Saturday, March 31, 2007

Puck Ponderings

Sorry for the light posting today, but I spent the afternoon at the Colorado Avalanche/Minnesota Wild game, which I believe was the first professional sports contest I have ever attended in which neither team was plural.

I never fail to be surprised at how many women show up for hockey games properly garbed. Wearing a hockey jersey really says something about a woman; usually, what it seems to say is "I work at an auto-parts store."

Blood Is All Around, No Need to Fake It

The sewers of Minneapolis are exploding with blood. The upside is, this suggests a radically new and exciting direction for Ghostbusters 3.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Bustin' Out the Space Food Sticks

Without an episode of "Theme Time Radio Hour" on, I am grooving to my second-favorite XM Radio station, the Seventies on 7. This is much better than an oldies radio station, which would focus on the big names like Fleetwood Mac and the Jackson 5ive or the noteworthy songs like "Spirit in the Sky" and leave out the songs that aren't any good but are worth hearing because they remind you of exactly where you were in 1974, like "Wildfire" or anything by Lobo or something by England Dan and John Ford Coley other than "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight." I'm kind of surprised that I haven't heard "Bad Blood" yet this evening, but the night is young.

Strike Up the Banjo

Can this be true? Eric Weissberg, who headed up Dylan's backing band on Blood on the Tracks, was also the guy who played "Dueling Banjos." Or one of the duelers, I should say.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can't Listen to REO Speedwagon Without Retching

I know everyone is all pumped about Opening Night and the Mets taking on the Cardinals Sunday evening, but thanks to a St. Louis sports blog, you will know to tune in a little bit late:

REO Speedwagon will sing the national anthem in conjunction with the Tuesday release of the band’s new album, “Find Your Own Way Home” (which kind of describes my trip back from Memphis, but that’s another story), and will feature “10 original songs returning to the classic REO Speedwagon sound of power ballads and melodic rock anthems,” according to the press release. No word if the anthem will be a ”power ballad” or “melodic rock anthem”.

Me, I'm going to wait and catch the two living members of Foghat doing the anthem before the Twins/Orioles game.

Hogan's Pallbearers

Just for no reason, here's a picture of Larry Hovis, Leon Askin and Robert Clary (better known as Carter, General Burkhalter, and LeBeau) at Bob Crane's funeral in 1978. You won't find such utterly pointless yet fascinating images on just any blog.

This picture comes to us via the utterly pointless yet fascinating Web site Find a Death, which is an excellent way to kill an hour or three. It covers the last hours of many of Hollywood's leading lights, as well as many more of its lesser lights, and while obviously there are more gripping stories to be found under people like Bob Crane or Chris Farley, it's nice to find out how Richard Deacon died as well. Plus, the proprietor likes to include pictures of the often surprisingly humble dwellings these folks resided in during their final days; Shemp Howard, for example, lived in this apartment building fit for a Stooge, and this is where LaWanda "Aunt Esther" Page waved her last Bible.

My favorite Find a Death story concerns a onetime Hollywood hottie named Linda Darnell, who had managed to see her career rise skyward then plummet all the way down by the age of 41 to, of all places, Glenview, Illinois, where she was living while appearing in a play in nearby Skokie in 1965. Then the house burned down. Glenview is a nice enough town, but for a onetime starlet to be reduced to living there, only to die horribly in a house fire, is literally adding injury to insult.

Calling All Killers

I can't think of any band that fell off the cliff more quickly in the album-naming department than the Killers. Hot Fuss is a classic title -- punchy, original, descriptive. But Sam's Town -- what is that, the Wal-Mart theme park?

"Read My Mind" sounds nice on the radio, though.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Padres Say the Darnedest Things

OPC reader ECB shares with us the following story, which originated in the San Diego Tribune:

"Hey Greg, I've got one for you," Brian Giles said to new Padres teammate Greg Maddux last month. "Why was the mathematics book depressed?" Giles said. After the 333-game winner pondered the question for a few seconds, Giles slowly delivered the punch line. "Because it had a lot of problems inside."

Giles delivers more jokes here, although none of the rest are as funny as that one, which is actually pretty good, I think. Maddux doesn't laugh at any of them until Giles delivers his final zinger naked, which maybe Sarah Silverman ought to try.

