Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quips and Quotations

The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.

--Sigmund Freud

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Archival Revival: Hollywood Holiday

(First posted on 12/17/2009)

After about five months of doing Shadow of a Doubt, I started a second, more specialized blog about old movies called Ancient Celluloid. Unfortunately, I soon found two blogs a bit tough to handle, especially as my access to the Internet was limited to the computers at the library. After writing about just two movies (both of which I put in a lot of hard work), I decided to put Celluloid on hold until the day I'm online right in my own living room. Nevertheless, I do get the itch to write about old movies from time to time, so I've decided to give myself a Christmas present, and review some ancient yuletide celluloid right here in Shadow.

Now, Christmas movies come in two types. There are those where the holiday is front and center, like the various versions of A Christmas Carol, and there are those where the holiday is more of a backdrop, such as The Apartment. It should be no surprise that so many movies have Christmas scenes, even when the holiday's not integral to the plot. Film is a visual medium, and Christmas is nothing if not visual. You've got colored lights, and Nativity displays, and pine trees with ornaments, and overweight guys in red suits, and mistletoe in hallways, and hall decked with boughs of holly, and snow. Plenty of snow. A word about that last item. In most Christmas movies and Christmas TV specials there's usually a scene with a lot snow falling gently to the ground, presumably on Christmas Eve. Looks lovely, doesn't it? Well, for those of you who live in climates warmer than that of Greater Cleveland, what you're actually looking at is a SNOW STORM. Not a blizzard, in which high winds swirl the flakes around, but no matter. If that much snow actually fell on Christmas Eve as is normally portrayed in movies, no matter how gently the flakes hit the ground, there would be no visiting Grandma's the next day because you wouldn't make it out of the driveway.

Now, I've said these are old movies. I define the term "old movie" the way I've always defined it, as something made before the earliest time that I can remember, about 1967-68. Any movie made after 1968 is a contemporary film as far as I'm concerned. Of course, there may be some 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds reading this who may disagree with me. They may consider A Christmas Story (1983), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), The Santa Clause (1994), and Jingle All The Way (1996), old movies. That is their prerogative. They can describe them as old movies on their own blogs.

Let us begin...

Alcoholism, divorce, mental illness, materialism, psychobabble, politics, and courtroom theatrics. Yes, it's that old yuletide favorite, Miracle on 34th Street (1947). All about an old gentleman named Kris Kringle who believes he's Santa Claus (Kris Kringle is actually a synonym for Santa in some countries, though that's never made clear in the movie). It stars Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, and 10-year old Natalie Wood. About that last name. I'm usually not a big fan of old Hollywood child stars. Shirley Temple has been known to make me to run out of the room screaming. But I make an exception for Natalie. As a serious little girl who believes only in hard reality, she has the perfect deadpan expression while uttering such lines as, "Some people are giants, but they're abnormal." But the real star is Edmund Gwenn as Kris, even if he's cruelly denied top billing. It's a nuanced, ultimately realistic performance Gwenn gives, something I that think is often overlooked in a film often described as a "fantasy". Watch him in the psych ward scene, where he struggles with his own disillusionment. Santa Claus has never been more human.

I said there's been various movie versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol . By far, the best of these is Scrooge (1951) (some prints do go by the name of Dickens' book, so let's just confuse the hell out of everybody. Bah, humbug.) Looking like a cross between Boris Karloff and Chris Elliot, Alastair Sim plays a slightly stooped, wholly neurotic Ebenezer. As he makes that long night's journey into day, just about every emotion registers on Sim's wonderfully bug-eyed face. This movie also has a great Gothic atmosphere about it. In fact, things get so spooky at times, you might mistake it for A Halloween Carol.

Babes in Toyland (1934) aka March of the Wooden Soldiers (some more holiday confusion for you.) Loosely based on Victor Herbert's operetta, and with a few of his songs, it takes place in Toyland where fairy tale and nursery rhymes characters make up the citizenry. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play Stannie Dumm and Ollie Dee. Their sister is Little Bo Peep and their mother is the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe. The biggest employer in town is a workshop that supplies toys for Santa Claus (hence the Xmas angle.) Stan and Ollie make a 100 wooden soldiers 6 feet tall instead of 600 soldiers one foot tall, as was ordered. Santa laughs the whole thing off, but Stan and Ollie lose their jobs anyway. This is bad news for the Old Woman as the mortgage is due on her shoe. Evil banker Silas Barnaby (I wonder if he took TARP money) agree not to foreclose if he can have Bo Peep's hand in marriage. She reluctantly agrees, but Silas is tricked into marrying Stan instead (don't worry. It's never consummated.) Later on, Silas frames Bo Peep's boyfriend Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son for the murder of one of the Three Little Pigs. To complicate matters, Toyland is invaded by Boogeymen. Remember, though, it's just a fairy tale, and it all ends happily ever after. What I find interesting about this film is that Stan and Ollie, funny as ever, once again play innocents in a dark world, even if that dark world is in the guise of a childhood fantasy.

White Christmas (1954). Irving Berlin's popular song was first introduced in Holiday Inn (1942), sung by that film's star, Bing Crosby. I don't include it here since it takes place all year round and has songs covering all the holidays, whereas this remake is more Xmas-centric. Again starring Der Bingle, he and Danny Kaye play WWII buddies/Broadway producers who want to help their commanding officer with his struggling inn. That's about all of the plot I can really remember. No matter. Crosby, Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and a dubbed Vera-Ellen sing a lot of great Irving Berlin tunes. And, of course, Bing superbly groans the title song.

Remember The Night (1940). Preston Sturges' last screenplay for another director, this comedy-drama goes where most Christmas movies fear to tread, namely January. Barbara Stanwyck is scheduled to go on trial for shoplifting. Assistant DA Fred MacMurray is afraid a jury besotted with the spirit of Christmas might acquit. So he has the trial postponed until after the holidays, when juries tend to be more Scrooge-like. Turns out MacMurray is besotted with the Christmas spirit himself. Not wanting to see Stanwyck spend the holidays behind bars, he offers to drop her off at her mother's house on his way home for Christmas. Stanwyck mother turns her away, however, so MacMurray ends up taking her to his own mother's house. The movie turns into a straight ahead romantic comedy at that point, as the DA and the defendant both fall in love. Once the holidays are past, the film gets dramatic again, with a bittersweet ending. Like I said, January. A couple of years later, MacMurray and Stanwyck would appear together in another movie. Something to do with insurance.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Barbara Stanwyck again, though in much lighter fare. She plays a popular magazine writer who writes both recipes, and articles about the joys of being a wife and mother and how to make the perfect home, none of which turns out to be true. She's single without a child, lives in a small apartment, and gets all her recipes from a friend who owns a restaurant. As a kind of WWII publicity stunt, her publisher (who's unaware of all the mendacity) arranges for a survivor of a torpedoed Naval ship to have Christmas dinner at her nonexistent home in the country. Naturally, she has to fake home, husband, child, and homemaking skills. To make matters worse, she and the sailor fall in love at first sight. In an era when every other film seemed to be a romantic comedy, this one oh-so-slightly misses the mark. There's a lot of funny stuff as the deceptions pile up, and Stanwyck is always worth watching (if you only know her from TV's The Big Valley then you don't know much.) The problem is with her love interest, played by Dennis Morgan. He's kind of a bland character, and, as complications ensue, seems like a bit of an afterthought. In fact, Stanwyck's most memorable scenes are with Sydney Greenstreet, who plays the publisher. Maybe they should have gotten together. It could have been a nice May-December romance.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who excelled at romantic comedy, I can't say enough good things about this film. In 1930s Budapest, James Stewart, "aw, shucks" persona intact, and a very funny Margaret Sullavan are pen-pals who fall in love via the Hungarian Post Office. Unbeknownst to either one, they also work in the title location, where they both hate each other. Obviously, that won't stand. It's a romantic comedy, remember? It's also, in its' own way, a very good workplace comedy, with all kinds of recognizable types, such as the devious suck-up, the obsequious employee always worried about crossing the boss, and the brash, ambitious youth at the bottom of the ladder. Then there's Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz, remember?) as the basically decent but insecure boss who, thanks to the aforementioned suck-up, comes to loathe his best employee, Stewart. Two great Christmas Eve scenes toward the end. A lonely Morgan treats a newly hired errand boy to a grand feast, and Stewart and Sullavan finally correspond directly.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). A subdued Bette Davis gets top billing in this, but she's really just a secondary character. Monty Woolley is the title character, main character, and, for just this one film, star. Woolley hilariously plays sharp-tongued journalist and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside, a character based on Alexander Woollcott, famous in his day but now less well-known than the play and movie he inspired. But what he inspired! Whiteside slips and injures himself while attending a dinner at a small town industrialist's house, and stays right through Christmas. To fully appreciate the Kaufman and Hart dialogue, it helps if you have some knowledge of 1930s pop culture (which, fortunately, I do) but, even without it, Woolley's crack comic timing remains timeless. On top of all that you get a Christmas morning visit from Jimmy Durante, playing a character supposedly based on Harpo Marx, though, frankly, he reminds me more of, well, Jimmy Durante. Not a bad substitute. And this may be the only Christmas-themed movie with a character based on Lizzie Bordon.

The Bishop's Wife (1947). Angel Cary Grant comes to Earth to teach Bishop David Niven the true meaning of Christmas, which is to neglect neither the poor, nor his drop dead gorgeous wife, appropriately played by Loretta Young. The film concentrates more on the latter, as the angel spends so much time with the wife that a romance threatens to develop. It must be hard enough competing with Cary Grant, but a supernatural Cary Grant? The expression on Niven's face throughout aptly registers his dilemma. Monty Woolley, light-years removed from Sheridan Whiteside, is in good form as a washed up professor who's also helped by the angel.

