Thursday, March 31, 2011

One of the Last Matinee Idols

I was truly sorry to learn, somewhat belatedly, that Farley Granger died Sunday at the age of 85.

These days, most people probably don't know who Granger was — and the truth is that he really was before my time as well. He was a "matinee idol," as the New York Times wrote. One of the last of the breed.

He began his career in the movies, but he did a lot of TV and stage work in his later years, and he had mostly made that transition before I was born.

But that didn't prevent me from enjoying his film work — and, since his most noteworthy films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it was only natural that I would see them.

My parents, as I have mentioned here before, were Hitchcock fans, and they passed along their fondness for his work to me. I watched several Hitchcock movies with them over the years, but we never watched his collaborations with Granger. Those I saw by myself.

When people speak of the work Granger and Hitchcock did together, the conversation inevitably seems to turn to "Strangers on a Train," their 1951 classic (which will observe its 60th anniversary on June 30). And there is no doubt, as far as I am concerned, that "Strangers on a Train" was a great movie.
  • The American Film Institute named it #32 on its list of the top 100 thrillers in movie history — a list that included eight other Hitchcock movies, three of which were in the Top 10.
  • It was the inspiration for Billy Crystal's 1987 black comedy, "Throw Momma From the Train." It was a hit with the moviegoing audience even though it got mixed reviews from critics.
But I also feel that "Rope," the first film Hitchcock and Granger made together in 1948, was great. In fact, in some ways, I prefer it to "Strangers on a Train." It was inspired by a real crime, the murder of a 14–year–old boy by two University of Chicago students, the infamous Leopold and Loeb, in 1924. In the movie, two young men murder a colleague, then have a select group of guests over to dinner with the body concealed in their apartment. In this way, they can prove, if only to themselves, their superiority over the others, but one of the murderers seems to want one of the guests, a former teacher who once spoke to them of committing the perfect murder, to know what they have done. Granger played the other murderer, the one who suffers the most from his feelings of guilt and doesn't do a very good job of concealing it, although most of the guests are as unaware of his behavior as of the fact that the body is hidden in a chest in the room where they have gathered. One guest, played by Jimmy Stewart, does pick up the scent, though, and returns after the others have gone to confront the killers. It's a very cerebral tale, with all of the action taking place in real time and appearing to be made in one long, continuous shot. It was as groundbreaking in its way as "Citizen Kane" had been about seven years earlier. As film critic Roger Ebert observed more than 25 years ago, "Alfred Hitchcock called 'Rope' an 'experiment that didn't work out.' ... He was correct that it didn't work out, but 'Rope' remains one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Trouble With Angels

When I was growing up in Conway, Ark., the merchants in town sponsored free weekly movies for the children in town every summer.

There was only one theater in Conway in those days, and the movies that were shown were usually a few years old. They were new to me, of course, and probably to most of the kids I knew.

Because there was almost always a lag between the times when many of the free movies I saw were released and the time I actually saw them, I'm not really sure when I saw them for the first time.

Such is the case with a movie that made its debut on this day in 1966 — "The Trouble With Angels" starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell.

My best guess is that I must have seen it about three or four years after it came out. I don't really know.

But I do know that I liked it when I saw it. Maybe that is because I actually got to watch it.

Sure, it was pretty silly, even predictable. In hindsight, that was the best kind of movie for the audience that saw it. I went to many of the free movies in my hometown when I was growing up, and the silly movies were the ones that always seemed to hold that audience's attention.

Other movies had somewhat limited audiences within the more general audiences in the theater. It was at the free movies, for instance, that I saw "Planet of the Apes" for the first time, and I was intrigued, but I wasn't able to watch all of it because the members of the audience engaged in a "food fight."

Long before John Belushi and the cast of "Animal House" brought the concept to the screen, the kids of my generation were doing it in the seats and aisles of the darkened theater.

(I remember the kids got so rambunctious that the theater manager stopped the movie and came out on the stage — yes, there was an actual stage in the theater — and threatened to pull the plug on the movie if we didn't settle down.)

"Planet of the Apes" was just a little too high over most of the heads in the theater that day. I had to watch it on another occasion — and in an entirely different setting — to experience the whole film.

But "The Trouble With Angels" seemed to totally absorb everyone sitting in the theater the summer afternoon it was shown.

Yes, it was silly and predictable. And, since the action took place on the campus of a girls' school, it probably had more appeal for the girls in the audience than the boys. (That would change in the years ahead. This audience would have been mostly 8– and 9–year–olds — and I know, from having been an 8– and then 9–year–old boy, that no boy in that age group considers girls angelic in any way.)

Nevertheless, my memory is that everyone sat in rapt silence as the story played out on the screen.

If you watch the movie today, you might recognize some of the cast members by face if not by name.

