Saturday, June 30, 2007


Knots of despair, whimpers of pain, creeping ennui.

I was going to write about the Supreme Court's decision to all but eliminate Affirmitive Action, to blindly and disingenously pretend this country no longer has a race problem, when I read the Court has agreed to hear a case deciding whether prisoners at Gitmo have a right to challenge their incarceration. Given the depressing Roberts-Alito-Scalia-Thomas bloc, I have a terrifying feeling we all know how this will go.

On the other hand, one of the few known examples of Our Beloved President attempting to do the right thing, his severely compromised but not wholly deplorable Immigration Bill was defeated by his Republican cronies, who openly mocked Bush and the bill itself, not even bother trying to code the racism lurking behind the decision. Bush is already yesterday's news, apparently, and the Republicans have clearly decided they can't elect another president without the support of the KKK.

And Iraq. Oh, Iraq, oh! Even the U.S.-installed puppet prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is decrying the latest American assault on Sadr City, an area he has barred U.S. forces from touching. But blithely came the troops, wiping out "terrorists" in the name of "freedom", though Iraqi cops and hospital workers swear the people killed were civilians still in bed.

Needles in my brain, trembling in my soul, then a shrug. It has happened, and will again. God damn.

Friday, June 29, 2007


It was only a dream, and I know that--me curled up, almost asleep, with beloved Pinback draped across me. Pinback, strange visitor from another world, who took the form of an earthly cat, but who is no longer of this world--that's how I know I'm dreaming.

Then pounding at the door, quiet at first, gradually louder, and I hear Mom's voice, "I'm sorry to wake you up, honey, but I need to ask you something--"

I wake up.

"What?" I wonder at first, "What did you need to ask?"

I give my head a moment to clear. No significance to this dream, I think, as I note Midnight is nestled up beside me, something he hasn't done the whole time I've had him. I don't believe in messages from beyond, or strange portents. My subconscious just took me somewhere. No meaning. The same thing with Midnight--he just chose this moment to hop up into the bed.

The phone rings, loud enough to scramble my heartbeat, one time. Then silence.

Midnight rises, meows at me twice and leaves. I'm drenched in sweat but still pull the covers over me, trembling in the dark.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


This is the sort of humor that's utterly indefensible by any rational standards, except it makes me laugh:

Eighty-one years ago today, little Melvin Kaminsky was born in the Bronx. Upon entering showbiz--as a tummler in the Catskills--he changed it to Mel Brooks.

He wasn't the first comedian to make me laugh, but he was the first one to make me laugh so hard I literally couldn't breathe. That was when I was ten, the first time I saw Blazing Saddles. Specifically, this scene:

Hey, I was ten, and for whatever reason, that "Kansas City faggots" line killed me. Still does, especially since I now realize Brooks meant the word "faggot" to offend. Nobody really appreciates Blazing Saddles as a subversive work, but there's no way this movie could get made today.

But we're here to celebrate Mel, not to go off on a rant, so let's hear the man himself:

And let's watch him, singing and dancing with his beloved wife, the late Anne Bancroft:

Brooks reigned as my all-time comedy idol for...well, only for one summer, actually. My brother Keith, who took me to that fateful screening of Blazing Saddles, took me that fall to The Return Of The Pink Panther, and my Peter Sellers obsession was born. But that's another story. Today is all about Mel:

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Stuff you could get on DVD starting today would include Warner's Camp Classics series (necessary for Willis O'Brien, Sergio Leone and Howard Hawks completists), Frankenstein Vs. Baragon (weird even by the warped standards of normalcy associated with Japanese monster movies), La Jetee (which you could watch as of last week on YouTube, if you don't mind seing a crappy copy in low res) or a hilarious concert set by the great comedian Louis C.K.

My first choice would be Volume 11 of Rhino's ongoing Mystery Science Theater 3000 boxed sets. I would refer to MST3K as my favorite TV comedy ever, and it may be, but what about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I tend to regard as TV's greatest sitcom ever? But if that's true, where does that leave Sgt. Bilko or WKRP? What about Get A Life or The Larry Sanders Show? Are those even sitcoms?

Naming favorites and making "Best Of" lists is all kind of arbitrary, isn't it? I certainly believe 2001 is the greatest film of all time, but is it my favorite? What about Singin' In The Rain or Dumbo or Once Upon A Time In The West or Meet Me In St. Louis--all outstanding, all my favorite movie ever, depending on the day or mood.

And as for music, forget it--I can't even name my favorite Threepenny Opera cast recording or Marshall Crenshaw album, much less choose among Rubber Soul or Revolver or What's Going On or Dusty In Memphis as the greatest thing ever recorded.

Maybe it's best to say whatever I'm watching or listening to or reading is the greatest thing in the world at that time. That way, I'm always doing something worthwhile. Unless I'm watching Xanadu...


