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Monday, October 31, 2016

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit is a 1949 film about mental illness, and being that there has been a lot learned since then I found it fairly even-handed in its portrayal of the ill and mental institutions. But at the same time I wanted it to have a point of view--it doesn't condemn mental hospitals, despite the title, and it has the same easy answers that other films that treat this subject had, like the Hitchcock films Spellbound or Marnie.

Olivie de Havilland plays a young woman who finds herself in a mental hospital but she's not quite sure why she's there. I went into the movie thinking that perhaps she was wrongly committed, but no, she's got problems. Her husband (Mark Stevens) tells the doctor (Leon Genn) what happened. They met in Chicago, she abruptly left him, and they met up again in New York. They married, but she got very upset whenever the date May 12th was mentioned, and finally had a crack-up.

Directed by Anatole Litvak, the film chronicles much of the day-to-day operations of a mental hospital. Most of the time it seems pretty accurate--she's not in Bedlam--but she's in a public hospital, in a bed in a large ward. She comes across all sorts of women with various disorders, and only one nurse (Helen Craig) who seems to have it in for her. Genn digs deep into her past, and finds that she had a cold mother (played by Natalie Schafer, later well known for Gilligan's Island) and a father who was doting but died young. In these kind of dramas, there are easy answers (such as Gregory Peck's dream containing all the clues to who he is in Spellbound, or why Marnie hates the color red) and that's no different here, but at least Genn tells her that there is no one thing that has made her ill.

De Havilland moves from ward to ward. The higher the number, the worse off you are, and when she ends up in Ward 12, she calls it a "snake pit," but that's more a metaphor than an apt description. With that title you'd think the film would be an indictment of the psychiatric profession, but it's not. De Havilland is very good in the film--she had a very blank beauty that suits her well here. She wears a mostly perplexed look that fits her thoughts, which she speaks in voiceover. But it doesn't really add up to much. It's not as harrowing as one might think--she is forced into a straitjacket and put into hydrotherapy, but given the timing of this film, at no time do we really fear for her safety.

The Snake Pit is more a curiosity than an entertainment, the kind of film that would make for a good double feature with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a far better film about a mental hospital.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Jack White Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016

Those who read this blog regularly know that my favorite musician currently is Jack White. No matter what he does--the defunct White Stripes, The Raconteurs, Dead Weather, or his solo career, I'm in awe of his songwriting genius and his virtuosity on the guitar. His latest output is a collection of acoustic recording from the first White Stripes album to the present.

There is some confusion about what this collection consists of. There are a lot of negative reviews on Amazon because people thought these were re-recordings of old songs in acoustic versions. That is not what it is--these are original recordings, some of them exactly as they appear on White Stripes, Raconteurs, or Jack White albums. There are also some alternative mixes, a song from the Cold Mountain soundtrack, and one he did for a commercial for Coca-Cola.

So, essentially, this a mixed bag of songs that are acoustic, and if you have all of Jack's White's output, there isn't much new here (besides the Coke commercial and a couple of B-sides to singles). But to that I say, so what? I remember my friend Paula buying the Beatles #1 album, which was all their number one hits. I asked her why she bought it, since she already had all those songs on their original albums. "I don't have them all on one CD though," she said. Good point.

White was in Cold Mountain, as a musician during the Civil War, and he looked perfect in the role. He comes from a long tradition, that includes Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and many others, as a troubadour who reaches deep into all musical traditions. That is displayed here. Some of his songs are very child-like, almost like nursery rhymes, such as "We're Going to Be Friends," and the outright silliness of "Well It's True That We Love One Another," but he also has a murder ballad "Carolina Drama" and songs of all forms of rock, from the blues to sweet love songs.

I'm sorry for those who think they were misled by what they bought, but if they are true Jack White fans this is the perfect thing while we wait for his next album.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Black Sunday

Black Sunday, originally titled The Mask of Satan, is a 1960 Italian Gothic horror film that stars Barbara Steel, one of the great horror films actresses, as a witch who waits 200 years to try to get her revenge. For a black and white film, it is quite gruesome, and was banned in the UK until 1968. I imagine the title was changed (there is no mention of a Sunday, black or otherwise) because of Satan in the title.

We begin in the 17th century in Moldavia, which is today part of Romania and modern day Moldova, with two witches being put to death. One is a princess, Asa Vajda (played by Steel). Her lover and fellow Satanist has already been put to death. She is being executed under the orders of her own brother. She is branded, but has time to place a curse on her family. Then a mask with spikes in it is hammered onto her face. But they can't be burned, as a thunderstorm breaks out. Instead of waiting for clear weather, the lover is buried in unconsecrated ground, and Steel is put in a coffin in a crypt, her face still in the mask, with a window in the coffin facing a cross to keep her in place.

Two-hundred years later a pair of doctors on their way to a conference pass along the road that is said to be haunted. When a wheel breaks they wander into the abandoned crypt, finding Steel's coffin. The older doctor, who is the stupid character in the film, pries off her mask. He then, fending off a bat, breaks the cross. Uh oh.

Steel, from her coffin, frees her lover, who then lures the doctor back to her to sacrifice his blood to bring her alive. The Vajda's have current descendants, including Katya (also played by Steel), whom the witch sets her eyes on to use as a new body. But the younger doctor, who actually has some sense, works to save her.

The film was directed by esteemed director of giallo and slasher films Mario Bava in his debut. It is extremely atmospheric, with lots of fog and spooky noises. If I were a teenager watching this film all alone on a rainy night I might not get to sleep for a while. It's full of horror tropes like a crumbling castle with secret passages and portraits that have figures moving inside them. It is steeped in Eastern European superstition (or is it?) and is a great film to scare your loved ones with a fright after it's over.

Steel made many horror films, and at least ten to twenty years ago was doing a bang-up business at horror film conventions. She's now 89 so I don't know how active she is at that anymore. She shows off her skills here by being a mean witch and a sweet ingenue. There's something to be said in the difficulty of acting in a horror film without coming off ridiculous.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Crisis in Six Scenes

Woody Allen's foray into television was big news, but the result, Crisis in Six Scenes, left critics unimpressed. I just finished the show last night (as the title indicates, there are six episodes, each sit-com length of about twenty minutes) and while I see what they're talking about, I'm enough of an Allen fan that I got a lot of chuckles out of it. It's certainly nowhere near his greatest work, but for what it is it has its moments.

The time is the late '60s. Allen plays one of his nebbishes, a writer named Sidney Munsinger. He lives in suburban peace with his wife (Elaine May) in upstate New York. She's a marriage counselor, which allows for a few good gags, such as one that has one couple who agree on nothing except their hatred of guacamole, and another where the man frequents prostitutes, so May suggests he pay his wife, but the wife starts charging more money.

These are very typical Allen tropes, and there are many more, especially the way Allen plays Munsinger as a hypochondriac and general nervous Nelly. His life is turned upside down when an escaped radical (Miley Cyrus), who is the daughter of a friend of May's, takes refuge in their house. Allen is virulently opposed, especially when Cyrus calls him a capitalist tool (she says, "I don't hate you, I just hate everything you stand for") and eats his fig newtons and naval oranges. Over six episodes Allen deals with this situation, and a houseguest (John Magaro) falls for Cyrus and becomes radicalized.

The juxtaposition of Allen's middle-class Jewish humor and the radical elements of the '60s provides for some humor, especially when May's book club starts reading tracts like The Quotations of Chairman Mao and Das Kapital. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this sort of thing, but the notion of little old Jewish ladies planning to protest naked makes me laugh (Joy Behar, as one of the ladies, says before she does so she has to lose at least five or six pounds).

And as long as Allen is on screen, I'm there. He has some great, if not tired, lines, such as "I'm allergic to tear gas," or worrying about jail because he is ideal for being sodomized. The fifth episode finds Allen and May acting as couriers with a suitcase full of Cuban money, and these two old people being involved in such a scheme is inherently funny.

However, Crisis in Six Scenes can be very bad. Cyrus is miscast, in fact, she's no actress. The Magaro-Cyrus thing just doesn't work--when he blows himself while trying to make a bomb it's gone beyond silly. There's also a subplot about Allen pitching a sit-com about cavemen (which is essentially The Flintstones) that goes nowhere. The entire series is about two hours, so with trimming, this would have been an okay film--stretching it out to a series didn't do it any favors.

But still I enjoyed it overall. The last episode has almost every character in Allen's house. The doorbell keeps ringing--"I'm expecting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," Allen says. Then it rings again. When asked if he isn't going to answer that, he says, "It might be the Marx Brothers," a reference to the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera.

