Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thoughts About 'Psycho'

Last night, I watched Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" on Turner Classic Movies.

I didn't intend to. I've seen it many times over the years. But it's one of those movies that, if I sit and watch it for even a minute or two, I'm hooked. Might as well resign myself to the idea that I'm going to sit in front of my television until the bitter end. And I did.

The problem is, though, that there is no time like the first time with a movie like "Psycho."

I can watch some comedies and enjoy the jokes over and over again. It doesn't matter how many times I've seen them.

And I can watch some dramas and marvel at the performances or the cinematography or the writing.

But suspense movies lose a lot when you know what's going to happen. The acting may be great, the cinematography may be remarkable, the writing may be brilliant. But without that deliciously uneasy sense of anticipation, a suspense movie almost loses its reason for being. There may be many things about the movie to appreciate, but I already know the story. So, while I watched "Psycho," I found myself paying little attention to the plot as my thoughts drifted to related subjects, such as ...
  • The first time I saw that movie. I was finishing my junior year in high school. In fact, school had just let out for the summer. One of the area's TV stations was going to show "Psycho" as the midnight movie on a Friday night, and my best friend's mother said we could watch the movie in her living room as long as we kept the sound low enough that she could sleep. So that Friday night, my friend and I, along with two other friends from our high school, turned off the living room lights and watched "Psycho" for the first time.

    When that knife started slashing at Janet Leigh in the shower, I jumped just as I have the first times I've seen the best suspense movies. But, no matter how good it was, it's never completely the same experience to watch a suspense movie once I've seen it.

  • Then I began to think about the fad several years ago in which classic black–and–white movies were "colorized," presumably to appeal to those modern viewers who won't watch a movie that isn't in color. That was something I never really liked. Black and white was a part of some movies. Like any new innovation, color was expensive at first. Some studios chose to use color, others didn't. In those early days, it was as much a financial decision as it was an artistic one.

    Sometimes, of course, the story demanded color. Can you imagine watching the Munchkins sing about the Yellow Brick Road or Judy Garland and the other stars sing about the Emerald City in black and white? "The Wizard of Oz" wouldn't have been the same experience if the Oz segments hadn't been in color.

    And the burning of Atlanta wouldn't have had the same impact if "Gone With the Wind" had been in black and white.

    But "Citizen Kane" is a black–and–white classic. So are "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon."

    As the years went by, the cost of color film production became less of a consideration. It struck me last night that "Psycho" could have been filmed in color. The cost wasn't as prohibitive in 1960 as it had been 20 years earlier, and Hitchcock certainly had made other films in color. But I'm not sure "Psycho" would have been as powerful in color. Black and white was as much a part of the story as the acting or the writing.

    I don't think color would have added anything to it.
Incidentally, if you want to see some of Hitchcock's best color films, I recommend that you switch on Turner Classic Movies on Monday night. "Vertigo" is on at 7 p.m. (Central), followed by "North by Northwest" at 9:15 p.m. (Central). James Stewart followed by Cary Grant. It doesn't get much better than that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

This Is Really It

Earlier this summer, in what was probably a fit of frustration, I wrote that people were acting like tickets to Michael Jackson's memorial service were tickets to the first show in the "This Is Really It" tour.

I was being facetious. But now, with the premiere of "Michael Jackson's This Is It," I almost feel like I was being prescient.

An old friend of mine, George Lang, assistant entertainment editor for The Oklahoman, reviewed the film today. He acknowledges that "it was assembled in less than four months and carries all the warning signs of both a cynical cash grab and a maudlin lionization of a dead superstar."

But he sees through much of it, even if it was hastily assembled.
"It is easy to forget that Jackson, when he was truly engaged in what mattered, was a notorious perfectionist during the recordings of 'Off the Wall' and 'Thriller.' 'This Is It' proves that while Jackson was plagued by issues too voluminous to chronicle here, he badly wanted this comeback. If Jackson had lived, he might have gotten it."

George Lang

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Take a Tip From Frasier

It's been several years now since Frasier went off the air.

