Thursday, January 31, 2008


1) First things first: The title of this post. Makes no damn sense unless you're floating around my subconscious at the moment. Second time I've made reference to Larry King's discontinued column for USA Today in reference to a collection of Random Thoughts.

2) I dreamed last night I watched Enter The Dragon, only Jim Kelly made it all the way through and John Saxon wasn't in it. Instead, Buck Henry, Peter Dinklage and the chick who played the nun in Future War beat up some kind of Ninja army. Also, Bruce Lee decapitated a guy with a ceiling fan.

Clearly, my subconscious is a strange, strange place. But we've already established that, haven't we?

3) Giuliani endorses McCain at the Reagan Library. No pandering to the GOP base there.

In his endorsement, Giuliani predictably spent more time talking about himself than McCain, McCain went on and on about 9/11, and both of them tossed around the word "hero" a lot. If they want a hero in the White House, someone needs to nominate Jim Brown. Dude nailed Stella Stevens!

4) According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, the United States and its European allies have a bad habit of believing tinhorn dictators when they claim to hold open, fair elections, no matter how strong the evidence of voter suppression, intimidation or murder. The obvious example would be the recent sham election in Russia, in which a faceless cohort of Putin's won a meaningless title, while allowing Putin to remain the de facto leader, consolidating his power in a way even Ernst Blofeld couldn't imagine. Bush, of course, saw nothing ominous in this scenario.

But really, what could he do? We all have co-workers we've heard make racist comments, who we suspect may be spousal abusers, whatever. Sure, we know we should say something, do something, try to bring about a change. Oh, but it's so much easier to just stay quiet and try to do our job.

5) It's been, yikes, two, maybe three weeks since I've mentioned Vincente Minnelli. Here's a clip from his classic adaptation of Madame Bovary which shows his mastery of staging, his perfect use of the camera and uncanny feel for the rhythm of a sequence--this is a dramatic scene that plays like a musical number. I love how Miklos Rosza's waltz starts out swooningly romantic, then curdles into something more oppressive as Minnelli's camera swoops and glides in ever more frantic circles, the atmosphere turning desperate before collapsing into despair.

6) Delmar woke me this morning, purring aggressively, rubbing his head against my shoulder. He doesn't usually get this sappy, and Monika would have none of it. She jumped onto the bed and wedged her way between Del and me, purring the whole time like she expected affection for acting like a jerk. I chased her off the bed, and she and Del got into a hissing contest.

Are all cats this nutty, or just mine?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


True, there are dreadful omens to be found in Rudy Giuliani's third-place finish in the Florida primary. It's possible reactionary Republican voters rejected his relatively liberal social policies, ran in fear of his ethnicity and his big-city ways, demanding someone more whitebread, more fire-and brimstone, more likely to punish the disbelievers.

Given all that, I'm thrilled by Giuliani's loss.

The guy was, is and will always be a slimeball. He made his name as a prosecutor by going after high-profile mobsters, all the while tolerating and even encouraging corruption in his personal doings. As mayor, he "cleaned up" New York City by cracking down on civil liberties, evincing outright hostility to the poor and the homeless. Under his reign, cops were treated as royalty no matter how outrageous or illegal their behavior, but hey, why not, since Giuliani used the NYPD as his personal security force, put to work escorting friends and mistresses on their rounds rather than, say, catching criminals. His sense of entitlement, his obvious belief that the city's entire infrastructure existed only to support his lifestyle, repulsed even the heartiest veterans of New York politics.

Then, of course, 9/11.

Give Giuliani credit, I guess, for being there on the ground, while Bush and Cheney stayed away, trembling like bunnies. In the days and weeks following the attacks, the press couldn't get enough of St. Rudy, "America's Mayor", the tough-talking face of all that was good about our nation. True, he pushed the relief workers at Ground Zero past acceptable human limits, endangering their health and slashing their benefits later, but no one wanted to hear that.

He took his canonization in the press as some kind of mandate, willingly calling himself Mr. 9/11, building his entire reputation on the bodies of the dead. Even the most devout believers in St. Rudy, those awestruck by his competence during those dreadful but long-past days in that terrible September, couldn't help being repulsed by the man's willingness to make a personal hay from a national tragedy. Once he started inserting the words "nine eleven" into pretty much every sentence he uttered publicly, he managed to turn the very memory of the day into a sick joke.

His presidential campaign displayed all the arrogance we've come to expect from the man, and had he been elected, it would have been a disaster. We're already enduring Bush's imperial presidency; Giuliani would have set himself up as a god.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Poor little Bushie, hated or ignored by all, trying for one last time to talk tough, hoping if he said all the things he used to say, it would be just like old times.

But the times have passed him by. True, the Republican presidential wannabes are essentially promising more of the same. They're too canny to admit this, however, and have repackaged it, knowing full well there are no gains to be had in openly tying themselves to the Bush legacy.

Unfortunately, that legacy is with us, for now and the foreseeable future. Endless war, denial of civil liberties, class divisions, overt racism, destruction of the Constitution--Republicans were fine with it at the time, as were many Democrats. Those in positions of power who stood in opposition offered no meaningful fight. Were they too tired? Too scared? Did they not realize how far it would go until it had already gone?

As Bush rattled through a State Of The Union speech seemingly frozen in time, pleading to stay the course in Iraq and make permanent his tax cuts for the super wealthy, nobody in the hall had any cause to criticize him. No matter what they may pretend, they all had a hand in creating our current mess.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Spent much of the weekend with Paul and finally convinced him to watch Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I was interested to see what a contemporary eight-year-old, raised on the hyperkinetic likes of the Pirates Of The Caribbean and Spider-man franchises, would think of such a relatively old-school action picture.