The New York Times has, for whatever inscrutable reasons of its own, run this piece by Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, which tells us Gitmo is a wonderful place, and for the sake of God, country, and Our Beloved President's War On Terror, it must remain open, despite the number of prisoners who have been released, despite the tales of torture and brutality told even by people who have worked there, despite the condemnation of human rights groups around the world. But by God, Davis has been there, and based on what he's seen, it's pretty much a day camp.

This piece is likely part of the script the Empire is preparing as part of their campaign. Given that whoever the Republicans nominate for president will simply become the latest empty suit to front for the shadowy cabal currently running the country, you'd think it would be easy to find a Democrat to support, and naturally, you'd be wrong.

The presumed and all-but-annointed front-runner, Hillary Clinton, carries so much negative baggage (most obviously, her patrician contempt for common folk becomes more apparent the more she tries to hide it) that even a party as hapless as the Democrats realizes she may not be The Chosen One. A more rational party would start listening more closely to what Dennis Kuchinich has to say, or even start grooming John Edwards (a desperation move, I know, but hey...). Instead, many party insiders are pleading with Al Gore to enter the race.

Let me say that again: They want Al Gore.

Um, folks? Hello? This guy already had his shot, and he lost. And don't give me that bullshit about Nader "stealing" votes away, or how Gore actually won the popular vote but Bush staged a coup. The fact of the matter is, Gore couldn't score a decisive victory against a pathetic lightweight like George W. Bush. It's his own damn fault that he lost, and he should just whore himself out as a pundit and leave us decent people alone.

Right now, Democrats seem to think hating Bush is enough of a platform. It's not. Polls show Americans are disgusted with both parties, probably because they know they both drink from the same poisoned well. The Republican congress was defeated last fall because people thought there would be real, meaningful change, but once in charge, Democrats simply became the very thing they'd professed to hate. Powerful the dark side is. And winning.

Monday, June 25, 2007


According to an article in today's New York Times, a growing shortage in the world's tuna supplies is forcing sushi chefs to consider alternatives, such as smoked duck and deer meat. What I want to know is, how will this shortage affect my ability to enjoy tuna casserole?

Man, I likes me some tuna casserole. No, I mean I really like tuna casserole. No, I know you think you know what I mean, but trust me, you have no idea. Tuna casserole is the greatest culinary creation since...well, ever.

Oh, you scoff. Sure, it's considered declasse, a staple of all self-non-respecting white trash households. And yeah, it's the standard housewarming meal for new residents of the Charterstone housing complex, as prepared by that dreaded meddling comic strip harridan, Mary Worth. And all right, it's TUNA FUCKING CASSEROLE! Go ahead, make fun.

So my tastes aren't that refined. Growing up, I ate lots of Spaghetti-Os and Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls. I preferred Potato Buds to homemade mashed potatoes. I could actually tell the difference between Swanson's and Banquet TV dinners, and had a preference.

Compared to that, tuna casserole seems classy. In the old days, Mom used Campbell's Cream of Celery soup, then poured a can full of water into the mix. It was less a casserole and more of a standard, kind of runny noodle dish, only--and I can't stress this enough--with tuna. Tuna!

Later, the mix was refined, baked in the oven in a proper casserole dish. Later still, Mom sprinkled breadcrumbs on the top. (This is important: Breadcrumbs. Not potato chips. Anybody who crumbles potato chips on tuna casserole is just wrong. And if they throw peas in...ugh. It's well-known fact in nature that peas and tuna don't mix. Like the Jets and the Sharks, only with less dancing.)

Paprika became part of the standard recipe after Mom saw Ed Grimley going on about it once (!), and there was some weird additional spice she added I never identified, but it took her already tuna-riffic creation into the stratosphere, taste-wise. She'd make bulk supplies of the stuff, and I'd take it back to my place, enjoying it at least twice a week.

Now that Mom's gone, I've had to figure out how to make tuna casserole all by myself. I've inherited her casserole dish, and God knows it's not the most challenging food to prepare, but somehow it's just not the same.

I still eat it, though.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Weird. The Des Moines "alternative weekly" Cityview has been around fifteen years this week.

I used to write for them, Jesus, twelve, eleven years ago. Very few of the staffers from those days are still around, the paper has changed owners, and the retrospective piece running in the latest issue implies Cityview in those days was a bit undisciplined, tended to shock for the sake of shocking, was some kind of rag.

Maybe, but it was a hell of a lot more fun to read than it is now.

Cityview's online archives don't go back far enough for me to link to any pieces I wrote back then, and I have copies of only a few of those columns myself. I don't remember the person who wrote them. He still had two parents and three brothers, hadn't been married, much less divorced, and he wrote every word like his life depended on it. He was scared life was passing him by, but somehow determined to archive every minute of it.

Prior to writing for Cityview, I mostly wrote fiction, none of it ever published. I agonized over every word. Then I started writing for my hometown paper, TV and movie reviews, mostly, but it wasn't until I got the gig at Cityview that I finally just let the words flow. I remember knocking out many columns with the assistance of a six pack of Rolling Rock and The Replacements cranked full blast. It'll never be that easy again.

