Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Did He? Or Didn't He?

"This is Africa, 1943. War spits out its violence overhead, and the sandy graveyard swallows it up. Her name is King Nine, B–25, medium bomber, Twelfth Air Force. On a hot, still morning, she took off from Tunisia to bomb the southern tip of Italy. An errant piece of flak tore a hole in the wing tank and, like a wounded bird, this is where she landed, not to return on this day or any other day."

Opening narration

With only a few exceptions, the episodes of the second season of Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone TV series — which began 55 years ago today — were arguably its weakest.

And the episode that opened the season may have been the weakest of the lot.

It was called "King Nine Will Not Return" — which, even for the title of a Twilight Zone episode, was baffling for the ordinary viewer. That was a bad start, but, heck, the Twilight Zone had its share of those in the first season yet always managed to connect the dots well enough for the viewer. Sometimes that was accomplished in the opening narration, and that was what Twilight Zone tried to do 55 years ago tonight.

But it really wasn't adequate. The episode was inspired, as I understand it, by what was, for many years, a modern mystery — the true story of an American bomber that disappeared after a bombing run on Naples, Italy during World War II. An oil exploration team found the plane, pretty well preserved, in the desert in Libya about 15 years later. The remains of the crew were found the next year.

Viewers could have benefited from knowing this was one of the Twilight Zone episodes that was based on an actual — albeit largely unknown — event. It wasn't strictly factual, though, and I'm not sure how telling the readers that could have been done — perhaps with some sort of text disclaimer that could have run with the opening credits.

The theme of history/time travel frequently figured in Twilight Zone, perhaps never as much as in the series' second season. In hindsight, I suppose that makes the episode that made its debut 55 years ago tonight a harbinger of things to come. The season that lay ahead would have fewer 30–minute episodes than any other during the series' original run, but it may have had a greater proportion of episodes that dealt with time/history/time travel in some way than the other seasons did.

Anyway, it seems that way to me.

It was practically a one–man show. Robert Cummings played a bomber pilot who regained consciousness in the African desert.

The episode did a good job of simulating that disoriented feeling we all have at one time or another, of waking up somewhere and not being sure where we are or how we got there, at least at first. It isn't necessarily the result of a night of drinking — although it often seems to be. Not in this case, though. Bit by bit, Cummings' mind pieced together what happened to his plane — which was in pieces. It was scattered all around him. But his crew was nowhere to be found.

Cummings found that unsettling, naturally, but he tried to reason with himself, telling himself to be calm, not to be irrational. There was a logical explanation for why there was no sign of his crew. But he couldn't think of one, and then he started to hallucinate. He thought he saw his crew from a distance, but when he walked in their direction, they vanished.

He stumbled upon a makeshift cross that had been erected, based on the inscription, upon the death of one of his crewmen, which resolved the fate of at least one of Cummings' men. Then he looked up and saw jets streaking across the sky. Those jets didn't exist in 1943, but still he knew all about them. How was that possible?

Cummings passed out, then came to in a hospital. Turned out it was nearly two decades after that fateful mission — and Cummings had not been on the flight. Someone else took his place, and he had been lost with the others. Cummings, presumably, had been carrying that survivors' guilt around inside him for years. It bubbled to the surface when he saw a newspaper article about his long–lost airplane having been found in the African desert.

Cummings, of course, wondered if he really had, somehow, gone back to the desert. His doctor, psychiatrist and nurse left his room, discussing his case and his "delusion." But then the nurse dropped Cummings' clothes on a table — and some sand fell out of one of his shoes.

This episode is probably most noteworthy for being the first to feature the now–iconic Marius Constant theme. Constant was a French composer/conductor who was known in the music world for his ballets — but is probably better known to the general public as the man who penned the Twilight Zone theme.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Drawing the 'Curtain' on a Beloved Detective

It was 40 years ago this month that Agatha Christie published her final mystery novel featuring her most popular detective, Hercule Poirot. The novel was published only a few months before Christie's death, and it really brought her lifelong odyssey with that character full circle.

Since it has been so long since the publications of "Curtain" and "Sleeping Murder," Miss Marple's last case, it is important to advise the millennial generation that, while they were the last of Christie's books to be published, they were not the last books Christie wrote. She wrote them more than 30 years earlier, during the London blitz in World War II, fearing that she would die in the daily bombing raids. She did not die, of course, and held the manuscripts in bank vaults until the mid–1970s.

As I understand it, Christie was reluctant to let either book be published, but she relented when her publisher pointed out to her that the only way to have any long–term control over her character would be to kill him off herself in print. If she didn't, some other writer might try to keep him alive — as Kingsley Amis did with James Bond after Ian Fleming's death.

I've heard it said that Christie may have had another reason for permitting "Curtain" to be published while she was still living. She always seemed to have an adversarial relationship with her beloved detective. She was irritated by the character's popularity and might have experienced considerable satisfaction from being rid of him.

I remember how excited my parents were about the publication of a new Agatha Christie novel. It was truly an event in our house, a cause for intense anticipation, and one of my parents (probably my mother) purchased a copy the day it hit our local bookstore. I don't remember now which one read it first, but one did, and then the other did, and my memory is they both liked it. (I knew they would. They were both Agatha Christie fans, and they both loved the Poirot character.)