Though he'd never admit to preferring it to his beloved Spider-man 3 (which we also watched and which he has completely committed to memory), he clearly had a ball, applauding when Indy shoots the swordsman, humming along with the theme music, literally sitting on the edge of his seat during the truck chase. It was kind of like I imagine my reaction was watching Where Eagles Dare the first time.

As for me, Raiders has always been one of my favorites (though, perversely, I actually prefer Temple Of Doom), and every time I see it, I'm struck anew by just how good it is. Lawrence Kasdan's script is beautifully constructed, with a number of great throwaway lines, and Steven Spielberg's direction is a thing of wonder. (I love especially the Michael Curtiz-styled scene in the Nepalese tavern, and the Hitchcock-styled chase through the streets of Cairo. Despite the obvious tips o' the hat to other directors, Spielberg's staging and cutting of these scenes feels remarkably fresh.) Kasdan and Spielberg are smart enough to leave us with plenty of breathing room between the furious action sequences, and Spielberg films these interludes with a minimum of fuss, deploying either simple cross-cutting or utilizing one single, lengthy set-up, yet they never feel static. Indeed, these scenes, mostly involving Indy's verbal jousts with weasely nemesis Belloq, crackle with tension.

When originally released, Raiders received criticism in some quarters as a mere thrill machine, an empty collection of overwrought set pieces. Now, of course, it seems almost leisurely, lacking the hyped-up camera moves and ADD editing so common in contemporary films. And though it's not exactly deep, there's a bit more going on than it initially appears. Harrison Ford's characterization of Indy suggests trouble below the surface--he's almost pathetically earnest in his regular gig as a professor, but once he's on the trail of whatever he's looking for, he becomes ruthless, and will use anyone or do anything to get his way. Every bit as fascinating is Paul Freeman's Belloq, a Frenchman collaborating with the Nazis, an archeologist clearly disdainful of the "uncivilized" lands and people he encounters while pursuing his career.

This is an action movie driven as much by its characters as anything else. Spielberg would take his hero to even darker places in Temple Of Doom, though admittedly that film lacks Raiders' air-tight script. Sadly, he fumbled badly with Last Crusade, well-shot and well-staged but utterly lacking the pulpy elan of Indy's first two adventures. As for the upcoming Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull--well, I'll be there opening night, of course, and Spielberg's recent work (particularly A.I. and Munich) shows a gratifying return to form, but I don't really expect much. Still, John Williams is writing the score, and once that familiar theme music kicks in, I'll probably be in a very forgiving mood.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Sometimes the movies that most stir our emotions are the ones that don't strain for effect. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins' The Savages had me from the opening credits, a tour through a sun-dappled retirement community set to a mournful Peggy Lee ballad.

That sequence, while powerfully effective, is the first and last time the movie will deploy any self-conscious stylistic tricks, will indulge in easy irony. In the first scene, we're introduced to Leonard Savage, a cranky but pitiable, somewhat unreadable old man. His defiance of a supercilious home health aid in this scene seems somewhat understandable, but we don't know the back story. In fact, we never will.

Tedious exposition is avoided in The Savages. We meet Leonard as he is, and never fully learn his past. When we are introduced to his adult children, Wendy and Jon, summoned to take care of him as his mental condition deteriorates, we witness the basics of their lives, but are never told how they arrived in these states. Wendy is an aspiring playwright slaving at temp jobs to pay the bills. Jon is a college professor writing a dissertation on Bertolt Brecht. Wendy has a cat, a ficus and a pathetic sexual relationship with a married neighbor. Jon's Polish girlfriend is returning to her homeland. Both are on the younger side of middle age, and profoundly unfullfilled.

There's no real plot; Wendy and Jon place their father in a nursing home. She moves in with her brother temporarily, the two of them essentially waiting for him to die. Clearly the old man abused Jon, possibly Wendy as well. At the very least, he was distant, and his children are a bit chilly with each other as well. Not hostile, just unsociable--neither of them quite know how to relate to the larger world.

The drama, then, comes not from plot developments--Leonard's death is a given--but from small, telling details, the little jabs a brother and sister take at each other, some in jest, some to hurt. We see them behave at their worst, and we see them realize it. We see how the years of separation have done nothing to break their silent, unspoken bonds. The movie never makes it explicit, but gradually they realize their father's death is what it takes to make Wendy, at thirty-eight, and Jon, at forty-two, finally accept adulthood.

Jenkins' script is a thing of beauty, with the minute detail and psychological depth of fine fiction, and the performances are amazing. Laura Linney as Wendy and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jon are so absolutely real, you never doubt their familial connection for a second--these two truly seem to have a history together, decades of resentment and misunderstanding, yet a shared intimacy as well. They know each other as well as they know themselves, for better or worse.

Occasionally Jenkins lets a shot last a beat or two longer than necessary, but she establishes a great sense of reality, of actual, felt life. There are no revelatory speeches, no cathartic climaxes, just two people trying to figure out how to live their lives. Plus there's a kitty, and Kurt Weill on the soundtrack. How could I not love this?

Friday, January 25, 2008


It's Friday! The weekend's here, and let's just enjoy ourselves with some music! Everyone loves Beatles songs, and everyone loves Emmylou Harris, so when she covers this classic, it's bound to be cheerful, right?

Okay, I admit it. We're not here to be happy. It's depressing music day around here, so let's try something from Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Lovely but...yeah. You'll see:

And if you put Kate & Anna in a collective that includes Emmylou and Kate's son Rufus Wainwright--and have them do an old Stephen Foster song--well, you might as well pass out the razor blades. Damn beautiful, though.

