Monday, February 16, 2015

PART HEAVEN, PART SPACE, OR HAVE I FOUND MY PLACE?

Janie got out of bed because my loud snoring was keeping her awake, and now she's sleeping in her recliner.  It seems like she and I have been together forever, but really, it's only been about four and a half years.  Paul is sleeping in the other recliner, because he still hangs out here a lot.  He came into my life when I dated his mother, and even though that relationship only lasted a few months, he and I have stayed friends for--wow.  Eight years and change?  That's a long time.  (I'm still friends with his mom, for that matter, although minus the whole "hanging out together" part.)  And of course, freely traveling between both chairs is Isabella T. Beagle, the greatest dog in the history of dogs, curling up with both of her friends for a few minutes, then coming back to me and placing her head on my lap as I type, nuzzling my beloved cat Staley.

It's a nice, warm life I've made for myself, here in a ramshackle house I can at least call my own.  There's only one thing wrong: Mom missed the whole thing.

When my mother passed away nine years ago today, I was in a bad place: Still reeling from the breakup with my wife four years earlier, prone to fits of depression and anger, certain that I was destined to drift through the world alone.  Mom had confidence in me, thought that wherever I landed would be wherever I was meant to be--she actually phrased it that way during one of our conversations, to which I responded, "Thanks a lot, Buckaroo Banzai," and of course she laughed, because there weren't too many arcane pop culture references she wouldn't get--but I was certain that my marriage was my one shot at happiness, and I'd blown it.

Well, maybe not certain.  In fact, I was starting to think the whole divorce thing was just a distraction in my life, but I hadn't figured out what the next act was supposed to be.  When Mom got sick, even though she stayed in good spirits even as the doctors explained just how far the cancer had progressed, spending as much time as possible with her became a kind of top priority.

Then she died, and I felt lost, and briefly wondered if I'd ever feel happiness, or anything, again.  But I'd inherited mom's cat Monika, who started interacting with psychokitty Delmar in the most entertaining ways, and I loved just watching them get to know each other, and I found myself laughing at their antics on a daily basis.  So I could still feel some measure of joy.  And I started this very site, initially as a way to process my grief, but then it kind of turned into a journal of my dating life, because that's a thing that also continued.  (Eventually, of course, it became whatever the hell it is now.  To Theoretical Reader Who Has Been Here All Along, I'd just like to say how very sorry I am for all those clips from Lynda Carter variety specials.)

Most importantly, I just kept living.  I'm pretty sure Mom would be overjoyed to see I've finally attained some measure of happiness in life.  Heck, I'm certain of it.  But I will never be able to share it with her, and knowing that is an ache that will always linger, a hole in my heart that can never quite be repaired.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

WELL. I GUESS WE HAVE TO TALK.

Today is the birthday of actor Marc Blucas, and I mean no disrespect--I'm sure he's a nice guy and all--but it seems like as good a reason as any to explore the little-discussed cultural phenomenon of the Made-For-TV actor.


Television is a unique medium because its text is ever-changing by its very nature.  A novel may turn out very differently from its authors original intentions, but the reader only ever sees the finished work.  The script of a movie may go through dozens of different drafts, but we only see the version that was filmed.  And a play is a text set in stone; it can be interpreted any number of ways, but the words and actions will always be the same.

But a successful TV series is its own beast.  Even if its creators have a particular goal in mind, the workaday nature of TV production can provide detours along the way, or even change the goal.  The network nixes a particular plot development.  A planned location is suddenly unavailable.  A necessary scene is simply too complicated to pull off within the scheduled time and budget.

And then there's the actors.  Casting a TV show is a leap of faith.  The evolving nature of a TV show means that characters are liable to be put through some pretty extraordinary paces, be required to do things whether comedic or dramatic that the creators may not have originally intended.  And that may require the actors to deploy a skill set that they simply don't possess.

A sidebar here: For the longest time, there was believed to be a clear difference between "movie actors" and "TV actors".  Movie actors could do more heavy dramatic lifting, and more importantly, they had charisma, they had cool.  Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton--those were movie actors.  TV actors could do light drama, light comedy, and were familiar comforting presences: David Janssen, Alan Alda, the casts of most seventies sitcoms.

But even among the actors that toiled in the TV trenches, there was a subset: The Made-For-TV actor.  These were guys (and they were mostly guys) like Ben Murphy or Gil Gerald, affable, unthreatening presences with only trace amounts of charisma, doomed forever to star in shows like Gemini Man or Buck Rogers, programs that only got on the air because a network couldn't just schedule dead air for an hour.  You see someone like Gil Gerald in a show, you immediately know you're seeing the third or fourth choice for the role.

Back to my main point: Once an actor is cast on a series, the character evolves, mostly because the writers see what the actor brings to the role.  The classic example is Edward Asner's role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show--it became obvious that he could do absolutely anything, nail any punchline but also break your heart.  Moore's name may have remained in the title, but Asner clearly was the soul of the series.

The first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a fairly rough ride, as you see the writers and the actors struggling to figure out exactly what they want from the show and its characters.  But what the sow will be is still there, in embryonic form; it just needs to evolve.

And it does, quickly.  The actors assembled by creator/producer Joss Whedon may not have the technical chops of more rigorously trained thespians, but they're perfect for their roles, and as the show goes along, the writers clearly play to their strengths.  And more delightfully, it's the kind of show that can mock itself and its cast--when other characters discuss Buffy's idiosyncrasies, they're as much discussing the various shades of Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance. 

All of which brings us to Marc Blucas.  Introduced as Buffy's love interest in Season 4, Blucas stands out like a sore thumb in this series.  It's not entirely his fault--his character has no real traces of personality, but that's probably at least partly due to the fact that he's written as a fairly standard-issue jock, and you don't get the feeling that the writer's room of this particular show was filled with people who knew much about jocks.

Still, Buffy specialized in characters who seemed to be one thing but turned out to be much more.  And maybe that was the intention, but it became obvious that Blucas just wasn't up to it.  But he didn't go away, and his presence undermined the entire season.  He could have been like Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie, only Blucas didn't seem to realize he was the straight man.  (The original Marx Brothers analogy I was going to use was Alan Jones--the bland romantic lead nobody cares about--but in earlier Marx pictures that role was usually essayed by Zeppo, and as all Buffy fans know, the show already had its own Zeppo.)  He had no self-awareness at all.  He played his character as a straight-ahead TV type, a Ben Murphy on a show that had no use for Ben Murphys.

In that sense, he may have represented the last of a line.  Sure, there are still TV actors hilariously outmatched by the demands of their part--have you tried sitting through that new Katherine Heigl thing?--but it's very rare to find a purely Made-For-TV actor anymore.  Thanks in no small part to Buffy itself, TV writing has become smarter and deeper than ever before.  There are still time-killer shows, but even those incredibly formulaic CBS procedurals showcase the likes of Joe Mantegna and Laurence Fishburne.  The days of Ben Murphy, Gil Gerald--and Marc Blucas--may be gone forever.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

KNOWS NOT WHERE HE'S GOING TO

If you grew up in the seventies, you will likely always associate The Carol Of The Bells with this


Watching that commercial as a kid, or others like it, which suggested cheap mass-market alcohol was a portal to class and sophistication, I ached for the world it envisioned, a world in which feather-haired men in sweaters and blandly pretty blondes rang in the new year with clinking glasses.  There would be toasts, and finger food, and a general air of--I imagined--adulthood.

Even though my parents were adults, and they certainly didn't do that sort of thing, I assumed they once had.  They must have.  It was part of the allure of being a grown-up.  It seemed like silly behavior, but I felt certain that once I reached that point in my life, it would all make sense.

Evidently I got lost along the way.  My twenties were marked by stays in mental wards, suicide attempts and whole years lost as I fumbled in a haze of depression.  When I more or less turned my life around, I got married, and made a point of having the ceremony on New Year's Eve, because hey, surely that would lead to toasts and clinking glasses and the life once promised me by Andre champagne.

That didn't work out.  In fact, one of the peculiarities of my life is that, despite being divorced, losing both parents, buying a house--despite the fact that I am nearly half a century old--I don't feel like an adult.  I have a reasonable amount of life experience, but I'm still waiting for the big reveal, the moment when everything clicks into place and I realize I've arrived.  Until then, it's always going to seem like champagne is being poured somewhere, but not for me.

Monday, December 15, 2014

SOMETIMES GOOD THINGS GET THROWN AWAY

My brother and I weren't talkers, so all we did was listen.  People babbling excitedly about the movie they were waiting to see, or other movies they'd seen recently, why they were here, where they were from.  It was December of 1980, and we were waiting in an increasingly long line on this cold winter night for the massive Plaza Theater to open its doors so we could all pile in and get our first look at Robert Altman's Popeye.

The Plaza was the only theater in town showing this particular blockbuster, a fairly common practice then.  If you wanted to see a movie, you had to go where it was playing, because it wouldn't be playing at two or three or ten auditoriums in every multiplex in town, because there were no multiplexes.  Sure, there were three- or four-screen theaters, but every screen played something different.

