Thursday, December 30, 2010

What You Need

Within the next 48 hours, we will say goodbye to 2010.

For some of us, the year can't end too soon. It's a time to look ahead to the future.

But, once again, the Syfy Channel (formerly the SciFi Channel) urges us to look to the past as a new year begins. It does so with its annual New Year's Eve and New Year's Day Twilight Zone marathon.

It may be just what you need.

I say that after having glanced through Syfy's online schedule for the marathon listings, and it does not appear that a first–season episode — which aired for the first time on Christmas Day 1959 — called "What You Need" is going to be shown.

That's too bad — because it has always been one of my favorite episodes — and it seems to be the right message.

Simply put, it's the story of a hoodlum (Steve Cochran) and an old man (Ernest Truex). The old man is a sidewalk salesman who always knows precisely what people will need before they need it. The hoodlum decides that what he needs is to take advantage of the situation.

It's a good episode, and, as I say, it would have made a good theme for the TZ marathon. But I'll see it again. I'm sure I will because Syfy does show it from time to time — as do other channels.

What always intrigues me in these marathons is the opportunity to see the episodes that I seldom see — and one such episode practically jumps out at me tomorrow morning — "The Four of Us Are Dying" — about a gangster (Harry Townes) who can "twitch a muscle, move a jaw, concentrate on the cast of his eyes, and he can change his face."

It's a good episode, not a great one. And I have seen it before — but not often.

And I'll watch it if I'm awake. It's on fairly early tomorrow — 7:30 a.m. Central.

Here's hoping you all have a safe and happy new year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In Praise of Teachers

As I wrote last week, there are whole portions of 1995 that I simply do not remember.

That's true. At the time, I was very focused on my father, who was recovering from his injuries (both physical and mental) from the flood that took my mother's life in May of that year.

But, by the end of December in 1995, my father was recovering and I was emerging from my own fog of grief, and I started doing normal, everyday things again, like going to the movies.

I didn't see "Mr. Holland's Opus," which made its debut on this day in 1995, until the next calendar year, but I had heard a lot about it and I had eagerly anticipated it — and it lived up to my expectations when I finally saw it.

(By the way, you can see it a week from tonight, at 7 Central on Turner Classic Movies.)

It was the biography of a music teacher, and it reminded me a lot of my mother, who was a teacher during her life. It also served as an inspiration for me a few months ago when I was writing about the memorial service for one of my closest friends, who was as musically gifted as anyone I have ever known or ever expect to know.

A fictional story, the movie told a tale most people could probably tell — of the teacher (or coach or church leader or some adult figure) who made a difference in their lives.

Michael Costello of observed that it was a throwback to the days of "the tribute to a life of selfless dedication" theme. It was, he wrote, a genre in which the great John Ford excelled, but it seems to have fallen on hard times.

Costello had praise for the acting, especially that of the star, Richard Dreyfuss, but he had several complaints about the story, writing that the subplot was "underdeveloped" and "heavy handed."

I suppose the criticism was warranted, but I guess most teachers would tell you that they get a charge from witnessing the moments when the light bulb comes on for their students, the way it did for young Gertrude Lang in this clip.

There was nothing false about the depiction of that experience in the movie. It is an exciting moment.

Perhaps I feel that way because my parents were teachers and so were my father's parents. I myself have been a teacher of journalism at times in my life — currently, in fact, on an adjunct basis at the local community college — and I have known that feeling.

The problem with being a teacher, though, is that you can't always be sure you're having that kind of impact on the people in your classroom. And, to be fair, most people would probably tell you that few, if any, of their teachers truly inspired them.

I know that most of mine did not.

But there were a few who did — a few Mr. Hollands along the way. They may have been the exceptions, but they more than made up for it with their devotion to their subject, whether it was music or art or science or math.

"Mr. Holland's Opus" was an homage to all of them.

And, in her own way, Glenne Headly, as Mr. Holland's supportive spouse, contributed much to Mr. Holland's approach to his students.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Too Young to Die

Do you recall the "Poltergeist" movies, especially the first one that came out in 1982?

Do you remember Heather O'Rourke, the young actress who played the youngest daughter in the Freeling family, Carol Anne?

O'Rourke made three "Poltergeist" movies in the 1980s. Her line, "They're here," probably was as recognizable as Jack Nicholson's cryptic "He–e–e–ere's Johnny!" had been a few years earlier in "The Shining."

In 1987, O'Rourke apparently was misdiagnosed with Crohn's disease. Early in 1988, she became ill and collapsed, suffered cardiac arrest during surgery and died.

She was 12 at the time of her death.

Anyway, I mention O'Rourke because today would have been her 35th birthday.

It seems strange to me to wonder what O'Rourke might have done in the last 23 years. In my mind, she will always be the little girl in "Poltergeist."

If she had lived, I might always have thought of "Poltergeist" whenever I saw her, much the way people of my parents' generation always thought of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" when they saw Judy Garland.

Perhaps I instinctively knew that "Poltergeist" would be the signature of her career, no matter how long that career might be.

I doubt that I suspected that she would die so young. I'm just saying that it may have been one of those cases where you just know that nothing else the actor/actress ever does will match what you're looking at.

Of course, when I think about it, I've never really been able to anticipate what child actors may go on to do — or if they are going to do anything else — in movies or television.

Some, like Jodie Foster, make the transition from child roles to adult roles and enjoy a successful career that includes some quality productions, some award nominations, even an Oscar.

Far more, though, seem to endure troubled and reckless adolescences. If they survive them, they often seem to mostly disappear from public view and only re–appear when they are in trouble with the law.

O'Rourke occupied a third category, I guess. She doesn't seem to have been a troubled kid — perhaps she would have become one if she had lived into her teens. Perhaps she would have had a Foster–like career if fate had not intervened.

I don't know if she would have remained in the business or if she would have pursued a different career path. She did very little outside of the "Poltergeist" films. She didn't have enough time.

Of course, many child actors turn out to be visually appealing but little else — and when they outgrow their childhood cuteness, nothing is left. I don't know if that would have been the case with O'Rourke, but I always sensed there were talents within her. Whether those talents would have been seen on the silver screen or in some other pursuit, I do not know.

It is probably safe to say that, by the age of 35, she may well have had children of her own. She may have been leading a very public life or a very private one. No one can say.

I only know she was far too young to die.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

In Defense of Godfather III

Twenty years ago today, the third and final installment of Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" trilogy hit America's movie screens.

Movie fans had been waiting long enough. The first "Godfather" came out in 1972; the second came out in 1974. By the time "Godfather III" was released, it had been 16 years.

I observed the hype for this film — followed by a rather dismal reception from both audiences and critics — mostly from a distance. It wasn't in the same category with the first two in the trilogy, moviegoers were told, and I decided to wait and see it when it was released on video.

It was compared unfavorably — if such a thing was possible — to the third film in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "Return of the Jedi," but even "Jedi" had some good things said about it by its detractors. "Godfather III," it seemed, did not — or, at least, not much.

And I have come to the conclusion that that isn't really fair.

Perhaps part of that was due to the fact that 1990 really seemed to be a year of sequels — "Back to the Future III," "The Exorcist III" and "Die Hard 2" probably were the most prominent ones, but every time one turned around, it seemed, there was another, lesser sequel, like "American Ninja 4," "Child's Play 2," "Gremlins 2," "Predator 2," "RoboCop 2."

