Category Archives: Popular culture

Sequels are seldom as good as the original

Hold it right there — no sequel will be as good as this.

Especially not the sequels of one certain genre — messianic fiction. You know, the type of story where you’re all in suspense as to whether the protagonist is The One, and eventually everyone learns that yes, he is. All of which happens in the first book, or movie, or whatever.

After that, you have sequels in which the author or director tries really, really hard to reproduce the magic of the original, usually by being super repetitive in terms of plot.

Some of you will disagree strongly with this Top Five list — I’ve found that in the past when I’ve pointed this out. But I think a lot of that is that the author or director just did an exceptional job of recreating the magic of the first, and you loved the first so much you loved the others, too. But for me, after the reveal has occurred, I’m ready for a different story — or at least, a story about a completely different messiah.

Here’s my list of examples. Oh, and for those who haven’t read or seen these, HUGE SPOILER ALERT!

  1. Dune — I loved the first novel. But it turned into the worst generator of sequels I’ve ever encountered. Nevertheless, they kept coming out, even after the author was dead. Think about it: By the end of Dune, we learn that Paul is definitely the Kwisatz Haderach, all his main enemies are dead, and he even becomes emperor of the known universe. How do you top that? You don’t. Herbert certainly didn’t. The following stories try way too hard, and take liberties with characters that I found highly objectionable.
  2. Harry Potter — This one will engender some of the strongest objections. But I was totally satisfied by the first book: Harry is rescued from a cartoonishly horrible life by Hagrid, who informs him not only that he is a wizard, but “a thumpin’ good’un I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit.” So he wanders in awe about Diagon Alley, and goes to Hogwarts, and spends the full school year there. You learn all about the magical world, and how it differs from that of muggles. And then, when it’s all over, Harry comes back to Hogwarts, and spends another whole year doing many of the same things. And because my kids and so many others loved the stories so much, I read the first three books or so in a vain effort to keep up, but then I stopped. But, you will cry, the stories after that get so serious and dark! Well, that’s not an attraction to me. Life is serious and dark enough, and this was a children’s story.
  3. The Matrix — Let me confess, up front, that if I even tried to watch the sequels, I’ve since forgotten them. Frankly, I had no interest. “The Matrix” (the film, not the graphic novel) had bowled me over completely. I thought it was great. But then I was done. Neo was The One, and he could kick agent butt without breaking a sweat. What else did I need to see?
  4. Star Wars — I’m flying in the face of some people’s religion here, but no, “The Empire Strikes Back” was not better than the original movie. Nothing was better than the original movie. “Empire” was good — especially the parts on Hoth — and other works in that fictional universe have sometimes been very engaging, especially “The Mandelorian.” But the first film contained everything that I would most enjoy from the characters and their respective arcs. And the overall premises of the fictional universe were fine for one film, but got a bit thin beyond that. A story such as this is fun, but needs to remember not to take itself too seriously.
  5. The Godfather — Again, the second movie was most assuredly NOT better than the first. Yes, that’s that wonderful section that tells the story of how Vito became Don Corleone. But hey, that was in the novel that the first movie was based on — it just got left out. The first movie tells us how Michael, seemingly the least likely son, becomes the don’s successor, and seals the deal by overcoming all the family’s enemies. But he also becomes something terrifying, as the look on Kay’s face in the final shot drives home. I don’t need to see him manifesting his monstrosity in the second tale, as the family itself becomes consumed.

Not all sequels fall flat. Here are some that really worked:

  • Post Captain, and the other 18 books that follow Master and Commander. I refer here to the book, not the movie — which unfortunately based its plot vary roughly on the 10th book in the series, and pilfered good bits from various others. Each book tells a complete story, and the 20 taken altogether tell a saga of immense scale. Each deserves more than a film of its own. Each book should be a full season of a masterful television series — one that would last 20 years. Anyway, the “sequels” work because while the characters and the historical universe are the same, each story is fresh and different. And compelling.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Yep, it’s a sequel — to Tom Sawyer.  And it starts out in the tone of a sequel to that light celebration of youth in the 19th century, and a particularly amusing one at that. But Twain set it aside for several years, and then came back and turned it into the Great American Novel. If you’re the pedantic type, you might say that such an uneven book can’t be a great anything. But America is filled with different voices telling different stories, and its actual history is buffeted by mood swings and changes of tone. So it’s no surprise its greatest fictional work should be so “uneven.”

Note that none of those are of the “revelation of a hero’s destiny” type — what I referred to earlier as the “messiah” story.

I could mention more that worked and didn’t work, but I guess that’ll do for now…

A completely suitable ending to the story.

Top Five (and Ten) TV Shows of All Time

Sure, I could have gone with Omar for ‘The Wire,’ but I’m going with my man Bubbles, who doesn’t get enough credit.

One nice thing about a Top Five list of TV shows is that you can bill it as “all-time” and still stick to stuff you know from your own lifetime. You don’t feel like you have to go back and pull in “Greensleeves” or “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” to make up for neglecting Top Songs before Elvis.

Sure, there was some TV before my time, like “Your Show of Shows,” which went off the air about eight months after I was born. But while I’ve heard people rave about it, I suspect I didn’t miss all that much. I mean, I’ve seen some of Sid Caesar’s stuff, and he was good, but to me, Imogene Coca was the cavewoman on “It’s About Time” — which I assure you isn’t going to make my Top Ten.

I thought at first that I wouldn’t have the discipline to stick to the Top Five format, since this is a pretty broad field — All TV Shows, ever. I figured I’d do 10, and then go back to the Nick Hornby standard when we do top sitcoms or something narrower like that.

But after I’d made a list of 10 and started trying to rank them, I realized the Top Five were very clear, and stood out well above 6-10. So I did five, and then another five. I hope Barry will be proud.

And yes, this is inspired by what I mentioned a couple of days ago — the Rolling Stone list that outrageously didn’t include “Band of Brothers” in its top 100. Bud already reacted with his own Top Ten list, which I urge you to peruse as well.

Anyway, here goes:

  1. The West Wing — If not for streaming, I would not even be a fan. I never watched my first episode until years after the show ended. I’m so glad I was able to watch it on Netflix. I regret that it’s only available now on a service I don’t subscribe to. Why do I love it? It makes me feel happy about the world I live in. (It makes me actually appreciate human beings, and have hope for the species.) Not many things do that out there in the media universe. But someone who understands America as well as Aaron Sorkin does can do that.
  2. Band of Brothers — You should understand that I felt invested in this from the beginning, long before the first episode appeared on HBO. I had been thinking for some time about what an awesome TV series Stephen Ambrose’s book would make — if it were made by the right people. Specifically, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who brought us “Saving Private Ryan.” (I was also thinking about “From the Earth to the Moon” as a model, so I should probably mention Ron Howard as well.) I even thought about writing them to suggest the idea, but I’ve never done fanboy stuff like that. As it worked out, I didn’t have to. They went ahead and did it anyway. You might say I wished it into being — and it was everything I had wished for. I need to figure out how I did that, so we can finally get that Jack Aubrey series
  3. The Wire — Wow. This was just so awesome on so many levels. It’s a newspaperman’s fantasy — an amazingly high-quality production that shows exactly what things are like in his city. And of course, it was written by an unusually gifted newspaperman, former cops reporter David Simon. He switched careers for a very newspaperman reason: “I got out of journalism because some sons of bitches bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun.” Well, it was often intensely painful to watch, but The Wire was also fun. I will end by simply naming some favorite characters: Omar, of course. Major Rawls. Kima Greggs. Beadie Russell. Jay Landsman. Brother Mouzone. Tommy Carcetti. And most of all, Bubbles the snitch.
  4. Firefly — I’m not going to go into the horrible thing that happened, and how all the people in charge at Fox network are a buncha gorram idiots. Although obviously they are. I mean, come on! It’s the only series ever that’s about space cowboys — something that previously only existed in the imagination of Steve Miller. That made it automatically better than any show that was merely a space opera or merely a western. And then, the characters and the writing took that advantage and blasted it clear across the known ‘verse. The use of language alone — “‘verse,” “shiny,” and the odd bits of Chinese thrown in — made it irresistible. Not quite on a “Clockwork Orange” level, but way up there. Favorite characters? Well, I guess Kaylee was my true favorite, but my publicly admitted favorite (so I don’t seem to be a dirty old man) is Jayne. Third would be Mal. Sorry, captain…
  5. The Andy Griffith Show — Yep, I’m a sentimentalist. If I wanted to be critical and judge it by Golden Age of Television standards, I’d object to the flaws. Like, how come only about two characters beyond Andy have Southern accents? Or how come, if he’s the sheriff, he seems to work for the mayor of Mayberry rather than being a separately elected county official? Why did Andy go from being the main comic figure to being the straight man in later seasons? But never mind all that. I love it, and I’ve loved it almost all my life (it wasn’t around for my first few years). If you want to love it as well, remember the main rule: Never watch an episode that’s in color. The good ones are all in black and white. Favorite character? Ernest T. Bass. Second fave is Floyd the barber. But I love the others as well. Except some of those who came along after Barney left.

Just barely got in one comedy, because the list needed it, and because I love me some Mayberry. Here’s the next five:

  • The Sopranos — I didn’t mean to disrespect you, Tony. Really. The show was awesome, and probably launched the whole Golden Age. I respect Rolling Stone‘s decision to make it No. 1 on their list. And I had it in my Top Five, truly. But then I realized I had completely forgotten “Firefly.” Anyway, fave characters: Paulie Gualtieri (played by an actual Wise Guy), Silvio Dante (possibly the most inspired casting decision in TV history), Adriana La Cerva, Artie Bucco.
  • Seinfeld — This came just about as close as you can get to being the perfect sitcom. And there was never another one like it. It did not fit in any kind of category. I could say much more, but do I really have to convince you? The only way I can imagine you disagreeing is if you get on my case for not having it in the Top Five.
  • 30 Rock — And this one may have been THE perfect sitcom. It took the same foundation upon which Carl Reiner based “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — in his case, his experience writing for “Your Show of Shows” — and expanded upon it and went wild with it. So many great characters, from Liz and Jack down to guest stars like Al Gore playing themselves (“Quiet!… A whale is in trouble! I have to go.”) But the one who amazed me the most, and could alone have put it on this list, was Kenneth Ellen Parcell.
  • Hill Street Blues — Kind of dated now, but wow was it impressive at the time. We had a sort of minor cult following at the paper in Jackson, Tenn. I remember one night watching it over at the publisher’s condo. He and his wife, who was our business reporter, served nachos. I had never heard of nachos. Of course, I couldn’t eat them anyway. But we all enjoyed “Hill Street.” Capt. Furillo was my ideal leader. As news editor at the paper, I wanted to be just like him in dealing with my reporters. But my favorite character? Renko.
  • Mad Men — One of the most glittering examples of Golden Age TV — brilliant in writing, direction, cinematography and acting. Like entering another world — one in which we got to see Christina Hendricks way more than we did in “Firefly.” For some reason though, once we got way into the 60s and people started dropping acid, I stopped watching. I need to go back and finish. I suppose I’ll have to start from the beginning, dagnabbit. Favorite character? Not sure. Maybe Joan. Or maybe Roger, the acid-dropper. Now I’ll do something different and list by far my least favorite: Pete Campbell. What a creep and a half.

There were a lot of other great shows out there, some of which didn’t even get a mention from Rolling Stone. So here’s a random bunch of honorable mentions:

  • Key and Peele — I suppose this is the thing on this list that I got into most recently — like, within the past decade. These guys are incredibly brilliant, and there’s no one else like them. However they first met and teamed up, we’re lucky they did. Best bits? Well, I love the obvious choices, such as “Obama’s Anger Translator,” “Substitute Teacher” and “I Said (I quickly look around before continuing) Biiiiiiiitch.” But my fave might be “Retired Military Specialist.”
  • The IT Crowd — For years, I saw this available on Netflix, and ignored it, having no idea what it was. Then my younger son talked me into watching one episode — and now I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched the whole three seasons. It’s hard to describe how funny it is. Now, I’ll watch pretty much anything that has the players in it. Fortunately, Chris O’Dowd has gotten a lot of work, and if I need a Richard Ayoade fix, I can always watch some “Travel Man” on Prime. But my greatest frustration is that it’s hard to find my favorite, Katherine Parkinson, anywhere. Last time I saw her was in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” and it really wasn’t all that funny. Best episode is either “The Work Outing,” “The Dinner Party,” or “Are We Not Men?”
  • Breaking Bad — Are you thinking it’s kind of weird that this didn’t make either the Top Five or the next five? I sort of am, too, but I just kept thinking of things I liked better. It might be that this was the most stressful TV show I have ever watched, and the stress has lingered. But it still seems worthwhile to have watched it all, because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have appreciated the last episode, and that was really good.
  • Green Acres — I have mentioned a number of times that the possibly the most amazing night ever on television (from an 11-year-old’s perspective) was Sept. 15, 1965, the night that “Lost in Space,” “Green Acres” and “I-Spy” all debuted. We had returned to America — and to television — five months earlier after two-and-a-half years in Ecuador, and I was already overdosing on popular culture, and loving it. But that was the biggest night. At the time, my fave was probably “Lost in Space,” but “Green Acres” was definitely the one that aged the best. As was written in my favorite reference work, The Catalog of Cool, “To be truly cool, one must genuinely understand the uselessness of logic and reason in a world gone mad. ‘Green Acres’ understood it better than any other show.” I’d never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t since. Favorite character? Eb, of course.
  • The Office — The real one, the British one. Absolutely brilliant, although admittedly sometimes hard to watch, because David Brent. Favorite character? Probably Gareth.
  • Friday Night Lights — I’m sort of putting this here as a way of thanking Bryan for getting me to watch it. But I’m also putting it here because it was really, really great. Even though it was about, you know, football…
  • The State — I loved MTV when it started, when it knew its job was to show music videos, and have them be introduced by people like Martha Quinn or Daisy Fuentes. And it was wonderful. Then it got into other stuff. I will never forgive it for launching the scourge of reality TV. But I can almost forgive “The Real World” when I consider “The State.” If only it had lasted. And if only I could find the old skits online somewhere. Best one ever? “Prison Break.” (But that’s “off-limits”…)
  • Life on Mars — OK, this show was really uneven, and sometimes the writing was shaky. But it was a lot of fun, and I’ve watched the two seasons (the two series, since it’s British) several times. And not just to see Liz White as Annie. When I saw it on The Guardian‘s 21st-century list, I decided I had to mention it. A warning, though: Do not try to watch the American imitation. I couldn’t even make it through the first episode. Sure, it’s got Harvey Keitel in it, but he couldn’t save it.

Finally, I know I’ve forgotten something. Maybe several somethings. The way I was almost done when I remembered “Firefly.” But you’ve got to start a discussion somewhere…

Yes, I am a sentimentalist.

But he’ll remember with advantages What feats he did that day

This is pretty cool.

A significant number of the actors from HBO’s “Band of Brothers” did this a couple of years back, 20 years after the release of the series. But I didn’t see it until now.

I wish I’d seen it on D-Day itself, but hey, the Battle of Normandy was still far from won on June 7. So I pass it on, and hope you enjoy. Curahee!

It starts with “Captain Winters,” but you’ll recognize a number of the guys. Quite a few are Brits, which works well with Shakespeare, as they don’t have to put on American accents. But there are some Yanks as well — “Malarkey” and yes, the incomparable “George Luz.” (Actually, Luz should have done it as an impersonation of Major Horton.)

One or two of the guys look too young to have played soldiers two decades earlier. But on the whole, you see graybeards who seem ready to play the “old man” part of the “Henry V” speech:

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

Of course, the real old men, the ones with real scars to show, are all gone now. At least, all the ones whose portrayers in the series had speaking parts. (Unless you know of someone I don’t know about.) To them truly should go the honor.

But I also honor everyone involved in this series. And I’m glad quite a few of the real guys were still alive to see the tribute, and be a part of it.

I think this is James Madio, who played Frank Perconte. Isn’t it?

Doesn’t everyone do this? And if there are people who don’t, what is wrong with them?

This Tweet raised a number of questions:

My initial response was simply to reply, “I don’t know what this has to do with ‘parents,’ unless it was written by a child. Doesn’t everyone do this? And why isn’t IMDB mentioned?”

But seriously, people, when all of us are sitting there with smartphones, who doesn’t do this?

I don’t mean with Steve Buscemi. If you have to look him up, you should just quit partaking in popular culture altogether. I mean somebody a little harder, like Zoë Wanamaker. I see her all the time, of course (such as, recently, in “Britannia”), but I was thrown because she appeared in an episode from the first series of “Prime Suspect” in 1991, and I hadn’t seen her when she was that young. Also, she distracted me by stripping off her blouse to flash her breasts at a cop who was surveilling her.

Of course, some of us do it to a greater extreme than others. Like me. My wife goes, “Who is that? Where did we see her?” But then, she generally returns her attention to the show and follows the action.

Meanwhile, several feet away, I’m on my phone’s IMDB app, researching away. Which, of course, sometimes takes several steps. Sometimes with a TV show, simply calling up the entry for the show won’t tell you who this actor or actress, who may only have appeared in this episode, was (either because the person is buried in a long list, or, too often, is missing entirely from the main page). So I might have to look up the series on Wikipedia, and find the title of the specific episode, and then go back to IMDB and search for that episode by name, and that leads to success. I then call up a representative photo of that person, and show it to my wife, and tell her where she has seen him or her before.

And my wife says, “Yes,” and goes back to the show.

This presents a bit of a problem. Because even with my new hearing aids, I’m very dependent on subtitles to help me follow the dialogue. So after a couple of minutes of looking at my phone, I’m a bit lost as to what’s going on.

So I ask my wife. And tolerant as she is, this sometimes makes her a bit impatient with me. But she doesn’t call me a “parent.” She just, you know, thinks I’m a bit of a compulsive idiot.

But I can’t help it. In a world in which the computer — phone, tablet, laptop, what have you — is always right there, and always connected to the Web, I have to do this.

Before the Internet, I was sorta kinda able to focus on what was going on. The biggest problem back then was the dictionary. Always right there on the desk. Fortunately, I didn’t use it much, because I’m a fairly literate guy, and if I had to look the word up to be sure I was using it correctly, that was an indication that I probably shouldn’t be using it in the newspaper.

But I did look sometimes, and that meant I’d be lost for awhile. On the way to the word in question, I’d run across other words that would trip me and tie me down and force me to study them and the other words they led to, and it just went on and on from there. Eventually I’d get back to work, but it took awhile.

And the Web is millions of times worse, of course.

But it’s not because I’m a “parent.” It’s because I’m the most easily fascinated person on the planet. It’s like my superpower, although not very empowering…

Helen Mirren and Zoë Wanamaker in “Prime Suspect” in 1991.

Sorry, but I won’t even call back ‘Silverado’

For the longest time, most of the spam calls I received claimed to be coming from towns in South Carolina — Clover, Jackson (which I didn’t realize was a place in SC before that), Camden and so forth.

Lately, they’ve been coming from California. Don’t know why. Maybe the algorithm got confused between the two USCs.

Have y’all noticed that happening?

Anyway, I got one a few minutes ago, while on a work-related call, and of course I ignored it. But I was intrigued. It claimed to come from “Silverado.”

I don’t know about y’all, but I loved that movie. Coming out as it did in 1985, I saw it as a collaboration of young actors (all about my age, or slightly older) who had grown up on Westerns, but had never had a chance to act in one. So they made an oater that was packed with every trope you could think of — the roving gambler, the saloon, the wagon train of sodbusters, the evil rich guy who ran the town, the gunslinger, everything.

I thought, briefly, about calling back. I imagined myself talking to “Emmett” or “Paden,” or if I really got lucky, “Hannah.” (Then I could say, “All I did was talk to the girl.”) But with my luck, it would end up being “Sheriff Cobb.”

So never mind…

Stop nagging me, Netflix!

I get emails like this all the time. Do you?

They seem weird to me. I find myself wondering why Netflix cares whether I “finish 30 Rock.” I assume this is simply about making sure I’m watching Netflix, period. But if that’s the purpose, it seems to have at least a couple of problems as a strategy:

  • If AI has any actual intelligence at all — and I’m talking minimal smarts — it would know that I engage with Netflix quite frequently. Not all the time, because I have Prime and Britbox and Hulu and other streaming options. But often enough that I don’t need to be bugged about it — one would think.
  • Also, if you’re tracking me and my habits, why don’t you know that I’ve watched every bit of “30 Rock” multiple times? And I think I did so at least once on Netflix. This makes me less than impressed with your technology.

Maybe they just want to stay in touch with customers, and they don’t care how stupid the excuse is.

Anyway.

Do y’all get these? And do you have any idea why?

Today may be George’s birthday, but I’m thinking about ‘Lincoln’

The very first time I posted a “Top Five” list on this blog — during the first year, on Jan. 9, 2006 — I threw away the opportunity.

I did the most obvious topic of all — best movies of all time — and while the five were all completely deserving, I didn’t really think about it. I listed them, and didn’t even bother to explain my choices. I guess I just thought there was all the time and space needed in the future to fill in the gaps.

Here were the five:

1. “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
2. “The Godfather.”
3. “Casablanca.”
4. “The Graduate.”
5. “High Noon.”

Recently, I had occasion to ask, “Why wasn’t ‘His Girl Friday’ on the list?”

Well, I was asking myself something similar last night when, just before hitting the hay, I watched a few minutes of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” after seeing it was available on Prime.

And of course, since I needed to get to bed, I spoiled myself by scrolling to the very best scene of all. I’ve talked about it here before. Which, for whatever reason, I can’t find on YouTube — although here’s a piece of it, for some reason messed up with a sepiatone effect.

It’s that scene when Abe explains to his confused Cabinet exactly why the 13th Amendment has to pass, and has to pass now, before the war ends. It is the most amazingly perfect explanation of a political situation — of perhaps the key legislative moment of our nation’s history — that I have ever heard or read. His explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation is on the ragged edge of uselessness (something many in the room likely understood, but as we see all the time these days, the audience does not), all the contradictions he has had to navigate to get this far without such an amendment — treating escaped slaves as “contraband,” which meant regarding them as property, which meant respecting the laws of the rebelling states, and sometimes regarding them as a foreign entity when his most core conviction is that they are not, and so forth…

And it’s all delivered by one of the best actors who’s ever lived, in what is probably his greatest performance, speaking in that backwoods aw-shucks way Lincoln had, the plain man so comfortably dissecting the most complex truths…

It’s amazing. And while this is the best, the film contains scene after scene like it. I remind you of the one in which Tommy Lee Jones takes his oh-so-self-righteous fellow Radicals to task by demanding that they try thinking, just for once, about the opportunity before them: “But… Hasn’t he surprised you?”

And so forth.

It would be amazing, a top-drawer film, on the most superficial of terms — based on mere wonder at how much they make Day-Lewis look like Lincoln. See the image above from my Prime account. I mean, if Lincoln didn’t look like that, he should have.

But there’s just so much more, in every detail. Of course, one is tempted to dismiss in on those grounds alone — Spielberg was such a mature master craftsman, at the peak of his game (which impresses us more — Scorsese’s raw “Mean Streets” or his polished “Goodfellas?”), and he had so many resources that previous generations never dreamed of. He was deliberately making a great film, and he did it.

Lacking that freshness factor, it seems out of place on a list that includes “Casablanca” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Those people had no idea whatsoever they were making something for the ages. It just happened. Poor combat-fatigued Jimmy Stewart was just trying to get a movie cranked out, having just returned from the war, and Capra was just doing that thing he always did, loving America the way he did…

But it’s right up there, however you count its virtues.

Anyway, I just wanted to say something about it, again (yes, I’ve praised it and praised it before).

Confession time: When I got the idea to write this, I was thinking this was Abe’s birthday (although Wikipedia had set me straight before I started writing). When I was a kid, and we celebrated both of them separately, I always had trouble remembering which was the 12th and which was the 22nd. I mean, come on — they’re practically the same number.

So I guess it’s just as well we mashed them into one day. Although, of course, I don’t think I’ve ever had that day off. Whatever…

Best John le Carré dramatization yet (non-Smiley division)

Gadi and Charlie visit the Acropolis…

It’s not the best le Carré ever, because we have to face the fact that the Alec Guinness version of George Smiley is out there, in both “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.”

But if you consider only adaptations of the non-George novels, I think this is the best.

And I wasn’t expecting that — at all. In fact, when I heard they had remade The Little Drummer Girl as a TV series back in 2018, I was, as usual, irritated. Why mess with success?

The 1984 version, starring Diane Keaton, wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty great. She was good as Charlie, Klaus Kinski was just as good as Kurtz, and Yorgo Voyagis — of whom I had never heard before or since — was very impressive as the conflicted, lugubrious Israeli hero Gadi Becker.

Yeah, they messed with it. For instance, they turned Charlie into an American. Because, you know, Diane Keaton. But beyond that, I was well pleased.

But still, when I fell victim recently to a come-on from AMC+ (a free week! which of course wasn’t enough to get me through this one show without having to pay!) I immediately had to go check it out.

And then, I had to watch all the way through. These last couple of days with COVID helped me get it done.

And from the beginning, I realized, “This is better.”

Especially if you appreciate dramatizations that are true to the book, in every possible way. And of course we don’t see that nearly enough. I had had high hopes for “The Night Manager,” which is probably my favorite non-Smiley le Carré. But you couldn’t get more than a few minutes into it before everything was turned this way and that. Worst of all, they updated it (shudder). As le Carré reacted at the time:

But a novel I had written nearly a quarter of a century ago reset in present time? With none of Pine’s trip to northern Quebec in the story? None of Central America? My beloved Colombian drugs barons replaced by Middle Eastern warlords? No zillion dollar luxury yacht for Richard Roper? A new ending to the story, yet to be discussed? What did that mean?

One change worked: Jonathan Pine’s handler was changed from a man to a pregnant woman. I’m still not sure whether that was an improvement because of the maternal aspects of looking after an agent in the field, or simply because the actress was Olivia Coleman. Probably both.

But the other changes didn’t work. Especially not the new ending.

But this was true right down the line. Time, place, characters and plot. Which is great because it’s a fantastic story, filled with delicate features and contradictions that could be thrown completely off with the wrong changes.

The moral ambiguity of the story is doubled, partly because of the extended time format. And that’s essential. No one — not agent Charlie, not her handler, not anyone — is supposed to be entirely sure who’s right and who’s wrong in this counterterrorism story.

And then there’s the casting. The unknown (to me) young woman who plays Charlie is just what the role demanded. She’s supposed to be an unremarkable little actress who feels she’s never been able to realize her potential. Now I realize: How could that be Diane Keaton, who at 38 was such a big star that they’d change the main character’s nationality to get her? She needs to be someone you look at and try to figure out and decide whether she’s up to the overwhelming task.

And you do. She makes you do that. A lot of women should love her in this. First, she’s not a willowy supermodel type like Ms. Keaton. Her figure — as you discover when the head of the terror cell makes her strip to her underwear as a safety precaution — is at best “average.” And yet, she has this quality that draws men’s eyes. You completely believe the thing you have to believe about Charlie — that she can bewitch everyone from her fellow actors to international terrorists.

They had to do the same with Gadi Becker. You had to believe that he could enthrall Charlie, and that it was so obvious that Kurtz, head of the Israeli team, could bank on it. And yet it was something Becker himself did not value.

As for Kurtz: Klaus Kinski was perfect, but if anything — if you’ll allow the logical impossibility — Michael Shannon is more so. An American, of course, but one who can really act, and makes this intense Israeli real. But what has Shannon ever done that wasn’t great, from Elvis to the cop in “Boardwalk Empire?” His characters are always bigger than life. And kinda scary.

Anyway, I recommend it…

Michael Shannon as Kurtz.

Why didn’t THIS make my Top Five? (Plus, Top Ten Comedies of all Time)

It gets better every time I see it.

So, when I watched “His Girl Friday” again over the holidays, I was yet again just bowled over with how awesome it is. Cary Grant’s best performance. Rosalind Russell’s, too. Loved what Ralph Bellamy contributed. Everyone was great, including a wonderful small role played by Billy Gilbert.

Congrats to Howard Hawkes. He was going for the fastest dialogue in any screwball comedy — in any movie, I suppose — and he got it done. The amazing thing is, every word of it worked. His goal was to be faster than the film upon which this one was based, “The Front Page.” He said he did it, and staged joint showings to prove it. A bigger thing he did was make the movie much, much more memorable. I’m not even sure whether I’ve ever seen the 1931 version, but it would have had to be a lot better than the 1974 remake (I can only take so much Walter Matthau) to even get into the same ballpark as “Friday.”

Seriously, how could it possibly have been anywhere near as wonderful with Hildy as a man? Turning him into Rosalind Russell and making her Walter’s ex-wife just added so many levels, it was exponentially better. Makes me not even want to go back and watch the original — so much would be missing.

Now, the personal bit. No, you probably won’t love it as much as I do. But if you don’t love it to some extent, your capacity for appreciating comedy is practically nonexistent.

I love it because I identify with it. Years ago there was a bit of pain — let’s say, guilt — associated with that identification. That’s because so much of the comedy derives from way editor Walter Burns manipulates everyone in his universe in order to get the story. And I wasn’t quite like that, was I, despite the shock of self-recognition? Did I lie to reporters to get them to pursue a story? No. Did I have a couple of crooks — male and female — hanging out in my office to go out and steal wallets or plant counterfeit money on innocents or to entrap them in sexual charges? No. Did I hide escaped killers? No. Or plot to toss out the city government in the coming election? No, at least not from the newsroom (you might make a weak argument that I may have attempted such effects from the editorial board).

But this was caricature, and the inventive — I mean, awful — things Walter did were exaggerated expressions of my never-ending drive to see to it that my reporters got out there and got the story. (Once, in the early 90s, an assistant managing editor called me a “news hound.” I said the newsroom was full of news hounds. She said no, it wasn’t. I was a good bit more obsessed. I think she was trying to manipulate me with flattery. You know how those editors are. You have to watch them.)

And sometimes I felt kind of bad about that. But as the years have passed, most of that has worn away, and I can see the humor in it without kicking myself quite as much.

Maybe that’s why it’s funnier every time I see it. And as awful as the journalists come across (and not just Walter and Hildy, but every occupant of the press room down at the cop shop — note their treatment of poor Mollie), I love the spirit of the enterprise still. So my favorite moment remains the one when Hildy has just torn up the great story Walter had manipulated her into getting and writing — having realized what Walter had done to make her do it — and essentially tells him to go to hell over the phone, and marches out of the press room self-righteously… just before gunfire erupts all over the place because the killer has escaped. So Hildy comes rushing back into the press room, grabs the phone and tells Walter:

Walter?… Hildy. Earl Williams just
escaped from the County Jail. Yep…
yep… yep… don’t worry! I’m on
the job!

And hangs up and runs right out to get the scoop! She wastes no time. She starts by chasing the sheriff down the street and physically tackling him.

Attagirl, Hildy!

Oh, scoff all you want to. It was awesome.

Anyway, as I watched, I wondered why this had never made my Top Five  All-Time Best Movies list. Oh, it made a Top Ten once, but why hadn’t it broken into the Top Five? Well, it’s complicated. Which of these (from 2006) would I bump?

I decided to do justice by putting it at the top of a subset list, so here are my Top Ten Comedies of All Time:

  1. His Girl Friday — Yay, it’s at the top of the list! And deserves it.
  2. Young Frankenstein — Some would choose “Blazing Saddles.” I would not. Have you seen that one in the last few decades? It doesn’t hold up. This does.
  3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — I was looking at the AFI list of the supposed top 100 funniest movies in American cinema, and at No. 79 they had “The Freshman,” from 1925. Which I’ve never seen, but I did see “The Freshman” from 1990, and it was awesome. I mean, come on, Brando playing a guy who just happens to look like the Godfather? Still, it was not star Matthew Broderick’s best. Ferris was. And it didn’t even make this stupid list. Which is lame.
  4. This Is Spinal Tap — You can talk mockumentaries all day, but this is the granddaddy of them all, and the best ever. Because it goes to 11.
  5. Office Space — In a category by itself.
  6. My Man Godfrey — Another screwball comedy, but I think there’s room for this one and Friday both. It’s certainly different enough.
  7. Love and Death — Say what you will about Woody Allen (and there’s a good bit of creepy stuff to say), but I’ll paraphrase the fan from “Stardust Memories:” I really liked his early, funny ones. And the best of all was “Love and Death.” That’s what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky really needed — a few laughs.
  8. The Graduate — Yeah, this one is on my Top Five best ever. But it’s the only one of those to make this list. Yet I’m not sure it should be here. Was it really a comedy exactly? It’s the most category-defying of the truly great films.
  9. Groundhog Day — I had to get a Bill Murray in here, and I chose this one.
  10. The Paper — Initially, I had American Graffiti here. Or maybe Trading Places, which so brilliantly combined two Mark Twain stories, and two of his best. But I decided to end up where I started — with a film about newspapering that I could really identify with. Funny thing is, some serious journalists hated this film for some of the same factors that might cause someone to reject “Friday” — they were afraid it made us scribes look bad. But again, it was brutally dead-on caricature. Sure, we were more serious and principled that this. But I really, really identified with the Michael Keaton character, who at least had this going for him: He wasn’t as bad as Walter Burns, not by a long shot. Not as funny either, though…

 

 

As Billy Kwan asked, ‘What then must we do?’

Billy Kwan, making a point…

I was listening at Mass on Sunday — I really was, to the best of my ability. But until I went back and read the Gospel reading again, and some commentary on it, I missed something that should have grabbed my attention right away. Here’s the relevant first half of the reading:

Lk 3:10-18

The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages….”

Hours later, it hit me: That’s the passage Billy Kwan loved so much!

That memory is from a movie I loved so much, and have always thought should get more attention than it does: “The Year of Living Dangerously.”

There are so many reasons for that. Among them:

  • I’m not a huge Mel Gibson fan, but I think this was his best.
  • He played a journalist, and a large part of the conflict is his struggling to handle certain moral questions raised by obsession with getting the story, no matter what. It’s an actual moral question that journalism raises, different from the irrelevant things most critics of media raise.
  • Sigourney Weaver.
  • The fact that it’s set in the Third World, at the same time that I was living in a very different part of that world, also as a Western outsider. There’s something in the atmosphere of it that seems very right and accurate.
  • Various esthetic considerations, from the cinematography to the music.
  • The amazing fact that this was Linda Hunt’s greatest role, and she was portraying a man. Not to make any sort of latter-day Identity Politics point, but because she could, and she did a fantastic job.
  • Billy’s question, which pervades the film.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share that. Here’s the scene in which Billy shares this question of ultimate import to him — and to us all, if we’re as good as Billy. I always remember it the way he says it, “What then must we do?” And in our Scripture reading the “then” is left out, which is probably what caused me to fail to recognize it right away (also, it’s “should” instead of “must,” but that wouldn’t have thrown me off if the “then” had been there — a matter of rhythm). I just realized a few moments ago that he said it that way because he was citing the title of Tolstoy’s book, which he mentions in the scene…

The best use of rhythmic alliteration in a pop song, ever

Usually, I would wait until I could come up with “Top Five Uses of Alliteration,” in keeping with the immemorial custom of the blog.

But that might take me a month, or at least an hour (if I wanted a lame list, just to have a list).

So I just thought I’d say it. This is the best use of alliteration to achieve a rhythmic effect in the history of popular music:

“Little old lady got mutilated late last night…”

Yeah, it’s gruesome, perhaps even off-putting. But wow, does it pop as a way to warn people to look out for the Werewolves of London.

Today, walking around the neighborhood and listening to Pandora on my new phone — I initially started to listen to headlines on NPR, but like most news these days, it was all stupid — and since it was a new phone and all, I listened to a station I hadn’t heard for awhile, probably years and years: My “Handbags & Gladrags Radio” station.

I didn’t know what to expect, beyond related Rod Stewart tunes. I think when I created it I had been watching “The Office” (the real one, not the American one), and I always loved that they made an instrumental rendition of the song their theme. I wasn’t trying to make a Rod Stewart station, it was the song itself. I wanted to see what Pandora would tell me was like it, because I expected it would be pretty good.

And it was. Yeah, it’s a little on the mellow ’70s side. You can smell the dope (in the air, and sense the use of ‘ludes in the vicinity. But it’s more of the smart, edgy side of the mellow ’70s. Not Bread or Seals and Crofts or something mind-numbing like that. Stuff you can really get into, mind and body.

That, of course, led to the late, lamented Mr. Zevon. Which I appreciated.

The line before that one has a nice rhythm to it, too — although it’s not as evocative or provocative, it does a nice job of setting up the great one: “You better not let him in.” It creates anticipation, even excitement, because you know: Here it comes!…

And there it is! And now you know that whether you “hear him howling around your kitchen door” or not, don’t go walking through Soho alone after dark.

So… if we were building a Top Five List, what else should be included? It’s got to use alliteration to achieve a really impressive rhythmic effect, the way Warren did, racing through “Little old lady got mutilated” so that the words tumble over each other, and slowing down on the last three as though Warren hesitated to say the last word, probably because it didn’t have an L in it: “late last… night.”

I don’t mean exactly like that. It should be as different and distinctive as this is. (At least, it was distinctive, until other songs ripped it off). It just needs to achieve as impressive an effect.

Anyway, now that I asked y’all to do the rest of the work, just to observe the forms, here’s a quick Top Five Best Songs I Heard Just Now on that Station:”

  1. Werewolves of London, of course. I’m not sure whether this is my favorite Zevon song or not, but it’s definitely in the Top Three. “Lawyers, Guns and Money” is probably first, with “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” offering it some stiff competition. All on that same amazing album.
  2. Maggie May. Have I ever told you how large this song looms in my legend? About hearing it that day when I came to interview for the job at The State in 1987? It’s a good one, one of the moments in my life when I felt I was in a well-directed movie, and the person in charge of the needle drops had a really nice touch? If not, remind me to tell you.
  3. Your Song, by Elton John. This puts me on the sand of Barber’s Point on Oahu in 1970-71, not so much sunbathing (although getting burned) as resting up, letting the cramps in my side go away before I paddled my board back out. You ever surf (or are you like Charlie)? If you haven’t, you can’t imagine the way it punishes your lats. Anyway, someone else sitting nearby had brought a radio, and this was playing.
  4. Mandolin Wind. Not sure whether this or “Handbags” is my favorite Rod Stewart song. As does the wonderful “Werewolves,” “Maggie May” is probably third.
  5. Can’t Find My Way Home. In which Blind Faith inspires a semi-religious experience. Which is what they did throughout their oh-so-brief time as a Supergroup.

Other songs I heard were good, too, but those are the top five. If you’re on Pandora, I highly recommend creating such a station. This is far, far from being the only kind of music I like, but it is A kind of music I like…

Why were so many of those TV people single?

Brian Keith’s character had no wife, although he had Mr. French to help with the kids.

I don’t mean the actors; I mean the characters they played.

Robert Ariail raised the question in a comment back on that post about the picture of all those CBS stars:

One more comment since you brought up Ernest T. It took me a while to realize this , but do you know why everyone in the Andy Griffith show was so happy? No one was married.

Excepting Otis , the town drunk and Clara( was that her name?) Bee’s friend who was a terrible gossip and we never even saw her husband.

Just sayin’…

Well, that got me going to where I thought I should turn my response into a separate post. So here goes…

The Ernest T. reference he mentions was this, which I posted in response to a video from Bill.

As a former Ernest T. impersonator, let me point out, Ernest T. wanted to be married. He wanted it more than anything. That was the whole point of sprucing himself up to go to Mrs. Wiley’s mixers. And it was his main motivation in other episodes. It’s even why he wanted a you-nee-form

That aside, you’re completely right — not so much that people were HAPPY because they weren’t married, but that they simply weren’t married. (I don’t think Clara was married, either, was she?)

And this went way, way beyond “The Andy Griffith Show.”

I remember that dawning on me at some point in the ’60s. It was noticeable. In the world in which I grew up, grownups were married. My parents, and the parents of pretty much everyone I knew, were married. Some of them may not have been on their first marriage, but they were married, generally speaking. It was like it was a rule. (At this point, someone will rush to point out that “that’s because you had a privileged upbringing!” Well, no. Kids today know a lot more grownups who aren’t married, and yes, it’s a phenomenon that goes up as you move down the economic scale. But I think it you look at demographics from the 50s and 60s, you’ll see it was far more the norm.)

And I think it was simply a matter of giving the writers of shows more to work with. An unmarried person is in a position for his (and as you’ll see, we’re talking mostly men) life to go in more different directions. The viewer can wonder, “Will Miss Ellie Walker be the one for Andy?” But no, along comes the nurse, Peggy, and of course later on, Helen Crump. And others briefly in between. It gave the writers more possibilities for plots.

Everybody on Gilligan’s Island was single except the Howells, and who cared about them? From the perspective of Boomers, they were absurdly old. You had Brian Keith on “Family Affair,” and the show that was actually called, “Bachelor Father,” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” And of course, it was “My Three Sons,” not “Our Three Sons.”

Yep, they were mostly men — if they were parents, and leading characters. Probably because the plight of the single mom was seen as sad — and of course even today, it’s more of a predictor of economic distress. If you wait to the 70s, you get “One Day at a Time,” which was sometimes funny, but even the title suggests a certain state of hardship. It took awhile to get to Murphy Brown. (Sure there were some earlier examples such as “The Ann Sothern Show,” and Lucille Ball’s efforts after Desi. But Ann Sothern was kinda before my time, and I have little memory of those later Lucy shows.)

Of course, all of the Clampetts — Jed, Granny, Ellie Mae and Jethro — were single, as was Miss Jane. Which was very important to the plots. From that same comedic universe, no one on “Petticoat Junction” was married, either. Not even Uncle Joe, who’s a movin’ kinda slow. Although with Kate Bradley, we did have a lead who was a single mom.)

Never mind comedy. Think about the leads of “The Rifleman,” or “Bonanza,” or any of the Warner Bros. Westerns. All single, near as I can recall (I’m not really familiar with some of those Warner Bros. shows). And that’s just one genre.

Speaking of Miss Ellie… Of course, there were  shows about married people. Elinor Donahue was the official older daughter on “Father Knows Best” and other shows like it. But I ask you, which was funnier: “The Donna Reed Show,” or “The Beverly Hillbillies?”

I rest my case. It was all about giving the writers more potential plots to work with…

Would Ellie be the one? As it turned out, no…

Is this real, or Photoshopped? I think it’s real…

Here’s another fun pop-culture thing, one that I found way more engaging than I would have thought if someone merely described it to me.

My friend Steve Millies in Chicago retweeted this the other day:

I assure you I looked at it more than a minute.

It didn’t look like anything particularly engaging at first. OK, so we have some people who were big in TV in the ’70s all dressed up and having their picture taken together.

Yeah, there’s Mary Tyler Moore right at the front, looking as she did when she was probably the hottest star on CBS with her show that ran from 1970-77. OK.

But wait. Alfred Hitchcock is standing next to her. And on the other side of him, Walter Cronkite. Whoa…

So you start looking around. And you have to hunt, but eventually you find:

  • All four stars of “All in the Family,” scattered separately here and there.
  • Chester, from “Gunsmoke.” Yeah, I know that at this time, he was McCloud, but to me, he’ll always be Chester. Anyway, everybody else in this picture was affiliated with CBS, as was “Gunsmoke,” and “McCloud” was on NBC. So I think he’s there for being Chester.
  • Lou Grant! Which makes sense, since Mary is there.
  • Andy, Barney, Opie and Gomer, scattered about the picture.
  • Carol Burnette.
  • Lucille Ball.
  • Art Linkletter and Art Carney. And Arthur Godfrey, I think.
  • Steve Allen? Yeah, I think so.
  • Adrienne Barbeau! Yeah, I see at least one other person from “Maude” there, but who cares? There’s Adrienne Barbeau, whom we all know from certain other classics as well…
  • Danny Thomas.
  • Telly Savalas.
  • Betty White, with red hair!
  • One of the Gabor sisters, but I can’t tell which. Probably Eva. When you zoom in, the quality is poor.
  • Hang on! There are Roy Rogers and Dale Evans!!! And Roy’s duded up in black tie…
  • Is that Danny Kaye near George Burns?
  • I’m not sure about this, but do I see Captain Kangaroo, only out of uniform?

There are so many others I could name — big stars. But I’m going to let you find them yourselves.

I guess this was like the Emmys or something, and CBS must have really gone to a lot of trouble to make this happen.

Of course, maybe it was Photoshopped. But I don’t think so. As remarkable as it is, I think it’s real.

The only reason I have to doubt it (aside from the logistical difficulty of getting them together at the same moment) is the fact that these people weren’t all on the network at the same time. Overall, it seems like a shot from the ’70s. Steve speculates it was at a certain point in that period: “Good Times/Barnaby Jones overlap suggests 1973-74.”

But when someone was on a show isn’t a limiting factor. Hitchcock hadn’t been on CBS since 1964. And Dennis Weaver, although a former star of “Gunsmoke,” was at this time on a competing network. But they’re in it, too. And this has to be a CBS effort, based on who’s in the picture.

It doesn’t sound like it would be fun, but I thought it sort of was…

 

 

 

 

 

Top Five Best Vacation Spots from Movies

‘There wolf. There castle…’

I read yesterday about this fun idea, poorly executed:

If you like scary movies, as the ghostly voice famously asks on the other end of the phone, you can now stay in the original house from the horror movie “Scream.”

Because this Halloween season marks the film’s 25th anniversary, Airbnb will be offering three one-night stays for up to four people at the Northern California estate where the movie took place….

Besides just being really scared, guests will have the opportunity to explore the two-story property in Tomales, Calif., and see eerie details such as knife marks on the doors to the garage. They will also get a virtual greeting at check-in from their host, David Arquette, who will be reprising his role as small-town sheriff Dewey Riley….

As one who loves movies, I think this is a tremendous idea. And when I say “poorly executed,” I don’t mean they didn’t follow through properly on details. For instance, here’s a picture of a room in the house, which you see comes complete with such time-appropriate items as a cordless landline phone. Also, it appears that when you watch the four movies in the series, they will be on VHS. Nice.

The trouble is, they chose a movie — or movie franchise — that I have never seen, and never intend to see. In fact, I’m not into the genre. My favorite work in this vein is this Geico ad, which makes fun of it wonderfully. So they’re not getting my hard-earned vacation bucks.

But there are some I would at least consider, assuming I had the money, and if certain impossible things were possible. Note that these are not my Top Five movies or anything. I thought about that. For instance, I thought about the Bailey home from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” But beyond having the top of the newel post on the stairs come loose every time you grabbed it, I wasn’t sure how to perfectly create the feeling of being in that particular house. So I just picked five movies I like that were set in places that lend themselves to the concept:

Number Five: “Home Alone” house — This is at No. 5 because it really didn’t require much creative thought. But I had to include it because among films I actually like, I can’t think of any that is more about a house as much as anything. Sure, Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci are both very entertaining, and who can forget John Candy’s cameo as the reassuring Polka King? But the house itself plays as important a role as any of the humans. “Home” is even in the title. I came away from watching it thinking, “I’d like to live in that house.” And it’s a real house, in the actual suburbs of Chicago. It’s still there. But since it sold for more than $1.5 million in 2015, you’d be better off aspiring to rent it through Airbnb.

Number Four: Almost Famous” bus — Why does it have to be a house? Rock bands’ tour buses have places to sleep on them, right? Of course, for this one to work, you have to assume a little magic: The actors from the movie would all be there, too, and they would all be the same ages they were when the film was made in 2000. Well, Patrick Fugit wouldn’t be there, because the idea is that you, the paying guest, would be that character. But you’d see Russell Hammond and Jeff Bebe and the other members of Stillwater. And here’s the best part: You’d get to sit next to Miss Penny Lane! You’d all be on your way to the Riot House in L.A., which would be a long way away as you drive through Midwestern farm country. And all of you would be singing “Tiny Dancer” together.

Number Three: Young Frankenstein” castle — As you approached your destination, Eye-gor would announce, “There wolf. There castle.” Assuming you wanted him to talk that way, which you would. You, of course, would be back in the hay with Inge. Once at the castle, you would be led to your chamber by the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (the horses outside all whinny loudly), carrying an unlit candelabra. She would warn you to stay close to the candles, for the stairs are treacherous. Then she would offer you Ovaltine before you retired. The fun would start when Inge came to your bed to wake you up from your Nachtmare, and the two of you would then follow the secret passage (“Put… the candle… BACK!”) down to the hidden laboratory, which would be filled with the actual, functioning equipment from the movie this one was lampooning.

Number Two: Cool Hand Luke” barracks — Hey, if people will pay money to be in a place where a horror movie was set, why not a prison? And you can have a lot of fun here, playing poker with your fellow guests for a cold drink. If you get tired of that, you can bet everyone you can eat 50 eggs. Why 50? It’s a nice, round number. Then, after everybody’s in their bunks, Dragline will keep you all awake by talking endlessly — in great, steamy detail — about “Lucille.” Speaking of the bunks, remember that clean sheets come on Saturday, at which time you put the clean sheet on the top, the top sheet on the bottom, and turn in the bottom sheet to the laundry boy. That’s a rule. There are a lot of rules, but don’t complain about it. If you do, that will be regarded as back-sassing a free man, and you’ll spend the night in the box. And you don’t want that.

Number One: HMS Surprise — Really, I just wrote the whole post for this one, because it is truly the ultimate. And like the “Home Alone” house, the venue actually exists. The filmmakers adapted HMS Rose to look and sail exactly like Surprise herself, and with ol’ Boney dead and the war over, it’s probably available now. At the start of your experience, instead of being greeted by a video of David Arquette like in the “Scream” version, the real-life Killick himself (as portrayed by David Threlfall) will walk up to you, as ornery as ever, jerk his thumb back over his shoulder, and announce, “Wittles is up!” That will be the start of a magnificent feast featuring soused hog’s face, flying fish that just happened to land on the deck moments before, an unending flow of wine (“The bottle stands by you, sir!” the captain will say repeatedly), and some sort of pudding, maybe even Spotted Dick. And that’s just the start. Your stay won’t last a weekend, or even a week, but months and months, because you’ll be sailing to the Far Side of the World. And it won’t cost you a thing. In fact, you yourself will be paid — not much in wages, but prize money is guaranteed! When you catch up with the chase, the captain will give you a pep talk, then give the poor sods a broadside, and you’ll board ’em in the smoke — a pistol in one hand and a heavy cavalry saber in the other! And you can’t say fairer than that, can you, mate?

I look forward to your own ideas.

Some of your shipmates aboard Surprise. That’s Killick pouring the wine.

Top Five Social Media I Hate (Personally)

The above is an email I got today. My reaction was, “LinkedIn deserves to be ‘moentized,’ far as I’m concerned. I may moentize it myself, next time I see it…”

We’ll talk another day about people who send out such emails, and are so careless with their headlines. Today let’s stick to LinkedIn, shall we? I hate it.

Which inspired me to write this quick-and-dirty list of social media I hate. And when I say “quick and dirty,” I mean even quicker and dirtier than the sloppy one about the Top Songs earlier.

I think I spent way less than one minute coming up with the five. Which is fitting, when writing about social media, don’t you think?

Anyway, here’s the list. Note that this is a personal list. I have to deal with some of these professionally, and in truth for many in business something like LinkedIn actually is useful, and I often help people make it more useful to them. But for me, I don’t get much out of it. This is partly because I’m not at a point in life when I’m trying to a) get a job or b) build a career. In other words, this is not business; it’s strictly personal:

  1. LinkedIn — Years ago, a colleague persuaded me to sign up for this, because it was the “professional Facebook,” or something like that. Not long before that, someone had persuaded me to sign up for Twitter, and I had loved that, so why not give this a chance, too, I figured. Also, I was briefly persuaded that in my post-newspaper career, I needed to be on LinkedIn. I no longer am. In fact, I haven’t been for years. Persuaded, I mean. Maybe y’all can argue me into believing again that it serves a purpose to me. Have at it.
  2. Snapchat — OK, I think maybe this feature has changed, but I’m not going to look it up, because I don’t care. I mean the feature that anything you posted there would soon disappear. This was touted as a feature rather than a flaw, which means it was being pushed to people who were stupid enough to post, on the internet, things they did not want other people to see. Here I was, glorying in the fact that anything posted on the Web could stay there forever (unless one’s blog disappeared), meaning that I would never in my life have to type or copy or in any way again publish the “background” we used to have to put in news stories — all you had to do was link to the old material, because it wasn’t going away! That was possibly the one most wonderful thing about the Web. And these people were giving it the finger. So I hate it.
  3. Instagram — It’s about pictures, and yet you can’t right-click and save a picture from it. How stupid and pointless is that? I can grab pictures, if I need them, from anywhere else. But not from here. Which I realize is intentional, and that irritates me no end. I’m responsible with pictures, and careful not to use them if I don’t have permission to do so, within the boundaries of Fair Use. (Ask Paul DeMarco.) So I stay away from it.
  4. Reddit — Listen, I know a lot of intelligent people who really like this medium. But I don’t, because I don’t understand it. I’ve tried using it, and couldn’t find any reason way in which it was a helpful or useful tool, and decided I didn’t understand it. Which meant the people who love it must be smarter than I am. And what do I think of a social medium that shows me other people are smarter than I am? I hate it.
  5. Facebook — It’s a little weird that this is only No. 5 on my list, because I’m sure that I say “I hate Facebook” more than I say I hate all other social media combined. But that’s just because I deal with it that much more. So does everyone, because it is by far the most ubiquitous. And one of many reasons it’s so dominant is that in many ways it is useful. Like for sharing pictures and news with a group of friends and relatives. For instance, one branch of my family has a members-only group from which I’ve gotten lots of great old family pictures for my tree. And Facebook does that better, and more conveniently, than most other instruments. Of course, if you start using FB as your sole Source for News and All Knowledge, it will mess you up. But that’s your fault. So really, I just occasionally dislike it fairly strongly, and other days enjoy what I get out of it….

Of course, there are other social media I love, even as I see their profound flaws and worry about the Rabbit Hole phenomenon. Those include Twitter — use it responsibly — and YouTube.

Then there are in-between social media — such as Pinterest. I go surf through it occasionally, and it intrigues me, but I can’t shake the feeling that it could be so much better

A slapdash ‘Top Ten (plus) Songs of All Time’ list

A Pre-Raphaelite take on “Greensleeves”…

Just to start a conversation…

I mean, a serious Top Ten Songs of all Time would take years to think through and put together, and even then I’d probably hesitate to publish it without lots of caveats, protesting my own ignorance and forgetfulness. How do you construct such a list and have confidence in it?

Think about it. I doubt that any of us would even be familiar with a tune dating back before, maybe, the 9th century (see my list below). And surely there was something catchy going on somewhere in the Roman Empire — not to mention the many thousands of years homo sapiens was kicking around before inventing writing. Some caveman might have had a great groove going on around the campfire (assuming fire had come along).

Because “all time” is a long time.

But even within my own lifetime, I’m sure that if I tried to do it, within five minutes after posting, I’d remember something I’d forgotten. And then I’d remember something else.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about doing such a list for awhile, and I was reminded of that notion today when I saw this tweet, shared by our own Bryan Caskey:

Bryan had replied, “Rolling Stone Magazine is just trying to stay relevant and avoid relegation into the lower tier.” (I sort of wondered what he meant. What about that list made it “relevant?” And relevant to whom, in what context?)

In any case I jumped in, criticizing specifics: “Seems like they’re trying a bit too hard to ‘take care of TCB,’ to cite a painfully redundant phrase I heard somewhere. And ‘Like a Rolling Stone?’ I’m not sure that would even make a list of top ten songs by Dylan alone…”

I was overreacting a bit. That probably would make a Dylan Top Ten. But fourth best song of all time, by anybody? Come on…

Anyway, here’s the Rolling Stone list.

And now, my own slapdash effort. I’m just going to throw a bunch of songs out there, with some of them being representative of several other songs I might have chosen in the same category. And to save time, I’m not going to worry about paring it down to 10, much less my usual five, because that takes extra work. Note that these are all popular songs; I’m not trying to be all arty with you. (You may argue that Veni, veni, Emmanuel is sacred plainchant — or something like that; I’m no expert — but I will say it had to be really popular to last 12 centuries.)

Oh, and I’m not ranking them, just listing sorta, kinda chronologically. Here we go:

  • O Come. O Come, Emmanuel” — If you’d perused the charts back in the 9th century, you’d probably have known it as Veni, veni, Emmanuel. Definitely my favorite hit from before the Norman Conquest. And I guess it’s the oldest song I know — or the oldest that I know is that old. The Church plays this a lot during Advent — it’s sort of the Advent song. But they never quite play it enough for me.
  • Greensleeves” — Or, as it was known when published in 1580, “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves.” As you probably know, Shakespeare mentioned it. I first heard the tune myself when I went to see “How the West Was Won” as a kid. Now, I usually hear it at Mass in the weeks after Advent ends, as “What Child Is This?” Whatever the lyrics, it’s an awesome tune. So congratulations, King Henry. This was your one chance to make the list, and you did it! (Just kidding.)
  • La Marseillaise” — This is the only national anthem on the list, I promise. I love our own, and “God Save the Queen,” and the Russians have a nice one. I can even say positive things about “Deutschland über alles” (or, as it is correctly called, the Deutschlandlied — but we don’t usually call it that because it’s a lousy song name). But I think the French take the prize in this, if in nothing else. If you doubt the song’s power, go watch “Casablanca” again.
  • Lorena” — There were a lot of hit songs during the Civil War, but of all those Ken Burns weaved so artfully into his TV series, I find this one most appealing. It predated the war, but during the fighting it was huge among both the blue and the gray. Here’s a version with words.
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” — Same here. Written in 1938, but during the war, this one most powerfully captured the yearning of so many millions to be back with their loved ones. One of the most wistful songs ever.
  • Hard-Headed Woman” — Had to get in some Elvis P. This one was my fave when I was about 3 (the year it came out), and I’m just going to keep it there. It’s special because it represents a certain category in my mind, which is songs that really rock out, no holds barred. You could say the same about “Tutti-Frutti,” or maybe another Little Richard track such as “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Creedence made a solid entry in the class with “Traveling Band.” But this is my favorite. When I was a kid, I definitely had a favorite line. I used to go around saying, “You better keep your cotton-pickin’ fingers out my curly hair…” Oh, and if you like some Wanda Jackson, here you go.
  • Summer Wind” — I’m also making a special effort to get in some Sinatra, and to me, this one blows away all the others.
  • Yesterday” — OK, I’m being hard on the Beatles here, only allowing them one song. Especially hard on Lennon, since as even he admitted, he had nothing to do with this one. If you want to be kinder to John, you can substitute “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” or maybe “In My Life.” If I spent years working on this list, really did the homework and the sweating, I might end up with more than one Beatles song on the list, but this one will have to represent the rest.
  • Just Like a Woman” — My answer to Rolling Stone including “Like a Rolling Stone.” Yes, that’s very emblematic of him, but it’s easy to name a bunch of his works that are simply better songs, no doubt about it. And if you don’t think this is the best thing from “Blonde on Blonde,” I’ll allow you to substitute “Visions of Johanna.”
  • Soldier of Love” — This me pulling a real Barry (from High Fidelity) move, going with a pop song that’s sort of esoteric. I loved it when I heard the cover of it on “The Beatles on the BBC,” but I think I might have enjoyed the Pearl Jam cover even more. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard the original, whoever did it. (Oops, found it.)
  • Mas Que Nada” — If you want to evoke the 1960s in the mind of someone who actually lived through them, you’ll play this perhaps even more readily than something by the Beatles or the Stones. That’s what Austin Powers did, and it worked. Coming from me, it also represents my love of samba music from that era. So you could also have chosen “One-Note Samba,” “Desafinado,” or the ultimate standby, “The Girl from Ipanema.” For that matter, just get Astrud Gilberto to sing anything, even if not samba, and I’ll be happy.
  • Green Shirt” — My official Elvis C. entry. Again, could have been any number of others, but we love this one down at the Quisling Clinic.
  • Hallelujah” — I’ve raved about this a number of times in the past, but I tell you — this Leonard Cohen masterpiece would probably make the Top Ten list even if I spent the rest of my life on it.
  • Creep” — Wanted to get in something good from the early ’90s — the very last gasp of rock music — and probably would have been happy with something from Weezer or Green Day, but for now this will do. The boys from Abingdon did a great job on this one. And if you’d like a fun cover, here ya go.
  • Hey Ya” — Here, I’m just being perverse by including one song from the Rolling Stone list. It was the only pick that I found at all original or thoughtful, and I’m sure Barry would say the same. So I’m throwing it in. It ain’t “Greensleeves,” but it’s catchy.

Yeah, that was 15. I just didn’t want to do the sweating necessary to get it down to 10. I look forward to seeing y’all’s lists. And remember, “all-time” doesn’t just mean, you know, when you were in high school…

‘This Murdaugh case is like something out of ‘The Bay'”

I had not really been following the Murdaugh case, although practically everyone who still works at The State seemed to be doing so, in their professional capacities, over the last few months. I skimmed the headlines, and there were a lot of those, so I sort of knew the gist of what had been happening before it got even crazier this past week or so.

How crazy? Well, I missed a call last night at 11:37 p.m., then listened to the voicemail this morning. It was from a night editor at The New York Post. They wanted to see if I’d cover a hearing for them today in the Murdaugh case. I’m still on their stringer list, going back to that time when I “covered” Mark Sanford’s return from Argentina back in 2009, right after I left the paper. I put “covered” in quotes because all I did was take notes at the notorious marathon presser at the State House, while someone in New York wrote the story from watching it on TV. I was just an excuse for them to put a Columbia dateline on the story. But they generously gave me a byline, under the modest, understated headline, “LUST E-MAILS OF BUENOS AIRHEAD.” As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. Anyway, friends of mine in New York saw it, and brought it to my attention. Time has passed, but I’m not sure I’ve lived it down yet. Sigh…

Anyway, I said I was busy — which I was (a second Post editor called me this morning as I was taking my Dad for a medical appointment) — and wished them luck in finding someone.

But I wasn’t writing about that; this is about the Murdaugh case.

Wait, another digression… Any of you ever watch the Britbox streaming service? It’s pretty good. My wife and I have been enjoying it for about a year now. Anyway, the last couple of weeks we were watching both seasons of “The Bay.” It’s a Brit cop show built around a woman who is a family liaison officer with the police department in Morecambe, Lancashire.

Each full season — or as the Brits would say, “series” — tells the highly involved story of a single case. The second “series” is about a lawyer who is shot and killed at his own home in front of his young son. Then, as the protagonist Lisa Armstrong works with the victim’s family during the investigation, things get really complicated. Documents are found that indicate problems at the family law firm. Relationships among members of the family turn out to be unbelievably tangled, suggesting a number of reasons why the attorney was murdered. Someone else — actually, a main character on the show — is killed along the way. It takes every episode just to lay it all out.

So when my wife said the other day, “This Murdaugh case is like something out of ‘The Bay’,” I nodded. Because it is. Except, more people die in this real-life story.

And here’s what’s interesting about that — to me, if not to you. Often, when we’re watching another one of these tangled mystery stories — not just “The Bay,” but all of them, with bodies falling left and right and everything so mixed up you have no idea whodunit — I observe with a knowing tone that murder in real life isn’t like this.

Murder in real life is more like… Well, I remember one from many years ago in Tennessee. One drunk shot another drunk during an argument over what to watch on TV. I remember that one not because it was so remarkable, but because it epitomized the kinds of homicides you usually see — just a straightforward, disgusting mess. No mastermind carrying out a meticulous plot. Just someone who was so obvious a kindergartener could solve the case. Except you don’t even need the kindergartener, because the killer so often confesses. Even when it’s in the first degree.

Anyway, that’s the kind of killing I generally covered during my brief time as a reporter, more than 40 years ago back in Tennessee.

But the Murdaugh case isn’t like that. It’s more like the ones on TV. And we’re all still waiting for the answers to the biggest questions, as if we were on the next-to-last episode of a season of “The Bay,” or “Unforgotten.”

And that’s why the whole country is riveted. By the way, if you’ve been ignoring it much as I had been until now, it’s kind of handy to read the accounts today in national newspapers, because they have to touch on all the main episodes in the story. Here’s the one in The New York Times, and here’s the one today in The Washington Post

Just like a TV mystery. Except, of course, that it involves real people, our neighbors. I don’t know the Murdaughs, but I know people who know them. I know one of Alex Murdaugh’s lawyers, for instance, as do many of you.

And for months, I refused to be entertained by the horror visited upon this family and the people around them. I refused to be a riveted consumer of a latter-day penny dreadful. A made-up story on TV is one thing. This is entirely different.

But it’s become rather difficult to ignore, hasn’t it?

Giving NPR another try…

I thought the reboot of 'The Wonder Years' sounded OK, but I didn't watch the first one, either, so...

I thought the reboot of ‘The Wonder Years’ sounded OK, but I didn’t watch the first one, either, so…

Editor’s note: I’m experimenting with editing the new version of the blog.

Following up on my previous post about how fed up I am with most news these days…

I just did a quick walk around the block (it’s a big block, just under a mile) — after lunch and before diving back into work.

I listened to NPR One, and resolved from the start that I would immediately click past anything that had to do with any of the topics mentioned in that post. (That includes, as an extension of the ban on Afghanistan stories, anything that tried to take a “20th anniversary of 9/11” approach, which tends to get you into the same stuff). Oh, and I also clicked very quickly past anything that smacked of Identity Politics. You know how I am about that. You can take any interesting subject in the world, and ruin it by trying to interpret it solely in demographic terms.

I was trying to be optimistic. I was hoping to find something like the Myers-Briggs podcast I wrote about in this separate post.

That didn’t happen.

In the more than half an hour I walked, I only allowed three stories to play, and only one of those all the way through. Two of them dealt with people who play the piano — a 4-year-old prodigy, and a… well, I didn’t listen to enough of it to remember. (Sorry, Phillip!)

The one thing I listened to all the way through was this piece about the TV season about to be unveiled. I was curious because, this not being 1965, I didn’t realize people still seriously talked about “the new fall TV season.” In fact, if you had asked me whether any such thing even still existed, I might not have answered correctly.

I listened all the way through because I was curious to see whether any of the shows mentioned would be something I might want to watch. None met that standard…

I DID listen to this one, but it wasn't awesome...

I DID listen to this one, but it wasn’t awesome…

Hollywood’s idea of a ‘spy’ (plus, Top Five REALISTIC Spy Films)

Austin and his lovely, sexy sidekick strike the classic pose, in an only slightly more ridiculous way than Bond.

Austin and his lovely, sexy sidekick strike the classic pose, in an only slightly more ridiculous way than Bond.

The amazing thing about the first Austin Powers movie was that it didn’t have to change much from the original to make it hilarious.

I didn’t fully realize that until “Thunderball” became available on one of my streaming services some time later, and I watched it for the first time in decades. A lot of the silliest tropes — the villain with his cat, the assistant villains sitting around a table and the head guy pushing a button that sent them to their deaths when they displeased him, and other things — were copied almost frame by frame. And it was just as silly in the original, although perhaps not as enjoyably funny.

Of course, no one had to remind me that about such things as putting the hero into an unnecessarily elaborate death trap and walking away, trusting it will work. We had all seen that many times. And “Austin” had a lot of fun with it.

But all the Bond films were like that. And so were other things my generation grew up on, from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to “The Avengers.” Austin didn’t add much more than a goofy grin. And it worked.

And yet audiences continue to shell out money for Hollywood’s completely ridiculous notion of what a “spy” is. You know the recipe. A Hollywood spy is pretty much always:

  • Extremely violent, and outrageously good at it. You know it’s a “spy” film if the hero is posing on the poster with a handgun — sometimes held pointing at the sky, other times directly at the camera. Why the “spy” needs a firearm is somewhat bewildering, because he or she is so fantastically skilled at unarmed combat. It doesn’t matter how good the opposition is, or how well-armed, or how many there are, the hero will overcome them without breaking a sweat — usually while making corny jokes. That is, until the climactic scene, in which someone — maybe the chief villain, more likely his superhuman assistant — gives the hero a real challenge, for dramatic purposes.
  • In fact, the “spy” is pretty much a superhero, with inhuman abilities that extend beyond fighting, to driving a wide variety of hot cars and other vehicles, manipulating technology, etc.
  • Good-looking, whether male or female (and if female, extremely sexy and usually dressed provocatively). Which is convenient for our hero, because the “spy” is as sex-obsessed as a 14-year-old boy, but unlike that boy, gets plenty. Which is why that demographic tends to love these films. (That could be me!…)
  • Does almost nothing that an actual, real-life spy would recognize as intelligence work, such as collecting, you know, information. Or building a network of agents, or leaving chalk marks on lampposts, or clearing dead-letter boxes, or any of those kinds of things that can mind-paralyzingly dangerous, but aren’t that exciting for 14-year-olds to watch.

And when you add it all up, all the glittering, exploding cliches actually get pretty boring in the aggregate, no matter how much expensive property is destroyed in the chase scenes.

And in a way, everyone sort of knows that it’s a joke — I guess. Because all sorts of comedies get made using this material. Long before Austin, there was “Get Smart!,” and for that matter the first film iteration of “Casino Royale,” and today there’s… well, just look:

spycom 1

Which is fine, if you don’t mind monotony in your comedy. Hollywood has seen the absurdity in its own caricature of espionage, in fact, since the beginning of the genre, as you can see if you Google “1960s spy comedies.” Even Graham Greene himself mocked the form before James Bond really took off on the silver screen. (Of course, being Graham Greene, he did so masterfully.)

And yet, there is nothing at all funny about intelligence work. In fact, in real life it can be more than a little depressing, in its gray, sordid day-to-day exploitation of human weaknesses. But in the hands of the right creator, it can be fascinating.

There have been a few, a very few, serious spy films (and TV shows) over last few decades, and the best do what the best spy novels have always done: Dig down very deep into the complexities of the human mind, the human soul — the lies, the contradictions, the moral ambiguities, the psychological conflicts, the betrayal. The cover story, the fallback story, the real story, and the interplay between them all.

And there’s almost never an explosion or a car chase. In the most realistic such stories, the hero never so much as touches a gun. You know where some of the most suspenseful moments in John le Carre novels occur? In meetings. Irritating, apparently boring, bureaucratic affairs around a table in a conference room (“Stupid bloody cabaret” said a key character of such a gathering in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). But they can be tense as all get out, and lives can hang in the balance.

The truest spy stories are mystery tales in which you’re often not sure, at the end, whodunit. Ever see the rather obscure “Yuri Nosenko, KGB,” starring Tommy Lee Jones? It’s based on the true story of a KGB officer who defected to us in the early ’60s. Or did he? People still debate what was really going on — was he a defector, or a plant sent to deceive us about Russian involvement in JFK’s assassination? (I think about that movie a lot when I hear people say with such certainty, “Bush lied, people died,” simply because he apparently chose to believe the wrong bits of intel among contradictory accounts that were available to him. It’s just not that simple.)

Anyway, the other night my wife and I saw a good one: “The Courier,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It was another one based on a true story — that of Greville Wynne, the British businessman recruited by MI6 to contact Oleg Penkovsky, one of the most important spies the West ever had in the East. He’s the guy who let us know the Soviets were putting those missiles in Cuba. The possible fate of the planet lay in the plans he sent us through a complete amateur, because it was considered too dangerous for a professional to get near him (the KGB were tailing all such people). As it worked out, matters of global importance hung on the friendship that developed between these two wildly different men from opposite ends of the Cold War divide. By the end, these two strangers were willing to die for each other. And nobody had to make it up.

By the way — here’s a sort of blog post in a blog post. You’ve heard that, between streaming and COVID, movie theaters are dead? Well, true enough. What does it cost to go to a movie these days? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s ridiculous. And popcorn and a drink (which is where theaters’ profits have always come from) costs more.

Well, we rented “The Courier” from Apple for 99 cents. That’s almost as little as I paid to get into movies on military bases when I was a kid. Hard to beat. And I didn’t have people talking or bouncing on the seats around me, and I could turn on subtitles, and pause and repeat dialogue if I missed something. There’s no comparison.

Oh, and now I see we wasted our money, because now Amazon Prime will show it to us subscribers for “free.” I may watch it again now. (Meanwhile, you have to pay $4.99 for “The Spy Next Door.”)

Anyway, all that meandering is way too much of an intro to a very quick Top Five Most Realistic Spy Movies list. And yes, I know it seems like I’ve done this before. But you’re confusing it with “Top Five (and other) Cold War Movies” or “Top Five John le Carre novels.” So pay closer attention, people.

Here’s the list:

  1. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — Yeah, yeah, I’ve mentioned this on other lists. Still amazing. But pay close attention, if you want to understand what’s happening.
  2. The Little Drummer Girl — No, not the recent TV show — the movie, with Diane Keaton. This one has gotten way too little attention over the years, but it’s about as pure a spy film as you’ll find: A reluctant agent is recruited by the Mossad (the part about the recruitment is the best part of the original novel) to go as deep as you can get into a Palestinian terrorist cell. I have it on DVD, but it was hard to find. If you can get ahold of it, see it. And yeah, Le Carre again. What can I say?
  3. The Lives of Others — OK, this is really marginal as a spy movie — it’s about domestic surveillance by the internal security organ of a totalitarian state, rather than the collection of information about another country — but it’s close enough, and I wanted to put it on the list just in case you haven’t seen it. Oh, yeah, it’s in German. (Yeah, Hollywood, I know: The Rock is way more bankable than Ulrich Mühe.)
  4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — The film was really good, but you need to see the TV show, with Alec Guinness. This is my way of urging you to do that. Also “Smiley’s People,” if you can get ahold of it. OK, no more le Carre mentions.
  5. The Third Man — More about a murder mystery and black-market crime than espionage if I recall correctly, but the setting is so perfect — Vienna right after the war, the place where Cold War spies first cut their teeth. It’s the atmosphere, you see, more than the plot, that gets it on the list.

I’d have put “The Courier” on there, but I’d already mentioned it.

Speaking of “The Third Man” — if you try googling “most realistic spy movies,” you’ll get some excellent flicks that are not on my list because they’re not spy movies. Like “Munich.” The thing is, while you see a lot of intelligence-gathering and some interesting tradecraft and truckloads of moral ambiguity, it’s a movie about a team of assassins, not your usual sort of spies.

Which brings me to something we could discuss all day: “The Bourne Identity.” I really, really liked it (although not really the sequels), even though it contains, in refined forms, some of the stuff I despised above — the super-violent figure, who has skills rising to the superhero level. But you see, it’s not a “spy” movie. It’s a thriller about people who have been re-engineered as super-assassins. Not the same thing. It’s really more from the paranoia genre — you know, the “what if powerful people in dark corners of the government were secretly doing horrible things” genre. Like “Three Days of the Condor,” which was also a lot of fun. But not a spy movie…

OK, one last honorable mention: Have you seen “The Ipcress File?” Well, you should — just so you’ll know where Austin Powers got his glasses. It’s an interesting mix of serious spy stuff and the smart-ass attitude that made the better “comical” films work. But more than that, as I’ve probably said multiple times before, go read the book. It’s the one that turned me on to spy fiction, and I’d like to see my friends get hooked as well…

Where Austin got his specs...

Where Austin got his specs…

 

‘Carl… what have you done?’

Switching to lighter subjects… (Actually, I had written most of it much earlier, and was nearly done with it over the weekend, but set it aside to work on the Afghanistan post. Since it was just sitting here, I’m posting it.)

In many ways, the TV commercial has had its day, and that day was a long time ago. Personally, I don’t even see as many of them as most people do. I generally don’t watch TV news, and since I’m seldom offered a baseball game on the few broadcast channels I get, I don’t see much sports. And beyond those two things, I can’t think of any reason anyone would watch live, commercial TV.

But I do watch Hulu sometimes, and since it’s not a premium account, I do see ads. And mostly, I’m unimpressed, if not put off entirely after seeing these things over and over (remind me never, ever to drink Grand Marnier, not that I think you’ll need to). I can tell the makers of these things are trying really, really hard — too hard, really. They try so hard to be creative, I often can’t tell you afterward what the product was they were trying to sell. Other times, I wish I couldn’t tell — such as the one with the young guy who sits there and earnestly explains that he started a company to help people with “erectile dysfunction” because of his own problems getting things up and going. Which. I. Did. Not. Need. To. Know. (By the way, I hope y’all appreciate my sacrifice here. I did a couple of searches to find a link to that ad, not knowing the guy’s name or the name of his company, so you know what the internet is going to be showing me from here on out, every time I look at a screen…)

But there are highlights. Geico can still, occasionally, make a good one. And sometimes they outdo themselves. The one they call “Lining the Field” is the best since the wonderful “Was Abe Lincoln Honest?” spot. And that’s saying a lot.

I don’t know who the genius was who decided they had to do an ad using the song “Build Me Up Buttercup,” but the Geico team took several stabs at it — and then, surprisingly, actually released several of them instead of just the best one. The others are… OK. (Here’s one. Here’s another. There are more.) But this one is brilliant. They just got so many things exactly right.

So many things that, when I first thought about writing about this a couple of months ago, I kept putting it off because there were so many things to mention, and, you know, it’s a pretty lightweight, silly topic. But pop culture interests me, and one of the things about it that interests me is the way I can hear a pop song my whole life, and then suddenly, I realize for the first time how awesome it is. And I wonder what causes that to happen. I’ve written about it before (in another lightweight post that took a LOT of time to write). Is it that my judgment has matured? Some new chemical in my brain? Or had I just not heard it in a sufficiently appealing context?

Anyway, this ad was kind of a multimedia earworm, and here are some of the reasons it grabbed me:

  • First, the song. Remember it? If you’re my age you certainly do, but I don’t recall ever taking the slightest notice of it before. I didn’t even know who wrote or performed it. When I first saw the ad and started thinking about it, I thought: East-coast beach music. It sounded like something out of the same moment and place as “Can’t Help Myself” — something that was on the radio constantly when I was at the Grand Strand in 1965. And now that I was listening to it for once, I realized it rivaled that Four Tops masterpiece in sheer pop awesomeness. But it wasn’t the Four Tops. It wasn’t even beach music, East Coast or West. “Build Me Up Buttercup” came out at the end of 1968! And it was by, of all things, a British band that hadn’t even existed in ’65 — The Foundations! This demonstrated the extraordinary degree to which I had ignored the song at the time. Since we moved every year or two when I was a kid, I can usually remember when a song was a hit by recalling where I heard it. But that didn’t work at all with this.
  • The Foundations — I knew nothing about them! So I started Googling, and right away found another great song I had ignored at the time: “Baby Now That I’ve Found You.” Yeah, it’s a lot like the other one — so much so that when both of them were stuck in my head (a double-earworm!) when I was at the beach in June, one would pop up and I’d have to softly sing a few lines to myself, walking along the shore, to remember which one it was. (Is this the one from the ad or the other one?) But I’m not complaining. None of their other songs reached out and grabbed me in the same way, but I’m happy just to have fully recalled and finally embraced these two.
  • Syncopation? I’ve learned quite a few things over the last 67 years or so. As have y’all. Or most of y’all, anyway. 🙂 But there are some things that, try as I might, I’ve just never gotten straight in my head. A lot of them have to do with music, and one of them is “syncopation.” But I keep trying to wrestle with it. For instance, listening over and over to “Build Me Up Buttercup,” I focused on the hesitation in the opening lines, the pause in lyrics after “build me up”– and again after “let me down” — and I thought, is that syncopation? But I don’t think so. I read the descriptions of the musical phenomenon the word describes, and I really don’t think so. I tried looking it up, again. I watched a video or two, and I thought this one was good. So that’s syncopation, huh? Yeah, it sort of fits the descriptions I’ve read. That’s not what’s going on in the song, I don’t think — is it? I looked at the sheet music, and didn’t see any indication something unusual was happening in the beat structure. (But can you see syncopation on sheet music? Maybe not.) What my brain perceives as hesitation (since I’m a word guy, who thinks in terms of complete sentences) is apparently just space for the background vocal. I think. But I could be wrong. Maybe it is syncopation that creates that hook that pulls you right into the song. But I can’t tell. My damaged brain isn’t up to the task. Of course, it wasn’t back before it was damaged, either. Whatever it is, I like it.
  • Casting. I have no idea who the actor who plays Carl is. (So far, Google hasn’t told me; I’ve tried.) But he’s amazing. I’m not saying he’s necessarily an amazing actor in general — he might not make an impression in a Shakespearean production. But he’s perfect for this. Or maybe it’s not him. Maybe it’s the direction, or the skillful editing. But the dialogue is perfect, and perfectly delivered: “Think anyone will notice?… Yeah. (hesitation). Yeah they will.” He’s not tearing himself apart with remorse or anything; he’s just acknowledging a point, with complete honesty. The comic timing is exactly right. Which could be all him, or could be the one out of 100 takes that the makers of the ad chose. But it’s great.
  • The helmet. Of course, “Carl” is hilarious way before that, before you even know what’s really going on. That unbelievably goofy smile as he, in his imagination, rides his bike down the curving road and really, really gets into singing the song. Not just the smile, but the way he bobs up and down over the handlebars and cocks his head to the side as he sings “and mess me around…” Just digging it. So, more good work by the actor. But you know what? I think the helmet adds a lot to it. It makes him look so different from the guy lining the field (even though his hair is kind of helmet-like) that it almost introduces an element of imperfection to the ad, since your brain has to adjust a bit to realize it’s still him. Especially since in his imagination, his smile is even goofier, has an entirely different quality, as he rides down the road. But helmets can do that. They often make people look wildly different, and hilarious in surprising ways. Just ask poor Michael Dukakis. Perhaps this is why all those goofballs protest against helmet laws. They’d rather have their brains splattered on the pavement than look like that.

OK, I’ll stop now.

I’m (rather obviously) not writing this as some kind of expert on TV commercials. Because I’m not. Oh, I wrote a few forgettable spots for an ADCO client several years back. But I’m a writer and an editor, and that’s about it.

But I know what I like, and I often spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about why I like some scrap of ephemera that zips past me as I go through life. This one’s been loitering in my head most of the summer, and I thought I’d go ahead and try to evict it…

"... and mess me around..."

“… and mess me around…”