Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Softness of The Firm



Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise): I know it's weird, but if we follow the law, it just might save us.

As I have mentioned here before, my parents were devotees of the mystery genre — books and movies (and similar things, like stage plays and TV shows).

Well, the past tense applies only to my mother. My father is still alive, and he still enjoys a good mystery.

I inherited a taste for some of my parents' preferences. I enjoy Hitchcock movies, for example, and I like Agatha Christie novels. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, there are some things I've never really warmed up to. Dad likes John Grisham novels (I don't know if Mom ever read one); I've never really developed a taste for them.

Consequently, I cannot explain why I went to see "The Firm," a Tom Cruise movie that was based on one of Grisham's best–selling novels and made its theatrical debut 20 years ago today. But I did. And I actually enjoyed it.

I can't say I watched it because of Tom Cruise. I have never been a Tom Cruise fan.

And it wasn't because I read the book and couldn't wait to see it on the big screen. I haven't read many Grisham novels in my life, but I know "The Firm" was not one of them.

Besides, I've heard the movie took considerable liberties with the story.

Perhaps it would have been received better if it had been true to the book. As it was, I found it hard to have much sympathy for Cruise or his wife (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, who I honestly thought would see more of an upsurge of her visibility in movies than she had after appearing in 1992's "Basic Instinct," in which she played a rather small role as a police psychologist and Douglas' mistress.

(Tripplehorn's career, however, seems to have gravitated more to TV roles of late.)

In "The Firm," Cruise and Tripplehorn played a young, struggling couple in Boston, where Cruise was finishing his law school studies. Like generations of college students before them, they had lived a frugal lifestyle while Cruise was in school, but, upon his graduation, they were swamped with lucrative offers from law firms.

The most appealing offer came from a firm in Memphis. It was almost an offer that Cruise couldn't refuse, and he didn't.

But it wasn't long before Cruise and Tripplehorn came to realize that there was a big catch. Essentially, they had to sell their souls to the firm, something that Cruise was initially willing to do, but Tripplehorn was not.

One of my favorite scenes was when Cruise was being prepared by The Firm for his bar exam. Various associates were assigned to help him with different aspects of the law, and each enunciated the clear talking point — "No associate has ever failed the bar exam."

The obvious comparison that was made at the time the movie was showing on the big screen was that it was like the body snatchers tale told in "The Stepford Wives" — if memory serves, there were even references to "The Stepford Wives" in the movie itself — but I thought it was more reminiscent of "Rosemary's Baby," with Cruise being welcomed to the family of The Firm with open arms.

The Firm's corruption became clearer and clearer, and Cruise and Tripplehorn finally took steps to extricate themselves.

The movie itself was, I thought, overlong and a bit anticlimactic. But, whatever shortcomings the story had, I thought the acting was first rate. Cruise and Tripplehorn were strong in their roles — as were supporting actors like Gary Busey, Holly Hunter, Wilford Brimley, Hal Holbrook and Gene Hackman.

Of them all, I felt Hackman gave the best performance. As a burned out senior lawyer, he managed to do what only Gene Hackman could do with such a role — he made the character sympathetic. It was not a sympathetic role. I have no idea if it was treated as one in the book, but it took someone like Hackman to make it so in the movie.

The ending of the story did tie in with the bar exam, but I won't tell you how. Might as well let that be a surprise if you never saw the movie, but I'll warn you: it was hard for me to work up a great deal of interest by the time the movie ended. The supporting cast was good, as I said, but I just didn't feel as invested in the ending as I expect to feel when I see a good drama.

I don't consider that a failing of director Sydney Pollack or of the cast with which he worked, but something was missing. I expect he did the best he could with what he had.

"The Firm" was just too soft.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Remembering George Carlin



"If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders."

George Carlin (1937–2008)

Five years ago today, George Carlin died of heart failure at the age of 71.

He was my favorite comedian — still is — and I still laugh when I hear his recordings.

And I marvel at his wisdom. It remains relevant, be it five years after his death or 40 years after it was put on a record.

That is the special gift of artists. Perhaps they paint or sculpt or perhaps they are comedians or actors or musicians — or writers like myself. The best do things that make deep impressions on us and continue to do so — even long after they are gone.

For me, George Carlin was such an artist.

