Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Miscellaneous: Adventures in the Skin Trade

On my last trip to the barber I was early, so I sorted through the magazine rack. There, along with Us Weekly and Blender, was a current issue of Playboy.

My first thought was: again?

As a kid, I would get my hair cut at Sal’s. The barber shop was located in a subway station, and the barbers who co-owned the place were both named Sal. They were referred to, respectively, as “Big Sal” and “Thin Sal,” sparing them the indignity of being known, respectively, as “Fat Sal” and “Little Sal.”

One afternoon I was looking for a magazine and spotted a stack by Big Sal’s chair. He was in the middle of a story, so at first he didn’t notice me. I lifted up the top copy of Popular Mechanics only to discover that the rest of the periodicals in the stack did not contain the blueprints for crystal radios.

A roomful of strangers, several of them racetrack touts, rose en masse to protect my innocent eyes from what my father would describe on our awkward walk home as “men’s magazines.”

Twice in almost three decades isn’t a pattern. But now I had to wonder if those desperate adolescent years spent skulking around trying to look at such magazines without getting caught by my mother or Sister Maureen or a judgmental stranger wouldn’t have been better spent getting haircuts. Lots and lots of haircuts.

Finding myself in a semi-public place with access to a “men’s magazine” prompted other existential questions:

1. Don’t I owe it to my frustrated younger self to at least flip through this issue?

2. Am I being watched?

3. Can I hold the magazine in such a way that passersby will not be able to see the cover or what I’m looking at?

4. Wait a minute. Lisa Guerrero from Monday Night Football is in here?

5. How much difference is there between Playboy and a lad magazine like, say, Maxim?

The answers, for those of you scoring along at home:

1. Yes, I do. 2. Probably, but for reasons that have nothing to do with my choice of reading material. 3. Yes, but it will do permanent damage to my wrists and neck. 4. And how. 5. Not a whole hell of a lot.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Darren McGavin, R.I.P.

In a long and varied career, Darren McGavin may not have had a true breakout role. But read any of the many appreciations of the man’s life and you’ll find two performances singled out.

I’ve spoken before about my affection for the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I would race home from seven o’clock mass on Saturday nights to watch McGavin’s intrepid, irascible reporter take on vampires and headless motorcyclists. For a show that barely lasted a season, it’s had a remarkable impact. Chris Carter cites it as a huge influence on The X-Files, reruns of the original air to this day, and Kolchak returned to the airwaves in a new incarnation earlier this season.

Then there’s his work as “The Old Man” in A Christmas Story. When the movie was released in 1983, it sank without a trace. Repeated television broadcasts transformed it into a holiday staple.

Which brings me to another favorite McGavin performance. In ‘Distant Signals,’ an episode of the anthology series Tales from the Darkside, he played Van Conway, an alcoholic has-been actor. His closest brush with stardom came when he starred in a short-lived TV show clearly modeled on The Fugitive. Conway’s character is on the run, wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. Twenty years after its cancellation, the show’s creator and star are approached by a representative of a foreign TV network (Lenny von Dohlen), one that wants to fund the series’ final episodes. With the representative’s help, Conway sobers up and miraculously regains his youthful vigor.

The representative leaves with the episodes in hand, and Conway offers his theory about what really happened: von Dohlen is in fact an emissary of an alien race, one that has lost its home and is doomed to wander the universe. During their travels they picked up broadcasts of Conway’s series and identified with his character, a man drifting from place to place. They simply wanted to know how his story ended.

In a strange way, ‘Distant Signals’ encapsulates Darren McGavin’s career and the actor’s lot in life. Do good work. You never know who’s watching and how much it means to them.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Movie: The Birdcage (1996)

Among the reasons to revisit this farce is a historical oddity. It features not one but two of this year's Oscar-nominated screenwriters - Dan Futterman (Capote) and Grant Heslov (Good Night, and Good Luck.) - as actors. That seems worth a mention.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Movie: Tristram Shandy, A Cock & Bull Story (2005)

There are any number of way I could praise this singular movie, based on Laurence Sterne’s supposedly unfilmmable novel. I could point out how it’s one of the most faithful of adaptations, hewing to the spirit if not the letter of Sterne’s rollicking book. Which would strictly be a guess on my part, as I haven’t read Sterne’s rollicking book.

I could observe that the film is a cunning exploration of how a story well-told, or in this case barely told at all, can illuminate life even while failing to capture it in all its complexity. But that sounds pretentious, and may not even make sense. Unless you’ve seen the movie, in which case it might.

