Sunday, February 28, 2010

Peter Sellers Strikes Again

During her lifetime, my mother thoroughly enjoyed the film performances of Peter Sellers.

I remember seeing Sellers' final movie — 1979's "Being There" — and another one of his last movies, the 1976 spoof of murder mysteries, "Murder By Death," with both of my parents at a movie theater. I don't know if Mom ever saw "Dr. Strangelove," which I saw for the first time on TV after I got out of college, and I'm not sure if Mom ever saw "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas," which I saw on TV with a couple of my buddies in college.

But I guess the Peter Sellers flicks that most make me think of Mom have always been the Pink Panther movies.

And Turner Classic Movies is showing one of my favorites tonight as TCM enters the homestretch of its annual "31 Days of Oscar" presentation.

By the time Sellers made "The Pink Panther Strikes Again," he had already made three films as Inspector Clouseau. The running gags had been established — the surprise attacks by his manservant Cato; his general incompetence and the chief inspector's manic attempts to do away with him; his maddening mispronunciations of simple English words, like "room." So this one was noteworthy for a story line that exaggerated all the gags.

I don't want to spoil it for you, but I will briefly mention some of the things about the movie that I always enjoy seeing:
  • Some of America's leading political figures in the mid–1970s were portrayed, quite well by actors who looked and sounded a great deal like the men they were supposed to be. If you're old enough to remember guys like Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, you're sure to get a few laughs from their Oval Office scenes.

  • The interrogation scene, a clip of which is attached at the top of this post, is, indeed, a classic, but I can picture my mother mimicking the line Sellers utters just before that scene after showing off on the parallel bars and tumbling down a flight of stairs into a room full of people — "That felt good!"

  • Clouseau's tortured English was always comedic fodder. And his bumbling ways, which infuriated the chief inspector and drove him to a murderous campaign in this movie, set the stage for some of Clouseau's most memorable moments, like the moment when he asks the German innkeeper, "Does your dog bite?" The innkeeper shakes his head and Clouseau reaches down to pet the dog on the floor. The dog immediately growls and snaps his teeth around Clouseau's fingers. He shakes the dog from his hand, glares at the innkeeper and says, "I thought you said your dog did not bite." The innkeeper calmly replies, "That is not my dog."

    It's kind of an old joke, but in Sellers' hands, it seems fresh and funny.

My brother has seen "The Pink Panther" remake starring Steve Martin, and he says it was good.

I have a great deal of respect for Martin's skills. I was pleasantly surprised by his performances in "Roxanne" and "Leap of Faith" so it was not a shock that he was able to portray a cartoonish character like Clouseau.

Perhaps one of these days, I'll bring myself to watch Martin's version of Inspector Clouseau, but, right now, I can't.

However, if you haven't seen the original, you should.

TCM isn't showing that one tonight, although it seems to be shown somewhat frequently.

You can see "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" tonight at 1:45 a.m. (Central). If you haven't seen it before, record it and watch it later.

But even if you've seen it before, you ought to see it again. It's that good.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Titanic's Maiden Voyage on TCM

Every year, it seems, Turner Classic Movies shows a movie during its annual "31 Days of Oscar" that it has never shown before.

For example, I recall that, two or three years ago, one of the films that was shown was Oliver Stone's "Nixon," which qualified for inclusion because it was nominated for four Oscars, although it didn't win one. It was the premiere of "Nixon" on TCM, as I recall.

I'm sure there have been others in recent years. Offhand, they just don't come to mind.

Anyway, tonight it is "Titanic"'s turn. The 1997 film that matched "Ben–Hur" for the most Oscars won (11 — a record that was duplicated a few years later by "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King") will make its TCM debut at 9:15 p.m. (Central) tonight.

I've heard the disparaging talk about "Titanic" — reports of how the love story and the onscreen presence of Leonardo DiCaprio drew teenage girls for multiple viewings (thus inflating the film's box office haul, which shattered existing records) always seemed to be at the heart of most of the criticism. Well, Celine Dion's hit song that served as the movie's theme took its share of criticism as well.

I saw "Titanic" twice at the theater (and DiCaprio had nothing to do with it). I must admit that I was impressed with the historical details, the costumes, the furnishings. Everything I read about Titanic, both before and after I saw the film, told me that director James Cameron and his crew had done their homework. It was a faithful, authentic re–creation.

Granted, Jack and Rose were fictional, but their love affair served the purpose of making audiences care about a story that, by the time the film was released in December 1997, was more than 80 years old. Jack and Rose gave the story a personal, intimate touch that made it live in the minds of those who saw it. By the time the ship struck the iceberg midway through the movie, audiences were hoping there was some way they could be among the survivors — but the fact that one of them had to die drove home the extent of the tragedy for a world that had no memory of that time.

As for Dion's song, well, I never really cared for it, but I've never been a Celine Dion fan, anyway. Something had to be the theme song, and if that 4½–minute song is what prevents you from seeing the brilliance of a 3¼–hour movie, I feel sorry for you. I can only conclude that you don't appreciate the things that made "Titanic" the movie experience it was.