Apart from the adolescent girls who played the students at the school, the adults who played the instructors were all seasoned pros. Some are known for the roles the played on TV, others for their contribution in other films, and they were all above the material they were given. But they handled it admirably.

There are no lines from the movie that have remained with me all these years ... well, except for one.

It was Hayley Mills' catchphrase in the film: "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea!"

When she said that, you knew that something really outrageous (at least within the context of the film) was about to happen — and, usually, it did.

If you compare it to similar movies, made before or since, "The Trouble With Angels" was a fairly routine film.

But I think, in the loving directorial hands of Ida Lupino, what the story did (it was based, as I understand it, on the memoirs of a former Catholic high school student) was make the audience care genuinely about everyone in it.

And that's quite an achievement.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Write Stuff

I have written here before of episodes from the Twilight Zone series remake in the mid–1980s.

And I have written of how I felt that some of my friends reached unfair conclusions about the series.

Some told me that the series didn't live up to the standards of the original.

I disagreed, and the episode that aired 25 years ago tonight supports my position admirably.

It is called "The Library," and it is the story of an aspiring writer who goes to work for a private library.

(I remember the night I saw it. I was working Wednesday through Sunday nights on the sports staff of a metropolitan newspaper in those days.

(Twilight Zone was on Friday nights. I would set my VCR to tape the show, which was an hour in length and usually had two — or even three — episodes in that hour, and then I would watch the tape when I got home from work, usually around 1 or 1:30 in the morning.

("The Library" was actually the third segment that particular evening, and the first two segments really weren't anything special. When the second one ended, I was seriously considering switching off the TV and going to bed, but something told me to continue watching. I did — and I was glad I did.)

After beginning work there, the woman is told never to look at the books; then, after inadvertently doing so, she discovers that the library is actually a collection of books on every person in the world. She gets the head librarian to admit that the books are constantly updated, telling the story of every living person as it happens — their hopes, their dreams, their experiences, their accomplishments, their failures. The most intimate details and the most trivial moments. Everything.

When someone died, that person's "book" was removed from the shelf.

The woman, as I say, is an aspiring writer, and, in her off time, she is trying to write a book, but, when she is distracted by a noisy neighbor, she decides to take advantage of her position and do some — shall we say? — creative writing in her neighbor's "book."

Oh, what a naughty girl!

Well, she didn't intend to be. She only wanted to make her environment quiet so she could write. That's reasonable, isn't it? And the change she wrote wasn't terribly radical — just guaranteed to make her life more peaceful.

Or so she thought.

She immediately discovered that you can't change one person's reality without changing everyone's. Whenever she changed something to benefit one person, even modestly, it adversely affected someone else.

No man is an island.

You probably won't recognize the actress who played the young woman, but you might recognize the one who played her sister — Lori Petty. She was one of the stars of "A League of Their Own" several years later.

There are other folks whose faces you might know but not their names. And people with longer memories may recognize German–born American actress Uta Hagen, who played the head librarian.

For the episode, Hagen, most of whose work was done on the American stage, resurrected the faux German accent she had used in her most noteworthy films — in reality, though, Hagen was brought up in Wisconsin.

And her accent wasn't terribly thick in this episode. In fact, there was just enough of it for the casual viewer to suspect that her life didn't begin in this country.

I guess you could learn the details if you located the book with Hagen's name on it.

But the episode clearly indicated to viewers that the "library" relocated rather suddenly, and nobody told them where it went.

Of course, they didn't know where the library was originally, either ...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Centennial of an Artist

When I was in elementary school, I had a lunchbox that was covered with illustrations from The Flintstones.

It was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a child.

In fact, it was a prime time program through the first half of the 1960s. My family didn't get a TV set until after it had been taken from the prime time lineup, but it must have been shown in nighttime syndication for awhile because I distinctly remember seeing it at night when I was in the second or third grade.

Prime time animated programming pretty much disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s, but in those years, as well as the 1960s, Hanna–Barbera Productions was the studio that was responsible for most of the cartoons being produced in America. Cartoons were seldom shown with feature films, anymore, and cartoons could mostly be found on Saturday morning TV.

I remember watching many of them — The Jetsons, Tom and Jerry, Huckleberry Hound, Jonny Quest, Scooby–Doo, Quick Draw McGraw, Top Cat, Yogi Bear — on Saturdays when I was a child.

And I was a fan of them all, but The Flintstones probably was my favorite.

The reason I'm telling you this is because today would have been the 100th birthday of Joseph Barbera, the co–founder of Hanna–Barbera. He almost made it to his centennial, too. He died at the end of 2006 at the age of 95.

(His partner wasn't too far off, either. Hanna would have turned 100 last July, but he died on March 22, 2001, at the age of 90.)

