Sunday, December 30, 2012

R.I.P. 2012

It was John Lennon who had the reputation as the "witty Beatle." Having been so preoccupied with Eastern mysticism, George Harrison seemed to lack a sense of humor. After watching Martin Scorsese’s recent Harrison documentary, I learn that the “quiet Beatle” was a pretty funny guy, even when the subject was as serious as the death of fellow Traveling Wilbury Roy Orbison. Calling Tom Petty to tell him the news, Harrison said, "Aren't you glad it wasn't you?"

That may be why I’ve always enjoyed reading obituaries. Better you than me, eh? You’re dead. It doesn’t matter what kind of life you lived, you’re dead and I’m still breathing.

Back in my college days when I alternated courses in Journalism and Art before embracing English, I thought I might end up writing for a newspaper. It was never my goal, and now that newspapers are heading the way of silent movies I'm glad of that, but it was more attractive than a lot of the alternatives. If there was one newspaper job that I would have preferred above all others, it would have been writing obituaries. When your subject is dead, you’ve got the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Perfect!

Death is also the perfect subject to dwell on as we shovel the dirt on another year.

I’m not going to pretend to give a shit about Neil Armstrong. Yeah, yeah, my heart goes out to his family and all the usual clichés, but I don’t care that he walked on the moon. If my memory can be trusted, I was watching Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Invisible Ray on an independent UHF station that summer night in 1969 when Armstrong planted the American flag in all that dust and uttered those famous words about one small step for man, blah, blah, blah. If Boris and Bela weren’t commanding my attention, something else was, but it sure wasn’t Armstrong. Nobody I knew at the time seemed to care about “this moon thing,” as an equally unimpressed Nick Tosches called it, and I don’t care about it now. So, goodbye Neil. R.I.P. And goodbye to Marvin Hamlisch, Art Modell, Nora Ephron, Sally Ride, Angelo Dundee, Ravi Shankar, Tony Scott, the Reverend Moon, and all those other famous people who died this year. They may have made their mark on the world, but they didn’t leave their mark on me.

Here are some of the people who I will remember with various degrees of affection:

George McGovern suffered the most humiliating defeat in the history of presidential elections, losing in an historic 1972 landslide to incumbent Richard Nixon. McGovern deserved better than that, but once Nixon stepped down in the wake of Watergate, McGovern looked like the winner by default. He never said “I told you so.” The headlines did it for him. He was one of the few politicians of either political party who I considered worthy of admiration (McGovern himself might have been appalled to know that the others included Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan). McGovern also wrote a touching account of his daughter’s ultimately tragic battle with depression.

What will we do without Gore Vidal? Who can fill the void he leaves?

You didn’t have to like science-fiction to like Ray Bradbury. If Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is, as someone once noted, the favorite book of people who don’t read much, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 may be the one science fiction novel read even by those who don’t like science fiction. I was one of them until I began teaching. Since then, I’ve read dozens of his short stories to students intrigued enough by Bradbury’s vision to wait until the story’s over before pelting me with erasers.

Mike Wallace did a little of everything in television including game shows before finding his niche as the muckraker on 60 Minutes. He raked a whole lot of muck, and seemed to love doing it.

Andy Griffith is beloved for the 1960’s sitcom bearing his name. Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry is the role for which he’ll be remembered, and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd is there to remind everyone that Griffith was also a fine dramatic actor. But in 1958's No Time for Sergeants, Griffith is PISS IN YOUR PANTS HILARIOUS! If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you do.

Ernest Borgnine got his big break in Hollywood as a heavy. He beat the crap out of Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity and was one of the roughnecks who gave Spencer Tracy that Bad Day at Black Rock. Then he won an Oscar for his heartbreaking portrayal of the lonely bachelor in the film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty. Soon, he was starring in a sitcom, McHale’s Navy. Thankfully, his redemption was short-lived. Why let such malevolence go to waste? Borgnine’s most horrific heavy may have been the vicious train conductor in combat with Lee Marvin’s locomotive hopping hobo in Robert Aldrich’s little seen Emperor of the North from 1973, but if one of his movies stands above the rest, it has to be Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 masterpiece, The Wild Bunch.

Anyone who watched television with any regularity in the 1960s and 1970s is familiar with William Windom. He was in dozens of TV series and made for television flicks, including 1968’s Prescription: Murder which marked Peter Falk’s debut as Columbo. Windom’s most affecting performance may have been in “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” a segment of Night Gallery that was a sort of bookend to The Twilight Zone’s “Walking Distance” in that it once more found Rod Serling writing about a man yearning for a simpler, idealized past.

James Farentino was another familiar face on the tube during the same era. As a co-star of “The Lawyers” segment of NBC’s The Bold Ones and later the high-priced private eye of Cool Million, he was more pretty boy than actor. In 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth, however, he was powerful as the Apostle Peter and stole the show from Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quinn, and even the guy who played Jesus.

And then there was Jack Klugman who I eulogized along with Charles Durning the other day.

Dick Clark was also a TV star, though his strongest association is with rock ‘n’ roll. Except for Elvis, just about everyone who hit the top of the Billboard chart appeared on American Bandstand during its lengthy run. Clark also produced such schlocky movies as Psych-Out and Killer’s Three (in which he also played one of the killers) before producing schlocky TV shows like New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (Guy Lombardo for young folk), the Golden Globe Awards (bargain basement Oscars), the American Music Awards (imitation Grammys), and game shows.

Long before I listened to jazz with any regularity, I knew the name of Dave Brubeck, and his signature hit, “Take Five,” was lodged in my brain.

Hal David was a songwriter (“Look, look, my heart is an open book”) best known for his lyrics. He provided some great ones for Burt Bacharach, including "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," “Trains, Boats, and Planes” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” He also collaborated with the late John Barry on two songs for the soundtrack of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (“We Have All the Time in the World” and “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”).

Donna Summer also left us this year. One of her hits was “Hot Stuff,” and she was for a time.

Whitney Houston was a bigger star than Summer and had more powerful pipes. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but she delivered the goods on power ballads like Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”

I must have been all of nine-years-old when “She” by the Monkees played on the clock radio that woke me up every morning for several weeks when I was in fourth or fifth grade. Mickey Dolenz was the lead singer on that song, but Davy Jones had the best voice of the pop quartet and sang lead on their biggest and most enduring hit, John Stewart’s “Daydream Believer.” Jones, who started out as an actor, once lamented that The Monkees ruined his career. It also made him a legend.

Finally, there was Andy Williams. In my youth, I was more partial to rock ‘n’ roll than middle of the road balladeers, but I always liked the guy. President Reagan was correct in the early ‘80s when he said that Williams’ voice should be declared a national treasure. This was the voice, after all, that owned “Moon River,” the song whose indescribable magic haunted me then and haunts me still. Whenever he sang that line about "My huckleberry friend," I pictured Huckleberry Hound - the cartoon character - floating over the river in question and I know I'm not the only one. It may not have been the image that Johnny Mercer had in mind when penning the lyrics to Henry Mancini’s melody, but . . .

I love the song, and so does Bob Dylan who rhapsodized about it in Chronicles and even sang it once on stage, dedicating it to Stevie Ray Vaughn who had died in a plane crash earlier that day.

I love ya, Bob, but the song belongs to Andy. You can see him performing it on You Tube.

R.I.P. 2012

P.S. How could I have forgotten to include Levon Helm of the Band? "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," etc, but most significantly, at least to a Dylan fan like myself, one of his accomplices on several legendary tours (1965-66 and 1974) and, of course, on The Basement Tapes. Ye Heavy and a Bottle of Bread to you, Levon.

And Judith Crist, whose “This Week’s Movies” column in TV Guide introduced me to film criticism.

