Thursday, December 31, 2009


Though this isn't, strictly speaking, a film-based site, I seem to spend as much time writing about them there movin' pictures as anything else, so I guess it must be time for a Best Of The Year list. Later, hopefully, there'll be a Best Of The Decade list, for those of you who subscribe to the notion that the decade began in 2000, and is thus winding down. (This is the kind of thing that could be debated for hours, and frankly, who has the time?)

Anyway--the list. It comes with a couple of caveats. For one thing, I haven't seen every movie released this year, whether due to laziness (I really mean to see Invictus) or simply because they never played in my area (Big Fan). I'm excluding any movie I didn't actually see in a theater, since watching at home is a whole different experience. Also, this list is maybe even more subjective than usual. I didn't go back and look at a list of all films released this year, and gauge my opinion of them, weighing their relative merits. It's just the ones I remember and like the best, in reverse order of preference.

10. Every Little Step.

Any documentary about the making of a Broadway show is probably going to tread somewhat familiar water, but directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern keep their examination of the casting process for the recent (and now long gone) revival of A Chorus Line remarkably clear-eyed, examining the process that turns creative enterprise into a kind of sausage factory, and the effects of that mentality on the poor performers who live and die on the whims of the producers.

9. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince.

Believe you me, nobody could be more surprised than myself by how much I liked this. I hadn't even seen any previous entries in the Potter series until this year, when I caught up with them all on DVD. And conventional wisdom held: The first two entries, under the uninspired direction of Chris Columbus, were merely workmanlike, more frantic than entertaining, but the series took a noticeable upswing when Alfonso Cuaron was brought in to handle the third picture.

Still, I'd have to say David Yates is the director who really ramped up this franchise. Order Of The Phoenix and especially Half-Blood Prince mark the point where the series went from respectable adaptation of beloved books to something wholly organic. There's a sense of dread in every frame of this picture, and it is the rare blockbuster that lingers in the imagination long after it has ended.

8. In The Loop.

I was going to call Armando Iannucci's film the best comedy of the year, which it is, but although often bracingly funny, it is also a serious, even tragic study of how easily words can be misinterpreted, how minor functionaries are often allowed power they don't deserve, how easily we allow ourselves to be led astray. The peerless Peter Capaldi leads a flawless cast, tearing through one of the best scripts of recent years.

The only flaw that can be found is that Iannucci isn't really a filmmaker--he's a British TV vet, and this is definitely word- and performance-driven. Visually, it ain't much, but most of The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields look like crap, and they're still some of the best comedies ever. And In The Loop belongs in their company.

7. The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Wes Anderson's foray into the world of stop-motion animation resulted in what may be best described as his most Wes Andersony film: Suddenly his increasingly self-conscious use of framing, music, props and color find their perfect setting, and an ostensible children's film about a family of foxes becomes an emotionally rich study of a group of idealistic dreamers coming face-to face with the limits of their dreams.

6. Inglourious Basterds.

Quentin Tarantino's best film since Jackie Brown is a sprawling mess, but its a mess with a purpose and a surprising moral tone: Tarantino both indulges our bloodlust, and mocks us for it. And while that might seem simplistic coming from a lesser filmmaker, for Tarantino it almost seems like an act of self-criticism, an awareness that maybe he's been too glib for too long, that maybe even the provocations of a popular filmmaker can have real-world repercussions.

That he can do all that while demonstrating a casual mastery of nerve-wracking suspense and giving us the best World War II espionage movie since I don't know when...well, the guy's good.

5. Ponyo.

It's not just that Hayao Miyazaki prefers to work in the now-unfashionable mode of hand-drawn animation, it's that he uses his medium to demonstrate a similarly old-fashioned notion of modesty and restraint. Ponyo is the story of a goldfish who wills herself into a human child, and as bizarre as that sounds, Miyazaki never presents it as anything other than an ordinary occurrence. Magic can happen anytime and anywhere in his world, and is present in everything we do. What a wonderful worldview, and what a wonderful film.

4. The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh's latest is one of the strangest damned things to come along in quite some time: A muck-raking expose that constantly mocks its protagonist, a deadpan comedy with the coiled intensity of a thriller, a lark with a serious purpose, a star vehicle that disguises its star.

I laughed repeatedly during The Informant!--love that exclamation point!--but its story of a corporate whistleblower who tries to make the world over to match what he sees in his head turns sadder and sadder (and, conversely, funnier) as it goes along. Matt Damon, sporting a protruding gut and a goofy moustache, is absolute perfection in the title role, and Soderbergh's typically nutty notion of casting mostly comedians in the supporting roles plays off in aces. Who knew Alan Havey could act?

3/2. Coraline and Up.

Are you a cat person or a dog person? Your personality is likely to decide your preference for either of these extraordinary animated films. Sure, with Coraline stop-motion genius Henry Selick explores the emotional landscape of a girl on the cusp of adolescence who discovers a parallel universe which seems to eerily mirror who own twisted psyche, whereas Pete Docter's Up is about an embittered old man who rediscovers a reason to live through an extraordinary adventure and the tireless friendship of a young boy. Selick's emotionally distant effort showcased a garden of visual delights worthy of the great Michael Powell. Docter's gorgeously rendered CGI lanscapes hinted at the strong influence of John Ford. Coraline is intellect, Up is emotion.

But the personality of each movie is best summed up by their respective supporting animal players. Coraline features a cat (unnamed, because as he helpfully points out, cats don't need names) who is elegant, endlessly cool and even somewhat loving, but also contradictory, unknowable and frankly, kind of creepy. (Pretty much like my beloved Delmar!) Up brings us a talking Golden Retriever named Dug, who is the sweetest, most lovable critter seen on screen all year.

Me, I'm a cat person, but I slightly preferred Up. Maybe it's time to rethink my position.

1. A Serious Man.

When people want to knock the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, they accuse them of excessive cruelty towards their characters, of using their considerable filmmaking chops in service of smug condescension. And sometimes maybe that's true: There's no doubt that they're laughing at the rubes somewhat in, say, Fargo, at least at first. But they're not laughing as the film goes along, as the characters deepen, as violence erupts and pain results. Maybe they laugh the same way we all laugh when we first meet someone we don't know who is very different from us, when their quirks are unfamiliar, before we get to know them and realize how much we like them.

And so A Serious Man, which is set in a predominantly-Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in the late sixties, at first encourages us to laugh at the goofy clothes and hairstyles of the era, and to chuckle at our first sight of our protagonist, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg, first among equals in a uniformly brilliant cast), as he scribbles earnestly on a chalkboard, hunched over, his rear end sticking out in a most unflattering way. And we continue to laugh as Larry comes home from work and finds his wife on the verge of leaving him, his children utterly indifferent and his brother...well, his brother has his own set of problems, which, in typical Coen fashion are initially presented comedically, but quickly deepen to utter despair.

But he's just another addition to the Job-like suffering of Larry, whose life becomes an endless series of miseries. As the Coens, in their God-like status as writers and directors, continue to heap pain on their hero, questions arise. Are the Coens making fun of Larry's suffering? Do they empathize with him? Should we laugh? Or cry? Is this a profound inquiry into the meaning of life? Or is it just a lark by two powerful filmmakers with the ability to make whatever pops into their head? Are they suggesting God is indifferent to the sufferings of man? Or that man is incapable of embracing the mysteries of life? Should we take any of this seriously? Is this movie as really as good as it seemed the first time I saw it? Or should I consider the misgivings I had with a second viewing? Or should I trust the fact that it has stayed with me, and I've come to believe it is one of the best films of the decade?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is Yes.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Movie musicals these days are as rare as Westerns, and with both genres I'll run out to see the latest offering, in the hopes that they'll get it right, or better yet, add something new. Most new Westerns are awful, more along the lines of Young Guns, but occasionally you'll get something as extraordinary as The Proposition. Similarly, it seems very few people in Hollywood or anywhere else know how to make a musical anymore, but once in awhile, there might be a Chicago.

I know a lot of serious critics disdained Rob Marshall's film adaptation of Bob Fosse's stage production Chicago, but I thought it was about as good as could possibly be, considering the tricky nature of the material. In particular, many people hated Marshall's constantly roving camera and quick cutting during the song numbers, but to me it mostly worked--the mobile camera gave a sense of rhythm, the cutting was mostly to emphasize certain movements.

But Marshall's latest, an adaptation of the not particularly well-known Broadway musical Nine, is so bad it makes me wonder if Marshall has any talent whatsoever.

