Monday, January 31, 2011

Through the Eyes of an Outcast

It's funny, the things you remember.

For example, I remember the fall of 1985 pretty well. I was living in Little Rock, and several of my friends were excited about the new incarnation of the Twilight Zone TV series. I was excited about it, too.

We were all fans of the original series — but we were toddlers when it went off the air. We only experienced it in reruns. This was our opportunity to experience it first hand.

But I knew some people who seemed to specialize in being — to use a 21st century slang term — "buzzkills."

I knew one girl who dismissed the concept the minute she heard about it. The series would never be able to live up to the original, she told me.

I didn't go along with that. Agreed, the show didn't have Rod Serling (except for a fleeting stock footage clip in the opening credits), but he had been dead for a decade by that time. It's hard to see how he could have played a prominent role in the series' resurrection.

But I often thought the writing matched the original, especially in the second half of that 1985–86 season. And today is the 25th anniversary of the broadcast of what was perhaps the best example of that — an episode called "To See the Invisible Man."

Ironically, it was based on a short story that was written while the original Twilight Zone was still on the air. I don't think Rod Serling ever turned it into an episode of his series, but I definitely think he would have gotten around to it if the original series had run longer than it did.

In the traditional opening narrative, viewers were told that the story was about "a world much like our own, yet much unlike it." It was about a fellow named Mitchell Chaplin, an uncaring sort who is sentenced to a year of social isolation.

He is branded on his forehead so those he encounters will know that they risk the same punishment if they interact with him.

To someone like Mitchell Chaplin, it seems like a priceless opportunity to get some real privacy, but instead of hunkering down with a load of canned goods and some good books, which is what I would do under such circumstance, he insists on wandering out into the world, where he is made aware of the drawbacks of his situation — the worst of which may be when he is injured and refused medical attention.

I suppose, though, that, if he did hunker down with some canned goods and good books, the episode wouldn't be able to make some intriguing observations about society.

For there are other low moments, too — like when Mitchell strikes up a conversation with a blind man, only to have it abruptly terminated when a young woman whispers to the blind man "Invisible," and his whole demeanor changes or when Mitchell tries to communicate with other "invisible" people.

The story truly had some valuable lessons about crime and punishment — and some questions about whether the point of punishment is rehabilitation or retribution.

Like all the best Twilight Zone episodes, it left the answers to such questions dangling.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

TCM's Salute to Oscar Returns

It's an annual pleasure of mine, Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar" salute.

And I know it's a pleasure for many of my readers — who probably don't need this reminder, but I'm going to mention it, anyway.

"31 Days of Oscar" returns on Tuesday.

I've been looking at the schedule, eagerly anticipating some of the movies that are planned — and I'll be writing about them in more detail in the weeks ahead.

For now, though, I'll just mention that the salute appears to be starting with an evening of films about the reign of Henry VIII.
  • At 7 p.m. (Central), you can see the great Charles Laughton in 1933's "The Private Life of Henry VIII,"

  • At 9 p.m., you can see 1966's "A Man For All Seasons" starring Paul Scofield — which was nominated for eight Oscars (and won six, including "Best Picture") — and

  • At 11:15 p.m., you can see Richard Burton in 1969's "Anne of the Thousand Days" — which was nominated for 10 Oscars.
If you happen to be home on Tuesday, there are lots of other good films scheduled — the original "Thin Man" will be shown that morning, followed by "Citizen Kane," followed by Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator," followed by Sir Laurence Olivier in "Richard III."

But you could say that about each of the 31 days. There will always be something good showing. It's the very best time of the year to watch TCM — in my opinion, anyway.

I'll be back periodically to alert you to movies I wouldn't want you to miss, but, in the meantime ...


Monday, January 17, 2011

Why They Loved Lucy

Recently, I overheard a teenager wondering what was so great about Lucille Ball?

I've been thinking about that, and it just so happens that today is the anniversary of a classic episode from I Love Lucy that really makes my point for me. But I'm going to elaborate on it, anyway.

Last month, I wrote about the "jumping the shark" episode on Happy Days and pointed out that TV producers who want to give a fading TV series a jump start will often resort to bizarre plots. In the case of Happy Days, it was an episode where Fonzie, wearing his trademark leather jacket, jumped a shark on water skis while the Happy Days gang was on the West Coast.

It wasn't really new in the 1970s, though. Even in January 1955, TV producers were doing that, and, as iconic as I Love Lucy has become, its producers were trying to shake things up a little.

In the episode that aired on this night in 1955, the Ricardos and the Mertzes made their "First Stop" on their cross–country trip from New York to Los Angeles, where Ricky was to appear in a film version of the Don Juan story.

After spending a long day on the road, the four were tired, and they stopped at a run–down place for some food and a bed. But the food was nothing special — and overpriced at that — and the beds weren't any better.

And that is what makes "First Stop" an episode that so delightfully illustrates how great Lucy was. No one could do physical comedy as well as she could.

"First Stop" was kind of a challenge for Lucy and the gang. I've been told it was the first time they left their studio — their comfort zone — for a shoot.

Lucy made everyone around her better.