At times, it almost seems as if there has never been a time when I did not know his name, but I know that isn't true. As nearly as I can remember, I first heard of him when I was in sixth grade. Some of my friends' parents (or older siblings) had his early comedy albums, and they had memorized some of his routines. They couldn't wait to share them with me, and I couldn't stop laughing when they did.

(The only comedy album my parents had was one by Bob Newhart. It was funny, but Newhart was never as funny as Carlin.)

I laughed even more when I heard the albums. I'm listening to one as I write this, and I have to stop writing now and then because it's too hard to write when I'm laughing so hard. I know what's coming — I've listened to them so often over the years that I have the material on many of his albums memorized — but they're still funny.

I expect Carlin to keep me laughing for the rest of my life.

Like any great artist, Carlin had certain themes to which he returned, time and time again.

He often ranted about language (which, as a journalist, I appreciate — and I often wonder if his routines, in some way, served to steer me in that direction). I could appreciate it when he complained about the pomposity of language, how it was often designed to conceal things.

"You can't be afraid of words that speak the truth," he said. "I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms."

And Carlin wouldn't stop after an observation like that. He delivered with both barrels.

"Sometime during my life," he said, "toilet paper became bathroom tissue. I wasn't notified of this. No one asked me if I agreed with it. It just happened. Toilet paper became bathroom tissue.

"Sneakers became running shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became directory assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges. House trailers became mobile homes. Used cars became previously owned transportation. Room service became guest room dining. Constipation became occasional irregularity."


See what I mean?

Carlin had some choice words to say about things like religion, politics and several subjects that usually aren't mentioned in polite company. But it was his routines on language that I liked the best.

Like his most famous routine — "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." In recent years, I have heard a few of those words on television, which is something I think would have amused Carlin. Perhaps it did. A word or two from that list had already gained a certain amount of TV acceptance by the time of his death.

Nevertheless, I think he was spot on about some of those words. I doubt that they will ever be permissible on network television (cable is another matter) — at least, not in my lifetime.

The movies, of course, are another matter, and Carlin did appear in a couple of movies. I saw one — "Dogma" — which came out in 1999. Carlin (who was brought up a Catholic) played a Catholic cardinal who was busy promoting a new pro–Catholicism campaign — Catholicism Wow! — with a more modern version of Jesus (Buddy Christ) as its representative.

I can only imagine how Carlin responded when the part was offered to him.

Carlin always seemed to be busy with something. On Oct. 11, 1975, he was the very first host of Saturday Night Live.

I know it is hard for a lot of people in the 21st century to believe, but, for about a decade before the debut of Saturday Night Live, NBC aired reruns of Johnny Carson late on weekend nights. But Carson decided he didn't want to do that. He wanted to hold the taped shows to run during the week whenever he took time off.

That alone was kind of a stunning development. Originally, Carson preferred to have guest hosts (of which Carlin was one) to fill in for him when he took his vacations. He wanted the show to be fresh in those days.

NBC ran promotions for the new show, featuring Carlin, for weeks — and, when the show made its debut, it was an immediate smash hit. Part of that was undoubtedly due to the talented ensemble cast (the Not–Ready–for–Prime–Time Players), but I always felt that at least part of it was because of Carlin's popularity.

In October 1975, I don't think anyone knew the names of those who would become regulars on the show — but darn near everyone knew who Carlin was, and I believed that a lot of people who tuned in that night did so because Carlin was the host. I know that is the reason why I tuned in.

I don't recall if Carlin ever hosted SNL again. But he lent the show his fame in its first program, which gave it instant credibility. And, once people watched it and began to become familiar with people who would soon be household names (i.e., John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd), they became regular viewers.

SNL has now been on the air for nearly 40 years. It is conceivable it would not have lasted past its first night if Carlin had not been the host.

His influence truly knew no restrictions.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Return of the Twilight Zone Marathon



One of the pleasures I permit myself is the Syfy Channel's Twilight Zone Marathon, traditionally held twice a year — around New Year's Day and around the Fourth of July.

I don't know how long this has been done. When I first became aware of it, the marathon was two, even three days long. It always included the holiday, and it included the day before and/or the day after the holiday as well.

Over the years, the marathon has grown gradually smaller. At some point, it was reduced to two days, and now it is only one day. It makes me wonder if this tradition's days are numbered — so to speak.

