Monday, December 31, 2007


Where to begin?

Forgotten years of childhood, knowing of New Year's Eve but not understanding why people celebrated, aware only of the fact that it signified the winding down of Christmas vacation, the bliss of leisure time ending, the return of the daily grind of school.

Later--late seventies to early eighties--my brother John and I discovered the joys of mocking Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, riffing on the ever-lamer hosts and musical guests, our sarcasm barely masking the fact that it was New Year's Eve and we had nothing better to do.

Time passed. John moved out, moved away, got a life. I didn't. I spent much of the eighties and half of the nineties in limbo, watching the assembled crowds in Times Square, longing to be there, or anywhere, on the outside looking in.

In '96, I spent New Year's Eve with John again, only this time he had family. His wife and kids drifted away as the evening wore on, and we riffed on Dick Clark just like in the old days, and stayed up most of the night, talking, laughing. It felt good, but also like a wake, a commemoration of a way of life that was coming to an end. Things were about to change, I could feel it. I just didn't know how.

About a month later I met Sue Ellen. When we got married, it was--why not?--on New Year's Eve. For three years after that, New Year's Eve doubled as a celebration of our anniversary. On the fourth year, the celebration was a bit muted, the marriage in crisis. Three months after that, we split for good.

New Year's Eve 2002, with what should have been my fifth wedding anniversary looming, unbearable sadness in the air, I found myself back at John's, in safe company, with enough laughter and commotion to mask my heartache. So I returned the next year, and the next and the next, and it always felt good to be there.

And I returned last year, a mistake I may still be paying for. By that time, Tabbatha and I had made vague plans about moving in together, about taking our relationship to another level. I'd spent Thanksgiving with her, and Christmas, but those were spent surrounded by her family. New Year's would have been our time together, but I foolishly chose to celebrate the past, to cocoon in warm memories of the past instead of living in the present, ditching the woman I loved for...what?

Tabbatha knew New Year's Eve doubled as my wedding anniversary, and she always felt she had to compete with my memories of Sue Ellen. Had I been there for her, had I exorcised all the ghosts of the past in celebration with her, maybe...

Ah, but that's just speculation. This New Year's Eve...Well, I'm back outside, but not really looking in. I have to work today and tomorrow, and there's not much time for celebrating, anyway. I'm just here, waiting to see what happens next.

Friday, December 28, 2007


Much I could go on about.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, of course, and the world-wide ramifications.

The ongoing douchebaggery of Rudy Giuliani.

The birthday today of tweedy, affable Jack Perkins, fondly remembered as the former host of A&E's Biography series...and for being endlessly mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Plus, I've really, really been meaning to write a lengthy piece on Sweeney Todd.

But all that will wait, for now. I'll be gone for a few days, a crushing blow as always to regular readers of this site. Both of them. (And no, I never get tired of that gag.)

In the meantime, please enjoy this bit of forgotten seventies culture. Feel free to speculate on the exact nature of the relationship between Burger Chef and Jeff. Bustling pickles?

Thursday, December 27, 2007


After yesterday's complaints about the horrible obit of Michael Kidd given by National Public Radio's Steve Inskeep, I'd be remiss if I didn't spend a moment or two slamming Inskeep's series of stories marking the tenth anniversary of the term "blogging".

His tone is, not surprisingly, contemptuous, vaguely amused by all these deluded souls who think their ramblings, their "descriptions of their morning's activities," as Inskeep put it, are worth reading. Why, he asked with a condescending chuckle, do people bother writing these things?

Two thoughts:

1) Clearly, undeniably, blogging has brought about a certain democratization of the writing process. Yes, many blogs (including this one, usually) are nothing more than random thoughts or laundry lists of things pissing off their authors. But how, exactly, is that different from what newspaper columnists--or radio pundits--do?

An ambitious blogger can easily maximize readership by any number of methods--joining a blogging network, placing their efforts in as many search engines as possible, what have you. Somebody with absolutely no writing experience can find their daily efforts read by hundreds, even thousands of people each day. No, those aren't New York Times or even NPR numbers, but people are reading...and coming back for more every day.

It makes sense for the mainstream media to denigrate the blogging efforts of average citizens, since they show all too clearly that the average Joe or Jane has at least as much capability for political analysis, a better sense of humor and often a more distinctive prose style than any David Brooks or Thomas Friedman. The Old Guard is dying, and they're scared.

2) As far as Inskeep personally, all I can say is, Shut the hell up, dude. The ratings for Morning Edition have either flattened or decreased (depending on the source) since Inskeep and Renee Montagne took over for Bob Edwards three years ago, and both NPR and Public radio International are developing morning programs to compete against Morning Edition. Let me say that again: NPR apparently has so little faith in their flagship show (and it's smarmy, irritating host) that it is trying to interest member stations in a more "cutting-edge" version of the same thing.

Soon, Inskeep may no longer be able to look down his nose at the blogging community. If NPR kicks his ass to the curb, he may find himself just another guy with a computer and a website, praying for at least a hundred hits a day.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


I was saddened to learn of the death of the great dancer, choreographer, sometime director and occasional actor Michael Kidd Sunday at the age of 92. That sadness boiled over to anger as I heard the brief, patronizing obit read by smarmy host Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

He referred to Kidd as the man who "guided Marlon Brando's feet" in the film version of Guys And Dolls (of course, Kidd's dances for that show's original Broadway production are landmarks of the form, but hey, why mention that?) and condescendingly referred to another highlight of Kidd's career, the astonishingly athletic choreography for Stanley Donen's Seven Brides For Seven Brothers as "featuring dancing lumberjacks."

There was a time when NPR's programming respected artists. Ten years ago, Kidd's passing would surely have been commented on by a colleague or dance critic, who could have put Kidd's career in some sort of context, from his days as a bright potential star of the ballet world to his groundbreaking choreography on stage (Finian's Rainbow) and film (Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon, Stanley Donen's amazingly underrated Movie, Movie), perhaps even mentioned his fine work as an actor (best scene in Michael Ritchie's classic Smile.)

These days, sadly, Inskeep's featherweight, borderline reactionary approach signifies the prevailing attitude at NPR, and its arts coverage as well as its news coverage features all the depth you'd expect from network TV. Ugh.

Anyway, here's the "dancing lumberjacks" scene Inskeep sneered about. More perceptive eyes than his would recognize this as much an antecedent of Hong Kong-style action as a standard Hollywood dance sequence:

Monday, December 24, 2007


It used to be so simple, counting the days, the minutes , the seconds, the swet anticipation topped only the the joyous reality of Christmas morning. Presents everywhere, yes, and family gathered and good food and not a care in the world. Such good times would surely last forever, right?


When I split from my ex, I decided to treat Christmas as just another day. Too many memories, too many spirits of the past. To celebrate Christmas would mean acknowledging my solitude, dwelling in constant, unbearable sorrow.

Last year was the first Christmas without Mom, but there was Tabbatha and a new life, new possibilities unfolding before me. Happiness beckoned.

This year...I'm not sure. Melancholia is in the air, and I won't deny it, but I'll try not to let it get the best of me.

One very much missed Christmas tradition is the inevitable Phone call from Mom, sobbing uncontrollably after her annual viewing of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Here's the song that would always set her off, an ineffably sad number written by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill:

Well, I'm sobbing uncontrollably myself now. Might as well go ahead and wallow in it. Here's a clip from one of my favorite movies, Vincente Minnelli's incomparable Meet Me In St. Louis. This movie was made during World War II, so the ambiguity in the dialogue, the uncertainty about making plans for the future, was something very much on the minds of audiences at the time. Everything here is perfect. The writing is superb ("I'm taking all my dolls, even the dead ones!"), the acting is peerless, Minnelli's color, composition and staging are magnificent--how heartbreaking when the shade is pulled down, the lovely golden glow slowly disappearing!--and of course, there's that song:

Merry Christmas, or festive vaguely religious season, or whatever.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


This really could be the Swayze-est Christmas of them all!


It's a kind of Christmas tradition: I wish someone Gary Crimble, and they never know what the hell I'm talking about.

Come on, peoples! It's not like I'm quoting some obscure text or referencing a cult band. It's The Beatles!

And Many Rudolph to all!

