Friday, September 30, 2016

Falling calm

It's been raining most of the night, part of the day. The streets are slick with water now, so you see reflections of the moon if it's out, street lights, house lights. There's the hiss and trickle of rain, the occasional purr of a car going by. All very serene, even though it sounds like the start of a brutal private eye novel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Saying goodnight

I heard a Burns and Allen routine recently, which of course tickled me. So I looked back for more. I found something where George and Gracie have been one-upping each other into who can more convincingly act like they're going to commit suicide. Which if you describe it to anyone will sound like you made it up, but no, here's proof.

The curious thing is that it still plays out like Burns and Allen.

Monday, September 26, 2016


Weather in Rhode Island is not out in either direction. A few days ago the heat was still oppressive. Now you can really feel the snap of the autumn wind. Makes it somewhat easier to sleep, as well.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep"

For the third-to-last episode of Ellery Queen the crew tries something different in a couple of ways. First of all this is in large part a mob story. It's not just that the victim of the week and some of the suspects are gangsters. The episode has the fast pace and high testosterone level that gangster movies have boasted since they broke through in the early talkie era. The characteristic violent action is there too. We get to see a bombing and a police shootout, both of them involving hit man Jay Bonner, played by legendary character actor Timothy Carey (pictured above.) So even though the actual murder is a classic locked room mystery, it's really more of a pulpy thing, not the kind of drawing room affair you might associate with Ellery Queen.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A very bad host

Would You Rather, a 2012 combo of horror and black comedy, is, without a doubt, sadistic and somewhat depressing. It's also very stylish and true to itself.

If you're brother is chronically and perhaps terminally ill and your parents didn't leave you enough money to care for him or really yourself, you're likely to be desperate for a way out from under, as Iris (Brittany Snow) is. So an invitation from a wealthy benefactor (Jeffrey Combs) won't be unwelcome. Perhaps it should be, because when the two of them meet in a doctor's office, he's already twenty kinds of creepy. Seriously if anyone invites you to dinner and says you'll be "playing a game of sorts" tell them you have to wash your hair.

The dinner party and the game produce a lot of mayhem. Not as much gore as you might think. Like I say, it's stylish. It feels kind of like a giallo version of And Then There Were None.

Robin Lord Taylor plays a character much nastier than the young Penguin here. And if you think you've seen everything from Jeffrey Combs, wait until you see him with a Burt Reynolds mustache.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Tao of Le Guin

Some choice vintage science fiction. Nixon era vintage at least. I just started reading Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven. I'd seen the 1980 PBS TV movie version before. Not when it first aired, but the first time they dug it out of the archives, in 2000 or thereabouts. But that was quite some time ago as well, and my feeling is that the book is quite different. 

The book starts off in a world that is, if not dystopian, at least rather run down. The hero, George Orr, is afraid to dream, and drugs himself to keep from dreaming. This is because his dreams literally come true. The changes are retroactive, as well, meaning that for a big change no one will remember things being any different. His quasi-mandatory psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, wants to put these dreams to constructive use. 

I've read somewhere that this book was Le Guin's homage to Philip K. Dick as well. While they were very different writers they did admire each other's work, and you could probably find examples of her influence in his work as well. The opening chapter does have a kind of Dickian feel. Haber's an interesting character, well-meaning but somewhat lacking in medical ethics. An early scene where he calls George "John" feels indicative, as well as being a likely Beatles reference.

Monday, September 19, 2016


Images like this make me wonder what young Mr. Calvin is doing now. Maybe he's finally found his right place in life.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley"

The Ellery Queen series of novels began in 1929 and ended in 1971, with all the books being set in or at least near their year of publication. Even assuming a desire to stay somewhere in the timeline of the books, that gives would-be adapters a pretty wide range of choices. Levinson and Link opted for the late 1940s. It's an interesting era for them to choose, because this was a transitional period in so many way. World War II had just ended, giving the United States unprecedented power on the international stage. The Cold War, which the show only alludes to in a couple of episodes, was just getting off the ground. In matters social, political, and technological this period can give you a view on the end of some old ways and the beginning of the new.

One prime example is the medium of radio. Before the war radio had of course beamed comedy and drama and witty panel discussions into countless American homes, a function that would soon largely be ceded to television.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Texas turmoil

I hadn't seen Blood Simple in years, but looking through some stuff I found that I actually own a copy. Think I bought it at Borders, a store that hasn't been open for several years.

On the surface it might have seemed like a pretty basic mid-80s neo-noir. It's got the neon signage and the ironically-used oldies (some of which work quite well.) As it turne out the Coens were doing their own thing.

It's not like the story is unique on paper. A woman plans to run away from her bar-owner husband. She starts sleeping with one of his bartenders, because that will obviously end well. The husband was suspicious enough to have her tailed by a private detective. When his suspicions are confirmed, he hires the detective as a hitman.

How well do these people match up to their parts? The husband isn't scary, or even particularly nasty most of the time we see him. He mostly just seems mopey. The wife, played by future Coen-in-law Frances McDormand, isn't as calculating as the husband says. In fact she seems flighty and convinced she's in a different movie. Her lover is a laconic cowboy type, a Marlboro Man without a smoking habit. At first. Contact with violence and danger turns him downright chatty.

The PI is the smartest one in the movie, albet not in a socially acceptable way and not in an obvious way. He's basically trolling the other three, For example he doesn't carry out the hit the way he was supposed to, btut he's not sparing the lovers. He's just got a different agenda.

Anyway, after that re-watch I'll have to catch the Chinese remake one of these days.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A handy instrument

Summertime - Charlie Draper with The Radio Science Orchestra from Gramophone Records on Vimeo.

I don't know this musician, or have any idea where he gets his tuxes. I just found this.

The theremin is the damnedest instrument. Your hands basically seem to be plucking strings and depressing keys that aren't there. It's almost a century old and still feels alien.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Alabama jubilee

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that everyone reads in high school or junior high. And I did, I guess, technically. But mainly it seems like I went through it to pick up names for the test I knew we have. It wasn't the book, it was me. Anyway, not being proud of that state of affairs, I decided to go back and read it again.

It's quite a charming novel. One thing I hadn't realized was that quite a bit of the book goes by before there's any hint of Tom Robinson's trial. In fact Atticus is used sparely in the opening chapters. What I get from that is that while the case is an important part of the story, it is still a part. It's really the story of a child, and how the way she'll see the world as an adult is formed.

Incidentally, Dill was reportedly based on the young Truman Capote. That seems right.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Drivin' that train, high on cocaine...

That saying about how such and such is "the kind of movie they just don't make anymore": does anyone watching a new movie ever predict that a new movie they're watching will one day occasion that kind of observation? And if so, what movies do forward-thinking viewers say that about.

WARNING: From here on out I'm tossing out spoilers left and right, just because I can't think of any other way to speak intelligently about what I want to say.

When people saw The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three in 1974 they likely thought it was just another cops-and-robbers movie, if perhaps a very good one. In context they weren't wrong. But it's very much the kind of movie they don't make anymore, in ways that are kind of a pity.

The basics: A quartet of men wearing obvious, uniform disguises and bearing aliases named after colors, take over a New York subway train. Their icy British leader, Mr. Blue, demands one million dollars within an hour or he'll kill one passenger per minute. A transit cop negotiates with him while trying to figure out and thwart his plan. 

The villains, especially blue and the uncontrollable psycho Gray, could be action villains from any period. But in other respects this film probably wouldn't have been made ten years earlier. Definitely not ten years later, much less forty. Consider.

1) Shot on location, it's proudly about New York, the glorious and scary and silly aspects. A little later it's hard not to imagine a lot of the local color being focus grouped out for being too limiting.

2) The hero is played by Walter Matthau. Walter Matthau was a great actor, and a veteran tough guy. But he was also a pudgy middle-aged man with black shoe polish in his hair. In fact if I had to guess I'd say the Hanna-Barbera people had him in mind when they designed Fred Flintstone. Sure, Clint Eastwood still plays lead roles in action movies far into his seventies, but that's dependent on him looking like he could still kick the asses of fit twenty year olds.

2B) His partner is played by Jerry Stiller, who was younger but even less cop-like.

3) Matthau spends most of the movie talking on a phone behind a desk. He seems to belong there. When he goes out in the field it's because time is running out, not because he feels pent up.

4) When Blue's plan is foiled in its latter stages, he asks if New York still has the death penalty. When Matthau's character responds in the negative - the state would bring it back in the nineties but hasn't used it since - he electrocutes himself. Think of that. There's no climactic battle between good and evil, because evil says, "Nah. I'm out." Speed or Die Hard, the latter of which also had a cold Brit as the bad guy, would never go that route.

5) There's another half hour or so in the picture, but it revolves around the pursuit of Mr. Green, who's  by far the most sympathetic and least intimidating of the criminals. Although he'd be happy enough to keep the money.

6) The very end of the movie? A sneeze and a knowing look.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A version

The other recurring feature on this blog hasn't been seen in a while either. Final Songs, that is. I still have ideas, but haven't developed them in a bit. One of these days.

"Version City" wouldn't be eligible, because it's not  the last track on the album it originates on. On Sandinista! it is the last coherent song before the dub instrumentals and "children sing the Clash" covers. It seems self-aware, too, that the start of side six is the end of the road in some ways. Hence Joe Strummer's - if it's him - bout of Stanshall-esque surreal comedy.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

All washed up?

What a day.

After work I headed home and packed a bunch of things to go to the laundry. When I got there I saw they were closed. ???! This laundromat until very recently was open every night until nine, although I've generally been able to get there during the day, which didn't work out this week for various reasons. On their door they announce "New Hours" the upshot of which is that they're closing every day at five now, with last wash at 3:30. To me that's not new hours, just cessation of the old ones.

My first reaction was uncomprehending rage. I knew I'd have to find a new laundry for weeks when I had to do wash at night, and didn't like the rug being pulled out from me. Then I started to wonder how much longer they'd be in business at all. No matter how you slice it, a business lopping 28 hours of of it's week isn't a healthy sign. Then I thought of the employees. This reduction means that somebody got fired, or found their full-time job changed to a part time one. That truly does suck.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Made the sixties what they are today

Thought of this scene today and had to go back and look. It's surprisingly visceral. Like, even in New York in the seventies, I imagine that passersby who saw a guy in a trench coat choking a woman would be concerned.

Making Stockholm syndrome funny is hard work.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Two-Faced Woman"

Many things, positive and negative, have been said about Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic theories as science, and about their impact on society. I'm not opening that can of worms now - suffice it to say I'm not a zealous advocate but not a Scientologist either - but gut Doktor did make a great contribution elsewhere. Namely in art. This is not just because his British grandson Lucian Freud was an esteemed figure painter. Psychoanalysis influenced the Stanislavsky technique, changing the face of acting for the second half of the twentieth century. Novelists took new psychological approaches to their characters, even those who hated the new study, like the alternately fascinating and tiresome Nabokov. Surrealist art also has its roots here.

The mystery and thriller field changed under the new regime as well. Notably, Helen McCloy created the character of Dr. Basil Willing, who consulted with the NYPD and functioned as both a therapist and what would now be called a criminal profiler. In the realm you can't ignore Hitch. Hitchcock's Spellbound is in good part set in a sanatorium, features Ingrid Bergman as a shrink, and centers on repressed memory. Vertigo stars Jimmy Stewart as a difficult-to-like phobic whose romantic inclinations are just a step up from necrophilia.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Wordsworth's words

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

This is a poem by William Wordsworth, of course. The title is generally taken to be "The World Is Too Much With Us."

It could be argued that "the world" as he implies it to be here - artificial, external - is even more with us now than when William W. wrote this. But how many now even are conscious that a "too much" is even possible?