A few years ago, Syfy experimented with the format a little. Most of the time, the marathon had been strictly episodes from the original Rod Serling–hosted series, but one year, half of the marathon was devoted to those original episodes and half of the marathon was episodes from the reincarnation of the series in the mid–1980s.

I rather liked that arrangement. It gave me an opportunity to see some episodes I hadn't seen in more than 20 years. But Syfy hasn't done that since.

Anyway, I am writing all this because the Fourth of July Marathon is two weeks from today, and I have been looking at the online schedule to see which episodes are being shown.

I wish I could report that a rarely seen episode will be shown at a certain time, but I saw nothing on the schedule that I haven't seen fairly frequently over the years. The marathon starts at 7 a.m. (Central) on the Fourth of July and wraps up at 5 a.m. the next day.

I've always had a fondness for the Twilight Zone's historical episodes, but my favorites — "Back There," which was about the Lincoln assassination, and "The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms," which was about Custer's Last Stand — are not scheduled.

Most of the episodes that are considered iconic today are scheduled to be shown, like "Nick of Time," in which William Shatner and his new bride are prisoners of a fortune–telling machine in a diner; "Where Is Everybody," the very first episode in which Earl Holliman hallucinates in a sensory deprivation unit; "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," in which Shatner believes he sees a gremlin trying to sabotage the plane in which he is traveling; and a couple of Burgess Meredith's best episodes, "The Obsolete Man," about a librarian who is declared obsolete, and "Time Enough at Last," about a voracious reader who survives a nuclear exchange and suddenly finds himself with enough time on his hands to read all the books he has always wanted to read.

(Those last two, incidentally, will be shown back to back.)

Another classic episode is "To Serve Man," about a group of seemingly generous benefactors from outer space whose only real objective is to fatten the people of earth so they can be a food source for aliens.

That one will be shown on Fourth of July night. You can watch it if you don't have to go to a fireworks display somewhere.

In the absence of any rarely seen episodes on the schedule, I guess I will warn you not to watch certain episodes that I find tedious. (Obviously, you may disagree with me on one, some or all of these so please take my recommendations with the customary grain of salt.)

At noon (Central), the marathon will feature "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You," a futuristic episode in which every person undergoes a transformation into his/her choice of one of several perfect bodies. A girl (Collin Wilcox) who is about to be transformed resists, preferring to hold on to her individual identity.

That would have been a good message — except the character capitulated in the end.

I always skip that one. I also skip the one that is scheduled to follow it, "I Sing the Body Electric," which was about a family without a mother. The father was torn between his duty as a breadwinner and his role as a parent. The solution seems to be a robotic grandmother.

There were some abandonment issues that were raised by the story, but it didn't have the Twilight Zone's usual punchy ending. Written by Ray Bradbury, it was mostly the basis for a short story Bradbury would publish a few years later.

"It's a Good Life," which is scheduled for 3 p.m. (Central), starred Bill Mumy as Anthony, a little boy who could wish things away — and consequently terrorized his little town.

A lot of people regard it as one of the best episodes of the series, but I don't. I suppose I liked it well enough when I first saw it, but it didn't have the staying power with me that it had with others. Some of the episodes I can watch over and over again, but not this one. Maybe Mumy is too solidly entrenched in my memory as the little boy from Lost in Space, one of my TV favorites from early in my childhood.

Whatever the reason, I generally skip that episode. I plan to skip it two weeks from today, too.

Other than that, though, I'm fine with the schedule, and I'll probably spend most of the Fourth of July in the Twilight Zone. As usual.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Worshipping in the Church of Baseball



"I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology."

Annie (Susan Sarandon)

It's been 25 years since "Bull Durham" premiered in America's theaters, but I can still remember when I first saw it.

I was working at the Arkansas Gazette on the sports copy desk, which required me to work nights and weekends. I had been doing that for nearly 4½ years, and at this time in 1988, I was making plans to move to Texas to pursue my master's degree.

In hindsight, it wasn't the best time to be starting a new relationship. Nevertheless, that is what I was doing.

On one of my nights off, I took a girl named Mary to see "Bull Durham" at a theater in Little Rock. She had seen it before, but she didn't mind seeing it again. She liked it. I hadn't seen it.

