Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day Options

There was a time when only certain holidays qualified for special TV programming.

Now, it seems, most channels schedule special programming on most holidays — even if government offices, schools and other such places remain open.

Memorial Day is kinda like that.

When I was a child, I don't remember much of a fuss being made about Memorial Day. School had already dismissed for the summer. I have no memory of any offices being closed — but my family lived in the country so there really wouldn't have been any reason for me to notice something like that.

There may not have been any postal delivery. I really don't remember.

The summer holiday that was important then — and, I presume, is still important today — was the Fourth of July.

Television choices are far more extensive now than they were then. When I was a kid, we only had the three major networks and that was it.

Maybe the sheer number of choices has changed the game. I don't know.

Anyway, there are at least three really good options awaiting you tomorrow night:
  • At 7 p.m. (Central), you can see a really spectacular examination of three war veterans trying to put their lives back together in "The Best Years of Our Lives" on Turner Classic Movies.

  • Also at 7, you can see the now–legendary finale of the M*A*S*H TV series from 1983 on TVLand.

    It's hard to believe it has been nearly 30 years since most of those people have been on TV regularly — but on the night they called it quits as an ensemble unlike any other in TV history, more people tuned in than have ever tuned in for the final episode of a TV series.

    And that was appropriate.

    If you have never seen it before, you owe it to yourself to see it — and then get caught up on 11 years' worth of remarkable television.

  • On The History Channel, you can see a documentary on the Battle of Gettysburg at 8 p.m.

    "GETTYSBURG strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light," says The History Channel. It's hard to see how a three–day battle that claimed nearly 8,000 lives and left more than 27,000 wounded and more than 10,000 missing could be regarded as "romanticized," but it should be interesting to see what The History Channel has to say.
Have a Happy Memorial Day.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Double Helping of Dylan

On Tuesday, Bob Dylan turned 70.

Forty–five years ago, sometime around his 25th birthday, Dylan released "Blonde on Blonde." (I say it was sometime around his birthday because, technically, the album was released in mid–May, but its release was delayed in some markets until late June.).

In a career that has been loaded with classic albums, Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" has always stood apart from the rest.

It wasn't the first double album, but it was the first noteworthy double album in rock music — or, perhaps, that should be folk rock, even though that is still too imprecise because "Blonde on Blonde" really combined folk rock with blues and country to create something new and fresh and exciting.

That isn't just my opinion, either.

Ed Masley of the Arizona Republic writes that "[t]here's never been a more compelling argument in favor of the double album as an art form ... The lyrics are brilliant, naturally. And Dylan never made a better–sounding record. Every detail plays its part."

Stephen Thomas Erlewine of has called it "his richest set of songs." It might be.

It is "an album of enormous depth," writes Erlewine, "providing endless lyrical and musical revelations on each play." I can vouch for that. I've had the CD in my collection for nearly 20 years, and before that I had the LP in my collection for several years — and the experience truly is unique every time I listen to it.

But that shouldn't be surprising. It was Dylan's seventh album in an extraordinarily productive period in his life. He released two more albums before the '60s were over, and those nine albums still represent a run of quality unmatched by virtually anyone else at any other time in the history of recorded music.

Nearly all of those albums were flawless, and the fact that "Blonde on Blonde" packaged 14 songs, most of which were written in this groundbreaking style and ran longer (in some cases much longer) than most recordings of the time, merely demonstrates the surge of creativity Dylan was experiencing.

I always felt that it was an inspiration to others, even those who reached the same heights as Dylan.

"Blonde on Blonde," perhaps more than any other Dylan album, reminded me of the solo works of John Lennon, who didn't embark on his own solo career until four years later. Their styles were clearly different, but, still, it is difficult for me to listen to "Blonde on Blonde" and not be struck by the surreal quality of the lyrics and the whimsy in the music of "Just Like a Woman," "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and "Visions of Johanna" — the wordplay that was so prominent in Lennon's music as well.

And then there was my personal favorite from the album, the groggy yet giddy "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" — which never mentioned rainy day women but did mention, frequently, that everybody must get stoned.

(Incidentally, because of an irrational concern on the part of many American radio stations and the BBC about "drug messages," that song was banned from the air in many places.

(In spite of that, it was one of the two hits that were promoted on a sticker on the plastic wrap — "I Want You" was the other.)

That song was the first track on the album — and the only track to feature a brass band.

It was followed by "Pledging My Time," a blues song that was an obvious change of pace, and that pace kind of continued for the remainder of the album, beginning with the ballad "Visions of Johanna." It wasn't as bluesy as "Pledging My Time," but it clearly established a mood. Dylan said it was his favorite track from the album.

Side One concluded with "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)," the story of a worn–out relationship. Its lyrics were honest, if a bit defensive. When I hear Dylan singing "I didn't mean to treat you so bad ... I didn't mean to make you so sad," somewhere in the back of my mind I can hear Lennon singing "I didn't mean to hurt you, I'm sorry that I made you cry."

In my opinion, Dylan's plaintive harmonica was never put to better use than it was in that song.

Side Two opened with "I Want You," which always seemed to have the quintessential feel of 1960s folk music. The music was kind of jaunty, bouncy, and it has been suggested that the lyrics were inspired by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. I don't know if that is true.

Next was "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," a song that, frankly, never made a significant impression on me. I mean, I liked it well enough, but it sounded almost too conventionally Dylan to me. Maybe I felt it went on a little bit too long — it was, after all, more than seven minutes.

But length wasn't really a factor on a double album, even in 1966. Both "Visions of Johanna" and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" were longer ("Sad Eyed Lady," in fact, was more than 11 minutes long and took up the entire fourth side of the album).

It must have been something else. Maybe it was the lyrics. John Lennon, I have heard, wrote a parody of the song ("Stuck Inside of Lexicon with the Roget's Thesaurus Blues Again") that made fun of Dylan for using too many obscure lyrics in his songs.

Maybe that is what it was. I don't know what it was. I just know the song never really grabbed me.

I couldn't say that about the next song on the album — "Leopard–Skin Pill–Box Hat."

At this point, it is probably worth reminding readers that Dylan's music and lyrics — by and large — are timeless.

But pillbox hat is a reference that probably requires some explanation for younger folks.

The pillbox hat was fashionable in the early 1960s. It was particularly favored by first lady Jackie Kennedy, who set style trends whenever she wore anything.

And she was wearing a pillbox hat on the day her husband was assassinated here in Dallas in 1963.

Dylan's song was meant to make fun of a slave to fashion, and the story is that the inspiration for that song (and others) was Edie Sedgwick, an actress/socialite who was probably best known for her association with Andy Warhol.

