Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Transition to Color TV

Color television was introduced into the U.S. market only a few years after black–and–white TV in the 1950s, but it was more than a decade before sales of color sets really took off and color programming became more feasible.

I was a child, but I remember that transitional period in the mid– to late 1960s. My grandparents had given my family our first TV set. It was just a basic B&W portable set, nothing fancy, but I remember seeing the promotions prior to color programs that proudly proclaimed, "The following is brought to you in living color by ..."

As I say, I was just a child, and there were things I didn't understand. I was always disappointed when such shows would begin and they weren't in color on our set — not until my father bought our first color TV set several years later.

(Well, electronics remains something of a mystery to me.)

It was in 1966 that many established TV series started switching to color programming. One of those programs was Bewitched, which aired its first color episode on Sept. 15, 1966.

That first color episode would focus on whether Samantha's baby, who had been born in the previous season, had magical powers. But, as I say, the episode in which Tabitha was born aired in January 1966, midway through the show's second season. In reality, Tabitha would have been about 8 months old when that first color episode aired.

But, when the third season began, the show introduced the Tabitha character as a series regular — and, for the very first time, viewers saw the actresses who were chosen to play the role, twins Erin and Diane Murphy, who were actually 2 years old.

Erin Murphy wound up doing most of the work, but, if viewers noticed the age discrepancy between Tabitha's character and the child stars who played her, few, if any, seem to have pointed it out to the people who were in charge.

Perhaps it would have been unavoidable if any of the other child stars who were considered for the role — among them Jodie Foster and Helen Hunt — had been selected. Both Foster and Hunt were 3 — and Foster was nearly 4.

Their careers don't seem to have suffered from not landing that early role on Bewitched. Both went on to win Oscars in the 1990s.

In fact, one might wonder if perhaps Murphy's career was adversely affected by winning the role of Tabitha.

Well, anyway, as Bewitched prepared for a new season, the marketing emphasis was on whether Tabitha had inherited magical powers from her mother or was a mortal like her father — not the fact that the episodes would now be made in color.

The producers of the show managed to avoid any direct audience comparison between the actress playing Tabitha and her chronological age by not including an episode about her first birthday. As far as I can tell, no one questioned it.

Which was odd, I thought, for a household that seemed to be so intent on doing things the mortal way. There seemed to be so few mortal milestones in Tabitha's life as it was — but, again, few people seemed to notice.

Come to think of it, I don't think there was ever an episode about a birthday party for Tabitha, and one can imagine many scenarios that could occur simultaneously in such a setting — for example, Tabitha quarrels with a guest and turns him/her into something or Tabitha decides to do her own magic and upstage the magician who has been hired to entertain the kiddies. You get the idea.

(Actually, I think there might have been one episode that was about a birthday party for Tabitha — but the story was really about Uncle Arthur, who accidentally transformed a rabbit that had been a birthday present into a Playboy bunny.)

From time to time, Tabitha was the focus of an episode, but, most of the time, she was merely a prop for stories that featured one or both of her parents more prominently — or she was the bait to attract viewers while the real and lasting change went virtually overlooked.

In the great scheme of things, the shift from black–and–white broadcasting to color has had far more long–term ramifications than whether Tabitha could twitch her nose like her mother and make things happen.

But I guess the promoters of that time, like the promoters of this one, couldn't see the forest for the trees.

The transition to color TV did not happen overnight. It was a gradual thing.

But it has been so complete that it almost is not possible to find a black–and–white TV set anymore.

Technology has passed it by, just as it passed the LP and the electric typewriter — both of which were groundbreaking in their day but were overtaken by newer and better technologies.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Beatles' Last Dance

It probably goes without saying that 1966 was a hectic year for the Beatles.

There was a controversy that summer when a compilation album of Beatles songs that was prepared for the American market had a disturbing cover — with the Beatles dressed in butchers' smocks and surrounded by raw meat and dismembered dolls.

The album cover was quickly replaced by a new one that had all the same tracks but wasn't nearly as graphic.

Another controversy had been something of a ticking time bomb. John Lennon had given an interview in the spring in which he remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

The remark didn't make much of a stir in England, but it sparked a firestorm in the United States — literally. When the statement was published in a fan magazine called Datebook, religious groups held Beatles record burnings in protest.

The quote was published around the time the group released its "Revolver" album, which is still recognized as one of the greatest albums of all time, but, in those days, promoters were anxious about such negative publicity, and Lennon held a press conference to apologize for the comment.

The Beatles also encountered some controversy that summer in the Philippines. They didn't mean to do it, but they insulted first lady Imelda Marcos by not attending a breakfast reception, creating an incident that led to some rioting.

Understandably, I guess, by the time they got to San Francisco on this date, they were all burned out on the concert thing.

So the show they gave in Candlestick Park on this night 45 years ago was their last public appearance together — with the noteworthy exception, I suppose, of their rooftop concert in London that was forever captured in their farewell movie "Let It Be."

I guess you could distinguish between the two in many ways, but the most obvious would be that the Candlestick Park show was in front of a paying audience while the one on the roof of Apple Studios was free.

Liberated from the sense of obligation that compelled them to engage in promotional tours, the Beatles explored sounds and styles in the studio that they couldn't re–create in concert. But it resulted in their most groundbreaking recorded achievements — "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Abbey Road," "Magical Mystery Tour," "The White Album" and "Let It Be."

It seems likely that, if they had continued touring in 1967, 1968 and 1969, they might not have been as creative as they were. It is even possible they would not have remained together as long as they did.