It was a delightful movie. The sports genre is rather crowded, but "Bull Durham" brought a fresh quality to its subject, perhaps because it managed to combine sports, drama/romance and comedy almost seamlessly.

Mary was already a baseball fan — the topic accounted for the vast majority of our conversation on our first date — but even if she had no interest in the sport, I think the drama/romance and comedy would have kept her interested in the movie.

The love story part was pretty easy to grasp (and, I must say, Mary was a sucker for a love story). Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) and young hotshot pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) were vying for the affections of Annie, the team's groupie who made a habit of picking one player each season as her personal project. I always thought it was interesting that the on–screen fireworks were strongest between Sarandon and Costner — but, off screen, it was Sarandon and Robbins who had a long–term relationship.

Actually, I suppose, the movie was really about life and love and relationships. It just happened to be set against a sports backdrop. Personally, I found it to be a rather routine kind of love story — albeit with better writing than most — but, like any story, it needed a good hook, and sports provided the hook.

In spite of some marketers' attempts to present it in a different light, "Bull Durham" wasn't really a sports movie. That was a shortcoming that some moviegoers may have found unforgivable. It didn't really bother me at the time because I understood what it was.

Still, it helped to have some knowledge of the game in order to fully appreciate the often–crackling byplay between Crash and Nuke. As any baseball fan will tell you, pitchers and catchers often hold brief conferences on the pitcher's mound, usually to discuss strategy. But the mound conferences in "Bull Durham" were a little different.

Like when Crash and Nuke met on the mound to discuss Nuke's burning desire to "bring the heater" — i.e., throw a fastball. Crash, who had been signed to tutor Nuke, resented his attitude — and told the opposing batter to expect a fastball. The batter, of course, crushed it.

When they met on the mound while the batter was rounding the bases, Nuke muttered in wonder, "That sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball!"

"He did," Crash replied.

"How?" wondered a bewildered Nuke.

"I told him," Crash confided to Nuke.

Another time, after Crash told a batter what to expect and the batter drilled the ball over the fence to ruin Nuke's shutout, Crash remarked, "Anything that travels that far ought to have a damn stewardess on it."

But the funniest mound conference probably came when virtually the entire lineup was gathered at the mound, each player with his own crisis to resolve. Nuke thought his eyelids were jammed, one player wanted a live rooster to take the curse off his glove, and no one knew what to give a teammate for his upcoming wedding.

"We're dealing with a lot of shit," Crash told the assistant coach ...

Who replied, "Well, candlesticks always make a nice gift, and maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place setting or maybe a silverware pattern."

I'm quite sure that mound conferences aren't like that in the majors, but in the minors, who knows?

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein



If you're a fan of horror movies, you might enjoy watching "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," a delightful spoof of the horror genre that premiered 65 years ago today.

Actually, that title is a bit misleading. Frankenstein was in the movie — but he wasn't the only horror movie monster. Dracula was in it. So were the Wolf Man and the Invisible Man.

The premise of the story was that Dracula (played by none other than Bela Lugosi) and a lady scientist (Lenore Aubert) needed a simple brain for Frankenstein. They found such a brain in the luckless Lou Costello, and the lady scientist (played by, as I say, the little–known Aubert, a Slavic actress who appeared in relatively few American films but was at her slinky best in this one, at least based on her movies that I have seen) sought to lure him into her lab.

Around this time, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) popped in to warn Abbott and Costello of Dracula's intentions, and Costello had no trouble believing him. He had been witnessing many strange goings–on (aside from Aubert's behavior), but, typically, he couldn't persuade the skeptical Bud Abbott — at least until near the end of the movie, when the two of them were being chased by all three of the horror movie icons.

I'm really not trying to give anything away here, but the bottom line is the monsters in Dracula's castle all end up dead in one way or another, and Abbott and Costello make their escape in a boat.

Abbott and Costello made a series of movies that paired them with classic horror movie characters, but this was the first.

Perhaps it was the best. I'm not really qualified to make that judgment. I haven't seen the others. I've heard of them, but I haven't seen them.

Actually, I hadn't seen this one, either, until last December when Turner Classic Movies showed it around New Year's Eve. I watched it at that time, not really knowing what to expect. I knew of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., of course; I saw the original "Dracula" many years ago as well as the original "Frankenstein."