Part of what I really enjoyed about The Flintstones was the way it merged the modern world with the Stone Age world in what I always thought were clever word plays.

Names of modern people and places were altered to include "rock" or "stone" or something similar — for example, celebrity names in the fictional town of Bedrock were given Stone Age twists. Ann–Margret became Ann Margrock, Tony Curtis became Stony Curtis, Cary Grant became Cary Granite.

In the Flintstones' world, they seemed to have all the conveniences of modern life — but they were all powered in some way by dinosaurs or birds or some other prehistoric creature.

In the intro, for example, the audience saw the gang getting in Fred's "car" which was powered by his feet, not gasoline (that was funny at the time, but it doesn't sound too bad now that gas is around $3.50 a gallon, does it?) and going to the drive–in to see a movie — that's a rather quaint notion nowadays, too, wouldn't you say? I mean, how many drive–ins have you seen lately?

It was pretty much the same formula that was used on The Jetsons — only, in that program, the emphasis was on the Space Age. The names had the same futuristic theme (George Jetson's boss was named Spacely) and all the great advances of the future, whether they have come to pass or not, were born in the minds of the children of my generation.

I absolutely believe that Hanna–Barbera is the reason why some people in the 21st century wonder why they can't drive flying cars yet. (Some of them still think it will be achieved in their lifetimes, believe that or not!)

Sometimes, I guess, it really was hard to see where reality left off and fantasy picked up in a Hanna–Barbera cartoon. The line was often blurred.

It's a funny thing about The Flintstones, too. For a long time, I have heard that it was modeled after the classic TV series, The Honeymooners.

I've never really formed an opinion on that. The Honeymooners was only on the air for a single season, and it had long been gone from the prime time lineup by the time I was born. It may have been shown in reruns when we got our first TV, but my parents never watched it so I wasn't exposed to it when I was growing up.

Hanna reportedly admitted that The Honeymooners was the inspiration for The Flintstones. But Barbera disputed that.

Whatever the truth, there were, at the very least, similarities between the shows. The Honeymooners was about two married couples who were good friends, just like The Flinstones. And, although it was a cartoon, there was a strong physical resemblance between Fred Flintstone and the lead male character in The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason).

As a matter of fact, I understand that the original voice of Fred Flintstone was provided by Alan Reed, who looked and sounded a lot like Gleason.

In 1986, Gleason told Playboy that he thought about suing Hanna–Barbera but, in the end, decided to let it slide.

It may have been a primarily pragmatic decision made by a star who was reluctant to bite the hands that so generously fed him.

"Do you want to be known as the guy who yanked Fred Flintstone off the air?" he said his lawyers asked him. "The guy who took away a show that so many kids love, and so many parents love, too?"

That would have been a considerable demographic in my house.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death of a Movie Star

The younger generation may know her only as a close friend of Michael Jackson, but Elizabeth Taylor was always so much more than that.

The American Film Institute ranked Taylor #7 on its list of the top 25 female movie stars of all time — behind only Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe.

She was never, as she herself said, the most talented actress, but she may have been the greatest movie star of her time.

With a list of film credits that included two Oscars for Best Actress ("Butterfield 8" in 1961 and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" — which is probably my favorite of her films — in 1967) as well as participation in and recognition for many other movies — not to mention a personal life that was always in the spotlight, whether it was because of her numerous and often turbulent marriages, the tragedies she had to endure or the health issues that ultimately ended her life — it would be hard to argue the point.

For more than half a century, Taylor thrived in a media glare that proved to be too much for many of her contemporaries. She survived the same excesses that killed her two–time husband, Richard Burton, nearly 30 years ago. She turned the tragedy of her friend Rock Hudson's death from AIDS into a fundraising triumph in the fight against the disease.

I have to believe that, with Taylor's death at the age of 79, there must be a portion of the paparazzi population that now must find some other celebrity about whom to photograph and write.

In recent years, the Liz Taylor beat couldn't have been too lucrative. She spent her last years living a reclusive sort of life, reportedly spending much of her time in a wheelchair — a condition that was decidedly at odds with the youthful, vigorous image so many people remembered in "National Velvet" and "Father of the Bride."

I'm sure that isn't the kind of image she ever wanted to leave with the public. Better that they should remember her when she was young and people often said she was the most beautiful woman who ever walked the earth.

Incidentally, Turner Classic Movies has announced that it will air a 24–hour tribute to Taylor on Sunday, April 10.

Her Oscar–winning performances will be shown back to back starting at 7 p.m. (Central).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Brooks At His Best

I really like Albert Brooks.

I guess I've always liked him, but it was awhile before I started to recognize who he was. Apparently, his career began with some TV work, but I remember seeing him when he was in his first movie role, in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver."