The character of Dr. Frasier Crane was always amusing. He was pompous, vain, self–absorbed and insecure, but he usually seemed to have the answers for his listeners, his family and his friends. And, in the series' fifth season, he marked the 1,000th broadcast of his radio program.

In typical Frasier style, he got the station management to arrange for an outdoor rally at the Space Needle in his honor, during which the mayor of Seattle was going to proclaim the occasion "Frasier Crane Day."

Also typically, Frasier's brother was practically seething with jealousy and made little attempt to hide it. That made for some good laughs, but, up to nearly the end of the show, it was pretty much formulaic Frasier.

Anyway, the big day arrived, and Frasier and Niles went for a stroll in the direction of the Space Needle. But they were detained along the way and couldn't get to the rally in time. Frasier happened upon an accommodating driver who offered him a lift to the Space Needle, and he eagerly accepted.

On the way there, Frasier got into a conversation with the driver, who admitted that he had been having a "rough day." The therapist in him took over, and Frasier prodded the driver for more details. The driver confided that his ex–wife was remarrying in Pennsylvania, and he hadn't decided whether to fly out for the wedding. He seemed to have little affection for either his ex–wife or his ex–in–laws, but the trip would give him a chance to see his children. He laughingly lamented his choice.

"Sometimes difficult choices like these can be good things," Frasier told him. "They can teach us about who we are."

By the time they arrived at the Space Needle, Frasier had become caught up in the driver's story and told him, "I've got plenty of time. Tell me more about your kids." The driver seemed grateful for the chance to talk about something that had been weighing on his mind, and he agreed to do so. "I'm John, by the way," he told Frasier.

Perhaps, in the words of Humphrey Bogart, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But, even if it wasn't, it's a lesson for our times.

When the episode was filmed in 1997, the economy was in good shape. Unemployment was about as low as most economists believe is possible. Today, with unemployment going up each month, many who haven't lost their jobs in the last couple of years are fearful that their heads might be the next ones on the chopping block.

It's hard for many people to open up and talk about the things that are bothering them, and you don't need to be a trained therapist like Frasier to know that that isn't good for one's mental health.

In these troubling times, you may not have a job to offer to someone. But if you've got two good ears and a voice you can use (sparingly) to ask questions that can get the other person talking, that's all you need initially. Then, once you know more about the person, you can be on the lookout for something that could make the difference for him/her.

But, even if you all you do is listen, you will have performed a valuable service for a person in need.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

'Purple Rose of Cairo' Always Worth Watching

I have long been a fan of Woody Allen.

By the time of his well–publicized personal difficulties in the 1990s, I had been enjoying his films for many years. After the word got around that he had been dating — and then married — the adopted daughter of his former lover, Mia Farrow, watching a Woody Allen film became something of a guilty pleasure for me.

But I still find myself chuckling when I watch one of his movies, even if it is one I have seen many times before. I particularly enjoy the films in which he is in front of the camera as well as behind it. Perhaps the best example of that is "Annie Hall," the film that brought him Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director as well as his only nomination for Best Actor.

That was probably his breakthrough film, the one that introduced him to a much wider audience. And I have many memories that are tied to it. One that stands out was from many years later, when I was in graduate school. A friend of mine and I were enrolled in the same journalism course, and we had to give reports in class. My friend was assigned to discuss Marshall McLuhan's writings on "hot" and "cool" media, and I brought in my videotape of "Annie Hall" so my friend could preface his remarks with a showing of the scene from that movie that included McLuhan. You can see it here:

Well, anyway ...

For more than 30 years now, "Annie Hall" has been one of Allen's best movies. But you can see another one on Turner Classic Movies tomorrow night — "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

If you never saw this gem from 1985, I won't spoil it for you — except to say that Allen spends all his time behind the camera and permits Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello and Dianne Wiest to deliver some great lines — aided by some remarkable supporting performances from folks like Van Johnson.

Strangely, it received only marginal attention at the Academy Awards, receiving a single nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Unlike some of Allen's lesser works, it was not nominated for Best Picture. And, while Allen has been nominated for Best Director half a dozen times, he received no such nomination for "Purple Rose of Cairo."