But I wasn't prepared for the ending.

If you're one of those people who prefer to be surprised by the ending of a movie, I advise you stop reading NOW.

But, if you don't mind a "spoiler" — of sorts — read on.

When Abbott and Costello have escaped Dracula's castle, Costello scolds Abbott for not believing him. Abbott replies that, because all the monsters were dead, they had nothing more to fear.

At that point, they hear a ghostly voice, accompanied only by an unlit cigarette floating in the air.

The voice (which belongs to an uncredited — and, therefore, unexpected — appearance by Vincent Price) says, "Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Invisible Man."

Abbott and Costello are so scared they jump out of the boat and swim toward shore while the Invisible Man lights the cigarette and cackles.

Holiday With Cary and Katharine



I suppose that, to movie audiences 75 years ago, it must have seemed that Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were co–starring in movies all the time.

Early in 1938, Hepburn and Grant were featured in a screwball comedy called "Bringing Up Baby."

On this day in 1938, they appeared in another movie together — "Holiday."

Now, "Bringing Up Baby" is generally considered to be a classic, particularly of its genre, which enjoyed its greatest popularity during the Depression — although it can hold its own with other types of movies from other eras. The American Film Institute included "Bringing Up Baby" in its list of the top 100 movies of all time.

"Holiday" isn't as highly regarded, nevertheless, it has stood the test of time. I think it is already considered one of director George Cukor's best, and it starred one of Cukor's first proteges (Hepburn).

I don't think it would be regarded as a screwball comedy. Sure, Grant was Hepburn's co–star in both movies, but the roles were different. The role Grant played in "Holiday" was too assertive to be a plausible male lead in a screwball comedy.

Likewise, it would be a mistake to think that the roles Grant and Hepburn played were the same in both movies. The stories were different and, therefore, required different characters.

In "Bringing Up Baby," Grant played a nebbish scientist who was truly no match for Hepburn's conniving heiress.

In "Holiday," they were worthy adversaries, if you want to call them that. Hepburn was still an heiress, but she was the sister of Grant's original love interest and was initially supportive.

Grant's character was more well–to–do — a self–made man, in fact — but also quite free spirited — and, given his stated intention to take some time off from work while he was still young so he could "find himself," he was ahead of his time. He would have been right at home in movies made three decades later.

That independent streak in Grant's character led to the first cracks in his relationship with Doris Nolan, who played Hepburn's sister. Until Grant revealed his plans, Nolan's character was his ally in all things, even actively recruiting the allegiance of her brother and sister in the effort to win over their father, but she was too obsessed with wealth and its trappings.

Naturally, the story threw Grant and Hepburn together — but in significantly different ways than in "Bringing Up Baby."

Thus, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the movie was resolved in a significatly different way as well.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Several Adventure Stories in One



"Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries."

James Michener
Chesapeake (1978)

I think I have mentioned here before that my father was a religion and philosophy professor when I was growing up.

I don't know when he was first exposed to the works of James Michener, perhaps before I was born.

That isn't really important, I guess. The point is that Michener made quite an impression on my father, so much of an impression that he used one of Michener's novels ("The Source") as a text in his classes.

The book followed a pattern that surely is familiar to those who have read Michener's works before. It told the story of the generations of a family in the Holy Land, going back to the Stone Age, through artifacts that were uncovered by modern–day archaeologists.

I saw that book on a shelf in my father's study when I was a child, and, when I was in high school, I read it. And I discovered, when I read it (although I could tell just from looking at the copy on my father's shelf), just how wordy it was.

That's a characteristic of most of Michener's works. You have to make a real commitment to reading them. Most are more than 1,000 pages. That can be pretty daunting — but my experience is that it often makes for a rewarding read.

(Recently, I loaned my paperback copy of Michener's book "Space" to my father. I observed that, by Michener's standards, "Space" — at 805 pages — is practically a short story.)

After reading "The Source," I read Michener's book "Centennial," which followed a similar pattern. It told a more domestic tale about an area of Colorado, beginning with the dinosaurs who inhabited it millions of years ago, followed by the Indians who lived there and the settlers who replaced them. I was even more engrossed in it than I was in "The Source."

So it was with great excitement that I read "Chesapeake," which was published 35 years ago today.

