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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Surf Guitar


I wrote a while back that I was getting into some roots rock. In addition to a Link Wray album, I also purchased a CD called War of the Surf Guitars. It's a compilation of contemporary surf tunes from two different record labels: Golly Gee, and Double Crown.

Surf music started in the late fifties, and is typified by two things--a connection to the lifestyle of the Southern California surfer, and the use of the reverb amp, which was invented by Les Fender. The first to use this sound was Dick Dale, who was dubbed King of the Surf Guitar. The use of the reverb, along with the heavy gauge strings Dale used, was reminiscent of the plink-plink sound the waves made as the curled. Dale was a huge surfer, and the style was born.

Surf music was very popular in the early sixties, most especially so the songs of the Beach Boys. They didn't use the reverb sound, instead capturing the laid-back lifestyle of the California teen through use of harmonies. The Ventures were also big, and there many one-hit wonders who made classic surf tunes.

Beatlemania and the British Invasion knocked surf music off the pop charts, but they didn't kill it dead. Musicians have continued to use that sound, even if it isn't connected with surfing anymore. The sound received a spike of popularity again with the use of some classics of the genre on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, including Dale's Misirlou.

My favorite contemporary surf band is Los Straitjackets, a quartet who perform while wearing Mexican wrestling masks. I caught them serendipitously one night when they were an opening act at Maxwell's in Hoboken. They have put out about a half-dozen albums, including a record of Christmas songs. I may have even indirectly helped their career. I turned my friend Steve onto them, and when he was working for a show on MTV called Oddville he got them booked on the pilot episode. I have to believe it was the first time Los Straitjackets were on national television.

The War of the Surf Guitars does not feature Los Straitjackets, but does have many other contemporary bands like The Boss Martians, The Suretones, The Coffin Daggers and The Penetrators. I love listening to the sound, and am glad that these guys are continuing the tradition, even if I have never been on a surfboard in my life.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Big Brother


My guilty pleasure this summer has been Big Brother 7: All-Stars. I've watched this show every year, except last year, where it was been ideal summer entertainment: dumb, nutrition-free, and endlessly fascinating. This year, stealing from Survivor (which is a better show, admittedly) CBS has brought back "All-Stars" to play once again. The selection process was a little dubious. Only one winner was chosen to play again, and a few people who didn't get far the first time around were no doubt brought back because they make good TV, rather than for any game-playing skill.

Similar to Survivor, a group of people are put into a house and week-by-week they evict someone until there are only two people left, and then a jury of the evicted chooses a winner. There are fundamental differences between the two shows, though. While Survivor puts their contestants in harsh living conditions, the "houseguests" of Big Brother have it easy. Their days seem to be filled with lying in bed, relaxing, idling, and goofing off. Occasionally their food is restricted, this year at times they were put on "slop," which looks like pretty vile gruel. Still, it's got to beat working. Also, the houseguests are consistently some of the most shallow people you will ever see. This year is even worse, as we have people who are in that small niche known as "reality show contestants." They even have their own lingo, such as "showmance," which is a relationship between two people during the course of the show. Who knew?

Despite the contempt I have for most of the people I'm watching, I'm hooked. It's part soap opera, part chess match. It's fun to see how people constantly make bad decisions. This year, the whole group has been very stupid to allow Will, a Machiavellian dermatologist who won his season five years ago, to manipulate them all like a puppeteer. He's teamed with the incredibly obnoxious Mike (or Boogie), and that the others didn't break up this combo in the first week or any week thereafter is testament to their idiocy. And, again this season, a woman is allowing her feelings for a man sway her thinking. Erika somehow has the hots for Boogie (what can she be thinking) and has hitched her wagon to him, even though we know Boogie will throw her over for Will.

All of this is hosted by CBS news-reader Julie Chen (nicknamed Chenbot by the vicious fans of the show on message boards) who treats the whole thing like it was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Last night's show was particularly eventful, as Erika sold out her friend Danielle, who has a bit of a drinking problem, and got tanked on vino and made a spectacle of herself. This is the kind of stuff the producers know us viewers love, and I have to admit, I do.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

It Puts the Lotion on It's Skin, or It Gets the Hose Again


As I am in a self-reverential, navel-gazing mode (a habit of writers) I’ve been thinking about the year 1991, and my Netflix queue is made up of the key films from that year. I begin my trip back to 1991 with the Oscar-winning Best Picture of that year, Silence of the Lambs. It’s one of the few times I agree with the Academy, as it was my favorite film of that year as well. I own the DVD (unfortunately, the first release, not the Criterion Collection), and looked at it again the other day, so I have at seen it at least three times. The first time I saw it was on a cold, sunny February day at Loews Astor Plaza on Times Square, which was one of the few large houses left in Manhattan (I think it has been since carved up or done away with completely). I was with a girl whose response to scary movies was to bury her head into my arm; by the end of this film she was practically in my lap.