As I say, the song, with its bluesy melody and tongue–in–cheek lyrics, wasn't the only one that was said to have been inspired by Sedgwick. So, too, was the last song on Side Two — "Just Like a Woman."

But that song may have been inspired by someone else — Joan Baez. That's the other story I have heard about "Just Like a Woman" — that Baez, with whom Dylan was involved at the time, inspired it. I guess it really doesn't who inspired it. It will always be a Dylan classic.

The first song on the second LP, "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," didn't have that much commercial impact initially, but it sort of got a second life almost a decade later when it became a standard on a tour featuring Dylan and The Band.

Masley calls its horn and harmonica lead–in "sinister." That's a good word for it. It was another bluesy track on what was, for the most part, a bluesy album.

The next song, "Temporary Like Achilles," was still more blues — but not "sinister."

"Mournful" is probably more appropriate.

"Absolutely Sweet Marie" always makes me think of George Harrison — primarily, I suppose, because he sang that song at Dylan's 30th anniversary concert but also because it always seemed to embody the playful and whimsical quality I often found in Harrison's compositions.

True, Harrison's music always seemed to have a spiritual depth, but Dylan's music didn't lack that quality. It just didn't seem to combine playful with spiritual as easily as Harrison's did.

I've never really been sure what to think of "4th Time Around." I mean, I've heard the stories — that it was a response to the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" (and, perhaps, a warning to Lennon not to encroach on his turf) or that it was about his relationship with Baez.

But I always hear the Dylan I heard in the lyrics and music of stuff like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A–Changin'." That isn't a bad thing — just a different take.

"Obviously 5 Believers" concluded Side Three with 3½ minutes of old–fashioned blues rock that was clearly influenced by traditional blues artists like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters (and later borrowed and adapted by Southern rock groups like the Allman Brothers).

I always loved the way the line "feel so all alone," harkening back to the chorus on the first song on the album.

The last side of the record, as I mentioned before, was the 11–plus–minute recording of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," which rewarded listeners with some of the richest imagery of Dylan's extensive musical catalog.

It was said to be inspired by Dylan's first wife, Sara, something he apparently acknowledged in a song called "Sara" on the "Desire" album five years later.

Friday, May 27, 2011

This Booty Call Was a Wrong Number

In 1975, K.C. and the Sunshine Band released their first two #1 hits — "Get Down Tonight" and "That's the Way (I Like It)."

And I hoped — in vain — that the disco craze would be over soon. Alas, it was not.

On this day in 1976, the group released what would become their third #1 hit — "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" — and, whether the events were related or not, disco remained with us for a few more years.

I always felt that "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" represented everything that was wrong with disco.

The music captured the essence of what it was like to be young, but the lyrics were so idiotic that it was impossible for the songs to have any real relevance to people as they went through life's stages.

The priorities of disco music were reversed. That's why the songs had no staying power.

I can listen to most of the music that has been popular in different periods of my life, and the very best songs — the ones that last — always have good lyrics in common. The music is usually pretty good, too, but, in most cases, outstanding lyrics can more than make up for less–than–outstanding music.

But, by and large, the lyrics for disco songs were insipid — even the lyrics of the songs by the performers who were considered disco's best (a list that included the likes of the Bee Gees, Donna Summer and K.C. and the Sunshine Band).

And that's saying something when you consider some of the songs — disco and otherwise — that were being written and recorded in the 1970s.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Exploitation of Jenny Agutter

I always felt that Jenny Agutter was symbolic of young actresses who were exploited in the 1970s for things that were entirely separate from their acting abilities.

Exploitation certainly wasn't new in the 1970s, but the '70s were a time when people were particularly sensitive to the inequities between the sexes in most fields.

Self–described feminists brought attention to many areas in American life that were discriminatory. At the time, there were many reasons to think that repressive attitudes were on the decline.

Discrimination of all kinds was being challenged openly, and my memory of that time is that, as doors were opening up for all races and religions, they were opening up for women as well — in all sorts of fields — and women were being judged for their skills and accomplishments, not their physical attributes.

The performing arts, however, were still subject to the age–old double standard.

Oh, there were signs that things were changing. In the early 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore, for example, was starring in a hit TV show about a young single woman who was carving out a life for herself. But, before the decade was over, the hot trend in television was the so–called "jiggle" programming of Charlie's Angels and Three's Company.

Jenny Agutter's experience was somewhere in between.

Most people in America probably hadn't heard of Agutter in May 1971.

In the mid– to late 1960s, when Agutter was in her teens, she appeared in a twice–weekly TV series on the BBC, "The Newcomers," so there is reason to believe she was at least somewhat familiar to the British audience.

But in May 1971, when she was 18 going on 19, she began to make her transition from the children's roles she had been playing to more mature roles with a film called "Walkabout."

And that is probably when American audiences got their first glimpses of her.

"Walkabout," which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, was adapted from a book, both of which took their title from the name of a rite of passage in which adolescent male Australian Aborigines live alone in the wilderness.

In the book, two siblings are stranded in the Australian Outback following a plane crash, and they start walking. They hope to find civilization — preferably, their original destination (although, unknown to them, that city is actually on the other side of the Australian continent).

While they are wandering, they encounter a young Aborigine in the midst of his "walkabout," and he helps them survive by showing them where to find water and how to find food.

It was hardly an ideal situation. The children could only communicate with the Aborigine through gestures; even if they had spoken the same language, there were significant differences in their cultures that contributed to considerable sexual tension between the girl sibling and the Aborigine.

The movie took the novel's general premise but didn't follow the book precisely.

For openers, the children were not in a plane crash in the movie.

I don't know the reason for that. Perhaps the special effects would have been too costly — or perhaps even the most cutting–edge technology was incapable of producing what the director wanted — or perhaps the director felt another source of alienation was needed.

At any rate, early in the movie, the boy and girl were taken into the Australian wilderness by their father, allegedly for a picnic, but the father started shooting at the children, and they sought cover behind some boulders.

Their father then set fire to the vehicle and shot himself, leaving the children stranded in the Outback.

The children began walking and encountered the Aborigine, at which point much of the sexual tension began.

It was certainly when audiences began to see more — much more — of Agutter.

They couldn't see her well — most of her nude scenes were shot from a distance or under conditions where it was hard to tell what one was seeing (as in the scene where the Aborigine sees her skinny dipping) — but it was the kind of (pun intended) exposure that was beneficial for young actresses in those days.

(Still is, I suppose, but that's another story.)

Anyway, because there was quite a communication/cultural gap between the girl and the Aborigine, the sexual tension went unresolved, leading to the boy's suicide.

(I suppose that, if the sexual tension had been resolved, there might have been an uproar about the interracial angle.)

That was another difference between the book and the film. The boy died in the book as well, but that death was brought about by the flu.

Being loosely based on the novel, the film's story was kind of a free–for–all, something that director Nicolas Roeg openly acknowledged. Much of the movie, he admitted, was improvisation: "We didn't really plan anything. We just came across things by chance … filming whatever we found."

That would account for the sometimes by–the–seats–of–their–pants approach that was taken to the story — as well as the sometimes flimsy pretenses for having Agutter shed her clothes.

I'll grant you, I never read the original book (only summaries) — but I'd be willing to wager that it didn't obsess over sex the way the film did.

In the coming years, Agutter appeared in films with bigger budgets, more mainstream appeal and, in some instances, more exposure.

Five years later, for example, she appeared in "Logan's Run" with the still largely unknown Farrah Fawcett and the highly regarded Peter Ustinov. Agutter was required to do a few revealing scenes in that film — but her most revealing film appearance may have come a couple of years after that, when she was featured in "Equus" with Richard Burton.

It was a good film with a brilliant cast, but my memory is that more critical attention was paid to Agutter's nudity than to the complex psychological story the movie told.

Personally, I always felt Agutter had a lot of acting talent. The fact that I also found her attractive only added to the package, but when I saw her in a movie, I expected more than Hollywood tended to deliver, even when she shared the screen with the likes of Burton and Ustinov.

She is nearly 60 now. Most of her time in recent years has been devoted to vocal acting and charity work.

I think she left the '70s behind her a long time ago. I wonder if Hollywood ever will.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bob Dylan's 70th Birthday

As incredible as it is to believe, today is Bob Dylan's 70th birthday.

Radio Free Europe says the occasion is being marked in many languages around the globe — which is appropriate. Dylan's influence has been felt the world over.

Dylan has been on the scene for nearly half a century. Probably, he is most often linked in the public mind with the 1960s. He was, after all, the unofficial troubadour of folk protest music in an era that is practically defined by folk protest music, but he has remained relevant through a myriad of changes in the music industry.

"There is a lesson here for educators and for students," writes English professor Jim Salvucci in the Baltimore Sun. "We need to be — as Mr. Dylan suggests — 'Admitting life is hard.' Not just hard to do, but hard to grasp. And so is learning."

It's really hard to know what to say — in any language — about Dylan at this stage of his life. In so many ways, it seems it has all been said before.

Actually, it has all been said before, I guess. There have been countless books, newspaper and magazine articles, television profiles, radio interviews, but the man is still something of an enigma.

Long ago, Dylan became an icon, a symbol. He continued to write and record music but, for many people, he became a living myth, a legend — were it not for his tours, I suppose, he would have morphed into this generation's Howard Hughes.

But he has been more visible than that — and, because his early music became so strongly identified with social movements in America in the 1960s, he is now seen as a survivor of a time that so many did not survive — whether they died in the jungles of Vietnam or the city streets of America.

That has given him a special kind of status.

Dylan's influence is not limited to music. He remains an influence on the culture. In 1999, TIME magazine named Dylan one of the Top 100 people of the 20th century — a list that included prominent folks from all walks of life.

TIME's list was a tribute to all the people who made the 20th century what it was — and there can be no denying that Dylan played a role in making the second half of the 20th century what it was.

He had help, of course, but it really is almost impossible to think of the 1960s and not think of Dylan's musical contribution.

Even at the time, it was something of a cliche for people to regard the 1960s as an era of folk music. But, as Paul Simon suggested in an interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan re–defined the genre.

I was only a child in the 1960s, but my memory is that it was often a time of contradictions. There were a lot of serious things happening — wars, protests, riots, assassinations, deaths of all kinds (some might even be considered the outcomes of terrorism, by modern standards) — but there were genuinely light–hearted, playful, even silly moments, too.

Dylan's music was often like that, I thought — a struggle between the serious and the silly. It didn't interfere with the message. It enhanced it.

But he was so much older then. He's younger than that now.

Well, many of his fans are, anyway.

Dylan at 70 remains as relevant as Dylan was at 20 because the subjects of his songs are still relevant to the human experience in America. Lyrics like "Senators, congressmen, please heed the call, Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall" resonate because politicians of all stripes continue to be more about obstruction than anything else.

Everyone can relate to that. It's like the reaction most people have to George Harrison's "Taxman." I mean, everybody hates paying taxes, right?

Dylan's recordings from those early years still inspire new generations of listeners — and the nice thing about someone who has been around as long as Dylan is the fact that there are often little nuggets of gold waiting to be found in some forgotten archive.

Just last month, for example, a long–lost recording of a 1963 concert at Brandeis University was released. It has been called "the last live performance we have of Bob Dylan before he becomes a star," and, thus, it is like a time capsule.

Only dedicated Dylan fans, not casual listeners, will recognize any of the tracks on the album, but for the youngest (and newest) of his fans, those songs may well be what they remember most about him after they get older and discover the music the rest of us have known for years.

Ah, yes, the music. Many of my friends have learned to play the guitar over the years. Some became more proficient than others. But I heard them all play at least one Dylan song at some point. I couldn't tell you which song has been covered most — "Blowin' in the Wind," maybe?

All popular singers/songwriters have their work covered by others. The more popular they are, I guess, the more often they are covered.

I have heard many cover versions of songs from the 1960s, but I've probably heard more cover versions of Dylan's songs than songs by anyone else.

The famous and the near–famous have paid homage to Dylan in this way — and so have the unknowns.

My father was a college professor when I was growing up, and he often had to attend campus functions. Whenever it was appropriate to do so, he brought his family with him.

On one such occasion, I remember the son of one of Dad's colleagues — who was about a year or two older than I was — provided the musical entertainment between courses.

While the servers were distributing the entree or the dessert or whatever it was, this young man (who must have been about 12 or 13 at the time) got up in front of an audience that was mostly made up of people who had to be 30 or 40 years older than we were — and they sat in rapt silence as he sang "The Times They Are A–Changin'," accompanied only by his guitar.

When he finished, the banquet room erupted into a standing ovation.

There was no generation gap in that room that night.

Dylan never has been about creating gaps. He's been about bridging them.

That's hard work, as I am sure Salvucci would agree.

His "music endures," says the deck headline on Salvucci's piece, "not because he gives us easy answers but because he raises so many questions."

Having said all that, there really is only one thing left to say.

Happy birthday, Bob.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Iron Butterfly's Swan Song

I have a true confession for you today.

When I was a teenager, I used to enjoy listening to comedy albums. (Still do, actually, although I'm more exclusive about it today.)

