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downton abbey, season two finale

This is not the kind of show I usually watch. I didn’t get around to the first season until the second was about to begin, when I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I was drawn in from the start. I know little about the English class system of the pre-WWI era, so I found the details of the daily life of the house to be fascinating. I wasn’t sure I liked the perceived attitude of the show (servants know their place, but it’s OK, because the Earl is such a nice guy), and it bothered me that the servant most interested in breaking through class barriers was also the Bad Guy. But the characters were all interesting, and while the first season was brief, there was just enough of a hint that those characters would have surprises in the future that I looked forward to Season Two.

For the most part, those characters in Season Two are the same as the ones I liked so much. But that’s part of the problem: there wasn’t much progress. Yes, WWI changed things on the surface, but in a dramatic sense, the Earl was still a pillar of humanity (he even experienced temptation, only to set it aside), Thomas was still a Bad Guy, Maggie Smith still had a way with words, Cora was still just there, Lady Mary and cousin Matthew continued their will they/won’t they, Lady Sybil was still the Rebellious Sister, Bates and Anna were still a touching, heartbreaking couple, and Carson and Mrs. Hughes still ran the show with style, grace, and a human touch.

All sorts of silly plot shenanigans were thrown at these characters: the returning beau with the disfigured face who left almost as soon as he arrived; the crippling of Matthew (followed by his miraculous recovery); the Snidely Whiplash antics of the evil Mrs. Bates the first; the Spanish flu. That it was at all tolerable was due to the excellence of the actors (it would be pointless to single anyone out, they were all good, but special props to Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens, Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt, for making their star-crossed romances believable).

So count me with those who think Season Two wasn’t as good as Season One, although, much like the majority of those critics, I still found plenty to enjoy in the second year. The introduction of World War I and the resultant disruption of class society gave Season Two a solid basis. There is still more than enough good acting to make up for any deficiencies elsewhere (especially useful when characters are asked to do stupid things). And Maggie Smith still gets all the best lines.

But it could be so much more. Imagine if Sir Richard wasn’t turned into a villain, if his love for Mary was made clearer. Imagine if Mrs. Bates the first wasn’t Evil Personified but instead an aggrieved wife who loved her husband. Imagine if Bates really did kill her in a moment of passion (this, admittedly, may still turn out to be true). Imagine if there was more to the Earl than his essential niceness, more to Sybil than The Rebellious One, more to Edith than The Ugly One. Imagine, in short, that there was more to these characters than the stereotype, that we actually knew them better at the end of Season Two than we did at the beginning of Season One.

Mo Ryan once again gets it right:

It frequently sacrificed the characters on the altar of plot, and that's incredibly frustrating, given that the unexceptional plots are not what we tune in for. We watch quality programs to see the characters react to frustrations, to rise to challenges and to explore possibilities. … Fellowes seems to think that piling on more stories is how you create more drama, and he seems to believe that creating increasingly contrived obstacles to characters' happiness is what storytelling is all about. No, the point of the stories should be making the audience care about the people in the house. The point of every plot should be to shed light on who they are, what they want, why they want it and what compromises they'll have to make to get it.

Later, in what reads almost like a manifesto, Ryan writes “Dear television writers of the world, we care about your characters. Do not mess them up for the sake of storytelling expedience. Do not give incident pride of place over people.”

There is something else about Downton Abbey that puzzles me. Why has it become such a cultural marker? Why does “everyone” watch it? Saturday Night Live has parodied it, a sure sign a series has crossed over from high-class PBS fodder to “if we had a water cooler at work, we’d meet there every Monday to talk about it”. Why?

I could just say that it’s a quality show and be thankful it found an audience, but there’s more to it than that. I’m speaking of the American audience here: why are we devouring a show about the upper and lower classes in early 20th-century England? Why is it that people who would never deign to watch popular mass entertainments, who would look down their noses at soap operas, fall in love with Downton Abbey? For that matter, why am I watching it, when I’ve admitted it’s not my type of show?