Thus, the concert that took place 45 years ago tonight can be viewed as not so much an ending as a beginning, a transition — a bridge, if you will — to the final and most abundant phase of the cultural phenomenon that was Beatlemania.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

When Buffy Died

I don't remember hearing the news that Anissa Jones — the actress who played Buffy on Family Affair — had died of a drug overdose at the age of 18.

I just remember that, seemingly overnight, everyone in my school knew about it.

The school year had just begun. Normally, you could walk down the halls and overhear snippets of conversations about trips to the beach or the mountains, playing youth baseball or whatever, different topics, but, 35 years ago, everyone was talking about only one thing.

Everyone was shaken by it. Jones was a teenager, like me, like all my friends — older than we were, actually, more of an older sister chronologically but, because of her TV role, forever like a younger pigtailed sister in our minds. And she was like a friend to all of us, someone we had known since we were small.

But we knew only Buffy the TV character. We didn't know Anissa Jones.

Jones died on this date 35 years ago after a night of partying. Cocaine, PCP, Quaaludes and Seconal were found in her system. The coroner who examined her said it was the most severe overdose he had ever observed.

In those days, I guess, it was harder for people to differentiate between public persona and private life. It was a technologically primitive time — no internet, no cell phones, no cable/satellite TV — and lots of people just assumed that if someone was smiling and appeared happy on TV or in photos on the pages of newspapers and magazines, that person was happy.

The prevailing belief in those days was that stardom was a ticket to happiness.

But Jones, as we all found out, was desperately unhappy.

Her parents divorced when she was a child, then — after a lengthy legal battle — her father won custody of her and her brother, but he died soon after. She moved in with her mother, but their relationship was not good, and she wound up in juvenile hall, classified a runaway.

After she turned 18, she gained access to the money that had been saved during her years on Family Affair — including, I suppose, her earnings from promotional appearances and products that promoted the series, like dolls that were identical to the one Jones' TV character carried with her at all times.

For nearly six months, she and her brother lived in an apartment, and substance abuse, I have heard, was rampant.

That certainly was true on Aug. 28, 1976.

As I say, Jones was 18 when she died. If she was alive, she would be 53, and one can only wonder what she would have done with her life.

It's the question that is always asked about those who die young.

Sometimes I wish I had known — I wish we had all known — how unhappy she was. There probably wasn't anything anyone could have done, but I like to think that maybe someone would have tried.

After all, that's the kind of thing friends do for one another, isn't it?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Smells Like Teen Spirit

In the music industry, 1991 is remembered for a couple of reasons:
  • the popularity of contemporary Christian music, which was probably best embodied at the time in the recordings of Amy Grant and their crossover appeal to more mainstream audiences; and

  • the emergence of grunge as a popular offshoot of so–called "alternative" rock music.
Grunge had been around for awhile, but it really came into prominence in 1991.

And perhaps no other song exemplified that musical style better than the song that was first issued to radio stations on this date (it was released commercially as a single two weeks later and became Nirvana's biggest hit) — "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

TIME called it "an anthem for apathetic kids."

Rolling Stone ranked it ninth on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time — ahead of everything by the Beatles except "Hey Jude" and ahead of anything by Elvis.

The story is that the title was inspired by some graffiti that a female friend of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain spray painted on the wall of his apartment. The graffiti reportedly said, "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit," which was the name of a women's deodorant that Cobain's girlfriend wore. When the girl left him, Cobain used the line as his inspiration.

The song's success was completely unexpected — and a little contradictory to the anti–commercialism of grunge.

It was also more of a collaborative effort than anything else on the band's incredibly successful "Nevermind" album. Cobain presented the basic composition to the group, and then each one contributed at least one suggestion that was used in the final version.

Consequently, it was the only song on the album to list all three band members as authors.

The music video that Cobain and his band mates made was critically acclaimed as well.

In all fairness to Cobain, just how much success can one man stand?

Although the song was praised by the critics and brought Cobain and his band mates fame and fortune, they remained uncomfortable with it — to the extent of deliberately omitting it from concert playlists.

In what I suppose was a sign of the times, "Weird Al" Yankovic told Rolling Stone that Cobain "didn't realize he'd made it" until he heard Yankovic's parody of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

If that was so, Cobain must have been the only one who didn't know he had made it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Finding the Right Track

Nearly 15 years ago, Roger Ebert observed that "The Big Sleep," which premiered on this date in 1946, was "about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results."

Considering the movie's rather tortuous tale, that is an important distinction to keep in mind.

In the interest of entertainment, movies and TV shows usually spare audiences the more mundane details of a criminal investigation — and ordinary viewers probably would be amazed at just how many insignificant details there can be.

I never participated directly in such an investigation, but, when I was a newspaper reporter covering the police beat, I knew several of the city and county investigators and I know how many undramatic dead ends and red herrings they often had to pursue before they finally found themselves on the right track — if they ever did.

Investigators, after all, are human. They make mistakes, and they can find themselves on the wrong track very easily, especially when there is pressure on them to solve a high–profile case quickly.

I guess the process for investigating criminal activity — like the processes for making laws and sausages — isn't very glamorous. It is messy. It can get pretty ugly at times.

Anyway, I suppose the gauzy, almost dreamlike opening of "The Big Sleep," with the shadowy figures of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and the blurry–then focused–then blurry again title and names of the cast members, should have been an early indication of what audiences could expect.

Well, perhaps not. Little was clear in "The Big Sleep" even after one watched it all the way through. Besides, the same technique was used in "The Maltese Falcon" just five years earlier — and it was a hit. (Bogart himself said "The Maltese Falcon" was a masterpiece.)

