Friday, September 30, 2011

A Baddiwad Eggiweg

It was not at all a restful weekend as I worked towards hosting five people for dinner at my house, the most ambitious "entertaining" I've ever attempted. That's for another post. When the smoke cleared and the dishes were in the washer and I could finally flop in my comfy chair and begin to wind down, what did I choose to throw in the DVD player? A Clockwork Orange.

That's right, a nice, light, relaxing Romantic Comedy.

Well, it is an oomny, sarky comedy of sorts -- although not one that's meant to actually provoke smekking. It had been about thirty years since I last viddied Kubrick's horrorshow sinny, O My Brothers, and that was just dobby with me. A Clockwork Orange is something you need to see once, not something you're going to want to watch again and again, despite the bravura that Kubrick brought to bear.

Or so I thought. As it turned out, I needed to watch this movie again. First, I'd only ever seen it in a fuzzy, second-generation VHS copy. It was powerful and skillful even then, but the DVD is so much richer and clearer. This is another widescreen movie that needs to be seen that way.

And second, I didn't have the judgement thirty years ago that I have today. I was a much, much younger person, in every sense of the word, than I am now. That's an important difference with a movie that's as tricky as this one is.

I read Anthony Burgess's novel when I was in the eighth grade, at an age when I couldn't possibly grasp what he was trying to accomplish. When the time came to write a school book report about it, all I could do was describe the plot and say that I thought it was a good book. I think my teacher was appalled. For my part, although I couldn't put it into words, I remember being fascinated by Nadsat.

When the movie came out I was too young to see it, even after Kubrick cut something like thirty seconds of footage in exchange for an R rating. [Now that is an odd story that's always intrigued me. Thirty seconds?! I always thought, "It must have been a wow of a thirty seconds!" The current DVD release contains the original, X-rated version, and I was nervous about this. Now having seen it, and I think being able to identify the footage in question, I have to say that the cut scenes are no worse than anything else in the movie and this seems to me more of a case of the MPAA throwing its weight around than anything else.]

By the time I was old enough it was well out of circulation, and I had to wait for the invention of the home VHS player. You can bet that A Clockwork Orange was one of the very first movies I rented (and pirated) -- along with Ralph Bakshi's X-rated Fritz the Cat.

Even then I was really too young for it. I understood the story and its broad general purpose, but did not understand, really not until this week, how deeply manipulative the movie is and how it works on its audience at a subliminal level to corrupt our sensibilities. Roger Ebert hates this movie and accuses Kubrick of being in love with Alec, but he's way off the mark with that theory. Kubrick does, however, want us to feel conflicted, and to that end he allows Alec to become a charismatic figure, without ever diminishing or excusing his behaviour and activities. What we witness in the first act of the movie is appalling, but in Alec's company it's also -- dare I admit it -- kind of fun.

That's what I didn't understand all those years ago. It's exactly what people have reacted to over the years,  exactly why the movie is so disturbing, and some critics, like Ebert and Pauline Kael, resented it. Perhaps they are right. Especially in the last two decades, there have been many more graphically and sexually violent movies than this one. But Kubrick is an artist, not a sadist. Watching A Clockwork Orange is a bit like being subjected to the Ludivico Technique yourself.

I never noticed until it was pointed out to me in one of the extra features, but it starts in the opening shot. There is McDowell with his magnificent leer and that unnerving eyelash -- and he raises his glass of milk-plus and toasts the audience! When asked why he did that, McDowell replies, "Well, the audience is about to spend two hours inside the mind of a very nasty person, and I thought, 'Good luck!'"

And it's true. The only character in A Clockwork Orange that the audience gets to know in an intimate way is Alec. Kubrick is being deeply subversive. But it's fair and correct, because that's how the novel works, too.

The most disturbing word in Nadsat is krovvy, blood. It's derived from Russian but the addition of the "vy" makes it sound like "gravy" which is just what Burgess wants it to sound like: for Alec, bloodletting is a savory activity.

Burgess was an enormously prolific writer, and A Clockwork Orange isn't even his best novel, but it's one of those things that defines its creators whether they like it or not. There are signs that Kubrick regretted ever having made the movie, though he never completely disowned it.

I still own my copy of the novel, but it's the infamous American edition that's missing the "redemptive" final chapter, the version of the book that Kubrick based his movie on. I don't know how a publisher, any publisher, can get away with just lopping off the final chapter, on a whim, of any novel: but in doing so, they decided the fate of the film. It's an act of violence against a book about violence. Perhaps now is the time for me to track down a fresh copy and see what Burgess really intended.

-- Freder.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Iron Man, Iron Man | Does whatever an Iron can. . .

I'm on record (with my friends, if not on this blog) as thinking that the first of the Iron Man movies is one of the Best of Breed when it comes to adaptations of funnybook superhero types. So when II came out and the PR, the critics and word of mouth all showed signs of it Not Measuring Up, I decided to stay well away. On the other hand, when it starts to turn up in the $5 bin -- sure, I'll take a flyer on that.

And, faced with a choice between that or Terra Nova on FOX or a Garbo movie that might have appealed to me on a Friday night but didn't on a Monday -- or, God forbid, Top Gear or Dancing with the Has-Beens, Nobodies, Never-Weres and Who-the-hell-are-Theys. . . OK, I picked Terra Nova.

But it lost me early on. The protagonists are a family who broke the law and had one too many children in a world that only allows two. But -- look around you at that world! There's a reason why the population needs to be controlled! The air so foul that citizens have to wear gas masks. The earth so far gone that an orange is a black market rarity. Speaking as a single man who has never reproduced himself, honestly, is it such a hardship to only have two children? Oh, and if I'm your neighbor -- your Extra Kid is breathing my air, leaching off my share of the resources. . . in short, this family is a pack of criminals, and the producers of Terra Nova are asking  me to feel sympathy for them. They came to the wrong guy!

So, the minute the family traded one police state in a dying world for another police state in Dinotopia (because that's the book that this show is ripping off), I slotted Iron Man II into the DVD player, and it was trading up, even though two turns out to add up to about half of one.

There are serious problems attached. The worst is that rather than allowing Tony Stark to grow up, as he showed signs of doing in the first picture, the filmmakers instead upped the anti and have Robert Downey Jr. behaving even worse this time around. It turns out that Stark is dying from blood poisoning contracted from the arc reactor inside the very chest plate that's keeping him alive. This causes him to behave badly, which is Don Cheadle's excuse for stealing the silver Iron Man prototype and becoming War Machine. "You don't deserve this," he says to Downey, just before the two men destroy Stark's apartment in an armor-clad brawl.