I don’t have an answer, but I’m not the only one asking the question. It feels like a week doesn’t go by without my reading another piece about the puzzling popularity of a PBS Masterpiece series. And again, the answer is not as simple as “it’s a good show”, because there are plenty of good shows, many of which should, on the surface, better connect with American audiences than Downton Abbey.

Grade for season finale: A-. Grade for Season Two: B+. Hopes for Season Three: A. Expectations for Season Three: B-.


jim o’donnell

My primary extra-curricular activity in junior high and high school was acting. I probably spent as much time in high school on stage with Jim O’Donnell as I did with anyone. In this picture, Jim is front and left, gesturing … that’s me in the back with the goofy grin:

Drama021

Last summer we met up at a class reunion. From left to right, this is our friend Bob, Jim, me, and Robin (picture taken by Joe Faletti):

bob jim steven robin 2011

Jim passed away this morning.

Back in 1980, when Robin and I did our “five Bruce concerts in three cities in seven days” tour, we stayed at Jim’s house for the LA part of the tour. Jim went with us to one of the shows. Bruce sang “Promised Land” that night: “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man, and I believe in a promised land.”


what i watched last week

The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976). Although this film is highly regarded (Orson Welles thought it was one of the great Westerns), I see it as just another run-of-the-mill Eastwood-directed Western, not as good as Unforgiven but a watchable time-filler nonetheless. Eastwood famously took over the directing reins early on from Philip Kaufman (a much better director, for what it’s worth), which resulted in “The Eastwood Rule” (an actor can’t just fire a director and take credit for the resulting film, or something like that). There are plenty of stories about this … Kaufman’s talent may have been the problem, since Eastwood as an actor/producer had a habit of picking directors who would go along with whatever Clint wanted, and Kaufman wasn’t that kind of man. (I remember my cousin, who worked on Magnum Force, telling me that Eastwood directed the picture, while the nominal director, Ted Post, took care of the second unit.)

It’s probably apocryphal, but there’s one story about Josey Wales that speaks to Eastwood’s ability as a director, even if it’s not true. According to Wikipedia, Eastwood was frustrated about Kaufman’s attention to detail, and so at one point, when Kaufman went off to take care of some business associated with the scene then being filmed, Eastwood told the cinematographer to shoot the scene before the light got too bad. As a director, Clint Eastwood is all about shooting the scene before the light goes bad. To choose one example, Flags of Our Fathers was budgeted at $80 million and around 100 days of shooting. Eastwood brought it in for $55 million in just over 50 days of shooting. There is nothing wrong with this kind of filmmaking, and Flags of Our Fathers was a good movie. And I’m not saying that Eastwood doesn’t pay attention to details. But, at least from my outsider’s perspective, he seems to hire solid professionals who he trusts to do their jobs (including the details). I can’t imagine him doing 50 takes of a scene. I picture him taking his professional crew and professional actors with their professional script, saying “Roll ‘em!’, watching the take, and saying “that’s a take. Next!”

It should go without saying that in this, his directing style takes its lead from his acting, which has always been minimalist. Eastwood has worked hard to create a particular image, and it is usually effective, although he needs to be carefully cast. He’s an icon, not an actor. When he’s iconic in Josey Wales, he’s excellent. On those occasions when he is asked to do more, he’s something less than excellent. #761 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.

Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976). A fired-up, partisan documentary about a mine workers’ strike in Kentucky. Kopple is making propaganda here, although without the self-aggrandizing moves Michael Moore would make famous a couple of decades later. I am not the most trustworthy judge of this pro-labor film … I’ve been a union member for almost 40 years, and whatever my disagreements with my various unions, I take a kneejerk stance regarding labor issues, so there’s no way I’m going to complain just because Kopple is on the union’s side. There is some frightening footage of the miners at work (it doesn’t look like the kind of job anyone would want, and should make you think twice about the use of coal power), and a remarkable sequence where some company thugs shoot at the picketers … the camera gets knocked over, it’s a dangerous situation, but eventually the camera operator gets a clear picture of a man holding a gun out the window as he drives by. It’s cinéma vérité, emphasis on vérité. An Oscar winner for Best Documentary, and #557 on the TSPDT top 1000 list. 10/10.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Not what I expected, which was both a good thing and a bad one. It was nice to see an action movie that did more with its action scenes than just crank up the CGI and befuddle the viewer. And the pacing, which led some critics to call the film “European”, is also refreshing simply because it is different. On the other hand, Drive frequently walks a fine line between “European” and “boring”, with long periods of silence that aren’t uncomfortable but merely showy. Ryan Gosling plays Clint Eastwood, Nicolas Winding Refn plays Sergio Leone (and a bunch of other directors), Carey Mulligan stares into Ryan Gosling’s eyes, and Christina Hendricks doesn’t even turn up until the film is more than half over. The film’s R rating comes largely because of “strong brutal bloody violence”, and for once, that’s a legitimate description … the movie is not constantly violent (if it were, there wouldn’t be time for all of those moments of silence), but when the violence occurs, it is indeed strong, brutal, and bloody. Drive is not as good as some of the more rapturous reviews would have you believe, but it is a nice change of pace, Albert Brooks is terrific, and even if she doesn’t get enough screen time and she is done up to be purposely dowdy, I’ll take Christina Hendricks whenever I can. An Oscar nominee for Best Sound Editing. 7/10.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Joseph Green, 1962). This week’s Creature Feature wavers between Ed Wood bad and marginally interesting. The movie makes no sense if you think about it for more than five seconds, and it rarely overcomes the limitations of its $62,000 budget. Suspense is created by the old “Something’s in the Closet” routine, and in fairness, that part works pretty well (until we finally see what’s in the closet … it’s not very scary). It’s notable for a few things that were a bit shocking for its time (the film sat on the shelf for a few years for its questionable content, and apparently didn’t turn up in the UK until a DVD release only a few years ago). The version we watched back in the day on TV was edited by several minutes to remove gore and a bit of sexual content (luckily, that stuff is back in the versions you see today). You get to see a man’s arm pulled off, you get to see exotic dancers, you get to see exotic dancers in a catfight … none of this is any good, with the possible exception of the arm coming off, since it was so unexpected. You also get Virginia Leith as “Jan in the Pan”, and the image of her head (in a pan) being kept alive is the best thing about the movie (plus Leith gets all the best lines … if you don’t believe me, check out the essay I mentioned last week, “Jan in the Pan: Soliloquies and Dyads in The Brain That Wouldn't Die). 4/10. Next week’s Creature Feature: House on Haunted Hill.


#5: the third man (carol reed, 1949)

(This is the 46th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I’d like to say that The Third Man is a perfect movie. While the elements were always there, it wasn’t an easy path towards perfection. American producer David O. Selznick had his own ideas about how the movie should play, and he managed to create a version of the film for the U.S. market that had a revised introduction and ten minutes excised to make Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins a more sympathetic character. Filming on location in Vienna wasn’t easy, so soon after the war. Director Carol Reed created what was essentially a British neo-realism, albeit with baroque camera angles. The film was perfectly cast, from Cotten as the clueless American, forcing his way into every situation, to Alida Valli as Harry Lime’s lover, to Trevor Howard as the stiff, intelligent British major. And Orson Welles, who takes up a large part of our memory of the film, even though he doesn’t make an appearance until the film is more than halfway finished, and even though his screen time is limited.

Graham Greene’s script was up to his usual high standards, and the cinematographer, Robert Krasker, won an Oscar for his contributions to the film’s unique look. Finally, there is the instantly identifiable zither music of Anton Karas, so entwined in the film and in our memories that to this day, when you hear a zither, you think of The Third Man.

Yes, I’d like to say it’s a perfect movie. But then there was the time somebody I follow on Twitter said that he’d finally seen The Third Man for the first time, and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN HIM ABOUT THE ZITHER. Apparently, that was a deal breaker … for him, The Third Man was not perfect.

