Yes, I know. This happened within the last few days, followed closely by this and then, for God’s sake, this. I still say 2016 isn’t, as so many insist, The Worst Year Ever for high-profile deaths; not in my lifetime anyway.
I checked. Consider 1959, whose carnage all but commenced February 3 with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crushed and shredded by an Iowa plane crash. There followed the deaths, in no particular order, of Billie Holiday, Errol Flynn, Raymond Chandler, George Reeves, Mario Lanza, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lester Young, George C. Marshall, Carl “Alfafa” Switzer, Victor McLaglan, John Foster Dulles, Cecil B. DeMille, Bert Bell, Kay Kendall, Preston Sturges, Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, Ethel Barrymore, Boris Vian, Sidney Bechet, Lou Costello…
Some of these deaths were untimely and unexpected, others weren’t. And go sit in a corner if you even think of responding with something like, “Yeah, but these were all OLD people…”
I can easily pull other, similar examples out of my memory bank, especially Bobby Kennedy’s “very mean year” of 1961 (Ernest Hemingway, Patrice Lumumba, Gary Cooper, Booker Little, Barry Fitzgerald, Dag Hammarskjold, Sam Rayburn, Scott LaFaro, Ty Cobb, James Thurber, Maya Deren, Dashiell Hammett, Grandma Moses, Chico Marx, Jeff Chandler, George S. Kaufman, Carl Jung…) spilling right into the following year (Marilyn Monroe, William Faulkner, Ernie Kovacs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benny Paret, Niels Bohr, Isak Dinesen, Myron McCormick, Charles Laughton, Franz Kline, C. Wright Mills…) and onwards towards 1966 (Lenny Bruce, Walt Disney, Evelyn Waugh, Bud Powell, Montgomery Clift, Frank O’Hara, Bobby Fuller, Richard Fariña…) and 1974 (Duke Ellington, Earl Warren, Jack Benny, Agnes Moorehead, Ivory Joe Hunter, Frank McGee, Cornelius Ryan, Darius Milhaud, Chet Huntley, Bobby Bloom, Frank Sutton, Cass Elliot, Joe Flynn, Charles Lindbergh, Nick Drake, Richard Long, Cyril Connolly, Gene Ammons, Otto Kruger, Jacqueline Susann, Amy Vanderbilt…)
And I could go on like this forever. Do you know why? BECAUSE SO DOES DEATH, PEOPLE. Once you stop thinking of your own era as being, like, so totally unique, it helps make everything around you less frightening.
Repeat after me and say it over and over at night to help you sleep: Years don’t make us better or worse. WE make years better or worse.
With that in mind, I’d like to submit my own random, totally subjective list of the things that made 2016 not suck quite as much as you might otherwise believe. For one thing, it was, despite the prevailing socio-political landscape, a terrific year for African American culture, as many of the attached items will attest. And that will be as true of 2016 ten years from now as it is now, no matter what state the United States will be in by then:
Atlanta – Donald Glover’s masterly FX series about hip-hop life along the edges validated my long-held suspicions that there was something about its eponymous city that transgresses laws – or at least customs – of time and space. It’s a city where Justin Bieber is magically transformed into the bratty young black man you suspect he’s always wanted to be and where every single plan that an ambitious brother like Glover’s Earn can conceive is chopped up and pureed into unrecognizable, perplexing anomalies. Though he was writing about DJ Shadow this past summer, Greil Marcus could have been talking about Earn and his milieu when he described “a sampler of bits and pieces of dislocation in modern life – finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and realizing you were born there – the textures can seem meretricious, accepting, as if there’s really nothing left to argue against…[But] [b]y its end, yes – you don’t know where you are.”
Mahershala Ali – From Ali’s soon-to-conclude duty as Remy Danton, the lovelorn fixer-for-the-highest-bidder on House of Cards, one sensed coiled steel, contained explosiveness and intuitive graces that this actor could call upon for more daunting challenges. Didn’t take long for him to display these qualities when playing the year’s more conflicted criminals. As Juan, the neighborhood crack dealer in Moonlight, Ali lets you see both the smoldering menace with which he quietly asserts proprietorship over his network of mules and the deep, if enigmatic well of sympathy that allows him to connect with a bewildered, vulnerable boy bullied at home and at school for reasons he can’t fathom. For the smaller screen, Ali brought gray shadows and complex motivations to his portrayal of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Harlem crime kingpin and chief nemesis of the bulletproof hero-for-hire in Marvel-Netflix’s Luke Cage. He’s so persuasive at evoking a bad man convinced of his essential goodness that one felt a slow leak oozing out of the whole series after his departure. His dual triumphs make one yearn for more opportunities for Ali to play anti-heroes who can deal with the devil while doing God’s work.
O.J.: Made in America & The People Vs. O.J. Simpson – It doesn’t matter whether you preferred Ezra Edelman’s epochal, illuminating five-part documentary series for ESPN or the Scott Alexander-Larry Karaszewski dramatization which made heroes of erstwhile laughing stocks Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulsen) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) without in any way mitigating the scorched-earth genius of Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance); all of which actors, by the way, won much-deserved Emmys. What both these vastly different approaches to a reverberating crime have in common is what they imply about the glaring inadequacies of day-to-day news coverage. You could argue that all the nuances, subtleties and socio-historical contexts available now to screenwriters and documentarians weren’t as easily accessible to journalists as when the actual Simpson trial was unfolding 22 years ago. But as the last election cycle proved, the 24-hour news cycle, whether on cable or through the Internet, barely bothers even to try thinking such things through. All we’re left with, then and now, are the usual bromides e.g.: It’ll be years before we know what really happened; There’s always more to the story; There’s more here than meets the eye…Blah…Blah…Blah…Whimper.
The Sport of Kings – From the great, relatively forgotten, but still very much alive (at this writing) African American novelist William Melvin Kelley, I recently found out that the word “race” derives from the medieval Italian “razzo,” meaning “any given breed of horse.” I’m betting that C.E. Morgan, a intelligent, imaginative and startlingly perceptive daughter of the Bluegrass State, was aware of this arcane connection when she wrote this novel about a Kentucky horse breeder whose attitudes about race roughly parallel those of the odious John C. Calhoun. He has his reasons, of course, and Morgan’s too conscientious a novelist not to take their full measure, however petty they are and however grievous their impact on others’ lives. His venom afflicts two of those lives. One belongs to his spirited, magnetic daughter who shares his obsession with creating the next Secretariat; the other belongs to a black ex-convict from the mean streets of Cincinnati hired to help train this super horse. I’ve pressed and imposed this novel upon others and yet I’ve been struggling to figure out why. One possible answer just now came to me through David Ulin’s retrospective essay about Double Indemnity for the Library of America’s “Moviegoer” site when he cites a quote from the movie’s coscripter Raymond Chandler: “It doesn’t matter a damn what the novel is about…The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it.” Self-serving, I suppose, since Chandler’s reputation while alive was that of an innovative genre writer. Morgan’s novel, aiming for higher ground, isn’t about “practically nothing,” but about many things at once. Yet as with great writers of American noir such as Chandler, Sport of Kings surges and leaps heedlessly into big emotions and grand melodrama, which Chandler believed “was the only kind of writing that I saw was relatively honest.” Ulin pushes these points further by defining them as “conventions of the hyper-real.” I haven’t the time or the space here to get into the specifics, but if you can imagine what base-level 20th century American melodrama, whether practiced by realists or “hyper-realists,” can bring to 21st century issues of race and class, then you will understand why I’ve been bullish on this particular horse opera. I didn’t read Sport of Kings so much as submit to its power and it’s been too long since any new novel did that to me. (I was one of the judges who singled Sport out for the Kirkus Book Prize for fiction. If you can call it up, our citation is quoted here.)
The Arab of the Future, Vol. 2– Along with Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco and the late Harvey Pekar, cartoonist Riad Sattouf has helped establish the graphic memoir as the most innovative and affecting narrative art form to have emerged in the late 20th century. Given the relentlessly bleak news coming out of Syria in recent years, Sattouf, who once was a regular contributor to Charlie Hedbo, may be providing the most timely and poignant contribution with his autobiographical account of growing up between different cultures. In the first volume, avid, adorably fluffy-haired Riad is shuttled back and forth between France, where his mother Clementine is from, and the volatile Middle East of the 1980s where his Syrian father Abdel-Razek embraces the then-burgeoning Pan-Arab movement. In this second volume, covering 1984 and 1985, Riad’s family settle in his father’s hometown of Ter Maaleh as the country reinvents itself under the dictatorship of Hafez Al-Assad. The little boy must adjust to a new school with its fundamentalist dictates, corporal punishment and the usual highs and lows of socializing with other children, complete with bullying of an especially brutal and bigoted kind. In recounting these and other vicissitudes, Sattouf maintains his wit, balance and equanimity towards all his characters, even at their worst. This is especially true of his father, who is by turns insecure, pompous, clueless and frantic to fit into whatever future his homeland devises for himself and his family. As with its predecessor, the second volume of Arab of the Future makes you wonder how long it’ll be before Abdel-Razek’s dreams come crashing down. But even with that dire prospect, the warmth and wisdom seasoning his son’s rueful memories keep you hoping for the best for the Sattoufs while bracing for the worst.