I regard Silence of the Lambs as a classic of its genre, and in fact, a film that rises above its genre. Even on my third viewing, it manages to create tension and suspense, and the performance by Anthony Hopkins will endure as one of the great depictions of evil in cinema history. He does this, intriguingly, by making Hannibal Lecter, dare I say, likeable. He’s witty, sophisticated, and even has a splinter of humanity, as his affection for Clarice Starling is evident. As Roger Ebert points out in his review, you’d love to have him as a dinner companion, as long as he didn’t eat you.

The credit can be spread around liberally. Jonathan Demme, who hasn’t made nearly as good a film since then, masterfully creates a sense of dread almost from the very beginning, and Ted Tally’s screenplay is economical without being dumbed down (I have not read the source novel). The editing is particularly brilliant, as the film contains one of the great head-fakes I’ve ever seen (the scene involving the ringing of doorbells at two different houses).

As for Jodie Foster as Starling, who also won the Oscar, I noticed a few things about her role that hadn’t sunk in before. She is playing a woman in a man’s world, which is reinforced many times, such as when she steps into an elevator at the FBI and is a petite woman surrounded by tall men, or the scene at the funeral home in West Virginia, where she musters the courage to politely tell all the local cops to get out. This ties in with the performance of Scott Glenn as her boss, Jack Crawford. At first glance this seems to be a matter-of-fact role, the kind that exists to give exposition and further the plot. But every scene he is with Starling there is a palpable awkwardness, as if he is containing something. When Lecter first meets Starling, he asks her whether Crawford lusts after her, and she shrugs the question off, but the question hangs there for the rest of the film. Crawford has used Starling because she is a young woman, will he ever think of her as just an agent?

When the film came out, there was some expression of dismay in the gay community that the killer, Jamie Gumb (aka Buffalo Bill) was a homosexual and gender-disoriented individual. I remember that there was a particularly angry article in the Village Voice. I can sort of see the point, because especially back then there weren’t that many characterizations of gay people in mainstream cinema—so when there is one, he’s a sadistic and twisted serial killer. On the other hand, every group has its bad apples, and artists can’t be forever looking over their shoulder, afraid they are going to offend someone. I believe it was Jean-Luc Godard who said that the most effective criticism of a film was to make another film, and hopefully there will be continue to be more films about gay people that portray them in the myriad ways that they are, good, bad and in-between.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine


I went into Little Miss Sunshine with high hopes, given the mostly sterling reviews. I came out thinking it was a good film, but not a great one. It's a look at one of the recent staples of film, the dysfunctional family, and an analysis of what makes someone a winner or a loser in life. The dad, Greg Kinnear, is a struggling entrepeneur who gives seminars on how to be a winner. His harried wife is Toni Collette, and their two kids are Paul Dano, an angry loner who has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy, and Olive, a perky seven-year-old who dreams of becoming a beauty queen. Also in the extended family are a grandpa, Alan Arkin, who soothes his old age with heroin, and the newest member, Steve Carrell, Collette's brother and a Proust scholar, who has just tried to kill himself because his lover has run off with another eminent Proust scholar.

The catalyst that sets off the ensuing zaniness is that Olive, who finished second in a regional beauty pageant, becomes the winner when the actual winner can't make it to the finals. The family now has to get her to California from their home in New Mexico. They embark, bitter feelings and all, in an ancient yellow VW bus, and we're now off on another movie cliche, the road picture.

There are numerous laughs along the way that had the audience I was with laughing out loud, but I was just smiling. A lot of humor is mined from the bus itself, which has to pushed to get started. Kinnear plays such an overbearing prick that he becomes the foil for Cannell, who seems to be very sane for a failed suicide. Arkin, practically begging for a Supporting Actor nomination, really amps up the crotchedly-old-man routine. The script is loaded with implausible plot twists and coincidences that weigh the story down and lead to a climax that is meant to be heartwarming but just seemed too Hallmark card-ish to me. A few problems that I can mention without spoiling: Dano plays a character who hates everyone and buries himself in philosophers like Nietsche. It seems a stretch to me that he would have a goal that is so square as going to a military academy, where conformity would be demanded of him. Also, it seems odd to me that none of the family would have seen Olive's routine for the pageant, which turns out to be such a surprise.