Saturday, December 22, 2007


I'll surely write more about Sweeney Todd once I've processed my thoughts more fully, but for now I'll say that, after ten years of diminishing returns, Tim Burton has finally made his masterpiece. This may be the most fully imagined film musical since...well, since Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate.

Driving home, Christmas lights and streetlights and headlights all blurred together in the fog, and i felt a profound sense of loss. I felt Mom's presence, there and gone, like missing her for the first time. Maybe it was the movie, maybe it's the season.

When I walked in my door, Delmar sat up on his hind legs and grabbed my hand in his front paws, purring.

These are the things on my mind right now. Can't think of anything else, or put them in any coherent context. Maybe later.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Talking to my brother the other day, the conversation turned (as it does with alarming frequency) to the dreadful 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which led John to mention the interview in Rolling Stone around the time of its release, during which Robert Stigwood kept fondling the triple-embossed cover of the soundtrack LP.

"It wasn't actually Stigwood," I pointed out, "it was Al Coury."

At that point I realized my priorities were hopelessly screwed up. I can't remember phone numbers or names of people I know, couldn't tell you the eye colors of any ex-girlfriends or the clothing size of my ex-wife, can't remember all the details of my mom's last day on earth.

But by God I remember Al Coury was president of RSO Records in the late seventies, and he oversaw the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks, but miscalculated badly with the Sgt. Pepper soundtrack, an overpriced souveneir for a commercial flop, and the Bee Gees' first post-Fever album didn't live up to expectations, and RSO sank and Coury was out of a job and...

Why the hell did I know any of this in the first place, and why do I remember it?

Thursday, December 20, 2007


This movie season finds two examples of something Hollywood does very badly: Literary adaptations.

First up, consider The Kite Runner. Khaled Hosseini's book is the type of Westernized-glimpse-into-a-foreign land fodder that plays well with the Barnes & Noble crowd, the story of innocence lost somewhere in pre-Taliban Afghanistan. It's respectably middlebrow stuff, moderately affecting though a tad calculated and ultimately shallow.

Still, I have no doubt it was at least written with sincerity. The movie, on the other hand, exists for no reason other than to win awards.

It's directed by Marc Forster, which tells you everything you need to know. Forster's credits include Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction, all competently crafted, all lacking even a trace of personality. Which is no doubt why he was hired for this project; the studio clearly wanted an efficient technician to guide this baby to Oscar glory. Any trace of a point-of-view or personal vision wasn't required. Though the contours of the story would seem to require, nay, demand the touch of an artist, someone with an insight into the human condition, such vision would merely get in the way. The formula is simple: Popular Book+Pretty Pictures=Academy Award!

Actually, it almost never works that way. Remember Cold Mountain or Memoirs Of A Geisha? Of course you don't, and neither does anyone else.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have I Am Legend. This is the umpteenth adaptation, official or otherwise, of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, and the umpteenth version to screw it up.

The approach here is the opposite of The Kite Runner. Though Matheson's novel is highly regarded by science fiction and horror fans, it has relatively little "serious" literary reputation. Rather than an earnest, respectful and boring adaptation, we have a loose, we-can-improve-on-this adaptation, taking the novel as a jumping-off point.

Which would be fine, if the film had any place to go. But since the final screenplay was written by Akiva Goldsman, Hollywood's reigning prince of crap (he wrote Joel Schumacher's Batman films and scripted The DaVinci Code, which means his spot in Cinema Hell is assured), suckitude was guaranteed from the get-go. Matheson's despairing portrait of utter isolation (as well as the dark significance of the title) is jettisoned in favor of a knock-off of 28 Days Later, which was itself a knock-off of George Romero's Living Dead films, which were ripped off from Matheson's novel. All of which makes you wonder why they bothered acquiring the rights to the book in the first place.

There are, of course, many fine films made from literary sources. Virtually all of Stanley Kubrick's films came from books, sometimes filmed faithfully (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon), sometimes not (Lolita, The Shining and most obviously Dr. Strangelove), but always filtered through the prisms of Kubrick's eyes, mind and sensibilities. The Godfather and Jaws are great examples of trashy fiction turned into cinematic art. John Huston's adaptations of everything from The Maltese Falcon to Wise Blood and George Roy Hill's note-perfect The World Of Henry Orient and Slaughterhouse Five show how author's singular voices can be translated to the screen.

It can be done, but not by chasing awards and/or profits.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Geeks and fanboys everywhere are wetting themselves over the announcement that Peter Jackson will produce an adaptation of The Hobbit.

Sensible people, on the other hand, shake their heads and shudder.

I say this as someone who admired Jackson's Lord Of the Rings films. There was much to dislike about them, some severe failings of taste and inspiration, but for their ambition alone they deserve praise, and Jackson clearly approached the films with a distinct vision in mind. There is an authentic directorial voice to the films, something all too rare in mega-budget blockbusters.

Still, by the time The Return Of The King passed the three hour mark, Jackson clearly lost all sense of perspective, spending inordinate amounts of screen time showing us things described only in passing in Tolkien's book. The problem with that film wasn't, as many people felt, its prolonged final act, it's how long it took to get there.

The acclaim, awards and financial success of the three films obviously went to his head, as witness his dreadful remake of King Kong, which runs on and on to absolutely no purpose whatsoever.

Despite Kong's underwhelming boxoffice success and mixed reviews, which might have given a lesser ego pause, Jackon got into a pissing match with New Line Cinema over profits from The Rings cycle--untold billions apparently weren't enough for him--and refused to consider an adaptation of The Hobbit, the prequel to Tolkien's Rings, since New Line held the rights.

Well, apparently everything has been worked out--presumably Jackson is diving, Scrooge McDuck-like, into a swimming pool filled with gold coins--and though Jackson will be too busy with his dreadfully misconceived mo-capped adaptation of Tintin to personally direct The Hobbit, he will produce, supervise, micromanage and no doubt hog credit if it's any good.

Which, of course, it won't be. It would be hard to imagine a less necessary movie, a more transparent attempt to squeeze more dollars from an exhausted franchise. It's as though Jackson wanted to erase any trace of goodwill we might still feel towards his work.

Mission accomplished, sir.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Oh, sure, despite yesterday's rhapsodic Star Wars memories, I'm willing to admit, some bad things happened as a result of its success.

I don't mean the usual tedious charge so many level against it, that it brought a screeching halt to the seventies renaissance of personal filmmaking and single-handedly created the era of the blockbuster.

This one gets bandied about a lot, in books like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and documentaries like A Decade Under The Influence. Somehow George Lucas' massive commercial success killed the successful careers of more artistically valid directors like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman.

First off, most of the filmmakers of the seventies kept working through the eighties and nineties. If they didn't always find much commercial success in those decades, well, the truth is, they hadn't had much success in the seventies. It's not like Mean Streets or McCabe And Mrs. Miller were smash hits; audiences were too busy flocking to the likes of The Towering Inferno.

Besides, Star Wars was surely as personal an effort for Lucas as, say, New York, New York was for Scorsese. It was relatively low-budget, and the studio had almost no faith in it. Also, despite retroactive claims to the contrary, it was not heavily hyped or marketed at the time. Its popularity took everyone by surprise. Audiences embraced it because they liked it.

Having said that, once it became a pop culture phenom, the cash-ins began. One of the first was also the most blatant:

Lucas, of course, had nothing to do with this, and neither did poor John Williams. The copyright for his score was held by Twentieth Century-Fox's music publishing company, and if they thought this crap would sell...

The popularity of Star Wars set off a general interest in anything vaguely related to outer space, which, since it was the seventies, tended to meld with disco. Sarah Brightman, ladies and germs:

Wow. It's easy to think that was the worst thing in the history of the world, but no, friends, not by a long shot. The most blatant Star Wars rip-off was surely 1978's Battlestar Galactica. After its failure, producer Glen Larson unfortunately did not give up on the whole science fiction thing and immediately launched production on Buck Rogers, starring Gil Gerard, a mostly forgotten seventies irritant who made Ben Murphy and Marjoe Gortner look self-effacing by comparison.

Hope you enjoyed the brief appearance there from Twiki the robot, generally considered to be the most irritating character in science fiction history.