Some people get all worked up about Kate Winslet having been nominated for Best Actress and Gloria Stuart (who will be 100 years old on the Fourth of July) for Best Supporting Actress when DiCaprio wasn't nominated for Best Actor.

But that is a red herring, as far as I am concerned. The acting wasn't what was recognized on Oscar Night that year. Along with receiving Best Picture, the film was recognized for all the parts that made up the complete package — costumes, cinematography, sound and visual effects, art direction, editing, directing, sound, dramatic score. Much of what was done could not have been done even 5 or 10 years earlier.

The writing wasn't nominated, but it really wasn't bad, that "king of the world" line notwithstanding.

And, given the fact that the sinking of the Titanic has been said to have been the last gasp of a truly social caste system in the nations of the West, there was ironic foreshadowing of the issues that would plague the period to follow when Stuart said, reflecting on the day her character boarded Titanic, "It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me, it was a slave ship taking me back to America in chains." Not long after the ship sank, American women were given the right to vote, and much of the story of the 20th century was about their steady gains in influence — gains that Rose's character could only imagine but the older edition, played by Stuart, had an array of photographs that told the viewer she had played her role and, schmaltzy as it may seem, proved that she had been true to her promise to Jack to "go on" and live a full, rich life.

And, OK, some of the writing was somewhat obvious, like when Elderly Rose solemnly says, "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets." On both of the occasions when I saw this movie in the theater, this line evoked loud, knowing sighs from the women in the audience. The line struck me as being somewhat predictable. Really? An "ocean of secrets" in a film about the Titanic?

Well, the writing wasn't nominated for an Oscar — and maybe that was appropriate. By and large, it really only served the purpose of providing a framework for the rest of the production. Once the ship started to sink, there were quite a few mini–dramas that could have been achieved — and, in fact, were achieved — using only statements that were recalled in the testimony of the survivors — like the moment when the ship's bandleader tells his fellow musicians, "Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight" as they play the music of the era while the ship continues to sink beneath the waves.

Actually, that may have been the perpetuation of a legend, as apparently was the band's rendition of "Nearer My God To Thee." Over the years, a myth has developed that says that was the final song played, but, based on my research, no one really knew what the band's final selection was. I guess there was too much confusion for anyone to notice — and most of the people who survived the sinking may have been a fair distance from the ship in lifeboats that had already been launched.

Well, there has to be a certain amount of leeway given in telling the story of a disaster as profound as the sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic in April 1912.

And I urge you to watch — and appreciate — Cameron's achievement.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What's Next?

Most of the time, I write in this blog about movies or TV shows or books or music. Entertainment–oriented topics.

If I want to write about current events or historical anniversaries, I can do that at my Freedom Writing blog. And if I want to write about sports, I can do that at my Tomato Cans blog.

But sometimes I have thoughts on other subjects, and I feel compelled to write about those thoughts.

Such is the case today. I have been thinking a lot about the afterlife recently.

When my thoughts turn to such musings, this is the blog where I tend to do my musing. And I think you'll agree that the afterlife is a humdinger of a topic.

Just about everyone I talk to has very definite ideas about what an afterlife will be like. Well, atheists and agnostics don't have much to contribute to the discussion — but I guess that is part of the definition of atheism and agnosticism. If you don't believe a higher power exists or if you believe it is not possible to prove the existence of a higher power, all the rest of the stuff that goes along with believing that a higher power does exist is theoretical at best.

I don't know if a higher power exists. I guess I have been acting on the assumption that a higher power does exist. For all I know, when I die, it may be like turning off a light switch and there is darkness. Maybe it is like the time before I was born. I have no memory of that time, but if I did, I suppose I would believe in reincarnation. And as George W. Bush said about evolution (although I think I have a stronger case), the jury is still out on that one.

Perhaps the light comes on when a person is born and then goes off when the person dies. Maybe it is just that simple.

But maybe there is a soul — one that doesn't exist until its mortal body comes into existence — and then lives on after the mortal part dies.

It's hard for me to understand what some people believe about the afterlife. I guess it's because they put things in an earthly context. When I hear some people describe heaven, I envision something along the lines of a parallel universe, an entire world with towns and cities and, one can easily imagine, separate states, separate nations, certainly separate languages.

What seems to separate it from the earthly existence that we the living know is that the folks in heaven are being rewarded for their lives on earth — so no one seems to work, unless their assistance is required by their living descendants on earth. On those occasions, when they must travel from one universe to its parallel, they can only be seen by certain people, if they can be seen at all. Must have something to do with the time–space continuum. And if they are seen, they are seen as "angels," like Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life."

See what I mean?

My concept of the afterlife is probably different from most people. I guess it is a combination of the things I was taught as a child and elements I picked up as I grew and matured. My belief is that the afterlife is where one achieves a level of complete and perfect understanding. Anything you didn't understand while you were alive — why you were dumped by the "love of your life," for example, or why you were passed over for a job that seemed ideal for you — is made clear to you in the afterlife.