They certainly discussed it a lot.

I guess it kind of came as a surprise to me at the time just how many Agatha Christie devotees there were. I suppose I was inclined to think of my parents' love for Christie as kind of a quirk. You know, it was a good thing they found each other and could share their passion for the same writer. That's probably how I felt about it at the time. Then I found out that there were a lot of people who shared that quirk. "Curtain" raced to the top of the best–seller lists in the United States and Great Britain and remained there for weeks.

I wanted to read it, too, but my mother told me that I would be wise to read several of Poirot's previous novels first, especially the first one, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," which was published more than 50 years earlier and was an integral part of the plot of "Curtain." That would put everything into context, my mother told me.

So I did, but it took awhile. I was a teenager, easily distracted and didn't get around to reading those novels for awhile. When I did and I felt adequately armed to face Poirot's finale, I felt almost as if reading "Curtain" was a rite of passage — my admission to the world of adults. At least, the adults in my world.

Maybe I should have waited a few years. In hindsight, I think I would have appreciated the material more if I had waited. But you know how young people are — always in a rush to grow up.

Timing, they say, is everything, and I suppose that was never truer than it was in the case of the publication of "Curtain" and the final Miss Marple mystery. If Christie had died in those World War II bombing raids and those two books had been published in the 1940s, my guess is that Christie would be remembered as a solid mystery writer from the prewar period — although many of her books most likely would be out of print today.

Instead, most of her books remain in print the world over.

"Curtain" and "Sleeping Murder," too, might be out of print — for it was after the war that Christie, producing at least a book a year almost to the end, literally added volumes to the Poirot and Marple stories. In fact, when Christie wrote "Sleeping Murder" during those bombing raids, Miss Marple had been the subject of only three novels and one collection of short stories.

The novel that ended her career and the one that ended Poirot's career wouldn't have had the same meaning if they had been published in 1943 instead of the mid–1970s. As it was, though, they were modern literary events.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Navigating the Many Mysteries of the Sibling Relationship

"In 30 years as a couples' therapist, I've never said what I'm about to say — Give up! It's hopeless! You are pathologically mistrustful of each other, competitive to the point of madness! So trust me, just meet each other at weddings and funerals, and the rest of the time, stay the hell away from each other!"

Dr. Schacter (Milo O'Shea)

When Frasier was originally on the air and I saw episodes like the one that premiered 20 years ago tonight, "Shrink Rap," I tended to think of them as being about sibling rivalry. But the more I have thought about it, the more I have been inclined to think of them as being about the sibling relationship in general. The rivalry is only one part of it.

As I have observed with others — and within my own sibling relationship — the bond that links siblings is a complex one, especially when the siblings are particularly close. Not all siblings are close, of course, but it has been my experience that siblings who are close have more complicated relationships with each other than the siblings who seldom see one another.

(Does that seem obvious? Perhaps it is. As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.)

The Crane brothers, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), were very close. They were in the same profession, had similar tastes in nearly everything, saw each other almost daily — and often found themselves in competition over something or someone. By the time the series' third season began 20 years ago, the Crane brothers had already tried to write a book together and run a restaurant together — with predictably disastrous results. Niles was always jealous of his brother's professional success, and Frasier always thought his brother was trying to undermine him in some way.

The conflict in this episode began when Niles, frustrated by a primal–scream therapist whose sessions were interfering with Niles' own, learned that Frasier was interested in returning to private practice, and he decided not to renew the therapist's lease, opting instead to rent the space to his brother.

Upon learning of the plan, their father (John Mahoney) expressed his doubts. "You two can't work together," Martin insisted. Niles and Frasier rejected that, but Martin was right. From the moment Frasier moved in, there was friction between the brothers.

(Well, it existed long before that, But in the context of this story, that is when the problems really began.)

And it spilled over into their first therapy session together — where they nearly came to blows and the therapy group left en masse. The Crane brothers shouted at each other with such intensity that Dr. Schacter (Milo O'Shea), a couples therapist, was drawn to the scene from his office across the hall.

When he heard what was going on, he volunteered to work with them. But that proved to be much easier in theory. (Things got off to a bad start. Dr. Schacter told the brothers "I may be able to help you," but one of the brothers — I think it was Niles, but it could have been Frasier — remembered him say, "I'm sure I can help you."

Dr. Schacter determined that their fundamental problem was lack of trust in each other, and he recommended some in–office exercises. He started with an exercise in which one of the brothers was supposed to stand with his back to the other and fall back into his brother's arms, thus establishing a sense of trust. But the brothers were so suspicious of each other that each, when taking his turn to fall into his brother's arms, kept asking Dr. Schacter questions that clearly showed that they did not trust each other.

Dr. Schacter tried to show them how it was supposed to be done, but, when he fell backward, neither brother caught him. They were too busy arguing with each other.

Dr. Schacter gave up and left the room. The brothers remained and discussed what they had just heard. Frasier observed that, as is so often the case, it took someone from outside the situation to get to the heart of the matter.

"Well, Dad always said it," Niles remarked, "but he has no credentials."

You couldn't question Dr. Schacter's credentials, Frasier replied, walking over to the doctor's diplomas on the wall. "He graduated from the University of ... Grenada!"

