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music friday: david johansen (your mirrors get jammed up with all your friends)

I appreciate the idea that you can’t make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if you only recorded two albums. I doubt the New York Dolls will ever get that honor. Ah, but those two albums! Acclaimed Music, which collates critical opinion, has the Dolls ranked as the 304th best artists of all time, based only on those two albums (with a slight boost from their recent comeback). To get a feel for that ranking, Dion is #305, the Jackson 5 is #307. All Music gives both albums the highest 5-stars out of 5 rating. Robert Christgau isn’t entirely trustworthy here, since the Dolls are close to his favorite band ever, but he not only gave the two albums grades of A+, he handed out the same grade to their 2006 comeback album. Neither album sold very well, and they soon broke up. Most of the core members of the band have died. Johnny Thunders’ guitar might have been the key to the band’s sound ... I remember once describing his playing to my sister-in-law as, well, lacking in the kind of “chops” that most people identify as “good”. She wondered why anyone would like him. Trust me ... when David Johansen would play Dolls’ songs in his solo concerts, the one thing above all else they were missing was Johnny’s guitar, even though he was replaced by “good” guitarists. He gave the Dolls a feeling of danger, but it was a bizarre danger ... good-natured danger, I’d say. His playing was fun, but you never knew where it was going.

Here they are in 1973, playing the first song from their first album, “Personality Crisis”:

Johansen (and others in the band, including Thunders) embarked on a solo career, and we saw him several times in those years. His debut, David Johansen, was probably his best, although there were other good ones. It wasn’t until his fourth album, the live “Live It Up”, that he made much of an impact commercially. The album was recorded in 1982, and there’s a better live one from 1978, The David Johansen Group Live. Sometime in all of this, he recorded a video of his medley of Animals’ hits ... it’s never been established for certain, but we’re pretty sure Robin and I are in this one. (Look at about the 2:41 mark ... there’s a guy in a t-shirt with his back to the camera, situated next to Johansen’s legs, and there’s a curly-haired woman right behind that guy.)

His first solo album was full of great songs, many of them leftover from the last days of the Dolls. Here’s “Frenchette”:

Johansen’s career wasn’t going anywhere. I saw him open once for Pat Benatar ... the crowd didn’t know what to make of him, and booed him, which admittedly is par for the course for opening acts. (I left before Benatar came on.) He always had a good record collection ... on their two albums, the Dolls covered Bo Diddley, Archie Bell, the Cadets, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Leiber & Stoller.

And then came Buster Poindexter. Buster was a kind of lounge singer with good taste in songs, and on his first album, he covered a soca song that had been around for a few years, “Hot Hot Hot”. It made #45 on the singles charts and #11 on the dance/club charts.

I’m pretty sure that Soozie Tyrell, later of the E Street Band, is among the backup singers in that video. Buster/David even made it to The Tonight Show, where Johnny invited him over to chat. (This time Soozie has a bigger part):

He also found time to play The Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged:

Many years later, Johansen formed David Johansen & the Harry Smiths, named after the archivist who gave us The Anthology of American Folk Music (I told you, he has a good record collection). That group recorded two albums, featuring music by the likes of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, and Son House. Here’s Son House’s “Death Letter”:

The Dolls reunited in 2004. Johansen was still there, as was Sylvain Sylvain and Arthur Kane. There’s a movie about Arthur as he prepares for the reunion shows, New York Doll. Less than a month after the reunion concerts, Arthur died. Here they are singing the Dolls song “Lonely Planet Boy”, with Syl adding a bit of Johnny’s great “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” at the start:

Finally, to go full circle, here’s the 2010 David & Syl version of the Dolls with “Personality Crisis”:

throwing the thursday oracle

For some reason, I got the idea of examining The Man in the High Castle by way of the I Ching. One person commented that the post gave him “a glimpse of insight into your hippie past”, while another agreed that “it betrays a certain level of hippie”.