In my opinion, it deserved more recognition. No matter. Allen has always done what he wanted to do, and he almost never attends the Oscar ceremony. He wasn't even there the night "Annie Hall" was recognized as Best Picture and he received his only Best Director award.

The only time I know of that Allen attended the Oscar ceremony was in 2002, less than a year after the terrorist attacks, in an unannounced appearance in which he urged producers to continue making films in his beloved New York City.

TCM will show "The Purple Rose of Cairo" at 9 p.m. (Central) tomorrow.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Spirit as well as Beauty

"To at least one teenager in a small town (though I'm sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be — ought to be — judged by her spirit as well as her beauty."

Charles Champlin
Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1991

On this day in 1900, a girl named Gladys Greene was born in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

The name means nothing to you? Does it mean more to know that was the birth name of Jean Arthur?

Actually, these days, that name probably doesn't mean much to many movie watchers, either. And that's too bad because, if you enjoy films that could be classified as "screwball comedies," you owe a lot to Jean Arthur. They broke the mold when they made her. She was the very definition of the screwball comedy actress.

And yet so much of her style was an extension of who she was. Instructing a young actress to mimic Arthur was probably as unrealistic as asking a young ballplayer to watch Stan Musial at the plate and then duplicate his unique batting style.

Even so, the actresses who came along after her — Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Sally Field, Jamie Lee Curtis, Meg Ryan and so many more — surely were influenced, to some extent, by her work.

Her career began before the arrival of the "talkies," and she retired for good in 1972, nearly 20 years before her death in 1991 and nearly 20 years after her last movie (the classic "Shane" in 1953). She didn't always make screwball comedies, but the ones she made are like nuggets of pure gold for aspiring actresses.

It isn't necessary for any of them to be the next Jean Arthur. That wouldn't be possible, anyway. There was only one Jean Arthur.

But there are lessons to be learned from watching her performances.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Frasier's Standard

Of all of television's genres, the situation comedy has been a part of television's landscape from the beginning. In fact, many of TV's early programs were adaptations of popular radio programs. Or they were created for established stars.

As television's technology has matured, so has its audience. And modern programming has, at times, struggled to keep up.

The truth is, in the predatory world of ratings–driven entertainment, it is difficult for a new TV show, even one that boasts recognizable stars and established writers, to last a single season, much less be renewed for one year or two or three. If a television show lasts until its seventh season, it is probably a hit. And hits are held to a higher standard. In the case of the hit sitcom, it is expected to be funny in unexpected ways.

That reminds me of something comedian Lewis Black said in a comedy show I saw once. Black chastised his listeners for telling their friends, "You've gotta see this guy! He's really funny!"

Black paused and stared at the audience. Then he growled, "That puts a lot of *** **** pressure on me!"

In my life, there haven't been many TV shows that have lasted seven years. Shows that lasted a decade or longer were even harder to come by.

Such shows that were spinoffs of earlier hits were damn near unheard of.

But one of those shows was Frasier. Ten years ago, Frasier had embarked on its seventh season. And it was funny.

And I'm sure that everyone — the ensemble cast, the brilliant writers — felt pressure to be witty and clever and downright funny every week. Think about the pressure that such people must feel. It's bound to be hard to be fresh and original and just plain funny after approximately 150 episodes.

Well, in my opinion, the seventh season of Frasier delivered. At times, it delivered in ways I couldn't see at the time, but I've come to appreciate since.

Over at, guests can rate individual episodes of TV shows, and the site recalculates overall ratings each day. Apparently, based on the latest data, the site also revises its list of the top episodes in a series every day. For the short–lived series, this probably isn't a tough list to compile. For a series like Frasier, there are a lot of prospects.

When Frasier began its seventh season, it was only slightly past what turned out to be the midway point of its run, but, according to the latest viewer ratings I saw at, more than three–quarters of its best episodes had already aired.

And, in fact, visitors to believe that only one–tenth of the series' best episodes aired in its final four seasons.

But those visitors to apparently believe that Frasier's seventh season was like a last hurrah.

