Friday, April 30, 2010


I realize there hasn't been a whole lot of traffic around here lately, either from me writing new posts or folks stopping by to read them, but I thought I would nonetheless point out that I'll be gone for a little while.  Just for the weekend, but these are my days off, the days I'm most likely to have time to sit down and write.  So that won't be happening, and I have no idea when regular posting will resume.

But let me leave off with a piece of music.  I've been thinking about Bernard Herrmann a lot lately.  I've especially been listening to his much underrated cantata Moby Dick, and wondering what his reputation would be like if he'd composed more "serious" music and hadn't written so many film scores.  On the other hand, has any film composer scored so many truly great films?  Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, Sisters, Taxi Driver--holy crap!  And none of those movies would be what they are without Herrmann's magnificent music. 

Here's an excerpt from the fake opera Salammbo, composed for Citizen Kane.  For purposes of the film, it's sung by Kane's wife, a competent saloon singer who had no business performing as a classical soprano.  So Herrmann wrote a deliberately challenging score, vocally; my ex-wife, a classically-trained singer, used to wince at the final note every time I'd play this.

So here, performed by a vocalist who can do it justice (no less than Dame Kiri Te Kanawa) is a magnificent piece of music by a man who should be more widely regarded as one of the twentieth century's greatest composers.  Yes, this work is a deliberate pastiche, a loving parody of romantic Italian opera.  Somehow, though, especially in that final crash of brass, it sounds like it could only have been written by Herrmann.

Monday, April 26, 2010


After one of my supervisors made the observation that a particular dreaded task "wasn't a favorite," I found myself responding, "Like Tasha Yar at a Star Trek convention."

If you're not a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, that line--I hesitate to even give it even so grand a label as "joke"--may make no sense whatsoever.  But the thing is, I'm not a fan of the show myself.  I don't think I've ever seen an episode all the way through.

And yet, I know how widely reviled the character Tasha Yar is, almost as little-loved as Wesley Crusher, and I know both of them vanished fairly early in the run of the series.  I know what the Borg are, who Q is, and the Riker's Beard Rule.  I even know the episode The Naked Now carries the same status in fan circles that Spock's Brain holds in the original Star Trek, an episode so astonishingly inept and misguided it seems incredible that it was ever produced.  And I know this about Spock's Brain even though I'm no fan of the original series, either.

I just sort of acquired all this knowledge somehow, and I suppose it's held in the same part of my brain that knows of the existence of Leighton Meester, that can conjure lyrics to more than one Lady Gaga song, that remembers the exact layout of the set from Match Game and can recall the shock when Fannie Flagg appeared one week not in the lower right spot on the panel but instead on the left. 

Of course, I remember that last part mainly because Mom and Dad seemed so surprised when it happened, as if the shifting of a minor celebrity's position on a game show panel somehow threatened the very fabric of their being.  And the odd--Is odd the right word?  Maybe terrifying or profoundly sad would be better--thing is, this is as much a defining memory of my parents as any I have.  Many details of my life with them fade from my brain, but I remember how much they liked Match Game.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Regular readers--both of you!--may have noticed an unusually long silence around these parts.  That's mostly thanks to the new puppy, who is full of energy and demands a lot of attention.  And there are various responsibilities that go with owning a home--for some reason, people actually expect you to keep your lawn trimmed--and what with one thing and another, I haven't had a whole lot of time.

But hey, in the interest of providing the bare minimum of what could acceptably be termed "entertainment," I offer a clip from the most painfully earnest drive-in movie of all time, Billy Jack.  This clip pretty much sums up the movie itself: a whole lot of speechifying, followed by some ass-kicking to keep us all awake.  Pay special attention to Tom Laughlin's amazing performance in his seemingly endless diatribe.  Not even Shatner himself could manage to overact so outrageously while attempting to underplay.  Kudos, sir!

Friday, April 16, 2010


The pleasure of a story--in both telling and hearing--is in its predictability.  However it may twist and turn, a story will still begin and end, and the ending is always predetermined.   So if I tell you the beginning of this story, you will most likely be able to guess the rest.  Still, I'll continue the telling, if only because this tale introduces another player onto the stage, one who will no doubt become a regular attraction here.

And the story begins like this:  Me at home last Friday evening.  The phone rang.  It was Tabbatha.  "What are you doing?" she asked, her usual greeting.

Nothing much.  Um, watching Dragnet, actually.