Most of all, there was Marilyn Szalay, a brilliant artist and the best teacher I ever had.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, December 27, 2012

You're So Respectable: Led Zep and Letterman honored by the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center Honors aired on CBS last night. Four years ago when the remaining members of The Who were honored alongside Barbra Streisand, Pete Townsend observed that such an honor for a rock ‘n’ roll band was proof that the music once associated with youthful rebellion was dead. This year, with Led Zeppelin being honored, sharing a box with the president and first lady, we know it’s buried. Rock ‘n’ roll is for the old folks now. Why else would it be so popular on PBS which in recent years has been airing those Best of Ed Sullivan compilations featuring the original appearances of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and even the belated TV premiere of the Stones’ 1968 Rock and Roll Circus, during their pledge drives? These days, Mick Jagger and company fit in very nicely beside those reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show that also air on public television.

The now grizzled trio of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones (drummer John Bonham died in true rock ‘n’ roll style, choking to death on his vomit, in 1980) were not the only unlikely honorees. David Letterman, whose late night talk show was almost as subversive as the best rock music, at least during its original incarnation on NBC, also took bows from the Kennedy Center’s balcony. Clearly, there’s no such thing as a counterculture anymore, not when the president of the United States supports gay marriage and certainly not when the Kennedy Center rolls out the welcome mat for Led Zep and Letterman. At least rock ‘n’ roll had a longer run than rap. Yeah, rap is still around, still popular, but its outlaw image started to fade around the time Ice T joined the cast of Law and Order as a cop, and Ice Cube started making dopey family movies. Now you’ve got LL Cool J hosting the Grammys and also wearing a badge on another prime time cop show. Is all this respectability a good thing? Is this bad? It is what it is, I guess. I don’t know.

Dustin Hoffman and Buddy Guy were also honored, along with Natalia Makarova, a ballerina. You gotta have a ballerina or an opera singer on the Kennedy Center Honors. You gotta have “prestige,” you know, and you gotta give viewers a chance to go to the bathroom or grab a snack without missing the good stuff.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

RIP Jack Klugman and Charles Durning

Santa Claus was busy on Christmas Eve, and so was the Grim Reaper, claiming two great actors.

Actor Jack Klugman, whose portrayal of sloppy Oscar Madison in the TV spinoff of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple made Tony Randall's fussy Felix Unger tolerable, died on Christmas Eve at the age of 90. Klugman's physical constitution must have been as sturdy as his talent because he survived almost a century despite two bouts with throat cancer, the most recent of which was in the 1990s. Until The Odd Couple made him a TV star, Klugman was one of those actors you recognized but couldn't always name. But he never struck a false note on stage or screen, giving solid performances in dozens of plays, movies, and television shows. A favorite of Rod Serling, Klugman made four appearances on The Twilight Zone. There was never any showboating in a Klugman performance. He never resorted to attention getting histrionics. Like the best actors, he knew that the secret to a great performance wasn't to "act," but to simply be. It's not surprising that Klugman was nominated for an Emmy during each of The Odd Couple's five seasons and won twice. After The Odd Couple was cancelled, he started a long run as Quincy M.E., a less grisly forerunner to CSI. If you’ve never seen it, try to hunt down One of My Wives Is Missing, an eerie made for TV thriller from 1976 with Klugman as a cop investigating the disappearance of James Franciscus’ wife. It’s terrific.

Actor Charles Durning also died on Christmas Eve. Like Klugman, Durning's credits are so exhaustive that I'd recommend looking him up at the Internet Movie Database rather than attempt to list his many credits, but it should be noted that he was twice Oscar nominated as best supporting actor (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and To Be Or Not To Be). Some of his most moving performances came late in his career when he would recount his experiences as a soldier in World War II on the annual Memorial Day concert from Washington D.C. that airs on PBS. Durning was 89.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Darker Message in It's a Wonderful Life

And so, as John Lennon sang, this is Christmas. In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey wished he had never been born, and, presto, just like that he was visited by an angel named Clarence who not only saved him from suicide but took him through a tour of life as it would have been without him.

* The pharmacist at the drug store where a teenaged George worked is a broken down alcoholic, despised by the town for having accidentally filled a prescription with poison because George wasn’t there to stop him.

* His brother was dead because George couldn’t save him from a sledding accident.

* And the love of George’s life is - God forbid! - a librarian which was synonymous at the time (1946) with spinsterhood.

Yes, George Bailey’s life had been wonderful, after all. His life had touched so many others, and to think he had wished that he had never been born.

Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, an Oscar contender for best picture that year, had been forgotten until the 1980s when its public domain status meant that any TV station with access to a print could show it without charge. Suddenly, it was everywhere and its ubiquity helped make it a lot of people’s favorite Christmas movie. (The music score was still copyrighted, however, and after some legal maneuvering, the film was rescued from the public domain in the ‘90s and now airs exclusively on NBC.)

Beloved though it may be, It’s a Wonderful Life is bullshit. If George Bailey had not been born, perhaps his brother would not have been out sledding and not have needed rescuing. Many things would have changed, not just the events depicted.

It’s a Wonderful Life was meant to be uplifting, but its message could be interpreted in less hopeful ways if you want to make the effort. There have been times in my life when I wished that I had never been born, but no angels descended from heaven to show me that my life had value. Maybe there are no angels. If I’m wrong about that, my lack of celestial visits could mean something worse: I am not worth saving.

I’m aware that this is less a comment on the film than an expression of my own cynicism. It's not that I'm a pessimist for whom the glass is always half empty, never half full. I see my glass as full. Indeed, it’s overflowing. It’s just that someone is always pissing in it.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Whirlpool and I Wake Up Screaming

Christmas. Bah. Humbug. These are dark days. With good cheer in short supply, I’ve been watching movies from the Fox Film Noir collection.
Whirlpool stars Gene Tierney, Jose Ferrer, and noir icon Richard Conte. It’s a movie that I recall sort of half watching one summer evening in 1971 when it aired, as so many Fox titles did at the time, on a local television station’s late night movie. It’s an oddball little mystery from 1949 written by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt (from a novel by Guy Endore) and directed by Otto Preminger who made quite a few contributions to this subgenre (including Laura) before directing a bunch of less interesting “prestige” items like Exodus and The Cardinal in the 1960s. Tierney is the wife of a psychiatrist who is taken under the wing of Ferrer’s hypnotist after she’s caught shoplifting. He then hypnotizes her to take the fall for a murder he commits himself. He has the motive, but he also has an alibi. While the victim was meeting her end, he was confined to a hospital bed, on the mend from a gallbladder operation. The nasty hypnotist (David Karvo is the character’s name) had hypnotized himself to block out the excruciating pain, snuck out of bed, and committed the crime. A little preposterous, perhaps, but fascinating stuff. Film noir is notable for many things, not the least of which is its perversity. Only the horror movies had more bizarre plots. Whirlpool is as weird as it gets, but it could have used a better title, something like . . .

I Wake Up Screaming.

Now, that’s a great title. All it needs is a movie as good, but the 1941 production directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, isn’t really it. It’s not surprising that Twentieth Century Fox considered renaming it Hot Spot and even had ads printed with that title before the movie went into release. If the movie isn’t quite worthy of its title, it does have an effective villain in Laird Cregar. The hulking, soft-voiced actor, a memorable menace in such films as Hangover Square and The Lodger, is first seen in shadow as he turns the hot lights on Victor Mature, a sports promoter being interrogated as a suspect in the murder of an actress. As the captain in charge of the case, Cregar ignores evidence of Mature’s innocence and even admits to investing his own time and money into finding a way to pin the rap on him. Cregar, of course, is the true culprit who we learn at the climax has a shrine to the murdered girl in his apartment. Betty Grable and Carole Landis round out the cast though I’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart, and Elisha Cook, Jr, who appeared as Wilmer the gunsel in The Maltese Falcon the same year, turns up briefly as a hotel desk clerk who is also a suspect. The best moment, and the only one that ties in with the title, is when Mature wakes up in his bed to find Cregar sitting in a nearby chair, rather nonchalantly keeping watch over him even as he sleeps. The movie, a fairly solid thriller, would be much improved without its musical score. Except for the snatches of “Over the Rainbow” (yes, that “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz), I could swear the musical score is identical to the one in Whirlpool.