And so I’ll lower my praise just a touch, in honor of that zither-hating viewer. But near-perfection is a wonderful thing. The British Film Institute named The Third Man the best British film ever; it’s the highest-ranked British film on my own list. Its vision of post-war corruption is unsparing, the film’s style is noteworthy … I want to say that word “perfect” again.

Plus, I can’t quit talking about Orson Welles. Welles plays a character, Harry Lime, as lacking in ethics as any character you’ll come across. Little children die because of Lime’s actions. But Welles’ charisma in the role is such that a radio show, The Lives of Harry Lime, was created. This told the story of Lime in the years before The Third Man, and while Lime is a con artist in the series, he is nowhere close to the evil presence of the film.

 

In what I think is odd, considered how highly I rate this movie, the entire comments section is taken up with a discussion between Phil Dellio and I about Altman’s The Long Goodbye.


scoresheet baseball

I rarely write about fantasy baseball on this blog, following the time-honored truism that “no one cares about your fantasy team”. I'm breaking the rule for a bit here, because I am embarking on a new-to-me experience: my first season of Scoresheet Baseball. This game is highly-regarded by people I trust, but it also more pricey than standard fantasy games, so I’ve avoided it until now. A bargain-priced introductory offer convinced me to try it out.

The biggest difference between Scoresheet and standard fantasy games is that Scoresheet takes the players’ efforts of the previous week and, instead of just adding up all the numbers, plays out games. You have to set rotations and lineups, and make decisions on bullpen usage, pinch-hitters, and defensive substitutions (yes, defense counts), and the like. I don’t fully understand it all, but the differences from what I’ve been playing for 25 years are intriguing, so I’m giving it a try.

One other difference with Scoresheet is that drafting is done over a period of about five weeks, rather than two hours. There are roughly 2 1/2 hours between each pick. Obviously, you don’t have to sit around your computer for five weeks; you compose an ordered list, which can be changed at any time, and the draft works off of everyone’s list. I have the 7th pick in the opening round of a 10-team, AL-only league. The first six picks were Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Verlander, Jose Bautista, and CC Sabathia. I’ve gone back and forth over my first pick, but I’ve finally decided, and so, in about 45 minutes from the time I write this, I will make Felix Hernandez my first-ever Scoresheet pick. (For comparison purposes, the first player I ever picked in a fantasy baseball draft was Joe Carter in 1987.)

Now I’ll go back to shutting up about my team that no one cares about.


music friday: dolly parton, “i will always love you”

Back when Frank Zappa died, I committed a faux pas. Before meds eliminated my awful impulse control (almost), I was very much a brain-to-mouth kind of guy. I never much liked Frank Zappa … was taken by early Mothers, but not much else, thought his sneer-down-his-nose attitude towards rock and roll was hypocritical, and never quite understood why, when even a Peter Pan like me eventually got too old for fart jokes, Zappa was still making them and calling them art because the musical background was in 7/8 time.

I said as much on an email list I was involved in, within a day of Zappa’s passing. I got a new asshole ripped by a Zappa fan who thought my comments were of the wrong-time-wrong-place variety. And he was right. I’ve tried to be kinder to the objects of fans’ affection ever since, particular when someone died. This usually follows the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” method.

I never much cared for Whitney Houston’s music. I assume this is mostly generational. No doubt she had the pipes, and her huge fan base shows how she could connect with an audience, but in my mind, she’s just the first in a line of singers the result of which is American Idol, another thing I don’t care for where the reasons are mostly generational. I don’t know if I can explain this … I preferred Stax/Volt to Motown when I was growing up (still do, FWIW), and within Motown, I preferred Martha Reeves to Diana Ross. I never “got” the Supremes; Ross seemed like an ice queen compared to her peers, the perfect Motown artist, with a voice that worked well with the great Motown bands, songwriters, and arrangers, but which lacked personality compared to a Marvin Gaye or Martha and the Vandellas. Whitney’s version of R&B/soul struck me as a watered-down version of Diana Ross Motown. She had a superior voice, to be sure, but I didn’t care for the recordings, and mostly ignored her except 1) she was massively popular and thus impossible to ignore, and 2) my daughter loved her.

The type of singing that favors demonstrative super-technique over a more measured soulfulness, i.e. the kind of singing I associate, rightly or wrongly, with American Idol, marks a line in the sand for Old Man Steven, who pines for the days when Aretha’s vocals-from-the-church didn’t sound so manufactured.

On the other hand, there’s something I wrote a year ago that is perhaps relevant once again:

If now, in my dotage, I am less interested in a beautiful voice, well, sometimes I’m wrong. I’m reminded of Dylan’s liner notes for Joan Baez in Concert, Vol. 2 … Dylan wrote memorably about kinds of beauty. He talked about how when he was young he would accept beauty “only ‘f it was ugly.” He then related a story of Baez telling him about parts of her own childhood that were sometimes ugly, and as she spoke, he realized the sounds her voice produced, beautiful as they were, might be based in something he'd recognize … “Yuh oughta listen t’ her voice.”

Still, there must be a reason why, of all the divas to come along in Whitney’s wake, only Pink has really grabbed ahold of me. And Pink, more than others like Christina Aquilera, is influenced not just by Whitney but also by blues-rock singers like Janis Joplin. (Plus, all those cigarettes give Pink’s voice an appealing rasp, even when she’s singing in full diva mode.) Ultimately, it’s an entire genre of music (Whitney and Beyond, or, American Idols) that passed me by long ago. My opinion of Whitney is about as relevant right now as my opinion of Frank Zappa was back in the day.

The truth is, I wanted Dolly Parton to sing “I Will Always Love You” at the Grammys. It’s easy to forget that Dolly, a great singer in her own right, made the original version of that song she wrote into something quite different than the showstopper it became when Whitney got ahold of it.

On Whitney’s passing, Parton said, “Mine is only one of the millions of hearts broken over the death of Whitney Houston. I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song and I can truly say from the bottom of my heart, 'Whitney, I will always love you. You will be missed.'”


more on the rubio family

Ancestry.com is offering free access to the 1930 U.S. census this weekend. I checked my father’s side of the family.

The family consisted of Mike (head), Frances (wife), Barbarita (she was Auntie Bobbie to us), Mike (son), Josephine (Aunt Feena), Joe (my dad), and daughter Mary. They owned their house at 904 I Street in Antioch; it was valued at $2500. In the parlance of the day, they were white. My grandfather was 45 and my grandmother 35, with the kids ranging from 3 5/12 to 11. When they were married, my grandparents were 27 and 17. All of the kids except Mary were in school; the parents, along with Bobbie and Mike Jr. could read and write. The parents, obviously, were born in Spain, the kids in California, and the parents (again obviously) spoke Spanish before coming to the U.S.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1913 (I assume this means Hawaii). Here’s something I don’t quite understand. Under “Whether able to speak English”, my grandparents get a “no”, the two oldest kids get a “yes”, and the three youngest kids have that one left blank. (My dad was five years old at the time … I assume he spoke something.)

My grandfather worked as a “yard man” at the paper mill. My grandmother worked as a “packer” at the cannery.

Two other families lived on I Street. One was a mother with four daughters and a son. The mother was from Portugal; the oldest daughter was born in Massachusetts, the other kids in California. The mother worked in the cannery, the oldest daughter at the paper mill. The other family was a young married couple with two small children. The husband’s mother also lived at the house. All of the adults were from Spain; the husband worked at the paper mill.

There are a few entries from other neighbors on the particular page that includes my family, with six family listings. In every case but two, the kids were born in California. The husbands and wives were from: Spain/Spain, Mexico/Mexico (two of their four kids were also born in Mexico), Spain/Spain, Mexico (husband had died, eldest son born in Arizona), Austria/Spain, and Spain/Spain. One house had a lodger, also Spanish, who worked at the rubber mill with the head of the family.