"The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon" had a lot in common. They were both film noirs, and both were adaptations of novels by noted writers. A significant difference between the two, however, was that "The Maltese Falcon" was pretty straight forward in its resolution, and "The Big Sleep" was not.

I guess a certain amount of ambiguity was unavoidable. When the movie's screenwriters were making their adaptation for the screen, they ran into a number of problems — not the least of which was the fact that the writers could not tell if a character had been killed by someone else — or himself.

All that was really clear was that he was dead.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, the writers wired the author, Raymond Chandler, with their question, but he couldn't shed any light on it.

The screenwriters encountered other problems adapting the book in a way that would conform to the requirements of the Motion Picture Production Code — also known as the Hays Code — which was the set of guidelines that determined whether a film was acceptable.

Movie studios and all the people who worked for them were, understandably, eager to remain in the Hays Office's good graces — but sometimes that was easier said than done.

And there definitely were elements of Chandler's story that were problems for screenwriters.

Originally, the character of Carmen (played by Martha Vickers in the movie) was the killer, but then the character of her sister Vivian (Bacall) would have been an accessory to murder, which would have been contrary to the Code. Consequently, the story was rewritten for the screen to cast suspicion on another character, a small–time criminal played by John Ridgely.

In the process, the writers created considerable uncertainty about who the killer really was — uncertainty that persists to this day.

The book also presented some sexual issues with which the writers had to deal.
  • One character in the book sold pornography (which was affiliated in those days with organized crime) and was homosexual to boot.

    For the screen, the pornography part could only be mentioned indirectly. Sexual orientation wasn't mentioned at all.
  • In the original book, Carmen was nude in one character's home and in another character's bed. That wouldn't do, either. She had to remain completely clothed, and her promiscuity could only be mentioned indirectly as well.

    (A memorable line from early in the movie had Bogart telling Carmen's father that she "tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.")
The timing of the movie's release posed other problems. Filming was completed around the end of World War II, but the studios of the day, fearing that interest in war movies would start to wane, decided to strike while the iron was hot and dumped their films with war themes into the marketplace all at once, delaying the release of less time–sensitive movies like "The Big Sleep." Thus, "The Big Sleep" was not released until this day in 1946 — even though it was ready in 1945. Well, "ready" really isn't the right word, is it? I mean, with the additional time, the screenwriters might have thought of more plausible rewrites and scenes could have been re–shot, perhaps ridding the movie of much of its ambiguity. At the very least, there were issues of timeliness that made the movie seem dated even in 1946 — some of the wartime dialogue could have been changed (i.e., references to rationing), and some scenes could have been re–shot so the sets could be more contemporary (with photos of Harry Truman, who had been president for more than a year, instead of FDR on office desks and walls). But the extra time was not used that way, and the movie that was released in 1946 was the same one that was completed in 1945. Timeliness was not the priority for "The Big Sleep" in 1946 that it had been for all the war pictures that were in the theaters in 1945. The Bogart–Bacall relationship was promoted rather heavily after being more or less introduced to the public two years earlier in "To Have and Have Not." The two were married by the time "The Big Sleep" was released, and the studio eagerly embraced the public's apparent acceptance of the union. As you can see in the poster at the left, the Bogie–Bacall angle was emphasized in the movie's promotion 65 years ago. Little was said about the author of the original story. It was Chandler's first novel — and a pretty good one at that (in 2005, TIME named it one of the 100 best novels of all time). Bogart was a quarter–century older than Bacall (who is still alive), and, in some circles, Bogart was seen as more of a mentor and Bacall was seen as an eager young student than as traditional spouses. I don't know what the truth was about their relationship, but it lasted until Bogart's death in 1957, and they made two more movies together, "Dark Passage" and "Key Largo."
Clearly, it was a partnership that worked.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Roots of an American Family

"When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand, nor can your hand pick up anything."

Alex Haley
"Roots" (1976)

On this day in 1976, the publishing world was changed by the publication of a once–in–a–generation kind of book ...

Alex Haley's "Roots."

There had been other books that had come before that had been about the black experience in America. And there were certainly books that came along later that spoke of it in greater detail.

But "Roots" seemed to be unique. Never before (to my knowledge, at least) had a novel told the story of a young black man — captured in 18th–century Africa and sold into slavery in the North American colonies — and his descendants, both slave and free, and the generational struggle to find their way back to their point of origin.

As it turned out, the story wasn't unique. Someone had told it — or something remarkably similar — before Haley did. But I'll get back to that in a minute.

Ostensibly, it was the tale of Haley's own family, his attempt to put a little meat on the bare–bones stories that he said had been handed down in his family from one generation to the next. Initially, it was presented to the public as nonfiction, but, ultimately, Haley had to acknowledge that parts of the story were fiction — if not borrowed fiction.

Haley reportedly said, "Roots is not just a saga of my family. It is the symbolic saga of a people."

In that respect, I suppose, it was really a writer's story — and that is the kind of thing that the writer in me has never been able to resist.

I think, too, that one of the things about it that attracted me was the similarity — in concept if not in actual writing style — to the works of James Michener, a writer I greatly admired.

Michener wrote books that told the stories of places through the generations that lived there. He did it so well, in fact, that my father, who taught religion and philosophy on the college level when I was growing up, used a book Michener wrote on the Middle East ("The Source") as a textbook.

In "Roots," the locales changed — and so did the people, for that matter — but the roots that linked them to one another went back hundreds of years and extended for thousands of miles. Even when you read the more modern stories of his descendants, you were always aware of Kunta Kinte and the influence he continued to have through the oral legacy he handed down to his daughter and was kept alive by succeeding generations.