Get a Job

It irritates me that American popular culture ignores the way that most people spend their days, i.e., working. Sure, maybe most people hate their jobs and don't want to be reminded of having to fill out forms for the shipping department when they go home and put on their Lynyrd Skynyrd records, but at the same time, those cultural outlets that do focus on the office grind certainly resonate with a lot of people. It's not for nothing that Dilbert seems to be the most popular comic strip in America; Mike Judge's 1999 film Office Space has become a cult hit in spite of the fact that it's really not all that good. The NBC series The Office (unseen by me) appears to be quite popular as well.

I think one reason that artists overlook what it means to spend eight hours a day in a cubicle is that many of them have never had to do so. Particularly in a young man's game like rock & roll, there is very little experience of the workaday world, so the people who can write credibly about it are few and far between. Mostly they talk generically about the repetitive, wearying toil, as witness:

"I'm going to pack my lunch in the morning/And go to work each day/And when the evening rolls around/I'll go on home and lay my body down/And when the morning light comes streaming in/I'll get up and do it again" -- Jackson Browne, "The Pretender"

"Still, tomorrow's gonna be another working day/And I'm trying to get some rest/That's all, I'm trying to get some rest" -- Paul Simon, "American Tune"

And my favorite: "I've done my best to live the right way/I get up every morning and go to work each day" -- Bruce Springsteen, "The Promised Land"

That's one reason that Fountains of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers is so impressive; it is aware not just of the soul-crushing tedium of getting up every morning to go to work, but it knows what people do all day at their jobs. The narrator of the brilliant "Bright Future in Sales" is "heading for the airport on a misty morning/Gonna catch a flight to Baltimore," but in the interim he has to "do some quick reading for the big meeting," which of course he hasn't done yet, because who wants to read anything for a meeting? In "Little Red Light," it's possibly the same character who is "Stuck in a meeting on Monday night/Trying to get the numbers to come out right." (Strangely enough, another work-oriented song on the album, "Hey Julie," seems to have gotten its cliched ideas about office life from reruns of "The Stockard Channing Show.")

I'd like to talk more about this topic, but I have some invoices to follow up on.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Things I Learned While Watching VH1 Classic

In the 1967 video for "Arnold Layne," Pink Floyd cavorts like the Help!-era Beatles on a beach -- except this being England, the beach looks cold, windswept and deserted. The video is in black and white, which doesn't lend itself to lightheartedness, plus it's totally disorienting to see Roger Waters 'aving a bit of a larf. He probably switched back to furious self-pity between takes.

Off-putting in a different way is Heatwave's "Boogie Nights" video, in which the entire band is decked out in chocolate brown pants with matching sleeveless vests (complete with lapels), with white trim; no shirts. They all look like chocolate vanilla creme Pop-Tarts. The band, surprisingly enough, was multiracial, which means there are several dorky white guys with early-70s mustaches playing the keyboards in those hideous suits. If I formed a band with, say, Bookforum editor Eric Banks and Rolling Stone columnist Rob Sheffield, and we made a video wearing our everyday shlubby white-guy clothes, people would say, "At least they look funkier than Heatwave."

An Embarrassing Lapse on the Part of the Rule Maker

Right Said Fred are the quintessential identical-twin one-hit wonder artist. I'll bet no one ever even listened to the next song on their CD all the way through.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Guest Post: The Greatest Oklahomans of All Time

Exclusively for "One Poor Correspondent," Louisa McCune-Elmore, editor in chief of Oklahoma Today magazine and a native of Enid, Oklahoma, offers her ranking of the greatest Oklahomans of all time:

1. Will Rogers
2. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips

Thanks, Louisa!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eatin' Old School in the Neighborhood

Several years back, Spin Magazine named "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock as the greatest song of all time, in what seemed to me less a sincere judgment than an attempt to make a statement about both the magazine and the ossifying state of rock criticism, although the person who made that selection later told me that he probably really did think at that moment that "It Takes Two" was the greatest song of all time.

As radical as that choice might have seemed in 1989, it seems tame these days, now that "It Takes Two" is being used in radio ads for Applebee's, possibly the whitest restaurant chain in America. One wonders if some clueless ad exec thought he was buying the rights to "It Takes Two" by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston. Or maybe I'm just completely at a loss as to how hip these family eateries have become, and I'll soon be hearing "911 Is a Joke" in an ad for Chili's.