Die hard fans of Allen, and I admit I am one, will find this series worthwhile. Those who don't like him will probably hate it, and those who have no feeling one way or another will probably respond with a shrug.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


Wytches is a terrific horror comic by Scott Snyder, art by Jock, but despite its title it's not about witches, it's about wytches, which is something else entirely. I don't away give away much, but these nasties live underground and take people who are "pledged." There's a prologue about a hundred years ago with a woman trapped inside a tree trunk. She implores him to free her, but when he finds out she's been "pledged," he refuses, and says, "Pledged is pledged."

Just what does it mean to be pledged? I'm still not quit sure, but I do know that Snyder has created a very spooky piece of work. It uses a very common horror trope--family looking to get over trauma by moving to small town in the woods--but it works. Sailor Rooks is a teenage girl, and of course she's offbeat, mainly because her father is a comic book writer. Her mother was paralyzed in an accident, and Sailor had an unfortunate run-in with a bully who seems to have been consumed by a tree, so they move to rural New Hampshire to get over it. Mistake.

I prefer to let the readers get the full joy that I did, not knowing anything more. Suffice it to say bad things happen in the woods and beware the "chit, chit, chit" sound. But again, this is not about women with broomsticks and magic spells, it's something far more elemental, and with Jock's horrifying drawings, far more scary. I didn't think a horror comic could scare me at my age but it did get under my skin.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

For my middle-school students' horror film class I turned this week to Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 version of Robert Louis Stevenson's timeless classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Luckily I didn't have to do much talking about it, since I had never seen it before.

I chose it because the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy is a central horror trope--is there good and evil in everyone? Are we, as Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) suggests, two people in one? He concocts a potion that when consumed allows all his evil yearnings out, turning him into a hideous creature he calls Edward Hyde. But when he starts to change without being able to control it, things go bad.

This is supposed to be the best film made of the book--there are at least eight (I've reviewed the John Barrymore silent version here). I think I saw the Spencer Tracy version when I was a kid, but I don't remember), and the Mamoulian version is said to be better. It certainly has a number of camera tricks--I was able to tell my students about p.o.v. shots, wipes, and double images. Mamoulian uses the wipe most interestingly, he starts a wipe in a right-to-left top-to-bottom diagonal, then stops and has a split screen for a few seconds, then continues the wipe.

March won an Oscar, which I believe is the only acting Oscar for a role in a horror film. He is most impressive as Hyde, which was probably more fun to play (though the makeup looks painful, especially the ghastly teeth). His Hyde looks almost respectable in top hat and cloak, but only when you get a good look at him do you realize he's repellent. There's a great scene in which a dance-hall girl (read: prostitute) played by Miriam Hopkins is asked to see him at his table. She thinks it's all routine until she gets a look at his face.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a very stylish and at times scary (although not for my students) film. Since it's pre-code there are some racy bits, such as when Hopkins seduces March (as Jekyll) by slipping off her stockings. It has also been a story, for 130 years, that has provoked thought. The last major film that featured this character prominently was Mary Reilly, in 1996. The character was also in the lamented projects Van Helsing and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but they don't count. I therefore have to say this a book that is due for a remake by A-talent.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Witch

I mentioned before that there is no "definitive" witch movie, but The Witch, released earlier this year, may end up taking the crown. It is a creepy, scary movie that doesn't so much shock as make your skin crawl.

Written and directed by Robert Eggers (in his debut), The Witch is set in Puritan New England (before the Salem witch trials). A family, led by the pious Ralph Ineson, is banished from what is presumably Plymouth Plantation for a disagreement in Biblical interpretation. He takes his family and heads out on his own, building a house and attempting to grow corn.

Things start to go wrong when the eldest child (Anya Taylor-Joy) is out playing with the baby when he disappears. They think it must be a wolf (at least there are no dingos in North America) but we see that some sort of hag has grabbed the baby and--well, I won't say anymore.

The corn crop fails. Two of the children, twins, say that they converse with Black Phillip, a goat. Inesen and his eldest son (Harvey Scrimshaw) go hunting and encounter a rabbit, who is the scariest bunny since the one in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When Scrimshaw and Taylor-Joy go out in the woods, like Hansel and Gretel, Scrimshaw ends up in a scene not unlike the one that happens in Room 237 in The Shining.

All the while, the family unit breaks down. Inesen turns out to be a hypocrite, the children turn on each other, and the goat turns on Inesen. The mother, Kate Dickie, sees her dead children and nurses her missing baby, but in reality it's something far more sinister and an image that can't be unseen.

Historically, except for the fact that true witches are not in league with Satan, The Witch is accurate. As I mentioned in my review of I Married a Witch, the very notion of witches being scary is anti-woman. There are witches, or Wiccans, and when I attended Unitarian Church I met a few. I imagine they wouldn't appreciate a movie like this, but it is a damn good horror film.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Into the Forest

One has to admire Ellen Page, who after Juno could have gone in a completely different direction as an actress. She did a few X-Men films, but seems to be living on that money while she produces small, independent films. I reviewed the Netflix film Tallulah a while back, and here is one, Into the Forest, that must have been a labor of love, because it was only released for a week, in Canada, and made less than ten grand. It deserves a better life on home video.

There have been more than a few films and books about what happens when the power goes out. When it doesn't come right back on, and people don't know what's happening, and shortages start, what will people resort to? Into the Forest is a film like that, but told from a much more intimate perspective--two sisters, living deep in the woods.

They are played by Page, the younger sister who is something of an intellectual genius, and Evan Rachel Wood, who is a dancer. They live with their father (Callum Keith Rennie) when the power inexplicably goes out. It's still out the next morning, then a week, then a month. They visit town on what little gas they have, but find the store sold out and no news, as the Internet and broadcast channels are down. Is it nuclear war? An alien invasion? It doesn't matter--what matters is that three people, then two, must cope.

Strip away the post-apocalyptic stuff and Into the Forest is about a relationship between two sisters. While Page is the smart one, and Wood the quieter, more artistic one, their roles shift as the power outage lasts more than a year. They face dangers--both human and not--but manage to cement their bond.

What the film, based on a book by Jean Hegland and written and directed by Patricia Rozema, can't do is let us in on what must have been the incredible tedium that going that long without electricity must entail. We see Wood dancing to a metronome, and Page devouring every book she can get her hands on (including a handy one about edible plants), but as appealing as a few days like that might be, I think I'd be stark-raving bonkers after going that long without at least a little TV, no matter who I was staying with.

That being said, Into the Forest is worth searching out. The lead performances are fine and the film will provide a lot of good discussion afterward.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


The Grammy for Best Rock Album went to Drones, by Muse, a group I knew faintly about but had never listened to. As a cantankerous old man who whines about the decline of rock in popular music, I wanted to see just what these voters think is good rock. Muse is not what I consider a great rock band, but this album is okay.

Apparently this is a concept album about how one man becomes a cog in a wheel, or a drone (it is not, seemingly, about unmanned weapons or the popular flying toy), which was a subject back in Charlie Chaplin's day in Modern Times. I say apparently because the lyric sheet is in a font so small a microscope is necessary to read it. In what I've read, the songs are linked together, a la Green Day's American Idiot or Pink Floyd's The Wall, with one man's progression, or digression, take your pick.

The opening song, "Dead Inside," sounds very much like U2, and lead singer Matt Bellamy does a fair Bono impression. But where the album kicks in is the second track, which starts with a drill sergeant's exhortation to his recruit to become a psycho killer. The song, "Psycho," may have banal lyrics, but it's a heart-thumping number, the kind that a teenager would listen to at full blast, his head right next to the stereo. It's by far the best song in the collection.

There are other pleasures, such as "Reapers," with a guitar sound reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen, the death metal sound of The Handler, and on "The Defector," with Queen (or Sweet) like harmonies. The penultimate sound is "The Globalist," a ten-minute opus that contains elements of Spaghetti Western scores, while the last and title track is an arrangement of choir voices.

Muse has been around for over twenty years, but have managed to fly under my radar. They have now won two Grammys for Best Rock Album, but I am more interested in the names they left behind, like Carnage Mayhem, The Gothic Plague, and Rocket Baby Dolls. Muse seems so tame in comparison.

While I found the album at times over-produced by Mutt Lange, it's very listenable and I think there's a message in there somewhere, including a speech by JFK suggesting that our enemies will not conquer us by invasion, but by infiltration. It may got back to Walt Kelly in Pogo saying, "I have met the enemy, and he is us."