Hold on. That isn't the confession. Here it is.

I really enjoyed listening to Cheech & Chong, whose humor was (shall we say?) often high on drug culture gags.

Anyway, one of their routines had them watching a game show on TV, and the show's emcee was announcing the winner of a trivia contest. Participants had been asked to name the three most–played songs in the history of the English language, and the correct answers were:
  • "Happy Birthday to You,"

  • "Auld Lang Syne" and

  • "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida"
(First prize in the contest, as I recall, was a "blind date with Stevie Wonder.")

I thought that was hilarious because, well, I had no idea what "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida" was. And it sure as heck didn't sound like English to me.

I found out what it was later.

It was one of the first truly psychedelic recordings, and it was the biggest thing ever to come from a group called Iron Butterfly. It was popular when it was released — but that was really before I started listening to the radio.

(In its original studio version, which was recorded on May 27, 1968, the song had extensive instrumental solos and interludes. I liked walking while listening to a recording of it because it had about a five–minute section that was primarily a steady drumbeat. You could really get into a rhythm when you were listening to it.)

Originally, the song was supposed to be called "In the Garden of Eden." Accounts of how it became "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida" vary — one holds that keyboardist/vocalist Doug Ingle was intoxicated and slurred the words while rehearsing or recording, creating the mondegreen by which it became known, and another holds that Ingle slurred the words when telling a bandmate the title.

(Still a third version suggests the bandmate had been wearing headphones when he asked for the title of the song and did not hear it clearly, after which he repeated what he had heard to someone else or wrote it down as the title.)

The point is that somewhere — to borrow a line from a popular movie of the time — there was a failure to communicate.

That wasn't the only thing the song had going against it.

The original studio track was nearly 18 minutes long and occupied the entire second side of the album. Nevertheless, it reached #30 on the Billboard chart — and it made it financially viable for other groups to record songs that were longer — in some cases much longer — than the standard two or three minutes.

It's held up well. Two years ago, Vh1 ranked it #24 on its Top 100 Hard Rock Songs of All Time list — more than 40 years after it was recorded.

Iron Butterfly didn't hold up quite as well. The original group disbanded 40 years ago today after playing a show. It went through various incarnations in the years after that but never enjoyed much success.

One of the original members is dead now, and Iron Butterfly is rapidly receding from view.

The Butterfly may exist again in another incarnation, but it will never again enjoy the heights it reached in the late 1960s.

It has become a relic from another time, and "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida" is a souvenir from that time ...

... a time that was full of contradictions ...

... a time that seemed to have more than its share of sad moments ...

... but also had its silly moments ...

... a time when "In the Garden of Eden" could be mislabeled "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida" and be a bigger success than it might otherwise have been.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Four Seasons

When I was growing up, two of my favorite performers were Alan Alda and Carol Burnett.

They both appeared in popular shows on the same network (CBS) — and, for a short time, I could even watch both of them on the same night. Their shows weren't on back to back, but they were part of the same blockbuster Saturday night lineup that would have been regarded as "must–see TV" if the phrase/concept had existed then.

In the mid–1970s — when both shows were part of that Saturday night lineup — Alda was a guest on Burnett's variety show, and the two were featured in a sketch called "Dream Date" that had a strong silver screen influence.

I thought they showed some real chemistry, and I wanted to see more, but I never dreamed that they would appear in a movie together.

Until this day in 1981.

On this day 30 years ago, "The Four Seasons" was released. It was the story of three admittedly quirky (and apparently affluent) couples who did everything together, and it was told via four vignettes — a spring country getaway, a summer vacation trip, parents' weekend at college in the fall and a ski trip during the winter.

It was in the first setting that it was revealed that one of the couples (played by Len Cariou and Sandy Dennis) was splitting up. By the second setting, Cariou's character had started spending time with a new female companion (Bess Armstrong), who found it difficult to fit in with the group.

That group included a couple that was about 10 years older than the others (played by Jack Weston and Rita Moreno), and the third couple was played by Alda and Burnett.

The divorce was affecting the life of Cariou's daughter, which could be seen during parents' weekend, and the issue of the group's acceptance of Cariou's companion formed the basis of the story of the ski trip.

I felt it was a great blend of comedy and drama that featured some real pros. Sadly, two of those pros — Weston and Dennis — are no longer around, but they delivered some great lines in that movie.

During parents' weekend, for example, Moreno insisted on treating her Italian heritage as an excuse for not being more subtle.

Frustrated, Weston stuck his head out the window and shouted, "Hey, everybody, this woman is Italian!"

Then he told Moreno that she no longer had to announce her ethnic heritage in that state. "And when we cross the border," he told her, "I'll take out an ad in the New York Times."

Weston had some more good lines during the confrontation between the divorcing spouses at parents' weekend. Cariou's character, Weston told Alda, had been cheating on his wife for a long time. "They even slept at your apartment once," he said.

"Where was I?" Alda wanted to know.

"You gave him the key to water your plants and feed the cats while you were away," Weston replied. "Didn't you notice the funny expression on the cats' faces?"

Dennis' character wasn't seen as much. After the spring getaway, she disappeared — except for an appearance during parents' weekend.

But she got off some pretty good lines in a brief conversation with Moreno and Burnett.

She confided that, to combat her loneliness, she had acquired a new pet — a snake. He'd been disgusting at first, she said, because he ate mice alive, but she had gotten used to him and now found him to be a "lovely" pet.

She urged her friends not to tell her estranged husband about the snake, though. "He thinks I'm crazy as it is."

But, as she was leaving, she changed her mind. "To hell with Nick," she said. "Tell him it's a God damn boa constrictor."

The movie was like that. It was a humorous examination of a number of crises the characters were facing.

It was honest.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Most of my friends probably became aware of the Alan Parsons Project in 1977 or 1978, possibly later than that.

The group enjoyed its greatest commercial success in the early 1980s.

But I remember when I first became aware of the band. It was 35 years ago this summer, probably in June. I say "probably" because, when I was growing up, I didn't measure summer by the calendar.

I think my school system held summer sessions in those days for students who had failed certain courses, but that was never an issue for me. I usually got good grades so I never had to spend even a fraction of any of my summer vacations in school.

All I really knew — or, to be blunt about it, cared to know — about the summer season was that school adjourned in late May and resumed in late August. The actual dates were unimportant to me.

In between, I knew I would visit my grandmothers, sleep late most days, see some movies, do some swimming and some reading — and go back to the classroom whenever the adults told me to do so.

About midway through the summer would come the Fourth of July, with roadside fireworks stands and homemade ice cream. That was the closest thing to a measuring stick that I used to calculate how much remained of my summer vacation.