In hindsight, "Godfather III" may have faced impossible expectations.

Was it the weakest of the three films? Of that, I think there is no doubt. And I agree with some of the main arguments — to an extent.

But, remember, this is a Francis Ford Coppola film we're talking about. His screenwriting/directing/producing resume includes such films as "Patton," "American Graffiti," "The Conversation," "The Great Gatsby" and "Apocalypse Now" before he directed "Godfather III."

As I wrote recently about Alfred Hitchcock, there are many film directors who wish their best efforts were as good as his mediocre ones.

In those 16 years, the first two "Godfather" flicks worked their way into just about everyone's Top 10 list of the greatest films ever made. "Godfather II" has frequently received a rare distinction for a sequel — that it was actually better than the original.

The bar was always set at impossible heights.

Between them, the first two "Godfather" movies won nine Oscars, and, from the perspective of the budget, things could hardly have been much better. The first film had a budget of $6.5 million and made about $245 million. The sequel two years later was made for about $13 million and earned $190 million.

In that sense, I suppose, "Godfather III" did not disappoint. Well, not entirely. It did make more than $130 million — but making it cost more than 2½ times what it cost to make the first two movies.

But it wasn't surprising that "Godfather III" cost more to make. The first two movies were made under much different economic circumstances; when you allow for inflation, production costs in 1990 were comparable to those in 1974.

Movie ticket prices went up in those 16 years, too, so box office receipts that came in below the numbers from the second sequel were seen as a failure.

It didn't help that critics were, well, critical. Assessments were decidedly mixed, although, in fairness, it ought to be noted that Coppola really wanted the film to be the epilogue of a story that he believed was told in its entirety in the first two films.

Coppola wanted the movie to be called "The Death of Michael Corleone," but Paramount Pictures demanded (probably for marketing purposes) that it be called "Godfather III."

That alone probably raised the bar to unreachable heights — and may explain some things.

As the 20th anniversary of its release approached, I decided to revisit "Godfather III," and here are my observations:
  • Considering that "Godfather II" was regarded as both a sequel and a prequel to the original, I tend to think Coppola was right to consider "Godfather III" an epilogue to the story.

    I think it tells elements of the story that needed to be told, but they couldn't be told with the same familiar all–star cast. Some of those stars — Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire — did come back, but there was no Marlon Brando, no Robert De Niro, no Robert Duvall. Most of the established box office draws were missing.

    Perhaps there were too many fresh faces — Bridget Fonda (in what was seen as her breakthrough role), Sofia Coppola, Andy Garcia, Joe Mantegna, George Hamilton. OK, so some of them weren't so "fresh," but their characters were new to this film series.

    And you could play the familiar music and you could show familiar settings, and you could open the film with another party that sugar–coated the Corleone family, but without enough familiar characters, with too many new characters, a sequel loses much of its sense of familiarity while the audience struggles to get up to speed on who everyone is.

  • For some reason, Sofia Coppola seemed to take the brunt of the criticism for the new characters who represented the next generation in the Corleone family. She was a last–minute substitution for Winona Ryder in a small but vital part, and, to some, her elevation with a modest acting track record smacked of nepotism.

    Her father was the director, after all.

    Critics said she was "wooden" and "hopelessly amateurish," but I thought she was better than many said she was. She was a teenager, after all.

    The role of Mary Corleone seems to have been star–crossed from the start. First, Julia Roberts (who may have been Hollywood's hottest actress at the time) was slated to play it, but she dropped out. Madonna, I have been told, was interested, but she was deemed to be too old. A rising young actress named Rebecca Schaeffer was going to audition for the part, but she was killed by a stalker. Then Ryder withdrew.

    Anyway, Sofia seems to have gotten the message that acting isn't her thing. It is no coincidence, I think, that she has made few appearances in front of the camera since she made "Godfather III," and she has increasingly followed in her father's directing/screenwriting footsteps.
  • And some people — including Francis Ford Coppola — felt the movie was incomplete without Duvall's Tom Hagen, the "adopted" German–Irish son of Don Corleone and family legal advisor.

    Duvall, however, quit the project over a salary dispute, and his character written out of the story. In the movie, it was said that Hagen had died a few years earlier.

    Duvall's departure certainly changed things dramatically for everyone involved. Originally, the script called for a falling–out between Pacino and Duvall. It was, I am told, at the heart of the plot so, when Duvall pulled out, that meant practically the entire story had to be rewritten.

    I get the feeling that Coppola was particularly bitter about the matter, alleging that Duvall insisted on being paid the same as Pacino. Duvall, on the other hand, said that he understood Pacino was the film's star, and he didn't mind if Pacino was paid twice what he was paid, but Duvall claimed that Pacino's salary actually was three or four times greater than his and that he could not accept.
  • I'm inclined to think the movie would have been better if Duvall had participated. No matter what his demands were, Coppola probably would have been wise to give in.

    Having to rewrite the story led to some pretty contrived dialogue, such as the time Michael advises the illegitimate son of his brother Sonny, "Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment."

    Or the "kissing cousins" relationship between Michael's nephew and daughter.
It all seemed, shall we say, a little heavy handed? But at least they had logical — albeit unlikely — explanations. Some things, of course, are beyond a logical explanation. It is jarring, to say the least, to see the Twin Towers in the opening segments of the film while the voice of Michael Corleone recites his letter to his estranged children, asking them to come to a papal ceremony honoring him for his charitable work — unplanned foreshadowing, perhaps, of the fall of the once–powerful Michael Corleone? Wow. Talk about heavy handed.

Well, I guess it isn't as heavy handed as the climactic scene in "Godfather III" — which, by the way, I heard described by some reviewers at the time as one of the most powerful in filmmaking history. It isn't really possible, I suppose, that Coppola predicted the attack on the World Trade Center 11 years before it happened. I am not aware of any time when he has claimed to have the gift of prophecy. And yet he was telling the Corleone story from some time in the future, and we knew, in the context of that story, that "Godfather III" began in 1979. But I do not recall ever being aware of when the story was being told. Admit it. On Christmas Day, isn't it sort of fun to play around with the prophecy possibilities?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting a Handle on Mr. Adams

When I was a child, somehow I developed a fascination with the American presidency.

I don't remember how or when this fascination started. I do recall that it was pretty well established by the time I was in first grade because I remember making a sort of presentation on the presidents to one of the first grade classes in my elementary school one day.

I remember my mother standing in the doorway next to my teacher. Both were beaming as I told the class stories about the presidents. At that age, I think I was mostly telling stories my mother had told me. As I got older, I confirmed most of them for myself.

All these years later, I am still fascinated by the American presidency. You might think I would be jaded by this time, disillusioned by what I have read and observed of the many incompetent leaders and failed presidencies in our nation's history and the pain and suffering their mistakes have caused — but I'm not.

The story of the American presidency is all the more fascinating to me because it is so often the story of essentially ordinary men facing unusual circumstances they cannot tame.

The more I have studied the presidency in my life, the more I have come to realize the truth in the adage that history repeats itself. It really does — not always precisely, not entirely predictably, but it definitely does repeat itself.

We are living through difficult times, but we have been through difficult times before. Sour economies have sunk many well–meaning presidents. So have unpopular wars.

After more than two centuries of existence, there are few things that could possibly be firsts in the American experience.

You have to go back quite a ways to find most of the originals. But John Adams was one of them.