The Apartment (1960). Billy Wilder's masterpiece, and one of the finest films ever. Jack Lemmon gives his best performance as an office drone who moves up the corporate ladder by lending the keys to his apartment to various superiors who want to use the place to cheat on their wives. Going by just that sentence, Lemmon seems kind of creepy, huh? Really, he's not. He's actually a desperately lonely guy, and a bit of a pushover, who yearns for a different kind of life. Someone who IS a creep is Fred MacMurray as Lemmon's boss. Having strung along an emotionally fragile Shirley MacLaine (another great performance), he leaves her alone in Lemmon's apartment on Christmas Eve, where she attempts suicide. Lemmon comes home in time to prevent a tragedy, with the help of Jack Kruschen as the perplexed doctor who lives next door. The scenes between Lemmon and MacLaine, which go from comedy to drama and back again at the turn of a dime, are among the best captured on film. You're not going to want to leave this apartment.

Now, we come to the most praised, the most revered, the most lauded, the most glorified, the most exalted, and the most beloved Christmas movie of all time, It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

I think it's a bit overrated.

I'll give you a couple of seconds to get off the floor.

Allow me to explain.

It's certainly not the actors. Jimmy Stewart. Donna Reed. Thomas Mitchell. Henry Travers. Lionel Barrymore. I'll give Frank Capra this, he knew how to cast 'em. The problem I have is the story, and the moral of that story.

All kinds of troubles befall George Bailey on Christmas Eve. Standing on a bridge looking down at the river below, it looks like he might kill himself. An angel named Clarence shows up, and keeps George from suicide by jumping in the river himself. Afterwards, Clarence grants George's wish that he had never been born. At that point, we might expect George to disintegrate right before our eyes. Instead, everything else changes. Nice people become rotten, happy people become sad, sane people go crazy, small town Bedford Falls becomes big city Pottersville, a navy transport sinks to the bottom, and Donna Reed wears glasses. Horrified by all this, George asks to be reborn. He also gets that wish granted, and heads back home to find his living room crammed with people willing to help him out of his jam. Moral of the story: One man can make a difference.

Now, here's my problem: George Bailey seems to be the ONLY man that can make a difference. Nobody else in that town (with the possible exception of Mr. Potter) seems to have any thing in the way of free will. They have no control of their lives or even their own personalities. As Kansas would say, all they are are dust in the wind. Determinism. Victims of much larger forces beyond their comprehension, in this particular case a wish granted by an angel. And about that angel, suppose he had unborn anybody else (other than Mr. Potter) who lived in that town? That one bartender, maybe. The one played by Sheldon Leonard. What might Bedford Falls look like had that one bartender never been born? I don't know. I guess it depends on how well his replacement makes a Tom Collins.

Had Jimmy Stewart never been born, and someone else had played George Bailey, I don't think the movie would be nearly as watchable as it is now, so maybe he's the one that made the difference.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Edwards 1949-2010

Regular readers will note that every now and then I do an "In Memoriam", honoring a public figure that has recently passed away. I give the name, the years of birth and death, occupation, a list of notable works (books, movies, TV shows, etc.) and a quote of some sort. I try to find a suitable quote that comes directly from the deceased themselves, but if that proves impossible, I'll use a quote by a third party about the deceased instead. Sometimes, if one quote just doesn't sum up that person's essence, I'll use two or more. On rare occasions, I'll explain just what it was about the deceased that interested me. If the public figure's not quite public enough, I'll provide a link.

Ever wonder how I go about choosing whom to memorialize? Well, first off, I'm not the Pope and it's not a canonization. The process isn't entirely selfless, either. Yes, I want to honor the person who's just passed on, but it's also a way of displaying my idiosyncratic tastes and interests. What's the use of having a blog if you can't do that? I basically honor people who have impressed me or intrigued me or have piqued my interest in some positive way. Usually, it's related to the person's chosen profession. In fact, it's always related to their chosen profession. I try not to take their personal life into account. For instance, actor David Carradine either committed suicide or achieved orgasm in the most dangerous way imaginable. Doesn't matter. I liked him in Kung Fu and a few other things, thus I honored him. I'd probably make an exception in the case of murder, so as much as I liked Robert Blake in Baretta...

The person's usually not at the height of their fame when I honor them, especially if they've died of old age. I've memorialized old movie and TV stars that Paris Hilton has never heard of, and Larry King has probably forgotten. Speaking of movies and TV, most people associate each with the actors that appear in them. However, I feel what goes on behind the camera is often as important as what happens in front. To that end, I've honored director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) and writer Larry Gelbart (TV's MASH.)

I'm a lifelong fan of comic art of all kinds, so I've honored cartoonists such as David Levine and Leo Cullum, hardly household names.

Sometimes I don't even know why a person piques my interest, such as when I honored toupee-wearing, five-minutes-a-week PBS astronomer Jack Horkheimer. Even for me, that's idiosyncratic!

I've ignored some big names. Tony Curtis comes to mind. Just never enough for me to honor him. It's not that he was a bad actor. In fact, he could be a very good one. Just never enough for me to honor him. His costars (Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda, and ex-wife Janet Leigh) always seemed to pique my interest a lot more.

For some time now, I've been waiting for someone to ask me why I didn't honor a particular, recently deceased person. I would then explain my reasons in the comment section. I thought it might be Tony Curtis, but nobody ever asked about him. Poor Tony. Instead, in the comment section of an "In Memoriam" honoring Don Meredith, fellow blogger and frequent visitor Dreamfarm Girl wanted to know why I was ignoring Elizabeth Edwards, who died around the same time.

Because Edwards has been so much in the news these past few years, I didn't feel I could just explain her absence away in a mere comment section, so I wrote the post that you're reading right now. It's not that I thought Don Meredith was a more important or significant figure than Elizabeth Edwards. He certainly wasn't the more famous of the two when he died. Dreamfarm mentioned that Edwards was "classy". Well, Meredith was certainly classy when compared to Monday Night Football booth mate Howard Cosell, but that's probably not the same thing. Since Meredith's been out of the public eye for such a long time, most of the obituaries focused on his football career, which, quite frankly, I don't believe was his primary claim to fame, at least not in the 1970s when I first became aware of him.

I honored Don Meredith simply because he cracked me up. Not just on MNF , but even on something as ridiculous as those Lipton Iced Tea commercials he used to do. Nothing profound about my admiration for Don Meredith. I read his obituary and said to myself, "Oh, I have to mention this on my blog!" When I read Elizabeth Edwards' obituary, while saddened a bit, I didn't feel the same need. I couldn't remember her ever having piqued my interest.

Ah, but time doesn't stand still. Dreamfarm Girl, bless her, made me rethink Elizabeth Edwards. It turns out she had piqued my interest. Before I tell you how, let me mention some things that may have fogged my memory.

Her cancer. Much has been written about her "courage". I guess she was courageous. At least, she seemed calm when discussing her illness in front of a camera. But who's to say she didn't fall to pieces when the camera was turned off, or in the privacy of her own home? Frankly, I'm resistant to this whole notion that when a person is diagnosed with a serious disease, their first priority is to keep a stiff upper lip for the edification of the healthy. Cancer (and its' treatment) can be scary. Why begrudge someone who has it being scared? If a person has a hangnail and they're scared, fine, begrudge them. Not cancer.

It's because Elizabeth Edwards was a public person. If a nobody with a serious illness adopts a woe-is-me attitude, the relatively few people who do know the person would understand, at least up to a point. But, for some reason, a much, much higher bar is set for public figures, even if poor health isn't the reason they became public figures in the first place.

The other thing that fogged my memory is that Elizabeth's husband cheated on her. Had she been a nobody, it would have been between her, her husband, and the other woman. Elizabeth, in fact, learned about the betrayal two months before We, the People did. But once we did know, she had to 'fess up about her feelings, first on a blog (on which she stood by her husband), then on Oprah (on which she wavered a bit), and finally in her best-selling book Resilience (in which she admitted throwing up upon finding about her husband's affair). You may argue that no one forced her to tell us about all of this, and that she made some money off it to boot (some of which I imagine went toward paying doctors' bills), but I suspect had the story not broke, she would have kept her feelings to herself. That's not to say there wouldn't have been a divorce, but that all we would have known is that it was because of "irreconcilable differences."

Unlike the cancer, the affair at least had some bearing on why she became a public figure in the first place. Elizabeth Edwards was a public figure because her husband John was a public figure. When we didn't know about John, we didn't know about Elizabeth. I no longer believe John Edwards would have made a good president. I now wish he had stayed a nobody. But where does that leave Elizabeth?

Let's go back to an earlier tragedy. In 1996, John and Elizabeth's 16-year old son Wade was killed in a one-car accident. By most accounts, John took stock of his life following his son's death, and decided to go into public service, which meant running for office. As for Elizabeth, according to Resilience she grieved for a couple of years, and then decided to have two more children. She underwent fertility treatments, and had a daughter at 48 and a son at 50. This was a risky thing for her, or any woman, to do that late in life. Not just during the pregnancy, as there can be unforeseen consequences to one's health later on. If you want to admire Elizabeth Edwards for her courage, start here.

A more predictable consequence of giving birth is that Elizabeth gained weight that she couldn't easily shed. Of course, this can be a problem even for women in their 20s, but the likelihood increases with age. Once Elizabeth began appearing in public with her trim husband in 2004, the contrast between the two did not go entirely unnoticed by the national media. Elizabeth's initial foray into the public realm couldn't have been easy.