Saturday, October 22, 2016

I Married a Witch

Two years it was Frankenstein, last year it was Dracula. For this year's Halloween season I'm going to be taking a look at everything witches, a Halloween decoration/costume staple. They have been represented in films and literature for centuries.

There is really no definitive "witch" film, as Universal Studios chose not to do one like their other monster series. I think if anyone my age thinks of witches, they will either conjure up The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz or Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched, the opposite poles of our attitudes about witches. The kernel of the idea for Bewitched may lie in the 1942 film, I Married a Witch.

Directed by Rene Clair, the film is mostly a romantic comedy, but with a nice, sinister edge. In Puritan New England (pointedly not Salem), two witches, a father and daughter, are burned to death. On their ashes is planted an oak tree, so their spirits will be captured forever. The daughter, later to be seen as Veronica Lake, curses the family of the man (Fredric March) who accused her, so that all the men will marry the wrong women.

Almost three-hundred years later, a lightning strike frees the two witches. March, the latest descendant of the family, is running for governor, and about to marry a horrible woman (Susan Hayward), so Lake decides to try to seduce him. But things, as they always do in romantic comedies, go awry.

I Married a Witch is a charming comedy, and at only 76 minutes doesn't take a lot of time out of your life. Lake, as regular readers of mine may know, is one of my favorite classic film actresses, although she was hated by most of her co-stars and died a sad death at 50 due to alcoholism. Joel McCrea, who was to be the lead in this film, said that "life is too short to make two pictures with Veronica Lake." But she was a great presence in some very good films of the 1940s, and for a woman who was only twenty years old, she had great command on screen.

March plays a great befuddled character. The best scene is the aborted wedding between he and Hayward, when Lake and her father (a terrifically charming and evil Cecil Kellaway) are in an upstairs room. There's a great gag where a woman, whenever there's an interruption, breaks into song.

As I make my cultural journey through witches, the sad thing to remember is that the very idea of them was an attempt (and for many centuries, a very successful one) to keep women in their place. Thousands of women, and more than a few men, were killed for being suspected of being witches, when it was another reason entirely that they frightened civic and religious officials. In I Married a Witch, at least we don't get the stereotype of witches being hags, though they do fly on brooms and enjoy burning down cornfields.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Carpetbaggers

Back in the '60s, if you walked into a house with only a few books, chances are they might be the Bible, Dr. Spock's Baby Care, and The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins' 1961 potboiler that added a bit of sex to the staid lives of Americans. It has sold over 8 million copies, and was estimated at one time to be the fourth-most read book in history, but I doubt that's true anymore, as I am probably the only person who has read it recently.

I read The Carpetbaggers because this year is Robbins' centenary, and this was his most successful book, but he's really not much of a writer. The story is a roman a clef about Howard Hughes, called Jonas Cord in the book. He is a dashing rogue who inherits his father's company, is obsessed with aviation, and gets into the movie business. There are other thinly veiled characters, especially Rina Marlowe, an actress that is clearly modeled, right down to the diphthongs in her name, to Jean Harlow.

The book is a doorstop, and I dutifully took two and a half months to read it. It's really several books in one, as if Robbins had several ideas and decided to do it all at once. The basic story is Cord taking over a movie studio and also making airplanes. Robbins denied the book was about Hughes, but come on--the last part is about him building the largest airplane ever built, which Hughes did.

But beyond that, Robbins pumps the book full of flashbacks about other characters. Nevada Smith, probably a composite of several silent cowboy actors, is given a long story about getting revenge in the Old West on the killers of his parents. David Woolf, who may or may not have modeled on Irving Thalberg, grows up in New York and moves up the ladder in the film business, working for his uncle. Rina Marlowe is given a backstory that sees her being adopted and having sex with her adopted brother, and then getting married to a closeted gay man who kills himself, and then she dies young (all was true of Harlow except the adoption part). Jennie Denton's story is mostly original, although she may have been modeled after Jane Russell, whom Hughes tried to make a star in The Outlaw, but Denton is a high-priced call girl who ends up a nun, while Russell went on to do bra commercials.

The book, for 1961, was racy, and one critic said it should have written on a lavatory wall. It has references to fellatio, perhaps the first mainstream book to do so (it was published the year after the Lady Chatterley's Lover case, which made way for books with salacious content not to be banned). The problem is that The Carpetbaggers has comically written sex scenes. I have written thousands of words of erotica, and I would have never been caught dead writing something like, "Her flesh was cool and soft as the summer desert breeze and her thrusting nipples rasped across the palms of my rising hands." Robbins seems to believe that nipples are capable of independent movement, because later he writes, "She felt his hands inside her robe, his fingers on her back unfastening her brassière, her breasts rising from their restraint, the nipples leaping joyfully into his hands." I have never come across leaping nipples. Still talking about breasts, we get: "She was still slim and strong and her breasts jutted like rocks at the canyon edge and I knew they would be just as hard to the touch." Who wants to touch breasts that are as hard as rocks?

There's a lot more of this, and the nonsex stuff isn't much better. I don't think there's a genuinely authentic line in the whole book. Robbins sure sold a lot of books, which is kind of depressing. I guess the current example of this is the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Americans seem willing to read very bad books if they will give them a little titillation.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


The third debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is over, and there is three weeks to the election. Unless there is severe polling errors, everyone but the most die-hard Trump supporters know that Clinton has the election wrapped up. Trump did himself no help at last night's debate, leaving us with two more negative statements--"Such a nasty woman," and "I'll leave you in suspense."

The former comes on the same night that he said, to titters, that no one respects women more than he does. He respects them so much he tries to kiss and grope them whether they like it or not. But the latter statement is what had everyone in a tizzy. Moderator Chris Wallace wanted to know if Trump would accept the election results. He implied he might not concede.

Let's think about this for a second. The pundits, particularly on the left, but even many on the right, found this outrageous and anti-democratic, that America has always been about a peaceful transfer of power. But I think it's about something different. Trump does not have any power right now--it's not like he's an incumbent who could call up the army to prevent a successor. All this does is show how immature he is. He's a man-child. Clinton made the excellent point that he whines about everything--nothing is his fault. He called the Emmy voters corrupt, and when she pointed that out he smirked and said, "Should have won that one."

Trump, as I've said before, is a raging id. A spoiled brat, who though seventy years old, behaves like the obnoxious rich kid in the old movies. A man who calls Clinton Crooked Hillary but is facing two trials--one for racketeering and one for child rape--but when those are brought up it's because the system is out to get him. I find it amusing and horrifying that the anti-Clinton people believe every conspiracy about her, all the way up to having her enemies killed, but they don't believe Trump is capable of fondling women or ripping off seniors in a university scam.

Furthermore, concession is not needed. The people vote, the secretaries of state of each state certify the votes, and the electoral college votes. Trump's stamp of approval is not necessary. He can bitch and moan, and if there is a state that falls within the state's law for an automatic recount, that could happen, but based on the way the map looks, that would have to happen in an awful lot of states, for Hillary has an impregnable firewall.

On election night, look for three states--Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. If Trump loses any one of them, it's over. His path to 270 electoral votes needs all of them. And he's well behind in the polls in all three. He won't get annihilated like Mondale or McGovern--there's too many deep red states out there who would vote for John Wayne Gacy if he were a Republican. But it will be a bruising loss. He may never give a concession speech, but Hillary will form a transition team, name a cabinet, and be inaugurated on January 20, 2017. What Trump will be doing that day is what will keep us in suspense.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

And Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes.

The nominees for next year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame election are out, and the arguments about them are more entertaining even than the ones about the Baseball Hall of Fame. I mean, baseball has statistics. Music is completely subjective.

How else can we explain that Journey is nominated, but not the Moody Blues? That Nine Inch Nails was on the ballot for a few years, but not this year, and suddenly Joan Baez, who has been eligible since the Hall was founded, suddenly is on? Baseball's hall at least has transparency--we know who is being voted on, how many votes they get, and they only drop off the ballot when getting below a certain threshold (or run out of years). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is much murkier. Did Nine Inch Nails get so little support last year they fell off the ballot?

There are 19 nominees this year, and the two most obvious to get enshrined are the first-year eligibles Pearl Jam and Tupac Shakur. Of course, Shakur was not a rock musician, anymore than Joan Baez was. But that's a stale argument. There are plenty of hip-hop artists already in, and many folkies. Rock is an extremely large tent according to the Hall (my definition is that there has to be an electric guitar involved). You see comments every year that such as such "never rocked, never rolled" but that's barking at the moon.

