Friday, May 30, 2008

"That's HEDLY": Harvey Korman, 1927-2008

I suppose I shouldn't be too worried that Harvey Korman is gone: Something or other is bound to make me laugh in the same way: overwhelmed by schtick, almost-sniggering asides, eyeball-rolling indulgence--all with a wit as keen as his timing, and a mad love for dopey laughs. What a cliché it is to state the importance of laughter--but I've never let the descent into the facile and the trite stop me before, and I certainly won't now, as I attempt to wave goodbye like a starstruck kid to Harvey Korman--a man whose very name verges on funny--that "K," that perfect "Harvey"--I'm smiling already.

I couldn't wait to see him on Carol Burnett's show. He gave me permission to laugh, even though I was a punk teen in the '70s, and adults--and by extension anything that would make them go haw-haw-haw--were supposed to be square hypocrites--and of course we are--OK, I am. But Harvey entered laughing--at least in his eyes, at the corners of his mouth--especially if he were approaching Tim Conway (oh, man: another genius for another day). And I didn't have to be hip; thanks to his sly generosity, I could laugh at stuff that--well, whaddaya know?--was straight out of Your Show of Shows, down to the on-air crack-ups. A long laugh-line stretching like an ample Borscht Belt all the way to Harvey.

I could blather on, but who needs it? What matters is that permission. Harvey always let you in on the joke--but he was never cute about it. He helped you keep up, grinning a little when you got it, hamming it up until you didn't. And at the end of the trail is Blazing Saddles, always funny, endlessly quotable, and Harvey'd up just right. And I also won't geek all over your shoes by ticking off his many moments in that film. I know we'd all rather let Harvey take care of it himself.

Rating Game Redux 37: Pixel-ated

Our local paper's Rating Game this week asks us to consider the "best computer-generated characters." While that stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) still holds quite a bit of Industrial Light and Magic-al charm, I opted for more recent synthespians (and aintcha glad that appellation never caught on?).


Andy Serkis is motion-captured and rotoscoped into one of the two or three best performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Precious,” indeed.

(Honorable mention: Peter Jackson/Andy Serkis' King Kong.)

Jurassic Park Dinosaurs

Stan Winston’s dinosaurs all but closed the gap between the filmmakers’ and viewers’ imaginations, creating that rare moment when you stop thinking, “It’s only a movie.”


All right, I’m cheating. But--from Woody’s wry grins to Mike Wazowski’s surprisingly expressive single eye, from the Incredibles arguing at the dinner table to Ratatouille’s hurt feelings--Pixar’s characters bridge another gap: between the computer and the cell-drawn cartoon, reinvigorating both media.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rating Game Redux 36: "Get Back to Work"

Another easy list for our local paper's Rating Game: Best Songs About Work. The following three quickly came to mind.

(And you know, I keep posting these, but nobody offers their own favorites. I hereby officially solicit your responses. Now get back to work.)

“The Promised Land”

Bruce Springsteen has written many songs about work, but “The Promised Land” captures the frustrations of working dreams deferred: “I've done my best to live the right way / I get up every morning and go to work each day / But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold / Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode.”

Something to listen to for all of you itching for something to start while you drive all night chasing some mirage:

(Now you see him, now you don't: Rest in peace, Danny Federici.)

“The Internationale”

Wikipedia offers more lyrics than you’ll ever need to this global workers’ anthem. But the stirring melody doesn’t change, and from the collective farm to the Ford plant the workers-of-the-world unite, raised-fist anger and optimism of this song remain the same.

Sing along with Bill Bragg's version, and for three minutes unite the Earth in song.

“Hallelujah I’m a Bum”

The perfect tune for when you can’t work because there’s no work to do: “When springtime does come, / Oh won't we have fun, / We'll throw up our jobs / And we'll go on the bum.”

Arthur Fields skips through the tune at 78 revolutions per minute:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rating Game Redux 35: Duos ex Microphone

(Above: My most tortured title yet.)

This was yet another one of those categories for our local paper's "Rating Game" that could've baffled and confounded: "Best Duets." Consider the thousands of wonderful pairings most of us barely remember--if we know them at all--or cannot fully appreciate, given our musical tastes. For my trio of choices, I didn't even consider opera--not that there's anything wrong with that; I just don't know one performer from another ("They're all wonnnnderful," he enthused diplomatically). And I left out the quirky ones I know (David Byrne once sung a duet with Selena).

