Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ten Years Without George Harrison

Nearly a year ago, a friend of mine asked me to write something about George Harrison.

I knew we were coming up on the 10th anniversary of Harrison's death so I promised her that I would. And this is the fulfillment of that promise.

But I've really been fulfilling the promise incrementally over the year.

Since she made that request, I have written other pieces that mentioned Harrison — specifically, in connection with "Taxman" and when I wrote about his musical tribute to former Beatles bandmate John Lennon and when I wrote of the anniversaries of the benefit concerts for Bangladesh and the release of the Beatles album "Revolver."

All of that has reminded me how much modern music owes the "quiet Beatle." I haven't seen Martin Scorsese's HBO documentary about Harrison, but I have heard that it is an important step in giving him the recognition he never really seemed to get during his life.

If that is so, then I applaud it.

Because I have learned things about Harrison as I have worked on this article since making my promise — perhaps I re–learned some of them.

There were lots of things about Harrison that I already knew or thought I knew.

I knew Harrison was a seeker. He was easily the most spiritual of the four Beatles. And that has its place, I suppose. It may be the single quality that people mention most about Harrison.

There are worse ways to be remembered.

But I always felt there was more to him than that. Harrison possessed a sensitivity that Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr did not — at least not to the extent that Harrison did.

That sensitivity could be seen in the passion he had for humanitarian causes. That wasn't something he did because it was fashionable. He was involved in humanitarian issues all along, but he was more visible after the Beatles split up.

His role with the Beatles was always limited. He always existed in the overwhelming shadow of the Lennon–McCartney partnership, but that role, thankfully, expanded in the later years, and the world was allowed to see more of his talent in songs like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," "Something" and "Within You Without You."

Harrison's most significant contributions were musical, but that doesn't mean his musical talent and his spirituality were kept separate from each other; far from it. The two often converged — as when Harrison's acceptance of Indian Hinduism led to the introduction of sitar music to Western listeners.

"In his most obvious contribution to music as lead guitarist for the Beatles, George Harrison provided the band with a lyrical style of playing in which every note mattered," wrote Bruce Eder for AllMusic.com.

"Later on, as a songwriter with the Beatles and subsequently as a solo artist, Harrison used his celebrity and his musical sensibilities to try and raise the awareness of millions of listeners about issues much bigger than music."

That's probably what sticks out in my memory of George Harrison. His music always had an other–worldly aura to it. Sometimes it was subtle, other times it wasn't so subtle. But it was always about things that were bigger than the music alone.

Music was where Harrison found his sense of purpose. He perceived, as many do, that his true mission in life was to seek a higher power, and I feel that, ultimately, he believed he had reached it through his music.

But there was, as I say, the humanitarian side of Harrison that really got its chance to blossom when the Beatles broke up.

Do spirituality and sensitivity exist as separate entities? That is a different argument — and one in which I prefer not to engage on this occasion.

But I will say this: As much as I admired Lennon and as much respect as I have for what McCartney has done musically, Harrison truly distinguished himself post–Beatlemania — apart from writing and recording popular songs and beyond anything the other three did.

Harrison was, as John Donne wrote centuries ago, "involved in mankind."

He was really the first to organize a benefit concert featuring several big–name performers, a pioneer whose experiences still serve as useful guides for what to do and what not to do. His concerts for Bangladesh truly blazed a trail for others to follow.

I sensed a certain amount of peace in the last years of his life — peace that may have been missing when he was young and his pursuit of the spiritual world often seemed to be at odds with the people and things that surrounded him.

That pursuit didn't get any easier as he got older. In 1999, he was stabbed by an intruder in his home, an ironic turn of events, considering that, in the 19 years since Lennon's murder, Harrison may have been the most reclusive of the surviving Beatles, avoiding most public appearances and probably taking more security precautions than McCartney or Starr.

He had been diagnosed with throat cancer a couple of years earlier, but it seemed to have been successfully treated and nothing more was heard about that until 2001, when it was revealed, in successive months, that he had been treated for lung cancer and a brain tumor.

The final months of his life were hardly peaceful. There were reports that his death was near, even when it turned out not to be true.

And then there was the report that was true. In mid– to late November, it was reported that George Harrison was expected to die within days.

And so he did.

Maybe age — as it has long been rumored to do — brought him peace and wisdom even though he was only 58 when he died.

Both were well earned.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mass(achusetts) Hysteria

On this day in 1996, Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" made its second big–screen appearance since it premiered on the stage in 1953.

"The Crucible" was inspired by — but not necessarily a literal history of — the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 17th century.

I'm not a full–fledged historian — really more of an amateur one who minored in history in college and has always had an interest in the subject — but I think that is an important distinction to make.

Miller wrote it as an allegory of McCarthyism. If one recognizes that fact, it is easier to understand what is said and done in the play.

And, while those events do have something of a basis in fact, it is not, as I said before, a literal history. It is a dramatization.

Miller, who had already won a Pulitzer Prize for "Death of a Salesman," was fascinated by the witch trials and did extensive research in Salem, Mass. As nearly as I can tell, many of the characters in the play (and movie) were real — and I know there were witch trials in Salem in 1692, resulting in 29 convictions, 19 hangings, one case of a man being crushed under heavy stones when authorities tried to coerce him into entering a plea and at least five other deaths of people while they were in prison.

It's just that some of the details were inaccurate.

That is understandable, though, considering that few of the written records that have survived from the time offer much in the way of clues about the personalities of the people who were involved.

But that wouldn't have meant much to Miller, anyway. His play used the witch trials to inspire, not inform. He made no pretense that he was being historically accurate in his portrayals.

Characteristics of several real people were merged into one — a judge, a witness, a defendant — to be representative of the people and the attitudes of late 17th century America.

Even if the people were real, facts were altered to fit the needs of the story. The antagonist of the story, Abigail Williams (played by Winona Ryder in the movie), was a real person, one of the accusers — but in reality she was 11 years old. Miller made her 17 in the play so she could be the lover of the story's portagonist, a real farmer named John Proctor (played by Miller's son–in–law, Daniel Day–Lewis) — thus providing her with the motivation to accuse Proctor's wife (played by Joan Allen) of witchery, a crime that was punishable by execution.

There is no reason to believe that such a clandestine relationship ever existed. It was created to fit Miller's needs, and that made it necessary to play around with the characters' ages.

Williams, as I said, was 11 years old at the time, but her age was elevated to 17 to make the relationship seem more plausible, and Proctor was 60, but his character in the play and movie was about half that — again, to make the affair more palatable for mainstream audiences.

Other changes were modest, even understandable. In reality, the number of girls involved was far greater than it was in the play, but Miller wisely cut many of those minor characters. I suppose, if one wanted to pick nits, one could quibble over the exclusion of some and/or the inclusion of others.

In fairness to Miller, though, I must say that many of the other characters and circumstances appear to be legitimately represented. The dialogue is what one would expect from people of that time — i.e., the use of Goody as an abbreviated form of Goodwife, the customary colloquialism for a female spouse.

Miller wrote the adapted screenplay for the 1996 movie and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, the only one he ever received.

I could not help wondering, as I watched the 1996 version again recently, if Miller (who died in 2005) might have seen "The Crucible" as an allegory for the War on Terrorism and the use of waterboarding to coerce information from witnesses — and if he might have made adjustments to the story to make it appropriate for 21st century audiences.