Niles said that must have been his undergraduate work. So Frasier looked at his postgraduate degree. It was from Aruba.

"An all–Caribbean schooling," Niles observed. "Well, tally me banana!"

The brothers, convinced that the supposedly unimpeachable Dr. Schacter was full of it, left with Niles promising to get the doctor out of his lease by the end of the week and the two brothers arguing over where to have lunch.

I have been asked many times to pick my favorite Frasier episode, and the truth is I can't. There are episodes I like that really focused on each of the regulars in the series, and there are episodes that focused on the relationships between two or more of the regular characters, and I really like those, too. As a fan of the old Cheers! series, I enjoy the episodes that reunited Frasier with Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth).

Then there are other episodes that I really like simply because they are funny.

I guess, when you get right down to it, I just really like the Frasier series. The stories are always funny or moving — or both — no matter how many times I see them.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Who Ya Gonna Trust?

Kathy (Faye Dunaway): Do you trust him?

Turner (Robert Redford): [shaking his head] Trust.

Kathy: Does he trust you?

Turner: He's in the suspicion business. He can't trust anybody.

Kathy: How could anybody fool them?

Turner: Maybe nobody did.

Kathy: Then ...

Turner: Maybe there's another CIA ... inside the CIA.

As Roger Ebert wrote about "Three Days of the Condor," which premiered on this day 40 years ago, the story was "all too believable" in the aftermath of Watergate.

That was kind of an ironic observation, given that, within a year, Redford would co–star with Dustin Hoffman in a movie about the early days of the Watergate investigation. (A friendly warning: If you haven't seen "Three Days of the Condor" before, the images of the World Trade Center that keep popping up can be a little unsettling even though they were really only props in the movie, and it was made about 26 years before the terrorist attacks brought them down.)

His co–stars in "Three Days of the Condor" were Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow. The director was Sydney Pollack.

"How soon we grow used to the most depressing possibilities about our government," Ebert wrote, "and how soon, too, we commercialize on them. Hollywood stars used to play cowboys and generals. Now they're wiretappers and assassins, or targets."

Considering the times we live in, that makes me wonder what we'll be seeing on our movie screens in the not–so–distant future.

In this movie, Redford played a target, a seemingly naive character who worked as a reader for the American Literary Historical Society, which was actually a front for the CIA. And Redford was a CIA analyst (code name: Condor) who read books and periodicals from around the world looking for concealed meanings. In the early part of the movie, he filed a report on a spy thriller he had been reading, commenting on unusual plot twists and the number of languages into which it had been translated in spite of the fact that it wasn't commercially successful.

Then, one day, when Redford was out getting sandwiches for the office, someone came in and shot up the place. When he returned, he found everyone dead.

From that point on, you really had to follow the story carefully because, in true spy thriller fashion, people got shot on a frequent basis. Characters you thought you knew. Characters you didn't know at all.

Faye Dunaway entered the story as kind of an innocent bystander. Redford spotted her in a store and, needing a place to hide, forced her to take him to her apartment, where he held her prisoner while trying to decide on his next move. As time went by, they became lovers.

Max von Sydow played a shadowy contract killer who had been behind the shootings in Redford's office. He turned his attention to Redford, the one who got away.

Cliff Robertson played Redford's section chief, but Redford had never met him and, knowing the environment in which they both worked, didn't exactly trust him.

Perhaps now you can see why Ebert said the movie was believable. And I believed the story, too — except for the part about Redford and Dunaway becoming lovers after he had abducted her at gunpoint. Let me clarify that. I didn't believe it at the time I saw it; since that time, I have heard of a number of incidents in which an abductee did fall in love with the abductor. Seems to me that is called the Stockholm syndrome — when a hostage bonds with the abductor. Anyway, it has more credibility with me now.

And I suppose that must have been what the movie was portraying in the side story about Redford and Dunaway.

Hey, it had to be. Dunaway took a shower and, when she came out of the bathroom, witnessed Redford shooting a guy who had been sent by his superiors to kill Redford. And she stayed with him.

You really had to pay attention to the story, or you would miss something important. For some people, that is simply too much work. For them, movies are for escapism, something that should wash over you while you devote little effort to the experience. Spy thrillers (well, the really good ones, anyway) aren't that way in print, and they aren't that way in the movies.

"Three Days of the Condor" seemed like the kind of movie Oscar usually rewards, but it only received one nomination — for Film Editing — and lost to "Jaws."

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Awakening a Sleeping Giant

I've made a life's study of history. It was my minor in college, and it's been a personal passion all my life.

Movies have been a passion of my life, too, and I always like it when the two converge. I like movies that are based on actual events — preferably significant ones — although I do enjoy learning about something I never knew about before. Just as long as I'm getting the straight dope. I don't mind fictional accounts, as long as the stories are true to the events. For example, I didn't really object to "Titanic," mainly because it didn't embellish the truth — even though it did tell a true story in the context of a fictional one. But the truth wasn't sacrificed.

Which is more than I can say about "Pearl Harbor," a success at the box office but a flop with the critics — in no small part because the fictional story set against the backdrop of the sneak attack took all the attention but failed to make the audience care about anyone in the movie — and it didn't contribute to a younger generation's understanding of what happened and why. Even though the audience knew — or should have known — what was going to happen.

No such problem with "Tora! Tora! Tora!" That account of Pearl Harbor, which premiered on this date in 1970, was absolutely committed to re–creating the attack down to the smallest detail.

The audience realized early on how woefully unprepared the Americans were for the attack. One of my favorite moments in the movie comes on that fateful day — Dec. 7, 1941 — when E.G. Marshall, playing Lt. Col. Bratton, comes looking for the chief of staff, only to be told by his incredulous aide that he wasn't in his office because "It's Sunday, sir."

I watched this movie again a couple of years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At the time of those attacks, I heard them compared, over and over, to Pearl Harbor; I heard that so much it became a cliche. But after I watched "Tora! Tora! Tora!" again, I had a change of heart. There were differences between the events, of course, but there were also similarities. Both involved determined foes who regarded the United States as a deadly threat to their existence. And, in both cases, the United States was either ignorant of or guilty of ignoring the gathering storm.

A big difference, of course, was that the 9–11 attacks targeted largely civilian facilities — with the noteworthy exception of the Pentagon. At least the Americans who were attacked in Pearl Harbor had the means to defend themselves — and many of them tried to do so. But the complacency of the perception of a routine Sunday morning prevented the counterattack from being very effective.

The attack was harrowing. In fact, until I saw the re–creation of D–Day in "Saving Private Ryan," I thought it was the most graphic depiction of battle — one–sided though it was — that I had ever seen.

"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve," said Sô Yamamura in the role of Admiral Yamamoto. It was the most prophetic line in both real life and the movie.

I know little of the Japanese actors in the movie, which really isn't surprising since the producers deliberately sought actors who were not stars. I could write volumes on the American actors, though — Marshall, Jason Robards, Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam. Perhaps they were not regarded as A list stars at the time, but I would have considered them stars. Until I watched the movie again after 9–11, I thought Henry Fonda was in it as well. But he wasn't. I must have been thinking of "Midway."

The cast was top notch.

But, really, what else would you expect from guys like that? They delivered — as they always did.

It was interesting that the movie did better at the box office in Japan than it did in the United States — which was probably why it took years for the producers to make back their $25 million investment.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" was nominated for five Oscars and won one — Best Visual Effects.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Walking a Fine Line on a Summer Afternoon

"That's all they're interested in — it's a freak show to them. I can't control it, Sal — let 'em say what they want. Forget it. It don't matter."

Sonny (Al Pacino)

After all these years of working in and around the news business, I guess this sort of thing shouldn't surprise me. But the events depicted in "Dog Day Afternoon," which premiered on this date in 1975, were based on real events, and it was one of the strangest stories you will ever see or hear.

A couple of men really did rob a bank in Brooklyn in August of 1972, and they concocted an elaborate scheme that was re–created in "Dog Day Afternoon." Their plan was to get enough money to finance a sex–change operation for Al Pacino's lover, Chris Sarandon.

But things went wrong from the start. In the first place, they arrived too late in the day. The daily cash pickup had already occurred, and there was very little money in the bank. To make up for it, Sonny decided to take some traveler's cheques, but he made a big mistake when he tried to prevent the cheques from being traced by burning the bank's register, which sent smoke billowing out of the building, alerting a neighboring business to trouble in the bank, and the police were notified.

As people gathered outside the bank, it became clear that a simple getaway was not possible so Pacino and his accomplice Sal (John Cazale) bargained with the police. Pacino asked for a helicopter to land on the roof. The helicopter would take them out of the country. Well, that wouldn't work, Pacino was told, because the roof would not support a helicopter.

So Pacino demanded to be taken to the airport where they would select a jet to take them out of the country.

But that pattern persisted. Every time Pacino's character tried to do something to prevent something bad from happening, there was a roadblock of some kind. Or there were diversions. Sonny had an uncomfortable phone conversation with Leon, his lover who wanted a sex–change operation.

Ultimately, the episode was brought to an end on the airport tarmac. Sal was shot in the head, and Sonny was arrested. Subtitles informed the viewers that Sonny was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Leon eventually got his sex change, and Sonny's ex–wife and children were on welfare.

"It's an actor's picture," wrote Roger Ebert. "[Director Sidney] Lumet and his editor, Dede Allen, take the time to allow the actors to live within the characters; we forget we're watching performances. Although the movie contains tragedy and the potential for greater tragedy, it is also tremendously funny. But Frank Pierson's Oscar–winning screenplay never pauses for a laugh; the laughter grows organically out of people and situations."

It would have been easy to exploit this story, but Lumet resisted that temptation and produced, instead, a movie that simultaneously observed both the human comedy and the deadly serious stakes of the situation.

Living in a Material World

"Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn't have to move for anybody."

Henry (Ray Liotta)

So much has been said about "Goodfellas," which premiered on this date in 1990, that it almost seems redundant to go over the plot.

So I will content myself with making some general observations.

First of all, let's talk about its place among the great films of all time. The American Film Institute ranked it #92 of all time — only about one–tenth of the movies that were ranked ahead of "Goodfellas" were made after "Goodfellas" made its debut, and I can't really quibble about any of them except for "Titanic" — which I thought was good but not great.