Well, except for Jar Jar Binks, but I really don't want to get into that...

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Thirty years? Really?

That summer exists to me as some sort of pure bliss, a state of innocence that was about to be destroyed. I don't know why I remember it so vividly: the languid, lazy days in rapt attention of comic books, Famous Monsters Of Filmland or assorted science fiction anthologies; late afternoons with a bowl of chocolate marshmallow ice cream and reruns of All In The Family, evenings spent scribbling in my notebooks, words and drawings and the occasional five or six page comic book drawn to amuse my brother.

But there was change in the air. At least one night a week, my sister Julie had her boyfriend over for the evening, the boyfriend she'd eventually marry, another departure following my brothers Mike and Keith and my sister Ann, all of whom had moved away one by one, leaving me more alone.

But these departures meant I could move into their rooms as they left, and that summer I finally had a real room of my own, with a door to shut out the rest of the world. An AM radio came with the room, and I began to regularly listen to Top Forty radio, as well as the records I owned. Music became so much a part of my life, it was a form of dreaming.

Dreaming of...what? I started to become aware of the wider world that summer, of places beyond my own sheltered existence, places wonderful and terrible. For some reason, I also developed an absolute fear of tornadoes, certain that every humid, still day was going to bring about the end of my world.

But mostly, I remember this: On my birthday, a somewhat cryptic ad appeared in The Des Moines Register, for a movie that didn't even open for two weeks. I'd never heard of it, knew nothing about it, but its title alone made me determined to see it.

Despite attempts to convince my brother John to take me, it was my sister Ann who drove me the fifty-some miles from the farm to Des Moines, to the one theater in the whole state playing this movie. I couldn't tell you what I did two days ago, but I remember every detail of that day, from my impression of local tire pitchman Bernie Marks to the stop at Methodist Hospital where Ann, a nursing student, had some business to take care of while I sat in front of a TV and watched The Gong Show to hanging out at the airport just to watch planes take off.

Finally, we headed to the theater, the venerable old River Hills. No weekday matinees back then; the movie didn't even start until 7:40, but by the time we arrived, shortly after six, the line already snaked around the block. A long wait in a circus-like atmosphere, everyone full of anticipation, nobody knowing what was about to happen.

The lights dimmed. No trailers, no nothing. The curtain opened as the Fox logo filled the magnificent 70-foot screen. Then:

Then, of course, the camera moving down to Tatooine, the Imperial Cruiser travelling endlessly over our heads, the first bit of dialogue, spoken by a robot(!)...and so much more, marvel upon marvel, surprise upon surprise.

I'd fallen in love with movies before. Two years earlier, I'd had the doors of my mind blown open by 2001, Blazing Saddles had made me laugh harder than anything I'd ever known, and I'd seen three Ray Harryhausen movies by that point.

But Star Wars--none of that Episode IV crap in those days--was different, as if someone had injected pure pleasure into my veins, making me giddy and hysterical. Like so many that summer, I longed to see it again and again, to re-experience the joy that seemed so lacking in my life. I'd see it four more times that summer, no small achievement when you live on a farm and have to depend on someone else to drive you.

Summer ended, school began. I entered seventh grade, officially in junior high now, my world expanding slightly, my perspective altering, my tastes evolving. Somewhere along the line I discovered the notion of Serious Cinema, and what a great time the late seventies were for filmgoing: Days Of Heaven, Manhattan, Being There, All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now. I felt so adult, so sophisticated, that by 1980, when the sequel to Star Wars arrived, I barely cared.

Then I saw The Empire Strikes Back, and, well...


A pretty good day yesterday. I'd already told Tabbatha I'd take Paul shopping so he could buy a present for her, then she called in the morning and said she was thinking of going into work to pick up some overtime if I could spend a little more time with Paul. No problem.

After dinner with my sister Ann--she had to drop off the DVD of The Star Wars Holiday Special she'd burned for me, and curiously, Paul expressed no interest in seeing it--it was off to shop. Paul had two things in mind for his mom, and we bought both of them. I can't tell you one, because it would ruin the surprise, but the other one we already gave her: A watch.

In Paul's words, "She never wears a watch, so she needs one. Plus, it's purple, and she really loves purple. Plus, it has hearts on it."

I decided to price a few things while we were at it, and wound up in the electronics section. Paul wasted no time pointing all the things he wanted, then paused in front of the discount DVDs and pulled out a copy of La Bamba. "I've seen this! It's really good, but it's really sad. Have you seen it?"

"Yeah," I said, powerfully resisting the urge to geek out over Marshall Crenshaw's deathless cameo as Buddy Holly, pulling him away as he started telling me all about the movie's invented details of Richie Valens' life.

As we approached the checkout counter, Paul suggested the watch should actually be a present from both of us. Oh, I said, and why is that?

"Because it has hearts. And you still love my mom."

Um, I said, and tried to change the subject.

He'd have none of it. "You still love her, right?"


"I know you do."

Uh...Oh look, an open check-out lane!

Fortunately, the cheap toys and candy of the check-out lane served as a distraction. Whew!

In any event, when Tabbatha arrived to pick up Paul, we gave her the watch, and she seemed pleased. He picked well. And she invited me over to spend Christmas night with her family. So happy holidays, or at least, happy enough.

Friday, December 14, 2007


If we believe The New York Times, the issuance of George Mitchell's (or to use his apparent full name, Former Senator George Mitchell) report on steroid use in baseball is right up there with the release of the Pentagon Papers.

Not only front page news, but just over half a dozen sidebars, plus the complete text of the report, and (in the online edition) copious blogs, fan reactions and fency-schmency graphics.

And what's the bombshell in this report? Well, hey, it turns out some major league players used steroids. Wow. I did not see that coming.

Despite the hollow promises of MLB commissioner Bud Selig to make necessary reforms (as if Selig has ever given a rat's ass about this anyway) and the predictable indignation of player's union weenie Donald Fehr, the report is essentially toothless. Mitchell makes general suggestions rather than sweeping demands for reform, and doesn't even recommend punishment for the players named.

So what, exactly, was the point?

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Delmar just hopped off my lap following the approximately five minutes of affection he displays per day. Now he's in a corner, growling at imaginary objects. Soon, no doubt, he'll sit in the chair beside me, attempting to bite my elbow as I type.

He was the odd one out among his litter-mates, all of them more attractive, more docile, more pleasant. Del might have been marked from the moment he got stuck emerging backwards from his mother's womb, and my sister-in-law attempted to gently tug him out, and his tail snapped off in her fingers. He just wasn't meant to be normal.

His mom was a stray cat my brother's family adopted, and though she's since been spayed, at that time they had no choice but to take the kittens down to a garden supply store and put them up for adoption. But first, I could pick one for my own, since I was at that time living with them following the end of my marriage. I needed a companion, they reasoned.

All those adorable kittens, plus one cranky, wiry little half-tailed malcontent. The choice seemed obvious.

The other kittens were adopted quickly, but if Del had been on the block, would anyone have chosen him? Maybe, but it's unlikely they would have kept him, with his neurotic little yowls and angry moods and aggressive nature. He's not cute, he's not gentle, he's not what most people would want in a cat.

But he's my buddy, and I can't imagine life without him.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Sitting in my neighborhood Chinese restaurant yesterday--bravely, hungrily venturing out despite the ice storm--minding my own, business, reading The Times, tuning out the ambient sound of crying babies and Muzak.

Until one of those Muzak numbers strikes me--It can't be! But it is!--a string-laden, instrumental version of Marshall Crenshaw's neo-rockabilly classic Someday Someway.

Holy crap. Is there a Crenshaw renaissance going on that I don't know about? I know he wrote the title song to the new John C. Reilly comedy Walk Hard, but coming after last week's encounter with Starless Summer Sky at a Taco Bell, I'm beginning to think the whole world is developing Crenshaw Fever. And about time, dammit.

