Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still

I'm not a devotee of science fiction, in either print or film.

There are certain offshoots of the genre that I do find appealing, but they are more mainstream, I suppose, combining elements of drama or comedy or whatever — and I've never been like one of those guys I knew in high school who had bookshelves filled with obscure science fiction titles and spoke to each other in Klingon.

I don't know why science fiction never really appealed to me. I've always liked good fiction. Maybe it was the science part that turned me off. (Science was never my strong subject in school.)

Science fiction, though, has often meant space exploration in my experience, and I was a child during the most intense years of the space race so you might think, therefore, that I would have more than a passing interest in it. And, to be honest, there are some films that are designated as science fiction movies that I appreciate and always enjoy watching.

One of those movies is "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which made its debut on this date 60 years ago.

In 1951, science fiction as a movie art form was still in its nascent phase. Prior to that time, the science fiction that most audiences saw in the theaters was in the form of the serials of the time or horror movies.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" was one of the earliest movies to introduce space travel and alien beings — and special effects — to the big screen and helped to usher in what was arguably the golden age of science fiction movies. "Forbidden Planet," which came along a few years later, is often mentioned by film historians as the movie that launched the science fiction genre, but I believe, as I wrote in the spring, that it more accurately marks the maturation of it.

While "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is rightly remembered as a science fiction movie, it was really a drama in the finest tradition of that genre — and just happened to use space travel as its backdrop. It was intended, as I understand it, as something of a metaphor for the Cold War and how it was changing the way people thought about themselves and each other.

There were messianic themes evoked by the resurrection of the visitor from space (similar themes, I might add, were part of the "Star Wars" trilogies). There were the elements of fear, hatred and suspicion that became common during the four–decade Cold War, which was still a new development in 1951.

Academy Award–winning composer Bernard Herrmann wrote a haunting score for the film.

I won't dwell too much on the story because, if you have never seen it, you should. It is worth seeing, even after 60 years.

Patricia Neal is probably the best–known star in the cast — although Andy Griffith Show fans will recognize Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) in a supporting role, and folks who are fond of movie trivia may be intrigued to know that Spencer Tracy and Claude Rains were each considered for the role of Klaatu, the visitor from space.

Eventually, Klaatu was payed by Michael Rennie, an English actor.

And, then, there was Gort, the tall robot, who was played by a fellow named Lock Martin. What's that, you say? You never heard of Lock Martin?

No reason why you should have, actually. The 7½–foot Martin worked as doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theatre when he was chosen to play the robot. That was when it was still said that movie stars could be "discovered" sitting on drug–store stools and in other unlikely places.

When you're 7½ feet tall, though, it's hard to imagine how you could be overlooked.

Anyway, Martin had something of a modest acting career in the years after he played Gort. He was known as "The Gentle Giant" because (1) he apparently did not possess the physical strength to match his imposing height, and (2) he liked reading stories to children (which, apparently, he did professionally for awhile on a TV show in Los Angeles).

Of course, there was the iconic phrase — "Klaatu barada nikto" — that Rennie's character told Neal to utter to the robot if anything happened to him, which she did — and, in the process, supposedly prevented him from destroying the earth in retaliation.

No one ever translated it from the fictitious space language from which it sprang so no one really knows what it meant.

What do you think it meant?

Monty Python's Movie Debut Was Different

In the 1970s and 1980s, Monty Python, a British sketch comedy group, made several entertaining and successful movies that were based on unifying themes, such as ...
  • 1975's "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which told the story of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table from Monty Python's unique perspective;

  • 1979's "The Life of Brian," which gave the Python comedic treatment to the New Testament; and

  • 1983's "The Meaning of Life," which was a series of sketches that illustrated the various stages in a person's life.
But the very first Python movie was released 40 years ago today, and it had no such unifying theme.

"And Now For Something Completely Different" was a collection of the group's best sketches from its first seasons on British TV. For many Americans, I'm sure it was their first exposure to the zany, frequently irreverent comedy of Monty Python.

I knew little about Monty Python in those days. The show was picked up by the public broadcasting station in Dallas, and I watched it whenever we visited my grandmother here. But in Arkansas, where I spent most of my formative years, it wasn't being shown at the time.

My grandmother never really cared for Monty Python. I don't think she understood the humor. So Monty Python was sort of a guilty pleasure for me.

The humor certainly was different.

A priceless example was the "dead parrot" sketch, one of the most famous of Python's sketches, in which customer John Cleese tries to get a refund for a dead parrot from store owner Michael Palin.