Like the exchange she had with Ethel after watching Ethel put Fred to bed in the sunken mattress. "You do that every night?" Lucy asked.

"Yeah," Ethel replied, "but it took years of practice."

It was just good, honest humor.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Of Fathers and Sons

There have been many TV episodes that have reminded me of my childhood and my teenage years.

Occasionally, the sensation is like the one Gig Young had in a classic original Twilight Zone episode in which he was transported back to a summer when he was a child.

Young's character, Rod Serling told the audience, was "[s]uccessful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives — trying to go home again." And I guess I've been guilty of that at times in my own life — at least in my mind and in my choices of what to watch.

I can't say I have actually returned to my hometown in recent years in some kind of misguided attempt to recapture the past — and perhaps that would be an indicator of a sort of obsession that goes beyond whatever obsession I may actually have.

I do think of my childhood home often, of days that I know are long gone, of people I have known, but I can't say that I have tried to go beyond remembering.

That's as far as it's gone.

See, I concluded long ago that Wolfe was right. You can't go home again.

Most of the time, that sensation is more wistful, more nostalgic. It evokes memories of my own childhood, of summer or school days, of people I loved ... and people I hated. Sometimes it really is surprising the stray memories that bubble their way to the surface.

I admit that I enjoy watching the programs that bring back memories of those days. Certainly, there are things I would do differently if I could go back in time — and, OK, there are times when, like anyone else, I feel nostalgic for people and places from my past.

Well, I guess Serling was right, too. Maybe you can't go home, but that doesn't mean you don't wish you could, from time to time.

I'm really not sure why I'm on that particular flight of fancy today. "Cranes Unplugged," the episode of Frasier that first aired 10 years ago today, wasn't a time travel story like "Walking Distance," that Twilight Zone episode, was. It wasn't a time travel episode at all, really.

But every time I see it, I remember moments from when I was Frederick's age, and it puts things in context for me.

For example, in this episode, Frasier decides to take Martin and Frederick on a camping trip where, he hopes, they will bond. It reminds me of times during my childhood when I'm sure my parents sought such bonding experiences with my brother and me. In large part, I believe that was why they invested in a popup camper that we took on weekend and summer trips when I was probably 10 or 11.

At the time, I was told several reasons why my parents had purchased that popup camper — and I even came up with a couple on my own in later years — but I always suspected that my parents saw the camper as an investment in long–term bonding.

We went on some memorable trips in that camper, and I remember it with great fondness, but I must admit that I have never missed sleeping — or trying to sleep — on those flimsy things that passed for mattresses in that camper.

My parents spoke of it as being a step up from sleeping on the ground in a tent but not as expensive as staying in motels when we went on family trips — but I always felt that, if not for the absence of a small rock pressing against my side, I might as well be trying to sleep on the ground — and the canvas wings of the camper always had the damp, musty smell of a tent that was hurriedly put away wet.

So, I wondered, which part of the camping experience were we not getting? I concluded it must be the sitting around an open fire for meals part. In the camper, we could sit at foldout tables on flimsy seat cushions that seemed to be made of the same material as the mattresses.

I guess that was a general step forward for civilization.

I always liked the Frasier episodes in which Frederick played a role — in part, perhaps, because they remind me that, while "generation gap" was a popular phrase when I was a child, it wasn't really new in those days.

The concept may have been new, but such gaps have always existed. Even in early 2001, Frasier and Frederick learned, while the rest of us watched, just how different generations are and always will be.

I understand better now how people of my parents' generation must have felt when I was Frederick's age, learning new things, and the adults' ideas didn't always mirror my own.

In "Cranes Unplugged," Frasier wanted a bonding experience with his son, who was preoccupied with the distractions of his time — TV, video games, computers — and decided a camping trip would be just the thing. He drafted a less–than–eager–to–participate Martin and announced, "We leave at daybreak!"

But when they got into the wilderness — where they had a primitive cabin in which to sleep and not even the most modest of plumbing service — Frasier was dismayed by Frederick's behavior.

As children do, Frederick made some friends at the campground and played with them for awhile. But when he returned to the cabin, he didn't exactly have the back–to–nature reaction that Frasier expected.

What did they do, Frasier wondered.

"We played frisbee," Frederick reported. "It sucked with all those trees in the way."

Frasier only wanted Frederick's first camping trip to be something memorable, and he was stunned to learn that it wasn't Frederick's first camping trip after all. Frederick had never told him that he had been camping before — and, as Frasier found out, Frederick, like many children, didn't tell his father many things.

But then something happened that was special, that served as a genuine bonding experience for the long–distance father and son. And Frasier promised his son that it would be their secret.

I remember similar bonding moments that I shared with my father. Our relationship was a little different. I didn't come from a broken home. I saw my father every day, not just at holidays or during breaks from school.

Even so, there were spaces between us, the unavoidable gap between the generations, I guess. There weren't great distances between us — except maybe in our perceptions of things.

Such gaps exist, I suppose, between most fathers and sons. Thankfully, we outgrow them.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

'Missing' Is Memorable

As a TV viewer, today is a really tough day for me.

