Sunday, January 29, 2012

Shining On

"We all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah, we all shine on
C'mon and on and on, on, on."

John Lennon

Stephen King has been one of my favorite writers since I was in my teens.

And I always thought his stories would make splendid movies.

But even when I was a teenager I knew that it was almost impossible — given the technology that existed at the time — to transfer his stories from the printed page to the big screen.

Nothing illustrated that better, I think, than the film version of "The Shining" that came out in 1980. It was a spine–tingling horror movie with a great cast (Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers) and a great director (Stanley Kubrick) — and King was a fan of Kubrick's work — but ultimately King was disappointed in the results, as well he should have been.

I have often said that so much of what happens in a King novel seems to happen in the characters' minds. Sure, there are genuinely spooky things that happen in King's books. It's just hard for a filmmaker to re–create many of them, even with all the developments there have been since "The Shining" was published 35 years ago this month.

Twenty years after the book was published, a three–part TV miniseries was aired. King, whose dissatisfaction with Kubrick's version was behind the remake, was deeply involved in the teleplay.

It may well have been that King made such a personal investment in the project because he had gone to such great lengths to write the book in the first place. It was early in his writing career, and his first two books had been set in his native Maine. King apparently felt it was necessary to have a change of scenery.

He randomly chose Boulder, Colo., and relocated his family there. He was inspired to write "The Shining" during a family trip to a resort hotel in nearby Estes Park.

Later, King acknowledged that the story was, in part, a confession. The protagonist of the story, Jack Torrance, has seriously injured his young son in the past while under the influence of alcohol and desperately wants to make amends.

King, who struggled with his addictions to tobacco, alcohol and both prescription and street drugs until about 10 years after "The Shining" was published, admitted to "occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children." I don't think King ever injured his own children; perhaps "The Shining" provided him with a creative outlet that helped him let off some steam before it became destructive.

But his ability to empathize with his characters, even the ones his readers find repugnant, is the trait that makes King's books so special.

And, while there was a lot more about "The Shining" that made it King's first hardback bestseller, that factor always stood out for me.

Several years later, I learned the inspiration for the title. It came from a line from John Lennon's "Instant Karma," which was one of my favorite songs before the book was published.

I didn't know, when the book was published 35 years ago this month, that it inspired the name. But the thought did cross my mind.

And now you know the rest of that story.

A Lost Opportunity

"Virtually any unwanted contact between two people that directly or indirectly communicates a threat or places the victim in fear can be considered stalking."

National Center for Victims of Crime

Stalking wasn't a new phenomenon 30 years ago. It just wasn't recognized for what it truly is. Not yet.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but my best, most logical guess would be that it's been around as long as there have been jilted lovers — which means, I suppose, that it has been around since virtually the dawn of time.

(Of course, one need not have been jilted to stalk someone else. Jilted suggests that some kind of relationship existed at one time — and that is not always true.)

When I was growing up, stalking was almost exclusively used in descriptions of hunting trips. I've never been hunting, but it didn't require very vivid terms for me to imagine the mindset of a hunter stalking his prey, anticipating its moves and seeking to exploit its vulnerabilities.

It's one thing, though, to apply the term stalking to the pursuit of an animal. No matter what one's thoughts on guns and hunting may be, it's quite another issue when the term is applied to human relationships.

Combine the mentality of a stalker with the emotion swirling around a case of obsessive love, and you've got a volatile (and potentially deadly) situation on your hands.

In the 1990s, states started to take stalking seriously as a threat, mainly to women, and began writing laws making it a punishable offense. But, prior to that, most jurisdictions treated stalking as a nuisance, a hindrance to investigations into legitimate crimes, not as a probable prelude to an attack.

It was in such an environment that "The Seduction" was released on this day in 1982.

The movie starred Morgan Fairchild, a rising actress at the time, as a TV news reporter who attracted the obsessive attention of a photographer. It was a classic tale of stalking in which the stalker's attention evolved from an almost schoolboyish crush to something far more sinister.

The tag line for the movie made no bones about it, either: "Alone ... frightened ... trapped like an animal."

In 1982, Fairchild was regarded as one of the entertainment world's most beautiful women. Consequently, her casting in this role was something of a mixed blessing.