For the purpose of pinpointing events in my young life, "summer" is about as specific as I can be.

I was browsing in a local record store — as I was apt to do during summer vacation in those days — and the proprietor of the store, who was in the habit of playing recent releases, started playing Alan Parsons' debut album, "Tales of Mystery and Imagination," on the stereo.

It wasn't a very large store, and, whenever the stereo was playing, the sound seemed to fill the place, leaving no room for anything else. It was impossible to carry on a conversation with someone standing next to you.

That — and the delightful feeling of the cold breeze coming from the window air conditioning unit — is my most vivid memory, but I also remember buying many records and tapes there.

One of them was that Alan Parsons album.

I had already been introduced to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and I stood, transfixed, as I listened to songs that had been inspired by those masterpieces, all of which were more than a century old — "A Dream Within a Dream," published in 1849; "The Raven," published in 1845; "The Tell–Tale Heart," published in 1843; "The Cask of Amontillado," published in 1846; "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether," published in 1845; "The Fall of the House of Usher," published in 1839, and "To One in Paradise," published in 1833.

The album took its title from the name of a posthumously published collection of Poe's works that focused strictly on his mysteries.

(That collection, by the way, reportedly inspired sci–fi writer Ray Bradbury, who received a copy of it when he was 9. I supposed devoted sci–fi readers owe Poe a great deal for that.)

Modern readers will probably tell you that Stephen King is the master of horror.

And, for modern readers, that is probably true.

I'm a fan of Stephen King's works, and I'm a fan of Poe's works. And I'll put Poe up against King any time.

Read any one of the pieces that inspired the music on the album that came out 35 years ago this month, and you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What's Going On

It is probably appropriate that the 40th anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On" should fall on the latest date that is supposed to bring the so–called "rapture."

The "rapture," after all, is a concept. It is never mentioned in the Bible. Rather, it is an individual's interpretation of biblical passages that forms the basis of a rapture prophecy.

And "What's Going On" was one of the earliest concept albums in which the songs on it were linked by a common theme or view of the world.

The theme of "What's Going On" was alienation and division — and there was a lot of both in America at that time.

Gaye's life was loaded with highs and lows — truly incredible commercial success that brought him fame and fortune ... and a crushing substance abuse problem that contributed mightily to his decline and tragic death.

It is not my intention to recite the circumstances surrounding his death in 1984. Rather, it is my intention to reflect on what may have been his greatest musical triumph.

Certainly, it is seen that way by Rolling Stone, which named "What's Going On" the #6 album of all time.

Rolling Stone also named the album's title track the #4 song of all time — ahead of anything that was ever recorded by Elvis, the Beatles, the Who or the Beach Boys.

And, I guess, when all is said and done, the title track probably is what most people remember about "What's Going On."

But that really isn't fair. There was more — much more — to the album than its title track.

"What's Going On" is surely one of Gaye's most recognizable songs. NPR says it was "one of the most influential records from a passionate and enduring icon."

That's a point with which it is difficult to argue.

But, in fact, the song and the album are really two distinct conversations. The song was released in January. The album on which it appeared was not released until this day in 1971.

The song was remarkably successful and hit the top of the R&B and pop charts two months before the album was released. That, as I say, is a story in itself.

My memory of the album is that it was about sources of alienation — social, political, economic. The conflict in Vietnam was a big part of that, but there were other issues that would have repercussions of their own in the future. They just didn't get nearly as much attention in 1971.

One of those issues was the environment. It was only beginning to attract public attention when "What's Going On" was released 40 years ago today, but the song "Mercy Mercy Me" addressed it head on.

Gaye wrote that song by himself, and it went on to become one of the most famous songs in his repertoire.

Not as well known to mainstream audiences was another song from the album, "Right On," which addressed the divisions in society.

Initially, the lyrics in the song focused on social divisions, but then they veered into politics. Given the modern political climate, that song could be due for a crossover comeback.

Gaye co–wrote that one.

Likewise, "Inner City Blues" wasn't well known to mainstream listeners, but it was more evidence of an emerging social consciousness in soul music.

It was, to say the least, a thought–provoking album — and it was regarded as a classic, even at the time it was released.

And now, to mark its 40th birthday, a remastered package is being released in a week and a half. Perhaps, with this re–release, the album will wield new influence on the culture.

Everything old is new again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blonde Ambition

The tragic story of Marilyn Monroe has been told many times and in many ways in nearly half a century since her death.

But, to my knowledge, it was never told quite the way it was told in an HBO movie that made its debut on this day 15 years ago.

I was an HBO subscriber in those days, and I remember watching the film the first night it was televised. Reviews were mixed, but I was impressed.

In the movie, Norma Jean (Ashley Judd) and Marilyn (Mira Sorvino) were treated as two distinct parts of the same person, waging battles with each other at critical moments in Monroe's life.

I never thought the movie was telling the story of a split personality, but I did feel it was the story of someone who was haunted by her past. At times, there were parallel stories that were told in flashback form, creating the impression that Marilyn repeated the same errors in judgment.

That, of course, is all speculation — albeit, at times, convincing speculation.

Norma Jean, of course, was her identity before she became a star, the name she went by as a child, and much of her childhood was spent in foster homes, some of which were abusive.

Marilyn was her persona after she achieved stardom — but the premise of the film was that she never gained the things that mattered most to her.

The title hinted at the internal conflict that may well have gnawed at her throughout her life — and, in the end, may have been responsible for her death.

You probably have heard all of the tragic angles of Monroe's life — her unpleasant childhood, the simultaneously liberating and smothering stardom she found as an adult, the relationships that failed.

(If ever there was a poster girl for the old adage "Be careful what you wish for ...")

But no one knows of her struggles with her inner self. That will always be a source for speculation.

As I say, it is intriguing speculation, speculation that can never be challenged — at least not successfully.

Marilyn has been dead for nearly half a century. She can't dispute anything that anyone says about the wars that were fought within.

The story that was told on HBO 15 years ago tonight may or may not have been true — substantially.

But it is true — and it will always be true — that Marilyn died far too young — and perhaps for reasons we will never know, that only she could ever know.

Whatever the truth behind her death may have been, it died with her in August 1962. For nearly 49 years now, we have been left with speculation.

Over the years, I have heard some people say her death was an accident. Others have said it was a suicide. Still others have said it was a homicide.

The coroner's office ruled it a "probable suicide," but the fact is that all three arguments can be persuasive — and none has proved convincing enough to be regarded as the definitive account of what happened.