Weiner— It’s odd how some things can both become dated and gain added significance in only a few months. When I first saw Weiner in the theater, it was early summer, Huma Abedin’s mentor was still well-positioned to be the next president and I came away from the documentary thinking mostly about Abedin’s inscrutably slow-burning gazes at the movie’s main subject who, for all his energy and earnest impulses to do good, came across here as he did everywhere else in the last four years: As an incurable narcissist, stabbing himself, scorpion-like, with his own…um…wretched excesses. I saw the film again on Netflix a couple weeks ago and somehow all that tattle-and-buzz about a man, his penis and social media don’t seem all that important when compared with the brazen lies and mendacity we’ve already seen in play so far from the incoming administration. This time around, what was far more important to me were all those brown and black people occupying the periphery of the action who kept shouting at the TV cameras and their enablers to stop yammering about the man’s dickishness and concentrate on what needs to happen in their neighborhoods to make them better. Wouldn’t it be something if this documentary ended up signifying both the peak and decline of the Age of Gossip and Innuendo? As. If.
Lemonade & Daughters of the Dust – It now seems like forever and a day since Beyoncé dropped her “Formation” video into Super Bowl Week festivities the same way you imagine a visitor from the future, unrecognizable to present-day eyeballs, dropping in on the Iowa Caucus. The 24-hour news cycle chewed its immediate impact to tiny bits until there was little left to the astonishment but empty bluster and gaping bemusement. My own reaction was something akin to: Damn. It almost looks as if Julie Dash directed this badboy! Those of us who cherish Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, her gorgeous 1991 cinematic tone poem set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Georgia Sea Islands have spent the intervening years keeping track of her movements and looking for signs that the movie wasn’t forgotten. And while Dash didn’t direct the “Formation” video, or any of the others emerging from Bey’s daring, insurgent album, Lemonade, there were enough resonances from Daughters to summon a movement to get an enhanced edition of the film out and about to art houses throughout the country. Because Daughters occasioned the first four-star review I ever gave as a Newsday movie critic, this convergence of cultural forces was the happiest I can remember.
Hell or High Water – As I’ve babbled to several people till I bored my own self, I wasn’t at all bullish on movies this year. (The worst of the summer blockbusters, in my opinion, gets its definitive raking-over here by the ever-engaging critical thinkers over at HISHE, who once again outclass what they’re critiquing.) I suppose I’m an incurable aficionado of the mid-to-late-1970s wave of gritty American cinema. And while I think this badlands chase thriller from David Mackenzie wouldn’t necessarily stand out among the glorious products of 40-something years ago, it offered elemental pleasures similar to those movies’: a taut-wire storyline that wastes no time; dry, cool dialogue that likewise goes about its business in real time and no-sweat laconic performances that play changes like a cool jazz combo. Coolest and driest of all is Jeff Bridges in his best performance in years as a Texas Ranger in pursuit of bank robbers aggrieved by the economic unpleasantness of recent years. I also quite liked Chris Pine as one of the robbers, though unlike some reviewers I don’t think he quite steals the movie from Bridges so much as shares the win in the end. If you’ve seen it already, you know there’s added implication in that previous sentence. If not, what the hell are you waiting for?
The Liberation Music Orchestra Redux – It all keeps coming back to Chicago at whose jazz festival this year I saw Carla Bley leading the revived Liberation Music Orchestra founded almost a half-century ago by the late Charlie Haden. He’d spearheaded a restoration of the 12-piece band a few years back, but his failing health prevented him from pressing ahead. Bley, who’d been with the orchestra at its creation as both pianist and arranger, picked up the ball and carried on Haden’s dream of focusing the orchestra’s progressive agenda on ecological issues. The Chicago set included pieces from the album Time/Life (Impulse!) whose playlist includes Bley’s multi-textured tribute to Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring,” and Haden’s own “Song for the Whales.” The timing of their return is all-too auspicious and I have a sinking feeling that global warming may soon end up being among many things they’ll be compelled to make music about.
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Patty Lane would put it exactly that way. Remember Patty Lane? She was the one “who’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights.” If you’re of a certain age – mine, more or less – you know what comes before or after that line in the indelibly memorable theme music to The Patty Duke Show.
That was the one about “identical cousins” — and if that concept sounds genetically implausible, remember that the show ran between 1963 and 1966 when network television, in a time of often traumatic socio-political upheaval, opted for a chintzy species of magical realism where witches, Martians, talking horses and other anomalies could appear in your living rooms and three-hour boat tours could get you shipwrecked miles from the known world.
So, yeah, we bought the whole thing about two teenaged cousins who looked exactly alike while having starkly contrasting personalities. Cathy, the visiting relative from overseas, was demure, soft-spoken and scholarly while Patty was brash, jive talking and gregarious. They were both played by the teenage star who won an Oscar for her unsettling, enthralling performance as the blind deaf-mute Helen Keller in 1962’s movie version of The Miracle Worker.
This straight-from-Parent-Trap gimmick (apparently) sold the show to ABC. Duke’s zesty bravura sold the concept to America, which in retrospect is mildly astonishing. It’s difficult to remember now in a Miley Cyrus world that it was once rare to see adolescents inhabiting the center of a weekly TV sitcom. Leave it to Beaver cleared the way for Patty Duke Show with a point-of-view so child-centric that we still weren’t sure what its adult characters did for a living besides live in firehouses and teach school. But to have a weekly television series dominated by someone who was, at the time of its debut, still in high school, seems now to be the kind of a dare only a third-place network would take; one similar to the one it took by scheduling this crazy thing as the Wednesday lead-in to what turned out to be Patty Duke Show’s last season.
Little else was innovative about the series besides the concept. Whatever whimsical trouble the cousins contrived to get into, the adults almost always saved their bacon with sage (read: dull) counsel, just as they did in every family sitcom, with or without talking pets. But in an era when the Beatles’ pop explosion confirmed the arrival of what some persist in calling “youth culture,” it now seems altogether logical that a young person, a contemporary who likely knew all the lyrics to every Lesley Gore tune on the radio (as we could likewise recite every word in the show’s theme) was given brand-name autonomy over her very own show.
Something else that many people may have forgotten: She was really, really good at her work. It takes, at the very least, first-rate imaginative faculties to persuasively pull off a dual role and Duke sustained the magic effect for three seasons. Much later, Duke, with the candor and grace that typified the aftermath of her often-nightmarish psychological troubles, recalled how “prescient” the show’s producers turned out to be in devising a dual role for someone afflicted with bipolar disorder.
She also recalled that shy, retiring Cathy was closer to her basic personality than the cheeky, boisterous Patty. I was captivated with Cathy’s downy composure — and, of course, would have been quite happy to “go steady” with her, if I thought I could somehow keep up with her intellect. (I was told at the time that I could; I didn’t think it was necessarily a compliment, and you’d had to have been there to know why.)
But it was Patty – reckless, bumbling, relentlessly optimistic Patty – that I found more to identify with. Her mouth got her in trouble, but she always led with her heart, and never in a corny way. She was, in her way, a dogged New York hipster, though she was, by the 1960s, dangerously close to anachronistic in her effusions — “Pop-Oh,” “Toodles,” “Endsville,” etc. – and her deportment. But if you were the right age for it (and I was), she struck you as being as much a paragon of cool as a TV private eye or secret agent of comparable vintage.
I was sorry to see Patty and Cathy go when they did. But they made me a Patty Duke devotee for life, as they did just about everybody else at or near my age group. Yet it was always on the small screen that Duke made her most lasting impressions on me, whether it was a guest shot on a variety show or her Emmy-winning turn in My Sweet Charlie, her lovely, heartbreaking two-character recital with the late, great Al Freeman Jr. Her acceptance speech for that award was, itself, heartbreaking and worrisome. Was she all right? Would she be OK?
She would be. And until today’s unwanted news, I thought she had more gifts to bestow. It’s fine. She’s given us plenty. Or so I’ll eventually convince myself.
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Here’s what I liked most about last year, period. No added explanation necessary, though you’re going to get a LOT of it as we move along. So without further ado, in no particular order, etc…
Black “Black Comic” Novels
I’m already on record declaring this to have been a banner year for African American writing, especially in this sub-genre. So I have only a few things to add: 1.) I wish I could have found a way to have included in my CNN piece God Loves Haiti, Dmitri Elias Leger’s cunning and deeply moving romantic roundelay set against the backdrop of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake though 2.) what I really wish for is a the chance to have met Fran Ross, author of Oreo, if only to reassure her, as others had before she died in 1985 at age 50, that she was neither alone nor wrong in her artistic foresight and socio-cultural insurgency. 3.) If Paul Beatty’s cheeky, incendiary and laugh-out-loud Sellout had gotten even half of the attention afforded Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, we’d all be a lot further along than we are now because 4.) these and many other novels, poems and memoirs are so far ahead of where everybody else is on race and culture, especially what used to be called “The Press,” that their authors don’t have the time or the patience to look behind them. It’s up to the rest of us to catch up…and I’m not feeling especially hopeful about those prospects as I write this, especially today.
