Tuesday, May 30, 2017

'O.K. Corral' Was Entertaining If Not Entirely Accurate

"All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime, a woman or a friend."

Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster)

I love to watch movies that are based on famous people or events from history — like John Sturges' "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," which made its debut on this day in 1957.

But I seldom recommend such movies to people as reliable sources for, say, facts a student could use in a term paper.

For that kind of purpose, you're usually better off referring to books on the subject, and that is certainly the case here.

Not that the real gunfight at the O.K. Corral was lacking in drama, but, as is so often the case, the facts apparently weren't dramatic enough, which led to several historical inaccuracies.

None of those inaccuracies alone could change the outcome of the gunfight — but the cumulative effect was enough make you wonder who survived and, for that matter, who won the shootout.

Most of that would be speculation, but you would be right to wonder who was actually there. Johnny Ringo, a well–known outlaw played by John Ireland in the movie, wasn't there at all and shouldn't have been a character in the movie. Nevertheless he was.

Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) apparently was in Tombstone that day, but the movie suggested that he came there with Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster). That wasn't true. He showed up much later.

And, while the movie indicated that Earp saved Holliday's life, it was actually the other way around.

Jo Van Fleet and Rhonda Fleming played the female roles in the largely male ensemble. Van Fleet played Holliday's girl, and Fleming played Earp's love interest. As I understand it Van Fleet's character was, in real life, a prostitute and Holliday's common–law wife. I haven't been able to find out anything about Fleming's character, but I do know that Earp came to Tombstone with a common–law wife of his own. He had three during his lifetime and none had the name of Fleming's character in the movie.

These inaccuracies didn't prevent the movie from being a big box–office hit.

It was entertaining, and I suppose folks were willing to overlook some things.

Like the fact that the actual gunfight lasted just 30 seconds, three men were killed in mostly face–to–face encounters and only a few firearms were involved. In the movie the gunfight lasted five minutes, and there were considerably more fatalities shot from medium range with a large arsenal.

But, hey, if you're gonna have a movie with the word gunfight in the title, you've got to have a lot of guns and a lot of gunshots, right?

"Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" was nominated for two Oscars and lost both — Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing.

By the way: Dennis Hopper, who was appearing in only his fourth movie, was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, which is where Wyatt Earp was sheriff a few years before the gunfight occurred.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Goodbye to Gregg Allman

I am powerless to resist.

Ever since I heard yesterday of the death of Gregg Allman, I have been listening to my CDs of his music — at home, in my car, wherever I am, whatever I'm doing.

Thoughts of Gregg Allman bring back many fond memories for me. The Allman Brothers Band may have been my favorite band when I was in my teens, and I still enjoy listening to those recordings today.

There is some music I listened to in my teens that makes me cringe when I hear it today. "What was I thinking?" I want to ask myself even though the answer is obvious. I was a teenager, and you know how teenagers are.

But the Allman Brothers music never affects me that way.

It is drizzly and overcast this morning in Dallas, Texas, and I have been listening to the Allmans and remembering those days in my life. It has always seemed to me that Southern blues/rock music was made for a day like today, which makes it an appropriate time to mourn Allman's passing.

The Allman Brothers were responsible for bringing that genre to us. There have been many Southern rock bands over the years, but Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band were the pioneers. They made sure we got the music, then passed the baton to others. Some handled it well; others did not.

But none ever matched what they achieved.

I feel a personal link between Dallas and the Allman Brothers. My grandparents lived here, and my family came here to visit frequently when I was growing up. I can remember buying cassettes of Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers during our visits — Dallas always had far better music stores than central Arkansas did, as far as I was concerned — and listening to them on my portable cassette player on my grandmother's porch.

Frequently, as I recall, it was raining when I listened to those tapes.

Farewell, Gregg Allman.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Settling a Score

Lomax (Kirk Douglas): Do you always wear a gun over your underwear?

Taw Jackson (John Wayne): Just lately.

The war wagon concept dates back hundreds of years — to the Middle Ages when heavily armored wagons were used as both offensive and defensive weapons.

Their usefulness on the battlefield waned as the weaponry and tactics of war evolved. Perhaps it was inevitable, given how many horses it must have required to haul those things around. They weren't exactly your standard stagecoaches.

But apparently they found another use later on — as the forerunners to the armored car in which all sorts of things of value have been transported from one place to another over the years.

And the name of the western that premiered on this day in 1967, "The War Wagon," referred to an armored (and armed) wagon that carried a shipment of gold. The shipment belonged to a mine owner who had framed a rancher (John Wayne). The rancher ended up in prison, and the miner confiscated his land — then found gold on it.

The rancher's prison sentence was reduced for good behavior, and he returned to his old stomping grounds with the intention of robbing the miner of a shipment of that gold.

To assist him in this endeavor, he recruited a man (Kirk Douglas) who shot him several years earlier. Kennan Wynn played another one of Wayne's recruits as did Howard Keel.

It probably goes without saying that Wayne had scores to settle with both the miner who framed him and took his land and the man who shot him. That's a ticklish situation, to put it mildly. But Wayne managed to tiptoe delicately through the minefield.

When you've got apparent scores to settle with both your enemies and your allies, you don't have a lot of margin for error.

Wayne and Douglas had a kind of a friendly competition going on, though. At one point, after they had confronted and gunned down two bad guys (one of whom was Bruce Dern), Douglas remarked, "Mine hit the ground first."

To which Wayne replied, "Mine was taller."

The rest of the movie was about the caper — the attempt to get away with all that gold. And, while I usually try to find some moral or lesson in a movie or TV episode about which I am writing, I can't think of one for "The War Wagon." It was just good entertainment.

I know Wayne made westerns that were humorous as well as westerns that were dramatic. Most, I would say, would be categorized among the latter. That represented most of my exposure to the Duke, anyway.

But "The War Wagon" was different. It leaned more toward humorous, with Wayne's character more bemused than indignant about his circumstances — and I have always found that refreshing.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Earning Your Wings

"What's the signal for 'I'm sorry'?"