It is important to remember, after all, that "Roots" wasn't a literal history — even though it was initially promoted as nonfiction. That, at least, is what is on the old paperback copy on my bookshelf — and that edition was printed in 1977.

Haley said it was his family's oral history that inspired the book, and that was logical. Because of the circumstances behind the arrival of most black people in America, there is little documentation that can prove where they were born, when they left their homes or what became of them after that.

Slaves wouldn't have been treated as people. They would have been treated as cargo. If one got sick and died while the ship was crossing the Atlantic, the body would have been thrown overboard, but it is doubtful that much note would have been made of it in the ship's log.

Haley apparently learned all he could and filled in the gaps based largely on educated guesses. Given the circumstances, what else could be done?

I remember reading the book as a teenager, and I found it enthralling. I couldn't pinpoint the sections where Haley had made educated guesses or where he wrote of documented events and/or conversations. I found the reading experience to be smooth and logical, seamless.

But it may not have been as original as it seemed.

Haley (who would have turned 90 last week if he was still living) originally claimed that the inspiration for the book and his own research had been the stories he had been told as a child.

But genealogists challenged his research, and so did a man named Harold Courlander, who published a book in 1967 called "The African." It was the story of an African who was captured by slave traders and brought to America, where he tried to hold on to his African heritage as much as possible.

If you ever read "Roots," you will recognize the premise.

In 1978, Courlander filed suit against Haley, whose dizzyingly best–selling book, by that time, had been turned into an extremely successful TV miniseries as well. Courlander alleged that Haley could not have written "Roots" without the material that had been lifted from "The African."

The parties settled the case five weeks after it was brought to court. The settlement included a financial payment and a statement that read "Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book."

I have never read "The African." Perhaps, in the interest of fairness, I should. But I can say, from having read "Roots," that Haley's work was rich and rewarding — whether it was mostly fact or mostly fiction.

Whatever the truth may be, it was worth reading in 1976. It is still worth reading today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bogart's Breakthrough

When you think of Humphrey Bogart, which of his film roles comes to mind?

In 1999, the American Film Institute picked Bogart as the top male film star of all time. Along with such a designation, I assume, comes a wide variety of answers to the question I posed in the preceding paragraph. After all, he appeared in roughly 75 movies.

My father, for example, probably would tell you that he thinks of "The African Queen," and that would probably be true of many people. It was Bogart's only Oscar–winning performance. He was nominated three times, but that was his only victory.

Other folks think of his roles in "Casablanca," the iconic Best Picture winner from 1942, or "The Caine Mutiny," both of which earned him Oscar nominations but no statuettes.

My personal favorite has always been "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

Bogart made quite a few movies in the 1930s, but he didn't really become the star who would be recognized by AFI until 1941, when "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon" were released.

Both can be seen on Turner Classic Movies tomorrow, when TCM will devote its daylong salute (as part of its annual "Summer Under the Stars") to Bogart. You can see "High Sierra" at 1:45 p.m. (Central), and you can see "The Maltese Falcon" at 7 p.m. (Central).

"The Maltese Falcon," which was released on Oct. 3, 1941, is a film noir classic. I'm not a movie historian, but I have heard genuine film historians say it was the first film noir.

The American Film Institute ranks it 31st on its list of Top 100 movies of the last century. Movie critic Roger Ebert and Entertainment Weekly, among others, have ranked it high on their all–time lists as well.

Looking back over 70 years, it's hard to imagine how it could have missed.

It was based on Dashiell Hammett's third published novel. It starred Humphrey Bogart — and many other talented, although lesser known, people. John Huston was the director. In fact, it was Huston's directorial debut.

As I say, it was not Bogart's debut, but many moviegoers of the time certainly would have asked the question that was asked by the trailer for "The Maltese Falcon""Who is this man?" If they racked their brains, they might remember his face from the many B movies in which he appeared — but most probably couldn't attach a name to that face.

Nevertheless, Huston's inexperience appears to have played a decisive role in the casting of Bogart as Sam Spade. As I have heard it, producer Hal Wallis wanted George Raft, who was a more bankable star at the time, to play the lead, but Raft refused, choosing to work with a more experienced director (Raoul Walsh) — as well as more familiar co–stars (Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich) on a now mostly forgotten film called "Manpower" — it was mentioned in the movie "Bugsy."

Some of the supporting cast in "The Maltese Falcon" were unknown and making their film debuts — 61–year–old Sydney Greenstreet comes to mind. Others — i.e., Peter Lorre and Mary Astor — were veterans of the film industry but not very well known.

Anyway, Bogart was Huston's choice, and his performances in "The Maltese Falcon" and "High Sierra" are often said to have elevated his career to the superstar status he enjoyed in the last years of his life — and Raft's career decisions appear to have played decisive roles in both.

Raft reportedly turned down the part in "High Sierra," which was one of Walsh's projects, then supposedly took the part in "Manpower" to compensate for not taking the other one. Bogart wound up playing both roles — and went on to the legendary career that was recognized by AFI and others.

Almost prophetically, Bogart utters the line that AFI recognized as #14 on its list of the 100 all–time greatest lines in movie history — holding the statuette, a policeman remarks that it is heavy and asks Bogart, "What it is made of?"

"It's the stuff dreams are made of," Bogart says.

"The Maltese Falcon" was the stuff Bogart's dreams were made of, to be sure.

The two Bogart movies that were released 70 years ago changed everything, and, while "High Sierra" certainly did its part to make Bogie's name a household word, it was really "The Maltese Falcon" that transformed him from actor to star.