Birthday Wishes

Please join me and the entire staff here at OPC World Headquarters in wishing a happy birthday to Mark Nawrocki, who is seven years old today.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Out of Time

A couple of weeks ago in The New Yorker, David "American Sucker" Denby pontificated on the fairly recent rash of movies that have presented themselves in something other than precise chronological order, underscored by the recent multiple-Oscar nominee Babel. Denby traced this phenomenon back to Pulp Fiction, with its three stories presented sequentially but taking place in overlapping time. Denby calls Pulp Fiction "highly influential" but doesn't mention the movie that most directly influenced Pulp itself, Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, which had come out just four years earlier, and presented three stories presented sequentially but taking place in overlapping time. Plus, Mystery Train had Screamin' Jay Hawkins in it.

Denby also overlooks Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, which to my mind was a more successful example of a chopped-up time structure than Pulp. Pulp didn't really have three different stories; its first and third sections were focused on the same character and were basically just two episodes from his life. Out of Sight opened with George Clooney furiously ripping off his tie in the middle of a downtown Miami street, then going in to rob a bank; it wasn't until midway through the movie that we were brought back to that moment and the whole thing suddenly made perfect sense. The altered notion of what constitutes the present made much more sense -- particularly since Clooney's character does time, which would alter anyone's sense of time -- than Tarantino's showoffy, movie-for-movie's sake work.

And then there's the scene between Clooney and a sparkling Jennifer Lopez, pretending to meet for the first time in what must surely be Detroit's swankiest hotel bar; said meeting was intercut with scenes of them upstairs in the same hotel, doing what any of us would do with either Ms. Lopez or with Mr. Clooney, depending. The editing of that scene was allegedly inspired by a similar scene in Don't Look Now, which is unseen by me, and all the better, because I love luxuriating in the tension and fun and eroticism of the way it was done in Out of Sight. At any rate, it's a lot more enjoyable than watching John Travolta clean brains off a back windshield.

Foodstuffs Shaped Like Famous Horses, Cont'd

The eBay sale of the Chee-to shaped like Barbaro has now closed, with a winning bid of $69.69. I wanted to wait until after this auction was complete to tell you about it, for the following reason: A couple of years ago I paid $745 for some jicama shaped like Spectacular Bid. But when I finally received my prize, it turned out that the blessed thing had been carved.

I wouldn't want to be a party to something similar happening here. On the other hand, I'm not sure you can carve a Chee-to.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Gas Fight!

The downside of what I was talking about the other day, about how every house is now a revival house and every old movie is now current, is that it gives me an excuse to write about Zoolander. With apologies to Will Ferrell and his Oscar-worthy turn as the deranged designer Mugatu (there's a reason that all of the interstitial material on the DVD focuses on Ferrell rather than the movie's star), there are exactly two scenes in this film that are worth paying attention to:

* The justly celebrated walk-off scene, which probably still has hipster wanna-be's hoping they'll catch sight of David Bowie lurking in Meatpacking District bars at 2 a.m. Bowie seems surprised as anyone that he agreed to be in the movie, but it's the split-screen sight of Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller going pose-for-pose, mug-for-mug that makes this work. I'm still working on that "standing still except for one arm dangling at the elbow" thing.

* Nothing captures the vacuousness of Derek Zoolander and his fellow male models like the gas fight. A recap for those who haven't seen it: Stiller and his three roommates stop at a gas station to fill up their Jeep just after having purchased a round of Orange Mocha Frappuccinos, which they proceed to spit all over each other. When this proves insufficiently stupid, one of them pulls the gasoline hose out of the Jeep and begins spraying his friends, who then do likewise at the other pumps. Gasoline really does look beautiful when it's photographed in a stream against a bright blue sky. Of course, it all ends badly when someone throws a match in the middle of all that gorgeous gasoline. This is quite literally the dumbest believable situation in the history of film, unless you count someone greenlighting Blues Brothers 2000.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Rock Rule No. 47

If your band has identical twins in it, you will be consigned to one-hit wonderdom.

Cases in point:
The Proclaimers
Spandau Ballet

Exception that proves the rule: Styx, which had many hits, featured twin brothers John and Chuck Panozzo (on drums and bass, respectively), but they were fraternal twins.


The recent comment about the authenticity of Larry "Bud" Melman brings to mind another character from the early days of Late Night who was suspected of being an actor playing a part, Brother Theodore. The gnomish friar appeared quite regularly on Letterman in the early 1980s, apocalyptically denouncing whatever he felt was wrong with the world and the human condition, not unlike this very blog. As I understood it at the time, his regular gig was then a spoken-word show he did on the Lower East Side, although one knucklehead in my dorm insisted he was a character played by the same actor who played Mr. Woodman on Welcome Back, Kotter (John Sylvester White, although the claimant was too much of an idiot to know that).

Brother Theodore was a real person, though, as real as any of us are, born Theodore Gottlieb to a wealthy family in Dusseldorf and having been imprisoned in a concentration camp before making his way to America. Wikipedia claims that he was deported from Switzerland for chess hustling, but really, who hasn't been? "I come from extremely bad stock," he once said. "The members of my family were mostly punks. Punks, blockheads, fishwives, vegetarians, triplets, nail biters. But I've always been happy." He had been making small movie appearances since the 1940s, including as the voice of Gollum in Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of the Rings, and had guested on talk shows alongside the likes of Joey Bishop and Merv Griffin before his halcyon days with Letterman. If half of what is reported here is true, his was one of the most fascinating lives of the 20th century.

Brother Theodore died in April 2001 at the age of 94. Wherever he is now, I'm sure he's still angry about something.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Hello Walls

Porter Wagoner’s 1966 song “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” starts out thusly: “I got back in town a day before I'd planned to/I smiled and said I'll sure surprise my wife/I don't think I'll phone, I'll just head on home,” and you know there’s just no way this can end well. The situation basically inspired the opening sequence of Todd Phillips’ 2003 film Old School, with Porter himself in the Luke Wilson role.

It also inspired the coolest album cover ever, which you can see here. The cover photo alters the storyline somewhat, since there is a whole party going on in the song, but just a single interloper here. But the richness of detail -- of cold, hard detail -- in that photograph is just remarkable. It’s not just the dreariness of the cinderblock walls and almost total lack of furniture, or the ashtray full of butts on the otherwise spare coffee table. Notice that Wagoner has already had to unlock the door, open it up, and step inside, meaning it's been a minimum of five seconds since he's been heard, yet his wife is still snuggled underneath the arm of her paramour. Knowing full well that her husband is coming through the door to discover her betrayal, she has not seen fit to move one muscle. That’s just cold-blooded.

But what really cinches this as the greatest album cover of all time is what's not apparent on first sight. This is a picture of Porter Wagoner’s actual apartment. That’s right: One of country music’s biggest stars and the cohost of a successful syndicated TV series with Dolly Parton was living in a dump more suited to a nightshift worker at the Red Man processing plant.

How did he end up in such a depressing situation? Well, in very late 1965, Wagoner removed himself from his family's home – on Christmas Eve, no less! – and temporarily took up residence at the Americana Apartments in Nashville, hard by Vanderbilt University. The bright side for Porter was that he could no doubt invite comely coeds to drop by his place and check out his, uh... lampshade dust cover. So maybe that wouldn't work after all. (Many thanks to for tipping OPC off to this story.)

Calvert DeForest, 1921-2007

Calvert DeForest, also known as Larry "Bud" Melman, has died at the age of 85. In the arena of "found-object" comedy, it did not get any better than this.

Do the Bartman

If you were a fan of baseball in the late 1980s, or if you went to Yale (Joe, I'm looking metaphorically at you), or if you are a scholar of 16th-century English epic poetry, or if you are Pete Rose, you may be interested in a review of mine freshly posted at, discussing a new biography of the late president of Yale/commissioner of baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti.

Think of This Post as "Bell Bottom Blues"

A couple of decades ago, I was reading a publication put out by the National Lampoon when I was struck by something that has remained with me all this time. I don't even remember if it was a regular issue of the magazine or some kind of special one-shot, but the conceit was that the publication was serving as an anthology of old newspaper and magazine articles; the most memorable was a report/review, dating back to 1975, of a new late-night comedy program on NBC.

The reporter was heavily dismayed by what he saw as the excessive preparation put in by the performers of what would soon be called Saturday Night Live. Here's the part I remember distinctly from this writer, disgusted that supposed hipsters would actually be rehearsing comedy, and I'm pretty sure this is a verbatim quote: "Comedy's got to come tumbling from the soul, like a Clapton solo. Lenny, man!" Those are words to live by, for sure -- the part about tumbling from the soul, not the part about "Lenny, man!" -- although I have never really had the opportunity to live by them.

But it seems to me that blogging, if done properly, would fit into those parameters: heartfelt, idiosyncratic, semi-planned, gushing forth from the depths of one's being (as well as an excuse to steal lines from 25-year-old issues of National Lampoon). Both in practice and in theory, that seems what blogging ought to aspire to. You, the reader, will know that I've truly gotten the hang of this when you read a post of mine that seems to come tumbling from the soul, like a Clapton solo.

Lenny, man!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Password Is "Gallimaufry"

I swear this is true: At the end of his days, Stan Laurel, one half of the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, became a big fan of the TV game show Password, yet he strongly disliked Allen Ludden.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Pilot of the Airwaves

Bob Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour" on XM Radio remains not just the best show on the air, but the best possible use of radio as a medium. We all expected Zimmy to play a bunch of old 78s and speak fondly of Dock Boggs, which would have been great enough, but he's gone way beyond that into the realm of acts like the White Stripes and Run-DMC.

Now even that too may be less than surprising, given that the man has made a career out of surprises, but I have to say that even I, a borderline worshipper of the man, have been impressed by his generosity of spirit. He's not just giving maximum props to people like Jimmie Rodgers and Mose Allison. On the two-hour Christmas and New Year's special edition (probably the high point of the entire series run, with Dylan in fine holiday fettle), Bob played Bob Seger's little-known but hot-revving "Sock It to Me, Santa." Playing Bob Seger is probably uncool enough that, say, Thurston Moore wouldn't be caught dead doing it, but Dylan went farther than that. Taking his cue from the Letters page at Rolling Stone circa 1979, he noted that although some considered Seger the poor man's Bruce Springsteen, he thought of Springsteen as the rich man's Bob Seger, adding, "Love 'em both, though." Love 'em both! How cool is that?

And who would have guessed Dylan would be this funny? Okay, anyone who's listened to "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" would expect him to be funny, but who thought he'd come on like he was Jan Murray or something? Imagine, the same man who wrote "Gates of Eden" told this joke on the air:

How do you make a blonde's eyes twinkle? Shine a flashlight in her ear.

While discussing insomnia, Dylan noted that he likes to sleep way over on one edge of the bed, "so I always drop right off." He mentioned that he went out to dinner with announcer Pierre Mancini (purportedly a pseudonym for producer Eddie Gorodetsky, and clearly a pseudonym for somebody), then added, "The only difference between Pierre Mancini and a canoe is that a canoe occasionally tips."

You would think he was trying to get booked on Celebrity Sweepstakes.

Rock Rule No. 161a

The corollary to the rule that bands named after geographic areas sacrifice critical respect for hits is this: Generally, the larger the landmass, the worse the band is. Thus Boston is better than Kansas, which in turn is better than Asia.

The only way that Asia could be worse is if they merged with Europe to form a superbadgroup called Eurasia.

Good News for Lenny and Squiggy

If, like me, you were born after the Baby Boom but before what the young people these days like to call "Gen X," you have probably always felt a little marginalized. I have no idea what it's like to be part of a demographic cohort that gets marketed to, politically pandered to, celebrated in endless first novels. We are the Lenny and Squiggy Generation, unnoticed, forgotten, unable to make time with two girls who work in a freakin' brewery, only occasionally slamming open the door of American culture and barking out, "Hello."

Not surprisingly, we're miserable, and getting moreso. According to a recent article in Slate, happiness steadily declines from age 16 to age 45, which means if you were born, like the New York Mets, in 1962, things look pretty bleak right now.

But buck up, my demographic brethren and sistren, for we have good times ahead. According to that same piece, based on something called The General Demographic Survey, overall happiness begins rising around age 45 then continues to do so into old age, so we're about to turn a corner here. And you know, things are even looking up for Lenny and Squiggy. Squiggy is now a scout for the Seattle Mariners, despite the fact that he has been battling multiple sclerosis for a couple of decades now (seriously). And Lenny recently played the Snow Miser in the live-action remake of The Year Without a Santa Claus. Let us use their example and vow to make something out of our pathetic lives.

With a Chinese Menu in His Hand

Speaking of “Year of the Cat,” as I was the other day, I feel like it’s important to point out that there is no Year of the Cat in the Chinese calendar. We are currently in the Year of the Boar (or the Year of the Bore, should Peter Gabriel choose to put out a new album), and there are Years of the Dragon, the Rat, the Rooster and the Dog, but no Year of the Cat.

Maybe there’s a Year of the Cat in the Scottish calendar, alongside the Year of the Bog, the Year of the Thistle, the Year of the Haggis, and the Year of So I Married an Axe Murderer.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

There's So Much More No One's Ever Heard Before

At a Barnes & Noble the other day, I heard a Muzak version of "It Might Be You." I never would have thought the rough-hewn vocals of Stephen Bishop would be too edgy for some people, but there you go.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Midnight Movies

When I was a young pup first leafing through the pages of The New Yorker in my high school’s library, my favorite thing to read was the capsule movie reviews, primarily by Pauline Kael, bundled up in that tiny type in Goings On About Town. You got to find out about all the new movies that had descended upon New York, which were very different from the ones we got back home in Covington, Louisiana. I remember it being a very big deal when Pink Floyd: The Wall became the local midnight movie. We certainly never got such things like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or Heat and Dust, for which we had to rely on Pauline Kael’s judgment.

This was back in the days when Manhattan still had such things as revival houses, where they would expect people to buy tickets and sit through older movies, just as if they were Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then we would get to read capsule reviews in The New Yorker of such exotica as Black Narcissus or One-Eyed Jacks, expecting full well that we would never actually get to see these movies. Those were the real treats, for while we would get tired of reading the same recap of Blade Runner every week, getting a Cliffs Notes-style briefing on whichever Howard Hawks fave was coming to town -- even if it was someone else's town -- would render you what would pass for a film expert in Covington.

Now, of course, in the age of the DVD, every house is a revival house. I can see literally thousands of different movies whenever I want, for a nominal fee or no fee at all, without ever leaving my house. One result of this is that every movie is now current, and I can take in The French Connection as readily as I can Wild Hogs.

When you add on the research capabilities of the Internet, this makes moviegoing a whole new experience. For example, I recently was able to watch Midnight Cowboy for the first time, and immediately thereafter was able to catch up with Roger Ebert’s review (strangely enough, there are two of them at his Web site) and check out the trivia at as well, which I do after every movie I watch. Midnight Cowboy is remembered as a classic – everybody knows the names Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck – but Ebert’s review is rather tepid, and if you haven’t seen the movie recently, watch it again and you’ll understand why. This movie is seriously dated. It’s got all these garish jump cuts and quasi-fantasy insets that recall nothing so much as Myra Breckinridge, and that’s not a good thing. People stopped making these kinds of movies right around 1969, when Midnight Cowboy came out, and it’s no surprise.

Ebert singles out three scenes that he finds offensive and false; two of them are the Warhol-style party and Joe Buck’s visit to a Jesus-loving fanatic played by John McGiver, and I agree with him totally on both counts. But he also objects to the scene near the end of the movie where Joe Buck dallies with a middle-aged homosexual from Chicago named Townsend Locke. Now, far be it from me to try to correct Roger Ebert, but I think he’s off-base with this last one.

What Ebert finds wrong about this scene is that Joe Buck, heretofore a gentle soul, resorts to smacking Towny in the face, sending his false teeth flying across a hotel room, then jamming the business end of a telephone into his mouth and quite possibly killing him. But remember where in the movie this takes place: Joe has realized by this point that moving to Manhattan was a pretty bad idea, and he’s broke and hungry and wants to leave, and his only friend, the aforementioned Ratso, is sickly and near death and thinks the only way to save his life is to get on a bus headed for Florida. Joe needs money to buy two bus tickets, so he plies his trade with Towny, then tries to procure as much cash as possible off him. Towny refuses, and ends up with a mouthful of phone.

Ebert thinks that director John Schlesinger has misjudged his own character in this scene, but I think we’re seeing just how desperate Joe Buck has become. We’re seeing that the cold-hearted city has turned this country boy into a killer – and he’s become a killer for no other reason than to escape said city.

Plus, if we missed out on this scene, we would miss out on Barnard Hughes’ heartbreaking portrayal of Towny. To call this man conflicted would be inaccurate; he flat-out hates himself, hates what he wants to do with Joe Buck, and looks for any excuse he can to stop what his instincts are urging him toward. In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect out of a middle-aged gay man from Chicago circa 1969. Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were justly celebrated for their acting in this movie, but in about five minutes of screen time, Barnard Hughes accomplishes just as much. I wonder what Pauline Kael thought of it.

Nutritional News

I had been worried that I haven't been eating very well lately, until I came to this happy realization: Salsa is a vegetable!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Rock Rule No. 161

If You Name Your Band After a Geographic Area, You Will Sacrifice Critical Respect for Hits.

Cases in Point:

Year of Tori Amos

Is Franz Ferdinand now the greatest Scottish rock act of all time? Al Stewart beat back the challenge from Big Country and the Proclaimers, but “Take Me Out” is a better song than “Year of the Cat,” I fear.

Speaking of “Year of the Cat,” the finest thing I have found so far on YouTube is a fuzzy clip from 1991 of Tori Amos backing up Al Stewart on that song… Stewart looks and sounds like a total gump, but Tori looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, and radiates sheer joy from the ecstasy of her playing.

This is really what YouTube does best: All those Daily Show clips are nice to have, but this little home video would have probably been lost forever without a place to put it online. The taping is so low-tech Tori’s hands appear to get lost in the maw of the piano, and she shimmers and threatens to disappear altogether at one point, but all that shakiness just adds to the intimacy of the moment. (The way her solo piano replicates the entire orchestral middle of the song prefigures Brad Mehldau’s later covers of Radiohead, wherein he handles the whole breakdown section of "Paranoid Android" all by his lonesome on the piano.) Her first album wouldn’t even be out for another year, but it’s clear from this clip that Tori was going to be a star. And that Al Stewart didn’t have much of a career left.

* * * * *

If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, made in 1936, you might think it’s a larky little romp, a la North by Northwest, or maybe a knotty battle of spies with ever-shifting identities. It’s kind of both, but it’s also addresses the question of what happens to the humanity of people forced to betray and even kill others in the name of a larger struggle. The ever-gorgeous Madeleine Carroll is originally thrilled about what appears to be her first assignment, posing as the wife of British secret agent John Gielgud, but she quickly sours when it appears that actual death will be involved. Robert “Father Knows Best” Young plays both a devil-may-care playboy and a ruthless German spy, and you probably never expected him to do either.

I got it along with eight other Hitchcock movies from his pre-Hollywood period on a three-DVD set at a grocery store. The box boasts 13 hours of footage, which isn’t that much for nine movies. Hitch is nothing if not brisk. So I don’t know exactly why that was such a selling point, but it was only $9.95, which makes it just over a dollar a movie. Even if you only count the movies really worth watching, it’s still about two bucks per. Pretty much all you want to see from Hitchcock’s British period is here, including the original Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes (no Waltzes From Vienna,though).

I’ve watched them all except for Rich and Strange, which sounds like a Nick and Nora-ish romantic comedy romp, and The Lodger, which is silent. As soon as I get a pipe organ installed next to my DVD player, I’ll check that one out.

Secret Agent is about the median feature on the bill, not quite up to the standards of those three mentioned above or Sabotage, but about at the level of Murder. (For one thing, Gielgud is not all that gud, but merely Gielmediocre.) The most compelling reason to see it is that Peter Lorre is made up to look exactly like Spike Lee. There’s the jheri-curled hair, the wispy semicircular mustache, the heavy lids, and the single hoop earring. Unfortunately, he never asks Gielgud, “Is it the shoes, Sir John?”

Peter Lorre, of course, is name-checked in “Year of the Cat.” Clearly, “Year of the Cat” towers over our modern culture like “The Waste Land” did over that of Europe between the wars.