Agnes (Carol Burnett)

I really like Twilight Zone. There aren't many episodes I won't watch. In fact I have seen most of them multiple times.

I like Carol Burnett, too. There aren't many things that she has done in her career that I won't watch.

But you can't combine the two — although the powers that be tried to do that very thing 55 years ago tonight in an episode called "Cavender Is Coming." Such a combination is definitely an acquired taste, much like Richard Nixon's favorite food (cottage cheese with ketchup).

For my money it was the worst of the Twilight Zone episodes. It just wasn't a comedy series — although it did have its amusing moments. "Cavender Is Coming" always struck me as a slapstick kind of episode, not really a typical Twilight Zone episode.

It wasn't an isolated case, either. There were a few other Twilight Zone episodes that were silly and slapstick in nature as well, but "Cavender Is Coming" didn't straddle the line the way the others did. It went well past it.

In my mind, that is probably Twilight Zone's greatest shortcoming. From time to time, Twilight Zone's writers felt compelled to veer into comedy — and always fell flat on their faces in the attempt, too.

Anyway ...

I presume, gentle reader, that you have seen "It's a Wonderful Life," the Christmas classic starring Jimmy Stewart. Well, "Cavender Is Coming" followed a similar premise. An angel named Cavender — played by Jesse White, who was probably better known to people of my generation as the Maytag repairman even though he had a rather extensive career in movies and TV programs before he started making TV commercials — was trying to earn his wings. His assignment was to help a clumsy woman (Burnett) improve her life in 24 hours. The thing was that, while her life wasn't perfect, she wasn't unhappy.

Cavender had had other opportunities to earn his wings, but he had failed to do so, and it was taking longer with him than it had with any other angel. Consequently, failure to achieve this objective would result in demotion.

But a good performance would cause his superiors (one of whom was John Fiedler, who always played mousy parts but nevertheless was in several of the best movies of his time, including "12 Angry Men," "True Grit" and "The Odd Couple") to reconsider his case.

As you can probably imagine, this put Cavender under some pressure. Things weren't helped by Burnett's response, which was (to put it mildly) skeptical.

But he persuaded her that he was the real deal through a few "miracles" that were predicated on the belief that wealth equals happiness. That was an easy assumption to make, given that Burnett was unemployed and behind on her rent when he was given his assignment.

Burnett disabused him of that after he had transformed her into a wealthy socialite living in a mansion. He arranged for her to have a big party with lots of debutantes and celebrities — all the things he thought should make her happy.

One of the guests at the party was future Beverly Hillbillies star Donna Douglas, who was making her second appearance on Twilight Zone. She had a bit part as a debutante in this episode; she was the star (although someone else spoke her lines) in "The Eye of the Beholder" in the previous season.

Douglas spoke her own lines in "Cavender Is Coming," but she only had a couple of them.

It is a shame, really, that Twilight Zone made the episode so slapstick because it had a pretty good message about happiness that kind of got lost.

The bewildered and exasperated Cavender, desperate to get his wings, demanded, "Don't you want to be happy?" after Burnett told him she didn't want to live in the mansion and throw parties for debutantes.

"You don't understand me," she replied. "I was happy. I want it the way it was."

Cavender couldn't understand that. "The way it was? Unstable, unresolved and unemployed?"

Burnett smiled and nodded. "Disconnected, discombooberated and behind in my rent. But that's for me."

In other words, the happiest people aren't the richest people. They're just happy with what they have — and that makes them rich, as Cavender conceded near the end of the episode.

"You are the richest woman I know," Cavender told her. "You have an abundance of wealth. And it seems that I've had to travel a very long distance to find out that cash and contentment aren't necessarily synonymous."

That is probably true although it may also be true that, as Mrs. Howell once said on Gilligan's Island, "Whoever says money can't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Same Old Same Old

Steven Spielberg is probably the most gifted filmmaker of my lifetime.

But I'll be the first to say that sequels are just not his thing.

He's a terrific story teller, but his inclination is to tell the story in a single sitting, usually not in installments — even when the response to one of his movies appears to be a cry for more — and move on to the next project.

"Jaws," for example, was great. The sequels, not so much. But Spielberg really didn't have a hand in them.

Inexplicably, he was the director of both the original "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," which premiered on this day in 1997. The original was a first–rate example of Spielberg's filmmaking at its best; the second was an uncharacteristic example of giving in to the temptation to make some easy money essentially repeating yourself.

Well, it might have been better if Spielberg had repeated himself. Instead he tried to concoct an entirely new story with basically the same ingredients. Spielberg knows how to push all the right buttons to get the desired response from the audience, but these movies centered on the dinosaurs that had been created by Richard Attenborough's character in the first movie. It was almost as if Spielberg directed a documentary.

(That would have pleased my journalism professors. Their advice to us was always that, whenever we wrote about something, we should be like flies on the wall. "The reader shouldn't even know you're there," one of my professors said.)

Attenborough had a cameo role in the sequel. So did the child actors who played his grandchildren in the earlier movie.

And Jeff Goldblum was back — but none of the others returned. Instead you had Arliss Howard, Julianne Moore and a whole new cast of good guys and bad guys, all brought together to explore an island where the dinosaurs had been bred before being brought to Jurassic Park where they would be the main attraction. When the park was abandoned, the isolated supply island was forgotten.

Except by the audience. If I remember correctly, there was nothing to forget because this island was never mentioned in the original.

That was just one of the many hurdles Spielberg had to clear in order to make this movie. And I guess he succeeded in most of his objectives, but when the movie was finished and showing in the theaters, it lacked the one thing it needed the most, the one thing that just about every Spielberg movie has — a sense of awe, of wonderment.

Call it the Wow Factor. It is when Spielberg merges all the best elements of filmmaking that are at his disposal at the time.

I remember that moment in the original "Jurassic Park." It was when all the guests saw a wide assortment of dinosaurs in an open field. There was no comparable moment in the sequel.

I'm not saying Spielberg didn't try. But the dinosaurs in his sequel were always aggressive. The audience knew why, of course, and understood. But it got in the way of what one expects from Spielberg. He is the gold standard, always on the cutting edge.