Merry Christmas.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Marilyn C. Szalay (1950-2012)

“Life Drawing went exceptionally well today. Not once did the teacher berate or mock my drawings, as she is often inclined to do.” – Journal entry, Tuesday February 2, 1990

Marilyn Szalay could mock and berate, and frequently did, but she was also quick to offer praise when it was due. As one of her Life Drawing students at Cuyahoga Community College throughout 1990, my work was mocked and praised in equal measure.

The mockery was deserved. Even though I had been drawing since I was old enough to be trusted with a pencil, I had, even at age 32, a habit shared by most of my classmates. After completing a drawing, I would take my pencil and add a bold outline to every object in my composition. Szalay was not a fan of lines (“There are no straight lines on the human figure”) or line drawings ("Lines are for coloring books," she cracked), and her criticisms were rarely stated gently. Her comments broke my bad habit immediately and I never again added a silly, and unnecessary, outline to one of my drawings. “Stick with me, Brian,” she once told me, “you’ll learn a lot.” Indeed, I learned everything I know about drawing from her, and much of what I learned went beyond drawing and served me well in other areas. She taught me how to draw. More importantly, she taught me how to SEE – shapes, variations in light and dark, and to regard the human figure as something other than a series of isolated parts.

Szalay could be abrasive and rubbed some students the wrong way. I was one of them at first. “This is beautiful,” she said of a drawing I did of a female model. Then, pointing to the stool on which the model sat, “but this is awful. It’s like two different people worked on this drawing, one sensitive and the other a klutz.” As she pointed out the shortcomings in my work during the weekly homework critique, I would stand there, speechless and embarrassed. She was right, of course. She was always right, and my work improved after every such thrashing. I quickly grew to love her as much as I respected her talent. As I noted in another journal entry, this one dated April 14, 1990:

“She had things to say, good and bad, about everybody’s drawings but she said nothing to me. That may mean she thought I was doing well – I don’t know – but I do know I felt kind of hurt by the lack of attention. Earlier in the day, she said, ‘Oh yeah, Brian is getting good’ in response to another student’s remark about one of my drawings . . . Later, while I drew a second portrait, she did have a few words, most of them good. Maybe I’m too sensitive. As I made my way out of the class and passed her in the hall, she said, ‘Good going, Brian.’ That was nice. I guess I’m becoming rather fond of this woman and want her attention.”

When the attention was positive, I was euphoric. “Look at this hand!” she exclaimed to the class when holding up an ink drawing I had done as a homework assignment. “Now this has drama!”

Except for the F's I routinely received in Algebra, I was a straight A student until Szalay gave me a B in that first Life Drawing class. However, when she gave me an A the next quarter, and the quarter after that, they were the most gratifying A’s I would ever receive. She was strict about grades, and warned her students that they had to earn them. Simply showing up for class and completing assignments might guarantee a C at best, but not the A or B that more lenient Art teachers were known to give. This came as bad news to the EMS student who took Drawing in fall 1990 only to meet a college requirement in Humanities. As for my A, I earned it because I learned it – from her.

She often teased me about my quiet manner even as she enforced a rule against talking while drawing. One talks with the left side of the brain and draws with the right, she told us. To engage in left brain activity while drawing might interfere with the right brain’s ability to think creatively. It was one lesson that she never had to teach me. I recall the time that she sent the class into the hallway for a perspective assignment. She was annoyed at all the chatter she heard. After making her displeasure known, she threw a sort of compliment my way:

"I don't have to worry about Brian," she said. "He never talks. He just grunts."

Marilyn Szalay passed away on November 3, 2012. She was only 62 and spent her last decade battling scleroderma. The news makes this season of Thanksgiving a downer. However, it also reminds me to be thankful that my life was touched by her intelligence and talent.

Another journal entry, this one from Tuesday October 23, 1990:

“In Drawing III, we resumed work on the still life that we started last Tuesday. Things went much better today than they did then, although Szalay complained about a lack of drama in my drawing. ‘You could have the world if you just pushed a little harder,’ she said. ‘Do you want it?’”

The world was certainly worth having when she was in it. Its value is diminished now that she's gone.

Goodbye, Teacher, and thank you.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, November 15, 2012

"A cinch . . . the Perfect score"

Fifty-three years ago on this date, a Kansas farmer named Herbert Clutter was awakened sometime after midnight by two intruders who let themselves in through an unlocked door. In 1959, especially in the tiny town of Holcomb, population 270, any threat to one’s safety came from outside the community, from the Communists maybe, but not from the neighbors. The young men who came to the Clutter farm armed with shotguns and a flashlight had recently been paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary. It was there, while sharing a cell with a petty thief named Floyd Wells, whom Herbert Clutter once employed as a farmhand, that Dick Hickok concluded that the Clutter home held a safe stacked with cash. It was, as Hickok said in a note to accomplice Perry Smith, a “cinch, the Perfect score . . .”

But there was no safe. Instead of the fortune they had anticipated, Hickok and Perry left the Clutter home with a small amount of cash and a radio taken from Clutter’s office. It may have been a “cinch,” but it was not the “Perfect score.” If he exaggerated the financial rewards of their criminal undertaking, Hickok was accurate in his promise to leave no witnesses. “I promise you, honey,” he told Smith, “we’ll blast hair all over them walls.”

Horrific as the murders were (Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, son Kenyon, and daughter Nancy, were bound, gagged, and killed at close range by blasts from the shotgun), they would almost certainly not be remembered outside of Kansas itself more than a half century later if not for Truman Capote who, reading a brief account of the murders in The New York Times, departed for Kansas with his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, whose Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, had yet to be published. Capote was to write an article for The New Yorker, described by Brendan Gill, a fellow scribe for the periodical, as “the effect of a murder – a story of a small Midwestern town responding to an unprecedented catastrophe in their midst.” Lee was present not to write but because she was, in John Barry Ryan’s words, “a fairly tough lady, and Truman was afraid of going down there alone.”

According to Charles J. Shields’ Lee biography, I Am Scout, Lee was put on salary as Capote’s “assistant researchist,” and wrote copious notes, enough of which would end up in what became the novel, In Cold Blood, to justify her receiving more than the dedication in the opening pages.

“Nelle was very hurt that she didn’t get more credit because she wrote half that book,” a friend, R. Philip Hanes, recalled. What originally began as an article for The New Yorker evolved into the enormously successful In Cold Blood which started a wave of “true crime” books that has not abated since Capote’s book reached stores in early 1966. Although Capote’s technique, using the tools of the fiction writer to tell a true story, make it controversial, and the debate concerning whether it was fact or fiction which continues to this day, may have cost him the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, the book was a phenomenal success on every level, guaranteeing that the Clutters would be killed again and again when the book became a much praised 1967 film, and a rather obscure 1997 TV mini-series. In 2005, Capote’s experience researching the book became the basis for two films, Capote and Infamous, both of which recreated the brutal slayings. When the Clutters went to bed on Saturday November 14, 1959, they had no idea that they wouldn’t live to see another morning, and their killers certainly did not realize that someone other than themselves would walk away from the scene with the fortune that was denied them. In Cold Blood became Capote’s masterpiece and the royalties kept him rich even as his pen went dry.