Where to begin? Or more accurately, where to stop? Nine is an almost total disaster, not an entertaining train wreck like Xanadu but dull, oppressive and joyless. And utterly, astoundingly pointless. Who exactly was supposed to enjoy this?

The original stage version of Nine was an adaptation of Federico Fellini's great semi-autobiographical fantasia 8 1/2, and however misguided that may seem, at least on stage its creators were working in a different medium from Fellini, and had to conjure their very own kind of magic. I've never seen the show, and have no idea if it worked, but at least it was its own thing.

But on film it all becomes literal. We see Daniel Day-Lewis wearing black suits and wearing Ray-Bans, stalking through the back lots of Cinecitta, and those of us in the audience with a working knowledge of Fellini will wonder why they bothered, and those without will wonder why the hell they're supposed to care.

And even then, it gets all the details wrong. The most obvious place to start is the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as an Italian (named Guido, no less!), but he at least gives the best performance he can under the circumstances. But few of the other cast members seem to belong in this particular time or place, and aren't given enough screen time to overcome their miscasting. Nicole Kidman--or, cruelly but accurately, the immobile remains of Nicole Kidman's plastic surgery--seems to be playing a character intended as an amalgamation of Claudia Cardinale and Anita Eckberg, but Kidman's physical presence is all wrong, and her physical presence is all she's given to play.

Or consider the brief performance by little-loved pop princess Fergie, who appears briefly as a prostitute remembered from Guido's boyhood. She sings Be Italian, the only song from the show I knew before I saw the movie. I knew it because I'd seen a performance of it (on the Jerry Lewis telethon!), and the most memorable aspect of it was that the actress, Kathi Moss, was particularly zaftig, not a scrawny little thing like Fergie. Which was the whole point, of course--she was ample and fleshy and, well, Italian, and far sexier for it. If Marshall is too timid to cast a heavier-built actress in a role that calls for it, why is he even bothering?

Another problem with Marshall's handling of Be Italian: for no apparent reason, he stages it as a tribute (or ripoff, if you prefer) to Bob Fosse's well-known Mein Herr number from Cabaret. Another song, the newly written (and indescribably awful) Cinema Italiano, is choreographed in a manner reminiscent of a number from Fosse's Sweet Charity. Why? Fosse's ghost was bound to haunt Chicago, but why invoke him here? (In the only song Day-Lewis is given to perform, he's suddenly and inexplicably wearing a fedora, and I clenched my teeth, waiting for him to slide it into a rakish, Fosse-esque angle. Instead, it just kind of falls off and is forgotten, a perfect metaphor for everything wrong with this movie.)

Such gestures only remind us that Fosse himself made his own version of 8 1/2, All That Jazz, and that Fosse went even further than Fellini, making a film based not only on his own life but his own eventual death. All That Jazz is infuriating and insanely egotistic, wildly entertaining and profoundly sad, a movie that gets better and better with each subsequent viewing. Every single frame of it is utterly alive, and so it is nothing like Nine.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


For reasons too mundane to explain, none of my original holiday plans worked out, and I found myself dog-sitting Brody, Tabbatha's rat terrier.

Now I'm not somebody who believes in the whole cat person/dog person thing. It's perfectly possible to be both. I loved my German Shepherd Elinore just as much any cats I've ever known. But I acknowledge that here is a difference between the two species. Cats are...well, cats are kind of weird, and their personalities come in a thousand different styles. And they're unpredictable; I've known Delmar his entire life--over seven years--and I still never know how he'll react to any given thing. Will he be cranky and pissy, or unexpectedly sweet, or aloof and unreadable? Who knows?

Dogs...well, they may be different, but usually they have predictable patterns of behavior, especially within their breed. Dogs are great, and can be swell companions, but they're much less interesting than cats.

So when Brody swept in for these past two days, I thought I knew what to expect. But once he got past the furious barking-at-Del stage (I had to shut Del into the spare bedroom for the duration, which sounds harsh, but the whole room is only slightly smaller than my old apartment), he settled down to getting to know me better. Which he did by jumping up on my lap and staring at me intensely. Then he yawned, lowered his head and demanded a hug. Only a few minutes in, and I already adored him.

He was like a wiry little embodiment of everything cute, nut never in a treacly or overbearing way. He'd track any move I made, and whenever I'd turn around, he'd be sitting there, his somewhat beady but unfathomably wise eyes peering right into me. When I'd approach my recliner, he'd jump up and down beside it, and as soon as I sat, he'd be on my lap. When he needed to go to the bathroom, he'd approach the door and do this odd little vertical leap, as straight up and down as an elevator. I'd take him outside, he'd do his business, and then demand a walk. I found myself taking him out constantly--I'd only have to go near his leash to set off a fit of joyous leaping--just for the pleasure of watching him bound through the snow. And there was his righteous fury at every passing snowplow, and the way he'd paw at the blankets until I let him under the covers, and...everything, really.

Maybe, intellectually, I prefer cats. I appreciate how mysterious and unknowable they can be. Yet those very same qualities are the reasons many people don't like cats, and I guess I can understand that. And having Brody here, especially on Christmas day, made me realize why some people prefer dogs. My plans for the day may not have worked out, just as none of my relationships somehow ever work out, but on this particular day, I had all the love anyone could ever want.

It was a Christmas miracle.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Haven't really done a whole lot to mark the holidays around here, have I? There's a ton of backstory to my Christmas this year, which I'll perhaps explicate in another post (hey, it's not like I'll be doing much else tomorrow), but for now, how about a few joyous Christmas tunes?

What says Christmas better than a character sketch about an unrepentant racist? Here's Randy Newman's Christmas In Capetown.

Oh, sure, those guys on Wall Street say the economy is getting better, but tell that to a guy barely eking out a living. Merle Haggard's If We Make It Through December has never seemed so relevant.

Now we get to the stuff I post every year. Don't think of these as repeats. Think of them as beloved holiday traditions! Here's Judy Garland singing one of the finest songs ever written for a motion picture, Vincent Minnelli's incomparable Meet Me In St. Louis.

And finally, this almost overwhelmingly bleak little number from Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Because year after year, it made Mom cry.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


It's not like I habitually sit around reading USA Today. But if I'm dining alone in some unfamiliar restaurant, and said establishment provides a copy of today's paper for the presumed edification of lonely patrons, I might as well take advantage, right?

Which is how I found myself reading an article by Susan Wloszczyna in which she details all the ways that the new movie Sherlock Holmes has "knocked the stuffiness" out of the title character, starting with the fact that the cap, cape and "that silly pipe" are gone from this movie.

Fine, whatever. Everyone with even a cursory knowledge of the character knows that the cap and cape were utilized mostly in the illustrations that originally accompanied Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, and never an integral part of the author's conception. That "silly" pipe, on the other hand, is central to Conan Doyle's characterization of the great detective--after all, how else can you have a "three pipe problem"?--as a symbol of his vices and as a crutch he'd lean on almost subconsciously, and if the current movie has indeed jettisoned it, one wonders why they even bothered retaining the name.

Two paragraphs later, Wloszczyna trumpets Robert Downey's bold new conception of the character, "as likely to rely on kung-fu skills and swordplay as on his powers of detection."

Uh, Susan? This is nothing new. Conan Doyle repeatedly stressed Holmes' superb physical condition, fencing skills, and yes, even his mastery of martial arts. He doesn't really display any of this in practical use, but these are known aspects of his character. And if we're discussing previous cinematic interpretations, Downey would have to go some way to be a bigger badass than John Neville in A Study In Terror, to name just one example off the top of my head.

But there's more to the new movie than Downey, of course, and Wloszczyna wants us to consider Jude Law, "who gives bumbling Dr. Watson a much-needed shot of virility."

OK, now you're just trying to piss me off. Bumbling? Conan Doyle always stressed Watson's intelligence. Sure, he wasn't as brilliant as Holmes, but who would be? And occasionally, Watson's insights (especially into matters of the human heart, with which Holmes was not always familiar) would provide his partner with the key to the solution. And as far as virility, Watson served in the military, carried a gun and sometimes acted as Holmes' muscle.

That whole "bumbling Watson" trope originated (and pretty much ended) with those Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies from the thirties and forties, but honestly, does anyone even remember them? Or at least, does the average reader of USA Today? If Holmes and Watson are known by the general public at all these days, it is likely due mostly to Conan Doyle's original stories, which have after all remained in print for a century or so.

And though I wouldn't necessarily expect Wloszczyna to sit down and read every single one of them, is it really too much to expect her to do some desultory research before writing her little puff piece? She may be a lowly entertainment journalist (which means she's actually a rung or two lower than sports columnists on the credibility scale), but she's still a professional, and has no business repeating idiotic misconceptions as accepted facts.

Monday, December 21, 2009


The deal is, I sat down with every intention of making fun of the trailer for the deeply unnecessary remake of Clash Of The Titans (specifically, making fun of Liam Neeson's hair and beard), but as happens when a fella spends too much time at YouTube, I got distracted.

In this particular case, I became weirdly obsessed with looking for clips from SCTV, surely one of the greatest comedy shows in the history of all things funny. In particular, I wanted to post a clip featuring my favorite recurring character from the show, Lola Heatherton, the hilariously insecure singer/actress/train wreck perfectly embodied by the incomparable Catherine O'Hara. I couldn't find the specific bit I wanted, but I found this, which also served to remind me that hey, I haven't posted anything specifically Christmas-related around here. So, uh, Merry Christmas, I guess, from Lola and me. (And Juul Haalmeyer, of course.)

Incidentally, should you be naive enough to think that bit was perhaps a bit over the top--TV variety specials were never that bad, were they?--here's Ann-Margret to set you straight. Yes, people actually sat around and watched this sort of thing back in the sixties and seventies, and no, they weren't being ironic.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I never like turning this space into a memorial for the recently passed, but this one was a personal hero: screenwriter, sometime director and one-time actor Dan O'Bannon, dead at the depressingly early age of 63.

Whatever media is even bothering to note his passing generally cites him as the author of Alien, and that is indeed one impressive credit. O'Bannon was the only officially credited screenwriter on what is still one of the best horror movies ever made, though it's well known that his script passed through many hands on the way to the screen. Still, the most disturbing elements of the story--the chestburster, most notably--are O'Bannon's, and it was he who convinced director Ridley Scott to hire conceptual artist H.R. Giger to design the title creature, one of the most iconic and influential creatures ever seen on screen.

Alien should have been O'Bannon's launching pad to immortality, but his subsequent produced scripts were alarmingly few, most of them heavily-rewritten by less talented hands. (The creepy Dead And Buried is well worth seeking out.) In 1985, he finally got a chance to direct with the alternately hilarious and genuinely disturbing Return Of The Living Dead, which introduced many key concepts into the zombie sub-genre that are still in play today, but again, despite its excellence and wide influence, it failed to open any doors for O'Bannon, who would only direct one subsequent film.

For me, though, O'Bannon will always be Sgt. Pinback, the character he played so memorably in Dark Star, the ultra low budget space epic he and John Carpenter expanded from a student film they'd made at the University of Southern California. With its dark, airless visuals and spare electronic score, Dark Star is easily recognizable as a Carpenter film (and he'd revisit its theme of working class men under pressure many times, most notably in The Thing), but I've always felt the dominant voice in the film was O'Bannon's. He scripted, designed the sets and supervised the ambitious visual effects. And its deadpan humor, stoner philosophizing and overall sense of melancholy are its own--there's no movie quite like it, and it had a deep personal impact on me the first time I saw it. It's a movie I'll always treasure, and consider a part of me, and Dan O'Bannon will always be a name that means a lot.

Here he is as Pinback--or is it Bill Frug?--in a memorable scene from Dark Star.

Friday, December 18, 2009


A few brief words in celebration of Roy Edward Disney, who died Wednesday at the age of 79.

His name, of course, was legend. He was Walt Disney's nephew, the son of Walt's brother and business manager, and in his life, he combined his father's practical business sense with his uncle's love for the medium of animation. For much of his life he abandoned the studio that was his birthright, and earned a fortune as a financier, but his knowledge of how to mount a hostile takeover came in handy in the early eighties, when he almost single-handedly forced out the management team that had run Walt Disney Productions for two decades, turning out stagnant crap like The Boatniks and Condorman, and worse, misusing the company's legendary animation department to crank out the deeply uninteresting likes of Robin Hood.

When Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over the studio in 1984, one of the conditions was that Roy Disney be allowed to revive the animation department. Animated features were a creative dead end in the eighties. Disney's recent efforts had been tired, and though Ralph Bakshi had tried to show the way back in the seventies with more personal, adult efforts like Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, no one would follow his lead. There was only Don Bluth, a former Disney animator, cranking out the insipid likes of An American Tail and The Land Before Time.

So the team Roy Disney assembled--principally directors John Musker and Ron Clements, but also a squad of brilliant young animators eager to prove their worth, lyricist and structural genius Howard Ashman and a company named Pixar, on hand to provide technical support--in the creation of 1989's The Little Mermaid would literally change the face of animation forever. It was a wonderful movie and a critical favorite, but more importantly, it was a box-office smash, a favorite not just of children and families but adults as well. It led to even bigger successes at Disney, Aladdin and The Lion King, and when Beauty And The Beast was nominated for an Oscar in 1992, it offered all the proof anyone needed that the industry was willing to take animation seriously.

It's no exaggeration to say that Roy Disney's gamble with The Little Mermaid has had an impact on every animated feature made since. Without its success, we would never have had The Nightmare Before Christmas or Toy Story or The Incredibles or Coraline or The Fantastic Mr. Fox. But more than that, it created an explosion of interest in animation among the general public, and helped make people more receptive to images that were drawn, allowed them to realize that animation could express emotions more directly than live action. So no, I don't necessarily think that, for instance, Nina Paley's indie feature Sita Sings The Blues was inspired or influenced by Disney, but the fact that it played to such large and appreciative audiences--well, yeah, I imagine more than one person in those audiences came to appreciate animation through a childhood viewing of The Little Mermaid or Beauty And The Beast.

And for that alone, Roy Disney lived a most worthwhile life.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


It's a measure of how little religious upbringing I had that when I heard that TV evangelist extraordinaire Oral Roberts died at the age of 91, all I could think of was The California Kid.

As a kid, I had no concept of Roberts, what he did, what he stood for. I had no concept of organized religion whatsoever, and though I knew vaguely of God, I'd never even heard of Jesus Christ until I half-watched a TV showing of Ben-Hur with my brother. (During the crucifixion scene, I muttered something like, "Who's this guy?" and my brother said, "He's the reason we have Christmas." Look, I was six or so, and we never went to church. How was I supposed to know these things?)

So even though the local ABC affiliate would broadcast an Oral Roberts crusade every week, it wasn't like we ever watched the things. The problem was, they'd show them in prime time, bumping whatever was on the network, which was usually The ABC Movie Of The Week, original films made for TV, usually starring the likes of Karen Valentine or Robert Reed in dull-sounding comedies or lightweight dramas.

But whatever the movie was, it was always heralded by full-page ads in TV Guide, which inevitably gave even the dopiest picture (Anyone remember Paul Sorvino in It Couldn't Happen To A Nicer Guy?) a certain cachet--these weren't just lame TV movies, these were Events! Mostly I didn't care when the Pentecostal stylings of Oral Roberts filled in for these things, but once in awhile ABC would show something I simply had to see. Something like The California Kid, with Martin Sheen as a greaser drag racer squaring off against redneck lawman Vic Morrow. Or so I surmised from the print ad, which made it look like the coolest thing in the world.

I wish I could say something really dramatic happened at this point, like I watched a Roberts crusade for the first time during what I was certain would be the one-and-only airing of The California Kid, and that either I found God or cursed Him, thus dooming myself to a lifetime of Job-like misery. Instead, all that happened was...nothing. Since I couldn't watch the movie, I went outside and played, then did my homework and went to bed.

Not a terribly interesting memory, perhaps, but one I've retained for over thirty years, and my only concrete relationship to anything Oral Roberts ever did.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I saw The Princess And The Frog this weekend, loved it, and hope to write more about it soon. For now, what I want to say is how refreshing it was to see actual hand-drawn animation on the big screen, artwork that obviously came from a human hand.

If you're thinking, "Ah geez, he's going to go off on another anti-CGI screed," you're not wrong. But let me say, I have nothing against CGI, in theory or in use. I revere almost everything Pixar has ever produced. If I ever get around to compiling a Ten Best Films Of The Year list, rest assured Up will most certainly have a place there. (If I do a Best Of The Decade list--and I probably will-- it may turn up there as well, along with at least one other Pixar film which is a near lock for first place.)