Well, I say I remember seeing him in that movie, but, honestly, I can't say that I noticed him the first time I saw it. Maybe the second time. Probably the third time.

OK, most likely it was the fourth time ... or even the fifth time.

The star of that movie, of course, was Robert De Niro, and there were other people who were either recognizable at that time or on their way to being recognizable — Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel — so not many people remember that he was in that film, even if they have seen it several times — but he was.

That wasn't your typical Albert Brooks fare, though. "Taxi Driver" was a drama, and, while Brooks did well in his role, his calling is clearly comedy.

For some folks, he is only a voice. At other times, his primary contribution has been as a director and/or writer.

I enjoy his acting and his facial expressions. He reminds me a lot of the late George Carlin. It can be entertaining just to watch him, but he is a very cerebral person, too.

There is more, much more, to Brooks than meets the eye. He delights in observing the human condition and spotlighting its inconsistencies.

There are many layers to Brooks' talent, just as there were to Carlin's.

In a discussion about Brooks' ability as an actor, I would have to say that my absolute favorite of his performances was his work in "Broadcast News," but it was 20 years ago today that one of the best examples of Brooks' skill as actor, writer and director made its debut.

I'm speaking of "Defending Your Life," the film in which Brooks co–starred with Meryl Streep as two recently deceased people who must defend their earthly existences in trial–like settings in the afterlife.

As Rip Torn (who played Brooks' defender) told him, it wasn't really a trial. It was more like a review of a person's life to see if that person had learned all the things he/she should have learned during his/her time on earth. If he/she had, he/she could go on to the next level. If he/she had not, he/she would have to go back.

Sort of an afterlife performance review. Sounds like a lot of pressure, doesn't it?

But it isn't all bad. I mean, you can eat as much as you want and never gain an ounce — and, as fantastic as the food seems to be in this movie, that's a real plus, considering that Judgment City is something of a purgatory.

If the time one spends there is measured in the famous eons of the Catholic faith, I can think of worse ways to spend an eon than being able to eat whatever you want and as much as you like.

While the movie was a comedy, it also had elements of drama. But Brooks managed to turn the dramatic moments into ironic interludes that always brought a chuckle ...

... like when he showed that, in spite of a badly broken leg suffered in a snowmobile accident, he had crawled three miles for help — and then had to justify why it was not evidence of cowardice that he had never ridden a snowmobile again.

The issue was not his survival instinct, his prosecutor reminded everyone. It was his courage.

Nor was his decision about cowardice, Brooks countered — and proceeded to outline the reasons why snowmobiling just wasn't his thing.

"I hated it!" he protested, calling the snowmobile "a rotten contraption."

Anyway, Brooks, being the star–crossed individual he almost always is in his films, was, in the end, being sent back to earth while Streep was being sent to her next phase. But something happened to convince the watching judges that Brooks truly was worthy of advancement.

I won't tell you what happened because, if you haven't ever seen it, you should.

I'll just say this. It really is Brooks at his best.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Debut of Aqualung

I came of age during the 1970s, and, like anyone who was a teenager in that decade, I was influenced by the music that was popular at the time.

The thing about the '70s, though, is that, unlike other decades since the dawn of recorded music, there was no real unifying message.

That wasn't really a new thing. It was just way more pronounced in the 1970s than it had ever been before.

I mean, when my parents were teenagers in the 1940s, big band and swing music were the predominant forms of popular music, although there were segments of the listening audience that gravitated to country or jazz.

The 1950s were a little more diverse, I suppose, with the emergence of rock 'n' roll, blues, R&B.

The 1960s were, in many ways, unique. The music that was generated during that time included folk and psychedelic rock as well as the other forms that had enjoyed a peak in popularity in earlier years.

But the 1970s were — in my experience, anyway — bizarre.

There is simply no other word that seems adequate to describe a decade in which the most popular recordings included ones from hard rock, soft rock, jazz fusion, disco, punk, reggae. heavy metal and even some nascent hip hop.

From the perspective of a teenager, it was kind of nice, actually. There was always a lot of variety in the music you heard on the radio in those days, and there were two or three radio stations that I liked so if one was playing something I didn't like, I didn't have to listen to it. I had other options.

It is annoying to me now when some recordings from that decade come on the radio while I'm running my errands, and I can't change the station fast enough. Must they play "Dancing Queen" or "Heart of Glass" or (shudder) "Love Will Keep Us Together," I will ask myself irritably.

In truth, though, I still like much of the music that came out in the 1970s. More than one–third of Rolling Stone's Top 500 albums of all time were released in the 1970s — and the album that was ranked #337 made its debut 40 years ago today.

Well, that was the date of its debut in the United Kingdom. It didn't make it to the United States for about 6½ weeks.