Obviously, these will differ from person to person. I grew up in Arkansas and I have friends who like to go hunting. For some of them, one of the mysteries of their earthly existence is bound to be why they missed when they were convinced they had a clear shot at a buck deer. It's sort of like the proverbial fish story about the big one that got away. The point is that it has significance to some people. It may seem unlikely, but who knows how their lives might have been different if they'd shot that deer or landed that fish?

There are a lot of things like that in my own experience, a lot of things that have happened and I don't have a clue why. I like to think that they are more significant than why a hunter missed a deer or why a fisherman couldn't land a fish, and if those things radically altered the course of my life, I'd like to know that, too. But maybe they only seem more important to me. A hunter or a fisherman undoubtedly would see things differently.

Maybe it's wishful thinking on my part. Maybe I'm just hoping that death will allow me to achieve perfect understanding because there are so many things I don't understand.

Here's another thing. I don't really believe in hell. I've always believed it was a concept that primitive man introduced as a way of keeping other primitive people in line. See, even in a primitive state, I think to myself, man is still man, and, because he has been born with the ability to think and to reason, he knows there are times when no one sees what he does. That being the case, there are times when it's possible to steal or kill with no witnesses. Would–be perpetrators had to be assured they could not escape justice, if not in this life then in the next. So necessity dictated that there is a supernatural being who knows all and sees all — and this being will make sure that the guilty are punished for their earthly misdeeds.

That clearly is enough to keep some people walking the straight and narrow. But it's never been enough to prevent every crime for which there are no eyewitnesses. Consequently, we have courts and prisons to mete out justice here on earth. But crime and punishment really seems to be more of a mortal matter, not really something that would be relevant in a spiritual world, where there are no possessions and it is not possible to kill a spirit.

But isn't justice a relevant concept? Certainly, there are times when it is comforting to believe that, even if clearly evil people escape justice in this life, they cannot escape the wrath of God. A good example is the notorious Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's "Angel of Death." He spent half his life in exile in South America, which some might say was a punishment itself, but was it sufficient? He evaded retributive justice in this world. Surely, there were those for whom the discovery of his remains in the mid–1980s was a bittersweet event.

Doesn't the human sense of what is fair demand that someone like Mengele be held accountable for the things he did?

Maybe hell does exist, but I just can't reconcile the image of a loving God, which is what my parents taught me, with the image of a vengeful God who will punish his children for eternity, even if some of his children are as evil as Josef Mengele — or any other notorious killer who slipped through the hangman's noose.

Well, I guess a lot of that is logistical, and I don't mind leaving that part of it up to God, if he does exist. I suppose the time will come when I will find out what lies beyond, even if I find out, at the very last second, that it is a great void.

And if it turns out there is no eternal justice, only a return to the darkness and the nothingness from which we came, I can accept that with my final breath.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Treasure of a Film

I guess it's sort of ironic that the most recognizable line from "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is uttered by a minor character, a Mexican bandit known only as Gold Hat.

"Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" Gold Hat exclaims when Humphrey Bogart's character asks to see badges after Gold Hat says he and his men are mounted police. The American Film Institute rates that line as the 36th most recognizable line in a movie in the last 100 years.

I guess there is a certain allegorical quality in Gold Hat's name, considering that "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" was probably the finest film about greed until "Wall Street" came along about 40 years later.

And gold was obviously at the heart of things in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." It is what brings Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston together. It is the thing for which they sweat and struggle and sacrifice for months. And it is lost at the end of the movie when bandits mistake the gold for ordinary sand and scatter it to the winds.

In addition to telling a great story, the movie also made motion picture history. John Huston won an Oscar for Best Director. His father, Walter, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It was the first father–son win in Oscar history.

Nearly 40 years later, John's daughter Anjelica became the third–generation Academy Award winner in the Huston family when she won an Oscar as Best Actress for her performance in "Prizzi's Honor." (Ironically, that was one of John's last directorial efforts.)

But it seems to me that the line is almost symbolic of the hubris that often accompanies greed. Although Gold Hat and his men can be seen as frightful stereotypes in the 21st century, they are essential to the telling of the story.

And it's a story that seems to be at least as old as the oldest tales in the Bible. It's the story of greed, and it's the story of lust (in this case, the lust for treasure) and it's the story of values.

Turner Classic Movies showed it this afternoon as part of its "31 Days of Oscar" salute. I would have mentioned it here earlier, but TCM shows it fairly frequently. If you missed it, I'm sure you'll get another chance.

Seize it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Holden's Best

I was chatting with an old friend on Facebook yesterday, and she had to log off to prepare dinner. I mentioned to her that Turner Classic Movies would be showing the classic film, "Sunset Boulevard," in just a few minutes.

"Wow!" she replied. "William Holden at his best."

Maybe she was right.

"Sunset Boulevard" was clearly a turning point in his career. Until that movie, most of Holden's film roles were light, even frivolous. But legendary director Billy Wilder cast him as the screenwriter who becomes Gloria Swanson's kept man. And things were different for him from that point on.

I guess it is a matter of opinion whether one thinks "Sunset Boulevard" really was Holden at his best. It certainly is one of his best films. But I have to give Turner Classic Movies credit for showing several of his best films during TCM's annual "31 Days of Oscar" salute to Oscar–nominated films.