Not sure I have any photos or sound bites for this. But yes, in my wannabe hippie past, I consulted the I Ching. I was introduced to it in a few ways. Ken Kesey, who was an important influence on me at the time, wrote about it, in the classic-to-us-at-the-time Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog:

The oracle works on the cybernetic gestalt principle that when you stand at the free-throw line that the information concerning the future and distant relationship and outcome of ball-and-basket is contained in your physical state at the moment of the shot. We always know down in our cells which fork in the road to take but the knowledge is usually not permitted audiance in the tight-assed regime of the courthouse of ego and attachment that we recognize, in a kind of diplomatic dither, as our consciousness ... so we are sometimes forced to rudely bypass the red-tape media garble of our city hall for some grassroots opinion. So we give the Ching a ring. Of course we can’t stop the boys in the smoke-filled rotunda from tapping our line but then neither have they figured out a way to stop the call so we toss the coins and figure, What the hell; go ahead and listen, Captain. You get good advice from the Ching even when you’re eavesdropping.

Also, every morning the DJ on KMPX/KSAN (I forget which or both) read the daily I Ching. I think the DJ was Bob Prescott, although I could be wrong. The point is, it was part of my daily morning ritual.

Later, I think in the late-70s but again, not sure, I had a calendar/diary by Khigh Dhiegh. Looking at a photo, I think it was 1978. The book was called I ching: Taoist book of days: calendar-diary. 1978 Year of the Horse. (If I have the wrong year, then the title reflected whatever year I had.) As I recall, you threw the coins once for each week, and once for each month, and you made plans for yourself based on the readings, and then you wrote about your experiences. I think my diary entries eventually devolved into one “I hate my job” after another.

Dhiegh was an interesting man. He founded a Taoist sanctuary, and had a doctorate in theology, so writing a book featuring the I Ching wasn’t all that unusual for him. But his primary claim to fame was as an actor. He was the arch villain Wo Fat in the original Hawaii Five-O, and played a brainwasher in the 1960s version of The Manchurian Candidate. Furthermore, in true Anthony Quinn mode, Dhiegh usually played an Asian character, but his actual heritage was Anglo/Egyptian/Sudanese. In fact, he was born in New Jersey, as Kenneth Dickerson.

marvel's agent carter

Well, eight weeks have come and gone. Next week, Agents of SHIELD will return. I looked forward to Agent Carter each week, and wouldn’t mind it being renewed.

But the series has to deal with two groups of audience members: those who are fluent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the rest of us. While I am not usually a fan of gigantic film franchises, the MCU has some talented people I enjoy, so I have a passing knowledge. I saw and liked the first Iron Man, and also had fun with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. But outside of those two movies (and the Agents of SHIELD series), I haven’t seen any of the MCU material. So while the question for fans is how well Agent Carter fits into the structure, for me, the question is whether I can enjoy the show without knowing the ins and outs.

I thought it did pretty well with this. Some of the material was meant for the fans ... I had to research to find out that one character in the show has a passing relationship to Scarlett Johansson’s character in The Avengers, but I assume that was obvious to people in the know. (And there was one brief scene at the end of the final episode that introduced a character who was apparently a big deal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which also included Peggy Carter.) None of this mattered to me, and it wasn’t necessary to know the shout outs to enjoy the TV series.

Agent Carter takes place in 1946, and plenty of time is spent on showing how women were marginalized in that era. Carter isn’t just the equal of her fellow spies, she is better than them, but no one pays any attention to her. Eventually, with some help, she saves the world, only to see the credit go to the man who is her boss. This set up the statement that to a large extent served as the show’s motto, as Carter states, “I know my value, anyone else's opinion doesn't really matter.”

The show was often fun, it only rarely took itself seriously (and chose the right times to do so), and it made its points about gender equality with flair. All of which adds up to slightly better than “meh” ... fun to watch, never necessary. If it came back for a second season, I’d be there, but I won’t miss it if that doesn’t happen.

Except ... Hayley Atwell. First off, she’s great as Carter, and she pulls off the 1946 look as if she were born to it. Her Carter is positively iconic, easily the best thing about the show. (And Atwell proved to be a popular person to follow on Twitter.) And there’s no way around it ... Hayley Atwell is a bombshell. It’s a bit off to say that about a woman playing a character who fights sexism, but if I didn’t mention it, you’d think I was blind, and my take on the series would be invalid. Plus, of course, Carter kicks ass ... the fight between her and “Sin Rosetro” (see, I can make sly allusions just like the Marvel fans do) in the season finale was a highlight of the series. Grade for Season One: B+.

philip k. dick, the man in the high castle

I thought to reread this book after watching the pilot episode for an upcoming TV series based on the book. If you've read The Man in the High Castle, you know how important a part the I Ching plays. Not only do many characters in the novel consult the oracle, Dick himself used it when writing:

I used it in The Man in the High Castle because a number of characters used it. In each case when they asked a question, I threw the coins and wrote the hexagram lines they got. That governed the direction of the book. Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abensen that he is the target of assassins, the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to tell him, I would have had her not go there. But I would not do that in any other book.

