Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), now in development by the Department of Homeland Security, suspects me of having “mal-intent.”
The very worst of science fiction is now coming to pass, and I was never a fan of the best.
What’s the deal with “downloading” music? I never liked the compact disc with its cold metallic shine and miniscule covers that all but killed album art, but I could at least hold the thing in my hand. These days, the movie I’m watching in a theater is on a disc or being downloaded from a satellite in space rather than printed on film and threaded through a 35mm projector. I don’t read literature on a Nook or Kindle, but so many people do that real books with paper pages will one day be as exotic as cursive writing which today’s students are not being taught.
I don’t like smart phones.
I don’t like the Kardashian sisters.
I don’t like Molly Cyrus.
I do not like Justin Bieber.
Most of what I’d miss in this world is already gone, so now my late mama’s favorite phrase has become my own: “I’m glad I’m on my way out.”
Some people I did like made their way out this year. I don’t know how they felt about life in the 21st century, but they made their mark in the 20th and left before the drones could get them.
Nelson Mandela died in 2013, and so did Margaret Thatcher. You can read about them in the history books, but not here. I am distrustful of all politicians and of what the media tells us about them. Mandela may have been as warm and cuddly as his obits claim, and Thatcher was instrumental in ending the Cold War, but neither brought me comfort, joy, or inspiration. Political figures rarely do.
Lou Reed was another matter. His voice - flat, whiny, and possessing no range whatsoever - would have gotten him booted from the first audition for American Idol, but his imperfections worked to his advantage. He was called the Godfather of Punk and a lot of other things, but like any great artist, labels just won’t do.
Reed came to prominence as the principle creative force in The Velvet Underground whose debut album in 1967 had that now iconic cover image of a banana by Andy Warhol. I first heard it when I was 15 or so, and my ears, initially appalled by the screeching guitars and coarse sound, grew to love it.
His voice was frequently drained of all enthusiasm. When he sang, "And me, I just don't care at all" in "Men of Good Fortune" from 1973’s Berlin, you did not doubt his sincerity. As Stephen Holden wrote in Rolling Stone, "It is a voice so incapable of bullshit that it makes even an artsy arrangement work by turning the whole thing into a joyous travesty." Listen to “Sad Song,” the epic finale of Berlin, in which his cynical vocal and hard-bitten lyrics (“Somebody else would have broken both of her arms”) prevent the strings and synthesizers from turning it into the inspirational “You’ll Never Walk Alone” moment that Reed seems to be mocking.
Reed also wrote some more traditional ballads. “Perfect Day” was even covered by Susan Boyle who may not have heard that the lover who made Reed “feel like someone else, someone good” was rumored to be heroin. That sounds as credible as the hypothesis that “Mother Mary” in the Beatles’ “Let It Be” was really marijuana. I don’t believe it, but to each his own.
George Jones was described by critic Jon Pareles as “the definitive country singer of the last half century.” The late Waylon Jennings was speaking for all country singers when he said, “If we could all sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.” To Leonard Cohen, the man nicknamed the Possum had “the best voice in America.” What accounted for such praise? Jones attributed it to “being myself and singing from the heart.”
Peter O' Toole got his break playing Lawrence of Arabia to perfection in David Lean’s 1962 epic. He never quite equaled that achievement, but who could? That illustrious credit more than compensated for What’s New, Pussycat, Man of La Mancha, and Caligula, the kind of movies he might have been anticipating in 1963 when he told Gay Talese, “Oh, it’s painful seeing it all there on the screen, solidified, embalmed.” Thankfully, there’s also The Lion in Winter, The Ruling Class, The Stuntman, My Favorite Year, and a couple of well-written memoirs.
When making something called The Delinquents, Tom Laughlin was directed by Robert Altman who called him “an unbelievable pain in the ass.” He wasn’t much of an actor. He wasn’t much of a director either, but, like Altman, he was a true maverick. No survey of 1970’s cinema could ignore Billy Jack, the 1971 film he co-wrote, directed and starred in. Unhappy with the way that Warner Bros. dumped it into theaters he sued to regain control of its distribution. Re-released in 1973, it was a box-office sensation that helped propel an interest in martial arts and gave a boost to TV’s Kung Fu and all those Bruce Lee movies that filled screens in the same decade. Billy Jack was full of New Age style hippie philosophizing and characters who expressed a desire for peace, but one could argue that it did not practice what it preached. The real draw for its mostly teenaged audience were those moments when Billy Jack frowned and thoughtfully stroked his chin before exploding in a rage, his foot violently striking someone’s face or crotch. Roger Ebert felt that the film’s message was that “a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice.”
Ebert and I once exchanged a series of emails about a negative review of his Movie Home Companion that I posted at Amazon.com. It all ended amicably, and I wish I still had our correspondence. As film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, he won a Pulitzer Prize while moonlighting as the screenwriter for Russ Meyers’ bosom-heavy adult films. In the late ‘70s, he was partnered with Gene Siskel, his rival at The Chicago Tribune, to debate the current movies on a local public TV station. Once Sneak Previews moved to PBS, the pair became household names and soon moved on to the more lucrative field of syndication. They may have been discussing movies, but their debates sometimes got personal and nasty. Once Siskel passed on in 1999, the show never regained that original spark, and it struggled with a variety of co-hosts until illness forced Ebert to relinquish his seat in the balcony and limit his reviews to print.