I'm speaking of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung," which, at the time, probably had more influence on me than anything I had heard.

I wasn't very old, and other artists, other recordings would have more impact on my life in the years to come.

But "Aqualung" was probably the first album that I picked on my own as an influence.

I was a fan of a lot of the popular music I heard on the radio in those days — I loved the Beatles, of course, and I loved Simon and Garfunkel, initially because my mother did — but I didn't hear much of "Aqualung" on the radio.

In fact, I couldn't tell you any of the details of where or how or with whom I first heard it or became aware of it. I just did.

And, unlike many of the albums that came out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that album's title track was not its biggest seller.

Actually, the top–selling song from the album was "Hymn 43," but it only got as high as #91 on Billboard's chart.

It is Jethro Tull's best–selling album, though. Some people have had it, in one form or another, in their music collections for the last 40 years.

I got my CD nearly 20 years ago. I simply had to replace my scratched album with the newest technology. Ironically, though, if I had waited just a few more years, I could have had the expanded version with five additional musical tracks and an extended interview with Ian Anderson.

(Anderson always seemed like a latter–day Peter Pan to me, with his flute and his pixieish demeanor.)

I don't think I missed much, though. Bruce Eder wrote, in a review for AllMusic, that the bonus material on the 25th anniversary reissue "add[ed] relatively little."

Personally, I always preferred the track "My God," which was, as Eder observed in his review of the original album, part of what made Jethro Tull "a fixture on FM radio" in the 1970s.

I didn't realize it when I first heard it, but most of the tracks from "Aqualung" were acoustic, which was something of a departure from most of Jethro Tull's music. Not all the tracks were acoustic, of course. You need only listen to "My God" (the longest song on the album) to realize that.

Some of the songs on the album, like "Cheap Day Return," "Wond'ring Aloud" and "Slipstream" were entirely acoustic, each less than two minutes in length and served as bridges between longer compositions.

They don't make music like that anymore.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Stackhouse Filibuster

"Don't ever, ever underestimate the will of a grandfather. We're madmen, we don't give a damn, we got here before you and they'll be here after. We'll make enemies, we'll break laws, we'll break bones, but you will not mess with the grandchildren."

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen)

It's hard for me to believe that it was 10 years ago today that one of my favorite West Wing episodes was shown for the first time.

The program was aired about three–quarters of the way through the series' second season — which was a season of incredibly high quality, I must say. And I couldn't imagine what the creators of the series would do for an encore — until later that year, after terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed three of them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, postponing the start of the season and inspiring Aaron Sorkin to write "Isaac and Ishmael" for the West Wing.

It aired less than a month after the attacks.

Although it had no real place in the time line of the series, the episode was its highest rated of the year and is still mentioned by people in conversations about Middle Eastern history and conflicts.

That, of course, was still in the future.

On this night 10 years ago, I marveled at the story I saw (co–written by Sorkin, by the way) and literally couldn't imagine how the program, which had long since become my favorite on network TV, could be any better.

As a matter of fact, the series actually did exceed the standard it reached on this night a decade ago a couple of times before the season ended. And it would match or exceed that standard several times before going off the air in 2006.

But at the time, in nearly two full seasons, it was a level the series had rarely achieved, even though it had already developed its reputation for quality writing, acting and, well, everything.

In the episode, the West Wing staffers were anticipating a big congressional victory with their health care legislation that appeared to enjoy bipartisan support and were focusing on their plans for the weekend when an unexpected filibuster began in the Senate.

The filibuster was the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" kind in which a single senator ties up the chamber, which is sort of old–fashioned these days. Modern filibusters tend to be more organized, more coordinated, and they tend to resemble tag–team wrestling matches, but this filibuster, like the one in the old Jimmy Stewart classic, was engineered by a single senator.

That senator was a character named Howard Stackhouse, an elderly senator from Minnesota who had proposed an appropriation to fight autism but had been turned down. That request had been inspired by Stackhouse's love for his autistic grandson, a motivating point that he did not mention, but the White House staffers figured it out, and they rushed to help.

After an impassioned defense of grandfathers, the president told his personal aide, "I want to call senators. We'll start with our friends. When we're done with those two, we'll go on to the other 98."

The story of Stackhouse's improbable battle was told through three characters' e–mails to relatives.

One of the best lines in the story came from C.J. Cregg, the press secretary, who was explaining to her father why she wouldn't be able to attend his milestone birthday party.

"Tonight, I've seen a man with no legs stay standing, Dad, and a guy with no voice keep shouting," she wrote. "And if politics brings out the worst in people, maybe people bring out the best."

There were gathering clouds in the story that would play roles in the series for years to come, and followers of the series could look at that show now and see foreshadowing of future problems with the vice president — and the president's deception about his health.