By the seventh season, the audience and the cast and the writers had reached a comfort zone. It would deteriorate in the seasons to come — and I have to admit there were times when there were elements of the storylines that I found hard to accept. It was in the seventh season that Niles and Daphne took their relationship past the point of no return — which seemed to be as improbable a development as when Ricky and Lucy moved to the country or Fonzie jumped the shark.

But mostly, I found the episodes to be creative, deftly exploring well–established character traits with some surprise twists — like the one that aired 10 years ago today.

"Everyone's a Critic" introduced the audience to Poppy Delafield (Katie Finneran), the daughter of the latest station owner. Frasier promised to show her around but got out of it when he discovered how gabby she was. And she managed to pin everyone down at some point.

In Cafe Nervosa, Poppy was talking with several people from the radio station. Frasier observed from a table near the door. Roz came in and remarked, "I see Poppy's having a little party."

Frasier corrected her: "That's not a party. That's a hostage situation!"

A minute or two later, the effeminate Gil managed to free himself from the group and stopped at the door long enough to complain that "I feel like a mongoose at the mercy of a chatty cobra!"

But the pretentious Frasier needed Poppy and her connections to lobby station ownership for his idea for an arts review show. His sibling rivalry with his brother was percolating because Niles got a job as an arts critic for an upper–crust magazine, and Frasier was jealous of the special treatment Niles was getting.

There was also a side element to the story that played well on Martin's relationship with his dog Eddie.

But the unexpected twist was the fact that the talkative Poppy wound up getting the arts show gig Frasier had imagined for himself.

And Frasier's attempt to match his brother's achievement apparently had failed.

Then Frasier learned that Niles had lost his critic's job. And the two came to an agreement that being critics, as much fun as it was for them, was distracting them from their psychiatric work.

A few weeks later, Poppy was at the heart of another sibling rivalry tale in which Frasier and Niles each thought the other was after the affections of his love interest — and Poppy was Niles' love interest. The following week, their snobby ways were on display when they erroneously believed they were descended from Russian royalty. And later in the season, their competitiveness formed the basis of an episode in which they both were candidates for the coveted position of corkmaster at the wine club.

The show that made its debut 10 years ago today wasn't the best episode of the Frasier series. It wasn't even the best show of the seventh season. But it is representative of the show's quality, even after seven years.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Forever Young

Today would have been John Lennon's 69th birthday.

That really amazes me, and I'm not sure why. I mean, I know he was 40 when he was killed. And I know it has been nearly 30 years since that happened. But when I add those two numbers together, I have a very hard time picturing John Lennon — the John Lennon I remember — on the brink of his 70s.

But that isn't so remarkable. I mean, can you picture John F. Kennedy at 92? Or Marilyn Monroe at 83? Or Martin Luther King at 80? Or James Dean at 78? Of course not. But that's how old all those people would be if they were alive today. In our memories, they are eternally young.

And, since Lennon had only been 40 for two months when he was killed, our memories are of him in his 30s — or, if one thinks of him in his Beatles days, in his 20s.

Anyway, in honor of the occasion, I have attached a video (which is really an audio with text on the screen) of the Beatles' "Birthday," which was part of "The Beatles" album (informally known as The White Album).

In fact, that song was released as a single a few days before my birthday (I won't say which birthday that was!).

Today is an appropriate day for that song, though, because several people who were/are linked to the music industry were born on this date.

For example, Judy Tyler had some training in song and dance, but she was mostly an actress who co–starred with Elvis Presley in "Jailhouse Rock."

Tyler was born on this date in 1932, and she never saw the film she made with Elvis. After filming was complete, she and her husband went on a vacation, during which they were both killed in a car accident. Tyler was only 24. Elvis always said he couldn't watch that movie because Tyler's death upset him so much.

John Entwistle of The Who was born on this date in 1944. Jackson Browne was born on this date in 1948. Sharon Osbourne, Ozzy's wife, was born on this date in 1952. And Lennon's son Sean was born on this date in 1975.