Here's an amazing clip of The 'Mats in '86 running through Bastards Of Young at a soundcheck. Time goes so fast. Memories fade. Whatever. Enjoy:

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Bob Evans, the founder and namesake of the Bob Evans restaurant chain has died at the age of 89.

The only reason I have any knowledge of or fondness for Evans' crappy joints is because of my initial confusion regarding their name. Never having even heard of the chain until a jaunt through the Quad Cities (if any time spent in the Quad Cities could be referred to as a "jaunt"), I was under the impression that perhaps the place was run under the auspices of Robert Evans, the notoriously slimy producer and former studio head.

I pulled into the parking lot with great enthusiasm, assuming, as with all things involving Robert Evans, there would be high-priced hookers and massive amounts of cocaine. Imagine my disappointment to find only bland sausage, chicken-fried steak and a sub-Country Kitchen ambience.

Okay, not much of an anecdote, but it's five o'clock on a Saturday morning. What do you want?

Friday, June 22, 2007


When a federal agency charged with overseeing the behavior of the executive branch asked to examine Dick Cheney's handling of classified material, The Esteemed Vice President told them to fuck off. When the agency protested, he threatened to shut them down.

This is what we learn from documents released yesterday by the office of congressman Henry Waxman. What I find amusing--sorry, did I say "amusing"? I meant "utterly chilling"-- is Cheney's official response: He had a spokeswoman tell the press, "We're confident that we're conducting the office properly under the law."

In a properly functioning democracy, an executive branch would not have to routinely issue statements claiming it is not breaking laws, because in a perfect democracy, there would never be any question; our leaders would be paragons of moral rectitude.

If, however, doubts existed, a thorough investigation would take place. If wrongdoing, or even the appearance of it, had happened, the leaders would be shamed, the citizens outraged. Impeachment proceedings would not be necessary, for the betrayers would resign rather than drag their beloved country through a national crisis.

Unfortunately, this isn't a properly functioning democracy; this is George Bush's America.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


I was in a weird, ephemeral mood, feeling disconnected and out of sorts, trolling through YouTube looking for clips to post because I just didn't feel like writing.

Then I came across this.

Let me say, Dumbo is at or near the top of my list of favorite movies. This scene has always made me cry uncontrollably, but I hadn't seen it--had made a choice to avoid it--since my Mom passed away. Bill Tytla's animation, depicting Dumbo's pure love for his mother and his sad, lingering glance backwards as he leaves, is absolute perfection; the song, by Ned Washington and Frank Churchill, was always one of Mom's favorites.

I literally had to take a break from writing for a few minutes to finish crying after posting that. And I'd already watched the clip earlier, with the same results.

Despite the well of sadness at its core, Dumbo is an often joyous movie. It was made quickly, in an attempt to make up the enormous financial losses Disney was suffering due to the financial disasters Pinocchio and Fantasia proved to be in their initial releases. Walt's personal involvement with Dumbo may have been a bit less than with his previous films, which allowed his creative team to run wild, particularly with this, one of the trippiest damn things you'll ever see:

YouTube's notoriously weak compression levels don't really let you fully appreciate the awesome achievments of Disney's effects animators and ink & paint department, but what still comes through is the endless level of invention in this sequence. It just keeps going, and just when you think it can't go further, it does--this is a Freudian essay come to life.

Another favorite song from Dumbo is mildly controversial. Yes, the notion of depicting crows with stereotypically "black" voices and mannerisms is, shall we say, unenlightened, but, at least not here, racist. The crows here aren't servile or shuffling, they're hipster outsiders, playing by their own rules. And Ward Kimball's astonishingly loose animation gives them some pretty amazing moves--check out the number of poses Robert Crumb would later swipe:

Oh, one other thing. Enjoy this while you can. Since Disney is notorious when it comes to potecting their material, these clips could get pulled down at any time. But hey, aren't all pleasures fleeting?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Oh, you could spend your money on worthwhile DVDs today, like Lindsay Anderson's If... or Dusan Makavejev's WR--Mysteries Of The Orgasm. You could pick up a copy of Panic In Needle Park or a freshly-scrubbed reissue of Don Bluth's only really good movie The Secret Of NIMH.

Or you could watch Mame.

There are bad movies and there are bad movies. Then there are movies in which absolutely nothing works; the most basic elements needed to form a coherent and involving narrative experience are simply absent. 1974's Mame is one of those movies.

Many of the worst movies ever made are musicals. There's the excrutiating 1930 El Brendel vehicle Just Imagine, which will literally make your skin crawl, or 1973's notorious Lost Horizon, or Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees (plus the song stylings of Donald Pleasance!) in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band...the list could go on.

But as horrible as they were, they still weren't this:

Where to begin?