Nonetheless, this was the easiest "Rating Game" ever--I actually have a short list of all-time favorites. The first two sprang immediately to mind; the third I had never heard--although my wife, Jill, saw them perform--and you can too, at the bottom of this post (and try not to be distracted by the video--although it's fun(?) seeing John Cryer (get it?) with his 1987 feather-cut). I have always held this duet in my head as a dream-team moment--which it is.

So for once, it seems, three is enough.

“Let’s Do It”

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sail with humor and affection through Cole Porter’s comic ode to—well, doing it, down to the last educated flea and sentimental centipede.

“I Never Talk to Strangers”

Like Armstrong-Fitzgerald, another gravel-and-butterscotch combination, as Tom Waits and Bette Midler cat-and-mouse their way through a bar pickup, eventually admitting “we all begin as strangers” before clinking their glasses in (at least temporary) agreement.


Roy Orbison takes a late run at one of his standards with K.D. Lang, and the result is one of the greatest pop-opera moments ever recorded.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Rating Game Redux (34): Group Shot

When our local paper asked for three ensemble cast movies, I was reminded how difficult it is to make a good movie that doesn't profit from ensemble. Even "star vehicles" improve when the secondary characters are allowed to step up; consider the floating eccentrics of most Coen brothers movies, drifting into the scene, demanding our attention, then moving on. Episodic pictures like After Hours (1985) and The Lord of the Rings explicitly forefront such contributions--in fact, as the hero(es) encounter(s) each moment, those who inhabit the new space often determine the trajectory of the narrative--or at least provide a satisfying interlude.

Still, certain group efforts are hard to miss. Here's a scant three of them.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, and Alec Baldwin preen and bluster and wheedle their way through David Mamet’s best “men’s club” movie, in which real estate salesmen vie for a Cadillac, a set of steak knives—and the last shreds of their dignity.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

What’s amazing is that the sets, costumes and makeup do not overshadow the actors; in fact, these troopers join forces to outshine the Technicolor excesses, resulting in a surprisingly “personal” movie, funny (even satirical) and touching.

Tokyo Story (1953)

The great Yasujiro Ozu, with his all-but-invisible touch, has his characters whisper in our ears the sad everyday secrets of family life, whose minor separations, rivalries, and missed opportunities accumulate into a tragedy expressed as a sigh.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Home Viewer (7): Mother May I?

Here's the column I wrote for our local paper to celebrate some of May's bounty. OK, so I left out the following May observances:

Lou Gehrig's Disease Awareness Month
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Awareness of Medical Orphans Month
Better Hearing & Speech Month
Borderline Personality Disorder Month
Brain Tumor Awareness Month
Creative Beginnings Month
Family Wellness Month
Fibromyalgia Education and Awareness Month
Freedom Shrine Month
Get Caught Reading Month
Gifts From The Garden Month
Go Fetch! Food Drive for Homeless Animals Month
Haitian Heritage Month
Heal the Children Month
Healthy Vision Month
Huntington's Disease Awareness Month
International Audit Month
International Business Image Improvement Month
International Victorious Woman Month
Jewish-American Heritage Month
Latino Books Month
Motorcycle Safety Month
National Allergy/Asthma Awareness Month
National Arthritis Month
National Barbeque Month
National Bike Month
National Correct Posture Month
National Egg Month
National Foster Care Month
National Good Car Keeping Month
National Hamburger Month
National Hepatitis Awareness Month
World Lyme Disease Awareness Month
National Meditation Month
National Mental Health Month
National Military Appreciation Month
National Moving Month
National Neurofibromatosis Awareness Month
National Older Americans Month
National Osteoporosis Prevention Month
National Photo Month
National Physical Fitness & Sports Month
National Preservation Month
National Salad Month
National Salsa Month
National Smile Month
National Stroke Awareness Month
National Revise Your Work Schedule Month
National Vinegar Month
Navajo Code Talkers Month
Personal History Month
Prepare to Buy A Home Month
React Month
Strike Out Strokes Month
Sweet Vidalia Onions Month
Teen Self-Esteem Month
Tennis Month
Tay-Sachs and Canavan Diseases Month Link
Ultra-violet Awareness Month
Women's Health Care Month
Young Achiever's Month
National Family Month

But wouldn't it be cool to find a movie that fits each of these? Or maybe not. Anyway, go read, if you like.