Her presence almost certainly helped the film with its box–office revenue, but it distracted attention from a legitimate issue and may well have delayed society's recognition of it.

If such a movie was made today, it would be promoted openly as a cautionary tale about stalking. The script might even be structured to provide helpful hints for dealing with such a situation.

But, in 1982, it was labeled an erotic thriller — and was widely panned by critics. It also received three Razzie nominations, two of which went to Fairchild.

I didn't feel that was fair. The word erotic was misapplied — I sincerely doubt that any 21st–century woman who has been the victim of stalking would describe the experience as erotic — but I felt the word thriller was a fair description. Certainly, there were times when I thought the movie had an Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma aura, particularly when the stalker was hiding in Fairchild's closet watching her without her knowledge.

Perhaps those who nominated films and people for the then–new Razzies expected to see more skin than they did. Given Fairchild's status as something of a sex symbol, that may explain their negative reactions.

I won't pretend that the script couldn't have been better — much better, in fact. When one looks at the movie today, many of the lines sound like cliches and the acting often lacks believability. As the story progresses, one comes to the conclusion that the story has been promising something it can't or won't deliver.

Nevertheless, a great opportunity may have been lost. Several celebrities were the victims of stalkers in the 1980s, eventually prompting California to become the first state to pass anti–stalking laws in the early 1990s.

If stalking had been taken more seriously when "The Seduction" was made, actresses Dominique Dunne and Rebecca Schaeffer might not have been killed and Theresa Saldana might not have endured a near–fatal stabbing.

But the movie was panned, and it took nearly another decade before society recognized stalking as the crime it is.

Part of the problem may have been the title. "The Seduction" made the actions of Fairchild's stalker seem almost noble — the passionate, heroic and romantic (and, in that context, excusable) acts of a man deeply in love.

I have no doubt that many stalkers see themselves precisely that way. Many may be totally unaware of the negative impact their actions have on the lives of the women they pursue. They believe they are being persistent and that the object of their affections will come around.

If the title had sounded more ominous, reflecting the odious nature of stalking, viewers might have taken the subject matter more seriously, and the opportunity to make a statement might not have been lost.

At least one prominent person apparently did appreciate the effort that was made — Bette Davis, who reportedly saw the movie on cable and was inspired to write a letter to Fairchild telling her how much Davis admired her work.

Fairchild's performance really was groundbreaking in much the same way as Elizabeth Montgomery's performance in TV's "A Case of Rape," which brought attention to the shabby treatment of rape victims by the legal system a few years earlier.

"A Case of Rape," however, had a better script, and Montgomery's performance was stronger than Fairchild's.

Still, I give credit where credit is due. For all its flaws, Fairchild's performance did rise above the exploitative nature of the script.

And I'd like to think that its cautionary tale wasn't entirely lost for a decade, that there were lives that were saved and acts of savagery that were prevented before legislators in most places enacted laws designed to curb stalking.

But I doubt it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The 'Roots' Phenomenon

On this night in 1977, a television phenomenon, unlike any other in my lifetime, began.

I am referring to the TV miniseries that was based on the hugely successful novel "Roots" that dominated bestseller lists and water–fountain conversations the year before.

There had been other miniseries that were based on modestly successful books, but none had the kind of impact of Roots.

For eight nights, it was a national event.

Video recorders were still too expensive to be in most homes so it was not yet possible for most people to record programs and watch them later. You had to watch something when it was on, or you didn't see it at all.

And, since just about everyone was engrossed in the series, my memory is that regularly scheduled meetings of city councils, school boards, etc., were postponed or severely abbreviated so that people could see the latest installment.

There have been a few comparable attempts to galvanize the viewing public in the 35 years that have passed since Roots was first televised — and some have succeeded, at least to the extent it was still possible to do so.

But that is the real problem. In 1977, television viewing was confined to the three major networks (plus a public broadcasting station if your area had one at that time — and many did not).

The proliferation of cable and satellite service — not to mention the overall population growth — makes it virtually impossible for anything on television to receive the share of the viewership that Roots achieved with its somewhat captive audience. After the series gathered momentum from its early episodes, the later episodes set ratings records that still stand today.