This is not the Tony Stark I know, the one who reinvented himself in the first movie's smashing opening scenes. At the prodding of Nick Fury and with the ghost of his father urging him on from the dead, that Tony Stark does finally make a comeback, but not until halfway through the movie, and not until we've been subjected to scenes like Stark getting staggering drunk at his own birthday party -- while fully suited up in the Iron Man armor. "People ask me how I go to the bathroom in this thing. . . [pause] . . . Like that." It's the low point of the movie and it almost kills the thing.

It's all in the way of the Film Theory bugaboo, the idiotic Screenwriting 101 rule that dictates every character in a movie has to have a journey. Maybe so, but this was not the way to go.

When Stark's troubles come from the outside world rather than demons within, then the movie really hums along in an almost clipped, episodic fashion that echos the days when Iron Man shared billing with The Sub-Mariner in Marvel's old Tales of Suspense comic book.We have Mickey Rourke, effectively cast as Whiplash, suffering an early smackdown at Cannes; we have hearings in the Senate; we have War Machine and a competitor named Justin Hammer. We have the "Demon in a Bottle" story. We have Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson looking fabulous as Natasha, though she only gets one big scene). Sooner or later you know it all has to come together and it does, in a very flashy (and somewhat misguided) finale. It's all rather more entertaining than I make it sound -- but it doesn't hold a candle to the purity of the first film.

The movie's best Special Effect, by far, is Gary Shandling. It was a masterstroke to cast Shandling as the senator who is giving Stark such a hard time over the Iron Man tech. We've seen straightfaced and straight-ahead performances in this type of role many times, but Shandling plays with it the way a cat plays with string. He's twitchy, he's arrogant, he's insecure and overcompensating, and it all shows. Hands down, it's the best performance in the picture,

The closest that it comes to capturing the gosh-wow essence of the character is in the Cannes sequence. Back in those old Tales of Suspense comic books, beautifully rendered by the recently late Gene Colan, Tony Stark kept his amazingly compressed and collapsible armor in a light briefcase. When that briefcase suddenly appeared in this movie, I stomped on the floor with happiness. When it was finally delivered to Stark, and when he opened and applied its contents with a brilliantly modern twist, I almost jumped out of my chair. It's probably the best sequence in the picture, and it single-handedly powered me through much of what followed.

Billy Batson shouted "SHAZAM!" to become Captain Marvel. This is the move's SHAZAM moment, and it makes up for an awful lot.

-- Freder.

Who Kidnapped Cookie?

When Children's Television Workshop announced their new "curriculum" for the next season of Sesame Street, Cookie Monster and Elmo were both on hand to help out with with the press conference.

Except that something fishy was going on. The Cookie Monster in attendance was not the real Cookie Monster, but a blatant impostor!

What have they done with the real Cookie Monster? Who is this stranger who has taken his place?

Could it be that the real Cookie Monster is in rehab somewhere, trying to kick his addiction to crunchy backed sweets? Is he confined to the special Puppet Wing of the Betty Ford clinic, suffering from Delirium Tremens as he withdraws from sugar?

Or could it be something more sinister? You've seen it before in Bad Movies: what if the new Cookie Monster wanted to be The Cookie Monster so badly that he abducted The Genuine Article and took his place in the 'hood? The real Cookie Monster could be tied up and gagged in the trunk of an old Mercury, waiting to be thrown into the Car Crusher!

I'm sure that the executives at Children's Television Workshop are no different for those in any other company. What if they just decided one day that the real Cookie Monster was getting too old and long in the tooth? What if Cookie Monster showed up for work one day and found a pink slip in his mailbox? Poor Cookie Monster! Out of work without warning, after all those years of busting his butt to entertain and educate the little rugrats, while a young whippersnapper gets all his glory (and all his cookies)!

Especially in this economy, it would be danged hard for an unemployed Cookie Monster to find work, I don't think he'd stand a chance at getting a role in the latest revival of Les Miserables, for example. He might have to call in a debt, if he has one, with Yoda and try to get something in the next Star Wars movie. Remakes are really big right now. I can definitely see Cookie Monster as Rick in the remake of Casablanca. Then Again, Cookie Monster is a skilled comedian. I'd like to see him as Alvy Singer in the remake of Annie Hall. And who knows? If Daniel Craig gets tired of playing James Bond, I think Cookie Monster would be a natural in that part! If all else fails, I hear the porn industry is really strong right now out on the west coast. Cookie Monster is pretty well used to being filmed naked.

If you were a Job Coach, what other walks of life could Cookie Monster find work in? I don't think he'd last long at MacDonald's or any other food-related branch of the service industry. And I don't think I'd want him working on my plumbing. On the other hand, Macy's always liked Cookie Monster and even made a balloon of him for the parade. Maybe they could find something for Cookie Monster in the Men's Department, or, better yet, Kitchenware. I bet that Cookie Monster has a lot of experience with baking utensils.

D'you think that Cookie Monster could find success in the corporate world? I'm not sure. Cookie Monster is much more kind-hearted than the other monsters in that line of work.

OK, OK, I get it, I do know what really happened here. Frank Oz got tired of playing Cookie Monster, as he apparently got tired of playing Grover years earlier. But with Grover they did the right and proper thing and retired the character, maneuvering Elmo into his place. I wish they had done  the same with Cookie Monster.

In the same way (and for the same reasons) that no one can voice the Warner Brothers stable of characters as well as Mel Blanc, June Foray, Stan Freeberg and Arthur Q. Bryant (and even Mel shouldn't have attempted to voice Elmer Fudd after Bryant's death), no one should be allowed to assume Frank Oz's many characters. No one but Caroll Spinney should be allowed to play Big Bird and Oscar. The little tykes may not know the difference, but I do.

You can't replace the Genuine Article with a cheap imitation and expect me to swallow it. As far as I am concerned, when Jim Henson died, Kermit and Ernie and Rowlf the Dog and Doctor Teeth and the Swedish Chef and all the other characters that he created died with him.

Some things are just unique, and cannot be replaced, rewired, reconstituted, re-animated or renewed. We mourn when they are gone, because the world is a little bit emptier and sadder without them. But it only makes things worse to try and stuff the empty puppet shell with hot air and pretend that nothing happened.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Dinner Party

"Do you like entertaining?" one of my guests said to me on Sunday night. I said, "I don't know. I've never done this before!"

It's true. Cooking dinner and hosting an evening in my own house, for FIVE guests and myself? Not only is this untilled ground, but I spent most of he day regretting ever having thought of it and wondering how I get myself into these messes.

Present were my lawyer, her paralegal, her paralegal's husband, my father and his wife. I make no bones about it: Dad and M_ were there for the specific purpose of taking the burden of conversation off of me. I knew Dad would excel at this, and he didn't disappoint: especially after dinner, he reverted to raconteur mode and dominated the talk.

All of them have been of great help to me in the last year-plus. Dinner was the least I could do. Besides, I genuinely like J____ and S__, and S__'s husband, the son of one of my mother's old friends from the antiques business, now long gone, is a bit mannered and strange, which I suppose makes him one of My People.

