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bill the blob

Apparently there is a reason I've been stuffy on one side of my nose for the past several years: I have an inverted papilloma buried somewhere behind my left nostril. At the end of February, I had a video chat with my doctor. When I mentioned my sinusitis, as I always do, she seemed interested that it was only on one side, so she set me up for an appointment with the Ear and Nose department. I put this appointment off until mid-April, after my second vaccine had done its work. They stuck something up my nose and said I had some polyps, and told me they needed a CT scan to better identify the problem. (While I was there, they made me an appointment with a allergy doctor for the next day.) On April 23, I had the scan, and a few days later, I heard back from the Ear and Nose folks that there did seem to be polyps, and they wanted to do a biopsy prior to surgery.

A week ago, I got the biopsy, which involved more stuff being stuck up my nose. Yesterday, they called and let me know I have an inverted papilloma. Next on the schedule is an MRI, and then surgery, which will likely involve getting stuff stuck up my nose yet again.

This is all good news, I think. For one thing, when all is done, I might actually be able to breathe properly again (it's been a long time). Also, despite the scary sounding name, an inverted papilloma is benign, although it needs to be addressed. But it's not like I have to go do it tomorrow.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt like I was a character in a David Cronenberg movie. I wanted to personalize the experience, so I decided to name my papilloma. The name I settled on is Bill the Blob. I even imagined a theme song ... maybe get Burt Bacharach to sign on to do the music:

I guess it wouldn't be fair to leave without giving you a peek at Bill:

For more details, check this blog post from 2019.

returning to the weather underground (sam green and bill siegel, 2002)

I first saw the 2002 documentary The Weather Underground in 2004. At the time, I wrote:

It's a weird time to be watching The Weather Underground, a recent documentary about self-proclaimed Amerikan revolutionaries. It didn't make me want to go out and start a revolution ... But the film did bring to mind some parallels to American life in 2004.

These radicals felt completely alienated from mainstream America, and felt a need to act upon that alienation, in order to end the society they felt was causing such misery across the globe. Whether or not their political analysis was correct, their sense of themselves as separate was shared not just by bomb-throwing radicals but by many of us.

And many of us increasingly feel that way now. George Bush is a divider, not a uniter. And if he gets another four years, some of us are going to feel as alienated from mainstream America as the Weather Underground was in the past.

Well, George Bush did get another four years, and we survived somehow. Then in 2016, we found out there was something worse than Bush the Younger: Donald Trump became president. It's funny, because Trump wasn't quite the warmonger his predecessors had been, and while there has never been a worse president, war was far from the biggest issue.

But in The Weather Underground, various ex-members talked about how their movement petered out when the U.S. finally got out of Vietnam. The war had been the trigger for them, and without it, they were lost, and found themselves questioning what they were doing.

The film is an uneasy look back, using the benefit of hindsight to reject what the Weather Underground was doing. I got the feeling that the film makers wanted that rejection. It is balanced in some ways ... you do hear from members who would "do it again". But you also hear Mark Rudd, who admits to mixed feelings of guilt and shame. And the way Green and Siegel use Todd Gitlin upsets the so-called balance. Gitlin belongs in any study of the Weather Underground ... he had been a president of the Students for a Democratic Society, from which the Weather Underground came, and he is adamant that the Underground was ruinous for the Left. His points are well-taken at first, but he keeps popping up throughout the film, always insisting that the Underground was a bad thing. The way the film is constructed, it's as if Gitlin is called upon whenever the film makers want to take the Underground to task. The result is that the members of the Underground come across as spoiled kids who wouldn't listen to daddy. Which may even be an accurate description, but the use of Gitlin in the film means Green and Siegel side with daddy.

It is entirely possible I bring too much baggage to the film, and I may be unfair to Green and Siegel. Here is Green talking about the film in 2015:

the intouchables (olivier nakache and éric toledano, 2011)

The Intouchables is the kind of film I normally hate, so Nakache and Toledano deserve some credit simply because I liked this movie. It's the uplifting story of a quadriplegic and his new caretaker. It's a heartwarming story as they tell it ... that's the part I normally don't like ... and I'm not entirely sure why I went with it. The acting helps ... François Cluzet as the quadriplegic does a lot with his part despite not being able to move anything but his head and face, while Omar Sy is entertaining as the caregiver. You don't want to think too hard about the relationship between the two. Sy is black, but this seems to be irrelevant, perhaps because the film makers want to foreground the positive, so we're never asked to consider whether his blackness might complicate the way the two work together (more than one critic compared it to Driving Miss Daisy). It's clear that we're headed for a happy ending, and The Intouchables becomes something the whole family can enjoy, even a curmudgeon like me. It touches a chord for a lot of people, having set box office records all over the world.