It occurred to me that I might fruitfully use the I Ching for this blog post, as a sort of “Play Along with Phil” game. In the book, which is an alternate history where the Allies lost WWII, an author, Hawthorne Abensen, writes a book that tells of an alternate history where the Axis lost the war. Abensen consults the I Ching when writing his book. How much more Dickian could I get, than to replicate that here.

I asked, “What can the oracle tell me that might illuminate The Man in the High Castle?” I got Li, The Clinging, Fire, with a changing nine at the top which leads to F’eng, Abundance/Fullness. (Explaining the I Ching would require a separate post ... what matters is whether I can turn this reading from the oracle into something illuminating about Dick’s novel.)

Here is what Li looks like:


You’ll notice that the top three lines and the bottom three lines are matches: fire on top of fire. The “Judgement”: “The Clinging. Perseverance furthers. It brings success. Care of the cow brings good fortune.” (You can see how the I Ching works ... it never gives a clear reply, which thus allows the reader to basically invent meanings.) Luckily, each Judgement has a “Commentary”. Here, it reads in part, “Human life on earth is conditioned and unfree, and when man recognizes this limitation and makes himself dependent upon the harmonious and beneficent forces of the cosmos, he achieves success. The cow is the symbol of extreme docility. By cultivating in himself an attitude of compliance and voluntary dependence, man acquires clarity without sharpness and finds his place in the world.” Jeff Pike has noted of the novel that “The characters are largely listless and accepting of the world as it is”. Combining this with “The Clinging”, we get characters who find their place through compliance and voluntary dependence. The inner monologues of the characters in the book let us understand that none of these people have actually accepted their place. They are all struggling to get beyond wherever they find themselves. But outwardly, they often feign compliance, because to do otherwise is to risk everything. While this hexagram might offer insight into the characters when we first meet them, it doesn't explain why so many of them take actions to change their situations.

The “Image” here shows “That which is bright rises twice: The image of Fire. Thus the great man, by perpetuating this brightness, illumines the four quarters of the world.” The commentary: “The great man continues the work of nature in the human world. Through the clarity of his nature he causes the light to spread farther and farther and to penetrate the nature of man ever more deeply.” Perhaps Hawthorne Abensen is trying to spread the light in his alternate history; perhaps Philip K. Dick is doing the same with his alternate history.

The changing nine at the top means, “The king used him to march forth and chastise. Then it is best to kill the leaders and take captive the followers. No blame.” Commentary: “Evil must be cured at its roots. To eradicate evil in political life, it is best to kill the ringleaders and spare the followers. In educating oneself it is best to root out bad habits and tolerate those that are harmless.” Note the difference between “political life”, where evil ringleaders must be killed, and personal life, where “it is best to root out bad habits”.

The changed hexagram is F’eng, Abundance. “Abundance has success. The king attains abundance. Be not sad. Be like the sun at midday.”

I can’t say this little experiment did much for me. I can't see anything clearly that takes me places within the novel that I hadn't been before. In my reading of the result of my question, we as individuals are encouraged to find our place via compliance, while looking inwards to root out bad habits. But as a society, we are to eradicate evil by killing the ringleaders. I don’t see how these can co-exist, nor do I see that they have a clear connection to The Man in the High Castle.

[I Ching quotations, from the Richard Wilhelm translation that was the most-used back in my hippie days, are gathered from the website]

what i watched last week

The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick, 1928). This came at the end of Keaton’s astounding run of great movies in the 20s. Not coincidentally, it was his first for MGM. After The Cameraman, he increasingly lost creative control. Keaton’s last films before MGM (including The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.) set an extremely high standard, and The Cameraman was probably the last Keaton movie that could comfortably be included in a retrospective showing of his best work. Having said that, it’s a notch below his best. Which isn’t bad at all. #442 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984). One of those “I can’t believe you never saw it” movies. A few years after this, Martin Brest directed Midnight Run, one of my favorite movies. And Eddie Murphy, only 23 years old, was bursting in talent and popularity. But I found Beverly Hills Cop to be very much of its time, and not in a good way. Nothing Murphy does here is as great as his redneck bar scene from 48 Hrs. Harold Faltermeyer’s score, which won a Grammy, is drenched in synth pop, and it feels like it never goes away ... Faltermeyer batters the audience. Which makes it appropriate, I suppose, since Brest directs the movie in the same style. Obviously, the movie struck a chord with the audience. It was an enormous box office hit, spawning two sequels. But I’d rather watch Bowfinger. 6/10.