The thing about "Goodfellas" was that the motivation was the desire to be treated like someone special. There have been other great movies about organized crime in my lifetime — the first two "Godfather" movies come to mind — but I never got the sense that the central characters were motivated by a yearning to be treated better than anyone else, although I suppose that was always implied. Those other movies have always seemed to me to be more about money and power, but "Goodfellas" was about a bunch of guys who grew up in underprivileged homes and wished to have the privileges they had been denied. Driving fancy cars and wearing fancy suits were ways of showing that one had risen above humble circumstances; so was having all the people around fall all over themselves to satisfy your every whim.

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," said Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), whose life story inspired the movie. "To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States."

At the end of the movie, Hill was nostalgic about the old days. "We were treated like movie stars with muscle," he recalled. "Today, everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else."

Roger Ebert described this sense of entitlement in the context of "the most famous shot" in the movie: "[Henry] takes his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to the Copacabana nightclub. There's a line in front, but he escorts her across the street, down stairs and service corridors, through the kitchen area and out into the showroom just as their table is being placed right in front of the stage. This unbroken shot, which lasts 184 seconds, is not simply a cameraman's stunt, but an inspired way to show how the whole world seems to unfold effortlessly before young Henry Hill."

Bracco's character was groundbreaking in that she was allowed to speak at length. Most of the time, even today, the women in gangster movies are occasionally seen (if they are lucky) but never heard.

Violence always comes with the territory in a gangster movie, and in trademark Martin Scorsese fashion, the violence in "Goodfellas" could be shocking and explicit. I guess it needs to be that way in a gangster movie to underscore how things are done in that universe.

The violence, Ebert wrote, "is a story of economic ambition. Henry and Karen come from backgrounds that could not easily lead to Cadillacs, vacations in Vegas and fur coats, and she justifies what he has to do to pay for the lifestyle."

Robert De Niro, of course, was great in his role as Jimmy the Gent — but, really, doesn't De Niro seem to belong in gangster movies?

One final observation, and this has to do with Joe Pesci.

Pesci won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a psychopathic gangster. It is the same award for which he was nominated 10 years earlier but didn't win. Although he has given performances since "Goodfellas" that were worthy of Oscar consideration, I do not think he has been nominated again.

Perhaps that mistake will be corrected one of these days.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dysfunction Junction

"Don't admire people too much. They might disappoint you."

Cal (Donald Sutherland)

"Families can go along for years without ever facing the underlying problems in their relationships," Roger Ebert wrote. "But sometimes a tragedy can bring everything out in the open, all of sudden and painfully, just when everyone's most vulnerable."

That, Ebert said, was the underlying premise of "Ordinary People," which premiered on this day in 1980. It was a remarkable achievement for first–time director Robert Redford and a great cast that included Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern.

It may have been even more remarkable for Moore and Hirsch, who almost certainly were best known for their TV comedy performances when this movie was made. Both were rewarded with Oscar nominations — as were Hutton (who won) and Redford (who also won). I guess everyone couldn't be nominated — and Hutton beat castmate Hirsch for Best Supporting Actor — but Sutherland was left out. I will confess that I didn't understand that. I thought then — and I still think today — that his performance was one of the best of his career.

And, while I like McGovern, I didn't really think her performance merited an Oscar nomination.

The movie richly deserved the Oscars it received — but it could be very difficult to watch. Once was probably enough for most people. It was gritty. It was candid. It was emotionally uncompromising.

That does not make for the kind of movie that most people want to watch for entertainment. While there are probably exceptions to that, I can't say that I know anyone who has a copy of it in his/her DVD collection.

"Ordinary People" picked up the loose threads of an ordinary American family in emotional turmoil after the death in a boating accident of the oldest son. That tragedy exposed those unaddressed issues, like a festering sore, of which Ebert spoke. Most families have them (I'm tempted to say all families have them, but I suppose I should leave open the possibility that there are some exceptions to that rule — although, personally, I doubt it), those issues of which no one speaks until circumstances leave them no choice.

In "Ordinary People," I suppose the most jarring performance against type was delivered by Moore, whose career up to that point had been in popular sitcoms. Her performance as the emotionally distant and apparently unfeeling mother was hugely effective; Redford said it was the heart of the piece, and Moore played the part to perfection.

Beth (Mary Tyler Moore): Calvin? Why are you crying? Can I ... can I get you something?

Cal (Donald Sutherland): I don't ...

Beth: What did you say? Calvin, what did you say? Tell me!

Cal: You are beautiful. And you are unpredictable. But you're so cautious. You're determined, Beth; but you know something? You're not strong. And I don't know if you're really giving. Tell me something. Do you love me? You really love me?

Beth: I feel the way I've always felt about you.

Cal: We would have been all right if there hadn't been any mess. But you can't handle mess. You need everything neat and easy. I don't know. Maybe you can't love anybody. It was so much Buck. When Buck died, it was as if you buried all your love with him, and I don't understand that, I just don't know, I don't ... maybe it wasn't even Buck; maybe it was just you. Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried. But whatever it was ... I don't know who you are. I don't know what we've been playing at. So I was crying. Because I don't know if I love you anymore. And I don't know what I'm going to do without that.

Ebert described the family flawlessly.

