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.
Today is Chuck Jones’ 100th birthday and they’re having a party for him out in Glendale, California tonight to mark the occasion. That’s great, but I thought an even-broader fuss would be made over one of the greatest American filmmakers. (And don’t you dare say he “only” made cartoons, which is somewhat like saying Chopin “only” wrote piano pieces.) If that clause requires justification, consider that three of Jones’ Warner Bros. shorts were among the films chosen by an army of critics and filmmakers in the recently-unveiled 2012 Sight-and-Sound poll of Greatest Films Ever Made.
If I’d had a ballot, I’d have made sure I put a Chuck Jones film on it. But I’d have a helluva time picking one. The three I’d found on the S&S list – “Duck Amuck” (1953), “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957) and (a mild surprise) “The Ducksters” (1950) – surely qualify. But that leaves out so much: “The Draft Horse” (1942), “Tom Turk and Daffy” (1944) (“The yams did it!! The yams did it!!!…), “The Eager Beaver” (1946), “Mouse-Wreckers” (1949), “Long-Haired Hare” (1949) (“What do they do on a rainy night in Riiiio?….”)“The Scarlet Pumpernickel” (1950), “The Rabbit of Seville” (1950), “Two’s a Crowd” (1950) (The first appearance of the floppy-eared puppy whose yapping sends Claude Cat to the ceiling), “Chow Hound” (1951) (a personal favorite precisely because it freaks so many people out), “Bully for Bugs” (1953), “Duck Dodgers in the 241/2 Century” (1953)….
Sheesh! And even this leaves out so much: All of Pepe Le Pew, Marvin the Martian, Wile E. Coyote (and his Arcadian counterpart Ralph Wolf), that kitten-loving lummox Marc Anthony, the unwanted mongrel Charlie Dog, Sam the Sheepdog, the Road-Runner, Sniffles, Hubie, Bert and assorted other mice.
And why stop with the Warners Bros, stuff? There’s this Oscar winner from his MGM period that holds up as well as any full-length feature of comparable ambition. (I’ll think of one, eventually):
For me, it always comes down to two. This, for its sheer, unabashed entertainment value (and its solicitude for grammar):
And, most especially, this (which I think actually made the National Registry, though it should have won an Oscar):
I’m not sure there’s more to be said for these and other great, small works of Jones — except maybe to speculate that the reason why these keep killing us from one century to the next can be found in their simplicity of intent. Mack Sennett, the silent comedy impressario who likely helped Chuck Jones the small boy become Chuck Jones he artist, once deflated solemn critical analyses of his productions by writing, “We merely went to work and tried to be funny.” Jones often said similar things in his own interviews, but as “Dot and the Line” indicates, he was also intent on sliding low comedy to higher ground. Sometimes, as with Chaplin, he was obvious about it; other times, as with Keaton, he was sneaky with it. (I preferred the sneaky stuff, which is to say, most of the Warner stuff from the 1940s and 1950s. )
Either way, he made it look easy. So easy, in fact, that no one today seems to be able to do it as well. Which is not his fault.
It’s possible that I am more addicted to NFL Films than I ever was to the NFL itself. A football game, to the uninitiated, can be a static, unwieldy thing to behold. Half the idea of the game, after all, is to stall forward motion. Depending on the circumstances, that, too, can be exciting, even beautiful. But you have to pay attention to what’s happening to appreciate such moments. And it’s all too easy to let the mind wander during those raw stretches of time-outs, replays, penalties and, everybody’s favorite, running out the clock.
But what if you isolate the high points of a game, tighten the focus on the players in mid-air or mid-tackle, season the moments with the soundtrack of growling, howling voices at collision point and sweeten them with orchestral music that either accentuates the tension or amplifies the humor? String such moments into a narrative and you can make an unsuspecting viewer fall in love with football to the point of being able to watch a whole season, maybe several, of complete live games. NFL Films did that for me and, I suspect, for tens of millions needing side-door access to the Leviathan of American Sport.