His imagination takes us places we never dreamed we would go. He does the dreaming and turns it into movie reality. To borrow the words of 19th–century British poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Spielberg is "the music maker and the dreamer of dreams."

Sequels just aren't his thing.

Making movie magic is his thing.

Spielberg has never struck me as a director of violent movies. I know he directed "Jaws" — but the shark never became a malevolent monster. It did what animals do — it hunted for food. In "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the dinosaurs were malicious. They killed indiscriminately. Hunger had little to do with it.

Oh, there was a sense of wonder — initially — from some of the cast members — and most of the folks in Spielberg's audiences.

It could hardly be avoided. Spielberg's dinosaurs appeared to be the real thing. It was hard for audiences, whether watching the original or the sequel, not to be astonished by what they saw.

But where Spielberg came up short was by not reimagining the material and coming up with a unique story that did the visuals and the human characters justice.

That's when Spielberg has always been at his best — when, in addition to the movie making bells and whistles, he also gave audiences a story that surprised them, that wasn't what they expected.

Film critic Roger Ebert agreed with me, by the way.

"Perhaps the time to do the thinking on this project was before the first film, when all the possibilities lay before Spielberg," Ebert wrote 20 years ago. "He should have tossed aside the original Michael Crichton novel, knowing it had given him only one thing of use: an explanation for why dinosaurs might walk among us. Everything else — the scientific mumbo–jumbo, the theme park scheme — was just the recycling of other movies."

Recycled is the right word, I think. When I saw "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," at a theater, I kept thinking that I had seen it before — just not with dinosaurs. I still can't say that it reminded me of a specific movie, just a genre — the monster movie.

Another thought that I had was that Spielberg's dinosaurs were always getting loose and terrorizing humans in the rain. In the original movie, it was during a rain storm — at the time I presumed it was some sort of tropical storm — that the dinosaurs escaped their pens and roamed the island.

They did essentially the same thing under the same circumstances in the sequel, and when I watched the movie, I presumed again that it was some sort of tropical island.

But then the plot called for one of the adult dinosaurs to be taken to San Diego where, sure enough, it was raining. Now, San Diego has a very agreeable climate most of the year with little rain — maybe a foot or so all year.

So that part, that this vessel carrying a living dinosaur, arrived in San Diego on one of the few rainy days of the year, probably surprised some people in the audience — but that really isn't the kind of surprise I've been talking about.

It was more recycling.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Looking for Light at the End of the Tunnel

"'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is a film about a man who experiences the catastrophe I most feared during my recent surgeries: 'locked–in syndrome,' where he is alive and conscious but unable to communicate with the world. My dread, I think, began when I was a boy first reading Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Premature Burial' at an age much too young to contemplate such a possibility."

Roger Ebert

When I was 13 years old, I broke my right arm and had to wear a cast for eight weeks.

I'm right–handed, which means I had to function without the use of my dominant arm for two months. It was during the school year, and it was extremely challenging for me to try to write with my left hand.

I adapted the best I could, and my teachers were understanding. And, after eight weeks, I was permitted to use my arm again.

At least once in our lives, I suppose, everyone is faced with the deprivation of something that one has come to take for granted. Usually that deprivation is limited in some way — and temporary.

And that is the key point, isn't it? It is temporary. I didn't like wearing a cast or having to try to do things with my left hand for eight weeks — but I knew it wouldn't last forever. I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. I could see it. With both eyes.

And that was the point. There was light at the end of that tunnel.

It's been a long time since I broke that arm, but I have thought about it frequently over the years, often in the context of incarceration. When I worked as a newspaper reporter, I covered the police and courthouse beat for awhile, which meant I had to cover trials from time to time. Those trials involved offenses that, if the defendants were found guilty, would mean time in prison.

I'm not sure when I started thinking about my broken arm in the context of incarceration, but I kind of feel like it must have been when I was covering trials. It has continued to this day.

Some of the offenses carried lengthy — but limited — sentences; people convicted of such offenses knew they would spend several years in prison, but their incarceration would end someday.

But most of the trials I covered were murder trials — and, while there were exceptions, most of the defendants knew that, if convicted, they could expect to spend the rest of their lives in prison. There would be no light at the end of that tunnel.

Jean–Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine, was not convicted of a crime, but he faced a kind of life in prison when he suffered a massive stroke in December 1995 that left him with a condition known as "locked–in syndrome" a condition in which the patient is almost entirely paralyzed but is, nevertheless, aware of what is happening around him/her and able to communicate only through eye movement and blinking. In more extreme situations, the eyes are paralyzed as well.

In this condition, Bauby dictated his memoir through a tedious eye–blinking procedure in which his assistant would repeatedly recite the alphabet until he blinked to indicate which letters came next. It took an average of two minutes to dictate each word.

The memoir was turned into a movie that made its debut 10 years ago today at the Cannes Film Festival. The book and the movie were titled "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Director Julian Schnabel was rewarded with Best Director at the Cannes festival.

Schnabel, by the way, was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards but lost to the Coen Brothers, and the movie was nominated for three other Oscars as well.

"Like a sailor seeing the shore disappear, I watch my past recede, reduced to the ashes of memory."

Jean–Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric)

To a casual observer, Bauby appeared to have a wonderful life. He was editor of a popular magazine. He had a beautiful ex–mistress (Emmanuelle Seigner), with whom he had three children, and a beautiful new mistress. But then he had his stroke.

Most of the muscles in his body were useless after that, but his mind remained clear, and his imagination was strong. I'm a writer, and I can say that many things could be taken from me and I could manage somehow, but if I no longer had a clear mind and a strong imagination, I would not want to keep going.

Bauby had both of those things, but he still didn't want to keep going — at first. The writer within him knew there was a story that needed to be told.

That story was rich with ironies.

A few days before his stroke "Jean–Do," as he was known, was visiting his frail 92–year–old father (Max von Sydow) and gave him a shave because he could not shave himself.

After Jean–Do's stroke, his father observed in a phone call to his son (with his assistant interpreting his eye movements for his end of the conversation), that they were both locked in — he was physically unable to leave his apartment and his son was locked inside his body.

