has surpassed him in longevity.  Will Carter become the first Presidential centenarian?

By the way, we've got three living Presidents who are pretty close in age--Donald Trump, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  They're all 73, having been born in in June, July and August of 1946. We've never had three President so close in age.  Two front-running Democrats for 2020 are actually older--Bernie Sanders was born in 1941 and Joe Biden was born in 1942. Time will tell if they get to be in the running for the oldest living ex-President.

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