Of course, twenty-five years (!) since he recorded it, Someday Someway remains the closest thing Crenshaw's ever had to a hit. I would love to post his original version here, but though it's available at YouTube, embedding is disabled by request. (Why?) Still, here's an older, wiser more grizzled Marshall with a new song, Sunday Blues, followed by Someday Someway, which begins around 4:34:

The song had been kicking around for awhile before Crenshaw recorded it himself. Rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon cut the first version of it. Here he is performing it on SCTV, with awesome lead guitar provided by the late Danny Gatton. This is available on Shout Factory's first volume of SCTV episodes, and by purchasing it, you'll not only enjoy the finest sketch comedy in TV history, you'll also contribute songwriting royalties to Marshall Crenshaw. And he deserves it, frankly.

How well-known was this song during the eighties? Popular enough to enter the repertoire of those perky young fashion victims from Kids Incorporated. Ladies & Gentlemen, for your stunned bemusement, I present...Ryan Lambert!

Ye gods, you're thinking, that was horrible. Indeed it was, but it could have been worse. It could have been the distaff members of those plucky Kids From Fame. Oh, I'd love to make you squirm through it, but again...Embedding Disabled By Request. You'll just have to imagine the multi-culti (but distinctly white bread) vibe, and picture in your mind beloved character actor (and Joe Dante mainstay) Dick Miller clapping along. Or go to YouTube and watch it yourself. Whichever. Marshall would probably be amused. Or saddened. Or horrified. In any event, he probably cashed the check.


Today's New York Times has a story on Hillary Clinton's frantic attempts to interest Iowa voters in her campaign. Barack Obama has the lead here, John Edwards is neck-and-neck with Clinton, yet the Democratic party machine clearly backs Clinton, the worst possible choice.

Her behavior in Iowa shows why. While other candidates travel the entire state, stopping at small town cafes and family farms, Clinton focuses on more populated areas, hanging out with people with better educations and higher incomes--people more like her. She has no interest in relating to the masses, and when she makes the effort, condescension drips from her every pore. She doesn't care about the poor or the middle class. She may be running with the mules, but everything about her behavior and bearing suggests she'd fit in just fine with the Republicans.

Speaking of which--Mike Huckabee? Iowa has to take the blame for this one. Granted, the Republican contenders are among the sorriest bunch of creepy white guys you'll ever see, but the inexplicable surge of enthusiasm for Huckabee largely results from peeved Iowans not getting enough visits from Giuliani or Fred Thompson, and so turning to a guy who's spent way too much time here. Instead of appealing to their better angels, Huckabee exploits the latent xenophobia of the rural masses by spinning immigration horror stories, while simultaneously spouting Christian pieties. (Incidentally, did I miss something? Is there some lost gospel depicting Jesus as a fence-building racist? Or is Huckabee just a two-faced huckster?)

So as an Iowan, let me apologize in advance for the outcomes of the caucuses, whatever the results may be. On the other hand, there's only so much we can do with a two-party system offering a parade of mediocrity.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


I had today off anyway, but we're being hammered by a major winter storm, ice and snow everywhere, so I'm stuck at home. And unstuck in time.

For nine years, I worked for a company providing services for the elderly and infirm. Mostly, I drove a bus and made various deliveries. The pay wasn't great, but I could afford decent insurance and a two-week vacation every year. I lacked for nothing in those days, had money for travel and fine food while still keeping up my increasingly costly record collecting and video habits.

Not much actually happened in all those years, but it felt as though it would, I was perpetually on the verge of doing...something. Nothing was clear, but better days awaited me.

Those nine years ended almost eleven years ago, when I met Sue Ellen. We lived together, got married. Our time together totaled five years. One life ended, another began, then that one ended. Nearly six years ago.

More time, more numbers:

One year spent living with various family members, as my bank account recovered from the split with my wife and my body recovered from a suicide attempt.

Various dead-end assignations with assorted women, measured in months or weeks or days.

Two years since Mom died, which finally and definitively ended any connection to the life I'd always known.

Nearly a year and a half since I met Tabbatha, with whom the promise of another, radically different life appeared, a life based around family and children, a life I'd never known I wanted. I loved her, and her son, and was surprised and overjoyed by the depth of my feelings. But it wasn't meant to be--we split up, mere months ago.

Years and months, days and weeks, all still immediate, all fading into the past.

I recall a day like this from eleven years ago, a snow day spent languishing in front of the TV, gorging on chocolate chip cookies and reruns of TJ Hooker, Monika curled up and purring on my lap. Monika, the beloved cat I abandoned to Mom when I got married, Monika now returned to me as Mom's final gift. She looks the same, acts the same, is the same, though she's nearly fourteen.

If she's fourteen, then I'm...much older, with extra pounds, an ache in my knees and a metallic heel. But do I feel any different? Am I like Monika, so content in her little space, untouched and untroubled by the larger world? Has everything that has happened to me had any meaning? Did I miss my best days, or are they still to come? Does the past repeat, or stay behind? Why does today feel like 1996? What triggers these thoughts, these feelings?

Time is a ghost accompanying me, haunting and taunting, and in the past I've listened to its whispered warnings. But no more. Life's too short to let this ghost determine every step.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Is it the weather, or the job, or something else altogether that has me down? Not major, suicidal, nohopewhatstheuse depression, just vaguely disconnected.

Certainly the weather is contributing, non-stop snow and ice and cold, with the sun peering out for only minutes at a time, taunting and teasing, then vanishing for another week or so. It's tough to navigate the slick streets, and every day brings a fresh batch of hell, making every drive to and from my job a white-knuckle nightmare, and sapping the desire to go out after I get home from work.

Not that I have any place to go if I wanted to. It's weird reading the sappy, happy posts I put up a year ago, all full of the promise of the new life I was about to embark on with Tabbatha, overcome with the joy she was bringing me. Strange how few qualms I had, no sense of hardships to come. Though she thought I tended to be too negative, what surprises me is how optimistic I was, how being with her just felt right.

After it ended, I didn't feel sad so much as empty. And I'm not sure what that means. Sorrow or depression or would seem to be the logical reaction, based on my history, but maybe after the massive hit my emotional wiring took after my mom's death, my capacity for sadness was drained. Though I'd rather, as the sage Warren Zevon put it, feel bad than feel nothing at all, maybe the lack of feeling was the only way I had to deal with it.

But it's Christmas time, and the lights and the music only serve to remind me I'm still numb.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Cartoonist Al Scaduto has died at the age of 79.

For the last 18 years, Scaduto toiled away on the syndicated comic strip They'll Do It Every Time, a strip that had been around long before Scaduto's involvement, one usually overlooked by most readers. TDIET is a "Didja ever notice" observational strip, pointing out various foibles of everyday life.

Unexceptional in concept, but Scaduto brought an old school hipster's sensibility to it, all jazzy lingo and characters with names like Barfo and Wombo and Gaspayne. The strip seemed like something from another era, when teenagers wore dungarees and listened to bebop, but that was part of its charm.

Scaduto wasn't a great cartoonist, but he was a solid craftsman working in a medium in which his humble virtues sadly no longer seem to be required. With his passing, the funny pages become decidedly less funny.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Twenty-seven years without him. Damn.


Kind of bummed today, probably because of the crappy weather or because I have to work on the weekend or...Who knows? Anyway, I don't feel much like writing or thinking or doing much of anything.

So. A bunch of clips, then? You bet.

Neil Innes, ladies and gentlemen:

The Undertones get some Teenage Kicks:

One of my favorite Blondie songs:

Some casual surrealism from the Fleischer Studio? Why the hell not?

And in complete contrast, here's Leonard Bernstein conducting the finale of Candide, the beautiful Make Our Garden Grow. June Anderson and the late Jerry Hadley provide the (glorious) voices. Enjoy!

Friday, December 07, 2007


I'm agnostic.

Five years ago, I attempted suicide by jumping from a second-story tier onto a concrete floor. I jumped headfirst, figuring the impact of my head against cement would pretty much shatter my skull and destroy my brain. Instant oblivion.

And it would have worked, too, except somehow, on my way down, my body flipped and I landed on my feet instead. I broke bones in both feet, and completely destroyed the heel on my right foot. If I'd done that damage to my head, I'd be dead.

Yet I'm here. There's no logical way I can think of for my body to have flipped upside down in such a short distance. Is there a reason it happened? Was it not my time to go? Was I spared?

Or was it just a crazy fluke?

We can have faith, we can believe, but ultimately, none of us can know whether God exists. To some people, their religious beliefs are merely one aspect of their existence. Others exist for their beliefs. Some people act on their faith in noble ways, to enrich the world, while some allow their faith to divide them from others who share their core values.