I could acknowledge the movie’s uncanny ability to portray the sense of community on a film set, the way the behind-the-scenes action comes to reflect what’s unfolding before the cameras. Only I haven’t spent that much time on film sets. Based on my limited experience, I can say that SHANDY nails two things perfectly: the director always looks like he’s just been beaten with a hammer, and the writer’s sole concern is what he’s going to eat.

So I’ll simply say that TRISTRAM SHANDY is funny. Hilarious, even. Steve Coogan is a bloody genius who knows no fear. As is Rob Brydon, who has the nerve to do his flawless impersonation of Coogan to Coogan’s face.

At one point, Coogan, playing himself as well as the title character and the title character’s father (you can see why I didn’t bother to explain the plot) tries to impress a production assistant by boasting about the offers he’s receiving to do movies in America. This prompts Brydon to launch into his equally impressive Al Pacino imitation. It turns into a profane verbal jazz riff, one that ends with Brydon (as Al) saying, “Fuck you, asshole. I’m taking you down.”

That single, generic line, effortlessly tossed off, made me realize how the rest of the world views American actors – and American movies. It also made me laugh out loud.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Book: Dean & Me, by Jerry Lewis (2005)

If the Gideons really want to change lives, they should leave copies of DINO by Nick Tosches in hotel rooms. This biography of Dean Martin is simply one of the greatest books in print. I was a Dean Martin fan before I read Tosches’ masterwork. Afterward, I was a disciple.

Naturally, I was interested in the perspective of the man who knew Dean better than anyone, or at least as much as any man could. Martin & Lewis were together for ten years, and became one of the biggest draws in comedy.

The book is subtitled “A Love Story,” and for once Jerry isn’t kidding. His affection for the man he still calls “my partner” is clearly evident, as is his respect for Dean’s skill as a performer. And not only as a singer; no less a name than George Burns called Dean “the greatest straight man I’ve ever seen.” Jerry analyzes Dean’s talent in a way that students of comedy will appreciate, pointing out how Dean subtly took over Jerry’s role as the cut-up when he appeared with Frank Sinatra, allowing Frank to score laughs as the straight man. Jerry also doesn’t pull any punches about Martin & Lewis’s very public break-up.

At its best, the book is a guide to a bygone era in show business. Performances that began at three AM, special late-night celebrity shows where Milton Berle gets heckled by the likes of Red Buttons, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman, Danny Kaye, Alan King and Joey Bishop.

My favorite story in the book: Jerry had to learn to quick-draw a pistol for Pardners. According to him, he was the fastest gun in Hollywood. Coming in at #2 ... Sammy Davis, Jr.

Jerry’s co-writer James Kaplan is the author of THE AIRPORT, a terrific look at life behind the scenes at JFK in New York. He does a remarkable job of keeping this book tightly focused on the Martin & Lewis relationship while retaining Jerry’s distinctive voice, with jokes and egomania in equal measure.

Monday, February 20, 2006

TV: Slings & Arrows

So not only is Rachel McAdams lovely, talented, and in possession of the good sense to bail on Tom Ford’s sleazy and idiotic Vanity Fair cover. She also had the class to return to this winning Canadian TV series about backstage hijinks at a theater festival after MEAN GIRLS and THE NOTEBOOK made her a star, allowing the show to wrap up her storyline and set up the second season.

Book: Go By Go, by Jon A. Jackson (1998)

Jackson’s novel begins as a tough-minded tale about novice Pinkerton agent Goodwin Ryder, assigned to infiltrate the labor movement in 1917 Montana. Jackson ably weaves in actual historical figures, like union organizer Frank Little and Dashiell Hammett.

The book then takes a surprising turn, vaulting ahead to the 1950s. Ryder’s life doesn’t veer as from Hammett’s as it first appeared, and fallout from his actions in Montana is still having an effect in the era of Joe McCarthy. The shift in story and tone caught me completely off guard, but Jackson handles it beautifully.

He also offers some thoughts that bear repeating with the memoir falling under such scrutiny:

“Was it possible to tell such a thing honestly? I didn’t believe it. Even if you could remember all the details ... That was what made fiction necessary. The factual truth, I’m convinced, is not possible, even if you could be absolutely sure that there would be no repercussions – an impossibility in itself ... fiction was a way of telling the truth, of saying how it had been, without worrying about the petty details.”

Miscellaneous: Links

I’m not alone. Slate doesn’t have much respect for figure skating or ice dancing either. Finally, time for KISS KISS BANG BANG, RED EYE and OLD BOY to get some love: the Saturn Award nominations are out.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Music: Ennio Morricone, Crime And Dissonance (2005)

Let the e-brickbats fly when I say that I cannot take figure skating seriously. Don’t get me started on ice dancing. I can’t even bring myself to watch Skating With Celebrities, and you know how I feel about C-listers trying to pay the bills.

