Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Failure to Launch






















I was hoping by now to be able to write about Hugo, Martin Scorcese's new film from Brian Selznick's wonderful book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. This is a bit of a milestone for me: I've never seen a Scorcese picture before. It's for the same reason that I'll never watch The Godfather films or Apocalypse Now: Scorcese's work is much too dark, violent and intense for me. When Gangs of New York came out, I watched the trailer and thought that it had a really wonderful look. Then I saw the actors carrying around meat cleavers and knew that they weren't going to be used on a roast leg of lamb. No, thank you, Mr. Scorcese. I know that his films are of a high standard and are not exploitative -- but I also know my limits.

Now, for the first time in his life, he's made a film that I not only can sit through but am eagerly looking forward to -- and the stupid local cineplex, which usually is all over any 3-D release, isn't putting it on the schedule. It's not even coming in next week.

Mind you, they have Happy Feet II running on two screens in both 3-D and flat versions. Wasn't one Happy Feet movie bad enough? They have the latest Adam Sandler stink bomb (who goes to his movies, anyway?). They have Arthur Christmas, whatever that is. They have Disney's The Muppets.

I believe they will be serving Ben & Jerry's in hell before I'll sit through any of that rubbish. And if these choices, versus bringing in Hugo, accurately reflect what the average person wants to attend, then Joe and Jane Average have a lot to answer for.

I know that Disney's The Muppets is getting good press, but, former muppet fan that I am, I chalk that up to logrolling and ignorance. There's a reason why it's called Disney's The Muppets and not Jim Henson's The Muppets. No one from the Jim Henson Company was involved in the making of this picture! Even Frank Oz has called it quits. Given the tripe that Brian Henson has turned out in his father's name since the man's death, perhaps this is a good thing (The Muppet Wizard of Oz, anyone?). But two wrongs don't make a right,  and this is a "muppet" movie made out of one hundred percent artificial ingredients.

According to the Disney Company, nothing ever has to die, because nothing was ever really alive to start with.

But the Muppets were alive. They died with their creator, and should be allowed to rest in peace.

Back to Hugo. All I can tell you is that the book it's based upon is a unique combination of words and pictures -- not so much a graphic novel as a novel with purely cinematic sequences embedded in the tale. This approach probably screamed "make me into a movie" to a certain class of people. But to me the entire point lay in that it was printed on paper and bound between two covers. Here is someone who managed to get a genuinely cinematic experience into a book. That the early days of cinema factored into the story only made it that much more appropriate. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is so much a vision of its author that I balked a bit when I learned that it was being filmed.

Time will tell if I ever get a chance to see Hugo in a movie theater, where I imagine it truly needs to be seen. All I can say for now is, I'm awfully glad that Steven Spielberg didn't his damn dirty hands on it. (I'm tempted to ask Mr. Spielberg, in the unlikely event that our paths ever cross, what it feels like to Rape Tintin.)

In haste,

-- Freder.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Destination Unknown



















Last night, somewhat out of desperation, I took a hint from an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and threw a pork chop onto a big ol' bun. It's one of those things that, once you've seen it done, you can't understand why you never thought of it before.

It's good, people.

You need a big bun to soak in the juices and handle the volume. And -- I don't know the proper terminology here -- you can't have the typical kind of pork chop with the bone going down the middle. You've got to have the cut that has the bone going around the edge. Cook up your pork chop any way you like, put in in the bun, and pig out. It's a meal all by itself.

I grilled mine on my Farberware indoor grill. Good luck finding this absolutely essential kitchen item anywhere today, the company hasn't manufactured it in years. George Foreman doesn't have anything that comes close!

Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay don't need me to do their PR for them, but I know that my mother would have enjoyed their shows, and I regret not getting cable or satellite television while she was alive. Mom deprived herself of very little in the way of "things that she enjoyed," but especially in her later years some televisual seasoning would have been welcome. We were strictly a free-over-the-air antenna TV household, and for some reason we had it in our heads that it was an either / or proposition, that getting cable would cause us to lose the local stations that she depended on.

In fact, my television has about a hundred and eighty-seven connection ports. I currently have three devices hooked up to it and switch back and forth with ease. If I wanted to add an over-the-air antenna, the hardest part would be climbing up onto the roof. (No, maybe the hardest part would be getting down. Something tells me I'd be clinging to the chimney for dear life, sweating and screaming for someone to call the fire department.)

It's not that DirectTV or cable are any better than broadcast TV. Out of a bazillion channels, a veritable tsunami of available programing, sensory overload waiting to happen in nearly any genre you can imagine, the vast majority of it is unwatchable crap. Can you say Ghost Adventures? They build you up for twenty minutes and then spend the rest of the show stumbling around in the dark going "Did you hear that?" "Did you see that?" Uhm, no. There are some nights nights when I can't find a thing to watch. Even TCM lets me down on a regular basis (last night they ran Doctor Zhivago; even if I didn't own the movie on DVD, at something like nine and a half hours long, that's not a movie, it's a commitment.)

But I hate to run across things anywhere that I know Mom would have liked. It always makes me feel sad and guilty, as if I could have done more while she was alive.

