Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Movie: Get Crazy (1983)

One of the cable stations – I want to say the USA Network, back in the glory days of Night Flight – tried to turn this Allan Arkush movie into a December 31 tradition. Makes sense, because it’s about a wild New Year’s Eve rock concert. Despite their best efforts, the Get Crazy cult never caught fire. Apparently I was the only person watching on New Year’s Eve – for two years running. Clearly, I couldn’t wait for high school to end.

It’s too bad, because Get Crazy is a terrific, riotous comedy that should be better known. The gags fly at a fast and furious pace, but the movie owes more to the anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers than the ZAZ school then coming into flower. It’s not a spoof, but a movie about rock and roll informed by Arkush’s experiences working at the Fillmore East, Bill Graham’s legendary New York club. A lot of the jokes are about the soullessness creeping into the music business and all of ‘80s life – but a lot of them are just plain silly. We’re talking about a movie featuring a teleporting cyborg drug dealer named Electric Larry, a giant ambulatory joint, and evil henchmen in the persons of ‘60s heartthrobs Fabian and Bobby Sherman.

Many of the other characters are send-ups of legends like Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan (here played by Lou Reed), and Mick Jagger (Malcolm McDowell as Reggie Wanker). The movie’s also packed with great music. Every artist does a cover of the blues song “Hoochie Coochie Man,” including the film’s Muddy Waters figure, Wanker, and punk fixture Lee Ving, proving that all contemporary music flows from the same source. And Reed closes the show with a strong solo number.

Arkush is now a veteran TV director, but on the strength of this movie and Rock’n’Roll High School he should be enshrined in Cleveland. Get Crazy is playing on cable again, and it’s as funny as I remembered it being on those New Year’s Eves in high school. I won’t be taking it off the DVR any time soon.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced

The Cold War may be over, but I’m still tangling with the Russians. At our spin-off blog, I head underground with Dostoevsky.

Book: Out There In The Dark, by Wesley Strick (2006)

Strick is a screenwriter with some big films to his credit. Dark is his first novel. (In this Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, he explains the differences between the two forms.)

As might be expected, it’s a Hollywood tale, set in the ‘40s. Harley Hayden is an up-and-coming actor who’s dating the daughter of a powerful studio head and starring in the proto-noir The Big Betrayal. His only problem is that the film’s director, an UFA refugee reborn in America as Derek Sykes, seems to have it in for him. Hayden hires a disgraced ex-cop to find out why.

It’s my kind of material – politicos, cops and movie stars crossing paths with jazzbos, Nazis and crazy headshrinkers. I only wish I could have loved it. The book suffers from a severe case of Ellroy envy, and the first half is slow; it’s as if Strick, after years of hustling to the next scene, doesn’t know what to do with the newfound ability to take his time. The book improves as it goes along, when the pace is more movie-like. But there are still a few howlers in the prose, as when one previously urbane character feels as if he’s “been crapped out of death’s own asshole.”

Hayden is clearly a gloss on Ronald Reagan. But Strick makes numerous references to an unnamed film which is obviously Murder in the Air, one of Reagan’s Brass Bancroft adventures. (It’s the one featuring a weapon called “the inertia projector,” which bears a striking similarity to Reagan’s beloved ‘Star Wars’ project.) Hayden even goes to see the movie. But if the fictional Reagan encounters the real one, won’t that cause a rip in the space-time continuum? And what becomes of Reagan if Harley Hayden assumes his career path? Would he end up playing Jock Ewing on Dallas? It’s questions like these that keep me from reading a lot of historical fiction.

Friday, May 26, 2006

TV: Thursday Ratings Report

Unnamed Media Research Company left a message for me Wednesday evening. My first thought was that they’d discovered this website – that’s always my first thought – and consequently wanted to leave detailed instructions about where I could put their ratings diary once I completed it.

But no. They were reminding me to send it back first thing in the morning. Yet the initial phone call and the directions that came with the booklet said I was to keep it for eight days.

I called their toll-free number yesterday and spoke to a very nice woman who was much happier about working for UMRC than I ever was. She cleared the matter up at once. “That call was a mistake,” she said. “You have the DVR diary, so we’d like you to keep it for eight days.”

Makes sense. If I watched the American Idol finale and saved the Lost finale for the next day, they’d want to log both.

“Just ignore that call and anything else we sent you,” my new friend told me. I understood that last part once my mail was delivered. It included a postcard from UMRC, reminding me that I should have sent back my diary already. Nice to know that the company is as dysfunctional as it was when I was there. Back then, I thought it was all my fault.

And so, on the eighth day, we watched ... nothing. Other than The Showbiz Show on Comedy Central. I think I tuned in just so I’d have something to write in the diary for Thursday after I went to all the trouble of calling them.