I suspect that it is a case that will always be a lot like Marilyn herself — mystifying, perplexing, tantalizing, exasperating, promising much but, ultimately, delivering little.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gettin' Funky with Aerosmith

Over the years, I have frequently heard Aerosmith described as "America's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band."

I don't know if that is true or not — but I do know that, if you were a teen–ager in the 1970s, Aerosmith's music was everywhere.

It was on the radio whenever I drove anywhere, and my friends would be listening to it on their stereos whenever I arrived at their homes. It was playing in the pinball joints where my friends and I hung out and in the pizza places where we ate.

I remember the day I passed my driving test. When I drove home that afternoon, "Sweet Emotion" was playing on the radio. It wasn't brand new in those days — but it was a relatively recent hit (like "Walk This Way").

In May 1976, Aerosmith released its fourth album in less than 3½ years — "Rocks."

The band had been steadily developing a following since releasing its first album in January 1973. "Dream On" was on that album, but it didn't reach the national Top 10 until it was re–released as a single in 1976.

As I say, Aerosmith was hot, and, by and large, you knew what you were getting when you listened to an Aerosmith album — hard–driving power rock that was strongly influenced by the blues. It re–defined things.

That Aerosmith sound was well established by the time "Rocks" was released in 1976 — which is why the second song on the album, "Last Child," really made me sit up and take notice.

"Last Child" was the most noteworthy songwriting contribution from guitarist Brad Whitford, and it had an indisputably funk feel to it.

I guess it was a fusion of funk and rock, with a healthy portion of blues tossed in, but it was that touch of funk that made the song stand out from everything else on the album.

As a teen–ager, I must admit that I didn't understand the lyrics. But that didn't matter to me.

I liked the music.

I can't honestly say that I understand the lyrics any better today than I did in 1976.

But I still like the music.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tornado Season

I grew up in central Arkansas. If there is a heart in the so–called "Tornado Alley" in America, that must be where it is.

They take tornadoes seriously in Arkansas, as they do in neighboring states like Oklahoma, because they have a long history of dealing with them. Tornadoes are the loose cannons of meteorology. They pop up almost without notice and tend to be short–lived, but, oh, are they destructive.

We've needed no reminders of that lately, having just experienced the deadliest day in my lifetime in terms of tornado activity.

I recall a devastating tornado that came through my hometown when I was about 5 years old. My parents had gone out for the evening — probably for dinner and a movie — and they had left my brother and me with a teen–aged girl who lived a couple of miles down the road from us.

This girl had watched us before. We lived in the country, and it was a convenient arrangement. My brother and I liked her — well, I guess I can only speak for myself. My brother was about 2 years old, but he seemed to like her, as I remember. Anyway, her name was Gail.

At some point that evening (probably early, but I don't think I had learned to tell time yet), it turned windy and stormy. I remember listening to the radio with Gail (my parents didn't have a television in those days) and hearing the tornado warnings that were being issued — and wondering why Gail had turned as pale as a sheet. I guess the words in the broadcast were really beyond my years.

Anyway, she called her father and asked him to come pick us up and take us back to their house — because there was a storm cellar there. He was at our house in no time, and the three of us made a mad dash to his pickup truck. We piled in, he turned the ignition, and he drove like a crazy man, trying to outrun the tornado — which was practically on top of us.

If its path had been unobstructed, it might have picked up that truck and tossed it who knows where. I don't know how powerful it was. I don't think the famous Fujita scale was in use at that time, but it must have been pretty strong. The area where we lived was kind of hilly, and the tornado must have bounced off the terrain. I remember looking up through the windshield and seeing the tornado go directly over us.

The noise was deafening. The truck shook some. But nothing worse than that happened to us.

The storm proceeded into town, plowing through a residential section and leveling several homes by the time we arrived at the sitter's house. At that point, the danger had passed us by, I guess, but we still got into the storm shelter, anyway, and stayed there for what seemed like hours. When we emerged, the wind was still blowing — although not as violently as before — and my strongest memory is of my sitter and her siblings catching shreds of paper and announcing the addresses on envelopes and magazine labels.

It was really astonishing how far some of those pieces of paper (presumably) had traveled in a short time. At least, it seems so in hindsight. At that time in my life, I presume, I had no concept of the distance between places.

Anyway, I developed a healthy respect — at an early age — for tornadoes.

My parents must have picked us up at some point that evening. I have no memory of it. It had been kind of a harrowing evening for all of us.

Later, after I had grown up, I lived in Oklahoma for awhile. We had some pretty severe storms during the time I lived there, and we had a few tornado episodes, but nothing devastating hit the area in which I lived in the time I lived there. For that, I was grateful — especially since some particularly nasty storms went through the area a couple of years after I left.

Tornadoes have done considerable damage in Oklahoma since I moved away, and the movie that premiered 15 years ago today — "Twister," which was set in Oklahoma — is the only film I have ever seen that realistically re–created the experience of an encounter with a massive, deadly storm.

I never saw it in the theater, but I suspect it would have been a lot like a movie I saw with my mother — 1974's "Earthquake." The experience was enhanced by an audio system called Sensurround in which low–frequency sounds gave viewers the physical sensation of an earthquake.

I don't think they were still using Sensurround in 1996. Come to think of it, I can't remember the last time a movie was advertised as including Sensurround. If memory serves, it was kind of cumbersome and costly in the mid–1970s, and most theaters decided, in the end, not to invest in the equipment that was necessary.

With few theaters using Sensurround technology, it simply didn't make sense to make films that utilized it.

If Sensurround had still been in use when "Twister" was released, I'm sure it would have made the theatrical experience as terrifying as the real one can be.

I didn't see any flying cows when I was 5 years old. I'm sure that would have been a memorable — not to mention traumatizing — moment for me. I remember having nightmares at about the same time after seeing the winged monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz."

Even without Sensurround, I think the film's main attraction was the special effects — and to experience that as fully as possible, it probably was necessary to see the movie on a big screen. Not matter how large one's TV might be, I always figured the dialogue in "Twister" was realistic. I've never traveled with any "storm chasers" so I can't speak from experience on that one. But the dialogue struck me as authentic — even if some elements of the story were a bit forced.

That isn't meant to take anything away from the cast.

Helen Hunt was as charming as ever — and had better things ahead of her. Two years later, she won an Oscar for her performance in "As Good As It Gets."

Bill Paxton, who played her ex– (and, the story hinted, future) spouse, was something of a hot commodity in Hollywood in those days. A year earlier, for example, he had played one of the astronauts aboard the ill–fated Apollo 13 — one of the top–grossing films of 1995.

A year after "Twister," he played a character who appeared to be loosely based on Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who located the wreckage of the Titanic in James Cameron's blockbuster movie of the same name.