Still, in catching some of the Winter Olympics coverage of the ... activity (it’s not a sport, dammit), I’ve noticed how popular the music of Ennio Morricone is. Among his prodigious output, his score for The Mission has been getting quite a workout in Turin.

That prompts me to mention this new collection, compiled by Alan Bishop and featuring liner notes by avant-garde musician and longtime Morricone admirer John Zorn. The tracks are from films like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (which sounds much better in Italian, Una Lucertola Con La Pelle Di Donna), and contain the wild cacophony of sounds that are the master’s trademark, like racing heartbeats and orgasmic human voices.

Great music, but awfully hard to skate to. Brian Boitano could pull it off, though. He did two salchows and a triple lutz while wearing a blindfold.

Miscellaneous: Today’s Morbid Thought Occasioned By A Trip To The Theater

Someday I will see a movie trailer and think, “That looks good. I’ll go to that when it comes out,” not knowing that I will be dead before the movie is released. For all I know, this moment has already happened.

This is why I shouldn’t go to the movies by myself.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Movies: Grab Bag

Worthy movies always get overlooked in the year-end awards derby. Here’s a trio of films not fated for Oscar glory that still deserve an audience:

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Tommy Lee Jones’s feature directing debut took home acting and writing prizes from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but wasn’t picked up for distribution until several months later. It’s a grim, intense fable about a West Texas ranch hand (Jones) determined to return the body of his only friend to Mexico in the company of the Border Patrol agent (Barry Pepper) who killed him. The movie’s an odd fusion of Sam Peckinpah, Cormac McCarthy, and hallucinogenic westerns like The Shooting, but with a deadpan humor all its own. Tough, compelling stuff. Jones should get back behind the camera as soon as possible. (Although considering that he’s set to star in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, I’m willing to wait.)

The World’s Fastest Indian. Anthony Hopkins stars as Burt Munro, the odd duck New Zealander who set a land speed record on his 40-year-old Indian Scout motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1962. Grade-A hokum; you know exactly where the movie’s going, but it’s so charming you can’t wait to get there. Hopkins is clearly having a blast.

Caché. Michael Haneke lives to make middle-class bourgeois types uncomfortable. He would no doubt be disappointed to hear that while I enjoyed his thriller about a couple who find themselves under surveillance, I also coveted everything about the life of Daniel Auteuil’s character, from his book-lined dining room to his sensible wife Juliette Binoche. I’ve read that the closing shot contains a clue that reveals the identity of the villain. If that’s true, I missed it.

Miscellaneous: Snow Flakes

This Slate piece saluting American oddballs in the Winter Olympics – particularly that last paragraph – actually got me to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” like Homer Simpson.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Miscellaneous: Links

Work is still backed up around Chez K, but according to New York magazine's cover story on A-list blogging that's no excuse to let this site lie fallow. So I'm linking to that story, as well as some cogent thoughts on same by Matt at scrubbles.net.

Speaking of the A-list, don't you wish more big stars would cut loose like Bruce Willis? And Slate asks the musical question: which sign of the apocalypse is it when Barry Manilow has the #1 album in America?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Placeholder: Cue The Queue

A new tradition around the old internet homestead begins today. When work is piling up and I don’t have time for a proper post, I will list the three Netflix movies currently gathering dust next to my TV.

Happy Endings (2005). I’ve watched the film, but haven’t had a chance to look at the supplemental material. I’d like to, because I enjoyed the movie. Don Roos’ sprawling comedy about disparate lives in Los Angeles features a terrific cast – Lisa Kudrow, Maggie Gyllenhaal (singing, no less), Steve Coogan, and the always-underrated Tom Arnold.

Murder By Decree (1979). Ed Gorman recently called this Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper pastiche “one of the best suspense films of any kind I’ve seen.” And Ed’s word is good enough for me.

Kiss Of Death (1947). At some point, I’ll be reviewing the new DVD of this noir classic for Steve Lewis’ Mystery*File. I point out that I have had this disc for over three weeks in the hopes that Netflix will not throttle my account. I’m no threat to anyone’s profit margins.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Book: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (1961)

Back in January, I publicly resolved to broaden the range of my reading material, to tackle some of those books I keep saying I’ll get to.