In this country, we mock Muslims in Sudan who jailed a teacher for allowing a teddy bear to be named Muhammad, but think nothing of it when Republican candidates at a recent debate were, in essence, asked if they were Christian enough to be president. Baptists pillory Mitt Romney for the crime of being a Mormon. It's not enough to worship God, you have to engage in the proper rituals, say the right things. Oh, and shun the proper people.

Maybe it's the divisiveness of organized religion that makes me turn away. I'm agnostic, but I'm open to possibilities. When I see a particularly lovely sunset, all crimson and azure, I think yes, there is some higher power in the universe, a controlling intelligence that could be called God.

Then I look at how so many people behave in the name of that God, and my skepticism returns.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


1) Another guy goes on a shooting spree, and TV is on the scene, half-hearted alliteration at the ready: MAYHEM IN THE MIDWEST! HORROR IN THE HEARTLAND! NIGHTMARE IN NEBRASKA!

In this way, the media manages to reduce all the pain and horror of the world to insignificance. Thanks, folks.

2) The NIE report claims Iran dropped its nuclear weapons program years ago, which is even greater reason to remain vigilant against the nation because...oh hell, forget it. It's too depressing to even attempt deciphering the twisted logic of the Bushinistas anymore.

3) As I'm typing this, Delmar is curled up on my lap, his wheezy, squeaking purr vibrating his entire body, his legs wrapped around my right arm. He's allowing me some movement now, but when I first logged on the computer this morning, he'd furiously bite my arm anytime it reached for the keyboard.

Del could be the poster child for people who hate cats, but even as he rips my tender flesh, I adore him.

4) Did I mention this is another Random Thoughts post? These disconnected snippets will not add up to a coherent whole. I just woke up, and I'm emptying out the brain pan here.

5) All that worrying about the musical aspect of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd movie, and it turns out Johnny Depp really can sing.

In fact, his voice is gorgeous--not the traditional Big Broadway voice, but man, it sounds great. And though it's silly to judge a movie by a fleeting clip, I admire Burton's elegant staging here, as well. I'd been expecting the worst from this, now I really want to see it. Right now, in fact.

6) Sitting in Taco Bell yesterday, plowing through chicken and steak burritos that remind me why it's best to avoid Taco Bell, I note the music playing is Regina Spektor, which seems odd but gratifying. I read my paper and think nothing more of it.

Then the next song comes on. That opening guitar riff sure sounds familiar, but it couldn't be...holy crap, it is! Marshall Crenshaw's Starless Summer Sky, a decade-old shoulda-been hit, from Miracle Of Science, his first album for an indie label. By this point in his career, Crenshaw was (and is) strictly a cult favorite, not the type of artist you're likely to hear as background music in fast food joints.

When the next song is a Nina Simone number, my mind is officially blown.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


CBS trotted out its annual broadcast of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer last night, much as ABC last week offered up A Charlie Brown Christmas and How The Grinch Stole Christmas. These holiday perenials always garner solid ratings, as they're equally beloved by parents and children alike.

All of these productions are old school. Though The Grinch is beautifully designed (by Maurice Noble) and impeccably directed (by Chuck Jones), it is, of course, cel animated--the art form studios are convinced kids no longer want to see in the shiny new world of CGI and mocap. Charlie Brown is also cel animated, rather crudely, and its visual style is no more than functional, but its superb script and melancholy spirit make such matters irrelevant. The endearingly oddball Rudolph is brought to life by stop-motion, a technique nearly as old as film.

They also lack other mainstays of what we are these days served in the name of family entertainment. No fart jokes, no pop culture references (unless you count the caricature of Burl Ives hosting Rudolph...but really, was Burl Ives considered cool even in 1964?), no condescending vibes indicating their creative teams would rather be doing something else.

Yet they endure, and will long after whatever Big New Thing has come and gone, simply because they're good. You'd think someone in the entertainment world would be able to figure that out.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Three items of note on DVD today. First off, the massive Ford At Fox boxed set is probably the most comprehensive assemblage of one filmmaker's work ever released in one place, containing such previously released touchstones of John Ford's career as My Darling Clementine and The Grapes Of Wrath, plus previously hard-to-find items such as Judge Priest, plus a huge assemblage of silents such as The Iron Horse plus plus plenty of documentation to put it all in context. As the title states, this only includes Ford's output at Twentieth Century-Fox, so later efforts like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are not included. Nonetheless, the detail and loving care with which this project has been assembled puts similar efforts by other video distributors--most notably, Warners' pick-and-choose Stanley Kubrick box--very much to shame. The list price for this, it should be noted, is three hundred bucks...but if you're a Ford obsessive, worth every penny.

Next, a reissue of my favorite Martin Scorsese picture, 1977's underappreciated New York, New York. Scorsese once stated this story of the rocky romance between a singer and saxophone player in the post-W W II era was an attempt to make a movie that would look as though it had been co-directed by Vincente Minnelli and John Cassavetes. He succeeded admirably well, the film's often dazzling surface matched by an almost unbearable intensity as it charts the downward spiral of its love story. Stunning performances by Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli, gorgeous design and camerawork and several original songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb all contribute to the greatest movie ever made about the inevitable problems of neurotic artistic types in love. (Not that, koff koff, I'm speaking from personal experience or anything...)

Finally, SNL: Season Two reminds us of the time when Saturday Night Live ceased being a late-night experiment and became, briefly, one of the greatest shows in TV history. The departure of Chevy Chase, the arrival of Bill Murray, the flowering of Michael O'Donoghue's talent ("The Little Engine That Died" segment of Mr. Mike's Least-Loved Bedtime Tales is, for my money, one of the greatest pieces of comic writing ever), a document of its time ("Let's Kill Gary Gilmore For Christmas"), amazing guest hosts (Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, Sissy Spacek, Shelly Duvall), unbelievable music (John Prine, Ry Cooder, The Band, Paul Simon, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Neil Innes...Holy crap! It's like they hired me to book the music!) and above all, a clear desire to do something good, to astonish, to raise the bar. It doesn't always work, and some sketches are more squirm-inducing than anything else, but this season and the next would represent a show trying for greatness, and occasionally succeeding. A treasure--too bad it couldn't last.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Good news: No more fake Nyquil in my system. I might be coherent! Let's find out as we wade through some Random Thoughts:

1) I really, really wish I could think of something profound to say about the death of Evel Knievel. As a kid, the man was like unto a god to me. Well, not so much a god as a well-paid, jumpsuited cracker who jumped over shit on a motorcycle. But in the seventies, that was all it took. We didn't know from cable or the Interweb or any of that crazy hoo-ha that would come later. We had three networks, and if one of them devoted an hour on a Thursday night to some redneck leaping over a bunch of semis, you watched. And talked about it at school the next day.

I remember Dale Louk was the coolest kid in school for awhile because he not only had the Evel Knievel action figure and motorcycle but all the accessories, the ramps and stunt garages and whatnot. The rest of us spent recess just watching, begging for the right to at least touch Evel's plastic likeness.

Then we hit junior high, and Evel went to jail for beating up his manager with a baseball bat, and we never really cared again.

2) I really don't pay attention to football, but it's worth mentioning that the Jets actually won another game! True, that means they're only 3-9 for the entire season, and the win was against the even more hapless Dolphins, but still, for the Jets, this borders on competence.

The loser here, of course, would be the Knicks, who can no longer claim they aren't the worst pro sports team in New York.

3) Hugo Chavez lost his bid to be Venezuela's Benevolent Dictator For Life by a narrow but convincing margin. Chavez is the latest proof of the old saw about absolute power corrupting absolutely, but even though much of the defeated referendum consisted of naked power grabs, much in it also involved genuine efforts to improve the lot of the nation's citizens. Chavez is a bit of a douchebag, but he's fairly well-respected by the people of his country; they apparently wanted to remind him there are limits. Sometimes democracy works.

4) On the other hand, Vladimir Putin's party consolidated power in Russia. In the interest of pretending to bow to the niceties of the law, Putin says he will only serve the two consecutive terms as president he's allowed. But he's not planning on going away, and one of the post-presidential roles he's claiming for himself is something called "father of the nation"--which, given Putin's KGB background and conspicuous resemblance to a James Bond villain doesn't sound the least bit ominous.