"There's the surviving son, who always lived in his big brother's shadow, who tried to commit suicide after the accident, who has now just returned from a psychiatric hospital," wrote Ebert. "There's the father, a successful Chicago attorney who has always taken the love of his family for granted. There's the wife, an expensively maintained, perfectly groomed, cheerful homemaker whom 'everyone loves.' The movie begins just as all of this is falling apart."

At the heart of what Ebert calls the "falling apart" of this family was "the complexities of love." Moore, as I say, was the icy character everyone thought she was, incapable of loving her husband or her youngest son, at least to the extent that she clearly loved her first born. Sutherland played her husband, a truly sympathetic character who wanted to love and support his wife and surviving son but, like so many men of his generation, had trouble expressing his emotions.

Hutton, as the youngest son, suffered the most from the death of his brother. Ebert called him "tortured," and that is a good description. He blamed himself for what happened to his brother. He was always afraid — and he was resentful of the fact that his mother clearly favored his brother over him. As Ebert observed, he attempted suicide — and spent four months in a psychiatric hospital. Yep, lots of issues for this family.

Hirsch played a psychiatrist who tried to help Hutton's character. Next to Moore's, his performance was probably the most jarring for audiences of 1980. At the time, Hirsch was probably best known for playing Alex the affable cab driver on Taxi. In "Ordinary People," he had to deal with post–traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt. That's a pretty toxic cocktail.

But he helped Hutton's character tremendously, at one point telling him, "A little advice about feelings, kiddo. Don't expect it always to tickle."

As I wrote earlier, "Ordinary People" richly deserved the Oscars it received — the three I have already mentioned and a fourth one for Best Adapted Screenplay.

We're In the Money, We're In the Money ...

Lynda Dummar (Mary Steenburgen): C'est la vie.

Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat): What's that?

Lynda: French, Melvin. I used to dream of becoming a French interpreter.

Melvin: You don't speak French.

Lynda: I told you it was only a dream.

It is probably most people's secret dream to have a fortune just drop into their laps no questions asked. The origin of the fortune would surely differ, but you'd like to have a lifetime's worth of financial security without having to work for it, wouldn't you? Of course, you would — because then work could be an option, not a necessity.

It would really take the pressure off the whole thing.

Unless you happen to be Melvin Dummar. Dummar, a Utah gas station owner, claimed to have rescued billionaire Howard Hughes when he was stranded in the Nevada desert in December 1967. Dummar said the man asked to be driven to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, about 150 miles from where Dummar claimed to have found him, and only revealed his identity to Dummar in the last minutes of their drive together.

A few weeks after Hughes' death in 1976, a handwritten will was found at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–Day Saints in Salt Lake City. In part, the will awarded one–sixteenth of Hughes' fortune to Dummar.

But it wasn't cut and dried. Dummar couldn't just show up and collect $156 million — which is what his share of the estate would have been — unless the will had been determined to be legitimate. When that much money is involved, you can be sure there will be someone who will contest the will, and, in this case, there were several someones contesting the will. In 1978 a Nevada court ruled that the will was a forgery.

Really, it couldn't have been hard to reach that conclusion. For one thing, the will gave $156 million to the Mormon Church, even though Hughes was never a member of the church. He employed many Mormons, but he never was one. For another, it named a former Hughes CEO, who left Hughes' employ on bad terms more than a decade before the will supposedly was written, as the executor of Hughes' estate. Numerous words were misspelled — including the name of Hughes' cousin. The will left money to Hughes' two ex–wives, even though both had alimony settlements that specifically prohibited them from making any claims on Hughes' estate. And it left $156 million to someone named "Melvin DuMar."

Two years later, Jonathan Demme made a movie based on Dummar's story. It was called "Melvin and Howard," and it made its premiere on this day in 1980.

How incredible it would have been if the story had been true.

But the movie, wrote film critic Roger Ebert, "doesn't depend on whether the so–called Mormon Will was really written by Hughes. That hardly matters. This is the story of a life lived at the other end of the financial ladder from Hughes. It sees Dummar as the kind of American hero who would send [Horatio] Alger out to hang himself."

If Ebert was right about the film's objective — and he usually was — it succeeded on that level.

"The genius of 'Melvin and Howard' is that it is about Melvin, not Howard," Ebert wrote. "The film begins and ends with scenes involving the Hughes character, who is played by Jason Robards as a desert rat with fading memories of happiness. Dummar stops in the desert to answer a call of nature, finds Hughes lying in the sagebrush, gives him a ride in his pickup truck and gets him to sing."

And, Ebert observed, Robards was "chillingly effective" in his role — and Robards certainly could be that if the part called for it. I have seen many of Robards' performances, and he always did what the role called for.

"But this movie belongs to Paul Le Mat, as Dummar," Ebert wrote. "He is pleasant, genial, simple of speech but crafty of mind, and always looking for an angle. He angles for Milkman of the Month, he plots to get his wife on a TV game show, he writes songs like 'Santa's Souped–Up Sleigh,' he plays the slots at Vegas and goes through his life asking only for a few small scores."

It also belonged to Mary Steenburgen, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Dummar's wife.

I was familiar with Steenburgen before most moviegoers were, I guess. She was a student at the small college where my father taught. I can't tell you what she majored in — probably theater arts — but she was active in the drama department, appearing in several stage productions in the late '60s and early '70s. I know. I saw some of them, heard about others.

