Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Burn, Beatles, burn...and the evils of Elvis

If you remember the mid-sixties you may recall the big Beatles flap. In a print interview John Lennon was quoted as saying the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” It led to boycotts and Beatles-record burnings. It was all a bunch of nothing about nothing. A Salt Lake City disk jockey said, “We don't care about what a bunch of nuts are doing in the South...we’re still playing our Beatles records.”

Even in other conservative communities like mine the Beatles were essentially criticism-proof. Their popularity with their audience overwhelmed the religious opposition.

Even Paul got into the spirit of the thing.

A decade earlier there was a similar eruption from church groups, and even the local law in certain areas of the country, over Elvis’s early success. The trouble was over his bump-and-grind moves. I think if Elvis had not caused such loud and frenzied female reactions his gyrations would have been overlooked. Elvis’s style and music were incomprehensible to an older generation, but well understood by his teenage fans. I sat with a group of adults who scoffed at and scorned Elvis’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, while my 15-year-old cousin, Judy, sat in front of the television squealing, then collapsed in tears over the adults' derision of her idol. Me, I didn’t understand the Elvis appeal exactly — not the way Judy did, anyway — but I loved the music.

This first page is from Life in April, 1956, the rest of the pages are from an article from August, 1956 when the Elvis fireworks were exploding all over the world.

Copyright © 1956, 2013 Time-Life

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Don’t bet against Bob

I’m in Los Angeles this weekend, but like most everyone else I’ll be watching the Academy Awards on television, not in person.

Robert De Niro has been on the talk show circuit recently promoting the movie, Silver Linings Playbook. In one interview, when asked about his career as a movie star he said, “I’ve been lucky.” As if his prodigious talent, his ability to inhabit a character, to breathe life into his screen presentations, is because he avoids walking under ladders or having his path crossed by black cats. You're way too modest, Bob.

The first time I saw De Niro was in Bloody Mama, a low budget Roger Corman movie from 1970. The next time I remember seeing him was in 1973, in Bang the Drum Slowly. I was very impressed and over the years have remained impressed. Since then De Niro has made a few dozen movies, and for all of his critical acclaim hasn’t had an Academy Award nomination for quite a while, not since Goodfellas in 1991.

He won best actor for Raging Bull 33 years ago , and going further back, he won best supporting actor for The Godfather Part II in 1974. Despite his incredible work over the decades he’s had a long drought for awards. The Academy may think he’s owed one, so when it comes to laying down your bets as to who will walk away with an Oscar for best supporting actor, don’t bet against Bob.*

This article about De Niro is from New York magazine, May 16, 1977.

*On the morning after, looks like my powers of prediction have been dealt a blow. Christoph Waltz, whom I considered the long shot of the group, walked away with the Oscar. Better luck next time, Bob!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Dog of the South

Charles Portis is a writer probably best known for his novel, True Grit, which has been filmed twice. Portis has been a newspaper man, short-story writer, and author of essays for magazines like Harper's and The New Yorker. He lives in Arkansas.

His novels, as well reviewed as they are, were not always in print. But Portis has developed a cult-like following of aficionados, and after an article about him in a 1998 issue of Esquire his novels are now again available. It was good news to me. At one time I owned the first edition of my favorite Portis novel, The Dog of the South, published in 1979, and at some point in the 1990s either gave it away or sold it, and came to regret it.

As told in a collection of Portis’ work, Escape Velocity, A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings (2012, The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies), the title of the “Miscellany” comes from a line in The Dog of the South, when narrator Ray Midge says, “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”

Ray Midge is from Arkansas, but The Dog of the South is set in Mexico, and then in Belize, British Honduras. Ray has followed his wife, Norma, who with her lover, Guy Dupree, has taken Ray’s Ford Torino and run off. Ray follows in an old car in such disrepair that at some point he has to replace a broken motor mount with a jury-rigged contraption of coat hangers.