With a score by Jerry Herman, based on Dennis Patrick's Auntie Mame, you would think this would be a camp classic without even trying. But as this clip shows, Gene Saks' direction seems to consist of simply turning on the camera and hoping for the best, leaving the editor to do his best with what seem to be random fragments of film.

Then again, Saks probably had his hands full dealing with the massive ego of his star. Lucille Ball was--how to put this kindly?--well past her prime when she made this, and even though Mame is supposed to be a blowsy old broad, Ball's closeups have enough Vaseline on the lens to hide Yoda's wrinkles, yet it fails to do her any good. And of course, there's her singing voice, Neville Brand channelling Marni Nixon.

Hollywood can be cruel to its aging stars, but in this case, Ball had no one to blame but herself. She fought for the lead, even invested in the damned thing to guarantee she'd get her way, and had veto power over the rest of the cast. Mame stands as a sort of ultimate cautionary tale on the perils of fame, a crumbling cinematic mansion inhabited by a real-life Norma Desmond.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Okay, I'm reading The New York Times this morning, and there's a story about John Edwards carving out his place as the candidate of the left, because while campaigning in Iowa, a strongly liberal state, that's the winning strategy.

Edwards as a leftist? Only by comparison, as in "Albert Speer was the most sympathetic Nazi."

Iowa is liberal? Iowa City, certain parts of Des Moines, but, you know, we helped reelect Bush here. By the reckoning of Big Media, that officially made us a Red State.

The Times also has a story today detailing the collapse of John McCain's campaign. There are various factors--swallowing his rhetoric whole, The Times claims most of them are related to his "maverick" tendencies--but what this story doesn't mention is, he's running third in Iowa, behind Giuliani and the front-runner, Mitt Romney.

That's right, Mitt Romney.

So Iowa is a supposedly liberal state, but the slightly-more-moderate Republican candidates McCain and Giuliani are lagging behind Romney, whose social views are so far to the right they actually make Our Beloved President appear enlightened.

And as for Edwards, I have yet to hear him say or do anything marking him as anything other than a canny politician, an operator who will say exactly what he thinks the people listening want to hear.

But, hey, who am I to argue with The New York Times? They're never wrong.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


No sneering, elitist assumptions from me: I headed down to Wal-Mart to pick up a copy of Joe Dante's feminist horror film The Screwfly Solution, certain I could find it at a decent price.

Most lefties eschew Wal-Mart, both because of their primitive labor practices (true, but hardly unique among retailers) and their perceived blandness; this is the store that proudly claims it won't sell music with a parental notice sticker on it, yet I've bought such off-kilter DVDs as Larry Cohen's Perfect Strangers and Bertolucci's The Conformist there, to say nothing of Dante's strongly anti-Bush satire Homecoming, so it's not as though the chain routinely engages in censorious behavior.

I suspect the reason many people avoid Wal-Mart is simply because it conjures up visions of lower-middle class hell, a playground for Welfare Moms and Nascar Dads, and though liberals claim to support the working stiffs, they sure as hell don't want to hang out with them.

Ordinarily, I hate this attitude; after all, I'm a working stiff. Besides, my experiences in Wal-Mart suggest a broad range of people shop there, from skater dudes to Stepford Wives. I tune them all out and get what I'm there for.

Today, that wasn't an option. Just walking through the parking lot was an overdose of right-wing bumpr sticker wisdom (I lost count of how many THESE COLORS DON'T RUN stickers I saw on foreign-model cars; apparently the pro-Bush crowd lacks any sense of irony), and inside was even worse, Larry The Cable Guy posters and a special display full of copies of Bill Engvall's autobiography. The DVD section had shrunk considerably since my last visit, and though they had a copy of the Dante picture, the whole electronics section was soundtracked by Toby Keith's latest.

On my way out, I passed a young couple clad in blue jeans and t-shirts. The woman, with tacky big hair, pushed a baby carriage and the man, paunchy and slightly balding, pushed a shopping cart. Their conversation seemed slightly agitated as I approached them, and as I walked by I heard her say, and I swear I'm not making this up, "I just don't want that no-good brother of yours stoppin' by and drinkin' all the beer."

From the almost ostentatiously dropped final g's to the reference to beer drinking, it seemed like a parody of redneck patois. The only way it could have sounded more like a line from Mama's Family is if she'd said "no account" instead of "no good". My God, I thought, these people would find Joe Don Baker movies too challenging.

For a second I questioned whether I was indulging in the smug stereotyping I find so disagreeable among many so-called progressives. Then I realized no, these people were stereotying themselves. If you're dumb enough to say something like that in public, you deserve all the scorn you can get.


Driving to work at 6 AM, slowing down to avoid the homeless people gathered in masses next to the Quik Trip, speeding up to pass street sweepers, just wanting to get there, to start this day and be done with it. Parking in the hospital's employee parking lot, entering the West Entrance, which in the hospital's color-coded system of entryways is dubbed the Blue Entrance.