So since the number of locations showing a movie was limited, seating space was at a premium.  Lines formed, and in those lines little communities developed.  People got to know each other, there was a shared anticipation, a communal ritual known as "going to the movies". 

The Plaza was one of several remaining stand-alone theaters Des Moines had in the seventies and eighties.  There was the mighty River Hills, originally built for Cinerama, and its neighbor, the classy Riviera, its auditorium resplendent in rose and white hues.  There was the Capri, a vision of early sixties modernity, the location for most middlebrow Oscar bait.  There was the Wakonda, a nondescript neighborhood theater that miraculously transformed in 1980 to The Movies, the same auditorium with the addition of a fifty seat adjunct called the Screening Room.  The Movies would become Des Moines' first repertory theater, and there I saw Once Upon A Time In The West, The Red Shoes, Dark Star, The Seven Samurai, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead--a roll call of what would become my all-time favorite movies, in often battered prints that nonetheless looked beautiful on the big screen.

All these theaters are gone now, except for the Plaza, which was renovated and renamed the somewhat less elegant Merle Hay Mall Cinema, and which features a colossal sixty-foot screen and the first THX-certified sound system in the state.  Well, it has those features until tomorrow night, when it closes forever.

The closing was immediately prompted by the opening of a new bar/restaurant/theater right next door, but the end has been coming for a long time.  The last movie I saw there was Guardians Of The Galaxy, and though it was a real treat to see such a thoroughly modern blockbuster projected in 35 mm--complete with cigarette burns to mark the reel changes!--it felt strangely incongruous.  Guardians is a wonderfully entertaining movie, but in the modern blockbuster style, meant to be consumed and enjoyed but nothing more, a fun ride while it lasts but not the shared dream we use to experience in giant temples built to honor the cinematic gods.

And I tell myself that's okay.  It's the movies that matter, not where you see them.  But I think of seeing Apocalypse Now on the 70-foot curved screen at the River Hills, and I know that's not true.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

THERE'S BEEN AN AWAKENING

It starts, as it always does, with what pretends to be a valid argument.

"Hey," one observer mentions on Reddit or 4chan or whatever depressing part of the web where decency goes to die, "what's with that new Star Wars trailer?  The first thing we see is some black guy in a Storm Trooper outfit.  But how can that be?  Storm troopers are all clones."

Then someone else points out that no, that was a thing that happened during the Clone Wars (as established in Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, and yes, I'm embarrassed to know this), but the Clone Wars were already over by the time the original trilogy started, and the Storm Troopers were just guys recruited by the Empire, and somebody else says, No, man, you're wrong, and the conversation continues, and pretty soon it becomes obvious that the original poster wasn't so much complaining that the black guy playing a Storm Trooper conflicted with what he saw as the series' continuity as he was...complaining about a black guy being in a Star Wars movie.

The conversation deteriorates, as again, it always does, with claims that a black actor having a prominent part is a capitulation to the forces of "political correctness" which descends to watermelon and fried chicken jokes and undisguised racism of a force and virulence that you thought surely would surely no longer exist in this day and age.

But of course, it does exist, as one is reminded on a daily basis when reading any comments board on the events in Ferguson, or the ongoing sexual assault claims against Bill Cosby, or pretty much anything to do with Barack Obama, whose very legitimacy as a president and an American citizen is challenged by bullies online every single day.  But not because he's black, God knows.  You can tell, because these claims are frequently preceded by the claim, "I'm not racist, but..." 

And then it starts, as it always does, with what pretends to be a valid argument.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

HELLO DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND

Mike Nichols was already a legend when he directed his first film, the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.  As a member of Chicago's Compass Players, he had been at the forefront of the movement towards improvisational comedy, and as a result of that he formed a duet with Elaine May that quite simply helped change the form forever.  From there he easily segued to directing for the theater, where he was responsible for, among other things, the original production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

But all of Nichols' work to that point had involved connecting with a live audience.  Film is a different medium, requiring a great deal more subtlety, and here he was directing a theater piece on celluloid, starring two of the biggest ham actors of all time, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  There was almost no way this could work.

He knocked it out of the park.

Of course he did.  Mike Nichols, who has died unexpectedly at the age of  83, was a professional.  Yet he was kind of an odd duck as a filmmaker, since he was never quite an auteur.  He never wrote his own scripts, and his films were often adaptations of plays or novels.  There was no difference in his mind between directing for the theater or directing movies.  The job was always to find the best way to interpret somebody else's material.