Ray’s descriptive powers are good in the novel's first person narrative, and here’s how he describes himself at one point, when he has a dispute with another man:
     “It was my guess that this queer was having big trouble selling his overpriced rabbits. That was the only way I could account for his manner. The hotel man became jolly and tried to patch things up. But this too annoyed the artist and he got up and flounced out, stopping for a moment under the archway as he thought of something pretty good to call me, which was ‘rat face.’
     “He thought it was pretty good but it was old stuff to me, being compared to a rat. In fact, I look more like a predatory bird than a rat but any person with small sharp features that are bunched in the center of his face can expect to be called a rat about three times a year.”
Ray has a no-detail-too-small style of narration, which would be tiring if he was the only one doing the talking. While traveling through Mexico Ray meets up with Dr. Reo Symes, making his way to Honduras in a school bus called “The Dog of the South.” The bus has broken down, so Symes accepts Midge’s offer of a ride and to share expenses. Reo is a con man, a real talker. When he’s talking he is as full of puff and bluster and non sequiturs as any carnival or snake oil pitchman. It’s mostly a one-sided conversation, as Symes can’t be bothered with Ray’s problems. Ray says:
     “He had no curiosity at all about my business. I told him about Norma and Dupree. He said nothing, but I could sense his contempt. I was not only a schoolboy but a cuckold too. And broke to boot.
     “He nodded and dozed whenever I was doing the talking, His heavy-crested head would droop over and topple him forward and the angle-head flashlight on his belt would poke him in the belly and wake him. Then he would sit up and do it over again.”
During the trip Symes warns Ray to be on the lookout for a “man named Ski,” who drives a car with Texas plates.
     “Let me know if you see him.”
     “Is there some possibility of trouble?”
     “There’s every possibility.”
     “You didn’t say anything about this.”
     “Get Ski out of sorts and he’ll crack your bones. He’ll smack you right in the snout, the foremost part of the body. He’ll knock you white-eyed on the least provocation. He’ll teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget.”
      “You should have said something about this.”
     “He kicked a merchant seaman to death down on the ship channel. He was trying to get a line on the Blackie Steadman mob, just trying to do his job, you see, and the chap didn’t want to help him.”
     “You should have told me about this.”
     “Blackie was hiring these merchant seamen to do his killings for him. He would hire one of these boys to do the job on the night before he shipped out and by the time the body was found the killer would be in some place like Poland. But Ski got wise to their game.”
That’s a pretty good example of Symes' line of chatter. The shaggy dog-story about Ski never really goes anywhere, but is full of enough fascinating details that we, like Ray, are sucked in.

The novel has been criticized in in at least one review I’ve read for “not having much of a story,” but it’s an Odyssey story. Ray keeps driving forward with a goal in mind. Events and people distract him. Eventually things work out, but in the meantime we’re treated to over 250 pages of this funny business, including this story that Reo tells Ray when they are in Belize, staying with Reo’s mother, a missionary.
     “That’s Felix the Cat. Mama loves a picture show. I brought her some cartoons and shorts when I was down here with Sybil, Felix the Cat and Edgar Kennedy and Ted Fiorito with his dance band. Mama loves a picture show better than anybody I know except for Leon Vurro. Listen to this, Speed. Here’s what I had to put up with. I would be in that hot cabin in south Houston . . . and Leon would be off downtown in some cool picture show watching Honky Tonk Women or Women in Prison. A grown man. Can you beat it? I’ve never wasted my time on shows. Don’t you know they’ve got those stories all figured out before you even get to the show? Leon would sit there in the dark like a sap for two or three hours watching those stories and then he would come out looking for women to squeeze. Not Bella but strange women. Oh, yes. I used to do it myself. There is very little folly I have missed out on in my life. I never wasted my time on shows but I was a bigger hog for women than Leon ever was. There was a time when I was out almost every night squeezing women but I stopped that foolishness years ago. A big waste of time and money if you want my opinion, not to mention the toll on your health.”
See what I mean?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

We want short-shorts!

I’ve been anticipating spring, because that's when the girls in shorts and sandals come out. Bless them all! I feel younger when I see them.

We might think that girls exposing so much skin is a relatively new thing, but this Life article was written in 1956. There were some problems with showing skin, though. The article says in one town a woman (shown in the article on the third page) got a ticket for wearing short-shorts in public. The Taliban must've been running the constabulary in that municipality. With the lady's prominent bust and shapely legs perhaps they might have required her to wear a burqa.