On the one hand, two of the best NFL playoff games that I think we are likely to see this season will be played today — the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Baltimore Ravens and the Green Bay Packers vs. the Atlanta Falcons.

But on the other hand, Turner Classic Movies is going to be showing a couple of my favorite movies.

Thus, I am torn.

I'm not really sure if TCM has a particular theme for its broadcast schedule today. If it does, I suspect it may be something like "crime and punishment."

At 5 p.m. (Central), TCM will be showing "12 Angry Men," a courtroom drama in which all of the action takes place in the jury room — which isn't surprising since the film was based on a successful play.

Just to be clear, I'm talking about the original film from 1957 — the one with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb — not the 1997 remake with George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon — which was pretty good and is worth seeing, although I never thought it equaled the original.

I have some flexibility with that movie. I have a recording of it. If the Steelers–Ravens game is close, I don't have to see the movie. But I seldom get to see "Missing," and I'd really like to see it. The Packers and Falcons should be at their intermission when the movie begins, and if one of the teams has a huge lead, that will make my choice much easier.

Lemmon can't be found in the version of "12 Angry Men" that is being shown on TCM today, but he can be seen — and fairly extensively a few hours later — at 9 p.m. (Central) in "Missing."

And like many of his performances in the last two decades of his life, Lemmon delivers a memorable performance. If you've never seen it, you won't want to miss this rare opportunity.

If you've never seen "Missing," I don't want to spoil it for you so I'll just touch on a few high points.

It's the true story of an American journalist named Charles Horman who disappeared during the Chilean coup that ousted President Salvador Allende in September 1973. It was later determined that Horman, who had been working as a freelance writer, had been murdered shortly after his abduction.

During that coup, Allende reportedly committed suicide, but the actual circumstances of his death have been vigorously debated for more than 35 years.

There were many mysterious deaths in those days. Most of the people who died were South Americans, I suppose, and, in that place and at that time, their disappearances could be swept under the rug by the local authorities, but Horman (played by John Shea in the movie) was an American so his disappearance attracted a certain amount of attention that was not so easily dismissed.

His father, played by Lemmon in the movie, came to Chile to look for him, aided by his daughter–in–law, Beth, played by Sissy Spacek.

I've never read the book upon which the movie is based ("The Execution of Charles Horman" by Thomas Hauser), but, from what I have read, the film is accurate in its depictions of Horman's wife and father.

Lemmon had a long and distinguished career as an actor. He worked with many of the great actors and directors of his day. He was nominated for — and occasionally won — Oscars for his performances in many of the finest films made in his lifetime.

I always felt that Lemmon had two phases in his acting career. The first half of his career was largely dominated by comedic roles. There were occasional indications of his flair for drama (i.e., "Days of Wine and Roses"), but his reputation was made in comedies like "Mister Roberts," "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment," "The Fortune Cookie" and "The Odd Couple."

Then Lemmon won his only Oscar for a dramatic performance (1973's "Save the Tiger"), and, in the second half of his career (from the late 1970s until his death in 2001), his most memorable roles came in dramas — "The China Syndrome," "JFK," "Short Cuts," TV remakes of "12 Angry Men" and "Inherit the Wind" and a TV movie based on the notorious Mary Phagan murder case of the early 20th century.

And, of course, "Missing."

"Missing" was the last of Lemmon's Oscar–nominated performances. He didn't win, but I would rank it among his best.

Spacek, too, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Beth.

Ed Horman came to Chile conditioned to believe and support authority — and he was skeptical of the conspiracy theories he heard from his daughter–in–law.

But he learned he wasn't in America anymore, and he gradually realized that his own government wasn't telling him the truth about what had happened so far from his home.

I don't know if the lines in the movie are actually the lines that the real Ed and Beth spoke during that time or if they were speculative, the kind of thing the characters might have said under the circumstances — kind of like the dialogue on board the ill–fated Andrea Gail in "The Perfect Storm." No one who was on board that ship is alive to tell what really happened.

(Perhaps Horman's father and wife contributed to Hauser's book. If so, those lines may well have been verifiably attributable to them.)

But I've always liked the dialogue in "Missing." Maybe it was manufactured, but it seemed honest to me.

Like a conversation Beth and Ed have about Charles after his disappearance.

"He seems so innocent," Ed says. "Almost deliberately naive."

"Is that so bad?" asks Beth.

"Is that so good?" Ed replies.

"You raised him," Beth says.

If that was made up, it was simply good, honest writing — delivered by two of Hollywood's best.

Later, the Lemmon character, after a crash course in how things were done in Chile at that time, tells Beth admiringly, "You're the most courageous person I've ever known."

That line may not seem like much when viewed in the relatively antiseptic atmosphere of a video screen, but, in the context of the film, it amounts to an incredible admission by Beth's father–in–law.

Up to that point, he had seemed to be defending the authorities, taking their side over his son's, but his remark to Beth indicated that he understood, finally, what they had been up against in Chile.

It was Ed's recognition that they — and, then, she — had been dealing with unimaginable adversity alone, that he had misjudged them and, from that moment on, as I recall, he was a lot more supportive of his son and his daughter–in–law — and much less tolerant of those with whom he had been allied at first.