And here's Kate's ex, Rufus' dad, Loudon Wainwright. Painfully honest:

Ahhh, enough with the sorrow. Here's Mike Nelson, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. I'm pretty sure I use the word "breasticaboobicle" at least once every single day. And I'm only moderately embarrassed to admit that!

Thursday, January 24, 2008


This piece by Keith Phipps at The Onion's AV Club, and the many reader responses to it, remind me of my own straying relationship with the written word.

Like Phipps, I went through the Tolkien-to-Beats phase, although my love was more for authors only tangentially related to the Beat movement, like William Burroughs and especially Hubert Selby.

It's funny--I don't remember when or why I started reading science fiction. The first "adult" novel I ever read was the novelization of Beneath The Planet Of the Apes--yeah, I know--and science fiction sort of became my default mode. Tolkien came into the picture when my brother Keith gave me a dog-eared copy of Fellowship Of the Ring. Much as I loved the Ring books (probably because I recognized them as an inspiration for Star Wars, and yes, I know that's sad), they seem to have left no permanent traces. Though I still have that same copy of Fellowship, I never felt the need to read anything else of Tolkien's. Not even The Hobbit.

On the other hand, Selby's Last Exit To Brooklyn blew open my mind, not always in good ways. My first, fumbling attempts at prose--scribbled furiously while bored out of my skull in high school study halls--blatantly copied Selby's mannered stylistic quirks, and his subject matter as well. What the hell did a farm boy who'd never been out of Iowa know about the inner city?

Dormant for a year or two, the will to write returned strongly, seemingly out of nowhere. My writing was stronger, more confident, and the more I wrote, the more I read. Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, James Joyce, Bobbie Ann Mason--stuff just connected with me, and inspired me. I'd finish The Violent Bear It Away or So Much Water So Close To Home burning with the desire to do this, to be able to create something like this.

This was my extended period of unemployment, my post-suicide attempt, live-at-home phase, kind of a cliche among among artistic types. In any event, since I didn't work, I stayed up literally all night, scribbling furiously, my hand racing to keep up with the dialog spilling forth from my mind. Whenever inspiration flagged, I'd pick up a book and think, This is what I want to do.

Literal piles of short stories and fragments of a novel littered my living space, but none of it went anywhere. The only things I could sell were reviews and opinion pieces, and as this came to dominate my writing, my hunger, my need, for fiction subsided. Nothing new replaced my old favorites, and even when I reconnected with them, the feelings were only fleeting.

It's that way still. All these books meant so much, but they're just words on a page now, a faded reflection of a person I barely remember.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Paul didn't have school yesterday, so Tabbatha asked if I could watch him, since I had the day off. Sure. Mostly, we had a great time, as we always do, but he'd start to tell me how his mom has apparently gotten back together with this one guy, then he'd stop and say, "She doesn't want me to talk about this."

Crap. Fine. Whatever.

I don't know if Tabbatha ever realized just how far I'd fallen for her. We'd talked of cohabitation and marriage and even children down the road. Paul started calling me Dad. Then...dolly out, slow fade, credits. The whole thing ended just as I settled in to enjoy.

Since she broke up with me, I've been so morose, so shaken by the whole situation, I never think about the end of my marriage to Sue Ellen--which is ironic, of course, since Tabbatha claimed my inability to get over that as one of the reasons for breaking up with me. I'd probably find humor in it, if not for the tears.

Some of those old feelings came pouring back yesterday morning. Thanks to the miracle of cable, I watched Annie Hall for the first time in at least twenty years. It's one of my favorite movies, but I've been avoiding it recently for fear it would hit a little too close to home:

That's the first scene, and yeah, I know--it sounds like I wrote it. And sure, I stammer when I talk, and gesture frantically. And yes, those two jokes pretty much sum up my philosophy of life and love. So?

(For what it's worth, I'll likely age into the guy carrying the shopping bag and screaming about socialism. Yesterday, as Paul and I sat in Taco John's, I tried explaining the failure of democracy by filtering it through the Star Wars universe, pointing out that all it takes is one Quisling like Jar Jar to hand the reins of absolute power to Palpatine. I'm not sure if this little interlude qualifies as kinda cute or sorta sad.)

The film continued, and I cringed repeatedly. Scenes would begin as comedy, and spiral into unbearable sorrow, and as Alvy and Annie continued their fragile romance, they kept doing unbelievably stupid, small, cruel things, things I've seen myself do, things that have been done to me. By the final scene, tears flowed uncontrollably.

Last night I had separate dreams about Sue Ellen (hanging out and talking...until we fought) and Tabbatha (an awkward birthday dinner for Paul, with me pretending to be nice to the new boyfriend...until we fought). In both cases, I left, and it was hard to do but finally liberating, and no regrets or sorrows followed.

Because, after all, they were only dreams.

Monday, January 21, 2008


A depressing story in today's New York Times on the forced closing of two record stores in Harlem.

The main focus of this story, of course, is the gentrification of Harlem. History and an entire way of life mean absolutely nothing compared to the voracious appetites of New York real estate developers, who won't stop feasting until every last square inch of the city is utterly devoid of personality. The Giuliani administration actively encouraged this behavior, and it's too late to stop it now.

But what I took away from the story was simply sadness at losing two more great record stores.

Many happy hours have I spent trolling through music shops, in NYC and elsewhere, with a list in my mind of obscure and out-of-print albums I couldn't find back home. Yeah, I know the wonders of the interweb make it easy to track down anything you want from the comfort of your own desk or cubicle, but that's hardly the point. Hanging out in these invariably cramped, vinyl-strewn environments was a social thing, interacting with people you've never met who share your enthusiasm, become your best friends for at least a few minutes. (Sometimes you even unwisely sleep with some young woman you meet at a record store, but hey, let's not get into that.) Sure you can chat online with anonymous strangers with cutesy user names who are into the same music as you, but it's not really the same thing, is it? (Lack of personal contact also makes it much more difficult to have spontaneous, regret-filled sex.)