The problem with so many computer animated films is that they are so visually dreary, so dedicated to reproducing reality (simulated sunlight, water and flesh, even digitally-created lens flares and shaky camera moves) that they forget that the key to great animation is often simplicity. Bill Tytla, perhaps the greatest animator who ever lived, could make audiences weep with nothing more than lines he'd scrawled on paper. Yes, those lines were transferred to celluloid, painted and laid over backgrounds--but the drawing remained Tytla's. Walt Disney had a huge effects animation department he'd deploy for all his features, which specialized in depicting sunlight and water and shadow, but he knew when not to deploy such effects, when to simply let Tytla or Frank Thomas or Ward Kimball strut their stuff.

As too many animated features try to simulate reality, live action features are becoming more and more cartoonish, as CGI is inexplicably rolled out to depict not only such pointless spectacle as giant fighting robots, but everyday occurrences like car wrecks and...well, almost everything. Filmmakers these days are wacky on the junk, breaking down the world to a series of 0s and 1s, rendering everything digitally simply because they can. So we have computer-rendered jets flying over character's heads as they talk, or protagonists wandering through digitally-created crowds, a series of pointless distractions that intrude on whatever reality is meant to be conjured.

And even when depicting the patently unreal, why does CGI have to be the go-to method? Part of my weekend was spent viewing my all-time favorite Christmas movie, Joe Dante's wonderful Gremlins, released in 1984, when computer effects were in their infancy. The title menaces were nothing more than elaborate puppets. But they were superbly designed (by Chris Walas) and properly threatening.

Consider this sequence:

First of all, there's no denying this scene works. It wouldn't have been improved with CGI. In fact, it probably would have lessened its impact. In a way, Dante had to work around the limits of the technology; the puppets could only move so far. But that pushed him to think on his feet, to come up with fresh, different camera angles that would hide the wires and technicians, to creatively edit around what he couldn't show.

The other thing about that sequence is that actress Frances Lee McCain clearly had something to react to. The gremlins were really there, live on set, but so was the green goo pouring out of the blender. And again, the fact that her movements were dictated by the puppeteers and effects guys on the set probably added to her discomfort, a discomfort that registers on screen as a reaction to the scaly invaders in her kitchen, a reaction that isn't possible when an actor is reacting to things that won't be added until post-production.

I had another point to make, but this is getting long, and you get the idea.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


For reasons I don't fully understand, I've taken to watching reruns of All In The Family. It wouldn't exactly be true to say this is a show that holds up well, but it has its own unique pleasures, but mostly not for reasons its creators may have intended.

In the seventies, there were basically two schools of sitcoms: The Norman Lear style and the MTM style. MTM was a production entity originally set up to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and following its success, continued to turn out more sophisticated, character-based programs: The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP In Cincinatti. Norman Lear was the king of broadly-played, vaguely "relevant" shows. He hit it big with All In The Family, and from it sprang any number of spin-offs and off-shoots: Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times. Not every comedy in this decade was a creation of one of these companies, but they all seemed to creatively pledge their allegiance to one of the two families: MASH, by taking its characters and situations seriously, could almost have been an MTM creation, whereas Welcome Back, Kotter, a loud, boisterous assemblage of cartoonish ethnic types, was obviously in the Lear mold.

The biggest differences between the two schools wasn't in their approaches to writing or characterization so much as the production techniques. Mary Tyler Moore and All In The Family were both recorded in front of live audiences, but ace MTM director Jay Sandrich geared his staging and performances mostly for the camera. Yeah, occasionally the actors have to hold a line to wait for audience laughter, but otherwise you wouldn't know you weren't watching a single-camera show. The MTM model favored varying camera angles, and larger casts, so they could always cut to a reaction shot. Following Sandrich's lead, MTM was the proving ground for director James Burrows, who co-created Cheers and has had a hand in seemingly every other sitcom for the last twenty years. To put it another way, only the clothes and settings date The Mary Tyler Moore Show when viewed today.

All In The Family, on the other hand, almost looks like it came from another world. Norman Lear's shows were always shot on what seemed to be the cheapest videotape imaginable, on brightly-lit, brazenly artificial sets. Presumably he thought this would give the shows a sense of immediacy, a live-wire quality that the more carefully-honed MTM product couldn't match. Mostly, it just gave his shows a hideously ugly physical appearance which, combined with Lear's penchant for small casts and loud, obnoxious characters, make almost everything he did unwatchable today. Go ahead: Try sitting through an episode of Good Times or One Day At A Time without developing a piercing headache.

But with All In The Family, Lear's crude physical production really does give the show a palpable live quality. It helped, of course, that his leads were two exemplary actors, Carroll O'Connor and especially Jean Stapleton, stage vets who could play to the cheap seats without sacrificing quality of performance. Their work, along with that of sometime regulars Betty Garrett and Vincent Gardenia and old-pro guest stars like Barnard Hughes, make watching the show kind of like watching a live theatrical performance.

Not a good theatrical performance, mind you--more like a touring production of a Neil Simon play. The writing has a Simonesque tendency to resort to cheap one-liners to defuse tension, and the settings have a surface realism that lets you buy into the premise at least temporarily, but without ever making you forget you're watching actors on a set, actors who say their lines and wait for their co-stars to say theirs before responding. (The wide camera angles favored by the show frequently capture the cast members not actively involved in a scene simply standing there, waiting for a cue.) The whole thing is so blatantly artificial--and artificial in the name of "realism"--it at times achieves a near-Brechtian quality.

And we'll almost certainly never see anything like it again. The only sitcom in the last twenty years to even attempt something like the Norman Lear house style, Roseanne, emulated its ugly shot-on-video look and vaguely humanist concerns, but at its best, utterly transcended them, thanks to incisive writing and superb acting of a caliber Lear might not have allowed. (Two of its leads, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, were stage vets, but honed in more raw, less theatrical technique than O'Connor and Stapleton.) Otherwise, there's nothing like it on TV now--even a stale laugh machine like Two And A Half Men has a visual sophistication worthy of an MTM product, and the best comedies on TV today--Community, Parks And Recreation--are shot one camera style, each episode essentially a mini-movie. Even the recent high-profile failure of a Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs suggests that the "well-made play" model used by Lear is out of favor forever.

The reruns will always exist, though, a reminder that this is what the whole country once gathered around and watched, enjoying it and embracing it without a hint of irony. Odd that a show intended by its creators to be explosive and even divisive has instead ended up as video comfort food.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Lots of people, no doubt, are spending today writing about this. Hell, they probably even feature this clip, which is, unbelievably, how so many people heard the news.

Me, I heard about it on the radio, playing low, the words barely penetrating my consciousness as I drifted to sleep. No warning, just the news, delivered with a devastating bluntness. The dream was, indeed, over.

I don't have any dazzling, original thoughts for today. (Yeah, I know--there's nothing you can sing that can't be sung.) But it's an annual tradition here to pay homage, because however many personal heroes I may have, this site only has one patron saint.

And only one theme song, which even that awful like-named movie from a year or two ago could not ruin.

Monday, December 07, 2009


If you're not from the Des Moines area, you're almost certainly unaware of the local rag known as Juice, a free weekly put out by the junior minions of the Gannett corporation, current owners of the once-esteemed, now-reviled Des Moines Register. Juice aims to be a stylish guide to all that is hip and happening in the metro area, and falls as laughably short as you'd expect. (Hey, a local bar is having something called Tacky Sweater Night! What a perfect excuse to run photos of the staff wearing--get ready for it!--tacky sweaters! Isn't that wacky? Isn't it? For God's sake, say it is!)

Anyway, this thing has inexplicably stayed afloat for a few years now--Gannett is bleeding The Register dry, but for some reason, they keep pumping money into Juice--and I pick it up maybe twice a year to see if it's gotten any better or worse. (It always gets worse.) And in the latest issue I found a profile of--well, no use singling her out by name, but she's president of a local Young Professionals group. At first I misunderstood, and assumed Young Professionals was the name of a conservative rock band, but no, it's a social networking thing, or something. Honestly, I'd rather be living my life than "networking," but, fine, different strokes and all.

The thing that pissed me off about the profile of this woman was her description of her job. To quote: "I work in group event management for [insert goofy company name here], a performance marketing company in West Des Moines that helps clients motivate, engage and empower their employees to perform better. My department assists their clients with planning and executing their business meetings, product launches and sales incentive trips to places all over the world. I travel on some of the larger programs to assist our clients and travel team."