That was his perception. He wanted to be with his son but he couldn't. Others couldn't bring themselves to face the new reality. Their perceptions frightened them too much.

We all face barriers in our lives. Jean–Do's father faced a physical barrier. The others faced an emotional barrier.

That is certainly something I have experienced first hand. Most of the time I have not known I was seeing someone for the last time, but there have been a few times in my life when I have seen someone and I knew — usually because of a medical condition — it would be the last time, but I could never bring myself to say the word goodbye.

Perhaps it seemed too much like giving up. I regret that, but I don't regret feeling afraid. It is a natural, honest and normal human response. It is all a matter of perception, I suppose.

All my life I have heard that perception is reality and that may never have been more true than it was when applied to the life of Jean–Dominique Bauby.

The stroke was the reality, but it was the perception that colored the picture for Bauby and those around him. He saw his affliction as being like one of those heavy diving bells that divers once wore to get a constant supply of oxygen when they were in the water. Bauby felt the diving bell was dragging him to the bottom of the sea.

But many of those around him did not see a diving bell. Instead they saw his spirit as a butterfly that was rising above it all.

Thus the name of the book — and the movie.

And as grim as the topic may sound, it really is a rewarding movie experience.

I want to read the book.

Friday, May 19, 2017

No Good Guys

More often than not, it seems to me, the Oscars voters like to reward feel–good movies. I suppose, after spending most of the year profiting from violence and exploitation, Hollywood likes to shine the spotlight on its more uplifting — and decidedly more infrequent — positive efforts.

I don't mean that the Best Picture always goes to a Disney movie or anything like that. The characters in the Oscar winners do have their flaws, but there is usually something ennobling about at least one of them, too, something that tells the audience that no one is irredeemable. (Look, this guy is X, Y or Z, and yet he still managed to be A, B or C.)

There's nothing wrong with that. It's good to draw attention to movies that praise those qualities to which we should all aspire — even if the movies aren't box–office successes and the qualities they embrace aren't especially prevalent.

The box–office successes typically focus on the things that we all find unpleasant, but many people choose to spend their entertainment dollars watching those movies, anyway — perhaps in part due to an understanding that there are far more sinners than saints in this world.

Sometimes, though, Hollywood rewards movies in which none of the characters seems to have any good qualities. Such was the case when the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 10 years ago today, won the Oscar for Best Picture.

And since its commercial release, the movie has become the Coens' biggest moneymaker — ever. Winning Best Picture didn't hurt at the box office, of course.

Neither did the facts that the Coens shared the Oscar for Best Director, and Javier Bardem won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the thoroughly evil hit man Anton Chigurh.

If there were any redeemable characters in "No Country for Old Men," they must have been the random minor characters who had the misfortune of crossing paths with Chigurh — and the audience never knew enough about them to conclude whether they really were redeemable.

Chigurh, though, was a mystery, a real enigma, although not entirely to at least one person — the arrogant bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) who was put on his trail. Harrelson's character observed that Chigurh was a psychopathic killer, but "You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He's not like you. He's not even like me."

For that matter, no one knew how to pronounce Chigurh's name. One character pronounced it sugar, but there was nothing sweet about him. I suppose that was intended to be a paradox. The Coens like to work those in when they can.

Anyway, Chigurh was hired to recover the money from a drug deal that went bad in the west Texas desert. Josh Brolin, playing a struggling welder out hunting antelope, stumbled onto the scene and found the loot — more than $2 million — sparking a cat–and–mouse chase that is the heart of the story.

Brolin's circumstances may have aroused the audience's sympathy as he tried to get away with the money and, at the same time, protect his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), but he really had no redeeming quality. He was every bit as ruthless, if not as violent, as Chigurh, the man who pursued and, ultimately, killed him.

Chigurh also killed the bounty hunter who was hired to bring him down.

Harrelson's performance was adequate but never really rose above my rather modest expectations. I enjoyed watching him on Cheers!, but I have hardly been blown away by his theatrical work, probably stemming from his post–Cheers! work in "Indecent Proposal," although that was far from his first movie. Unfortunately, it was not far from his best.

Most of the time Harrelson has been a supporting character — as he was in "No Country for Old Men."

And to be honest, that is what nearly all of the characters in the movie were. I suppose that is what nearly all the characters in every movie are, even the movies with "all–star" casts. Some of those stars, regardless of their statures in Hollywood, will be in supporting roles. How well they succeed depends upon how well they are able to keep their often considerable egos in check when only two of them are truly the stars of the show.

Even though he shared top billing with his lesser–known co–stars, Tommy Lee Jones was a supporting character as the rural West Texas sheriff hot on the trail of Brolin and Chigurh. He must have known that all along.

His character was about to retire, and his greatest contribution to the movie was serving as the inspiration for its title. Well, the actual wording comes from a poem from Yeats, but in the context of the story, Jones' character began the movie with his general lament that the area was so violent — and, at the end, he spoke of his dreams of his father, who had also been a sheriff, and how in one of the dreams his father, who was on horseback, told him he was going on ahead in a snowy mountain pass to make a fire and wait.

There was no place for him in West Texas. It was no country for old men.

In his way, I guess, Jones' character was seeking redemption — perhaps a way to win his father's approval — but he was really just looking for a way out of the place that was not meant for old men. I guess we all want that, to escape. That doesn't make us any nobler or any more worthy of admiration than anyone else.

"I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow," Jones' character remarked near the end of the movie. "And he didn't. I don't blame him. If I was him I would have the same opinion of me that he does."

His remarks were pithy, short and sweet as so many Texans are inclined to be — and that comes from a lifetime of observing Texans, including my own grandparents, who lived there most of their lives, and my parents, who did not.

As I say, the characters who may have had more cause for redemption were the minor ones who came in contact with Chigurh purely at random.

Carla Jean was such a character. She wasn't with Brolin when he stumbled onto the scene of the drug deal. She didn't play the cat–and–mouse game Brolin played with Chigurh. The only time she ever saw or spoke to him was near the end of the movie, when he came presumably to kill her.