Am I starting to sound like a cranky old guy who goes on about the good old days? Yeah, well, maybe, but damn it, things really were better then. Damn kids today with their fax machines and their hula-hoops, grumble grumble...

Sunday, January 20, 2008


The miracle of cable--78 channels I mostly won't watch, plus a Starz/Encore movie package. I was initially excited about that, since I knew the Encore Western channel had recently broadcast the complete run of Sam Peckinpah's well-regarded TV series The Westerner. And Friday night's offering was one of Anthony Mann's very best, The Man From Laramie. So I tuned in.

For maybe five minutes. They broadcast this magnificently shot widescreen film full frame, reducing Mann's carefully chosen compositions to fragments.

I thought we'd settled this issue long ago. Though some movies are still released on DVD in full frame or letterboxed versions, most are letterboxed exclusively. Widescreen TVs are readily available, and most high-def programming on the networks is letterboxed.

Yet here we are, a premium cable channel carrying on like it's the seventies, giving us grainy, haphazard closeups of characters reacting to things we can't see, because they're happening on the other side of the frame, the side that's been lopped off because some programmer thought we'd turn tail and run if we saw black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

Just out of curiosity, I tuned into the same network's broadcast of Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker last night. Surely this one they'll letterbox, I thought. It's a purely visual experience, unwatchable if you can't see the whole image. And of course it was shown full frame.

But hey, later this month they'll be showing the enjoyably dumb Charles Bronson vehicle Breakheart Pass, a movie I've only known from its network TV airings. Bronson hanging off the side of a train? Letterboxed or not, I'm there.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


It's just a rumor, but rumors spring from somewhere: Quentin Tarantino is thinking about remaking Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

If there's anything the world needs less than a remake of anything, it would be a remake of a Russ Meyer movie. The fact that this is Meyer's best known movie, the one that any hipster douchebag can reference even without having seen it, is kind of telling. Tarantino wants to be hip and cutting edge, but he's just a poseur.

My guess would be this rumor began as a throwaway comment Tarantino made to somebody or other ("Hey, wouldn't it be cool to remake this?") and just sort of built from there. But however it got started, the fact that it seems plausible speaks volumes. The cult of personality surrounding this guy thrives on this sort of thing, and he in turn feeds on the adulation, a parasitic relationship from which nothing good can come. If he ever had the desire or ability to become a serious filmmaker, that time has long since passed. The fact that he and his acolytes (Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth) continue to rifle a cinematic past most of them were too young to have experienced (even though Grindhouse flopped, they want to expand aspects of it into new features) instead of living and working in the here-and-now suggests a prolonged adolescence. There's no reason to think Tarantino and his brood will ever mature, or matter.

Friday, January 18, 2008


1) The big news around here is: I have cable!

Okay, really, I don't care that much. The only reason I bothered is because the local cable company could give me a better deal on my phone and interweb service...but only if I got cable. The package I have doesn't include Turner Classic Movies, the channel I'd most watch. Mostly, it's your standard TBS, TNT, USA, whatever. So instead of not watching Scrubs in syndication, I can not watch it on cable. Yay.

2) I spend way too much time trying to think of appropriate titles for these posts, which usually involve lyrics from, or titles of, a song tied--however randomly--to the subject at hand. Unless I'm indulging in some heavy-duty irony, it's almost always a song I like, which explains the numerous John Lennon, Marshall Crenshaw and Steely Dan riffs.

However, since there is no one subject here, and since I do tend to ramble a bit, my first thought for a title was that whole "Mean to go on and on and on" bit from We Are The Champions. But seriously...Queen? I toyed with some lines from My Heart Will Go On, but again...Celine Dion? My sense of irony isn't that all-encompassing.

So: On And On. Yes, that Stephen Bishop song from '77. I hear it and I'm immediately twelve again, riding into Perry with my sister to cash in some soda cans, and I know just what I'll do with the money: buy the novelization of Star Wars.

3) According to today's New York Times, Rudy Giuliani has spent his time on the campaign trail advocating some sort of electronic monitoring system for U.S. borders, to stem the tide of illegal immigration or some such. Anyway, turns out a company Giuliani owns was a partner in manufacturing the electronics.

He has, for the sake of appearances, severed his ties with the company. Yet he still advocates the use of the system, and one of the guys who ran the company is one of his biggest campaign contributors...but there's nothing fishy going on here.

I despise Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and everything for which they stand, but I'd take them over Giuliani any day. Man, what a scuzzbag.

4) Blogger's spellcheck flags "Giuliani" and "Huckabee" but gives a pass to "Mitt" and "Romney". Weird.

5) I actually did a Google search to see if there were any pointless wire stories on Michael Stipe today. Sadly, no. But I did discover High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron has signed on to star in Richard Linklater's latest, which is kind of weird. It's apparently about a guy who randomly encounters young Orson Welles, and gets caught up in his world. The only reason I mention this is because Ben Chaplin will play George Coulouris. One wonders who else will be cast as assorted Mercury Players. I'd like to suggest Spike, the cartoon stegosaurus from Land Before Time, as Everett Sloane.

6) Maybe I'd improve the stats for this site if I made more references to Zac Efron and fewer to Everett Sloane.

7) Delmar is a huge cat, prone to fits of psychotic rage, yet for some reason I still think of him as a delicate little hothouse flower, and feel very protective of him. Monika is well into her fourteenth year on this planet, very old for a cat, yet shows no signs of age, and I tend to take her for granted, assuming she'll be around forever.