That's quite a price to pay for belatedly discovering that blood really is thicker than water.

Another line from the film has always stayed with me. It was powerful, mostly in what it did not say.

I forget the name of the character or what role he played in the story. It seems to me that he was a native of Chile and understood its culture better than the Americans.

"You Americans," he says, "you always assume you must do something before you can be arrested."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Those Were the Days

It's really hard, if not impossible, to describe how different TV became after this night 40 years ago.

You see, it was on this day in 1971 that All in the Family made its debut — and everything changed.

Well, not right away. I'm not sure how good the ratings were when it first aired — or whether they were good at all.

Those who were even aware of it in January 1971 may or may not have known of its frequent use of epithetical language before watching the pilot episode.

And some people, as I recall, claimed to be offended by it — even after it was revealed later that they had not seen the program at all.

The claim seemed plausible, though. I've seen retrospective programs about the series in which the stars — Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers, Rob Reiner and, of course, the late Carroll O'Connor — spoke of how they expected the show to be yanked from the schedule after four or six episodes at the most. They spoke of the high regard they had for the writing, but they were convinced that parts were simply too extreme. They didn't think mainstream viewers would accept it.

The network may not have had much faith in the series' future, either. The night the pilot episode aired, CBS ran the following disclaimer:
The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.

My memory is that not all TV viewers demonstrated the kind of maturity that CBS hoped for.

But enough viewers accepted the often–ugly but sometimes–amusing and frequently–insightful reflection they saw in the mirror of television. In its way, All in the Family may have been the first of the reality shows — albeit a fictionalized one.

It directed an extremely bright light on some unpleasant truths and forced viewers to laugh — at themselves as much as, if not more than, others.

In 2011, that pilot episode seems tame, but in the first half of the episode alone there were things that TV viewers weren't accustomed to in 1971 — things like a spoof of stereotypical Negro dialect, displays of and dialogue about sexuality, a debate about the existence of God and open use of epithets that had rarely been uttered on American television before.

As with any successful series, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the starring roles, but, in fact, the producers originally wanted Mickey Rooney to play the part of Archie. Rooney, however, turned it down. I have heard that he was concerned about the likelihood of controversy — and the probability, in Rooney's view, that the program would fail.

I don't know if anyone other than Stapleton was ever considered for the part of Edith, but Struthers and Reiner had some hurdles to clear before they joined the cast. My understanding is that Reiner was always series creator Norman Lear's choice to play Mike/Meathead, even though Richard Dreyfuss (one of Reiner's friends) apparently lobbied for the part.

Not getting the part doesn't seem to have hurt Dreyfuss' career. He didn't get the All in the Family gig, but his film credits have included such movies as "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Goodbye Girl," "Mr. Holland's Opus" and a long list of lesser–known big– and small–screen productions.

Struthers, on the other hand, was not the first choice to play Gloria. In an unaired pilot for the series (when its title was Those Were the Days and the family was called Justice instead of Bunker), Gloria was played by Candice Azzara, a character actress who appeared in several TV series in the 1970s. Mike (named Dickie in the pilot) was played by an actor named Chip Oliver.

When All in the Family joined the primetime lineup, it was in CBS' stable. But the original pilot was produced by ABC, which was not happy with Azzara and Oliver. Eventually, ABC canceled the project and CBS picked it up.

CBS, I have heard, was eager to change its image. At the time, it was strongly associated with so–called "rural" programming like Mayberry RFD, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction. CBS wanted a more modern image, and it sure got it.

From the perspective of the 21st century, it is hard to tell how well received the series was at first. By the end of the 1971 TV season, the show ranked 34th, which wasn't necessarily good in an era when only three networks controlled the airwaves. It had only been on the air for half a season, though, so it may have been gaining momentum.

In fact, logic insists that it must have been gaining momentum because it was ranked #1 for the next five seasons. No other TV series had ever accomplished that before and only two have duplicated the achievement since.

I was a young boy when the series made its debut, and I have spotty memories of what TV — in fact, what American culture — was like before it came along.

It's hard to imagine at a time when American presidents have appeared on TV talk shows with some frequency, but, in 1971, an American president simply didn't do that sort of thing.

Maybe that had something to do with who was president — Richard Nixon. My memory of him as president is that he always seemed uptight (George Carlin once said Nixon looked constipated) — but, apparently, he was a little more freewheeling back when he was running for president and he appeared on Rowan & Martin's Laugh–In and spoke the phrase that the show made famous, "Sock it to me."

Only he uttered it as a question.

But it is clear, from the infamous tapes that Nixon made of his conversations, that he and his associates were paying attention to the program's influence on popular culture. On one occasion, he and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, discussed an early episode in which Archie wrote to the president.

To my knowledge, Nixon rarely, if ever, discussed popular culture in public when he was president, but All in the Family's contributions to American life were undeniable.

When I was growing up:
  • Everyone knew that an Archie Bunker was a bigot, probably a racist, possibly a sexist and a homophobe.