For example, early in the 1996 movie, several girls — including Aibgail — gathered in the woods at night to perform a ritual with a slave named Tituba. The ritual involved a dead chicken, the drinking of its blood and dancing around a fire — and it was witnessed from a distance by the town's Puritan minister, Samuel Parris (played by Bruce Davison).

That event was only mentioned in conversations in the original play. Moviegoers in 1996 saw it acted out.

The minister was alarmed when two of the girls who participated in the ritual fell into unconsciousness and would not awaken. and he sought to find a cause. Fearful of being punished, Abigail pointed the finger at the slave, claiming that she had been working with the devil. Tituba denied the charge but eventually confessed to being a witch after a savage beating.

And that was the catalyst for everything else.

A slave woman named Tituba did live in Salem in those days, She was one of the first to be accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem and denied it initially — but she was coerced into confessing that she had had conversations with the devil.

In 17th–century Salem, that was like throwing a lit match on gasoline.

The extensive waterboarding by CIA operatives of Al–Qaeda suspects occurred in 2002 and 2003, which was before Miller's death, but it wasn't publicly revealed until after his death at the age of 89.

He was probably too old to have written an adaptation by then, anyway. But he might have collaborated with someone.

Who knows what that might have yielded?

Looking Into the Future

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Howard Beale (Peter Finch)
Network (1976)

I guess everyone knows that speech — if folks don't know it by heart, at least they know the catch phrase — "I'm as made as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

That speech by actor Peter Finch in the 1976 movie "Network" has achieved an iconic status in the annals of memorable movie lines — alongside Rhett Butler's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!" and Vito Corleone's "offer you can't refuse" and all the others that have become virtual cliches.

It isn't necessary to be old enough to remember when the movie was showing at the theaters for someone to be familiar with the line and the context in which it was said.

When Woody Allen quoted (or misquoted, actually) Humphrey Bogart in the title of a movie ("Play It Again, Sam"), it wasn't necessary to tell people that the line came from a movie that was made three decades earlier. Everyone already knew.

But there was really so much more to "Network" than Finch's rage — and some of it has taken years to emerge. Maybe you do need to be old enough to remember the movie to appreciate how much has changed.

When "Network" made its debut 35 years ago today, cable and internet may have existed, but they were technological toddlers. They are much larger, much more mature today, and those who have known no other probably cannot appreciate how prescient Paddy Chayefsky's story really was.

When I watch it today — and I have probably watched it a dozen times or more since I first saw it on the big screen — I marvel at all the things he anticipated. Maybe you need to be able to remember a world that had no cell phones or personal computers/laptops — no instant information or communication — to comprehend just how on target Chayefsky was.

His story anticipated things like reality TV — albeit in a much more extreme form than anything we have seen in real life — and "news" anchors whose personalities are more important than the news.

His script warned us just how shallow our role models would be in the years to come, how many would resort to exploitation to raise their ratings, how they would be driven by little more than those ratings (which are designed to measure the quantity of the audience and not the quality of the programming).

It was all tongue in cheek, I'm sure. Chayefsky wrote his story to entertain. I don't think for a second that he believed he was being prophetic.

It just turned out that — in many unexpected ways — he was.

Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade

"Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a Kaiser blade."

Sling Blade (1996)

There's a very understated — but, at the same time, very telling — moment during the 1996 movie "Sling Blade."

Well, actually, there are several such moments in that movie, which premiered 15 years ago today. But, first, let's briefly recap the plot.

When the story begins, Karl, a mildly retarded man played by Billy Bob Thornton (who also wrote the story), has been released from the mental hospital where he has been held since he killed his mother and her lover when he was 12 years old. The powers that be have determined that he is no longer a threat to himself or anyone else.

He returns to his childhood home, where he gets a job fixing small machinery, and he befriends a boy and his widowed mother.

The boy's mother has a boyfriend who generally abuses everyone but seems to have particular malevolence in store for those closest to him. One gets the impression that he has — shall we say? — intimacy issues. This leads to some ugly — and revealing — moments for all concerned.

Anyway ...

Following one especially brutal interlude, Karl, in his simple, almost Forrest Gump–like way, tried to ease the tension by telling her a joke he heard from the guys at the fix–it shop.

It was a simple joke, really, a joke that I laughed at in grade school, which meant it was just about on Karl's mental level, but he still didn't get it right when he tried to tell it.

Here's the way Karl heard it the first time, when his employer told it:
"There were these two ol' boys, and they hung their peckers off a bridge to piss. One ol' boy from California, the other from Arkansas. The ol' boy from California says, 'Boy, this water's cold,' and the ol' boy from Arkansas says, 'Yeah, and it's deep, too.' Get it? "

But Karl told it this way:
"There were these two fellers standin' on a bridge, a–goin' to the bathroom. One feller said, 'The water's cold,' and the other feller said, 'The water's deep.' I believe one feller come from Arkansas. Get it?"

Karl had a very endearing way of rationalizing things so they made sense to him. In that regard, he kind of reminded me of the Beverly Hillbillies. In the context of their experiences, anything that seemed foreign eventually made sense. (That's how a swimming pool became a "cement pond" and a billiard room became a "fancy eatin' room.")

If Karl's internal compass wasn't always in sync with others', there was no problem with his sense of right and wrong. He might not be able to verbalize it too well, but it's kind of like the famous judicial ruling regarding pornography.

He knew right (and wrong) when he saw it. And he acted accordingly. (Not always legally. But accordingly.)

In the film's closing minutes, Karl had conversations with the boy's mother, the boy and the mother's gay friend (played by John Ritter), then had a climactic conversation with the mother's abusive boyfriend.

Even in his limited mental capacity, only Karl knew the significance of the conversations — although all the people with whom he spoke seemed to get an inkling, at least, at the very last minute, of what might be about to happen.

And that made "Sling Blade" the only film I can recall in which the last word said by all the main characters (except Thornton's) was the same: "Karl?" It wasn't spoken in unison but in four separate scenes and in four separate contexts.

In hindsight, all four had relevance to each other although Karl may have been the only one to perceive that — perhaps because Karl was the only one who could really bring peace to that troubled house.

So he did — the only way he knew how.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Lilith Thanksgiving

I always enjoyed the Thanksgiving episode of the Frasier series that aired 15 years ago tonight.

I don't always enjoy holiday episodes, but I liked the ones on Frasier. They were always entertaining and creative, not sappy and sentimental like so many other holidays episodes I have seen over the years.

Anyway, on this day, the Cranes were planning a family Thanksgiving in Seattle. Lilith and her son, Frederick, were coming to town. But, at the last minute, the plans changed. On Thanksgiving morning, Lilith and Frasier had to meet with the headmaster of a prestigious school where they had submitted their son's application — so Frasier, Niles and Martin had to fly to Boston.

The first meeting with the headmaster went poorly, and Lilith and Frasier went back on the pretense of looking for an earring that Lilith would claim she had lost. Once they were inside the headmaster's house again, they would renew and intensify their pitch on behalf of their son.

"I wouldn't even think of asking [to come in to look]," Lilith told the headmaster, "but it was a treasured gift from ... Golda Meir."

When the headmaster left the room, Frasier protested that Golda Meir was not one of the details upon which they had agreed. "It got us in," Lilith replied.

But, when he returned to the room, the headmaster had a curveball of his own. "I've always been a great admirer of Mrs. Meir," he said. "How did you meet?"