This month, TCM has shown "Stalag 17," "Network," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Executive Suite" and "Sunset Boulevard." I think that's all of Holden's movies that are planned during this year's salute — and I guess I could quibble and insist that TCM also should have shown "Sabrina," "The Country Girl," "The Wild Bunch," possibly others.

But I imagine it can be a daunting task to plan what will be shown during the "31 Days of Oscar" — not to mention the fact that there are all sorts of legal hoops through which broadcasters must jump. So even if you think a film should be included, who knows what kinds of issues may prevent it from being shown?

When you think of all the other great films and all the other great stars who absolutely, positively must be included in the "31 Days of Oscar," be grateful you got five Holden films in the deal.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dysfunction Junction

I saw a movie this morning that I have seldom seen over the years — 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Perhaps you aren't familiar with it. It has been nearly 45 years since it was showing in America's movie theaters. But you've certainly heard of its two stars — Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, both of whom were nominated for Oscars (Taylor won). And you may be familiar with their two co–stars — George Segal and Sandy Dennis, both of whom were nominated for Oscars (Dennis won).

In the public eye, Taylor was a svelte beauty, but she put on 30 pounds, radically altering her image, in order to play the frumpy Martha in the film version of Edward Albee's play. Burton, Taylor's husband at the time, also had an image as something of a sex symbol, thanks to his good looks, but he apparently also made some physical adjustments to meet the requirements of playing George the professor.

Actually, director Mike Nichols' original choices to play George and Martha were James Mason and Bette Davis, according to Edward Sikov's book about Davis. I've heard that he shared this information with the playwright, and Albee approved of the choices, particularly since the character of Martha refers to Davis and quotes her famous line from "Beyond the Forest" ("What a dump!") early in the film. In the end, though, Taylor and Burton got the roles as the dysfunctional couple.

At the heart of their dysfunction is the fact that they have never had children, a fact that is only hinted at through much of the film although, in hindsight, all the clues were there. But their guests — along with the audience — don't figure it out until near the end, after George and Martha have played their sadistic games designed to hurt everyone in sight.

Their most pointed barbs are aimed at each other, although their guests are hardly spared.

Suffice to say, it isn't a "feel good" flick. There's a lot of shouting and a lot of profanity — and not many terms of endearment. But it is an important film.

Taylor and Segal may never have made a film as good since. Certainly the now deceased Burton and Dennis didn't. And I would argue that Nichols, who was a first–time director when he made it, went on to direct only a few films that were as good or better, among them his next effort — "The Graduate."

For my money, it is one of the most important films of the second half of the 20th century. If you didn't see it this morning, when it aired on Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar," I urge you to watch it when you can.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

'Odd Couple' Still Funny After All These Years

You know a comedy was good when there are lines in it that you can tell your friends and family over and over again — and they're always funny, no matter how many times you tell them.

Seems to me that just about every movie that was based on a Neil Simon play was like that. But I think it was especially true of "The Odd Couple," which was turned into a movie starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in 1968.

Matthau played Oscar, a sloppy sportswriter, and Lemmon was Felix, a compulsive neat freak who worked as a news writer. The play/film never established whether they worked for the same news organization, but they lived in New York, which then, as now, had several newspapers.

Anyway, their employer(s) didn't figure as an important part of the story. And the lines are still as good, still as funny as they were in 1968.

My grandmother was probably the best evidence of that. She wasn't the sort of person to recite humorous dialogue from movies, but there was one scene from "The Odd Couple" that always made her laugh. And she loved to tell it.

Oscar asks Felix to move his plate of pasta from the dining table. He calls it "spaghetti." Felix laughs.

Oscar asks him, "What the hell's so funny?"

Chuckling, Felix replies, "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini."

Without saying a word, Oscar picks up the plate of linguini and flings it at the kitchen wall.

He turns around and glares at Felix. "Now it's garbage," he says slowly, softly and deliberately.

I can't tell you how many times my grandmother told us about that scene — or how hard she laughed at the memory of it, years after she first saw it.

The story was really deceptively simple. Felix has been thrown out of the house and considers ending his life, but he winds up at the home of Oscar, his best friend, who gives him a place to stay. Seems like a good solution, right? Wrong. The two personalities are so different that they can't co–exist.

What ensues is some of the best dialogue ever written by Neil Simon. And it was delivered flawlessly by Lemmon and Matthau.

If you've never seen it, I won't spoil it for you by telling you some of the best lines. I'll just urge you to watch it.

You can see it tonight on Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar."

It's on at 10:15 p.m. (Central).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bergman: A Special Talent, a Special Treat

If I have a complaint about Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar" this year, it would be that many of the very best movies in the lineup are being shown at times that are hardly convenient.

I have already written about some of these movies, but they came on at times that were much more convenient than the time slot that was given to 1974's "Murder on the Orient Express."

It was shown at 3 a.m. (Central) this morning. Unless you work nights — or live in Hawaii — you probably weren't awake when it was on.