Steve Sabol, who died yesterday at age 69 from brain cancer, was likely more responsible than anyone else for making me conversant with professional tackle football. His father Ed may have founded the Mount Laurel, N.J. company that helped sell the NFL product to the masses. But it was Steve who more definitively fused its destiny with that of the league – and, in the process, connected most directly with the romantic film nerd in me. He could make a regular season Dolphins-Raiders grudge match look and sound like “Captain Blood” and you knew he’d been not only steeped in Michael Curtiz, but also knew his John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and…yes, even his Gene Kelly. Getting the footage was one thing; knowing how to get the best use of that footage, to play it over and over again without letting anything get stale were qualities that the best producers and directors, whatever their budgets or objectives, could appreciate.
To be sure, he had some of the auteur’s healthy egomania, however blithely worn. John Facenda may have been the Voice of God in all those Super Bowl highlight reels. But it was Steve Sabol’s face you would always see as he pulled back the curtain on his company’s proudest possession: Those miles and miles of archival footage going as far back as the ghostly, grainy black-and-white films of Don Hutson and Sammy Baugh through the wired-for-sound sideline rants of Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram to the present-day glossiness of Los Bros. Manning driving their teams to league titles. Sabol’s presence on NFL Films compilations sort of reminded you of Walt Disney hosting his weekly TV series, introducing you to his own product week after week. One way or another, whether it was Disney or Sabol, you were going to know who was responsible for creating their Wonderful Worlds. (Which was fine. Sabol got to be pretty good at hosting and better at interviewing, drawing rich, illuminating anecdotes from, among others, those iconic ex-teammates Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell.)
To my mind, this clip from the official Super Bowl XIII highlight film exemplifies everything that made the NFL Films brand inimitable: Editing, music, narration, pacing, Facenda’s mighty chords and sheer unapologetic rapture for the sport. You don’t have to be a Dallas Cowboys fan to get caught up by it. (I’m not and I do.)
As with Disney, the NFL Films universe was hype, glory, mythic storytelling and some overheated hokum. And as with Disney, it was a blend powerful enough to stir the grandest dreams. It could even influence directors as great as Sam Peckinpah, who acknowledged the influence of NFL Films on his slow-mo gunfights in The Wild Bunch. Sabol and his talented staff could not only pump things up, but deflate them, too; either with montages of botched snaps, backfield slips and improbable fumbles or with the self-deprecating, rueful testimonies of ex-players and coaches who enhanced the ground-level humanity of what often seemed a dehumanizing process. I especially appreciated the often earthy anecdotes of ex-Baltimore Colts such as Art Donovan or Alex Hawkins, who recalled a bacchanalian team dinner at Hollywood’s Brown Derby after a painful loss to the Rams. Louella Parsons came over to a raucous table of Colts and introduced herself to the legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas. Hawk recalled that a tipsy Unitas peered at Parsons from behind his seat and invited the grande dame of gossip to “sit your ass down and have a beer.”
Maybe there should have been more stories along the way about the game’s long-term damage to its players. But Unitas helped NFL Films on that, too, by agreeing to a 1999 HBO profile if he were allowed to talk about his dispute with the league over the lack of compensation to retired players for post-career debilitations. Indeed, the HBO-NFL Films collaborations, including the recent Lombardi and Namath bio-pics are among the crown jewels of the Sabols’ company, attentive to character flaws and social turmoil without in any way mitigating their subjects’ epochal personae.
With Steve Sabol’s passing, there are some voices already saying that NFL Films should be granted the same canonical status as Ford, Hawks and other masters of American high-adventure filmmaking. I’d be OK with that, though it’s hard at the moment to imagine anyone who’d be better at packaging all that raw footage than Sabol. For the moment, I’m happy to use whatever idle moments I have wandering YouTube and other sites for pieces of the dream Sabol fashioned with such shrewd, yet wide-eyed panache.