Likewise, my grandmother didn't get the humor in the "marriage counselor" sketch. It probably was a little risque for TV in those days, maybe even for movies.

I mean, a sketch in which a marriage guidance counselor has sex with the wife of one of his clients right under the client's nose does push the envelope a bit.

So, too, for that matter, did the "lumberjack song" — which really defies description.

You've gotta see it for yourself.

As I say, much of the material probably was new for many Americans. But my understanding is that there was little new for British audiences.

It was an opportunity to see the sketches in color — at a time when most Britons had only black–and–white TV sets. And that was something that really was completely different.

While some Britons felt compelled to complain that the title was misleading and didn't really offer anything new, the movie did well enough with British audiences that it turned a profit even before being taken overseas in 1972

Not bad for a collection of reruns.

When the Past Kicks the Door Down

"Whenever it wants, the past can come kicking the door down. And you never know where it's going to take you. All you can do is hope it's a place you want to go."

Bobby as an adult
Hearts in Atlantis

I'm a fan of Stephen King's writings, and, a few years ago, I read "Hearts in Atlantis," mostly during my lunch hours at work.

I would pack a lunch — usually a couple of sandwiches — and go out to my car and read my book for about an hour. It was good, but it wasn't a single novel, like many of the King books I have read. It was one of his collections — some short stories and novellas that were linked (modestly and, to a great extent, chronologically) via some recurring characters.

And it wasn't the best of King's works that I have read. If I had to recommend any of his books — even a collection of his short stories — to someone else, I would never choose "Hearts in Atlantis."

The general theme of the stories in the collection is summed up by Peter Fonda's line from "Easy Rider""We blew it" — which is how King (or, at least, the narrator) opens the first story — and apparently feels about the postwar generation (also known as the "baby boomers") and its perceived failure to live up to expectations.

In a sense, I guess, that was a good simile for the movie, which was released 10 years ago today. It's kind of a Reader's Digest condensed version, emphasizing one story but trying to link elements of the others in the process — usualy without much context. At least the stories in the book were linked in ways that the reader could see clearly.

It was hardly clear in the movie, which was told as something of a flashback, with a now–grown man returning to his childhood home for the funeral of one of his childhood friends.

The title was explained in the movie only through a somewhat contrived comment that must have been created specifically for the movie. It actually comes from the name of the second story in the published collection, which takes place on a college campus, but the only story that was told in the movie, really, was the first, which was titled "Low Men in Yellow Coats." In that story, a young boy befriends an older man who moves in a couple of floors above the boy and his mother.

The man and the boy spend a great deal of time discussing books, and the man eventually works out an arrangement to pay the boy to read the newspaper to him, supposedly because his vision is not as good as it once was. As the two develop a bond, the man confides in the boy that he is being stalked by "low men in yellow coats," and he man tells the boy of the signs that warn of their presence.

Well, I don't want to give away the rest of the story, but it is a Stephen King coming–of–age story, in the mold of "Stand By Me" with some elements of some of his novels — and kind of a supernatural twist.

(The way King frequently focuses on childhood has often made me wonder if there was something traumatic in King's own childhood that perhaps the rest of us should know about.

(Well, he does what he does so well that perhaps we should be grateful that we don't know all the details ...)

Anthony Hopkins was wonderful, as always, as the older man who comes to live above the boy and his mother. Sometimes I think Hopkins was born to play the older man roles, even though he has been appearing in movies since he was in his 20s.

At such times, I can't help but think the first 20 or 30 years of his career — as loaded with praise and award nominations as they were — were merely prologue for this phase.

And I thought 12–year–old Anton Yelchin did a good job as Bobby, the boy who finds himself torn between his mother and his friend, but I wasn't overly impressed with Hope Davis as the mother.

I rarely have been, I guess. I mean, I wasn't impressed with her supporting performance in "About Schmidt" as Jack Nicholson's daughter, and I guess that was her most noteworthy role after "Hearts in Atlantis." To be honest, I can't recall seeing her in anything, even though I know I have seen movies in which she appeared. Perhaps that will tell you how little of an impression she has left on me.

But, to be fair, Davis' character was not as developed in the movie as it was in King's original story, and that really isn't surprising. King was able to explore many of her fears, her motivations, her reactions to her experiences in ways that a movie never really could — especially if the director (Scott Hicks) showed no real interest in making the attempt, which, apparently, he did not.

