Saturday, May 29, 2010

Happy birthday, Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman, born in 1953, is 57 today.

Danny, who has what would be called a tendency toward the bizarre, morbid, or otherwise otherworldly, is often chosen to write movie music and songs that fit those themes. And he does a fine job, too.
The first song is his greatest pop song--out of many great songs--for his former band, Oingo Boingo, and the second is from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Spy story

My old friend Eileen, when I met her almost 30 years ago, was a spy. Eileen had just gotten a job as an elementary school secretary at a school I serviced, brand new in the system. When she started she was called in by an assistant superintendent, Dr. Riley, and given a secret mission. She was to report back on the activities of her boss, Mr. Kent, who was principal, and any phone calls or other hanky-panky regarding his former secretary, Mrs. Shannon.

Mr. Kent, who had been principal at another school, was transferred when the PTA complained he was always in his office with Mrs. Shannon, with the door closed. There was a scandal. He was transferred to his new school, and Mrs. Shannon was sent to be secretary at a school still under construction. Because it was still being built, the students and staff "double-bunked" with another elementary school, one school doing a morning session, the other doing the afternoon. Since Mrs. Shannon didn't have to be at work until afternoon, often she would pull up in front of Mr. Kent's new school, he'd run out the door, jump in her car and off they'd go. That was the sort of thing Dr. Riley wanted Eileen to report on.

What a situation! Here was Eileen, just moved to the state, new to the school system, hired by Mr. Kent, with no inkling there was more to the job than the normal duties of a school secretary. Eileen, being a Christian woman with scruples to spare, was deeply offended by the order to inform on her boss. Even though she had just met me, she confided in me. I'd known Mr. Kent and Mrs. Shannon at their old school, but didn't know they were having an affair. It was an a ha moment for me.

So that was then, nearly three decades ago. After a few months of Eileen's investiture as a school secret agent--and whether Eileen did any reporting on the lovers I don't know, but seriously doubt--Mr. Kent was called into the Superintendent's office and demoted to a teaching position. Mrs. Shannon kept her job, Mr. Kent and she divorced their spouses and married each other. I'm not sure there is a happily-ever-after to this story. Both people were middle-aged adults, probably in their late forties, older than me, then in my mid-thirties. They both had families with grown children. I heard through the grapevine that Mrs. Shannon's family shunned her, turned her out as a sinner. They were all religious. Perhaps Mr. Kent's family did the same. His ex-wife was a teacher in our school district and told everyone within earshot that Mrs. Shannon was a husband-stealer and her husband a cad and bounder. I think she used other words, but that was the essence.

Kent and Shannon have been gone from the school system for many years, both long since retired. I wonder how they're getting along?

Eileen started her job in 1983, and today was her retirement party. My wife, who works in the same building as Eileen, and I, attended a nice afternoon get-together, a little party for the staff to say goodbye to Eileen. She was there with her husband, two sons, and one grandchild. Eileen and her husband are active; she's on the ski patrol and they travel around to various races and speed events in neighboring states. I'm sure she'll enjoy her retirement very much, and both Sally and I wished her the best.

Eileen told everyone within earshot that I was one of the first people she met when she started her job. She didn't tell anyone of her job as a spy in the school of love, but we have talked about it a few times over the years. I've worked with Eileen at four different schools, and at each she was very well liked because she's great with the kids, and has patience with the staff. She is a sharp person, very good at her job. In my 32 years with the school district I had a chance to observe a lot of secretaries, and elementary school secretaries have it the hardest of anyone, yet get paid less than others. There's never been any justice, but the ones who are good at it stay with it because there is absolutely no other job that is quite like it. Eileen did it superbly, except maybe her job as spy, because what undercover work she was ordered to do wasn't really unnecessary. People having an affair don't realize how much other people know what they're doing. They think they're being cool, but they're not. Mr. Kent and Mrs. Shannon paid the price. Eileen handled her professional responsibilities with humor and professionalism, and I really enjoyed working with her.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Happy birthday, Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend is 65-years-old today.