If the films are accurate, the book ultimately destroyed him. In Infamous, Capote is portrayed as being in love with one of the killers, Perry Smith, who had artistic ambitions of his own. Watching Smith die by hanging, and secretly wishing for his demise so as to conclude his book with a dramatic execution, traumatized the author. That’s one theory. The same film suggested that his excursion to Kansas and exposure to the hard realities of life that he was protected from when hobnobbing with New York society and Park Avenue life, changed him and made him more fearful, paranoid, and hopeless. Piedy Lumet, wife of the director Sidney Lumet, told George Plimpton of a trip she took to Oregon with the elfin author. She stopped the car to take a walk through a path of redwood trees leading to a state park while Capote waited behind in the car. “This was a year after Perry and Dick had been executed. I heard this piercing call of alarm from Truman: ‘Come back! Come back! Perry and Dick are down there!’ It wasn’t a joke. A terribly, poignant intensity. He just got frightened. It didn’t make any sense and I never made any reference to it.”

Author John Knowles thinks it was simple a case of too much success. “I think he lost a grip on himself after that. He had been tremendously disciplined up to that time. . . A lot of his motivation was lost. That’s when he began to unravel.” Capote died August 25, 1984 at age 59 in the Los Angeles home of Joanne Carson, former wife of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson whom Capote met when the couple lived in the United Nations Plaza where the author moved following the windfall of In Cold Blood. He had published the short novella, The Thanksgiving Visitor in 1968 and a collection of stories and essays, Music for Chameleons, in 1980, but had not written another major work. His long promised epic, a roman a clef called Answered Prayers, materialized after his passing, but it was hardly an epic. A short book with four chapters, two of which had been published in the pages of Esquire in 1975, alienating the New York society crowd, it was either never as close to completion as Capote claimed or pages were stolen after his death. Carson was worried about his health during his stay. His pulse was weak and his complexion pale. “I’m tired,” he told her. “I don’t want any more hospitals, any more doctors, any more IVs . . . I’m very, very tired. I just want to go in peace.”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The new Bond movie

Skyfall, the latest 007 opus, is getting raves. “It’s the greatest Bond movie ever!” I heard someone exclaim. After catching it the other night, I beg to differ. I’d rank it somewhere in the middle, not in the same league as Thunderball (still the biggest grossing Bond film when inflation is taken into account, as it rarely is) or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but several flights of stairs above The Man With the Golden Gun. Nonetheless, it is a terrific entry in the now 50-year-old film series (you won’t hear the word “franchise” from me). I can’t claim to be objective though. No matter how good, or how technologically advanced, no Bond film after 1971 is going to compare in my mind with those first seven films, six starring Sean Connery and one with George Lazenby. That was Bond’s cinematic heyday.

Skyfall is Daniel Craig’s third go-round as Ian Fleming’s secret agent, and it sure has it over the disappointing Quantum of Solace. The story has the identifies of MI6 agents being revealed when a computer file goes missing, but what does it matter? There are several spectacular action scenes, and a nail-biting moment when Bond, on the trail of an enemy, clings to the bottom of an elevator that rises high above Shanghai. The film’s climax takes place in Bond’s rustic childhood home (the “Skyfall” of the title) where he and M have an almost Western-style showdown with the bad guys led by chief villain Javier Bardem. The Spanish actor goes blonde for his Bond baddie (as Robert Shaw did in From Russia With Love and Christopher Walken did in A View to a Kill), and plays it kind of fey. He makes for a very formidable foe.

Skyfall has one of the most high profile casts to ever appear in a Bond film. In addition to Judi Dench returning as M, and Oscar winner Bardem, there’s Ralph Fiennes who we’ll obviously be seeing again, and Albert Finney, burly and bearded, as the man who raised Bond as a child. The music score by Thomas Newman includes occasional snatches of “The James Bond Theme,” and the legendary gun-barrel opening, missing from recent films, is tacked on at the end. A good show all around.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Haunting Memories

“Scream . . . no one will hear you! Run . . . and the silent footsteps will follow! . . . for at Hill House the dead are restless!”
Poster copy for The Haunting (1963)

Halloween is right around the corner, and we’re sure to see the predictable lists containing the most frightening movies of all time. In most cases, the titles will also be predictable – The Shining, The Exorcist, Jaws. Less likely to be included, though probably as predictable as the others, is my own choice for the scariest movie: The Haunting, the 1963 original (a more gruesome and less imaginative remake appeared in 1999) based on Shirley Jackson’s novel. Movies about things that go bump in the night rarely remain scary on repeat viewings since you can anticipate where those bumps will be, but though The Haunting holds few surprises for me now, it remains the best ghost story ever put on film. From a journal entry dated July 17, 1990, here are some rather persoanl memories of that film:

When paging through Stephen King’s Dance Macabre, I was pleased to find so much space devoted to Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson also wrote “The Lottery,” the classic short story that has probably been anthologized more than any other horror tale. The Haunting of Hill House is a great book, and few films are as frightening as the 1963 black-and-white classic released under the abbreviated title, The Haunting.

Directed by Robert Wise following his Oscar win for 1961's West Side Story, this adaptation of Jackson’s story puts most subsequent ghost stories to shame. There are no white sheets floating through the hallways, no monsters, and no rotting corpses rising from the floorboards as there were in 1982's Poltergeist, but that later film can’t hold a candle to The Haunting which relies on subtlety and suggestion for its horror and does so more effectively than any other film I’ve seen.

Director Wise, best known for putting the Jets and Sharks through their paces and for bringing the hills alive to The Sound of Music, was no newcomer to the horror genre. His debut as a director came with Val Lewton’s 1944 production, The Curse of the Cat People. A year later, he led Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi through the mayhem of The Body Snatcher. In 1951, he directed the science-fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The Haunting concerns a group of people, all of whom have had a brush with the supernatural, meeting in a brooding century’s old house that is said to be haunted. At least one of the guests, Eleanor, played by Julie Harris, may be haunted herself. There are strange occurrences, including loud noises in the night and a crashing chandelier, and no one is sure whether these events have to do with the house or the sensitive, neurotic Eleanor. After all, both are a little strange. Still, the mansion in which the story unfolds is a frightening, unusual place where “whatever walked there, walked alone.”

I first saw The Haunting in its entirety in the mid-‘60s when it aired on ABC-TV, but I saw the first ten minutes on Sunday November 24, 1963 at the now demolished Garden Theater, a second run movie house on West 25th Street in Cleveland, Ohio where it played on a double bill with Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire. My mother had promised to take me on Friday night (the Garden was only open on weekends), but President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated earlier in the day, and the theater, like the whole country, was closed for business. I was disappointed that our Commander-In-Chief’s death interfered with my movie going plans (I was only six years old, and the death of a president was beyond my intellectual grasp at the time), but my cousin agreed to be my escort the following Sunday afternoon. Since I was mainly interested in seeing the full color vampire film, we didn’t stay to see all of The Haunting. That was fine with me. Based on those first ten minutes, The Haunting looked a bit too scary, even a little depressing. At the time, I preferred decidedly more ghoulish thrills, the kind that a colorful Hammer horror could provide.

When I finally caught up with The Haunting on television, I realized my original hunch was correct. This movie was too scary. It remains scary now. It’s the rare film that can truly give me goose bumps and make me turn around to see if a ghost is lurking over my shoulder when I watch it.

All these years later, The Haunting haunts me still. Whereas Poltergeist leaves me repulsed, The Haunting continues to work on my imagination. It is, after all, a film that one experiences in one’s own mind. Director Wise doesn’t show us the horrors. Instead, he does something much more frightening: he lets you imagine them yourself.

July 17, 1990

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

John Lennon: Happy Birthday to You!

John Lennon would have been 72-years-old today. Had an assassin not emerged from the shadows of New York’s Dakota apartment building on the evening of December 8, 1980 and ended Lennon’s life only two months after his 40th birthday, where would the man who founded the Beatles and provided the British quartet with its most distinctive voice be today?

Of course, it’s possible that the assassin, having missed his chance on December 8, may have returned and tried again on December 9 or 10, or some later date, and Lennon would still have fallen victim to those bullets. If an assassin hadn’t succeeded in killing him, maybe cancer, heart disease or another “natural cause” would have claimed him by now.

Let’s assume, however, that Lennon had successfully dodged the bullets, both real and metaphorical. What would he be doing now?

Shortly before his death, he joined wife Yoko Ono and recorded his first album of new original material in six years. It had been five years since Shaved Fish, his first greatest hits collection, had been released, and Lennon all but disappeared from public view after 1975. Having been one of the most public of public figures during the early ‘70s, appearing frequently in the press and on television talk shows as he battled the government’s efforts to deport him, he was conspicuous by his absence. His sudden reemergence in 1980 all but guaranteed the success of Double Fantasy. After his death, it became his third post-Beatles album to reach number one on the Billboard chart (1971's Imagine and 1974’s Walls and Bridges were the others).

It would be nice to think that he would have gone on to greater success in the years to come, but a look at the track records of his fellow superstars from the 1960s and 1970s suggests he would not. Following 1983, his more commercially-minded former partner, Paul McCartney, struggled to have hits, and wouldn’t see one of his albums reach the top 10 again until 1997; the same year Bob Dylan also made a comeback with the Grammy winning Time Out of Mind. Dylan had also hit the skids in the dreary ‘80s, and, unlike McCartney, even struggled to sell tickets to his concert appearances. Even Neal Diamond, who, by then, had defined “middle of the road,” found his albums floundering near the bottom of the top 40.

Would Lennon have fared any better?

I doubt it. This might have been good news for those Beatle fans clamoring for a reunion. The three surviving band-mates reconvened in 1995 for the only reunion possible by then, adding their voices and instruments to several Lennon demos. Had Lennon lived, I think he would have joined them. The Beatles might then have reunited more or less permanently, issuing new songs every few years (none of them likely equal to “Strawberry Fields Forever” or even “Your Mother Should Know”), and embarking on mega-tours like the ones that the Rolling Stones use to rake in the dough several times a decade.

Another possibility, one that Lennon even acknowledged as an option when interviewed by Rolling Stone in 1980, was television. Yes, John and Yoko who spent a week co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, and also chatted freely with Dick Cavett and David Frost during the same era, might have their own talk show now, or, God forbid, a reality show, probably titled The Ballad of John and Yoko.

I’d rather not think about that, even though it’s obvious that I already have. It’s best to remember him the way he was, as Bob Dylan has done in “Roll On, John,” the closing track on his latest album, Tempest:

“Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on, John.”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Monday, October 1, 2012

X - The Chemtrail Question

When I stepped outside one recent morning, I was confronted with a large X. It hovered in the sky above me, and the effect of the sunrise gave it a red, and, therefore, more ominous appearance. The X was the product of chemtrails, and the sky was positively wild with these mysterious apparitions on this particular morning. In addition to that X, two barely visible planes were in flight spraying what the “conspiracy theorists” insist is poison, a combination of aluminum and other substances unfit to be inhaled by humans.

A search on the internet for information about chemtrails that is not conspiratorial is pretty futile. I would like answers to the following questions:

What are they spraying?

Why are they spraying?

Who is spraying?

Who is paying for the spraying?

Who is paying for the fuel to power the airplanes?

Who is paying the pilots who fly the planes?

Who is paying for the planes?

When the planes are not in flight, they need to be warehoused somewhere. Where are they warehoused and who is paying for that? The planes are also in need of repair from time to time. Who repairs them? Who pays the repairmen and who covers the cost of those repairs? Who hoses them down and scrubs them clean?

I’m pretty sure that I know the answer to my questions concerning the cost of all this mysterious spraying. I pay for it with my tax dollars, as does everyone who heeds the call of the IRS every spring. The other questions have not been answered to my satisfaction.

It’s a rare day, indeed, when I don’t see chemtrails. I often find myself wondering if there any genuine clouds in the sky or if all those white fluffy apparitions are chemicals. Whatever they’re spraying doesn’t remain airborne, but eventually falls to earth where it then makes it way through our nostrils to our lungs. And let’s not overlook its effect on plant life and our water.

The government usually reacts to questions regarding chemtrails with silence and maybe a chuckle. Those who worry about such things are “conspiracy theorists,” after all, and not worthy of serious attention except, perhaps, from the Department of Homeland Security who might perceive them as a threat to our crumbling democracy. Occasionally, however, they have made claims that the spraying is necessary for a variety of reasons. It blocks enemy radar. It protects us from Global Warming. It does this, it does that, but what is all that spraying doing to our health?

According to Dan Bidondi, a pilot writing at, “there is a huge difference between condensation (con-trail) and a chemical trail (chemtrail). A condensation trail dissipates as the jet moves along; a chemtrail will stay and expand into man-made clouds used for various weather experiments loaded with toxic chemicals that we breathe in on a daily basis.” The chemicals include arsenic, barium, depleted uranium, mercury, and aluminum.

For more information on chemtrails, from a conspiratorial point of view, watch What in the World Are They Spraying?

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone: Nothing Is Revealed

At 71, Bob Dylan is still a rascal and sly as a fox. In his latest interview with left-wing music rag Rolling Stone, he never takes the bait despite repeated attempts by his interviewer, Mikal Gilmore, to reel him in. Gilmore seems determined to get Dylan to endorse President Obama's bid for re-election, which the mag is actively promoting, and to agree with those on the left that all criticism of our 44th Commander-In-Chief is rooted in racism. After a lengthy rant about the Civil War ("It was suicidal. Four years of looting and plunder and murder done the American way") and slavery ("[T]he United States burned and destroyed itself for the sake of slavery"), Dylan is asked if he thought the election of Obama signaled a "shift" or "sea change" in the country.

"I don't have an opinion on that," Dylan says then states an opinion: "You have to change your heart if you want to change."

What about the reaction against Obama? Is racism to blame?

"They did the same thing to Bush, didn't they? They did the same thing to Clinton, too, and Jimmy Carter before that. . . Anybody who's going to take that job is going to be in for a rough time."

But Obama's been called a socialist, un-American . . .

"Eisenhower was accused of being un-American. And wasn't Nixon a socialist? Look what he did in China. They'll say bad things about the next guy, too."

Gilmore keeps pushing, trying to get Dylan to agree that racism could be the only reason for anyone to criticize the left's beloved Obama. "The point I'm making is perhaps lingering American resentments about race are resonant in the opposition to President Obama, which has not been a quiet opposition," he says.

Dylan: "You mean in the press? I don't know anybody that's personally saying this stuff that your'e just saying. The press says all kinds of stuff. I don't know what they would be saying. Or why they would be saying it. You can't believe what you read in the press anyway."

So, what does Dylan think of Obama who he met at least twice, most recently when receiving the Medal of Freedom at the White House?

"What do I think of him? I like him . . . He loves music. He's personable. He dresses good. What the f--- do you want me to say?"

Gilmore dredges up a comment that Dylan made on election night 2008 from the stage of the University of Minnesota. Noticing the Obama button on bassist Tony Garnier, Dylan said, "Tony likes to think it's a brand-new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 - that's the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I been living in a world of darkness ever since." Dylan then made a remark that strikes me as sarcastic: "But it looks like things are gonna change now."

Dylan: "I don't know what I said or didn't say . . . whatever was said, it was said for people in the hall that night. . . It wasn't said to be played on a record forever. . . You say things sometimes, you don't know what the hell you mean. But you're sincere when you say it."

And on it goes. Dylan is the absolute master when it comes to giving interviews in which nothing is revealed except the subject's disinterest in such interrogations.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Amityville Horrors

Real life is scarier than ever these days, so who needs horror movies?

Nonetheless, I watched three of them the other night when the This TV network presented an Amityville Horror triple feature. Way back in 1977, when the book by Jay Anson was published, I remember reading excerpts from his supposedly nonfiction account of the Lutz family’s hair-raising experiences in the Long Island house. The incidents that raised their hair included an invisible marching band and a giant red-eyed pig named Jody. It was all done with sufficient skill that I recall turning away from the page every so often to see if someone - or something - was creeping up behind me.

The 1979 film version, one of the last productions from American International, a company that specialized in horror during the 1950s and '60s when the major studios shunned the genre, was a dreary affair: badly acted (by James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, and others) and indifferently directed by Stuart Rosenberg who, in better days, directed Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. The result would only raise goosebumps if you watched it in frigid temperatures. Several of the scenes made me laugh out loud when I saw the movie on television a few years later, and I laughed again when watching it the other night. Nonetheless, audiences flocked to the film in enough numbers to warrant a sequel.

Amityville: The Possession, released in 1982, was actually a prequel, telling the story of the family that occupied the house before the Lutz family moved in. One member of the family was a teenage boy who became possessed by evil spirits and murdered his parents and siblings. It’s a marginally better film, especially in the acting department, with James Olson acquitting himself well as a priest called in to confront the demons possessing the shotgun-wielding teenager, but I doubt it impressed audiences that had seen the eerie Poltergeist only several months earlier. Still, it must have made a profit because a third film was released only a year later.

Surprisingly, Amityville 3D is the best of the bunch, a competent thriller with a couple of good scares. The credit probably belongs to Richard Fleischer, one of those workhorse directors whose body of work (The Boston Strangler, Fantastic Voyage, The New Centurions, Mr. Majestyk) has never attracted devotees of the auteur theory, but which has always displayed sound craftsmanship. There’s a nice spooky tone throughout, and Fleischer was blessed with good actors, most notably Tess Harper and Candy Clark. This isn’t a classic by any means, but it’s a satisfying chiller on the same level as the best of schlockmeister William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler). Still, it's not as scary as the current world headlines.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sherlock Holmes, Marijuana, and Me

I remember the first time I smoked dope, at least good dope that had an effect. I was 14-years-old, on Christmas break from ninth grade at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio. It was December 27, 1971, a Monday. I remember it as a night of cool temperatures with the threat of rain, and that day’s newspaper, retrieved through a search of the archives of The Plain Dealer, confirm this. In the top left corner of that day’s front page there is a brief weather report: “Mostly cloudy with a chance of showers. High in the middle 40s.” I remember the exact date for reasons that I’ll elaborate on later.

I was with two companions. I wouldn’t call them “friends,” although that’s how most people, less particular about what a word actually means, would have described them. I would have insisted, as I still do, that I have no “friends,” only acquaintances, some of whom I am better acquainted with than others. We were loitering in the doorway of a boarded-up storefront on Storer Avenue. Two strangers, both of them older than us (maybe 21, but no older than 25) approached us from across the street. I remember one of them wore a green Army jacket, very popular attire among those who considered themselves “hippies,” though that’s a word that was often mistakenly applied to, and embraced by, anyone who wore blue jeans (preferably faded), long hair, and listened to rock and roll. John Lennon frequently wore an Army jacket even as he outspokenly protested American involvement in Vietnam. Other protestors and “hippies” did the same. Such were the ironies of that peculiar period.

One of the strangers pulled a joint from his pocket and offered to share it with us. Of course, we agreed. We were kids eager to be treated as adults, and my two companions thought of themselves as hippies, too, and were probably flattered that these two older hippies were willing to share their marijuana with us. One of my companions had previously acquired some pot and we had smoked it, but it had no effect whatsoever, and I wasn’t expecting much from the fat joint that these strangers were inviting me to share.

I was wrong. This was powerful stuff and it left me giggling uncontrollably for the next hour or two. We went back to the house of one of these companions where the giggling continued as his older sister watched, perplexed. But as I sat in the bedroom decorated with black light posters (and a black light which anyone around at the time would confirm was actually blue), I remember hoping the effects of the weed would wear off by 1:40 a.m., the approximate time that Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was scheduled to air on WJW-TV 8’s Late Night Movie. I had seen it before, but I was an avid film buff with a particular fondness for the movies of the 1940s. The Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were favorites that I enjoyed watching repeatedly, particularly after midnight, the perfect hour for a series of films whose greatest attribute, aside from those two stars, was the atmosphere – lots of dark shadows and sinisterly lit faces. My two companions would have had little interest in watching Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, and would not have been likely to mark their calendar to stay home to watch any movie. This was a good five years before the introduction of the Betamax, the first home video device offered for sale to the public. There were no VCRs or DVDs, and cable TV, if it existed, was strictly for the elite. A movie might air once or twice a year, and you were never sure if you would ever have a chance to see it again. I’m sure that neither of my companions knew that Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was airing that night unless I told them, which I’m sure I did not do since we had little in common and I knew they would not have cared. They certainly wouldn’t have passed up an opportunity to get high (or to aimlessly wander the streets, for that matter) to watch any old movie.

I would not have remembered the exact date that Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror aired on this particular night if not for my experience earlier that evening, but I wouldn’t have remembered the exact date of that experience unless Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror hadn’t aired later that night. It was the combination of the two that stamped the date on my brain.

The second time that I smoked dope, I didn’t enjoy it at all. It was a case of “Been there, done that.” Giggling, which may have been fun on that particular evening, was not the way I wanted to spend my time, and such silliness was soon joined by paranoia and the “munchies.” Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, however, continued to hold up on repeated viewings, and it isn’t even the best film in the series (an honor that belongs to The Scarlet Claw).

I lost touch (thank God) with one of these companions, but I watched as the other one continued to smoke dope when it was available, as it rarely was to someone who never held a job for more than two weeks and was dependent on his mommy for beer money. He also “experimented,” as they say, with LSD and other substances. At his urging, I took THC at age 17, but otherwise had no interest in getting “high” or “stoned.” Why would I? Why does anyone?

My theory is that those who consider it “fun” to be stoned are shallow boobs who have a void in their life that they are too dumb to fill with something other than pointless and often self-destructive activities. (Sherlock Holmes, as conceived by Arthur Conan Doyle, may have disagreed. His request, at the conclusion of the 1939 film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles - “Watson, the needle!” - was a confession to the serious nature of his own addictions.) In 1991, at age 35, after years of drinking and drugging, this former companion was found dead, a direct result of all that drinking and drugging. He was a shallow boob, indeed, whose life was spent pretending he was a bad-ass (he wasn’t) and a ladies man (he wasn’t that either). Was his failure to realize these foolish ambitions to blame for his drug use and early death? I don’t know. I do know that I live on, and partly attribute my survival to Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks



Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bob Dylan at Covelli Centre, Youngstown, Ohio August 28, 2012

Bob Dylan performed for nearly two hours without a break at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio last night. He didn't have an opening act and didn't need one. At 71, the bard can still draw a big crowd (most of the 5000 or so seats were occupied), and put on a damn fine show, one that I found superior to his excellent concert at Nautica a year ago.

It helped that I had better seats (only 10 rows from the stage) and was also equipped with a pair of small binoculars. The man refuses to chit-chat, speaking only when introducing his band, but he sure appeared to be enjoying himself, smiling often and blowing the shit out of his harmonica (the highlight of the evening, judging by the rapturous applause). He spent almost as much time at center stage, singing at the microphone, as he did at the organ, sometimes kicking his feet in the air and gesturing with his hands. His upbeat mood may have also influenced his choice of songs. He opened, as he often does, with "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat" from 1966's Blonde on Blonde, and also performed, as expected, "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate" from 1975's Blood on the Tracks. But he also tossed in a trio of tunes that have not been staples of his most recent tours: "Love Sick" from 1997's Time Out of Mind, "Sugar Baby" from 2001's Love and Theft, and, most surprisingly of all, Blonde on Blonde's epic "Visions of Johanna." He closed with a trio of powerful classics - "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "All Along the Watchtower" - before encoring with "Blowin' in the Wind" from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

The voice is cracked and sometimes resembles a gargle, but nobody can sing (or write) a song with more conviction than this man.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (Blonde on Blonde)
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bringing It All Back Home)
Things Have Changed
Tangled Up In Blue (Blood on the Tracks)
Rollin' and Tumblin' (Modern Times)
Sugar Baby (Love and Theft)
John Brown
Love Sick (Time Out of Mind)
Summer Days (Love and Theft)
Visions Of Johanna (Blonde on Blonde)
Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited)
Simple Twist Of Fate (Blood on the Tracks)
Thunder On The Mountain (Modern Times)
Ballad Of A Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited)
Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited)
All Along The Watchtower (John Wesley Harding)
Blowin' In The Wind (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Remembering Elvis

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. To commemorate the occasion, here are two blasts from the past. The first, "I Want to Be Free: Elvis in Hollywood," is a look back at his mostly lamentable film career. It was written in 1990 when Elvis had been in the grave only 13 years. The second is a review of Flaming Star, one of the King's better films, written in 1999 and originally published at a site called Movienutz.

I Want to Be Free: Elvis in Hollywood
This week marks the thirteenth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. There are those who insist that the King is still alive, having fabricated his death, but they have yet to be heard from. They tend to be more vocal on the more important anniversaries - the fifth, tenth, and no doubt the upcoming fifteenth and twentieth. Elvis’ movies won’t be hard to find, however. Several are being unspooled on TV this week.

Channel 19 kicks off the Presley fest this afternoon with a colorized version of 1957's Jailhouse Rock, while channel 5 is offering 1958's King Creole in untainted black-and-white. It will be followed later this week by G.I. Blues, Roustabout, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style. The best is certainly not being saved for last.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style is a dreadful disaster that only the least discriminating Presley fan could tolerate. Little more than a retread of 1961's Blue Hawaii, it makes that film look like Citizen Kane. While Blue Hawaii was essentially a travelogue with a skimpy plot, it at least had some memorable songs, most notably the classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The 1966 rehash has some memorable song titles - “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya” - but otherwise it’s a barren beach.

G.I. Blues, the first film Presley made after his discharge from the Army, is considerably better but it’s the movie that may have sounded the death knell for Presley’s aspirations to become a serious actor. The rebellious rock and roll persona so vividly captured in Jailhouse Rock and still present, if toned down, in King Creole, was gone now, replaced by a clean-cut Elvis who was now finding favor with the very guardians of good taste who denounced him when he first appeared on the national scene in 1956. Songs like the weepy “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the operatic “It’s Now or Never” did much to win them over, and Blue Hawaii sealed the deal, making Elvis a mainstream entertainer that mothers could love as ardently as their daughters.

Presley’s new softer approach on both vinyl and celluloid helped bury rock and roll, and ultimately gave rise to the Beatles who, influenced by Elvis and other American rockers like Buddy Holly and Little Richard, revived the genre in the 1960s. Elvis turned “square,” donning suits and ties and keeping his hair above the collar in movies like It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963) and on records like “Surrender,” while the Beatles, along with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, brought the music that Presley popularized and all but abandoned back from the dead. The man who paved the way in the ‘50s and all but single-handedly brought about the revolution in culture and society that made the Beatles possible, was now churning out cinematic rot like Tickle Me and Harum Scarum.

But as the quality of his films declined, Presley’s economic fortunes grew. He remained a huge superstar, becoming not only the highest paid entertainer in the world but also the highest paid actor, commanding a million dollars per picture and 50% of the gross. He was, along with John Wayne and Richard Burton, one of the top 10 box-office draws of the decade. It’s interesting to note that in 1964, probably the Beatles’ most lucrative year, Presley’s film Viva Las Vegas, one of three Elvis movies that year, made more money at the box-office than the Fab Four’s A Hard Day’s Night.

The fact that Presley was so well-paid for his movies undoubtedly influenced the studios in their decision to make them as cheaply as possible. Up to and including Viva Las Vegas, Presley’s films were generally well-mounted productions. Even though most were given mass distribution - playing in more than one theater to make back the financial investment as quickly as possible (standard practice now, but once reserved for exploitation films) - they were competently made and often featured such acting luminaries as Angela Lansbury (Blue Hawaii) and Barbara Stanwyck (Roustabout) in supporting roles.

Later films like 1965's Tickle Me and 1967's Clambake were slapped together like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fobbed off for quick but profitable engagements at second-run theaters and drive-ins. A few Presley features were high class A films, most notably 1961's Wild in the Country with a screenplay by Clifford Odets. But if Presley’s fans only wanted to see Elvis, why hire first class writers, directors, and co-stars when bigger bucks could be generated without such fuss?

Wild in the Country and 1960's Flaming Star, both of which gave Presley an opportunity to show his dramatic skills, fared poorly in comparison to the scenic Blue Hawaii, and neither succeeded in establishing the star as the serious actor he longed to be. This turn of events enabled his manager, the tacky, uncultured Colonel Tom Parker, to wrest away all control of the Presley film career. Parker’s only interest was money, and if he could make ten cents more by having his client appear in Girls! Girls! Girls! instead of The Fugitive Kind based on Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending (a role offered to Presley that Marlon Brando played instead), then Girls! Girls! Girls! (or something similar) it was going to be.

In his few good movies, Presley clearly demonstrated not only a strong screen presence but definite potential as an actor. He was excellent as the half-breed in Don Siegel’s underrated western Flaming Star, and showed a flair for comedy in 1962's modest Follow That Dream. But instead of more vehicles along those lines, he became trapped in the kind of movies that were more suitable for the likes of Frankie Avalon and Tommy Sands than for a performer whose accomplishments transcended the domain of mere “show business.”

Presley films improved in 1968 when he starred in Stay Away, Joe, a slightly more adult film than the bilge that preceded it. Elvis played a wheeling dealing Navajo in a role that was a sharp turn from the bland, overweight bozo he played in Spinout and Easy Come, Easy Go. Stay Away, Joe came under attack for its stereotyped depiction of Native Americans but otherwise stands out as one of Presley’s better films.

The four films that followed were also a notch above the Spinout type turkey if only because they presented the star in a more flattering light. Live a Little, Love a Little was trash but it wasn’t embarrassing. The few songs were genuine songs, and there were no scenes of rock and roll’s biggest and greatest star being backed up by a band consisting of such non-musicians as Gary Crosby (Bing’s son) and Jack Mullavey.

Presley’s 31 films (not including documentaries) break down into three categories: the good (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Flaming Star, Follow That Dream, Viva Las Vegas, and Stay Away, Joe), the acceptable (Love Me Tender, Loving You, G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii, It Happened at the World’s Fair, Kid Galahad, Wild in the Country, Live a Little, Love a Little, The Trouble with Girls), and the godoffal (Spinout, Clambake, Speedway, Tickle Me, Harum Scarum, and on and on and on).