5) I actually had a dream about the new Indiana Jones movie. That's just sad.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Couldn't let this pass without mention: Today's New York Times features a profile of stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody, author of the well-regarded new comedy Juno. Not worth mentioning, except at one point in the article, author David Carr refers to Cody's "history as a do-me feminist."

Y'know, there was time, not too long ago, when so august a publication as The Times would never even consider using a phrase like "do-me feminist." We should pause now and remember those days, with appropriate mock solemnity, as we attempt to muffle our giggles.


You should know I'm still loopy from some store-brand Nyquil knockoff. Expect no logic here, or coherence, or any discernable point. I'm just tapping away and giddy, riding the buzz.

We--and by "we" I mean central Iowa in general, but specifically myself and my cats, forced to endure my presence pretty much constantly yesterday--got hit by an ice storm yesterday, which meant it was well nigh (Well Nigh The Science Guy! Coming soon to a PBS station near you!) impossible to travel yesterday, which meant hanging out and watching movies, which renders the notion of time meaningless.

So shortly after seven, while enduring the nightmare of The Rockettes' Christmas Whoop-De-Doo (not the actual title, of course, but like I'm going to bother looking it up), I decide my day is pretty well shot, might as well take the aforementioned Nyquil-like product, read for awhile (a book on Sidney Lumet--Jeebus, what a geek!), then hit the road to dreamland.

Dreamland arrives sooner than expected, so quickly I don't even shut off the TV. I dream of bad SNL reruns and David Caruso's sunglasses and hastily-assembled hosts of infomercials. Somewhere in my sleep (or lightly drug-fueled haze), I must be flipping channels.

I awake at four or five AM, and realize my local CW affiliate shows reruns of the UPN sitcom Half And Half, which I've never even heard of, but which stars Rachel True. She, of course, is one of the babes from The Craft, and in that movie she's hotter than Neve Campbell but not as hot as Fairuza Balk.

Why do I know this? Come on! Who the hell was The Craft made for? Teenage girls? No way, my friend. What with it's quartet of hot babes in Goth schoolgirl outfits, it was clearly made for pathetic lonely guys everywhere, who'd obsessively watch it every time it shows up on cable, which for a time was every five minutes or so.

I go back to sleep, but upon waking find myself inexplicably drawn to the IMDb, reading the entries on Rachel True and Fairuza Balk. About Faiuza, we learn she writes poetry, loves to sing and her favorite authors include William Burroughs, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde.

Poetry and singing are huge signifiers right there, but Burroughs, Joyce and Wilde? This chick is seriously fucked up. So how come I'm not dating her?

Friday, November 30, 2007


Trying to decide which topic I'd rather pursue here--the death of hypocritical jackhole Henry Hyde (the Republican congressman who led the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton for the crime of lying about a blow job, even though Hyde himself cheated on his wife) or Our Beloved President's insistence that congress hand over as much money as he wants for Iraq, no questions asked--I spent too much time thinking about both of these, and some sort of chain reaction started in my brain and paralyzed my entire body, making me unable to write anything other than wearying, paragraph-long sentences...and who needs that?

So instead of dealing with that, let's just sit back and enjoy Peter Sellers on The Muppet Show, shall we?

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Arriving at work yesterday, I was handed a Performance Review to fill out.

How have you displayed the company's core values in your job, how have you treated your co-workers, how have you displayed ethics at work, blah blah, the usual bullshit.

Then, inevitably, a space to describe Next Year's Goals.

Part of me thinks honesty is the way to go here. Though I'll no doubt scribble something about trying to "meet expectations," I want to say I'm lowering my expectations, that instead of giving a rat's ass and railing against the blatant inefficiency and obvious favoritism I encounter everyday, I should just put my brain in neutral and coast. I should cease caring and simply wander the hallways, blandly performing whatever Sisyphean tasks are assigned me.

Hey, it's what I do in my real life.

Was it only a year ago I filled this space with shiny happy posts about the new life I was about to embark on with Tabbatha? Co-habitation, probable marriage, with a kid already in place and hell, maybe even another in the future. A ready-made family, a life I'd never known. It seems so recent, and so long ago.

Since Tabbatha and I ceased to be, what has become of me? I've gone around with a couple of women, but expectations were low, and even then, weren't met. Mostly, I just hang out, go to work, zone. I'm only forty-two, but there's already a sense my life is winding down.

Things can change, of course. I remain open to that possibility. But my life is a testament to my inability to maintain a relationship, to hold down a job without getting bored, an unstable mix of restlessness and stasis. This may be all there will ever be.

Most nights as I settle into bed, music plays. Classical, usually, sometimes jazz, sometimes Marshall Crenshaw or Steely Dan. Monika burrows under my side, her head snuggled into my armpit, her purring so loud the whole bed shakes. Delmar wraps his front legs around one of my feet, occasionally gnawing on a toe until he drifts off to sleep. I can feel their breathing, and my own, as the music fades and darkness swallows me, and a strange sense of contentment rises.

Maybe if this is all there is, it's enough.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


A bit late, but I wanted to note the passing of comedy writer Mel Tolkin at age 94.

He was born Shmuel Tolchincky in the Ukraine, and when he became a professional in the entertainment industry, he changed his name--shades of The Jazz Singer!--to hide his occupation from his family. He became a tummler in the Poconos, which led to a gig writing for Sid Caesar. When Caesar landed You Show Of Shows, Tolkin became its head writer, and a comedy legend.

On Show Of Shows and the subsequent Caesar's Hour, Tolkin preside over a staff that included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil and Danny Simon, Sheldon Keller and Woody Allen, irascible, fast-talking New York Jews determined to out-guilt, out-shout and out-funny each other. It was a heady atmosphere, a mixture of terror (mostly over Caesar's legendary anger), flop sweat and pure inspiration. These guys (and one woman, Lucille Kallen) were some of the best comedy writers ever, and the writing room as Tolkin ran it is still the model used for sketch comedies today. The atmosphere can never be quite the same, because the stakes will never be quite as high--for today's writers, sketch comedy is just a pit stop on the way to a lucrative movie career. For Tolkin and company, it was their lives.

Surprisingly little from Show Of Shows is out there on the Interweb, but here's a classic bit with Caesar and Nanette Fabray. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Kelly Masterson's script for Before The Devil Knows You're Dead too often underlines its points, telegraphs its surprises and features some unbelievable plot points. If it had been filmed by a typical post-Tarentino tyro, I'd be sitting here complaining.

Instead, 83-year-old Sidney Lumet directed, apparently reworking the script along the way. (Making the thieving, squabbling protagonists brothers was, apparently, Lumet's contribution, and a major one.) Though Before The Devil deals with a heist gone wrong, it's not a caper film. Lumet's done that to death. (The Anderson Tapes, most notably.) And though there's guns and bloodshed, it's not a crime thriller, either. (Though, again, Lumet has plenty of those on his resume.)

Genre elements are played down, as Lumet and his superb cast--Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney--find the absolutely real, breathing characters inhabiting this script. These people are all desperate--brothers Hoffman and Hawke need money, Tomei needs love and Finney's overwhelming grief turns into a desperate, pathetic need for revenge. Lumet never excuses their actions, but never condescends to them, either. We know all too well why they're doing what they're doing.

It's hard to entirely evaluate a movie like Before The Devil based on an initial viewing. Sometimes a film you know is flawed can linger in your memory to the point where its flaws cease to matter. Sometimes a first view produces great admiration, but leaves little further impression. It may be that as I think about certain plot points, Before The Devil will become a lesser film in my mind.

But then I'll remember the extraordinary moments, such as Hoffman's quiet, pathetic rage after his wife leaves him, emotionlessly tearing the sheets off the bed, tossing a plant in the closet, curling up on the mattress, the camera craning over him, finally reaching a godlike, judgmental position.

That scene also shows Lumet's absolute mastery of his material. He's never been a director with a recognizable style; he's always tried to fit the form to the material. In that sense, he's often been underrated, dismissed in many quarters as an "actor's director," as though he doesn't know what to do with a camera.