I don't want to be too hard on this film, though, because it does have good dialogue and nice performances by Collette, Dano and Cannell. The direction is straightforward and flat, so the heavy lifting is done by the script and performances. I wanted to like this film more, but it just isn't as good as some of the reviews.

Friday, August 25, 2006

I Feel Stupid and Contagious


I used to have a ritual on New Year’s Eve. From the late eighties, for about ten years, I made a tape of my favorite music from the year (I have never been much for New Year’s Eve parties, even when I’m invited to them). Time was I would buy maybe thirty or so records (then CDs) of new music a year. This ritual stopped when I stopped buying so much music, but I still have the old cassettes, which are little time capsules.

I’ve been thinking about 1991 recently, so I popped the tape from that year into my tape-player. 1991 was notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that is one of only two palindromic years I will ever live through (it is doubtful I will make it to 2112). I turned 30 that year. I was living in Jersey City, and comfortably ensconced in my position at Penthouse Variations. I was a few years away from owning a car. I gave up on my unfathomable pursuit of a co-worker named Faythe, and grew deeper into a bizarre, long-distance quasi-relationship with a woman who lived in Florida who ended up leading me down the path to ruin.

For some strange reason I’m looking back at this year, and have lined up my Netflix queue with some of the best films from that year, most of which I haven’t seen since I saw them then. But as for the music, well, listening to that old tape really took me back. While living in Jersey City I was burglarized twice, and both times my entire CD collection was stolen, and there are some CDs that I forgot I owned, by bands I haven’t though about in ages. Do you remember Jesus Jones, Beautiful South, The Tribe, They Eat Their Own, Havana 3 A.M., Innocence Mission, and Kirsty MacColl? There were some groups I liked that slipped into obscurity, like Trip Shakespeare and House of Freaks (a check on Wikipedia reveals that one of the members was murdered, along with his entire family, on January 1st of this year. There goes the reunion tour). There was Matthew Sweet’s creepy stalker love letter to Winona Ryder, and I heard catchy songs like “I Touch Myself,” by the Divinyls, and “Kiss Them For Me,” by Siouxsie and the Banshees, for the first time in years. Some well-known bands like The Pixies, Violent Femmes, U2, and Smashing Pumpkins are also represented on the tape.

The most significant music that year, as far as I’m concerned, is that it was the emergence of Nirvana, and the crowning achievement from R.E.M. My source for music in those days was taping and watching 120 Minutes, a show MTV ran at midnight on Sundays that showcased videos by alternative bands (that was when alternative was actually an alternate to something). I’ll never forget how engrossing it was to see the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time. It was Nirvana’s second record, but the one that put them on the map, and made them the poster boys for the Grunge sound. But, of course, they were so much better than that. They ended up putting out only one more studio album, and a brilliant MTV Unplugged album before Kurt Cobain ended it all. They are like the James Dean of rock bands.

R.E.M. put out their album Out of Time in 1991. Hard-core R.E.M. fans would scoff, but I think it’s their best album (the hipsters would probably say Murmur). I also think it was their last great album (some might say Automatic for the People). They were the quintessential college-rock band that got so big I think they got bored with the whole thing. I pay no attention to what they are doing now. But my favorite album and song that year were from them—the song was “Losing My Religion,” which has a heart-breaking mandolin riff and uses an old Southern expression to express some sort of sorrow that never goes away. This song also had a great video, using imagery of St. Sebastian. That was when videos meant something. Does MTV still show videos, or just annoying twenty-somethings living together in a house?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Camilla Belle


As I keep a close eye, ahem, on up and coming talent in the film business, I've noticed an interesting young actress with the musical name of Camilla Belle. She was terrific playing Daniel Day-Lewis' daughter in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. She has a very distinctive, haunting beauty that sets her apart from other actresses in her age range. Her first starring role was in the remake of the thriller When a Stranger Calls, which I took a look at last night.

Now, there was absolutely no reason for this film to exist other than profit, but hey, that's the American and the Hollywood way. While competently directed and edited, the film is full of cliches like the false scare--twice by the same cat! Belle is the teenager in jeopardy, a babysitter who is getting calls and is eventually told by the police--"The calls are coming from inside the house!"