It's hard to get a handle on him, though. His friend and rival Thomas Jefferson seemed to have mixed emotions about him.

"I never felt a diminution of confidence in his integrity, and retained a solid affection for him," Jefferson wrote.

But Jefferson also wrote, "Mr. Adams and his Federalists wish to sap the [r]epublic by fraud, destroy it by force, and elect an English monarchy in its place."

He didn't cut an imposing figure, actually, at least not when compared to many of his better–known contemporaries. George Washington was a large man, muscular, 6'2", between 175 and 200 pounds. Thomas Jefferson was half an inch taller and thin.

Adams stood more than half a foot shorter than either man, and he was portly. He must have seemed almost comical whenever he stood next to them — and, unlike either of those men, he is not memorialized for all time on the side of a mountain (in a place that was barely a territory at the time Adams died).

Anyway, my father went out of town for a couple of weeks during the Christmas season. Before he left, he loaned me his DVD of "John Adams," the HBO miniseries from a few years ago.

I told him I would watch it — and I have — and here are my thoughts on it. (Well, perhaps I'm being misleading with my use of the singular. It should be a plural. It's a three–DVD set. But never mind.)

I read historian David McCullough's book on which the series was based, and I think the book and the TV series provide probably the most accurate telling you can find of the life story of a largely misunderstood president.

Maybe it was inevitable that Adams should be misunderstood — or at least overlooked. His one–term presidency was sandwiched in between two of the giants of that time in American history, Washington and Jefferson.

I get the sense that, during Adams' own time, his family and friends knew him to be a warm and loving man, but he was regarded as cold and aloof by those who did not know him.

I touched on this when I wrote about Adams last July 4.

Of course, at that time, I had not yet seen the HBO series, which was co–produced by Tom Hanks (who happens to be my favorite contemporary actor) and co–starred Laura Linney (who happens to be one of my favorite contemporary actresses).

The part of Adams was played by Paul Giamatti. I can't say he is one of my favorite actors, but I have seen him in other films like "Sideways" and "Cinderella Man," and I respect his talent.

Long before I was aware of him, I was aware of his father, Bart Giamatti, who was the commissioner of major league baseball in 1989. I worked on newspaper sports staffs in the 1980s and 1990s, and we often ran stories about Giamatti. He banned Pete Rose from baseball for gambling — then, shockingly, he died of a heart attack eight days later.

Paul Giamatti was 22 when his father died.

But I digress.

The HBO story of "John Adams" actually started in 1770, several years before independence was declared, when Adams agreed to defend the British soldiers who were charged in the Boston Massacre.

That must have been about as popular a task in Adams' time as defending Timothy McVeigh or the so–called "20th hijacker" in ours.

But, while Adams was concerned — to a certain extent — with his popularity (he had misgivings about the effect that defending the soldiers would have on his reputation), he was far more interested in the concept of the rule of law, and he believed the soldiers had acted in self defense.
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

John Adams
(Dec. 4, 1770)

If the soldiers had acted in self defense, if they felt threatened by the angry mob and acted accordingly, he reasoned, the most with which they could be charged would be manslaughter.

And Adams did such a fine job of defending the soldiers that most were acquitted. The two who fired directly into the crowd were convicted of manslaughter, not murder.

Part 2 of the series fast–forwarded us to a re–enactment of the moment when this nation was born.

It told a riveting story of how Washington was chosen to command the Continental Army, how the Declaration of Independence was shaped in Philadelphia while the Southern delegates awaited their instructions — and how Adams persuaded Jefferson to write the document.

That's a story I never tire of hearing, and it is a very familiar one for me. When I was a child, my family often traveled to New England in the summers. My parents had friends there, and we visited places that most people only read about in their history books in school — Lexington, Concord, the Old North Church. We walked the Freedom Trail in Boston. We toured the USS Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides" (which actually was not launched until the year Adams became president).

American history really lived and breathed for my brother and me when we were children. We could see it and touch it as well as hear stories about it.

In the third installment of the miniseries, Adams and his son (and future president), John Quincy, departed for France, where Adams was to represent the nation in a largely diplomatic role — even though Adams did not speak French, which was, at the time, the preferred language of diplomats.

To not make that point was — if you'll forgive the phrase — a faux pas.

That's the sort of historical observation I would expect such a biographical series to make — and, in fairness, it did make the audience aware of Adams' deficiency in French, but I didn't feel it adequately expressed the misgivings that many people had about his ability to be an effective diplomat without that linguistic skill.

It did give what seemed to be an authentic re–creation of encounters with British warships, which was part of the story of Adams' diplomatic appointment. And it did a pretty good job of dramatizing Adams' general frustration with the post.

"If I have committed some crime," Adams complained bitterly at one point, "I believe I deserve to be told what it was."

He was equally frustrated later in the series when he was vice president and was excluded from the meetings of Washington's Cabinet and inner circle. His unhappiness with the job was well documented.

Factually, I did have a few issues with the third installment. At one point, John observed that his son was 14. In fact, John Quincy was 10 when the two of them made the trip to France in 1777. The two returned to America when John Quincy would have been about 12. As the installment ended, Abigail was seen relating to the remaining children that the British had surrendered and the war was over.

Adams was sent back to France to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783 following the British surrender. That was in the fourth installment. I don't know if John Quincy accompanied his father on that appointment to France. He would have been 15 or 16 by that time.

The timing of that episode raised another interesting historical inaccuracy. In that fourth segment, Abigail (who comes across as too modest to be comfortable with any public display of affection, even when she and her husband are reunited in Paris) chastised Benjamin Franklin for being unfaithful to his wife while he was in France.

I don't know if Abigail was as prim as she appeared, but I do know it wasn't possible for Franklin to have cheated on his wife during his time in France.

Yes, the audience saw (accurately) how Franklin had given in to the — shall we say — sexually liberal atmosphere of 18th–century Paris.

But Franklin's wife died of a stroke in 1774, which predated the events in the second segment. And Franklin, who did not remarry after his wife's death, did not become minister to France until 1778.

Abigail was portrayed, in this series and in books I have read, as a sharp woman. Very little escaped her notice. It seems implausible, to say the least, that the fact that Mrs. Franklin had been deceased for many years could have eluded Abigail's personal radar.

Facts are, indeed, stubborn things.

I became aware of several factual inaccuracies in the series — some could be considered significant, others were less so — and I would have thought that a series that proposes to tell the life story of an American president would be more meticulous about its facts.

For example, in that episode I mentioned earlier in which Adams struggled in the diminished role of vice president (more than a century later, John Garner described the vice president as the president's "spare tire") the Senate's vote on the Jay Treaty was presented as a contentious, pivotal moment in Adams' career, ending in a tie and forcing a rare tie–breaking vote by the vice president.

That must be some sort of alternate reality because, in fact, the Senate gave two–thirds of its votes to the treaty. Adams' vote wasn't needed.

In the next–to–last episode, the Adamses moved into the just–completed Executive Mansion. The building was painted white, and 21st–century viewers would recognize it instantly as the White House.

But the building was not painted white until more than 15 years after Adams left the presidency. That was prompted by the fact that the building, along with several other government buildings, had been burned by the British in the War of 1812.

Certainly, I would have thought that a miniseries that dramatizes any important period in history would be more meticulous than this one was, but it still won 13 Emmy Awards. And I guess it deserved them. The costumes seemed authentic, and the acting was good.