I hope you set your VCR or your DVR to record it. It is worth seeing.

I've heard it called the best film version of an Agatha Christie novel that has ever been made. I haven't seen every movie that was based on her novels, but my parents were big fans of hers and, as a result, I have read many of her books.

And I can say that "Murder on the Orient Express" truly was a remarkable film. The story was inspired by the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's son in 1932, an event that undoubtedly was remembered by many of the people who saw the movie when it came out.

Today, of course, the Lindbergh case is nearly 80 years old, and there are few living people who still remember it. But things were different 36 years ago.

As I say, my parents were huge Agatha Christie fans, and I remember seeing the movie with them. After I saw it, I read Christie's original novel upon which the story was based. And I marveled again at what I had seen.

The film was nominated for half a dozen Academy Awards, but it won only one — Best Supporting Actress. That was kind of a surprise, considering that the winner, Ingrid Bergman, had been considered for a larger role by director Sidney Lumet but insisted on a smaller role.

"I couldn't persuade her to change her mind," Lumet said. "She was sweetly stubborn. But stubborn she was. ... Since her part was so small, I decided to film her one big scene, where she talks for almost five minutes, straight, all in one long take. A lot of actresses would have hesitated over that. She loved the idea and made the most of it. She ran the gamut of emotions. I've never seen anything like it."

Bergman was a class act. She always seemed so humble about her talent, even when she received her Oscar for "Murder on the Orient Express." She said nothing about her performance or the people with whom she worked. Instead, she apologized to fellow actress Valentina Cortese for beating her.

"It's always very nice to get an Oscar," she said to scattered laughter, "but in the past he has shown that he is very forgetful and also has the wrong timing because last year, when 'Day for Night' won for the Best Picture, I couldn't believe it that Valentina Cortese was not nominated because she gave the most beautiful performance. ... It's so ironic that this year she is nominated when the picture won last year. I don't quite understand that, but here I am and I'm her rival. And I don't like it at all. Please forgive me, Valentina! I didn't mean to."

And she left the stage without saying anything about Lumet or Albert Finney (who did a great job of playing detective Hercule Poirot but was beaten by Art Carney for Best Actor) or any of the other talented people in the cast — or the cinematographer, the costume designer, the composer or the writer who adapted the screenplay, all of whom were nominated for Oscars as well.

Increasingly in recent years, actresses are expected to be young and beautiful. Only select actresses continue to receive great acting roles as they get older.

Bergman was quite beautiful when she was young, and she was always talented. You can see ample evidence of that tonight. Turner Classic Movies will show her in "Casablanca" at 7 p.m. (Central), when she was still in her 20s.

But if you have never seen "Murder on the Orient Express," which she made in her late 50s, rent it and watch it.

And marvel at Bergman's talent.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Homeward Bound

There are many moments from my childhood that are gone forever.

It isn't that they didn't happen, or that the usual milestones of childhood and personal development weren't significant. I simply don't remember them.

For example, I don't remember when I learned to walk. I can't remember a time when I couldn't read, but I know there was a time when I didn't know how to do that.

I guess I sort of remember when I learned to ride a bike.

Then there are my incomplete (or perhaps the word "imprecise" is better) memories. I have memories of being in kindergarten, but I don't remember the specifics, like dates. I have a vague memory of my first day, but I couldn't tell you everything we did on that day. And I remember the last day, when we went through a "graduation ceremony," and we marched into the room, the boys wearing blue caps and gowns, the girls wearing pink caps and gowns. I presume we were given "diplomas," although I am equally sure mine was lost long ago, and, instead of a commencement address, the teacher probably said a few words of thanks to the parents.

And that was it.

That's about as specific as my memories of kindergarten are. I have general memories of the kindergarten, of playing outside at recess. There was a pecan tree in the yard, and I remember taking my turn cracking pecans between two bricks. Ah, the simple pleasures of childhood.

I assume my kindergarten experience was a lot like anyone else's. At the time, of course, I was blissfully unaware of what was going on in the rest of the world, but yesterday was the anniversary of something that led to a memory that has stayed with me all my life. I just don't know if the memory was from when I was in kindergarten or if I had progressed to elementary school by that time.

It probably isn't important, you know. And, yet, it is important. If nothing else, it would fill a gap in my memory bank.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I couldn't tell you for sure what I was doing on Feb. 12, 1966, but, if it was a weekday, I was probably making Valentines in kindergarten. That day, Simon and Garfunkel's tune "Homeward Bound" debuted on Billboard's Top 100 at #5.

It was one of my mother's favorite songs, and she wasn't alone. It is a fan favorite, too.

I remember the day she brought home the 45 rpm single. She put it on our stereo and played it again and again. For hours. If I close my eyes, I can see that seven–inch record with a solid red Columbia label spinning on our turntable. And I can hear her singing along.

She played that record so many times that afternoon that I knew the words by heart before we sat down to supper. And I had never heard the song before that day.

The memory is vivid. I always think of Mom when I hear "Homeward Bound."

I just can't remember if I was still in kindergarten or if I had moved on to first grade when she got that 45 rpm single.

I wish I could.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day

About 10 years ago, a movie called "Snow Day" was making the rounds of the theaters.

I never saw it, but, judging from the trailer I have attached to this post, the humor appears to be aimed primarily at the very young — which is probably appropriate, since that is the group that seems to benefit the most from a snow day.

But I guess, for someone like myself who grew up in the South, it's a little baffling to imagine upstate New York being unprepared for a snowstorm, even a really big one like the one that is supposed to be poised to strike this week. I've never lived in the Northeastern U.S., but, in my experience, snow doesn't typically impair the ability to function in places in that part of the country unless it is unusually heavy.

But snow or ice — or even the high probability of it — can be enough to throw Southern towns into a panic because, unlike Northern communities, they are not prepared for it. Most Southern towns don't bother to invest money in equipment that may be needed one or two days each year.

My hometown was hesitant to make such a financial commitment during the relatively good economic days that prevailed when I was a child. I can only imagine how resistant my town would be to that kind of expenditure in this economy.

Snow days were almost annual events in the central Arkansas town where I grew up. That didn't always mean that we got any snow. Sometimes the threat of snow was so great that the local school board decided to err on the side of caution. That was understandable. They had to concern themselves with the safety of the school buses that had to pick up children in remote locations — and there were quite a few of those children, too. If they decided it looked too risky, they'd call off school the night before.

But sometimes they would make us wait until the last minute.

One of the great things about a snow day, as far as I was concerned, was that I could stay in my warm bed underneath the covers instead of having to get up before the sun did and get dressed and, eventually, go out into the freezing temperatures to stand at the bus stop and wait for the school bus. If conditions jeopardized some of the bus routes or appeared likely to, the entire school district would be given the day off, but that was frequently a last–minute decision.

Obviously, I preferred the snow days that were announced a day ahead of time.

On occasions when the situation was still iffy and no pronouncement had been issued, I was up earlier than I usually was on Christmas. I would go to the window and look outside, often returning to my bed disappointed because I saw no snow on the ground and was convinced that, far too soon, I would have to get up and go to school as usual. It was like going to bed on Christmas Eve only to wake up and find that the Grinch had stolen all the gifts and the tree.

On those mornings when there were indications of snowfall outside but no school cancellation had been announced, I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and my brother, no one speaking, everyone listening to the radio, waiting for word from the superintendent. Those were the days before the internet, before e–mail, before text messaging, before cable access — before all of the modern methods for spreading such news. We only had AM radio to rely on for that kind of information, and, if the superintendent made no announcement, we had to assume that there were no changes in the schedule for that day.

So I can relate to the reactions of the kids in the movie when they hear that school has been canceled for the day, no matter how they hear it. And it brings back memories of my childhood.

Most of the time, when I was a kid, my friends and I played touch football on our country road. On the rare occasions when we got significant snowfall, though, we played tackle. The snow cushioned us, along with our layered clothing, and we didn't have to worry about the occasional car coming through and interrupting the game.

None of us owned sleds, but I remember one snow day when one of my friends had a large cardboard box that had been used to ship something sizable. We disassembled the box and used a big piece of it to slide down slick hillsides.

After a morning of playing in the snow, I remember coming in to the warmth of my home and feasting on a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. That may not sound like much, but the warmth of that really basic food was exquisite. Truly a simple pleasure.

Based on Facebook posts from many of my old schoolmates who still live in the area, they've been getting a lot of snow this winter — more snow, apparently, than we used to get when we were growing up.

There were, as I recall, years when we had a lot of snow. There weren't many of those years. I can remember times when we might see snow once or twice — and it would melt before it hit the ground. That was far more typical.

With that memory firmly lodged in my memory, it is hard for me to imagine the kind of snowy winter folks in my hometown have been experiencing this year.

But clearly they have been dealing with an unusually snowy winter. I wish them well.

And I hope the younger generation enjoys its snow days. Unless things have really changed — unless climate change is more than a theory — I wouldn't count on this every year.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Satire With Staying Power

It's hard to believe it's been more than 30 years since "Network" was showing on America's theater screens. It seems even more relevant today than it did when it was first released.

And you can see it tonight on Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar" at 11:15 p.m. (Central).

I wish it wasn't on so late because I know that makes it more difficult for some people to see it. But if you can see it — or, at the very least, record it to watch later — I encourage you to do so because I think it's one of the best movies ever made.

And I'm not alone in that. The American Film Institute included it in its list of the Top 100 films of the last 100 years. Twice. AFI ranked it 66th when the original list was released in 1998, then moved it up two slots for the revised list that was released in 2007.

The Paddy Chayefsky story is about an anchorman who is being given the boot by his network and announces on the air that he will kill himself on his final broadcast. And then the network's ratings shoot through the roof. The anchorman, Howard Beale (played by eventual Best Actor winner Peter Finch), doesn't follow through on his threat, telling his viewers that he "just ran out of" bullsh*t, but he delivers a memorable rant later in which he encourages his listeners to go to their windows, stick their heads out and yell, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Diana the programming executive (played by Best Actress winner Faye Dunaway) speaks by phone to executives at network affiliates to find out if people are following Beale's advice. When she receives confirmation that they are, ratings numbers dance in her head and she exclaims, "Son of a bitch! We struck the Mother Lode!"