So Lilith had to ad lib some more, but she just couldn't — so she passed the baton to a somewhat startled Frasier. "It was back in college days," Frasier said. "Lilith spent a summer at a kibbutz and was dating her grandson, Oscar."

The headmaster wasn't finished. "That would be Oscar Meir?"

"Just imagine the ribbing he took!" Frasier replied with a little artful ad libbing of his own.

I always thought that was an especially funny piece of comedic dialogue — in an episode that seemed to be full of them.

Most such snappy exchanges occurred when Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) were talking with the headmaster (Paxton Whitehead), but there were others.

For example ...

When the Cranes had to change their holiday plans so Frasier could be in Boston to join Lilith for the meeting with the headmaster, Frasier talked Roz (Peri Gilpin) into looking after his apartment while he was gone. But he had a few ground rules.
Frasier: By the way, I frown on overnight guests.

Roz: Then you're not doing it right.

Getting out of Seattle for the holiday probably wasn't a bad idea, at least in Niles' case. He was going through his first Thanksgiving since his separation from his wife, and a change of scenery probably did him some good, even though it was a last–minute decision to shift everything to Boston.

Yep, it was completely understandable that Niles was having a rough time.

After all, it isn't uncommon, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, for people to be at least a bit despondent over separation, either temporary or permanent, from loved ones, but Niles may have been a little too nostalgic.
Martin: What's wrong?

Niles: Oh, just a little depressed. It's my first Thanksgiving without Maris.

Martin: Oh, yeah, I know, son. It's hard.

Niles: Do you remember the year I plopped that big wedge of pumpkin pie in front of her, and we all laughed? Then I put a big scoop of whipped cream on top of it and we laughed some more! Then her eyes welled up with tears and we all knew it was time to stop.

That one might qualify to be one of Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts."

Once the Cranes were in Boston, though, Niles — who, as previous and subsequent episodes indicated, was a pretty good cook — took it upon himself to finish preparing the family's Thanksgiving dinner so Frasier and Lilith could make their appeal to the headmaster.

He still managed to work in some zingers at Lilith's expense, though — and found that Lilith could give as good as she got.
Lilith: I'm nearly done defrosting.

Niles: And the turkey?

Lilith: Might I suggest you stuff it?

I especially liked the frustrated headmaster's speech at the end of the episode.
"I will die a happy man if I never set eyes on either of you again. Unfortunately, there is only way I know of to ensure that. Your son Frederick is hereby admitted to the Marbury School. However, he will be immediately expelled if either of you violates any of the following conditions:
  • "You will not bring him to school.

  • "You will not collect him.

  • "You will not attend any recitals, plays, sporting events or school functions — up to and including Frederick Crane Day, should we ever have one.

  • "And when graduation comes, you will dispatch an appropriate envoy with a video camera.
"And now it is with great pleasure that I bid you goodbye forever."

Instead of being insulted after being hustled out the door, Lilith and Frasier only smiled at each other with satisfaction and said in unison, "We're in."

I guess what makes Thanksgiving happy depends on one's priorities and desires — whether one wants a certain kind of stuffing or a certain kind of pie for dessert — or to be sure one's child is enrolled in the most elite school around.

Monday, November 21, 2011

David Frye's Birthday

I try, I really do try to keep up. But sometimes things just slip through the cracks. You know?

Last January, I was starting my second semester as an adjunct journalism professor in the local community college. I was busy, but I didn't realize I was that busy — anyway, somehow it completely slipped past me that one of my favorite impressionists died.

It slipped by me so completely that it was only recently that I learned he was dead, nearly 10 months after the fact.

He wasn't exactly young — nor even middle–aged, for that matter — so I guess his death wasn't much of a shock. I don't know if he had been sick or if he had enjoyed generally good health.

No, I'm not speaking of Rich Little — although I did have the opportunity to see Rich Little perform here in Dallas about nine years ago. Little, by the way, is still living.

I'm speaking of David Frye, who was rather popular during the Nixon presidency — although he probably wasn't too popular with Nixon himself. The Nixon years were Frye's best, but it was kind of a meteoric thing. His popularity really took off when Nixon was elected president in 1968, seemed to reach its peak during the Watergate scandal, then began to decline dramatically after Nixon resigned.

Frye continued to do impressions of the major political figures of his time — often as well as or better than Little, at least in my opinion — and, like Little, he did impressions of other celebrities, too — movie stars (like George C. Scott and Henry Fonda), athletes (like Muhammad Ali and O.J. Simpson), etc. — but it was his impression of Nixon that people seemed to remember, even when he died.

I, for one, loved listening to Frye's records when I was a boy. His impression of Nixon was so good Nixon's own mother probably couldn't have told the difference. But, as I say, there was so much more to his comedy.

In one of my favorite Frye albums — "Richard Nixon: A Fantasy" — Nixon was dreaming about the Watergate break–in and the investigation.

One segment had his vice president, Spiro Agnew (who was particularly smarmy, even in comparison to some of the people who have been vice president since his day), being interviewed by Bill Buckley, who asked him if he had prepared himself for the possibility of becoming president. (Frye provided both voices — as well as nearly all the other voices on the album — and was spot on, as always.)

Agnew replied that he believed Nixon was innocent and he believed the rest of the country did, too. Then Frye provided the voice of Agnew thinking something entirely different — "Oh, boy! President Agnew! President Agnew! That'll show all those guys back in high school who used to tease me with 'Spiro, Spiro is a zero, With a name like that he must be a queer–o!' "

His humor went far beyond an uncanny ability to sound like so many people — and an occasional tendency to offend. He often could summarize entire personalities in one or two well–crafted lines.

Anyway, today would have been his 78th birthday. It's the first birthday he's missed.

And, while I wish I could have said this to him while he was living, better late than never, I guess.

Happy birthday.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

When Fact and Fiction Merge ...

Based on E.L. Doctorow's book by the same name, "Ragtime," which was released 30 years ago today, was an entertaining — if, at times, flawed — look at people (some real, some fictional) caught in the turbulence of turn–of–the–century America — New York, in particular.

It was directed by Milos Forman, the director of one of my favorite movies, "Amadeus," a few years later — as well as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" a few years earlier. "Ragtime" wasn't his best effort, but it was, as I say, entertaining.

It was also, to an extent, educational, introducing the moviegoing public to some real (and, ultimately, fascinating) historical characters most had probably never heard of before.

Among them were characters like showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), who found herself at the apex of a lover's triangle in which her husband, coal/railroad heir Harry K. Thaw, killed one of Nesbit's lovers, architect Stanford White, at Madison Square Garden, leading to one of the 20th century's first trials of the century.

Nesbit didn't testify at Thaw's first trial, which ended in a deadlock. She was persuaded to testify at the second trial by Thaw's mother, who promised her $1 million and a divorce if she would testify that White abused her and Thaw tried to protect her — which Nesbit did — but her mother–in–law only made good on the promise of a divorce.

In the movie, Nesbit was given $25,000. I don't know if her mother–in–law was that generous in real life.

That testimony was a real bargain, though, even if Mother Thaw felt obliged, however minimally, to part with some cash in exchange for it.

The historical record suggests that it saved her son. Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent some time in a hospital for the criminally insane. Eventually, he was judged to be sane and was released.

McGovern's performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The movie received seven other Oscar nominations, but it did not win any of them.