Tomorrow, you can see how the legend began.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Being Very Afraid

Twenty–five years ago, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis probably weren't very well known — at least, not as well known as they are now.

I had seen both of them in movies prior to that time but rarely in major roles.

Goldblum was one of those guys who had been around for years but, until very recently, most of his parts in movies had been brief. Davis, on the other hand, had only been in a handful of movies before she made "The Fly," but she had the good fortune to appear in 1982's "Tootsie" and to be featured somewhat prominently in 1985's "Fletch" and "Transylvania 6–5000."

I guess you could say that, for the most part, Davis made up in quality what she lacked in quantity. That doesn't mean Goldblum wasn't in some good movies. He just didn't have many high–profile roles.

As I understand it, it was partly because of Goldblum, who co–starred with her in "Transylvania 6–5000," that she landed the role in the remake of "The Fly" — which made its debut on this date in 1986, and, in truth, it was a remake mostly in name, but it was not exactly a complete "re–imagining" of the story like "Planet of the Apes" 15 years later — but I have no source for that.

Whatever the facts may be, both Goldblum and Davis went on to bigger and better projects in the years ahead. They even got married the next year, but they split up a few years after that.

They remain friends, though, and speak highly of each other's work.

They worked well together 25 years ago, well enough to be cast in another movie a couple of years later, "Earth Girls Are Easy."

"The Fly" was made nearly 30 years after the original, and the story was revised to make it more contemporary, but the basic idea was the same. A scientist, played by Goldblum, was experimenting with teleportation, the concept of breaking down the molecular structure of something to transport it from one location to another, where it would be re–assembled.

His work had been wildly successful with inanimate objects but dramatically unsuccessful with living creatures. Emboldened by an affair with a journalist (Davis), he decided to experiment on himself — and was successful — but, in the course of his experiments, his molecular structure merged with that of a fly.

The scientist began to become less human and more fly as the fly's genes overwhelmed his own, thus laying the foundation for some really messy special effects.

At one point, Goldblum (Seth Brundle in the movie) told Davis, "My teeth have begun to fall out. The medicine cabinet is now the Brundle Museum of Natural History."

Goldblum (who had had some noteworthy performances in "The Big Chill" and "The Right Stuff" a few years earlier) was praised for his portrayal of the scientist. Davis was praised, too, although not as extensively — and she did get to utter the line from the movie that achieved a certain iconic status, at least for awhile:
"Be afraid — be very afraid."

You can even see it in the attached movie trailer — trust me, though, it is more effective in the context of the story.

It is a great cautionary line that is sure to surface when Halloween is just around the bend — or whenever one wishes to focus on a dire fact or forecast.

There are lesser known but equally important words and lines in the movie.
  • "Brundlefly."

    That was the result of the merging of Goldblum's genes with the fly's.

  • "I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it," Goldblum says. "But now the dream is over ... and the insect is awake."

    Nice euphemistic language, don't you think?

  • When asked if he is a bodybuilder, Goldblum replies, "Yeah, I build bodies. I take them apart and put them back together again," a nice allusion to his teleportation experiments.
If you're looking for a chill for this Halloween, you could do worse than the remake of "The Fly."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

'The Others' Provided a Supernatural Thrill

"Sometimes the world of the dead gets mixed up with the world of the living."

Mrs. Mills
"The Others" (2001)

I have a lot of admiration for Nicole Kidman.

I believe she has given some brilliant performances — even if she hasn't always had great material with which to work.

That wasn't the problem with the film that premiered 10 years ago today — "The Others."

"The Others" was a top–notch ghost story, and I thought Kidman did a great job of portraying an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances but striving, nevertheless, to make everything seem as ordinary as possible.

That's a tall order when your children are so light–sensitive that they must be protected from sunlight at all times.

I suppose that should have been considerably more than a hint to Kidman's character that things weren't what they appeared to be — but if people behaved logically in ghost stories, there would be no ghost stories, would there?

Actually, I think 2001 was the year Kidman really emerged as a major actress, even though she had been around for quite awhile — and in some high–profile roles, too.

She had been showing up in movies for several years, but she really began to catch people's attention in her American debut in 1989's "Dead Calm," and she continued to get attention with roles opposite Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman and Michael Keaton. Then she seemed to break out as a star in her own right in 1995's "To Die For."

But then she vanished from the scene, re–emerging as Cruise's co–star in "Eyes Wide Shut." The next time folks heard from Kidman, she and Cruise were splitting up, and she embarked on the next phase of her career.

In 2001, Kidman returned to the silver screen with "Moulin Rouge!" (a musical), "The Others" (a ghost story) and "Birthday Girl" (a crime/love story), demonstrating her versatility.

She went on to co–star with Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore in "The Hours" and won an Oscar.

Her career has been sporadic in recent years, but I think she really became a major film star 10 years ago — and "The Others" had a lot to do with that. Now, she has reached a point where she can select her projects with more discrimination.

A lot of folks didn't really notice at the time, though. "The Others" had been in theaters only a month when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and, like just about everything else, it was overshadowed by that event.

I won't take time and space discussing the story in "The Others" because you might want to watch a good ghost story when Halloween rolls around in a couple of months.

But I will tell you it was set in the English countryside (aren't all really good, spooky ghost stories set in the English countryside — or something very similar?) around the end of World War II.

I've heard "The Others" compared — unfavorably — to "The Sixth Sense," which was released a couple of years earlier. The comparison isn't really fair. Both films deal with life and the existence of the afterlife, but I found more of a supernatural emphasis in "The Others" — and that meant a story that I found to be more thought–provoking. Not necessarily better, just more thought–provoking.