Which means my work as an arbiter of television is done. No need to thank me. When future seasons bring you more baseball and silent movies, you’ll know who to blame. Or credit, depending on how you feel about it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

TV: Wednesday Ratings Report

7:30PM – 9PM, Stephen King’s Desperation, ABC (DVR)

Ancient Chinese spirits, huh? (OK, the villain was actually an ageless transdimensional entity that initially manifested in some 19th century Chinese mine workers. But a joke is a joke.)

Desperation fell apart late, like a lot of Stephen King projects. But director Mick Garris gave it a big feature film look. And I loved the haunted silent movie that explained the mine’s history.

9PM – 10PM American Idol, Fox

Like I’m going to watch all two padded hours of the season finale, especially when the outcome was never in doubt.

The wrap-up had a disturbing, dance-monkey-dance! quality to it. When you sign on to this show, the producers own you. If Simon Cowell needs a new kidney, Ace Young has to give him one. In fact, the transplant will be part of next year’s finale.

This is the first season we’ve followed in its entirety. I still don’t know why. In the past, we only watched the auditions and Hollywood week, because nothing makes better television that the delusional and high-strung teenagers having public meltdowns. As a result, some of the special guests were lost on us.

Rosemarie: Who is that?

Me: I don’t know. Maybe Carrie Underwood?

Rosemarie: I didn’t realize you could airbrush video.

Me (Later): They got k.d. lang to be on?

Rosemarie: I think that’s Clay Aiken. I like the suit. It’s from the Wayne Newton Collection.

If Kellie Pickler had had that hairstyle during the competition, she would have been unbeatable. And I still think Elliott should have won.

10PM – 10:15PM My Dad Is 100 Years Old, Sundance

Guy Maddin again applies silent film techniques in intriguing ways. Here it’s a centenary tribute to director Roberto Rossellini. His daughter Isabella plays every role, including Charlie Chaplin, David O. Selznick, and her mother Ingrid Bergman.

Maddin’s genius works best in small doses. Like the bizarre Sissy Boy Slap Party. Or the best short film of recent years, The Heart of the World.

Miscellaneous: Today’s Worst Idea Ever

Variety reports that Turner Classic Movies will be making new shows to appeal to younger viewers.

The premise of “Take Two” is that a young actor dissects a great movie of the past ... choosing actors and filmmakers to re-enact a classic scene from the movie ... in the pilot, Wilmer Valderrama takes on “The Lost Weekend.”

And the AMCing of TCM begins. You ungrateful bastards. After we single-handedly cut your demographic in half earlier this week.

What’s next, Paris Hilton in The Snake Pit? No, wait, I’d actually watch that.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced Podcast

And the Keenan media empire continues to expand.

If you’ve visited Shame-Faced, this site’s spin-off blog, you know that Rosemarie and I are slowly making our way through classic books and movies we’ve somehow missed. We’re pleased to announce the first installment of the Shame-Faced podcast.

Think of it as Chapter One: In Which We Are Introduced. We lay out the parameters of the project and talk a little about where we hope to take it.

The twenty-two minute, 8MB show can be direct downloaded here. It should be available on iTunes shortly, and at other podcast sites in the coming days.

And if you haven’t visited Shame-Faced, what are you waiting for?

TV: Tuesday Ratings Report

5:45PM – 8:30PM Baseball: Phillies at Mets, Sportsnet New York

I only turn on baseball when I finish work for the day. I find the game’s pastoral rhythms relaxing.

But there will be no relaxing today. The Mets, down 6-2 and then 8-5, rally to send the game to the tenth inning. Eleventh. Twelfth ...

8:30PM – 9PM American Idol, Fox

Full disclosure: This entry in my ratings diary is inaccurate, because I keep flipping back to the Mets game. (Thirteenth, fourteenth ...) I make sure to catch the recap of all six songs in the closing minutes because really, that’s all you need.

More full disclosure: I actually pick up the phone and vote for Taylor Hicks.

Still more full disclosure: I would have voted for Taylor even if he hadn’t been the better – well, more interesting singer. I, too, started going gray early. I will say I work the look better than he does, and I don’t have an army of stylists helping me. Or hurting me: one of those stylists gave him that crushed velvet smoking jacket.

9PM – 9:30PM Baseball: Phillies at Mets, Sportsnet New York

And the Mets play on, finally winning 9-8 in the sixteenth. It’s their longest game in eleven years.

9:30 – 11PM Stephen King’s Desperation, ABC (DVR)

The worst cologne ever. As made-for-TV horror flicks go, though, it’s not bad. Ron Perlman gives good villain as the possessed sheriff of an isolated Nevada town where all the slot machines pay off – in blood! I’ll watch the second half later. That Mets game tired me out.