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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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We all knew The Green Mile was going to be the first movie cited in Michael Clarke Duncan’s obituaries. It’s just that none of us expected to be reading those obituaries this soon. His seemed to be one of those careers built for the long haul; he was a solid screen presence audiences were always happy to see in as many movie and TV supporting roles as he could accumulate. Down the road, he could have headlined his own TV series, instead of merely providing support for somebody else’s. And it wasn’t at all unlikely that he could collect another Academy Award nomination to go with the one he’d received 12 years ago for playing John Coffey, the unjustly-condemned man with healing powers in Green Mile
Duncan’s riveting, affecting portrayal is a fine centerpiece to a too-brief career. Yet when I got the news of his death at just 54 years old last night, I didn’t think at first of John Coffey. I thought instead of Otis Jenkins, a small role in 2008’s Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, a family-reunion-as-slapstick farce in which Clarke played gruff-but-sensible elder brother to Martin Lawrence’s blundering talk show guru. In his few scenes, Duncan showed an ease of manner, a limber command of space that he rarely, if ever had the chance to show on-screen. One suspected from his self-effacing, warm-spirited public appearances that this persona was much closer to his real-life self than the by-the-numbers heavies he played more often in such films as 2003’s Daredevil or 2005’s Sin City.
I wish, in other words, there were a lot more Otises in Duncan’s curriculum vitae than Kingpins.
Once in a while, there would be a nice blend of these tendencies; notably (maybe solely) in 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards. I thought there would be more time for Hollywood to truly realize what it had in Duncan; that just because you’re big and black doesn’t mean you have to be perpetually cast as a Looming Threat, implied or otherwise. I should know better. Hollywood’s constricted imagination narrows even more when it comes to African-Americans. To say Duncan, as successful and beloved as he was, deserved better from the mainstream movie industry is to say it of any talent-of-color, on- or off-screen. Even Duncan’s John Coffey role, as beautifully rendered as it is, is redolent of what Spike Lee has sneeringly labeled the “magical negro” meme in which black characters are endowed with the kind of exalted, near-supernal gifts whose purpose is to somehow ennoble or absolve white characters. I don’t bring this up to demean or diminish Duncan’s life-altering, well-deserved moment in the spotlight. He had a wonderful life and an admirable career. It’s just another lament for lost opportunities. .
Speaking of both Spike Lee and lost opportunities, I got the news of Duncan’s passing over my phone just as I was about to put it to sleep before a screening of Lee’s latest, Red Hook Summer. I was prepared by advance reviews for an uneven movie and thus wasn’t surprised to find moments of brilliance and insight leaping like sparks from a generally muddled saga of life in a Brooklyn public-housing project as seen though the eyes – and I-Pad2 – of a middle-class boy (Jules Brown) from Atlanta spending a summer with his overbearing preacher-grandfather (Clarke Peters).
As with most of Lee’s films, Red Hook Summer is far more valuable for what it brings up than for what it resolves. The vignettes and extended visual takes of its eponymous neighborhood teem with vitality and engagement. No one shoots Brooklyn, or black people, quite like Lee, bringing out tones, colors, details and nuances you just don’t get in other movies with these same subjects. The state of Red Hook, its environmental and economic troubles, its stratification between low-income apartment dwellers and those who either cross the river to Manhattan or flit in and out to shop at Fairway or Ikea are enumerated in the grandfather’s sermons. You learn — and feel — a lot of illuminating things in static bursts, until an unexpected plot development lands with a discordant thud at the climax, raising many more questions than it answers. (I’m not going to give out the spoiler because I still think you should see the movie, warts and all; after all, these lives are so rarely seen in movies that Red Hook Summer gains its importance practically by default.)
The narrative is so diffuse that only two elements provide any kind of adhesive. One is the glowering throughout by Master Brown and the other is the performance by Peters, better known for his work on two David Simon HBO series: the cerebral detective Lester Freamon on The Wire and the bullheaded “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux on Treme. Peters seems at first to have the thankless task of imposing his character’s aggressive piety upon both his grandson and the audience. It’s only when the air leaks out of his preacher’s rigorously virtuous aura that Peters takes the movie’s grappling to more contemplative and unnerving concerns.
If nothing else, Red Hook Summer establishes Clarke Peters as an actor magnetic and resourceful enough to carry a movie on his own. I’m neither able nor willing to believe the movies have arrived at a point where it knows what to do with such forceful intelligence, especially when it comes from a middle-aged African American. Then again, Denzel Washington’s a middle-aged African American. And he’s been known to carry movies on the strength of his personality….
Maybe not. Only television knows how to adequately showcase someone like Clarke Peters. The living room, after all, is where the “real” people come to visit.
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