I spent all morning Sunday cleaning the place, and a good chunk of the afternoon prepping the meal, which was simple (as it needed to be): shrimp as an appe-teaser, baked chicken bosoms, corn on the cob and asparagus. I meant the latter to be spinach, but at the last minute I discovered that I had none in stock, so I went with what was in the crisper drawer!

Seven gigantic chicken mammaries were almost more than I could get into the oven, and challenged my supply of baking pans! Yes, seven -- one each for the humans present and accounted for, plus one for Whitey and Honey (Pooky, Patches and Pandy Bear seem uninterested in chicken udders. Go figure).

Never having cooked on this scale before (I could barely fit all the corn in my biggest pot), I was quite nervous about it. Would so many chicken boobies take longer to cook than the two I normally bake? How best to handle the serving?

I set the dining room table as nicely as I could, then looked through my cupboards to see what I had that would work as serving dishes. . . I never really looked at my inherited cutlery with a critical eye before. I found three dishes that would work and set them out. All my ducks in a row, all right all right.

It was four-thirtyish. I sat down here at the 'puter and promptly felt my brains dribbling out of my ears. In Monty Pythonese, I was "tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk." I loaded up Bejewelled 2 and mindlessly shifted gems about with the music cranked up to the max.

At five o'clock I got up to feed the quats inside and out, and entered my kitchen to find my father's wife standing there cleaning up my counter.  True, there were a few little kat krunchies and bits of food scattered around the plate, but I was just going to clean that up as part of the process. Suddenly I knew exactly how my mother felt when she used to complain that Grandma Mel would always start cleaning her kitchen whenever she visited. I was shot through with anger. They were more than half an hour early, I hadn't heard them because of the game, and she had the balls to waltz in and start cleaning things.

Worse, she wouldn't get out of my way. I needed to feed my kids, and it's a small kitchen, and that damn woman would not disappear. She had brought stinky cheese and crackers and was determined that they had to be made presentable right away. While I tried to do my work, she tried to co-opt the serving dishes that I had set out for their specific purposes. I dropped what I was doing and got a new one out of the cupboard that I thought would be appropriate for cheese and crackers. I said, "You can use this one or this one, I don't care which." She picked up a third and said "I like this!" I said, "No, that's for the corn." Truly, I had no other dish that would hold the corn.

The more I get to know my father's wife, the more I dislike her.

"Domineering" would be the operative word. Other words have been used to describe her, but they came from people with piles of resentment of one kind or another, and I won't repeat them. I can only tell you what I've been through with the damn woman. It's like she thinks that she owns my house because she loaned some money to make its purchase possible -- money that has been paid back, well before it was due. What do you say about someone who comes over when you aren't home and plants things in your garden without consulting you? I don't even like daylillies! Bushes are what my garden needs.

When the guests arrived, she wouldn't let them eat the shrimp at first. She went around to each one and demanded, "You try cheese! You try stinky cheese and cracker! Hee hee hee!"

Dad told me later that she was determined to stay out of the hosting part because she "wanted it to be mine." Christ, if this is her version of staying out of things, I shudder to think of the alternative.

I'll stop there. No I won't. After dinner she did a lot of talking, and that's FINE, but her voice is heavily accented and I have a hard time understanding people at the best of times. Approximately forty percent of what comes out of her mouth is gibberish to me -- and it's not her FAULT, I'm not CRITICIZING her for that, it has more to do with my disability than anything else; but it adds a layer of difficulty to dealing with her. I literally tuned her out.

The evening came off well. I do believe a good time was had by all. But at a certain point, I really just wanted them all to go away. It probably lasted for another forty minutes. Then Dad cleared the room. It was a beautiful night out. I stood on the deck and watched as my guests pulled away.

Well, not all of my guests. Yes, that's right, my father's wife was in the kitchen, cleaning things up and putting things away. She wrapped all the leftover chicken in foil and shoved it all into the freezer despite my telling her TWICE that I wanted one left out for my kids. I still don't know where the four spears of leftover asparagus went.

I kept telling her to stop and she wouldn't. I just wanted to clean up at my own speed and in my own way. It's not HELP when it isn't wanted.

Lessons learned from the evening?

I can do it. I can plan and make a thing like this happen and work, at least in the physical details. Part of the planning absolutely has to include inviting someone with the social skills to take command of that aspect of the event, so that I don't have to, so that I can be free to putter and worry in the kitchen and not have to think about how to make small talk.

But never, never again, will my father fill that role. He comes at too high a price.

-- Freder.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Glug! Gurgle! Gulp!

Until I watched it last night, I could think of no logical reason why I ordered up a copy of the original 1972 Poseidon Adventure (or, as Mad magazine parodied it at the time, The Poopsidedown Adventure). I've been giving "The Morning After" a lot of play recently, but that couldn't be it. The picture has Ronald Neame's name on it, and he's a director that I respect, but that's hardly enough reason. I was an impressionable 14 years old when it came out, and have only ever seen it once before (on broadcast TV, all cut up and full of commercials), but those aren't reasons enough either. I honestly thought that I must have been out of my mind at the time.

That feeling did not go away as the puerile opening scenes unfolded. Of course the characters are all cardboard cut-outs, but there's an underlying coarseness and chauvinism to the script that hasn't aged well. My thoughts, such as they were, had nothing to do with the largely inept character set-up. I thought, Ronald Neame directed this? and felt nothing but sympathy for all of the actors. I thought, I miss Red Buttons (what I really meant, I realize just now, is that I miss Character Actors in general) and I wonder how old Ernest Borgnine was when he made this? and Whatever happened to Stella Stevens? and Are those things real?

I thought, Oh, that kid is really annoying and That Pamela Sue Martin is one lousy little actress and Why did they cast Gene  Hackman in this part? and I wonder who's actually singing for Carol Lynley? It ain't Maureen McGovern.

And then we have Leslie Nielsen captaining the ship, in one of his last "serious" roles. Once he started doing comedy, and doing it well, all of his previous serious roles suddenly became comedy as well! The minute he appears on the bridge, you start to chortle and know that this boat is going down soon.

I realized that Ronald Neame may be the director, but this is first and foremost an Irwin Allen picture, and it has his fingerprints all over it.

Then, not a moment too soon, the wave struck.

Suddenly, the Ronald Neame that I know, the one who knows how to frame a shot and tell a story and work with actors, suddenly that guy was back. And as the rest of the picture unfolded, I realized that so-called "disaster" movies aren't really about the disaster itself, but the physical and emotional hardships that follow.

And the cast, all of them, are very good at this sort of thing. This was when Red Buttons was discovering that he could do much more than comedy relief. As in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, he struggles and suffers with the best of them.