But compare The Intouchables to a movie like Amour. That film, which also dealt with caretaking, was unrelentingly depressing. Both characters are in their 80s, and the invalid has a stroke that leaves her mostly unable to communicate. Michael Haneke, who wrote and directed Amour, did not make a "comedy-drama". Amour is so dark, I can't imagine wanting to watch it again. But Haneke was up to something beyond entertaining the mainstream audience, and Amour sticks with me in ways I don't think The Intouchables will ever approach. The Intouchables was pleasant enough, but I won't be surprised if a year from now, I forget I saw it. (Although I tend to remember any time I see Audrey Fleurot.)

music friday: rock and roll hall of fame part 1

I'm going to take the next few weeks to adjust the current "acts I've seen live" theme. What will follow for a month or so will be artists I've seen, that haven't previously been featured in this long series, who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They'll appear in order of their induction, and I'll mostly avoid comments ... I'll just post some relevant videos.

Chuck Berry, inducted 1986. (Fillmore Auditorium, 1967.) He was an original Hall inductee. Duh.

Bo Diddley, inducted 1987. (Berkeley Community Theater, 1979). I've told this one before. When I saw Bo in 1979, he had fun playing up how old he was. I am currently 17 years older than Bo was that night.

Muddy Waters, inducted 1987. (Keystone Berkeley, 1980).

witness for the prosecution (billy wilder, 1957)

Crowd-pleasing courtroom drama from an Agatha Christie play that is silly nonsense but fun nonetheless. Charles Laughton seems to be enjoying himself, and his cagey overacting is probably the best thing about the movie. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress (Elsa Lanchester), but it won none, and Marlene Dietrich supposedly felt terrible that she didn't even get nominated. There are lots of gossipy items attached to the film ... both Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich were said to have had a crush on Tyrone Power. Elsa Lanchester is welcome every time she turns up on the screen, at least for people like me who love Elsa Lanchester.

The promotional campaign for the film centered on the surprise ending.

I had a good time watching Witness for the Prosecution. Laughton, Dietrich, and Lanchester were the main reason, although I'll grudgingly tip my cap to Agatha Christie for another of her surprise endings. Most of the time, I'm of the "there's no there there" school of thought about Christie, but there's no denying that she knows how to lead a reader on. If you've never seen Witness for the Prosecution, and you are a Christie fan, you should jump at the chance to watch this film.

geezer cinema: stowaway (joe penna, 2021)

Director Joe Penna and writer Ryan Morrison made a film called Arctic that got decent reviews, although it slipped right past me. Stowaway would have done the same ... I'd never heard of it ... until my wife picked it for our weekly Geezer Cinema date. One of the best things about something scheduled like Geezer Cinema is that every two weeks, my wife chooses the movie, and it's rarely something I would have chosen on my own. So I get exposed to new stuff.

Penna and Morrison intended to do a lot with a little. The budget was only $10 million. They got some good actors who were just below the kind of star power that costs money (Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson), and created a chamber piece where there were no other actors and most of the action took place on a space ship that looked mostly functional ... not cheap, but not expensive. They had a couple of nice visual set pieces that also looked inexpensive without looking cheap. And they veered away from standard space-ship shenanigans ... yes, there was a stowaway, but it wasn't the monster from Alien, just an engineer who was accidentally left on board (not the only time the plot was a bit too much to believe). Stowaway is interested in big concepts, human concepts about the meaning of life, which intensify when the four passengers realize the ship, which is headed for Mars, doesn't have enough air for all four of them.

The problem is, Stowaway moves at a glacial pace. It's about four people, but we never learn enough about them to actually care what happens to them. It's basically uninteresting for two hours. It has hints of Gravity, except Gravity is a great film that makes us care about Sandra Bullock floating in space. And it's half-an-hour shorter than Stowaway. If you're going to take your time with your story, you need to give us some reason to stick around, and Stowaway never gets there.

sundown town

Today I learned ... well, it's nothing I didn't already know, so maybe "learned" is the wrong word, but it helped me combine a few things I knew into something I hadn't considered in quite this way before.