Comic Book Superheroes on TV
MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES
You could probably fashion some kind of algebraic formula out of this theory and make yourself quite obscure, in more ways than one: Something about the comic-book superhero genre diminishes whenever contemporary Hollywood seizes one of its properties and blows it up on for big screen while, on the other hand, the smaller the screen, the greater weight and dimension are allowed for these stories. It could just mean that there are better people writing for television than for movies; a thesis that may not need too complex an algorithm to prove. Whatever the reason, TV, with or without its water-based delivery systems (clouds, streams, etc.) has provided the only superhero “product” (I really need to slap myself stupid every time I use that word) with depth, breadth and, most especially, shadows. I’d previously thought the DC stable led the way by several lengths with Arrow, Gotham, The Flash and its latest sweet surprise, Supergirl. But with the exception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, for all its on-the-fly tinkering, still seems as though it’s fumbling in its pockets for magic and momentum), the Marvel Universe caught up big-time by going urban-neo-noir on Netflix with both Daredevil and the remarkable Jessica Jones coming at you as if every Law and Order episode came down with a severe case of the DTs. (And yes, that is a MAJOR compliment!) The relative success of small-screen super-heroics evokes simpler times when the original TV Superman was charming and cheesy while the first TV Batman was campy and cheesy and both took themselves seriously without being too solemn. Maybe the Fantastic Four franchise, having whiffed in two multiplex-targeted incarnations, would be better off lowering its expectations and looking for a cloud, or stream, to carry it forward. Or not.
I suppose there was a small part of me that wished Todd Haynes had given in to his inner Douglas Sirk with as much abandon as he had in 2002’s Far From Heaven, his previous exploration of “forbidden love” in the 1950s. There were many critics, even those who otherwise praised this movie, who felt the same way. The more I think about it, however, the more I believe Haynes was correct in opting for a mood of smoldering insinuation and rectitude since those are qualities most associated with Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel, The Price of Salt, from which the movie is adapted. She is a writer I will never love as much as I admire – and even then, from a shivery distance. If the movie leaves one cold, well, so did Highsmith. I’m not sure if anybody else could have done the material justice as well as or better than Haynes. Maybe the younger Kubrick since the movie at times evokes a colorized version of his 1962 take on Lolita; or, even better, the Alfred Hitchcock who made such gauzy dreams out of Vertigo or Marnie.
To Pimp a Butterfly(in the approximate, or relative context of Straight Outta Compton) –
The overlap of Kendrick Lamar’s most variegated testament (thus far) with F. Gary Gray’s astonishingly successful biopic/infomercial about N.W.A. made one ponder how much things have changed, if at all, between “Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model/To a kid lookin’ up at me/Life aint nothin’ but bitches and money” and “…[T]he world don’t respect you and the culture don’t accept you/But you think it’s all love/And the girls gon’ neglect you once your parody is done.” The latter quote from Butterfly is, of course, more contemplative and lyrical than the more belligerent assertion of “the strength of street life” from the 1988 album that gives Gray’s movie its name (and, really, its reason to exist.) Yet both these statements, and the records they come from, are stalked, even haunted, by the vulnerability of black lives as framed within the seemingly impregnable “White Problem” in America. Their shared response, in so many words: This is who I am, mothafuckas!! Deal with it because you got to change before I do! Both Butterfly and Compton (the album) also share the imperative to sound like nothing else that came before them. And their respective makers have profited from that make-it-new impulse; though it’s clear from both the movie and the story it tells that N.W.A. has gotten over with its members’ sometimes harrowing practice of rugged individualism while Lamar’s still probing for something deeper and more messianic to carry himself and his listeners to a new, yet-to-be-defined phase of The Struggle. The real bridge between these two works is Lamar’s “Alright,” which stomps in with the “Gangsta Gangsta” swagger before morphing into an assertion of self-worth powerful enough to have made the song an anthem of the “Black Lives Matter” movement – and, potentially, of movements, or just “movement,” to come.
There were so many shattering revelations and shameful double-dealings in this series’ third, and best, season that one feels derelict in highlighting only one episode. But the season’s ninth episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” was one of the peaks of series television, not just of the year, but also of the century so far. Its main action takes place in a repair shop late at night where Elizabeth and Phil Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), Russia’s most stylish spy tandem, have taken a broken mail robot to dig out some needed Intel. An unexpected surprise materializes in the form of an elderly woman (the great Lois Smith) who was married to the shop’s original owner. She’s just as surprised to encounter the Jennings and her bewilderment gradually evolves to a weary acknowledgement that she will not survive the night. Her presumptive executioners share in the gnawing awfulness of the situation especially Elizabeth, who attempts to ease the woman’s impending fate with some intimate, reassuring conversation about family life and then with an excessive injection of drugs. It’s an interlude that makes the audience feel somewhat like intruders – and co-conspirators. Even in a golden age of cable television drama, no other series could pull off such an emotionally searing sequence. I can’t wait to see what the fourth season’s going to submit for our approval.
It took a while for me to cozy up to Bloom County in its original 1980s incarnation. At the time, it seemed as though Berkeley Breathed’s strip was trying too hard to conflate an assortment of influences from Peanuts to Pogo, from Lil’ Abner to Doonesbury (especially) without developing a clear identity of its own. I also thought the comedy was too schematic and not terribly interesting (i.e. aging frat boy Steve Dallas hurling brazenly sexist overtures to super hot feminist schoolteacher Bobbi Harlow. Quelle Topique!) By mid-decade, though, the strip established its own blend of down-home whimsy, magical realism and soft-boiled satire distinctive enough to win a steady, fervent following – and a Pulitzer Prize!
Of course, The Penguin had almost everything to do with it. Breathed knew this since Opus was, for a while, the only character who made it to two sequels following the strip’s closure in 1989. This past July, Breathed came out with a made-for-social-media revival of Bloom County with deeper shadows, broader effects and the same antic impulses. Smartass savant Milo Bloom and his irresolute, monster-haunted school chum Michael Binkley have barely aged beyond pre-adolescence while Steve Dallas is still a self-loathing dick and (thus) a Trump supporter. Binkley has fallen in unrequited love with an enchanting pint-sized yogi named Abby. Bill the Cat is still…Bill the Cat, only more so. And Opus is very much the sun around which the rest of the cast revolves, if not evolves. I didn’t know how much I missed having these guys in my life until I started catching up with them on Facebook. And when I say the shadows are deeper this time, I refer to a recent storyline involving a small boy with an apparently life-threatening illness to whose elaborate space-opera fantasies the Bloom County gang caters. Breathed says he has no intention of bring his troupe back to newspapers and I think it’s a wise move on his part.
I still wonder, though, whatever became of Ronald-Ann Smith from Breathed’s Outland sequel strip. Is she the same age as well? Or did she grow up to become a semiotics professor at a Midwest college? I’m in no hurry to find the answer. I’d rather invent my own.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
My favorite documentary of the year may well be the most balanced, comprehensive and intensely felt history we’ll ever get of its oft-misunderstood topic. Director Stanley Nelson’s companion piece to his comparably thorough and illuminating Freedom Summer (2014) deftly weaves all the scattered, twisted fragments of Panther history from the group’s epoch-making, armed-to-the-teeth appearance at the California legislature (which resulted in then-governor Reagan signing the country’s first gun-control legislation) to its think-globally-act-locally agenda that both scared and thrilled the rest of America to its active harassment under the odious COINTELPRO scourge to its violent confrontations with police and the murder of Fred Hampton – who scared authorities, it’s clear here, more for having his political act together at a very young age than for any largely imaginary danger he posed to civilization. Nelson doesn’t shy away from the internal friction among the Panther hierarchy – and he’s taken some heat for doing so. But none of whatever happened between Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and others diminishes one’s abiding admiration for what this cadre tried to accomplish – or the persistence of what they challenged, against terrible odds, almost a half-century ago.
