Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Metaphor for a Generation



Jonathan (Jack Nicholson): Do you always answer a question with a question?
Susan (Candice Bergen): Do you always date your best friend's girlfriend?

After "Carnal Knowledge" premiered in New York City on this date in 1971, it became something of a cultural flashpoint.

I guess you have to remember what the times were like — or be told, if you are under a certain age.

It was kind of a tentative time. American society was really only beginning to re–examine itself and the attitudes that had influenced all the previous generations.

All in the Family is usually regarded as the starting point of a new kind of TV programming that, although conceived in the tradition of the sitcom, had a harder edge and was more satirical than anything that had come before.

But that show had only been on the air since January. Social satire would be the hallmark of so much of television (and everything else in the entertainment field) in the 1970s, but it was only emerging in 1971.

The tone was established, though, and all kinds of preconceived societal ideas were being exposed to ridicule so it was only natural that the movies would follow TV's lead.

Before that, prime time TV (and the movies, too, for that matter) was almost exclusively about entertainment with hillbillies, rubes, genies and witches cast in outlandish "fish out of water" situations. After that, it had more of a conscience.

"Carnal Knowledge" challenged gender roles. It didn't re–define the conversation. But it did get people talking.

To be sure, other movies in those days were doing the same thing. What "Carnal Knowledge" was doing wasn't unique, by any stretch of the imagination.

But there was clearly something about it. As a young boy, I remember hearing the men speak of it and snicker. There was nudity in it, they said. You could see just about everything that Ann–Margret had.

Even All in the Family made jokes about the movie. In one episode, I recall, Archie and Edith were shown returning from the movies, and Edith was apologizing to Archie. She told him she thought it was a religious picture — "Cardinal Knowledge."

Archie complained that there was so much activity in bed that he had to watch much of the movie with his head tilted to one side.

(I have often wished time travel was possible. I'd like to go back to those days with a video tape of "Basic Instinct" and show it to those guys who made the snide remarks. Of course, I would have to bring along a VCR, too, since such things didn't exist in 1971.

(Anyway, if those guys thought Ann–Margret showed everything she had, they should get an eyeful of Sharon Stone. But I digress.)

The images weren't as explicit as they are today so "Carnal Knowledge" often comes across as tame — if not downright boring — to the more worldly eyes of folks in the 21st century.

But why shouldn't they? "Carnal Knowledge" was the first movie to show a condom onscreen. How tame does that seem in 2011?

In 1971, a condom was the kind of thing that simply wasn't discussed outside the bedroom — at least, not in my experience — and about the only place I ever saw them was in the dispensers that were located in gas station men's rooms. But today, if your city is anything like mine, you can find businesses that cater entirely to condom buyers sitting next to fast–food joints and convenience stores.

The story focused on a couple of college buddies (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) and the age–old desire of men in that age group to make sexual conquests. Garfunkel becomes attached to an enticing coed (played by 25–year–old Candice Bergen) and pursues a chaste relationship with her, unaware of the fact that his friend has already bedded her — and developed something of an infatuation with her.

But Nicholson and Bergen go their separate ways. Garfunkel and Bergen eventually marry and embark on a rather dysfunctional marriage that eventually falls apart. Nicholson, meanwhile, breezes through a seemingly unending series of purely sexual — and emotionally unsatisfying — relationships until he finally marries his latest mistress, Ann–Margret, who is, as folks used to say, a "fun girl" but desperately, obsessively wishes to be married.

That marriage, too, is doomed, and Nicholson, later in the movie, presents a slideshow to Garfunkel and his newest significant other that bitterly lists the "ballbusters" in his life, going back to his earliest womanizing days. A slide of Bergen pops up, and Nicholson tries to move quickly to the next one, hoping that no one noticed, but it is too late. Garfunkel has already seen it — and put two and two together.

The old friends never discuss the fact that they shared a girl in college but Garfunkel apparently never suspected.

"Knowledge," in this story, was largely about sex — but it meant more than that.

It was set in a time frame that spanned post–World War II and the repressive 1950s into the sexually open 1960s, and it was an examination of the confusion experienced by both sexes as they moved into the 1970s and middle age.

Sometimes I see "Carnal Knowledge" as something of a generational metaphor.

In every generation, it seems to me, there is one aspect of life (at least) that is radically altered from what people were told when they were growing up and leaves them groping for answers.

For the generation that came of age in the mid–20th century (i.e., Nicholson's and Garfunkel's characters), it was gender roles and how they were affected by the social movements of that time.

For the generation that came of age in the late 20th century, perhaps, it has been making the transition to computers after learning to type on old–fashioned typewriters.

Who knows what it will be for those who have come of age (or will come of age) in the early 21st century?

"Carnal Knowledge" was regarded as a sex comedy at the time of its release. I remember a lot of talk about nudity and suggestive language, but when I saw the movie, many years later in college, it was more like a sex tragedy. At least, it seemed that way to me.

Perhaps that was what made it stand out from other movies of the time that had risque reputations.

It is tragic, is it not, to see a generation left on the ash heap of history for one reason or another.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Never Talk to Strangers



I really wish Farley Granger had managed to live another three months.

The 85–year–old Granger died in March. If he had lived until tomorrow, it would have been interesting to hear his observations on the 60th anniversary of the theatrical release of Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train."

I'm sure he would have said something about how that movie inspired Billy Crystal's "Throw Momma From the Train" — and, frankly, I would have been interested in hearing his insights.

But I've probably heard much of that from others already. And besides, I would really like to know what it was like to work with Hitchcock 60 years ago.

You see, I've always thought that "Strangers on a Train" was symbolic of Hitchcock's filmmaking M.O. It was really an innocent, rather simple story that became, well, complicated.

"Fibres of fate," the movie trailer said.

Just beneath the surface was a larger theme of doubles. Initially, of course, there is Granger's character, who is a professional tennis player (and, presumably, would have played doubles in tournaments, although, as I recall, that part is never stated).

Upon repeated viewings, I have become aware of other duplicates in the film — taxis, railroad tracks (that cross each other twice), female characters who wore glasses and were choked.

The doubles theme wasn't always visual. Sometimes it was implied or spoken. Hitchcock was fond of puns, metaphors. I believe he intended the film to be an ongoing source of revelation, and he inserted all sorts of things that went undiscovered, perhaps, for years, for decades.

No detail was too small.

"Isn't it a fascinating design?" he once said. "One could study it forever."

Indeed.

Sometimes it involved a mixture of elements.

Hitchcock, of course, became known for many things, but one thing that his audiences always looked for was his signature cameo appearance. In "Strangers on a Train," Hitchcock's onscreen moment played heavily on the doubles theme, but viewers probably didn't get it unless they had a certain amount of musical knowledge.

The cameo shows Hitchcock carrying a double bass as he boards a train.

The movie's much broader doubles theme didn't emphasize duplicates, though, as much as it did opposites.

In "Strangers on a Train," two characters who do not know each other feel trapped by their personal relationships. Granger's unhappy marriage apparently is public knowledge. The other character, played by Robert Walker, has a dysfunctional relationship with his father.