But few dramatic TV episodes could match "The Stackhouse Filibuster" when it came to inspiration.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Angels & Demons

About five years ago, I had a dislocated shoulder that sidelined me for several days.

While I was healing, I read Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" and became so caught up in the tale that I went to see the movie at the theater (a rare thing for me in recent years) a couple of months later.

But I never read the prequel, "Angels & Demons," which was published first but turned into a movie second (and, as a result, was treated like a sequel in the film story line, not a prequel).

Nor did I see the movie when it was at the theaters a couple of years ago. I don't know why. I generally like the films that Ron Howard directs, and I almost always like anything that features Tom Hanks.

Well, I missed it. Don't know how I did, but I did.

And then, I stumbled onto it on cable last month, entirely by accident.

It was during the time when we had all the ice here in Dallas in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Frankly, I was afraid the power would go out in my apartment, and I would be stranded with no heat. But, after a morning of citywide "rolling blackouts" to preserve energy that was subjected to considerable public criticism, my power was uninterrupted until I was finally able to venture out.

I was trapped in my apartment for four days — until the ice finally thawed from the 15 stairs I have to go down to reach the ground level (and have to go back up to re–enter my apartment). I tried not to watch TV very much, but there were times when it was just unavoidable.

And on one occasion, as I was idly surfing through the channels, I happened to find "Angels & Demons" about to begin.

Well, I watched it, and I've been meaning to write about it. Today is the day.

If you saw "The Da Vinci Code," you'll recognize some of the themes — secret societies ("Opus Dei" in the first movie, "The Illuminati" in this one), ancient history, conspiracy, etc. — in "Angels & Demons."

Personally, I liked it. I'm not sure I got everything from it that I should have. Some movies are like that. Some movies must be seen several times, and each time one sees it, one must peel back another layer in the quest to learn all there is to learn from it.

I suppose I would have picked up on more if I had been more knowledgeable about religious symbolism and ambigrams.

I guess, too, I would have picked up on more if Howard and his adviser(s) hadn't decided that some of the dialogue in a foreign language (I presume it was Italian, but I don't speak Italian so I don't know) merited subtitles and some did not.

The audience wasn't allowed to make that judgment for itself — so, when something was stated in a language other than English and was not accompanied by an English subtitle, I had to assume it was not a critical point in the plot.

And maybe Brown did a better job of this in his book than Howard did in his film adaptation — but there were some compelling moments when the dialogue was in English — for instance, when Hanks, who plays the Harvard professor investigating a murder, is asked by the pope's camerlengo if he believes in God.

"I'm an academic," Hanks' character replies. "My mind tells me I will never understand God."

"And your heart?" the camerlengo persists.

"Tells me I'm not meant to," Hanks says. "Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive."

That's honest writing. Pulls no punches. I liked it. That moment — and moments like that — made the movie a worthwhile experience — even if there were things I didn't understand.

At some point, I will watch it again — and when I do, I'll pick up on more than I did the first time.

I'm sure that there will be new observations to make, new issues to discuss because this is a work in progress.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Lone Juror

It seems like such a natural theme for a court–oriented program.

And on this evening 40 years ago, All in the Family gave it a unique spin.

The theme is of a jury in a murder trial that almost reaches a unanimous verdict — but there is a single juror who refuses to go along with the others.

I think the first time I ever saw it was in the film "12 Angry Men." I'm not sure how old I was when I saw it. All I know is that every time I have seen that theme in a TV show or another movie, that is what I think of.

But since this night 40 years ago, I also think of All in the Family.

It was part of the abbreviated first season for the show, which was a midseason replacement. As short as that first season was, it was loaded with groundbreaking episodes that dealt with racial and religious prejudice, homosexuality, women's lib, all sorts of things.

By comparison, the episode that was on tonight might have been somewhat tame — kind of a refreshing change from the somewhat frenetic pace it set in its first three months.

There was a kind of a kooky quality to the episode that aired tonight. It was evident somewhat early on, when the Bunkers' friend Clara came by and told the Bunkers about having to cook "in the lower oven." She explained that she usually cooked in the upper oven but was forced to change her procedure by circumstances beyond her control.

"When you're used to doing something one way and without warning you gotta change," she declared, "it can really throw you off!"

Archie would be able to sympathize shortly. Edith had been chosen to serve on a jury in a high–profile murder case, and the jury was going to be sequestered.

He didn't like the idea and did what he could to keep Edith from serving on the jury after Mike warned him that it could be a long time before Edith would be cooking his meals again.

But nothing was going to keep Edith from serving on the jury — or sticking by her principles.

It turned out that Edith was the "lone juror" who was rumored to be keeping the panel from reaching a verdict. In reality, she was the lone holdout against what would have been a wrongful conviction.