Some of the other cast members were headed for bigger things. Jami Gertz, who played Paxton's girlfriend in "Twister," has enjoyed some success on TV. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played a fellow storm chaser, has been in several noteworthy films. He also won an Oscar.

But, in 1996, nothing was bigger than their adventures chasing storms in Oklahoma on America's silver screens.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

True-to-Life Sound

It was at this time 35 years ago that Pink Floyd was in a London recording studio working on the tracks for an album that would be released in January 1977.

The album was called "Animals," and I still remember buying it and bringing it home a few months after it was released. It was the first Pink Floyd album I ever owned — although I had heard others (notably "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Wish You Were Here") — but it was hardly the last.

I suppose I was originally attracted to the album because it had been inspired by George Orwell's "Animal Farm," and I had just read that book in school before the album was released (although the record was a critique of capitalism whereas Orwell's book was about Stalinism).

But later, after I had listened to the album many times, I fell in love with the unique style of the music and lyrics and the creative use of the synthesizers, which were supposed to duplicate the sounds that animals made with uncanny precision.

I didn't realize how precise they actually were until several years later.

1976 was something of a transitional year in popular music, I suppose. I mean, albums were being released by the veterans of the music scene, like Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and others, but they were also being released by the lesser lights, the disco stars and the one–hit wonders.

In those days, when one switched on the radio, one was as likely to hear K.C. and the Sunshine Band or Blondie as the Who.

And you never heard Pink Floyd — except for the more commercially appealing songs, like "Money" and "Time."

I began my switch to CD technology around 1990 or 1991, I think — and the first CD I purchased was "Animals."

The first time I listened to that CD was truly memorable for me. It was spring, as I recall, and I had my living room window open to permit the gentle breeze of a spring evening to blow through my apartment.

In those days, I had a dog that was part black Lab — and part something else. He was a stray, about 10 weeks old when I took him in. Our vet never could tell me what the other part was. All we knew for certain was that my dog was not a full–blooded black Lab.

Anyway, I had had him for a couple of years when I brought home my first CD player. It seems to me that, in those first two years, I played my LP of "Animals" on a few occasions, and the dog had paid no visible attention to the sounds in it.

But when I played the CD — with its digital re–creation of those synthesizer sounds — the reaction was entirely different.

In the song "Dogs," you hear synthesizer–generated sounds that mimic the sounds of barking dogs, starting around the five–minute mark. When the CD reached that point, my dog jumped up from where he had been dozing and went over to the living room window. It was from that vantage point that he always looked for dogs that he heard (or thought he heard) outside.

But this time, there were no dogs to be seen. He seemed disappointed. A kind of muffled "Woof!" sprang from his mouth, almost involuntarily, and he slowly made his way back to where he had been sleeping.

A few minutes later, though — around the 10–minute mark of the song — the synthesizer mimicked the sound of a dog owner whistling for his dog, and my dog sprang to his feet. He looked at me expectantly, apparently certain that I had been the one who had been whistling.

But I hadn't — a fact that was soon confirmed for him when the whistling sound could be heard again. Even a dog could tell the sound wasn't coming from me.

My dog has been deceased now for more than 17 years. He got loose from me one evening and ran into a street, where he was struck by a vehicle.

I listened to that CD a few more times before he died, and his response was always the same.

He never did figure out where that barking and whistling were coming from.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Split Decision

The Bewitched TV series had a strange kind of existence.

It lasted eight years, which was (and, frankly, still is) unusual for a scripted series, and it did so in spite of the fact that the male lead was played by two different people (who happened to have the same first name), each for four seasons.

Its premise was a female witch (Samantha, played by Elizabeth Montgomery) who married a mortal and attempted to live a mortal life even though her relatives constantly interfered.

It's been off the air now for nearly 40 years, but it continues to attract a new generation of fans through syndication. I have rarely heard anyone mention the casting change. Maybe it was just so bizarre that it fit right in with the rest of the show.

(And, to put it mildly, Samantha's relatives were a bit looney.)

Then, again, maybe the viewing audience had been kind of conditioned to this sort of thing from the start.

On this night 45 years ago, late in the series' second season, Darrin and Samantha had to cancel their vacation plans because Darrin had to work. Samantha's mother decided to divide Darrin into a Hard–working Darrin, who would stay and tend to his workload, and a Fun–loving Darrin, who would take Samantha on the vacation that Endora believed she so richly deserved.

One of the unforeseen outcomes of Endora's spell was that the Hard–working Darrin came across as being much too serious — he was incapable of striking the healthy balance that Larry and the client sought — and the Fun–loving Darrin was far too frivolous for Samantha's taste.

Turned out they needed each other to make Darrin the person he was — which was the point of the story.

But reuniting them was going to be a bit problematic.

I always enjoyed Bewitched, but this was one of the issues I had with the consistency of the story.

You see, there were spells that could be reversed rather easily. Sometimes, Samantha could reverse a spell simply by looking at someone or something and twitching her nose or waving her arms and uttering some sort of incantation.

That included times when she had to turn something back into what it had been before (i.e., there were episodes when animals were transformed into people and then had to be turned back into their original form, whatever that had been). There might be a puff of smoke, and when the smoke disappeared, voila!

But Hard–working Darrin and Fun–loving Darrin were parts that had to be rejoined, not transformed. Apparently, according to the laws that governed the existence of witches, returning them to a unified state was trickier than changing them from one state to another.

I guess the same point was made more forcefully by Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" — or, to be more specific, his endlessly repeated line in the pages of his "book""All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy ..."

Jack Nicholson's character may have had a split personality, but on Bewitched Darrin was literally a man divided physically, and Samantha concluded (with Endora's help) that the only way to bring the two halves together was through a collision.

It was kind of a simplistic solution — extremely low tech — but this was 1960s TV, you must understand. Special effects (and extraordinarily creative solutions to complex problems) were not very advanced.

Sometimes, it must have been just plain hard to satisfactorily resolve stories within half an hour.

I don't know if the resolution of this particular story was sufficiently satisfactory, but I guess it was adequate 45 years ago.

And that was enough.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


To succeed in comedy on television, I believe it is necessary to excel at physical comedy.

Now, personally, I appreciate the good writing that some of the really great comedies have in common — but it takes a talented performer to coax genuine laughter from the audience.

You know what I mean. There are laughs that are little more than polite titters that practically scream "I know I'm supposed to laugh at this part and I feel obligated to do so, but I just don't feel it."

And then there are the belly laughs, the I–couldn't–keep–from–laughing–if–you–held–a–gun–to–my–head kind of laughs. More often than not, these laughs are evoked by good physical comedy.