I have nothing really to add to that, but I haven't mentioned the cats for awhile, and they're sitting on the floor staring at me, and I'm frightened...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


It's been awhile since an angry political screed has appeared on this site, and God knows there's plenty of material: The incredible assholiness of Homeland Security honcho Michael Chertoff (seriously, how does this guy still have a job?) or Hillary Clinton's defensiveness about her graceless "It took a white guy to pass the Civil Rights Act" comment or, just today, Iraqi defense minister Abdul Qadir's stated belief that his country will need U.S. forces around until, oh, 2018 at least, because...well, because it's easier to have someone else do his job.

Yes, I could write about any of those things, but the AP has a story about Michael Stipe being dismissed as a juror!

Stipe told the judge presiding over a case involving the attempted sexual assault of a middle-school girl that he couldn't be impartial, since he's been the target of stalkers himself.

A few thoughts:

1) Coming a week after Reuters reported that Stipe finds Mike Huckabee "charming", I wonder what stories the wire services will bring us next. "Stipe Says Two And A Half Men Is 'Kinda Funny'" or "Stipe Finds Lint On Shirt, Flicks It Into Wastebasket"? I can't wait.

2) Why hasn't REM broken up yet? Seriously, guys, it's been ten, twelve years since anybody's cared. Once Bill Berry took a hike, the band ceased to exist. Everyone else knows it. Why don't you? (And yeah, I realize Berry came back long enough to play with them for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction...but doesn't that just offer further proof of how over they are?)

3) Remember when REM gave an official okey-doakes to let Chris Elliot's absurdist sitcom Get A Life use Stand as its theme music? Remember how that immediately gave the show an imprimatur of coolness? Remember when anyone could use the word "cool" to describe REM? Remember how great Murmur and Document used to be, even though nobody ever listens to them anymore?

4) Seriously, who the hell would stalk Michael Stipe?

Monday, January 14, 2008


Carl Karcher, the founder of the Carl's Jr. restaurant chain, has died at the age of 90.

Knowing that in the late nineties, Carl's Jr. merged with Hardee's, and because I have some surprisingly fond memories of eating at Hardee's, I found myself reading the Wikipedia entry for Hardee's, wherein I learned Cass Elliot sang the early seventies jingle I can still remember to this day, and that Hardee's bought out the Burger Chef chain, which explains what happened to Burger Chef.

But are these facts reliable? Wikipedia warns us this particular article lacks "in-text citations", so its "sources remain unclear." Gasp! What if it turns out Cass Elliot had nothing to do with that old jingle, and the article merely repeated some long-forgotten urban myth?

As I'm wondering that, I realize it's 3 AM and I'm reading a fucking Wikipedia article on Hardee's, and I weep for my soul.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


While going on yesterday about Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, I stated it was, along with Bob Fosse's Cabaret, the only film version of a Broadway musical that has no feel of staginess about it, that feels like a movie, not an adaptation.

Certainly those two remain the high water mark, but how could I have forgotten James Whale's mostly magnificent 1936 film of Showboat? Like Burton, Whale was a visual stylist who had not previously directed a full-blown musical, but whose dramatic work often moved to eccentric rhythms, whose staging and cutting was always very precise.

And like Sweeney Todd, Showboat doesn't always feel like a musical. Whale often stages and films the song numbers as moments of heightened drama, not as empty spectacle. True, that's how they should be filmed, but as decades of lousy Broadway adaptations have shown us, it sounds easier than it is.

Consider this scene. It starts as mere conversation, though Whale's fluid camera already serves to heighten the importance of what's being discussed. When the song begins, it's almost a throwaway. Then Hattie McDaniels appears and--say, why does Miss Julie know a song only "colored folk" sing? (Plot point! Plot point!) When the song continues, then, Julie has a tone of defensiveness as she sings, knowing full well she's been found out. Then the song passes through more hands, finally turning into a full-blown production number:

But even at that, it doesn't seem like a production number. It snuck up on us somehow, as a spontaneous outburst of joy. Much of the credit for that should go to Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote both the original stage version and the screenplay, and who always believed songs in musicals should serve a specific dramatic purpose.

Still, he was a creature of the stage, and knew, after all, his shows were playing to live audiences. So he had to give them what they wanted--cues for laughter and applause. But though Whale had stage experience, he understood the language of film was very different. The songs in Showboat just sort of happen. And he found a perfect visual style, not stagebound but not realistic in the least. (I love the expressionist closeups of the four faces at the end of the scene.) The story seems to take place in some crazy alternate reality, so we're not surprised by outbursts of song, but mostly unaware of the clanking of theatrical machinery.

Mostly. If Showboat doesn't quite hit the standards of Sweeney Todd and Cabaret, it's because eventually you do hear those gears grinding, the melodramatic stage conventions of the time impose themselves and you're wishing the whole thing would just end. Songs were cut (including Life Upon The Wicked Stage, a big favorite around here) and others streamlined, but the numerous storylines become tedious, and take forever to resolve. Whale's work on this cannot be faulted, but ultimately the material itself tripped him up.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Anthony Tommasini, classical music critic for The New York Times, has a piece on Johnny Depp's amazing performance in Sweeney Todd, making clear what so many critics (and devotees of the original Broadway show) seem to have missed: Depp's a terrific singer.

When I first heard Tim Burton had cast his frequent collaborator in the title role, it seemed ridiculous. Sure, as an actor, Depp is fearless, but surely the part of Sweeney is one of the most vocally demanding roles in musical theater history. The ability to sorta carry a tune wouldn't be enough. This needed a trained singer.