Because, you see, it also turned out that Edith was right.

And she was vindicated when someone else confessed to committing the murder.

It was also a vindication of the judicial system.

But all Archie could see was that he had been deprived of Edith's cooking for two weeks because she was serving on a jury that was "trying the wrong guy!"

As I say, I have seen variations on this theme, some dramatic, some comedic, over the years. It's simply filled with possibilities — none of which was ever presented more effectively than this evening 40 years ago.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Back to Dealey Plaza

I've been visiting for several years.

One of the things I always enjoy doing at that site is checking to see how the viewers rate their favorite episodes of their favorite series. I often agree with the visitors' assessments, too.

But I cannot figure out why the Twilight Zone episode that aired 25 years ago tonight, "Profile in Silver," isn't more popular than it is.

Oh, it's on the list of the most popular episodes, all right, with a rating of 8.2 out of 10 (the last time I checked) — which is not bad. I just think it should be higher.

It was a story that combined some of the things that I always loved about the Twilight Zone — real history and the concept of time travel.

"Back to the Future" was a big hit around that time, and audiences were sensitive to the idea that past and present should never collide — because, if they did, it could lead to dire consequences — like a rip in the fabric of time.

But, of course, they did collide, creating the tension that made the original series, its successor, the episode — and the Michael J. Fox movie, for that matter — great in my eyes.

"Profile in Silver" was about a history professor from the 22nd century who has been doing field research in 1963. He is actually a descendant of John F. Kennedy, and he is preparing to go to Dallas and witness JFK's assassination as part of his research.

He has no intention of interfering in the event — but, at the moment of truth, he cannot stand by and allow his ancestor to be murdered. Thus, he foils the assassination attempt.

In gratitude, President Kennedy invites him to come back to the White House for dinner, and the professor happily accepts.

At first, he is blissfully unaware that his act has done anything other than prevent his ancestor from being killed — but then it becomes clear to him that, because Kennedy did not die in Dallas as he was supposed to, compensatory events are happening elsewhere.

And he makes the mistake of taking a coin with JFK's image on it — a family keepsake — from his pocket and idly tossing it. He drops it, and it rolls next to the feet of a Secret Service agent, who picks it up, looks at it and recognizes the image.

He also knows that it is against policy to put the image of any living American on currency, and he quickly concludes the truth.

Meanwhile, the professor, after consulting his wrist computer (a Dick Tracyesque touch, to be sure) and going over the possible outcomes of the new reality, learns that the only way to restore equilibrium is for the Kennedy presidency to end the way history intended.

You probably wouldn't recognize most of the folks in the cast, but you might recognize Lane Smith. He played the history professor. A few years later, he received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in the TV production of "The Final Days."

A few years after that, he had what I think may have been his most memorable movie role — as the prosecutor in "My Cousin Vinny."

Well, actually, you might also recognize the actor who played President Kennedy — Andrew Robinson. He was in his mid–40s when the episode first aired. He had been involved in several film and TV projects in the years prior to the Twilight Zone episode, and he's probably best known for other things, but he did appear in another episode of the series in the following season.

There is some additional trivia about this episode that most people don't know.
  • Barbara Baxley, who played Smith's colleague from the future, had an unusual role in the history of the series. She actually appeared in an episode in the original series in the early 1960s — "Mute," in which she played a woman who, along with her husband, took in a young mute girl who had lost her parents in a fire.

    That episode aired nearly 10 months before the Kennedy assassination.

  • In the context of the assassination itself, there's a nice little touch in this episode that contributes to the alternate reality.

    If you watch closely, you may hear the Twilight Zone theme from 1963 coming from a television in the White House, followed by dialogue from a Twilight Zone episode.

    As I understand it, that episode was the one that was originally scheduled to be shown the night of Kennedy's assassination, but it was delayed until the following February.

    That, of course, would not be necessary ... if the assassination plot did not succeed.
But it did succeed, of course, as Smith's character realized — and that was the point, I guess, that the stories of this nation and this planet are already written, and they cannot be altered. Those who try are likely to be slapped down by far greater forces.

I'm not sure if I believe that — but this is all fantasy, anyway, right? I mean, time travel doesn't exist. It may never exist. Therefore, such issues are irrelevant to the way things are now and may be irrelevant to the way things will be in the foreseeable future.

But it sure is an intriguing notion, isn't it? Kind of a cosmic do–over. Go back in time, change one thing you did many years ago, perhaps even change one thing you did when you were a child — and the future will be changed in ways you cannot imagine.

The original Twilight Zone always was good at making viewers think about alternatives, and its reincarnation was, too.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Seven Per Cent Solution

It's easy to forget how long Robert Duvall has been around.

You can sort of get an idea of just how long it has been if you watch "The Seven Per Cent Solution" on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 7 p.m. (Central).

That wasn't Duvall's first film, but it premiered 35 years ago in October. If that seems like a long time ago, think of this: He'd been appearing on TV for nearly two decades by that time, and his first appearance in a feature film was in 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Duvall got more prominent film roles in "M*A*S*H," "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II" before appearing in "The Seven Per Cent Solution," a Sherlock Holmes tale in which Duvall played the supporting role of Dr. Watson — and was almost unrecognizable with his mustache.

It wasn't based on a Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Based on a novel by Nicholas Meyer that had been inspired by Doyle's books, the adapted screenplay for "The Seven Per Cent Solution" earned Meyer an Oscar nomination.

Nicol Williamson took much of the attention for playing Holmes, who was battling drug addiction with the aid of Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). While being treated, Holmes became involved in a kidnaping case with international overtones.

The movie had some other standouts in the cast as well — Laurence Olivier played Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty, and Vanessa Redgrave and Joel Grey had parts in the film, too. It isn't hard to see why Duvall was overlooked.

It didn't hurt his career, though. He has been nominated for Oscars for his acting five times since playing Dr. Watson.

But it's awfully fun to watch this film. There are some action sequences, but the mental jousting between the Holmes and Freud characters in the first half of the movie may be better than things like the train chase you can see in the attached clip.

If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat tonight.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Anniversary of 'Guerrillero Heroico'

It isn't my habit to discuss photography in this blog, although I have done so on special occasions.

And today is such an occasion.

It was on this day in 1960 that Alberto Korda snapped the picture of Che Guevara that is said to have been reproduced more than any other photographic image, the very symbol of a revolutionary leader.

The photo was taken at a memorial service for the victims of a harbor explosion on a freighter in Havana.

Korda named the photo "Guerrillero Heroico," which means "Heroic Guerrilla." He felt that it captured Guevara's calm yet determined nature.

"As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world," Korda said.

There are some reproductions he probably never imagined.

I signed up with Facebook a couple of years ago. When I did, I connected with a former journalism student of mine. He'd been playing with Photoshop, and he had inserted his face into the iconic portrait that was taken 51 years ago today.

I had to wonder if he realized what he was doing. Did he know Che Guevara's story?

I can only assume he did. He was always a bright student.

He must know the story of Che Guevara. He is, after all, the subject of the world's most famous photo, according to the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Collision With Destiny

Watching a Charlie Sheen interview is like standing on a sidewalk and seeing two cars about to run into each other — one is powerless to stop it yet fascinated by it nonetheless.

I didn't study human psychology to a great extent when I was in college. If I had, perhaps I could better understand what I see when I watch Sheen insisting to interviewer after interviewer that he is "winning" and announcing that he is raising his already exorbitant asking price by 50%.

(I don't watch Two and a Half Men. Never have. And, now, I suppose, I never will — unless I watch its syndicated reruns.

(Maybe then I will understand why some people seem to like him, but, to be honest, I can't understand why anyone, least of all Charlie Sheen, would be worth $2 million per episode of a series — let alone the $3 million he says he is now charging.)

There really isn't much that I feel I can say about Sheen that others haven't said already — and far more eloquently — except to say that his arrogant eagerness to embrace what seems 99.9999% certain to be a horrific — and very public — downfall is breathtaking.

What little I know of the patterns and symptoms of addiction can be summed up quite simply, actually. And I do understand the challenge of overcoming addiction. I was a smoker for many years and, although tobacco is not a mind– or (necessarily) mood–altering substance, I have heard people compare the addiction to tobacco to the addiction to heroin.

It hasn't been easy for me, but in a couple of weeks, I will mark my fourth anniversary since my last cigarette.

In a book of great quotes, there should be a picture of Sheen next to the observation that "cocaine is God's way of telling you that you're making too much money."

(I've heard that quote variously attributed to people like Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and George Carlin. No matter who said it first, though, it makes sense to me, and Sheen is its embodiment.)

With Sheen, I get the same sensation I got when I was a child and my family visited an amusement park where the prime attraction was a roller–coaster ride called the Runaway Mine Train.

Sheen is like that train, careening along, not slowing down, in fact pouring it on when he has to negotiate the most delicate and tricky part of his journey.

The ride I went on as a child was carefully engineered. It might seem risky while you were riding it, but, in reality, you were never in any real danger.

But the thrills and chills that come with riding with Sheen are all too real — and I have the feeling it won't be a very smooth landing when Sheen hits rock bottom.

I don't know if Sheen will die when he hits that bottom, as many people are predicting. I hope not.

But if the hangers–on in his life are smart, they will get off this train now — before it reaches its final destination, whatever that may be.