OK, based on this description, I have no idea what the fuck this woman does for a living, and I suspect that's the point. A performance marketing company? That helps clients plan business meetings? And sales incentive trips? Sounds like the kind of bullshit obfuscation you pull in a bar when you're trying to disguise just how soul-deadening your job really is, but you hope you can make it sound impressive enough to at least get you laid.

But her job is almost certainly not soul-deadening, because that implies you have a soul in the first place. And once you've made the leap to using the word "empower" in relationship to your job without putting it in ironic quote marks, you've pretty much kissed any trace of a soul goodbye. This is the type of person who probably voted for Obama--because hey, that's what the young people agreed they were doing, what with their social networking and all--without realizing she's already a perfect little Republican tool.

If I sound unusually bitter, well, I find it infuriating that this person even has a job--sorry, is empowered to have a job--when so many good people are out of work, and when necessary, worthwhile positions are being eliminated left and right. The more interesting story about life in Des Moines that Juice wouldn't dream of examining is that our libraries and municipal offices are forced to shut down for several days as the city simply can't afford to pay its employees. Culture is sidelined, and even the most basic functions of government screech to a halt, but there's always room to pay somebody to do something that isn't worth doing in the first place.

And the good folks at Gannett will be there to celebrate their every non-achievement.

Friday, December 04, 2009


See, the thing is, I haven't been at work for the last two days. Yesterday was my regularly-scheduled day off (I work this weekend), but today was a day I'd somewhat capriciously chosen, mostly because several of my co-workers have had days off and I figured, hey, I was entitled. And one of the things I specifically wanted to do with all that time was sit down and write.

Well, yesterday turned out to be unexpectedly busy--I had chores to run and a visit to the doctor's office. (Parenthetical aside about that last one: I had to cram several potential health concerns into one visit because my already lousy benefits package at work will become even lousier after the first of the year, as our insurance providers have blessed us with a plan designed to discourage regular doctor visits by making us pay more for them. The HR guy actually phrased it that way when he presented us with the plan. Anyway, good news from the doc: I'm in better shape than I have any right to be.) Hell, I barely got home in time to pop open a Sam Adams Winter Lager (a shocking admission for me, as I've long maintained nothing good has ever come out of Boston, excepting of course the novels of George V. Higgins) and enjoy NBC's exemplary Thursday night comedy lineup.

But today was wide open, just made for me to sit down and offer some pithy insights into...whatever the hell I might've written about. (I actually had some ideas, which I won't go into in case I ever, you know, get around to writing again.) But, well, I had some meds to pick up, and then lunch at a grungy-but-inexpensive Chinese restaurant, and there were all these DVDs unearthed during my recent move, so I figured, why not watch some movies? (The Seven Faces Of Dr. Lao and my umpteenth viewing of The Pirate were on the menu today.) And then it was time for dinner, and hey, better start thinking about bed, because I work tomorrow, and...

So I'm sorry, is what I'm saying. But Shatner, at least.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


My coat still hanging in the closet, an old bar of soap and a nearly-empty bottle of Barbasol on the rim of the tub, a flier for a local restaurant still stuck on the fridge--these were the only things left for me to grab out of my apartment, the only reminders that I had lived here at all.

I grabbed all these things quickly and hurriedly before I headed for work, early in the morning, nobody around, no neighbors, nobody who knew me. After grabbing what I needed, I knocked on the door of the lady who lived next to me, to say goodbye and give her my new address, in case we wanted to stay in touch. She didn't answer. I shrugged, headed down the same old stairway one last time, and walked out the door. After dropping my keys in the slot in the landlord's office next door, I drove away. Simple as that.

That was Monday. This is Thursday. I haven't thought about the place since, not until just now, when I inexplicably started wondering whether the maintenance guy had set out the sad little Christmas tree that decorated the lobby every year. Every year I lived there...Good Lord...How many years could that be? Longer than the duration of my marriage-- How did that happen?

It's not like I sat there passively the whole time I lived there. I did try, and occasionally succeed, to reengage with the world. But it became so easy to stay there, even as my thirties slipped away, even as love slipped through my fingers, even as the anchor of my family was taken away.

So I must have had some affection for the place. So why, then, when I finally decided to move, was it so easy? Why are there no regrets, no sad-eyed glances backwards, no tears, not even fleeting moments of...something?

Still, there was that fleeting thought about the Christmas tree, and how my mom would chuckle over it every time she'd come to visit ("Did Charlie Brown do the decorating here?"), and how those visits dwindled later on because it was difficult for her even to climb up the front stoop, and--oh, here they come: All those memories I'd kept hidden away. Time to let them wash over me, to lead me where they will, and, hopefully, gain some wisdom from them.

And then emerge, clear-eyed, in the here and now.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Fortunately I overslept, or I would've had a much longer post discussing Obama's speech to the nation last night, in which he half-heartedly attempted to justify a prolonged, pointless war. His rhetoric became downright Bushian at times, when he assured us our allies would join the fight (a Coalition Of The Willing, you might say) or when he promised there'd be a definite though hazily-defined drawdown date (in other words, we'll step down when the Afghanis step up).

But that would have been depressing, and who needs that? Espedcially when we have a trailer for an Angie Dickinson movie to look at!

Incidentally, that's Joe Dante mainstay Dick Miller narrating, and for those of you who care about such things, this movie offers a glimpse of Shatner's naked backside. And yes, even his butt overacts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Some time ago I tried to describe how my beloved cat Monika seemed disturbed by Mom's failing health, which she seemed to sense before even Mom herself did. It was as though she had some sort of sixth sense, or at least an acutely-tuned awareness of an inevitability already in the air. But this, this one seemed to sneak up on her: Monika has died.

Her health had been failing, or maybe it was just time catching up with her. She was sixteen, after all, the oldest cat I've ever had in my life, and her natural exuberance was bound to dim with age. Yet she continued, even this morning, to do all the things she's always done, bumming food off of me and rubbing against me, and curling up at my feet.

Still, it had been apparent that her time was winding down. And when I came home from work tonight, she laid motionless in front of the recliner in the living room, the very chair she had claimed as her own from the moment we moved into the new house. I thought she was already gone, but her silvery fur twitched from breathing. I put a blanket in a box and made a little bed for her. I carefully set her inside--she yowled desperately as I picked her up, the only evidence I've seen that she's felt any pain--and sat beside her.

I talked to her. She knows my voice, of course, and I thought the sound of it might provide some comfort to her in her final moments. I said her name over and over, and stroked her between the ears, and reminded her once again that she's the most beautiful cat in the world.

Then she stopped breathing. Simple as that.

Tomorrow's Thanksgiving. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot to be thankful for right now, but I'm trying to remember this: Monika was a wonderful cat, and I gave her the best home I could, and I loved her with all my heart.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Been in the new house a couple of weeks now, and I've been feeling pretty fine and mellow. So good, in fact, that a fall was inevitable. Now here it is.

Not quite my old unwanted companion depression, but still a familiar acquaintance: melancholy. But it's a gray, rainy day, and the coming of Thanksgiving reminds me that I really don't have any family to share it with. A sense of being alone has returned, the only company I'll have this holiday.

Surprisingly, though, I'm spending less time on the well-traveled boulevards. I'm not dwelling on the failure of my marriage to Sue Ellen, or the family I might have had with Tabbatha and Paul, or even my more recent assignations with Katie and Jessica. (So many names--it's kind of nice to know I have a past. How much better, though, to have a present.)

I'm thinking instead of the things that slipped by completely, the things that could have happened but didn't. Like the girl whose name I don't even remember that I spent some time with at a writer's conference I attended. She was maybe eighteen, I was only twenty-one, and we were much younger than most of the other attendees. She said she liked the story of mine that had been discussed in a group the day before, and I tried to play it cool, saying it wasn't even one of my better efforts, and I had plenty more, maybe she'd like to read them sometime. She said she'd like that, but no definite plans were made, and we saw each other only occasionally throughout the day's activities. At the end of the day, I found myself talking to some of the other attendees, one of whom I saw as a possible path to publication. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the girl lingering by the doorway, looking in my direction. I continued talking. Finally, she left. The conference was over.

There were others, some of whom I knew better, more intimately, but who somehow failed to gain traction on my heart. (I'm busting out the overwrought metaphors like crazy today, aren't I? Must be the weather...) They all mattered a great deal to me once, but ultimately they were filed away into memories and mostly forgotten. Today, for some reason, they have chosen to visit, to pay homage to my own haplessness.

I thank them for stopping by, and I don't wish to be a bad host, but I can't wait for them to leave.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Maybe it's because the kids today are so busy wasting their literary tendencies on texting (a popular fad, I understand, along with wearing dungarees, listening to that infernal bebop and cavorting on my lawn), but it's getting really really difficult to find a good graffiti-covered stall in a public restroom. Even the men's rooms at Southridge Mall, the most notoriously down-market shopping destination in the Des Moines area, are remarkably pristine.

Fortunately, I've started regularly frequenting a Chinese restaurant in which the bathroom walls are as gloriously profane and pre-adolescent as anyone could wish. It even has a straightforward transcription of the old "Here I sit, broken hearted" chestnut, which...Really? You go through all the trouble of bringing a marker to the bathroom, and that's the best you've got?

Much more entertaining are the scrawled redundancies. One comment suggests that someone named Tracy (or possibly Terry--the name has been smudged for some reason) is "a hore and a slut." Assuming Tracy/Terry does not, in fact, make her living as a prostitute, I'm forced to assume that this disgruntled acquaintance is merely using the term "hore" to describe a woman (again, assuming Tracy/Terry is female) of loose morals. In which case, it goes without saying that she's a slut.

Similarly, another message assures us that the writer likes to "HAVE SEX AND EAT PUSSY." Well, maybe this is getting too technical, but I must assume that "eating pussy" is a description of oral sex, not a feline-based delicacy. In which case, I'd pretty much go ahead and classify it under the rubric of "having sex." Perhaps what this person meant to say was "I LIKE PUTTING MY PENIS IN VAGINAS AND EATING PUSSY." It's always good to be precise.

But my favorite of all the comments on the wall would be this: "Come to New York, get blow jobs." This is one of the most cryptic things I've ever read. If I come to New York, do I automatically get a blow job? (I've been there several times, and found that to be only occasionally true.) Or, alternately, is this meant to suggest that blow jobs somehow aren't available locally? That doesn't seem possible, not while Tracy/Terry is still plying her trade.

The sad thing is, I've been to this restaurant several times, and every time I fall under the spell of the New York blow job comment. It's like a Zen koan, a riddle without an answer, an enigma eternally casting a spell. I think we can all agree, if you can't have a little mystery while taking a dump, life just isn't worth living.

Oh, and yes, I'm well aware: This is the silliest, most tossed-off post I've ever written.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I just called to shut off the power at my apartment. The rent is still paid through the end of the month, and I have a few things left there to be brought to the house, but basically my life there is over.

Yesterday morning I stopped by to grab a few more things, and as I climbed the steps to the third floor, the steps I climbed every day to what was once my home, I was amazed by how much I didn't care, by my complete lack of nostalgia or sentimentality, or feelings of any kind.

How unlike me. I lived in this place for years. Shouldn't I be lost in some hazy reverie? I can't say I ever loved it there, but at least initially, so much about it--the clunky old Otis elevator, the authentic Murphy bed--appealed to me. It was a perfect temporary place. But time passed, and I stayed, inertia my dominant state. It suited me there, or so I wanted to believe. Besides, I wasn't going to live in Des Moines forever. No sense putting down roots when that gypsy highway would be calling me. Eventually.

But that call never came, and I stayed, nested, or perhaps entombed. Nothing really challenged me, inspired me to leave until I met Tabbatha. We looked for places together, and suddenly my eyes were opened. Even though she tore out my heart and threw it on the ground, I still have to give her credit: Through her, I realized that I likely wasn't going anywhere, that I was here, and this was likely where I was meant to be. She made the idea of being rooted sound appealing. Of course, that realization came out of a desire to be rooted with her, to start a family and have a life I'd never imagined. Some kind of normalcy, which for me would be an unimaginably exotic adventure.

Well, the happy family thing may not have happened, but the whole experience led me here, to my own house, a place to finally call my own. And a weird sense of domesticity has enveloped me. My neighbor told me I could borrow her snow blower, which means a) I'm thinking of snow blowers, and, more shockingly, b) I'm talking to my neighbor. Which is no big deal for most people, but I have no experience doing this sort of thing, I might as well be flying the Millenium Falcon or something, and though I have no clue what I'm doing, it's kind of fun.

Friday, November 06, 2009


I'll be computer-free for awhile, so there'll be even less activity around here than usual, but I figured I should toss one final dart before departing, so here it is: A nearly unwatchable late seventies Burger King commercial. I remember this ad campaign, and sadly, I remember the jingle (which will be going through my head all day), but I didn't remember just how long this thing was. Just when you think they've finally gotten to the tagline, they go on to another verse. That, and production values on the level of Bill Osco's Alice In Wonderland, make sitting through this a singularly unpleasant experience. In other words: You're welcome!

Thursday, November 05, 2009


I pull the heavy wooden outer door shut, then the cage door, then punch the button. The elevator descends. I've enacted this ritual countless times, but the feeling now is different. I'm constantly aware that this is one of the last times I will ride this elevator, walk these halls, descend these stairs. This has been my home, and soon it won't be.

I'm moving. I've bought a house, and if all goes according to schedule, all the major items will find their way to the new dwelling by the end of this weekend. The rent at this apartment has been paid until the end of the month, so there is still plenty of time to move the smaller stuff, the books and CDs and silverware, all the bits and pieces that I will need in time. And there will be time to linger.

This apartment was never meant to be a permanent home. It was the first place I could call my own after I split with my wife, after months and months of living with family members. I moved in here mostly because it was cheap, I liked the neighborhood and the landlord allowed cats. I refused to sign a twelve month lease, because I assumed I wouldn't be here that long. This was just a place for me to clear my head, get my bearings, figure out my next step. There was no intention of making this apartment, or this city, my regular address.

But momentum slowed. I intended to put money away for my eventual move to someplace, anyplace else. But I started dating again, and that can be terribly spendy, and there were car issues, and an expensive DVD habit. I was never out of money, but I never had enough to comfortably strike out to a new location, to have something in reserve.

So I stayed. And this apartment became the sight of some mild debauchery--I'll spare you the details--and my home base as I eased my way back into the land of the living. It's also where I lived when my divorce became final, where I heard my mom had died, and where I realized I was still capable of falling in love. I've cried here, and I've laughed here.

But it's just a place, right? I know that, intellectually, but...I get too attached to things, graft sentimental meaning onto inanimate objects and empty rooms. As I pack, it becomes impossible to decide what to toss and what to keep. Familiar shadows haunt every corner. In a kitchen drawer I found a ticket stub for Talladega Nights, the first movie Tabbatha and I saw together. I have no idea why I kept it, but there it was, a tactile reminder of something that almost was. Is there any meaning to this? Does it matter that I fell in love with her? Does it matter that it ended? Is the memory more important or...or...Crap.

See, this is what I mean. The intention was to keep this little essay a little more focused, but I've wandered into the cul-de-sac of wistful memory. It's the same way with the move. I know what needs to be done, I need to stay focused, but there's a part of me that just wants to stay awhile, surrounded by these walls I know so well.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Could be writing about the results of various elections around the country--Republicans won some key races but lost the one they tried most desperately to win, and a gay marriage initiative was soundly defeated by the placidly homophobic residents of Maine--but the story that I kept rereading this morning was a brief item from Reuters detailing the sentencing of a man accused of stalking Ryan Seacrest.

I kept rereading it because it seems frankly impossible. Why the hell would anybody stalk Ryan Seacrest?

Sure, most stalkers are victims of extreme mental illness, and are driven by their demons to do things that seem incomprehensible. But their targets, at least, usually make sense: They want to bask in the aura of icons like John Lennon or Barbra Streisand, or they see TV actresses like Stephanie Zimbalist or Rebecca Schaeffer, who are pretty in blandly unthreatening ways, and they think they can get close to them, make them their own.

But Ryan Seacrest? Seriously? I mean, sure, the guy's ubiquitous, and has an annoyingly gladhanding manner, and...Actually, I'm having a hard time saying anything about him. He's as substantial as heavily-moussed cotton candy, and it's hard to imagine him inspiring any sort of passionate feelings in anyone one way or another. Maybe the alleged stalker, an Army Reservist named Chidi Uzomah, is a hardcore Casey Kasem partisan who is pissed about Seacrest hijacking that sweet, sweet America's Top Forty gig.

Otherwise, the question isn't so much Why? as Why Bother?

Friday, October 30, 2009


In honor of Halloween--and also because I've been watching a lot of Chuck Jones pictures lately--here's one of the best horror-themed cartoons ever made. I've always loved this, but in recent years, it's become even more meaningful to me. I mean: Has there ever been a better depiction of what it's like to live with an easily-frightened black-and-white cat?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


1) You know the drill: A pointless Larry King quote, another Random Thoughts post. And if you don't know the drill, you must be new here. Welcome! And also, how the hell did you get here? It's not like I've been doing anything to increase traffic around these parts. Are you sure you're in the right place? Would you like something to eat? I've got some potato chip crumbs around here somewhere...

2) Hey, anybody remember the bright, shiny promise of Obama's presidency? How it was going to be so, you know, different and all? How he was going to close Gitmo, get us the hell out of Iraq and by God make sure the health care system in this country was overhauled?

Yeah. I'm sorry, but fuzzy words and half-hearted efforts really won't cut it. Particularly galling is his pitiful efforts to make some sort of dent in the insurance industry's death grip on American health care. He waffled on support for a public option--presumably he was checking to see what way the wind blew--and let a band of right-wing lunatics set the terms of the debate. At no point did he lead forcefully, or even act like he particularly gave a rat's ass. With the economy still tanking and more and more people realizing the limits of their insurance coverage, there has never been a better time to pass real, significant reform. And Obama is just kind of letting the moment pass.

Not that any of this is unexpected, but still...sad.

3) Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man has yet to open in my personal neck of the woods, and I'm still waiting. It's easily one of my most anticipated films of the year, and yet, I don't necessarily expect it to be my favorite. Last year's offering from the Coens, Burn After Reading, was one of the year's best, but almost by default: How much competition did it have, really? Movie-wise, pickins have been mighty slim lately.

But this year...holy crap! Just off the top of my head, Coraline, Up, In The Loop, Moon, Inglourious Basterds, Ponyo, Lorna's Silence, The Informant! and Where The Wild Things Are--a fine list by any standards. Quite honestly, A Serious Man would have a long way to go to match any of those.

Then again, with the Coens, I've learned never to trust my initial reaction. It took me three viewings to finally appreciate The Big Lebowski.

4) Rapacious, money-grubbing rock manager Dee Anthony has died at the age of 83. Every single obit IDs him as the guy who broke Peter Frampton in the United States, but presumably not wishing to speak ill of the dead, they tiptoe around what he actually did to Frampton's career.

Yes, the record-breaking success of Frampton Comes Alive was engineered by Anthony, but that very success led him to view Frampton as he viewed all the artists in his stable: as commodities. Anthony didn't care about Frampton as an artist or human being, he only cared about how much money his pretty boy Trilby could generate. So there was a rushed follow-up to Frampton Comes Alive, the laughable I'm In You, an album so dismal Frampton himself hated it. (It did, however, inspire the title of Frank Zappa's I Have Been In You, so there's that.)

Even more notoriously, Anthony teamed up with another noted seventies schlockmeister, Robert Stigwood, and together they teamed their biggest clients, Frampton and The Bee Gees, in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a movie so bad I'm surprised I haven't spent more time writing about it here. More than just a terrible, terrible piece of celluloid, it was also a notorious flop, damaging the careers of pretty much everyone involved with it: Director Michael Schultz would never again get an A-list gig, Stigwood never achieved the moguldom he clearly desired, the Bee Gees' incredible Saturday Night Fever success was revealed as a mere fluke.

But the worst fallout came down on Frampton. He was never more than a journeyman rocker, but the massive, and somewhat questionably achieved, success of Frampton Comes Alive made him suspect in the eyes of most critics, and with his commercial prospects crumbling, he had no support system. Anthony put him back on the road, playing to smaller and smaller crowds, a former Sun God revealed as nothing more than a man. And when money stopped rolling in, Anthony dumped Frampton without a second thought, having used him for all he could get.

But none of the obits quite explain all that.

5) I meant to post this yesterday, but this was my actual reaction to the Yankees heading for the World Series:

Sadly, this is pretty much my reaction to any good news.

6) Finally, the cats: Monika's been an ongoing source of concern lately. She's sixteen, and had been going strong, but all of a sudden she became scrawny, slow-moving and very, very frail, as if finally showing her age. She has, at this point, lived longer than any cat I've ever known, so I prepared myself for the inevitable, as she just kind of sat around and looked out of it.

Delmar apparently sensed that, too, since he's been strutting around like King Shit, acting about as assertive as a furry little bundle of neuroses possibly can. He's been downright confident lately, secure about his place in the world.

Well, watch out, Del: Instant Karma's gonna get you. As he walked through the living room this morning, Monika, perched on a chair, reached down and bitch-slapped him. He looked from side to side, as if he couldn't figure out what just happened. Monika hopped down from the chair, sat in front of him and just stared. Del backed away slowly at first, then beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

So, in other words, it's business as usual around here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


True, even in this day and age dessicated, dead-eyed Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester inexplicably considers herself a singer, and there are always the various Disney Channel/Nickelodeon tweener stars, who release singles and albums at a furious rate, whether they have any musical talent or not. For the most part, though, these ill-advised attempts at a second career don't actually interrupt the shows themselves.

As opposed to the seventies, when a broad-based audience might unsuspectingly tune into an action/adventure show, only to be confronted with the terrifying spectacle of its lead character breaking out into song. It happened on Wonder Woman, Starsky And Hutch, The Dukes Of Hazard...and okay, it never actually happened on Buck Rogers, but we did have to watch Gil Gerard dancing, which was arguably worse. Oh, and it occurred repeatedly on The Bionic Woman, and my poor twelve-year-old psyche was permanently shattered by enduring such horror:

OK, "permanently shattered" may be a bit of an overstatement. In fact, I have no memory of even seeing this, even though I was a regular watched The Bionic Woman. I can only assume I chose to block it out so the pain couldn't hurt me. In any event, I stumbled across this while looking for something else (Joey Heatherton clips, if you must know), and it made me laugh. Think they made that flag big enough?

Friday, October 23, 2009


Again, it's been quiet around here all week posting-wise, but that's partly because the only things that kinda made me feel like writing were the passings of famous people (producer Daniel Melnick, composer Vic Mizzy, actor Joseph Wiseman--Dr No his own bad self!--and, now, Soupy Sales), and it tends to seem sometimes like this entire site is devoted to death and sadness, so I just kind of left it all alone.

Instead, a semi-amusing observation: this morning, while preparing turkey sandwiches to take to work, I noticed my box o' sandwich bags actually had a diagram on the back explaining how to seal the bag. Now these are just cheapo, generic bags, lacking even the complexity of your advanced Ziploc technology. These are the kind of bags that have a flap you fold under and, uh...that's it, really. I'm not the most technologically advanced guy, and I tend to have to be shown how something works repeatedly before I understand it, but still: There's a flap, you fold it, you're done. Anybody could figure that out. It's instinctual, like a cat using a litter box. But someone at Hy-Vee corporate HQ decided we needed to be shown how to work it.

For some reason, that makes me happy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Believe me, I cried repeatedly during Spike Jonez's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's classic Where The Wild Things Are, so often I couldn't even count the number of times. But I can pinpoint exactly when I knew it was going to be a rough ride, emotionally: At the very beginning, when I realized Jonez had given the story's young protagonist, Max, a sister, who looked to be about five years older than him. A sister that age increases your feeling of isolation when you're a kid, the sense that you have no peers in your own family. I know this, of course, from experience. At that point I knew this movie, which is a journey into the emotional landscape of a little boy, was inevitably going to be a journey into my own head as well.

So it may be a little difficult to offer any kind of objective assessment of this film. It gets so much right, emotionally and otherwise, that any flaws it may possess fall away. (If flaws it has. Honestly, it seemed pretty much pitch-perfect to me.) But clearly Where The Wild Things Are deserves a spot at or near the top of any list of the greatest films ever made about childhood. It is being marketed (at least to some extent) as a kid's movie, and that's true, but it's a movie for all the kids who don't quite fit in, who spend most of their time living in their own worlds. It explores those worlds, what they are like and how they came to be. It remembers exactly what it was like to be eight or nine and feel like the only person in the world who has ever been so insanely happy or miserably sad, how the world is full of mysteries that must be explored, how scary it can be to feel things when all of your emotions are as raw as your skin.

Oh, and it has monsters, because little boys instinctively love monsters, and any fantasy world they conjured when inevitably include some. And these monsters all reflect some part of Max, including the parts he can't quite understand. They are loving and warm and angry and ignored and terrifying and mysterious and sweet and kind. They make him their king, then later admit he was never really a king, at just the same time Max realizes it as well. So he must leave them and return to his own world, where he isn't a king, but a little boy with a mother who loves him very much.

And I'm crying right now because I'm thinking of the final scene, but also an earlier sequence where Max comes across his mother, fearful of losing her job, and tries his best to cheer her up. She ask him to tell a story, and he does, and she dutifully transcribes it, preserving this moment in his life, in their lives, in a scene that is as perfect a depiction of love as the movies have ever given us, and which of course inevitably reminded me of my mom, who gave me endless reams of Big Chief tablets, encouraging me to fill them with whatever I might imagine, who appreciated me for what I was no matter what and holy crap, see what I mean? I can't evaluate this movie because it intersects too closely with everything I've ever been.

I can't even discuss the beautifully understated visual style Jonez brings to the film, because its enchanting images of a forest playland reminded me so much of the row of evergreens I used to run and hide in whenever my emotions got out of hand, and I'll just start rambling about my past again, or how the only other movie that so perfectly captures the outsized emotions of childhood is Meet Me In St. Louis, because then I'll go off on another Vincente Minnelli tangent.

So let me just say this: See this movie.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Oh, I've been meaning to write. I've had things to say about the Roman Polanski affair, about my favorite non-animated film of the year so far (The Informant!), about NBC's inexplicable decision to name Jon Bon Jovi as "Artist In Residence," whatever the hell that means. And the cats have been seriously messing with my mind lately, and I thought I could use this space to try to figure out why.

But I haven't done any of that, and in fact my presence here has been increasingly sporadic. Eh, what can I say? The usual mix of anxiety and depression, plus a lot of other stuff that I just don't want to get into. (Two words: Bad dates.)

So by way of entertainment, here's a Spike Jonez-directed Beastie Boys video, three minutes and change of pure genius. (Have I mentioned that period in the nineties when Ill Communication was pretty much the soundtrack of my life as I wrote in a white-hot fury I'd never known before? Have I mentioned I really miss those days?) Jonez's film of Where The Wild Things Are opens today, of course, and I can't wait. Hell, maybe it'll even inspire me to write something.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


It comes out of nowhere, as it always does.

This time it happened while clicking on an entry at The New York Times website. When it appeared, it carried a banner ad for a performance by the Lipazzaner Stallions at Madison Square Garden. And I fell back.

I can't even remember how old I was, but let's say I was in high school. The Lipizzan Stallions were a regular attraction on the local stadium circuit, showing up at least once a year at Vet's Auditorium in Des Moines or Hilton in Ames. The commercials heralding these appearances were ubiquitous, and rather cheesy, as corny and easily-mocked as ads for Holiday On Ice or some such. Once, while the whole family sat around the TV, I made some snotty comment, something along the lines of, "Who would ever want to see that?"

"Oh, but they're so beautiful," Mom replied. "I remember reading about them when I was little, and I've always wanted to see them in person."

I didn't respond. I couldn't respond. What could be said? The commercial ended, the program resumed. It was never discussed again.

Just a moment in time, lost, forgotten. Except I could never quite forget it. It stayed, it lingered, all the rest of my life. For one moment, my mother had shown a part of herself I had never sen before, a part I could never have guessed existed. It made her more complicated, more human. And I had mocked it, unintentionally, sure, but still, I had hurt her on some level, and I could never bring myself to apologize.

Instead, I did what most people do: I hid it away and pretended it never happened. It worked at the time, and it still does, mostly. After all, how often in the course of my day-to-day existence am I going to encounter a reference to the Lipizzan Stallions? It almost never happens. Almost.

Then when it does, it's always unexpected, and I can never prepare. But really, what could I do to shield myself from a thirty-year-old memory, something most people would have long forgotten? But I can't forget, and I shouldn't: Sometimes I feel my memory of Mom is slipping away, but then this or something like it pops into my head, a chance to recall how human she was, a small, defining trait that seemed so unlike her, a reminder of how much I will always miss her.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Swear to God, I have no intention of turning this space into an endless, tedious recitation of the previous night's dreams. But...

So I dreamed I was watching Jay Leno's new show (which right away suggests this is something more closely resembling a nightmare), and he had a whole panel-ful of guests. There was some anonymous black guy who never said anything and received no camera time, Billy Bob Thornton and Dan Aykroyd. Thornton rambled on and on, making some psuedo-philosophical point in a rather belligerent manner, then kind of ran out of steam, and sat in awkward silence. Aykroyd brought up a bullet-ridden death scene Thornton had in a recent movie, and asked what gauge wire he used to set off the squibs. Thornton started raving incoherently, and as he did so, began frothing at the mouth, great waterfalls of some chalky white substance cascading from his mouth with every word spoken.

Aykroyd tried to stifle his laughter, but Leno, Anonymous Black Guy and the studio audience roared with laughter. Finally, as Thornton realized what was going on, he smiled, reached into his jacket and produced the bottle of Mylanta he kept gulping during commercial breaks. Aykroyd announced, for viewers at home "and the olfactorily-challenged here in the studio," that one of tonights guests reeked of cheap booze, "but decorum prevents me from saying which one." Thornton began laughing so hard he pissed his pants, and Aykroyd and Anonymous Black Guy dragged him off stage.

At which point, sadly, Leno was left with nothing to do but mug for the camera and launch into a pretaped comedy bit. Such a prospect was so horrifying, I had no choice but to wake up.

Is this what my life has come to? My dreams involve Billy Bob Thornton peeing his pants in front of Jay Leno? What the hell is wrong with me?

Friday, October 02, 2009


Wow, posting has been even more sporadic than expected. Apologies, and I'll try to do better, but honestly, things are kind of wacky around here, and it's going to be awhile before any kind of normalcy settles in, so wait and see, I guess. Not that it matters, since a helpful article in a recent Des Moines Register article explained some easy tips for blogging--keep it short, and never write about personal matters--that I violate routinely, so maybe I'm doing this wrong. (But probably not. Don't all authors, web-based or otherwise, mostly write about themselves? Then again, if you've ever read The Register, you'll quickly realize no one on staff knows jack about writing.)

Anyway, the point is...well, there is no point, I just wanted to put up some new content. And for me, that usually involves a clip job, and when resorting to such things, who better to showcase than Noted Cult Rocker Marshall Crenshaw, from back when he still had a full set of hair. So here's everyone's favorite erstwhile Beatlemania star with a cover of Soldier Of Love. Oh, and Fun Fact about this song: If you use selected lines from this--"surrender to me," for instance--while arguing with your wife and/or girlfriend, you will only make the situation worse. It's true!

Sunday, September 27, 2009


She reaches to the floor, picking up her boots, pulling them on over her black-and blue striped tights, which, combined with her sky blue minidress and emo-girl haircut, suggest she is trying to look much younger than she is. Not that she's old--mid-thirties, maybe--but her age is too advanced to be parading around like this. "Good morning," she smiles. I have no idea who she is.

I actually slept well, I say.

"Then we both got what she wanted." She smiles again, mechanically, and says, "It's time."

Yeah, I say, even though I have no idea what she's talking about.

"I wish it didn't have to be this way. But..." Her voice trails off as she looks at her watch. A second ago she wasn't wearing a watch. She rises from the bed and heads into another room. I follow.

Turn out it's the bathroom. She sits on the toilet, removing the boots she just put on, pulling her dress off over her head. "I really do like you. I wish you weren't a patient. If the clinic knew I was here--"

Yeah, but how are they going to find out?

"Well, exactly. I can't wait until next week." She rises from the toilet and backs me out to the living room. She is very thin, almost skeletal. A skeleton with sweet, sweet breasts, which press against my chest as we share what I fear will be one last kiss. "Take care," she says, and walks back through the bathroom door.

Again, I follow. Only this is no longer the bathroom. I'm standing in the hallway outside of the apartment, all glass and sunlight, and she is nowhere in sight. Must be a nice apartment, whoever lives here. I turn, walk back through the door, and for one split second all is sweet oblivion, nothing but darkness and this familiar sound.


My eyes open.


Delmar sits at the foot of the bed, facing away from me, yowling his heart out, his stumpy tail furiously thumping the mattress. My eyes shift to the clock--4 AM. I have to be at work in three hours. This, regrettably, is not a dream.