The day proceeds in the usual way, endlessly walking corridors, pretending not to notice people wandering around in glassy-eyed states, families gathered in mourning, the wide, fearful eyes of paper-skinned old people wheeled on gurneys, their fears in no way aided by the endless, mindless chatter of orderlies. After one day here, all of this became so easy to ignore.

But down in the cage where these things are done, extracting blood from a recliner, reality intrudes. The usual precautions are taken, of course, gloves and a gown, but this chair hadn't been tagged, so presumably this blood is not tainted.

There's much of it, in the seat, on the back, on the foot rest. This person, whoever he or she may have been, was not just brought in, fresh from an accident or a shooting. This person sat comfortably in a recliner, out of bed, feeling better, when all of this blood came from somewhere.

What became of this phantom bleeder? Is he okay? Did she die?

The extractor does its job well. Soon, the only trace of blood is a stubborn dark line along the edge of the seat, the only reminder this had ever happened.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Alright, look, I overslept, and had to watch last night's Studio 60 before I got to the computer (yeah, it sucks, but I'm gonna ride it out to the bitter end, dammit), so no time for coherent gathering of thoughts today.

So let's just enjoy some music, shall we?

Here's The Jam with In The City:

Is there anybody who doesn't love Emmylou Harris' voice? It's one of the world's most perfect instruments, as demonstrated by this Texas Swing version of How High The Moon:

Now for something, well, completely different--Terry Jones introducing The Bonzo Dog Band--strangely enough, one of my mother's favorites:

And because it just wouldn't be me if I didn't include something depressing, here's Ute Lemper performing what might actually be Kurt Weill's saddest song ever, which is saying quite a bit:

Next time I'll write actual words. Or not, depending.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Long after the rest of the world has moved on to new sensations, Paul's enthusiasm for Spider-man 3 remains undiminished. He's only seen it twice, yet he seems to have memorized every frame, and continues to ask me for clarification on certain plot points and character motivations.

Providing answers takes a bit of doing, since this movie is full of idiotic plot twists and illogical character motivations. (Both of which are on display in the very first scene, as we're confronted by the fact that our heroine has been given the lead in a Broadway musical even though she can't sing! Later, she's abruptly fired from the show, as if no one noticed during rehearsals that she couldn't sing, which leads her to...oh, never mind.) But Paul is able to rationalize everything, no matter how ridiculous. Isn't it kind of silly that Peter Parker's nemesis, Eddie Brock, just happens to show up at the very same church where Peter just happens to be pulling alien goo off himself? But he has to show up there, Paul says, because how else could he get the goo on himself and turn into Venom?

Okay, but what about all those scenes with Aunt May? They were pretty boring, weren't they? Yeah, he admits, they were. But you always have talking scenes in between the action scenes.

(He's right about that one. When I was a kid, I realized that you needed boring exposition scenes scattered throughout Where Eagles Dare, because if the whole movie had been nothing but Clint Eastwood machine gunning Nazis it would have been too much of a good thing. You need a little down time.)

Paul thinks Spider-man 3 is the best in the series, and from a seven-year-old's perspective, he's probably right. In fact, with it's irrational, herky-jerky plot and overdose of action, it almost seems to have been made by seven-year-olds. And though that may irritate those of us who care about silly things like plot and characterization, to a little kid, that makes it the coolest thing in the world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


IRAQIS FAIL TO MEET U.S. BENCHMARKS, says the headline in The Times. The Democrats fail to force a vote of no Confidence on Alberto Gonzales. And in Palestine...well, you don't even want to know.

Bad things happening in the world, yet all I can think about is the fact that I missed seeing Richard Thompson last night in Iowa City. Does that mean I'm going to cheat and pad this post out with clips? What do you think?

That was The Ghost Of You Walks, one of Thompson's very best. His amazing songwriting abilities are topped only by his astonishing guitar playing. If he's not the world's greatest guitarist--well, actually, he is:

Thompson's songs often seem born of despair, the laments of drunkards and delusionals, or epic chronicles of love gone wrong. But he writes pretty songs, too, sweet love songs like A Heart Needs A Home, performed here with his ex-wife Linda:

A beautiful song of devotion. Of course, the two of them went through a particularly nasty divorce, but that's another story...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Again, lots of good new DVDs today. A box set of five Yasujiro Ozu films, Joe Dante's The Screwfly Solution, the third season of Deadwood--all worthwhile.

The release I'm most excited about is the long-delayed DVD debut of John Frankenheimer's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's 52 Pick-Up. Produced by the notorious Golan-Globus organization in 1986 (a weird period in their history, when they funded bad ideas by esteemed auteurs--Altman's Fool For Love, Godard's King Lear--amidst the usual Bronson and Norris vehicles), this sank without a trace in its theatrical run. It should have reignited the careers of everyone involved.