America's population has grown considerably in 35 years so it is probably possible for something to attract as many viewers as Roots — if not more — but the ratings are something else.

Super Bowls have surpassed most Roots episodes in ratings almost routinely, and a couple of programs from the early '80s — the M*A*S*H finale and the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas — exceeded Roots' eighth and final installment, which aired on Jan. 30, 1977.

But, otherwise, shared TV experiences just don't happen anymore. Great numbers of people may experience major news events together via television, but they don't watch the same network coverage — and, thus, do not share precisely the same experience.

On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, it is likely that the sum total of people watching TV coverage of the terrorist attacks matched or exceeded the number of people who ever witnessed the same thing at the same time — but some saw it on CNN, others saw it on Fox, still others saw it on extended broadcasts of network morning news shows.

In January 1977, it was as if all the conditions had merged to make Roots a huge success.

Roots had only a handful of competitors in 1977, and it had an all–star cast, with that cast constantly changing as the story went through the generations of Alex Haley's family.

It also dramatized an already compelling story that had been a runaway bestseller less than a year before.

Even without cable to lure away viewers, I think it would be very difficult to re–create the circumstances that made the Roots phenomenon possible.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Generation Flap

It was often said, as I was growing up, that there was a gap between the generations.

It was most visible in the division over the Vietnam War, I guess. There were — as there always are — exceptions to the rule, but, generally speaking, younger people were opposed to the war and older people were supportive of it. In my experience, it was the mother of all wedge issues.

But that generational division could be seen in almost every other area of life as well — music, fashion, hair length — and I have learned, as I have traveled life's path, that the "generation gap" was not a phenomenon.

It is a constant of the human condition, this driving need for the young to express themselves and an equally strong negative reaction to such self–expression from their elders. I have seen it played out between my own generation and the generation that followed — and, in time, the generation that followed mine will experience the same thing with the next generation. And so it goes.

It is, in the words of a song that was popular when I was in my teens, the way of the world.

It's a topic that has been explored in many ways, and, 10 years ago tonight, the Frasier show memorably did so in its own, unique way in an episode titled "Juvenilia."

Frasier had been encouraged to be a guest on a youth–oriented program at the station in an attempt to attract more young listeners to his own show, which was said to appeal mostly to older men who kept the radio on for company. Frasier was reluctant, but, after speaking to one of the perky (and complimentary) hosts, he agreed to make an appearance.

Initially, things seemed to be going well ... until the hosts turned on Frasier, accusing him of "pass[ing] the buck" on "real problem[s]" with the callers to his show and bringing up embarrassing moments from his past, like the time when he nearly committed suicide during the breakdown of his marriage.

Meanwhile, two somewhat related subplots had been playing out.

Frasier's brother Niles was trying to find a special gift for Daphne and, after hearing a story from Roz's romantic past, decided to attempt to swipe a street sign for Daphne Lane and make it his love offering.

And their father Martin started to fret when a young co–worker didn't call after a flirtatious encounter at a company party.

Both subplots complemented the main theme well. I thought it was one of the best episodes of the series' ninth season.

Anyway, Frasier managed to turn the tables on his hosts quite nicely — with the help of Kirby, the young man he had tutored in exchange for an old high school classmate's assistance in encouraging a relationship with a comely acquaintance.

Kirby was one of my favorite temporary characters on Frasier. He was played by Brian Klugman, who was actually in his mid–20s when he played the recent high school graduate — and "Juvenilia" was his final appearance on the show.

In real life, Klugman is the nephew of one of my favorite TV actors from my childhood, Jack Klugman, "Oscar" from TV's The Odd Couple — but also a member of the cast of one of my favorite movies, "12 Angry Men," which will observe the 55th anniversary of its release later this year.

I don't know if the elder Klugman was responsible for the younger's career choice.

But it sure was nice to have a Klugman on my TV screen again.

It was almost like a blast from my past.

Friday, January 20, 2012

And She Was

"The world was moving and she was right there with it
(And she was)
The world was moving she was floating above it
(And she was)
And she was."

Talking Heads

There was — and will forever be — only one Etta James.

James died earlier today at the age of 73, and, if anyone can be said to have experienced both the peaks and valleys of life, it would have to be Etta James.