She moved to New York in 1972 and was discovered by Jack Nicholson, as I understand it, and made her movie debut in "Goin' South" in 1978. "Melvin and Howard" was her third big–screen appearance.

Change of Command Growing Pains

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): I'd like to talk to you about Corporal Klinger.

Col. Potter (Harry Morgan): And his all–girl orchestra?

The last that MASH fans had heard, Frank Burns (Larry Linville) was acting commanding officer after the discharge and death of Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), and every MASH fan knew that Frank fully expected to be made permanent commanding officer. He was already trying to mold the 4077th in his and Hot Lips' (Loretta Swit) somewhat twisted images.

But 40 years ago tonight, Frank was notified by mail that the Army, for whatever reason (and I'm not even sure a reason was given, but it's been awhile since I have seen the episode), had decided not to make Frank the permanent commanding officer. Instead, Col. Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan) had been given the assignment.

Col. Potter was a career Army doctor who had spent the previous two years behind a desk. As such, the surgeons were concerned about two things — that he would submit the camp to a lot of Army discipline to which no one was accustomed and that he had lost his surgical touch in two years of inactivity.

Their first concern seemed to be legit when Potter summoned the camp's officers to his office to get acquainted — and he read aloud to each of them from their personnel files.
Col. Potter: Major Margaret Houlihan.

Hot Lips (Loretta Swit): Sir!

Col. Potter: Ten years, spotless record.

Hot Lips: Thank you, sir!

Col. Potter: Major Frank Burns.

Hot Lips: Just friends, sir.

Col. Potter was quite different from Henry Blake. When he met Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr), he told him to get out of the dress he was wearing and into a uniform — and to stay in uniform. After making the change, Klinger began suffering from a rash that the surgeons determined must be psychosomatic — and they agreed that Klinger should wear women's underwear beneath his uniform. That seemed to solve Klinger's problem — at least until one day when the only thing he had to wear beneath his uniform was a half–slip.

The staff at the 4077th soon came to realize that Potter was not going to be the wild–eyed disciplinarian they had feared — that he would be reasonable, but he did have his standards.

The one who was having the most difficulty, of course, was Frank. He was crushed when he wasn't made permanent commanding officer, and he went AWOL.

Hot Lips covered for him around Col. Potter, but away from Potter she confided in Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and B.J. (Mike Farrell), who found it hilarious that by–the–book Frank Burns was absent without leave.

After the first intensive surgery session, which, as I recall, wrapped up in the wee hours of the morning, it was clear that Potter had not lost his touch. When he told them that "I could use a belt," Hawkeye and B.J. invited him back to their tent for some of their homemade hooch — and the three began to bond.

As they were in the process of becoming inebriated, Potter told Hawkeye and B.J., "I had a still on Guam in WW2. One night it blew up! That's how I got my Purple Heart."

As it so often did, MASH provided some good life lessons in this episode:

  • Your life's journey will probably expose you to many different kinds of people. It is unfair to judge one against another because everyone is different. The folks at the 4077th were used to Henry Blake as their C.O. Now they had to get used to someone else. They did not always agree with the way he did things, and they missed Henry, but that didn't necessarily make either wrong, just different. The key was giving each the space to do the job the way they were able to do it.
  • Your life's journey is also likely to include some disappointments. Have the courage to face them. Now, courage isn't always an easy thing to summon forth, and it doesn't necessarily mean you will prevail, but you will feel better about yourself when you have the courage to face your setbacks.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Which One's Pink?

I honestly don't know what Rolling Stone was thinking when it ranked "Wish You Were Here," the Pink Floyd album that hit the record stores 40 years ago today, #211. I think it deserved to be ranked higher — much higher.

I mean, imagine the challenge. Whatever Pink Floyd did would be the followup to "Dark Side of the Moon." It was probably inevitable that, whatever Pink Floyd did, it wouldn't measure up to "Dark Side of the Moon" with critics or consumers. In some ways, I suppose that is true. It probably doesn't measure up. Some have acclaimed "Dark Side of the Moon" as the greatest album ever recorded, and I would agree that it is one of the greatest albums ever recorded, for there are many that are deserving of that recognition.

Including, I think, "Wish You Were Here." I have long felt it was necessary to have both in my collection.

I have regarded "Have a Cigar" as my favorite track from the album, but it is really hard to beat the title track, "Wish You Were Here," and any Pink Floyd fan will tell you that the 26–minute "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" is a Floyd classic, even if it was divided to bookend three other compositions.

I've always liked the relaxed sensation I get when I listen to this album. It is a pure, honest expression of human emotion, and's Stephen Thomas Erlewine touched on that when he wrote that "the jazzy textures of 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond' reveal its melodic motif, and in its leisurely pace, the album shows itself to be a warmer record than its predecessor."

Pink Floyd has always been the most cerebral band I have ever heard. No one else even comes close. Listening to Pink Floyd, even listening to an album I have heard many times before, is new and special each time because the music encourages a free association of thought that is entirely dependent upon the state of mind of the listener.

And, in that sense, my favorite line from "Have a Cigar," which lampoons the recording industry — "Oh, by the way, which one's Pink?" — poses an appropriate question. If the experience is different each time, which one is Pink? And the answer, of course, is all of them.