Walker arranges to meet Granger on a train, where he manipulates the conversation into a proposal that they "swap murders." He will kill Granger's wife if Granger will kill Walker's father. "Criss cross," he says. With no known links to their victims, the police will have no reason to suspect either.

Granger's character refuses to believe the conversation is for real, and he goes along with the perceived gag. But Walker's character is deadly serious, and he keeps his word, killing Granger's wife in an amusement park. Granger also doesn't realize that Walker has a personal item that belongs to Granger (a cigarette lighter) — with which he intends to blackmail Granger into holding up his end of the "deal."

Granger is reluctant to comply but begins to feel pressured when Walker starts showing up frequently to remind him that he is obliged now. Granger eventually agrees to go through with it, although he has no intention of actually doing so. He sneaks into Walker's house late one night and makes his way to the father's room, planning to tell him of Walker's plot, but it turns out to be Walker who is waiting for him in the dark room.

Walker tells Granger that, because he will not go through with his part of the arrangement, he should face the consequences for his wife's death. That murder, Walker says, "belongs" to Granger.

(I can still remember the chill I felt when I heard Walker say it for the first time.)

Granger's love interest (played by Ruth Roman) visits Walker's mother to tell her what her son has been up to, but she doesn't believe it — worse, Walker overhears the conversation and tells Granger's girlfriend that he has that personal item I mentioned earlier and intends to plant it at the murder scene.

That sets in motion the climactic scenes. If you've seen a Hitchcock movie before, you're surely familiar with how loose ends come together by the ends of his movies — but it was a rather new M.O. for Hitchcock in 1951. His style was evolving into what kept viewers of the 1950s and 1960s on the edges of their seats so it might catch you by surprise the first time you see it.

Trust me, though, it is worth it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Candyman



"So shines a good deed in a weary world."

Willy Wonka

For some reason, I remember that "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" — which premiered on June 30, 1971 — was the first movie that my younger brother was permitted to see at the theater without my parents.

I don't know why I remember that. I must have overheard a discussion between my parents about whether he should be allowed to see it without them — and the memory of that has embedded itself in my mind.

That wasn't an issue for me. I had been going to movies without my parents' physical presence (but, at that point in my life, always with their blessing) for awhile. In fact, I don't remember the first movie I was allowed to see without them.

(I do remember feeling as if I had taken another step toward being a grown–up, but that is all I remember. And, in hindsight, it wasn't so grown up after all. I mean, I think my parents started allowing me to go to movies without them when I was in first grade — and they might have moved the schedule up a bit for my brother.)

As the oldest of the two children in my family, however, it was my duty, at times, to act as a chaperone for my brother. I don't recall having such a companion when I first went to movies without my parents. Perhaps the arrangement was presented to me as an outing with a friend who might have been a year or so older than I was — and I never realized that my parents had arranged for a surrogate.

Anyway, in the months ahead, I was called upon to accompany my brother to several films that my parents had concluded had the potential to be traumatizing for him (and, therefore, he needed someone reassuring nearby) — but there was really no such possibility with "Willy Wonka."

Or was there?

The movie was punctuated with catchy music. In fact, the music was the only part of the movie that received an Oscar nomination. Sammy Davis Jr. turned one of the songs from the movie into his signature piece. His version of "The Candy Man" was at the top of the charts in 1972.

There were also a lot of colorful, candyesque images — actual candy, fantasy candy or just bright candy colors. Nothing traumatizing about that.

Yes, "Willy Wonka" seemed harmless enough. And it was, I guess. Oh, sure, there were some scenes that could have been disturbing for my 8–year–old brother. (Those orange–faced Oompa Loompas were bizarre, I'll grant you. Not exactly benign characters the way the Munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz" had been.)

He might even have felt inclined to be upset at times — until he looked at his older brother sitting next to him, and he realized there was nothing to be concerned about. I don't know if that was what happened — but I would like to think it was. It would give my presence some validity, I suppose.

I didn't really need my brother's validation, though. I enjoyed the movie. I never saw the Johnny Depp remake (that wasn't a conscious decision on my part, but I must confess that I had heard talk that he intended to take an entirely different approach to the role of Wonka than Gene Wilder had, which did make me more resistant to the idea of seeing it). Don't know if I ever will.

In a way, I guess, I look upon Wilder's interpretation of the Wonka role the way I do Peter Sellers' interpretation of the Inspector Clouseau role. I can't imagine anyone else doing them.

(My brother has seen Steve Martin in the remakes of the "Pink Panther" movies, by the way, and says they were good.)

Some remakes are good ideas. Sometimes they actually are better than the originals. In my experience, though, most of the time, they are not.

Steve Martin's performance as Inspector Clouseau may be one of those exceptions, and Depp's interpretation of the Wonka role may be, too.

And maybe, one day, I will find that out for myself.

But, even if I do, I suspect that I will still prefer the originals.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Twilight Zone Marathon Returns



The cable channel formerly known as the Sci Fi Channel (and now known as the Syfy Channel) will resume its Fourth of July tradition of a multi–day marathon of Twilight Zone episodes.

This time last year, I mentioned here that this tradition had been disrupted, but it will be restored this year — according to the Syfy online schedule.

If you're familiar with the history of the original Twilight Zone series, you know that nearly all the episodes were 30 minutes long. The series ran for five years (1959–64), and, in nearly every season, the episodes were half an hour, (the fourth season, in which episodes were an hour in length, was the sole exception).

In past marathons, Syfy has shown the hour–long episodes in the early hours of the morning or in the middle of the afternoon. Prime time was reserved for the classic half–hour episodes.

I've looked at the schedule, and I have seen none of the hour–long episodes listed so I have to conclude that the fourth season will be left out of this year's marathon entirely.

I have discovered a few nuggets of rarely seen Twilight Zone gold that you may want to watch while you have the opportunity.

On Sunday, July 3, may I recommend:
  • "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank" at 10 a.m. (Central).

    I rarely see this episode, and you probably won't recognize anyone in the cast — but it's a great story about a young man who died — and then sat up in his coffin at his funeral. He began behaving in a — shall we say? — bizarre fashion thereafter.

    Looking for a chill on a hot summer day? This will get you there.

  • "Death's Head Revisited" at 5 p.m. (Central).

    I always liked this episode, and I have seen it far too infrequently over the years. It is about a Nazi officer who once presided with an iron hand over the prisoners in a World War II concentration camp. He returns, after years of hiding, and is confronted by the ghosts of his victims.

    If you have never seen it, I highly recommend it.

  • "The Howling Man" at 7:30 p.m. (Central).

    I've seen this one a little more frequently. It's about a mysterious monastery that has the devil under lock and key, but a man seeking shelter for the night releases him, not realizing the identity of the prisoner.

    And the devil was unleashed upon the world, bringing to an end a period of relative harmony in the world. Perfect harmony, as Brother Jerome tells the man, is not possible, but unchecked evil makes things worse than they have to be.
And next Monday the Fourth, why not give these episodes a glimpse?
  • "The Hunt" at 9 a.m. (Central).

    Remember the old Rip Van Winkle story? This episode always kind of reminded me of that one. It wasn't exactly a re–telling of the story, but it certainly could have been inspired by it.