What I didn't foresee was how malleable Stephen Sondheim's extraordinary score would be in the hands of Burton and Depp, how they would bleed (literally!) away any traces of theatricality from the material, how they could transform Sondheim's quasi-operatic work into something so hushed, so intimate.

On stage, a performer can claim a role as their own, but in the musical theater, at least, it's difficult to for one to get lost in it. With a pit band accompanying and other actors waiting for their cues, a musical performance becomes largely technical, and once it's locked, it's locked.

Even on film, most performances in musicals are the same way: star turns rather than portrayals of characters. Nothing wrong with that, of course, since most musicals are written to give pleasure, not to provide dazzling insight into human nature. And of course, I can think of plenty of exceptions right off the top of my head. (Dan Dailey in It's Always Fair Weather, Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon, even Robert Preston in The Music Man.)

But I've never seen anything like this:

Depp's growled "I want you bleeders" was surely a deliberate choice, but what about the slight crack in his voice immediately after, as he cries, "Anybody"? An actor's trick or a happy coincidence? Astounding either way, and wholly free of any trace of the Broadway stage.

That is perhaps the most amazing thing about the whole picture. Even in the best adaptations of stage musicals (like West Side Story) you can see the seams, and historically even the greatest directors of original film musicals, like Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli and Rouben Mamoulian, have been stymied when they've tried to bring stage material on screen. Sweeney Todd joins Bob Fosse's Cabaret as the only adaptation that feels like an original. It's organic, immediate, and it feels brand new. This honors Sondheim best by ignoring the original show, or any revivals. Burton made a film first, and a great one.

Friday, January 11, 2008


1) Edmund Hillary, the first guy to climb Everest, has died. I mean no disrespect, but I didn't even know he was still alive. Also, for whatever reason, the first thing I think of when anyone mentions Edmund Hillary is his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay. I guess because it's so much fun to say.

Go on, say it: Tenzing Norgay! There! Don't you feel better?

2) There's a very funny Tenzing Norgay gag in Joel & Ethan Coen's Intolerable Cruelty. This is officially the Coens' most underrated film, a distinction previously held by The Hudsucker Proxy, but that one has been championed by its partisans for so long it's in danger of becoming overrated. Or would be in danger of being overrated, if it weren't so awesome.

Yes, I'm a Hudsucker partisan.

3) If you do a YouTube search for the phrase "intolerable cruelty", you'll find clips from the movie (including the payoff to the Norgay gag, but not the set-up), but you'll also get documentaries about the Holocaust. Man, is my buzz harshed!

4) Every critic has blind spots and inexplicable enthusiasms. One of my favorite film critics is Dave Kehr, who currently writes for The New York Times. He takes the medium seriously, clearly loves it, and his writing is witty and well-informed. He absolutely hates the Coens, however, with a passion so extreme it borders on pathology. Also, he's also a big admirer of Robert Zemeckis. He liked Beowulf, for God's sake!

On the other hand, he was one of the first critics to take Clint Eastwood seriously as a director, and he uses the word "Minnellian" as a form of praise, so it's all good.

5) Speaking of Minnellian--you knew this was coming, didn't you?--here's a brief clip from An American In Paris. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance, Kelly choreographed, the music, of course, is Gershwin. But the fiery orange and deep, deep blue, the perfectly timed cuts and swooping camera, the dreamy, melancholy romanticism--that's pure Vincente Minnelli.

Naturally, you're better off seeing this on the big screen, but it's still pretty great. Is that crane shot at the end one of the greatest things ever? Yes. Yes, it is.

6) Say it at work, say it at home, say it anywhere you happen to be: Tenzing Norgay!

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Sure, things were simpler then. Kids didn't have any of that hoo-ha they have today, your Wii and your i-Pod, your dungarees and your bebop and whatnot. But trust me, it was never as boring as this:

Really? Seriously? Why would any kid want to play with this? How would any kid play with this? The denizens of The Island Of Misfit Toys would recoil in horror from this. I realize The Waltons was popular--the damn thing was always on every Thursday night at my house, not that anyone but Dad seemed to actually pay attention--but that doesn't mean kids wanted to get together with their friends and play "loving Depression-era family". No child ever enthusiastically said, "I get to be Grandpa!" or "I get to carry the firewood!" or "I can't wait to get home so I can assemble my action figures around a kitchen table where they'll sit silently listening to old-timey radio!" Did someone at Mego expect kids to make up rambling, psuedo-poetic Earl Hamner-style narration to accompany their playtime?

This may not be the most pointless product ever to appear on the market--consider Mr. Microphone or Fruit Brute--but it may well be the saddest.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Yesterday was mostly unremarkable. I had the day off, so I slept late, then went to a movie, grabbed a bite to eat, ran some errands and came home. I chatted on the phone a bit, read awhile and went to bed.

Not once did I even think about posting something here.

Sure, this site has been quite before, for days at a time. But always for a reason, because I've been away, or sick, or something. This time, I just didn't feel like writing.

Things change.

In the last half of the eighties, writing became my passion, my mission. I churned out tons of fiction, none of it published, some of it actually good. I submitted a couple of TV reviews to the local newspaper and wound up with a regular column, then convinced the editor of a Des Moines-based weekly to take me on as a freelancer. Suddenly I got paid to write!

Oh joy! Oh rapture! I'd sit in front of my cheap word processor, crank up some music and let it rip. My shtick then was basically the same as what you read here, only without the overuse of the word "douchebag" and with constant references to The Nightmare Before Christmas instead of The Pirate. So easy! Words flowed, they gushed, cascaded...until they didn't.

The Des Moines weekly got a new editor, much less enamored of my work, and as for the local paper, well, I moved away, and what was the point of writing for it anymore? And I got married, and other things seemed more important.