Miscellaneous: Links

Slate kicks off pulp fiction week. It’s one of those high-celebrates-low salutes to the beach read that you only see in the early days of summer, when rich and poor jostle each other in the security line at the airport. Example: Man Booker prize winner John Banville sings the praises of the Parker novels that Donald E. Westlake wrote as Richard Stark. The articles will be somewhat patronizing, and I’ll read them all anyway.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

TV: Monday Ratings Report

No baseball this time. I promise. The Mets had the day off.

8:30PM – 10PM F For Fake, Turner Classic Movies (DVR)

A quasi-documentary from Orson Welles. It began as a portrait of art forger Elmyr de Hory. In the middle of production, the “authorized autobiography” of Howard Hughes by writer and interview subject Clifford Irving was exposed as a sham. (Irving’s story will be coming to the big screen later this year.) What do you do when your expert on fraud perpetrates a fraud himself? If you’re Welles, you turn your film into a riff on hoaxes, not sparing your own history of trickery.

F For Fake never quite jells but consistently fascinates, thanks in large part to Orson’s screen presence. There’s a terrific conceit that I won’t give away, plus an entire segment on the fine art of girl watching.

I watched the movie for two reasons. I want to show TCM plenty of love while Unnamed Media Research Company is listening to me. And it was part of an evening of films programmed by Penn & Teller, which brings us to ...

10PM – 10:30PM Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, Showtime

The boys debunk commonly held notions of good manners. As usual, they overreach a little but make a solid, sensible argument. One that includes a trip to a strip joint. P&T have taken on some heavy subjects this season – the death penalty, the rebuilding of New York’s Ground Zero. It’s more fun when they aim their barbs at the self-important, like last night.

I watch the show regularly, but made sure to catch this one so I could write Bullshit! in my ratings diary. In full: no asterisk for the ‘i,’ exclamation point included. After all the nonsense I put up with when I was in UMRC’s employ, it seemed fitting. Now if I could figure out how to legitimately send profanity to every other place I’ve worked ...

Monday, May 22, 2006

TV: Sunday Ratings Report

A prime boob tube day here at Chez K. We’re finally giving Unnamed Media Research Company some data to work with.

5PM – 8:15PM Baseball: Yankees at Mets, ESPN

The Mets never make it easy on themselves or their fans. But they won this game to take two out of three in the series. Keep it up, boys.

8:15PM – 8:30PM The Simpsons, Fox

The show is only a shadow of its former self’s shadow. But I wanted to acknowledge all of the entertainment it has provided me by entering it in my ratings diary. Plus, tonight’s episode featured one of those golf carts shaped like a baseball that I asked about recently.

9PM – 10PM, Delicious Little Devil, Turner Classic Movies

Once, Sunday at 9 belonged to HBO. But The Sopranos hasn’t been as compelling this season, so Rosemarie instituted pre-1950 black and white movie night. Makes for an easier transition into the working week.

She was particularly interested in this 1919 Rudolph Valentino silent, making its world television debut. The Sheik only has a supporting part. Mae Murray is the star of this entertaining bit of fluff as an innocent young girl pretending to be a hellion so she can keep her job as a dancer.

10PM – 11PM, The Sopranos, HBO (DVR)

Delicious Little Devil was only an hour long. A strong episode that was a great showcase for Edie Falco – but also a reminder of how much Adriana is missed.

11:30PM – 11:45PM, Robot Chicken, Cartoon Network

I give you Darth Vader’s call to the Emperor.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

TV: Saturday Ratings Report

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Saturday’s ratings diary page will be blank. Unnamed Media Research Company might have been better off with one of these people.

I would have watched the Mets/Yankees game, but Fox cherry-picked it for their Saturday double-header. The early start time meant the local affiliate would have had to preempt an entire morning of toy and cereal commercials, so the game didn’t air here. Considering that the Mets blew a 4-0 lead in the ninth when their closer imploded and lost the game in the eleventh, that was probably for the best.

I also meant to catch Kevin Spacey’s monologue on Saturday Night Live but completely forgot about it. In the unlikely event that something funny happened on SNL, I’ll be able to tell by the flood of YouTube links in my in-box. That or the blood raining from the sky.

In the interest of accuracy, I should say that I did watch 15 minutes of various movies before starting a DVD. Batman Begins, War of the Worlds, The Rock and Spider-Man 2 were all on simultaneously. I flicked back and forth between them to create an action scene mash-up, briefly turning my TV into a jukebox of mayhem. Good luck trying to fit that into the diary.

I have been reading about TV, namely this Guardian article on the new golden age of American television. John Patterson is wrong to lump All in the Family in with other “formulaic trash” of the ‘70s, and his list of film actors coming to series television in the fall overlooks some of my favorites – Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen.

He also neglects the role that economics plays in TV’s resurgence. More outlets means more opportunities for quality. UPN and the WB were created purely as business decisions, yet their existence led to Buffy, Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars. In the cable era, the barriers to entry in creating a network are even lower, and as a result every station has a series that merits awards and critical acclaim: Showtime (Weeds, Huff), USA (Monk), Sci-Fi (Battlestar Galactica). FX has three in The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me.

