Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The great if unheralded cinematographer Bruce Surtees has died at the age of 74.

His dad was the Golden Age cameraman Robert Surtees, who toiled at MGM at the close of its Dream Factory days, but the son's work would be the polar opposite of the father's easily read Classical Hollywood style.  His most frequent collaborator, Clint Eastwood, dubbed him the Prince Of Darkness for a reason.

After serving as an apprentice to his father and others, Surtees' first film as director of photography was Don Siegel's The Beguiled, the first of several outstanding collaborations, including Dirty Harry, The Shootist and Escape From Alcatraz.  He provided tabloid squalor for Bob Fosse's Lenny, low-key naturalism for Arthur Penn's great Night Moves and a touch of glamour for Stanley Donen's wonderful Movie, Movie.  Why he didn't become one of the superstar cinematographers of the seventies, joining the ranks of Laszlo Kovacs or Vilmos Zsigmond or Gordon Willis, is frankly beyond me.  He could shoot in any style, and it always looked good.

But his preferred style was the underlit naturalism of his work with Eastwood, one of the great director/cameramen collaborations in movie history.  In particular, their work on three great Westerns--High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider--feature some absolutely stunning imagery.

High Plains Drifter has a strange, stylized appearance, its colors just slightly oversaturated.  Pale Rider, by contrast, is almost monochromatic, its overcast skies and drab clothing giving it a feeling of black-and-white in color.  And The Outlaw Josey Wales--well, look, I pretty much consider it as close to perfection as any movie ever made, and Surtees' visuals are surely one of the major reasons for that.  I can't think of any film that so subtly conveys the passing of seasons, the feeling of moving from place to place.  Every frame is gorgeous and gritty in roughly equal measure.

Sadly, Pale Rider would be his last film for Eastwood.  He'd work with other good directors in the eighties, like Sam Fuller and Paul Brickman, but his A-list days were behind him.  He wound down his career toiling away on TV movies obviously unworthy of his talent.  But at least he kept working, a pro to the end.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


According to E! Entertainment News--the only information source that matters, if you're really, really stupid--Josh Duhamel is "not sure" he'll be back for the latest Transformers movie.

I think I speak for all Americans when I say, "Who's Josh Duhamel?"

Since I have cable TV, I've seen huge chunks of the Transformers movies, and all I remember are giant but weightless CGI robots, plenty of offensive caricatures and Shia The Beef running around screaming, "OPTIMUS!"  Whoever Josh Duhamel is, he clearly made no impression on the films whatsoever.

Then again, I'm pretty sure he's made no impact on anybody whatsoever.  I'd be willing to bet that if you asked ten random strangers who Josh Duhamel is, none of them would know.  Some of them might say, "Yeah, wasn't he the guy in Pearl Harbor who was even less interesting than Ben Affleck?" and while that was my first thought, too, it turns out that particular nonentity was Josh Hartnett, who has himself gone from being hyped as The Next Big Thing to toplining direct-to-video horror movies, a career arc that should surely give pause to Duhamel. 

What I'm saying is, Josh Duhamel should be fighting like hell to continue doing whatever minimal, uninteresting work he can get in a new Transformers movie because hey, a paycheck is a paycheck, and I'm guessing a check from a shitty Michael Bay movie has more zeroes in it than a check from some celebrity autograph fest.  Sure it may be humiliating to find yourself billed below the guy who does the voice of Optimus Prime, but it beats sitting between Billy Mumy and Jonathan Frid at a table in some suburban convention center, with a placard in front of you identifying you as a "former Transformers star" and gritting your teeth the whole time because Mumy's got a huge line in front of him and you're just sitting there.

And he deserves it, dammit, because Billy Mumy recorded Fish Heads and you...well, you're just Josh Duhamel.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Mom didn't care much for Peter Jackson's King Kong.: "Why did it take so long to get to the island?  Why was it three hours long?  And that dinosaur stampede!  What were they thinking?  And that scene on the ice--cute, cute, cute.  No, I didn't like it."

This was late December of '05.  Earlier that month, she'd been given six months to live.  As it turns out, she had considerably less.  To many of us, the reality of impending death might cause us to give in to fear, or despair, or introspection, or something.  Mom...just became more like she always was.

On the movie version of Rent: "Oh, it's terrible.  He dies of AIDS, and we're going to try to make you cry by reminding you about it over and over, 'Oh, it's so sad,' like we've forgotten what happened ten minutes ago.  Was it this bad on stage?"

On Lost, then in its first season: "Maybe there's a monster, maybe there's not a monster.  But if there's not, they need to stop pretending that there is and get on with the plot.  And if there is a monster...that would be kind of stupid, wouldn't it?"

On Brigadoon, which she's stumbled across on cable and called me immediately after just to gripe about: "It doesn't work that way.  You can't say, 'These are the rules, this is what happens,' and then do something else and say, 'It's a miracle.'  Why did you make the rules in the first place?  And I don't think Cyd Charisse was Scottish..."

Six years since her death, I admit I don't think about Mom as much as I used to.  I don't miss her anymore, not really, not like I thought I would.  But sometimes, when I'm in the middle of a rant, when I'm asking a sales clerk to stop talking to his friends and actually give me some service, when I see through the lies of a politician...These are the times when I am thankful Mom was there to teach me how to question, to stand up for myself, to see what is really there.