    An old man and his dog drown while on a nighttime hunting trip. Unaware that they have died, their spirits return to their home, where no one can see them. The rest of the story deals with their adjustment to the afterlife.

    OK, the ending is a little corny.


  • "And When the Sky Was Opened" at 2:30 p.m. (Central).

    Three astronauts return from a trip to outer space, then, one by one, they vanish, leaving no trace that they were ever around.

    In the past, this one has been part of Syfy's marathon sometimes — and sometimes it hasn't.

    This year, it is. Catch it while it's on.

  • "The Obsolete Man" at 5 p.m. (Central).

    I wrote about this one earlier this month — on the 50th anniversary of its debut.

    You can see three of the four Burgess Meredith Twilight Zone episodes in this year's Fourth of July marathon, and this is one of them. I recommend it.


  • "A Stop at Willoughby" at 8:30 p.m. (Central).

    If you aren't going out to see a fireworks display, may I suggest that you catch this episode?

    It's kind of a cautionary tale, still relevant in today's high–pressure environment, even though it first aired more than 50 years ago.

    James Daly plays an advertising executive who dozes off on the commuter train and wakes up in the 19th century — on board an old–fashioned train that stops in a sleepy village called Willoughby where the pace is slow and people go fishing and attend band concerts, not staff meetings.
Well, that's just a sample of what is available on Sunday and Monday, at just about any hour of the day or night (there are a couple of hours in the early morning when paid programming will air — gotta pay the bills, don't you know).

You can catch a good episode just about any time you tune in on Sunday or Monday.

Have a good holiday weekend.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The 10 Best Movies I've Never Seen

A few weeks ago, Joe Holleman of the St. Louis Post–Dispatch admitted in print that he had never seen "E.T."

That isn't a good thing for an entertainment writer to admit, but it seemed ironic to me because I was reminiscing recently about how I wasn't able to see the last 20 or 30 minutes of "E.T." Why? Because the girl with whom I was seeing the movie got sick and we had to leave the theater.

(I've heard about the ending, of course, but I've never seen it. I suppose I could see it — just never felt inclined to sit through the first 90 minutes again just to get up to speed enough on the story to watch the last 25.)

Anyway, Holleman wrote that "I knew I would hear from readers" when he acknowledged that — and that inspired him to put together a list of the 10 best films he has never seen. He encouraged readers to participate in a poll to choose the film he should see. He promised to watch the one that was recommended.

That started me thinking about the 10 best films that I have never seen.

I'm not going to ask readers to suggest which one I should see (for some reason, the comments have never worked on this blog, anyway). I'm just going to post a list of the 10 best films that I haven't seen but should see.

This is for your entertainment, not my guidance. Eventually, I would like to see all of these movies.

To make my list comparable to Holleman's, I decided to follow his rules — but not entirely.
  • Holleman said the films on the list had to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Fine. I'll go along with that.

  • Holleman said they had to be released after he graduated from high school. He graduated in 1976 so that covers the last 35 years. I graduated a few years after Holleman did.

    I'm going to be more expansive than that. (Here's where my standards will differ a bit from Holleman's.) I'll say they had to be released since 1961 (in the last half century, in other words).

  • Cartoons were excluded. That's fine with me. I haven't been a fan of cartoons since I was a kid.
Kind of a movie viewing to–do list, you might say.

Holleman tried to pinpoint the reasons why he didn't see the movies. I've sort of tried to do that, too.

But Holleman put his list in chronological order. I haven't bothered to do that. It's only 10 movies, after all.

Even though I added more than 15 years' worth of nominees to choose from, it wasn't an easy list for me to compile. I didn't realize just how many Best Picture nominees from the 1960s and 1970s I had actually seen.

But I have narrowed it down to these choices:
  1. Cabaret (1972) — I've wanted to see this movie for a long time.

    I don't know why I haven't seen it. I like Bob Fosse's work. But I never saw it, either at the theater or on television.

    Maybe it's a reaction to the fact that it is a musical. I've never really cared for musicals — although I did enjoy Fosse's "All That Jazz," which was kind of a musical.

    For that matter, I've never really cared for Liza Minelli, either. I liked her mother, thought she was great in "The Wizard of Oz."

    But the American Film Institute considers it one of the top 100 movies of the last century.

  2. In the Heat of the Night (1967) — I've had some opportunities to see this movie, but I have never taken advantage of them. Maybe that is because I used to watch the TV series that was inspired by it, and maybe that made me feel as if I already knew what was in it.

    That may or may not be true.

    But I have always been critical of people who rejected a movie or a book or anything else based only on what they had heard from others. I don't want to be guilty of that.

  3. Frost/Nixon (2008) — I'm a history buff so it is natural, I suppose, for me to be drawn to an historical re–creation like this.

    Many times, I have seen movies about historic events that happened long before I was born — and, unless I have specific knowledge of the event, I usually have no way of knowing if the movie is telling the whole truth.

    It helps if I can remember what is being re–created — and I vividly remember the Frost/Nixon interviews.

    Besides, I like Ron Howard. I liked his work in front of the camera, and — for the most part — I have liked his work behind it.

  4. True Grit (2010) — I saw the original with John Wayne, and I really would like to see the remake with Jeff Bridges.

    My friends have told me that this version is much closer in spirit to the book than the John Wayne version was. If that is true (and I have no reason to think it is not), then I would like to see it.

    I have nothing against film adaptations, in which the director takes certain liberties with the characters and the plot, but my personal preference has always been for productions that were as faithful to the original story as possible.

  5. Goodfellas (1990) — I intended to see this when it was at the theaters, but I was in graduate school at the time, pressed for time and money.

    I like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. I tend to like gangster movies. I meant to go to the theater. Just didn't get around to it.

  6. The King's Speech (2010) — OK, let me set the record straight.

    I am not and never have been one of those obsessive Royal Family watchers.

    I was as shocked and saddened by Princess Diana's death as anyone else, and I remember hearing my parents and grandparents speak of Edward VIII's abdication to marry an American divorcee in the 1930s, but until this movie came out, I didn't realize that Edward's successor, his brother George, had a stammering problem that he sought to overcome through speech therapy before delivering an address to the British people at the start of World War II.

    I've heard there are some historical inaccuracies in the movie — which probably wouldn't be noticeable to me, considering that I know fairly little about the Royal Family as it is. That wasn't what kept me from seeing the movie at the theaters.

  7. A Thousand Clowns (1965) — I have always liked Jason Robards.

    And I have heard quite a bit about his performance in "A Thousand Clowns," but I have never seen it.

    I've seen the movies for which Robards was honored with an Oscar, and I've seen the movie for which he was nominated but did not win. And I've seen many of his performances that I thought were good, they just weren't nominated for Oscars. I'd like to add this one to my list.

  8. The Conversation (1974) — Between "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II," Francis Ford Coppola made "The Conversation" with Gene Hackman and Cindy Williams, who was on the verge of becoming a TV star as Shirley on Laverne & Shirley.

    I don't really remember hearing anything about it when it was in the theaters, but I've heard a lot about it in the years since. My memory is that it was profitable but nowhere near as successful as the first two "Godfather" movies. Perhaps it got a bit lost in the shuffle.