But, along with the factual inaccuracies, I found the music annoying — kind of a cross between the scores of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (which wasn't well received when it was released but has become more highly regarded as the years have passed) and "Into the West," the TV miniseries from a few years back. Perhaps that was the inevitable result of having two composers work on the score independently and separately from each other, one in London and the other in Los Angeles.

I can't conclude this without saying a few words about Linney's performance as Abigail Adams.

The Adamses, of course, lived a couple of centuries before I was born so I can't say how well Giamatti and Linney replicated their vocal patterns.

But, based on the paintings I have seen of John and Abigail Adams, I'm inclined to think that the physical casting was pretty good, especially in Linney's case.

I have seen fewer paintings of Abigail than of John, but the ones I have seen show what I think is a striking resemblance between the actress and the historical figure she played. That may well be the result of good makeup and hair styling, but most of it was Linney herself.

They were truly a remarkable couple in early American history, and it is altogether fitting that Linney, as Abigail, should have been given almost equal treatment in this series as her husband. In reality, Abigail seems to have been, in every sense, her husband's co–partner — albeit a silent one on many occasions.

I say that, you see, because Abigail's character didn't have much to say in this seven–part series. She was often on screen, which justified Linney's co–billing with Giamatti, I guess, but she was there mostly to listen to what John had to say — when she wasn't nursing sick children or tending to household chores.

She had far fewer lines than he did, and, other than Linney's narration of excerpts from Abigail's letters or her face–to–face conversations with her husband (which were few because of their frequent forced separations), her dialogues were with her children. When Giamatti was present, Linney was mostly required to sit and look concerned while he spoke (and she did that quite well, too).

The series hinted at Abigail's feminist and abolitionist views — both of which were rather radical positions in the late 18th century.

I guess that's an honest reflection of the societal norms of that time. It's also a pretty clear indication why Abigail urged her husband in a letter she wrote, when the Declaration of Independence was being shaped in 1776, to "[r]emember the [l]adies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the [h]usbands."

It has long been acknowledged that Abigail often advised her husband, but I gather that much of Abigail's influence may have been confined to the printed page. That may or may not be true, may or may not be fair, but that is the impression I get.

That is hardly a challenge for an actress who is as accomplished as Linney, but her portrayal of Abigail was quietly powerful, and it earned her awards from the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

The same groups also honored Giamatti's performance.

That's equality.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Shakespearean Drama of Richard Nixon

There are many things about 1995 that I simply do not remember.

In hindsight, I guess that is to be expected. In May of that year, my mother was killed in a flash flood; after that, many things that happened in the world in the second half of that year simply didn't happen, as far as I was concerned.

By the end of the year, I guess, I was regaining my footing. And, in December, I went to see a movie I had been anticipating for quite awhile — Oliver Stone's "Nixon" starring Anthony Hopkins.

The movie actually premiered 15 years ago today — but I have rarely gone to see a movie on its first day, even when I was a teenager. In those days, when one saw a movie was often considered more important than actually seeing it.

I went to see it a few days after Christmas. It's safe to say Christmas was a difficult holiday in my family that year, and it is equally safe to say I was preoccupied with other matters until Christmas was over. But I did see the movie before the new year began.

I was a fan of Oliver Stone's work long before "Nixon" came out. And I will concede that he is probably the most overtly political filmmaker of our time.

What's more, he is clearly associated with the left–leaning political elements in America, and, presumably because of that, it was generally accepted that any biopic Stone would do on Nixon would be exceedingly negative.

I wanted to see it with my father, who remembered not only Nixon's presidency but his vice presidency as well. Oh, and he hated Nixon, too. (I think I may have mentioned that from time to time.)

Well, that, he said, was precisely why he wouldn't go see the movie.

"I hated Nixon so much," he told me over dinner one night, "that I won't go see it even though they trash him in it."

After Nixon resigned, I don't think Dad ever thought about him again — unless he was forced to do so, like when Nixon did his famous post–presidency interview with David Frost or when he had a stroke and lapsed into a coma — and died shortly thereafter.

Personally, I didn't feel that Nixon was "trashed" in the movie. Maybe that was Stone's intention — and maybe my response was all cockeyed — but I found myself sympathizing with Nixon — the dutiful son craving his mother's approval, the vice presidential nominee chastened by attacks on his integrity, the gubernatorial candidate who lashes out at the press on Election Night, the president who wrestles daily with his inner demons.

Nixon's story — how he achieved his heart's desire only to see it slip through his fingers and crash on the floor — was a drama of truly Shakespearean proportions.

I don't agree with most of the things Nixon said. I still oppose many of his policies. But the movie didn't really explore the political side. It explored the darker, human side, the side where doubt and personal recrimination dwell.

I think there is at least a little of that in every human heart. Most people manage to rise above it to a certain degree, but Nixon may represent the opposite extreme. The dark side had its way within him so often they could have played "Darth Vader's theme" instead of "Hail to the Chief" when he entered a room.

We are truly the sum of our individual experiences, and sometimes that can be seen in unpleasant ways. More than anything, that may have been Stone's message.

The Nixon who blithely approved the Watergate coverup was driven, perhaps subliminally, by his memories of past humiliations — of his losing campaign for governor 10 years earlier and his desire never to experience defeat again, whether by a wide margin as in 1962 or a much narrower margin, as was the case in the 1960 presidential election — and those experiences had been, in turn, shaped by the perceived lessons that had been learned 10 years before that when Nixon resisted the attempt to have him dropped from the national ticket or a couple of years earlier, when Nixon was the beneficiary of the rough and tumble of high–stakes political campaigns.

An experience like asking viewers to express their support for keeping him on the ticket was another humiliation Nixon was not eager to duplicate.

At each juncture in his life, he was presented as a "new" Nixon — that may be the most persistent memory I have of Nixon, that he was constantly trying to reinvent himself — but it was always the same Nixon underneath.

I still hate Nixon — thanks mostly to my parents' influence, I suppose — but I feel that I understand him better for having seen Stone's film. That may be an unintended consequence.

Granted, Stone took what could be called poetic license with both his film about Nixon and his earlier film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Neither could be called a literal history. Some events were not presented chronologically; others were condensed and/or combined, primarily (I presume) in the interest of brevity and, perhaps, more palatable ratings.

(Beware, high school or college students working on research papers about Kennedy or Nixon: Do not use these films as resources. They are dramatizations that are partly based on verifiable facts. Use those verifications as your sources.)

And I guess that would be my primary complaint about Stone's filmmaking style. His free association approach could lead to misinterpretation of the events, to say the least.

It was something that had to be done, really. You couldn't tell the story of Watergate — let alone the story of Nixon's life — in a few hours. You had to hit the high points and merge other things.

But a few things were given a pretty accurate — and seemingly complete — treatment.

Like, for example, Nixon's visit to the Lincoln Memorial in the wee hours of May 9, 1970, only days after four students were killed in an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University.

That visit to the Lincoln Memorial really did happen. I couldn't swear that the conversation that was shown in the film was, word for word, the conversation that took place — although I know that Nixon did have the conversation about Syracuse football.

On that occasion, Nixon spoke with a group of young people who were preparing to participate in an antiwar demonstration in Washington. I've heard varying accounts of that meeting, and it struck me that Stone's re–creation was as faithful a retelling as one could expect.

Nixon, as we all know, secretly recorded Oval Office conversations, but no one, to my knowledge, was carrying a portable tape recorder at the Lincoln Memorial.