Mom liked everyone, and everyone liked her.  She had a sentimental streak a mile wide, any rendition of Bein' Green would automatically reduce her to tears, she had a goofy sense of humor and laughed easily.  But beneath her easygoing manner was a fierce determination to say what needed to be said.  In the wake of my divorce, I was unloading my feelings about my ex, but she seemed to be taking Sue Ellen's side.  Why, I asked, are you sticking up for her?

"Because she messed up, but she wasn't stupid.  You were stupid."

I remember that, and I've used that to guide me since, in relationships and everything else.  Because she was right, of course.  She was always right. 

Well, except for her weird obsession with Murder, She Wrote...

Sunday, February 12, 2012


There are two tragedies in what will now be known as the short life of Whitney Houston.  There is the obvious one, the numbingly familiar tale of a huge star with the world at her command, who somehow finds fame isn't enough, who falls into a downward spiral of drugs and erratic behavior, who tries for the Big Comeback that never quite happens, who is found dead in a hotel room, in this case at the depressingly young age of 48. 

As sad as that story might be, there's another one that to me is even sadder: The story of a possibly major artist with an absolutely incredible talent, who let herself be led by industry professionals down a path that would strip her of any individuality, to a career of absolute inconsequence. 

I first became aware of Houston as so many people did, with her debut album, cannily assembled by blanderizing industry pro Clive Davis.  The first single, Saving All My Love For You, showed promise, especially in this performance on David Letterman's old show, assisted in no small part by the arrangement by band leader Paul Shaffer, much superior to the schlocky, overproduced version on the album.

She's incredible here, in full command of her multi-octave voice, and the vocal pyrotechnics are deployed well.  Later, of course, she'd start melisma-ing all over the place, a profound and bad influence on so many singers who would follow her.  The most obvious Whitney Wannabe, of course, was Mariah Carey, but ironically, Carey's recorded legacy is stronger than Houston's.  Saving All My Love isn't a great song, but it's at least servicable as a showcase for Houston's vocals, and it stands out on an album full of pop piffle like How Will I Know? and overwrought ballads like The Greatest Love Of All.

Unfortunately, all of her albums followed the same carefully-engineered template, machine-tooled by Davis and his minions to maximize profits.  Album, tour, album, tour, with numerous awards show appearances thrown in along the way--that became Houston's life as a musician.  Artistic concerns never entered into the picture.

But what about the path not taken?  Prior to superstardom, Houston was a working musician, which is what led her to work with the NYC collective Material, which produced this stunningly beautiful track, which showcases Houston, not even twenty, as the jazzy chanteuse she might have been, the artist she was.

Friday, February 10, 2012


First Staley--of course.  Every night when I go to bed, Staley leaps up beside me, purring loudly, head-butting me into I skritch her her, moving around constantly, making sure I pet her just as much as she wants.  Then--wump! wump! wump!--she scrambles to the foot of the bed, leaps down and runs off.

Later, Cookie appears, climbing over Janie and draping herself on my side.  I pat the bed beside me and she crawls down, snuggling beside me, tucked under the blanket.  Her entire body vibates from the force of her purring, and she's close enough to me that my body feels it, too, it's comforting, it's reassuring.  But ultimately, like Staley, Cookie is only there for herself.  Once I stop actually petting her, she's gone.

But when I wake, there he is--Delmar.  He doesn't care if I'm petting him, if I'm paying attention to him at all.  In fact, he seems happier when I'm not noticing him.  Those are the times when he can sneak in and remind me of his existence, can prove his intense, unending devotion to me. 

Sometimes that devotion is just strange, not like a pet's love for his owner but more stalkerish, like I'm Jodie Foster to his John Hinckley.  But the little feller's so sweet, and he means so well, and when I wake with his front legs wrapped around my arm, I know he's been holding me, claiming me as his own, offering his heart.  And as cats go, well, Del's pretty much the greatest thing ever.

Staley and Cookie are prettier, though.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012


Janie's in bed by the time I get home.  Of course she is.  I work later now.  Since I'm gone all evening and sleep later in the morning, it sometimes seems like we hardly see each other anymore.

So I walk the dog, choke down a late dinner, spend some time on the interweb.  There used to be an entire evening to decompress after work, but I've only been home a little more than an hour, and it's already 1 AM.  The bed is calling.

The radio's on, the "lite FM" station Janie favors when I'm not around.  Fine.  I leave it on.

She stirs slightly as I get into bed, a relexive action to the new presence beside her, but she doesn't actually wake up.  I claim my side, put my arm around her...and become aware of the song that's playing.

Look, I don't like Aerosmith, okay?  And especially this--I Don't Want To Miss A Thing.  A generic Diane Warren song, recorded for Michael Bay's typically awful Armageddon?  Can it get any worse, less inspired, more corporate?

No.  I hate this song.  I've always hated this song.  But at this moment...damn.

Right now, it can't be denied: These words sum up my feelings perfectly. Staley leaps over Janie and looks at me, letting out a tentative meow, and the three of us snuggle together. Maybe, I think, even the crappiest music has its place, and I drift off happily to sleep.