CATCH-22 topped that list, for the simple reason that I’ve talked about the novel for years without ever reading it. Joseph Heller gave a name to a concept that seems like such an intrinsic part of modern life – a no-win situation created by laws or regulations – that I felt comfortable slinging the term around without knowing its origins.

But how often is an individual able to crystallize a society’s thoughts in this way? (The most recent example is Stephen Colbert and ‘truthiness.’) I felt the best way to honor Heller’s accomplishment was to go to the source.

Of course, the problem with taking on a classic is that nine times out of ten, you’ve got nothing worthwhile to contribute to the conversation. (Warning: this is one of those nine times. I probably should have said that earlier.) But there’s no point in taking on a classic if you don’t let people know you’ve read it, so what is a boy to do?

First, make one observation. The anniversary edition I read included an odd introduction by Heller in which he mentioned the role humorist S. J. Perelman played in CATCH-22’s success. I’m not surprised Perelman praised the book, because it features the kind of dexterous wordplay for which he was famous.

Then, offer a favorite quote.

“You know, Yossarian ... I really do admire you a bit. You’re an intelligent person of great moral character who has taken a very courageous stand. I’m an intelligent person with no moral character at all, so I’m in an ideal position to appreciate it.”

And remember, everyone has a share.

Miscellaneous: Links

I link to this article on filmmaker Park Chan-wook as an excuse to tout his movies Joint Security Area and Oldboy yet again. And personally, I’d be thrilled to be traded for a cartoon rabbit.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Book: The Twisted Thing, by Mickey Spillane (1966)

Beer commercials and the movie version of Kiss Me Deadly. For years that was how I knew Mickey Spillane. The only book of his I tried to read was BLACK ALLEY, which revived his Mike Hammer character in the 1990s. I didn’t finish it.

Still, his name is often invoked with great affection around Chez K. Whenever I suffer delusions of grandeur about my (ahem) career, Rosemarie hits me with R. Lee Ermey’s line from Full Metal Jacket: “You think you’re Mickey Spillane? You think you’re some kind of fucking writer?”

Ermey’s character probably read THE TWISTED THING and enjoyed it as much as I did. It features kidnapping, murder, baby swapping, mad scientists, boy geniuses, and illicit lesbian (correction: Lesbian) photography, all of it served up at a breakneck pace. It’s the kind of book where you’re pretty sure the plot doesn’t make sense, but you couldn’t be bothered to go back and find out.

Then there’s Spillane’s two-fisted writing style, forever teetering on the brink of parody. Here’s Mike Hammer encountering a vulnerable young woman:

“Impertinent breasts that mocked my former hesitance, a flat stomach waiting for the touch to set off the fuse, thighs that wanted no part of shielding cloth.”

Coincidentally, I knew a guy named Shielding Cloth. One of those Choate bastards, never picked up a check.

Or consider our hero at the moment of revelation:

“The pieces didn’t have to be fitted into place any longer ... they were being drawn into a pattern of murder as if by a magnet under the board, a pattern of death as complicated as a Persian tapestry, ugly enough to hang in Hitler’s own parlor.”

Spillane once said that if your first sentence sells the book, your last sentence sells the next book. THE TWISTED THING has a corker.

When I had to do a recitation for a college English course, I did ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. I’d memorized the poem for an assignment in fifth grade and had trotted it out ever since. (I don’t like to work very hard.) Most other students chose similar material. My friend Pat, however, held the room rapt with the legendary ending to Spillane’s first novel I, THE JURY. To this day, I wish I’d thought of that.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Miscellaneous: A Not So XL-ent Adventure

I don’t know much about football, but I do know this: when you control the ball and the tempo for the first two quarters but go in at the half down by four, something’s not working.

The Super Bowl wasn’t pretty, other than the Steelers’ trick play, but at least it was competitive. The Seahawks had plenty of chances to win it. You won’t hear any complaints from me about the officiating. A team has to play better than the ‘Hawks did before they can claim they were robbed.

I skipped the pre-game show entirely. The official kickoff time was 3:18 PM, so that’s when I turned on the TV. Just in time for Harrison Ford’s rendition of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” Considering that there was a later spot featuring NFL players reading more Dr. Seuss, I can only assume someone at the Geisel estate has compromising photographs of league commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

As for the rest of the spectacle, I muted the TV during the commercials so I could finish reading the paper and blew off the halftime show to fix drinks. Bad pop culture observer! Bad!

The high point of Seattle’s Super Bowl experience had to be the ‘Seahawks Sprinkle’ doughnuts available at the one and only Top Pot. I picked up a few on Saturday afternoon and Rosemarie said, “They taste like victory.” Clearly that was the sprinkles talking.