But, clearly, there were composite scenes in "Nixon," like the scene where Nixon discusses payment for Howard Hunt with his aides, then has his conversation with Bob Haldeman about opening up the "whole Bay of Pigs thing."

Without going into much detail, any student of Watergate can tell you that such scenes are not literal retellings, merely combining known events.

I guess it also takes for granted that a viewer is fairly well acquainted with the story of Richard Nixon and the Watergate coverup.

But that's a pretty broad assumption, don't you think? It's been more than 35 years now since Nixon resigned, but, in my experience, most people still don't understand many things about Watergate or what drove Nixon to do the things he did.

I understand that. Watergate was a complex event. Nixon was a complex man. People my age and younger have no memory of the days when Nixon was vice president, when he was involved in some rather clandestine dealings.

As much as there is a desire for a simple answer to why things happened the way they did, I'm afraid there isn't one.

But perhaps the final scene of "Nixon" comes as close to truth as is possible.

I remember watching Nixon's farewell address on the morning of his resignation.

Stone's version was abbreviated — which was just as well, I suppose, since I wondered as I watched the speech if Nixon was about to lose his grip on reality.

He didn't, of course. Instead, he provided, perhaps unknowingly, a moment of keen insight into his own personality when he told his staff never to be bitter or petty. "Remember," he said, "others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them — and then you destroy yourself."

I thought Hopkins did a remarkable job of re–creating that blinding moment of clarity in Nixon's presidency — in the very last minutes of his presidency.

Shakespeare himself probably couldn't have written a more compelling tragedy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Remembering Blake Edwards

One of the most cherished memories of my childhood is of seeing "Pink Panther" movies with my parents and certain family friends.

And those memories came flooding back to me when I heard that director Blake Edwards had died at the age of 88. Edwards, of course, directed the "Pink Panther" movies ("The Pink Panther," "A Shot in the Dark," "The Return of the Pink Panther" and "The Pink Panther Strikes Again") in the 1960s and 1970s.

(By the way, you can see "A Shot in the Dark" on Turner Classic Movies this Monday at 10 a.m. Central.)

What memories they were.

I remembered sitting in movie theaters and laughing with my parents at Peter Sellers' bumbling Inspector Clouseau. My memory is that it was fairly easy to get my mother to laugh at the movies, but my father seldom laughed aloud unless he was really amused — and he was always laughing at the "Pink Panther" movies, deep rumbling laughs that came from somewhere deep inside.

It was like the laugh bubbled to the surface, and he simply couldn't contain it even if he wanted to.

I know a new generation of moviegoers thinks of Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau, but Sellers is the original.

Sellers alone, though, couldn't pull it off. He needed Edwards, and, in my mind, Edwards and Sellers are forever linked, thanks to their work on those movies.

That's strange, I suppose, because they were hardly buddies. Sellers, who died in 1980, could be hard to work with. I have heard there were times when he and Edwards stopped speaking in the midst of making their films. Must have made it rather difficult to complete the films.

But Edwards always respected Sellers' talent. When he made "Trail of the Pink Panther" two years after Sellers' death and included outtakes and deleted scenes from other movies in the series, Edwards dedicated it to Sellers' memory: "To Peter ... The one and only Inspector Clouseau."

My mother didn't live long enough to see the Steve Martin version, but I suspect she would have agreed with Edwards.

I think she would have been adamant about it. There was only one Clouseau.

And the truth is that, although I strongly associate Edwards with Sellers, much as I do Robert Redford and Paul Newman, their collaborations represent small fractions of their careers.

Sellers worked with many directors, most of whom — apparently — found him hard to work with.

Edwards, as many people don't realize, began as an actor, getting small roles in some pretty classic movies (like "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "A Guy Named Joe," which was remade by Steven Spielberg as "Always") and big roles in some pretty forgettable ones.

Perhaps that gave him insights that helped him when he made his transition into the next phase of his career.

By the time he was in his 30s, Edwards had moved behind the camera, working first as a screenwriter, then as a director, and it was as a director that he made his reputation, mostly with comedies, although one of his earliest directorial successes was a decidedly dramatic tale, "Days of Wine and Roses."

A few years later, the "Pink Panther" franchise was born.

And it spawned all sorts of running jokes in my family, much of it centered on Sellers' exaggerated French accent as Inspector Clouseau.

My mother (who, I always suspected, would have loved to participate in one of Carol Burnett's parodies of movies or TV shows) would begin speaking in Clouseauese almost without notice — but she usually had to be in the company of folks who would understand.

For example, the phone would ring and she would say, in her best Clouseau impression, "The phin is ringing" — with extra emphasis on the G's in "ringing."

Or she would speak of a "minkey." (That's the Clouseau pronunciation of "monkey.")

And everyone in her presence would crack up — provided, of course, that they were in on the joke. Not everyone was so Mom picked her moments for that sort of thing initially. Later in her life, she was pretty open and uninhibited about it.

By the time the final "Pink Panther" movie to be made in Sellers' lifetime was released, the running jokes were so widely known among devotees of the series that they served as pretty much the foundation of the plot for the former chief inspector's conspiracy to assassinate Clouseau.

The things that annoyed him the most about Clouseau were the things that made audiences laugh. It was movie magic.

Sadly, there were no other Edwards–Sellers collaborations after "The Pink Panther Strikes Again."

Edwards continued to entertain audiences ...

... with movies like "10."

And he worked with his wife, the incomparable Julie Andrews, in many of his films, like "S.O.B." and "Victor/Victoria" as well as "10."

But his career sort of tapered off after that. He made a few more movies, but it has been nearly 20 years since his last one.

Nevertheless, he was recognized by the Academy Awards in 2004 for his life's work. And, in true Blake Edwards/Inspector Clouseau fashion, he made a slaptstick entrance and acceptance speech (after being introduced by Jim Carrey).

I've heard that, on that night, Edwards began planning a remake of "10" — a remake that, unfortunately, he never made.

It would have been interesting — and probably quite entertaining — to see what kind of spin he might have given the story a quarter of a century later.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Spirit of Christmas

Frasier: I ordered from the toy catalog from the special section called Gifts for the Gifted. I got him the junior astronomy set and the geology lab ... oh, and a fabulous thing called the Living Brain. You get to paint each lobe a different color, then you stuff it inside the Living Skull.

Martin: Hey, you know what kids really like? They've been advertising it like crazy on TV. It's great. The Outlaw Laser Robo Geek. Its head lights up and it shoots death rays out of its eyes. (Frasier glares at him) Yeah. A little like that!

I wrote a bit last year about the Christmas episodes of popular TV shows — one Christmas episode in particular.

Some TV series have a Christmas episode — at least one — every year. Given the fickle nature of the viewing audience, I suppose that is the prudent thing to do, especially when a series is new. Most series don't last longer than a year or two, anyway, so if you want the audience to know your characters and you're gonna have a Christmas episode, anyway ...

But all shows are not created equal, and neither are Christmas episodes. Some series, like Christmas episodes, have better acting than others. Some have better writing, better stories. And some are just better all the way around.

Frasier, of course, turned out to be an exception. By the time the show ended its 11–year run, Kelsey Grammer had played Frasier for more than 20 years — first as a supporting character on Cheers, then as the lead character on his own show.