Pete, as a founding member and one of two living members of the original British invasion group, The Who, was in my home town in 2007 for a concert. He had been here before, with The Who, in 1967. He was asked if he remembered anything about Salt Lake City, and he did. He said as he left the hotel he was approached by a beautiful woman, about 40, who called him, "another long-haired queer."

Wow, Pete...that's a long time to think about that. Anyone crass enough to say something like that to a stranger isn't worth thinking about for 40 seconds, let alone 40 years.

Anyway, Pete, "Let My Love Open Your Door" is one of the songs of yours I really like, and here is a video of you doing it on the Jools Holland Show.

Then here you are rocking it out on "Face the Face" from '85.

Forget about those who have said negative things to you and remember those of us who think you're great. Happy birthday, Pete!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Happy birthday, Taj Mahal

Born 68 years ago today, May 17, 1942: Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, known to us music lovers as Taj Mahal.

Thanks for the tunes, Taj! Have a great and happy birthday.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

When the music played

There's an interesting blog where the author shares his memorabilia of 1970s rock concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area. He covers bands like Genesis and Manfred Mann, and artists like Alan Price and Peter Frampton. It's teaching me some things about bands I really knew little or nothing about. I'm a few years older than Dave Miller, who does David's Rock Scrapbook and co-authors Brit Rock By The Bay with friends. My musical tastes tended to run toward the 1960s style. I know Dave likes that era, too, but he branched out and I stayed stuck in the earlier era. C'mon, I never got over the Beatles splitting up...I guess I was in mourning for that for a long time.

I don't like to think of myself as stodgy, but I am. Dave and his friends intimidate me with their knowledge of the artists whose concerts they attended, the songs they heard, because I don't think I heard many of them. Around our parts, 750 miles east of San Francisco in little ol' Utah, we had a couple of AOR (album oriented rock) stations, and I did hear a lot of music when I tuned in, but those stations devolved into classic rock stations, which have a limited playlist of songs. I could have listened to one of those stations in 2005, and tune in right now and hear the exact same songs. So I guess maybe there are people who are stodgier than me when it comes to their musical tastes.

I went on YouTube without any real notions of what I was looking for, but I came up with four bands and four tunes I liked during the 1960s. The Easybeats was a band from Swingin' London, and their lead singer had some interesting dance moves I haven't seen before. Music Machine was a one-hit wonder (which is one more hit than I ever had), but the title of the song, "Talk Talk" became the name of an '80s band. Music Machine is also categorized as a garage band, and I've never been sure what that means. Their song sounds pre-punk to me. Except for the keyboardist they each wear one glove (pre-Michael Jackson), and their hairstyles (wigs?) look like how The Ramones patterned themselves a few years later.

Quicksilver Messenger Service and It's A Beautiful Day were both from the San Francisco area, and played the venues made famous during the hippie era. I never saw Quicksilver in person, but It's A Beautiful Day, with David LaFlamme on violin, appeared here in my home town (which is also David's home town and where, as far as I know, he still lives) and affected me deeply. I wore out two copies of the vinyl versions of their first album, and the song "White Bird" I consider classic.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Winky Dink and me

I hadn't thought about the TV show Winky Dink and You for years, until I unearthed this old comic from my basement dungeon. The kids' show, which ran from 1953-57, is claimed to be television's first interactive show. Kid viewers needed a Winky Dink Kit, which included a "magic screen"--like a piece of cling wrap for food--some magic crayons and a mitt to erase the marks. The kids would adhere the magic screen to the TV screen and when prompted, they might draw a bridge for Winky Dink to cross so he could escape the villain. Yawn. I was intrigued enough that I talked my dad into buying me the kit. I saw that a Winky Dink Kit sold on eBay for over $150, so I should have hung onto it instead of an old, beat-up, coverless comic book.

In the story, Winky goes to the jungle. The natives are pictured in a racist fashion. Sorry, I don't mean to offend anyone.

Jack Barry, who was the genial host of Winky Dink and You, was later implicated in the quiz show scandal of the 1950s, and didn't work on network TV for years after he lost his shows in the wake of the investigation. It's a story well told by Robert Redford in the movie, Quiz Show, with John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes.

This clip from YouTube pretty much shows what we tuned into when we watched Winky Dink and You. It's a 9-minute clip, and if you're like me, you'll tune out after about 3 minutes, having gotten the essence without watching any more of the inanities.