"The Sixth Sense," on the other hand, seemed to appeal more to the tastes of horror film fans — blood, gore, repugnant images, the stuff that makes you jump in your seat and gives you goose pimples and a definite chill down your back.

(Similarly, I guess, I always found the book upon which the movie "The Exorcist" was based to be better than the movie itself. The movie was obsessed with the flashy special effects of possession while the book delved more deeply into the subject of the rite of exorcism and religious issues.)

If you haven't seen "The Others" before, it has a real twist ending in store for you. You might — in fact, you probably will — need to watch it a second (or third) time to catch what you missed the first.

That is how it was with "The Sixth Sense" — and isn't it true of the best supernatural thrillers?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Silliness of 'Student Bodies'

In the early 1980s, you didn't have to look too far to find a movie that exploited young people's bodies — especially young female bodies.

Seemed like there was always at least one such movie available at the theaters — not to mention on cable TV or in the fledgling video tape industry.

It might be a comedy (i.e., "Porky's").

Or it might be a drama about "forbidden love" (i.e., "The Blue Lagoon").

Or it might be a thriller (like "Looker").

Sometimes all that was necessary was the mere hint that something might be revealed, even if nothing ever was (i.e., "Little Darlings").

God knows, the horror genre was always up for a little flesh peddling.

"Student Bodies" was a clear parody of several films, including two movies that were inspired by Stephen King stories, "Carrie" and "The Shining" — but I always felt it was indirectly influenced, as so many things in the horror genre have been, by 1960's "Psycho."

Well, anyway, "Student Bodies" made its debut on this day in 1981. Trust me when I tell you that it was eminently forgettable. I saw it once a long time ago, and I had forgotten that I saw it — until recently when I happened to come across it while channel surfing.

When I discovered that the 30th anniversary of its debut was approaching, I figured I had to mark the occasion in some way.

It was the kind of spoof that probably owed a lot to the humor of National Lampoon's publications and movies. It was also reminiscent of "Airplane!" — but it didn't really have the writers who could make it work. Oh, it had its moments, but it was a little heavy–handed at times.

The story was about a serial killer who was terrorizing the girls in a high school. He was known as "The Breather," and he liked to stalk his victims before killing them — announcing his presence with an exaggerated heavy breathing, thus giving the film crew a chance to linger over women in varying stages of dress.

He would become enraged if he encountered a couple having sexual intercourse, and he used a lot of creative murder weapons, like an eraser and a paper clip.

If anything was noteworthy about "Student Bodies," it was a character named Malvert the janitor, who was played by a double–jointed actor known only as "The Stick" at the time.

Malvert was a strange fellow who was often accompanied by an inflatable doll and almost never spoke. He was a real lightning rod for attention with his spastic body movement (he often resembled a puppet hanging from a clothesline in a strong wind). Such a creepy character was a natural suspect for anything like a series of strange killings, but, if you want to know if those suspicions were well founded, you'll have to watch the movie.

I've heard that "The Stick" was from a town about an hour's drive from here and that he died sometime in the 1990s. Lots of critics panned "Student Bodies" in 1981 — and with good reason — but many gave "The Stick" generally good reviews.

Most of the people who appeared in "Student Bodies" — including "The Stick" — rarely if ever showed up in another movie. What folks saw on their screens 30 years ago was unique in that regard.

But the story was just silly. That part was not unique.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Century of Lucy

"The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age."

Lucille Ball (1911–1989)

Historians have called the 20th century "the American century" because of all the world–changing developments that took place here.

I think it could easily be called the century of Lucy.

Lucille Ball would have been 100 years old today, and I have to believe she is just about as popular now as she was in her lifetime. Good comedy never goes out of style or becomes obsolete, and Lucy is still making 'em laugh.

You could say that Lucy was an expert on comedy. She led some comedy workshops and worked with some of the most talented performers of her time — and she observed once that comedy was something that could not be taught. You either had it or you didn't.

It goes without saying that she had it.

It also goes without saying, I suppose, that there were many changes during Lucy's lifetime, but here is something that might put it all into some kind of perspective. The world in which Lucy was born had automobiles but no electric traffic lights. The first one was installed the day before her third birthday.

It is tempting to believe that Lucy was always the beloved figure that she is now — but it wasn't always easy. She faced many challenges in her life. She lost her father before her fourth birthday. For a time, she was cared for by her stepfather's parents.

There were several Lucys, actually. There was the Lucy who began acting in movies and radio when she was in her 20s and blossomed into a star in her 30s. There was the Lucy who was probably TV's biggest star when she was in her 40s. Then, in her 50s, 60s and 70s, she divided her time between television and the movies.

Eventually, it added up to one of the longest careers in show business history — not too shabby for a girl who became America's most popular TV star playing a wannabe actress.

She was one of those women who always looked younger than she was — and appeared to do so effortlessly, although it must have been harder for her to achieve as she aged. Few people probably knew that she was in her 40s when I Love Lucy was the top–rated TV show in America.

She was almost 40 when she had her first child, Lucie, in 1951, about three months before the debut of I Love Lucy. Her second child, Desi Arnaz Jr., was born a year and a half later, after the show was a bona fide hit.

In fact, Lucy's pregnancy was written into the script, and the pre–recorded episode in which her character gave birth to a boy aired on the very day she gave birth to her real–life son.

There were many elements of Lucy's life that she worked into her show. Lucy's marriage to her co–star, Desi Arnaz Sr., for example, was a rich source of material for the Lucy–Ricky relationship on I Love Lucy — although, in reality, it was a sensitive subject. Not because of the mixed–race aspect but because Lucy was actually six years older than Desi.