They climb. They crawl through muck and fire and past the bodies of the crew. They look backward, and see the water catching them up, drowning everyone they left behind. They begin to die (Roddy McDowall makes an early exit, along with his fake Scots accent). The boat takes on a character of its own, presenting obstacles at every turn, slowly closing its fist around the small extended family (for that is what they are now. They didn't choose to be a part of this family, but then, who does?).

I did find myself getting caught up emotionally in all this, and had no delusions anymore about why I wanted to see it again and what is exactly the appeal of this genre to audiences. It wasn't the heavy-handed "message" that the movie hammers on every chance that it gets: "We've got to keep going, we can't give up." It was the feeling of all this scrabbling, clawing, clinging, clutching; the family dragging itself most painfully up level by level, with the torrent engulfing the places they just left, literally obliterating their past behind them.

My own Poseidon Adventure began in May 2010, and is only now beginning to feel like that Morning After, like that plate in the hull dropping away to admit daylight. That's why we watch these things. Everyone has their own Poseidon Adventure at some point, which is why the details of the characters don't matter: only what they suffer through.

We may not look as bad as Borgnine & Co. do when we finally crawl through our personal disaster movies, but that is exactly, exactly what it feels like.

-- Freder.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Frameless Heads on Nameless Walls

My first exposure to Vincent Van Gogh came when I was seven or eight years old, ill and confined to bed, reading paperback collections of Peanuts comic strips. You see? Who says comics are bad for you?

Readers of a certain age will remember that Snoopy had in his collection, among many other grand things, a Van Gogh which he lost in a doghouse fire on a dark and stormy night. Did Charles Schulz have a Secret Purpose in choosing a Van Gogh to be the painting that Snoopy owned? It wasn't a Degas, or a Lautrec -- or even a Gauguin. It was a Van Gogh.

I think it very likely. Schulz seems to have had a Secret Purpose in everything he did, in every detail that he layered into Peanuts.

All of this is because TCM ran Lust for Life last night. I found it disturbing and distressing on many levels, but also difficult to tear myself away from. Certainly for Kirk Douglas this is the performance of a lifetime. It's very big; huge -- a tooth-gnashing, head-clutching, earth-shaking movement of the skies. If it were any other actor playing any other part, this performance would be miles over the top, the live-action equivalent of a scene in a Daffy Duck cartoon in which Adolf Hitler literally rips up the carpet and chows down on it like a runaway lawnmower cutting down to the ground at seventy miles per hour.

But here's the thing: He means it. And I think it was Billy Wilder who said that a performance can be as big and loud as a fire truck, so long as it is Real and Genuine. That, and Vincent was in life, by all accounts, very much larger than life himself.

I see it as the performance of a man who feels, rather desperately and rather deeply, that he has something to prove. . . and he proves it. This is a brave and daring piece of acting, and also serendipitous casting. Honestly, if you're making a movie about Vincent Van Gogh, Kirk Douglas can not have been the first actor to spring to mind. But somebody thought of it, and the rest is history.

Starry, starry night. Did Don MacLean watch this movie before he wrote his beautiful, sad song?

So many things about Vincent make me sad. I can understand the frustration and torment, but I wish that I shared his drive and passion, his intelligence, if not his supernatural vision.

He worshipped Gauguin, and in return even Gauguin was contemptuous of him. After seeing Anthony Quinn's portrayal of Gauguin last night, I now despise the man. It doesn't mean that I would throw out his art if I were a museum curator, but I might curse him under my breath as I walked past his paintings.

The movie's delicacy on certain aspects of Vincent's life is interesting. Vincent's regular use of prostitutes is hinted at in the gentlest of ways. The ear incident is even more bizarre in real life than it is as Minnelli portrays it.

So much anguish. In the end, I had to walk away. I did not want to watch Vincent die, did not want to watch him famously flame out and murder himself in another fit of despair. His real-life death appears to have been agonizingly slow for a suicide: he shot himself in the chest and took twenty-nine hours to die. But the saddest thing of all is that it took the death for people to look at his work. We live in a world where people close their doors and eyes and ears to creative people until they are dead, as though punishing them for being different. When they are safely gone and unable to appreciate the acceptance -- only then is when the acceptance comes.

An episode of Doctor Who last season interestingly employed a fantasy of Making Vincent Happy At Last. At the conclusion of an adventure that makes clever use of Vincent's (well-portrayed by Tony Curran) ability to see things that other's can't, there's a really lovely scene in which The Doctor and Amy give him the kindest gift anyone could. The three of them pop into the TARDIS and fly to the present day, where Vincent is allowed to visit an exhibit of his own work, and to hear the curator hail him as the greatest painter of them all.

When they drop Van Gogh back into his own timestream, Amy is anxious to find new masterworks waiting for them back in the present. But nothing has changed. Poor Vincent still shoots himself at the age of thirty-nine.

Some things just can't be undone.

-- Freder.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Morning Mowers Must be Mad

Although they have moved the time from 7:00 AM to 10:00, my neighbors still persist at mowing in the morning, and also at waking me up.

I can't very well complain about ten o'clock, but I still think that they're insane. And, as their property line is quite close to the southwest side of my house, I have a terrible lawnmower racket accompanying me as I go about my morning chores, at a time of day when I like things quiet.

Seriously, in what Universe is mowing the lawn a morning chore? All of my other neighbors, everyone else in the whole neighborhood in fact, would seem to agree with me: mowing the lawn is something you do in the afternoon.

In all my life, from the time I was a little kid, I've never known anyone who did it backwards. And now I live next door to the only two people in the world who are stupid enough not to Get It.

If nothing else, by the time I get done mowing the lawn I am always hot and sweaty and the first thing I want to do is head to the shower. And I certainly don't want to take that shower in the middle of the morning. I want to take it late enough in the day so that it lasts me through the next day!

It's not always possible, but morning is a time for QUIET. Morning is a time for contemplation, and gathering yourself to face the hazards of the day ahead. For me, it's a time to feed my cats, clean up the mess, and attempt to pull myself together (a large task all by itself. My job requires me to be and do all the things that do not come naturally to me: to be social, to be supportive, to be calm, to have all the answers, and somehow, someway, to understand what the hell people are babbling at me about. All of these things are things that cause me enormous levels of anxiety. Especially the social part. Unless I know someone and am familiar with their voice and speech patterns I never understand what people are saying to me the first time out. I'm lucky if I only have to ask them to repeat themselves once).

Morning mowing is just plain Unnatural! It goes against all the basic laws of the Universe, much like working-class Republicans. Come to think of it, my neighbors probably are working class Republicans. That would explain a lot.

[Aside on a different, but related, subject: I just opened the living room window, and here coming down the sidewalk is another Unfavorite Neighbor, Bull Dyke and Ding-a-Ling Dawg. She obviously has her own place around here somewhere, but she persists in putting a bell around her little Yappy Dog's neck and walking him back and forth in front of my house, encouraging him to poop on my lawn. Ding ding ding! Ding ding Ding! Lady -- put him on a run and let him ding and poop in YOUR yard, please!]