There are many memorable moments in "Network," really. Like when Beale tells viewers, "Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park."

Or when Max the network executive (played by William Holden), who is having an affair with Diana, says of her, "I'm not sure she's capable of any real feelings. She's television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny."

But the ending is one of the most memorable. Beale, who has been resurrected as the "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves," has gotten out of control and the decision is made to assassinate him.

When the deed is done, the narrator tells the audience, "This was the story of Howard Beale: The first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings."

It may be helpful to remember that, when "Network" came out, cable TV was not even close to what it is today. For the most part, America was still watching the Big Three networks.

I think it has become more relevant in the years since it was first released.

Judge for yourself.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Super Alternative

If you aren't particularly interested in the Super Bowl, I have an alternative for you.

At 7 p.m. (Central) tomorrow, you can see what is arguably one of the most influential foreign films ever — Federico Fellini's comedy/drama "8½" — in Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar."

Perhaps the first question I am asked whenever the subject of this film comes up is, "What does the title mean?"

And the answer is, it is a reference to Fellini's previous work. Prior to this movie, he made six feature–length movies and two short films, and he combined efforts with another director on another feature.

I haven't seen all of Fellini's films, but I know that "8½" is regarded as one of his best. It frequently pops up on lists of the best films of all time.

In "8½," Fellini tells the story of a director (Marcello Mastroianni) struggling with "director's block." Mastroianni's dreams and flashbacks weave a surreal narrative with the reality of his life.

For those with more than a passing interest in foreign films, there are other familiar names in the cast besides Mastroianni — Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée.

Actually, next Sunday might have been the more appropriate time to show this film. That happens to be the anniversary of its initial release in Italy in 1963.

But TCM has a lineup planned for Valentine's Day — some pretty good choices, too — and, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the relevance of showing "8½" on that day probably wouldn't be apparent to most viewers.

If you've seen Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" or Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," you've seen "8½"'s film legacy. And folks like Tim Burton, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and others were strongly influenced by his work as well.

I guess, for lack of a better word, they were the imitators. Now see the original.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Fighting a War After the War Ends

Like most boys, when I was growing up, I played war games with the kids in my neighborhood.

The other kids all seemed to know more about war than I did. I guess they saw more war movies.

Actually, I've never been a fan of war movies although I do make some exceptions.

I make exceptions, for example, for some movies that are historical re–creations, like "Gettysburg" or "Tora! Tora! Tora!" I make exceptions for some movies that tell a real person's story with war as the backdrop, like "Sergeant York." And I make exceptions for some movies that tell stories about real events but the characters are fictional, like "Gone With the Wind" or "The Best Years of Our Lives."

In fact, I'd have to say that 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives" is one of my favorite war movies — and it never shows a single battle scene in nearly three hours. It did explore the difficulties World War II veterans faced in readjusting to civilian life.

It was ahead of its time, really. Its language wasn't as salty as more modern films. When compared to films by modern filmmakers, director William Wyler could be said to have pulled some punches. But it addressed the issue of disabled veterans before "Coming Home" or "Born on the Fourth of July," and it dealt with war–inflicted psychological trauma before "The Deer Hunter."

It was truly a break from the norm.

There are moments in the movie that illustrate ugly truths about war that can't be portrayed on the battlefield and can't be glossed over by charismatic actors or patriotic music.

Like how war can interfere in personal lives.

"What do you think of the children?" the wife of the banker, Al, asks her husband upon his return.

"Children?" Al asks. "I don't recognize 'em. They've grown so old."

"I tried to stop them, to keep them just as they were when you left," she says, "but they got away from me."

Earlier, we get some insight into Al's anxiety about coming home when the cab that took him and two fellow veterans to their homes pulls up in front of his building.

"How long since you been home?" one of his companions asks.

"Oh, a couple–a centuries," he replies.

From time to time, the audience sees indications that Al has a problem with alcohol that may have developed while he was overseas. It is never really addressed in the movie, although one suspects it presents a problem that Al will have to deal with.

As difficult as things are for Al, the adjustment is tougher for Homer, the former high school football star who lost his hands in combat.

After an awkward evening with his family, he slips out to his Uncle Butch's saloon, where Butch advises him, while the two play piano together, "Give 'em time, kid; they'll catch on. You know your folks'll get used to you, and you'll get used to them. Then everything'll settle down nicely. Unless we have another war. Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?"

But Butch can't completely ease Homer's emotional conflict. It leads him to erroneously conclude that his girlfriend won't want to go through with the marriage they had planned before the war intruded.

Finally, he gives her an unflinching glimpse at the kind of life she faces if they get married. He goes through the process of removing his hooks in his preparation for bed.

"This is when I know I'm helpless," he says. "My hands are down there on the bed. I can't put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can't smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can't open it and get out of this room. I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it. Well, now you know, Wilma. Now you have an idea of what it is. I guess you don't know what to say. It's all right. Go on home. Go away like your family said."