Jean Stapleton was Edith, the heart and soul of the Bunker clan on TV’s All in the Family. When Norman Lear’s landmark sitcom premiered on CBS in January 1971, it was a bust in the ratings. By the time repeats began airing in summer, it was the talk of the country and the number one show on television. In that pre-VCR and TiVo era, some 60 million people stayed home on Saturday nights to watch Archie chomp on his cigar and clash with his liberal minded daughter and son-in-law on women, gays, guns, and, in my favorite episode, a couple of refrigerator repairmen. To Archie, his wife was a “Dingbat,” but Edith was the only member of that family who could think clearly without prejudice (Archie) or pomposity (Mike, the college educated “Meathead”). Edith’s kindness and compassion made her appear naïve, but she was wiser than both of them combined.
Dynamation, the stop-motion animation technique employed by Ray Harryhausen, reaped more impressive results than the computer generated effects of today. Those sword-brandishing skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts had real personality, often more than the flesh and blood actors that populated his films. Harryhausen jokingly agreed during a night in his honor at the Cleveland Cinematheque in 1993 where he autographed my lobby card from the film and I shook his gifted hand.
“When she’s by herself, Julie’s almost transparent, almost nonexistent,” playwright John van Druten said of Julie Harris. He might just as well have called her a ghost. In 1963’s The Haunting, Harris was surrounded by poltergeists, but you have to wonder whether the title referred to them or to the sensitive Eleanor whom Harris vividly brought to life. In addition to starring in what may be the most frightening movie ever made, Harris was a legend of the stage who reprised her first Broadway triumph, that of the lonely tomboy in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, in her 1952 film debut.
I was never a fan of Annette Funicello, but like Popeye, dungarees, and Keds, she was part of the landscape of my childhood. I remember the ads for her movies better than the actual films, only one of which I ventured into a theater to see. What I remember most about 1963’s Beach Party was Vincent Price’s brief appearance at the end to plug The Haunted Palace, one of American International’s less memorable horror movies. Two of the best, House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum, were written by Richard Matheson who also passed on in 2013.
In later years, Matheson expressed disapproval of the genre for which he was best-known. “I think that when people are exposed to it, it gets in their brain and stays there,” he told William P. Simmons. “I think it roots itself in their psyches.” That was certainly true of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” Matheson’s classic Twilight Zone in which William Shatner’s nervous airline passenger has an unforgettable encounter with a gremlin. Some other Matheson stories to root themselves in the psyches of all who saw them were 1971’s Duel, the “Movie of the Week” that put Steven Spielberg on the map, and 1972’s The Night Stalker with Darren McGavin as a reporter on the trail of a vampire in modern day Las Vegas.
Elmore Leonard was the modern king of crime fiction. Before writing bestsellers like Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky, and Killshot, he penned dozens of westerns, many of them adapted to film including 3:10 to Yuma (Glenn Ford and later Russell Crowe), Hombre (Paul Newman), Hondo (John Wayne), Valdez Is Coming (Burt Lancaster), and Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood). One of Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing was to “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” His spare style was born of practicality. “When you write to make the rent or send your kids to school,” he told NPR, “you learn how to write without a lot of nonsense.”
And . . . Dennis Farina, the hat wearing detective on Crime Story, one of the few bright lights of 1980’s prime-time; Ed Lauter was a dependable villain in scores of movies, including Hitchcock’s last, Family Plot; Jonathan Winters inspired Robin Williams, but was funnier and never got on my nerves; David Frost was rather smarmy on the talk show he hosted in the early ‘70s, but he toughened up for his one-on-one with big, bad Richard Nixon in 1977; Eydie Gorme and her surviving husband, Steve Lawrence, were unavoidable on TV in the days when Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show; Marcia Wallace was the snippy receptionist to Bob Newhart’s befuddled psychologist on his popular ‘70’s sitcom; Steve Forrest played Elvis’ big brother in Flaming Star; Joan Fontaine won an Oscar for Hitchcock’s Suspicion, but was even better in his Rebecca; Bonnie Franklin was a sexy single mother to two teenage daughters on One Day at a Time; Conrad Bain’s biggest success was in the hideously awful Different Strokes, one of Norman Lear’s worst sitcoms, but he was also Arthur, a nemesis for Beatrice Arthur’s Maude, on one of the best; Karen Black was in a lot of movies in the ‘70s, the best of which was Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson; Dale Robertson was made for westerns like TV’s Tales of Wells Fargo; John Kerr was the sensitive youth in the movie version of Tea and Sympathy, but I’ll remember how he was nearly sliced in half in The Pit and the Pendulum; Directors Michael Winner and Hal Needham were to Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds, respectively, what John Ford and John Huston had been to John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart decades earlier; Colin Wilson wrote The Outsider, a fascinating study of art and existentialism; and Patti Page topped the charts in the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era.
I never read The Hunt for Red October or watched The Sopranos or saw those Fast and Furious movies, but adios to author Tom Clancy and actors James Gandolfini and Paul Walker.
Rest in peace, and congratulations to all. The grave got you before the drones.
Brian W. Fairbanks
December 23, 2013
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