-- Freder.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Ooo-ooo-ooo! I wanna be Just Like You!"

Trapped at the register from 8:00 to 2:00, most of that time alone, without a break of any kind; and just as I was about to take my first bite of lunch they called me back. When I finally returned to my own desk and started going through the book catalogs, I literally could not keep awake.

To be fair, the cause of this sleepishness was as much about boredom at what Macmillan and its various imprints were offering me as it was about my tiredness. Really, across the board, the Winter frontlists have been unexciting at best. Even Penguin, which usually has some interesting titles, had a dreary array of "sleepers" -- I mean that in the literal sense -- on offer.

Nothing succeeds like excess, so when one publisher tries something new and has a hit out of it, all of the other publishers (and even the original publisher) fall all over each other getting things onto the market that look, sound and read just like the thing that was the original big hit. J.K. Rowling has a lot to answer for, in one sense, for the outpouring of young sorcerers that gushed onto the marketplace in the wake of Harry Potter. There's even a professor employed at my college, a well-known figure who has appeared on Oprah, who hopped on the bandwagon last year with a very Harry Potterish series of her own. The college being what it is, we're all logrolling like crazy, me included . . . but you'd have to hold a loaded gun to my head to get me to read the thing, and depending on my mood at the time I might just tell you to pull the damn trigger.

The same thing happened with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Jay Kinney sells a bazillion copies of his first two books, and now suddenly the Middle Reader catalogs are overflowing with knock-offs: The Dork Diaries and Ellie McDoodle to name just two. Alums of this institution are not slouching in this department, either. the author of the Big Nate series matriculated here.

It's no different in adult publishing. Roughly ninety percent of the sales pitches I read and listen to either begin or end with the stock phrase: "It's [Insert Bestselling Book Title Here] meets [Insert Bestselling Book Title Here]!!!"

"The Help meets Salem's Lot in a genre-bending bid to cash in on two completely different markets!"

Sometimes they don't bother with individual books, but just use author names instead.

"Fannie Flagg meets Stieg Larsson!"

"V.C. Andrews meets Jan Karon!"

"Patricia Cornwell meets Margaret Wise Brown!" (That's a Double Header joke. Can you guess why?)

A different way of marketing "same as" material is to say, "Fans of [insert Author or Book Title Here] will LOVE this complete rip-off!"

The one I'm looking at right now in the Macmillan catalogue is, "For fans of How to Train Your Dragon comes a fantastic new series about a boy and his dragon."

First: Are there any fans of How to Train Your Dragon? Second, this idea is so old that it pre-dates How to Drain, ehm, I mean Train, by about a hundred years. When it comes to dragons, I get off the train at My Father's Dragon and its two sequels by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

Meanwhile, I have to note that no one is pitching books as being "for fans of William Faulkner" -- or Margaret Atwood or Kurt Vonnegut for that matter. Honestly, I'm not sure that Faulkner would be able to get his books into print if he was starting out today. He's not "just like" anything else.

Here are some Hot Book Trends that I'm sick to death of.

1) Zombies. "Take my zombie -- PLEASE!" It's a vile movie genre that's been way overdone, and it's rapidly becoming a vile book genre that's been way overdone.

2) Metrosexual, kissable vampires. Somebody please explain to the breathless, heart-pounding Romantic Dolts that a Vampire is a CORPSE. I don't know about you, but I ain't kissing any corpses! In a related area -- female Vampire Hunters, Laurel Hamilton et al. I literally can't GIVE AWAY books by Hamilton and Charlene Harris. Everyone is sick of this shit. Why don't the publishers stop it?

3) Anything with Nicholas Sparks's name on it. The man should have his typing fingers amputated.

4) Anything that's "for readers of Nicholas Sparks."

5) Anything written for an adult audience that's narrated by a dog or "co-authored" by a cat. The Art of Racing in the Rain? Get behind me, Satan!

6) Anything by egomaniacal "comedians" like Chelsea Handler or Sarah Silverman or Tina Fey. Y'know what, guys? Dorothy Parker created the genre decades and decades ago, Fran Lebowitz refined it, and Parker and Lebowitz have the additional virtue of actually being funny. Handler is just a Dick, Silverman is just Wet, and Fey -- isn't much more than a face, really.

7) Anything with the title: "The [Insert Perceived Romantic Occupation Here]'s Wife." Or Daughter.

I could go on at length, but I'll end with this pet peeve: James Patterson has about two hundred and thirty seven books published every month under his name. He hasn't written ANY of them in years. I have to stock the bloody godawful things because every single one of them goes on the bestseller list for about five minutes. Then it's gone, and I'm stuck with literally a shelf full of ghost-written garbage with this clown's name on it.

No more. I'm going on strike. James Patterson, Clive Cussler, Jane Greene and several other popular no-talents are hereby banned from my store.

'Course, Garrison Keillor, Robertson Davies, Tom Sharpe and Alasdair Gray don't sell either, but I like them. We can but put the good stuff in front of the zombies and hope that they will take notice.

-- Freder.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Funky Flashman

I've been curious about George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels for some time. For one thing, my friend J___ is a big fan, and she has wonderful taste in books.  But I always end up thinking, "Do I really want to spend so much time in the company of such an insufferable cad?" and I end up passing.

That curiosity has also extended to the movie version of Fraser's second Flashman novel, Royal Flash, which is where I learned about the character in the first place. I'm a fan of 'seventies cinema -- that was My Time --  and to a lesser extent of Richard Lester, so this week I decided to take a flyer. This would be my tentative sticking of a toe into Fraser's waters.

With a script by Fraser himself I figured it would be faithful, and with Lester at the helm I figured it would be fun. I was largely right on both counts; but even if Fraser wasn't there in the extra features admitting that he softened old Flashy up a bit for the screen, I would have guessed as much. The Harry Flashman in this movie has a lot of bad qualities, but he's more put-upon here than putting upon. And it seems to me that something else is missing as well: the sense of real, not imagined, history. On paper, Fraser is able to place real historical events alongside the fiction. In this movie, there's nothing to indicate, if you didn't already know it, that several of the characters are Real Historical Figures.

I confess that I didn't know it about Lola Montez, and was tickled to learn after the show that her basic story depicted here is a true one, although much and cleverly augmented.

The movie has a terrific cast including Malcolm McDowell as Flashman, Oliver Reed (a personal favorite of mine, although don't ask me ever to watch him in Ken Russell's The Devils -- I won't do it!) as Bismark, Alan Bates and a parade of the cream of British Character Acting Aristocracy, including Hugh Griffith, Alistair Sim (the best screen Scrooge ever), Lionel Jeffries, Michael Holdern and even Arthur Brough -- Mister Grainger from Are You Being Served? -- who has one really memorable line as King Leopold.