As familiar as Frasier was to TV viewers, it wasn't necessary for him to do Christmas–themed programs except within the context of Frasier's personal story — and, consequently, the series' holiday episodes were opportunities to explore personal issues that went beyond the standard Christmas reminders of love and peace. They certainly weren't necessary as far as ratings were concerned.

In the first season (1993–1994), Frasier's Christmas episode dealt with Frasier's decision to volunteer to work on Christmas when his young son's plans to visit him in Seattle changed.

In the fifth season (1997–1998), the Christmas episode dealt with the different perspectives each member of Frasier's family had of Christmas that year.

The next season's Christmas episode provided an opportunity for Frasier's new Jewish love interest to be introduced to his family and the viewing audience.

The seventh season brought a two–parter that really didn't have to be told at Christmas. The focus of the story was on how Niles' feelings for Daphne were revealed to her. The fact that it happened during the Christmas season was sort of incidental.

During the eighth season, Frasier found himself hosting the annual Christmas parade with Dr. Mary, a former protege.

Two years later, after Niles and Daphne had married, Niles and Frasier argued over who should host the family gathering — an argument that was rendered moot when their father had to work on Christmas.

And, in the final season, Frasier's son, now in his mid–teens, came to visit sporting his new "goth" look while Niles decided to finally do something he never did in his own teens — rebel.

Fifteen years ago this Sunday, the series aired a Christmas episode that probably wasn't its best — but it was better than most. And I always enjoy watching it.

I have found new relevance in it every time I have seen it.

In the episode, Frasier learned an important lesson.

After going to considerable trouble to do so, Frasier had ordered educational toys to give his young son. But, when the package arrived, the wrong shipment had been sent to him — and the truth was that neither that shipment nor the order Frasier had really placed was what his son wanted.

"You're always giving people things you think they should like," Frasier's father told him, "instead of things that they really like."

On Christmas Eve, Frasier's son announced that he was going to bed right away so the next thing he knew it would be Christmas. And he was particularly excited because he knew what Santa would bring — the popular new toy that had been all over the airwaves.

That, of course, wasn't what Frasier had purchased for his son. But then his father unexpectedly came to the rescue.

I enjoyed watching the episode when it first aired, but it has taken on a different meaning, a relevance, for me on subsequent viewings.

When it was first shown, I was only about six months removed from my mother's death. Things were still pretty chaotic in my life, and some of the more subtle messages of the story escaped me at the time.

My father remarried the following year. To put it bluntly, my stepmother and I have never been close. I was aware at the time we met that she was determined to keep me at arm's distance — at least — so I was put on the defensive from the beginning.

For whatever reason, she made assumptions about me that my father has never, to my knowledge, attempted to correct, and that has been a source of, to put it mildly, bitter disappointment for me.

When I was a child, he was my defender. He and my mother repeatedly discouraged me from prejudging people, yet he may have been — either inadvertently or deliberately — the source for my stepmother's assumptions.

What assumptions did my stepmother make? I couldn't say. I only know that she made them, not what they were or why she made them.

What I can say, with absolute certainty, is this: She's never tried to get to know me, to find out what makes me tick — beyond making nominal attempts at holidays, presumably for appearances' sake.

In recent years, she hasn't bothered to pretend that she is interested.

Well, I guess, when I use words like "presumably," I am acknowledging my own assumption. But what choice have I had?

It would be fair to say, I think, that things got off on the wrong foot between my stepmother and me. And no one — myself included — really tried to get them on the right track.

I'll accept my share of the blame for that. I won't be the whipping boy for all of it.

Perhaps I'm being dismissive when I call her familial attempts "nominal" — although I do have other reasons for feeling that way.

But the thing about this Frasier episode that reminds me of my relationship with my stepmother is one Christmas when her gift to me revealed just how much of what she thinks of the people in her world is shaped by assumption and not by fact.

I don't know how much my stepmother really knows about my father's life before they met, but she must know he was a missionary with my mother in Africa in his 20s because they took a trip to Africa together a few years ago. I gather, from what little I have been told of that trip, that it was sort of a journey down Memory Lane for my father, and I'm sure he must have spoken with my stepmother of his earlier experiences.

I presume it was a trip he always expected to take with my mother. If she had lived to retirement, I might have gone with them since I was born while they were in Africa.

My father brought back an African wood carving for me. It depicted a father, a mother and a child, and my guess is that he explained to my stepmother why he was buying it.

Anyway, armed only with this information, my stepmother took it upon herself to give me a CD for Christmas a few years back.

She apparently decided to give me a CD of a black performer even though she had no knowledge of black performers or whether I particularly like them.

(My father later told me, in amused tones, of accompanying her on her trip to a CD store and listening to her inquiries as to who B.B. King was. I can't claim that I witnessed that, but I know for a fact that she never asked me about my musical preferences.)

The truth is, I don't care for some black performers, but not because they are black. And I do like other black performers. Again, their color is not an issue.

If she had bothered to ask me about black singers I like, I could have told her that I like Jimi Hendrix. I also like B.B. King. I like the Temptations. I like Chuck Berry. I like Earth, Wind & Fire. I like John Lee Hooker. I like Wilson Pickett. I like Miles Davis.

But she never asked me. She made an assumption.

What did she give me? A CD of Ray Charles' music.

And, although I never said so out loud, I had to wonder — Where the hell did that come from?

I've never owned a Ray Charles album in my life so I don't see how the seed for that idea could have come from my father. If he ever heard Ray Charles' music coming from my room when I was a teenager, it was being played on the radio.

I have nothing against Ray Charles, but I've just never been one of his fans. I don't care what color he was.

And that, to me, is a real–life illustration of what Frasier's father meant when he said, "You're always giving people things you think they should like instead of things that they really like."

Well, Frasier had an excuse, I guess. He was Frederick's father. He knew something about his son, even if he didn't know what he would really like to have for Christmas.

If you still have some of your Christmas shopping to do, here is some advice: Put the folks on your list and their preferences first. Put yourself and your own preferences last.

If the two happen to be the same, so much the better.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Power to the People

So you've gotten all warm and fuzzy over "It's a Wonderful Life."

And maybe, just for good measure, you've pulled out your video tape or your DVD of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or "It Happened One Night," maybe even "Arsenic and Old Lace."

And you think you know Frank Capra.

I'll grant you, those are probably the highlights. There were so many classics in Capra's career, and many of them were almost fantastic in their nature, screwball in their humor.

And I can see how, after a certain point, it can be tempting to say that, if you've seen one Capra movie, you've seen them all.

"Meet John Doe," which will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Saturday night at 7 (Central), was like that, too, but it had more of a political edge than most of Capra's works, even "Mr. Smith," which was really more of a morality tale than a political one.

In fact, even though the movie was made 70 years ago, the timing might be right for an updated remake. And, as you will see, there are certain elements that undoubtedly would require revision because they are simply too implausible for 2010.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a spitfire of a reporter who loses her job when the management of her newspaper makes a mass downsizing decision. In her last column, she writes about a phony letter from a John Doe moaning about the plight of the "little people" and threatening to jump off city hall on Christmas Eve.

"If you ask me," writes Stanwyck's character, on the brink of joblessness and fretting over how to support her family, "the wrong people are jumping off buildings."

Now, Stanwyck wasn't like some actresses who were featured in Capra's movies — Jean Arthur, for example. Stanwyck excelled in a variety of movies, not just the screwball comedies.