In the movie, as in Doctorow's novel, Nesbit was kind of the common link between the real–life characters and the fictional ones. After her husband was charged with murder, she met a fictional young man who was living with his sister and her family.

The young man was smitten with her and, after a somewhat awkward first meeting, became virtually inseparable from her.

Quite a few historical characters appeared in the novel, and some found their way onto the big screen — although none quite so prominently as Nesbit.

I don't know if McGovern's portrayal of Nesbit was accurate, but I liked her kind of scatter–brained character, and I found McGovern to be unexpectedly charming.

Perhaps the only actress who might have been better was Goldie Hawn — who made a career of being ditzy in 1970s and 1980s movies — after being the very definition of ditzy on Laugh–In in the late 1960s.

I guess it was expected of her. It wasn't expected of McGovern, whose brief movie career had included the role of Timothy Hutton's girlfriend in the Oscar–winning drama, "Ordinary People." That transition from type was decidedly unexpected — and, as a result, quite effective.

It was fitting, I suppose, that such a turn–of–the–century story was a transitional movie for several stars.

"Ragtime" was the last big–screen appearance for James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, who made nine movies together.

While it marked the end for those two actors, "Ragtime" was the beginning for Jeff Daniels, who made his debut.

Other members of the cast were Mary Steenburgen, Samuel L. Jackson, Howard Rollins, Fran Drescher and Norman Mailer.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mixed Doubles

I have written before of the Frasier series' keen observations on all aspects of the human condition.

The episode that aired 15 years ago tonight, "Mixed Doubles," is one of the best examples — in an understated kind of way.

It was a week before my birthday — a time that has tended to make me more reflective with each passing year — and perhaps my perception was affected by that. But I felt that each character revealed his/her true colors, his/her real motivations, in that episode.

The story began with Daphne (Jane Leeves) returning to the Crane home after a date with her boyfriend, but she brought bad news. Her boyfriend had broken up with her, and the mere mention of the disastrous dinner she had just lived through was enough to cause her to burst into uncontrolled tears.

(By this point in the series, I felt it was clear that Daphne loved her work, but she desperately wanted to be a wife and mother. Niles, as the audience knew only too well, desperately wanted Daphne.)

The Crane men sought to comfort her but were undone by their own weaknesses — the fussy Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) by his obsession with appearances and Martin (John Mahoney) by his clumsiness. Niles (David Hyde Pierce), of course, was motivated purely by his desire for Daphne. Only Roz (Peri Gilpin), who was greeted at the door by a sobbing Daphne, instinctively understood what had happened and took Daphne to her bedroom where the two could speak privately.

Niles decided that he was finally going to tell Daphne how he felt about her. This was the series' fourth season, and regular viewers had known all along that he was hot for her — but, despite the fact that she claimed to be psychic, Daphne never seemed to realize it until a few years later.

It was an ongoing source of humor, kind of an inside joke, but if Niles, who was separated from his wife, was going to confess his feelings to Daphne, it would mark a major turning point in the story line. The nature of their relationship was sure to change.

In November 1996, she seemed completely oblivious to his feelings for her as she tap danced from one relationship to another.

Whether that was a factor in his decision, Frasier counseled Niles to sleep on it, to "give it a day" of reflection, and Niles reluctantly agreed.

Unfortunately for Niles, Roz sought to cheer up Daphne by taking her out for drinks — and the emotionally vulnerable Daphne met a young man and hit it off.

Even more unfortunate for Niles was the fact that the young man, Rodney, was exactly like him. He had the same build, the same mannerisms, even the same preferences — including, as it turned out, an apparent preference for Adelle, a woman Niles started seeing after Daphne began her rebound relationship with Rodney.

Niles discovered that Rodney and Adelle had a thing for each other quite by accident. He was having coffee with Frasier, who had just persuaded him that, although Daphne was in a new relationship, so was Niles — and with someone who made him happy.

At that point, Rodney and Adelle walked in and sat down at a table out of Niles' view.

He turned and looked in their direction — and realized what was happening. His response was one of indignation, all right — at Rodney for his betrayal of Daphne, not at Adelle for her betrayal of him — and he stormed from the cafe after confronting them.

In the final scene, Niles met Daphne at the bar where they had first met Adelle and Rodney. Niles was going to tell Daphne that Adelle and Rodney were a couple, but she had already heard, and the two of them began commiserating in a conversation that certainly must have been one of the best examples of foreshadowing in TV history.
Daphne: If it had been a different time in both our lives, we might actually have met. How do you suppose that would have gone?

Niles: What? Our conversation?

Daphne: Yes! Just for fun. We could both use a smile.

Niles: Well, I would have said, 'Is this seat taken?' And you would have said, 'No.' You would have said, 'My name is Daphne,' and I would have said, 'My name is Niles.' And then I would have said, 'What are you doing for the rest of your life?'

Daphne: You always know just the right thing to say! I love you, Dr. Crane.

Niles: I love you, too, Daphne.

And it helped preserve the original nature of the Niles–Daphne relationship for a few more seasons.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Truth and Accuracy

"Don't expect the truth unless you're willing to tell it."

Sally Field
Absence of Malice (1981)

I was a journalism student in college when "Absence of Malice," starring Paul Newman and Sally Field, premiered 30 years ago today.

And I felt, when I saw it, that it had some lessons for me that would be useful when I graduated and found myself working in the field.

The problem was that I found the reality was different from the Hollywood story. That should come as no surprise to anyone.

Oh, sure, there are overzealous, overeager reporters like Sally Field's character who will report gossip and hearsay, even when innocent people are likely to be hurt. In an era of instant news and intense pressure to be first with a story, whether it is true or not, there seems to be more of them than ever.

There are unethical prosecutors, like the one who leaked the contents of a file to a reporter, hoping to put pressure on a suspect with no regard for the consequences. I don't think there has ever been a shortage of them, regardless of the era.

And there are people like Newman's character, who was the focus of the prosecutor's investigation and Field's newspaper article.

The case looked good. The story seemed solid. The motivations were, for the most part, noble. The only problem was, he was the wrong guy.

In my experience, that's like the fabled perfect storm. All the elements are not in place at once in every situation. Most prosecutors are ethical, and so are most journalists. Never mind the public images of lawyers and reporters. They're mostly — but not entirely — the products of Hollywood's fantasy world.

But the truth wouldn't make much of a movie so the writers of the story (which included a former newspaper editor) told a tale that, in the words of Field's character, was not true but it was accurate.

If they thought they could get away with it, I'm sure there are some prosecutors who would be tempted (perhaps more than that) to leave files from investigations on their desks where a reporter was sure to find it.

And I'm sure there are reporters who would be tempted (again, perhaps more than that) to look in those files and spill their contents into the next day's papers without regard to whether any of it was true or was affirmed by more than one person.

I don't know what they were teaching students about ethics in law school in those days, nor do I know what was being taught in every journalism class across the country, but I can testify that my journalism classes emphasized double– and triple–checking facts.

One source's word for it simply was not good enough.

We were not so far removed from Watergate in those days, and my professors sang the praises of Woodward and Bernstein, repeatedly urging us to follow their lead (so to speak) and have at least two sources for anything.

And we were encouraged to remember — always — the human side of any story. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable was an article (again, so to speak) of faith. Human beings were not collateral damage.

They still aren't, no matter what you may have heard or thought.

In a way, I suppose, that was the lesson Newman's character tried to teach the rest of them in the second half of the movie.