"Chesapeake" was set on the East Coast and told the story of the people who lived there over a period of roughly four centuries. No dinosaurs in this one, but there were fascinating accounts of Indians, settlers, slavery, the tobacco trade, pirates, wars. It was like several adventure stories rolled into one, much like the other Michener works I had read.

There were some clear themes in "Chesapeake" that were mostly told in the stories of various families. Unlike "The Source" — more like "Centennial," actually — the book didn't really tell the stories of generations of the same family but of different families. Some were devoutly religious, some were poor, some were slaves, and Michener explored each theme as completely as he could.

People often look for something to read in the summer. Usually, they want something light and breezy, something they can read on the beach or in a park. I wouldn't classify anything Michener ever wrote as "light and breezy," but I would still heartily recommend "Chesapeake" to anyone.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Looking Ahead by Looking Back



Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.

Jeff Goldblum (Ian Malcolm)
Jurassic Park

I'm not entirely sure, but I think "Jurassic Park" was the last movie I went to see at the theater with my mother.

She died about two years after it came out so it is possible that we saw another one, but I really don't think so. She and I didn't really have an opportunity to see any other movies together after that. At least, I don't think we did.

It is a significant point for me because we used to go see movies together all the time — Mom always used to love to talk about a movie after she had seen it, and I like to do that, too, but, since she's been gone, it's been hard to find someone to watch movies with me.

Anyway, I was visiting my parents a few weeks after "Jurassic Park" hit the theaters. Mom and Dad had already seen it — and Dad is not the sort of person who likes to see most movies more than once — but Mom suggested that the two of us go to see it, and so we did on a hot Sunday afternoon in late June of 1993.

As I say, Mom lived nearly two more years after that, but we lived in different states at the time. I can think of a few times when I visited my parents in those two years, and it is possible that we saw a movie together on one of those occasions, but I honestly can't recall one.

Even if I am wrong, though, I like to think that "Jurassic Park" was the last movie Mom and I saw together if only because it was directed by Steven Spielberg.

I can think of several directors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, but I don't think any other director — at least, in my lifetime — has been as gifted at squeezing every conceivable emotion out of every frame of film in a movie as Spielberg.

Every movie he has made has been special, even the ones that were judged as mediocre (at least, when compared to Spielberg's most noteworthy achievements).

And "Jurassic Park" was hardly mediocre.

Of course, as there is with any movie, there were continuity problems. The one that always bothered me was the rainstorm that was severe enough to leave puddles that were deep enough to prevent the children from being crushed when a Tyrannosaurus rex flipped the tour car in which they were riding and stepped on it — yet, shortly thereafter, when Ellie (Laura Dern) came looking for Alan (Sam Neill) and the children, the ground was dry. Nary a puddle in sight.

Well, perhaps that is quibbling.

After all, there is very little wasted effort in a Spielberg movie.

Everything that is said, everything that is done on the screen, every prop, every item of clothing ... everything has a purpose. Spielberg is always messing with your head, giving you something that foretells something or harkens back to something, and often you don't realize it until you've seen the whole movie — at least once — and had a chance to reflect on it a bit.

And, in hindsight, one of the most interesting examples of that from "Jurassic Park" came when Richard Attenborough's grandchildren and Neill were stranded in the park at night.

One of the children (Ariana Richards) asked Neill, "What will you and Ellie do if you don't have to dig up dinosaurs anymore?"

"I guess we'll have to evolve, too," he replied.

In the context of the movie, it was a reasonable question. Attenborough's character — well, the technology he had pioneered — had rendered the traditional work of researchers obsolete by reviving long–extinct dinosaurs. In the story, people wouldn't have to look at dinosaur bones and try to imagine what they looked like. They could look at the real thing.

But it had more long–term relevance for me than I realized at the time.

In 1993, Spielberg showed movie audiences that computers would revolutionize special effects, and I believed it. What I didn't realize was how rapidly emerging technology was going to change so much of the world in which I lived.

In my field, journalism, the changes have come so quickly that they have caught many by surprise, and newspapers have scrambled to find ways merely to survive. Survival has meant changing the roles in the newsroom, and many jobs have been eliminated in the process.

People like myself and the folks with whom I have worked are becoming today's dinosaurs. I don't feel obsolete, and I'm sure my colleagues don't feel obsolete, either. Perhaps we aren't — but some of our skills are.