So, you know it's well-acted. The other big, big thing Royal Flash has going for it is Great Scenery: the locations are absolutely stunning, and shot beautifully by Geoffrey Unsworth.

As directed by Lester, the picture is. . . vigorous. There's a lot of womanizing and a lot of comedic swordplay (watch Bates make a sandwich during one smashing bout) and a lot of double and triple dealing. The design is delightful and effective.

Royal Flash is good fun, but not a classic. I can't help but feel that it might have been better with just a bit of a sharper edge. The very good early scene with McDowell goading Reed into a losing boxing match is what I wish the rest of the picture was like. Still, it's good to see Lester at the top of his game, before he got sucked into the Superman franchise and gave us the largely dreadful number three.

I don't normally do commentaries, but for McDowell I made a partial exception. It brought a grin to my face to learn that Oliver Reed was every bit as much of a loose cannon as the rumors suggest. That grin was wiped away when McDowell, asked by the interviewer if he and Reed became friends during the filming, replies bluntly: "Oh, no, I didn't want to spend any time with him at all. He was such a drinker."

Did this sell me on trying the Flashman books? Well. . . sort of. I ordered a couple of them for the store and will take a closer look when they arrive.

-- Freder.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Goodbye Look: Words of Wisdom from a Hardboiled Writer

Raymond Chandler is still my favorite of the hardboiled writers, and Hammett, of course, practically invented the genre, but for my money the most thoughtful and considered practitioner of the genre is Kenneth Millar, who wrote under the name Ross MacDonald. He's also the most autobiographical hardboiled novelist ever, turning deep swaths of his own experience into conflict for his characters.

I've been working my way through his volume of casual memoirs, but it's slow going -- not because it's dull, but because every few pages I come across something that hits home for me, and my mind wanders off down that half-guided tangent. Today I came across a passage that struck me as so correct and universal in its application that I have to share it here.

In a piece called "In the First Person," he writes:

A novelist has the ability to go back, clear to the very beginnings of his life, his troubles, his sorrows and convert them into something that will be pleasing and satisfying to him, and meaningful to other people. I can take a three-year-old's loss of his father, which was nothing but an undiluted sorrow at the time, and make a whole book out of it. Thousands of people will read and understand and use it to explain, in an imaginative sense, some of their own trouble. We all suffer terrible losses, we all go through the troubles of life. The purpose of art is to put them in a context so we can see not just the troubles but the meaning of them, where they came from and where they lead. It isn't sorrow and trouble we can't stand, but meaningless sorrow, trouble that leads nowhere. A novel helps us all, including the writer himself, make sense of our lives.

. . .

The writer lives life more fully, more intensely and more sensitively than other people. But he does it through a screen or a glass and as you become older in writing, you find that the best things and the worst things that happen to you are on paper. I suppose that is what art is all about. It's a transfer of life, from living and breathing, to some other medium where it can be seen more steadily, and at the same time with feeling but without the intense pain, without the numbing, blinding and terrifying pain that life gives you. It enables you and your readers to pass through experiences which you could hardly survive in life, but which in fiction can leave you not only unhurt, but even enhanced with more understanding of what life is. 

I was struck so powerfully by those two paragraphs that I had to stop reading then and there. I wanted to leap up and start pacing around (pacing is actually how I write. Like Mr. Earbrass in Edward Gorey's The Unstrung Harp, I belong to the "straying, not sedentary" type of writer and am rarely to be found at the keyboard unless I am actually typing something).

But Patches was sleeping contentedly on my lap, and I didn't want to disturb her. All I could do was turn my head and look out through the porch widows at the stand of trees that I am slowly growing attached to, drifting in the breeze.

Suddenly I realized why I'm still not ready to return to work on my novel-in-progress, and the knowledge brought tears and hyperventilation.

The pivotal (not main) title character has just lost his job, his only means of livelihood, and is in the process of losing his sense of self altogether. I'm at the point in the story where it is about to get very much worse. He is about to lose absolutely everything in a tidal wave of chaos that will push him right over the edge.

I can't write that scene now. My own recent tidal wave is still too close in the rear-view mirror. The perspective of distance is required.

The very next thing I read in Mr. Millar's book was the beginning of another piece. It read:

Knowing exactly where he is is as important to a writer as it is to a blind man. To most of us, loss of place is as radical as loss of vision: we seem to be able to see only what we know.

I can feel that I've begin to set down roots in this new universe, but they aren't strong yet. That takes time.

-- Freder.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dawn of the Braindead

The view from my desk,

It's impolitic to type this, and I've kept my typing fingers quiet on the subject until now, but today was Day Four of Book Rush, and they were out in force, wave after wave of them, the Born Yesterdays and the Never Had A Clues and the Think I Know Much More Than I Actually Do's.

Yes, it's true: most college students really do have all the brains of a tapeworm.

I can cut the freshmen some slack. They're on their own, probably for the first time, probably feeling overwhelmed. I can sympathize. But the upperclassmen -- they have no excuse! They've done this before.

The most common question I get asked, roughly on the order of a couple hundred times a day during book rush, is "Can I buy my books down here or do I have to go upstairs?" Even the parents sometimes ask that one.

I want to know what it is about my workspace that reminds them even vaguely of a cashier's station. Could it be the chest-high wall surrounding me that so discourages that kind of activity? Could it be the total absence of those cheery cash register sounds? Could it be the barricade of notebooks currently stacked in front of the space, making it virtually impossible for anyone to get close enough to conduct a transaction?

The ones I like the best are the ones who don't even ask. They just come up here and stare at me expectantly, then cautiously raise their books and try to hand them over.

Hmm. Yes, I see you have books. Pretty ones. Nice.

I like to let them stew a little bit before I ask, "Can I help you?"

They have to go upstairs anyway to get out of here, so what's the big deal?

Beside me here is the Emergency Exit. It's got two Big Red Signs right at eye level that read, "EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY -- ALARM WILL SOUND." Just in case, there are two more signs just above the handbar that say the same thing in big red letters. Yet on the first day of Book Rush, no less than three  students and one adult went barreling through that door, yes, setting off the alarm. It is a really loud and annoying alarm by the way. In order to make it stop I have to walk around the front of the booth, stand directly under that noise, and key it off. Did I mention that it gets louder and louder the longer it screams?

And someone did it again today. I was right in the middle of going through a pre-order box with another student. I'm afraid they knew that I was pissed. It's kind of hard to hide in the initial wake of jumping right out of your skin.

My question is, "If you can't read, what the hell are you doing in college?"