Oh, but he does. In Before The Devil, Lumet lets each individual scene dictate its own rhythm, its own coverage. Some scenes are furiously cut together, jangled and raw. Some are shot in long takes, or only in master shots. Sometimes the camera is handheld and prying, sometimes it backs away. Most shots make use of naturalistic lighting, but the scene in which Finney's grief reaches its ultimate state features dark, carefully composed colors out of Rembrandt.

This sounds like a clumsy jumble, but Lumet's approach allows every scene to find its own truth, which all add up to one larger truth. The plot mechanics of Before The Devil Knows You're Dead may creak at times, but that emotional truth, its portrait of the slow, sad collapse of one family's American dream, make it one of the most vital and exciting movies I've seen in a long, long time.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Still haven't seen No Country For Old Men, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead or I'm Not There yet...but I have seen Enchanted.

Naturally, there was a kid involved. But I'd actually grown curious the more I'd read about Enchanted. The initial trailer looked kinda dopey, but the reviews were surprisingly strong, and director Kevin Lima is a veteran Disney animator, so if anybody could handle a spoof of Disney's "Princess" tradition, while still maintaining respect for Uncle Walt's very real accomplishments, Lima would probably be the guy.

And, you know, it', it's okay. Parts of it work beautifully--the opening animated sequence sets a perfect tone, there's a wonderful production number set in Central Park, the climax nicely pays tribute to one of my favorite Disney epics, Sleeping Beauty. The performances are all terrific, with Amy Adams note-perfect as our poor, bewildered heroine, trapped in a world she doesn't understand.

But there's a distasteful gag involving a chipmunk turd--when did defecation become acceptable gag material in family films?--and one elaborately staged sequence, clearly designed to make us swoon, is unfortunately set to a song burdened by a cheesy eighties lite-pop arrangement.

There's one other thing that bugged me and wouldn't let go. The film's premise, of course, is that an animated fairy tale character somehow finds herself in the "real world" of New York, and is absolutely clueless about everything around her. She's unfamiliar with cars, money or the concept of sarcasm.

Okay. I'll accept that, although somehow I always assumed every imaginary kingdom had some kind of monetary system, and all these stories tend to have at least one character making sarcastic asides. But okay, I'll play along.

Until the point where our heroine, finding herself in a stranger's apartment, decides to tidy up the place. In true Disney heroine fashion, she calls on all her animal friends to help as she sings a Happy Working Song. It's a pretty funny concept (this being New York, the only available animals are rats, pigeons and mosquitoes), well-staged...and then, her song makes reference to a vacuum cleaner.

Well, no. She wouldn't have any idea what a vacuum cleaner is. You can't establish a premise, then casually betray it, and ask us to go along any more. Enchanted is precisely the kind of movie that requires a light, delicate touch. One false move and the whole thing collapses like a castle built on sand.

Of course, if you ask anyone else, they'll tell you I overthink these things, and it didn't ruin the movie for me, but dammit, I'm right about this. No, seriously, I am. No, really...

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Flipping channels early in the morning, I noticed the local CW affiliate graced us with a broadcast of that timeless classic, Con Air.

This movie represents everything wrong with filmmaking today.

Consider its trio of above-the-title stars: Nicholas Cage, John Cusack and John Malkovich. At the time of its release, it was still possible to wonder what the hell these guys were doing in a crappy movie like this. Sure, Cage was fresh off The Rock, his previous mind-numbing Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza, but at the time, it was possible to think it was just a one-off. The guy'd recently won an Oscar, he'd worked with the Coen Brothers and David Lynch, surely he wasn't going to make a career out of this sort of thing.


The same with Cusack and Malkovich. This was pre-Must Love Dogs Cusack, pre-Beowulf Malkovich, when their names still meant something. Sure, they'd done bad movies before this, but nothing extravagantly bad, not the types of things you'd know would be bad before signing on.

And let's face it, they all had to know going in how bad this would be. The title alone should have told them, or a casual perusal of the unbearably arch script, or the fact that director Simon West's most noteworthy previous credit was a Rick Astley video.

Mostly, of course, they knew it would be bad because Jerry Bruckheimer produced. Sure, Bruckheimer's movies have pushed many a star into the mega-star category. But at what price?

What if Eddie Murphy hadn't been in Beverly Hills Cop, what if Tom Cruise hadn't done Top Gun, if Ben Affleck had steered clear of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, if Johnny Depp had avoided the whole Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise? Mightn't their subsequent careers have been more interesting without the burden of superstardom? Was compels a man (and let's face it, with Bruckheimer it's always men...unless you count Coyote Ugly, and if I spent any time considering that, I'd never stop vomiting) to surrender their integrity and sign on with Bruckheimer?

Money, obviously, but it's not like any of these guys needed it. Their careers seemed just fine--Cusack had just finished the very fine Grosse Point Blank when he signed on for Con Air--but they craved something more. They wanted the Big Score, the Blockbuster.

Careful what you wish for.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Oh, it's easy to make fun of this.

Wow, a Realistic brand 8-track player? The perfect complement to your seventies lifestyle--cruising down the smog-choked freeway, reeking of Hai Karate, cursing stagflation as you enjoy the mellow magic of Vicki Lawrence and Maureen McGovern as they were meant to be heard, using Realistic's patented Distort-O technology!

Yet, somehow, this just makes me kind of sad.

The Big New Now being sold here, the amazing world of car stereo, seems so achingly antiquated now...but won't the products of our own time seem embarrassingly outdated twenty or thirty years from now? Isn't everything ultimately obsolete? Doesn't the bloom of the new eventually fade from everything, leaving only dispassionate acceptance or bitter ennui? Isn't our entire civilization, everything we've ever known or cared about, destined to be a cosmic curio, of no greater final significance than a K-Tel Power Hits 8-track?

Friday, November 23, 2007


Tabbatha invited me to Thanksgiving dinner with her family. I agreed to come--her mother's home-made, oven-baked macaroni and cheese would be enough to get me there--but admit some trepidation.

After all, it had been quite awhile since I'd seen these people, and the last time I did, I was Tabbatha's boyfriend. Now I'm...whatever I am. Ex-boyfriend but still friend, the guy who takes her kid on outings, I don't know.

All doubts and concerns vanished as soon as I arrived, just in time for the food. Everyone was gracious and kind, and seemed genuinely happy to see me. I felt very comfortable there, as I had on previous occasions. But then, I was a potential in-law, a possible part of the family. Now...well, it didn't matter; I was still welcome.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I was going to prattle on about more weird pop culture ephemera from the seventies--commercials, talk shows, TV movies--and who knows, I still might. But not today, or tomorrow, either, I suspect, since what with working the holiday and the day after and whatnot, I'm not anticipating having much time to write.

(And yes, even when I'm just posting old Twinkie and Hamburger Helper ads, I put more thought into these things than may be readily apparent. Which is just kind of sad, I know, but hey...)

Anyway, I felt like starting my day with some Cheap Trick, and hope you do, too. First, from their first album (which ranks very high on the list of Greatest Things In The World), He's A Whore.

And a live version of one of the highlights of the second album (which also ranks pretty high on The Greatest Things fact, if you ignore much of their eighties output, Cheap Trick could damn near own that list), Downed. Enjoy your turkey and stuffing, if you do that sort of thing. If you don't, have a good day anyhow.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Planned to use my day off before my work-jammed holiday weekend to see No Country For Old Men, finally playing here in Des Moines. Unfortunately, snow blanketed the area, much to the apparent surprise of local weather prognosticators, and while it wasn't a storm by any means, road crews were caught unawares and the streets remained untreated and slick, making a trip out to suburbland to hole up in darkness for two hours a dicey proposition.

So instead I stayed home and watched old Sgt. Bilko episodes, which come to think of it is probably better than anything else I could have done. Before that, though, I wound up yet again at my neighborhood Chinese restaurant--I seem to have a regular seat--and enjoyed my usual meal.

This time, however, I was struck by the odd mix of music playing in the background. Usually this place features the standard mix of generic oldies and gen pop-friendly contemporary hits. But it seemed to be weepy balladeer day--two Gene Pitney songs (Only Love Can Break A Heart and Town Without Pity), plus Without You (Mariah Carey's version, unfortunately, but still...) and Rufus Wainwright's Barcelona.