In the article that revealed that Newman was innocent because he had been in another state at the time of the alleged murder, it was also revealed that his alibi and lifelong friend (Melinda Dillon) had been having an abortion. He had been with her, giving her the support she needed, but her character was Catholic, employed by a Catholic school.

Field's character's lack of sensitivity to that fact had tragic consequences. When Field's character identified Dillon's character by name in print, the public exposure was too shameful for her. She killed herself.

Field's character clearly had no malicious intent. She was merely doing her job, but that did not change the reality.

To get even with those he felt were responsible for his friend's suicide, Newman's character hatched a plan to ensnare the newspaper reporter (part of which included a false social relationship with her) and the prosecutor.

When everyone had been exposed, Field's paper began working on its coverage of the story. Another reporter was assigned to write about Field and her relationship with Newman. Field was told that she would be quoted directly and to describe the relationship in any way that she wished.

"Just say we were involved," Field said haltingly.

"That's true, isn't it?" her colleague asked.

"No," Field replied, "but it's accurate."

That, as I say, is how I feel — at least, in hindsight — about "Absence of Malice." The story wasn't true. It wasn't even, as far as I know, a fictionalized account of an actual event.

But it was accurate, and it provided — as it still does — a valuable lesson in ethics — for journalists and everyone else.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

'Bobby' Tried to Do Too Much

I've known for a long time that Martin Sheen is a talented guy.

And he has fathered a bunch of talented children.

So it really is unfortunate that perhaps the least talented of the group, his son Charlie, has been the one who has been getting most of the attention lately.

It wasn't that way five years ago.

On this day in 2006, Charlie's older brother, Emilio Estevez, was the center of attention. He had written and directed a movie about the day that Robert Kennedy was assassinated called "Bobby." You can believe me when I say it was an ambitious undertaking.

Even though it was about a real event, it was a fictional story with an ensemble cast — not unlike the style one often sees in the works of Robert Altman, although Altman doesn't typically use actual events as the backdrops for his movies — and there were times, frankly, when I felt the story was a bit bogged down by all the characters and subplots that viewers had to follow.

Perhaps it should have been more like "Shampoo," a successful movie from the mid–1970s that used the contentious 1968 presidential election as its backdrop — fewer characters with, consequently, fewer plot lines.

It also reminded me, in some ways, of Oliver Stone's "JFK," which made its debut 15 years earlier. I had that sensation early in the movie.

If you've seen "JFK," you know that it opens with period film footage of President Kennedy while President Eisenhower's famous warning about the "military–industrial complex" was played in the background. In "Bobby," archival footage was seen while recordings of Robert Kennedy giving speeches — his announcement of his candidacy for president, his speech the night Martin Luther King was assassinated — played in the background, and I couldn't help wondering if Stone's film had inspired "Bobby," to any extent.

Perhaps Estevez was inspired by both Stone and Altman.

And maybe the Altman approach was necessary, given the many conflicts in American society at that time. But I felt that "Bobby" became top–heavy with all the individual story lines — not, it can be plausibly argued, unlike life.

On the morning of September 11, for example, everyone was busy with his or her own life — until airplanes were hijacked and crashed into buildings. Then people stopped what they were doing, and everyone's attention was riveted to the same thing.

It is the same with any other big event in modern times. The technological advances of the 20th century have that power over us — to force us to re–focus on a dime. The things we were doing or that demanded our immediate attention didn't go away. They just got put on the shelf.

It was an admirable effort, though, and it was one in which Estevez was able to enlist the assistance of his distinguished father (who played a campaign donor married to Helen Hunt). The cast also included Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, Harry Belafonte, Christian Slater, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and others.

My advice would have been to pare it down a little. One or two of the subplots could have been discarded, allowing the film to focus more on the unifying event. Besides, the film already had plenty of star power.

Father and son share a high regard for Robert F. Kennedy — even though Estevez, like me, was only a child when Kennedy was killed. He may have relied, to an extent, on his memories of that time, but he was barely 6 when Kennedy was assassinated so his memories can't be that great. My guess is that most of what he knows of that time is actually what he has been told by others.

But be that as it may ...

In spite of its drawbacks, "Bobby" told a tale of a time that young Americans have never known and many older Americans seem to have forgotten. And perhaps, as I say, so many characters were needed to provide a vivid portrait of that time in American history.

It effectively re–created a period when events seemed to be spiraling out of control. With an increasingly unpopular war dominating the headlines and a new generation of leaders being gunned down on what appeared to be a regular basis, there was an unmistakable sense that no one was in charge.

(The closest example I can think of in modern times was the waning months of the George W. Bush administration.)

"Bobby" did tend, as I say, to get bogged down by the many subplots — which I concluded, even before I had completed my first viewing of the movie, were designed to illustrate the many levels on which the great divide existed.

There was a racial divide, as illustrated by the apparently racist attitude of the kitchen manager (Christian Slater) who wouldn't permit his minority employees to take time off to vote.

There was a gender divide. Sometimes it was shown in heroic and self–sacrificing stories, such as the one in which a young girl (Lindsay Lohan) was marrying a friend (Elijah Wood) to keep him from going to Vietnam. Reportedly, that was based on a true story — Estevez said a woman told him, while he was writing the movie, that she actually married two friends for that purpose.

Other times, it was much more self–serving, even surprisingly so. At points, it gave the appearance of a soap opera.

The hotel manager (William H. Macy) was cheating on his aging but still attractive wife (Sharon Stone) with a young hotel switchboard operator (Heather Graham). Sheen's middle–aged campaign donor and his much younger wife struggled to overcome the issues in their marriage. Estevez himself played the part of the husband/manager of a boozy lounge singer (Demi Moore) intent on launching a comeback of sorts in Las Vegas.

There was the alienation of the young — the "never trust anyone over 30" crowd — who sought answers to problems from their contemporaries rather than older authority figures. In the 1960s, such answers were often said to be found through drug use, and two campaign workers (Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf) were seen experimenting with acid with the help of a drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher).

They were all going about their lives — until the climactic moment when Kennedy was shot — and the audience could see all the characters gathered in one place, some of whom were injured, others were tending to their wounds, overcoming their differences — not unlike the many stories that were told of the heroic deeds that took place in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon or aboard Flight 93.

Above it all could be heard the inspirational words spoken by Bobby Kennedy after Martin Luther King's murder — made all the more poignant by the realization that Kennedy himself would die a violent death only two months later.

It was clear that Estevez had a passion for his subject. Perhaps he learned from "Bobby" that it's true what they say.

Less is more.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Defining a Lose-Lose Situation

"There was only one catch and that was Catch–22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."

Joseph Heller

I have several favorite authors.

I don't like to categorize — or qualify — them by era or gender or nationality or genre or anything else. I've always been a writer. A well–written story is a well–written story, as far as I am concerned.

Oh, sure, I have my preferences. I like just about anything Mark Twain ever wrote. Ditto the works of Charles Dickens. While I didn't always agree with his politics, I admire the political novels of Allen Drury, and I love the rich detail of the books by James Michener.

I have loved the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien since I was in high school. And I have devoured most of Stephen King's novels.

But almost no one whose works I have enjoyed has seen the title of one of his books become accepted slang for a specific condition.

"Catch–22," though, has achieved precisely that. When someone says that something is a "catch–22," it is immediately understood that it is a lose–lose situation from which one cannot escape.