There's also the phenomenon, not limited to the students, of turning easy, simple questions into a novel by Dostoyevsky. "Once upon a time there was this and that and the other thing and my grandmother's second cousin on her father's side recommended a book to me, it's a red book with spots and it's about an inch think, I don't know what it's about or what the title is or who the author is, but it's for some class, I don't know the course number." All bookstore people are familiar with this. The challenge is to filter out the extraneous and figure out what the person is really asking for. This can be made extra-difficult when they speak in a halting, roundabout way, or if they speak in a monotone, or in a whisper, or as if they have a mouthful of marbles. In short, the way most students speak.

My favorite Idiotic Question so far this semester is: "I bought this book at Amazon but it hasn't arrived yet. Is there any way I can just borrow this one for two weeks?"

It wins for being a Double Play: not only is it a Very Deeply Idiotic Question Indeed, but it shows that the student really was raised in a barn and has no moral compass whatever.

This morning another student made a point of bragging out loud that she got a lot of her books "for cheap on Amazon."

Our textbook program is structured to break even, not to make a profit. I wish that we could put a sign up to that effect, broadcast it to the students. The bookstore is not ripping you off. There's no doubt that textbooks are a Racket, but it's the publishers and wholesalers behind it, not us. Amazon is selling the books at a lower price than we have to pay for them. Who knows how they make a profit?

The students stand on the stairway and have conversations, blocking the way for people who need to get through.

They walk sloooowwwly  two and three abreast, blocking the halls. 

The personal hygiene of many of them is definitely in question.  It's hard to answer student questions when you're holding your breath.

We bore ourselves silly making the same speeches over and over, trying to drill into their thick heads, "Keep your receipt! You can't return anything without your receipt!" And yet today, just four days in, a student came up to me and said: "I need to return my books and I don't have my receipt."

Enjoy the books, Chumley.

They don't moan or drool or eat human flesh, but sometimes it seems as if they are intent on devouring one's Immortal Soul.

Like today.

Go forth, students! Go forth and PLEASE don't multiply.

-- Freder.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Holes. . . and a Discovery

I couldn't understand why the palm of my right hand hurt so much yesterday. It was over-all ouchie, but just at the base of my thumb it was particularly painful and red. I wondered about it all day. Then, around dinnertime, the coin finally dropped: on Saturday I dug two hundred and sixty holes in my lawn with a hand trowel. DUH! You think?

I'm a slow thinker. When rapid decisions are called for, I usually just freeze. If they got me on Hell's Kitchen, I'd probably just stand there with a spatula in my hand looking bewildered and repeating to myself, over and over again, "Oh my god! Oh my god!"

"Wake up!" Chef Ramsay would shout.  "What the **** are you doing?!"

"Yes, Chef! Sorry, Chef! Oh my god! Oh my god!"

Anyway. Two hundred and sixty holes exactly. I counted them.

A Hole is to Dig. I'm sure that my neighbors thought I was crazy, especially when I started in digging holes along the strip of grass beside the road. But I was planting daffodil bulbs. My father left a plastic bucket full of them on my doorstep. It's more than likely that some won't make it, but with any luck my yard will be dotted with daffodils next spring.

Most people plant daffodils in garden beds. But out at the old house we had a section of the back yard that was full of them every spring. My mother used to say that planting daffodils in that section of lawn was the best thing my father ever did.

I'm taking the idea one step further. I'm going to have daffodils all around my house. Don't know how I'll mow the lawn, but I'll figure that out when the time comes.

By the time I was done, having cut the grass just prior to the planting, I was so shagged out that I flopped on the porch and just evaporated. My shoulders were complaining bitterly at my treatment of them. My heart was beating so hard that I could feel it pounding against the back of the couch. But, yeah, it was a good kind of tired.

Today we've had two periods of torrential rain, so my daffodils are getting a good soaking.

Next, the hosta has to come out, to make way for hydrangeas. I don't think that's going to happen right away!


Yesterday I bought a combination printer and scanner. I wasn't planning on doing it. It was just there, with a sign overhead that said $49. I couldn't believe they were serious. Ah, but t probably doesn't work with a Mac, I tthought. Checked the box. Yes, it does! It's been so long since I was able to print or scan anything at home; even so, I stood there and thought about it for several minutes. I told you; I'm a slow thinker.

Later in the evening, printer / scanner ensconced and software installed, I cast around for something to test the scanning bit with. I finally settled on the black and white portrait of Mom that's been sitting in my kitchen here ever since I moved in. It was taken by her sister-in-law, my Aunt Sharron, maybe twenty-plus years ago, and is hands down the best portrait of her that I have.

In the process of taking it out of the frame, I found three more photos concealed underneath it. Photos that I had no memory of ever seeing before. All of them terrific. In one of them, she's seated on a wooden rocking horse with her brother, my Uncle John, standing beside her.

But my absolute favorite of the lot is the one that's heading up this post. Maybe it's that she's standing inside the "hoosegow" that's out in my back yard right now. Maybe it's because I've come to think of the structure as "my TARDIS," and this makes me feel as if she's just popping off for a bit, out for another lark in time and space, you know it's bigger in here than it is on the outside, possibility, possibility, possibility, see you later.

Maybe it's because she looks happier than I ever saw her, ever, in the last five years of her life.

I'm not putting it back behind the other pictures. This one deserves a frame of its own.

-- Freder.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

By Any Other Name

I try to be brutally honest in most things here on the blog; but sometimes (like this morning) it seems as though I'm writing around the point, rather than getting to it. Not being deliberately misleading. Just not getting it.

There's something that I'm missing.

Does anyone else ever feel this way? As if the monster is standing right behind you, but no matter every which way you turn, you can't manage to see it?

Just like a movie, really. The audience can see the monster, but the character can't -- until it's too late.


At work on a Sunday. Seems pointless, really. Perhaps things will pick up as the day rolls on, perhaps the upperclassmen will start to return. Even so, it seems silly to be here at eight bloody o'clock in the morning when the campus is deader than Rock Hudson.


Ah, now. Speaking of Death. Although I sometimes personalize him (or her, depending on my mood), I dislike euphemisms for death, especially since my mother's.

"Passed Away" isn't the worst; the "away" part at least acknowledges the truth. But "Passed" or "Passing" to me smacks of Magical Thinking -- as though your loved one isn't gone. . . just, you know, moved sideways into another dimension.

To say that they are "with God now." That's the worst. Surely, if you are Of The Faith. you have to believe that all of us are with God, all of the time, all of our lives. What then is the purpose of this phrase? Does anyone really believe that our dearly departed are gleefully cavorting on the playground in the clouds with the Bearded Old Man watching over them like a benevolent parent? Does anyone really believe that our dead are busily having tea parties with Jesus in the stratosphere?

"Called Home." What does that mean? My mother's home was here with me. She wasn't called. She was taken.

"Crossed Over."  The Styx aside, death isn't a river that one ferries across, to emerge on the other side, Just the Same, only in a Different Place.