It wasn't that piecemeal in "Jurassic Park." Dinosaurs had been extinct for millions of years; apparently, it hadn't been a gradual thing, either. In fact, I am often amazed that so many dinosaur skeletons have been preserved virtually intact all this time.

But to revive the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park," it was necessary to blend the DNA information that had been retrieved from fossils with DNA from frogs. The frog DNA filled in the genetic gaps. So, in a way, I guess it was piecemeal.

One of the things I remember being astonished by at the time — aside from the impressive special effects — was how little Neill was mentioned in the reviews I read. Most of the attention was given to Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern and Attenborough.

Neill, as I recall, was treated almost as an afterthought when, in fact, he had about as much screen time as anyone else — as he and the children tried to make their way through a park in which all barriers between man and dinosaur had broken down.

Mind you, I'm not saying that I think Neill is a great actor. Frankly, I've always thought that he capitalized on his looks and probably couldn't provide a truly convincing performance if given a really challenging role.

But, in the 1990s, he was on something of a roll. "Jurassic Park" and "The Piano," two of arguably his best movies, were in the theaters at this time 20 years ago. He'd been in "The Hunt for Red October" a few years earlier, and he was in "Dead Calm" in 1989.

He was getting a lot of exposure. But he has never been what I would call a major star.

Ironic, isn't it? A blockbuster movie about the perils of reviving the past didn't foretell his future success — at least, not yet.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Death of a Dingbat



When I was growing up, the television character I may have admired most was Edith Bunker of All in the Family.

Edith was played by Jean Stapleton, who died in New York yesterday at the age of 90.

All in the Family was truly a groundbreaking program, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed the lives of those who participated in it. It also changed America, and Stapleton had a lot to do with that. She was the long–suffering wife of Archie Bunker, whose name quickly became synonymous with bigotry.

If someone was designated "an Archie Bunker," it was not necessary to explain the meaning of that metaphor. Everyone knew what it meant.

But I never heard anyone described as "an Edith Bunker." That was a shame because, although her character was written to be a dimwit (or, rather, a "dingbat," as Archie called her), she was often the voice of sanity and wisdom.

Now, I did hear some people described as dingbats in the '70s. But that was more a general reference, a characteristic.

Archie may not have had much regard for Edith's wisdom, but the audience did. It was hard not to.

She had her weaknesses, but they were endearing ones. Archie complained that Edith was long–winded, that it took her forever to tell a simple story, and there was some truth to that.

But Edith was frequently saying things that would make the others stop and think. In one episode, I recall, Edith and Archie were visited by Edith's cousin and her husband, who had just returned from an expensive trip and couldn't wait to brag about it.

But all was not well in paradise. When Edith and her cousin were alone, the cousin confided that her marriage was falling apart, and she questioned Edith about the secret of her marital success. Edith was hesitant to say much until her cousin asked her if, in her intimate moments with Archie, she still saw "fireworks like on the Fourth of July."

Edith smiled in a shy, almost embarrassed way, and replied, "With Archie and me, it's more like Thanksgiving."

On another occasion, when Mike and Gloria's marriage was on the rocks, Edith started to tell another story, one about a fight her parents had when she was small. The argument began over maple syrup, and it ended with the two of them not speaking for several weeks. Eventually, Edith said, they made up, "but things was never the same between them."

In what I always thought was one of Edith's finest moments, she looked at Mike and Gloria and said, "Now, I know maple syrup is a little thing, but would you rather break up over something bigger?"

It was easy to wonder in those days why Edith would stay with someone who had no more appreciation for her than to call her a dingbat. Well, I guess you had to understand that it was the writers who put the words in Edith's mouth; Jean Stapleton merely interpreted the lines as any good actor/actress will do.

And the writers had an explanation.

Gloria asked Edith early in the series why she had chosen Archie over another suitor.

"Well, I liked being called a Goddess of Beauty," Edith replied, "but somehow it seemed more permanent when your father called me a dingbat."

That was Edith logic, I guess.

But Edith brought attention to things that weren't being mentioned in television in those days. She found a lump in her breast and forced people to think about something they didn't want to think about. After all, if it could happen to Edith, well, it could happen to anyone.

She was a moral compass without being preachy about it.

No dingbat she.