Eventually, a friend of mine became an associate editor of that local paper, and she convinced me to write a monthly column. A simple, easy gig, but damn, things had changed. Words no longer flowed, they had to be pulled like unyielding teeth, and carefully, deliberately placed in order to form coherent sentences. It felt like work.

So I stopped, and never wrote another word until I started this little forum, and I admit I have very mixed feelings about it. Initially, it felt great to start pounding out the wordage again, but lately I've been gripped by the feeling of Is That All There Is? I had hoped what I do here would lead to other things, would fuel my ambitions and spur me on to bigger and better things. I've made a few stabs at writing fiction again, but most of it is shitty, and I've certainly never submitted it anywhere.

For now, I'll continue here, hoping against hope for a sense of purpose, a sense of direction, or hell, any sense at all.

Monday, January 07, 2008


Reuters posted a story this morning on a phone call Michael Stipe placed to Jane Pratt's satellite radio show. The former alt-rocker turned creepy man-child babbled on and on about how "charming" and "funny" he finds Mike Huckabee.

A few thoughts:

1) If you ran a website devoted to every conceivable piece of REM arcana, I can understand how you might make mention of this. But why would anyone else?

2) I'm certainly not going to bore you with the details of the Wikipedia entry on Reuters--I could barely keep my eyes open myself--but suffice to say, it is (or was) a fairly respectable news-gathering organization. I don't condemn news outlets for trading in tidbits from pop culture, but seriously...Michael Stipe? When did anyone last care? I'm guessing '94, when Monster came out and even hardcore fans gave it a cursory listen and wondered why they ever gave a rat's ass in the first place.

3) My copies of Murmur, Fables of The Reconstruction and Document are lost to the ages, but great as they were, I remember thinking even at the time that Stipe was a pretentious asshole.

4) Anyone who ever sat through an installment of Jane Pratt's mercifully short-lived Fox talk show (which featured theme music by REM) will recall with a shudder her incredibly irritating voice. Now she's on the radio?

5) Charming? Funny? Mike Huckabee?

Sunday, January 06, 2008


It's Sunday morning, I have to go to work in two hours, and I'm listening to music. Just wanted to share. First, Sarah Vaughn's unbelievably gorgeous version of a Henry Mancini tune.

Next, Ry Cooder with Eldridge King, Bobby King and Terry Evans:

And in complete contrast, ladies & germs, Weird Al!

About that last one: I'd just like to point out that an appreciation for The Star Wars Holiday Special does not necessarily make one "nerdy". I believe that show's cheesetasticness can best be appreciated by ironic hipsters, not nerds. Ironic hipsters who will complain that the show suddenly gives the Millennium Falcon an automatic weapons system. Ironic hipsters who will point out the first-ever appearance of Boba Fett. Ironic hipsters who will loudly proclaim to a room full of disinterested people that this show can't be considered canon. Ironic hipsters who really, really like Star Wars.

Definitely not nerds.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


I can't say this is a list of the best films of the year, only the best ones I actually saw. There Will Be Blood and Persepolis have yet to open in the heartland, lots of films never played here at all and...well, let's just say life got in the way sometimes, and moviegoing wasn't always a priority.

Many movies I wanted to like just didn't do much for me (like Zodiac, a very fine film in many ways, yet fatally undermined by Jake Gyllenhaal's amazingly bland performance in a key role), and I was surprised to find some merit in things I'd assumed would be terrible (I wouldn't say In The Land Of Women is good, exactly, but it has a genuine point of view, and individual scenes are extremely well handled by writer-director Jon Kasdan). Many movies were underrated (Alpha Dog) and many, many overrated (The Host, Knocked Up, Eastern Promises). Most were simply time-killers, and about halfway through the latest Pirates Of the Caribbean extravaganza, I found myself wondering whether I'd ever enjoy a movie again.

Things did get better, as this list will show.

1. Sweeney Todd. Tim Burton took Stephen Sondheim's celebrated stage musical and made it his own, streamlining the book, pruning the score but still respecting its basic carpentry. The operatic leanings of Sondheim's score are transformed into something much more raw, but equally valid, and Burton's direction never feels stagy--the fluid staging (particularly of Pretty Women and the throat-slashing reprise of Johanna) and carefully chosen use of color (mostly blues and grays, with subtle hints of yellow and bright, vivid red) may not be intentional homages to Vincente Minnelli, but this is the best film musical he never directed.

2. Bug. William Friedkin's intense, claustrophobic adaptation of a play by Tracy Letts tracks the downward spiral of two damaged souls as they descend into absolute madness...or, in their minds, fulfill their ultimate purpose. Equal parts squirm-inducing and heartbreaking, with the performances of Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as good as anything seen on screen all year.

3. No Country For Old Men. As I've said before, Joel and Ethan Coen have always seemed like the filmmaking equivalent to Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker: Technically proficient, even brilliant, responsible for many things I love unreservedly...yet always willing to resort to sarcasm or irony whenever actual emotions threaten to rear their heads. Happily, in this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, the Coens manage to deliver both a crackerjack thriller and a somber meditation on the nature of change.

4. Ratatouille. If Brad Bird's second film for the Pixar empire isn't quite as ambitious (or as good) as his first, The Incredibles, it's more precise, more direct in both emotions and effects. Possibly inspired by its French setting, Bird's staging of several comedic set pieces is worthy of Jacques Tati. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll ache for fine food.

5. Hairspray. Hey, no one could be more surprised than me that the director of The Pacifier and Bringing Down The House made one of my favorite movies of the year, but there you go. Adam Shankman's upbeat adaptation of the Broadway hit featured great songs, dance numbers both well-staged and well-shot and a number of big laughs. None of that might have mattered without the tremendous presence of Nikki Blonsky, whose disarmingly sincere performance in the lead gives heart to what could have been raucous camp.