That is odd, too, because screenwriter William Goldman was responsible for the adaptation of King's "Misery" in 1990 — and "Misery" was one of the better (although, like the rest, far from ideal) adaptations of King's work.

Davis' character was self–absorbed and bitter about her relationship with her late husband, for reasons that became less clear as the story unfolded. But, in spite of her seeming disinterest in her child, she did show her maternal instincts in both the book and, to a less obvious extent, the film when she fretted about whether Hopkins' character might be molestiing her son.

But King, as I recall, left some gaps in the readers' knowledge of the mother that might have been helpful in understanding why she jumped to the conclusions she did.

Her concern was unfounded, of course, and it appeared to be mostly based on her own experience of sexual harassment by her employer (an angle that was explored in more depth in the story than in the film), not on anything Hopkins' character had ever said or done in her presence. Although Hopkins' character was courteous when they met, Davis' character clearly did not like him from the start.

Maybe there was more to it than met the eye..

It's been several years since I read "Hearts in Atlantis," but it seems to me that Bobby's mother may have had issues with men in general that predated her relationship with her husband. Perhaps she had been abused as a child. Perhaps she had been raped even before her boss assaulted her. I could be wrong, but I don't think King ever got into that much detail.

I suppose you could debate whether it was wise to tell readers and viewers so little about what influenced Bobby's mother to make the decisions she did. But the story really wasn't about her. It was about Bobby, his childhood friends and his special older friend.

"I wouldn't have missed a single minute of it," Hopkins told Bobby when the low men finally caught up to him and took him away. "Not for the whole world."

I'm glad I didn't miss the book — or the movie.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The King and the Impersonator

As I wrote several times last spring, I thought the inaugural season of the reincarnation of Twilight Zone in 1985–86 was impressive.

I wasn't too keen on the season finale, but I felt the series had some momentum going for it as the second season approached, and I had high hopes when that season began 25 years ago tonight.

I was not disappointed.

The opening segment was one of those "what–if" tales from history that Twilight Zone — both the original series and the reincarnation — did so well — and far too infrequently, as far as I was concerned.

Nearly seven months earlier, Twilight Zone ran a great episode that speculated about how the Kennedy assassination might have been altered by a visitor from the future.

It reminded me of episodes from the original series that dealt with historical events like Lincoln's assassination, Custer's last stand and Hitler and the Holocaust.

And in "The Once and Future King," viewers were encouraged to fantasize about the prospect that maybe — just maybe — Elvis Presley wasn't who we thought he was.

In the story, an Elvis impersonator is driving at night when he encounters another person driving erratically. The impersonator swerves to avoid hitting the other car and flips his own car in the process. When he regains consciousness, it is daylight — but it is the 1950s, not the 1980s.

He hitches a ride with the driver of an old pickup truck, who turns out to be Elvis Presley (in one of the delightful lines from the story, the real Elvis tells the Elvis impersonator "you look all shook up") — and it turns out to be just before his recording session that changed the course of American pop music history.

But the Elvis impersonator was disappointed in the real Elvis, who was planning to record a rather mundane song instead of "That's All Right," which was the first single Presley released. And the real Elvis dismisses the impersonator's selections and the provocative dance moves he suggests as the devil's work and concludes that the impersonator must be the devil himself.

A fight breaks out, and the real Elvis is killed. The Elvis impersonator then decides he must take the place of the real Elvis and live his life for him.

Most likely, you wouldn't recognize anyone in the cast. Jeff Yagher played both Elvis and the Elvis impersonator. He's done some film and TV work, but nothing that most people probably would remember.

Lisa Jane Persky, who played his agent, might be marginally more recognizable. When you see her face, you might think that you have seen it before. And, if you were watching this episode when it first aired 25 years ago tonight, you probably would be right. She did co–star with Robert Duvall in 1979's "The Great Santini."

One cast member you might have recognized was Red West, who played Elvis' boss. He had a memorable performance as Red in "Road House," but that wasn't his most impressive credential for this particular project.

In high school, West was a friend of Elvis' and later worked for him, first as a driver and then as a bodyguard. He was fired by Elvis' father the year before Elvis died for saying Elvis needed help with his dependence on prescription drugs.

Shortly before Elvis died, West co–wrote the first book that discussed the singer's drug addiction. Elvis reportedly read it and was upset by it; some people asserted that the book played a role in his death.

At this stage, I'm sure, that can only be speculation. It is almost certainly the kind of thing that cannot be proven.