With a name like Winky Dink, I think Winky Dink and You should be revived as a porno. I can only imagine what the interactive would be like.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The visibly invisible

My friend, Eddie Hunter, who does the blog Chicken Fat, claims to be invisible. He's obviously not--this is him trying to bribe a terra cotta soldier outside a museum--but I know what he means.

Being invisible is when you walk into a store and try to ask a question of an employee; he doesn't see you, just the 5' 8" big-booby blonde who walks up to him just as you open your mouth. I have found myself to be invisible in that sense many times in my life and it has perturbed me, but invisibility was desirable when I was in the army and they needed "volunteers" for a detail.

Invisibility, like Eddie and I have found out, can be as simple as not standing out in a crowd. In a science fiction sense, invisibility is a plot device which seems to strike a chord with people. I guess at one time or another everyone has wished for invisibility, either not be seen by someone they don't want to talk to, or to spy on someone else. Too bad it doesn't work that way. There is work being done in invisibility--hey, I saw it on National Geographic channel!--but it has more to do with elaborate camouflage. In one example, work is being done on a body suit with millions of tiny reflectors that pick up video, then reflect a real time video of what's going on behind the person in the suit. Someone glancing at him would see some scenery and he'd be "invisible" to the observer.

Or so the theory goes. Most humans have kind of a sixth sense about the presence of others, even if not immediately seen, like getting the feeling someone is looking at you; if you were in a room with someone, even if they were completely invisible, I think you'd know.

In Hollow Man, a science fiction thriller from 2000, the theme of invisibility is explored. Like H. G. Wells' 1898 novel, The Invisible Man, invisibility drives the invisible man insane. Kevin Bacon as Sebastian, the boss of the research team, is already a narcissist and ego maniac, which is just amplified when he becomes invisible.

"I've got you under my skin...I've got you, deep in the hide of me..."

Sebastian is going...



When, completely invisible, he later molests sleeping team member Sarah (played by Kim Dickens, who currently has a recurring role in HBO's Tremé). He would not have done it had he not been invisible.

She wakes up and catches on real fast she's been unbuttoned and fondled. (She should have filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, but it would have been hard to explain: "I was groped by my invisible boss.") Later in the movie Sebastian, who has shed his mask and clothes, commits rape on a neighbor because, as he tells himself, "Who's going to know?"

Special effects in Hollow Man are great. The movie doesn't try to explain how Sebastian can become invisible; we get some hokum about a chemical/radiation mix, injected into the bloodstream. The team can make something invisible, but bringing it back is harder, which is what happens to Sebastian.

Unless we're blind, much of our interaction with others comes from visual clues, like body language, for instance. That would be impossible with an invisible person, like being blind in reverse. You can see, you just can't see that person. It would make conversation pretty hard. But for the invisible person, being in a room full of people, none of them seeing him, would give the feeling of being isolated. That's after he's gone around the room groping all the women, that is.

In the movie, finding the invisible man is simple: they use thermal imaging glasses. They sometimes use the glasses when they know Sebastian is in the room (but, in a dumb plot move, not enough times to avoid danger when he finally goes over the edge into murderous rage). It's how, in this clever scene early in the movie, the audience sees the invisible gorilla, Isabelle.

I don't believe we'll ever have to worry about invisibility in fact. Like time travel, invisibility in the sense that Hollow Man presents it is one of those science fiction concepts that's fun to think about but impossible to achieve. The movie, thanks to some very skilled movie making, makes us suspend our disbelief, at least for the time we're watching.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mother's Day

Destination Moon

Destination Moon, a movie from 1950, was an earnest, if melodramatic, way to present a vision of what a moon landing would be like. It's clichéd and simplistic, but for its time it was probably the best information about a future voyage to the moon.

George Pal was the producer. He was a moviemaker who started his career making short films, puppet animations. I saw some of these on television in the 1950s and was impressed, but I can't say that I was ever as impressed by his full-length movies. The only one I really liked was War Of the Worlds, and that movie holds up today, almost 60 years after it was made.