Her health had been declining in recent years; it was already known that she was afflicted with dementia and kidney problems when it was revealed last month that she had chronic leukemia.

But she had other tribulations in her life. She struggled with her weight and painkillers and other drugs, spending some time in detox, and she had — shall we say? — issues with her mother, who was 14 when she was born. James never knew her father.

In between the hard times, though, there were moments of almost indescribable triumph.

Her signature song may well be "At Last," which was originally recorded by Glenn Miller, but James recorded a cover version nearly 20 years later — and, although others have recorded it since, it is James' version that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

James herself can be found in both the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone rates her 22nd among the greatest singers of all time. It's a list of accomplishments that any performer would envy.

"Most of the songs I sing, they have that blue feeling to it," she told CNN a decade ago. "They have that sorry feeling. And I don't know what I'm sorry about. I don't!"

Although I know of the hard times she endured, it is hard to understand why she should feel blue. After all, she was the opening act for the Rolling Stones at one time. To someone from my generation, little could be better than that.

Her recording of "At Last" may not have been a Top 40 hit when it was first released, but it continues to be a standard at weddings — and likely will remain one.

In that way, I suppose, Etta James will live on indefinitely.

That's good. I find it hard to imagine a world without Etta James in it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Betty White Turns 90

Perhaps one of the most amazing phenomena of recent years has been the surge in popularity of actress Betty White, who is 90 years old today.

I would be tempted to compare her to Grandma Moses — except that she didn't begin this career in her golden years.

Most people probably know she's no newbie — but still, I think, a lot of people probably don't realize just how long she has been around. Her career spans seven decades. She started out singing on an experimental TV station in Los Angeles right out of high school, but her early career was spent mostly on radio.

By the early 1950s, she was on TV, by that time an established entertainment medium, and, by and large, that is where she has remained. And she made it her own in a career that has had its share of ups and down.

She really appeared to make the medium her own as Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker, on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and the bubble–headed Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, but she had some flops, too, like her short–lived sitcom, The Betty White Show, that followed the wrapup of the former and served as something of a bridge to the latter (although people often forget that she had recurring roles on The Love Boat and Mama's Family between the two).

She is still influencing entertainment as an immensely popular and award–nominated star of the hit cable sitcom Hot in Cleveland. Not bad for a gal who just hit 90, huh?

Frankly, I've never really been able to comprehend what it was that people liked about her. Even in the '70s, when she starred in her own series, I felt she was capitalizing on the success — and longing for — the Mary Tyler Moore Show and tried to ride piggyback on that series's success.

If that was her intention, it failed. I think the series was canceled after just a few months. And I remember hearing a lot of jokes from the late–night crowd of the day (mostly Johnny Carson) about it.

But, I suppose, neither White nor those affiliated with the show could be blamed for trying to strike while the iron was hot. After all, isn't that a guiding principal behind just about every endeavor?

Sometimes, such gambles pay off. Other times they don't.

I suppose enough have paid off for White over the years — or else we probably wouldn't be observing her 90th birthday today.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Simon's Solo Debut Turns 40

There will always be a soft spot in my heart for the solo album that was released by Paul Simon on this day 40 years ago.

I never actually had a copy of the eponymously titled "Paul Simon," but I was familiar with the hits that came from it — songs like "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" and "Mother and Child Reunion."

You must understand. I was a young boy, and all of my exposure to Paul Simon at that time had come via the albums he recorded with Art Garfunkel. I guess that was how most people knew of Paul Simon, and that wasn't really surprising. The album that was released four decades ago today was the first that Simon released as a solo artist in the United States, even though he and Garfunkel had split up nearly two years earlier.

I wasn't accustomed to hearing Simon perform alone, and I guess I just assumed that any recording that featured him must include Garfunkel as well. Maybe a lot of people made that assumption — even though they knew the two had gone their separate ways.

Consequently, for many years, I mentally lumped songs like "Mother and Child" and "Me and Julio" with all the songs that Simon and Garfunkel recorded in the 1960s. My confusion wasn't helped when, in their reunion concert in New York's Central Park in 1981, the duo sang songs they had recorded as solo artists as well as the songs they had recorded together.