"Sounds exciting.  Listen, I'm at the Animal Rescue League in Southridge.  There's a six-month-old Beagle here I think you need to take a look at."


"She's very laid-back and very sweet.  I've just got a feeling about her.  I think she'd be the perfect dog for you."

But I don't really need a dog.

"You love dog-sitting Brody."

Yeah, but that's for a day or two.

"And you always say you want to keep him"

But that doesn't mean I'm, you know, serious.  I mean, I have a cat.

"Well, Delmar will have to adjust."

I'm not sure Del can adjust.

"Besides, this dog is nothing like Brody.  She's way calmer.  You need to have her.  You should at least come and take a look."

The story continues: Fine, I said, I'd take a look.  It was just a courtesy.  I had to work last Saturday, and planned to take my car into the shop after that, but I had an hour and change to kill in between, so I took a swing down to Southridge Mall, to see the dog, at least, but with no real intention of doing anything more.

Let me pause here to say something about Beagles: I don't care for them.  Not that I've ever personally known one, but as dogs go, they've always struck me as too calculated in their cuteness, what with the big floppy ears and soulful eyes and whatnot.  They're the type of dogs that are ready-made to appear on posters with some sort of HOLD ON BABY, FRIDAY'S COMIN' message scrawled beneath.  Besides, I prefer big dogs, your German Shepherds or your Golden Retrievers, dogs that look like, well, dogs.   Beagles are just kind of there, and though they're better than tiny, why-bother dogs (though Isabella herself is pretty small, and I realize that by mentioning her name, I've kind of given away the ending of the story.  But again, you've probably already guessed it by now, right?), they've never been my cup of tea.  I'm pretty firmly a cat person, anyway.

I explained to the young woman at the ARL that a friend had told me to come take a look at a Beagle puppy, and she took me over to a cage.  The sign said MISSY/BEAGLE/SIX MONTHS/VERY SWEET AND LOVABLE.  Inside was a tri-colored puppy, black, white and brown, who did indeed have floppy ears and soulful eyes, eyes that regarded me with no particular interest.  "You're just another one of them," the eyes seemed to say.  "Another person who will look at me, get my hopes up, and not take me home."

I asked the attendant some questions, then--foolishly--asked if I could actually spend some time with her.  She unlocked "Missy's" cage, took her to the play are in the back, took off the leash--and the puppy immediately jumped into my arms and snuggled her head against my shoulder.  You're trying too hard, I thought, even as I felt my heart melting a bit.  But not melting enough to actually want to take her home.

She went back into the cage, but foolishly, I lingered.  "Missy's" cage was right next to that of the only other dog in the store, a Norwegian Elk Hound puppy, a larger, more imposing piece of work.  I noticed that as people came and went, looking at the dogs, they ignored "Missy", focusing instead on the more dramatic creature next to her.  Not that Missy cared.  She stayed curled up on her blanket in the back of the cage, not even trying to put on a show, apparently convinced that no one would take her anyway.

Again, this was last Saturday, which, as it happens, was also my Mom's birthday.  And as "Missy" continued to be ignored, I heard in my head a line from Mom's favorite song, Bein' Green: "People tend to pass you over 'cause you're not standing out like flashy sparkles on the water or stars in the sky."  And somewhere I heard Mom's voice, too, asking me why I just stood there instead of accepting something that was meant to be.  There was a puppy who needed my love.

And so the story reaches its inevitable conclusion: I have a dog.  Her name is no longer Missy but Isabella--mostly just Bella--because there's no way in hell I'd ever have a dog named Missy.  She is indeed the most wonderful thing in the world, and those floppy ears and soulful eyes are more endearing than I could ever have imagined.  Even Delmar, my cranky, emotionally disturbed cat, is...well, he's not exactly under Bella's spell, but he's learning to tolerate her.  I keep them separated when I'm not home, but I've noticed them drinking together from the same water dish, and Del even bats playfully at her tail.  For Del to be so accepting, even borderline affectionate, is something of a miracle.

But I have a feeling that won't be the last miracle this little Beagle brings into my life.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Today would have been Mom's 82nd birthday.  This is for her.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


"You weren't serious about it, were you?" she asks.

I know what she means, but I play dumb.  "Serious about what?"

"You cut.  It's nothing.  We see it all the time.  You didn't want to die.  You wanted to...well, that's what I'm here to find out."