In fact, a lady for whom I worked for several years had a daughter who was born on this date. I don't know what kind of work will appeal to her, but it would be fitting if it had at least some connection to music.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Imagine a John Lennon Anniversary

If one thinks of John Lennon's solo career and doesn't think of the stuff from the album he released shortly before he was murdered, I guess one thinks of "Imagine" — the song more than the album although both were released in the United Kingdom on this date in 1971 — the day before Lennon's 31st birthday.

The song became Lennon's musical signature, I suppose.

I have always been fond of the album, but let's face it, the title track has become commercialized to an extent that I wonder if Lennon would approve. Then again, perhaps he already knew and understood it was a fight he had to lose sometimes in order to be successful. He said that the difference between his first album, "Plastic Ono Band," and "Imagine" was that "Imagine" was "chocolate–coated for public consumption."

Well, if that was true, then "Crippled Inside" might have been regarded as a chocolate–covered cherry except it would need a flavor that was more of a contrast to chocolate. But it was always one of my favorite songs on the album, perhaps because of the dynamic tension it possessed. The lyrics are kind of grim, in the spirit of "Plastic Ono Band," but the music is more upbeat, in keeping with the rest of the "Imagine" album.

And, for you Beatles fans, George Harrison plays the dobro.

Actually, I always liked all the songs on "Imagine" — and even Lennon acknowledged the title song was "an anti–religious, anti–nationalistic, anti–conventional, anti–capitalistic song" with a "sugar–coated" package.

But it's the Lennon songs that most people don't know that I like the best. And "Crippled Inside" is at the top of that list.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

An Evening of Goldie

I have a confession to make.

When I was a boy, I had a crush on Goldie Hawn, the ditzy blonde from television's Rowan & Martin's Laugh–In. She kind of played on that image when she moved from TV to movies, especially in three movies she made in the late 1960s and early 1970s — "Cactus Flower," "There's a Girl in My Soup" and "Butterflies Are Free."

Her performance in "Cactus Flower" was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1969, when she was in her early 20s. I liked it, but I guess I liked "Butterflies Are Free" better. That movie, by the way, also won Best Supporting Actress, but not for Hawn. The statuette went to Eileen Heckart.

And you can see both of those movies tomorrow night on Turner Classic Movies, along with "There's a Girl in My Soup" and "Foul Play," the 1978 comedy/crime drama in which she co–starred with Chevy Chase.
  • "Foul Play" is on at 7 p.m. (Central). It is followed by

  • "Butterflies Are Free" at 9 p.m. (Central), which is followed by

  • her Oscar–winning performance in "Cactus Flower" at 11 p.m. (Central). Others in the cast were Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman. And night owls can see

  • "There's a Girl in My Soup" at 1 a.m. (Central). The film also starred Peter Sellers.
Ironically, one of the actresses she beat for the Oscar, Dyan Cannon, can be seen in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" at 2:45 a.m. (Central).

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Random Thoughts

An old friend of mine called me last night.

You may have read about him here before. I wrote about this friend on my blog a couple of months ago just before he was going to take his oldest son to see Paul McCartney in concert.

He called, in part, to tell me that he had taken his sons to see "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." He liked the computer animation.

My friend has always been an artistic person. We knew each other in college, and I remember spending many evenings hanging out at his place drinking beer and listening to him play guitar. Today, he works as a photographer so it doesn't surprise me that he has an appreciation of modern animation.

I have no children so I don't keep up with these things the way parents do, and I told my friend that the only children's movie I was aware of that will be hitting the theaters soon is a film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." My friend was ahead of me on that one.

He told me that his wife had reservations about that movie, apparently because she is afraid the film won't measure up to the book. I, too, am an advocate of reading, and I agree with her reasoning, but I told my friend that I personally would allow the children to see the movie (unless it gets terrible reviews), and I would encourage them to read the book afterward. I told him that there were many movies that I saw when I was growing up that inspired me to read the books upon which they were based.