I suppose the modern equivalent — at least in the film world — would be "Groundhog Day."

And a movie that was based on "Catch–22" was made in 1970. It was good. It had some talented people in it. It was faithful to Heller's original work. But no movie could do complete justice to it.

In the literary world, "Catch–22" made its debut half a century ago today, and it received its share of praise. The Chicago Sun–Times said it was "the best American novel in years."

Others weren't quite as generous, and hardback sales were sluggish in the United States. But sales were more robust in Great Britain, and the paperback enjoyed enormous commercial popularity here, selling millions of copies during the Vietnam years.

It really is no wonder to me that it was so popular during the Vietnam eraIts influence continues to be felt.

That is because the concepts that were expressed in "Catch–22" are vividly seen in the world of 2011.

Just recently, in fact, the local Occupy Dallas protesters agreed to relocate to City Hall Park. Their permit to camp in Pioneer Plaza was revoked because organizers of the protest did not purchase a $1 million insurance policy — which no insurer will sell under such circumstances, anyway.

For Betty Grable's legs, yes. For a protest, no.

The protesters can camp in City Hall Park for up to 60 days and have continued protesting in Pioneer Plaza during the day.

Joseph Heller would be proud.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Eye of the Beholder

Hal: Does she take the cake or what?

Mauricio: She takes the whole bakery, Hal.

Shallow Hal (2001)

One of the truly rewarding experiences that comes from being more than merely a casual movie watcher is the sensation of seeing a story that has something genuine to say — and doesn't have to hit its audience over the head to say it.

I felt that was the case with "Shallow Hal," which premiered on this day 10 years ago — except that, initially at least, I may have been a bit shallow myself.

When I saw the trailers for the movie, I lumped it with a sub–genre of comedy that specializes in cheap jokes at the expense of certain segments of the population — in this case, obese people. And I decided that I would not contribute, in any way, to the exploitation of people who have probably struggled with weight issues all their lives.

I was wrong to prejudge it that way.

A few years later, I was talking to a co–worker who told me he had purchased the DVD of that movie. "What did you think of it?" he asked. I confessed that I had never seen it. He said he would bring it for me to borrow if I would promise to watch it. I promised — and darned if he didn't bring it to me the next day!

"It's better than you think it is," he told me.

So I watched it that night — and he was right. "Shallow Hal" was, in reviewer Roger Ebert's words, "surprisingly moving at times."

My friend was right. It was much better than I thought.

Now, I have always thought that Gwyneth Paltrow is an exceptionally attractive woman, and I figured that any movie that would require me to look at her for nearly two hours wasn't a complete waste of time.

I approached the assignment of watching the movie with a certain amount of resignation.

I had been true to my original position. I had not contributed to the exploitation of obese people. I didn't buy a ticket, and I didn't buy the DVD.

I figured that, if I had to watch the movie, I had avoided contributing to its financial success (and it has earned a handsome profit). I had lived up to my end of the bargain. And my reward was to watch Gwyneth Paltrow — who was quite a bankable star in those years right after she won the Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love."

As I say, I have always thought she was attractive. And I had been gaining respect for her acting ability with her other recent performances in movies like "Great Expectations" and "Sliding Doors."

But it took considerable talent for her to play both the svelte Rosemary that Jack Black (playing a womanizer who had been hypnotized and could see only a woman's internal beauty) saw and the massive Rosemary that everyone else saw — and she deserved to be commended for wearing a 25–pound "fatsuit" and facial makeup that not only gave her the appearance of an obese person but also the sensation of being an obese person.

That is an important distinction, I think.

As I understand it, there are really two different kinds of fatsuits.

One kind re–creates the appearance of additional weight but is, essentially, weightless. An actor who is wearing such a padded suit under his/her clothes will appear to be obese but will not experience what life is like when one must carry around additional pounds — how an obese person must ease into a chair or a booth or walk through narrow doorways at an angle.

The other kind of fatsuit is the kind that is weighted. It is designed to give the wearer the sensation of obesity, not merely the appearance. And that is the kind that Paltrow wore.

It was bound to influence the way she played the part.

I guess I was put off by the reputation of the Farrelly Brothers, the movie's writers/directors/producers. They were known for making movies that relied heavily on a lot of slapstick and off–color humor. I'm not necessarily opposed to that kind of humor except when it is used to poke fun at those who are weak and vulnerable.

It's like kicking a guy when he's down.

But when I saw "Shallow Hal," it was clear to me that the Farrellys had gone to unusual lengths to build audience empathy for obese people and send some serious messages about modern society and its treatment of those with severe weight issues.

I applaud Paltrow for wearing a weighted fatsuit, but if I was going to criticize that, I would say that the extra weight was not in proportion to the size of the character she played. An additional 25 pounds on someone of Paltrow's build would be noticeable but far from morbidly obese.

And it would take someone who was morbidly obese to buckle the steel legs of a chair merely by sitting in it.

Poor Rosemary, I thought when I watched "Shallow Hal" the first time. How difficult and painful her life must be.

But Rosemary was honest about herself and her emotions — and she had some lessons to teach people who judge others too harshly.

The judgmental ones were the ones to be pitied.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Debut of Led Zeppelin IV

I guess most people think of "Stairway to Heaven" when they think of Led Zeppelin's fourth studio album, which was released 40 years ago today.

I do, too, but I have other memories of that album as well.

The album became the third best–selling album in the United States. It was one of the first albums I ever owned, but I never owned it in vinyl. I had a cassette tape of it, and it was one of a handful of cassettes I took with me when my family moved to Nashville for my father's sabbatical.

It was a rare afternoon in those days when I came home from school and did not listen to that album from start to finish on my portable cassette player. I guess I looked upon it as my lifeline — long before the concept of lifelines became popular — even though I didn't have much variety in my "collection."

The music was really remarkable. To my knowledge, no one has ever described the album better than Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic.com: It was, he wrote, "a monolithic record, defining not only Led Zeppelin but the sound and style of '70s hard rock."

Erlewine described it as "majestic hard rock with a mystical, rural English folk that gives the record epic scope. Even at its most basic — the muscular, tradtionalist 'Rock and Roll' — the album has a grand sense of drama, which is deepened by Robert Plant's burgeoning obsession with mythology and mysticism."

Even today, if I listen to that album, I remember those days. Nashville was a rather lonely place for me, and I was glad my father's sabbatical lasted only four months. When it was over, we returned to my hometown where my friends were, and I continued to listen to that Led Zeppelin album.

Until I began adding to my collection.

Eventually, I owned several Led Zeppelin albums, as did most of my friends — "Houses of the Holy," "Physical Graffiti," etc.

I didn't get "Led Zeppelin IV" when it was first released. I got it a few years later. Maybe that means I was something of a late convert to Zeppelin's music.

Late or not, though, the music spoke to me at that time in my life.

It still speaks to me today.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Experiencing Something Wild

When I was working for the Arkansas Gazette, there were part–timers who worked in the office, doing clerical things like sorting and filing and stuff like that.

For a time in 1986, there was a young fellow who worked part time for the Gazette and part time for a video rental outlet.

He had something of a knack for identifying the kinds of movies that everyone on the staff would like. Occasionally, he would bring in video tapes for us to take home and view — free of charge.

I must admit, I liked the arrangement.

Anyway, one day he came into the office and handed me a video tape. It was of "Something Wild." I had never heard of it, and I told him so.