For T.S. Eliot, April may have been “the cruellest month,” but May is the greediest. From May Day to Memorial Day, from maypoles to Blessed Virgins, from earnest anarchists to honored dead—and wandering around in there somewhere, supermarket flowers and drugstore perfume in hand, dearest Mom—this month is just one thing after another. Not that I’m complaining.

May Day (I)

I wonder: Does anybody in the U.S. erect (so to speak) maypoles anymore? Or is it just capering Swedes and Brits, glimpsed on CNN and looking silly? Sometimes I wish we’d all join in and start the month with a little pagan merrymaking, as in L'Auberge espagnole/The Spanish Apartment (2002)—also known as, I kid you not, Euro Pudding. A French college student in Barcelona rooms for a year with a variety of Europeans, yielding various sweet, sad, roisterous fruits.

May Day (II)

Catholic school kids know May Day as Mary’s Day. When I was in my parochial prime, we would assemble in the playground and fidget while first-graders processed toward the Virgin’s statue, crown of flowers in hand, silly and sweet minor saints. Barring your own life-experiences among God’s peanut gallery, see The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Directed by Roberto Rossellini and co-written by Federico Fellini, the film—whose Italian title is Francesco, giullare di Dio/Francis, God’s Jester—employs actual monks, who play Francis and his followers as gentle slapstick versions of sanctity, filled with humility and the quiet urge to be happy.

May Day (III)

Also known as International Workers’ Day, when labor unionists, Communists, and anarchists commemorate Chicago’s Haymarket Riot in 1886, spurred by an act of “labor terrorism” and sparking pro-union movements around the world. Not to mention the eight-hour workday. If you didn’t take my advice last week (in the Rating Game for “Best Documentaries”) and check out Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), now’s the time to remember the real battles fought and sacrifices made. And if you want a (more or less) fiction film, John Sayles’ Matewan (1987) also walks the coalfields—this time, of 1920s West Virginia. In his book Thinking in Pictures, Sayles asserts that the story of labor is also an American one, and so he constructed the movie as if it were a wooded-hills Western, including a Main Street showdown—except here, the hero is a collective and the guys in black hats are union-busters.

Cinco de Mayo

On May 5, 1862, the Mexican army beat the French at Puebla. Over the years, this day has been happily re-invented as a trans-border party of Mexican culture, spirit, and pride, particularly in the United States. In Real Women Have Curves (2002), Ana Garcia (America “Ugly Betty” Ferrera) and her family personify the community of love, sorrow and hope that Cinco de Mayo celebrates.

Mother’s Day

I’m as eager as anyone to support the couplet-glutted greeting-card market, but if you want to give your mother a celluloid bouquet, try The Incredibles (2004)—now there’s one super Mom—or select scenes from John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Jane Darwell as Ma Joad is pure Dorothea Lange: as sad and solid as the hard-packed fields she is forced to abandon, looking into a middle distance where she yearns to build a home for her children, one weary mile at a time. Thanks, Ma.

Of course, if she’s that “other” kind of mother, just screen Mommie Dearest or Throw Momma from the Train or Psycho or White Heat or The Manchurian Candidate or Serial Mom or Carrie or Aliens or—well, there’s plenty of Moms to go around.

Memorial Day

Formerly known as Decoration Day, it began as a way to honor the Civil War dead, but over the years has rested its soothing hand, filled with poppies and small flags, upon mourners of all wars. We could begin with Gettysburg (1993), a four-hour living journal of the decisive battle of a War that engendered too many mourners.

But a deeper urge persists, one that not only mourns but indicts the ones who cause the sorrow of those who live on. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, leaves its grim soldiers staring blankly at the future that has been left to them, as blood-soaked and filthy as the trenches they hate—and hate to leave—and as bleak as the slate skies that look down and could care less. The movie demands that, before we memorialize, we ask ourselves why we put ourselves in the position of honored dead and earnest mourner. As when I wrote about Veterans Day films last year, I’m reminded of the hesitation Lincoln expressed in the Gettysburg Address: “we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.” As he tells us, the dead have done that already, and we would do well to trade in our pride for humility, at least once a year, on the last Monday in May.

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