I have a hard time saying "dead" and "died," too, and have to force myself to type it, as when I had to write about my Uncle Orly earlier this week.

The word that I feel, the word that I know, is "Gone." It's the only honest word, the only word that expresses the emptiness. We like to imagine that our loved ones are "in a better place," but the reality is that they aren't where we want them to be: here, with us. How can death be a better place when what it means is the absence of life?

At their worst, euphemisms for death can even be used to justify the taking of life. I've been feeling well alone, in this past decade, with my belief that George Bush did a terrible thing when he invaded Iraq, and that President Obama has been wrong not to bring a swift end to it. Two wrongs don't make a right. All life is sacred. It's galling to know that the same people who want to outlaw abortion are perfectly OK with killing as many Muslims as possible. When Jimmy Carter declared with a smile that "Today, we are at peace," I was one of the ones who snickered -- because I believed that it was finally and for all time evident to the plainest idiot that War is never the answer. Now look at us. Carter's peace was a bigger accomplishment than I believed.

I've said good-bye so many times that it's become monotonous, a litany of goodbyes, like a string of Hail Marys assigned in penance: "Say a thousand goodbyes and call me in the morning."

Say a million goodbyes.

Say ten million goodbyes.

Keep on saying goodbye. . . until it's your turn.

In my case, there isn't going to be anyone left here to miss me. That's probably for the best. I'd hate to be responsible for anyone feeling the kind of sadness and loss that I feel on a daily basis.

-- Freder.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Don't Go Back There

Television on my computer? Now that I've tried it, I'm not a big fan. It is quite the Brave New World, though, to discover that your computer really is a Time Machine.

The first TV that I watched full screen on my computer was Doctor Who. I was just discovering Stephen Moffat's re-imagining of the show, wanted to see the episodes that he wrote for the David Tennant years, but didn't like Russell Davies' Who well enough to pay fifty to seventy-five dollars for the full seasons. At a buck ninety nine an episode, I was willing to make an exception to the rule of "No telly on the iMac."

These five or six episodes really cemented my enthusiasm for Moffat's Who, but the viewing experience is nowhere near as good as that of watching a DVD on a high-def set. The resolution is notably lower, there are the glitches caused by dreaded vagaries of the interwebs -- and you can't share it, unless you allow your friends to log in as you. So taken was I with Matt Smith's debut on Who that I sat my father and his wife down in front of the telly and said, "Just watch." I'd have a hard time plunking folks down here in my study.

Cutting to the chase, last night I made two more exceptions. My friend DP has been singing the praises of Hulu, so I checked out the list of shows that they host. What to my wondering eyes should appear but Nanny and The Professor.

Watershed moment! Yes, really. Stop that snickering.

As a seven or eight year old kid I loved Nanny and the Professor, and adored Juliet Mills with the pure soul burning adoration that's only possible in childhood (actually both of the Mills sisters have been objects of my ardent puppy love at one time or another. Haley several times). Nanny and the Professor  is not now, nor has ever been available on DVD or VHS. I made that excited "sucking in of breath" sound that children used to make when they heard the ice cream truck coming down the street. I thought, "Nanny and the Professor! I'm in!!"

Alas, you really can't go back. While Ms. Mills remains as puppy-lovable as ever (though I see more calculation in her performance than I did when I was eight years old), and Richard Long brings everything he's got to the table to sell the thing, Nanny and the Professor is really just an awful, terrible, no good, very bad show. Looking at it with adult eyes, I have to wonder how it stayed on the air for two seasons! Or how the pilot episode ever sold in the first place!

I was never deluded that it was anything other than a down-market Mary Poppins, but it never seemed so very down in that market back in the day. The adult cast all do what they can, but the writing is lowest-common-denominator, the direction hideous, and those children -- egad! All of their dialogue is overdubbed, and many of their scenes look like they were cobbled together from the only useable takes lifted from other, differently planned scenes.

But the thing that really annoyed me was the little musical trill, the cue that they use every time Juliet Mills does something "magical."

She guesses the children's names correctly.


She talks to the dog.


She knows that someone is at the door.


It's the producer's way of saying "GET it?" {nudge, nudge, trill.} "GET it? Nanny is MAGICAL, see! SEE? Did you GET that she just did something MAGICAL?"

Just how dumb did they think the audience was?

Oh my, what a crashing disappointment. Until last night I would have been first in line to buy any DVD release of this show. Now that I've ridden the Wayback Machine across the televisual timestream, any DVD release of this is going to have me running in the opposite direction. Not even prurient thoughts about Juliet Mills would make it worthwhile. Yeesh, even H.R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville have aged better than Nanny.

There's something uniquely disappointing in discovering that as a child you had all the taste and standards of a toadstool. It makes me wary about trying to "rediscover" some of my other televisual favorites from that era, stuff like The New Adventures of Tom and Huck (I had such a crush on the girl who played Becky Thatcher, plus the body of the show was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, plus Injun Joe was played by Ted Cassidy, Lurch from The Addams Family -- what, I say what was not for an eight year old to like?). Stuff like Mister Terrific, and Captain Nice. Stuff like Here Come the Double Deckers and The Partridge Family.

Being the glutton for punishment that I am, once Nanny had ended I cast around Hulu for some more lousy TV. And I found it.

I was vaguely aware that someone had made a cable series out of the Swamp Thing movies, and was curious enough about it to consider, a time or two, buying the DVD. Oh my! Thank goodness that never happened!

The original Swamp Thing comics are pretty good, and this looked to be hewing closer to the source material than the movies. Also, the first Swamp Thing movie is about as good as a really tacky, ugly, bad movie can be. Hulu has the series as part of their line-up. I had the time. Let's check it out!

I knew that I was in trouble from the first shot, which showed a dwarf tied upside down onto a pole in the middle of the swamp. It got worse. Why would you shoot a kid boating through the swamp from inside the bottom of the boat, with nothing but a cloudless sky for a background? Obviously, because your budget is so low that you're probably shooting the scene in a wading pool.

The dialogue! Oh my god! Dialogue is supposed to accomplish certain purposes, and this went in the opposite direction. And the way it's delivered by the "actors"! There's not a natural intonation anywhere within hearing. Rarely have I seen TV this bad, and it's not even good-bad. The writer, director, producer, cast and crew must all have been either drunk or on drugs when they made this lame-ass excuse for a TV show. The production values are so slight that the original Swamp Thing movie looks like Star Wars by comparison -- and it was strictly a poverty-row production.

I thank Hulu for saving me money, but even though it hadn't cost me a penny, I still felt cheated. Their line-up includes several other shows that I've long been curious about. . . but tonight, I'm feeling my curiosity draining away as surely as if someone had pulled the plug in my low-budget wading pool.

-- Freder.
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