The really great ones make it look effortless. But, as Johnny Carson once observed to someone who bombed while filling in for him during his vacation, it ain't as easy as it looks.

It does help, though, if the story has an established joke that can be exaggerated in some way. On May 5, 1952, that rare combination of material and talent occurred in a memorable way on I Love Lucy.

The show was nearing the end of its first season. It had been established early in the series that Lucy (Lucille Ball) wanted to break into show business and believed that Ricky (Desi Arnaz) was actively trying to prevent her from doing so.

By the evening of May 5, 1952, audiences needed no reminders. They were prepared for what they would see.

Well, maybe not.

What they saw was a truly remarkable example of physical comedy. In its way, I think, it was every bit as impressive as the extraordinary physical comedy routines of some of the stars of the silent film era (i.e., Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin) or the great mimes (i.e., Marcel Marceau) — or Lucy's TV contemporaries (i.e., Dick Van Dyke).

In the 1950s — and beyond — commercial spots often were done live from the TV studio. In the context of this story, Lucy's assignment was to do a TV commercial for a health tonic called "Vitameatavegamin," a product that contained "vitamins, meat, vegetables and minerals" — but Lucy didn't know it was also 23% alcohol.

And that — along with a repeated sales pitch that was virtually flawless in the rehearsals but got increasingly out of hand as the alcohol in the product began to take effect — was what that night 59 years ago was about. But not entirely.

The early part of the script was really used to set up Lucy's monologue, and the last part tried valiantly to tie together all the loose ends, but that half hour was really all about Lucy and her gift for physical comedy ...

... that so natural, involuntary shudder when she swallowed a spoonful of tonic that was "tasty ... just like candy" or when, clearly intoxicated, she kept observing that "it's hot in here."

If you ever doubted that Lucy was the best, watch the attached clip.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Citizen Kane is 70

I have long said that "Citizen Kane" is my favorite movie.

Others have said it is the greatest movie of all time (but not necessarily their favorite film) — among them the American Film Institute.

Sometimes it is said both admiringly and indirectly — in the way that, for example, the Montreal Gazette observes that Jack Layton "has gone from 'having something less than a hope' to 'something more than a chance' " in tomorrow's Canadian election.

(Those are versions of lines from the movie, by the way — from Citizen Kane's very own campaign speech.)

That has led to something of a conflict for me, I think. Is it my favorite film? Or is it the greatest film of all time? Or is it more than that? Is it both?

Is it — to borrow a line from the original Saturday Night Live show — a floor wax and a dessert topping?

It's all become something of a cliche, I suppose. Roger Ebert suggested as much in the Chicago Sun–Times when he wrote in 2008 that "it's settled: 'Citizen Kane' is the official greatest film of all time."

That doesn't alter, in any way, how I feel about the movie. I never needed AFI or Roger Ebert or the Montreal Gazette — or anyone else — to validate my assessment for me.

I consider myself a student of film. I'm hardly an authority on the subject, but I do believe there are some things about filmmaking that I know that most average movie viewers do not.

One of the things I know is that "Citizen Kane" — which made its New York debut on this day in 1941 (it showed up in theaters across the U.S. a few months later) — was a groundbreaking movie in many ways.

If you already knew that, I'm glad. But if you didn't, let me tell you a few things:

  • It experimented extensively with what is known as "deep focus," in which everything in a scene — from the most extreme foreground to the most extreme background — is in sharp focus.

    That might not impress people today, but 70 years ago ...

  • It also utilized low–angle shots more than any film that had come before.

    A low–angle shot is when a camera is positioned below the eyeline and photographs something as if looking up. From that perspective, interior shots show ceilings — or, rather, where a ceiling should be.

    That's the kind of technique that seems to be used these days mostly to imply the dominance of someone or something over another. In the "Star Wars" movies, for example — especially the early ones — Darth Vader was often seen from low angles.

    At the time "Citizen Kane" was filmed, most movies were made on sound stages, not on location. Thus, most indoor scenes could not show ceilings. The low–angle shots in "Citizen Kane" were designed to give viewers a feeling of intimacy by showing ceilings.

    "Citizen Kane" didn't always use actual ceilings. It often used material that looked like ceilings and created the illusion of an ordinary room while managing to conceal boom microphones.

  • Aside from the cinematography, the movie used storytelling techniques that were, if not entirely new, certainly unconventional.

    Most of the story was told in flashback, not chronologically. Montages were used to show the passage of time. And background information was provided early in the form of a newsreel that was inspired by the newsreels of the period.

  • The movie also pioneered techniques in makeup, special effects and sound effects, some of it the result of Orson Welles' experiences in radio.

  • And "Citizen Kane" introduced the moviegoing public to many people — performers and others — who would be significant in years to come, including Bernard Herrmann, who wrote an Oscar–nominated score for the film.

    Herrmann, a longtime Welles collaborator, had a distinguished career, writing scores for films by Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Mankiewicz, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and composing music for the original Twilight Zone TV series.
Beyond all that stuff, though, "Citizen Kane" had many memorable moments, made possible by the talented cast.

Like the musing of Kane's friend and associate, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), about a persistent memory of a girl he saw briefly some 40 years earlier ...

... and the agony of Kane's second wife, Susan (Dorothy Comingore), as she tried to come to terms with his death.

The magic of a movie begins with the writers who put thoughts and ideas on paper, but it is the great actors and actresses who breathe life into those words and the composers who write music that complements the story. "Citizen Kane" may have had one of the finest such ensembles I have ever seen.

Everyone remembers Kane's cryptic "Rosebud," uttered on his deathbed.

But I also remember the adult Kane's revealing conversation with his guardian after signing over his holdings during the Depression.

"If I hadn't been very rich," Kane said, "I might have been a really great man."

"Don't you think you are?" his guardian asked.

"I think I did pretty well under the circumstances," Kane said with that bemused Orson Welles smile.

"What would you like to have been?" his guardian persisted.

Kane glared at him. "Everything you hate."

There are many such moments in "Citizen Kane." The character is loosely based on William Randolph Hearst so, in a way, I guess, it is a journalist's story — but not really. Kane was cynical about his profession, even seemed weary when the subject came up.

It might have been possible to tell that story with Kane as a leader of another industry, but I doubt that it would have been as effective.

As the newsreel that opened the movie told the audience about Kane and the first half of the 20th century, "All of these years he covered, many of these he was."

Even so, "Citizen Kane" was not so much the story of a newspaperman as it was the story of a man — born into poverty, raised in wealth and privilege — and isolated by it as an adult.

It's a floor wax and a dessert topping.