  9. The Queen (2006) — As I mentioned earlier, I'm a history buff.

    And I've never been a Royal Family watcher.

    But, like just about everyone else, I was riveted by the TV coverage of Princess Diana's fatal car crash in August 1997.

    And, even though I understand the movie is a fictionalized account of the conflicting views within the Royal household of how Diana's death should be handled, I'd still like to see it. I'm not sure why I missed it five years ago.

  10. Capote (2005) — When I was in college, I read "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's account of the Clutter family killings in Kansas in late 1959.

    I've heard that the movie follows the period when Capote was writing about the murders and the trial that resulted in the convictions of the killers. His companion, childhood friend Harper Lee, was writing "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the time, and I have heard that it is mentioned a number of times in the movie.

    Beyond that, Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Capote, and I have admired his work in other films.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Peter Falk Dies



It was ironic that I made the observation this week that yesterday was the 35th anniversary of the theatrical release of "Murder By Death."

Ironic because one of the stars of that movie, Peter Falk, died yesterday.

Many of his co–stars in that movie — Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Elsa Lanchester, Truman Capote, Nancy Walker, James Coco, Estelle Winwood — have been gone for years so it is hardly a new experience to lose a member of that cast.

Nor is it surprising to lose someone who is in his 80s.

Nevertheless, I am saddened — mostly at the loss of another piece of my youth.

I imagine a lot of people feel that way.

I wouldn't say that Columbo — without a doubt Falk's signature TV series and role — was my favorite show, but it was one of my father's favorites, and I often watched it with him.

And I'm sure that anyone who ever watched the show would instantly recognize his trademark phrase ... "Sorry to bother you, but just one more thing ..."

He's been out of the spotlight (I almost said "public eye," which, given the fact that one of his eyes was removed when he was small and replaced with a fake eye that gave him his distinctive squint, would have been something of a gaffe, I suppose) for several years. It was revealed four years ago that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Rest in peace, Columbo.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Running For Your Life

This is a bittersweet time, I am sure, for those who knew and loved Farrah Fawcett.

Earlier this year, her longtime companion, Ryan O'Neal, donated several items from her career — including the swimsuit she wore in her best–selling poster in 1976 — to the Smithsonian.

(It is somewhat amusing, I must admit, to think of that suit — a component of millions of boys' adolescent fantasies — enshrined in the Smithsonian.)

In a few days, it will be the second anniversary of Farrah's death, and, if I could say anything to those she left behind, it would be that the second anniversary of a personal loss is far different from the first.

If those who were close to her stop to think about it, they may realize that June 23 is the 35th anniversary of the premiere of "Logan's Run."

It wasn't Farrah's best film. It wasn't even her first film. But it was the last thing she did before Charlie's Angels made its debut in September 1976 and changed Farrah's life forever.

Farrah's role in "Logan's Run" was a small one. She was, as I say, on the brink of becoming a star in June 1976.

The film's female star was Jenny Agutter, who was about five years younger than Farrah but much more of a show business veteran. By the time she made "Logan's Run," she had been performing in front of the camera half her life.

I remember my mother taking my brother and me to see the movie sometime during the summer of 1976. She was drawn, I think, by the knowledge that much of the movie was filmed here in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. At least, I remember her telling my brother and me about that as we drove to Little Rock to see it.

Dallas is where Mom grew up, and I think she was hoping to see familiar sights, but she had been away from this area for many years when "Logan's Run" was filmed, and the main location didn't exist when she married and moved away — so I'm not really sure what she expected.

Personally, I didn't see anything that I could identify. We visited my grandparents in Dallas frequently when I was a child — and, if the movie had been filmed on the SMU campus or something like that, I probably would have known the landmarks.

But I recognized nothing in "Logan's Run."

I enjoyed the story, though — and Mom seemed to enjoy it, too. In some ways, it has even been prophetic — although the culture shown in the movie has not yet come to pass (at least not here). And that is consistent with the tale because it is supposed to be about the 23rd century.

I know Mom liked the acting. I don't recall hearing her say anything about Agutter — Fawcett's role was rather small, and she wouldn't have been a topic of conversation then, anyway, because almost no one knew who she was — but I remember Mom speaking with obvious pleasure about the performance of Peter Ustinov.

Mom always liked Ustinov, and his was a contradictory character in the movie, to be sure. The premise of the film was that, in this futuristic society, population management was achieved by executing anyone who reached the age of 30 — and Ustinov's character (known simply as "old man") must have been at least twice that.

There was a kind of comic relief when he was on the screen. Ustinov was as serious and talented and as versatile an actor as you will find, but I remember one moment during which Agutter's character wondered if "those cracks" (wrinkles) in Ustinov's face were painful (presumably those were the first wrinkles she had ever seen). She reached out, tentatively, to touch his face, and Ustinov pulled away slightly, giggling a little as he did.

As I say, he provided some comic relief.

I remember that the late film critic Gene Siskel wrote disparagingly of the movie, saying that Ustinov's acting was the "only decent thing" in it. Personally, I thought it was better than that.

Michael York played Logan, a Sandman, the name given to those charged with the task of terminating "runners" — those nonconformists who refused to go quietly.

He was approached by the faceless state with a revelation and an assignment — the revelation was that "renewal," the article of faith that persuaded so many people who were on the verge of turning 30 to passively give up their lives, was a sham, and the assignment was to go outside the domed city, find the "sanctuary" that was the destination of all "runners" and destroy it.

To accomplish this, he had to become a "runner" himself — and that required the state to re–program him so that the lifeclock that was installed in his palm upon his birth would mimic one of a person about to turn 30 (the audience had already seen that the lifeclock of a person approaching his/her 30th birthday would start to blink).

Logan was four years from becoming 30 and, understandably, wanted to know if he would get those years back when the mission was completed. He got his answer in the form of a non–answer from the state.

Not really knowing what to expect, he embarked on his mission with Jessica (Agutter), who was at first reluctant to believe that one of the state's enforcers would run. But she was convinced when Logan helped another runner.

And the two set off on an adventure into the world outside.

I always felt the conclusion was somewhat anticlimactic — but, in hindsight, I guess it was really all that could be done.

And the film did win an Oscar for its visual effects. Those visual effects may look cheesy now — but, remember, this was 35 years ago. Technology has come a long way.

"Logan's Run" will never be the best sci–fi, fantasy, futuristic movie you've ever seen — but it will never be the worst, either.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Death By Laughter



I have mentioned before that my parents were devoted fans of the murder mystery.

They were familiar with all of the great literary and film detectives, and they passed along a fondness for the genre to me — along with a collection of paperback novels by Agatha Christie, which are still in the book collection on my shelves today.

In fact, they were so familiar with the genre that they got every joke, every reference that Neil Simon wrote into his entertaining cinematic spoof of murder mysteries, "Murder By Death," which premiered 35 years ago tomorrow.

That was a definite plus for me. I remember seeing the movie with them and then having them explain the jokes I didn't get after the movie was over.

I wound up returning to the theater to see the movie again (a couple of times) after they told me the inside jokes I had missed — and the movie actually inspired me to read some books I hadn't read before.

As a result, when I watch that movie now, I am filled with admiration for Simon's wit.