Or maybe it was. Here's where my memory kicks in. A week or so after John Kerry picked John Edwards as his VP, I saw Elizabeth, just Elizabeth, on C-SPAN hosting some kind of town hall-type campaign event. She seemed totally at ease with herself as she answered questions from a not always adoring audience. She came across as smart, knowledgeable, witty, and personable. What she was saying was basically mainstream liberalism, circa 2004. But she put everything in her own words, something that politicians aren't always capable of doing. She seemed to care and believe in what she was saying. In a just world, Elizabeth Edwards perhaps could have and perhaps would have run for president herself.

So, yes, before we all knew about the cancer and the infidelity, Elizabeth Edwards did indeed pique my interest, impress and intrigue me.

You can quote me on that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Unpredictable

(I've decided to take a little break from this blog. In my absence, my good friend Marty Volare has agreed to recount for you one of his many romantic misadventures. See if you can read it without choking up. In fact, choke up enough, and Marty might just respond to your comments--KJ)

My name is Martin Dangerfield Volare, and the story I'm about to tell is one of love found and love lost, of love born and love died, of love opened and love closed, of love created and love destroyed, of love bloomed and love withered, of love premiered and love canceled, of love invented and love made obsolete, and of love brand-new right out of the box and love left out on the curb to be taken away with the rest of the trash. It is an old story, as old as the sun and the moon and the sea and the ground and the redwoods and the bones of dinosaurs, but also a story of continual renewal, as new as a baby's laugh, a puppy's bark, a kitten's meow, a chick's chirp, and a lamb's baa. For this tale I tell is not meant to depress but inspire, that though love may burn to a crisp like a marshmallow left too long over a fire at a Labor Day picnic on that last sweet, sultry night of summer, its' smoke will nonetheless rise gently above the Metropark and the trees and the birds and up, up toward the clouds and the heavens and the stars and the galaxies and the extraterrestrials beyond.

Her name was Sonya, and she worked as a barmaid at the Looking-Glass Cafe, where I sometimes go to escape and evade and avoid and elude the desperation and desolation of my lonely existence. Ah, how shall I describe Sonya? She was as lovely as the dawn, as beautiful as the dusk, and as sweet as a mango. And she had a nice smile. I was smitten.

Alas, difficulties loomed! For starters, she slept with this one guy. However, she told me he meant nothing to her and would probably break up with him soon as she got the air conditioning, driver's side power window, and CD player fixed on her Buick Enclave and so wouldn't have to borrow his Mustang all the time. That filled me with hope. She then revealed that she had a two-year old daughter. I asked if the guy she slept with was the father. She said she didn't think so. I was naturally relieved to hear that. Still, if me and Sonya were to get married, it would mean I would have to raise the daughter as my own. Would I be up to the challenges of parenthood? I needed to know the answer.

I found the answer, or thought I had found the answer, or hoped with the hope that gives all sentient beings sustenance that I had found the answer when I saw this flier shoved between one of my windshield wipers while leaving the laundromat. It read as follows:

MADAME IMELDA

Forecaster of Fate, Prophetess of the Paranormal, Seer of the Supernatural, Assessor of the Astral Plane

will predict your future for

$10

Hurry! Limited time offer.

I know it now seems a bit desperate of me to go to a fortune teller to help solve a romantic dilemma, but at the time desperate blood pumped into and out of my desperate heart. I made up my mind to the see the seer.

Her simple clapboard house was located next to a payday lender in a part of town noted for its potholes, pawn shops, foreclosed property, and abandoned cars. I actually found it rather heartening that Madame Imelda should live in such a neighborhood. I like my psychics on the humble side. However, I may have overestimated her humility, for when I walked into her simple clapboard home I was greeted by a giant middle-aged lady dressed in gypsy garb and speaking in a foreign accent, mostly Hungarian, but with what sounded like a little Spanish and Scandinavian thrown in. I took her for a worldly woman.

"I am Madame Imelda" she intoned. "Mistress of Mysticism, Empress of Enchantment, and Diva of Divination! I know past, present, and future! I have access to those worlds beyond normal sight, sound, smell, touch, and thought! I speak with the spirits, hobnob with the hobgoblins, and play host to the ghosts! Now, what can I do for you?"

Awed, I lowered my head, pulled the flier out of my pocket, and handed it to her. She nodded, and led from the foyer into a room full of lit candles, burning incense, and lave lamps. Hanging on one wall was a black velvet painting of a wizard seated on a unicorn, his magic wand doubling as a riding crop. In the middle of the room was a small table with a crystal ball. I sat on one side, Madame Imelda on the other. She held out her hand, and I gave her the ten dollars. She turned away and beckoned,

"Daughter, Daughter, bring me my purse!"

From another room emerged a girl of about nine or ten wearing a Miley Cyrus T-shirt and carrying an oversized purse. Madame Imelda deposited my ten dollars into the purse and the tyke left. Madame Imelda then got down to the business of forecasting the future.

"You shall experience great happiness and great sadness!" she intoned as she peered into the crystal ball. "You shall climb great peaks and descend into deep valleys. You shall laugh and you shall cry. You shall know joy and you shall know heartbreak. That is your destiny. Now leave and tell all your friends about me. I'm here seven days a week, half a day on holidays. I accept credit cards."

Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed at this rather vague prediction. I began to wonder if Madame Imelda was on the level.

"Couldn't you be more specific?" I asked. "I wanted to know about my soon-to-be-girlfriend-soon-to-be-fiancee-soon-to-be-wife."

"Oh, it's specificity you seek? That will be $350. Daughter, daughter, bring me my purse!"

"$350?!"

"Prophecy is not some low-hanging fruit that can be plucked from a tree. You have to go to the farmer's market and pay a little extra for it."

My anger rising, I blurted out, "A farmers market wouldn't try to cheat me like you are!"

The big woman stood up and yelled, "You dare impugn the integrity of Madame Imelda, Chief Executive of the Extrasensory?! Take leave of my prescient presence at once, you worm!"

Faced with such a torrent of sincerity, I had no choice but to apologize, yet so great was my shame, I couldn't even open my mouth. I turned and reluctantly headed toward the door.

"Wait!"

I turned away from the door!

"Madame Imelda is nothing if not fair. Knowing the past, present, and future does that to a person. Ask me a question about this lady friend of yours, and if I get it right, you pay for a full reading."

That sounded reasonable, but what could I ask? Sonya's last name? No, it had to be something I already knew the answer to, just in case Madame Imelda answered falsely. It was Sonya's baby daughter that brought me here in the first place. I could ask something along those lines. The daughter's name, maybe? No, I didn't know that either. Wait, I could just ask the psychic if she even knew Sonya had a baby daughter.

"Tell me, Madame Imelda, who is the most important female in my future girlfriend/fiancee/wife's life?"

Madame Imelda sat down and peered into the crystal ball. In less than a second, she intoned, "Her mother is the most important person in her life!"

"Wrong. Not her mother."

"Not her mother? I'd like to think I'm the most important female in my daughter's life!"

"I said it's not her mother!" I could feel my anger almost returning.

"Her sister?"

"No."

"Grandmother?"

"No."

"Best friend?"

My anger had now most assuredly returned. "Her daughter! Her baby daughter is the most important female in her life!"

"Oh, her baby daughter! You didn't tell me she had a baby daughter."

"You were already supposed to know that!"

Madame Imelda looked back into the crystal ball. "Ah, I see my mistake now. I was looking at the ball's northern hemisphere, when I really should have been looking at its' south. There's the baby, in plain sight. Daughter, daughter, bring me my purse!"

I left in disgust.

Driving home, I was at first despondent, but it didn't last long. Perhaps there was a lesson to be learned here. I had wanted easy assurance from a fortune teller that I wasn't making a mistake, but there are no shortcuts in romance. Love is a matter of faith. This thought put me in a good mood. The Madame Imeldas of the world weren't going to keep me from my soul mate. By the time I arrived at the Looking-Glass Cafe, I was so filled with joyful ardor I skipped right in the place. A couple guys at a pool table laughed at me, but what did I care? I was a paramour in paradise!

"Hiya, Marty," said Sonya from behind the bar. "You look like you're in a good mood."

"I am. I just exposed a fortune teller as a fake."

"Oh, yeah? What'd ya do that for?"

"I asked her a question about you, and she didn't know the answer."

"Oh, yeah? What'd ya ask?"

Smiling, I said, "Who is the most important female in your life?"

"Oh, that'd be my best friend Amy. She let me sleep on her couch this one time when I--"

Panicked, I said, "No, not your best friend Amy!"

"Well, I sometimes spend time with my kid sister."

"No, not your kid sister!"

"My grandmother? I like her. I hope you don't think it's my mother. Me and her just don't see eye to eye."

"It's you're daughter!," I blurted. "You're baby daughter should be the most important female in your life!"

"Oh, yeah. That's right. My daughter."

To make a long lament short, things never did work out between me and Sonya. She left the Looking-Glass Cafe not long after. I hear she's now at some bikers bar near Sandusky. The guy she sleeps with works grill.

And, in case you're wondering, I eventually did pay Madame Imelda her $350. It was only fair.

In Memoriam: Don Meredith 1938-2010

Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Sportscaster. Monday Night Football.

"Turn out the lights, the party's over..."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In Memoriam: Leslie Nielsen 1926-2010

Actor. Forbidden Planet. The Poseidon Adventure. Airplane. The Naked Gun.

"Surely you can't be serious."
"I am serious, and don't call me Shirley."

--Airplane. Screenplay by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. #79 on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 movie quotes.

"I'm a professional actor. If I was a plumber, I wouldn't just do my plumbing in Beverly Hills bathrooms; I'd like to install air conditioning units and a few other things."

--Leslie Nielsen

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Quips and Quotations

You're always a little disappointing in person because you can't be the edited essence of yourself.

--Mel Brooks

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Strange Change

"I love you, Obama!"

Remember that?

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, someone always yelled that out to him in the middle of a speech. And he'd usually yell back,

"I love you, too!"

The night Obama reached 2118, the number of delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination, he even elaborated a bit:

"I love you, too. Oh, I really do!"

Obama was praised back then for his oratorical style. For his charisma. He could motivate people, especially young people. He could inspire them, like no politician had since JFK, whose daughter endorsed him.

Two years later, Obama's often referred to as "professorial", as "cold", as "arrogant", as someone who doesn't relate well with people. And that old nickname from his law school days is back: No Drama Obama.

There was plenty of drama in 2008. My God, people use to faint at his rallies. He was Elvis. Now he's John Tesh. Some feared in 2008 that a candidate with so much charisma might become a dictator. Given the shellacking (Obama's own words) his party just took in the mid-term elections, he's about as effective a dictator as a 94-year old substitute teacher trying to break up a reform school knife fight.

This isn't the change I wanted to believe in.

Maybe Obama is like Jimmy Carter by way of cartoonist Garry Trudeau. In a series of 1970s Doonesbury strips, Carter appoints Duane Delacourt as Secretary of Symbolism, who advises the President to wear a cardigan, walk instead of take a limo on inauguration day, and answer questions on a call-in radio show. A few years later, a disillusioned Delacourt leaves the administration and joins up with Jerry Brown (yes, my younger readers, Brown was also in the news way back when.) As Delacourt explains to reporter Rick Redfern, Carter has lost interest in symbolism and seems intent on addressing the issues. Substitute symbolism with charisma and you have Obama. Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for him addressing the issues, but not at the expense of his own personal magnetism. Would it kill him to multi-task? C'mon, the man carries a Blackberry!

Obama is said to admire Lincoln, but he should move up some 70 years to FDR. I thinking of the Fireside Chats. I learned about those chats in school, but until recently never actually heard one. I grew up thinking they were just meant to comfort or soothe people during the Great Depression. I figured FDR said something like, "Don't you worry about the big, bad depression, Uncle Frank will take good care of it. Now just pull that newspaper up over you on that park bench and have a good night sleep." However, a couple of years ago I actually got a chance to hear one of those chats. Roosevelt didn't just comfort, he didn't just soothe, he explained, he educated.

In 1933, banks were failing right and left. This scared a good portion of the population, and they responded by withdrawing their money. This in turn caused banks to not only fail left and right but also up and down and in and out. To deal with the crises, Roosevelt declared a Bank Holiday, closing the savings institutions for a couple of days. He then want on the radio to explain to those who hadn't already had their radios repossessed why he did this. It's a lengthy speech, or chat. I just want to focus on one paragraph:

First of all let me state the simple fact that when you deposit money in a bank the bank does not put the money into a safe deposit vault. It invests your money in many different forms of credit-bonds, commercial paper, mortgages and many other kinds of loans. In other words, the bank puts your money to work to keep the wheels of industry and of agriculture turning around. A comparatively small part of the money you put into the bank is kept in currency -- an amount which in normal times is wholly sufficient to cover the cash needs of the average citizen. In other words the total amount of all the currency in the country is only a small fraction of the total deposits in all of the banks.

Roosevelt then goes on to explain that if everybody withdraws their money at once, which is exactly what was happening, even the healthiest banks would go under. The people listening accepted the new President's reasoning. They cut him some much needed slack, legislation was passed shoring up the system, and the banks soon reopened. FDR's stock soared.

Back to Obama. No, I'm not suggesting he declare a bank holiday. TARP, I guess, solved that problem. I'm thinking of the stimulus. Many economists warned him that the first one just wasn't big enough, and now they're saying we need another. Whether the new Republican majority in the House will let him have another is doubtful. But he still has the old Democratic majority for next couple of weeks. Can't they pass something?

Here's Obama's problem. The stimulus is based on the theories of the late John Maynard Keynes. He believed the government could lift an economy out of a depression or recession by injecting cash, often referred to as priming the pump, usually in the form of public projects. Where does the government get this money, since tax receipts are low during a downturn? By running a deficit. Unfortunately, for advocates of such an approach, spending money you don't have to solve a problem is counter-intuitive to most people, definitely not something you want to try at home.

This is why Obama needs to give a Fireside, or, if you want to update it a little, a Space Heater Chat. Explain the theory. Tell the folks that if you spend money to build a bridge, it's not just bridge builders themselves that profit, that with money in their pockets, they'll go out and buy things in stores, and the people who work in the stores will have more money, as will the people who work in the factories and warehouses that supplies the stores with goods. The economy will rebound, tax receipts will go up, and the deficit will take care of itself.

Would such a chat work? Couldn't hurt. And we have TV now. Obama could shine those pearly whites as he comforted, soothed, explained, and educated.

Maybe the President's confidence has just been shaken a bit. Perhaps he just needs some positive reinforcement.

Here's what I want all of you Obama supporters to do, even those who may be having second thoughts. At the count of the three, I want you all to join together, and, as loud as you can, give him a giant word of encouragement.

One...two..three:

WE LOVE YOU, OBAMA!!!

Let's hope it's not unrequited.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Quips and Quotations

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter-bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

--Stephen Crane

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dot Common

Ever see a street mime perform?

Ever watch a parade?

Ever peruse a bulletin board?

Even listen to a friend bitch about the President or Congress?

Ever read a blog?

According to a Pew Research Center study, a tipping point occurred last year: more people in the U.S. got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines. Who can blame them? Even an old print junkie like me has quit subscribing to the New York Times, because if it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool paying for it. This is not a business model that makes sense.

--Walter Isaacson

The Internet is turning economics inside out. For example, everybody on the Internet now wants stuff for free, and there are so many free services available.

--Uri Geller (I wonder if he now bends spoons for free.)

Ever draw a picture?

Ever play a musical instrument?

Ever compose a poem?

Ever sign a petition?

Ever write a blog?

The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values. By Andrew Keen

--Book title


My problem is that it fundamentally undermines the authority of mainstream media. We think two things going on simultaneously, the rise of the user-generated content, which is unreliable enough and corrupt, and a crisis in professional journalism, professional recorded music, newspapers, radio stations, television and publishing. And that is the core of our culture. Once we undermine the authority and expertise and professionalism of mainstream media, all we have is opinion chaos, a cacophony of amateurs.

--Andrew Keen, in an interview on National Public Radio

In recent years, there's been two charges leveled against the Internet and the blogosphere. One, that it's free, and two, that it's dominated by amateurs.

Let's take the first one first (duh). Is the Internet really free? According to Time Warner Cable of NE Ohio, it's "only" $34.95 a months for a full year. Cox Cable is $32.99 a month. Comcast is "as low as" 19.99 for 6 months, but you have to be an existing customer. AT&T offers $19.95 for a full year. Why is Time Warner and Cox so much more than the other two? I think maybe they have monopolies in certain areas. Of course, you don't need cable or even a telephone if you want access to the Internet. Just go to Starbucks. But they do expect you to at least by a latte. Buy one everyday for a month, and you've spent at least twice as much as if you had gone with Time Warner! Finally, there's the, ahem, library. Even that's your taxpayers dollars at work.

Anyway, getting things for free is not completely unheard of in our capitalistic system. I mentioned some goods and services you don't have to pay for at the very beginning of this essay. However, I left out two of the most significant. You don't have to pay for non-satellite radio (well, you have to buy the actual radio, but you know what I mean), and, if you're willing to settle for just six or seven channels, TV is free as well. Of course, nowadays most of us do pay for TV, and, if you want something "on demand", you pay even more. There was a movement afoot about a year ago to get people to pay even more for specific sites on the Internet, usually those originating in print, but it never went anywhere. More about paying for content at the end of this piece.

The second charge leveled against the Internet, and, more specifically, the blogosphere, is that it's dominated by amateurs. Really? You don't say! Let me peruse the "List of Blogs" at the left to see if this is true. Be right back...

...OK, not counting The Huffington Post, which is more of an online newspaper, only five of the 24 blogs are by professionals, meaning at one time or another these folks have drawn a paycheck for their writing (though not for their blogs, which are free.) I can't say for sure that the other 19 blogs are written by amateurs, since most are using assumed names. There's maybe four I'm not quite sure about. Of the fourteen blogs I'm pretty confident are by amateurs, what will you find? Photography, poetry, essays, autobiography, theology, visual art, travelogues, comic archives, philosophy, and even an occasional short story.

Now, I want you to reexamine the two quotes by Andrew Keen. They're easy to find.

Before the advent of the Internet, amateur photography, amateur poetry, amateur essays, amateur autobiography ("Dear Diary..."), amateur theology ("Now I lay me down to sleep..."), amateur art, amateur travelogues ("Want to see some slides from our trip to Bermuda?") amateur archives ("I'll trade you my 1964 Daredevil with the Wally Wood story for that 1966 Spiderman with the Johnny Romita cover."), amateur philosophy ("Ever wonder if you're the only being that exists and everything else is in your imagination?" "Sorry to interrupt, bub, but you want another?"), and amateur fiction, weren't considered corrupt, chaotic, or a fundamental threat to our values. Instead, they were called hobbies.

Politics isn't usually thought of as a hobby, but people sometimes approach it that way, as Billy Joel once noted ("and the waitress is practicing politics"). It's why campaigns depends so much on volunteers. And some people just like to talk about politics. I'll grant you there's a lot of harsh opinions about politics on the Internet. But you can also find similarly harsh opinions about politics in a bar, (actually, you can find harsh opinions on just about anything in a bar.) Maybe if we'd stop comparing the Internet to older media such as TV or newspapers and instead to Earth as a whole, we might have a better understanding of it. It's not called the World Wide Web for nothing.

On my profile page, I call myself a writer, but it's not my profession. Would I like it to be my profession? Sure. Would I like to make a lot of money writing? You bet. Would I like to achieve such heights of success and renown through writing that I'm asked to replace Simon Cowell as a judge on American Idol? Damn right I would! But if none of that comes to pass, if writing can't be my profession, I still want it as a hobby, even at the risk of undermining the authority of the mainstream media.

Speaking of that mainstream media, just what is it that makes the likes of Andrew Keene so hostile to the lowly amateur? Wouldn't simple indifference be enough? It was before the Internet. Maybe it's just frustrating to climb up the media ladder, only to have it seemingly kicked out from under you by a temp with a laptop.

There's now a consensus that the mainstream media's big mistake was putting its' wares on the Internet at no extra charge. Doing so blurred the distinction between the professional and the amateur. Does Howard Stern broadcast on ham radio? Does Jonathan Franzen leave 100,000 words on the bathroom wall? Does Plácido Domingo join in when you sing in the shower? No to all of these. Yet on the Internet, the Aristocracy--print newspapers and magazines--live on the same block as the Great Unwashed, aka amateur bloggers.

I first wanted to write about this over a year ago, but couldn't quite get my mind around it (a recent post by fellow blogger Elisabeth made me want to revisit the subject.) At that time it looked like newspapers and magazines might go extinct. Since then, however, an unlikely savior has emerged: Steve Jobs. I understand that those who own and control the mainstream media are excited by that new iPad of his. As consumers aren't accustomed to getting things for free on such devices, media titans can now charge for subscriptions to such formally printed material as The New York Times , or Better Homes and Gardens.

So it looks like the professionals might get to keep their cherished hierarchy after all, while leaving the rest of the Internet to the amateurs, the proletariat, the teeming masses.

Works for me.

In Memoriam: Leo Cullum 1942-2010

Cartoonist. The New Yorker.

"When I'm not cartooning, I'm wrestling, and then showering, with my demons."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Quips and Quotations

A lion's work hours are only when he's hungry; once he's satisfied, the predator and prey live peacefully together.

--Chuck Jones.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Corruption Eruption

The following post is a review of a drama currently playing in Cuyahoga County, where this blogger lives. But I'd like those of you who don't live in Cleveland's home county to read it anyway. Combine politics with some of the more unsavory aspects of human nature, and this production could someday open at a theater near you.

For the past three years, the people entrusted to run Cuyahoga County have been the target of a wide-ranging corruption investigation. There doesn't seem to be one, overarching political scandal. It's just seemingly every elected official in the area getting away with whatever shit they think they can get away with. According to indictments, search warrants, and other FBI reading material, various public figures, some of them with numbers instead of names, have accepted free improvements to their homes, trips to Vegas, massage therapy in Vegas, wide-screen TVs, meals, booze, campaign contributions stuffed in envelopes, and other assorted non-birthday and non-Christmas gifts, in exchange for lower taxes, contracts steered to particular businesses, and county employment (the last seems particularly weird to me. Bribing an employer to give you a job? C'mon, they're supposed to pay YOU!) Elected officials were also occasionally bribe givers rather than bribe takers, enticing people not to run against them in exchange for nonelective government positions. Beats kissing babies.

One of those indicted, known for the longest time as "Public Official Number Two", turned out to be the County Auditor, a familiar face to Cuyahogans as it's plastered on all the county's gas pumps. That's what the auditor does, he regulates gas pumps. He also appraises houses. I'm not exactly sure the connection between gas pumps and houses other than that if you own a home in the suburbs you need a lot of petroleum to get around. Anyway, one of the many charges against the Auditor is that he lowered property appraisals for certain homeowners in exchange for free goods and services. Why did they want the price of their homes devalued? So they could pay less taxes on it (if these homeowners really wanted their property values decreased, all they had to do was hire a couple of hookers to walk up and down the street.)

Public Official Number One turned out be the County Commissioner, a man who resembles Boss Tweed, physically and, according to the indictment, non-physically as well. Except Boss Tweed never went to Las Vegas. Re-read the second paragraph. What happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas. But that's the least of the commissioner's problems. He allegedly had sex with a job seeker, and received free kitchen appliances, a new roof on his house, limo rides, and free appliances from those wanting to do business with Cuyahoga County. Amazingly, he's allowed to keep his job as long as he's out free on bail. He's just not allowed to talk to any county employees or make any decisions involving taxpayers' money. He might as well buy himself a pair of crutches and start quacking.

Once the County Commissioner was indicted, many felt the investigation had gone as far as it could go. But according to the Cleveland Scene , an alternative weekly, the County Prosecutor, whose office wasn't involved in a single arrest (it's all been an FBI production), may now be in the G-men's cross hairs. Not literally, of course. Unless he resists.

The above paragraph was written about 24 hours before the one you're reading right now (you didn't think I write this stuff in one sitting, did you?). In that interim, the aforementioned Prosecuter appeared on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Something about getting a friend a job at the county morgue. Story broke in time for Halloween.

Nice county I live in, huh?

Yet it's hard to say what effect all this has on the average Cuyahogan. I suspect a decision by the CEO of Ford or GM to close an auto plant or two would have a greater impact on the lives, and livelihoods, of people living in the county. And if such a decision was made, it wouldn't be local political chicanery but because there's some poor, desperate people in some Third World country willing to do the same work for the price of a Big Mac.

But if these politicians weren't doing any real harm, nor were they doing any real good, and good is what they're pretty much expected, and paid, to do. If they really believe personal gain is their main job function, they should at least tell us so when they're campaigning:

"As your next County Potentate, I promise I'll have a new patio addition built on to my house. I need that much more than my opponent needs that waterproofed basement!"

A couple months ago an election was held to restructure county government. It passed, and we'll soon have a county executive and council rather than three commissioners. I voted for the change, basically to send a message, but I wonder, why would an executive be any less likely than a commissioner to accept an enveloped stuffed with money? Will he have a smaller mailbox?

Every November the stuffed-shirt editorialists lay out a major guilt trip over voter apathy ("people died at Omaha Beach so you could help pick the next domestic relations court judge!") OK. Fine. We all should do our civic duty. But in exchange, the politicians shouldn't regard the average voter as nothing more than a coat check clerk at an orgy.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In Memoriam: Stephen J. Cannell 1941-2010

TV writer-producer. The Rockford Files, and some 40 other shows that I didn't like quite as much as that one.

"Jim Rockford was the Jack Benny of private eyes."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Memoriam: Arthur Penn 1922-2010

Director. The Miracle Worker. Bonnie and Clyde. Alice's Restaurant. Little Big Man.

"They're young...They're in love...And they kill people."

--Ad for Bonnie and Clyde.

"A cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie."

--New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther

"How do you make a good movie in this country without getting jumped on?...The accusation that the beauty of movie stars makes the anti-social acts of their characters dangerously attractive is the kind of contrived argument we get from people who are bothered by something and clutching at straws. Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things people have been feeling and saying and writing about."

--New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

"I was attacked for the violence in the film, but I wanted to show shootings as they really are--bloody and horrible--so the Vietnam casualty lists wouldn't just be meaningless numbers."

--Arthur Penn

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Quips and Quotations

We are always acting on what has just finished happening. It happened at least 1/30th of a second ago. We think we’re in the present, but we aren’t. The present we know is only a movie of the past.

Tom Wolfe, in turn quoting Ken Kesey in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It's the Pictures That Got Small

I got something in the mail the other day from a cable company offering "movies on demand". Budgetary considerations convinced me to turn this offer down, but it got me thinking about how often movies, theatrical movies, are used as a come-on, an enticement, to watch something outside of a theater, in our own living rooms, on TV.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, whenever one of the three networks showed a theatrical movie, it was often promoted as being "the first time on TV!" Not just blockbusters like Jaws or The Exorcist, but even something like The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. I actually watched Bean for that very reason. It was OK, but I found out later that when it was first shown in theaters, rather than living rooms, the movie came and went pretty much unnoticed. Still, I did get to see it for the first time on TV!

Not long after I graduated high school came cable. Then, as now, it was divided between basic and the more pricey premium channels like HBO and Cinemax. Though these premiums also offered sporting events and even original programming, the big come-on was theatrical movies. These premiered much earlier then they would have on network TV, sometimes mere days after they had closed in theaters. Also unlike the networks, these movies were shown (wink, wink) uncut.

A few years after cable came the VCR, and video stores suddenly sprung up everywhere. Some of the product sold in these stores were written, directed, and produced solely for the VCR, such as Jane Fonda's exercise and Tim Conway's Dorf videos, but those were a distinct minority. It what was written, directed and produced solely--well, maybe not solely but initially--for the big screen that brought in customers. During the heyday of the VCR, Saturday night at the movies meant you first stopped off at Blockbusters.

The VCR had a good decade and a half run, but with a new century came a new means of communication: the DVD player. The means were new but what was being communicated was actually quite familiar: theatrical movies. OK, you can also get TV shows on DVD. But I don't see season 3 of Xena: Warrior Princess in any of those red rent-a-DVD boxes that you now see everywhere.

No matter what the technological advance in home entertainment, movies remain the main selling point. So, for me, that poses the question: what exactly is a movie, anyway?

Is a movie a "motion picture"? Well, if you're going to take that term literally, everything on TV, whether it's a movie or not, is still a picture in motion. A commercial is a motion picture. So is Dancing With the Stars . Even a video game can be considered a motion picture (maybe too much motion; the last time I tried to play one I broke out in a sweat while watching my race car go off a cliff.)