    If you were called an Archie Bunker, chances were good that you had a reputation for being intolerant.

  • Everyone knew what words like dingbat, stifle and meathead meant.
Everyone I knew watched the show — and the programs that spun off from it, like Maude and The Jeffersons.

Maude was rather short lived, compared to The Jeffersons, but it still enjoyed more success than many series, running for six seasons. The Jeffersons lasted for 11 years.

But Maude was responsible for another, more popular spinoff — Good Times — that ran for six years.

All in the Family itself continued for a few more years under the name of Archie Bunker's Place. The cast changed, but, when all was said and done, Archie Bunker, his family and his former neighbors influenced American culture for most of the 1970s and nearly half of the 1980s.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Elvis' 76th Birthday

Today would have been Elvis Presley's 76th birthday.

If Elvis was alive today, that would be a considerable achievement — perhaps not quite as noteworthy, in the milestone sense, as his 75th birthday a year ago today — but, of course, he has been dead for more than 33 years.

Today is the anniversary of his birth. That much is beyond dispute. But it seems to me that "birthday" is really a term that is reserved more for the living, perhaps mostly for children. It implies candles and cake and ice cream and gifts. It suggests games and the ritualistic singing of "Happy Birthday to You" — to someone who can hear it and appreciate it, not someone who is buried in the ground or whose ashes have been scattered somewhere.

Conspiracy theorists and Elvis sighters notwithstanding, the man is dead. The anniversary of his birth is interesting for most of us to mark — it is always intriguing to think of what a person who died young might be like at an advanced age — but he isn't 76 years old, any more than Ronald Reagan will be 100 years old next month — or Abraham Lincoln was 200 a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, January 8 remains special to Elvis' fans and those who appreciate the role he played in the evolution of popular music. I suspect it will always be so.

But it seems there is less and less to say about the man with each passing year.

Well, less that is new, I suppose. The old observations continue to be recycled.

Power Line, for example, reran a piece it first posted eight years ago about the day that Elvis met President Nixon.

And, when old observations can't be made, other spins are offered.

In Chicago, the ABC affiliate encourages people to mark the occasion by attending a tribute performance.

And the Huffington Post urges folks in New York to "chow down on some of his favorite foods, NYC–style."

While it isn't exactly a new spin on this old theme, I give Melissa Bell of the Washington Post credit for getting her readers involved and asking them to nominate their favorite Elvis songs.

There are so many to choose from, so many genres to consider. There are the smash hits, the well–known titles that redefined popular music, and there are the lesser–known but equally influential (in their own way) songs, all of which have their defenders.

I guess it depends on your point of view — a thought that prompted me, in a hyperlink kind of way, to remember a movie I saw many years ago.

The movie, "Touched By Love," was supposedly based on a true story of a morose young girl who was afflicted with cerebral palsy. Her nurse, in an attempt to connect with her, encouraged her to start a pen pal relationship with Elvis, her favorite singer, which she did. Elvis replied to her letter, and the two reportedly exchanged letters until she died.

In truth, it was a tearjerker of a movie, a little too obvious at times. That may not have been the fault of the performers — or even the girl upon whom the tale was based. It may have been the fault of the writers.

For example, I recall a scene in which the nurse asked the girl why she admired Elvis, and the girl replied, in rather incredulous tones, something to the effect of "He can move!" or "He can dance!" (Forgive me for not being more precise. It's been many years since I've seen the movie.)

I guess there's no denying that. Elvis definitely could move/dance — at least, when he was young and trim. The Las Vegas, jumpsuited version was another matter. Too many fried–peanut–butter–banana–bacon–and–honey sandwiches, I suppose.

But, anyway ...

It's the sort of story that sounds like it certainly could be true. There have been all kinds of stories over the years of Elvis' remarkable generosity, how he gave Cadillacs and houses to people — sometimes to people he barely knew, if at all.

Thus, a movie about Elvis having a pen–pal relationship with a sick girl on whom he lavished gifts and cards as well as letters doesn't sound farfetched at all.

Is it farfetched today? I don't know. Perhaps it is for most celebrities. But not for all.

Take New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, for example. Last month, he met an 11–year–old boy who was dying of a rare cancer. Meeting Sanchez was one of the boy's two wishes, and Rich Cimini of ESPN reports that the boy lit up like a Christmas tree when he was introduced to Sanchez.

They became close friends. When the Jets defeated Pittsburgh a few days later, Sanchez sent the game ball to the boy.

A few days before the Jets' season finale, the boy died. The Jets remembered him with a moment of silence before their game with Buffalo, and this week, as Cimini writes, Sanchez began preparing for today's playoff game in Indianapolis with a heavy heart.

The boy was buried this week.

I don't know if, like the girl in the movie, he was drawn to his idol because that person could move — or, maybe, because he could do something of a physical nature that illness prevented the boy from doing.

But I will be interested in seeing if Sanchez has a career day in honor of his friend.

There may be no better time for him to do that than Elvis' birthday.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Colorizing Twain

I am second to no one in my admiration for Mark Twain.

There was a reason why, as I observed in 2009, William Faulkner called him "the father of American literature."