While I worked at a movie theater I learned the formula for success: pack the teenagers in a Friday night, and to hell with what happens later. Every Friday night the kids would congregate at the multiplex, and the movie they saw was secondary, as it was a chance to socialize, text message, and generally create mischief. It was the thrillers or horror movies that drew them in, and these things were usually cheaply made and probably made their money back in the first weekend. After that, they lasted another week or two and then blew away into the dust.

Now, back to Miss Belle. I can certainly understand that she chose a cheesy remake for her first starring role. She got to run around a lot, and have a perpetually scared look on her face. But I'm a bit troubled by her next film, which looks like another teen-in-jeopardy flick called The Quiet. It's easy for us to criticize performers for the roles they take, as we have no idea what the circumstances are (such as why Nicolas Cage, fresh off an Oscar win, went on a run of bad action pictures). And the life of an indy-picture queen has its pitfalls, especially if you want that Malibu mansion, but I do hope Camilla Belle does return to make more substantial films, because to do otherwise would be a waste of her talent.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Independence Day


Just finished another of the books the New York Times poll voted as one of the best American novels of the last 25 years, "Independence Day," by Richard Ford. This is a sequel to Ford's "The Sportswriter," which I read about 20 years ago but don't remember all that much. Set in 1988, the narrator, Frank Bascombe, is no longer a sportswriter, and now sells real estate in the central New Jersey town of Haddam. The novel covers a few days of his life over the Fourth of July holiday. He is trying to find a house for a difficult couple, and then takes his son, who lives in Connecticut with his ex-wife, for a weekend trip to the basketball and baseball halls of fame.

This book is in the genre some call "dirty realism," because of the minute detail that Ford goes into. We get almost a minute-by-minute dissection of Bascombe's day, including roads he takes. At times the writing is thrillingly vivid, but at times I also got a little glassy-eyed as Bascombe goes over the thoughts racing through his head. He's not a particularly likeable guy, given to impulse behavior, which leads to a catastrophe, so there are times I wished he was just get it together.

A fun thing for me: Haddam, New Jersey is clearly a fictionalized Princeton. Ford fictionalizes many of the streets but not all of them, so it was neat to try to figure out what stood for what. (Penn's Neck, I believe, was Princeton Junction, for example). Also, I've been to Cooperstown many times, so the segment that took place there resonated with me.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Link Wray


I've been getting into "roots" rock lately, whether it's surf, garage, or rockabilly. One of the first in the latter was Link Wray, who pioneered the use of the power chord. I picked up his greatest hits album the other day.

"Rumble" was his biggest hit, a very recognizable instrumental that was actually banned from some radio stations because it had a sound that was reminiscent of gang warfare (this was in 1958, when West Side Story was a big hit on Broadway). Rumble has the distinctive Wray sound, which is a kind of sharp twang. Most of his other hits were similar instrumentals, with titles like "Ramble," "Rawhide," "Switchblade," and "Jack the Ripper." He also covered the Batman theme, which is cool, except it is marred with some rather amateurish vocals of a hipster Batman and Robin.

Putting this record on certainly takes you into a time and place that's long gone, but nice to revisit, a time when people said words like Daddy-O and did the Jive.

Monday, August 21, 2006

World Trade Center


World Trade Center is an excellent film, a taut thriller that examines a small group of Port Authority police officers reacting to the plane attack on the twin towers on September 11th, 2001. When the buildings collapse two officers are trapped in the rubble, and we cut back and forth between their plight and the situation their loved ones go through as they wait to discover their fate.

But what is most interesting about this film is what it isn't about. Oliver Stone, the director, is one of the most vocally political filmmakers of the day. His last handful of films, most notably JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers, were stuffed full of all sorts of conceits, including multiple film stock and tangled plot lines. Watching them was almost like having a fever dream. He is also, as a private citizen, outspoken in his beliefs, which usually skew to the left.

World Trade Center, however, is not a political film, and it has a very lean structure. There is no talk of geopolitics. Aside from a scene in which people all over the world learn of the news of the attacks, there is no outside influences. It's all about these two men and their families and those who try to rescue them. It could have been about any rescue situation, but Stone chose to tell of a rescue that happened on a day that fundamentally changed world history.