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961). Influenced by (depending on who you ask) Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest or a different Hammett novel, The Glass Key, Yojimbo spawned many imitators of its own: A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, and even John Belushi’s samurai. It is one of the most enjoyable of Kurosawa’s movies, and Toshiro Mifune seems to be having more fun than usual, as well. All of the influences, before and after, make for fascinating viewing. Red Harvest was a detective novel from 1929, Yojimbo is a samurai movie from the 1960s that has the look of a widescreen American Western, A Fistful of Dollars is the film that introduced Spaghetti Westerns to most people, and Last Man Standing, which credited Yojimbo as its source, returned to 1930 and gangsters. Red Harvest is the best of all of these, but Yojimbo is easily the best movie of the bunch. #390 on the TSPDT list. 10/10.

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). 10/10.

Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014). 7/10.

The Sandlot (David M. Evans, 1993). 6/10.

the roosevelts: an intimate history

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a film or a television series ... I’m going with TV, since that’s where Ken Burns always ends up.

Burns’ style is so recognizable that I know it quite well, even though the only other one of his documentaries I’ve watched to the end was Baseball. I don’t know why I haven't seen more ... they always get good reviews, and I do like documentaries. Anyway, as my previous viewing demonstrates, I tune in when the topic is particularly interesting to me, like baseball. So you can infer something about me when I tell you I made it through all 14 hours of The Roosevelts.

I was raised to believe that FDR was the greatest American president. Not by my parents ... my dad was pretty much on the border between Democrat and Republican in those days, and while my mom and I often discussed important topics, they tended more to philosophical concerns than political. But her mother, my grandmother, loved talking politics, for hours on end. She was a New Deal Democrat, and she loved Franklin Roosevelt. I can’t count the number of times she told me about FDR’s dog, Fala. She had a box set of LPs titled F.D.R. Speaks that we would listen to ... it had his four inaugural speeches, a selection of Fireside Chats, the “Day of Infamy” speech, and yes, the one where he talked about Fala. She would explain the context for the various speeches ... this would have been around the mid-60s, I knew very little beyond what she told me.

Like many fans of FDR, I’ve often wondered how the country would be different if LBJ hadn't screwed up on Vietnam. And I’ve wondered why President Obama hasn't done what Roosevelt did. My friend Jonathan Bernstein, who has forgotten more about the U.S. presidency than most of us actually know, was good at reminding me that it’s not 1932 any longer.

The selling point about The Roosevelts, beyond the part where it’s the latest epic from Ken Burns, is that it looks at three members of the family instead of one. From Teddy’s birth to Eleanor’s death covers just over a hundred years. They were connected by more than blood, and Burns keeps things moving forward by effectively intertwining their stories. Naturally, Teddy dominates at first, Eleanor blossoms most in the final hour, and Franklin gets lots of screen time (as perhaps befits a man who won four presidential elections). Burns is known for presenting a seemingly unbiased narrative that nonetheless is driven by Burns’ own beliefs. As Matt Zoller Seitz noted:

Where real history is concerned, Burns is as much of a cinematic mythmaker as John Ford, Steven Spielberg, or Oliver Stone. You’re aware that what you’re seeing isn’t a just-the-facts recitation of what happened and to whom, but one filmmaker’s presentation of a particular political worldview (mainstream liberal, optimistic verging on rosy, but hypersensitive to issues of race, class and gender that other big-ticket documentaries tend to gloss over).

The other key to The Roosevelts can be found in the subtitle: “An Intimate History”. While the series covers a century’s worth of history, it also spends significant time delving into the psychological makeup of the three protagonists. This can be a bit tricky ... the more we learn about them as people, the more we empathize with them, the more we are willing to accept their weaknesses. Eleanor comes across the best here, perhaps because she’s the only one of the three who wasn't President. Her mistakes were not as crucial to the world, so we are left with the good things she accomplished, and there are many. Plus, by outliving the others, she gets the last word ... the majority of the final episode is devoted to her life and career post-Franklin.

