Monthly Archives: September 2010

Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis, who died yesterday at the age of 85, never failed to credit Burt Lancaster with giving his film career a new lease on life, right at the point where the costume epics had lost their luster. Lancaster did it by casting Curtis as Sidney Falco, the desperately hustling press agent in Sweet Smell of Success. Curtis considered the performance his finest, and it just so happens I think he’s right.

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Real-life funnies

“Do you have a humor section?”

“Yes, but it’s pretty laughable.”

Exit, pursued by harlequin

Harlan Ellison says the end is near. For him, that is. I appreciate the warning, because if there’s any one person I can point to and say, “That’s who first showed me how writing can come alive on a printed page,” it’s Harlan Ellison. Never met the man except through his work, which is just how it should be with a writer, but when he goes it’s going to take me quite a while to sort out my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

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Educational transparency

Attended back-to-school night at Dances With Mermaid’s middle school. The setup had the parents starting at their kids’ homerooms, then going from classroom to classroom at 10-minute intervals. The middle school has three levels, and the class schedules were clearly programmed by some Jack LaLanne wannabe out to give everybody a good aerobic workout. Lots of parents puffing and blowing in the stairwells and hallways, but what the hey — I needed the exercise.

The teachers made a really good impression. I was particularly taken with the social studies teacher, whose enthusiasm for his course — and the wit he showed in explaining it to us — has me expecting good things for the year. That’s assuming the Cholesterol King down in Trenton doesn’t escalate his anti-public-schools jihad into an actual shooting war.

At one point the teacher gestured toward the window and explained that he’d drawn a map of the Roman Empire across the glass. We couldn’t see it at night, but during the day it would be clearly visible as a transparency on God’s own overhead projector.

“So that way, when the kids get bored and stare out the window, they’re staring at the subject,” he said. “Even when they’re not paying attention, they’re still getting an education.” Cool guy!

Now that I think on it, most of my favorite grade-school teachers were in either science or social studies (aka, history). Since I graduated from college with an English degree, I wonder what that says about anything.

Blue Monday

I’ve written about this performance before, but this clip is just about the best merger of instructional words and inspirational music I’ve ever seen. It’s the celebrated Paul Gonsalves saxophone solo from the Duke Ellington orchestra’s 1956 stand at the Newport Jazz Festival. Read, listen, and have fun.

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Black-and-Blue Monday

During the course of this analysis of how action filmmakers started making deliberately muddled action sequences in the Nineties, David Bordwell pits a fistfight from one of the lamer James Bond flicks, Tomorrow Never Dies, against the all-out shopping mall slugfest Jackie Chan staged for the climax of Police Story. (Considering that Police Story opened with this, Chan had to go a long way to top himself.) Part of it is Chan’s immense on-screen charm, but I find it impossible to watch one of his bouts without cracking up at least once. Bordwell’s right — entirely too many “action” filmmakers have lost the ability to make good action sequences.

Bordwell’s post gives me an excuse to plug the extended dustup between Chan and kickboxing champion Benny “The Jet” Urquidez at the end of the preposterously titled Wheels on Meals. Though its not nearly as intense as the final sword-fight in Rob Roy, it reminds me of that gold-standard sequence in the way Chan starts messing with Urquidez once it becomes clear who’s going to win. It’s not as nasty as Archie Cunningham’s cocksure mind games, but sitting down to take a breather, knowing your opponent is so bushed that he won’t be able to come at you, certainly ranks as an epic psych-out.

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The poison tree

A woman wandered into the store yesterday and struck up a conversation, during the course of which it was established that (a) she was a Billie Holliday fan, and yet (b) had never heard of “Strange Fruit,” arguably Hollliday’s most famous performance.  Through the magic of iPod, this gap was immediately filled.

It’s wild to think that when Holliday recorded the song in 1939, she herself could have been lynched for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’d like to compare the arguments used to delay the passage of anti-lynching laws with the arguments against hate-crime laws. I expect the comparison would be instructive.

Okay, all you Confederate nostalgists — sing along:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

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Silver-haired rider

I haven’t paid close attention to much of Robert Plant’s post-Zeppelin work over the years, but his new disc Band of Joy is in heavy rotation at the bookstore and I’m not even close to getting tired of it. The sound is a lot closer to Raising Sand than Physical Graffiti, but there are a couple of incantatory rockers — like “Silver Rider” in this clip — that recall a bit of the old spook without sounding the least bit imitative. Zep scholars will recognize the disc’s title as the name of the band Plant shared with drummer John Bonham, just before Jimmy Page elevated them to godhood. I have no idea what the old Band of Joy sounded like, but the new incarnation is welcome around here.

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It took a lickin’ and kept on clickin’

If Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter could land a quarter-million-dollar bid at Christie’s last year, I would think Harlan Ellison’s very first Shraybmashinke would fetch an equally princely sum. For details, and more pictures like the one above, head thisaway. The description of the typewriter’s background is particularly poignant if read in conjunction with volume three of On the Road With Ellison. (Bird dogged by Steve Perry and Freddy the K.)

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Blue Monday

The new super-duper boxed-set edition of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town is coming out in a couple of months. While the packaging looks complete to the point of overkill, it probably won’t include a snapshot of the T-shirt that defined the New Jersey summers during the three-year layover between Born to Run and the 1978 release of Darkness. As anyone who was in the vicinity of Asbury Park back then would know, Springsteen fans were walking around the boardwalk with T-shirts emblazoned with MIKE APPEL SUCKS. Appel, Springsteen’s original manager, did not go quietly when rock critic Landau moved in on his meal ticket, which is why the followup to Born to Run took so long to arrive.  That’s why, to me, the title of Darkness will always be Mike Appel Sucks.

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