Consider the same period in the movie business. Independent distributors have closed up shop or been subsumed by the studios, which have been through their own rounds of consolidation. They’re now so risk-averse that they seek partners even on films with budgets that won’t break the bank.

Movies are going through a dark period now, but they’ll survive because of the one thing they can provide that TV cannot: endings. Sometimes you don’t want to tune in next week, or binge on 22 episodes over a long weekend. Sometimes two hours is just about right.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

TV: Friday Ratings Report

What would I like to put in my ratings diary? The Eurovision song contest and coverage of the Cannes Film Festival. (What happened, IFC?) Alas, no dice. Here’s what I’m reporting to Unnamed Media Research Company:

6PM – 6:30PM Cash Cab, Discovery Channel

I’ve written about this game show before. A Rosemarie favorite.

10:30PM – 11PM The Thick of It, BBC America (DVR)

The funniest show currently on TV. Also the most painful to watch. The deadpan camera of The Office watches a hapless government minister and his staff.

Peter Capaldi – sweet, innocent Peter Capaldi from Local Hero – is pants-soilingly terrifying as the U.K. version of Karl Rove. The show is the brainchild of Armando Iannucci, who worked with Steve Coogan on his Alan Partridge series. He’s said that the inspiration for this show came when Tony Blair wanted Partridge to interview him at a Labor Party conference. When Iannucci and Coogan arrived, Blair’s image maker Peter Mandelson was furious that Partridge wasn’t there. It had to be explained to him that Partridge was a fictional character.

Silly, silly English. That kind of thing could never happen here.

11PM – 11:30PM Baseball Tonight, ESPN

Highlights for men.

11:30PM – 12:30AM The Late Show With David Letterman, CBS

I rarely watch Dave any more. I tuned him in for two reasons:

1. Grindergirl, who’s a Friday staple. Naturally, she wasn’t on last night. Instead, we got two awkward segments with Mary Cheney.

2. Comedian Harry Hill. “You like the lining, don’t you?”

12:30AM – 1AM The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, CBS

Craig on Cast Away’s Wilson the volleyball in rehab: “He’s deflated, but he’ll bounce back.” Hey, somebody’s got to do those jokes.

Friday, May 19, 2006

TV: Thursday Ratings Report

Multiple season finales last night, and two series went off the air. We didn’t watch any of them. Take that, America! Unnamed Media Research Company can tabulate this:

7PM – 10PM Baseball: Blue Jays at Angels, Fox Sports West

This was the only game on last night. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but the diary says listening counts. In it goes.

When I signed up for the MLB package, I thought I’d get to see regional ads. But the same beer and car spots play wherever you go. The only local color comes from chain restaurants (Carl’s Jr., Del Taco) and state lotteries. Did you know that Wisconsin has been overrun by Super Badgers?

10PM - 10:30PM The Showbiz Show w/David Spade, Comedy Central

I don’t think it’s that funny, yet I watch every week. I frequently flipped back to the ball game, which went into extra innings. Toronto took it in 10.

11PM – 11:30PM The Daily Show, Comedy Central
11:30PM – 12 M The Colbert Report, Comedy Central

Both are in reruns next week. I’m glad I got to write them down once.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

TV: The Rating Game

Upfronts, schmupfronts. You want to meet the real power in TV, baby, you talk to me.

Unnamed Media Research Company (UMRC) will be including Chez K in its ratings for the next eight days. As May sweeps ends we’ll be keeping a diary of what we watch, and the information will be used to ... tabulate something. The details are a little fuzzy.

My TV diet consists mainly of movies and baseball. The one show I never miss, The Office, has already wrapped its season. (And how, with a great episode written by Steve Carell.) And the juggernaut that is the American Idol finale doesn’t need my help.

Still, I’ve been waiting for years to do this. Not because I want to play havoc with the airwaves. But because UMRC owes me.

I used to work there, when I first graduated from college. UMRC HQ was just down the road, always hungry for fresh meat. I signed on as a telemarketer, calling people to ask if they’d be willing to complete the TV viewing diary.

Did I hate that job. I preferred being a movie theater usher, where my primary responsibility was cleaning up ungodly messes in the dark.

The calling process was fully automated; as soon as one person hung up another would be on the line, and I’d launch into my spiel anew without pausing for breath. The spiel was also pre-programmed. I’d key in what the caller said and the computer would prompt me with a response. Every conceivable objection had been factored in.

No job has ever required less of me. I’m sure UMRC has R&D working on technology that will eliminate the human element entirely.

One night I was talking to John from Philadelphia. John thought I was conducting a survey about television, so he offered his opinions on current network fare.

“And there are too many blacks on TV,” he said.

Did I mention that there was no way for me to end a call? Only the computer could do that.

“I have to see them all day at work,” John continued, “then I come home and they’re all over the TV. It’s not fair.”

The software hadn’t seen that one coming. I’d stopped following the prompts anyway, thanking John for his time, trying to get him to hang up.

It only got worse. John started thanking me. “It really means a lot that you wanted my opinion. I always think that the TV people don’t care about guys like me. You made my night!”

Finally, mercifully, John said goodbye, and Cindy from Moline was on the line. Hello, Cindy. Do you own a television?

A few nights later I called Martha in Alaska. She sounded no-nonsense, self-reliant. I was certain I’d interrupted her in the middle of canning something.

“Yes, I own a TV,” she said, “but I never watch it. I absolutely loathe what’s on now. Television is a disgrace.”

The computer had my comeback ready, but I knew Martha wouldn’t fall for it. So I went off script.

“Ma’am, I agree with you. Which is why you should do our diary. If you don’t watch a single program, you’ll still be included in the sample. You’ll lower the totals for the week. It won’t be by much. But it’s a chance for you to communicate your feelings to the networks in the only terms they understand.”

After a pause, Martha said, “Send me the damn diary.”

UMRC would pick telemarketers at random and monitor ten of their calls. As it happened, my supervisor was listening to my chat with Martha. He stopped by before my break – again dictated by the computer – and told me how well I’d done.

Funny how I didn’t feel good about that.

The following day my supervisor asked to see me. He was so impressed with how I’d swayed Martha that he wanted to make me a telemarketing trainer. Thus marking the first and so far only time I have ever been offered a promotion.

The first thing I said was, “Thank you.” It’s always the first thing I say. That’s what Catholic school does to you.

The second thing I said was, “But I’m not interested. In fact, I have to turn in my notice.” Which came as a surprise to me, considering I didn’t have another job lined up. But I’d learned an important lesson as I embarked upon adulthood: sometimes in this life, it is possible to be good at the wrong things.

Ever since, I have wanted to be the person at the other end of the line. At long last, it happened. The script hasn’t changed much.

I’ll post what goes into the diary. DVDs and On Demand programs don’t count, but anything on the DVR does. For the next few days, I control the vertical and the horizontal. And don’t you forget it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Music: James Hunter

Yesterday Rosemarie and I celebrated the anniversary that officially makes us an old married couple. We didn’t have to put any thought into how to mark the occasion, because James Hunter was in town.

Hunter has been described as a cross between Sam Cooke and Van Morrison. (Morrison is an avowed Hunter fan.) That description works for me. Hunter sings R&B in the 1950s/early ‘60s style, mixed with some soul and a touch of the blues.

Brooklyn’s own Jonah Smith was the solid opening act, then the man himself took the stage. He’s an accomplished showman who knows how to raise the roof while wearing a sharp suit. He also namechecked Lon Chaney during his performance, then threw in a Charles Laughton impression for good measure. And he offered a beautiful rendition of “The Very Thought of You” for those of us in the audience who were romantically inclined.

Hunter’s album People Gonna Talk is out now. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen. His tour continues for the next few weeks with stops in California and Texas before swinging back to the Northeast.

Movie: Dragonwyck (1946)

You want your Gothic? Joseph L. Mankiewicz has your Gothic right here. Naïve young girl (Gene Tierney) raised by stern religious father (Walter Huston) sent to big, spooky house complete with brooding lord of the manor (Vincent Price).

Mankiewicz, making his directorial debut, lets some of the story get away from him: Price’s creepy daughter falls out of the movie, and the haunted harpsichord never pays off. Mankiewicz is clearly more interested in the politics of the era – there’s some fascinating material on the system of government dominated by landowners known as patroons, a holdover from the Dutch era in New York – and in tweaking Gothic conventions.

He has the perfect accomplice in Price, never better than he is here. He gets into the spirit of things right away, as when his doomed wife asks him why he keeps retreating to his tower room.

Doomed wife: What can you possibly do up there?

Price: Possibly? Anything from pinning butterflies to hiding an insane twin brother.

Price and Tierney co-starred in Laura and Leave Her To Heaven. They also appeared together in the 1941 film Hudson’s Bay. I suppose I have to track that down now, just to say I’ve seen them all.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Movie: Classe Tous Risques (1960)

It’s a gripe I’ve aired before: the French make peerless crime films, and they also know their way around serious drama. Yet it’s their comedies that are inflicted on the rest of the world. Go figure.

Classe Tous Risques is a seamless combination of those strengths, equal parts hardboiled and humanist. Director Claude Sautet is best known for subtle movies that chart human relationships like Un Coeur en Hiver and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. But he got his start co-writing the horror classic Eyes Without A Face. I’d never heard of Classe before Rialto Pictures’ re-release. I won’t soon forget it.

Tough guy Lino Ventura has been hiding out in Italy. When the police close in, his only option is to uproot his family and sneak back into France. But he’ll have to stage a bold daylight heist in Milan first. Once he does, he must rely on a circle of old friends who measure their commitment to him by a different yardstick. He’s also be helped by new ones like Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from Breathless and effortlessly cool, and the stunning Sandra Milo.

The title apparently refers to a type of insurance policy but is mainly a French pun on ‘tourist class.’ The movie will be playing at various U.S. cities throughout the summer. It’s worth the trip if it comes to a theater anywhere near you.

Rialto is two for two in 2006, with their reissues of this film and 1948’s The Fallen Idol. The best may be yet to come. They’re presenting the American debut of Jean-Pierre Melville’s WWII resistance drama Army of Shadows. The reviews I’ve read have me counting the days until it turns up in Seattle.

Miscellaneous: Links

Steve Lewis continues to load up Mystery*File with various goodies. Take this reprint of a 1930 Writer’s Digest article on the then-current crop of crime magazines. Gotta love that take on Weird Tales: “carries the most ungodly stories a starved writer in a garret could concoct even if inspired by stale cheese and rye bread with no beer.” Also known as the H. P. Lovecraft diet.

Just think what Jack Webb could have done with the LAPD’s blog. From Mark Evanier.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Miscellaneous: Eureka

I had an epiphany at the movies over the weekend. It had nothing to do with what was onscreen, but these moments are rare enough that I’ll take whatever I can get.

The lights have gone down. Mission: Impossible III is about to start. A few rows ahead, another light goes on.

One of the twentysomething men who staggered their seating so no one will think they’re, you know, together has taken out his cell phone. I assume he’s going to turn it off.

He doesn’t. He starts answering text messages. The glow of the phone dims occasionally, but at no point during the movie does it die. His thumbs are in near-constant motion.

The teenager across the aisle is also checking text messages. Halfway through the film he confers briefly with the friend next to him, then runs out to the lobby to make a call.

Ahead of them sit three woman in their forties. They are lapping up the movie; damn the gossip pages, they still love them some Tom Cruise. They gasp at every daring escape, laugh at all the jokes, swoon at regular intervals.

Even they can’t leave their cell phones alone. Maybe the sitter called. Maybe someone answered my email. Maybe something somewhere is happening.

We’re not talking about a bunch of high school kids who have been dragged to an Antonioni festival. These are people of all ages who have, of their own volition, come to see a propulsive action film made with the full bag of narrative tricks meant to enrapture contemporary audiences.

That’s when I realize why the movies are in a protracted slump, and why they may never climb out of it.

Forget the usual reasons. Tickets are too expensive, my home theater has a better picture, the movies suck. All of that may be true, but the industry’s problem is more fundamental: the human race is doomed.

We are becoming constitutionally incapable of giving ourselves over to an experience. That’s what going to the movies is, sitting in the dark with strangers, all of us surrendering to the light. It’s a bargain people are no longer willing to make.

I always argue on behalf of seeing films in the theater. But why pay the ten bucks if you’re not going to concentrate on the movie? Better to stay at home if you want to half-ass it. As the DVD spins you can take calls, eat leftover pizza, and ask that most American of questions: what else is on?

Watching M:i:III in those circumstances was like seeing Pascal’s line about man’s miseries deriving from the inability to sit quietly in a room brought to life. It was almost a privilege, becoming aware that I was bearing witness, in some small way, to the death of the sacred in everyday life. Each light from a cell phone was a flare shooting up into the darkness, signaling for help when help ain’t coming. I’ve even got science to back me up. And something tells me it’s only going to get worse.

On the plus side, the Casino Royale trailer looks good.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Movie: Split Second (1953)

Novelist James Ellroy introduced this movie, the first directed by actor Dick Powell, at the Noir City film festival earlier this year. Dig this premise: escaped convict Stephen McNally holds several people hostage in an abandoned Nevada mining town, knowing it will soon be obliterated by an A-bomb test. (Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story doffed its fedora to that plot in an episode.) With that set-up, how can you miss?

Apparently, ways can be found.

McNally isn’t exactly a criminal mastermind. It seems to me that if you busted out of a state pen in 1950s Nevada and came across a married woman from California traveling with a man who was not her husband but “an old friend of the family,” you might at least consider the possibility that she’s in town to get a quickie divorce. You certainly shouldn’t build your getaway plan around the notion that the woman’s husband will drop everything to come to her aid. Even if that’s what ends up happening.

A movie like this should be tightly plotted, with the characters placed in ever-closer quarters. Instead, more of them show up, including a grizzled old prospector. And the model work leaves something to be desired.

The women in the cast make the strongest showing: Alexis Smith as the would-be divorcee who’s not as demure as she seems and Jan Sterling as the tough cookie with the soft center. At least the movie fulfills Chekhov’s dictum that if an A-bomb is introduced at the beginning, it’s got to go off at the end.