That isn't meant as a slap against actresses who find their niche in screwball comedies. I'm just saying that Stanwyck was extremely versatile. I thought she was great in films like "Meet Jone Doe." She was great in classic film noir productions like "Double Indemnity," too.

(For that matter, Arthur didn't confine herself to screwball comedies, either. But that's another story ...)

My point is that Stanwyck, who was recognized by the American Film Institute as the 11th greatest actress of all time, enjoyed success in many roles — as did her counterpart among the actors, Gary Cooper, who just happens to be recruited to play John Doe.

Anyway, John Doe unexpectedly becomes the most popular guy in town. Everyone, it seems, wants to offer him a job or a place to stay. A few marriage proposals have even trickled in to the newspaper office.

It appears that being down on his luck was the best thing that ever happened to him — that is, if he ever actually existed.

Stanwyck's character knows a good thing when she sees one, though, and she persuades the editor to ride the popularity of John Doe and his "letter" as long as he can — but, in order to throw their newspaper competitors off the scent, they need somebody to present in public — enter Gary Cooper, a hobo who once played pro baseball, a pitcher until his arm went bad.

(And there is something that clearly needs to be changed if someone decides to do a remake. In the present economy, there are almost no American cities with more than one newspaper anymore. Heck, some cities don't even have one.

(So, while the angle of struggling newspapers has resonance here in the 21st century, the concept of actual competition in the newspaper industry seems, well, quaint. If someone is really entertaining the notion of doing a remake, it might be wise to change the employer of the Stanwyck character to an online news site or something like that.

(Oh, and those typewriters that Stanwyck uses? Clearly, they would need to be replaced with computers — preferably laptops. Even an electric typewriter — and they seemed oh so cutting edge when I was in school — would be hopelessly old–fashioned in 2010.)

Cooper is believable enough in his part, but his character brings some baggage — namely, his hobo companion played by Walter Brennan. Brennan's character in this film, known only as The Colonel, has always been one of my favorites, particularly in his rant against the "Heelots," which you can see in the attached clip.

(That philosophical rant reminds me of a slapstick routine I saw the Smothers Brothers do during the Vietnam era in which Tommy explained his theory of the relationship between clothing and political power. The people in charge, he said, were the people who wore suits and ties [they had more on] while the people who were subjugated were the people who wore shorts and T–shirts [they had less on]. Thus, Tommy said, the people in power were the "more–ons.")

Well, the Colonel resists the trappings of fame and fortune and encourages John to do likewise. But John falls victim to the allure of success (and, with it, regular meals and a real bed) and all the opportunities it could make possible (like getting his arm fixed and reviving his baseball career), and he ultimately winds up making speeches that seem sincere in their "love thy neighbor" message but are, in reality, the cynical products of Stanwyck's promotional pen.
"Everything in that speech is what a certain man believed in. He was my father. When he talked, people listened. They will listen to you, too."

Ann (Barbara Stanwyck)

At such points in this film, you really can tell if someone is truly a Capra aficionado.

For example, Stanwyck's character finds herself struggling to write the speech that, as she observes, could mean financial security for her and her family — and then her mother volunteers that she doesn't think anyone will listen to it.

"People are tired of hearing nothing but doom and despair," her mother tells her. "[W]hy don't you let him say something simple and real, something with hope in it?"

Sure, it's a Capraesque line, but it also happens to be a demonstrably successful advertising principle — which may make this the most cynical film Capra ever made.

Then she shares with Stanwyck her late father's diary. "There's enough in it for a hundred speeches," she says, "things people ought to hear nowadays."

And there's another Capra theme — the value and wisdom of experience and common sense.

As Cooper embarks on the Stanwyck–engineered "John Doe" campaign, a veteran Capra watcher can see the influences from earlier Capra movies — the images of newspaper front pages with Cooper striking his "I protest!" pose, for example, are straight out of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

There are many such Capra touches, even if the story isn't standard Capra.

But Cooper is a man conflicted. Playing along with the John Doe story seems to hold the promise of restoring his baseball career — until it is pointed out to him that, if it is revealed to the public that he has participated in a deception, it will mean the end of that career.

Cooper's character comes across as every bit as naive as Jimmy Stewart's in "Mr. Smith" — or, for that matter, in "It's a Wonderful Life" — but cynically so, whereas Stewart's characters were selfless.

John starts believing those poisonous press clippings until he is confronted with the truth — the whole John Doe movement has been manufactured by Stanwyck's boss to further his own presidential ambitions via the creation of a new political party.

And then he delivers a speech that really needs to be seen in the context of the rest of the film. It's impressive by itself, but it really makes the movie.

"Meet John Doe" is certainly more pessimistic than what one normally associates with Capra. There is no positive resolution to the story, which is kind of refreshing if you've become accustomed to the often overly sweet stories his films usually told, but it can be kind of a letdown if you're looking for a George Baileyesque tale of redemption.

I'm not sure there is redemption for Long John Willoughby (also known as John Doe). I don't think he even got his arm fixed.

But the film ends with the implication that there is hope of redemption for Long John. And that, I guess, elevates the story above most of Capra's other films.

You can't say that you really know Capra's work until you've seen it.


I don't watch the Academy Awards as much as I did earlier in my life.

One thing I always enjoyed watching on the Oscars broadcast was the annual video tribute to the people in the entertainment industry who have died in the previous year — but I was extremely disappointed last spring when the Oscars left Farrah Fawcett off the segment honoring those who died in 2009.

I don't know why she was omitted. I have my suspicions. And, as a result, I don't think I will watch the Oscars next spring — or in the foreseeable future.

However, I will continue to watch the annual video tributes that are put together by Turner Classic Movies. They are typically brief, understated and complete.

I've only seen the latest tribute (attached to the top of this post) online, but I look forward to seeing it on a bigger screen.

It certainly seems a worthy successor to other TCM tributes, like the one that aired at the end of 2008.

The song, in case you're interested, is called "God Only Knows." The performer is Joe Henry.

That's a trademark, I guess, of TCM's annual tributes. The music that is used tends to be from someone who hasn't received a lot of attention from the mainstream listeners.

Sometimes, I suppose, that exposure provides a bit of a boost to their careers.

The 2010 tribute is done to the song "Headlight" by Sophie Hunger, a Swiss–born folk singer who is slated to release an album for the North American market in April.

The 2007 version was set to the song "Promise" by Badly Drawn Boy.

In fact, you can see a certain continuity in the musical style, even though the performers change from year to year.

I don't know who did the music for the 2006 video.

But it was effective, don't you think?

Nor do I know who did the music for the 2005 video. But I think it also was effective.

There is a suitably melancholy strain that runs through the TCM videos.

And almost no one gets left out.

Watch for the latest if you are watching TCM this holiday season.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Staying Power

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote an entertainment column for my high school newspaper. I wrote about many topics — movies, music, books, TV — much as I do today in this blog.

Occasionally, I have gone back and read some of my clippings from that period in my life. And there are times when I am, frankly, impressed. I was more insightful than I remember being at that age, I have told myself.

But, if I am to be honest, there were far more instances when my youth, my naivete, my inexperience were on full display. I was too young — and so, too, were most of my readers — to realize it, but, unless my teachers were not as sharp as I gave them credit for being, some of them must have seen it.

Perhaps they were just being kind or polite by not pointing out to me that I was full of it — or maybe they had just spent so many years trying to educate the younger generation that they instinctively realized it was a phase through which everyone must pass and trying to spare anyone that experience is a mountain too high.