Nor, for that matter, can it be proven whether Elvis really was Elvis — or an impersonator from the future.

If you're old enough to remember the 1950s or the 1960s — or just the 1970s — was that Elvis you saw in the movies and on TV?

Are you sure?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Start of the Stones' Historic Tour

In recent years, it has come to be regarded as one of the most successful rock 'n' roll tours of all time.

But when Sheila (one of my college buddies) and I decided to attend one of the Rolling Stones' shows in the fall of 1981, we didn't know that, of course.

We knew that we were in school in Fayetteville, Ark., and the Stones would be performing in two shows — on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 — in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Sheila's sister was living in the Dallas area at the time. Sheila said we could get her sister to get the tickets for us, and we could stay at her sister's house before and after the concert.

(In hindsight, the shows in Kansas City in mid–December would have been closer, but neither of us knew anyone in Kansas City and the timing would have been awkward, right around the time of final exams.)

Halloween was on a Saturday so we figured we could drive to Dallas on Friday, see the show on Saturday and drive back to Fayetteville on Sunday without missing any class.

Thus, everything was covered. And so the decision had been made.

Looking back on it all, I can only shake my head at the sheer naivete — not to mention the monumental leap of faith — it took for us to not only undertake such a whirlwind trip but to believe (hell, to practically take for granted) that it would all go smoothly.

And, for the most part, it did.

It was a great show. ZZ Top was the warmup band, and I had always wanted to see ZZ Top, anyway, but, in my eyes, getting to see ZZ Top and the Stones on the same occasion would have made the tickets cheap at twice the price — even though I was a struggling student at the time.

And I got a great T–shirt out of it — which I wore with as much pride as an Olympian wearing a medal or a veteran wearing a Purple Heart — at least until it fell apart after numerous trips through the laundry.

There were a few setbacks. It rained on Halloween. It was kind of a sporadic rain, kinda heavy at times, but it was particularly intense during the Stones' portion of the show. The speakers started to make what I always described as snap–crackle–and–pop sounds during the Stones' encore.

That made the show I saw unique — even special — but I'll get back to that.

That 1981 tour began on this day in Philadelphia. The news had reached my friends and me in Arkansas in the weeks before that day that there had been millions of advance requests for tickets. Perhaps it was an omen of things to come.

That tour smashed attendance records in many places, including Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, which was demolished nearly 20 years ago. A little more than a month into it, the New York Times wrote that the tour was "expected to be the most profitable in the history of rock 'n' roll."

Well, the tour drew approximately 3 million people to 50 shows in 29 cities, and I heard that the Stones' profits from the tour, which was designed to promote the just–released "Tattoo You," exceeded $20 million so I can only conclude that the Times was right about that — at least in 1981.

(I don't keep up with these things the way I once did, but, surely, at least one tour has matched or bettered it in three decades — and perhaps the answer is so obvious that I should know it, but I don't. Maybe U2, with its astonishingly popular tours, has broken many of the records the Stones set in 1981. Perhaps Paul McCartney did. Possibly someone whose name does not occur to me at the moment.

(But, in 1981, the Stones were the undisputed champs.)

After 30 years, I can't tell you every song that was played or the order in which they were played on the day I saw the Stones. It was Halloween, and many of the concert goers came dressed in costumes. Some were quite elaborate — I remember a Darth Vader and a Grim Reaper in my immediate vicinity — and they grabbed my attention at times.

Certain songs stand out in my memory, such as "Under My Thumb," "Honky Tonk Women," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Street Fighting Man" and the Stones' latest hit, "Start Me Up."

The next year, I bought the album that was made from tracks recorded during the tour, but it included several songs that I couldn't remember then from the show I saw, much less today — such as "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Time Is On My Side."

There was one song on that album that I know wasn't played at the show I saw — "Satisfaction." I've heard that it was the grand finale of every other show on the tour, and, fittingly, it was the last track on the album.

But in Dallas on Halloween, it was raining so hard that the people in charge decided it was too dangerous to go on — and so the show was stopped before the Stones could play "Satisfaction."

That made the Halloween show unique on that tour.

There was no dramatic announcement. There was no apology for shortchanging the fans who had been standing in a rather cold Texas rain for hours. I don't remember the last song the Stones played that day, but I do remember that the Stones seemed a bit surprised to be told to wrap things up. Clearly, whatever song they had played was not intended to be the last one.

Besides, we hadn't heard "Satisfaction" yet.