You can see why it seemed as I was growing up that there was this small neighborhood in town with a bunch of old Spaniards.

All of the heads of these nine total families (seven men, two women) had jobs. Five of the wives/mothers had jobs, as did one daughter. Their “industry” (i.e. work places) were paper mill, cannery, rubber mill, ranch, steel mill, and farm.

For comparison purposes, I checked out my mom. She was two years old at the time; her younger sister hadn’t been born yet, her parents were 30 and 26 (24 and 20 when they got married). Her dad was from Tennessee, her mom from Kentucky. My grandfather worked as a Mechanical Engineer.

They owned their house at 1522 Buena Avenue in Berkeley, which was valued at $5500. 1522 Buena Avenue is less than two miles from where I live now.


#6: the rules of the game (jean renoir, 1939)

(This is the 45th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I first saw Renoir’s two classic films from the late 1930s, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, around the same time in the early 70s. From that first viewing, I thought Grand Illusion was one of the greatest of all movies, and I haven’t changed my mind, even if for the purposes of this list I left it off so I could write about Rules (I have written about Grand Illusion in the past). But the first time I saw The Rules of the Game, I didn’t get what all the excitement was about.

Somewhere along the way, though, The Rules of the Game became my favorite Renoir movie. I wish I could explain why; I suspect one reason I haven’t written about it before is that I can’t put my finger on what makes it great. It’s not enough to just say “watch it and you’ll know what I mean,” especially since more than most movies, Rules of the Game rewards multiple viewings (and I don’t usually like movies that require you to see them more than once to appreciate them). I can tell you that Renoir’s use of deep focus is so complete and so subtle that you can watch the film over and over and get more out of it just by paying attention to what’s going on in the background. There are few better examples of how to make style work as substance than right here. Renoir isn’t showing off, he’s using unusual (for its time) techniques to give depth (no pun intended, but I wish I had intended it, it’s a good one) to his movie.

The Rules of the Game, hated so much when it was first shown to a French audience, is not as single-mindedly dismissive of the upper classes as you might have heard. There is a tendency when showing this film to modern audiences to explain the context of its production and subsequent negative reception: Renoir made the film as Hitler was preparing the moves that would lead to World War II, and the upper-class Frenchmen and women in the movie are so unconcerned with what is going on outside of their own world that Fascism is never mentioned. Renoir isn’t attacking Nazis here; rather, he is anticipating the French response to the near future and finding the French lacking. But Renoir has always been the cinema’s great humanist. So even the upper-class denizens of The Rules of the Game are allowed a depth of character that makes them, not exactly likable, but understandable. The tragedy of the film isn’t that these are evil people, but that they are ordinary people who exist at a remove from the rest of society, and thus don’t always understand the larger implications of their actions. Thus, the most quoted line in the film isn’t when Octave says that everyone lies, but when he says that “the awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”

 

To be honest, I wish there had been more comments, since (obviously) I think this is a great film, and because I think I did a nice job writing about it. A couple of people agreed that it was great, and another said he would be watching it soon in a film class.


what i watched last week

Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo García, 2011). Glenn Close probably deserves her Oscar nomination. She properly plays the title character as someone who has been self-repressed for so long he no longer seems to know any other way to be. The problem with the movie is that while the initial setup is interesting, and while the character Nobbs might make for some interesting post-viewing discussion, as the guiding spirit of the film, Albert Nobbs is pretty boring. I’m not saying there’s a better way to play the character … Close is quite good … it’s just that the character doesn’t do enough to grab our attention. And so Janet McTeer, who also deserves her Oscar nomination, ends up stealing the film, not just because McTeer is excellent, but because her character (Hubert Page) externalizes his soul in ways unavailable to Nobbs. As we left the theater, a friend noted that she would have preferred a movie called “Mr. Page”. I can’t really complain that Albert Nobbs isn’t the movie my friend and I would have liked more, but neither can I recommend the film. 6/10.

