I was introduced to Miyazaki some years ago, and took to his work instantly. I usually watched his films alone, and I don’t recall ever watching one with a kid. So when I decided to re-watch Totoro on Blu-ray, I was glad to have a ten-year-old with me. He wasn’t really looking forward to it ... he wanted to watch a Star Wars movie, and he hadn’t ever heard of Totoro. I don’t think it quite succeeded with him, either ... after fifteen minutes he was already expressing his boredom, and later he said that nothing made sense, which is why he didn’t like it. Still, he made it to the end of the movie.
We watched the Disney English-language dub, which I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t really recognize any of the voices, including the stunt-casting of Dakota and Elle Fanning as sisters. It was fine, in any event ... I think I only notice English dubs when they are terrible. I liked the movie as much as ever, even with the semi-negative vibes in the room. I think Princess Mononoke is my favorite Miyazaki film, but to be honest, they all kind of blend together in my mind as the years pass, so I couldn’t really explain my preference. My fondest memories are of Spirited Away, probably because I love the soot thingies. Even the lesser movies are enjoyable, though, and often quite loony. #235 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.
I finally read the highly regarded biography by Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. I’ll try to write more about this book later ... for now, here are two quotes that hint at the existential void that was Dean Martin:
He was a wise man. Wisdom had blessed him with a disregard for the worth of his own racket. Where others sought nobility in acting or art in song, he had known things for what they were, and that knowledge had set him apart. Wisdom too had blessed him with an understanding of human nature, and that understanding had set him apart as well. It had never been his own compulsion for lontananza or his own abhorrence of communication that had been a problem. The problem had been the pressure from others to change, to become more like them – to share, to relate, to confront, to lend the lie of meaning to all those meaningless verbs and more. To him, the problem was theirs: they who could never accept what they were nor live alone with it. Wisdom had given him the strength to do both. And wisdom, in its way, was leading him now to withdraw from the world in fact as well as in spirit. He no longer cared. He never really had.... When he returned to the Riviera in October, he seemed “as if he were someone impersonating Dean Martin.”
As Tosches puts it more succinctly early in the book, “Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.”
Here's a blast from the past: an archive of articles I wrote or co-wrote for the Baseball Prospectus website from 1997-2000. Perhaps the most interesting is a piece I wrote after the first home series at the Giants' new ball park at China Basin.
Many of us have been looking forward to this book for a long time. Kliph Nesteroff has an encyclopedic knowledge of American comedy, which he has shared through numerous interviews posted to his Classic Television Showbiz website. Here is a partial list of the interviewees:
Buck Henry, Paul Krassner, Franklyn Ajaye, Dick Cavett, Peter Marshall, Orson Bean, Ed Asner, Professor Irwin Corey, Norm Crosby, Bob Einstein, Rose Marie, Steve Martin, Paul Mazursky, Marilyn Michaels, Gary Owens, Betsy Palmer, Tom Smothers, Larry Storch, Rusty Warren, Mason Williams, Alan Young, Marty Allen, Shelley Berman, Pat Carroll, Jack Carter, Bill Dana, Shecky Greene, Marty Ingels, Will Jordan, Rich Little, Steve Rossi, Connie Sawyer.
You may not recognize all of those names, but Nesteroff is such a great interviewer that every segment is interesting. And virtually every interview has a moment when Nesteroff, who is decades younger than the people he is interviewing, asks about some obscure date at some obscure club fifty years ago, and the comedian says, “how the hell do you know this stuff?” Here’s a sample from his interview with Shecky Greene:
Kliph Nesteroff: I watched a segment from The Hollywood Palace in which he [pianist Herbie Dell] was onstage with you.
Shecky Greene: Yes, which one was that? The Perry Como thing?
Kliph Nesteroff: It wasn't the Perry Como one. It was the one hosted by Donald O'Connor.
Shecky Greene: Donald? No. I had one hosted by Groucho Marx.
Kliph Nesteroff: Right, there is a Groucho Marx one, a Perry Como Christmas one, and one hosted by Donald O'Connor.