There is another kind of trickery involving the personal lives, one that Michelangelo Signorile addresses effectively. Burns spends plenty of time telling us about FDR’s many affairs, and how they impacted his relationship with Eleanor. Those affairs are not off-limits ... they help make this “an intimate history”. But Burns consciously chooses to leave out part of the story entirely:

It's long been discussed that Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and deep relationship with the Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok, with whom she went on a road trip, alone, across the country, and who even had a room in the White House for a time -- and those facts are included in the series. Also included is the fact that Eleanor had friends and colleagues with whom she organized on women's issues who were lesbians, some of them in deeply committed relationships.

But the way Burns treats all of this is to discuss Eleanor and Hickok as close and intimate "friends" -- he has Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us Hickok was "in love" with Eleanor, almost as if it was one-sided -- but never using the "L" word, or even raising the possibility of sex, seeming to view that as sleazy.

He then quotes Burns saying, “This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid”, and asks, “Why is it ‘tabloid’ rather than ‘intimate’ to speak of the possibility of a sexual relationship between two women?”

Signorile also discusses lesser-known items about FDR’s role in anti-gay scandals, “lesser-known” to me, at least ... I hadn't heard about them before.

I mention this mainly to show how even a director like Burns, who seems to cover every possible angle of his subjects, invariably leaves something out, with the decisions about what to avoid being the choices of a specific individual “mythmaker”.

music friday: bonnie raitt

Among the many things the new Sleater-Kinney album brings to mind is the 20-year distance between their first album and the latest. It’s amazing, almost unheard of, for an artist to make an album twenty years on that fits well into the overall catalog, but then, Sleater-Kinney are not an ordinary band.

Think about the Beatles. Their first album was released in 1963. Twenty years later, John was dead, George had recently released Gone Troppo, Ringo offered up Old Wave, and Paul had Pipes of Peace.

The Rolling Stones’ first album came out in 1964. Twenty years later, Brian was dead, and the Stones released a compilation album, Rewind (1971-1984), that has since gone out of print.

Chuck Berry goes back to 1955. Twenty years later, he hadn’t had a hit since “My Ding-a-Ling”, and he had only one more studio album in him.

Joni Mitchell? First album 1968, twenty years later, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm.

There are a few artists that have defied my Theory of the Trajectory of Rock Star Careers. Lucinda Williams always comes to mind. Bonnie Raitt is another.

Raitt grew up in a musical family. She released her self-titled first album in 1971 … it didn’t sell, but critics liked it. It was almost pure blues. Her second album mixed in some folk and rock, and made the lower end of the charts. She moved closer to the mainstream, leaving some critics behind, and while sales were better, she was far from a star. In 1975, she released Home Plate, my personal favorite of her albums, which included “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes”, my personal favorite of her songs. (I remember one of the times we saw her, after she’d finally gotten famous, she sang “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes” for all of us old fans who still remembered.) In 1977, she had her first hit single, “Runaway”, but critics increasingly dismissed her. By the early-80s, she had been dropped by her record company, and was fighting substance abuse problems.

But then, cleaned up and with a new label, Raitt came out with Nick of Time in 1989. It hit #1, sold millions, and won three Grammys including Best Album. Raitt turned 40 that year.

Nick of Time was a good album. It included two songs by Bonnie Hayes and one by John Hiatt that were a lot better than good. It all made a nice story about someone that was very much loved by her fellow musicians.

Which brings us to her “20-year” album. In 1991, twenty years after her debut, Raitt released the Nick of Time follow-up, Luck of the Draw. This was the album that was as good as people thought Nick of Time was. It sold even more copies and won three more Grammys. It opened with “Something to Talk About”, one of her biggest hits. It included a catchy number, “Papa Come Quick (Jody and Chico)”, which is a favorite of mine. And it included what has become her signature song, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. It is a true classic. It’s also hard for Raitt to sing … it taxes her vocal range, and it’s a very emotional song. But, as she said, “'I Can't Make You Love Me' is no picnic. I love that song, so does the audience. So it's almost a sacred moment when you share that, that depth of pain with your audience. Because they get really quiet, and I have to summon ... some other place in order to honor that space.”