That was still in the future on this day in 1981. The Stones' tour was under way — and, from what I heard at the time, it got off to a rousing start in Philly.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Reincarnation of Charlie's Angels

Thirty–five years ago tonight, the original Charlie's Angels began its first season on American television.

And tonight at 7 (Central), the reincarnation of that series will make its television debut. The timing of the premiere of this remake is hardly coincidental.

I won't be able to watch it — I teach a class at the community college on Tuesday and Thursday nights — but I will be interested in hearing what others have to say about it.

The original series, as I recall, was often ridiculed by critics for lacking substance. It was held out as an example of "Jiggle TV" because the "angels" usually wore skimpy or provocative clothes while carrying out their undercover investigations. (I have heard it said that creator Aaron Spelling wanted a bikini in every scene.)

That was what attracted viewers, critics complained — sex appeal, not clever stories or brilliant acting.

To be honest, I saw nothing wrong with that. I was a teenage boy when Charlie's Angels made its debut, and I watched it, as did my friends, for the same reason that teenage boys probably will today. We were curious about sex.

Savvy marketers know there is money to be made peddling fantasies. The angels of the '70s sure did inspire their share of fantasies (and, to be fair, so did girls in comedies like Three's Company), and the stars knew it.

"When the show was #3, I figured it was our acting," Farrah Fawcett said. "When it got to be #1, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra."

Of course, teenage boys in the 1970s had Farrah's iconic poster to inspire their fantasies when the show wasn't on. Today, I suppose, teenage boys will simply go to the internet to find pictures of their favorite 21st century angels. No doubt they will find many — legitimate and otherwise.

Well, that's what motivates teenage boys. I'm well past that stage in my life, and I'd like to hear the opinions of the veterans of the original series, but they've been disappearing in recent years.

Fawcett is gone now, of course. Her fellow angels, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith, are still around — as are Cheryl Ladd (who replaced Fawcett), Shelley Hack (who replaced Jackson) and Tanya Roberts (who replaced Hack) — but the men of the series, John Forsythe (who provided Charlie's disembodied voice) and David Doyle (who played Bosley, Charlie's middle man), are deceased.

So, while it will be possible (in theory, at least) to get feedback from some of the original stars, I suspect, though, that the series remake will be a back to the future kind of experience for TV viewers who remember the original.

Sarah Bull of The Daily Mail wrote back in May — after previewing the program — that its objective appears to be "to live up to the legacy of the original TV series and film remakes."

Interestingly, though, Bull mentioned by name the stars of the movie that was inspired by the series — but not the stars of the original TV series, without whom the movie and the remake that airs tonight would not be possible.

The movies were pretty successful. I presume the series will be, too. But will it be successful because, like the original, it appeals to Americans' obsession with sex? Will it be successful because the writing is terrific and the acting is great?

Or will it be successful because of a combination of the above?

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Neighborhood Concert for Half a Million People

On this day in 1981, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel reunited for a free concert in New York's Central Park.

My memory of that time is that there was considerable publicity surrounding the event. It had been at least 10 years since the two had performed together in public (with a few exceptions when they reunited briefly, as they did in 1975 when they recorded "My Little Town") and half a million people showed up on that mid–September Saturday to hear a couple of native New Yorkers in what Paul Simon called "a neighborhood concert."

I guess it goes without saying that expectations were quite high.

Sometime after that day, it was announced that a recording of the concert would be released in 1982. A friend of mine and I waited — not always patiently, I might add — for that record to come out, and, for awhile, one of us went to the local record stores every day and reported to the other that it still wasn't available.

"Not yet," the one who had checked the record stores would report. No further elaboration was needed.

I don't remember which of us got the album first, but whoever it was called the other with the joyful news. I do remember that it wasn't long at all before we both had a copy of it.

It was one of the few times in my life when I eagerly anticipated something — a book, a movie, a record — that did not ultimately disappoint. This album exceeded my expectations.

As I say, Simon and Garfunkel hadn't performed together in public in more than 10 years. I assume they did rehearse before the concert in Central Park, but, to the ears of someone who was raised on their music, they sounded as if the last time they played for an audience was just the night before.

They sounded that polished, that flawless to me.

They were comfortable playing the songs that made them one of the most beloved duos in history, and some songs — "Old Friends" springs to mind — were stunningly poignant.

Sometime in the spring of 1982, I saw a videotape of the concert on cable. I hadn't had the album all that long, but I had listened to it almost exclusively, and I could sing along with every song on it. I knew every sound, every vocal inflection, every spot that differed from the old studio recordings in any way.