Turns out Ellroy isn’t even a fan of the film. He wanted to show the 1954 feature version of Jack Webb’s Dragnet. I caught that on TV a few years ago. That one’s dark, man. Craaaazy dark.

Update: Shame-Faced

Where various follow-ups and addenda are available for your perusal.

Meaningless Milestone: D Boy

This is my 500th post. Free coffee and donuts at the back of the hall.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced

At the spin-off blog I take on Ernest Hemingway again, best two falls out of three.

Miscellaneous: Links

This Slate piece, in which John Cook thoroughly demolishes a pair of pretentious music critics for their baseless accusations of racism against The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, is one of my favorite reads of recent months. For the record, I own several Stephin Merritt albums and am a fan of OutKast, but don’t particularly care for hip-hop.

Screenwriter Josh Friedman is back.

Flashing in the Gutters has posted its 200th story. Why not stop by and read a few?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Books: Oddities From The Shelf

Ah, the pleasures of stocking a brand new, sturdily-built bookcase. It’s a chance to revisit your library, to showcase a new set of titles. To discover books you may have forgotten. And to wonder how you came into possession of others.

I know how I acquired the strangest books in my collection. In 1990 I saw an ad in a local newspaper from a company called DimeNovels. It planned on reviving the glory days of pulp fiction, and needed writers to crank out prose. I responded to the ad. An SASE never hurt anybody.

In return I received DimeNovels’ entire first run. Seven books, each one exactly 96 pages long, each one measuring 3 x 4.5 inches. (They were meant to be impulse purchases at supermarkets, like chewing gum and those astrology scrolls.)

And each one a different genre. You’ve got the standbys of horror (Walk With The Dead), science fiction (Alien Starswarm, by Robert Sheckley), mystery (Dead Ringer, about a killer of Elvis impersonators), and thriller (a haunted Indian burial ground – hey, isn’t that horror?). DimeNovels took a divide-and-conquer approach to romance, breaking it down into Sensual Romance, Romantic Suspense, and something called Glitz, which I assume is Jackie Collins territory.

I have to assume, because in fifteen years I haven’t read one of these books. I’ve flipped through them, though, and noticed all four of the publisher’s glamour shots as well as some similarities between Glitz author Kim Blake and Romantic Suspense author Roberta Kent. What are the odds that both would be avid golfers first published at eight who still hope to be writing at eighty-eight?

I never tried my hand at a DimeNovel, and never saw one at a checkout stand near me. Which is too bad, because pulp fiction did make a comeback thanks to labels like Hard Case Crime. A little research turns up a second run of DimeNovels, including a fantasy by the non-Journey Steve Perry. Every few years I decide to donate them to the library only to change my mind. I figure there can’t be many in circulation. A quick check at eBay shows that the Sheckley is already going for close to twenty dollars. Maybe if I hang onto them long enough, they’ll be able to buy me another new bookcase.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Movie: West of Zanzibar (1928)

This film, one of several collaborations between Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning, features a twisted revenge plot that Park Chan-wook would love. Chaney plays ‘Dead-Legs,’ a crippled stage magician who sets himself up as ruler of a corner of darkest Africa. It’s all part of his plan to wreak vengeance on the man who destroyed his life, the centerpiece of which is the defilement of the man’s daughter. Don’t let anyone tell you that they didn’t get up to some serious mayhem in the silent picture days.

The big plot twist will surprise absolutely no one. But Chaney is riveting, and Browning is again able to capture the sense that something unholy is afoot in every frame.

The movie was remade a mere four years later as Kongo, with Walter Huston stepping into the Chaney role. Rosemarie saw it during a Pre-Code festival at the Film Forum in New York, and says it’s every bit as unhinged as the original. Turner Classic Movies was supposed to show Kongo earlier this week, but replaced it with a Richard Dix western. Not the shock I was anticipating.

TV: MLB Extra Innings

The main benefit of this service is that I get to Meet The Mets every game. (Everybody, sing along!) As a bonus, I’m now also able to enjoy the legendary Vin Scully as he calls games for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Harry Shearer has been doing his dead-on impersonation of Scully on The Simpsons for years. It’s great to hear the man himself.

All the baseball I’ve been watching this season does raise a few questions. Remember when relief pitchers would be driven out to the mound in a golf cart shaped liked a giant baseball wearing the team cap? Why don’t they do that anymore? And where did all those carts go? I can’t find any on eBay.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Miscellaneous: Lament For The Aging Sexpot

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Before I die I want to say something that sounds that profound and is every bit as wrong.

Last week Jenny McCarthy was on The Tonight Show. She’s a Playboy centerfold-turned-actress; last year she won Razzie Awards for writing and starring in Dirty Love, which took home Worst Picture honors. Jenny is also the author of a series of well-reviewed, crass but funny books about motherhood.