The arguments to be made are about the capriciousness of it all. There has been a decided reluctance against progressive rock--Yes is on the ballot this year, but has been ignored repeatedly. I know Yes has their haters, but really, if Journey--a corporate rock band that sounds like their songs were written by computer--gets in ahead of Yes, my head will spin. One writer on these two bands, both of which he hates, is that their lead singers are terrible. I guess he doesn't like high-pitched male voices.

Others that have a reasonable shot of getting in are The Cars, MC5, and Kraftwerk, who basically created a genre of music. I don't personally enjoy Kraftwerk, but one can't ignore their place in rock history. The same goes for MC5, a pre-punk band from Detroit that gave us "Kick Out the Jams," one of the seminal recordings in punk history. Other bands, like The Zombies and Steppenwolf, had minimal output. Should Steppenwolf get in for "Born to be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride" alone? The Zombies only made two albums, but one of them, Oddesey and Oracle, is a masterpiece. Is that enough?

My personal favorite this year is Electric Light Orchestra, although I don't think they'll get in. ELO was one of those great post-Beatle bands of the '70s, like Queen, that used sophisticated studio work. Jeff Lynne is one of the great arrangers of all time, and the use of orchestral music in rock has always gotten my juices flowing. They had a lot of great hits but I fear won't be taken seriously for the final vote.

I have heard of all nineteen nominees, but a few of them barely, like Bad Brains and Joe Tex. Some commenters like to say "Who?"which only highlights their ignorance rather than makes any kind of cogent point. On the other hand, there are some very famous artists here who may or may not get in--Janet Jackson comes to mind. I'm not a fan of hers, but she was a major part of '90s music, but so was Mariah Carey, who has not been nominated. And speaking of the '90s, what about Smashing Pumpkins?

The Susan Lucci of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is Chic, who are up for nomination for the eleventh straight year. Clearly they have their supporters, but not the enthusiasm of the entire voting body. Chic is associated with disco, which is definitely not rock and roll. But if any disco band should get in, it's them.

We'll know the inductees in January, just about the time that baseball announces theirs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation is not a perfect film, but it is an important and necessary one. For whatever sins first-time director Nate Parker makes, and it's not many, I think of the seemingly endless number of black people murdered by police, the clueless TV idiots who say that slavery wasn't so bad, or that black people should get over it, or the morons who proudly wave a Confederate flag.

I haven't read that many reviews of the film, so I'm not sure where the vitriol comes. Is it because of Nate Parker's past? I don't review people, I review films, and if Parker isn't a great person I don't know, but he's made a good film. The weak box office probably hurts it for Oscar consideration, but it does deserve a few nominations.

Parker reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith's racist masterpiece in telling the story of Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia, played by Parker. Nat is owned by a relatively kind family. The matriarch (Penelope Ann Miller) teaches him to read, and he becomes a lay preacher. When his owner dies, his son (Armie Hammer), whom he played with as a child, is almost like a colleague. When they pass by an auction and Nat realizes that the woman on the block is going to be sold as a sexual plaything, Nat gets Hammer to buy her. He will end up marrying her.

It's his calling as a preacher that starts to turn Nat. Hammer is hired by neighboring plantations to have Nat preach to their slaves, reading carefully selected parts of the Bible that pertain to slavery. But Nat sees that he has it easy--the slaves he sees are treated worse than animals. Hammer starts to drink and is in debt, and begins to see Nat as rebellious. He loans out another slave's wife as a whore for another white man, and then the final straw comes when Nat baptizes a white man. Hammer has him whipped.

Nat then, with just a few men, organizes a rebellion, and kills 60 white people. It is a short-lived revolution, though, as soldiers end it when the slaves try to steal munitions from an armory. But Nat Turner has lived on as a symbol (there were other slave rebellions, notably by Denmark Vesey), and in this movie he's a guy who just can't watch and take it anymore.

This should be required viewing for those who say that slavery wasn't so bad. Of course, right-thinking people know it was a horror and a permanent stain on the American psyche, but even seeing such outrageous things as a man having his teeth knocked out so he can be force-fed through a funnel can only hint at the terror. We do see the dichotomy between the field slave and the house slave, as Hammer's valet (Roget Guenver Smith), a light-skinned black, prefers to keep the status quo and tells Turner that by his actions he has killed them all. But the film captures the anger that can only stay welled up so long.

As a director, Parker makes some great choices and some dubious ones. I thought his inclusion of an anachronistic song, Billy Holliday's "Strange Fruit," which was about lynching, was great. Other decisions, such as the obvious placement of a stained glass cross in an important scene, or a butterfly gently flapping its wings on a hanged black man, were straining things. I can't blame him for placing the armory in the appropriately named town of Jerusalem--that was true.

He was helped greatly by cinematographer Elliot Davis. Much of the film takes place at night, a time when slaves could more freely move about, but also be abused more easily. Davis uses natural light often, and some shots are stunning, as when Turner, still tied to the stock at which he was whipped, is surrounded by candles put out by his compatriots. A beautiful day-time shot is a seemingly endless field of cotton, shown to young Nat when he is introduced to field work.

I don't know enough about Turner to know how much is true. I suspect that a character played by Jackie Earle Haley, who bedevils Turner from when he was a child, is a fictional character meant to be a composite villain who reaches a satisfying end. But that's the way of historical films--they are never one-hundred percent accurate, or they might as well be documentaries. I would like to see a PBS show or something on the real Nat Turner just to see what was true and what was not.

Parker is fine as Turner, and he surrounds himself with a good supporting cast, especially Mark Boone Junior as a preacher who likes to take a drink. What is disappointing is that he doesn't spend much time developing the female characters. His wife, played by Aja Naomi King, is really more of a plot device than a character (she is beaten and raped, by Haley, of course). Gabrielle Union, who plays the slave pimped out to a white man, doesn't even have a line. This was apparently a decision shared by Parker and Union, but it reinforces a stereotype that black women have no power (the story goes, when black women joined The Black Panthers back in the day, they were mostly asked to make coffee).

But still I was moved by The Birth of a Nation, and was glad Parker had the gumption to make it (he also wrote the script and produced). It's a must-see.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Heiress

Olivia de Havilland won two Oscars. Her first was in 1946, for To Each His Own, which seems to not exist on any home consumption platform. Her second was three years later for The Heiress, which is available on DVD and one of many classics directed by William Wyler.

Based on a play which was in turn based on a novel by Henry James, The Heiress concerns a homely, socially awkward woman who is the son of a rich doctor in New York society. She is swept off her feet by a handsome but penniless man, Montgomery Clift. But her father (Ralph Richardson) suspects that Clift is only after her money. He threatens to cut off her inheritance, and what Clift does when he finds out devastates her.

de Havilland deserved her Oscar if only for the sharp turn her character takes. At the beginning, she is scared of her own shadow, preferring embroidery to parties. Clift's interest in her makes her giddy, and they plan to marry after only knowing each other a few days. Her father (Ralph Richardson) takes her to Europe to see if she will forget him, but it doesn't work. But things reach a breaking point when Richardson tells his daughter that Clift couldn't possibly love her--she has no redeeming qualities, other than neat embroidery.

She realizes her father never loved her, and she turns cold and cruel. The ending is quite famous, and even though it's a nearly seventy-year-old film I hesitate to spoil it, but it involves Clift banging on her front door, while she callously (or perhaps rightfully, depending on your point of view) ignores him.

The film is slow to build but that last act is a doozy. I particularly enjoyed an exchange between Richardson and Clift when they have it out--they insult each other in such sophisticated ways. Richardson tells him, "You are being impertinent," and "You are beneath contempt." Those swells that lived on Washington Square were so polite, even when arguing! And then when de Havilland lets Richardson have it, that's her Oscar-winning scene. Gone is the meek little kitten, and out comes the lioness.

This is a terrific film, a true classic, and so far it's my favorite of de Havilland's performances. I still have to see The Snake Pit, though.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Harry James

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Harry James, one of America's great trumpeters and a popular band leader during the swing era of the 1940s. I happen to have a certain affection for the big band sound, even though I was born well after it was not popular any more. Listening to a two-disc CD of James' best music is pure bliss.

James first worked for Benny Goodman and then started his own band. Until Miles Davis came along, we was probably America's most famous trumpeter--his sound is so pure and smooth that, as Linda Richman would say, it's like butter. What he does with "You Made Me Love You" is three minutes of heaven.