On that occasion, I also pointed out that his works had "fallen victim to 20th century political correctness."

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," I wrote — also regarded by many, if not most, literary scholars as the definitive "great American novel" — was under assault "because of its frequent use of the word 'nigger,' which was commonly used in the 19th century."

In this matter, I have a new abomination to report — and you can thank, of all people, an English professor, who undoubtedly must have spent much time in college studying the great writers and their works.

He doesn't seem to have learned much from that experience.

This professor (Alan Gribben of Auburn University), Julie Bosman for the New York Times reports, approached the publisher (NewSouth Books) last summer with the idea of publishing "Huck Finn" with slave replacing nigger. The publisher will publish the edited version next month.

The professor told the Times that he wanted "to get us away from obsessing about this one word and just let the stories stand alone."

Sounds like a good intention. But you know what they say about good intentions, don't you?

Twain himself said, "Half of the results of a good intention are evil; half the results of an evil intention are good."

Personally, I think all of the results of this particular good intention are, if not exactly evil, certainly influenced by it.

A book like "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a priceless window into history. It tells of an America in another century on the brink of unprecedented advancement. A gifted writer like Twain can describe the clothes people wore, the houses they lived in, the people they knew, the language they used, and the reader will come away with a clear understanding of what life was like in those times.

Gribben protests that "I'm by no means sanitizing Mark Twain. The sharp social critiques are in there. The humor is intact."

Maybe so, but to change even a single word from the way people spoke in the late 19th century in order to conform to some sort of 21st century notion of political correctness is just wrong.

(Incidentally, the word injun was replaced with Indian.)

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has been getting people worked up for more than 125 years. It's interesting, as Hillel Italie writes for Associated Press, that "[w]hen first published, 'Huckleberry Finn' was criticized for advocating bad behavior, for being a 'coarse book not likely to set a good example for the young,' says Justin Kaplan, author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning Twain biography."

As time went by, Italie observes, "values changed, (and) so did the objections."

Now the objections center on the language of another time, the context of another era, because the values of today are uncomfortable with the values of yesterday. Well, that isn't enough for me.

First of all, it is ridiculous, as I wrote in 2009, even to imply that Twain was a racist because a racist word appears in one of his novels. It's like saying that Carroll O'Connor was a bigot because he played one on television.

But, beyond that, I believe it is wrong to tinker with a writer's words. You may not like them, but that is not enough justification, in a free society, to censor them. A writer is an artist. If you're going to change an artist's work, you'd better have some damn good reasons.

The possibility that someone might be offended simply isn't good enough.

To me, it's like that period some 20 years or so ago when it was popular to "colorize" films that were made in black and white. I objected to that then for much the same reason that I object to this unnecessary deletion of an expletive. It is an alteration of an artist's work.

Besides, I'm not so sure that, by removing a word like "nigger" from the book, you remove the tension and the misunderstanding of its application by earlier generations. Obviously, in the 21st century, that word has some very ugly history, but much of that history hadn't happened by the time "Huck Finn" was published in 1885.

It's worth remembering that, even if "nigger" (and "injun," for that matter) is stricken from the book, it will still contain references to homicides, child abuse, substance abuse and other behaviors that most parents probably would prefer their children didn't emulate.

(If bad behavior becomes the basis for criticism, I guess that will mean we have come full circle.)

In his own defense, Twain recommended that those who desire more guidance on those subjects should consult "an unexpurgated Bible" — which never uses the word "nigger" but does discuss murders, fraud, theft and alcohol consumption (if not abuse) at length.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Memories of Baker Street

If you were a teenager in the late 1970s, "Baker Street" almost certainly must bring back memories that are strong and vivid.

I know it does for me.

There are some songs that always remind me of the very first time I ever heard them. I am instantly reminded of how old I was, where I was at the time, what I was doing, etc.

"Baker Street" was not one of those songs for me.

I don't know how old I was when I first heard it. I don't know where I was at the time. I don't remember what I was doing.

I do remember that, when it was a hit in 1978, I was working at a self–service gas station. My shifts tended to be 4–6 hours long, and there was little to do, as I sat at my window, except listen to the radio so that's what I did.

Thus, my mind links that song to memories from my perch, where I could watch as traffic came and went through my hometown. A song called "Baker Street" seemed to be the ideal theme for the work I was doing, which was good because the radio stations played it as often as they could.

Seriously. If I pulled a six–hour shift, I probably heard that song played four or five times on the radio during that shift.

I couldn't tell you the first time I heard it. I only know that I gradually became aware of it; one day, it just seemed like it had always been around.

That song was recorded by a fellow named Gerry Rafferty, a Scottish singer/songwriter who died yesterday at the age of 63.

I heard his name often in 1978. I don't know if I heard it a few years earlier, when his other signature song, "Stuck in the Middle With You," was a hit for a group called Stealers Wheel.

I always preferred "Baker Street," I guess. Bruce Eder of wrote that it was "a masterpiece of pop production."

And so it was, I suppose.

All I know is that, whenever I hear it — and I do still hear it, from time to time, when I'm driving and I have my radio on — I feel as if I am transported back to the late 1970s, and the things that were on my mind then are fresh on my mind now.