I thought that the only difference was that I could see them singing the songs — I considered that a tremendous step forward, too.

But I was wrong. There was a significant difference. The album didn't include a song called "The Late Great Johnny Ace," a tune Simon wrote following the murder of John Lennon the year before but had never recorded.

The song didn't mention Lennon until near the end, but, when it did, a disturbed fan rushed the stage and was pulled away before he could reach Simon.

Lennon's murder was still an open wound for many people, and that song, sung as it was a short distance from where Lennon had been gunned down, may have been regarded as too controversial for the executives at Warner Brothers.

It was an open wound for me, too, but I still would have liked to have had that song on the album. I thought it was a great song, and a good example of something that has really always amazed me about Paul Simon. Almost without fail, every song he has written and recorded has been damn near perfect — in concept, in execution, in everything.

He always seems to convey precisely the mood he wants to convey.

And the familiar Simon and Garfunkel songs like "Mrs. Robinson," "Homeward Bound," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and so many others (I really wanted to hear songs like "I Am A Rock," but they probably would have had to play all night to cover everything I wanted to hear) sounded great — but so did the songs from Simon's solo career, like "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard" and "Kodachrome" and "Slip Slidin' Away" — all of which benefited from the addition of Garfunkel's tenor.

Particularly noteworthy was "Late in the Evening," which was part of Simon's soundtrack for the 1980 movie "One Trick Pony."

"Late in the Evening" was played about midway through the show — and then it was reprised as the finale. It's the only song that was played twice that night.

The concert wasn't entirely about their folk–rock hits from the 1960s. There were songs from both of their solo careers. Garfunkel's solo career was more modest than Simon's, but the concert did include "A Heart in New York" from the album Garfunkel released just before the concert in Central Park.

But nothing could compare, really, to their renditions of the songs that made them famous. It was what all those folks came to Central Park to hear.

They came to hear songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

So many people have sung that song over the years.

But nobody ever sang it as well as Art Garfunkel.

And perhaps he never sang it quite as well as he did on this evening 30 years ago.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Story of It

For some reason, my favorite authors tend to be rather wordy.

Most of my reading preferences were inherited from my parents, I suppose. From my father, I got my appreciation for the works of James Michener — and if you have ever picked up even one of his novels, you know that they were usually more than 1,000 pages long.

My mother leaned to somewhat shorter — although still lengthy by many people's standards — works by the likes of Mark Twain and Allen Drury.

Mom and I discovered the books by Stephen King at about the same time. For awhile, we would read King's books and exchange them when we had finished, getting double mileage from each paperback.

I forget which of us read which books first; I only know that we both read "The Shining," "The Stand" and "Carrie" — and others — over the course of the same summer. I still have those books on my bookshelf.

By 1986, I was living on my own, and I don't know if Mom ever read King's book that was published on this day that year, "It," but I did.

A friend of mine was a big fan of King's work and always got his books in hardback. I borrowed "It" from her a month or two after it came out. I enjoyed it, savored it, as I did every Stephen King book.

The book was typical Stephen King fare, I suppose, but with a unique plot — one that was probably a little better than most. It told the story of a group of seven friends who bonded as children to battle a malevolent creature known mostly as "It" who terrorized a small town in Maine.

It preyed mostly on children and seemed to go into hibernation for decades at a time, but, when not hibernating, It frequently appeared to people in the form of a seemingly benevolent clown named Pennywise. And Pennywise had razor–sharp teeth.

In spite of that, the seven faced down the creature and made a pledge to return to Maine if It was ever aroused again. They reunited as adults to intervene again when It awakened from its slumber so two stories were being told simultaneously.

Many people knew little about the book until four years later, when ABC aired a two–part adaptation that starred, among others, Tim Curry, John Ritter, Richard Thomas and Annette O'Toole. Curry, incidentally, played Pennywise.

I thought the adaptation was good, but it couldn't match the book, which was understandable for several reasons.

For one thing, you simply couldn't dramatize everything, even in a three–hour made–for–TV movie.

And that was for the same reason that most adaptations of King's works eventually fall short of his fans' expectations: so much of what takes place in a Stephen King novel is mental — often a person's perceptions of what might be real and what might not.

I learned long ago that Stephen King likes to play with your head — and it's probably for the best to allow him to do so because he's going to take you on an exciting ride, whether someone brings it to the screen or not.