Beyond these five, which I could watch again anytime, were Sidney Lumet's intense drama Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Michael Moore's surprisingly overlooked Sicko, Ben Affleck's fine adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Gone, Baby, Gone and Julian Temple's thoughtfully assembled Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. I should also mention Craig Brewer's supremely weird Black Snake Moan, for its weird mix of trashiness and sincerity, for it's utter unpredictability (its storyline and tone were all over the map), for its fine performances...but mostly for featuring a skimpily-dressed Christina Ricci. For her, um, presence alone, it was a great year at the movies.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Being an Iowan and all, I'm no doubt supposed to say something about the results of the caucuses.

But really, what is there to say? Huckabee's win is unlikely to mean much down the road--bashing Hispanic immigrants probably won't play well in Florida--and Clinton's third-place finish took many by surprise (not least the candidate herself), just as Biden's status as first casualty surprised absolutely no one.

It's early. Things will change. The whole process is a joke anyway, a dinosaur whose large, unwieldy body continues to function after its brain has already died.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


Finally, finally, finally, dear God, finally. The caucuses (cauci?) are tonight, and the whole Demapublican circus will leave Iowa, and nobody will give a rat's ass about the state again.

As you may have guessed, I won't be participating.

Oh, of course, by staying home, I'm shirking my duties as a citizen, not taking part in the process of democracy, blah, blah. Fine. I say, anyone who does participate is undermining democracy. None of these losers are addressing the concerns of real people, and by offering them support, however half-hearted, we're only encouraging them.

And the front-runners for the Democratic ticket are the sorriest lot you'll ever see. Clinton, Obama, Edwards--the more they try to clarify the differences between them, the more alike they seem. Vague promises to change policy towards Iraq, tentative efforts to kinda sorta provide decent health care for all, whispered suggestions that somehow things will get better again--but no actual, workable policy, and certainly no breathtaking, inspiring visions of the future.

There are plenty of reasons to hate Lyndon Johnson, but dammit, the Voting Rights Act, the Great Society--he promised great things, and by God made them happen. The current crop of nominees are so scared of the Republican attack machine that they cling to safe centrist positions, and the only one of the bunch with the balls to do what's right, Dennis Kucinich, is openly mocked by the rest.

(True story: I got a call two weeks ago from some anonymous Edwards volunteer asking me if I'd made up my mind who to support. I said if forced to choose, I'd go with Kucinich, and she actually laughed at me and assured me he didn't have a chance. Kind of a strange tactic; it didn't change my opinion about Kucinich, but boy did it lower my opinion of Edwards. I don't care that he has Tim Robbins--seriously, Tim, why?--and Bonnie Raitt on his side, nothing will make me forget the sheer ugliness of that moment.)

The fact that the Democrats all seem to have sprung from the same policy-wonk pod is even more disheartening when you consider the diversity of voices found under the Republican tent. As much as I despise Huckabee's Keep-out-the-wetbacks vilify-the-faggots smite-the-infidels rhetoric, he's certainly nothing like Giuliani, who is wholly separate from McCain, who has nothing in common with a nutjob Libertarian like Ron Paul. Yet they're all (well, maybe not Paul) allowed their time in the sun by the party machine, possibly because the Republicans, in a rare moment of vulnerability, genuinely have no idea what to do.

So if there's a populist groundswell for one of these guys, the party might step in and anoint him, make him over into whatever they want him to be, make Huckabee slightly less openly racist or Giuliani somewhat less smug. But the Democratic machine wouldn't need to step in to polish the rough edges of Clinton, Obama or Edwards because they're already defanged, and frankly not worthy of the votes of any sentient beings.

Literally, as I wrote this, someone buzzed my doorbell. I went down to the lobby to find a phalanx of Edwards reps accompanied by a camera crew. They gave me the standard rap, and when I explained my disenchantment with the process, they predictably turned against me, bragging about how much more they care about democracy than I do, since they were willing to brave the cold just to go out there and knock on doors and...whatever.

All I could see were people patting themselves on the back for supporting mediocrity.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Kinda pressed for time this morning, but dammit, there's always time for Chuck Jones!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


No goodbyes, no regrets, no what-might've-beens. 2007 departs with a shrug of indifference.

Oh, I thought things were good when the year began, but circumstances changed and I pulled back, detached from whatever pageants and parades may have been on display. The latest heartbreak was too much to bear. My tears cried out, the blinders went on, and life became mere existence.

The things I used to care about no longer meant much to me. Of course, that had been percolating for a long time, and I'd been waiting for a change. I thought I'd found it--not only marriage, but family. Oh, new life, new adventure! Changes upon changes, joy unimagined. So unfamiliar with and unaccustomed to happiness, it took me awhile to shed the skins of my previous life, to emerge into this new world.

In fact, I never quite got there. The new life was not to be, and I found myself returning to the past I thought I'd escaped. The signposts were familiar, but no longer pointing to places I wanted to go. The comfort of the familiar become dull routine.

Lord, this sounds depressing. And I'm using way too many words. The point is, 2007 started great and ended...not great. I can see my growing detachment even in what I've posted here since last January. As the time progressed, I cranked out fewer political screeds or lengthy takedowns of pop culture, mostly because it became harder and harder for me to care anymore.

But hey, the calender turns, right? Bright new days, new opportunities, new worlds to explore. More crappy sequels, more reality shows, more blight and pestilence and suffering, more war and disease...

No, no, no. Stay upbeat. Nobody wants to be depressed. Grit your teeth and say it like you mean it:

Happy New Year.