I say presumably because the audience never saw him take her life — only his departure from the house where she had been staying and his casual glance at the soles of his boots. Knowing the character as the audience did, that strongly suggested that he might have been concerned that he had stepped in something — like fresh blood.

But the viewers never knew that for certain.

The genre of "No Country for Old Men" has always been a bit ambiguous.

I've heard some people call it film noir, even though that evokes thoughts of a private investigator — and, while it does deal with a crime — several crimes, in fact — film noir really isn't sufficient to describe it.

Of course, a serious problem with film noir is that it is something of a moving target when it comes to its definition. I would say that it can be whatever you want it to be. (And with the Coens there is no telling what that might be.)

Neither is it entirely accurate to call "No Country for Old Men" a western. That makes people think of cowboys and Indians, horses and stagecoaches, cattle drives and roundups.

And yet it is both at the same time — modern–day film noir and modern–day western. Not stereotypical of either. It defies easy and conventional description.

Kind of like the Coen brothers.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Jimi Hendrix's 'Soul Music for Inner Space'

"I've been imitated so well I've heard people copy my mistakes."

Jimi Hendrix

In the history of recorded music, there may have been a debut album that was more influential and more dazzling than Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced" — but I don't know what it was.

And from that relatively limited subset, fewer still could be said to have altered the popular music landscape, but "Are You Experienced" did.

"Are You Experienced" hit music stores 50 years ago today. Its most recognizable track, by far, has to be "Purple Haze," which Rolling Stone said possessed "one of the unforgettable opening riffs in rock: a ferocious, stomping guitar march, scarred with fuzz and built around the dissonant 'devil's interval' of the tritone. And it launched not one but two revolutions: late–'60s psychedelia and the unprecedented genius of Jimi Hendrix."

But the influence of "Are You Experienced" went far beyond a single song and continues today. In addition to "Purple Haze," three other songs from the album — "Foxey Lady," "Hey Joe" and "The Wind Cries Mary" — made Rolling Stone's list of the top 500 songs of all time.

In rating "Are You Experienced" No. 15 in its Top 500 albums of all time, Rolling Stone wrote that "Hendrix made soul music for inner space."

"Are You Experienced" was one of the earliest albums in my collection, and I still listen to it from time to time. Lately, in anticipation of this milestone anniversary, I've been listening to it a lot more, and a question keeps popping into my head:

How can an album that is now half a century old still sound as cutting edge, as visionary as "Are You Experienced" does?

I guess that was the special genius of Jimi Hendrix.

And by the way, unlike some modern artists (i.e., Kanye West) Hendrix never would have called himself a genius.

"I don't consider myself to be the best," he said, "and I don't like compliments. They distract me."

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Taking Spokane

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was always a fascinating character study. Maybe that is why Grammer had to play the character for 20 years — and even that wasn't enough to peel away all the layers of his personality.

He was always an elitist, and he reveled in that knowledge. He enjoyed being part of the upper crust, of being (as he once put it) "unapproachable."

But Frasier was also a psychiatrist, and a psychiatrist must have a certain amount of empathy for his patients. To his credit, Frasier did have his principles, his ethics. He enjoyed the lifestyle his profession brought him, but he was also motivated by a sincere desire to help those he treated, regardless of their stations in life or whether (as was sometimes the case) the advice he gave could have repercussions in his own life.

That, I suppose, can create something of a conflict for someone like Frasier — who, in addition to his elitist inclinations, also had great ambitions to be a prominent radio psychiatrist with a large and loyal national audience.

He seemed to be about to take a step in that direction in the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 2002, "Frasier Has Spokane." Frasier and his producer Roz (Peri Gilpin) were going to be broadcasting their show from a remote location — Spokane. It wasn't really all that remote. Spokane is about as far from Seattle as Kansas City is from St. Louis, roughly a four–hour drive, but on the "Frasier Crane Radio Network," as Frasier called it, it was his immediate listening universe. Frasier had been added as an on–air personality for the radio station in Spokane, and he believed that if he could demonstrate that his radio program traveled well, it could lead to bigger things.

Things got off to a rocky start when, at an introductory press conference, Frasier found the local media were not receptive to him but all warm and fuzzy for his predecessor, a fellow affectionately known by the locals as Sully, who interrupted the press conference ostensibly to wish Frasier luck. Sully had been part of Spokane's radio community for three decades, and he was clearly leaving extraordinarily large shoes to fill.

The Spokane listeners weren't too helpful in the transition, either. They actively resisted Frasier as Sully's successor.

Callers from Seattle supposedly were being routed to Spokane, and Frasier thought they could show the Spokane listeners what he and Roz did, but there was a problem with the transmitting equipment. No calls from Seattle were getting through.

So Frasier asked Roz to to pose as a caller. She could give him any problem she wanted, he told her. He just needed to take a call that did not express an opinion about his predecessor. Roz agreed to do that and, posing as Roberta, told Frasier she was afraid of the dark.

That seemed like a rather elementary problem for Frasier, whose degrees from Harvard and Oxford fueled his elitist self–image, but he began to explore it with Roz on the air.

And, in the process, Frasier uncovered what he had been unable to uncover previously — an idea of what Roz had been going through since breaking up with her boyfriend — who, by the way, had been a rather likable fellow with the decidedly blue–collar job of garbage collector.

Frasier told a teary Roz that relationships can be painful, and love can be risky, but it's a chance that has to be taken. While the pain was fresh, he advised her to seek the comfort of friends who loved her and cared for her.

The on–air conversation had the desired effect on Spokane's listeners. They responded with supportive suggestions for Roberta and breakup stories of their own — and Sully was forgotten for the time being.

Playing Deputy

Outside of Andy (Andy Griffith) and Barney (Don Knotts) — and perhaps Opie (Ron Howard) — it is hard to imagine anyone in the fictional town of Mayberry with a more intimate knowledge of the jail on the Andy Griffith Show than Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), who was allowed to effect his own incarceration and release whenever he had too much to drink — which was just about all the time.

That knowledge came in handy in the episode that first aired on this night in 1962, "Deputy Otis."

I have written here before that Andy Griffith's character was the kind of father that everyone would like to have. I could expand that, though, to simply this. He was the kind of everything — father, son, friend, mentor — that everyone would like to have.

He was the kind of law enforcement officer we need at a time when the public's relationship with the police is so poor. Andy Taylor had compassion for the people of his community. When one had a problem, he tried to help in any way he could.

In another episode, Barney observed that a sheriff "is more than just a sheriff" in a small town. "He's a friend. And the people in this town ain't got a better friend than Andy Taylor."

On this night in 1962, Otis was the one with the problem — and Andy was there for him.

During his many stays in the jail, Otis had written several letters to his brother and sister–in–law using courthouse stationery. It was never established whether Otis' brother and sister–in–law jumped to the conclusion on their own or Otis encouraged it with his letters — probably a little of both — but they apparently had the idea that Otis worked for the sheriff.

Now they were on their way to Mayberry for a visit.

When Andy found out about everything, Otis readily confessed that "I know I done wrong, but I figgered what's the harm? I didn't know they were coming here."

Then viewers got a rare insight into Otis' character, what made him tick. Turned out that his brother Ralph had always been held up as an example to him. "Why can't you be more like Ralph?" his parents asked him.

"I've always been the black sheep in my family," Otis told Andy, "and it just felt good changing colors."

Andy decided to help Otis out by making him a temporary deputy while his brother and sister–in–law were in town — a noble gesture although Ralph apparently didn't believe Otis was a deputy. When he went off, supposedly for a walk, after lunch, Otis assumed Ralph was going around trying to find out if Otis really was a deputy.

In fact, though, Ralph was getting drunk — because, like Otis, he was his hometown's town drunk.

And back home, he was allowed to lock himself up in the county jail just as Otis was permitted to do. So he did as he did at home, prompting Otis to tell Ralph how ashamed he was of his brother. And a chastened Ralph pledged to "be respectable — just like you."

Andy and Barney watched in astonishment as this scene played out before them, then Andy said to Barney, "You never know how these things might work out."

That's what made Andy such a great everything. He never hesitated to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Resolving a Family Crisis

"As we speak, hordes of viral Visigoths are hurling themselves over the battlements of my immune system, laying waste to my ... Oh, dear God, you see how weak I am? I can't even finish a simple Visigoth metaphor."

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer)

Take it from me.

I've lived nearly my whole life in the South. The heat makes people irritable.

Not all people. I've known some people in the South who thrive in the heat.

In the South you get used to the idea that it is going to be hot for more than half the year (as a child I often wondered how people in this part of the country survived in the days before air conditioning) — but there are always breaks in the heat, maybe a day or so, that remind people what is waiting for them a few weeks — or perhaps months — down the line.

That is true even here in North Texas. We don't get many breaks from the heat, but we usually have a few punctuating the triple–digit days. They make the often brutally hot days of summer somewhat easier to take.

But that doesn't change the fact that the heat makes people irritable.

They have hot days up north, too, but they aren't prepared for it. That was a big part of the problem in the episode of Frasier that aired 20 years ago tonight, "Daphne Hates Sherry."

Folks in the Pacific Northwest simply aren't prepared for the heat. Heat waves are rare in Seattle, but the city was struggling with one in the episode of Frasier that aired 20 years ago.

That was clearly a factor, but it wasn't the only one.

Sherry (Marsha Mason) was spending the nights with Martin (John Mahoney) on a regular basis, and that led to conflicts between her and Daphne (Jane Leeves), who was accustomed to making the household decisions. I suspected that, under those circumstances, there would have been friction even if Seattle wasn't experiencing a heat wave.

Heat waves do affect people, though. Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was struggling with the flu, which may or may not have had anything to do with the heat. I've heard of summer colds all my life — I've even had one or two — but I can't say I can recall hearing of people having the flu during hot weather (except in Stephen King's "The Stand"). Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was sweltering in his large, unair–conditioned apartment.

Anyway, after a quarrel with Sherry, Daphne stormed out of the apartment and ended up at Niles' door asking to spend the night. This was a few years before Daphne and Niles ended up getting married, and having Daphne at his door was a fantasy come true for Niles.

And for awhile they engaged in the kind of playful conversation people in such a situation would be expected to have. They were almost flirtatious — and, at the same time, they were hesitant to cross the line, aware perhaps that, if they did, there would be no going back.

(Indeed, a couple of seasons later, they did cross that line, and there was no going back.)

The awkwardness of the moment ended when Daphne realized that the pills she took for her thyroid condition were back at Frasier's apartment. She said she would run back to the apartment and get them, but Niles offered to go with her — and then fetch the pills for her. He didn't want to take the chance that Daphne and Sherry might make up — and his opportunity to spend the night with Daphne would vanish.

So they returned to Frasier's apartment, and everyone wound up in the bathroom where Frasier was taking a bubble bath.

Frasier the psychiatrist had to try to resolve the problem the women were having — which he did, and they made up. And everyone was happy except Niles. Frasier told a petulant Niles that he knew that the situation wasn't right. That was why he brought Daphne back.

Niles protested that they came back for her thyroid pills.

"You're a doctor," Frasier said. "Why didn't you just use your prescription pad?"

"Oh, my God!" Niles exclaimed as it dawned on him what Frasier was saying.

"Isn't there an all–night pharmacy across the street from your building?" Frasier asked.

"Oh, my God!" Niles exclaimed as he staggered out of the bathroom.

Friday, May 05, 2017

It's Good for What Ails You -- and It's So Tasty, Too

"Well, I'm your Vitavigavegivat Girl. Are you tired, run down, listless? Do you pop out at parties? Are you unpoopular? — Well, are you?"

Lucy (Lucille Ball)

When I was a child, I loved watching I Love Lucy reruns with my father when I got home from school.

As I recall, the bus I rode to and from school each day typically deposited me at my home right around the time that I Love Lucy was starting in the afternoons. Dad was a college professor and seldom had a class that late in the day. He was usually home by the time the episode began, and I remember spending many pleasant afternoons with him in our living room watching the syndicated reruns of I Love Lucy.

I saw a lot of classic TV in that living room. Some of it was generated by I Love Lucy, and some of it was from other programs, but the episode that first aired on this night in 1952 was one of the most classic episodes in not only I Love Lucy's illustrious history but in the history of television in general. It was called "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," but it is better known as the Vitameatavegamin episode.

And it is, without a doubt, my favorite I Love Lucy episode even if it was first shown long before I was born. It lives on in reruns, no doubt gaining new fans with each showing.

It is my understanding that it was Lucille Ball's favorite episode, too, and why not? It was a very simple story based on an ongoing element of the series — Lucy's desire to be a star — and it gave Lucy a chance to do what she did best — physical comedy.

Now, there have been many physical comedians over the years. You can quickly run out of fingers and toes trying to count the physical comedians who have been on television or in the movies, but the list of the truly great physical comedians is considerably shorter — and Lucy is definitely on that list. Some would even put her at the top of that list. I would — even though I equally admire the work of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Don Knotts, Dick Van Dyke, etc.

Lucy's character in I Love Lucy always saw Ricky (Desi Arnaz) as an obstacle to her objective, and that may well have had its roots in this episode. It was, after all, the first season of I Love Lucy, and the running jokes were still being defined. In this episode, Ricky was going to be on a TV special, and Lucy desperately wanted to be a part of it, but Ricky wouldn't allow it.

Then there was an opening for the pitch girl. At that time, TV commercials were frequently performed live on television, and the pitch girl for Ricky's show would be promoting a product called Vitameatavegamin. The pitch girl was supposed to take some, smile and remark about how tasty it was.

Lucy was the one who showed up for the tryout, having manipulated things so the legitimate applicants didn't show up. In her tryout, believing the tonic was truly made of natural ingredients — and not realizing it was 23% alcohol and apparently tasted awful — Lucy took a big gulp and grimaced at the taste, managing to squeak out the words, "It's so tasty, too! Just like candy!"

But if Lucy didn't have a taste for alcohol when her tryout began, she quickly acquired one. After a few more takes, her speech was noticeably slurred, and the physical shtick was in charge of things, riding a wave of momentum all its own. The laughs got louder and louder.

In truth, everything in the episode was done to set up Lucy for her moments in the spotlight.

Everything Lucy did in that episode was funny — and it is still funny 65 years later. I never tire of watching it.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The End of the Spider-Man Trilogy

Sequels are seldom worthy successors to the originals.

Sometimes a second chapter is necessary only so it is possible to move on to a third. I have always thought that was the case with the "Back to the Future" movies, and I definitely feel that way about the "Spider–Man" movies, the third installment of which made its debut on this day in 2007.

As I observed yesterday, I liked the "Spider–Man" movie from 2002 — and I liked its second sequel, the one that premiered 10 years ago today. The second movie, which premiered in 2004, didn't have much going for it, as far as I was concerned.

(The third part of a trilogy isn't always so great. The third chapters of "The Godfather" and original "Star Wars" trilogies easily make that case.)

Not everyone felt that way. Film critic Roger Ebert and I frequently had similar reactions to movies — but not the "Spider–Man" trilogy.

And it all seems to have hinged on the character of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). I had no problems with him, but Ebert apparently did.

"The great failing of 'Spider–Man 3' is that it failed to distract me from what a sap Peter Parker is," Ebert wrote. "It lingers so long over the dopey romance between Peter and the long–suffering Mary Jane [Kirsten Dunst] that I found myself asking the question: Could a whole movie about the relationship between these two twentysomethings be made? And my answer was: No, because today's audiences would never accept a hero so clueless and a heroine so docile."

I thought that was a bit harsh, considering that the movie's sole purpose was to entertain — not to make some profound statement.

Well, perhaps that wasn't its sole purpose. I wouldn't rule out the money motive. The original "Spider–Man" became the first movie to exceed $100 million at the box office in its first weekend on American movie screens. Its sequel, which was released in 2004, beat the original's opening–day record by $1 million.

It was logical to expect a similar response to the third movie, and it didn't disappoint — well, not entirely. It was the highest–grossing film of the three movies in the trilogy — but, although the DVD sales grossed more than $120 million, they still came up short of expectations.

Anyway, Ebert and I were never on the same page on the "Spider–Man" movies. He didn't like the first and third movies; I did.

On the other hand, he did like the second movie. "Now this is what a superhero movie should be," he wrote of that first sequel. I thought the only purpose for the second movie (other than to make a lot of money) was to be a bridge between the first and second movies. I still think that, for that matter.

Go figure.

Anyway, I can kind of understand where some folks were coming from in their criticism — the ones who complained that there were too many stories going on at once.

Yes. There were quite a few stories being told.

There were the continuing stories dating back to the original movie — of Peter Parker and M.J., of Parker's newspaper career and his editor (J.K. Simmons) and of the son of the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), whose spirit urged his son to seek vengeance (and tried to do so through M.J.).

And there was some new stuff. There was Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard's talented and beautiful daughter) who played Parker's lab partner and temporary love interest.

There was also the introduction of a new villain, played by Thomas Haden Church, who, as it turned out, had been responsible for the death of Parker's uncle (Cliff Robertson). His aunt (Rosemary Harris) was back.

Yep, there was a lot going on. Nothing neat and orderly about it. But isn't that the burden of a superhero?

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Spinning Spider-Man's Web on the Big Screen

I was never a devotee of comic books.

Oh, sure, there were some I would read when I was a kid — but not regularly. I could take 'em or leave 'em.

I always preferred the comic books that made me laugh as opposed to the ones that I judged to be dramatic, more serious in nature.

It was in that category that I would put characters like Superman, Spider–Man, etc. It seems to me that superheroes are, almost by definition, about serious stuff, and their fans are deadly serious about them. I've known people who were really into the superhero thing. I even worked with a guy once who was petrified of spiders but loved the character Spider–Man. Go figure.

That might explain why I liked the "Super–Man" movie that made its debut on this date in 2002 — even though many people seem to prefer the version from 2012. I've never seen that one, though, so I can't be making any kind of comparison except based on what I've heard from others.