Shecky Greene: Where the hell did you get all of those things?
Kliph Nesteroff: The internet.
The Comedians puts the stories in one place, and offers a narrative of American comedy, as suggested by the various chapter headings: from vaudeville to radio, to nightclubs and television, late-night TV, comedy clubs, and so on. In one sense, nothing changes ... the comics put themselves on the line night after night, failure is always a weak joke away, great success often goes to your head. But Nesteroff also shows how the Marx Brothers were different from Eddie Cantor, who was different from Milton Berle, who was different from Lenny Bruce, and on and on, with important segments on people like Richard Pryor. Along the way, you’ll read stories about people like Rodney Dangerfield that are quite illuminating, if, like me, you think he appeared full-grown in the persona we all know him as.
The interviews are what got me interested in reading this book, but it stands on its own. I’m not sure I can recommend it to everybody ... I know not everyone shares my interest in the subject at hand. And it seems almost complete ... it’s hard to think of who was left out, although I wish the Firesign Theatre got more than one page. But if you enjoy detailed stories of popular artists from the past, you will like this book. And, if you’ve never heard it, you’ll even learn one of my favorite stories, about a radio comedian who went by the name Parkyakarkas, the legendary Bob Einstein (known for everyone from Officer Judy to Super Dave Osborne to Marty Funkhouser), and the filmmaker and comedian Albert Brooks. Nesteroff even added something new to the story, at least new to me, about the man who wrote a biography of Willie Mays.
And, just to indulge myself, here is one of my favorite Albert Brooks bits, from very early in his career:
Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013). Brie Larson is a revelation. The cast is full of people you might remember from TV series: John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Kaitlyn Dever (Justified, among others), Melora Walters (Big Love). Everyone is fine, but Larson shines over them all. The treatment of troubled teenagers is mostly honest, and when it gets too melodramatic, there’s always Larson to fall back on. Do you get the feeling I liked Larson in this movie? (Oh yeah, she’s another ex-TV person: United States of Tara.) #579 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.
Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014). 7/10.
This is the first Prince-Bythewood film I’ve seen (among her other work are Love and Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees). She wrote the script for this, too, so it’s very much her production. The basic plot has something of a by-the-numbers feel ... young singer rises to the top, struggles with the lesser side of stardom, falls for a policeman, the usual. Toss in a mom who drives the daughter to succeed and you’ve got a movie. Prince-Bythewood does a nice job of showing things from the singer’s perspective, and there’s some good “beefcake is fair play” with Nate Parker, who looks like the former college wrestler he was whenever he takes off his shirt.
Mostly, Prince-Bythewood gets out the actors’ way and lets them show their stuff, which is a tricky move, since the plot turns are often melodramatic, which could take over the film. But nothing is going to get in the way of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who dominates the picture as the rising star, singing her own parts, giving a complex read of a character who is by turns confident, scared, and empty.
Minnie Driver does the Evil Mom with style, and Danny Glover, as the policeman’s dad, is properly subdued. But it’s Mbatha-Raw’s show. She’s the reason to watch. Other than her, there’s nothing special here. 7/10.
Quickie notes on a bunch of TV series I’ve been watching:
Supergirl: First two episodes were enjoyable. I haven’t given up yet. Some of the creators also work on Arrow and The Flash, which I don’t watch, but if you do, you might find some similarities in tone. I also don’t know much about Melissa Benoist, who plays the title character. Basically, I started on this because of some good reviews, and haven’t found any reason to quit watching.
Fargo: Not a new show, but it takes place in an earlier time period with a different cast from the first season (or the movie, for that matter). This is at least as good as Season One, and Season One was very good. It has an interesting cast that delivers in every case. There are people you know from other TV shows (everyone from Ted Danson to Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart to Michael Hogan). The are the people who will remember, but perhaps hadn’t properly appreciated before (Bokeem Woodbine is killing it ... I haven’t enjoyed him this much since The Big Hit). There’s even Kirsten Dunst, who gets top billing. This is definitely one for the binge-streamers among you.
Ash vs. Evil Dead: Delivers exactly what its intended audience wants. If you don’t know what the title refers to, you probably don’t want to watch this, but for the rest of us, it’s a fine continuation of the Evil Dead franchise, with Bruce Campbell returning to his greatest role. The gore on this is beyond excessive, to the point where people like me think it’s hilarious, but you’ve been forewarned ... this isn’t The Walking Dead.
Master of None: A new Netflix series from Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. It’s a semi-autobiographical setup starring Ansari ... his real-life parents play his character’s parents on the show, and they are real scene-stealers. I’ve only watched the first two episodes and I’m already sold.
Plus the usuals, many of which are streamers or are currently in their off-season: Sense8, The Knick, The Leftovers, The Returned, The Walking Dead, Jane the Virgin. As is the norm for this period in television history, I can’t keep up with all of them ... heck, I just thought of a Hulu series I’m watching and liking, Casual, which I completely forgot about.
I thought I’d watch Monterey Pop again, after finding out that Dusty Baker was in attendance at the festival. Turned out my disc was unplayable, so I stuck in the supplemental disc and watched this short, which includes Otis Redding’s complete set.
The only Otis album I had as a teenager was Live in Europe, which I wore out from constant playing. I have always slept with the radio on, and I can recall a night in December of 1967 when I awoke to the sounds of Side Two of this album, in its entirety. It was the middle of the night, and there I was, figuratively jumping around in my bed to the music. After the songs were over, the DJ informed us that Otis had died in a plane crash. I made up for his loss by burying myself in Live in Europe. My favorite track was the last one, “Try a Little Tenderness”, which built from a soulful beginning to a frantic ending. After a false ending, you can hear the emcee pleading, “Help me, help me, release me, we’ve got to hear some more of Otis!”, after which Otis returned for a coda. In 2015, it’s easy to check YouTube and find this was the standard Otis performance of this song, but back then I had no idea. I knew “Try a Little Tenderness” was a favorite song of my Mom’s, probably in the Sinatra version, and I played her Otis one day. She was unimpressed, said he got the meaning of the song wrong ... it was OK at first, but it was about tenderness, and there was nothing tender about how Otis concluded things.
In the Monterey Pop movie, Otis was seen performing “Shake” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. He was great, but I was disappointed at the absence of “Tenderness”. A couple of years later, an album was released featuring Otis’ Monterey set, along with Hendrix on the flipside, and there I got to finally hear the Monterey Tenderness. If anything, it was more raw than the Europe version. At the time, I preferred the one I’d grown up with, although in retrospect, I don’t think it matters. One thing that did make an impression, and does to this day, is when Otis leaves the stage for the last time after saying, “I got to go now and I don’t wanna go.” He was dead six months later. It’s like at the end of “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers, when Duane introduces the band, finishing with “I’m Duane Allman, thank you!”, and every time I think about him dying.
Somewhere along the line, my favorite Otis Redding song changed to “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. For one thing, the studio version is almost as good as the live versions, which isn’t true of “Tenderness”. It is the pinnacle of the soulful side of Otis Redding. It was featured in the original Monterey Pop movie, and it is the highlight of Shake! as well.
The disc comes with a good interview with Phil Walden, Otis’ manager (coincidentally, he was integral to the success of the Allmans, as well). Walden talks about the early days of Redding’s career, speaks with great love for the man. Peter Guralnick does two commentaries, one of which I listened to, where he discusses each song as Otis sings it. Both Walden and Guralnick try to put Redding’s Monterey appearance in the context of both Otis’ career and the crossing of soul music with the psychedelic audience. It is one of the great moments in Monterey Pop, when Otis takes the stage, after midnight and with rain beginning to pour down, and within a handful of seconds has that tired psychedelic audience completely fired up:
Shake! suffers from the camerawork, although the sound is now excellent. Pennebaker must not have had useful footage of “Tenderness” ... until near the end, he gives us shots of various women, which isn’t so bad, but you want to see Otis. The music is a 10, but this short film is a bit lacking, for the reasons just mentioned. 8/10.