Since then, Raitt has put out five studio albums, and a solid live album, Road Tested, also available on video, with some good guest cameos. She hasn’t had the consistency that Sleater-Kinney has managed, but not many artists have. She has given us a strong career, and her “20-year” album is arguably her best.

Here is “Papa Come Quick”, performed with another of my favorites, Alison Krauss:

“I Can’t Make You Love Me”:

And “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes”:

revisit: the wizard of oz (victor fleming, 1939)

The Wizard of Oz is one of the 30 or so movies that just missed the last cut when I made my 50 Favorite Movies list some time ago on Facebook. It is one of those movies I can watch over and over, which makes sense considering how I was introduced to it. Like many baby boomers, I first saw The Wizard of Oz on television.

Lest you think I am letting childhood memories take over from actual fact, I’ll note that there is an entire, fairly lengthy Wikipedia page titled The Wizard of Oz on television. Briefly, the movie was first shown on CBS in 1956. But beginning in 1959, The Wizard of Oz was shown on commercial network television, usually as a special (often with a guest host). Even now, it turns up often on television, on cable networks. The details are interesting, if you’d like to check out that Wikipedia link.

The key for me is that it was shown every year, not as part of a movie package, but as its own special telecast. Thus, it was “Event TV”, something we looked forward to every year. I was 6 years old in 1959 … I don’t know if I watched it that year, but I do know I watched it many times.

One thing we missed in those days was the transition from Kansas/B&W to Oz/Color. We had a black-and-white television, after all. We were not the first of our friends to get a color TV, and … here, memory may be playing tricks … I believe the first time The Wizard of Oz was telecast when one of our friends had a color TV, we watched it at their house. In those days, the Kansas scenes were shown in black-and-white, although in the original they are sepia.

Like Dorothy, I have a particular fondness for The Scarecrow, since I played that character in one of my first acting jobs, when I was in 7th grade.

There isn’t much to say about The Wizard of Oz at this point. I can recall watching it once during my hippie days and thinking it was quite cosmic and psychedelic. Other than that, and my memories of watching as a child, nothing stands out. This time through, I noticed more than ever the vaudeville aspects of the movie. Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion has always been an obvious vaudeville turn, but many of the cast members had a background in vaudeville. Judy Garland herself had been on the stage since before she turned three. Ray Bolger and Jack Haley also worked in vaudeville … maybe that’s what gives the movie such a vaudevillian feel, the four friends who dominate the story all came from there. Not everyone had a vaudeville background … Margaret Hamilton and Frank Morgan most notably were actors from the start. But Billie Burke, who was in her mid-50s when she took on the role of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, had a father who worked as a singer and clown for Barnum & Bailey, and she was married for many years to Flo Ziegfeld, who didn’t exactly put on vaudeville shows but whose “Follies” were singular.

But I’m just looking for trivia. Nothing I say here is likely to convey the pleasure The Wizard of Oz still brings. Perhaps one sign of how the movie has long been a part of American culture can be found on the “Memorable Quotes” page for the film on the IMDB. There are 105 entries, and in most cases, I’ve either said them or heard them on a fairly regular basis in ordinary conversation. “I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” comes to mind. 10/10.

oscar run 8: still alice (richard glatzer and wash westmoreland, 2014)

(Julianne Moore is nominated for Best Actress)

When Still Alice was released, some of my friends had an interesting and emotional discussion on Facebook about whether to see the movie. In particular, those who had personal experience with family and loved ones with Alzheimer's expressed concerns that it would be too much to take, revisiting the anguish of their real-life difficulties.

I haven’t had to deal with this problem yet, so I’m speaking as an outsider. But I’d guess they could watch Still Alice without too much upheaval. Julianne Moore is very good … playing a terminal patient is guaranteed Oscar bait, but Moore doesn’t overplay her hand, never seems to be begging for an Oscar. There is an intelligence to her portrayal that means she never completely disappears in the role … we are always aware that we are seeing a great actress, not a person with Alzheimer’s. But that intelligence respects the audience. Moore allows us to gradually come to terms with Alice’s situation, just as Alice herself does.

The setup is almost like a horror movie. The situation is established: the main character has a devastating disease. And we know it’s the kind of disease that gets worse over time. Maybe I see too many apocalyptic dramas about viruses that endanger humanity, but I wondered if perhaps Still Alice would play like zombie-virus movie, making the audience squeamish by the inevitability of the outcome. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was partly what made my friends uncertain about the movie. Not the zombie angle, but the inevitability of it all. Who needs to see that, when you are living it?