That observation turned my thoughts to the stepdaughter of a mutual friend. When she was probably about 5 or 6, I made a videotape of the Danny Kaye movie "Hans Christian Andersen" and gave it to her. I told her it was one of my favorite movies when I was her age, and I wanted her to enjoy it, too. She loved it so much, I gave her a copy of Andersen's stories, upon which much of the movie was based, for Christmas. She is probably in her early 20s now, but her mother told me she still has the book (and, I believe, the videotape — unless she has replaced it with a DVD). I'm glad I could pass that along to the next generation.

My friend and I agreed that the modern world is technologically amazing. There are so many things that exceed anything that my friend and I could have imagined when we were in college together — and, as my friend observed, we thought in those days that we were living in the most advanced time the world had ever seen.

And we were.

But in so many ways, it seems primitive compared to today.

I guess some of the things we were brought up on seem quaint and old–fashioned now. And I suppose most of the people of my generation have had to adapt their approach to parenting so I told my friend that I think parents are the best judges of what is appropriate for their children.

I was speaking primarily in the sense of which films or books for which they are ready. Chronological age is like a one–size–fits–all solution. I don't think you have to be a parent to know that some kids are more mature than others. Parents have observed their child's development from birth, and they should have an idea whether their child is ready for something.

Age is just a number, I often remind people.

Remember that stepdaughter I mentioned? Around the time I gave her that videotape, "Jurassic Park" was released on video, and that was getting a lot of coverage in newspapers, magazines and TV. I had seen the movie at the theater, and I told my friend's wife that I thought her daughter was probably too young to watch the movie. I said it would frighten her.

I figured that was a no–brainer. That movie was pretty intense for adults.

Admittedly, though, I did use my own experience to evaluate the situation. When I was 5 or 6, the winged monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz" frightened me, gave me nightmares.

In hindsight, it was probably wrong of me to apply my own experience to the situation. Different people, different times. But I felt, having seen "Jurassic Park," that young children would be frightened by the images of aggressive dinosaurs.

Anyway, she wound up seeing it somehow — kids always manage to do something or see something they have been forbidden to do or see — and I was right, it did scare her.

Thinking of that reminded me of something else.

About 12 years ago, one of the traditional TV networks (I forget now which one) showed Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" unedited and interrupted only by an intermission. The film was preceded by a brief statement by Spielberg. As I recall, he urged parents to decide for themselves whether their children were ready for the issues that were raised by a film about Nazi Germany.

Spielberg said he would have no problem permitting a high school student to watch the movie, in spite of its R rating, but he would have to decide individually on younger children.

I understand that parents want to be responsible in the decisions they make about what their children watch or hear or read.

Applying common sense is the key.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Music of Our Lives

I came across a website that I thought I would share with you.

On this website, you can find out what was the #1 Billboard song on any date in history — the day you were born, the day your spouse or your child(ren) were born, the day you graduated from high school or college, the day you got married, the day someone close to you died.

I found, for example, that the #1 song on the day that I was born was "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin.

The top song on the day my brother was born was "Telstar" by The Tornados.

And, out of curiosity, I checked to see what the top song was the day I received my master's degree. It was "Black or White" by Michael Jackson.

Try it out. Pick a random date, or pick one that has special significance for you.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Half a Century in the Zone

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the debut of "The Twilight Zone."

It's always been one of my favorite shows. I guess I have seen every episode at least once now.

When the original series — with Rod Serling doing his now–famous intros — first appeared on America's TV screens half a century ago, the first episode was "Where Is Everybody?" starring Earl Holliman, who marked his 81st birthday last month.

The first season of "The Twilight Zone" featured some of the series' most classic episodes and boasted some great guest stars, like Ed Wynn, Burgess Meredith, Ida Lupino, Gig Young, Jack Warden, Rod Taylor, Fritz Weaver, Everett Sloane, Dick York, Vera Miles, Claude Akins, Roddy McDowall, Sebastian Cabot, George Grizzard, Jack Klugman, Orson Bean, Anne Francis and Keenan Wynn.

The Syfy Channel (formerly the Sci–Fi Channel) will be showing "Twilight Zone" episodes all day tomorrow in honor of the occasion, and that first episode will kick things off at 7 a.m. (Central).