Is a movie "film"? To be specific, celluloid? Last year's big hit, Avatar , was shot on digital tape. Yet people persist in calling it a movie (when they're not calling it a film!)

I've used the term "theatrical movie" throughout this piece. So is a movie something you see in a theater? Well, at first, yeah, but not for long. I want you to do something. Write down all the movies you've seen in your life. Then divide them up between the ones you saw in a theater and the ones on you saw on a TV set. If you actually do this, my bet is that TV will win in a landslide. TV--network, cable, VCR, whatever--is how most people see most movies most of the time. Some of the biggest box office hits of the last 40 years--Star Wars, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Titanic--nevertheless got their biggest audiences when it came time to debut, in whatever form, on TV. And the box office take sometimes doesn't even matter. The Big Lebowski tanked in theaters in 1998, yet it's gone on to become phenomenally successful on video and DVD.

Is a movie a visual story told in two hours or more? Well, then that should include made-for-TV movies. Sure, why not? Except I never see any of those in the red boxes either. And if they're really movies, shouldn't they be recognized by the Academy Awards? I don't just mean they should get a statue. You know how on Oscar night they always show a montage of famous movie scenes, such as King King on the Empire State Building or Cary Grant running from a crop duster? Why not show scenes from famous made-for-TV movies, like Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers standing over the bedside of a dying Brian Piccolo played by James Caan, or, um, er, hmm....

So why is the nearly 40-year old Brian's Song the only made-for-TV movie I seem to remember?

One traditional difference between movies and television (at least since 1968, when the Hays Code was scrapped and the current ratings system debuted) is that movies have more explicit sex, explicit violence, and explicit language. Thus the appeal of "uncut" movies. What did you think "uncut" meant, no commercials? But if a premium cable channel can show all that explicit stuff in a movie, then they should be allowed to do so with original programming as well, and in fact have with such shows as The Sopranos and Oz. But theatrical movies are still the main attraction. And what about the explicitless G-rated movie? Two of the biggest grossing movies this year have been Toy Story 3 and Shrek Forever After. They'll gross even more once they're repackaged as DVDs.

I think I've found the answer to my question. What is a movie? A movie is a conceit. Movies have been conceits since roughly 1950. Movies are special only because we expect them to be special. But why do we expect them to be so?

Two reasons, both having to do with theaters. I said earlier that most of us watch movies on TV. But we know somebody watches them in the theater. So, when we're standing at the red DVD box in the supermarket foyer, trying to decide whether to rent The Invention of Lying for the night, on some subconscious level we're saying to ourselves, "If someone was willing plunk down $7.50 to watch this at the multiplex, least I could do is spend $2.00 to watch it in my basement. With what's left over I'll buy a hamburger." So much depends on the relatively small portion of the population willing to go to a movie theater on a regular basis. If they ever decide to either stay home or go bowling instead, the entire home entertainment industry will collapse.

For the second reason, we have to go back to the first half of the twentieth century, when moving pictures were much less ubiquitous than they are today. You HAD to see them in a theater. Think about that. If you weren't in a theater, pictures simply didn't move. Eerie, huh? Because of that rarity, movies exerted a powerful hold on people back then. I've read interviews with that old cynic Woody Allen where he positively waxes poetic about his movie going experiences as boy in the 1940s. A mystique grew up around movies. And that mystique was passed down to, and completely accepted by, later generations who probably couldn't tell you how that mystique came to be in the first place.

So, is this mystique/conceit such a bad thing? Not as long as Hollywood lives up to its' end of the conceit and provides movies that are better than, or, at the very least, different enough from, fare specifically intended for the TV screen (or the computer screen, cell phone screen, etc.)

Now, I wonder if there's any other means of communication out there that's technically outdated, but because it has its' own mystique, will nonetheless survive, even thrive, in the future.

Hmm. Can't think of any right off hand.

But if I ever do, maybe I'll write a book about it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Quips and Quotations

I noticed in the news that the Afghanistan minister of tourism was assassinated. What possible threat could the minister of tourism have posed to anybody? What power could he have wielded? How much influence could he have had? It's not like somebody's likely to say, "Oh, honey, where should we go on vacation this year, Paris or Kabul?"

--Bob Newhart

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Idle Thoughts

So I'm sitting behind this red Ford Focus waiting for the light to turn green. When it does, I'll make a left (my turn signal's already on), then a right, then another left, and arrive at work on time. I should arrive at work on time. I left the same time I do every morning. I usually get there about ten minutes early, five of which I spend in my car with my head leaned back contemplating the dome light. Actually, I'm really contemplating other things, like existence and the human condition and politics and religion and whether I should have bought that Greg Kihn album way back in 1984 (the last was just a stray thought that unaccountably popped up between the human condition and politics.) The dome light just happens to be in my field of vision while I'm doing all that contemplating. But before I can even begin contemplating, the light has to turn green.

As I wait, I contemplate the red Ford Focus in front of me. There a toy firetruck right in the back window. A woman is driving the car. There's a little boy in the seat next to her. He's waving his arms about. I notice little kids do that a lot in cars. Are they pretending the traffic is some kind of sporting event, and they're in the stands doing the wave?

OK, the light just turned green. Time to get going. Wait, the turn signal on the Ford Focus just went on. She's making a left too? She should have signaled me that while the light was still red. I would have, um, well, I wouldn't have been taken by surprise, I can tell you that!

Here's the layout, folks. The light is at an intersection. Before her turn signal came on, I assumed she would just go straight, and I would make my left. This particular intersection doesn't have one of the those extra arrow lights, you know, the ones that let you make the turn while the car coming from the opposite direction has to wait. Instead, you have to rely on your own judgement as to whether you can make the turn or not. Except, I can't rely on my own judgement until she relies on her own judgement. Quite frankly, I don't think she has much confidence in her own judgement. She can't seem to decide whether to make the turn or to just wait until that big, white delivery truck passes by. From where I sit, she has plenty of time. She eventually--and I stress the word "eventually"--agrees with me, and makes the turn. Unfortunately, I no longer have plenty of time. If I make that turn now, I'll become personally embedded in that big, white delivery truck's front grille. The light turns red just as the truck passes me.

The thing is, the truck was originally far enough away so that both the woman in the red Focus and myself could have made the light. If only she hadn't hesitated. To have that much turning time during rush hour is pretty rare. Perhaps it happens once a century. And she monopolized it! Also, she could have turned on her turn signal while the light was still red.

Now, I won't arrive at work in enough time to contemplate the dome light. Nor will I have enough time to make a mad dash to the rest room (all this idling at the red light has had a negative psychological effect on my bladder.) I'll just be able to punch in, that's all. If I run. I'll have to start the day out of breath. Out of breath with my legs crossed. That hardly makes me an effective worker.

Of course, the woman in the red Focus gets to arrive at work on time. If she's even going to work. Wait, she had a kid with her. Was she driving him to school? No, it's the last week of June (present tense notwithstanding), there is no school. SO WHY THE HELL IS SHE DRIVING HER KID AROUND DURING MORNING RUSH HOUR?! JUST FOR PLEASURE? Come on, Junior. Let's examine all the wonderful sights at this time of the morning. Oh, look, one driver is giving another driver the finger! And that driver was just stopped by the police! And there, a fender bender! Oh, we're about to go over a flattened raccoon! How exciting!

I can't believe this. I really can't. I'M GOING TO BE LATE FOR WORK! AND I'M GOING TO BE PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY EXHAUSTED WHEN I GET THERE! AND I'M GOING TO DIE FROM URINE POISONING FROM HOLDING IT IN SO LONG! ALL BECAUSE THIS STUPID WOMAN AND HER SPASTIC KID DIDN'T TURN IN TIME! ALL BECAUSE SHE WAS DEATHLY AFRAID OF SOME PUNY, WHITE DELIVERY TRUCK THAT YOU NEEDED A PAIR OF BINOCULARS TO EVEN SEE! ALL BECAUSE--

The light just turned green. I make my turn.

My heart beating, I turn left, right, and--

I'm right behind the red Ford Focus again, waiting for the light to turn green.

I do something I should have done earlier had I thought of it. I reach for my cell phone and check the time. Hmmm. Once this light changes, I'll make another left, and arrive at work in enough time to both contemplate my dome light and relieve myself.

I didn't lose a single hour, minute, or second. I lost nothing.

Well, I did lose some patience.

And where patience goes, brain cells usually follow.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

In Memoriam: Jack Horkheimer 1938-2010

Astronomer. Host of the weekly five-minute PBS series Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer (originally Star Hustler)

“When you have a small object traveling at an incredibly high velocity, slamming into the earth's atmosphere, the friction makes the speeding object heat up so much that it can internally fracture and turn into what we call a fireball.”

(If you've never seen Horkheimer's show, you have absolutely no idea with how much enthusiasm he would have said the above quote. I know some of you who read this blog like to view the cosmos as evidence of a higher power. I'll never go that far, but for this pudgy guy wearing a sweater and bad toupee to last 30 years on TV in this otherwise slick entertainment universe of ours--well, thank God for PBS--KJ)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Blog Vérité: Missing a Beat

My lack of medical expertise can be so embarrassing at times.

Some twenty years ago when I was working in a fast-food joint, I was sitting in the break room with an attractive young woman--she was about 19 or 20--who by all appearances seemed to be in perfect health.

She had just inserted a straw into her soft-drink and was about to take a sip, when she suddenly said, "Oops, almost forgot to take my pills."

From out of her purse she produced a little bottle of prescription pills, shook two of the minuscule tablets onto her palm, popped them into her mouth, and then proceeded with her previously postponed sip.