But the film makers refuse to jack it up. It never transforms into a horror story. We see the effects the disease has on Alice’s family, friends, and colleagues, we see the progression of the disease, but the movie’s strength comes on the face of Julianne Moore. She lets us into Alice’s mental world … we look at her face and we know where she is on the continuum. As I say, it’s a very intelligent approach to the character. It is also extremely effective, although it requires an actor as good as Moore to pull it off.

That refusal to push the hysteria is why Still Alice never comes close to being a horror movie. And I think it is why the film can be watched by people who had qualms in advance. It is real, it is sad, but it isn’t crushing … the ending is as hopeful as possible, and the basic structure ends up more like a TV movie than a cinema classic. Julianne Moore raises the film’s impact, but without her, Still Alice would be fairly prosaic. 7/10. One of the people in the afore-mentioned discussion mentioned Amour and A Separation as movies which covered similar ground. Amour is the kind of excruciating experience that I suspect people are worried about seeing in Still Alice; in A Separation, Alzheimer’s is more subplot than primary narrative, but it is such a great movie I’m always ready to tout it. And many people brought up Away from Her with Julie Christie, which I think is a better movie overall than Still Alice.

by request: the sandlot (david m. evans, 1993)

I’ll get the basics out of the way, because the experience of watching this movie was more interesting than the movie itself. The Sandlot is a family-friendly story about a group of almost-teenaged boys who love to play baseball. It’s not quite a coming-of-age story, since during the course of the movie, the boys only age from the beginning of summer until the end. Director Evans keeps things moving, and gets decent performances from the young actors. I can imagine if you saw this when you were 12, you’d have a soft spot in your heart for it.

Evans seems to be trying for a Stand by Me feel, but it is nowhere near as good as that film. As is appropriate for a movie that takes on the perspective of a young boy remembering a good summer, everything is a bit exaggerated. But the primary subplot, about a monstrous dog they call The Beast, goes way over the top. It’s one thing to make the pretty girl lifeguard into the most desirable girl these boys have ever known. It’s another to make The Beast into a variety of sizes, some of which are gargantuan. In the first case, the exaggeration suits the memories of the boy. In the latter case, Evans is likely trying for the same thing, but The Beast has no connection to reality, even the reality a grown man keeps in his memories of childhood.

I wanted to watch The Sandlot because it was requested, and it’s one of those movies that are always showing up on TV. But the purist in me didn’t want to watch it on a commercial station, so I kept postponing, until finally I threw in the towel and recorded it off of what I think was the Discovery Family channel. Talk about old school … I was thrown back 20+ years. First, there were the commercials. Sure, I fast-forwarded through them, but there were so many. I know, people always say that, but The Sandlot runs 101 minutes, and was placed into a 2 1/2 hour timeslot. For every two minutes of movie, there was one minute of advertising.

Then came the old Aspect Ratio trick. The Sandlot is 2.35:1, which on most TVs today means it will be letterboxed. And the credits were the right ratio. But when the actual movie began, the screen filled. Much as movies in the olden days were butchered to fit into the then-standard 4:3 ration, The Sandlot was cropped to fit today’s standard 16:9.

I can hear people saying I should mellow out, that it doesn’t matter, that this happens lots of times on TV, even today. But then I noticed what I call the Ernie Hudson Effect. Ghostbusters was shot in 2.20:1, and when it was shown in a pan-and-scan version in 4:3, the problem of framing four actors into one shot was often solved by cropping Hudson’s character, making it look like a three-shot. Well, when The Sandlot begins, the narrator is a new kid in town with no baseball skills. He’s accepted into the group mainly because he will be the ninth member, meaning they’d have enough kids to make an entire baseball team. Then the Hudson Effect strikes … there are many shots of eight boys in a line, shot from the perspective of the ninth boy, and they fit the boys into the picture by cropping one from the edge. The need for a baseball nine is what created the basis for the story … the need to cater to anti-letterbox viewers is what created a need for one fewer boy.

And yes, I know this is much ado about nothing. Maybe I’m the only person on Earth to even notice this. But there wasn’t enough going on in The Sandlot to distract me from such concerns. 6/10. For a companion, watch Stand by Me.