And "It" was a pretty good ride, indeed.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Some Gentle Musing on a September Saturday

I was having dinner with my father last night.

I was eating fried chicken, and, somehow, my father and I began to talk about some of the peculiar things that people in other cultures eat.

Of course, "peculiar" means different things to different people in different parts of the world. In America, we think nothing of eating beef or chicken or pork, but other cultures favor foods we would consider a bit too exotic.

Actually, I was eating a fried chicken sandwich. My father and I were dining at an eatery that has always specialized in hamburgers, but, in recent years, it has branched out into more exotic fare — like ostrich burgers and elk burgers and wild boar burgers.

That's a little too exotic for my more traditionalist father, who had a hamburger with onion rings. That's what he always has when we eat there. He even told me before we ordered that "I always tell myself I'm going to get something different, but I end up ordering the same thing."

And he did.

Normally, I have a hamburger and fries when we eat there, but last night I changed it up a bit and had the chicken sandwich. As I was eating it, I overheard a conversation near our table. Apparently, someone was eating one of the exotic burgers and was trying to persuade his small child to try it. The child was resisting.

"Come on," the father urged.

The child protested that it sounded "yucky."

"It tastes just like chicken," his father said.

I've heard parents use that tactic many times in my life — the one in which they compare the flavor of an unfamiliar food to a familiar one. And I started thinking.

I attended a small liberal arts college in Arkansas during my freshman year, and there was a spring tradition at this college to hold a "goat roast" on private property out in the country.

Mostly, it was an excuse to have a big keg party (the school was situated in a dry county) with live music, but there was food — and, true to the name, an honest–to–God goat was roasted. You didn't have to eat any of it. There were other foods there, too.

The goat was carved up and served between two slices of bread to those who dared to try it — and, being young and stupid (and a bit tipsy on beer), I dared to try it.

I don't remember now if anyone compared the flavor of roasted goat to another food. For that matter, I don't remember if it had any flavor to speak of.

So I can't honestly say that I would tell anyone that it tastes like chicken — or anything else.

But I have wondered over the years if, in places where it is customary to eat the foods that we find exotic, parents try to persuade their children to try chicken because "it tastes just like dog (or rattlesnake or whatever)?"

Friday, September 09, 2011

Star Trek Turns 45

It has been 45 years since Star Trek made its debut on American television.

The series lasted only three seasons, but I've always felt that its cancellation in 1969 accelerated its elevation to the iconic status it has enjoyed for nearly half a century.

Star Trek aired its last episode only a short time before Americans walked on the moon for the first time — arguably the peak of public fascination with space exploration. But the fascination with the series' concept (which creator Gene Roddenberry once described as a " 'Wagon Train' to the stars") never seemed to wear off.

It spawned popular movies and new TV series with new characters, even after Roddenberry's death in 1991. By that time, it was known within the industry simply as "the franchise," a sure moneymaker and ratings grabber.

Since the mid–20th century, there have been many TV series that have been good, but relatively few have influenced the culture to the extent that Star Trek has.

Who, for example, has never spoken of "boldly go[ing] where no man has gone before?" But how many people know that line was taken from a White House booklet on space exploration that was written during the Eisenhower administration almost a decade before the show's inaugural episode aired on Sept. 8, 1966?

Or, for that matter, who has not urged a friend or relative to "live long and prosper" while flashing Spock's Vulcan hand signal?

And phrases like "Beam me up" became part of the popular language.

I was quite young when the show was on the air. In fact, my family had just acquired its first television, and, as small children are wont to do, I suppose, I gravitated to cartoons and sitcoms during those days.

I was really too young when Star Trek was on the air to appreciate its deeper meanings, but, since the original series was canceled, I have often wondered if, perhaps, the influence of Star Trek was as great as it was because it was so inclusive.

The 1960s are often remembered as a time of societal awakening to racial and sexual injustice, but it was rare when television truly mirrored society. If you go back and look at the series that were on the air at the time, there were relatively few that had episodes that addressed such sensitive topics, let alone had regular casts that were as diverse as the one on Star Trek.

In 2011, people are accustomed to the idea of seeing programs with predominantly black or Spanish–speaking casts or programs in which women are the lead characters, but in the mid–1960s, significant roles for performers who weren't white and male were few and far between.

They were so rare, in fact, that, when a show featured a lead character who wasn't white and/or male (i.e., Julia or I Spy) it drew attention not for the talents of the writers and the stars but for presenting the reality of an evolving and changing society.