When Kristen Wiig left Saturday Night Live in 2012, I almost did, too. She gave the show a jolt of danger reminiscent of John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and (yes, even) Adam Sandler. As these examples suggest, such bomb-throwers are rare and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come along that soon to provide a similar did-I-really-see-that buzz to the franchise. Then this ball-of-fire roars into 30 Rock’s fun house and once again, America’s on the edge of its seat wondering what this crazy person will do next. She had me, so to speak, at Justin Bieber. But her take on Hillary Clinton so thoroughly and scarily encompasses the aspects of Madame Secretary’s personality feared by millions that you feel your own worst imaginings being held at gunpoint. (And that they deserve to be, too.) Madame Secretary’s appearance on stage with her perversely avaricious doppelganger was one of the show’s highlights, as much for showing the real-life candidate’s impressive composure in not breaking character, or breaking-up during the routine; something that couldn’t be said for Ryan Gosling a couple shows later. Enjoy her while she’s there because, if past history is any guide, she’s going to get so huge that she’ll outgrow the fun house.
Philip Levine & James Tate
Sunday’s New York Times reminded me that two of my favorite poets passed away during 2015. They seem utterly incompatible at a glance: Levine’s poems were engaged with the grit, heartbreak and elusive epiphanies of blue-collar life while Tate was a deadpan emperor of ice cream who revealed strangeness in familiar things while exalting familiarity in strangeness. Yet reading their poetry gave me frissons similar to the contact highs I used to get from seeing American and European movies more than forty years ago. As I emerged from the theaters of the 1970s, my immediate surroundings attained sharper definition and broader possibility. Good movies, great art and fine poetry induce such rapture and, with the latter especially, you are grateful for those bright flashes of grace and insight whether delivered by the cosmos or summoned from the sidewalk. You need both perspectives to function as a human being, otherwise what’s it all for? Don’t answer. Just listen to Levine working up the nerve to dive into a reverie by declaring: “I place my left hand, palm up before me/ and begin to count the little dry river beds/on the map of life” (“Blue and Blue” from 1994’s The Simple Truth). And dig Tate hard when in the title poem from his 1972 collection, Absences, he neatly sums up the autobiographical impulse: “A child plots his life to the end; and spends the rest of his days trying to remember the plot.” Whenever you lose a poet (or two), you gain renewed diligence to respect the things not readily seen, including all the poets who are still around to sharpen the landscape.
When I now think of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series (1964-1968), it is as a toy, a plaything of youth. As with most toys, I locked the show away in a high, hard-to-reach corner of my crowded memory bank. I’ve taken it down a couple times in recent years through Netflix and assorted snatches on YouTube and, as you’d expect, it looks a lot smaller, even chintzier than it once did. But I also think it deserves a reassessment more nuanced than the too-casual shorthand even fans of the show use to dismiss what, for a brief time, was a legitimate pop-culture phenomenon.
When, for instance, people lazily describe U.N.C.L.E. as a “Cold War spy spoof”, they’re wrong in several shades of the same color. In the first place, labeling Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) as spies is as imprecise as labeling James Bond a spy. All three are international cops. Period. (Doctor No pegged Bond more or less correctly at the start of his movie career as a “stupid policeman.”) This made U.N.C.L.E. less a spy show than another cop show (or a western in business suits) only with outlandish (if often prescient) technology and even more outlandish villains.
Frame such factors with series co-creator Sam Rolfe’s deadpan-earnest establishment of the ersatz United Network Command for Law Enforcement (appreciation for whose cooperation in each episode’s closing credits prompted job applications from credulous eight-year-olds of all ages) and you have a show that was less an outgrowth of the espionage genre and more like science-fiction, an alternative depiction of the mid-sixties in which the whole USA-vs. -USSR Cold War back-and-forth poses less of a threat to the human race than lone-wolf maniacs, bonded by some bureaucratically-arranged netherworld labeled THRUSH, who try to outdo each other in threats of mass destruction and/or global domination.
Indeed, when I think back to the self-absorbed sociopaths targeted by U.N.C.L.E.’s rainbow coalition of sharply-dressed “enforcement agents,” it’s less reminiscent of the bad old days of Imperialist Dogs Toe-to-Toe Against Commie Ratfinks and more akin to the bad new days of free-lance terrorists and renegade masters-of-the-fiscal-universe who wont let anyone stop them from making themselves richer and everybody else poorer – or worse. Is it possible that a nearly fifty-year TV program could offer clues as to how to at least put up a cool front against such up-to-the-minute inchoate peril?
Some of the recurring gimmicks retain their modest appeal, even when they seem less credible than ever. That “ordinary tailor’s shop” in Manhattan’s East 40s that served as covert access to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters may have been the worst-kept secret in New York City. Some bad guys broke through the dressing room door in the very first scene of the very first episode. And after that, nobody thought of changing location in four seasons? Really? And you mean to tell us that none of those hapless civilians drafted for world-saving duty (especially in the first season) who dropped by the office for a gentlemanly pat on the back from U.N.C.L.E.’s stiff, avuncular COO Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) ever told their friends and family what that dressing-room hook did when the signal was given? There had to have been a front entrance, nondescript of course, for office-supply salespeople and take-out lunch deliveries – though the United Network Command etc. might well have been as much a trailblazer for today’s well-endowed employee cafeterias as it was for cellular communication. I’m already thinking too much here. This MAD parody, a sweet-little relic of its own kind, captured all the first-season absurdities as well as I can.
I’d never known this, but at the very beginning, the idea was that each week U.N.C.L.E. agents would somehow wander into the lives of a hapless civilian who would, either willingly or not, tumble through the looking glass into this aforementioned alternative universe of private militias, mountain garrisons, chemical weapons, psychological warfare and apocalyptic tactics. Even after this formula wore off after a season or so, it was responsible for Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s better episodes. You liked having someone who wasn’t in on the game wandering around this arcane world on your behalf partly because, as droll, charming and adroit as Vaughn and McCallum were in playing their respective roles, Solo and Kuryakin were basically well-tailored ciphers. Napoleon Solo remains the coolest name ever given to a TV action hero, thanks to Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, who the producers brought in at the start for suggestions. But Napoleon (“Nappy Spice” would now be his new-jack moniker) was little more than a jumble of mannerisms encased in two-button suits with a suave-but-chilly intellect, somewhat reminiscent of the recently deceased John F, Kennedy. Maybe that was enough to keep us in Solo’s corner for those four seasons. But I now wish Fleming had left behind a better idea of who this Solo guy was and where he came from. Somewhere among the online clutter, there was something about him being Canadian. That wasn’t going to fly on American network TV in the early-to-mid-1960s, when it was OK for leading men to be Canadian – Dig that crazy Raymond Burr and who the hell is William Shatner! – but not leading roles.
(Most, but not all, of these notions – especially the absence of a back story for Napoleon Solo – are addressed in the new Guy Ritchie movie, about which I shall say nothing more except that it’s better than you’d expect it to be — even if you expect it to be just as it was when it was your favorite toy. Which it wont be. But that’s not our topic for today. So where were we?)
You know what else I wish? And this is nothing against McCallum, who managed to bring intriguing flashes of temperament into Ilya’s characterization. I wish the show had followed another of Fleming’s original suggestions and partnered Napoleon with a woman. Her name was supposed to be April Dancer, which was used as the title character’s name in the puerile spinoff, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. In a more far-sighted and progressive age of TV when networks weren’t concerned with offending white viewers in the Deep South, it wouldn’t have been too out-of-line for the producers to cast a woman-of-color in the role. Any number of beautiful, magnetic black actresses could have made the grade at that time; to name only a few, Diana Sands, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Nichelle Nichols or even Dorothy Dandridge, who back then was in dire need of a fresh new break. This Man From U.N.C.L.E. could have broken the barrier that I Spy breached a season later while giving Americans their own urbane, witty and altogether transformative version of British TV’s The Avengers. Anything’s possible in alternate universes, even my suggestion a year ago of a different lead for Hawaii Five-O.But if even the remakes and updates we’ve been seeing of these shows are any indication, producers’ visions still go only so far, and no farther.
Because I don’t have to, I’m not going to bother with a Top-Ten movie list this year. This is also because there wasn’t a whole lot I saw at the multiplexes in 2014 that got me as wound up as the stuff I’m listing below. And if I bothered to enumerate the movies that did, I’d likely end up with a list that more or less looks like everybody else’s, which precisely none of us wants.
Instead, I’m going to pull together a rag basket of items that for various reasons made the most resounding connections with my frontal lobes through the prevailing media din of weapons-grade white noise and free-styling schaudenfreude. Most came out this year; some didn’t, but I got around to them for the first time this year, so they count. (My list, my rules.)
Quite likely, I’m forgetting, or blocking some stuff. It’s been that kind of year. And there were some things I couldn’t bring myself to include, whatever my absorption level. Scandal, to take one example, remains for many people I trust an irresistible sack of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. But outside of Joe Morton’s righteously Shatner-esque scenery chewing and the mad electricity vibrating in Kerry Washington’s eyeballs, I’ve found that its live-action anime antics can go on without me for at least a couple weeks at a time.
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks –Brooks made his name mythologizing the walking-dead (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide). But he proves himself just as conscientious in rendering factually grounded savagery in this fire-breathing graphic (in every sense) novel about the legendary all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that roared out of Harlem to fight in World War I, the hinge between post-Reconstruction’s legally-sanctioned terrorism of African Americans and the gathering pre-dawn of the civil rights movement. Though the Hellfighters’ passage from raw, often humiliated recruits to take-neither-prisoners-or-shit-from-anybody warriors is rousing, the visual depictions of squalor, disease and violence (thanks to the classic-war-comics élan of illustrator Canaan White) deepen the many ironies layered onto this saga; not the least of which was that it was only through the horrific, demeaning process of war that black men could begin proving their worthiness as American citizens – and even that wasn’t enough. To establish its own validity as historical fiction, Brooks’ account brings in such real-life badasses as James Reese Europe, Henry Lincoln Johnson and Henri Gouraud for colorful cameos. Of course, a movie is planned. Good luck trying to top this
Scarlett Johansson –I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the commanding way she works the alien-enigmatic in the polarizing Under the Skin. By contrast, the art-house crowd showed relatively little-to-no-interest in Lucy in which she played a hapless, sponge-faced drug mule accidently injected with a drug transmuting her into a time-distorting, matter-altering, ass-kicking wonder woman. But Luc Besson’s acrylic pulp fantasy proved that few, if any movie actresses today are as cavalierly brilliant at throwing down wire-to-wire magnetism in such nutty eye candy. Manny Farber would have wallowed in the termite splendor of it all. Even her by-now borderline-gratuitous Black Widow turn in support of yet another Marvel money machine (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) retained enough droll slinkiness to make one suspect that giving the Widow her own vehicle might be a bit of a let-down. Then again, Ms. Scarlett never let me down once this year, so why dwell upon the purely speculative?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot By David Shafer – This novel took me by surprise as it did several other critics this past summer. Up till that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that the legacies of both Richard Condon and Ross Thomas could, or even should be filled. Nevertheless, anyone whose familiarity with these authors’ works extends beyond Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate or Thomas’ The Fools In Town Are On Our Side will recognize Shafer’s sardonic humor, crafty plotting and humane characterizations as reminiscent of both authors – which is another way of saying these qualities aren’t what readers of contemporary techno-thrillers are used to. Also, much like Condon, Shafer knows, or strongly suspects, what we’re all afraid of, deep down, and finds a surrogate for this fear that’s both outrageous and plausible; in this case, a sinister cabal of one-percenters planning to seize total control of storing and transmitting information worldwide, thereby making recent abuses by the NSA, or whoever has it in for Sony Pictures, seem like benign neglect. This premise scrapes somewhat against territory controlled by what used to be called the “Cyberpunk School” as well as Thomas Pynchon, except that Shafer’s three 30-ish hero-protagonists are at once unlikely and recognizably human: an Iranian-American NCO operative who stumbles into the conspiracy so haphazardly she’s not sure what it is until it goes after her family, a self-loathing self-help guru in debt to his eyeballs who’s recruited by the cabal to be its “chief storyteller” and his estranged childhood friend, a substance-abusing misfit with a trust fund as thick as his psychiatric case file. They are all swept into an underground movement called “Dear Diary” which knows what the cabal is up to and is deploying its own secret network to bring it down. Social comedy, political melodrama and digital menace don’t always blend as well as they do here. And this is only Shafer’s first novel, meaning, as with the other masters cited above, he can only get better at this stuff from here on.
Get On Up & Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown– The former is a feature biopic; the latter an HBO-exhibited documentary. Both told me things I didn’t know about their shared subject – or, maybe more to the point, framing what I already knew about James Brown’s story in a manner that showed him as far more than an unholy force-of-nature. If I lean more towards the documentary, it’s because the revelations are more striking (not just the spectacular “what” of Brown’s showmanship, but the painstaking “how” of its components along with its savvy adjustments over time). And its testimonies are altogether more enlightening (Mick Jagger, who co-produced both, sets the record straight on how the “T.A.M.I. Show” sequence of acts really went down) I loved listening to band members let loose on what they really thought of their sometimes thoughtless boss as well as what second-generation Fabulous Flames as Bootsy Collins learned on and off the road from Brown. Tate Taylor’s biopic has a different agenda, but it strives to be just as faithful, if not always to the facts, to the facets of Brown’s fiery, hair-trigger temperament. Maybe it tried too hard. (As far as B.O. was concerned, Get On Up…didn’t.) But Chadwick Boseman’s, conscientious rendering of Brown’s tics and turbulence is almost as breathtaking to watch as one of the Godfather’s actual Soul Train appearances. Now that Boseman’s successfully portrayed two historic icons, I remain anxious to see what he can do with a Regular Guy role sometime between now and Marvel’s Black Panther movie.
FX– The third, and best, season of Veep; the harrowing, jaw-dropping single-take night scene in True Detective; Billy Crystal’s astute, heartwarming 700 Sundays; Girls and its discontents; the sheer how-can-it-possibly top-itself-again-and-again momentum of Game of Thrones…There was so much to love about HBO this year that I feel like an ingrate for professing my affection for a rival, even though there are things in both FX and HBO that I’ve neglected (American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire) or shortchanged (The Strain, The Leftovers). Nonetheless anyplace I can find Louie, Archer, The Americans and (for me, especially) Justified is a cozy, stimulating home for my mind. Add to this the deep-dish pleasures of Fargo, whose greatness sneaked up on me the way Billy Bob Thornton’s meatiest, slimiest character since Bad Santa slithered through the frozen tundra, and of The Bridge, whose shrewd and nervy evolution from its first, somewhat derivative season went mostly unnoticed by the professional spectator classes and I’m not sure FX doesn’t have a deeper bench, pound for pound, than its bigger rivals., I prefer a lean, mean FX that takes so many worthy, edgy chances that it can be forgiven for something as lame and sad as Partners. (Never heard of it? Good. We shall speak no more.)
The Oxford American “Summer Music Issue” – I, along with many of my friends, have lots of reasons for being mad at the once-and-future Republic of Texas. But I still love its literary heritage and, most especially, its thick, spicy blend of home-grown music, which takes up C&W, R&B, Tex-Mex, swing, funk, hip-hop and even some avant-garde jazz courtesy of native son Ornette Coleman. They’re all represented on a disc accompanying a special edition of this always mind-expanding quarterly. Compiled by Rick Clark, this CD provides the kind of kicks your smarter buds used to slap together on cassette as a stocking stuffer. Besides the aforementioned Ornette (“Ramblin’”), there’s some solo Buddy Holly (“You’re the One”), early Freddy Fender (“Paloma Querida”), priceless Ray Price (“A Girl in the Night”) and the unavoidable Kinky Friedman (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”). The left-field surprises include an especially noir-ish take of Waylon Jennings doing his signature “Just To Satisfy You,” a deep-blue rendition of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” by none other than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Ruthie Foster’s espresso-laden performance of “Death Came a-Knockin’” and Port Arthur’s own Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother and The Holding Company on a “Bye, Bye, Baby” that swings as sweet as Julio Franco once did. I don’t want to shortchange the actual magazine, which includes James Bigboy Medlin’s reminiscences of working with Doug Sahm, Tamara Saviano’s portrait of Guy Clark and Joe Nick Patoski’s story about Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer. It doesn’t beat a spring-break bar tour of Austin, but it’ll do until I get a real one someday.
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So I watched The Maltese Falcon yesterday afternoon, partly in celebration of John Huston’s birthday, partly because I hadn’t seen it in a while. Its stock has risen and fallen with me over the decades, though never TOO low (or as low as it often fell with hard-core auteurists). Now I’m all grown-up and unequivocally accept it as a classic. But this time around, as I was watching Humphrey Bogart making his way from his office to his apartment and back again, I wasn’t thinking about him so much as I was thinking of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s star turn in A Most Wanted Man. And I realized, finally, why so many people who saw that movie are feeling even more desolated by Hoffman’s passing earlier this year.
Some perspective: Before Falcon, Bogart had been known primarily as a character actor specializing in bad-guy roles; most of them variations of Duke Mantee, the sneering fugitive killer from The Petrified Forest that established his name on stage and screen. As Sam Spade, Bogart carried some of the sinister aura he’d patented in his previous movies and was able to channel it into what Pauline Kael aptly described as an “ambiguous mixture of avarice and honor, sexuality and fear.” It was Bogart’s first “good-guy” role, though given Spade’s icy duplicity and casual cruelty one could more properly characterize it as anti-heroic, or “bad-good guy”. Nevertheless, the movie’s success made Warner Brothers and, by extension, the public regard this brooding, battered-looking fellow as someone who could be a romantic figure; a conflicted one at times, perhaps, but an enviably tough one for sure.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s situation before Most Wanted Man was quite different from Bogart’s before Maltese Falcon. By the time he’d died of a heroin overdose this past February, Hoffman was regarded as one of our finest actors, perhaps, the greatest of his generation. His versatility won him acclaim, awards and a kind of stardom that hadn’t yet translated to heroic or romantic leads; mostly, he was cast as eccentric, sweet, awkward or malevolent characters. If Kael’s description of Bogart’s Spade could have been applied to any of Hoffman’s roles, it likely would have been Lancaster Dodd, the mercurial cult leader and title character of 2012’s The Master. It’s probable that after playing a such a magnetic composite of eccentricity, sweetness, awkwardness and malevolence Hoffman may have started wondering where else he could carry this trick bag and to what end.
So he began trying on some different wardrobe; first as a working-class mensch in God’s Pocket and as Most Wanted Man’s Gunther Bachmann, the rumpled German intelligence operative struggling to finesse the capture of a Muslim statesman suspected of funneling money to terrorists. Gunther is very much in the tradition of John Le Carre’s seedy spymasters; as with George Smiley, Gunther’s idea of getting results is to dig deep, stalk the edges, probe for soft spots and extract information as deftly as possible with no whistles and horns in sight. The strain of maintaining Gunther’s professional integrity shows in the way he wearily saunters into cafes and meeting rooms. Those working with or against Gunther’s tactics seem to have the edge because of their greater physical definition. Yet Gunther’s wooliness is deceptive, calculatedly so. Hoffman carries his character’s authority with a bruised, but stolid Old World dignity. You understand why his team will follow him everywhere and anywhere he takes them – and why his reluctant recruits end up trusting him despite their most urgent reservations.
As for the romantic part, there’s a moment, only a moment, where the possibilities make themselves apparent. It comes when Gunther, in an attempt to conceal his presence from somebody on an illuminated nighttime street, grabs his subordinate Irma (Nina Hoss) and embraces her in a faux-make-out clinch. When they break off, Irma’s hand lingers gently on Gunther’s back. The moment passes, but it’s one of the few times in director Anton Corbijn’s thriller where you’re aware of something going on just beyond the narrative’s whirring machinery.
You’re also aware of something happening with Hoffman’s screen image beyond his already-legendary chameleon chops. You think of the possibilities opened up by having someone as unkempt as a fraternity hall closet after a beer party somehow embody an heroic archetype that movie audiences throughout the world could embrace as cozily as Irma does Gunther. I’m not saying Hoffman’s performance in Most Wanted Man would have allowed him to pursue his own Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. But, putting it as painlessly as possible, it would have been great fun to see him go for it.
The recent death of James Shigeta at 85 evokes a different, but no less poignant sense of lost or forsaken possibilities. Shigeta, as many knowing and respectful tributes have mentioned, had a long and influential career as both dramatic actor and musical-comedy performer. Blessed with resonant, melodious speaking voice, Shigeta broke down racial barriers from the start of his career, playing a police detective in Samuel Fuller’s iconoclastic 1959 thriller, The Crimson Kimino, in which his character becomes romantically involved with Victoria Hall’s imperiled Caucasian witness.
It wouldn’t be the only time he’d played someone in an interracial romance or for that matter, someone in a romantic lead. And it seemed for a while as though his magnetism and grace would pay off in major stardom despite the compartments Hollywood still tended to place roles for Asian actors.
But Shigeta, though always in demand in movies and television, never became a major star; not even during a twenty-year span – the sixties and seventies – when the nature of what it meant to be a movie star was expanding enough to encompass the previously non-traditional likes of Sidney Poitier, Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman. Maybe the movies couldn’t do it, but television was, and is, a different proposition, more open to tweaking expectations in the name of getting attention – and ratings.
Knowing Shigeta was originally from Hawaii made me imagine a bit of alternative history that, had it actually come to pass, might have helped make a different world. It certainly would have made for an obituary different from the ones widely circulated late last month.
So let’s all imagine, shall we?
LOS ANGELES, July 29, 2014 – James Shigeta, the groundbreaking Asian-American leading man, who achieved his greatest success as star of the long-running CBS police series, “Hawaii Five-O”, died Monday of pulmonary failure. He was 85.
Shigeta, born in what was then the Hawaii territory of the United States to Asian American parents, achieved early success as both a movie actor and as a singer who performed in the 1960 film adaptation of “Flower Drum Song,” the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein musical comedy about arranged marriages among Chinese-Americans.
But it was the role of Detective Lt. Rick Kawakami on “Hawaii Five-O” that made Shigeta a household name in America and throughout the world. In the process, it accelerated the broadening presence of non-white actors on the big and small screens in roles that traditionally went to whites.
“I will always be grateful to Rick Kawakami and everything he gave to me,” Shigeta said in later years. “Once you’ve done TV for as long as I have, you’re never a stranger, no matter where you go in the world.”
It very nearly didn’t happen, according to the late Leonard Freeman, who created and produced “Hawaii Five-O.” Back in 1967, when the idea for a series about an elite crime-fighting unit based in Honolulu reached the development stage, Freeman recalls that while casting Asian actors as cast regulars was never in doubt, the notion of the team’s leader being Asian met with resistance from CBS executives.
“They were adamant,” Freeman recalled in 1971 when the series was in its third season. “But I kept at it, telling them that, after all, we were in a time when Bill Cosby was winning Emmys as a lead character on ‘I Spy.’ But the network was certain that people weren’t ready for an Asian cop leading a series. I kept telling them that just the curiosity of the idea, along with all that beautiful scenery, would give them everything they wanted.”
Shigeta, who jumped at the chance for steady work in the land of his birth, made his own pitch to CBS executives. Apparently that was all it took – and the rest was television history.
“Hawaii Five-O” ran from 1968 to 1980. Shigeta’s good looks, resonant voice and ramrod presence allowed Rick Kawakami to become as familiar to TV viewers as James Arness’ Matt Dillon from CBS’ comparably durable “Gunsmoke.” Backed by a team that included James MacArthur, Kam Fong and Gilbert Lani Kahui , whose professional name was Zulu, Kawakami’s often-impassive leadership style created what TV critic Ken Tucker would later characterize as a “paradigm of absolute cool” that actors of all nationalities would try duplicating with mixed results.
What helped seal Kawakami’s immortality was the way Shigeta would reliably intone, at or near the end of each episode, “Book ‘em, Dann-O!” to MacArthur’s Danny Williams with silken, yet icy resolve.
Shigeta was nominated for Emmys six times in the show’s 12-year history, winning in 1969, 1970 and 1973. Once the show achieved success, Shigeta used his growing influence to ensure that other non-white actors would be given roles that would not be denigrating . He especially made sure that all his co-stars received extensive screen time, even their own episodes. Kahui and Fong credit such exposure for securing roles in major motion pictures, including 1988’s “Die Hard” in which they played Asian businessmen who sacrifice their lives for hostages.
Shigeta recalled being exhausted by the time the series ended in 1980 and took a leave of absence from show business. Hawaii Democrats proposed that he run for governor in 1986. Though intrigued, Shigeta demurred, insisting that, however much he wanted to effect change for people-of-color, he could do the most good in his chosen profession. Instead, he agreed to ease back into the medium in a recurring role on “L.A. Law” as Judge Danforth Akiyoshi.
He admitted that it was “funny, at first” when actors on the series would insist on muttering, “Book ‘em, Dann-O” between takes. “I’d always tell them they didn’t quite have it right,” he said. “And they were always crestfallen when I did. Gosh, I didn’t think they’d take it so personally.””
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So I watched last night’s PBS Frontline report on brain damage in the NFL and learned little that I hadn’t known before – except that things may be even worse than we now know, and that the professional football oligarchs are even less willing to deal with the ramifications.
Kids make up the relatively undiscovered country for those probing the causes and effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which afflicts hundreds, perhaps thousands of those who’ve played American tackle football. The frightening evidence emerging towards the end of “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” implies that even those who haven’t played football for very long or been hit in the head very hard are susceptible to CTE. The program’s producers and reporters are scrupulous enough to say such research is preliminary. Still, the idea of high school players becoming as suicidal or disoriented by CTE as veteran lineman who have battered each other senseless for decades makes you almost as queasy as watching human brains delivered and unpacked at laboratories for poking and gazing.
As noted, most of the details in “League of Denial” have been covered before, notably by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, ESPN’s Outside the Lines, the recently-released documentary, The United States of Footballand the New York Times’ Alan Schwartz (among those interviewed), who’s been growling and snapping at a recalcitrant NFL for almost two decades about the mounting evidence of CTE-related illnesses and deaths among retired and active players. As its title suggests, “League of Denial’s” real story isn’t about those who have suffered the effects of CTE, but the elaborate degrees to which the NFL has resorted to Cover Its Ass (CIA) against the revelations dislodged by Schwartz and others. That the documentary was aired on PBS and not on ESPN, which was pressured by the league to withdraw from a partnership with Frontline on the program, only buttresses the points put forth by reporters Jim Gilmore, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. You cringe more in anger than dread over how the NFL tried to discredit, sometimes to the point of humiliation, doctors and researchers trying to counter the arguments made by the league’s own research team – whose own findings were, saying the least, dubious, almost irresponsibly dismissive of any alarming trend.
But, as somebody somewhere once said, scrape an arrogant bully and you’ll soon reveal the squirming coward within. The NFL is wily enough to equivocate its way towards “improving safety” and other CIA gestures; it’s also smart enough to fear the consequences of inaction. The $765 million settlement the league made with players over concussion issues may buy enough time to figure out what to do next, especially since this furor has dealt mostly with long-term effects.
So far, anyway. But still…
I wonder if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell knows enough about boxing history to acknowledge what happened – or started to happen – to that sport on the night of March 24, 1962 when Benny Paret and Emile Griffith met again to fight for the welterweight championship. The fight was broadcast live on the ABC network back in a time when Friday Night Fights was as much of an American sports TV ritual as Sunday Night Football is now. The story of that ill-fated match and its lingering, dismal aftermath has been well and fully chronicled in a haunting 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. For a long time, the story was simple enough: Paret taunted Griffith in the days leading up to their third and final bout as being a maricon, a derisive word for homosexual. Since then, others have speculated that it was the beatings Paret, as incumbent champion, had taken in his previous title defenses that made him more vulnerable to what would happen. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: During Round 12, before millions of viewers in addition to hundreds at Madison Square Garden, Paret somehow got tangled in the ropes and Griffith unleashed a vicious flurry of 29 successive punches, mostly to Paret’s head. Paret slumped to floor and never regained consciousness. He died almost ten days later. (The moment, horrific as it was, summoned the very best of Norman Mailer’s prose. I have had journalism students whose resistance to Mailer was worn down by his descriptive powers here.)
Among the myriad effects of that fight, the most immediate was the end of live boxing broadcasts on network television. A lot of people thought boxing itself would, or should end, too, especially after another fighter, Davey Moore, died in the ring a year later. But boxing didn’t quite die; indeed, it subsequently enjoyed a majestic decade-and-a-half dominated by such larger-than-life personalities as Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Leonard, Hearns and others stoking its momentum. It wasn’t until people saw what boxing had done to Ali that the once mighty and singular stature boxing once enjoyed in American life diminished to its more-or-less cultish following. The fight aficionados whom I know, love and respect may disagree with this assessment. But not even they can deny that Benny Paret’s death marked the beginning of the end of…something.
Imagine the nightmares Goodell must have these days about something similarly shocking happening to a football player on the field, especially in a nationally televised game. We’ve already seen career-ending broken legs and life-long paralyzing injuries transmitted through our home-entertainment centers. How could you not wonder about the percentages for or against a fatal collision with players getting bigger, faster and stronger? How much padding or protection is enough? Or, even, too much? And if an on-field death from tackling does happen, what next? Well, for starters, there will be howls for football’s banishment as loud as those seeking to outlaw boxing in the wake of Paret’s death. Football won’t end. There are as many waves of people who want and need to play the game now as there were generations of hungry young boxers waiting in 1962 for their Main Event. But what will happen is the slow erosion of football’s romantic allure, its cozy, family-friendly aura of escapist fantasy and high-wire adventure. The mystique, far more than the muscle, is what’s been raking in billions for the NFL since that twilight evening in December, 1958 when Johnny Unitas drove the Baltimore Colts offense on Yankee Stadium’s turf like a white-and-blue T-Bird to shatter a post-regulation tie. I’ll miss that mystique, but what could be put in its place is the kind of rakish, outlaw abandon once associated with pro football in its grayer, dustier days. Bye-bye, Pete Rozelle. Welcome back, Johnny Blood.
I’m still hoping it wont come to that. I think even the people behind “League of Denial” hope that, too. We’d all be damned fools to think it couldn’t.
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Maybe if Jane Fonda had been allowed to channel her third husband when the series started, as opposed to its last couple weeks, more people would say nice things about The Newsroom. As it is, Aaron Sorkin’s unwieldy hybrid of screwball workplace comedy and tag-team poly-sci seminar will wind up its second season this week so distant from the zeitgeist that even people who like the show don’t talk about it much. And when they have lately, it’s to express some degree of disappointment with it, e.g. it’s gotten too slow, too solemn or too much like regular TV, only with more profanity, sex and drugs (and far less of the last two than in Season One). The haters, though yielding a tad more slack to Season Two, say pretty much what they said a year ago – and they keep finding new ways to hate what they see, even though they keep watching anyway.
It’s too bad the crowd has receded. Because after an erratic, even disquieting start, The Newsroom’s second season has brought forth some of the finest work released under Sorkin’s name since The Social Network. And I’m thisclose to declaring this year’s seventh episode, “Red Team III”, better than most of The West Wing during Sorkin’s four-year tenure as executive producer. Directed by Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails, The Wire), “Red Team III” climaxed the season’s running story in which producers, staff and anchors for the mythical Atlantis Cable Network are being deposed by the network’s attorney (Marcia Gay Harden) to prep for what’s been hyped as a potentially devastating lawsuit against ACN; all having to do with an American military operation code-named “Genoa”, which the network reported had deployed chemical weapons against Pakistani civilians. Though second- and third-guessing elements of the report assembled by an ambitious producer (Hamish Linklater), the ACN’s Big Three of anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), news director Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) sign off on the story, which nets them their biggest ratings haul in years – and turns out to be completely untrue.
It’s only in this episode that the plaintiff in the lawsuit is disclosed as the report’s justly-fired-and-discredited producer, who claims he’s being scapegoated for what’s labeled “institutional failure.” Apparently, this also encompasses all the mostly embarrassing stuff that’s taken place throughout the year, much of it courtesy of whatever’s meant by “new media”: the on-line nude photos of ACN’s resident brainiac Sloan Stevens (Olivia Munn); the ongoing fallout from the YouTube-d video of a tour bus meltdown by staffer Maggie Jordan (Allison Pill) and other events whose deus ex machina value for Sorkin fit snugly with his show’s not-so-subtle disdain for all things digital, especially the Twitter-verse.
And yes, I know that it’s probably redundant in many minds to place “not-so-subtle” and Aaron Sorkin’s name in the same sentence. In the words of Anthony Lane, Sorkin “raises hectoring to the level of an art.” (One adds with due haste that Lane’s words weren’t applied to Sorkin, but to Jimmy McGovern, a British playwright, who, as with Sorkin, found his greatest notoriety in television while also establishing a reputation in theatrical film.) You have to be in the mood for hectoring and I guess I was in the mood for it last summer when The Newsroom’s first season tore through the TV set like a squall — accompanied, as squalls are, by intervals of humidity. Sorkin’s alternate media history of 2010 was pissed off in general about the same things I was pissed off about during the presidential election summer; which was why, despite the contrary opinions of critics I respect, I bought the whole grandiloquent package. If Sorkin wanted to rant about the decline of civility in public discourse, the cheapening of what used to be considered “news value” and the manner in which presenting facts in a reasonable, even balanced manner could be construed by right-wing fanatics as “slanted,” I was OK with it – up to a point.
That point converged primarily upon women. With the possible exception of Munn’s Sloan (who makes wonky social awkwardness a variable of imperturbable hotness), just about all the principal women characters in The Newsroom’s first season were hyperbolic, dysfunctional, manipulative or some annoying compound of the three. The exceptions were the near-anonymous support staff members with names like Tess (Margaret Watson), Tamara (Wynn Everett) and Kendra (Adina Porter), all of whom seemed composed, competent and fretless. We were kept in the dark about their private lives and I wish the same were true with everybody else in the cast, especially Maggie, her ex-boyfriend Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) and her would-be boyfriend Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), who now has a thing for on-line political reporter Hallie Shea (Grace Gummer). Do I like these people? Mostly, I guess. Do I care whether any of them hook up? I do not. I prefer they all put their heads down and get to work the way Tess, Tamara and the others do. And while I understand Will and Mac’s relationship to be the series’ linchpin, I’m so indifferent to their will-they-or-wont-they-reconcile-after-their-bitter-breakup subplot that I’d now rather they never ever get back together…which for all I know may well be how this second season pans out.
What did pan out for certain this season – eventually – is that people on the show were concentrating much more on their work. Operation Genoa may have ruined ACN’s credibility. But it released The Newsroom from its frantic obligation to reboot recent history; just as well, too, judging from the peculiarly ambivalent way the show approached the Occupy Wall Street movement earlier this season. In the process, the women were generally smarter and stronger than last season. Harden’s droll, satiny portrayal of the company attorney provided one of Season Two’s recurring pleasures. Gummer’s character confuses me a little, but I thought her poker-faced autonomy was exactly what Jim had coming to him. I also wanted more of Constance Zimmer’s spiky communications director for the Romney campaign, thinking that if Sorkin insists on finding romance for McAvoy (a.k.a. Hamlet the News Lug), she’d be what government jargon would insist on labeling a “viable option.”
But the most gratifying change from last year has come from Mortimer. Her Mac McHale blossomed this season from a welter of mannerisms and nervous tics into a woman who, when she slows her roll long enough to stare at, or down, a situation, lets you see the rueful wisdom earned with her wounds. Sorkin’s scripts still make her steer cars into curbside garbage containers and induce gibbering noises from her whenever she thinks about the used-to-be that was Will-and-her. But even before she sussed out the fatal flaw in the Genoa story, Mac was showing more self-possession under stress.
I think both she and the show reached a turning point in this season’s fifth episode when she scolds a gay Rutgers student about to come out to his parents on the air during a segment of Will’s show about the Tyler Clementi suicide. One senses that it’s Sorkin’s voice one hears when she’s chiding the student for “bathing in the reflected tragedy” of someone who killed himself because his privacy was violated.
(Sorkin did a lot of this mouthpiece stuff throughout the first season and for much of this one. I admit it. It got old for me, too.)
“I just wanted a way of coming out to my parents without being in the same room,” the student then tells Mac.
“Well, good luck with that,” she says, then, trying to reassure him. “It gets better.”
“How would you know?” he replies.
“I guess I wouldn’t,” she concedes.
Which says to me that, at last, The Newsroom is thinking through things before, and maybe even instead of, emptying its rounds. I wish cable news and new media in general would follow this example.
And if The Newsroom continues to deepen its inquiry into the post-Millennial news business, I hope it hits harder than it has so far upon the whole notion of a 24-hour news cycle, which to my mind has done far greater damage to journalism than Twitter feeds. Whatever happens, the show still likely wont get more traction and attention than the last few episodes of Breaking Bad. I get it. I really do. There hasn’t been a single feature film I’ve seen this year that compares with what I’ve seen so far of Breaking Bad’s last mile. But somehow, it’s become so relatively unfashionable to like The Newsroom that I can see it becoming relatively fashionable again. Just as long as everybody on the show keeps their minds more focused on the news beyond their room.
Fifty-five years ago this month, at about half-past-nine on a Saturday night over the CBS Television Network, a man pulled a pistol out of a fancy holster and pointed it at the audience:
PALADIN: I’d like you to take a look at this gun. The balance is excellent. This trigger responds to a pressure of one ounce. This gun was hand-crafted to my specifications and I rarely draw it unless I intend to use it.
Feel free to imagine the voice of Richard Boone (1917-1981) speaking these lines. The show was Have Gun Will Travel. It would last five seasons and its formula of a black suited cowboy-knight-errant was so durable and popular that no one ever wondered how a man wearing dark clothes while riding in a hot desert sun stays so imperturbably cool.
This made us wonder: How would one of America’s foremost playwrights handle this prelude? What would he bring to this classic introduction?
With our deepest apologies to Mr. Mamet (and our urgent warnings to the reader that the following filigree carries an “mature” label), we think…it would go…Something…Like…This:
PALADIN: You see this gun? You see this fucking gun I’m pointin’ at you? Nice, isn’t it? I mean, “nice”…Just a word, right? Doesn’t even do the work, that word. Like it’s too fucking lazy to try harder, right? “Nice!” Forget I even said the fuckwad word… Your sister’s “nice”! Your grandmother’s probably “nice”, too, right?…Shaddap! You don’t talk. I talk… You have any idea what it’s like holding this gun? Are you even capable of imagining what I’m feeling when I hold this fucking gun? It’s like holding… My! DICK!…That’s exactly it!…Imagine how your joint would feel if you could let it roll around in your fucking hands as you hold it out like that! Like it’s not attached, but it still does whatever you fucking want, even if it’s ripped off your body. Ex-ACT-ly Like That! Now…do you know how I came to own this gun? You know how such a perfectly balanced piece of machinery found its way into my right hand, pointed at both your fucking chins? Can your mouse-shit brain grasp what I had to go through to get this balanced to the point where if I whisper diRECtly at the FUCKING hammer, it FUCKING goes off? Do you know? Can you imagine? Don’t bother answering because I already know the answer, you prairie scumbag! This gun is worth your whole fucking ranch and all your rat-sucking livestock five times over. Don’t even ask me what it costs! You know what it cost? EAT SHIT AND DIE! That’s how much it cost. You don’t deserve to know what it costs. You don’t deserve to imagine how it feels to hold your fucking dolphin detached from your fat, worthless pelvis with six chambers locked and loaded…
And do you know why you don’t deserve to know these things? Let me spell it out for you. BECAUSE…YOU ARE A PIECE…OF SHIT! THAT’S WHY! A PIECE…OF SHIT…The bullets in these chambers cost more than your stupid cattle could fetch in the stockyards, you self-deluded prick! This gun…This…fucking gun can drive your goddam herd to Kansas Fucking City and New Fucking Jersey and back! By itself!! This fucking gun can read your whole goddam library of fake fucking books and give you a fucking test tomorrow…This…Where are you going? Where the FUCK do you think you’re going? I’m not through belittling you, you fat fuck! You wait till I’m done talking, you cheap bastard! You moronic douche-bag! You simple shit…
And that’s just the prelude. If Mamet gets his hands on this franchise, his episodes could go on for a while longer than the original’s half-hour run. If this works out, we could be around for a while, too.
John Leonard and I were as one on many things, especially when it came to television. (Among our shared enthusiasms: The Rockford Files, Bill Russell’s NBA commentary, Dana Delany.) He, as much as I, believed deeply that Ed Sullivan was one of the indispensable figures of the 20th century for making his weekly variety show a spectrum of culture from Broadway to the Bolshoi to the Beatles to the Great Ballantine. But for all the props John gave Ed, he had little use for Merv Griffin, to my mind, as far-sighted and boundary-breaching an emcee as Sullivan.
“Charlie Brown in a Rep Tie” was the handle for John’s withering 1972 Life magazine column on Griffin, whose talk show had just gone back to syndication after a brief late-night fling on CBS. “Embarrassingly personal,” he wrote of Merv’s persona. “…[a] hybrid of Nelson Rockefeller, Kahlil Gibran, Little Beaver, Gunga Din and the Little White Cloud That Cried. Throw this man a security blanket!”
As with similar Leonard tantrums, this came as much from a keen sense of injustice (towards the ratings-besieged Dick Cavett, whom he – and I – preferred at the time to Merv and Johnny Carson) as from distaste. Griffin was indeed every bit as moist as Cavett was dry and I, too, can take only so much moisture on my screen.
But Griffin, as everyone now knows, was soggy like a fox. No one who became as wealthy as he did from inventing Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune could be as needy or as naïve as he seemed to Leonard. Before he became a media mogul, the Mozart of the game show, Griffin was a cabaret/nightclub performer who’d seen a lot of great jazz, R&B, Broadway shows and glossy pop during New York’s post-World War II golden age. He couldn’t avoid bringing such paraphernalia to the mainstream. For instance, Play Your Hunch, the Goodson-Todman daytime game show he hosted from 1958 to 1962, included such cutting-edge legends of the moment as Jon Hendricks and, in this clip, songwriters Jerry Lieber and Burt Bacharach.
Once he got his own talk show, Griffin took even bigger chances, bringing to the desk-and-couch format such unlikely visitors as Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer, Abbie Hoffman, both Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick (She did most of the talking) and Phil Spector, who managed to piss off every other guest on the panel that evening – including Richard Pryor, who achieved his first nationwide exposure on Griffin’s show as did the more venerable Jackie “Moms” Mabley, whose renown had heretofore been mostly a “black thing” no white person could literally understand. Both would eventually appear on the Sullivan show, but one doubts either of those loose cannons would have made it there without Merv clearing a path to the mainstream.
If you want to know how truly…extraterrestrial Pryor was from the start. Check out this clip where he does some amazing contortions to “The Kid From Red Bank” — and later gushes all over Jerry Lewis. This was regular TV back then. Now it’d be an Event!
No Moms-on-Merv has surfaced yet on the web. except for this unnervingly treacly stream. (“My little Bobby”?) I want more of her on the couch. I used to love the way she would, in mid-gab, suddenly remember to lean to her right and say “Hel-lo, Aw-thuh” to Merv’s Veddy British sidekick Arthur Treacher, who always looked, at best, startled that she bothered to notice.
These days, wet-and-fizzy seems to be the order of the daytime talk show circuit with a new brace of hosts competing for the attention spans of Oprah Winfrey’s lost tribes. These hosts all yearn for the moistness of Merv, but, so far, seem to have little of his vision. They’re hugging the corners, bending over backwards to date people choosy about their fulltime dancing partners. Don’t count on Katie or Jeff or Steve or, for that matter, Ellen or Phil, mining the underground orcruising the cutting edge in search of today’s Edie Sedgwicks or Richard Pryors. Merv, whatever else you may think, was never worried about unnerving the straights. He liked going where no show bothered to go. Now, these shows seem more interested in telling people what they already know (or think they want to know).
Personally, I think they all (hosts and audience) should hang out more. Merv would.
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