When the material was strong--The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal Knowledge, Charlie Wilson's War--it inspired him to amazing heights, to create films that had tremendous influence of everyone from Hal Ashby to Steven Soderbergh to Wes Anderson (who gave Nichols a "Special Thanks" credit on Fantastic Mr. Fox).  His mastery of the form could be breathtaking.

But then again, there's Day Of The Dolphin.  And Heartburn and Working Girl and--shudder--Regarding Henry.  You could probably argue that Nichols made the best possible movies he could from such awful material, but that doesn't change the fact that they weren't worth doing in the first place.  Most of Nichols' worst work came in the eighties and early nineties, admittedly a bad time for the sort of literary, mid-budget film he did best, but surely he could have found better things to do than directing Wolf.

But he rebounded, with The Birdcage and Primary Colors, and a fine adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels In America for HBO.  Plus more work for the theater, and occasional reunions with Elaine May.  And he'd return to Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, which he'd later direct for the stage and even played the lead in one production.  And why not?  It's the quintessential Mike Nichols work--caustic, cruel and way more sentimental than it dares admit.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

IN THAT BRIGHT LAND TO WHICH I GO

I'm dreaming, and I know I'm dreaming, so it's easy to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Specifically, this ride--an endless loop around the parking ramp on the north side of Merle Hay Mall.  It's dark, and the headlights barely keep up with my speed.  But again, it's a dream.  I'm safe.

Then, immediately, the outside of a hotel, an old dilapidated affair.  There are lights around it, and machinery and scaffolding--it's being excavated.  I'm not an active participant at this point.  This is like watching a movie.

Cut to the inside of the hotel.  A small team of rugged, anti-social types have gathered to learn whatever secrets this place might tell them.  Oh, I get it.  This is like Alien or The Thing, and this band of disparate near-strangers will have difficulty working together once...whatever happens.  Will it be aliens or ghosts or...well, I guess I'll find out.

The plot moves right along, as the guy in charge--who vaguely resembles Kurt Russell, but not from The Thing but from Stargate, and since this is my dream that's weird, because I hated Stargate--is offering running exposition, even though nobody is listening to him.  He passes the desk in the lobby, and lodged between an old-timey ledger and a ceramic cherub is an envelope from Rexall pharmacy.  He opens it and pulls out a thick stack of old Polaroids.  "This is the key," he says, and hands them to me.

And it's not like a movie anymore.  I'm standing alone in the dark, with only enough light to see the photos.

The first picture is of my beloved and much-missed cat Monika.  It was taken at my apartment in Des Moines, after Monika had moved in with me when Mom passed away.  Of course, the only reason Mom had her in the first place was because I'd abandoned her when I moved away to get married.  Wait.  No...it's not quite as heartless as it sounds.  When I moved, Mom moved back into the house where I'd been living.  Monika stayed put.  She just had a different master, is all.  I didn't "abandon" her.  Why did I use that word?

Next photo: The outside of the apartment building where I lived in Iowa City.  There seems to be no significance to this picture--there are no people in it, not even my car is visible.  The sky is gray and there are no shadows.  I don't remember taking this picture.

Next photo: A black-and-white image of the clothesline from the farm where I spent my childhood.  The grass is tall, and unshelled walnuts cover the ground.  The orchard is in the background.  Everyone called it the orchard, but nothing really grew there, unless you count the rhubarb patch.  To the right of the photo is the old broken-down swing set that took up a surprising amount of space in the yard, considering it was unusable.  Even further to the right is the very tip of a dog's tail.  That would be Penny--I know it's her even though I can't see her.

Next photo: Inside the farmhouse, in color this time.  Mom's wingback chair.  Beside it is the little wooden stand she used to hold all manner of junk, and on top of that is her jade green ashtray--complete with a lit cigarette--and coffee cup.  In front of the chair is a ratty foot rest with the remains of the day's newspaper piled on top of it.  Behind the chair is the drawing my sister scribbled when she was little, of what she said was "Mighty Mouse all tied up."  But it's a more recent photo, after the living room was painted, so the drawing had been touched up with magic marker.  And again, there are no people in this photo.  It's like a recreation in a museum.

Next photo: Dad's recliner, with the floor model ashtray beside it, and a few empty bottles of Grain Belt on top of that.  On the other side is...a stand and behind that...is nothing, literally nothing.  It's like my mind can't supply the details, but come on, I spent the best part of my life there, I can remember this, but no, this picture doesn't lie, it's right there plain as day, a document of my faded memory. 

Next photo: But no, before I can see it, I feel something, a presence, and I immediately know it's Mom trying to tell me something...

...and suddenly, violently, I'm awake, aware only of what is missing, still waiting for Mom's voice to comfort me, knowing it will never be heard.