A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949). A warm-up for All About Eve, and to my mind not nearly as good. There are the usual Mankiewicz touches: witty and often cutting dialogue, characters who don’t necessarily like each other but who hang out together nonetheless, and a generally sour attitude (although in this case, a semi-happy ending overcomes at least a little of that sourness). It’s the Desperate Housewives of its day (or, rather, the reverse), rising and falling with the talents of the various actors, but never falling too far thanks to Mankiewicz’ dialogue. There’s a snobbish attitude towards popular culture that would soon be directed at television, but which used radio for target practice in 1949 (“The purpose of radio writing, as far as I can see, is to prove to the masses that a deodorant can bring happiness”). All About Eve is more mean-spirited and funnier, but this is a decent film as well. Mankiewicz won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay. #972 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Attack of the Puppet People (Bert I. Gordon, 1958). This week’s Creature Feature lives down to the reputation of its director, the immortal Bert I. Gordon, who made some of the worst movies ever (at least 8 B.I.G. films turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000). This isn’t his all-time worst … John Hoyt does a nice job as a lonely doll maker. As many have pointed out, there is no attack in the movie, nor are there any puppet people. Gordon indulges in one of his specialties, the worst rear-projection this side of Marnie. And the cast is full of actors so obscure you won’t even say “hey, it’s that guy!” This is a family project: Gordon’s wife helped him on special effects, and their daughter made her screen debut as a little girl who loves dolls. Attack of the Puppet People isn’t bad enough to be good (see Gordon’s Beginning of the End for that), and Hoyt means it’s not even bad enough to be bad. 4/10. (Next week’s Creature Feature: the ludicrous but occasionally grisly The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. There will be a quiz! While cramming for that exam, you’ll want to check out “Jan in the Pan: Soliloquies and Dyads in The Brain That Wouldn't Die”.)


stuff i said

I was doing a Google search and came across a page with 19 pieces I wrote for Baseball Prospectus between 1997 and 2000. That was long enough ago that any predictions I might have made will have come true or been proven wrong. I’m writing this without knowing how good/bad my predictions were. Here’s a look at a few entries from the off-season between 1997 and 1998:

December 1997: “Julian Tavarez is unlikely to have a long career.” My logic was that Tavarez was coming off a season where he struck out only 3.9 batters per 9 innings. Tavarez pitched for 12 more seasons. Oops.

February 1998: I wrote a piece about prospects in the AL East. I said Roy Halladay looked good for 1999 and beyond (he had “a terrific upside, but is only 21 years old and should spend more time in the minors”). Hurray for me! He didn’t make the majors to stay until 2002, when he also made the All-Star team, and he now has two Cy Young awards to his name.

March 1998: The idea was that we picked three players likely to crash in 1998, and three likely to have a breakthrough season. I went off on Andrés Galarraga as the ultimate Will Crash … Andrés hit 44 HR in 1998. Oops. (In my defense, Rany Jazayerli and Christina Kahrl also had Andrés on their Crash List.) My other Likely Crashes were J.T. Snow and Darryl Kile. Snow hit only .248, but he drew walks, managed a 102 OPS+, and won a Gold Glove. Kile led the league in losses, with an ERA of 5.20, which looks like my only good selection, although his ERA+ was 100. My breakout candidates were Shawn Green, Manny Ramirez, and Scott Sanders. The first two might seem like obvious choices, but Green was only 25 and Manny was 26. Green hit .278 with 35 HR, 100 RBI, and a 116 OPS+; Manny, who already had some fine seasons but was mostly unnoticed outside of Cleveland, hit .294 with 45 HR, 145 RBI, a 146 OPS+, made the All-Star team, and finished 6th in the MVP voting. Sanders, on the other hand, was 0-2 17.69 in three games for Detroit … they traded him to San Diego, where he spent the season staying out of trouble in the bullpen. By 2000 he was out of the majors for good (outside of one appearance that wasn’t an appearance … look it up).

(One more. This doesn’t have many predictions, but it’s (gasp) quite nostalgic. It was published three days after the opening game of the Giants’ new stadium, then called Pacific Bell Park.)