That wouldn't be a satisfactory answer, either, though, because the general consensus seems to be that the 2012 version was better. And it may well have been.

I just felt thoroughly entertained by the version that premiered 15 years ago today. It may not have had the special effects that were available a decade later, but movies have always been that way. They've always had to compensate for the things they didn't have or couldn't do.

"Spider–Man" told a good story. That always makes up for a lot with me. It was like watching a comic book, frame by frame, on the movie screen. I could almost see the balloon dialogue between the characters.

Except there was a difference.

Comic books have always seemed scripted to me. In real life, people aren't usually as quick on their feet as they appear to be in a book, comic or otherwise. In real life, humans sometimes (often, in fact) need at least a little time to absorb what they have heard or seen before making a response — which is rarely as impressive as what appears in print. Books, comic or otherwise, may be intended to appear spontaneous, and many may succeed even though they almost certainly went through several lengthy revisions.

But the acting in "Spider–Man" always had just enough of those human pauses for entirely plausible intervals to make things seem spontaneous — even though the movie was just as scripted as the book(s), comic and otherwise.

Although it might have lacked as much action as Millennials prefer, I thought it was a good call to spend the first half of the movie essentially exploring the character of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) rather than assuming that everyone who saw the movie already was familiar with his story. It helped to establish that he had been a neighbor of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) since he was 6 and, by his own admission, had been in love with her all that time.

It was certainly a good call as far as Maguire was concerned. It was the movie that made him a star.

Film critic Roger Ebert and I frequently agreed in our assessments of movies, but we never saw eye to eye on the "Spider–Man" franchise.

Ebert, for example, thought Maguire was miscast. I did not.

"Imagine 'Superman' with a Clark Kent more charismatic than the Man of Steel," Ebert wrote, "and you'll understand how 'Spider–Man' goes wrong. Tobey Maguire is pitch–perfect as the socially retarded Peter Parker, but when he becomes Spider–Man, the film turns to action sequences that zip along like perfunctory cartoons."

I suppose that was the quality I liked best. I always see comic books when I see suuperheroperhero movies, anyway. For me, that made Maguire ideal for the role.

And, although their roles were supporting, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris were well cast as Maguire's aunt and uncle.

Willem Dafoe was perfect as Norman Osborn, the father of Maguire's best friend and a bit of a mad scientist who became Spider–Man's nemesis, the Green Goblin.

I guess the thing about the movie to which I objected was the portrayal of the newspaper editor. Now, I like J.K. Simmons, who played the part. I especially like him in his television role in the Farmers Insurance commercials.

It is likely that he had little input into the character, but I thought it was an unrealistic portrayal. I have worked for several newspapers — and, as a result, several editors. They all had their shortcomings, but they had their redeeming qualities, too. Simmons' character did not.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Hepburn and Tracy Doing What They Did Best

If you ask anyone who is familiar with the movies of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to name his/her favorite Hepburn–Tracy movie, my guess is that most people wouldn't name "Desk Set," the movie that premiered on this day in 1957.

But I would.

The fact that it is a romantic comedy has nothing to do with it — I have nothing either for or against romantic comedies. As I have said many times, I like a well–written story. It can be a drama, a comedy, a romance, a thriller, whatever. Explosions and car chases don't impress me. Good writing impresses me.

And "Desk Set" is loaded with good writing. The dialogue between Hepburn and Tracy sizzles.

My favorite scene, the one I always have to watch unless I stumble onto a TV showing of this movie and it's past this part, is when Tracy (an efficiency expert) gave Hepburn (an office manager) a personality test while they were having lunch (sandwiches and coffee) on the roof of their building — in November.

Tracy asked Hepburn what observations she had, if any, about this sentence: "Able was I ere I saw Elba."

"I doubt that Napoleon ever said anything like that," she replied.

Tracy pressed her. Anything else? No, she couldn't think of anything "unless you mean that it is spelled the same backwards and forwards."

A closeup of Tracy's face indicated that was precisely what he had meant. It's a palindrome.

"I know another one," Hepburn said. "'Madam, I'm Adam.'"

"I doubt that he ever said that," Tracy replied.

You know, moviegoers knew what they were getting when they went to a Hepburn–Tracy movie. This was their seventh movie, nearly twice as many as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together — and everyone pretty much knew what to expect when Bogie and Bacall were teamed up in a movie.

It was a combination that worked, no matter what the subject.

And the subject in this movie happened to be computerization, which was still in its primitive stages in 1957 although it was almost prescient in its identification of the issues that would be prominent when computerization really took hold. For example, Tracy at one point told Hepburn what management has been telling employees for decades — that computers will make their work easier and they will be freed to pursue the kinds of projects for which they presently had no time.

And the subject of the computer eliminating jobs entirely was a prominent topic as well. It is no secret, 60 years later, that automation has eliminated many jobs. Computers have not made some lives better.

A lot has changed, though, which is part of the fun of watching this movie. This was made at a time when the popular image of a computer was some huge, complex machinery that filled an entire room and required multiple advanced degrees to operate.

The computer generation will no doubt find that very funny, but "Desk Set" is a glimpse — albeit a humorous one — at a world that no longer exists.

After all, the computer on which you are reading this — no matter how big or small — is more powerful than the computers that were used to send men to the moon nearly 50 years ago. And "Desk Set" predated Apollo 11 historic journey by more than a decade.

Because of all the changes since the movie was made, it is best to treat it as what it was originally intended to be — a vehicle for Hepburn and Tracy to make their big–screen magic. When the movie began, Hepburn's character was involved with Gig Young, but as the story evolved so did her feelings for Tracy — and, for that matter, his for her. The knowledge that they would end up together was probably the worst–kept secret in the whole movie.

But it still has some worthwhile points to make about office politics, points that are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1957.

I think it could be remade in 2017, updated with only a few tweaks here and there. Of course, the computer angle would have to be different, considering the hugely influential role the computer plays in 2017 compared to 1957. Who would you cast in Hepburn and Tracy's roles?