"Just watch it," he told me. "I watched it last night. I think you'll like it."

So I took it home and watched it — in spite of the fact that I didn't recognize a name in it.

That certainly wouldn't be the case today.

The movie was directed by Jonathan Demme, who had received some attention up to that time but really came into prominence five years later when he won an Oscar for directing "The Silence of the Lambs."

Jeff Daniels had been in only a handful of movies by 1986, but he appeared to be an up–and–comer — as, indeed, he was. I always felt one of his best performances was in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," which actually came out the year before "Something Wild," but I've been impressed with many thing he has done since.

He wasn't merely one of the stars of "Dumb and Dumber."

"Something Wild" was almost the debut of supporting actor Ray Liotta. He became much more familiar to audiences a few years later through his roles in "Field of Dreams" and "Goodfellas."

I guess Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, was the most veteran member of the bunch. Not yet 30, she had been in films since she was 14 — and, based on the stories that have been told about her and the kinds of movies in which she appeared, I'd say that "Something Wild" could have been the title of the story of her life up to that point.

As far as I know, it was not, in any way, autobiographical.

Griffith played a — for lack of a better term — wild child who spotted Daniels having lunch in a cafe. When he left without paying, she confronted him — and, ultimately, shanghaied him, taking him on a bizarre road trip.

A somewhat prim and proper sort, Daniels' character was attracted to Griffith's free persona, and, for a time, the film was kind of a fantasy tale of an improbable coupling that took the two of them on an adventure. But the story quickly became more menacing as Griffith's abusive husband, played by Liotta, tracked her down at her high school reunion.

Throwing caution to the wind, Daniels came to Griffith's defense, and the unlikely love story was complete.

It was something different. Definitely something unusual.

It was something wild.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Andy Rooney: The Last Curmudgeon?

curmudgeon — noun
a surly or miserly person
[of unknown origin]
cur'mudgeonly — adjective

Collins English Dictionary, 10th edition

Andy Rooney died yesterday.

And that is the sort of thing that I would usually discuss on my Freedom Writing blog. That is where I normally write about current events and journalists.

But this is the blog where I write on entertainment topics — and therein lies my dilemma.

Andy Rooney certainly was a journalist, but that is really too confining, given the pigeonholing to which most people seem to be inclined these days.

Rooney was a writer. That is what he called himself, and that is what he was. I've been writing most of my life, and it seems to me that one never really stops being a writer — at least, not until one is dead.

His writing was not limited to the printed page, though.

"After the war," he told his 60 Minutes viewers when he stepped down on October 2, "I went to work in radio and television because I didn't think anyone was paying enough attention to the written word."

But Rooney was a writer. He went on television as a writer, not as an entertainer. "I'm a writer who reads what he's written," he said.

There are all kinds of writing, and there are all kinds of journalists. Reporter is but a single type (pardon the pun) of journalist, and Rooney was a reporter in the early days of his career, writing for Stars and Stripes during World War II.

In his final broadcast on CBS last month, Rooney told viewers that a high school teacher had told him he had a flair for writing, and so he pursued it. He pursued it in many different directions, and reporting for Stars and Stripes was only one.

It affected his life and his writing in profound ways, but it wasn't the only direction he took in nearly a century of living. "I've done a lot of complaining here, but of all the things I've complained about, I can't complain about my life," he told the viewers who tuned in for his farewell.

He was a columnist, but he was also a humorist, and he shared many of his insights with his radio and TV audiences. His 60 Minutes audiences were treated to them for more than three decades.

"I’ve learned," Rooney told that audience near the end of his tenure, "that one should keep his words both soft and tender, because tomorrow he may have to eat them."

We knew we were going to miss Andy Rooney when he retired. We shall miss him all the more knowing he is gone for good.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Agatha Christie's Change of Pace

"QuestionWhat is your Christian name?
AnswerN. or M.
QuestionWhen did you receive this name?
AnswerAt my baptism when I was dedicated to God and received into the visible Church of Christ.

Catechism from Book of Common Prayer

As long as I can remember, my parents were fans of Agatha Christie.

Between them, I'm sure they must have read every one of the 80 detective novels she wrote in her lifetime. If they didn't read them all, it wasn't because they didn't try. When I was a child, I thought nothing of finding an Agatha Christie paperback just about anywhere in the house.

To an extent, I think I inherited their fondness for the genre. I have dozens of copies of her books that I inherited from my parents — my father gave them to me after my mother died. He said he had already read them and probably wouldn't read them again. I must confess that I haven't read all of them, but I have read most of them.

I am a writer myself, and I am intrigued by the many sources from which Christie drew her inspiration. Seventy years ago this month, for example, the Book of Common Prayer was the inspiration for what many critics of the time called her best work to date.

That was saying something, given the fact that Christie had already published at least 30 books by that time.

Most of her previous books dealt with one of two main characters — Miss Marple, an elderly spinster and amateur sleuth, and Hercule Poirot, a professional (and semi–retired) detective from Belgium. And, if you ask someone today to name one of Agatha Christie's detectives, those are the names you are most likely to hear — especially Poirot's.

As I understand it, Poirot was featured in nearly half of Christie's books, and he was the central character in all the movie adaptations of Christie's books that I have ever seen. Many well–known actors — including Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and Tony Randall — have portrayed him on the silver screen.

But not all of Christie's books focused on Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, and N or M? was one of those exceptions.

The story was centered around an English couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who first appeared in a Christie novel nearly 20 years earlier and a collection of short stories that was published a few years after that. They showed up again in a couple of novels near the end of Christie's life, but, in 1941, they must have been all but forgotten.

If they were mostly forgotten by 1941, they couldn't have been too recognizable to Christie's readers — and not only because of their rare appearances in her books. Most of Christie's characters — like many recurring characters in other writers' books — never really seemed to age. You could read a book featuring Hercule Poirot that was written in the 1930s and then read one that was written 30 years later and there would be virtually no difference between the characters, but Tommy and Tuppence clearly went through life phases.

When they first appeared in the early 1920s, they were seen as "bright young things," former intelligence workers living by their wits in post–World War I England. By 1941, they were in middle age, not quite as impulsive, more deliberate and dealing with the realities of World War II England.

(It should be noted at this point that a story with a specific wartime setting was unusual for Christie.)

They were feeling left out of things when Tommy was approached about doing some undercover work, and Tuppence decided to join him. She didn't wait for him to invite her.

And so they embarked on a mission to find a German agent who may have been male or female.

N or M? got its name from a 16th–century catechism that asks for one's Christian (given) name. The response that is requested is "N or M," with N being a male and M being a female.

To understand the title, it helps if you know that fact. It also helps if you read the book — and it's a pretty quick read. My old paperback copy is less than 200 pages, and much of the story was told via dialogue, as so many of Christie's books were.

One of the things I liked about the book was the way it referred to events from World War I that may have been widely known in their day but seem to be largely forgotten today — at least in this country.

I've always been something of a history buff.

For example, N or M? mentioned the case of British nurse Edith Cavell, who came to the aid of anyone who needed her help during the hostilities.

She was a pioneer of modern nursing techniques in Belgium before the war. After Belgium came under German occupation, she helped hundreds escape.

The Germans arrested her in 1915, tried her, convicted her of treason and executed her. Cavell's death became an effective propaganda tool for the Allies. Stories portrayed her as a heroic and patriotic individual who said, "I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved."