I have written before about growing up in Antioch, California, which until my senior year of high school in 1970 had no black people. This fact has been in my mind recently, with the just-finished NFL draft, where Najee Harris was a first-round pick. Harris, who set records playing college ball at Alabama (one of the prime football colleges in the country), went to Antioch High School. He has a chance to be the greatest football player in Antioch High history (an honor that I'm guessing is currently held by Hall of Fame lineman Gino Marchetti). Najee Harris is black. And in 2021, that isn't noteworthy ... Antioch has come a long way in 50 years. Wikipedia informs us that "the city has grown substantially more diverse since the 1990s, with no ethnic group comprising more than one-third of Antioch's population."

Wikipedia describes the Antioch I grew up in as "an all-white sundown town". And it wasn't just blacks who were discriminated against ... a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle tells the story in its title: "The Bay Area town that drove out its Chinese residents for nearly 100 years."

I knew about sundown towns, and I certainly knew about Antioch's history. But I'd never put those two facts together. If nothing else, it makes my story shorter in the telling: I grew up in Antioch, California, a sundown town.

The city's progress isn't confined to sports. Two of the last three mayors, including current mayor Lamar Thorpe, are black. If I had to guess, I'd say most younger residents of Antioch know little or nothing about its past as a sundown town. I often say I don't recognize Antioch any longer ... it's been 40 years since we last lived there. But I'm mostly thinking about the size of the city. In 1920, around the time my grandparents from Spain moved to Antioch, the population was under 2000. By 1930, when my father was 6 years old, it was up to 3500. And it kept growing ... 11,000 in 1950, three years before I was born, up to 28,000 when I graduated from high school in 1970. The census for that year says that 98.1% of the populace of Antioch was "white" ("white" encompassing lots of groups that have their own categories now, such as Italian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Portuguese-Americans, and Spanish-Americans). According to that census, there were 42 "Negroes" living in Antioch, and if you asked me at the time, I'd say that overstated the case by around 38 people.

Times change. When we had kids, we moved to Berkeley, partly because we liked the city, but also because we didn't want our kids to grow up in that same racist environment in which we were raised. Our kids were born in 1975 and 1978 ... the 1980 census says there were 615 Black people living in Antioch at the time. I'm glad things have changed in my home town, but I'm even more glad that we got our kids out of there.

music friday: dan hicks, grateful dead, alison krauss

Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Fillmore West, July 1970. My memories of Dan Hicks come at three different times of my life. In 1970, I saw him and the Licks for the first time. I didn't really notice him ... Sha Na Na was the headliners, and we knew nothing about them, so that's what we remembered. In 1973, the night before our wedding, I saw Dan and the band on ABC In Concert, one of a few late-late night shows featuring rock music that popped up in the 70s. That night, the performers were Miles Davis, Albert King, Slade, and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. The latter performed three songs, including the classic "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away" and the great "I Scare Myself". I knew these songs because I had the band's first album ... had it back when I saw them in 1970. I was so taken with "I Scare Myself" that I wrote the words down on a piece of paper, and at the wedding the next day, pulled that paper out of my pocket and read the lyrics to the attendees. I told this story the third time I saw Dan, when he "and Friends" did a show in Rodeo. He was drunk, the show was a disaster, he eventually walked off the stage. But before the show I found him sprawled across a few seats in the theater (which was a movie theater, as I recall), and when I told him about seeing him on TV before my wedding, he started laughing, a slow but steady drunken laugh ... "heh, heh, heh." One of the Lickettes was Naomi Ruth Eisenberg, and by the time we saw him in Rodeo, my wife was working at a fabric store owned by Naomi's brother. So we got her autograph while Dan sat on stage bemoaning his fate and commenting on the action where his backup singer was giving autographs.

Here they are on the Flip Wilson TV show. Naomi is on Dan's left. The violinist is Symphony Sid Page, who was with Dan from the start, and who has played with just about everyone, including a stint in Sly and the Family Stone.

The Grateful Dead, Oakland Coliseum, October 1976. The only time I saw the Dead was at a Day on the Green they co-headlined with The Who. To be honest, I was there for The Who (this is when Moonie was still alive), but the Dead were good, and while I had never seen them, their shows were regularly on local public television, and they already had lots of lve albums, so they weren't exactly unfamiliar to me. Here's "Sugar Magnolia" from that show:

Alison Krauss and Union Station, Greek Theatre, 20??. The exact date escapes me, but I know it was in the 2000s, because Dan Tyminski of Union Station told a story about doing the vocals for George Clooney in O Brother, Where Are Thou?, which came out in late 2000. I had long loved Alison Krauss, and I was glad we had the chance to see her live. The show lacked moments of ecstacy ... it was consistently wonderful, like Krauss' voice and fiddle playing, from start to finish, but it wasn't ever more than that. Doesn't really matter, it was a fine performance. Here she sings what many of us consider her greatest ... she sang this at the White House for the Obamas:

Bonus: Dan Hicks and an enormous bunch of Hot Licks from his career, performing "I Scare Myself" for his 60th birthday (Symphony Sid is the third of the violinists to solo):

african-american directors series/geezer cinema: the book of eli (the hughes brothers, 2010)

This is the fifth movie I've seen from The Hughes Brothers, but for some reason it's the first one I've written about. Which is too bad, because The Book of Eli is at or near the bottom of the list when it comes to their movies. Menace II Society was a touchstone, with a terrifying performance by Larenz Tate. Dead Presidents (also with Tate) surprised me ... I thought it was even better than Menace. From Menace II Society in 1993 to From Hell in 2001, the brothers (who are twins) directed four movies together. For reasons not completely clear, they have only directed one movie together in the last 20 years, The Book of Eli. I wish I could say it was a return to form.

The brothers (and casting director Mindy Marin) put together a solid cast, with a couple of reliable leads in Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, strong support from Mila Kunis in the female lead, and an intriguing list of players in smaller parts: Ray "Titus Pullo" Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as an old couple that haven't lost their fire, even Tom Waits and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell. None of them are wasted, but it's really Denzel's show, with Oldman doing a good job of underplaying the villain, something he doesn't always do.

The story, a post-apocalyptic tale that goes mostly unexplained, reminded me of a lot of other movies, most of them better than The Book of Eli. There are a few twists near the end that I won't spoil (at least one of which, I didn't get until I read about the movie afterwards). The fight sequences are well done, with Denzel doing his own martial arts stunts. If you ended up spending two hours watching this movie, you wouldn't hate yourself afterwards. But you might wonder why you bothered. For me, there wasn't much to inspire. If you want to be surprised by a movie you might not know, check out Dead Presidents.

safety last! (fred c. newmeyer and sam taylor, 1923)

This is the thirty-third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 33 is called "Hosts Past and Present Week".

Another Season Challenge has come and gone. As always, we must pay tribute to the hosts of Season's past for creating and maintaining the Challenge before I got my grubby mitts on it. Last year I had this separated into two weeks, but I figured I'd condense them to make room for another challenge. I hope you've enjoyed your time during this Season Challenge, and I look forward to seeing you all next time!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from either Monsieur Flynn's Movies to See Before Your End Credits listkurt k's Personal Cannon list, or my own A Hundred or So of My Favorites list.

This was my very first Harold Lloyd movie, which amazes me, considering how many Keaton and Chaplin silents I've seen. I don't know how typical Safety Last! is of his work, so I hesitate to draw conclusions about Lloyd just yet. But there were a few things that struck me as different compared to the other two silent comedians.

First, I wasn't prepared for the way Lloyd (who plays a character listed as "The Boy", but whose name on his paycheck reads "Harold Lloyd") is a fairly normal guy. Chaplin is the Tramp, milking the sentimentality and always good for some thoughtful visual gags. Keaton, my favorite, is the blank-face existential hero. Lloyd? He's a guy, "The Boy", and no more than that. In Safety Last!, he wants to prove himself to his prospective wife, so he goes to the big city to get an impressive job. Chaplin might have wanted to impress a girl, but he was always going to be The Tramp. Keaton's relationship to women was complicated to say the least ... think of Seven Chances, with Buster, running away from hordes of prospective wives, starting an avalanche in the process. Lloyd is much less neurotic than Keaton. More than the others, he is an Everyman.

His stunts, which are what he remains famous for, are less chaotic than Keaton's. Keaton planned his stunts tightly, but they often looked as if he'd just thrown them together, or like they had happened while the camera was rolling. Lloyd lets us see the planning. It's one of the reasons he is so impressive, but I think he lacks the edge of the others. His most famous gag, which appears in Safety Last!, is amazing, a talking point well past when you've seen the film (that he is still remembered for it almost 100 years later speaks for itself), and it always looks perfectly planned. This takes nothing away from Lloyd's feats, but it does feel different.

I'm glad I finally got around to watching one of Lloyd's movies, and I'd like to see more of them. But I don't think I'll ever have the love for him that I do for Keaton.

This is the final picture in this year's Letterboxd Challenge, and I'm already looking forward to next year's. Among the movies that really came out of nowhere for me, so that I not only loved them, but I was surprised I loved them (let's face it, I hadn't heard of them) were The Lure and Furie. Let's revisit Furie one last time ... here we learn that you should never kidnap a child when Veronica Ngo is her mom: