Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sid Caesar's "The German General" sketch: Thoughts on a Classic

In the 1950's, Sid Caesar was responsible for a number of tv comedy/variety programs that, at their best, are as funny as anything you'll ever watch.  Caesar was a genius: a borscht-belt comic who could say much with his face as well as his language, a gifted ad-libber who was also physically imposing. (He could destroy sinks like a drug-addled rock star, and once held Mel Brooks out of a window of a Chicago hotel, 18 flights up.)  The people who wrote for Caesar is as amazing a collection of talent as had ever been assembled: Carl Reiner, Brooks, Neil Simon (and his older brother Danny), Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, and even Woody Allen.  Simon's play Laughter on the 23rd Floor is based on his years working for Caesar; Reiner's sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show was also based on his experiences, though the lead character, Van Dyke's Rob Petrie, was not the neurotic Jew whom Reiner had originally conceived, but the likeable, All-American Kid Next Door who could sell a sitcom to a network or sponsor.

One of the best-known sketches, first performed on Caesar's Hour, is known as "The German General."   In it, Howard Morris plays a German military valet who helps "mein general" get dressed in his class-A uniform.   The two don't speak in English, or German; rather this is the great example of "double-talk," that remarkable gift that comics have of speaking in what sounds like a real language but is ultimately just gibberish.   The punchline for the sketch SPOILER ALERT is a tad too quick, but pay attention, and you'll see that the general is not preparing for a staff meeting but SPOILER ALERT! instead he is the doorman at the hotel where he stays. 

The sketch, Caesar once told an audience, was based on the classic German silent film The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau's exemplar of what Alfred Hitchcock would call "pure cinema."  In that film, a doorman in a posh city hotel lives in a working-class neighborhood, where he is treated like a man of great importance -- mainly because of the uniform he must wear.  He carries himself with an almost-regal bearing as he acknowledges his neighbors.   When he is demoted to washroom attendant, he's so afraid to return home that he steals the uniform they took off his person so that he can maintain the pretense.   It is a beautiful, heartbreaking film.

Watching Morris and Caesar in this sketch,  a few things strike me:

The interaction between Morris and Caesar is brilliant.  Morris keeps up with Caesar's hilarious double-talk.  At this point in their careers, they knew each other very well -- and trusted each other when one of them -- okay, when Sid -- would adlib.   (Double-talk is really a form of adlibbing anyway.)

Though it's been only ten years since the end of the war, and the revelations about the Holocaust, the Germans still provide a source of humor for these Jewish-American comics.  (When Brooks accepted his Tony award for The Producers, he said, "I'd like to thank Hitler for being so funny.")  The ridiculousness of the preparations to dress the general -- especially for such a working-class job -- mock the obsession for order, for discipline, and for the will to dominate.

This leads me to another observation about homosexuality and fascism.

Morris's attendant clearly relishes his subservient place.  He speaks in a rather high-pitched, if not exactly effeminate, voice, a tone that is great contrast to the German shepherd commands of Caesar. At times he seems to frolic as he dresses his commandant.  After the general is all dressed, he turns to the mirror and speaks the famous lines from Disney's Snow White, and Morris hides behind the general to speak in an exaggerated high-pitched voice to affirm how great the general looks.  Notice also the way he carefully brushes off the medals.  The body contact the two have, as Morris nearly chokes the general for pinching the collar right on the general's neck, is very subtly erotic.   In many different pop culture expressions, homosexuality and fascism are closely linked (despite the fact that Hitler tried to lock up homosexuals).   You can see the connections in Kenneth Anger's avant-garde classic Scorpio Rising, in Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boat, and in Oliver Stone's JFK.

But having suggested this relationship be a bit counter to the contemporary social mores, I should also note that it's all played for laughs.  This is what is often done to cultural minorities in terms of media and pop cultural representation: make fun of the outsiders.   The homo-erotics of Morris's dressing the general are ignored in favor of the hilarious nonsensical banter between Morris and Caesar.  It's all for the laugh, and of course writing about the sketch in those terms emphasizes the comic jabs at Germans, not homosexuals.  But when examining noted cultural works of a long-gone age, it's important to consider possible counter-readings, in order to expand the conversation. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Nearly 20 Years Later: National Enquirer Still "Breaking" O.J. Simpson News!

Stop laughing.  Okay, laugh a little. 

Back in 1994, and continuing for what seemed like forever, the legendary supermarket tabloid The National Enquirer produced new and exciting headlines and articles concerning the murders of O.J. Simpson's ex-wife Nicole and a friend of hers, Ron Goldman.  The funny thing is that back then, media commentators on the trial soon realized that the tabloid was actually presenting legitimate information and stories that demonstrated a greater understanding of the case than many in the mainstream media.  Even the Times had to acknowledge the importance of the tabloid.   The Enquirer also provided an important look at the issue of domestic violence, something they could do because their sources were often really insiders -- maids and other service people inside the homes of the Rich and Famous.  

When I was researching media and the Simpson murder trial, I realized pretty quickly that the Enquirer  represented not simply a blurring of the boundaries between "serious" and "tabloid" journalism, but something much more complicated: reading its coverage, and comparing it to other coverage, allowed one to understand what I have called "the political economy of crime news production."   There it was on the table: information was a commodity to be bought and sold like newspapers, gloves, and white Ford Broncos.  

The tabloid was never shy about admitting that it often paid for information.  But Exective Editor Steve Coz said it best in response:  "let's face it. The police pay informants, prosecutors offer reduced jail sentences, defense attorneys pay thousands of dollars for expert witnesses, and newspapers and radio stations are hiring legal consultants at $2,000 a day. We don't go through that elaborate game. We say: 'We pay cash.' "

Apparently the Enquirer is still paying cash for OJ stories, and let's face it there's a reason:  when O.J. was on the cover, even years after his acquittal, newsstand sales went up.   But this latest one is a classic:

Apparently the murders were caught on videotape

Yep, after all these years, a "zapruder film" of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldmanfinally turns up.  This about ten years after a confession of O.J.'s was apparently heard on tape.  It seems that a "drifter" who is in jail right now doing time for, yes, you guessed it, murder, says he was at Nicole's house the night of the murders and videotaped them. 

Why was he there?  Blackmail! Supposedly,  he had been doing work around the house, and O.J. spotted him, found out who he was, and asked him to keep a close eye on the place.  "I gotta protect my kids," O.J. supposedly told this guy.  So this drifter, Glen Rogers, sees an opportunity to make a few bucks by videotaping Nicole bringing men back to the house and extorting money from her in exchange for the tapes.   This explains what he was doing there on June 12, 1994.   The pictures shown in the tabloid are hilarious; they are photo-enhancements based on descriptions of the videotape -- they have not seen the tape itself which apparently is in a garage somewhere.   Of course, these images are no different from cgi stuff that was produced at the time of the investigation, but the headline is pretty clear: Caught On Tape! 

I don't know if anyone cares about this case anymore, or if putting O.J. on the cover last month helped sales at the counter.  Simpson's subsequent conviction on charges stemming from an illegal attempt to recover memorabilia in a Vegas hotel keeps him in the tabloid lights, if not the spotlight.  He has become a has-been punch line, when during the trial he was the talk of late-night comedians for months.  Of course, the Enquirer got my quarters when I saw the headline, and that's what they count on.  (I do rationalize this as a business expense...)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Film Friday: Hoping to finish this "before midnight"

I got my indiewire message about the Sundance Film Festival in my e-inbox the other day. The lead story was the positive reviews of Richard Linklater's Before Midnight.  I'm very excited and eager to watch what I do hope is the final installment of a story that began 18 years ago with Before Sunrise, Linklater's cerebral romance about two twentysomethings spending the day and night in Vienna before returning to their own countries, and continued in 2004's Before Sunset, which picks up the story indeed nine years after their first encounter.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American traveling abroad, and about to catch a plane home when the train he is on arrives in Vienna.  On the train, he meets Celine, a French university student returning west after visiting family, and convinces her to spend the day with him in the city before his flight and her train leave for New York and Paris respectively.  When I saw the film on video, a number of years after its release, it got into my skin; the two share a day of intense conversations about life and love, and so much of it reminded me of my college days, staying up all night with friends bullshitting about Important Things -- you know, the usual stuff that sticks with you forever instead of whatever the profs tell you in lectures.   The young couple's go-for broke nature is overly romantic, perhaps, but I remember that sense of feeling alive in the moment.  While Billy Joel's "Vienna" obviously captures the symbolism of the city as the crossroads of life, I was thinking of that uptempo middle part of the Beatles' "You Never Give Me Your Money":  "out of college, money spent...but oh that magic feeling: nowhere to go..."   That's where Jesse and Celine are at this point.  I couldn't go to sleep after watching them. 

Of course, the real world often has a way of dampening the magic, we all know.   Nine years later, Linklater and his co-stars worked on the second installment, another remarkable day of conversation (and skillful camera work, I might add).  At this point, Jesse has published a novel based on that day/night (thus making us aware of how romanticized the first film was), is married with children.  He meets Celine in Paris, and they catch up...but with the years showing,  their lives a bit heavier.  Hawke especially looks lean and raw; as critics pointed out, he made this film after his work on Training Day, an acclaimed cop drama that earned him an Oscar nod (and its star Denzel Washington the Best Actor Oscar).   Where the first film gives a sense of wholeness, the second film consciously ends ambiguously, with Jesse at Celine's apartment, her a bit drunk and dancing to jazz music and he considering the likelihood that he will miss his plane back home. 

What I know of Before Midnight mainly comes from the reviews coming out of Sundance; all I'll say here is that the story picks up yet another nine years later, and obviously this relationship has become deeper than when it was first created in Vienna.  I'm not simply talking about what their "status" is; I'm talking about how, as forty-somethings, Jesse and Celine are not as full of speculation and wonder as they had been 18 years before.  They met then with only the baggage their youths had given them (a few bad romances, the usual crap for kids), but now they carry their lives, encompassing two decades:  a means of measuring their leaps of faith with the weight that wisdom can doom.   Of course, like most fans of them, I'm rooting for Celine and Jesse.   I hope they can figure this stuff out and be happy.   Maybe as much for myself as for them: I'm a little older than they are, and they challenge me to reach for deeper meanings in my own life, to reflect on choices made (or avoided). 

I also hope this is the last one Linklater, Hawke and Delpy make.  I don't think this should be like Michael Apted's documentary series that began with 7Up!  and now is up to where those little kids are 54.   Plus, I'm waiting for a nice trilogy box set to be released on video!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Malvolio and Manti

This past weekend, we took the kids to see a performance by Tim Crouch of his one-man play I, Malvolio, part of his "I, Shakespeare" series designed to appeal to audiences teenaged and up. The basic premise of the series is to examine key themes in the famous plays from a very different point of view, that of characters of relatively lesser importance.The premise is not new; Top Stoppard brilliantly explored this view in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and indeed Crouch was inspired to create the series while performing in a production of the Stoppard play.  What Crouch brings to the "I, Shakespeare" series -- besides his personality -- is the intention to reach a young audience and help them consider Shakespeare's ideas without the kind of stuffiness of an English classroom.  But of course, the play also makes the grownups think, too.

In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night , Malvolio is the  butler at Lady Olivia's house on the isle of Illyria; he's a serious dude, with a Calvinist passion for order, and when her relations, led by Sir Toby Belch, make too much merry for Malvolio's taste, they conspire to "punk" him by giving him the idea that his lady is in love with him.  In response to his discovery of a "letter" by his mistress, Malvolio engages in odd behaviors, which ends up landing him in the madhouse.   When the deceit is revealed, he vows revenge "on the whole pack of you."   What Crouch's play makes you realize is that Malvolio was not just talking about Sir Toby and his band of pranksters; he's talking about the theater audience -- both then and for all time -- and about the very instituion of the theater itself, which Crouch's Malvolio clearly despises. 

By taking the point of view of the wronged Malvolio, Crouch forces us in the audience to think about the nature of humor and why we often find it so funny when we see others suffer.   Countless times, Malvolio asks, "is this what you find funny?"  The question is not rhetorical; as we watch him pull two young members of the audience out to help Malvolio hang himself, we continue to laugh, waiting for the punchline.   No one tells him not to do it.   Malvolio keeps referring to being bullied by the others; it's a loaded term these days, but within his point of view, that is what Sir Toby and his mates do to him.   As Malvolio summarizes the main plot of Twelfth Night, he points out the lunacies created by Viola's dressing as a man and creating bizarre romantic twists, thus making his declarations  of "I'm not mad" seem perfectly sane. 

Malvolio clearly loves order, and over the course of the play, he returns himself to his former state: starting out in the clothes of the madman, he dresses himself in his old steward uniform.  Throughout the play, he stops at times to remind everyone to sit up straight -- and yes, we all do it! Back in control, indeed!

And as Malvolio describes the details of the prank pulled on him, I could not help but think of the hot news story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who apparently was the victim of an extended prank also involving a love that was not real.   In Manti's case, he apparently engaged in an on-line romance with someone who did not exist; even though he talked to the "girl" on the phone often late into the night, he actually spoke to (reportedly) different people posing her, including the guy who is being held responsible for the prank.   He spoke about the grief he felt when his girl was dying and he played football because "she" would have wanted him to.  

Malvolio, blinded by love, never stops to consider the absurdity of what "Lady Olivia" is asking him to do; his blindness also makes him forget the class distinctions between the two of them.  Manti, also apparently blinded by love, doesn't stop to think about all the horrific things that supposedly happened to his girl: a car accident putting her in a coma, having leukemia, etc.  It's an insane story, and yet, Manti may be no less mad than Malvolio.  

Will Manti be revenged?  Probably not.  I suspect he hopes all of this is forgotten so he can live the rest of his life.   Malvolio's revenge has been contemplated by many in the theater for centuries.  Crouch may have hit upon a very effective one, with the last prank on us.   

Friday, January 18, 2013

Film Friday Catching up on my Hitchcock

as I rode the auto train, I took the opportunity to catch up on some films in preparation for my Hitchcock course. Two of the films I'm likely to screen in class, films I had not seen in ages, perhaps since my wife and I were dating. I thought it would be appropriate to start my ride by watching The Lady Vanishes, since after all the bulk of it is on a train! I followed this with Rope, and early this morning, I watched a film I'd never seen before: Torn Curtain. An interesting mix: one from his late British period, one from his mid-American period, and one from his post-masterpiece period. (Torn Curtain followed Marnie, which at the time was seen as the beginning of the end for Hitchcock, though some critical assessment claims it's actually the final masterpiece.)

Watching the British film, what struck me this time round was its droll British humour.  Much of this is centered around the two Englishmen Caldicott and Charter and their efforts to get information about a major cricket test match (and their desperate hopes to return to Manchester in time for the final day), but the central plot concerning a missing governess also has its share.  Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave offer a British version of romantic comedy even amid the increasing danger of the spy plot, the realization that pretty much every non-Anglo on the train is out to "get" them for knowing too much.  The film also presents us with a protagonist who has trouble convincing others of the reality of her perceptions -- think James Stewart in Rear Window.   The limited options for women are commented upon: Lockwood's character is planning to get married mainly for money reasons, but we are led to understand that her rejection of her intended at the end of the film for Redgrave's character is the "better" choice; she finally takes the advice of the girlfriends who saw her off on the train at the beginning of the film, one of whom is played by Googie Withers, whom I have an incredible star-crush on.

It's pretty obvious, isn't it, that Charter and Caldicott are gay? The censors of course would not have permitted explicit acknowledgment, but film makers often managed to sneak in gay subtexts, usually in the context of either humor or criminality.

And speaking of gay criminals, or as Robin Wood called them, murderous gays...
Rope is famous for its being an experiment: the legend about the film is that Hitchcock attempted to film in continuous takes, only stopping every ten minutes to change the film in the camera.  This technically is not true -- some takes are shorter than ten minutes -- but the basic premise of the legend is correct.  Hitchcock does not engage in classical editing of shot-counter-shot.   Rather, the action unfolds before his camera, and when characters move to different parts of the apartment, the camera (usually) follows.   That the two central characters, Brandon and Phillip, are more than just roommates, is almost a given in contemporary criticism; watching John Dall's response to the strangling of his "friend," and the description of the exhilaration he felt when "his body went limp," it's impossible to ignore that interpretation.   The case is also supposed to be based on the Leopold and Loeb case, thus making the homosexual subtext part of the background chatter about the film.   Once again, we also get a link between homosexuality and fascism: Brandon and Phillip kill their friend as a testament to their Nietzschean belief that superior intellectual beings rise above the ordinary laws for ordinary people.   Though Brandon condemns the Nazis for being small-minded butchers, the lack of humanity of his perspective clearly echoes the atrocities that postwar America was still coming to terms with.  (The equation of homosexuality and fascism can be found in more recent cinema, too; Oliver Stone's JFK is probably the most outrageous such equation.)

It boggles my mind that Hitchcock, who perceived actors as no different from other stage props, would work with Method actor Paul Newman -- after the trouble he had with Montgomery Clift in I Confess.  (Of course, Clift was a homosexual, and numerous Hitchcock biographers have considered the director's "issues" with gay actors.)  Be that as it may, the story of an American scientist's defection into East Germany make the film a relic of the Cold War, and only mildly interesting at that.  While the romantic relationship between Newman's scientist and Julie Andrews' fiance/assistant echoes earlier spy dramas like Notorious and North by Northwest (both starring Cary Grant), there's clearly no spark between Andrews and Newman; the revelation that Newman's character is in fact pretending to defect in order to obtain information from an East German physicist  cleverly shown at a distance where we can't hear him explain to her what he's doing, is ruined by the melodramatic/romantic score that shows Andrews' relief at learning the truth.  Their escape from East Berlin is dragged on way too long. While there are some good tense moments on a fake-official city bus, by the time we get the final twist that allows them to escape, the audience has lost much interest.  The famous scene where Newman's "watcher" Gromek is killed in a farmhouse, silently so that the cab driver who brought Gromek to the farm cannot hear what's going in, fares adequately when compared to other Hitchcock murders, but there's still over an hour of film to go after that scene! This might have been a more compelling film if it had been cut short by about twenty minutes.

Anyway, time to go watch a few more films...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Old Days: Chiefs "Cafe," Pittsburgh

No, it's not a cafe, really.  I don't remember anyone ever eating there.   It was a bar.  With ugly red booths and a very odd clientele.  Refugees and retirees from the working classes shared the small joint with artsy college students drawn there for the same reason: a draft beer was forty five cents.  This was in the 1980s, for those who think I'm old enough to remember Prohibition.  When you were really low on cash, that's where you went. 

I don't remember if I ever sat in those booths.  It was always too crowded in there.  And some of my memories are very cloudy, as one can imagine from drinking cheap beer.  Were those twins I used to have a crush on patrons? I seem to remember walking them home from there once or twice.  Conveniently, their place was on my way home, that I know is true.  I know many of my friends in my English classes hung out there and talked shop: poets we loved, singers we hated. 

One cool thing about the jukebox in the place: it had both Al Green's AND Talking Heads' versions of "Take Me to the River."  You'd often hear em back to back.  (I never got close enough to the machine to see if someone had cleverly put them on either side of the same piece of wax.)   Of course, no one in the bar could agree on anything, except the Beatles.   We'd all sing to their stuff, brief moments of transcending class/age boundaries. 

I attended a conference back in the 'burgh a few months ago.  I took some time off from it to drive up to the North Oakland area of the city, where the bar was, and near my old apartment.  I didn't look for parking, just was curious to see what was there.  Would loved to have seen if the booths were as ugly as ever.   and I wonder how much those drafts cost now.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Film Friday: Movie Violence and Real Violence

Well, yes, another shooting in a school today. 

A bit awkward for the NRA to be meeting in the White House with the Vice President and have the meeting interrupted by news of another school shooting.

But let's talk about movies.  And how they incite violence.

Wayne LaPierre recently was talking about the violent media culture, citing films from two decades ago as examples.  (Well, he's old, he might not have seen the Bourne movies.)  And the relation between media violence and real violence goes back a long ways.  Hell, Tom Sawyer talks about making a gang after reading about such stuff in books.   The Payne Fund studies of the 1930s attempted to show a causal relation, but those studies were clearly biased in their methodology, often ignoring evidence that showed a more complex dynamic between moviegoing and criminal activity in favor of evidence showing more direct cause-effect. 

Is it possible to see a rise in crime due to increased exposure to violent films?  Yes it is.  And I'm sure more than a few killers have hoped they could make the 6 o'clock news by their actions.  Copycat crimes are real, too. 

But there's an interesting point that needs to be made.  Most liberal democracies consume the same film and media culture as America.  The most popular Hollywood films worldwide are the action films, since you don't really need to understand the dialogue to understand what's going on.  (Sure, Woody Allen's films make more money in Europe than in the States, but he's certainly not breaking records like the standard blockbuster fare.)  Videogames are enormously popular all over.  The Dutch buy more violent games than Americans do.   But what do these other democracies have that America does not?  Clear, strict gun laws.  What else do they not have? Tens of thousands of people being killed by guns every year. 

The argument made after the Aurora shooting was: had people come to the theater with guns, they would have been able to stop this madman.  Really? Do you really think you're going to play at action hero? You think you can see a lunatic armed to the teeth and protected likewise with body armor slam into your theater and open fire, and suddenly you're gonna become Bruce Willis in Die Hard?  Fun film, great action...and totally unbelievable.  It's a movie.  Talk about getting movie violence confused with the real thing. 

It's time we talk about the real thing.  Real guns are killing real people. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

From the Archives: A Music Index Entry from a Never-Finished Index

About seven years ago, I began writing entries for a music Index I thought I might publish as a blog.  I shared some of these, but they've been long out of circulation.   The original drafts are on a computer I never use, but something made me start searching for them, and well, here's a short one I always liked.  Not especially passionate, but modestly amusing nonetheless. Maybe I'll toss out some more, if I can find the power cord for that old computer...


Don't deny it. You did it.  If you are a guy, my age, you did it.  You picked up the phone and you dialed it. 
You know the number.  Just admit it.  Right now, it's in your head.  It won't go away.


You dialed it.  And unless someone told you to fuck off first, you asked for her.  Her name was Jenny.

And every girl I went to high school with who had that appellation wanted to hide for months in the autumn of 1981. 

The song went to the top.  In spite of -- perhaps because of -- this amazingly laughable couplet:

I got it, I got your number on the wall
I got it, "for a good time call!"

They did have an earlier top forty hit, from the first record. I remember hearing it and liking it: "Angel Say No."  The first two albums are not all that bad and are still available on one CD collection from the late nineties (the original LPs are long gone).  There was no guy named Tommy Tutone.  Tommy Heath was the lead singer, Jim Keller the guitarist, they founded the band.  But you don't care about any of this.

You want to talk to Jenny.  


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hall of Hypocrisy

I have in my hand a ballot for the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.  Who gets my vote. Well, I think this one guy plagiarized a story, at least that's what I heard... no, no charges ever brought up specifically...but too bad: I think you cheated, so I'm not voting you in.

Welcome to Mike Piazza's world. 

Piazza has more home runs than any catcher in history.   He had a career average of .308.  But there were rumors that maybe he used steroids. (This because someone saw pimples on his back once.)  He's a Hall of Fame player.  Not this year. 

And this takes me to one of the most self-righteous, sanctimonious classes of people in media: the Baseball Writers of America.  

These guys -- and yes, it's still very much a boys club -- are the Supreme Arbiters, the Keeper of the Keys, The Protectors of the Realm of Cooperstown.  If they don't like you, you don't get in. At least not initially.  If you were not nice to them in the locker rooms, you don't get their vote.  They get to pick apart and analyze and condemn players all they want, though when anyone has the temerity to question them, they show themselves to be very thin-skinned.  

And I've not even mentioned the steroid voting. 

As the era of the Juicers' Eligibility begins -- really, it started with Mark McGwire -- this year's class put several notorious names on the ballot: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa.  A number of others from the era were also on the ballot, notably Piazza.   None of them got the votes they needed. 

In broad terms, people have questioned the exclusivity of the group that votes: why can't broadcasters be allowed to vote, for example? What I find particularly absurd is the condemnation being heaped on the juicers by the very writers who praised them for their greatness before finding out about steroids.  They didn't investigate the issue.  They all mocked Jose Canseco's book -- which has turned out to be more truthful than anyone could comprehend at the time.   They wrote glowing columns about the 1998 home run race between McGwire and Sosa. Daily News columnist Mike Lupica wrote a book about the chase.  But when the truth came out, did he recant?  Would it matter if he did?

Lots of guys in the media have admitted that they dropped the ball.  Often, they paint the brush a bit broader: hey, MLB didn't do anything about the problem, either.  Excuse me: they're in business to make money, and home runs sell tickets.  What sells newspapers? Controversy.   Should the players have not cheated? Sure, though as we know, the Steroid Era had a lot of murky water as far as what was acceptable and what was not.  Should Baseball have tried harder to figure out what was going on instead of counting receipts in 1998? Absolutely.   Likewise: journalists should have done a better job of seeing what was going on.

I don't wish to defend cheaters.  Nor do I believe that the writers are as guilty as the juicers.  But what I am saying is that their credibility as judges of this era is tarnished.  Indeed, perhaps that should be the standard for the writers: I think you didn't do a good enough job reporting on steroids in baseball, therefore you lose your vote.   Except who gets to decide that?

 Lupica has said on his radio program that if he thinks a player took steroids, he's not voting for him.  That's easy enough to do in the case of Bonds and Clemens, though not as easy as it is for admitted or caught juicers like Rafael Palmeiro. And a lot harder in the case of Piazza.   And what standard of proof is needed for a reporter?  Probably not the same as a court of law -- where Clemens was acquitted -- but where is the line?  Is it fair simply not to vote anyone who played in this era, regardless of proof?  And what about the five voters who sent in blank ballots to "send a message": how fair is that to Jack Morris, whose career ended before the Steroid Era allegedly began?  (The math, as it turns out, would not have mattered for Morris, but it's the principle I'm getting at here.) 

Here's another example of the arbitrariness of the voters: while so much has been made of Bonds and Clemens, how they had both been great and then juiced in their later years, how is it that Clemens got 8 more votes than Bonds?  Can there be 8 writers who think Clemens is innocent while thinking Bonds to be guilty?  Or is it a matter of personality: some guys like Clemens and don't like Bonds, who was rarely cordial to the media.  Or is it a matter of race?  (It's a subtle, subtle thing, kids.  You can say you're not a bigot, but the subtle prejudices can come out in odd places.) 

In the absence of confessions or drug tests -- which will be the case for a lot of players for a while -- can we simply treat each candidate case by case?  I'm not certain we can. 

There is no question that one fear the writers, and especially the Hall, have is that they will vote players in who later admit to juicing (or who later are found out to have, admission or not).  They see what's happened to Lance Armstrong and don't want that for the Hall.   First of all, there may be a couple of juicers already in.   Second, if you feel that passionately about it, make the Hall pass a resolution declaring that players who get in but who are found to have juiced will be removed.  It's what Cooperstown wants to avoid, but is the alternative -- letting no one in for the next decade -- really any better? 

A final point on the economics of this.  Certainly the Hall doesn't want taint on it, nor does it want no new members.  What's very important to think about is that for a player, getting into the Hall of Fame is like an ATM (thanks to WFAN's Mike Francesa for the analogy and the overall point).   To get in the Hall gives a player a chance to make lots of money from personal appearances and memorabilia signings.   For older players who never made the outrageous sums of money that the likes of Bonds and Clemens have made, that's a big deal.   Should that make a difference for those players who made so much money the past 20 years? Maybe not, but it's an illustration of how important the Hall of Fame voting is -- and why we need to ask questions about this process. 

How would I have voted? I would have put aside the steroid matter and look at the baseball card.  There are many reasons why McGwire  hit 66 homers in 1998.  Steroids.  The "live ball" era.  The dilution of pitching talent due to the addition of two new teams to MLB.  (There were two new teams added the year Roger Maris hit 61.)  We also don't have a full account of who did steroids.  And we can't simply blame it on position players, not as long as we keep talking about Clemens.  You want to give the juicers their own special wing, go right ahead. 

But the outrage the writers are showing is just as smug as Claude Rains in Casablanca shouting, "I'm Shocked -- SHOCKED! -- to find that gambling is going on here!" (while collecting his winnings as the arrests begin)  Hall of Hypocrisy, for the lot of em: players, organizations, and media. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

One Film I Don't Expect to Screen in my Hitchcock Class

Teaching at the college level, I try to respond to major news events within whatever context I think is appropriate to the courses I'm teaching.   As Bush began his invasion of Iraq, I modified my film history syllabus by showing almost every week films that had something to do with war: Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, Renoir's The Grand Illusion,  Excerpts from Capra's Why We Fight films, a few Disney and WB wartime toons, Rome, Open City,  Frankenheimer's Manchurian Candidate, and the two definitive war satires from Hollywood, Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove.  Since my dissertation covered a "current event," that material also went into a lot of the courses I was teaching.  

Reading and re-reading lots of books in preparation to teach my course on Alfred Hitchcock, I realized that there is no way I can show The Birds this spring.   No way.  Not after Sandy Hook. 

For those who might not recall, The Birds is basically about key personal and social human relationships in response to something completely inexplicable: the mass attacks by a variety of common species of birds on humans.   The reason for the bird attacks is never given.   Daphne Du Marier's original short story, set in England, evokes the bombing of Britain during World War II, though it's not fair to suggest the birds are symbols of the Nazi rockets.   While it is tempting to read Hitchcock's film as a fable about the end of the world,  it's probably unfair to limit our understanding to a singular apocalyptic vision.   (It might be seen as the next "evolution" in Hitchcock's refusal to offer any explanation: compare the lack-of-reason in this film to the psychiatrist's explanation at the end of Psycho, another film where brutal attacks seem to have no rational cause.) 

The central character is a spoiled socialite, an ur-Paris Hilton: wealthy, self-centered, and with too much time on her hands, which she uses to get into trouble.  Entering a pet shop in San Francisco, she encounters a defense lawyer, who flirts with her. (It's much more complicated than that. Forgive me.)  Discovering that he regularly weekends at his family home in Bodega Bay, she goes there...and becomes the first to be attacked, by a gull.   Some see the attacks as connected to her arrival in town; others see them as a manifestation of the lawyer's mom's jealousy toward the socialite.  

Whatever the case may be, one of the central scenes in the film is a bird attack on a group of schoolchildren as they are being dismissed at the end of the day.  The film's sound is a disturbing mix of bird noises and screams.   (Famously, the film has absolutely no music score.)   The children manage to avoid death, but one of their teachers does not. 

As remarkable a film as this is, it's just not possible to screen it today without Sandy Hook resonating from it.  It's unfair to show a group of students -- who themselves were children when the planes hit the Towers -- such a film at this time.   The images of children running for their lives on the fictional screen reminds us too much of the pictures coming from outside the elementary school were troopers where hurrying their young charges to safety.  It's not really a matter of censorship as it is sensitivity. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Thinking of the Blues Brothers

Say what you want about John Belushi, and the way he and Dan Ackroyd cashed in by recording their versions of soul and r and b hits of a generation before.  In the end, he was a fan who loved the music he performed and loved the people who had made them.  

There's no denying that the Blues Brothers -- the comic duo created by Belushi and Ackroyd on Saturday Night Live -- was a schtick.  Above all else, Dan and John were comedians. Watch Belushi as Joe Cocker, singing his Woodstock version of "A little help from my friends."   Or see him as Beethoven at the piano, forsaking the famous first notes of "number five" for the opening riff to the Temptations' "My Girl," and singing in a comic-German accent, "I gott sunshine...und a cloudee daaayyy..." (I'd link to these, but NBC/Universal is psychotic about controlling videos of SNL, and it's just not worth my time to try finding them.   Go buy the DVD box sets, or at least The Best of John Belushi, the first of the legendary best-of's, released in 1985 on VHS.)   And don't forget to watch John in his bee costume, along with Danny and the rest of the band -- with musical director Howard Shore wearing a beekeeper's outfit -- performing Muddy Waters' "I'm a King Bee."  It's hilarious and intended to be.  It's also the beginning of the Blues Brothers.

 The impetus was comic entertainment: they'd come out in their dark suits and glasses, Belushi would do cartwheels, and they'd dance like silly white boys.   But the passion they felt for Johnny Taylor, Sam and Dave, Muddy Waters, and so many other great Black musicians whose music they grew up with was very real.  This was not the cynical cashing in by mainstream record companies in the fifties having whitebread singers like Pat Boone record Little Richard hits.  (Remembering Belushi shortly after his death, Carrie Fisher describes an insight into his appreciation of Ackroyd's character: "This is Danny: I say, we have a chance to make a million dollars or go fishing. And Danny says, let me think about it.")   The musicians who played with Jake and Elwood Blues had been part of that history Belushi and Ackroyd loved.   Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn were members of the MGs, the world's best backup band, and they played on countless great hits for Stax Records of Memphis in the sixties.  Matt "Guitar" Murphy had earned his chops playing with Muddy Waters' band in the same era.   As a band, the Blues Brothers were much more real than, say, Beatlemania.  

What also makes Belushi and Ackroyd stand out is their direct embracing of these great artists.  When Ray Charles hosted SNL, it was Belushi who helped him memorize lines for the sketches he was going to be in, since Charles was obviously unable to read cue cards.  One of the central purposes of The Blues Brothers film was to showcase their heroes: Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, and especially Aretha Franklin, whose career had hit a total dead end by 1980 -- it was Aretha who enjoyed the greatest career boost from the success of the John Landis film.  Belushi was not a great singer -- he was a great comic.  None of the recordings he made as one half of the Blues Brothers can hold a candle to the originals.   In some respects, the Blues Brothers are not much more than the kind of lounge act you find on cruise ships or casinos. (Think Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, whose deliberate travesty of Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" was the inspiration for Elvis Presley's much more famous version.)   But it's not fair to call them a poor minstrel act, as some critics did in 1978-80.  It's not fair to the genuine talent that played behind Belushi and Ackroyd.

If anyone went out and bought The Best of Sam and Dave because they saw Jake and Elwood listening to it -- on 8-track! -- in their car, then that's evidence of the success of the Blues Brothers' evangelical mission.   Their goal was to tell everyone, hey, we love this music, and we think you will too.   John Belushi meant well.  He didn't always do well, but he meant well.

Vacation is Over! Back to Work!

Yes, I took a holiday.    I still try to draw lines between the private and the public lives.  Not easy, for sure. If you tried to e-mail (at one or two of my e-mail addresses), you'd have got that auto-reply thing letting you know I'd be away until the new year began (Mayan prophecies notwithstanding).   But basically, I was gone, mostly happily so. 

And now, the work begins.   Preparation for a short business trip.   Writing one last conference paper for the academic calendar year.   Creating course syllabi.   Keeping one eye on the NFL playoffs.  Getting back onto the mat, working my tail off, losing the weight most of us need to lose (especially at our age).   And writing here.  

Hopefully, no one missed me while I was gone.  More importantly, hopefully no one forgot me.