Bourdain's No Reservations is a show that I can definitely see her sitting through a marathon for -- who wouldn't enjoy galavanting around the globe with such an experienced guide, even if he does have an attitude problem? Adam Richman's Man Vs. Food is another. It's nice to learn that there are still some regional styles of cooking that survive in the world of Tasti-Freeze and Wimpy Burgers that Peter Cook's Bedazzled Devil has so successfully created for us. I'm not crazy about the challenges, which fall into the category of grotesque, but up to that point Richman's show is pure Food Porn. And of course there's the Gordon Ramsay campaign for Total Global Domination And The Advancement and Promotion of Gordon Ramsay, of which only The F Word leaves me cold. It doesn't know what it wants to be; it has no shape. It's Ramsay's Bridge Too Far.

I dunno where I'm going with this. It all started with a pork chop on a bun. Mom would have liked that, too.

-- Freder.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

An Uphill Climb



















There's a reason why The Music Box is one of Laurel & Hardy's best-remembered films: it's at the very top of their Hoover, I mean oeuvre, thirty minutes of sustained, perfectly timed comedy. . . not just one of the great short comedy films of all time, but a great film, period.

More than that, I see in it a great metaphor for the Life We Live. It's not just about two guys delivering a piano. That impossibly long staircase, their burden, and all the frustrations and setbacks that they encounter -- that is True to Life, folks, and by giving us such a clear vision of Life's Difficulties, and then making us laugh at it, and laugh uproariously (well, I still have a bit of a cough, so I could only laugh until I started hacking my lungs up), the boys are doing something really special and astonishing.

There's a reason why the steps are a popular tourist stop to this day. I think people "get" it in a big way. Inanimate objects were always Laurel & Hardy's enemies, and this stairway is almost a character by itself, a malevolent entity determined to do them in -- just as they are determined to conquer it, no matter what it takes.

I won't belabor the point, and I really don't have anything else to say about the picture that hasn't been said before, by better writers. Just know that if you see only one Laurel and Hardy picture in your lifetime (and I honestly can't imagine a bleaker life if that's the case), make it The Music Box. Oh, and if you don't like this? Then you can't be my friend.

I'll leave it with a bit of trivia: Did you know that Billy Gilbert, the formidable gent in the photo above, frequent opponent of Stan and Babe, was also the voice of Sneezy The Dwarf in Snow White? It was his then-famous radio "sneeze routine" that got him the job.

*

P.S.: Thanksgiving was accomplished in Good Spirits. It was the right choice for me to face it alone.

-- Freder.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Thanksgiving Post




















I knew that there would be tears today and I wasn't wrong about that (note to self: don't play "Into the West" by Annie Lennox again). Weren't the first, won't be the last. But today I'm going to do That Holiday Thing and count my blessings.

First and foremost, I am thankful that I don't have in front of me what I had in front of me last year at this time. We are well and truly ensconced in our new home, and if I still haven't figured out what to do with the rest of my life, at least I have solid footing from which to plan the launch.

I'm thankful to the people who helped make this happen, especially my father and his wife, my lawyer Joann and her assistant Sue. Without Joann and Sue, and their compassion (never pressure), I don't know what I would have done in the past year and a half.

I'm thankful that my sister wasn't the executor of the estate!

I'm thankful that I still have Patches, Whitey, Pandy Bear, Honey, and, outdoors, Tiger Whitestockings. They mean more to me now than ever before. I don't know that I'd be alive without them in the picture. This year has wrought big changes in their lives and their behaviours, too. Patches is no longer afraid to come upstairs to my bedroom and sleep with me. Honey is willing to share. Pandy Bear isn't "marking" the house. Much.

I'm thankful to have Honey sitting on my lap as I write this, even if it makes it much harder to type,

I'm thankful to my employers and co-workers for keeping me on during what was really not a very productive year. I'm thankful to be coming out of the fully shell-shocked stage at long last, and to be passing into the stage of true mourning. It's progress.

I'm actually thankful to be out of the old house, with all its problems and associations. There, it was raining indoors in more ways than one. There, winters were so isolated that we felt as if we were living on the moon. If I feel as if I have lost much in the way of history, I have lost much more in the way of troubles, concerns, difficulties and sadness.

I'm thankful to be paying down half of my home mortgage next week, and thankful too that there will be enough left over from the estate to provide some liquidity in case of emergencies. After all, life is one big emergency waiting to happen. Lots of people don't have anything to fall back on, and I am one fortunate guy in that regard.

I'm thankful for Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Doctor Who, Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, for Pee Wee Herman and Turner Classic Movies and all the rest of the high and low filmic and theatrical distractions that have not just entertained me, but helped pull me out of my despair and even sometimes edified me or filled me with joy. The arts have always been That Which Makes Life Worth Living for me. They have been working overtime this year!

I'm thankful to everyone who has followed, perused and commented here at this blog. This has been the best therapy ever. Without it, and you, I would have had nowhere and no one to turn to. For lots of reasons, I can't actually talk about many of these things. Without this, they would go unexpressed and fester and get moldier and more corrupted by the day. So thank you all for putting up with this.

Most of all, above all else, I'm thankful to have memories of happier Thanksgivings. I'm thankful to my mother and my grandparents on both sides, all wonderful people whom I miss dreadfully on this day, for Having Been.

See, there come the tears again.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Dreaded Feast(s)


















Ah, here it comes, the Traditional Season of Heartache and Suicide, and this year I am electing to spend it alone. It's nice that I actually had two invitations to Thanksgiving Dinner, but I turned them both down. It's time for me to reclaim Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We all know that the winter holidays are about spending time with your Family, and much as I like the people who invited me, they aren't my family and never will be. Attending their personal family gatherings feels all wrong. Part Home Invasion and part Parody. Stranger in a Strange Land. Anyone would feel that way, but with my minimal social skills it feels all the more uncomfortable.