As a bandleader, he discovered Frank Sinatra (he wanted him to change his name to Frankie Satin, but no dice). Sinatra went on to work for Tommy Dorsey, and he does not appear on this CD. But Helen Forrest does, who was James' main female singer. She sings "I've Heard That Song Before," among others. It should be noted that Woody Allen fans will immediately conjure up Hannah and Her Two Sisters, because he used James music throughout.

James was also famous for marrying Betty Grable in 1943, who was the most prominent pin-up girl of World War II. James played trumpet on the soundtrack for the Kirk Douglas film Young Man With a Horn.

Of course, being a great bandleader meant finding the right musicians, and listening to these recordings you can't detect a false note. Buddy Rich, one of the world's greatest drummers, worked with James, and he's heard to best effect on a number called "Blues for Harry's Sake."

If I had been a kid during this era (and big bands were the music of teenagers back then) I would have wanted to play the trumpet like James and discovered that I was lousy at it. Though Davis revolutionized the instrument, I can't say that anyone played it better than Harry James.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Wright Brothers

As school children we knew that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Some of us even knew details like Kitty Hawk, or that it happened in 1903. I toured their long-time home and bicycle shop (although they were no longer in Dayton, Ohio, but in Greenfield Village in my home town of Dearborn, Michigan). But I wonder if kids today know who the Wright Brothers were, or that in the space of one of the brother's lifetime, he would hear of a plane traveling faster than the speed of sound?

Popular historian David McCullough, who revived the reputations of John Adams and Harry Truman, has taken on the mild-mannered brothers who changed the face of transportation in The Wright Brothers. They make for a challenging subject, because while what they did was momentous, they weren't that particularly interesting. They and their younger sister, Katharine, who was much involved with their careers, seemed to have no other life than the airplane business. Wilbur and his younger brother Orville never married, and when Katharine did, at the age of 52, Orville felt betrayed (Wilbur was dead by then).

But what makes the story is the improbability of it. As McCullough writes: "From ancient times and into the Middle Ages, man had dreamed of taking to the sky, of soaring into the blue like the birds. One savant in Spain in the year 875 is known to have covered himself with feathers in the attempt. Others devised wings of their own design and jumped from rooftops and towers—some to their deaths—in Constantinople, Nuremberg, Perugia. Learned monks conceived schemes on paper. And starting about 1490, Leonardo da Vinci made the most serious studies. He felt predestined to study flight, he said, and related a childhood memory of a kite flying down onto his cradle."

By the late nineteenth century many were attempting to become the first to conquer the air. Hot air balloons were around, and many had built gliders that worked, but no one had managed to go aloft by engine power. But, "the most prominent engineers, scientists, and original thinkers of the nineteenth century had been working on the problem of controlled flight, including Sir George Cayley, Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison. None had succeeded. Hiram Maxim had reportedly spent $100,000 of his own money on a giant, steam-powered, pilotless flying machine only to see it crash in attempting to take off."

Therefore, "the fact that they had had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own," makes the entire thing seem like fiction.

The brothers were always tinkerers. The sons of a bishop in Dayton, they opened a bicycle shop, but had always been fascinated by the prospect of flying. Over the course of a few years they traveled to the Outer Banks of North Carolina because of the wind, and on a December day in 1903 they accomplished what they set out to do. The photo of that flight is on the cover of the book, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside.

But the story doesn't end there. They would continue to experiment at a large field near Dayton, and then in France. The U.S. government wasn't much interested in their invention, but the French were. Wilbur stayed there for almost a year, stunning spectators with long flights. Orville survived a serious crash, but his passenger was killed, the first fatality in an airplane. The brothers became very rich and soon the possibilities of the airplane became apparent to everyone. Unfortunately, they also became war machines.

McCullough hits all the right notes, such as calling out the skeptics: "an article in the September issue of the popular McClure’s Magazine written by Simon Newcomb, a distinguished astronomer and professor at Johns Hopkins University, dismissed the dream of flight as no more than a myth. And were such a machine devised, he asked, what useful purpose could it possibly serve?" He also manages to stress, without hyperbole, that what the brothers did changed the face of history, and I think he likes that it was done by two straightforward, scandal-free men.

Wilbur died at 45 years old, and as previously stated, Orville died in 1948, long enough to see planes turned into delivers of atomic bombs and go faster than the speed of sound. McCullough appropriately ends the book: "On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in western Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer."

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

A bit of a bomb rocked the culture and academic worlds yesterday when the Swedish Academy announced that Bob Dylan, of all people, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is perhaps the most controversial choice they have ever made--usually it's to some Albanian poet who no one has heard of and people say, "How about giving it to someone I actually have read?" This time they gave it to the most famous recipient ever (Dylan is certainly far more famous than Hemingway was when he won, for example) and some people don't know what to think.

First of all, is what Dylan does literature? The simple answer is that if that's what the Swedish Academy thinks, then the answer is yes. But to us folks who can argue this endlessly, what exactly is literature? Dictionary definitions all seem to point to "printed matter," and those who decry this decision say that Dylan is a musician who makes music, not a poet. He himself didn't dare call himself a poet. So some say he is unqualified, and if the Academy wants to make a special category for music, let them. But others I've been reading broaden the definition of literature. After all, the works of Homer and Virgil pre-date mass printing, as does Chaucer and Shakespeare, for that matter.There works were meant to be heard, whether sung, recited, or acted.

The second major argument against Dylan is that since Americans only win this award about every twenty years, a lot more deserving people got passed over. The usual suspects, like Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon and the like will probably be dead the next time they give it to an American. There is some poignancy in this argument, but the Swedish Academy shouldn't get caught up in playing this game. It's true that Americans don't win this award but once a generation, but it they think Dylan deserves it, so be it. The worst argument I heard was that Dylan doesn't need the prize money. The Nobel Prize is not Queen for a Day, and shouldn't be based on financial need.

How you feel about this is likely to be based on your level of fandom. I love Bob Dylan, and dare think he is a poet, whose lyrics can be read like poetry, and who has shaped the voice of America like few others in the last fifty years. If you hate Dylan, then you cry foul, coming up with all sorts of arguments against it, some specious, like the money thing, and others more cogent, like that he's not what is usually considered a writer. But the Academy seems to be more interested in the big picture, and are not concerned with always having to dredge up some Latvian novelist out of obscurity.

Dylan, as a lyricist, is unparalleled in the rock music medium, perhaps in any music medium. Sure, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer--they were all great, but I don't think any of them came up with lines like these

"Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet ?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doing our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined"

Dwight Garner, in today's New York Times, posits that Dylan deserves to be considered alongside Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as unique American voices. A course taught by a Harvard professor, simply called "Bob Dylan," points out his antecedents in Joyce, Yeats, and the Greeks and Romans. Certainly "Desolation Row" is full of literary allusions:

"Cinderella, she seems so easy, "It takes one to know one, " she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he's moaning. "You Belong to Me I Believe"
And someone says, "You're in the wrong place, my friend, you'd better leave"
And the only sound that's left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row"

Here, in one stanza, is a reference to a fairy tale, American pop culture, and Shakespeare. His lyrics are flooded with literary allusions, such as the dig at "Mr. Jones" in "Ballad of a Thin Man:"

"You’ve been with the professors
 And they’ve all liked your looks
 With great lawyers you have
 Discussed lepers and crooks
 You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
 You’re very well read
 It’s well known"

He has also given us some great one-liners, such as "You don't need a weatherman to know when the wind blows," or "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

What the Academy seems to be saying, and I wholeheartedly agree with, is that no matter how one expresses words, it's literature. I remember having a discussion back in college about whether Ingmar Bergman deserved a Nobel Prize. I thought so, and still think the right filmmaker could win one. There's many ways to tell a story, and Dylan told many of them brilliantly.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sorority Boys

Some may wonder why in the world I watched this film, from 2002, that mixes Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, and Animal House (the Animal House connection is reinforced by cameos by three different actors from that film), but is far inferior to any of those films. Well, it was an example of Netflix's "archiving the impulse." I had no idea why I added Sorority Boys to my queue, but I did--fourteen years ago. It patiently made its way up the ladder, until finally getting to the top. I felt I owed it a view.

Make no mistake, this is a bad film. Director Wally Wolodarsky, who wrote many of the early Simpsons' episodes, had a decent if unoriginal idea--frat boys are forced to masquerade as girls, and learn how terrible they've treated women. This was Tootsie, but in this film it's times three. Barry Watson, Michael Rosenbaum, and Harland Williams are our three heros. Watson is the guy groomed to work in business, Rosenbaum is the ladies' man, and Williams is the stoner (nicknamed Doofer). All of these guys are pretty good, especially Williams, who though seeming to miss half of his brain, is the one who comes up with the ideas (of course, they were all in the late twenties at the time).

The boys are framed by a supercilious fraternity president and kicked out, and dress as women to get back into the house to get evidence to clear them. They fail, and end up pledging to a sorority where the girl losers live, led by a feminist (Melissa Sagemiller). They then learn to get in touch with their feminine side (Rosenbaum is suddenly worried about his fat ass).

Where the film trips up is that it is supposedly about how men mistreat women but then mistreats women. There is some brief nudity, but the harassment is so harsh that there's no redemption possible. It also has some scenes of homosexual panic, the requisite semen joke, a duel with dildos, and jokes about a hirsute woman. Most of it is witless, though I can't say that it didn't make me smile a few times.

There is absolutely no reason to see this film unless you must see every movie in which men learn about women by pretending to be them. And they already made that movie. It's called Tootsie.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Clowns Are Coming

Many years ago, I wrote about my love of clowns. I am in a distinct minority. Today, due to John Wayne Gacy and Stephen King, clowns are seen as sinister people with murderous intent. My generation grew up with clowns on TV, from Emmett Kelly to Clarabelle to the Town Clown to Bozo. Now clowns are anathema to children. The other day one of my students came up to me and said, "The clowns are coming."

Apparently, this is a thing. It it is not true that clowns killed 23 people in Canada, or that it is okay to kill clowns on sight, or the sale of clown masks has been banned. But I would think it unwise to go as a clown this Halloween.

What is true is a photo project may have started all this. The photo to the left is from a project by a couple who took pictures of a man in a clown suit in various places around Wasco, California. They went viral, and copycats started (there is particularly eerie security footage of a clown banging on a drum on someone's porch in Florida). I can find no evidence that anyone has been hurt, but rumors and hoaxes are rampant. Here in Las Vegas, the facts are murky, but apparently someone dressed as a clown rang a doorbell and ran, and now all the kids think the clown apocalypse is happening. Our principal, a man who takes no bullshit, said if he saw a clown on school property there would be "clown pieces."

While I'm fascinated by clowns, particularly as they seem to be referred to as a species rather than an occupation, it is not hard to understand their creepiness. They are associated with children, though children really don't like them (this has got to have hammered the party clown business). Thus there is a suggestion of pedophilia. It's kind of like a single man buying a mini-van. Psychologists explain that the fear of clowns stems from them being in disguise, thus there is an element of distrust--just what are they hiding (James Stewart, in The Greatest Show on Earth, was a clown to hide from the law).

This is a very interesting social phenomenon--most of these sightings have been of people simply standing around in a clown outfit. There are rumors of some of them chasing cars (and I've seen videos of some clowns getting the shit kicked out of them) but what they are doing is not illegal. But it is so damaging to the collective psyche of many people, including children, that it seems like a crime wave.

So for you honest, hard-working, balloon-folding clowns, I sympathize. It's not going to get better: a remake of It is on the way.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Oscar 2016, Best Actress: Strawberry Blondes Forever

Emma Stone in "La La Land"
This year's prospects for the Best Actress Oscar are pretty deep, compared to other years. They are especially good for actresses of color, but may end up being dominated by redheads. I'd bet the farm that the winner will fit in one of those categories. Now that Toronto and New York are over, more pictures have been seen by those that beat the drums.

In alphabetical order:

Viola Davis, Fences: She's a shoo-in if here isn't a category dispute. She won the Tony for this role, but in the Supporting Actress category. The studio may want to push her for Supporting, where she would probably be the favorite. She's way overdo for an Oscar.

Ruth Negga, Loving: The film doesn't seem to be getting the reception that it seemed like it would on paper, but Negga, as one of the participants in the Supreme Court case that found anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, seems like the best bet for a nomination.

Natalie Portman, Jackie: This film kind of came out of nowhere for Oscar bloggers, but is getting buzz for not only Portman, but for Best Picture. It covers the few days after JFK's assassination. Portman is a previous winner, but some are suggesting she still may win.

Emma Stone, La La Land: This redhead's your favorite as of now, a well-liked actress who is getting rave reviews for the film that is now in the catbird's seat for Best Picture. It is also possible she (and her co-star Ryan Gosling) could be nominated in the Best Song category, as they each wrote a tune for the film. That would be unprecedented.

Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins: This is a light role for Streep, and if nominated it would be her twentieth nomination. She's probably on the bubble, and we'll have to see if any other actresses supersede her. I think she was terrific, though, and wouldn't begrudge her another nomination.

Also possible: Amy Adams, Arrival or Nocturnal Animals (redhead); Annette Bening, Twentieth Century Women; Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane (redhead); Isabelle Huppert, Elle (redhead); Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures.

Monday, October 10, 2016

He Caughte Hire by the Queynte

Lincoln: "With malice towards none, with charity for all;" FDR: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself; JFK: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Donald Trump: "Grab them by the pussy."

This political campaign, now officially stranger than fiction, took a salacious turn this weekend when a tape of Trump talking with professional sycophant Billy Bush related his technique in bedding women. First of all, you have to be a star, but his signature move is to grab them by the genitalia. I am not a woman, but I can only imagine how the thought of this Cheeto-hued man grabbing me by the privates would horrify me.

The match lit a fuse, and the Internet exploded. Republican officials condemned him in droves, and many of them recanted their endorsements (not in moves of decency, but in political survival). Trump says it was just locker talk, and that he's a changed man. First of all, he was 59 at the time, and nobody changes that much from 59 to 70, and second of all, I worked for over ten years at porn magazines, where the conversation was as lewd as one can imagine. No one ever said that they grabbed women by the pussy.

His die-hard fanatics tried to defend him. Most said he was better than Bill Clinton, who interestingly enough is not running for president. This is just another form of sexism--Hillary Clinton must be a harridan who forces her husband to be sexually crude. Trump was talking about making a move on a soap opera actress while his wife, Melania, was pregnant. Maybe it's her fault for getting so fat.

Others have blamed it on Fifty Shades of Grey (?), that Trump was a Democrat back then, and that it's just a distraction. Most people aren't having it so, especially women. Nate Silver showed what would happen if Trump received no votes from women--every state would be blue. But there are plenty of women, mostly white women, who can't see what the rest of us can--that Donald Trump has absolutely no moral center. He is a slime, a Chauvinist pig, a raging id. Would any Trump supporter trust him alone with their pretty teenage daughter?

Then came the second debate on Sunday. I was otherwise occupied, watching the very exciting Toronto-Texas game, but flipped over during commercials. I missed his line about putting her in jail, which has turned out to be the most egregious thing he said. But I did notice that he paced the stage like a caged bear, or a man who can't find the bathroom. Others, especially looking at photos like the one above, called it an intimidation tactic. While Clinton remained poised he loomed behind her, like he was waiting for a perfect moment to grab her pussy.

The American public thought that Clinton won the debate, by a large margin, but the chattering class, who are getting as dumb as the American people, said he may have won by "exceeding expectations." That's like saying a chicken exceeds expectations by beating a human at tic-tac-toe. He reeled off his endorsements, but he didnt' say that he only has two newspaper endorsements, one of them being The National Enquirer, and is also the candidate of choice of the Ku Klux Klan. I wish Clinton had brought that up, but she's taking the high road, and it's working.

As an English teacher, I'd like to point out that "Grab her by the pussy" is not an original quote. If Bartlett's were to add it to their next edition (probably next to "You're fired") they'd have to put a footnote on it--it was first written by Geoffrey Chaucer, in "The Miller's Tale," when he said, "He caughte hire by the queynte," which translated from Middle English basically means "He grabbed her by the pussy."

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Patch the Sky

Bob Mould is something of a god in indie rock, mostly for his tenure with Husker Du, and then had a band called Sugar. This summer he released a well-reviewed album called Patch the Sky, which I've been listening to all week. I found it strangely unimpressive.

I really like the first song, "Voices in My Head," which has a great hook. But, even after perhaps a dozen listens, I couldn't even identify any of the other songs. Part of the problem is that Mould's voice is buried in the mix. There is a lyric sheet, which I could read like poetry, but none of the words were audible, so I didn't find anything worth quoting.

That being said, the musicianship is excellent, with good guitar work by Mould, and nothing about it made me want to hurl it out my window. I'm afraid my response is one massive shrug.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Best American Sports Writing 2015

This year's The Best American Sports Writing, edited by Wright Thompson, is another mixed bag. I will give Thompson credit for one thing--most of it is actually about sports. Some years the only connection to sports was that it was about an athlete that had committed some sort of crime. There is only one article of that vein this year, Greg Hanlon's "The Sins of the Preacher," about former baseball player Chad Curtis, a Christian proselytizer while playing, now doing time for sexual abusing teenage girls while a coach.

Instead there are some really good pieces here about sportsmen and women, some in their twilight, like "Awakening the Giant," about Y.A. Tittle, and "Precious Memories," by Tommy Tomlinson, about Dean Smith in his last days with dementia (he had not yet died upon the original publication of the article). There is a great piece by Ariel Levy on long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad's many attempt to swim the Straits of Florida called "Breaking the Waves" and a haunting essay by Jeremy Collins about a friend who passed away and their shared love of a certain Atlanta Braves pitcher in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux."

There are also some articles that may make you mad. A profile of Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, states: "No team owner in American sports is more famous and infamous, more revered and reviled, than Jones. After the 2010 death of New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner, Jones assumed the mantle of America’s mercurial team owner, hell-bent on doing it his way and constrained only by a salary cap." That's by Don Van Natta Jr. in "Jerry Football." Tim Graham, in "Broke and Broken," vilifies the WWE and Vince McMahon for their shoddy treatment of their wrestlers, and how many have died young. Here's a few choice quotes: "The billion-dollar spectacle of pro wrestling relies entirely on the ruthless economic, mental, and physical exploitation of its performers," and "There is no such thing as a nice billionaire, and Vince is unexceptional in this regard."

What may turn many hearts and minds cold is "Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?" by the terrific Wells Tower, who follows a couple and their guide as they hunt down an elephant in Africa. Tower tries to be objective, but he can't quite get there. The married couple come across as ruthless, vicious people, who try to rationalize their action by saying they're saving trees that elephants eat. Basically, they just want to kill things. They are the kind of people most other people hate--they spent $80,000 on a gun. "But the elephant is about 15 feet away, and I will now confess to being scared just about shitless. The elephant snorts and brandishes its vast head. Lunch goes to lava in my bowels. If not for my present state of sphincter-cinching terror, I would well be in the market for an adult diaper. This is an amazingly pure kind of fear. My arteries are suddenly capable of tasting my blood, which right now has the flavor of a nine-volt battery."

Some articles are more fun, such as "Haverford Hoops," by Chris Ballard, about a very long college basketball losing streak, or "The Sea of Crises," by Brian Phillips, about the mysterious world of sumo wrestling. There's also an article about caving, "In Deep," by Burkhard Bilger: "There, in a cloud forest in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, lay the staging area for an attempt to map the deepest cave in the world—a kind of Everest expedition turned upside down."

In the international world, there's an article about American football played in China, "The Year of the Pigskin," by Christopher Beam, and the daring escape of Dodger Yasel Puig from Cuba in "No One Walks Off the Island" by Scott Eden. But my favorite piece just may be only tangentially connected to sports. It's "Those Kansas City Blues: A Family History," by Katie Baker, who uses the unexpected success of the Kansas City Royals to tell her memories of that great American city: "When we talk about Kansas City, what we’re talking about is a certain state of mind, a bricolage of bootstrap can-do-ism and ingrained suspicion of the more lawful authorities."

The last article is very brief, "Peyton Manning Leaves Crushing Super Bowl Loss with Reputation Intact," by Dan Wetzel. It details Manning after his devastating loss to Seattle in Super Bowl whatever. I had grown a little weary of Manning, especially after he plugged Budweiser after winning the last Super Bowl and his association with the vile "Papa John" Schnatter. But Wetzel leaves us sports fans with a nice sentiment as the book ends, with a boy asking for an autograph after the loss: "How many times through the years had Peyton Manning signed for people, stopped for photos for people, been gracious to people. Now? Here? In the harried moments after this painful and thorough loss, after a chance at a championship  was lost and might never come again, in the cramped walkways of a football stadium--not some charity meet-and-greet--isn't he allowed to be, well, selfishly human? Manning didn't think so."

Friday, October 07, 2016


The Baseball Hall of Fame has again tinkered with what we might generally call their "second chance for induction process," previously known as the Veterans' committee, and now called the "Eras Committee." It operates on the same principle, but is now in four categories rather than three: Early Baseball (1871-1949), Glory Days (1950-1969), Modern Baseball (1970-1988) and Today's Baseball (1988 to the present). Also, instead of rotating the eras one by one, the Modern and Today's Baseball categories will go twice every five years, the Glory Days one every five years, and the Early Baseball once every ten years. Cleary, from many years gone by when no one was elected, they've realized the earlier years have been exhausted of qualified Hall of Famers.

But this year's ballot is a strange one. Only one of the five players listed, Mark McGwire, reached higher than twelve percent in the writers' vote (he topped out at 23.7 percent), He would have been a shoo-in if not for PED use, but I doubt the committee of sixteen will be any more lenient than the writers. The other four players, Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, and Orel Hershiser, received scant attention from the writers. The only one with HOF numbers is Belle. He only played twelve years due to injury, but he averaged 40 homers and 130 RBI a season. But the players he most closely resembles, statistically (according to Baseball Reference) list only two HOFers, Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg. But Belle is done in by two factors--he played during the PED era and he was hated by just about everyone. Maybe a hundred years now someone will look at his numbers and wonder why he never got in, but his foul personality is still remembered too well.

Their are five managers and executives up for induction. Of the managers, both are close but no cigar to me, but I wouldn't begrudge their elections. Davey Johnson managed one of the best teams of the last fifty years, the 1986 Mets, to the title. But he never won another one. He did take four teams he managed, which included the Orioles, Reds, and Nationals, to the post-season, though. I don't know if that's a record for number of teams taken to a post-season, but it's got to be close (Billy Martin also took four). His .562 winning percentage is nothing to sneeze at, and of his 17 years managing, he only had five sub-.500 seasons. He just doesn't feel like a Hall of Famer to me.

Lou Piniella might stand a better shot, even though he has a lower winning percentage (mostly from a disastrous three-year stretch as Tampa Bay's manager). He also won just one title (with Cincinnati in 1990), and took two other teams to the post-season, including the 2001 Mariners, who won a record 116 games. But that team, as well as two Cub teams, underperformed in the playoffs. He was a better player than Johnson, which might get him more consideration.

Of the three executives, George Steinbrenner, bumptious owner of the New York Yankees, is back for another go-round. He didn't get enough votes to even qualify for stating how many votes he got last time, so I doubt voters will change their tune. The two that stand the best chance of election are for different reasons.

John Schuerholz, who is best known for building the dominant Braves of the 1990s, should be elected. If building the Braves wasn't enough, he also was the general manager of the 1985 Kansas City Royals, and is thus the only GM to win titles in both leagues. Though Atlanta won only one title, they did win 14 straight division titles. Schuerholz is a no-brainer.

Lastly, what do make of Bud Selig's presence on the ballot? Here is a man who was booed heartily every time he was introduced at a Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Not a fan favorite, he might be inducted simply because he was commissioner during an upswing in baseball popularity. He did preside over the 1994 strike, and the debacle of the tied All Star games and interleague play. He is not much of a fan of purists, because he also oversaw the addition of the wild-card game, but that has proved to be an exciting addition to baseball's post-season.

Not all commissioners have been elected, though almost all of them have. Bart Giammati served only a few months before an untimely death, and his successor, Faye Vincent, as well as Peter Ueberroth, have never been brought up for Hall consideration. But if Bowie Kuhn can get in, so can Selig. I will give him this--he loves baseball.

If Schuerholz and Selig are elected by the "Eras" committee, the writers better elect someone, because no one will show up for just these two.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Louis C.K. Live at Madison Square Garden

Ah, the comedy album. I'm surprised they still make them, given that you can see any comic on YouTube, but it's still a category at the Grammys. This year's winner is hard to buy: Louis CK Live at Madison Square Garden. On Amazon it's available only on vinyl, so I streamed it live from CK's Web site. He charges between one and eighty-five dollars, your choice.

The comedy album used to be a thing that pathetic guys, usually guys who were monkish about comedy, would take to parties and play so they could entertain other people, who would hardly listen. One of those guys was me. Of course, back in my day, if you brought a Steve Martin record to a party you were a hit. Not so much with George Carlin or Woody Allen.

Of the active stand-up comedians these days no one is better than Louis CK. I suppose Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld still do stand-up, but they are in the twilight and CK is high noon. He is an observational comedian, like Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, and Drew Carey, but filthy. On this record, he does bits about airplanes and being a parent and mortality, but in a very coarse manner.

CK has been working a long time and deserves his success. He makes me laugh consistently. I can only paraphrase, since I wasn't writing lines down, but some things struck me funny, such as his observation that the sound he used to make when he came is now the sound he makes when he pees. He did a long bit on babies on planes, and wondered why they tend to cry. Turns out it's because they're upset about gay marriage.

He talks about how his pet dog as a kid hated him, and how when a dog dies it teaches kids a good lesson on mortality, "it's like a dry run for grandma." He talks about how no one really gets to know how old they will be when they will die, which is untrue--terminal patients and suicides have a pretty good idea--and how he told a kid he hated that lived across the street how everybody dies.

His longest bit is about when he rented a house in the country and found a bat in the kitchen. He doesn't like bats, and thinks they should be exterminated. He anticipates protestations that they are useful, "I don't want to hear that they make all the French toast in the world" and goes on to how he calls 911 and a person who handles bats--the word "Batman" is carefully avoided--and a guy comes who merely plucks the bat down and charges him $600. The bit ends with a surreal bit CK doing a female voice and coming on to the "Batman," asking him to stick the animal up "her" ass.

Some of this doesn't work on audio; there are visual bits that got laughs but left me baffled. Which is why I'm still surprised comedy albums are made.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Outline, by Rachel Cusk, puts the literary in literary fiction. It's precisely written, almost too much so, at times feeling as if it were a house of cards. Nothing really happens in the book--it's one woman's observation of the people she meets while teaching a writing class in Athens, Greece. While reading it I felt like it was more like homework than enjoyable.

A woman flies from England to Greece (I think she is called Faye, but I'm not sure because she narrates and that name is only mentioned once). The first chapter is a chat with a man sitting next to her on the plane. I hardly ever talk to people on a plane--in fact, I think there are two types of people in the world, those who talk to people on planes and those who don't.

Anyway, our narrator reveals very little about herself. She has children, she is divorced. Instead she relates the information of whom she talks. Her "neighbor" on the plane ends up inviting her out on his boat and eventually makes a clumsy pass at her. Everyone reading the book can see it coming except the narrator, who is surprised.

She meets with other writer types in Athens, such as a fellow teacher from Dublin and a few Greek writers. They're all kind of blending into one right now, although one woman is described as the pre-eminent Lesbian poet in Athens, an interesting title to own.

Cusk makes many pronouncements, some right on the nose: "The human capacity for self-delusion is apparently infinite – and if that is the case, how are we ever meant to know, except by existing in a state of absolute pessimism, that once again we are fooling ourselves?" Others are a bit head-scratching: "The memory of suffering had no effect whatever on what they elected to do: on the contrary, it compelled them to repeat it, for the suffering was the magic that caused the object to come back and allowed the delight in dropping it to become possible again."

There is very little humor in the book, something that might have made the book more lively. Occasionally Cusk can get a little droll: "The longing was easy enough to understand: it was what the Greeks called nostos, a word we translated as ‘homesickness’, though she had never liked that word. It seemed very English to try to pass off an emotional state as a sort of stomach bug."

For those who like their fiction genteel and without excitement, Outline may be for you. I require a little more conflict. It is short, though.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief, release in 1955, is mid-level Hitchcock, and is a kind of travelogue, or luxury porn. Set on the French Riviera, it's strongest features are the stars, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, who never looked better.

Grant is John Robie, who was a cat burglar before the war. He escaped prison and worked for the French resistance, and was paroled. He is living a quiet life in a villa (he says he grows grapes, but how he got so rich is a question) when a copycat strikes, robbing rich women of their jewelry. The police suspect it's him, so, as the old saying goes, "It takes a thief to catch a thief" and Robie works to nab the criminal.

The film doesn't really have a lot of Hitchcockian touches. I did like the opening, when we get a closeup of a travel poster extolling the beauty of France and then cut to a screaming woman, who has just found an empty jewelry box. We then see a black cat prowling French rooftops in between robberies.

But other than that, and one of Hitchcock's best cameos (he's sitting next to Grant on a bus, staring straight ahead and stone-faced) this is not a particularly strong film. What keeps it alive is a certain bon vivance, mostly supplied by some supporting players--John Williams, as a stuffy English insurance agent who decides to trust Grant, and Jesse Royce Landis as Kelly's mother, who provides some great lines (she would later play Grant's mother in North by Northwest). There is also a lot of double entendres between Kelly and Grant--she's after him, until she realizes he's a thief, but of course all will be well.

Interestingly, this is the second film I've seen of Hitchcock's, after Notorious, in which Grant rides with a woman who drives fast and makes him nervous (it was Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, who was drunk). Grant also drives drunk (he is force-fed alcohol) in North by Northwest, and in Suspicion, Joan Fontaine is taken on a wild ride by Grant, thinking he's going to push her out of the car. It's long been established that a boyhood incident made Hitchcock afraid of going to jail, but I also suspect he wasn't a fan of automobiles, either.

Monday, October 03, 2016


The baseball season is now over, and so begins one of my favorite times of year On this day, the 65th anniversary of the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff, when Bobby Thomsen sent Ralph Branca's pitch over Andy Pafko's head at the Polo Grounds, our thoughts turn to baseball's post-season.

Since the league expanded to a ten-team tournament, it has been anyone's guess as to who will win the title. Wild cards have regularly won it all, while teams with the most victories in the regular season have just as regularly not.

This year everyone is looking at the Cubs to break a schneid that is 108 years old--they haven't won the whole thing since 1908, two years before Mark Twain died. They haven't been to the World Series since 1945, five years before Vin Scully started calling Dodger games. But this year they led wire to wire, racked up 103 victories, and look to be the best team in baseball, a juggernaut.

But is there anyone who has paid attention to baseball for more than a few years that would be surprised if they don't win, if they were knocked off by any of the other four teams in the NL playoffs? Despite the optimism of the fan who got the tattoo pictured, most Cub fans live in a kind of crouch, expecting the worse. The last time they looked this good Steve Bartman happened (although he was not the reason they lost) and certainly any true Cub fan has visions of dropped fly balls, wild pitches, black cats, or blood moons in the back of their mind. For what it's worth, has the Cubs as a 26 percent favorite to win it all, which isn't that much more than the ten percent by pure numbers.

Before we get to the Cubs, there's the wild-card games. There were chances of of numerous ties, even a four-way one, but some teams, like the Mariner and Tigers, folded meekly (my Tigers lost two of three to the last place Atlanta Braves, so they don't deserve anything) so it will be the Orioles and Blue Jays in the AL and San Francisco at the New York Mets in the NL. I'll take the Blue Jays at home, while I'll go with the road Giants and Madison Bumgarner, one of the best post-season pitchers of all time, in the other game.

That would put the Blue Jays against the Texas Rangers, who had a spirited AL championship series last year. The Rangers, who have the best record in the AL, aren't getting much respect (they are only eight percent to win it all on but I think they can take the inconsistent Jays. The Giants would then face the Cubs, and while the Giants have won three straight World Series in even-numbered years, I don't think the Cubs will lose in the first round, especially since Bumgarner probably won't be able to pitch twice, and their bullpen has been atrocious.

The 2-3 seed series should be good. The AL has Cleveland and Boston, I'll take the Red Sox in five, with David Ortiz hitting at least three homers in his post-season swan song. In the NL, it's the Dodgers against the Nationals, who are building themselves a reputation for choking in October. Now they have Dusty Baker as manager, who is known for having great regular seasons but has never won a World Series. I'll go with the Dodgers in four.

That would, if I am correct, which is highly unlikely, create a Texas-Boston AL championship. Ortiz will hit four homers in this series, and Boston will win in six. The Cubs will at least get into the Series by beating the Dodgers, but in seven, maybe in a walk-off in the last game.

That would give us a Cubs-Red Sox series, which we almost had in 2004, ruining the dreams of baseball purists. Even though the Red Sox have now won three titles this century, it would still create a lot of buzz--Bob Costas and Roger Angell would be thrilled, and so would I. I'm going to complete the jinx and pick the Cubs to win a classic series, maybe coming back from 3-1 down, or something like that. But I still wouldn't get a tattoo just yet, Cub fans.