She wore a tank top on which was bedazzled the URL of a website for parents of indigo children. These kids, so named because of the distinctive color of their auras, are thought to be the next step in human evolution. They are endowed with spiritual intelligence and psychic abilities. In many cases they’re diagnosed with behavioral disorders because they get bored easily, have trouble with rage, and can’t wait in line.

(It’s the last one that gets me. When I was kid, I loved waiting in line. Space Mountain was a huge letdown after queuing up for Space Mountain. Back in the days when you actually had to go inside banks to get money, that’s how I’d spend my summer vacations. I’d take my one dollar allowance to the teller, change it for ten dimes, then get back in line to change it back, pausing only to enjoy a sack lunch. Of course, my aura is jet black. It’s occasionally shot through with streaks of vermillion, but I live near radio towers.)

The next day I read that web pin-up and Celebrity Cooking Showdown champ Cindy Margolis has finally decided to pose for Playboy herself. The “most downloaded woman on the Internet” says that appearing nude at 40 is “empowering.” The article also notes that Cindy is a spokeswoman on infertility issues.

The glide path for sex symbols used to be much simpler. The talk show appearances dry up and you start making “erotic thrillers” that turn up on Cinemax in the wee hours. Movies with titles in which the word ‘stalk’ appears as every part of speech, or that combine sex and violence, like Fatal Emission. (I registered that title, by the way. You can’t use it.) You make noise about quitting the business and say that L.A. is too toxic. Some friends introduce you to a guy who made a fortune in direct-mail advertising. You get married, qualify for your real estate license, and start selling houses in Taos or suburban Denver. (I recognized a bombshell from several ‘80s films in a local realtor’s ad. I’m tempted to go look at McMansions I can’t afford and pretend I don’t know who she is.) It was either that, or go bonkers like Brigitte Bardot.

But now these women are forced to reinvent themselves and adopt pet causes. (I realize it’s a stretch to call Jenny’s paving the way for a Village of the Damned-style takeover of the earth a cause, but I’m feeling charitable.) I’d just like them to know that I respect them for their early work. I respect them enormously.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

TV: All Colbert All The Time

Stephen Colbert’s “balls-alicious” White House Correspondents Dinner performance (to use Jon Stewart’s word) is still the hot topic at Technorati. Me, I can’t get enough of it. I even went to the Huffington Post to gauge reaction there, and I hate the Huffington Post.

Colbert’s set is seen in some quarters as a pop culture watershed ignored by the mainstream media, in others as an epic flameout. Screenwriter and erstwhile stand-up John Rogers, in a great piece, says that it’s already becoming the stuff of legend among comics.

All of which says two things to me, one cultural, one political. Colbert was able to be fearless in his approach because he knew that even if the crowd in the Hilton didn’t respond, his performance would be circulating on the web within minutes. That’s the audience Colbert was playing to; the media swells in the ballroom almost didn’t matter.

Nothing is underground anymore. It used to be you’d hear stories about a one-of-a-kind, you-had-to-be-there show. Now, Gilbert Gottfried’s fabled rendition of a filthy joke leads to an entire movie. Colbert subverts a staid venue televised on C-SPAN and the results are instantly immortalized, giving him credibility for life.

It’s also proof of a burgeoning political sensibility spawned by Comedy Central. Not just The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but South Park and Chappelle’s Show. Programs that declare shenanigans on the pomp of American politics, and in so doing demand that the media treat viewers (and voters) like adults. It’s a mindset that works both sides of the aisle; South Park has a pronounced libertarian/conservative streak, and The Daily Show regularly takes aim at Democrats, admittedly like shooting tranquilized fish in a barrel. It’s a kind of thinking that demands that when you go to the WHCD, you call it out for the poisonous little barbecue it is.

An entire generation is being formed by those shows. I can’t wait to see what politics and the WHCD are like when they take over.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced

Join me as I take my first trip down the river with Huckleberry Finn.

DVD: The President’s Last Bang (2005)

In 1979, South Korea’s dictatorial president Park Chung Hee was assassinated by the head of his own intelligence service. This film recounts that night in equal parts political thriller and black comedy.

The assassin claims he’s acting in the interests of democracy, but he seems more motivated by petty grievances and his own impending death. A woman’s profane, fatalistic voiceover reveals the fate of the major players in the closing minutes. The whole thing ends with a prayer for Park’s soul. It’s a wild ride. Non-Korean viewers may have to scramble to keep up (I did), but the effort will be rewarded.

Park doesn’t come off well. I still agree with some of his philosophy. When one of his toadies criticizes another man’s taste in women, Park says:

“Never make a big deal over what goes on below the belly button. A real man would never do so.”

We could use some of that thinking here.

Miscellaneous: Link

New York’s Film Forum launches its annual film noir program. The people at Slant have you covered. Both via GreenCine.