Roy Scheider stars as a variation of the action-movie lead he'd done plenty, only this time his character is not quite so pure. He's a successful businessman caught up in a blackmail scheme which threatens the career of his well-connected wife, nicely played by Ann-Margret. The blackmailers are unforgettably portrayed by John Glover, Robert Trebor and Clarence Williams III, and they are possibly the scariest villains in movie history. Glover is the totally unpredictable ringleader, Trebor is a weak, pathetic (and therefore dangerous) loser, and Williams will kill someone just because he can. These guys are great.

In a perfect world, 52 Pick-Up would have been a springboard to bigger things for them. They all still work, of course--Glover is a Tony-winning stage actor, and was a ubiquitous on-screen presence in the early nineties, while Trebor and Williams find steady employment in small parts unworthy of their talent. For that matter, this was one of the last starring roles for Scheider, and the fact that he was working for Golan-Globus shows his career as a lead was coming to an end. In his case, that was probably not a bad thing; it freed him up to become the character actor he was always meant to be. (See his unforgettable Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch.)

John Frankenheimer's career was on the skids in '86, too, and even though 52 Pick-Up is easily one of his best films, it did his career no favors. He continued to languish in obscurity, cranking out the likes of the awful Don Johnson thriller Dead-Bang until a series of respectable cable TV movies brought him back to prominence. And as for Elmore Leonard, who gets a screenwriting credit here, even though he became a Hollywood darling in the late nineties (with fine adaptations of his work like Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight), 52 Pick-Up remains the very best filmed version of his work.

It's not perfect by any means--it has a cheesy synth score, and it looks like a product of the mid-eighties, with truly hideous wardrobe and hair. And even on its own terms, the third act is relatively weak, a flaw it shares with Leonard's book. But it's endearingly nasty, and cold-blooded to its very heart. The best thing about 52 Pick-Up is, I don't think it even has a heart.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


My new job sees me arriving at work shortly after 6 AM, and my interior clock adjusted itself accordingly. Most times I wake up at 3 in the morning, bleary-eyed but unable to sleep, looking for something to do.

This morning I filled the gap by watching an episode from a Columbo set I'd bought recently. These were TV movies from the late eighties, not part of the original series. I'd never seen any of these episodes before, though they used to run constantly on various cable channels, where my mother had seen them over and over, always asking me why I'd never watched them.

Maybe because it was so early, my brain still slept. After watching, I made a mental note to call Mom later to discuss this particular episode. Then I got dressed, brushed my teeth, blissfully unaware. Then reality dawned: Of course I can't call Mom.

Ever again.

It's been a long time, a long time, since this has happened, since some wires got crossed somewhere, causing me to forget this most salient fact: Mom is dead.

And for some reason, in a way it hasn't in this terrible year and a half without her, her absence finally struck me, and a profound sense of loneliness battered me.

It persisted all day. Weekends are pretty slow at the hospital where I work, at least in my department, and I was all by myself today, with nothing to do all morning.

Which was good, in a way, because it gave me time to escape to the storage area on the top floor, a dark, lonely, windowless place. Surrounded by obsolete equipment and broken beds, the tears finally arrived, my body wracked by uncontrollable sobs, the reaction I've managed to avoid until now.

It's easy, in a way, to come to terms with our own mortality; we can accept what happens to us. It's the others, the people we love who are suddenly gone, upending our lives forever, this is what hurts the most. It reminds us how little control we have over our lives, that we are, above all, helpless.

In honor of this mood, here's k d lang performing a beautiful version of a great Neil Young song:

Saturday, June 09, 2007


When I first heard the news that the Bush administration officially decided against renominating Peter Pace as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, I thought, Jesus, had he said something truthful I didn't know about?

Pace, after all, is the guy who claimed homosexuality "immoral", who took Rumsfeld's advice at every turn, who recently fired off a letter begging clemency for poor Scooter Libby. What could this guy have done to piss off the White House? He's been a Loyal Bushie all the way.

And that, apparently, was the problem. For Pace to be reappointed, he'd have to meet with congressional approval. Which would mean a confirmation hearing. Which would mean questions.

Which is further proof the Bushinistas would rather sacrifice one of their own than allow their decision-making processes be examined in the cold light of day. This, combined with recent revelations that the administration tried to strong-arm an ailing John Ashcroft into signing off on their domestic spying program, would lead any sensible opposition party, or even Republicans with a smidgen of decency in their souls, to start talking impeachment.

Oh, but elections are coming up, and it wouldn't be wise to rock the boat. Who cares about the nation's greater good when there are votes to be had?

Friday, June 08, 2007


I grew up in the seventies, so I tend to think of it as a Golden Age in the popular arts. In music, you had Steely Dan, Sparks, Warren Zevon, The Ramones, Parliament-Funkadelic. TV brought us The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Columbo and The Rockford Files. And as for movies, it was a time when Hollywood routinely produced small, personal films, and even things that were meant to be Big Dumb Entertainment became something more--like The Godfather and Jaws.

Then there was this:

This would be William Shatner on Dinah Shore's old talk show. He does this sort of thing now as a joke, but back then, he was painfully serious.