In those days, marriages between older women and younger men were not socially acceptable.

(There was an age discrepancy in my own family — between my mother's parents — that my parents didn't discover until both of my grandparents were deceased. The difference between them was only a little more than a year, but all their lives they claimed to have been born in the same year, whittling the difference to only a couple of months, which was socially excusable.)

Until they were outed, Lucy and Desi split the difference and told people they were both born in 1914.

Although the age disparity wasn't nearly as significant in the Lucy–Desi relationship as it is in some modern ones, the concept of cougar is far more acceptable now than it was in 1951. And, as I say, they had to be "outed" at the time.

Later in her life, Lucy spoke of how she missed the old studio system and felt that she owed a lot to it — because she didn't think she had much talent. I disagree. Her comedic gifts, as I say, are still making people laugh nearly a quarter of a century after her death. That's staying power.

I'm always interested in which I Love Lucy episodes are fan favorites. I believe you can learn a lot about someone simply by finding out which I Love Lucy he/she thinks was the best. There are so many options.

I've heard folks name the one where Lucy kept trying to tell Ricky she was pregnant. Or the one where Lucy and Ethel got jobs in a candy factory. Of course, there were many episodes that featured cameo appearances by the entertainers of the day when the Ricardos and the Mertzes went to California.

I guess my personal favorite, as I mentioned here a few months ago, was "Vitameatavegamin," but there were so many great episodes in that series that, as soon as I think of one I really like, I'm sure to think of two or three more that I think are equal to the first one.

If you are a Lucy fan, you'll have some opportunities to see her comic brilliance this weekend. In honor of her centennial, a weekend–long marathon of I Love Lucy episodes will be shown on The Hallmark Channel. And there are bound to be more. Check your local listings.

Lucy is remembered as one of TV's early superstars; her movies are seldom mentioned in conversations about her career. However, if you'd rather see her movies on her birthday, Turner Classic Movies will be showing them as part of its annual "Summer Under the Stars" celebration — with today dedicated to Lucy on the big screen. And TCM has some good ones lined up. This morning, you can see Ball with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in "Without Love." This afternoon, you can see Lucy and Desi in "The Long, Long Trailer." Tonight, you can see Lucy with Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in "Stage Door."

And there are several others on today's schedule as well. You just really can't go wrong with Lucy.

Speaking of Lucy's movie career, I think it would be a mistake to think that all of Lucy's talents were in comedy. A few years after I Love Lucy went off the air, Frank Sinatra wanted her to appear with him in "The Manchurian Candidate," but director John Frankenheimer wanted Angela Lansbury.

The future star of Murder, She Wrote got the part, and she was rewarded for her work with an Oscar nomination. But it is intriguing to speculate what Lucy might have done with the role of the manipulative Mrs. Iselin.

She might have won.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Locked and Loaded

To me, it seems as if the Beatles have always been around.

I cannot recall a time when I did not know the words of their earliest hits — and let's be honest about this, the words from some of those early songs were pretty simple.

(I mean, come on — "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah ...?")

As far as I was concerned, the Beatles had always been part of the musical landscape. There had never been a time when they had not existed, and there would never be a time when they would not exist.

That was not the way it really was, of course. The Beatles were a phenomenon, forever a part of the fabric of the 1960s. The individual members went their separate ways in 1970 and enjoyed varying degrees of success on their own — but they never scaled the heights as individuals that they had mastered as a group.

Obviously, there was a time when the Beatles did not exist. But I'm still enough of a fan to say that I do believe they — or, at least, their music — will live forever.

Be that as it may ...

Forty–five years ago, it could be argued that the Beatles were more popular than anything or anyone else in recorded history.

In fact, it was.

In March 1966, John Lennon told The Evening Standard of London that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, kicking off a series of demonstrations and record burnings by irate religious groups in the American South.

A little more than five months later, Lennon held a press conference in Chicago to apologize for the remarks.
"I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have gotten away with it. I'm sorry I opened my mouth. I'm not anti–God, anti–Christ or anti–religion. I was not knocking it. ... I was not saying we are greater or better."

John Lennon
Aug. 11, 1966

A few days before that press conference, the Beatles released the album that is considered the third–greatest of all time by Rolling Stone"Revolver."

George Harrison, Rolling Stone observed, said that he saw little if any difference between "Revolver" and the album that came before, "Rubber Soul."

"[T]hey could be Volume 1 and Volume 2," he said.

And, in a way, I think he was right about that.

They were different records, of course. But they were both part of what I have come to regard as the Beatles' middle period. They had progressed past their breakthrough phase, when the emphasis was on catchy popular tunes, and were evolving into serious artists who sought to say something meaningful and lasting in their music and lyrics.

I guess I have always seen "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" as opposite sides of the same coin. Like its predecessors, "Rubber Soul" was heavy on the love songs, but there was more maturity in the lyrics. It was clearly influenced by what was called "folk rock" at the time.

The music of "Revolver" had a harder edge. Its themes were darker, but the lyrics showed the same sense of insight.

The Beatles had moved beyond "Please Please Me," but they had not yet reached "Sgt. Pepper" in their musical evolution.

They were betwixt and between, occupying a musical Middle Earth, with George Harrison having a greater influence on the music than ever.

For example, "Taxman," my favorite song to play each April 15, appeared on "Revolver" — but that was perhaps the most traditional of the songs on that album.

Most of the rest of it was experimental in one way or another — instrumentation, lyrics, subject matter in general. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote for AllMusic.com, "[a]ll the rules fell by the wayside."