Anyway, I have grown and matured, as people tend to do, but I still remember the frequent urging from Paula, my high school editor, to write about one of her favorite singers, Emmylou Harris.

It was a request I finally granted that spring about a month or so before graduation.

I wrote about Emmylou's then–current release, "Quarter Moon in a Ten–Cent Town," a good album but Paula, a singer and guitar player who has gone on to run her own music store in our hometown, cut her musical teeth on Emmylou's earlier efforts.

Paula knew that "Quarter Moon" was only Emmylou's latest recording — not her best.

Unfortunately, I did not discover those earlier works until after I finished high school and I was dealing with a painful breakup with the girl I loved.

In the interest of accuracy, that girl was not Paula — although I must confess there was a time in my life when I did have something of a crush on her (and, based on the recent photos I've seen of her, she is still striking).

Nevertheless, I can see now, as I did then, quite a resemblance between Paula and Emmylou. Both were talented and beautiful, with the same long, dark hair parted in the middle.

When Paula held a guitar, she looked like Emmylou. And when she sang, she sounded like Emmylou.

Well, to me, she did.

It wasn't hard for me to see a younger Paula emulating Emmylou as she learned to sing and play the guitar. From what I had seen of Paula performing, she had the same mannerisms, the same stage presence, even the same vocal range. Emmylou's style — a mixture of earthiness, poignance and melancholy — was Paula's style, too.

Under the circumstances, Emmylou provided the kind of soothing music I craved, even though I had not grown up on country music. And, to be accurate, Emmylou and Paula both seemed to favor music that was more folk, more bluegrass than country, and I was always comfortable with that.

She seemed to burst through barriers with her covers of tunes like Lennon–McCartney's "Here, There and Everywhere" that was included on Harris' "Elite Hotel" album, which was released 35 years ago today.

I guess "Elite Hotel" came to be my favorite of her records when I was in college. I acquired it with a few others by Harris at that time in my life.

I never replaced them with CD versions — guess I'll have to get around to doing that one of these days — but I still admire them.

Harris has released a lot of albums in the years since I was in college. I haven't listened to many of them; occasionally, she may have risen to the same level she reached on "Elite Hotel." I don't know.

I do know that her music has taken her many places, including the Country Music Hall of Fame.

She, like Paula, is a gifted singer. She had a sort of steel–belted delicacy about her that I always found enormously appealing. Apparently, so did many others.

But if she has matched — or even exceeded — what she did on "Elite Hotel," she must have done so rarely. It was too good, and habitually duplicating it would be like hitting an ever smaller target from an ever greater distance — not necessarily impossible, just very improbable.

Her recordings in those days were diverse collections. On the same album with Lennon–McCartney tunes could be found Harris' homages to Hank Williams Sr., Gram Parsons, Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, Don Gibson, Rodney Crowell.

Much the same could be said of her debut album from earlier that year, "Pieces of the Sky," which did quite well, but "Elite Hotel" really built on its success and became Harris' first #1 country album.

And it gave her her first #1 country songs, "Together Again" and "Sweet Dreams."

But it was a crossover success as well. Not only country listeners were aware of Harris' talent. Other audiences were listening to her as well.

I, for one, didn't think of it as country, although it clearly had country influences and represented a departure from the kind of music I had been listening to. Until I started listening to Emmylou Harris in my early college days, the extent of my country music knowledge tended to be Hank Williams Sr., Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and, OK, a little Kenny Rogers.

I wished I had known in high school what I discovered in college about Emmylou Harris. In a way, I felt like I had missed so much.

But I guess I didn't. Not really. I did get to hear Paula.

Friday, December 10, 2010


The other day, when I was writing about Christmas viewing traditions, I mentioned that my mother always seemed to know what the latest Christmas movie releases were, and she always saw to it that the family went to see them.

One of those Christmas movies will be airing on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 8:30 (Central).

It is called "Scrooge," and it was a retelling of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," with Albert Finney cast as Ebenezer Scrooge and Alec Guinness as Marley's ghost.

I don't know what you would discover if you could compile the number of times a beloved Christmas tale, like "A Christmas Carol," has been performed on the big screen — or the smaller one, for that matter — or on the stages of school auditoriums or community theaters, but, if it isn't at the top of such a list, Dickens' story certainly must be near the top — especially when you take into account not only the faithful retellings of the story, whether set in the period or given a more modern setting, but the parodies as well.

Heck, I remember being in an elementary school production of the story when I was in fourth or fifth grade. That was a pretty straight–forward telling, incidentally — hardly a satirical treatment.

And, over the years, there have been several Hollywood versions. Some were titled "A Christmas Carol," others took their title from the lead character's name, "Scrooge." Some were made before the advent of the "talkies," others came along later.

The version that will be shown tonight made its debut 40 years ago — in November 1970 — and it earned a few Academy Award nominations, including one for the song in the attached clip, "Thank You Very Much."

That scene, by the way, has a delightful twist to it. Scrooge (the fellow to be seen wandering around in a white nightshirt and a white nightcap) is unaware that what he and the others are singing and dancing about is an expression of their gratitude to Scrooge for dying — and, consequently, nullifying the debts they all owed him.

Unknown to Scrooge, he is in the middle of his own funeral procession, and it plays a role in reforming him.

If you're curious as to how this was accomplished — and, considering how many times this story must have been told on screen and stage, how could you be in the dark about that? But never mind — you'll have to watch the movie for yourself, won't you?

Unless you've spent your life in a cave, you must know about Scrooge's encounters with the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come.

They are the broad brushstrokes of the original story, but each presentation contributes its own colors and textures.

And "Scrooge" managed to explore the reasons why Scrooge was the way he was. In hindsight, I can understand the emotions Scrooge experienced when he reflected on the love of his life, Isabel, and how circumstances had driven them apart forever.

The same circumstances contributed to the lonely, old miser that Scrooge had become. And I guess we all know that that is pretty much how life operates.

In spite of everything, though — and in large part because of his visit with the ghost of Christmas present — Scrooge decides that he likes life.

I don't recall the critical reaction to the movie, but I liked it. I remember my family was visiting my grandmother in Dallas that Christmas, and we all went out to the neighborhood theater (an old–fashioned single–screen one with a lobby and a balcony and a marquee out front) to see it.

We may have done that on Christmas Eve. Maybe we did it a night or two before that. In my memory, Christmas had not yet occurred, but it was close, excruciatingly close in a child's eyes.

It was a cold night, even for Dallas, which is always milder than most parts of the country in December but seemed unusually cold that particular Christmas. It wasn't snowing — it almost never snows here at Christmas — but, in my memory, it seemed cold enough that night for snow.

Perhaps that is because there were so many cold, snowy scenes in "Scrooge." I don't know. But that is how it is in my memory.

I'm sure that, for many folks, the character of Ebenezer Scrooge was defined by George C. Scott in a made–for–TV movie that came out in the 1980s. For other generations, there were other actors, I suppose, who epitomized the character of Scrooge.

For that matter, I've seen Finney in several movies, and I really liked some of them. I was always particularly fond of his performance as Hercule Poirot in the 1974 adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express."

But, to me, Finney was Scrooge. And he always will be.

Watch it and enjoy it, especially if you missed it the first time. As Scrooge learned, sometimes life gives you second chances.

Start your own Christmas tradition.