"No, see, I did.  At least at first."  I look at the bland, orange-brown walls, the nondescript carpeting, the surroundings clearly designed to be as unthreatening as possible.  Soothing, perhaps, if your nerves are easily relaxed.  Me, well, my nerves felt like they were on the outside, and every voice, every sound, every rush of air disturbed them.  I wanted no disturbances.  I just wanted stillness.

"I just wanted stillness," I continue.  "However I could get it."

"Your mother said you were upset.  One of your cats was sick and she suggested having it euthanised--"

"Euthanised?  No, that's not...that's not the right word.  She wanted to kill her.  Shemp is a great cat, she just has these little episodes sometimes.  She's...I don't know, maybe she's epileptic or something.  Yeah, it's scary to watch, but you don't just get rid of something because it isn't quite right.  Shemp is...I love Shemp."

I'm crying now, and it's pathetic, like I'm following a fucking script, like I'm Timothy Hutton having a major breakthrough in Ordinary Fucking People and suddenly everything's going to make sense now, because the movie's almost over and the audience has to understand.  "And you're going to read something into that, aren't you?" I ask.  "Shemp's fucked up and so am I, and if she's disposable, then what am I?"

She nods, just slightly.  "I don't think...Let me put it this way: There's nothing wrong with you.  I've talked to the people on duty the night you were admitted, they said you seemed shaken and scared.  But also funny.  You kept making jokes."

"I don't remember that."

"They said you seemed to be doing it almost to distance yourself from what was going on, a reflex action."

"You make me sound like Woody Allen."

"Are you a fan of his?"

"Yeah."  What the hell?  I wan't expecting a question like that.

Her slightly distant manner drops away.  She's almost animated.  "Do you like his older movies, the funnier ones or--?"

Seriously?  "No.  I mean, yeah, those are great, too, but, you know, Zelig--"

"I wondered if you'd seen that one.  What did you think of it?"

"Well," I stammer, incredibly self-conscious and feeling like I'm suddenly doing a really half-assed Woody Allen impression.  "It was kind of, um, disturbing..."

"In what way?"

What are we, Ebert and Siskel all of a sudden?  "He didn't, you know, couldn't, you know, be, um..."  I stop.  I get where she's going with this.  "He didn't feel comfortable being himself, he was so desperate to fit in, he sacrificed his own personality.  He couldn't relate to the world."

I pause, waiting for her to say something.  She doesn't, so I continue.  "And he probably, you know, had a weird, spastic cat that his mother wanted to put to sleep.  Is that what you're suggesting?"

She smiles, shaking her head.  "No, I was just curious what you thought about it.  You have--those tests you took?  They suggested you had a very analytic mind.  And significantly above-average intelligence, but you already knew that, didn't you?"

"Why...Why would I know that?"

She picks up the notepad she'd sat down when we started talking and rustles through the pages.  "You're eighteen?"

"Yeah.  Nineteen in--God, what is this, April?  A month?  How intelligent can I be?  I don't even know what day it is."

"You're not fooling anyone, you know.  But listen, we'll talk more tomorrow.  Until then, rest, relax, do whatever makes you feel comfortable.  If you don't feel like going out to the day room, that's fine.  We're not going to change you overnight."

"We?  Who's we?  And what am I changing into?"

She stands.  "You, me, whoever gets your case.  And what you change into--well, that's up to you."

As she exits, she leaves the door slightly ajar, and I hear the click click click of her boots down the industrial hallway, hear her voice talking to someone else, then mingling with other voices.  I sit in the earth-toned blandness of my room, looking at the books I'd requested Mom bring me.  Naked Lunch?  Seriously?  Do I want to intentionally feed the very depression that landed me here in the first place?

They've got books in the day room, bland, out-of-date best sellers, Judith Krantz and shit like that.  Maybe that's what I need.  Something uninteresting.  I can sit out there surrounded by people, talking, watching TV, reading the same thing average people read, and maybe I'll start to feel what it must be like to be normal.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Since no sentient being has cared one way or another about the private lives of Jim Carrey or Jenny McCarthy, their five-year relationship has been remarkably free of coverage in the tabloids.  Or so I assume, since I haven't seen their faces, separately or together, staring out at me from grocery store check-out lanes.

But since this was a union of celebrities, it was bound to come to an end, and it did so with all the class you would expect: They announced their breakup on Twitter.

I wouldn't bother mentioning this at all, but for the fact that, in making her announcement, McCarthy claimed she "will always keep Jim as a leading man in my heart."  Such phrasing makes me think a) I'm glad Carrey's got a gig as a leading man somewhere, because he sure as hell hasn't had a successful big screen role in awhile, and b) "leading man in my heart" may well be the stupidest thing ever said (or Tweeted) by anybody, anywhere.  I realize McCarthy is famous solely for being blond and having enormous fake tits, but you'd think she'd have some sense of shame.

Then I remember that she spent five years living with Jim Carrey, and realize she likely has no concept of shame.

Sunday, April 04, 2010


Easter was such a strange holiday when I was a kid.  I would describe my upbringing as secular, except that word somehow implies that my parents deliberately raised me in a non-spiritual fashion, but that wouldn't be accurate.  My siblings, all older than me, had some vague religious underpinnings to their childhood, and the family as a whole used to attend church on some kind of regular basis.  But by the time I came along, that was all in the past.  No particular reason, it just sort of happened.  There were bibles on various shelves throughout the house, but no one ever got them down.

As a result, I had no concept of the resurrection, or even who Jesus was.  Such ignorance of the religious significance of a holiday did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for Christmas, which I accepted as a general mid-winter festival of good will.  Plus, Christmas involved presents.  But Easter?  Eh, it was just sort of there, and there were no presents involved, only dyed eggs and an odd fixation on bunnies and...not much else.  Sure, there were chocolate eggs, but Mom wasn't exactly stingy when it came to handing out candy the rest of the year, so this was nothing unusual.

Thus, my memories of Easter are pretty much non-existent.  Except for one: Easter morning of 1974.  I was eight, and since most of my brothers and sisters still lived at home, I had no room to call my own.  I slept on the couch in the living room, my small territory marked by a pile of comic books and tablets behind my makeshift bed.  I'd fall asleep every night to whatever was on TV, and usually wake up before anyone else, the drone of early morning DJs a faint sound from Mom and Dad's bedroom.

So it was on this particular morning as well, except there seemed to be something beside me, something I could only half-see in the dark.  My hand fumbled, and I felt the legs of the TV tray that I used to eat all my meals.  But I never had that beside me as I slept.  What was going on?

I turned on the light, and there on top of the tray sat a variety of candy, some gaudily-colored eggs and--as a centerpiece--the latest issue of my favorite comic book at the time, The Shadow.  Mom had bought me the previous issues out of the blue; I was strictly into war comics and westerns, and this avenging hero stuff wasn't really my thing.  But The Shadow was a different kind of hero--he shot guys and killed them.  I was instantly hooked, and Mom must have noticed how I carried those two issues around obsessively, and reread them constantly.  So when she saw the latest issue in the grocery store, she must have figured it would make the ideal Easter present.

How right she was.  I couldn't tell you what I did for the rest of that day, but that small, perfect moment is something that has stayed with me for nearly four decades.  A mysterious, fedora-wearing figure taking out a cruise ship full of neo-Nazis probably doesn't figure into many people's Easter memories, but it will always be the happiest part of mine.

Saturday, April 03, 2010


I'm watching ABC's annual telecast of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic The Ten Commandments as I write this.  (I briefly thought of doing a full-fledged live blog, commenting on the awful time-compressed video, commercial breaks and everything else about the broadcast itself...but that seemed like a lot of work.)

This is a movie that, a little over a decade ago, seemed to have aged terribly.  But some funny things happened since then.  The notoriously awful rear projection and matte work looks uncannily like the bad digital compositing common in almost every movie now.  DeMille's clumsy blocking, essentially a series of stagy tableaux, resembles the equally non-cinematic staging of comic book-crazy contemporary directors like Zack Snyder, who utilize actors as mere props in front of a green screen.

The difference, of course, is that so many of today's filmmakers use their digital tools as ends in themselves, conjuring blatantly artificial CGI landscapes solely to wallow in their own awesomeness.  DeMille utilized spectacle in service of a story.  However campy the dialogue ("Your tongue will dig your grave, Memnet!") and overwrought the performances (compared to most of the cast, Charlton Heston--of all people!--gives the most subtle performance), the director certainly knows how to spin a yarn, even if he lays on the Hollywood piety a bit thick.

It wasn't exactly a good movie when it was made, and it hasn't improved with age.  But it is supremely watchable, and certainly entertaining, and if its one-time liabilities now make it seem oddly contemporary, stylistically, maybe it will show audiences what they're missing in our digital age: A good story, told well.