There really isn't much more to say about the plot of the movie. I mean, if you're familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the famous sleuths who were parodied, you will see that many of the devices Simon used were written primarily to set up the gags. But many of those set–ups were, themselves, inspired by the detectives' actual tendencies.

I would never suggest that it didn't take a lot of knowledge to write a clever script. It certainly did. Simon's a clever writer whose works have frequently been successes on Broadway — and, in 1976, there may have been no screenwriter who was as hot as Simon.

Nevertheless, it was a simple story. The world's greatest living detectives were invited to spend the weekend at the country home of a mysterious benefactor, where they would be treated to "dinner and a murder." The benefactor was played by Truman Capote, and he offered $1 million to any detective who could solve the crime.

His objective was to stump them all and claim the title of world's greatest detective for himself.

The rest of the film was a delightful collection of gags based on the eccentric behavior of the detectives and the writing habits of the authors who created them.

All that certainly had appeal for my parents — but I think what clinched the deal for them was the cast. They always had a particular fondness for British actors (I think that may have been due, in part, to the fact that they spent some time in Scotland after they were married), and "Murder By Death" was loaded with their favorites — Peter Sellers, David Niven, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Elsa Lanchester.

They were great, as always.

But I think almost any actor would have been great with the lines Neil Simon gave them.

For some reason, I particularly liked the lines that were given to Peter Falk (who played a combination of Sam Spade and Richard Diamond in his unique Columbo style).
  • When asked if the blind butler (Guinness) was dead (the audience could see a knife protruding from his back), Falk replied, "With a thing like that in his back, in the long run, he's better off."

  • On another occasion, Falk made this observation about a locked door: "Locked ... from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don't know what it is."

  • Another time, upon rejoining his colleagues after a trip to the restroom, Diamond was told that there was a bullet hole in the back of his jacket.

    "You should see the other guy," he replied.

  • Then there was the time when he introduced his female companion as "my secretary and mistress."
Well, they all had great lines.

Oh, and who was crowned the world's greatest detective?

Well, no one, really. There was some question, you see, as to whether anyone had been killed or not.

"Was there a murder or wasn't there?" demanded Willie Wang, adopted son of Sidney Wang (a parody of Charlie Chan, played delightfully by Sellers) as they drove away from the country estate.

"Yes," Sidney replied. "Killed good weekend."

Perhaps — but the time in the theater was far from wasted. I didn't have to be a detective to deduce that.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?



When Elizabeth Taylor died earlier this year, there was much talk about which of her many movies was her best.

Such discussions are generally fruitless for me. I mean, someone like Liz Taylor made movies for half a century, all kinds of movies. She made movies when she was a young girl. She made movies when she was a beautiful, seductive young woman. She made movies when she was a more mature woman and could bring that perspective to her role.

She made comedies, dramas, love stories, and she made them with most of the most talented actors and actresses of her lifetime.

I can't narrow it down to just one really great movie. When Liz Taylor is the topic, I always feel it is necessary to mention several movies — different types of movies from different eras and with different casts and directors.

But if my back is to the wall, if I absolutely must pick the movie I think was the best of all the movies she made, I would have to pick the one that premiered 45 years ago today — "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

It's easy, as the film's trailer says, to talk about it, but it is difficult to tell people about it.

See, most of the "action" in the film takes place in the viewers' minds. It is primarily dialogue about people who may or may not have existed and things that may or may not have happened — even some things that supposedly happened (or didn't happen) while something else occupied the attention of the camera (and, consequently, the viewers).

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" began as an Edward Albee play that enjoyed quite a bit of success on Broadway in the early 1960s. It was set in a rather sleepy college town in New England — in the home of a middle–aged history professor and his wife.

The premise was that the history professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Taylor) had attended some sort of faculty mixer thrown by her unseen father (who, the audience learned, was the president of the school). While there, they met a young couple — the husband (George Segal) was a newly appointed professor at the school, a strapping, good–looking fellow with an athletic background and a timid wife (Sandy Dennis) with whom he seemed mismatched.

As the movie opened, George and Martha (Burton and Taylor) drunkenly returned to their home in the early hours of a Sunday — where Martha announced that she had invited the young couple over for some post–party drinks and conversation. She insisted that the young man was a "math" teacher although it turned out that he was actually a biology teacher.

I suppose that was the first real hint of what was to come. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was about a lot of word games, word manipulation, and the uncertainty over the young instructor's specialty might have been part of that.

I've seen that movie several times now. Maybe there is something obvious about mistaking a biology teacher for a math teacher — but, if there is, I've never figured out what it was.

That really doesn't matter, I guess. There were times when the story took on such a Through the Looking Glass quality that, even if there was no significance (either obvious or subtle) behind confusing a biology teacher for a math teacher, it seems fitting that it would be one of the "games" that George and Martha played.

And they played a lot of games.

Their games included some suggestive and controversial (for 1966) language — stuff like "up yours," "screw you," "god damn," "son of a bitch" and the name that was given to one of the games, "hump the hostess."

I remember the first time I saw the movie. I was probably 14 or 15, and it was scheduled to be shown on TV one summer night. I asked my mother if I could watch it, and she said I could so I did. By that time, the language seemed tame to me (I heard worse on my bus rides to and from school), and my focus was on the characters' motivations for what they said — not just the words.

I had heard a lot less about the movie than I thought, and it wasn't easy for a teenager to comprehend everything he saw, but even so I had a pretty good grasp of things. I could tell that the movie was about two people who were disappointed by life, by each other, and they were stuck with the choices they had made (or, at least, they felt they were). That made them angry, and they looked for ways to lash out at each other.

And, to a certain extent, they were jealous, I thought, of the young couple who still had it within their power to change their course, change direction. They were not yet trapped.

It must be painful, I remember thinking, to be so far along in your life, to have reached a point where you should be able to look back with a sense of satisfaction at your achievements and still feel jealous of those who are so much younger than you are because of the choices they have yet to make.

I realized several years later that, eventually, most people do feel trapped. George and Martha simply expressed that feeling.

In any discussion of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I always feel it is necessary to mention Taylor's contribution.

Until she made "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Taylor had always been cast in age–appropriate roles — and, in 1966, she was in her mid–30s and still gorgeous. But "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" required Martha to be — for lack of a better word — frumpy and in middle age.

The casting of Taylor in the role came as a surprise to most observers. I've heard that Warner Brothers' Jack Warner wanted to cast James Mason and Bette Davis in the roles of George and Martha, and Albee reportedly liked the idea. It particularly appealed to him to have Davis imitating herself early in the film when Martha entered the house and repeated Davis' line from the 1948 movie "Beyond the Forest""What a dump!"

However, with such a dialogue–driven story (the studio was committed to being as true to the original play as possible — and, with mostly modest exceptions, it was), it was apparently decided that the stars needed more star power than Mason and Davis could provide. I don't think either was offered a part in the film; instead, the parts went to Taylor and Burton, who were proven to be bankable performers.

The choice of Taylor was especially surprising because she was regarded as one of the world's most beautiful women. Sleek and svelte, Taylor didn't really fit the image of Martha, but she gained 30 pounds to play the role, and, in the end, Albee conceded that both she and Burton (who was in his early 40s) had been impressive.

(Nevertheless, he told Davis' biographer, "with Mason and Davis you would have had a less flashy and ultimately deeper film.")

Taylor was deep enough, I guess. She won an Oscar for her performance.

While I'm on the subject of the Oscars, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" remains the only movie to be nominated in every eligible category.

That alone should tell you how special it was.

Monday, June 13, 2011

School Daze



In the 1980s, I was working on a sports copy desk for a metropolitan morning newspaper.

Most nights, it was a busy place — and our paper served the entire state, not a single city or county, so we had three deadlines each night to make sure the newspaper distribution flow was not interrupted.

Nevertheless, there were evenings when things were slow. On those occasions, those of us in the newsroom — the copy editors who were assigned to work the desk and the reporters who were in the office — often got into conversations.

As you might expect, the topic of conversation frequently was sports, whichever sport happened to be in season. But, on evenings when little of note was happening, the conversation could turn to all sorts of things, and, I recall one evening, about 25 years ago, when the subject was Rodney Dangerfield and his "Back to School" movie that was showing at the theaters.

That wasn't too surprising, I guess. Some of the guys with whom I worked were about Dangerfield's age. They had been aware of him for a long time — perhaps going back to the night in the late 1950s when Dangerfield got his first real break as a last–minute substitute on The Ed Sullivan Show or in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was a regular on The Tonight Show.

But he had rarely been seen in movies up to that time.

In hindsight, perhaps some of my co–workers related to Dangerfield's catchphrase, "I don't get no respect." From a professional perspective, I would find that one a little hard to believe. I was working for the Arkansas Gazette in those days, and I can assure you that it was respected throughout the state and region — even by its crosstown rival.

Whatever the reason, though, Dangerfield was an office favorite, and "Back to School" prompted many conversations as, one by one, my colleagues went to see it in the summer of 1986. Whenever one came into the office after seeing it, you could expect an evening of re–telling now familiar jokes from the film.

If memory serves, "Back to School" was actually a bit of a surprise hit.

It was a surprise for a few reasons, one of which was that, at that point, Dangerfield was not what one would call a "bankable" star in the movies — not that he ever was a major movie star, anyway. He was always more suited for night club acts, recordings and television.

Besides, his best movies — "Caddyshack" and "Easy Money" — were behind him at that time. He did have a few high points after "Back to School," but, mostly, his movie career was over.

The appeal of the film may well have been a generational thing. I wasn't overly impressed with it, to be honest. I thought the plot was held together loosely by a string of Dangerfield one–liners — funny in a monologue but a bit too predictable (for me, anyway) in a movie.

Whatever the reason may have been, my friends sure enjoyed it, and I guess that is the ultimate objective of a movie — to entertain.

And there were many entertaining moments in the story about a middle–aged man who goes back to college — like when Dangerfield, playing a successful but uneducated man who is assigned a paper about writer Kurt Vonnegut's work, hires Vonnegut himself to write the paper, then criticizes him for it after Dangerfield receives a low grade.

Talk about no respect.

There were several familiar faces in the film besides Dangerfield — Sally Kellerman, Robert Downey Jr., Sam Kinison, Burt Young (known mostly for his appearances in the "Rocky" films) — but Dangerfield was the main attraction.

And, as it turned out, "Back to School" was probably his last truly noteworthy movie role.

Oh, he did make some other movies before he died — including a part in Quentin Tarantino's "Natural Born Killers" — but "Back to School" was his high water mark.

And, from an entertainment perspective, it wasn't a bad legacy.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

When the Titans Originally Clashed



Last year, a remake of 1981's "Clash of the Titans" was released.

Both movies were loosely based on the Greek myth of Perseus. The 2010 version had some advantages over the 1981 version — better technology, mostly. That helped with the special effects.

Both did well financially. The markets were different, of course, but the 1981 version was 11th in box–office receipts that year, and last year's version is in the Top 100 of all–time earners.

And, too, the cast in the 2010 version was pretty good. It included the likes of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Elizabeth McGovern — all veteran performers.

But the acting in the first version may have been, if anything, better. After all, that cast included Maggie Smith, Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress. Talk about veterans.

And I believe, to this day, that the first one was more entertaining.

I don't remember when I saw it for the first time. It had long since left the theaters because I recall watching it on cable (a commercial channel at that) one summer weekend when I had nothing better to do.

It was a hot, lazy weekend — the kind of summer weekend when the mere thought of stepping outside into the heat starts sapping the energy — noticeably — from your body. I surfed frantically through the channels I got in those days, hoping to find something, anything, and I came across "Clash of the Titans."

And I recall sitting in front of my TV with a cold drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other (a classic juxtaposition of hot and cold, I guess) — and enjoying a thoroughly unexpectedly rollicking adventure.

It did help to know something about Greek mythology. For example, when the movie opened with a contingent of mortals boxing up a young woman and her baby and throwing them into the sea, some knowledge of mythology would have helped ordinary moviegoers — but perhaps not as much as you might think.

Like the 2010 remake, it was loosely based on Greek mythology. Oh, the characters were legitimate mythological characters, but they were never really identified for the viewers. It was as if the producers of the film took it for granted that viewers were well versed in Greek mythology — and I would guess that most were not.

And there were certain liberties taken with the story.

Those weren't the only problems. The animation, particularly when the sea monster Kraken was called upon to wreak havoc on land, resembled either Claymation or whatever was used to create Godzilla in the Japanese monster movies of the 1960s. Perhaps both.

Still, if one wasn't overly picky about such things, "Clash of the Titans" was an enjoyable movie experience.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Is That How Music Began?



Until June in 1981, I had always speculated about how music came to be. And then Mel Brooks told me.

Mel Brooks was responsible for some of my best belly laughs when I was a teenager. Those really were the days, my friend.

Even today, many years later, if I am asked to list my favorite movie comedies, that list is certain to include "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles," "The Producers" ... and "History of the World, Part I."

Those movies are more than funny to me. They bring back memories that mean a lot to me now.

Speaking of "History of the World," it made its debut on June 12, 1981.

There never was a Part II.

I always thought that was part of the joke. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a book called "The Historie of the World, Volume 1," but he was executed before he could publish a second volume. I thought the movie's title was a play on that.

It may have been. Then again, Brooks may have intended to make a sequel and just didn't get around to it. At the end of "History of the World, Part I," there was a "trailer" for a sequel that promised to show stuff like Hitler on ice and Jews in space, but that may have been a gag.

"History of the World," like all Mel Brooks movies, was loaded with gags.

Like Brooks' version of the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments.

All the paintings I ever saw of that depicted Moses carrying two tablets bearing five commandments each. In the movie, Moses (played by Brooks, of course) carried three tablets — but he dropped one, and it shattered on the ground.

I guess you really didn't need music for that — unless it was the ominous kind that audiences always heard in thrillers.

(As Moses said when he dropped one of the tablets, "Oy!")

Or the light–hearted musical number for the Spanish Inquisition.

But it wasn't all music.

It was mostly Mel Brooks' brand of humor — zany, silly, at times predictable — and it often used music. But not always.

If music made the bit funnier in some way, then it was an important element — because what ultimately mattered in any Mel Brooks movie was the laughs.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Remembering The Final Days



I guess my brother and I really turned out differently.

We had the same parents, of course, and we grew up in the same house — but my brother probably has always preferred to build a motorcycle from spare parts while I have always leaned more toward reading and writing.

Like most siblings, we had different interests. Nothing wrong with that. The thing we had in common, the thing we both got from our parents, was an appreciation for creative expression. We expressed our creativity in different ways, that's all. Still do.

There are probably several reasons why that is true, and I'm sure it would make for a fascinating — and, in all likelihood, lengthy — essay, but I only mention it to make the point that I did a lot of reading when I was growing up.

My parents were both teachers, and they believed in reading. They encouraged me to do as much of it as I could so it wasn't unusual for me to read book after book after book during my summer vacations.

It also wasn't unusual for me to read books that were supposedly over my head — or, at least, "beyond my years," as my grandmother often said.

(My grandmother contributed to that, incidentally. She often gave me books that would have been incomprehensible to many of my peers — but I read most of them from cover to cover and got a lot from them.)

My grandmother probably was right — to a certain extent. I did read a lot of things that I really didn't completely understand at the time — but I have re–read them since then, and they made a lot more sense the second time around.

In the summer of 1976, I read a lot of books that probably should have been hard for me to comprehend, starting with Woodward and Bernstein's recently published sequel to "All the President's Men" — which kind of left readers hanging. At the end of that book, President Nixon was telling the nation in early 1974 that "I have no intention ... of walking away from the job the American people elected me to do."

And, at the time, it was hard to see — on the surface and to the untrained eye — how Nixon, who had been tripped up by several untruths in 1973, could possibly be removed from office without a so–called "smoking gun." All that anyone seemed to have against him were the words of one other person and what would be considered circumstantial evidence.

Yet, when Woodward and Bernstein resumed the story in "The Final Days," the emphasis from the start was on the behind–the–scenes efforts to persuade the president and his loyalists that he had to resign — efforts that led to Nixon's resignation in August 1974.

Like everyone else in America, I had been following the Watergate scandal, even when the topics were beyond my years.

And there had been times (i.e., when the so–called Senate Watergate Committee was questioning witnesses) when the topics clearly fell in that category.

There were also times — when the House Judiciary Committee was considering articles of impeachment against Nixon — when it was hard for me to keep up.

Part of that may have been an overabundance of characters in the story. I knew the names of the major players, of course, but sometimes I got lost in the maze of deputies and aides and lawyers who made up the vast supporting cast.

I came to the conclusion rather early in that process that many of those underlings were like the German soldiers from World War II — the ones who protested after the war ended that they had merely been "following orders" when they executed people in the concentration camps.

Even so, I followed things pretty well — if I do say so myself — and I still understand aspects of the Watergate scandal that people who lived through it never have understood.

I've got to admit, though — I enjoyed reading the inside stuff in "The Final Days" that nobody heard about at the time — how Nixon and Henry Kissinger got on their knees and prayed together in the Oval Office or how an inebriated Nixon wandered the halls of the White House, carrying on conversations with the portraits on the walls.

Those excerpts had been frequently published in the weeks before I finally got a copy of "The Final Days," and I was eager to read them for myself.

(I will never forget a wickedly funny Saturday Night Live parody of the book in which Nixon asked a portrait of Lincoln, "Why are they doing this to me, Abe?" and the portrait replied, "Because you're such a dip, Dick.")

I don't remember how I acquired my hardback copy of "The Final Days" — somebody must have given it to me because I hadn't started working in the summers yet and, even when I did, it probably would have taken me a day or two to earn enough take–home pay to purchase it on my own.

But I've still got that copy. The once–white cover has yellowed with age, and the dust on it betrays how long it has been since I read it, but it means a lot to me.

It took on even more value for me when, while I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, co–author Carl Bernstein came to campus. I went to hear him — with my copy of "The Final Days" in hand — and I got Bernstein to sign it after his lecture.

(I'm not usually an autograph hound — but I make an exception whenever I have an opportunity to meet a world–class journalist.)

Ultimately, I felt the Watergate story was a story of the triumph of the American system over an individual's paranoia and unquenchable thirst for power.

"The Final Days" completed the story that was started in "All the President's Men."

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Finding the Secret of Life



"Lord, we give you Curly. Try not to piss him off."

Cookie
At Curly's impromptu memorial service

I didn't see "City Slickers" at the movie theater after it premiered on this date in 1991.

I saw it later that year — on Christmas Day. My brother gave me a copy of the video tape, and I watched it with my parents on Christmas evening.

My folks had seen the movie at the theater, and they kept telling me the best lines before the characters on the screen did.

In hindsight, I couldn't blame them. There really were some great lines in that movie.

Would the experience have been better or worse if I had seen the movie at a theater first? I don't know.

(I do know that I noticed some similarities between the plots of "City Slickers" and 1972's "The Cowboys." Granted, the former was a comedy and the latter was a drama — but both dealt with a group of green cowboys who persisted with their cattle drive in spite of various obstacles after their leader died.

(And, yes, there were some similarities between Jack Palance and John Wayne, but that really is a topic for another time.)

In some ways, I guess, it would have been better. For one thing, I'm reasonably sure that, if I had seen it at the theater, no one would have been handing me punch lines before the setup lines had been spoken.

And there were some really nice shots of the southwestern United States that would have benefited from being seen on the silver screen.

But I remember that Christmas evening with great fondness — just me with my parents.

In a way, I guess, it was kind of a movie viewer's version of a so–called speed date in which a roomful of men and women have a limited time to converse before they are told to switch partners (sort of like the "musical chairs" of dating, I guess).

That Christmas, the three of us were laughing at jokes that hadn't been completely told on the screen. It was a bit of a time saver.

That was kind of what it was like to watch a movie with my parents that they had already seen — and, by 1991, they had reached a point in their lives where they went to see a lot of movies. They appreciated good lines, and they seldom passed an opportunity to recite one, preferably (but not always) within context.

(Actually, that is what it was like to watch a movie with my parents that they had seen recently. If it was a movie they had seen several years earlier and were watching for the first time in awhile, they would often listen to the joke all the way through to sort of refresh their memories — and then they would repeat the gag over and over after the movie ended.)

(I guess it goes without saying that it usually helped if any companions had seen the movie before, too.

(My mother, as I have written before, was a great fan of Peter Sellers and the "Pink Panther" movies, so much so that she would often recite, in her best Inspector Clouseau impression, her favorite lines — right in the middle of seemingly unrelated conversations. That could be baffling, to say the least, for anyone who was unfamiliar with those movies.

(Mom, it should be noted, was selective about those with whom she did this.)

Anyway, "City Slickers" starred Billy Crystal and Palance (along with some lesser–known, at least at the time, actors) on a modern–day cattle drive.

Crystal happened to be on this cattle drive because he and two of his closest friends were experiencing midlife crises, and they all went on a two–week getaway vacation.

And it was truly a revelation for all.

During the vacation, everyone learned something about himself.

When the movie was over, I was sure they had all found that one thing that Curly said was the secret of life ...