People didn't really get irony in the seventies. The old guard floundered, trying to be hip, missing by a mile:

The mannish, sexually ambiguous Bea Arthur and closeted gay Rock Hudson singing about drug use--the seventies in a nutshell.

Hudson, with his manly man appearance, may have convinced many, but what was the thinking here?

Paul Lynde with a wife and kids? In retrospect, one of the most painful aspects of the seventies was how the mainstream neutered the gay revolution. Paul Lynde could be allowed on TV if he pretended to be straight, and even The Village People were presented as asexual--they could sing about staying at the YMCA, but to get a gig on one of Dick Clark's shows, they couldn't suggest they'd engage in any, you know, inappropriate activities.

The early seventies saw the emergence of hardcore porn, but as the decade wore on, it got sublimated into the mainstream:

You've got to feel sorry for poor Karen Grassle there, sanwiched between the awesome mounds of Adrienne Barbeau and, in Howard Cosell's words, Lustrous Lynda Carter. Battle Of The Network Stars was a seriously weird show, full of down time in between shots of wet celebrity tits. Which, let's face it, was the only reason anybody watched.

I was in Junior High when this happened, one of the defining events of the decade:

People pledging unswerving fealty to a fanatical leader? That sort of thing could never happen now.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


I had the day off, and today was the final day William Friedkin's new film Bug would be playing in Des Moines theaters. I hadn't seen it because, frankly, going to the movie is a pain in the ass these days. Also, I hadn't had time. And, let's be honest, Friedkin's recent track record didn't inspire much confidence.

Commercial hackery like Jade, Rules Of Engagement and The Hunted seemed like a big comedown for the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, as the career he might have had dwindled away. Some critics dismissed Friedkin all along as a commercial hack, and his hopscotching through early projects--a Sonny And Cher vehicle (Good Times), several stage adaptations (including a fine version of The Boys In The Band) and a blatantly audience-friendly comedy (The Night They Raided Minsky's) prevented him from receiving full auteurist cred.

Yet purely as a technician, Friedkin was as good as any of the New Hollywood directors of the late sixties and seventies. His let-the-camera-follow-the-actor approach in The French Connection is still the preferred method for most cop shows, on the big screen or small, and The Exorcist is simply a masterpiece, possibly the finest horror film ever made. He made several underrated pictures while his name still had some cachet in Hollywood (Sorcerer, The Brinks Job, Cruising), and while he never allowed himself to get pigeonholed, his recent work (and by "recent" I mean from the early eighties on) has seemed desperate, forced, the work of an aging superstar nobody cares about anymore, like a Crosby, Stills And Nash reunion tour.

But now comes Bug, a commercial also-ran thrown away by its distributor--and also some kind of crazy work of genius. Much of the credit can go to writer Tracy Letts, adapting his own play. Still, it's Friedkin who takes a premise that might seem foolish when blown up on the big screen--two characters whose descent into madness is presented in literal, potentially over-the-top fashion--and makes it terrifyingly real, and astonishingly poignant.

Not that he does it alone. Ashley Judd is absolutely heartbreaking as an aimless, slightly past her prime woman in the middle of nowhere, haunted by a child gone missing and a husband just out of prison, and so desperate for some sort of human connection she falls helplessly in love with a withdrawn stranger she barely even knows. He's played by Michael Shannon, who starred in Letts' original play, but nothing in his performance feels stagy. He and Judd give abolutely fearless performances, that could almost go over the top, if not for the conviction they bring them, and for Friedkin's sympathy to them and the world they create. We understand how these people got this way, and we hope, helplessly, that they will pull back from their delusions--but we understand, too, that they will find fullfillment in the very thing that will destroy them.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


So much good stuff on DVD today! Items that would be the highlights most weeks seem almost like also-rans.

For instance, there's a new Special Edition of the endearingly stupid, wildly entertaining sixties science fiction epic Fantastic Voyage, and some classic World War II dramas like Twelve O'Clock High and Air Force. Entertaining stuff--but save your money.

There's also a new boxed set featuring five Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedies. Even the least interesting effort here (that would be Pardners) has some laugh-out-loud moments, but the big news in this set is the first letterboxed issues of Frank Tashlin's Artists And Models and Hollywood Or Bust. Tashlin paradoxically used Lewis as more of a cartoon character than he'd ever been on screen before, while at the same time giving him more of a character to play. And he handled Martin beautifully--Tashlin really appreciated these guys' individual talents. If you're even a casual fan of these two performers, seperately or individually, this set is an essential purchase.

But if your budget only allows so many purchases, forget it, because you really shoud support Classic Media's ongoing reissue of Godzilla movies, which today issues great new editions of Ghidora The Three Headed Monster and Invasion Of Astro Monster, the movie previously known in the U.S. as Monster Zero. These issues are the first time the original Japanese versions of these pictures have been released in America, and they're two of the most endearing efforts from Toho's monster mill--Ghidora features one of the most awesomely designed of all movie monsters, and Astro Monster features Godzilla's Happy Dance, which I've been known to break into at the drop of a hat.