"Shine On You Crazy Diamond" is Pink Floyd's magic carpet ride.

But don't dismiss "Wish You Were Here," Floyd's tribute to Syd Barrett, "the long and probably forever lost guiding light of the original Floyd," wrote Ben Edmonds of Rolling Stone. It shows the melancholy, introspective side of Pink Floyd's music.

Actually, it is not so much Pink Floyd's tribute as it Roger Waters'. The lyrics are his, and they embrace his emerging sense of estrangement. David Gilmour contributed the musical framework and has said that "Wish You Were Here" is his favorite Pink Floyd album. Pink Floyd's late keyboardist Richard Wright reportedly said the same thing.

I've always felt "Wish You Were Here" was a triumph for Pink Floyd — both the album and its title track.

When It Really Did Feel Like the First Time

The episode of M*A*S*H that was shown 40 years ago tonight felt like the series' debut, even though the actual opening night was three years earlier.

Two of the charter members of the cast — McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers — had left the series, and the hour–long episode that aired 40 years ago tonight introduced Rogers' replacement — Mike Farrell as Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt — to the viewers. Harry Morgan was introduced as Stevenson's replacement, Col. Sherman Potter, a week later.

It wasn't the last time that the core cast would change, either. Before the series ended, Larry Linville (Frank Burns) and Gary Burghoff (Radar) would leave, bringing in David Ogden Stiers to replace Linville as a staff surgeon and elevating Jamie Farr as Burghoff's successor as company clerk. Linville's character was acting commanding officer by the time the '75 season began 40 years ago tonight, but Harry Morgan would soon be brought aboard as Col. Potter, the unit's duly appointed new commanding officer.

For most TV series, so many personnel changes would be too much to survive. But it worked for M*A*S*H — and I think it was kind of a perfect storm. Military units change personnel rather rapidly; ironically, that made Hawkeye (Alan Alda), who was the pivotal character in the program, the anomaly, the one who stayed the whole time, along with Hot Lips (Loretta Swit). So it was natural that people came and went, even those people to whom the audience felt an attachment. That, too, happens in war. It added an extra layer of realism to a series that so often walked a fine line between comedy and drama.

As the episode opened, Hawkeye was returning to camp after some R&R in Tokyo. He and the audience already knew that Stevenson had left — and been shot down over the Sea of Japan — but neither knew that Trapper John (Rogers) had received his orders to return to the States.

When Radar told him, Hawkeye hitched a ride with Radar to pick up Trapper's replacement. Hawkeye hoped to catch Trapper before his plane left so he could say goodbye, but they got there 10 minutes after Trapper's departure.

They met his replacement (Farrell) and took him to the Officers' Club after discovering that someone had taken their Jeep. Radar was uneasy about going into the Officers' Club, being an enlisted man, but Hawkeye took B.J.'s captain's bars and put them on Radar's cap. If anyone asked, Hawkeye said, they were field testing a new rank — corporal–captain.

I always liked the dialogue on "M*A*S*H," but I particularly liked the dialogue in this episode. For example, upon entering the club, a clearly nervous Radar ordered his trademark grape Nehi. When it was served to him, the bartender asked, "Does the 'captain' want a straw?"

Radar, trying to come across as if he belonged in officers' country, replied, "We don't use straws in combat, fellah!"

Then Radar noticed a colonel who was eyeing him. and he told Hawkeye. "What colonel?" Hawkeye asked. "There's enough brass in here to make a spittoon."

"Over there at eight o'clock," Radar replied. "He keeps staring at me."

"He's probably crazy about you," Hawkeye said.

Anyway, the three needed transportation back to the 4077th. Hawkeye saw a general's Jeep parked outside the club. He plucked the general's flag from the hood, and the three of them climbed in the Jeep and headed for the camp.

Things were going swimmingly for the travelers until they happened upon a Korean family who had sent two daughters into a field to use sticks to see if there were land mines there. If the girls survived, the field was safe for the family's ox — and for the family to plant crops.

They tried to stop the girls from their task, but a mine went off and one of the girls lay motionless on the field. Radar went running into the field in spite of his companions' protests, picked up the wounded girl, instructed the other to take hold of his sleeve, and they ran back to the Jeep.

The Jeep backtracked to a hospital where the three dropped off the girl and some other members of the family, then resumed their trip to the 4077th. That was when they had a flat tire — and, while they were changing it, they came under sniper fire. They got away with the lugs on the tire a bit loose, then stopped down the road to tighten them. B.J. observed that there was a bullet hole in the seat next to him. Radar remarked that the general who owned the Jeep would have a fit.

"Why should he?" Hawkeye asked. "We fixed his flat."

Shortly thereafter the Jeep came under mortar fire. The three abandoned the Jeep and sought cover, then had to tend to the wounded from a unit of soldiers that had been walking through the area. Once that was finished, they resumed their trip and made it to Rosie's Bar near the camp. They stopped for a drink, then proceeded to the camp, where a now inebriated B.J. checked in with Frank Burns by saluting and saying, as he had been instructed by Hawkeye, "What say you, Ferret Face?"

Frank, who had been fantasizing (along with Hot Lips) about training B.J. to be his kind of Army doctor, realized that he had another Trapper John on his hands.

But not for long. A new commanding officer was on his way to the 4077th.