The flag-waving right has embraced this film, even though they were wary of Stone telling a 9/11 story. I'm sure that makes Stone giggle inside. It just goes to show that vocal dissenters from the Bush-Cheney line are every bit the patriot that those on the right are. I congratulate Stone for his end-around, as well as for making a fine film.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The JonBenet Case


Even yesterday I thought that the gentleman who confessed to the killing of JonBenet Ramsey was not the guy. I'm no Columbo, but a few things are very troubling. One, his ex-wife, who understandably dumped him after he got busted for child porn, says he was in Alabama then. She has no reason to lie. Two, he says he drugged JonBenet, but there were no drugs found in her system during the autopsy. And perhaps most of all, how does a complete stranger get into the Ramsey house, get the child into the basement, rape and strangle her, all without being detected? He has no connection to the family. Was he one of those guys who have a perverse interest in pre-adolescent beauty pageants? Perhaps. But if is confession is correct, that he somehow found out about the existence of JonBenet, researched and found out where she lived, managed to slip away from his wife in Alabama and get to Boulder, Colorado, kill her, and escape undetected.

News reports this morning are raising the possibility that he is an attention-seeking nutcase. He was fascinated with the JonBenet case, and studied it, so he would know a lot of the facts. He was also fascinated with other child murders such as Polly Klaas. He has said that he loved JonBenet. I think any psychologist could tell you that in his attempt to become closer to this poor departed child he has assigned himself blame as her killer.

Sadly, I think this case is not closed. And John Karr needs some time in an institution.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Viva Las Vegas


My thoughts return me to Las Vegas. I thought I was done, but in the words of Michael Corleone, who knew something about Vegas, "Just when I was thought I was out, they pull me back in."

I have been fascinated with Vegas for years now. Actually, my interest has two heads--Vegas, and the surrounding desert, particularly the Area 51 stuff. Area 51 is part of the Nellis Air Force Base, and is so secret that there are rumors of all kinds of things going on there, especially dealing with UFOs and aliens. I wrote a screenplay about it called The Black Mailbox.

What I'd like to do now is revisit that topic, reworking that script using some of the same characters, but this time in a romantic comedy (albeit a black comedy) about people who live in Las Vegas. I have a friend who lives there, and it interests me to wonder what life is like in such a bizarre place.

I visited Vegas for the first and only time in 2002, and did the basic things (and I took the Area 51 tour, which involved visiting the famous Black Mailbox, although it is now painted white). I'd like go back, and it looks like next Easter will be the time. It coincides with Viva Las Vegas, a rockabilly convention that looks like fun. I'd also like to hit places that tourists don't go.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Oscar Talk, Already?


It's getting to be that time of year. The summer blockbusters are vacating popcorn-strewn theaters and the fall, "prestige" pictures are readying for release. It is only natural that a cinephile's thoughts turn to Oscar.

It used to be that I never thought about Oscar until the Fall Preview issue of Premiere (now Entertainment Weekly) came out. But the Internet scotched that. Anybody with an opinion and knowledge of HTML can now create a Web page and blast their predictions into cyberspace. Many of them put up their predictions the day after the Oscar ceremony. This is like predicting the weather a year in advance, it's all based on pedigrees of the director and stars. It's a free country, though, so anybody can do it, I suppose, and if they get one or two right they can crow about it.

So this is my first peep on the subject. I've loved the Oscars since I was about ten. I suppose it's because it merges two things I love--movies and sports, as it turns films and actors into race horses to be handicapped. The key to handicapping, though, is to be dispassionate. Many film critics are bad at picking winners because if they like or dislike a film, they have trouble understanding how anyone else could disagree.

So, what are the frontrunners for Best Picture? Here is a short list. I would expect at least three to come from the following:

Flags of Our Fathers
About the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima in the famous photograph. Directed by Oscar darling Clint Eastwood, who seems to be able to do no wrong lately. Seems to have lots of gravitas, and could appeal to both the conservative minded and the liberal, since one of the men, Ira Hayes, was a Native-American who was mistreated after the war.

Dreamgirls
After Chicago won Best Picture for 2002, all of a sudden people were talking about a musical revival. Well, Phantom of the Opera and The Producers were both busts. Bill Condon has a good track record, and there is a lot of star power with Jamie Foxx, Beyonce and Eddie Murphy in the cast. But I'm not sure about tons of nominations, including Best Picture.

The Departed
Every picture Martin Scorsese makes now seems to get Oscar talk, as in "Will Marty ever win." We've gone through that twice now, with Gangs of New York and The Aviator. There's less buzz about The Departed, as it is described as less of an art picture than a shoot-'em up, and it is a remake of a Hong Kong picture. Maybe this is the way Scorsese wins, when nobody anticipates it. Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon co-star.

The Good Shepherd
Matt Damon also stars in the this film about the CIA during the Cold War, directed by Robert DeNiro. DeNiro's directing history is not strong, but Oscar seems to love actors-turned-directors. Angelina Jolie also stars.