If N or M? was an accurate depiction of the times, people were still discussing Cavell's role in the conflict a quarter of a century after her execution.
Mrs. Sprot had just said in her thin fluting voice:

"Where I do think the Germans made such a mistake in the last war was to shoot Nurse Cavell. It turned everybody against them."

It was then that Sheila, flinging back her head, demanded in her fierce young voice: "Why shouldn't they shoot her? She was a spy, wasn't she?"

"Oh, no, not a spy."

"She helped English people to escape — in an enemy country. That's the same thing. Why shouldn't she be shot?"

"Oh, but shooting a woman — and a nurse."

Sheila got up.

"I think the Germans were quite right," she said.

Agatha Christie
"N or M?" (1941)

In fact, nearly a century after Cavell's execution, the evidence that supported/refuted the claim that she was a spy remains ambiguous.

But that is really another story. N or M? wasn't about Cavell and World War I. It was about uncovering German agents in the early days of World War II.

I gather that the essentially spy story was somewhat welcome escapism for Britons who had already been through the Battle of Britain.

And, while the references to people like Nurse Cavell may be obscure to modern readers, they were no doubt familiar — and relevant — to readers in 1941.

Fresh death was all around them then. It may well have been refreshing to read about a death that was practically ancient history by that time.

And it may have been a refreshing change of pace for my parents, who were born long after Nurse Cavell was executed.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Story of an Awkward Teenager

Thirty–five years ago today, the screen adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie" made its debut.

Almost immediately, the final scene, in which a hand reaches up from the rubble and grabs Amy Irving by the wrist, became iconic. Virtually everyone, it seems, even those who have never seen the movie, is familiar with it.

I, however, had not heard of that scene when I saw the movie a few weeks after its premiere — and I jumped in my seat when I first saw it — just as I did a few years later when I saw "Alien" on the big screen or when I saw the climactic scene of "Silence of the Lambs" more than a decade later.

If only one could enact an enforceable law that would prevent people from revealing the ending of a movie like "Carrie" to someone who hasn't seen it. It's like blowing the punch line of a joke ...

It was a story to which anyone who ever felt awkward as a teenager could relate.

Carrie (played by Sissy Spacek, who was mostly unknown at the time, at least in comparison to her status after the movie made the theatrical rounds) was an outcast in her high school, taunted and abused by her classmates.

Life wasn't any better for her when she got home from school, either, with a domineering religious fanatic of a mother (memorably played by Piper Laurie) waiting for her.

Of course, no one realized that Carrie had a very special power — telekinetic power — and Carrie herself was reluctant to acknowledge its existence. But when she was upset, it bubbled to the surface and almost took on a life of its own, and, when she could no longer deny what she saw happening around her, she felt compelled to research the possibility.

If only the folks in her world had been paying attention, they might have seen the tell–tale signs that her power was growing beyond her control and becoming more of a threat to others.

But, as humans are apt to do, they were obsessed with their own lives and didn't notice when a light bulb shattered in the girls' locker room and an ashtray sitting on the principal's desk flipped off and broke on the floor.

From most outward appearances, Carrie was a typical shy teenage girl fully engaged in the emotional roller coaster ride known as puberty.

But, if you were paying attention, she was boiling volcano about to erupt.

Well, I suppose the rest of the story is pretty well known by now. Carrie was set up to be escorted to the prom and then to be elected prom queen — and, as she was being crowned, a bucket of blood would be dumped on her — all of which transpired as planned.

But then the unplanned happened.

Carrie's telekinetic powers took over, slamming shut all exits from the gym and starting a fire that killed everyone who wasn't killed in another way. In a truly zombie–like state, Carrie strolled through the carnage out into the night and walked home, her dress still drenched in blood, where she killed her mother with flying knives that pinned her to the wall in a pose that resembled the crucifixion.

That part was a little heavy handed for me.

Both Carrie and her mother were crushed when Carrie used her powers to bring the house down, leaving a pile of rubble where Irving's wrist would be grabbed in the film's climactic scene.

In hindsight, I guess, that scene had the same shock value for that generation as the shower scene in "Psycho" had for the previous one.

And that really isn't surprising, given the admiration that director Brian De Palma has for the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

Clearly, the name of the high school — Bates High School — was taken from the villain of "Psycho" — Norman Bates. (I don't recall the name of the high school in King's original novel, but I am quite sure it was not Bates.)

And, while it wouldn't qualify as a variation from the book, De Palma used the same violin theme from "Psycho" whenever Carrie had a telekinetic episode.

There were other differences between the movie and the Stephen King book that inspired it — as there always are — but King himself told an interviewer that it was a "good movie" — and so it was.

It is a bit dated now, but it is still a good movie.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Gangster Flick You've Probably Never Seen

So you think you know gangster movies, eh?

I guess we all do — to a certain extent. I mean, who hasn't seen "The Godfather" movies? Or "Bonnie and Clyde," for that matter? Or "Goodfellas" or "Scarface?"

You could include "Pulp Fiction" in that genre, too, I suppose.

But I'm inclined to believe England's Empire Magazine may have been right when it named 1996's "The Funeral" as one of the "20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've Never Seen* (*Probably)."

"The Funeral" made its theatrical debut 15 years ago today. It didn't benefit from the same kind of hoopla that accompanied the premiere of "The Godfather" — maybe because it wasn't based on a novel written by Mario Puzo.

When I watched "The Funeral" for the first time, all I really knew about it was that it was about organized crime — and, with any such movie, you expect a certain amount of violence. It's a given.

So it was prudent of me to approach this movie expecting abundant, even wanton violence.

I'm not a big fan of violence in the arts. I'm more likely to watch such a movie if I am drawn by something else, like a great story or great acting. Violence for violence's sake has never appealed to me.

I honestly don't remember what it was that drew me to "The Funeral," which was the story of three gangster brothers. One (played by Vincent Gallo) had been killed, and the two surviving brothers (Christopher Walken and Chris Penn) tried to come to terms with that each in his own way.

And, in the traditional gangster way, they swore revenge. Nothing groundbreaking about that.

Moviegoers of the time must have been able to put 2 and 2 together and at least anticipate what was in store for them. If they knew the movie was about gangsters and the title referred to a funeral, it stood to reason that there would be violence in the movie.

And I saw it after it had left the theaters. The gangster theme really was no surprise to me.

In a manner that was particularly reminiscent of "The Godfather Part II," much of the brothers' story was told via flashback. Through that, the audience learned how they came to live by violence early.

Nothing groundbreaking about that, either.

In hindsight, I can only guess that reports of the shocking nature — shocking even for a gangster movie — of the climactic scene were what attracted me.

I wasn't necessarily drawn by the acting — although Penn did win best supporting actor at the Venice International Film Festival, and he was nominated for best actor at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Personally, I thought the acting wasn't that great. It was all right, but it wasn't worthy of any awards.

Perhaps the writing had a lot to do with that. There were no memorable lines in the movie, no truly memorable plot twists.

Except at the end.

The ending really was shocking. After I saw it for the first time, I could honestly say, "I didn't see that coming."

Perhaps you have seen it already. The movie has been making the rounds on TV for several years now, but I won't spoil it for you if you have managed to go this long without seeing it.

And, unfortunately, many people still haven't seen it. Fifteen years later, it is still one of the greatest gangster movies you've probably never seen.