Yet these releases pale before today's most awesome event, as MGM finally--finally--releases the long awaited Sergio Leone Collection, four of the greatest movies ever made by one of cinema's true visionaries. The first three titles here--A Fistful Of Dollars; For A few Dollars More; The Good, The Bad And the Ugly--showcase Leone's growing mastery of the medium, and give a thrilling look at Clint Eastwood's invention of his own star image.

But it's the fourth title here, the long unavailable Duck, You Sucker, that's a real revelation. Leone, the virtual father of the spaghetti western, had long been criticized by some of his contemporaries for avoiding politics, as directors like Sergio Sollima and Giulio Questi injected stongly leftist themes into western epics. Leone responded with an epic tale of revolution, but however commited his politics, ultimately Leone cared more about people than slogans. This tale of the evolving relationship between a Mexican peasant and an Irsh revolutionary (James Coburn, superb) is both raucously funny and emotionally devastating. Leone's eye was always incredible, but this movie shows his heart was just as strong.

Monday, June 04, 2007


According to a military assessment leaked to The New York Times, our commanders in Iraq are admitting that the troop surge isn't exactly paying off. In fact, they estimate only one third of Baghdad is under U.S. control. One third of one city. The Times quotes one unnamed senior officer as saying, "We were way too optimistic."

No shit.

The thing is, though, I, with no data available to me beyond what any schlub can pull up on the internet, could have predicted this. Most people could, in fact, which is why the vast majority of American citizens have turned against this thing. Things keep getting worse, and all the promises made by the Bushinistas ring more hollow every day. Even here in the heartland, people who once supported Our Beloved President are starting to turn. Nobody wants to think their sons and daughters are dying in vain, but it's getting harder to believe anything else.

And speaking of deaths, fifteen U.S. troops wee killed in the first three days of the month. That's fifteen people who should have been sent home a long time ago. Remember them the next time a politician of any stripe claims to support the troops.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Okay, it's official: The Yankees are the most hapless, inept and infuriating team in baseball.

While they're not technically at the bottom of the AL standings (Thank you, Kansas City!), they're easily the worst team in either league with a bazillion dollar payroll. And what are the players doing for their money?

A-Rod, of course, is cheating on his wife, and arguably, cheating on the field. Derek Jeter fields like a seven-year-old. Kei Igawa, Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon--sucks, sucks and sucks. With his best pitchers on the disabled list (which seems to happen to this team a lot), Joe Torre has been starting guys who simply aren't up to it.

Now Roger Clemens, who was supposed to start Monday night, has been sidelined with a groin injury (the first story I read about that described Clemens' groin as "squishy"--ewwww!), to be replaced by Igawa, who, as previously mentioned, sucks.

But what's the point of handing Clemens a twenty-four million dollar contract in the first place? Even if he pitched a shut-out--a big if--that's only half the game. This has long been the problem in the Steinbrenner era, throwing money at superstar individuals (like A-Rod) while failing to build a team that functions as a team. The decision to bring in Clemens, which felt like a disaster from the get-go, is the first major bone-headed decision since Steinbrenner ceded at least some of his power to his sons, which suggests things might only get worse.

As for the players themselves, I don't necessarily think it's true, as many members of Yankee Nation apparently do, that team members are happy to just collect their extravagant paychecks and half-ass the job. (And no, I haven't just spent an hour and a half plowing through angry comments at the Yankees blog at The New York Times. Why do you ask?) Jeter, for one, seems to be genuinely angry at himself, but the more he resolves to do better, the worse he gets. The whole team is in that mode--they feel the embarrassment, and are powerless to stop it.

Friday, June 01, 2007


So I'm messing around on YouTube, just killing time, as i do with alarming frequency, when I discovered this:

Yes, kids, that was Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Joel Grey showing their utter contempt for rock music by camping up a Beatles classic. I must wash my eyes, to clense them of the memory of seeing this. Unclean! Unclean!

It reminds me how many of the worst things ever conceived by human beings are made so much worse by setting them to music. For instance, while it was merely a bad idea to let Lynda Carter do anything other than run around in star-spangled tights, it doesn't become a REALLY bad idea until you let her sing:

Seriously--what the hell were they thinking?

Similarly, anybody could've guessed that a Star Wars-based holiday TV special was a bad idea--and, Lord, was it ever--but it didn't slip the bonds of sanity until it became a song-filled extravaganza. Princess Leia, bring it home!

Ye Gods, that was awful.

But not the worst thing ever:

I saw this with my mom several months after its initial run. Why we even went, I'm not sure, but after about ten minutes, Mom started hurling insults--loudly--at the screen, until finally the movie's stupidity overwhelmed her and she bashed herself in the forehead.

After that, Mom met everything awful in the world with the Xanadu Standard: Is it bad enough to make me hit myself in the forehead? As she herself admitted, getting cancer was bad...but not as bad as Xanadu.