The Good German
George Clooney, who seems to have been sprinkled with pixie dust, has another serious, black and white film in the offing, this time directed by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh. It takes place in post-war Germany. Seems to have the smell of Oscar all over it.

World Trade Center
Just released, this Oliver Stone picture is surprising everyone by how different it is from the usual Stone fare. I plan on seeing it this weekend. Discomfort about the whole 9/11 issue seems to be keeping the box office lukewarm. But films that do small box office can get nominated for Best Picture.

Babel
Innovative director Alejandro González Iñárritu has gotten sniffs of Oscar before, with Amores Perres and 21 Grams. Babel is an international, multi-plotted ensemble. It might be a bit too arty for the general voting body, but he's a strong Best Director candidate. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett star.

Things will shift over the next few months, as films are released and flop, and dark horses emerge. After all, no one predicted Million Dollar Baby until the film was actually released. It wasn't even filmed until the summer of that year.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Revolver


I read that the Beatles album Revolver was released 40 years ago this month. I took a listen to it again and thought about it. Each of the Beatles albums, especially from Help! on, was a step forward from the more basic rock and roll that made them famous to the unworldly music figures they would become. Help! had songs that had heavy influence from Bob Dylan, while Rubber Soul would introduce their increasing diversity (such as a sitar on Norwegian Wood, and Baroque piano on In My Life). But Revolver really stepped it up. There is really only one song, Good Day Sunshine, that could be classified as pure pop. The others are forays into the myriad directions the Beatles would take to become the preeminent popular music group of all time.

This is also when the Beatles were starting to become less of a cohesive group than a gathering of four individuals, as personalities were clearly defined. We get two sides of Paul McCartney--his resolute sunniness, such as in Good Day, Sunshine, or syrupy romanticism, Here, There and Everywhere, but we also see the cynical and brooding side of Paul, as with For No One and the classic Eleanor Rigby. With John we get the beginning of his pyschedelic period, with Tomorrow Never Knows, and the sardonic She Said, She Said and I'm Only Sleeping. George offers up more of his Indian influence with Love You To and and brutally political Taxman. While Ringo does not compose a song in this album he does take vocals with Yellow Submarine, which furthered his image as the sad-eyed clown of the group, on a song that was geared toward kiddies.

My own history with the Beatles is long and rich. They hit big just as I was turning three. I have two aunts who were teenagers during those heady days, and both were big Beatle fans. I remember my Aunt Michelle playing her 45 of I Want to Hold Your Hand. My dad brought home some Beatle records when I was about eight, particularly the one with Hey, Jude on it. He loved that song, saying you couldn't resist tapping your foot to it. I now have that very album he bought, as I ended up listening to it over and over again.

Eventually I got many more Beatle records, and now have them all on CD. Revolver had two different versions--the UK version is what is now on CD, while the American version had fewer songs (most of which ended up on the cobbled-together Yesterday and Today record released in the U.S.) I've never understood why that was. Maybe U.S. records had to be shorter for some reason?

The article I read about Revolver's anniversary was by a man who first heard the disc when it was released in Europe, at a listening booth in Austria. He tells a nice story, and it must have been something to be a cognizant Beatle fan and hear Eleanor Rigby for the first time, and realize that the Beatles had just pushed through the envelope and were now something for more special than you could have ever imagined.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Scoop


The importance of Woody Allen to me can not be understated. His work provided a catalyst for me when I was a teenager. His collection of short humor pieces, Without Feathers, inspired me to write comedy. His play, Don't Drink the Water, was put on by our high school drama club, and I played a part, and that got me into theater. His films, well, let's just say I've seen Annie Hall close to fifty times. I also count Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters in my top ten of all time.

Much has been made of the great man's decline over the past decade or so. I suppose when you're as prolific as he is, some clunkers are bound to happen. It is true that he has not had a honest-to-goodness masterpiece since 1989's Crime and Misdemeanors. Some of his last few comedies seem like extended sketches, with paper-thin plots and characters. Scoop, his latest, is one of those. Set in London, it involves a young journalism student who is visited by a spirit of a recently-departed ace reporter. He gives her the scoop of a lifetime, and urges her to investigate. This all happens in a cabinet belonging to a third-rate magician, played by Allen.

So if Scoop isn't premium Allen, it's still enjoyable. There are about five or six good laughs, and just the sight of Allen as the magician brings a smile to my face. Scarlett Johannson is the young reporter, and she's not quite up to the task of playing screwball comedy. This is a part that a young Diane Keaton would have knocked out of the ball park. But at least Scarlett is shown off well by Allen, including putting her in a bathing suit (a one-piece, alas).

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Writer's Life


I've wanted to be a writer since I was about 10 years old. I remember my first effort was after seeing a James Bond movie (Diamonds Are Forever). Inspired, I went home and started writing my own spy novel on my dad's typewriter. I think my spy's name was Martin Thompson. I wrote about a page, but I did have a list of all the chapters.

Through my teens I wanted to be a sportswriter. I would watch games on TV and write up news stories about them. I think if I had kept that up I could have been good at it (I now write game recaps for Princeton women's hockey on USCHO.com, though that is a non-paying gig) but I'm glad I didn't. I like sports, but if it had become a profession, I think I would become burned out quickly. I mean, it seems that most sportswriters are writing articles about salary caps and steroids, and not what happens on the field of play.

When I got to college I found my love of theater, and wrote plays, lots of plays, a handful that found life on stage. Playwright was my new vocation, and after graduating I applied to the Yale Drama School. I was not accepted, and as is my wont, that kind of deflated things for me.

In my twenties I began a magnum opus, a novel about disaffected liberal kids in the Reagan era and how they react to the new conservativism. It was pretty good but had way too many characters and plot strands. I sent some of it to an agent and she called it "clever and fresh" but said the fiction market was "soft."
I did finish a mystery novel in the early 90s. Again, I think it's as good as some of the stuff out there, certainly no masterpiece. I've got it around somewhere. I should revisit it, but it's dated.

Then I turned to screenwriting. I wrote one about Area 51, a black comedy, that I seriously pushed about six or seven years ago. I bought books on how to accomplish this, and actually got some agents to read it. I paid for professional coverage, and it got recommended. I even got to the top 250 in the first Project: Greenlight contest. Sadly, it remains unmade. Ever sadder, to make it as a screenwriter involves more than just sitting in a room and typing. Two things are against me--my age, and that I don't live in California.

I have had lots of work published, though, but it has all been of the erotic nature. When I was at Penthouse I wrote hundreds of first-person narratives. They were all the kind of stuff I could never use as clips, though, as almost everyone of them contained the word "clit." I still pick up a paycheck every now and again for that sort of writing, especially reviews of pornographic films.

I heard from my friend Paula the other day, who has been toiling on a biography of Evelyn Nesbit for years. She may finally have hit the paydirt, as a serious agent is now shopping the book around. I'm glad for her success, but am also trying to use it to get me going. I think I should return to writing prose, because age and address don't matter nearly as much. I may return to the characters I used in my first screenplay, only shifting the focus to a romantic comedy about people who live in Las Vegas (a long obsession of mine).

When people ask me what I do, I have to give this long, convoluted answer, because my job is difficult to describe. The quick easy answer is, "I'm a writer."

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Sore Loser


I've never been much of a Joe Lieberman fan. When he first ran for the Senate in 1988, he was taking on a Republican, Lowell Weicker, who was more liberal than he is. This earned him the support of conservative icon William F. Buckley. His tenure in the Senate seemed to be as the Democratic party's number one scold. He seemed to be the Democrat most hard on Bill Clinton's White House blowjob, and he was constantly gabbing about television sex and violence.

When Al Gore selected him to run as a vice-presidential candidate, I was still not impressed. I learned to live with it, but would have liked to see the other Connecticut senator, Chris Dodd, chosen instead. Then we might not have seen the sorry spectacle of Lieberman's 2004 presidential campaign, which introduced the term "Joe-mentum" into the lexicon.

Also, he sounds a lot like Marvin the Martian, nemesis of Bugs Bunny.

Now he's bugging me again. On Tuesday Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, largely because of Lieberman's support for the war policy of President Bush. And I say good riddance. But wait! Lieberman, fueled I think by petulance more than anything else, will run as an independent. He may have a shot at winning. If he keeps some Democratic votes (he will certainly lose a lot who will stick with the party line) and gets Republican votes (the Republican candidate seems to be a non-entity) he could pull it out. I hope not.

Anyway, we're full swing into the electoral season now, and it should be fun, particularly if signs continue to swing toward the left.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Negro Leagues


I've been considering Negro League Baseball a lot lately. Weekend before last I made my annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown for the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony (it's my fifth year in a row). This year the inductees were Bruce Sutter, a relief-pitcher best known for use of the split-fingered fastball, and 17 individuals who were involved with the African-American experience in baseball before the color barrier was broken--some with organized Negro Leagues, some who played even before then. These people were elected by a committee that made a large study of Black and Latin baseball, and I picked up a copy of the companion book, called Shades of Glory.

Thinking about the Negro Leagues conjures up many emotions. To watch as relatives of the inductees (all 17 are deceased) read their ancestors' plaques and grab their long-delayed day in the sun was very moving. Listening to Buck O'Neil, who has become one of the most important voices of the Negro League legacy speak about how proud he was to be a Negro League ballplayer was wonderful, but one can't help but feeling a pit in the stomach, realizing that the very existence of these leagues was a large stain in the fabric of American society. All of these players should have been able to suit up in the Major leagues, and prove their mettle on an equal playing field. Instead, they played what has been called "shadow ball," a largely identical game that was separate from white America.

The book was interesting, if not particularly well-written. The author is Lawrence Hogan, a history professor, and the prose is a bit stodgy, getting bogged down in game scores, but occasionally breaking into wild hyperbole. I'm sure these players were good, perhaps better than the white players in certain circumstances, but too many are described as the best ever. There are also typos and misspellings that make an old copy editor like me take notice. I would have preferred more information about the people themselves. One of the key people in Negro League history, Andrew "Rube" Foster, was a great pitcher and then founded the Negro Leagues in 1920. In 1925 he had a "nervous breakdown" and died in 1930, and the league suffered from his absence. What was his story? I wasn't looking for sensational material, but the subject is glossed over.

I was startled to learn that there were Negro teams up until the 1980's. The Clowns, who played in many towns, mostly Indianapolis, continued barnstorming long after baseball was integrated. One of the best parts of the book was the last chapter, which detailed the double-meaning of Jackie Robinson's entry into the Majors--it was great for the race as a whole, but bad for the business, because it meant the end of the Negro Leagues.

A very interesting subject, one that really encapsulates the never-ending drama of race relations in America.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Ten Games Ahead


After the Tigers beat the Twins last night, 9-3, they are now 10 games ahead of the White Sox, and 10 and a half ahead of the Twins. It is their biggest lead of the season. Baseball commentators are now accepting that the Tigers will win their division. John Kruk on Baseball Tonight said they are the best team he's seen in the last five years. That kind of talk is scary to someone who has a stubborn pessimistic streak. Still, the numbers don't lie--if they go .500 the rest of the way, they will win 101 games, and that will get them in the playoffs.

At the risk of jinxing it all, let's take a look down the road. My ideal scenario would have the White Sox or Twins winning the wild card. Why? Well, that would keep a potential Yankees or Red Sox matchup until the championship round. If the Yankees and Red Sox both make the playoffs, and the Tigers continue to have the best record in the AL, then the wild card will play them. If the wild card comes out of the Central Division, then they will play (presumably) the winner of the AL East. I would rather the Tigers play the As or Angels, winners of the West, than the Red Sox or Yankees in the first round (famous last words--the As or Angels would be very dangerous teams, nonetheless).

Absolutely ideal scenario? The Red Sox win the East, the White Sox the wild card, the As the West, with the Yankees sitting home. Besides my inbred hatred of the Yankees, I don't want any part of a Tigers-Yankees series. I don't think I could handle it.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Miami Vice


Last week I was on vacation. I went a few places, which I will write more about later, but on one brutally hot day I went to see Miami Vice. I will admit the only reason I saw it was the reputation of Michael Mann, who has directed films like Heat, Last of the Mohicans and The Insider which I admired greatly. Sadly, he went way down in my book after this one.

I never watched the original TV show. Apparently the only similarity to the film and the old show are the characters' names and their occupation. The pink t-shirts and white loafers have been left behind. But still, this film is more style than substance. We begin as Crockett and Tubbs (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx) are on some sort of stakeout of a guy with hookers. They drop that, though, when an informer calls them, troubled. They end up undercover as boat transportation for a Columbian drug cartel (that's original!) Crockett woos the wife of the kingpin, Gong Li, and of course falls in love. Tubbs doesn't do much but glower.

I really disliked this film. I was ready to walk about fifteen minutes in, but stuck it out, and I wish I had left. It was really just a standard cops and robbers shoot 'em up, without much character development. The Columbian drug lord thing has been done to death, and this film didn't offer any new insights. We know next to nothing about what makes anyone tick in this film. The style is cold and impersonal. Farrell, who has been notoriously bad in recent films, is okay, though at times his Irish accent sneaks in.