Afterwards, she smiled at me and said, "Good thing I remembered."

Since she had initiated the topic, I didn't feel it was too nosy to ask, "What are the pills for?"

"I was born with half a heart."

"Half a heart?!"

"Uh, huh."

"So you have only two ventricles?"

"I don't know what you mean"

"A heart has four ventricles."

Had I access to both a computer and the Internet in that break room of two decades ago, or just a much better memory of my high school biology class, I could have told her that the heart actually has four chambers. But only two (right and left) are called ventricles. These pump blood out of the heart. The other two chambers (right and left) are called the atria, which is plural for atrium. The atriums, I mean atria, holds the blood coming into the heart for a moment, before releasing it into the right and left ventricles at just the right moment.

Instead, I told her the heart has four ventricles.

"I have half of whatever I'm supposed to have," she replied.

"Two ventricles," I said, confidentially.

A silence hung over the break room.

I broke the silence. "Must be hard to have only half a heart."

"Not as long as I take my pills."

"What happens if you don't take them?"

She laughed, hit me in the arm, and said, "I'll have a heart attack, silly!"

Of course. How embarrassing.

But imagine how much more embarrassing had she found out I was wrong about the ventricles.

Monday, August 9, 2010

In Memoriam: Patricia Neal 1926-2010

Actress. The Day the Earth Stood Still ("Klaatu barada nikto!") , A Face in the Crowd, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Hud, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.

"A tall slim girl with a throaty voice."

--Chicago Tribune, 1949

"I just act my best. That's all I do, wherever I am."

"I think I was born stubborn, that's all"

--Patricia Neal

(In 1965, Neal survived three strokes in a single night--KJ)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Quips and Quotations

Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?

--A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Exciting Employment Opportunities for Pied Pipers

About a week ago I was watching a local public affairs show, one of those panel discussions, the topic of which was the burgeoning deer population, a recurring problem here in Northeast Ohio for the past 15 years or so. It seems Bambi and his buddies are once again popping up in the suburbs, and causing auto accidents by not properly following traffic signs or looking both ways when they cross the street. Some on the panel felt it might be necessary to cull the herd (if you're not sure what the word "cull" means, well, there's another word that sounds almost like it.) The host of this discussion was reminded of a previous public affairs show dedicated to this same topic (I told you it was a recurring problem), in which one of the guests referred to deer as "rats".

Rats? Deer are rats? How so? The host went on to explain that the guest had had problems with deer wandering in his yard and eating his shrubbery, and vegetables from his garden. That doesn't exactly sound like something a rat would do, but I got the overall point. Deer are now pests, vermin, and like rats are feeding off of, and taking full advantage of, human labor, human achievement, human civilization. Like vermin everywhere, deer want to enter human society without first having the common decency to domesticate themselves.

The deer comment made me realize that either rats have a big tent philosophy, or humans have a big tent philosophy on rats behalf. Whichever it is, here are some other candidates for rathood:

Crows. I'm sure farmers throughout history have regarded these creatures as even more of a nuisance than actual rats. Rats don't concern themselves with the corn harvest. There are no such things as scarerats. The odd thing about crows is they're not always confined to rural settings. I once saw a flock of crows in the parking lot of a 7/11, divvying up what looked like a Three Musketeers wrapper. If a cornfield's not nearby, then make do with the high fructose corn syrup they put in candy bars, and everything else, these days.

Pigeons . Another feathered flying rat. Well, hold on, some people take great pleasure in feeding pigeons. You never see anyone feeding rats. But pigeons can be a nuisance nonetheless. Especially for those charged with keeping our nations' monuments nice and spiffy. A hoard of rats can run up and down and in and around a Civil War hero's statue and not leave nearly as much mess as one incontinent pigeon flying overhead.

Canadian geese. This species of rat may be unique to Ohio, and, of course, Canada. They were also a fixture in my apartment complex for a couple of months. Signs went up everywhere warning us tenants not to feed them. To my knowledge, no one ever did. Why would we when whatever they ate soon became green spots on the sidewalk and parking lot that you had to tiptoe around? But the geese are no more. The apartment complex hired somebody to "get rid" of them. I'm not sure who, but I swear I saw some old guy on the grounds with cotton in his mouth mumbling about offers you can't refuse right before the geese "disappeared".

Squirrels. I know some of you will balk at this one. What's wrong with squirrels? All they do is collect acorns, and acorns come from God, not man. True enough, but that storm gutter where the squirrel stores his acorns for the winter came from the Home Depot three blocks away.

Raccoons. I'll admit a raccoon can look pretty cute when he lifts his head up to look at you. Of course, when he looks up and out of that garbage can you were planning to carry to the curb, you have to then wonder if corrugated steel transmits rabies.

Bats. Ever see a bat with its' wings folded in? Looks a little like a gerbil or hamster or some other cute, furry little animal you might see in a pet store. But then, FLAPAPAPAP, suddenly it's ten times bigger, circling the upper reaches of your living room, and taking the occasional dive toward your head.

Skunks. These just may be the most terrifying rats of them all. A whiff from one of these beasts through an open window has been known to send more than one suburban home owner scurrying down the basement stairs and under the pool table, where, shaking like a battery operated sex toy, he or she yells out, "Do whatever you want to the family dog, just please leave me alone!

Why, oh, why, must humankind be plagued with all these different varieties of rats?! Why can't all the crows, pigeons, Canadian geese, squirrels, raccoons, bats, skunks, and now deer just leave us be?!

Actually, they once did. Before the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, Christ, the glory that was Rome, the miracle that was Greece, the pyramids of Egypt, none of those animals knew or cared about humans. Then one day prehistoric man climbed down from the trees, promptly chopped down those trees they had just climbed down from, and built a little community of thatched huts. All the animals, including the rats, began running away. But one rat caught a whiff of something. He turned to his friend and said, "Hey, Charlie, is that mastodon stew I smell? Let's check it out!"

As the world's population increases (it's expected to hit 7 billion next year), and everything from adobe dwellings to aluminum-sided ranch houses to high-rise apartments are built on every available spot, expect aardvarks, antelopes, peacocks, quail, pandas, orangutans, kangaroos, penguins, rams, toucans, salamanders, hippopotamuses, koala bears, and duck-billed platypuses to join the long line of animals awaiting honorary membership in the second most dominant species on the planet.

At this point, you may be wondering, does the first most dominant species--we humans--have anything to worry about from the second? Might they try to topple us from our perch?

Relax. No rat, genuine or honorary, has an I.Q. high enough to come up with something like global warming.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Quips and Quotations

A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.

--George Orwell

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fan Clubbed

The stuff that dreams are made of.

--The Maltese Falcon (movie)

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

--Langston Hughes

I once worked with a guy whom everyone assumed was a big sports fan. This is because he knew a lot about sports. Every sport. Every player. He also bet on these sports quite a bit, and everyone assumed his love of betting grew out of his love of sports. But once, over a couple of beers, he confided in me that the reason he bet on sports so much was so he could maintain an interest in sports. He found it impossible to do so otherwise. And, in the blue-collar milieu in which he lived and worked, maintaining an interest in sports was important.

I myself am a bit too angst-ridden to bet on anything other than a sure thing, so, to maintain an interest in sports, I basically root for teams with the name "Cleveland" in front of them. And even then they have to be doing very, very well. So, for instance, I was a big football fan at the beginning (Browns: Brian Sipe/Kardiac Kids era) and the end (Browns: Bernie Kosar era) of the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, I was a baseball fan (Indians: Two World Series appearances.) In recent years, I've developed an appreciation for basketball (Cavaliers: I'll get to the era that just ended in a second.) I guess you could say I'm a fair-weather fan, but it's not like I root for other teams during the dry spells. I still want the home team to win, even as I'm watching something other than sports. Rooting for a Cleveland team is like rooting for Greater Cleveland, where I happen to live. And rooting for Greater Cleveland is like rooting for...myself.

A word about Cleveland. When outsiders hear that name, they immediately think smokestacks and snowstorms. I won't lie. Cleveland has both of those (though the stacks have cut back on their smoking of late.) But there are other Clevelands. If culture's your thing, there's a world-class orchestra and some fine museums. If rock and roll's your thing, there's a hall of fame. If nature's your thing, there's both the Metroparks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. If water's your thing, there's Lake Erie. Yes, I know it was horribly polluted at one time, but it's been cleaned up quite a bit. I dare say its' beaches are now cleaner than those along the Gulf of Mexico.

Had "The Decision" gone the other way, I could have said: if basketball's your thing, there's LeBron James.

Not long after LeBron James made his "decision", I was watching a local call-in sports show. Most of the callers were expressing their anger with LeBron. Some were even on the verge of tears. Nevertheless, there was a scattering of support for King James. Here are some approximations of what was being said in his favor:

Why do you keep calling LeBron a hometown hero? He grew up in Akron, not Cleveland.

There's too much emphasis on sports in our society.

All this anger at Lebron is irrational. Burning his jersey in the middle of the street! C'mon, it's only a game!

I think all of us in Northeastern Ohio should thank LeBron for the seven wonderful and exciting years he gave us.

I'd like to address each of these.

Why do you keep calling LeBron a hometown hero? He grew up in Akron, not Cleveland. Cleveland is in Cuyahoga County. Akron is in Summit County. The two counties border each other. They're north-south neighbors. If you're ever in Northeast Ohio, pick up a copy of the Akron Beacon Journal and turn to its' sports section. You'll notice that Cleveland teams get lots of coverage. The Cavs current home is in downtown Cleveland, but for 20 years they played in Richfield, also in Summit County. From 1974 to 1994, it was a shorter drive from Akron to a Cavs game than from Cleveland proper. Of course, LeBron was only 10 when the Cavs moved back to Cleveland proper. Perhaps he got car sick on his first trip to the new arena, and has held a grudge ever since.