So this year, I am taking the Dreaded Feasts by their horns. Gonna wrestle 'em to the ground. It will be a true holiday in that I will be under no pressure to be somewhere or get something done, and no beating myself up for laziness. I will make myself three nice meals, make sure that Patches, Honey, Whitey and Pandy Bear have some extra treats, raise a glass in my mother's memory, call my father out in Arizona, and spend the day with all that remains of my real, slowly dwindling family.

-- Freder.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Doctor asks Pointed Questions. . .























She said, "Are you married?"

"No," I said.

"Do you have children?"

"No," I said.

"Do you have a Significant Other?"

I thought, Why are you doing this to me?

"No," I said.

"Why do you think that is?"

Is it a requirement of life? Am I breaking a law? Am I deficient, an Underling, because I am alone?

I thought, Bitch.

Pause. A beat.

I thought of all of my ex-girlfriends, and how the relationships all ended the same way, with them dumping me because I could not be, no matter how hard I tried, the person that they wanted. I tried so hard. It never made any difference. I can't read minds. I Don't. . . Understand. . .  PEOPLE. I can NOT Play the Game of "Guess Why I am Angry at You Today." My last relationship lasted just three months. That was, Christ, a decade ago.

I worked so hard to get INTO relationships, and I never walked out of one, not one single one.

I said, looking at the floor, "I'm not very social. Borderline Asperger's."

Silence.

I said, "I don't have a diagnosis or anything. . ."

And she put up her hands and said, "No. . ." in the way that said, You don't need one. I know all about it. It's obvious.

-- Freder.

W.o.W: Wasting your Time, and Making you Like It














What is it about the Harry Potter books that makes them so compulsively readable? With apologies to J.K. Rowling, they aren't particularly well-written, the characters and themes are in no way original.

I think the reason is that Rowling has created a fantasy setting that is both familiar and deeply immersive. When you finish one of the Harry Potter books, you feel as if you've lived it. (Don't get me started about the movies, though -- when you sit through one of those, you feel as if you've been clubbed over the head like a baby seal.)

The same exact thing can be said for Blizzard Entertainment's online role-playng game, World of Warcraft. In the past week-plus, when I would drag myself home from work with barely enough energy to check email and Facebook and then sit here wondering what to do with myself, I confess that Blizzard's recent offer to play World of Warcraft for free (up to level 20) did reel me in.

And now that I've been playing for a while (my main character, a night elf druid, is up to level 10 and can take on the shape of a tiger!) I have to say that Blizzard's offer is pretty much the same thing as if they stood at the edge of a playground and handed out free doses of crack cocaine to the children!

If you even remotely like this sort of thing, World of Warcraft is unbelievably addictive. And I think the reason is the same as for the Harry Potter books: the setting is deep, detailed and immersive.

The world is huge: I've played for hours and explored just a tiny corner of it. The world is gorgeous: Blizzard has always employed the best artists and designers in the business, and the amount of work that has gone into this is impressive. The world is one of great variety: you can create up to ten characters, each one of a different race and class, who exists in a different corner of the world and experiences the game in quite different ways. As much as I've played over the last week and a half, I'm in no danger of wearing out my free trial.

I could do without all the killing, but the world hardly gives you a choice. There is an adrenaline rush when a hideous monster attacks you for no reason at all, and you manage to put it down (or not; I've been killed myself more times than I care to admit. Fortunately, resurrection and redemption are possible here, very much unlike real life). And there's a rush that goes even deeper when you've leveled up a bit, and can go back to those same monsters that kicked sand in your face, and give them a damn good thrashing.

There is also a plot. The game writers cleverly guide you through a series of chapters, during which thin layers of the larger tale come gradually into focus. As you rise and advance in the game, the plot begins to thicken.

Like all habits, it comes with a dark side. The download is humongous, ten gigabytes -- even with a high-speed connection, it took all night. And just as the game will take up a big chunk of your hard drive, it will attempt to take up a big part of your life.

I think Blizzard knew what they were doing when they made this offer: give the punters a sample, then reel them in as junkies!

For my part, now that I am feeling much better, it's time for me to reclaim my life, tear myself away from World of Warcraft, or at least deeply restrict the amount of time I spend there.

Great, just ducky. Like I needed another addiction to cope with.

-- Freder.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fingers Crossed. . .

. . . and no, I would still not say that I am feeling anywhere near as perky as this gent. . .


























They say that a blogger should never post more than once a day, but I've never put much stock in what other people say, and anyhow, I feel somewhat entitled. The posts have been few and far between over the last few weeks. That's because today is the very first "off-day" in something like a month where I actually have the energy to sit up at the computer and type something.

After a brief period of relative wellness following three weeks of feeling as if I'd been hit by a truck, low and behold, that same truck stopped in the road ahead, backed right on up and ran over me again.

At first I thought that I was just being lazy. This added a unique flavor to the illness, because it meant that while I was unable to move or do anything productive, I had the additional pleasure of mentally beating myself up about it.

But by this past Tuesday I was so far depleted that all I could do was phone in sick, drag myself to bed and lie there in my chilly room, sweating like a pig while my thoughts and dreams raced crazily on about nothing at all. There isn't a thermometer in the house, so I can't actually say with authority that it was a fever -- but it was a pretty good imitation of one!

This morning? Fingers crossed, but I as if there's light ahead and I don't see a truck sitting in the road. It was nice to feel that I actually had an appetite again. It was nice to feel some benefits from eating. It was nice to walk around the house and water plants, and to bring in the rest of my yard ornaments for the winter. It was nice to sit here and type something approximately coherent.

I don't owe it all to my new doctor, a woman connected with Inland Hospital here in town, who said, "You are probably coming off of some virus activity -- but we don't have to do anything about that." -- and then promptly turned my visit into another investigation of my alcoholism.

I get tired of these investigations. I'd been totally honest and up-front with her about it, after all it's something that she needs to factor in to any calculations that she makes. But they don't need to lecture me anymore because I've heard it all and I know perfectly well that it's all true. I'm not in denial about the consequences. But my attitude is that I've modified my behaviour so dramatically over what it was fifteen months ago, and for now that is enough of a step for me. If I'm going to  knock it off completely, I'm going to need better reasons.

I am completely sober from morning light until around ten o'clock at night. That's enough sobriety for anyone. It is nice, at that lonely time of night, to feel some weight taken off of my shoulders, even if that's an illusion. After all, I'm not hurting anyone but myself -- and that's the person I care least about.

-- Freder.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lost World. . .



































. . . sounds like I am groping for a metaphor to title one of my personal posts, but no, no, I'm really going to write about The Lost World.

The 1925 silent film made from the book was a long-time Quest for me. Being a fan of Ray Harrihausen and Willis O'Brien and their stop-motion dinosaurs was a big part of that. And really, what's not to like about stop-motion dinosaurs? Even The Valley of Gwangi, far from being Harryhausen's best film (although it contains some of his best work) is good fun to sit through.

Without exception, I find stop-motion dinosaurs to be far more effective than their modern CGI brethren. They have more personality, and despite the occasional herky-jerky quality of some of O'Brien's earliest work, or perhaps because of it, I find them much more convincing. Not even Jurass-has-had-it Park (as Mad magazine called it at the time) can hold a candle to Gwangi.

So, when I finally got my hands on a copy of the '25 Lost World about a decade ago, was I disappointed? Not a bit of it! The stop motion-dinosaurs are a bit primitive, but they have a genuinely eerie quality about them, especially at the end of the picture when what we used to refer to as a brontosaurus sets about demolishing London.

Oh, yeah -- Hollywood was Hollywoodizing even in 1925. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original story, the Challenger expedition brings back a baby pterodactyl with them, only to lose it through a window. But this being The Movies, they had to bring a full-size brontosaurus! Never mind how -- it doesn't have to make sense!

The senior Wallace Beery chews up the screen as Professor Challenger, and the story moves along at a clip, remaining (except for the brontosaurus) as faithful to the book as anyone could expect. And -- oh my! -- in the Ain't Technology Wundafil department, you can watch the full movie online here:

http://www.imdb.com/video/hulu/vi413112345/

The reason I'm typing all this is that I had the chance the other evening to watch the 2001 remake with Bob Hoskins as Professor Challenger, and to my great surprise I actually rather liked it. It's not that the CGI dinosaurs were very good -- they weren't. And the background music -- ye gods! I don't think I've ever heard a more overwrought, overblown score.

But the cast was terrific and the adaptation was quite faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the book. Hoskins makes a smashing Professor Challenger and it's nice to see him playing something out of his usual neck of the woods. There are hordes of familiar faces in the supporting cast -- including the late Peter Falk, that was a surprise! The direction is steady, the story gets told, and we finally get to see the real ending of the book. We're not talking The African Queen here, by a long pinch, but for a low-budget, made-for-TV venture this is above average. The New Zealand locations are stunning as ever, too.

I note that a TV series of The Lost World that lasted about three seasons was made right around the same time. This raises the question of why film and TV producers are so incestuous. Remember the two back-to-back remakes of The Poseidon Adventure that appeared one after the other, on TV and in the cineplex? Remakes are bad enough in principle, but how does something like this even happen? Presumably, there are rights issues. . .

At any rate, the stills from that series look dreadful, so I think I'll be drawing my line in The Lost World's sand right about here.

One last thing, and then we're done here. I never read the book until a few years ago when I was working in the production department of Thorndike Press, the biggest large-print publishing company in the world. Best job ever, bar none, and I don't expect I'll ever have it so good again. Where else could I have gotten paid to read (and typeset a new edition of) The Lost World? I'm quite proud of the work I did on that book, giving the design a subtle vintage look. I still have my copy.

So, for a collection of small reasons, The Lost World and I have a vaguely personal connection. Also, you have to be impressed that the same man who created Sherlock Holmes also single-handedly created a genre that's still being ripped off to this day. Conan Doyle was no stylist, but he certainly knew how to fabricate a High Concept.

-- Freder.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Horse Feathers





















How many years since the last time I watched Horse Feathers, one of my favorite Marx Brothers vehicles? Decades. I'd forgotten so much about it -- and had never understood parts of it. The term "College Widow" -- as applied to the lovely Thelma Todd -- baffled me and sent me to the internet to find a definition. Ah, now I get it!

But I'm afraid the Marx Brothers are to some extent wearing out their welcome with me as I get older. I used to love their anarchic spirit, but lately I've been putting myself in the shoes of their helpless victims and thinking how annoying it would be to have these guys around.

Let me put it another way. In the second half of the movie, when the Brothers are for the most part interacting just with each other and with Miss Todd (and the thug football players) -- I LOVE that stuff. Margaret Dumont works for me, too, although she's not in this picture. But when the boys are perpetrating their madness among otherwise Innocent civilians (like the girls in the classroom here), they lose me. It seems unfair, the same way it would be if Bugs Bunny were to step in and take over the campus. Normal People are no match for the Marx Brothers. They don't stand a chance. There's an element of bullying in the Marx Brothers, as if Superior Alien Beings have descended among us and are taking the planet over.

That said, I still love Horse Feathers when it gets going. Maybe it's the Romantic angle, and thanks to the song "Everyone Says I Love You," it's a GENUINE Romantic angle. Each one of the brothers gets to sing (or in the case of Harpo, play -- but he makes the harp sing for him) their own version of it to Thelma Todd, each with their own lyrics, and each time it's kind of crazy and goofy and wonderful all at once. It's not often that Groucho gets a genuinely Romantic scene; here there's a wistful quavering to his voice that sells the moment.

Todd was also a frequent foil for Laurel and Hardy, and she must have been made of pretty strong stuff to put up with so much (very physical) wooing from so many Marx Brothers. The final fade-out is a little bit horrifying if you think about it: that's one wedding night that doesn't bear imagining!

Harpo is still my favorite Marx Brother, and this makes more sense to me now in the light of my probable mild Asperger's. He's the most alien of them, but also the most soulful. HIs humour is all sight, none of the rapid-fire patter of Groucho and Chico that often goes zooming past me at the speed of light. To some extent the talking Marxes cause a reaction in me much like the stunned students and faculty at their mercy: all one can do is stand agape, staring, and wonder where it's all going to end.

-- Freder.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Down the Road a Piece





















The other day I took the first two volumes of my blog book off the shelf and leafed through them. Around this time last year, and for the whole rest of the winter, I was really in the shit, and I wanted to check the dates.

Browsing the entries, I imagine that I got through it just because there was no other alternative. It was keep on pushing, one foot in front of the other, or give up, and drop off the face of the earth. I've never been the driven type, but I did a pretty good imitation of it all last winter. For one thing, I was heating two houses and needed that to stop.

The good thing about it (or perhaps the worst thing about it) was that there was no time to reflect on what had happened, what was happening, and little time to grieve. I had my moments, usually while I was at the old house, taking my mother's life apart; but at the end of the day I was too tired for tears.

Throughout the spring, there were always things to keep me busy and my mind occupied. Unpacking to do, things to plant. I was in such a moving-forward state that it took a while to settle down, both in the house and in my head.

By now, life has calmed down to such an extent that some thoughts and feelings I probably should have had sooner are bubbling to the surface. I rarely get through an evening without tears. Although I'm flush with ideas, I seem to have lost my ambition. And another thing: I've been spending too much money on books and DVDs and gadgets. I understand now why, after her divorce from my father, my mother stopped painting and creating and instead started filling up the house with antiques and folk art and Disneyana and toys and dolls and literally anything cute that struck her fancy, until it was so full that there was just one path through what was no longer a home, but a museum.

She was doing it to fill up the empty spaces in her heart.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Voting Day




















Voting was one of the emotionally difficult things to do last year. My mother had been dead for just six months, and voting was something that we always did together, even in later years when she needed to vote by absentee ballot. This year, voting was a whole new experience.

I've never had to run the gauntlet of candidates and petitioners before. Politics in the town of Albion was simpler. They still count the ballots by hand.

Here in town, there was quite a large turn-out for this off-year election even at a quarter to ten in the morning. They had already run out of "I Voted" stickers. As I came up from the lower end of the parking lot (walking at a fast clip because I was on my way to work) it became clear that the mayoral candidates had staked out the entrance and were doing the meet and greet thing as voters went in.

The current mayor, who has held the job for just six months, is someone I know from way back in my newspaper days. In fact I designed the flyer for his very first campaign, begrudgingly, on company time when I really needed to be pushing out ads. He was an ad sales rep for the paper, taking advantage of the creative services department to do his personal campaign flyers, and I was his assigned designer. I think he got in trouble for that one. My boss saw me working on it, and I wasn't going to cover Dana's ass for him.

He recognized me and grabbed my hand. I was able to smile and say, "Hey, Dana! How are you!" while thinking to myself, "Sorry, but you're not getting my vote."

The Independent candidate was lying in wait just indoors. Apparently they don't let you in without shaking hands first. I wished that I had hand sanitizer with me.

Albion's "voting hall" was a small classroom in the Town Office building. They used to have one lady checking off names and one handing out ballots. Here in town, the voting is done in a gymnasium and the names are divided into four stations, each station with two volunteers. There were more volunteers standing at the booths, directing traffic. When you're done voting, you walk out the other end and slide your ballots into two counting machines. I expect this is the usual that most people experience, but all my life, before now, I voted on folded paper ballots that were stuffed into a battered old box and counted at the end of day.

On the way out, I signed three petitions: one for equal marriage rights, one to allow independent voters to participate in the primaries, and one for I don't remember what. All I can tell you is I agreed with it at the time.

I'm not one of those people who has a hard time telling others how I voted. I wish more were like me, because I like to know how my friends and acquaintances voted and why. So here's how I went:

I voted Karen Heck (Ind.) for Mayor. For the lesser offices I voted straight Democrat, which wasn't hard to do as there were very few Republicans on the ballot and many people were running unopposed. I voted to repeal our governor's stupid law that would not allow voters to register on Election Day. This is nothing more or less than a Republican attempt to control the election. I voted against the casinos. I'm not anti-casino and have voted for them in the past, but only when the local Native American tribes were behind them. Maine disagrees with me, however, and thinks that casinos are only acceptable when gangsters, not Indians, are the beneficiaries. Last on the ballot was a bizarre item about rewriting the state constitution to switch re-districting from one set of years to another set of years. I don't know what was up with that. I voted against it. If the politicos can't come to a redistricting agreement in the amount of time they have allotted for it, then to hell with it.

-- Freder.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"¿Por qué no hacer algo para AYUDARME?

"Silencio!"






















The Spanish-language versions of Night Owls and Blotto included on the Laurel and Hardy Essential Collection seemed like promising extras, but in practice they're little more than interesting curiosities. 

Filmed at the same time and on the same sets as their "official" versions, the shorts were made prior to the advent of dubbing. Stan, Ollie, Jimmy Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy all reprise their roles, while the rest of the supporting cast are replaced by Spanish-Speaking actors. Because Stan and Ollie are actually speaking Spanish spelled out for them phonetically on a nearby chalkboard, the dialogue is rudimentary and long silences abound. Laurel and Hardy were capable of linguistic flourishes on occasion, and that aspect of their comedy is completely lost in the translation.

Add to the problem that the Spanish versions have been dramatically extended, always by a full reel and sometimes by two or three. In Blotto, this is largely accomplished by the insertion of three -- very tedious -- nightclub acts. I challenge anyone to stay awake for them. I couldn't.  Night Owls is more inventive. There are lengthier and additional comedic scenes for Stan and Ollie, plus the whole ending of the film is changed, and opened out in the process. 

In the American version, Stan and Ollie make a hasty getaway over the back fence, Stan landing butt-first in a trash can with his legs sticking straight up. This makes for rather a surreal fade-out as he runs off down the alley on all fours like a strange metal beast. It's quick, it's elegant, and very funny.

In the Spanish version, they're arrested along with Edgar Kennedy. As the police car (inexplicably a convertible) speeds off into the night, Stan and Ollie manage to grab hold of a low-lying tree branch and pull themselves out of the vehicle -- only to drop into the police chief's car bringing up the rear. As William K. Everson reports that "all three are arrested" in his description of the short in his book The Complete Films of Laurel & Hardy, you have to wonder which version of the film he saw, or if indeed a third, hybrid version was made for release in England, Everson's native country.

The problem with the Spanish version of Night Owls is that what seems breezy and light in the American original is ponderous and protracted throughout the Spanish version. The boys' timing seems completely off. By trying to squeeze an extra reel out of the material, they pretty much kill it.

There are more foreign versions coming up in the set, but I'm thinking of skipping them for now, and coming back to them at a later date. I was going great guns through these shorts and loving every minute of it -- until I hit the Spanish versions. They have an effect just like an old Laurel and Hardy gag: you're running down the street and suddenly you disappear into a six-foot deep pothole. They stop the show.

-- Freder.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fall Back



















This day, today, the day that we slide back into standard time, is the one day of the year that I hate most of all. Of course it's nice to sleep in as late as you wish and still have most of the morning ahead of you, but we pay for it with darkness that starts at four in the afternoon. Not to put too fine a point on it, This is For the Birds.

In broad general terms, this is my least favorite time of year: Fall is over; we're in the season that Kurt Vonnegut named "locking." I spent a few hours this weekend putting away all of my yard ornaments for the winter, and it made me sad. Putting it all out in the Spring, I felt like I was keeping up an important tradition. This just feels like another ending.

"Locking" is the season of goodbyes, and not just to lawn ornaments. It's goodbye to being able to have your windows open, goodbye to the three-season porch, goodbye to light and freedom. Hello to snow, cold and dark.

It's also the time of year that my father and his wife leave New England and head out to Arizona. This is a mixed bag. My father and I are closer now than we have ever been, but the relationship is still deeply problematic. We had our last lunch together the weekend before they left -- I was still quite ill, but I drove out to their place anyway and choked down as much as I could of the egg salad sandwich that I was given. It was nowhere near as good as the ones my mother used to make: my father's wife is a health nut, so anything that one would normally use to make a great-tasting egg-salad sandwich is strictly outlawed in her house.

The way to make an appetizing egg-salad sandwich is to use WHITE bread, sliced thin, and to make many small bite-sized sandwiches instead of one ginormous one.

The soup I was given was tasteless and beany, but it was warm and went down easy, which is what you want when you are feeling ill. When pressed as to whether or not I liked it, I said "yes," meaning "I don't hate it." This was the wrong response. She gave me two huge packages of the stuff to take home. "This you eat tonight," she said, "And this for later."

My way is always the path of least resistance. I took the soup, and threw it away when I got home. It's not only that I didn't care so much for the soup: it's that I get tired of that damn woman trying to run my life.

I get tired of my father trying to run my life, too, but after all he's my father. She's just a pushy dame.

As usual, Dad did all the talking. I guess that's all right by me, it takes a burden off. But it means that he's the one that gets to do all the sharing, I just sit there and listen. The thing that's annoying is that (he did this at my dinner party, too) he chooses subjects that don't allow anyone else into the conversation, even if they want to talk. It becomes a monologue by default.

I did learn the story of how my Uncle Orly pranked the streetcars. He and his gang would wait until the streetcar went down a very steep hill in the neighborhood. Then they would pour sudsy, frothy water on the tracks. The streetcar would be unable to get back up the hill. Pretty soon another would come along, and another, and they'd have three or four streetcars backed up. This was apparently the height of comedy for young boys near the beginning of the last century.

When it was time for me to go, he followed me out into the yard and, quite suddenly, got all emotional -- as if this was the last time we would ever see each other. "We've had a good run," he said.

I said, "Don't do that!"

It's understandable, given the recent loss of his brother, that this sort of thing should be so close to the surface, but no one should ever say goodbye with tears in their eyes. The fact is, anytime you say goodbye to anyone, it could always be the last time you see them. Things happen. That's life. But you say goodbye hopefully, looking forward, because that's what we do to cope.

When I looked back in my rear-view mirror his face was all pinched up and he was crying like a baby. That got me going. Driving away through my own tears, I said once again, as I have said many times throughout life, "Thanks a lot, Dad!"


-- Freder.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Hilling of Haunt Hell -- I mean, the Haunting of Heel House. . . I mean --




















Among the Halloween offerings on TCM this season was a hefty helping of Vincent Price. One of the pictures they showed presents a knotty problem.

Even when you go to the trouble of checking the dates, it's a dead heat, but we have an incestuous trio on our hands. Both Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and William Castle's el-cheapo The House on Haunted Hill first appeared in 1959, and they are, uncannily, the exact same story, with uncannily similar titles.  But Jackson's novel relies on subtlety and psychology for its effects, and is only obliquely "scary." Castle certainly seems to have read the book and thought to himself. "I can do that story, only I'll make it really REALLY scary! I won't fool around with shadows! I'll make it in your face!"

Except that his version turns out to be even less scary than Jackson's. With Price simpering about in his hammiest fashion, and Elisa Cook trying to convince us how scared we should be, and blind maids adopting fright poses for no reason at all, The House on Haunted Hill is really quite funny, in the "derisive snort" sort of way. Who keeps an acid pit in their basement, anyhow? The Big Reveal at the end, with puppeteer Vincent  reeling up one of the most bizarre (and unworkable) contraptions ever, is certainly one of the silliest in Horror History!

Of course The Haunting of Hill House was filmed for real in 1963, and it's one of Robert Wise's best. Somehow by being 100 percent faithful to the novel, he transcends it; and the old adage that it's what we don't see that's really frightening is proved in a big way. A great performance from Julie Christie didn't hurt.

Perhaps to avoid confusion with the Castle Camp Fest, the title was changed to simply The Haunting.

After a short pause, in 1971 Richard Matheson, who gave us The Last Man on Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man among other things, seems to have had the exact same brainstorm that William Castle had twelve years earlier. With his novel, Hell House, once again we have the same basic story, and even the same basic characters. But this being 1971, Matheson takes Jackson's undercurrents of sex and hauls them out into the open, ramping up the violence and shocks in the process. It succeeds where Castle's version doesn't, for being genuinely frightening, but again its effects are purely visceral.

When it was filmed as The Legend of Hell House (the title change almost bringing us full circle), it had to be toned down considerably -- and even so, the movie packs a small wallop and is one of the better examples of the "make 'em jump and scream" school of horror films.

We lived in much less litigious times in those days. Of course Shirley Jackson was dead by the time Hell House came out, but her estate still could have taken action.

With all of this Haunting of Hellish Hill Houses on Hills, you'd think that people would learn a lesson: when a strange character invites you to spend a night locked in a Haunted House, don't do it! Even if the place isn't haunted, chances are that Vincent Price is out to get you.

-- Freder.

Sons of the Desert Are We. . .





















I really didn't need or want to spend any more self-indulgent money this month. But in every person's life there are some luxury items that aren't luxury items -- they're necessities, and this one dropped into my lap in Monday's mail.

The treatment of Laurel and Hardy on DVD has been shameful. Although Hal Roach Studios issued their complete silent shorts early on in the format's history, those editions went out of print right away: blink and you missed them. Since then, Laurel and Hardy's availability on DVD has been limited to cheap releases of their public-doman titles, The Flying Dueces and Atoll K, the sad later features that they made for Fox, and TCM's release of their limited holdings, Fra Diavolo and Bonnie Scotland (the set also includes the Laurel and Hardy segments from Hollywood Review of 1929, Hollywood Party and Pick a Star; though it would have been nicer for TCM to include the complete features).

This means that the main body of their work, the films on which their reputation was built, have been unavailable to the general public for something like a decade and a half. Even before that time, VHS releases of their work were sporadic at best.

So I just about jumped out of my chair when, while browsing an online retailer who shall remain nameless, I came across this little item:


Laurel and Hardy, The Essential Collection is a TEN disk set that gathers ALL of their talkie short features, ALL of their feature-length comedies (at least, the ones that are not available on the TCM and Fox releases) and -- get this, all of the expanded foreign-language versions of that they filmed of select shorts.

It's ALL HERE. Well, not all. Babes in Toyland (AKA March of the Wooden Soldiers) is, like the movies included on the TCM package, available from another company). But, by and large, this really is what the title says it is: the release I've been waiting for all of my life!

I didn't waste any time lecturing myself about being careful with money. This HAD to join my library.

My first exposure to the team came in the days when local TV stations filled their afternoon schedules with movie packages. Some stations bought packages of the Laurel and Hardy shorts and stripped them as a half-hour weekday show. I was pretty young when that was going on, but I remember being mesmerized by a short that I now know as Below Zero. Later, when I was eight or ten and beginning to discover that my father and I had little in common, it turned out that our taste in comedians was pretty much identical. Dad sprang for a couple of used 16mm prints of Laurel and Hardy's Any Old Port and Scram! and I watched them over and over. 

In the early days of VHS I managed to acquire (mostly through piracy) copies of about a third of The Nostalgia Merchant's releases of the Laurel and Hardy short sound short subjects. The prints used by TNM were often pretty well worn and sad, and pirating them knocked them down another level in quality, but it was all that was available. I was delighted to have them. Last year I transferred them to DVD, and they cheered me up again at a time of terrible sadness.

Here's the thing: I think that, unlike the Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy are pretty much true-to-life. They always mean well, they always try their best and hardest, and it always ends by blowing up in their faces, usually literally. If, like me, you see life as a continuing series of pain, battles, pain, disasters, pain -- then you've got to love Laurel and Hardy. They show you what life is really about, and make you laugh at it. Though often dark, not to say sadistic, not to say catastrophic, there is not an ounce of mean-spiritedness in their films or in their personalities. If Laurel and Hardy can survive the situations they're presented with, and come out of it cheerful, side by side, as friends -- this makes you believe that you can survive your trials the same way.

In Laurel and Hardy, frustration builds upon accident; the innocent opening of a door can ultimately lead to full-out riot and warfare that cascades down the street, sweeping innocents up into its fury. In Laurel and Hardy, seemingly innocent physical objects can become malignant forces of nature. In Laurel and Hardy, the best intentions often go so far wrong that they ultimately result in total thermo-nuclear destruction. 

Why do they stick together when their combined qualities are so clearly incendiary? Because in the explosive world that they inhabit, their friendship is all they have. Though they spar and fight, they are true Pals presenting a united front against a world that means to kill them.

Since my copy of the set arrived on Monday, I've been doling it out in small doses, wanting to make it last. I've laughed out loud more than I had in the last two years combined. So far I've watched Unaccustomed As We Are (their first full talkie), Berth Marks and Men O' War -- none of which I'd ever seen before. Those of you who know me can appreciate what it means to me to see completely New-To-Me Laurel and Hardy at this stage of my life. It's a gift from the Heavens. It's proof that some things survive. It's also proof that I haven't forgotten how to laugh.

These prints are not the battered, beat-up old Nostalgia Merchant prints, either. They come direct from the Hal Roach library, and are the original 35mm masters. The box claims that they have been remastered in High Definition for the first time, and digitally restored, and I do not doubt this; but some of these pictures are ninety years old, and (I found especially on Unaccustomed as We Are) there are still scratches and other visible signs of their age. That said, this is the best that Laurel and Hardy have looked, certainly within my lifetime. Men O' War is in remarkable, almost pristine condition. 

Among the extra features on disk ten is an "appreciation" of the team: literally, it's Jerry Lewis, Dick van Dyke, Chuck McCann, Tim Conway and Penn & Teller just talking about why they loved Laurel and Hardy. I found this completely moving. The word "love" is not misplaced. Lewis, Van Dyke and McCann actually knew Stan Laurel in his later years; Lewis vetted some of his scripts with Laurel, and was told by Laurel that they had so much experience in common that they could have been brothers. These men petitioned the Motion Picture Academy to grant Laurel a lifetime achievement award, which he refused to accept in person because he felt that he has disintegrated so much physically and he wanted the public to remember the character he played as he was.

They talk about how hard Ollie's death was for Stan, and they mention that Stan was still writing sketches for the team up to the time of his death. 

It's just a very heart-felt piece, and hard to get through without tears. 

You can bet that I'll be writing about this set for months to come. Cracking into it has been just like opening a treasure chest. If you're at all serious about comedy, if you love Laurel and Hardy or even if you have never met them, I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

"Remember, Stanley: Love is Blind!"

-- Freder.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

While I Was Away





















Ninth day in a row at work. Before that, two and a half weeks so ill that any time not spent at work was spent flat on my back in bed, most often too weak even to hold up a book.

That's a solid month, and that's enough time out of anyone's life to lose your sense of direction, even if you weren't lost to begin with.

In some ways, it makes knowing what to do with my time off a lot easier. I need to work outside, putting my yard to bed for the winter, getting the ornaments into the garage, that kind of thing. But I've got the whole weekend for that. Instead, I will use tomorrow as a Day of Decompression: sleep in as long as I like (I don't care if it's until noon), read, catch up on some unwritten or partially written posts (there's a new DVD release that I particularly want to burble at you about: yes, it really is the greatest thing since sliced bread!), maybe veg out in front of a movie, spend some time indoors with the cats (who are acting Deeply Needy lately).

The question of what to do with the rest of my life can wait a while longer. I'm too tired to worry about it.

-- Freder.
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