In a way, I guess, the 45th birthday of Star Trek is really the 45th birthday of the arrival of more ethnically diverse entertainment in America. That seems to have been part of Roddenberry's vision. He told network executives that he wanted an adventure series set in space, but he told friends he was going to seek another level — one of providing some kind of a morality tale in every episode.

And, to a great extent, he succeeded.

He did so well, in fact, that he may have inspired not only an enormously successful line of movies and TV series but also, perhaps, the greatest number of parodies in entertainment history.

I've always suspected that the writers for Frasier were Star Trek fans. They often found ways to work in Star Trek references — including in the passion of supporting character and "Trekkie" Noel, who was fluent in Klingon even though it is a fictional language from a fictional civilization.

In a truly memorable episode of Frasier, Noel (who was revealed at the time to be both Jewish and fluent in Hebrew) agreed to help Frasier recite a blessing in Hebrew for his half–Jewish son's bar mitzvah but decided instead to make the translation in Klingon when he felt Frasier had failed to uphold his end of their deal.

Perhaps the best parody came in the early days of Saturday Night Live, when John Belushi played Capt. Kirk and Chevy Chase played Spock.

I suppose Star Trek's unique role in entertainment history made it an open target for parodies.

But it also made many things possible.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

'Birthday Girl' Suffered From Bad Timing

If a movie made its debut at the theaters 10 years ago today, such scheduling probably could be seen — in hindsight — as bad (but not intentionally so) timing, to say the least.

The promoters couldn't possibly have known about it ahead of time, but 10 years ago, of course, Muslim extremists hijacked and crashed four commercial airplanes, killing some 3,000 people in the process, and my memory is that Americans weren't doing much in the aftermath of that event — beyond going to work and coming home afterward.

At least, that would describe my daily routine for several months after the attacks.

I can't speak for everyone, obviously, but I know I wasn't going to see any movies in September 2001 — or in the following months — and my guess is that a lot of other people weren't going to the movies in the autumn of 2001, either.

That's just a gut feeling. But I remember that tourism in general was struggling (in fact, things got so bad that George W. Bush actually made a televised appeal for people to go back to amusement parks and other tourist attractions), and so were other forms of entertainment.

"Birthday Girl" may have gotten lost in the shuffle.

It hadn't started showing in theaters when the planes crashed into buildings in New York and Washington.

It did make its debut on this day in 2001 — but at the Venice Film Festival. It started showing in U.S. theaters in February, when much of the shock had worn off — but consumers were still somewhat wary.

The movie was made on a budget of about $13 million. To date, its revenue has been a little more than $16 million worldwide. That is comparable to the box–office performances I have seen from other films that were released around that time.

In early 2002, a lot of people still weren't comfortable in many public settings.

While it tried to be a crime thriller, "Birthday Girl" was also a love story and a comedy — which tells you most of what you need to know. I felt it tried to be too many things, that it needed to focus on doing one thing really well.

It was a modern twist on the old "mail order bride" theme — the man who was looking for love (Ben Chaplin) made the arrangements for his Russian bride on the internet. His bride (Nicole Kidman) was very beautiful, but she had a dark and mysterious side that led to some rather serious problems.

I guess that was the biggest problem for "Birthday Girl" — the fact that, at its core, it was a romantic comedy that leaned to dark comedy — and tried, too often, to be a thriller.

Consequently, it always struck me as being out of balance — too much comedy in the first half of the movie, too much of a thriller in the second half.

If the writers had settled on which kind of movie they wanted, it probably would have been much more effective.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Envisioning Video Games

When something new has swept the cultural landscape like a raging wildfire, it can be easy to forget its humble beginnings.

So it is with video games.

These days, video game consoles seem to be part of virtually every teen's electronic arsenal, along with a cell phone and a computer, but it was on this day 45 years ago that, while sitting at a bus stop, a man named Ralph Baer of Sanders Associates — a defense contractor in New Hampshire — authored a four–page document that established the principles for games that could be played on a television set.

In what seems to have foretold the enormous economic potential of video games, the first video game system, known as Magnavox Odyssey, was Sanders' most successful product, even though a significant portion of Sanders' staff treated video gaming with disdain.

It took six years before Odyssey was introduced on the market, beating Atari's Pong by three years, and public acceptance was modest initially.

But Baer, I suppose it could be said, has had the last laugh. Nearly 90, he has lived to see his inspiration become a billion–dollar industry.

Just something to think about the next time you're playing EA Sports Madden '12.