There's too much emphasis on sports in our society. Well, there's certainly a lot of emphasis on sports in Cleveland, and I sometimes chafe at that. But I heard this said on a sports show. That's a little like going to a zoo and complaining that there's too many animals. I suspect from the tone of the caller's voice, it wasn't the emphasis on sports that bothered her so much as the newly born distaste for LeBron James, which leads me to...

All this anger at Lebron is irrational. Burning his jersey in the middle of the street! C'mon, it's only a game! Well, if it's irrational to be angry at Lebron for leaving, was it rational for Cleveland fans to be so euphoric when he arrived in the first place? If it's somehow wrong to burn his jersey in the streets, what was so particularly right about plunking down hard earned money to buy the jersey and proudly wearing it down that very street during, say, the playoffs? Has the game become "only" only since Lebron left?

Spectator sports, on the professional level, involves a bit of fantasy, at least on the part of the spectators, the fans, themselves. After all, what's the first syllable of fantasy? You watch a bunch of strangers play a game, and decide, or have others with a more monetary concern in the game decide for you, that your well-being, your self-worth, depends on 50% of those strangers winning that game. Whatever you hate about your life, you'll somehow hate it a little less once you see those strangers get their rings or trophies, and the coach or manager of those strangers get dunked on the head with a bucket of Gatorade.

When fans turn ugly, when they throw bottles on the field, or burn the jersey of a once beloved player, it's easy to lecture them, to scold them, about it being only a game. Sorry, but by that time it's much too late. The fans have lived with the fantasy for so long, it's now cold, hard reality. They were expected to be happy when the going was good. Well, the opposite of happiness is not equanimity.

When the signs and pennants and team logos start going up all over town, when the stores start selling, and running out of, the jerseys and bobble-heads, and when the photo of the star player ends up plastered on one entire side of a skyscraper, perhaps that's the time to gently remind people it's only a game. Of course, to do so you risk looking like the turd in the fruit punch bowl.

Fantasies don't always make sense, but they can make cents. And dollars. Hundreds of millions of dollars in LeBron's case. So, if it's any consolation to anybody upset about that jersey burned in the street, hey, it's already paid for. LeBron won't lose a dime off it.

I think all of us in Northeastern Ohio should thank LeBron for the seven wonderful and exciting years he gave us. If LeBron thinks THAT is going to happen, he's got another fantasy coming.

Monday, July 12, 2010

In Memoriam: Harvey Pekar 1939-2010

Writer of the autobiographical comic book American Splendor

"I try and write the way things happen. I don't try and fulfill people`s wishes."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Quips and Quotations (Fourth of July Edition)

"Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of 'the rat race' is not yet final."
—Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Smartest Religious Movie Ever Made

Recently, I wrote a post about faith which seemed to stir up a lot of strong feelings. So strong were these feelings, in fact, that I decided it best to stay away from the subject from now on. But then I saw my name mentioned on someone else's blog dealing with faith, and thought, "Well, if people are still interested in my views on the subject..." So I've decided to take another stab at it. I've even eschewed the usual wordplay in the post's title. I'm telling you flat out it's about the smartest religious movie ever made.

And what movie might that be? The Ten Commandments? No, as entertaining as that film is, it's not the smartest. Nor is it that other mainstay from Easters past, Ben-Hur.

And it's not King of Kings, Sign of the Cross, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary, The Keys of the Kingdom, Joan of Arc, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, Salome, Solomon and Sheba, The Silver Chalice, The Big Fisherman, Barabbas, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Nun Story, The Singing Nun, Lillies of the Field, The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Bible...In The Beginning, The Sound of Music, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, King David, or The Last Temptation of Christ.

It's not even Bruce Almighty

No, the smartest religious movie ever made is...

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What's that, you say? Raiders of the Lost Ark? That's not a religious movie! It's action-adventure!

Well, there is action, as well as adventure. And there's also religion. At least there's something from the Bible. Where do you think the Ark comes from? Actually, there are two Arks in the Bible. The more famous Ark is the big boat with all the animals that Noah captained. The other Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is less well known. At least it was less well known before director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan got their hands on it. Here's King James' earlier take:

10 "And they shall make an ark of acacia wood; two and a half cubits shall be its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and shall make on it a molding of gold all around. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four corners; two rings shall be on one side, and two rings on the other side. 13 And you shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried by them. 15 The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 And you shall put into the ark the Testimony which I will give you.

--Exodus 25:10-16

The above is God's instructions to Moses on how to build the Ark. Where Moses was supposed to get all that gold, I have no idea. Anyway, the Ark was a kind of chest with supernatural powers that contained bits and pieces of the original Ten Commandments. The Israelites carried it around the wilderness for some 40-odd years, until they reached the Promised Land. After that, it pops up throughout the Old Testament, often to lethal effect, zapping Philistines or even dim-witted Israelites who come too near the thing. Keep that in mind as I discuss the movie.

Now, I said Raiders was smart. But it's not immediately smart. Like any Hollywood product designed to separate an adolescent from his 1981 currency, there's a lot of watchable silliness. The movie begins in a South American jungle in 1936, where we find a big guy with a big hat, ratty clothes, and a whip going into a cave to snatch an ancient idol, evading all sorts of pre-Industrial Age booby traps to do so. He gets out of the cave alive, only to be confronted by an apparent archrival backed by a bunch of spear carrying natives. Our hero is forced to hand over the idol, and then somehow manages to outrun, outjump, and and outswing hundreds of spears thrown in his direction. None of this has anything to do with the Ark of the Covenant, which is in a whole different hemisphere. It's all meant to establish character, and, boy, what a character: Indiana Jones, an professor of archeology (his real first name is Henry, but you won't find that out for another couple of sequels) who apparently doesn't believe in hiring hundreds of diggers to excavate a site, but rather just do the job himself.

Back in his classroom at the university, having exchanged his ratty clothes and whip for a tweedy suit and blackboard chalk, he's approached by a couple of government agents. Adolf Hitler is looking for the Ark of the Lost Covenant, hoping its' powers of God will give him an edge in the upcoming World War II. Now, the agents refer to Hitler as a "nut" and that he's "crazy" for actually thinking he can get away with this. But as nutty and crazy as Hitler may be, they decide to hire Professor Jones to stop him, just to be on the safe side. Do intelligence agents always outsource their work to college archeology professors? They must be understaffed.

Anyway, Indiana Jones goes to Cairo, meets an old flame who decides to help him find the Ark. The Nazis, along with the archrival from the film's opening scene, try to stop him. But Indy does indeed find the Ark, only to quickly lose it to the Nazis. My memory's a bit faulty on this, but the Ark seems to pass back and forth between the Jones and the Nazis until they all end up on some island together. Indy has a chance to destroy the Ark with a rocket launcher (good thing to have when a whip won't do), but, dedicated archaeologist that he is, can't bear to destroy something of such obvious historical significance.

Now we come to the part that always intrigues me. The Nazis have won. They've prevailed. They've got the Ark. Before presenting it to the Fuhrer himself, they decide to take a peek inside.

They shouldn't have. Benign ghostlike figures at first emerge, but they quickly turn malignant. Fire and lightening shoot out out of the Ark, fricasseeing the Nazis standing closest to it. The ones standing a little farther away don't last much longer, as they soon melt or combust or both. Only Indy and his girlfriend survive, having shielded their eyes.

So by winning the Nazis have lost. The power of God gives them no actual military advantage. How you gonna use a weapon if you can't even open the damn thing? Not that the U.S. government is much better. They must have shelled out a lot taxpayers' money, in transportation costs if nothing else, to have Indiana Jones go halfway around the world to stop the Nazis from finding something that turned out to be irrelevant. He could have saved himself the trouble and just stayed in the classroom, though it's always nice to see old lovers reunite.

Indy gets the Ark (did he close it back up with his eyes shut?) to Washington D.C., where it is stored in a giant government warehouse.

"Fools. Bureaucratic fools! They don't know what they've got there," Indy says at the end.

I imagine sometimes after Pearl Harbor, some of those bureaucratic fools will open up the Ark to see just what kind of military advantage it gives them. When they do, well, time to mop up the warehouse floor. So the WWII in the movie's fictional world is fought much like the WWII in our real one, without any discernible help from God.

Of course, in our real world, people are always fighting and thinking God gives them some sort of advantage. Look at the Middle East. The Israelis and the Arabs have been fighting over the Holy Land for how long now? And why is it even called the Holy Land? If the Lord created the entire Earth, shouldn't the whole enchilada be considered holy, rather than just one tiny morsel? Then there's the people who attacked us on 9/11, thinking they were doing God's work. The average devout terrorist doesn't even have to open up an ark if they wish to immolate themselves. They'll do it with a strapped-on bomb, with the expectation that they'll be greeted in Heaven by 72 virgins (what do they have against more experienced women?) And what about female suicide bombers? Are they greeted by 72 eunuchs?

Just as in Raiders, the U.S. Government in not immune to the sway of God's strategic value. According to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack , in the run-up to the Iraq war, George W. Bush referred to himself as a "messenger of God" who was doing the "Lord's work". In the Pentagon, the war was often referred to as a "crusade".

Meanwhile, the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland seems to be finally winding down. It only took four centuries.

To be fair, if you examine some of these religious wars more closely, you'd see that they're as much about politics, territorial conquest, ethnicity, and natural resources (oil comes to mind) as they are about the divine. But nothing rallies the troops like saying it's God's work.

From the Crusades on, can you really say all the blood shed in God's name has made the world a more spiritual place?

Some arks should just stay lost.