(That last one makes me wonder how outre a song can be and still get played in bland corporate settings. Once as I grocery shopped, in between the standard Hall & Oates and Billy Joel tunes, I heard a familiar synth riff. It couldn't be, I thought, but soon Alan Vega's mumbling, keening vocals kicked in--Suicide's Cheree as background music for buying milk! That's just...wrong.)

I ate more quickly than usual, afraid the music was going to become too depressing, even for me. What if they started playing Lost In The Stars, or some Nick Cave or Jim Carroll. I like pineapple chicken as much as anyone, but not when its served with a side of emotional arsenic.


Whiny, puffy ex-Bush spokesman Scott McClellan claims in his upcoming book he was ordered to deliberately lie about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, and that Bush and Cheney were the very people behind it.

YAY! HOORAY! McClellan no longer works for the White House, so the administration can't claim executive immunity when the Democrats subpoena him and--

What? The Democrats aren't doing anything? Yeah, I know congress is on break and all, but come on. This is the smoking gun, proof positive that the rulers of our nation knowingly lied to the American people, and deliberately compromised national security by exposing a covert operative. This is an impeachable offense, folks. This is a big deal.

But not as big a deal as kicking back for the holidays, and after that it back to campaign mode, and all that talk of impeachment just harshes the national buzz.

Okay, Democrats, fuck yourselves. If you can't do something with this, you don't deserve even my reluctant support. I'm sitting out this election. I'm not voting. You can't be trusted any more than the Republicans.

And as Han Solo once said, I'll see you in Hell.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I hadn't planned to spend this week noting the strange undercurrents of seemingly dull seventies TV commercials, but the actor Dick Wilson has died at the age of 91, and his lasting fame came from one role.

Gee, that's..., uh..."a whole inch," that's kind of...

...well, that's just creepy. From the sledgehammer innuendos to the portrait of a network of suburban squeezing fetishists to Mr. Whipple's chilling, shameful inability to admit his own addiction, these commercials could only have been produced and accepted by a nation desperately trying to keep its collective id closeted.

It's weird. I grew up with these things, and never really paid any attention to them. Looking at them now, the only reaction is, What the hell were they thinking? But what were we all thinking? These ads manage to be monumentally stupid in concept, bland and uninteresting in execution...and breathtakingly perverse in subtext. Were we all too repressed in the seventies to notice how weird this stuff was, or too busy ingesting massive amounts of coke at key parties to pay attention?

Monday, November 19, 2007


Oh, the seventies. Were we really so bland, so naive, so lacking in irony? Would we just accept any stupid commercial pitchman that ambled down the pike?

I love how utterly whitebread the housewife is (no career outside the home for this proper suburban gal!), and how calmly she accepts the Lovecraftian manifestation of sinister forces from worlds beyond casually appearing in her kitchen.

Mostly, I love imagining the animation tests that must have been done to get out cheerful li'l hand guy to do that finger snap. There must have been footage of him smashing in his face with his own fingers. Couldn't have been any more disturbing than what we got, though.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Dreary, rainy, cold. Mid-afternoon and I head as I do too often for my neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I sit in the car for a bit, watching people enter and leave, listening to the wind roar, aware of my solitude.

The first time I ate here, my mom was with me. My brother and I ate here the day of her funeral.

I've brought friends here, and unexpectedly run into friends here. Mostly, I eat by myself, alone in a corner with that day's New York Times, the same food, the same drink, the same tip.

I've had dinner here with almost every woman I've known in the last five years, the casual dates and the long-term relationships. None of these ever worked out.

When Tabbatha and I planned on moving in together, it would have been someplace else, a different neighborhood, another part of town. That didn't happen, of course. I still miss her, still wonder what happened, and know that I should move on, get out of this place, this rut, this part of my life.

Yet I'm still here. The sky is gray and the wind is bitter. The whole day feels numb, and so do I.


So I saw Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, and before I say anything about that, take a look at this:


First of all--David Cross is in this? One of the greatest stand-up comedians in history, a brilliant writer ("The Legend Of T.J. O'Pootertoot's" from The Ben Stiller Show), co-creator of one of the greatest things in TV history, Mr. Show--and now this? I figured the cast members of Arrested Development would eventually do embarrassing things after the show's cancellation, but I didn't figure Cross would be the first to soil our fond memories. (My money was on Jason Bateman.)

But aside from that--Jeebus, what a depressing spectacle. Just what you want in a movie aimed at kids: fart gags, porno references and the apparent underlying message that life isn't worth living unless you're a "success"--that is, famous. I can't think of anything, anything more noxious to put out there for a kiddie audience.

The script is credited to Jon Vitti, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi. Vitti wrote for The Simpsons back when that really meant something. McRobb and Viscardi created The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, a kid's show so awesome it attracted guest stars like Steve Buscemi, Syd Straw and Marshall Crenshaw. Now the three of them get together and decide a CGI chipmunk trying to get Jason Lee laid is perfect kiddie fodder. This isn't just stupid and insulting, it's morally bankrupt.

Happily--a word I never thought I'd use in reference to a movie featuring Dustin Hoffman channeling Ed Wynn--Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium has none of that. It's not a great movie, but it isn't bad at all, and has a genuine sweetness and sense of modesty. It isn't smugly self-satisfied (like Tim Burton's dreadful Charlie And The Chocolate Factory), and is blissfully free of pop culture references meant to amuse adults. True, there's a Mourning Becomes Electra pun, and a shout-out to Istanbul (Not Constantinople), but these are obscure enough it's unlikely most parents would get them. This is a rare movie made for kids that actually seems to like them, that isn't embarrassed about what it is, that doesn't smirk or talk down. Plus, Kermit The Frog has a cameo!

The thing is, Kermit's bit actually got a huge response from the packed audience of kids. Let that be a lesson, Hollywood: If you want to make entertainment for kids, get out those Muppet Show DVDs and see how it's done.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Having spent so much time making fun of the very title of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium--as so many have pointed out, it sounds like something Troy McClure once starred in, which means soon Dustin Hoffman may be hosting the instructional film Alice's Adventures Through The Windshield Glass--you can imagine my surprise to discover I'll be seeing it today.

Well, Paul wants to see it, and for one very good reason: It has Natalie Portman. Or, as he thinks of her, Padme. He found a Star Wars connection where I hadn't. Well played, sir.

Of course, Paul's eight, and is into the prequels much more than me. He doesn't even share my inexplicable Admiral Ackbar obsession, which manifests itself mostly by repeatedly muttering

which is, of course, just sad.

Friday, November 16, 2007


If you waste time at various entertainment-based websites, you'll find there's not a lot of sympathy out there for the Writer's Guild strike. The attitude seems to be, Hey these people are hacks and don't deserve what they're already making, and besides, now i can't watch new episodes of the shows I claim to hate.

But the studios, bless their poisoned hearts, appear to be unwittingly drumming up support for the writers by going out of their way to appear dickish.

Universal has not only suspended production on all scripted shows--perfectly understandable, with no scripts available--but has invoked the force majeure clause in the actors' contracts, suspending them on half pay for now, threatening to terminate them altogether if the strike continues. Universal is said to be considering taking similar actions against the writers of their shows.

Uh, excuse me, but...why? Whenever the strike is settled, don't you want to resume production of your shows? If you piss off the cast and writers, aren't they likely to go elsewhere? What is the plan here? Surely the shows you are producing have some value, and if they do, isn't it because the audience has some emotional investment in the characters? And if suddenly those characters are played by different actors, do you really think audiences won't notice?

Even dumber is the action taken by Sony, which has told castmembers of two of its sitcoms they're being put on unpaid hiatus--but are still contractually bound to the studio.

The Screen Actor's Guild is claiming this is an outright violation of the terms of the actors' contracts. Since SAG is mulling the possibility of its own strike next year, pissing off the most visible of Hollywood players doesn't seem like a wise move.

Yes, many actors are grotesquely overpaid--Nicholas Cage makes twenty million per picture? Seriously?--but the fact is, most people go to movies because they want to see movie stars. The studios (or more accurately, their controlling conglomerates) must realize this, right?