Really, what else could one say about an album that contained songs like "She Said She Said" (rarely had popular music devotees been exposed to lyrics as dark as "She said/I know what it's like to be dead/I know what it is to be sad ...") or sounds like Indian sitars or general studio experimentation?

That would be normal for the Beatles in the years ahead, but it was a departure from anything they had done previously — even "Rubber Soul" was more acoustic than "Revolver," which introduced listeners to all kinds of unfamiliar, even unsettling, sounds.

In their pioneering way, the Beatles were leading popular music into the future.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Influence of Lenny Bruce

You may not have been born when comedian Lenny Bruce died on this day in 1966.

Consequently, you might not think that he has much relevance to the world of 2011.

But the world in which you live almost certainly would be a different place — perhaps very different — if he had not come along.

Bruce was a bridge, a transition from the comedy that had come before to a harder–edged, more sophisticated style of comedy.

Before Bruce, the gold standard in American standup was Jerry Lewis. After Bruce, a whole generation of new comedians burst upon the scene — George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lewis Black, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. and so many others, all of whom claim(ed) Bruce as a kind of spiritual father.

In fact, I have long believed that Lenny Bruce's influence was felt beyond the stage. In the years after Bruce's death, television programming began moving away from the silly and the slapstick, like The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie and Green Acres, to sitcoms that dared to tackle thornier topics.

Such a shift was also taking place in music and the movies — every form of artistic expression.

But many segments of American culture resisted.

That was the role Bruce played in the essential evolution of comedy. His routines addressed American society and politics frankly. He talked about race and religion and sex, things that no one had dared to talk about before.

I didn't hear any of his comedy routines until many years after his death, but I've always felt that Bruce was an advocate of the First Amendment more than he was anything else.

That doesn't take anything away from his talent as a comedian. But, if it hadn't been for Bruce, I believe freedom of speech would have a different meaning in America.

He used words (those awful four–letter words) on stage that would seem incredibly tame to young people today — but they were regarded as obscene in the 1960s. In fact, he was convicted on obscenity charges and obsessed about it for the rest of his life ...

... which ended, as I say, 45 years ago today.

His body was found in the bathroom of his California home; the official photo taken at the scene showed Bruce's body with drug paraphernalia nearby, but some have suggested it was planted there by people who were eager to smear Bruce in death.

The cause of his death was ruled to be an accidental overdose of morphine.

I don't know what the truth was — and I don't know whether it would matter if the truth could be revealed in 2011.

What I do know is that Bruce, who was 40 when he died, continued to wield an influence on the culture after death. He was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction in 2003. It was the first posthumous pardon in New York history.

And I also know that Bruce's loss was an appalling waste.

When I was in college, I saw Bob Fosse's biopic on Bruce, "Lenny," starring Dustin Hoffman, and I would encourage everyone to watch it at least once — to see Bruce's comic genius, brilliantly reproduced by Hoffman, but also to get a sense of the painful truth of Dick Schaap's final line in his eulogy in Playboy: "One last four–letter word for Lenny: Dead. At 40. That's obscene."


Monday, August 01, 2011

Like a Sad Song

"Sometimes I feel like a sad song
Like I'm all alone without you."

John Denver
"Like a Sad Song" (1976)

Today is the first day of August.

When I was a child, the arrival of August meant that the lazy days of summer were nearing their end, and it would be time to return to the classroom before long.

I'm back in the classroom these days, teaching journalism and writing at the local community college, but August has more significance than that for me now.

August is a bittersweet time for me, and the anniversaries come at me rapidly.

One year ago on Friday, my friend Phyllis died of pneumonia.

Twenty years ago on Sunday, another good friend of mine named Mike died after a brief battle with an especially aggressive form of cancer.

And this month would have been a milestone birthday for my mother, who died in 1995.

It is appropriate for me, I suppose, that this month is also the 35th anniversary of John Denver's release of his tune "Like a Sad Song."

I've written in this blog of my mother's fondness for Denver's music. I don't know how Phyllis or Mike felt about it.

Speaking of Mom, I don't specifically recall if she sang along with this recording — or if she even had it in her collection — the way she often did with other John Denver songs.

It wasn't really her style. It wasn't as cheery or upbeat as most of the folk music she tended to favor. In fact, it was really more like a blues piece — in my opinion. I don't think Mom had anything against the blues, but "Like a Sad Song" really was, as Denver says in the attached video, a saloon song — and that really wasn't Mom's thing.

But the song — one of the few Denver recordings to be ranked in the Top 10 on the adult contemporary charts in both the U.S. and Canada — seems right for thoughts of those three this month. I'm not completely sure why. The lyrics speak of supposedly young lovers sharing their lives — and that isn't what any of those relationships were about.

Still, the music is pretty. It kind of reminds me of a flute solo, which in turn reminds me of Phyllis. When she died last year, I wrote of her great talent as a musician, and I think it will always be one of my strongest memories of her. It is probably no coincidence that, when I think of really beautiful music, I think of the flute. That was Phyllis' instrument.

And the words are kind of haunting and wistful. With a slightly different spin, they could apply to all three relationships.

These days, my memories of those three dance lightly in my head, and they become intertwined at times. And "Like a Sad Song" plays in my mind like the soundtrack to those thoughts and memories.

A few years after Mom died, I picked up a CD collection of Denver's best songs. "Like a Sad Song" is on it — and, on occasion in recent weeks, I have listened to it. And I have thought about Mom, Phyllis and Mike.

I miss them all. Sometimes I do feel like a sad song.