But Wilma surprises him. "I know what to say, Homer," she says, kneeling in front of him. "I love you and I'm never going to leave you ... never." She tucks him into bed and kisses him, then leaves the room.

The camera lingers on Homer's face, partially illuminated by the moonlight. And the audience sees a single tear roll down his face. No words are necessary to express the relief he is feeling.

The third veteran, Fred, faces many obstacles when he returns, not the least of which is his attempt to pick up the threads of his marriage. He continues to suffer from nightmares about battle and also finds it hard to find work when much of his experience was in the nose of combat aircraft.

But the marriage falls apart, and Fred decides to leave town. He has no destination in mind. When trying to get on a plane, he is told that there are two planes leaving town that day, "one eastbound, one westbound."

"Which way you going?" Fred is asked.

"Which one leaves first?" he responds.

Perhaps fittingly, the movie ends with Homer and Wilma's wedding. It is a new beginning for them — and, perhaps, for Al as well. We get the impression that Al and his wife have discussed his drinking, and Al has agreed to cut back.

It is also a new beginning for Fred and Al's daughter, Peggy, who appear to be headed for their own wedding as the movie ends.

It's a remarkable film.

And you can see it tonight on Turner Classic Movies at 9 p.m. (Central). It's part of TCM's "31 Days of Oscar."

The cast was first rate — Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael. And it had a very special young man, Harold Russell, who was cast in the role of Homer. He was not a professional actor, but he was perfect for the role.

In reality, Russell lost his hands in a grenade explosion. He won Best Supporting Actor — and he also received a special Oscar for being an inspiration to veterans.

It remains the only time anyone has received two Oscars for the same performance.

Other films glorified war. "The Best Years of Our Lives" told the gritty tale of adjusting to a postwar reality — and won seven Oscars in the process.

If you have never seen it, it is worth the investment of your time.

Monday, February 01, 2010

'Lawrence of Arabia' Is a Must-See Film

Today is the first day of Turner Classic Movies' traditional monthlong Oscar season salute, "31 Days of Oscar."

I don't know how long TCM has been doing this, but there are a few things I do know — and you can draw certain conclusions based on these facts, I guess.
  • TCM has been on the air since the mid–1990s.

  • When I first became aware of the "31 Days of Oscar," it was done exclusively in March because that was the month when the Oscars were given out. Since there are 31 days in March, that was how the name originated.

  • With the exception of 2006 (when the Oscars were given out in March to avoid a conflict with the Winter Olympics), the Oscars have been given out in February since 2004. Presumably (although I haven't heard or read anything to confirm this), the 2010 Winter Olympics, which will begin in less than two weeks, were behind the decision to move this year's Oscar ceremony to March 7.

  • Even though the "31 Days of Oscar" is now held mostly in February, which has 28 days except for Leap Years when it has 29, the name has been retained. But to be true to its name, it is not confined to a single month. The last three days of the salute have been held on the first three days of March.
Anyway, in the past, the "31 Days of Oscar" had different themes each year — sometimes it has had no apparent theme — but the main rule has been that every film shown was at least nominated for an Oscar. Typically, the prime time offerings are the movies that actually won an Oscar.

Well, February 1 is the day all this begins, and TCM could hardly have done much better for its opening day. As usual, there are some films that aren't especially well known by casual film watchers. Those tend to be films that were nominated for something but didn't win — like, for example, "Saratoga Trunk," a 1945 film co–starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman that was aired this afternoon.

"Saratoga Trunk" is an overlong tale of 1875 New Orleans that did quite well at the box office when it was released, largely because it reunited the stars of 1943's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." If you missed it, you missed a film that is amiable and entertaining enough but essentially vacuous. Flora Robson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but she lost to Anne Baxter.

I'm not going to quibble with TCM's choice to air 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" on opening night, though. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (winning seven). It was the film that transformed Peter O'Toole into a genuine star. It boasts a great cast aside from O'Toole — Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains. Maurice Jarre, who died nearly a year ago, composed an Oscar–winning score that seems to capture the vast, sprawling nature of the desert.

The imagery, which was rewarded in the form of Oscars for cinematographer Freddie Young, editor Anne Coates and director David Lean, burns itself into the memory with the intensity of a desert sun.

It is an epic in just about every sense of the word, and the historical tale it tells is astonishingly accurate. Someone who believes himself or herself to be an admirer of movies must see "Lawrence of Arabia" at least once — if not more than once.

Certainly, the American Film Institute believes that. Twice it has released its "100 Years … 100 Movies" list — originally in 1998 and a revised list 10 years later — and "Lawrence of Arabia" was in the Top 10 both times.

And there is no better place to see it than Turner Classic Movies. TCM shows films uncut, uninterrupted and in the letterbox format so if you tune in, you'll be seeing precisely what the moviegoers in 1962 saw.

The problem is that, because the movie runs about 3½ hours, you may need to record it and watch it later. It starts at 10 p.m. (Central).

But that time slot is merely a nuisance. Don't let it keep you from seeing one of the great movies of all time.