... that one thing that is different for everyone.

That was the moral of the story. Each person has to find the thing that makes him/her happy.

Some folks never find out what that is.

But the characters in "City Slickers" did.

At least, I think they did.

There was a sequel, after all.

Monday, June 06, 2011

'Ackroyd' Was One of Christie's Best

It was 85 years ago this month that Agatha Christie published the book that made her famous — "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."

It wasn't her first murder mystery — although it was one of her first books. It wasn't the debut of her most famous (and, arguably, most popular as well) character, Hercule Poirot. Yet, even to this day, it is regarded by many as her masterpiece. In July 1999, Le Monde ranked it #49 on its list of the Top 100 books of the 20th century.

It was somewhat controversial when it was published, too, because it featured an unexpected twist at the end. In an example of what is known as the "unreliable narrator," the narrator of the story (and assistant to Poirot in this book) turned out to be the murderer.

Now, unreliable narrators are nothing new. Probably the earliest example I can recall is the Wife of Bath's tale in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," which was written in the 14th century, and there have been others.

But they were not terribly common in 1926. Prior to that time, most detective fiction provided all the clues that were necessary for the reader to come to the correct conclusion about who done it.

That was considered the standard for detective fiction.

Murder mysteries have long been known for the "red herrings" that authors use to distract readers from more important, more relevant information. In a sense, I suppose an unreliable narrator is sort of a red herring — but not really.

Unreliable narrators are deceptive because they deliberately leave out details that make them look suspicious; thus, readers are misled by omission. A red herring is something that usually is factually accurate — it is just misinterpreted. The deception is the result of the readers' logic and assumptions.

Unreliable narrators really only work if they remain credible until their deception is revealed at the end. And, in that regard, country doctor James Sheppard serves the purpose admirably.

Some critics at the time thought it was not fair to deceive the readers — although "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and countless crime novels since have demonstrated how effective the device is.

The story opened with a murder — literally.

Its very first sentence was "Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th–17th September — a Thursday." Mrs. Ferrars was a well–to–do widow whose death was attributed to a drug overdose in an apparent suicide.

Although the book is 85 years old — and occasionally uses language that is unfamiliar to 21st century ears — it is a very reader–friendly book. One can easily read it in a single afternoon.

The book also displayed some humorous — if understated — writing.

Early on, for example, the narrator describes his conversation about the crime scene with his sister — who has her fingers on the pulse of everything that happens in their village.

The narrator discusses how his sister had already heard most of the details from other sources, but she didn't know everything.

She didn't know the cause of death, and she asked him about it.
"Didn't the milkman tell you that?" I inquired sarcastically.

But sarcasm is wasted on Caroline. She takes it seriously and answers accordingly. "He didn't know," she explained.


Agatha Christie
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" (1926)

To the readers of the time — and, I presume, it is the same for any first–time readers who may pick it up today — "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" had the appearance of a conventional murder mystery.

It was set in a sleepy English village, a place "rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers," and it had a rather typical assortment of potential suspects for a murder mystery. In that regard, the story must have seemed almost formulaic to readers in the 1920s.

But, since "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" was only her sixth book, Christie's readers could not have known that she was always looking for new ways to trick her readers — or suspected that she might be about to pull the best trick of her still–young career.

Christie did a brilliant job of presenting each character, through the eyes of the seemingly reliable narrator — and, even if the narrator had not proven to be unreliable in the end, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" probably would be remembered as one of Christie's best works.

The fact that the narrator turned out to be guilty was legitimate, said fellow mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, who came to Christie's defense and scolded her critics — "[F]ooled you!" she said. "[I]t is the reader's business to suspect everybody."

That is what I find particularly delightful about reading that book today — assumptions were encouraged because it was normal then, as it is now, to make them, and it is intriguing to see how even the slightest manipulation of language can promote a radically different conclusion.

From the perspective of a writer, I appreciate the way Christie carefully selected certain phrases that were intended to deceive even though they were never absolutely false.

Was Christie's tale fair, as Sayers said? Read it for yourself.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Obsolete Man



Chancellor: You're a librarian, Mr. Wordsworth. A dealer in books and two cent fines and pamphlets and closed stacks and the musty insides of a language factory that spews out meaningless words on an assembly line. Words, Mr. Wordsworth, that have no substance and no dimension like air, like the wind, like a vacuum that you make believe has an existence by scribbling index numbers on little cards!

Wordsworth: I don't care. I tell you, I don't care. I am a human being! And if I speak one thought aloud, that thought lives on long after I'm shoveled into my grave.

Twilight Zone
June 2, 1961

Burgess Meredith may have been featured in more episodes of the original Twilight Zone series than any other actor.

Well, more than any other big–name actor, I guess.

There may have been — indeed, probably were — performers who appeared in more episodes than Meredith did.

But I don't think any other star was seen in more episodes.

Most of Meredith's career was in movies, but he was featured in four episodes of Twilight Zone. When his name is mentioned in connection with the series, people usually mention "Time Enough At Last," the episode in which Meredith played a timid, book–loving bank teller who survived a nuclear attack because he retreated to the vault to read during his lunch hour.

That is a good episode, but, to be honest, the one that always comes to my mind first when I think of Meredith's contributions to the series is the one that made its debut 50 years ago tonight — "The Obsolete Man."

(And my guess is that, in the current economy, a lot of people are feeling like obsolete men ... and women. But that's another story.)

It was an apt title because, in the futuristic setting, a person's relevance was determined by his/her occupation. (And that, too, can be seen as a metaphor — for just about all times and all places on this planet.)

Meredith played a librarian, but there was no use for librarians in that society because books had been outlawed by the state. There were no similar tasks for a librarian to perform; consequently, Meredith's character was obsolete.

According to law, because he had been declared obsolete, Meredith had to be terminated. He had no choice in that, but he did have some choices — such as the method for his execution and when and where it would take place.

He also had the option of allowing his execution to be televised. He requested that, and his request was granted.

He also asked that the man who presided over his prosecution (played by Fritz Weaver) be there, and that request was also granted.

The chancellor arrived less than an hour before the execution. Meredith's character locked the door and then told the chancellor that the method he had chosen was to be blown up by a bomb that had been placed in his apartment. At the stroke of midnight, the bomb would go off and everyone in the apartment would be killed.

Meredith's character then began to read aloud from his edition of the Bible. Possession of the Bible was a crime punishable by death because the state had "proven" that there was no god. Meredith said that made his Bible quite valuable to him.

He calmly proceeded to read biblical passages while the chancellor became more and more agitated, finally pleading with Meredith to let him go "in the name of God."

That was a request that Meredith was willing to grant, and he flung open the door, allowing the chancellor to escape mere seconds before the bomb went off.

But he had exposed himself through his behavior, and the next thing the audience saw was the chancellor being escorted to the same courtroom in which Meredith had been declared obsolete, where he was accused of being obsolete as well because he had shown cowardice.

"The chancellor ... was only partly correct," said series host Rod Serling at the end of the episode. "He was obsolete, but so is the state, the entity he worshiped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete."

(By the way, you can see this episode at 5 p.m. Central on July 4 on the Syfy Channel's Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon.)