Deep down, I suppose I always knew that "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" and "Mother and Child Reunion" were Paul Simon songs, not Simon and Garfunkel songs.

Anyway, the latter title was an inspiration for both the angle of a story that I found myself writing for a newspaper shortly after I graduated from college and its headline.

The story was about the hospital in the town where I was working. The staff had recently implemented a program that would permit women and their newborn babies to be together sooner after childbirth than had been routine in the past.

I recall that the hospital's staffers were enthusiastic about the program, and the story reflected that. I don't remember all the details now — it's been a long time since I wrote that story — but I remember that the headline (a joint effort by myself and my managing editor) mentioned "mother and child reunions."

It was such a natural for the story.

Because of the positive public response to their reunion concert in Central Park, Simon and Garfunkel embarked on a reunion tour around that time that did not prove to be precursor to a long–term reunion.

I attended one of their concerts on that tour, along with my parents and my brother, and I don't remember now whether they played "Mother and Child Reunion" on that occasion.

No matter. It served as a memorable inspiration for me.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

On Such a Timeless Flight

"I'm not the man they think I am at home.
Oh, no, no, no
I'm a rocket man.
Rocket man
Burning out his fuse up here alone."

Forty years ago this month, Elton John recorded "Rocket Man."

A few months later, it was released as a single — and it has gone on to be possibly John's most recognizable recording. Oh, sure, you could mention others. "Honky Chateau," the album on which "Rocket Man" appeared, was his first album to reach #1 in America — but it was his fifth studio album.

And, within a few years of recording "Rocket Man," Sir Elton had released many others that people may be more inclined to recognize — although there is no doubt that lots of people recognize "Rocket Man."

They just don't always know the words.

That isn't an uncommon thing with popular songs, as Volkswagen cleverly demonstrated with its recent commercial featuring "Rocket Man."

The point of the commercial, of course, was to show how clear the Passat's sound system is — and it did so by showing just how many different ways a single line from a popular song can be misinterpreted.

That's really nothing new. Seems like people have been misquoting songs all my life. Doesn't really matter, I guess. Maybe that is what is magical about popular music, kind of like those write–your–own–caption contests where the cartoon is already drawn and all you have to do is supply the punch line.

In that regard, I've heard people attach such mondegreens to tunes, filing in things that were relevant to their experiences — kind of like the waitress who sings about "burnin' up the room with cheap cologne."

I certainly get the feeling, from that very brief moment in that commercial, that the waitress sings from personal experience on that one, even if it isn't the line that was originally written and recorded. The music provides the framework. The personal line gives it powerful meaning.

I knew a girl in college who equated "Rocket Man" to her own life. I don't think she misquoted the lines when she sang the song, but the song nevertheless had a personal meaning for her.

Her father drove one of those big rigs you see on the highway, hauling freight from one place to the next, and he would be away from home for long periods, trying to support a family he seldom saw and probably didn't really know.

My friend thought of her father as a rocket man.

I don't know what he hauled, and that isn't relevant, anyway. My understanding is that most truckers are contractors. They transport cargo. Doesn't matter what the cargo is. It could be food or clothing or cars — or perhaps even a hazardous cargo.

The nature of the cargo might require special handling procedures, but the objective is always the same. The cargo has to be transported from Point A to Point B. As long as the grocery store has the cookies you like to eat while you watch TV or the clothing store has the jeans you like to wear (and in your size, too), most consumers give little thought to the logistics involved.

My friend's father was one of the faceless people in America, I suppose — the ones who only get our attention when something goes wrong.

And that was the point of "Rocket Man," that a job that could be fraught with risks could be regarded by so many as routine. These days, driving a big rig may not seem terribly risky to most people — unless they watch Ice Road Truckers — and 40 years ago, many people had come to think of space travel as routine — even though they had witnessed a deadly fire during a pre–launch test five years earlier and the aborted moon mission of Apollo 13 less than two years before.

Now, of course, the space shuttle, which didn't even exist when John recorded "Rocket Man," has been retired. In spite of two disasters with space shuttle missions, it was seen as ordinary, predictable, routine.

There's nothing routine about space travel. For that matter, there's nothing predictable about life. It's different for everyone.

Kind of like interpretations of song lyrics.