"Baker Street" is that kind of song. It has a strange kind of power, the ability to conjure up stray memories that have been trapped in my brain for years.

It's really weird, sometimes. I can be driving along and "Baker Street" will come on the radio, and a fleeting thought will cross my mind. I will think of the girl I was dating or a class I was taking, or I will remember that I need to change the oil in my vehicle.

That's a plausible thought — until my subconscious mind produces an image of the vehicle that needs the oil change — and it isn't the vehicle I drive today but rather the vehicle I was driving 30 years ago! I guess it goes without saying that the thought loses all credibility at that point.

I'm losing more and more of those links to my past as time goes by.

It's just as well, I suppose. That time is gone, and those memories that have been locked in my brain all these years are ghosts that need to be set free.

It's time to let them go — and to let Rafferty go as well.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Deja Vu TV

In the fall of 1985, the second incarnation of Twilight Zone sparked some spirited debates among some of my friends.

Some did not think it lived up to the original. Others did. I guess I fell somewhere in the middle. I liked the series, thought it was often as good as the original (which, to be fair, I have only seen in syndication), but sometimes I thought the episodes were disappointing.

That wasn't a fatal flaw in my opinion. I was sometimes disappointed in original episodes, too.

But I always felt that an episode that aired 25 years ago last night — "The Misfortune Cookie" — lived up to the standards of the original.

In more ways than one.

The story was clearly a Twilight Zone tale. A food critic who takes great delight in writing mean reviews that lead to the (sometimes premature, sometimes unwarranted) closing of restaurants becomes aware of an out–of–the–way Chinese restaurant and begins writing an extremely negative review without having eaten the food.

Perhaps so he can plausibly claim to have been to the restaurant, he stops by for dinner but doesn't eat the food and immediately asks for his check. The owner gives him a fortune cookie which he says is "special."

The critic's fortune cookie predicts that a "grand reward" is just around the corner. The critic leaves the restaurant and literally collides with a jewel thief and recovers all the stolen gems. The jeweler insists on giving him a $1,000 (a "grand") reward.

The critic is hooked and returns to the restaurant for lunch the next day. His negative review has already been printed, and people have been canceling their reservations all morning. Now contrite, the critic promises to smooth everything over with the readers, but first he wants a Chinese lunch and another special fortune cookie.

This one strikes the food critic as ludicrous. It says, "April arrives bringing romance," but he knows it is really September, and he storms out of the restaurant.

Yet only minutes later, he meets a woman who has just arrived in the city and seems lost. They hit it off and agree to have dinner together. The woman says her name is April.

After that, though, things begin to turn against the food critic in true Twilight Zone fashion.

The critic, of course, takes April to the Chinese restaurant for dinner, but the fortune cookies are not to his liking. April's cautions her that a mistake in judgment will soon be made clear to her. The critic's cookie tells him he is going to die, and he explodes, ranting at the owner of the restaurant.

A chastened April leaves and, shortly thereafter, so does the critic, who proceeds to an appropriate demise.

Frankly, I thought the ending of the episode was a little weak — but I felt the same way about some original episodes.

Like some of the original episodes, this one featured a well–known actor (Elliott Gould), who played the role of the food critic.

Another tradition that began in the original Twilight Zone series was the emergence of some talented actors, previously unknown but not fated to remain that way.

I don't think any of Gould's castmates fit that description. I mean, if any has gone on to do much beyond this Twilight Zone episode, I'm not aware of it.

I seldom see Twilight Zone episodes from the mid–1980s so your only opportunity to see it may be through YouTube.

But, if you're a Twilight Zone fan, watch it and ask yourself if it doesn't belong next to any episode from the original series.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Anne Francis Dies

Note: This is a true story.

It has been my custom in recent years to watch the Twilight Zone New Year's marathon on the Syfy Channel. The marathon usually airs on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day so one of my pleasures on those days is to bounce from Syfy to the bowl games.

This year, that practice produced an eerie sensation.

One of the Twilight Zone episodes that is always shown during these marathons is an episode from 1960 called "The After Hours." Personally, I've never been too fond of it, but, for some reason, when it came on this time, I watched it all the way through.

I didn't care much for the story, but I watched anyway, and I marveled at how beautiful Anne Francis was, at her steel–belted porcelain features.

She was delicate yet tough. For many boys who came along before I did, she was the personification of simmering sex appeal as the love interest in "Forbidden Planet," which she made when she was in her mid–20s.

"Forbidden Planet" was before my time, but I have a tape of it and I (inexplicably, at the time) felt compelled to watch it after the end of the Twilight Zone episode. Now, the episode came on late Saturday night. It was a little too late to start watching a movie so I got out the tape and resolved to watch the movie sometime on Sunday.

I had every intention of doing so, but I didn't. I even had the opportunity to watch the movie on Turner Classic Movies, which was scheduled to show it late yesterday afternoon.

But I was caught up in the football games.

And then, today I learned that Anne Francis died yesterday at the age of 80. I expect to watch that tape sometime in the next few days — even though I have seen it several times already.

It wasn't groundbreaking in its special effects. In fact, I suspect that modern viewers would think it was rather tawdry. But it is the great demarcation point for the science fiction genre.

All science fiction films that came before, including the ones that rose above the level of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," seem to lead directly to "Forbidden Planet," and all the ones that followed seem to flow directly from it.

The Internet Movie DataBase described Francis as "[o]ne tall, cool drink of water." Hal Erickson observed, for, that, "in the days of publicity–agent pigeonholing, [she] was dubbed variously as 'The Fragile Blonde with the Mona Lisa Smile' and 'The Palomino Blonde.' "

Perhaps no one else could have been as convincing in the role of Alta. Perhaps the role required those qualities.

Most of Francis' career was spent on the small screen. She is remembered by some as Honey West (a detective who had an ocelot for a pet in an Aaron Spelling production), by others for her guest appearances on some of the most popular TV series of the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s.

She was remarkable for reasons that went beyond her acting career. Married and divorced twice before she was 35, Francis had a daughter with her second husband, then made history as one of the first unmarried people to be granted an adoption in the state of California in 1970.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007. Pancreatic cancer has been given as the cause of her death.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll

Chuck Berry's collapse at a concert in Chicago last night "reminds us that he matters," is saying today.

I'd like to think the reminder wasn't necessary.

For those who may not have heard, Berry, 84, collapsed during a New Year's show.

He "slumped over his electric keyboard ... and was helped off the stage by two assistants as fans shouted 'We love you, Chuck!' " reported Reuters. "Berry returned to the stage about 30 minutes later, waved to his fans, thanked them and said he was OK ... . Then, as if to reassure the audience, he did an abbreviated version of his signature duckwalk move before leaving the stage again."

An agent for Berry confirmed that Berry said he didn't feel well before the show.

The agent acknowledged that Berry was on his way to his Missouri home.

The heart of rock 'n' roll is still beating.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Luke, I Am Your Fuhrer

I have a modest proposal for some enterprising broadcaster — for which I will be willing to accept any residual payment.

All it will require is someone with the resources to make it happen so, if you've got the money, honey ...

Recently, while I was channel surfing, I discovered that my cable provider has added The Military Channel to my lineup.

I say I "discovered" that because my cable provider has an infuriating habit of dropping/adding channels without notifying me. Unless it is a channel I watch regularly, I won't miss it right away if it is dropped.

Consequently, when I become aware that I have access to a channel to which I didn't realize I had access — or when I discover that I no longer have access to a certain channel — I wonder how long that has been so.

Not that it would change anything. It wouldn't alter the reality. My channel lineup would still be what it is.

But it makes me wish there was a little more honesty in the world.

Just a little, though. A lot probably would be too much.

Take The Military Channel, for example. It's supposed to be about all kinds of things — weapons, vehicles, wars. Perhaps it is. But every time I've landed there during my surfing, it's been showing something about World War II in general or the Nazis in particular.

I used to run into this with the History Channel. It has grown and evolved and is showing more original programming now (like Ice Road Truckers and the Thanksgiving night competition Chunkin' Punkins, in which contestants apparently flung pumpkins as far as possible using a catapult), but there was a time when I couldn't switch on the History Channel without seeing something on World War II or the Nazis.

Coincidentally, I guess, I stumbled onto the attached clip on YouTube, and I started musing.

TV producers have been tap dancing around this for years, and I think it's time for someone to simply be honest with us. They have figured out that TV viewers have some kind of infatuation with Hitler and the Nazis — they must have reached that conclusion because there are so many programs on TV that explore the Nazis and Hitler and World War II. From every conceivable angle — and some that are so far out in left field they're out of the ball park.

Anyway, the point is that they're giving us what they think we want. With so much money on the line in broadcasting these days — far more than ever before — the proliferation of these programs makes it unlikely, in my view, that this is a gamble.

It's a premeditated strategy.

And that brings me to my proposal. I have concluded that, at some point, someone will launch an All Nazi Channel or an All Hitler Channel. There will be some negative publicity initially, sure, but that doesn't mean it won't be a hit. Nearly 20 years ago, NYPD Blue survived negative publicity and enjoyed a 12–year run.

And a whole network is bound to have the potential to make more money than a single series.

I have a few ideas for this network so if someone wants to have something ready to go ...

First, it needs a logo. A black swastika in a white circle against a red background always got the message across in the past, and I think it will serve the purpose in the 21st century.

Then, you need a theme song. I think it's already written. Take a look at the attached video. Isn't Darth Vader's theme perfect for this?

The swastika might be in the public domain, but you'll need to acquire the rights to the Star Wars music. That might be a little tricky unless you can show some consumer research that demonstrates the size of the network's likely audience and the relevant demographic breakdowns (disposable income, age, etc.) so you might want to get started on that right now.

If we clear all the legal hurdles and acquire the rights to use Vader's theme, it only makes sense to pursue James Earl Jones (or someone who sounds a lot like him) to do a voiceover like the one that Jones does for CNN.

He could say, "Luke, I am your fuhrer."

Well, it's a starting point, anyway.