For my money, Presley’s best movie is Jailhouse Rock. More than any other Presley film, or for that matter, any rock and roll movie of the 1950s, it captures the image, if not quite the essence, of both Elvis and the cultural revolution he started which would blossom in the next decade. It also includes one of his most memorable songs, “I Want to Be Free.” It’s a sentiment he probably understood better a decade later after years of toiling in the wasteland of Hollywood trash.
August 12, 1990

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks

Elvis Presley, Steve Forrest, Barbara Eden, Dolores Del Rio, John McIntyre, Richard Jaeckal, L.Q. Jones
Directed by Don Siegel
* * * * out of * * * * *

After his discharge from the Army, Elvis Presley was at a crossroads. Having served his country with honor, he was suddenly seen as a decent American kid by many of the same parents who condemned him earlier as a pied piper leading their children down the path to Hell. To appeal to these newly won fans, his hips now swayed more than they swiveled and the raucous rock and roll that brought him fame gave way to maudlin ballads ("Are You Lonesome Tonight?") and finger snapping pop songs ("Stuck on You").

Nothing reflected the change in his public image more than his movies, though. Whereas his first four films found him playing rebels both sweet (Loving You) and sullen (Jailhouse Rock), 1960's G.I. Blues put him back in the military uniform he was relieved to have been freed from, and had him singing to babies in a role that could have easily been played by Establishment god Bing Crosby two decades earlier. A monster hit, its acceptance by the public did not dampen his enthusiasm for a serious acting career, and his next film, Flaming Star, suggested that this goal was not beyond his reach.

Returning to the western genre in which he made his film debut, Presley is effectively cast as Pacer Burton, a half-breed torn between two peoples.

When the Kiowa Indians launch an attack on the neighboring white settlers, burning homes and savagely murdering the people, the Burton homestead is spared. Though the family is headed by a white man, his wife is a Kiowa. One son is white, but the youngest is a half-breed. Suddenly, the whites, who had accepted the family and welcomed them into their homes, turn against them, threatening to shoot the half-breed should he set foot on their property. Meanwhile, the Kiowas hope to enlist Pacer in their cause. "If a half-breed white leaves his father's people to fight for his mother's people, it will make the strongest magic I have," the chief tells the troubled lad, but he refuses to join their battle. When his mother is shot by a white man and dies after being refused treatment by the white doctor, Pacer's long held but hidden feelings that he never belonged in the white man's world suddenly surface. He abandons his home and joins his mother's people on the warpath. But he remains an outsider, painfully aware that as a half-breed, no matter whose side he takes, he is always fighting himself.

With a literate screenplay by Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Huffaker, and the customarily tight direction of Don Siegel, Flaming Star is a meaningful drama potently performed by a strong cast. As Pacer's father and mother, there's the always excellent John McIntire and the lovely Dolores Del Rio. Steve Forrest capably plays Clint, the white son in the Burton clan, and there's a supporting cast that features Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckal, and L.Q. Jones. Though it's not a shoot ‘em up by any means, there's plenty of exciting action well staged by the masterful Siegel, who later went on to direct Clint Eastwood in such films as Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.

The role of Pacer Burton was originally intended for Marlon Brando. As an actor, Presley may not be Brando (just as Brando could never be Presley in the recording studio), but by 1960 Brando wasn't Brando much anymore, either, and Presley gives an excellent performance that even Mr. Method Actor could not improve on. Presley's performance may have even been inspired. The situation his character faces is not unlike the one confronting him at the time. Just as Pacer is torn between two divergent cultures, Presley, with the resumption of his career, stood uncomfortably between two different worlds: the rock and roll culture in which he had been the White Negro, the rebel king whose music terrified the guardians of middle class morality, and the whiter than white, white bread world of mainstream showbiz where, with his new more respectable image, he seemed to be headed. The modest reception given Flaming Star and the complete failure of the Clifford Odets scripted Wild in the Country may have sealed his fate more than any Faustian pact he had made with Colonel Tom Parker. Before long, Presley was exiled to another world all together - that strange Twilight Zone nightmare known as the "Elvis Presley movie."

Ah, but Flaming Star is not an "Elvis Presley movie." It's a thoughtful, intelligent western drama, and a good one, that happens to star an actor named Elvis Presley.

© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


Other posts on Elvis:
Elvis Remembered
August 16, 1977
Elvis Is Everywhere

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The plastic world of "The Graduate"

I was recently watching The Pumpkin Eater on Antenna TV. A black-and-white drama about a disintegrating marriage, it stars Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch. I was thinking less of that particular film than I was of these two formidable actors, both of whom have since passed on. Finch knocked around the international film scene for three decades before winning a posthumous Oscar for his role as the TV anchorman who whipped the audience into a frenzy (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) in 1976’s Network. He was 60 when he died in 1977. If he had lived, where would his Oscar have taken him? Maybe if he had been younger and his belated success had come even later, he might have had as full a career as Anthony Hopkins who followed his Oscar for Silence of the Lambs with a variety of meaty roles: Picasso, C. S. Lewis, John Adams and Richard Nixon.

Bancroft was best known for playing the seductive cradle robber, Mrs. Robinson, in 1967’s The Graduate. The biggest grossing movie of 1968, it was also critically acclaimed and a contender for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a movie that proves that context is everything. In the late ‘60s, Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock was the hero, a recent college graduate who spends the summer after completing his degree aimlessly drifting, completely unprepared for the future. Mrs. Robinson, a middle-aged alcoholic friend of his parents, seduces him and they carry on their clandestine affair in assorted motel rooms. But the clueless Mr. Robinson insists Ben take his daughter out on a date and the two fall in love. As Roger Ebert observed when revisiting the movie years later, Mrs. Robinson, seen by most viewers as the villain when the film was released, seems more sympathetic today. You see, in the era of the film’s original release, the “Generation Gap,” one of the effects of the Baby Boom following World War II, was at its height, with young people growing their hair, smoking dope, and opposing just about anything that their parents supported (Nixon, Vietnam, conservative attire, the idea that one should be respectably employed). Naïve little Ben was portrayed as a wounded puppy being dragged on a leash into a world of savage, immoral pit bulls. At a party in his honor, one of his parents’ friends whispers some career advice into his ear: “Plastics.”

Plastics indeed. The world of his parents is plastic: their affluence is merely a symbol of their cheap values, their double standards, and hypocrisy. The whispered advice is as much a seduction as Mrs. Robinson’s sexual overtures. One of those cheap values is obviously their religious beliefs. What those beliefs involve is never stated, but, at the end, the Robinsons’ daughter is being married to the blue-eyed blonde All-American jock that is the antithesis of Ben. The setting is a church and when Ben disrupts the ceremony and drags his true love away, he uses a large cross to beat back her enraged family. A cross is used to ward off vampires, and, in a sense, that’s what the older generation represents in The Graduate: vampires, the undead who feed on the blood of the living. They appear to be alive themselves, but they’re dead in all but the most literal sense. They’ve sold their souls to the crass materialistic society that America has become, and inhabit a series of coffins: the big cars they drive to the big office in the big corporation then return in their big car to the big house at night before rising from the dead to face another soulless day. Ben will have no part of it. He is, indeed, The Graduate, but not only from a four year college. He has graduated beyond the smoothly corrupt life of his parents.

That was in 1967. By the 1980s, The Graduate was already looking a little dated. The young people of the ‘60s had cut their hair and taken their place in the same society they once protested. Some of them never made it out of the ‘70s alive, but those that did, though paying lip service to rebellion and embracing “progressive” politics simply traded their parents’ plastic world for an equally plastic world of their own. Their children, however, helped elect Ronald Reagan to the White House, and armed with degrees in Business Administration, set out for Wall Street to begin a new wave of soullessness. And, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s pet phrase, so it goes.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks