Monthly Archives: February 2013

David Letterman is happy this morning

I didn’t watch all of last night’s Oscar broadcast, but I did watch enough of it to conclude that if Seth MacFarlane did nothing else, he made David Letterman very happy. I’m sure Letterman slept like a baby last night, content in the knowledge that he is no longer the worst Oscar host on record.

I had the same feeling watching MacFarlane’s performance that I got watching his cartoon, Family Guy. I duly noted the fact that my outrage button was being pushed — hammered, actually — but nothing registered because there was nothing resembling wit behind the mechanically delivered outrage. The early skit with Captain Kirk telling MacFarlane his jokes were tasteless and crass may have been intended as inoculation — Look, I’m so edgy I even criticize myself going in! — but it ended up being more of a prophecy. I’ll credit MacFarlane with looking cool and poised throughout a long, demanding broadcast. The flop sweat was all in his material.

For the record, I’m perfectly happy that Argo got the biggie, Daniel Day-Lewis got another gold guy. (Christy Brown, Daniel Plainview, Abraham Lincoln — what a roster!) and Jennifer Lawrence got her crown. I haven’t seen Life of Pi, but Ang Lee is a real talent. It was cool seeing Shirley Bassey belt out the Goldfinger theme song, then Adele doing the same for Skyfall, its only peer in the Bond canon.       

To show their appreciation, I suggest the Academy voters commission a special Oscar for Seth MacFarlane: a statuette with the hands clenched a little below waist level, to commemorate what Edgy Guy got to spend the night doing in front of millions of viewers.

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I’m Pynchon myself

In all of the newspapers where I’ve worked, editors always seemed to be hyper-vigilant against the possibility that somebody might sneak a literary reference past them. Something that might actually appeal to actual readers, God forbid. So I’m astonished to see this Boston Globe headline about the meteor explosion in Russia:


Jim Romenesko bird-dogged it (and J.D. Rhoades spread the word). Of course it’s the opening sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a certified classic of American literature. It’s a very clever idea for a headline. It’s also a very intellectual idea for a headline, which makes it all the more astonishing that it got through. It took me a while to grasp that in a newsroom, being called an “intellectual” is not quite an insult, but certainly far from a compliment. Old school newsies liked to imagine themselves sitting on a barstool next to Slats Grobnik, too busy talking sports and insider politics to bother with pishy-poshy ivory tower stuff. I pissed away entirely too much time arguing with editors who never saw a baseball reference they didn’t like, but would have had multiple aneurysms at the mere thought of a Thomas Pynchon reference tip-toeing into their news columns.

But enough of my joy. Let’s just note the classy touch on the Boston Globe story, and hope the headline writer doesn’t get in hot water.             

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The Parker files

Blunt dialogue, lean action, minimal exposition . . . you’d think the Parker novels would be naturals for Hollywood. But the antihero created by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) is a tough pill for story editors in search of — how do they put it? — characters we can care about. This makes for some highly variable movies.

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Oscar, we hardly knew ye

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is notoriously protective of Oscar and the imagery used to depict the golden guy. So it’s a little surprising to see AMPAS commissioned a series of pictures taking off on each year’s Best Picture winner. For some reason, I’m particularly taken with the winner for 1978:


The entire series can be viewed here. It’s a world-class time suck, and a good memory test. More than once I found myself thinking, “Oh jeez, that thing won?”   

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The Year of the Hat Trick

Sukarno had The Year of Living Dangerously. Ireland had The Year of the French. And now I will have The Year of the Hat Trick.

The reason for the name will become clear as the year progresses. Right now, in the every-journey-begins-with-one-small-step category, I’m running around the Internet, banging pots and pans together to announce that my upcoming nonfiction book, American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, has both a website and a spanking new Facebook page.

More to come.

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The future ain’t what it used to be

Actually, the predictions aren’t as far off the mark as you might think.

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Dog psychology


Of all the pups in Clan Westie, the Wee Laddie was always the most stable and centered. He liked to roughhouse, no mistake, and when things got dull he would usually cozy up to the Dowager Empress and yank the fur on the side of her face, just to instigate some action. But when he wasn’t tussling or patrolling the perimeter, Wee Laddie was a pretty happy-go-lucky sort of dog.

Now he’s developed a bit of a complex about the back stairs. When he comes in through the doggie door, he gets all flustered and can’t quite bring himself to make the short charge up the three steps separating him from the kitchen and the living room full of soft Westie-friendly cushions. I have to come down and open the back door. He circles outside, comes back in, gets into position, and launches himself up the steps from exactly the same point where he was vapor-locking before.

I don’t get it. But then, I don’t feel any compulsion to chase squirrels, so I guess I’m in over my head on this.

My new favorite quotation

Martin Amis, interviewed in Guernica:

“Look at Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It proves beyond any shadow of doubt that violence has declined dramatically throughout the centuries. There are various reasons for it: the rise of the state, Leviathan, the monopoly of violence, children’s rights, animal rights. They’re all positive signs. But, he says, the one he puts his money on is the invention of printing, and, funny enough, the widespread appearance of fiction. He says this taught empathy (he doesn’t like the word, but he says there is no better one). If you read a novel, you’re in someone else’s head, in three, five different people’s heads. Suddenly, the principle of ‘Don’t do anything to anyone that you wouldn’t want done to you’ becomes real in people’s minds. That’s a fantastic achievement if fiction is indeed partly responsible for it. That’s a great thing to be a part of. In the end, then, I don’t know if writers have legislated, but they have civilized.”

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Hammer-on Muldoon

Pulitzer Prize poet and Princeton professor Paul Muldoon (how’s that for alliteration?) will be reading from his work Saturday, Feb. 23, in the North Jersey burg of Rahway, just a quick hop on the Northeast Corridor train line for those without wheels of their own. Tickets are $20 apiece,but look what you get for your Jackson: a reading by one of our greatest living poets, an onstage chat and audience Q&A, and a performance by Muldoon leading his band The Wayside Shrines. That last part is particularly intriguing. Muldoon is the only major living poet I know of who owns both a Gibson Les Paul and a Stratocaster. I’ve heard rumors that Seamus Heaney favors an Eddie Van Halen Ernie Ball model, and I think Anne Sexton was known to break out a Telecaster every once in a while. Patti Smith ain’t the only poet who likes to crank it up.

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Tempus fuhgeddaboudit

All fiction is historical fiction. That’s hardly a piercing insight — even if all topical references are scrubbed out of a story, the author’s assumptions and preoccupations will fix its place in history. What IS startling, though, is how quickly that history becomes ancient history.

  While I continue the search for full-time employment, I’ve signed on as a substitute teacher in several school districts. The other day I filled in for the teacher of a reading comprehension class. The middle schoolers had been going over Rod Serling’s teleplay for “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” one of the best-known episodes of The Twilight Zone,  I warned the kids that as an artifact from pre-CGI 1960, the show’s visuals effects would look cut-rate and frequently corny — once again I marvel at how often the show reused sets and props from Forbidden Planet — but they should try to stay focused on Serling’s writing. Then I filled them in on a bit of Serling’s background as one of the first great talents of the television era, and how after years of fighting with timid programmers and intrusive advertisers, he hit on the idea of using a fantasy and science fiction-oriented series to comment with the social and political issues of the day. In an interview he called himself “a tired idealist,” but the best episodes of The Twilight Zone are anything but tired.

Then I tried to give them some more context, and promptly fell into a black hole of memory. The students got a few quick laughs at the sight of cars with running boards, but when I tried to convey the idea of living in an era when mass media consisted solely of newspapers, radio, snail mail, and television — no Internet, no smartphones, no texting — they were simply puzzled. (One of the main character is a ham radio operator — try explaining that one in millennial-friendly terms.) I asked them if they could relate the story to what was going on in current America. Some of them knew a bit about the Cold War and the civil rights movement, both major elements in the story’s background, but only one had heard of Joe McCarthy and the paranoid political climate he exploited. When I talked about 9/11, I ran into the realization that it, too, was history — they hadn’t even been born.They did smile knowingly, however, when I recalled that a great many people responded to 9/11 by becoming suspicious of all Muslims.

This isn’t going to be another complaint about how Those Damned Kids Aren’t Learnin’ Anything. I threw a lot at them in a small period of time, and a gratifyingly large number of the students tried to engage the subject. I learned a couple of things, too. One, tempus fugits a lot faster than you realize. Two, Serling’s closing message has a lot in common with Edward R. Murrow’s sign-off remark in his commentary on McCarthyism.

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