It was fun while it lasted. Besides, I’m more of a baseball fan anyway. Pitchers and catchers report in ten days.

Book: Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth (1969)

This novel, a middle-class Jewish man’s rantings to his analyst about his overbearing mother and his sexual obsessions, is perhaps the filthiest book I’ve ever read. It also may be the funniest. I don’t know how you’d turn it into a movie - and judging from its reputation, neither did the people who made it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Meme Time: Foursome

Matt at Scrubbles.net (go, try, you’ll like) tagged me with this meme. And I hate to appear rude.

Name four jobs that you’ve had:

1. Movie theater usher
2. Phone interviewer for a television ratings service
3. Data entry technician for a cancer research center
4. Writer of phone sex ads

If I do say so myself, I was quite good at #4.

Four movies you can watch over and over:

1. Out of the Past
2. The Third Man
3. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
4. L.A. Confidential

Four places you’ve lived:

1. New York, New York
2. Boston, Massachusetts
3. Clearwater, Florida
4. Seattle, Washington

Four TV shows you love:

1. The Simpsons
2. The Wire
3. Deadwood
4. The Office (both U.K. and U.S. versions)

Four places you’ve vacationed:

1. Portland, Oregon
2. San Francisco, California
3. Las Vegas, Nevada
4. Enniskillen, Northern Ireland

Four of your favorite dishes, answered in the manner intended and not in the clever way Matt responded:

1. Hamburger, medium rare, with blue cheese and onions
2. Rib-eye steak
3. Rosemarie’s chicken enchiladas
4. Gnocchi

Four websites you visit daily:

1. Slate
2. Arts & Letters Daily
3. GreenCine Daily
4. Movie City News

Four places you would rather be:

1. In a movie theater as the lights are dimming
2. New York, New York
3. Paris, France
4. In a bar drinking a Rob Roy

I’m also supposed to tag four other bloggers, but my religion forbids it. Although if Rosemarie wanted to give it a try ...

Miscellaneous: But I Wouldn’t Want To Play There

In the run-up to Super Bowl XL, I’ve learned the esteem in which America’s fraternity of sportswriters holds the city of Seattle. Virtually all of them preface their predictions with praise (“I love Seattle ... a beautiful town ... one of my favorite places in the league”) before flatly stating that the Seahawks have no chance against Pittsburgh tomorrow. Fine by me. That puts all the pressure on the Steelers to deliver.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Movie: Throw Momma From The Train (1987)

Early in Danny DeVito’s comedy, Oprah Winfrey lavishes praise on the author of a searing autobiographical book. It turns out said author is passing off her ex-husband’s manuscript as her own.

Clearly, someone needs to stage an intervention.

Classics I Somehow Missed: Shane (1953)

That probably cost me some credibility, admitting that I’d never seen what’s widely regarded as one of the great westerns until recently.

It’s only going to get worse. I didn’t care for it.

The genre had already taken a darker, more psychological turn by this point. But George Stevens directs this film in full Cecil B. DeMille mode, trying to puff up a simple story to the level of myth. And Stevens was not at his best when filming action.

I did enjoy parts of it: the typically fine work of Van Heflin, the exploration of how a child can fall suddenly and completely in love with an adult.

Which brings me to my main problem. Brandon de Wilde.

Years ago I read a movie review – I want to say it was the New Yorker’s take on THE FULL MONTY, but I can’t confirm that – in which the critic referred to the latest miraculous performance by a child actor to be taken for granted. It’s an observation that has stayed with me, because it wasn’t always the case. Tune in Turner Classic Movies and more often than not the juvenile actors will be hopeless. Fidgeting, staring into the camera, announcing their lines flatly. There’s a reason why Shirley Temple became a huge star. She was utterly at ease onscreen, unlike every other kid in the movies.

I know Brandon de Wilde was nominated for an Oscar, and that a generation of boys identified with his character. But every time he opened his mouth, every time Stevens cut to him, all I could think of was that moon-faced kid from BAD SANTA. And he was supposed to be out of it.

SHANE remains Alan Ladd’s best-known film. My aunt Dymphna is such a fan that she named one of her sons after him. At the time, the eight-year-old me asked, “What’s so great about the host of PASSWORD?”

Website Update: Links

I’ve added Contemporary Nomad, the group blog of writers Olen Steinhauer, Kevin Wignall, Robin Hunt and John Nadler. It’s what this blog wants to be when it grows up. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz started The House Next Door only a month ago, but it’s already packed with terrific material. His tribute to the late Chris Penn is but one example.