Pal's gift was self-promotion and hype. In the grand Hollywood tradition, he could sell a film. This spread in Life from April 25, 1950, is a testament to that. Life was popular and very influential. Pal could not have bought advertising that would have done as much to get patrons into the theaters.

The special effects of Destination Moon are crude, but then, everything before the era of computer generated images seems crude by comparison. This just seems cruder than the usual crude, because the scenery, especially of the moon, is so obviously painted. It was painted by astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell, but it looks painted, and that's death for realism. (The grainy black and white images from Apollo 11 on the moon, while real, don't look very dramatic. But then, they weren't from Hollywood.)

Audiences in 1950 ate up Destination Moon, and it was the basis for many imitations to follow.

Pal died in 1980, age 72. At least he lived long enough to see all the actual lunar voyages.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The murderer who looks like us

The steel-clawed monster, Freddy Krueger, has risen (again) from the dead in a remake of the 1984 hit, A Nightmare On Elm Street. It was number one at the box office this past weekend. I won't see it. I'm supposing it's a jack-in-the-box movie; the viewer is set up by creepy music, then the monster jumps out, levitating the audience out of their seats.

This weekend I watched a movie with genuine suspense and good acting, which manages its scares intelligently and in context. Imagine that! According to the DVD documentary on the making of the movie, they deliberately avoided the slasher movie label. The Stepfather was made in the mid-'80s, had critical acclaim, but was a dud at the box office, probably because it was smarter than a slasher flick. And a lot less killings. Over the years The Stepfather has grown in cult status.

The story's genesis is based on a real life murderer, John List, who was in 1971 living an upper middle-class lifestyle with his family in New Jersey. List, a pious Christian, lost his job, and rather than let his family face an uncertain future, he made sure they had no future by killing them all. He then disappeared, took up a new life and family, and was only brought to justice years later thanks to America's Most Wanted.

Brian Garfield (Death Wish) and Donald Westlake (The Hot Rock), two great mystery writers, collaborated on the script of The Stepfather. Their collaboration automatically made it interesting to me. The filmmakers got lucky with their casting. The title role is played by Terry O'Quinn, now best known as John Locke on Lost, but then a character actor. This breakthrough movie put O'Quinn on the map with critics. Thanks to a low budget, the producers couldn't go for a major movie star, but the movie is better, more believable, for it.

The Stepfather has a disturbing opening sequence. O'Quinn appears in front of us and his bathroom mirror, shaggy and covered in blood. He trims, shaves, showers.

He dresses neatly, smiles at his reflection and new look. The blood-covered killer is transformed into a handsome and well-dressed man. He leaves, and in the hallway picks up a child's toy, which he places in a toybox, and closes the lid. Then he goes downstairs.

O'Quinn steps into the carnage he has caused, while his dead family is sprawled in the living room. The scene is horrifying, but it's dark and it goes by very quick. Details are hard to make out. He uprights a chair, goes out the front door whistling and into a new life.

The bulk of the movie is made up of his new life as Jerry Blake, real estate salesman, his new wife, Susan, played by Shelley Hack, and her daughter Stephanie, played by then teenage Jill Schoelen. Jerry and Susan have been married a year, but while his wife believes and loves him, his daughter is intuitive enough to know that something is off. Smart kid. Everyone should be so intuitive.

Police are stymied by lack of clues, so it falls to the brother of Jerry's murdered wife to track him down. As the story progresses, things deteriorate for Jerry. He wants a perfect family, a perfect life, but he can't be satisfied, and soon he is ready to dispose of this family and go on to another.

Suspense comes from the process that Jerry goes through when those around him disappoint him. He's a narcissist, and murder is his way of removing those he not longer has use for.

The Stepfather, like Nightmare On Elm Street, was remade. I haven't seen the remake and probably won't. I also haven't seen any sequels to the original movie. I don't see the point. With O'Quinn, as Jerry Blake, you have the perfect psychopath. He's much more scary to me than Freddy Krueger, who is supernatural, so could not exist. Unfortunately, the character O'Quinn plays does exist in real life, hiding chameleon-like among us. I'd rather face a boatload of fantasy killers like Freddy than one real Jerry Blake.