Click the pic for more short-shorts!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Downton Shabby: the betrayal of the audience

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the last episode of Downton Abbey for season three and don’t want to know how it ends, stop reading now.

In retrospect, when Sally and I saw Matthew Crawley expressing such joy and bliss at the birth of his son we should have braced ourselves. But we didn't; we had been lulled into a false sense of complacency. Moments later when we saw Matthew grinning and motoring along with only seconds left in the final episode of the season, we looked at each other and we both knew it was going to be bad.

To give Julian Fellowes, the “fellowe” who writes the popular British soap, a little slack, it came out after Matthew is killed by a lorry that actor Dan Stevens (Matthew) had asked out of his contract. He claims he was only going to stay three seasons, anyway.

 Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary (Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery) in happier times.

Sometimes things like that are said when it could be the actor just made salary demands the producers could not, or would not, meet. The show has a large cast, each of them having their own fans. If everyone wanted more money they might just have to end the series abruptly by having the Royal Air Force fly over in a training mission and accidentally drop a bomb on the house. (Are you glad I’m not writing the show?)

Season three was sort of a bumpy ride for us viewers, with the characters going from one improbable situation (Lady Edith being left at the altar) to another (Thomas Barrow coming out as gay). My patience was tested when Lady Sybil died, which seemed a cheap way of wringing emotion out of the audience. When the prison doors flew open for John Bates, based on some hearsay testimony from someone who knew his late wife, I was exasperated by how easy that whole situation was resolved. I thought it could have gone on until the beginning of next season, and created more suspense (but not too much longer, lest the show lose its audience with their impatience to get him home to faithful Anna).

Copyright © The New Yorker 2013. From the February 25, 2013 issue.

Downton Abbey is an epic that will follow the family through a period of time, and things that happen in the show also happen in real life. Women do die in childbirth, some men are homosexuals who make advances on straight men, just as people are killed in car wrecks. I understand that. But as an ardent fan I felt betrayed by some of the plot twists.

I guess I couldn’t expect some events for the family not to be tragic, or scandalous. Or plot elements contrived. I thought it seemed somewhat pat in season one that the man with whom Lady Mary spent her night in bed died (conveniently), or that in season three Matthew would come into a large fortune and be able to save the estate, based on the season two death of his fiancĂ©e (with whom he wasn’t in love).

The main reason I followed the series so avidly was not because of those events, but because I found the actors pleasing, from Maggie Smith as Violet, the dowager countess-granny, to Elizabeth McGovern as the American-born Lady Cora Grantham, to the British actors with whom I was not familiar when the show began. The star-making turn of Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary is a real revelation. Another aspect of the show I like is the costuming. I feel transported into that bygone era of nearly 100 years ago. (There are anachronisms: Matthew’s hair, for instance, would have been slicked down. In the Victorian era the word “pregnant” would have been considered impolite, with the words “expecting” or “expectant” replacing it. But those were minor to me compared to the accuracy of the clothing for the period.) Dockery, especially, who has been described as being contemporary yet simultaneously classic, is an object of fascination for me. She said there was a Twitter account called “Lady Mary’s eyebrows.” I didn’t think it odd at all, when for me those eyebrows have a life of their own on Dockery’s expressive and beautiful face.

Despite my fascination with Michelle Dockery and her eyebrows, my love of Maggie Smith’s snarkiness or the period costuming, I think television serials have a lifespan. I’m not sure what the lifespan of Downton Abbey is, and ratings will tell us if it should stay or go. Personally, I think a show is most effective at two or three seasons, and then I drift away. I start losing interest when I feel the stories are repeating themselves, or actors make contract demands. Or frankly, when a show jumps the shark: the point at which any show crosses a line where it ceases to be relevant, or fun, and begins its slide, quick or slow, into its own demise. Because of the worldwide interest in Downton Abbey perhaps the whole planet will be over Matthew’s death by the beginning of season four, and its loyal fans will be sitting in front of the tube watching to see what joys and tragedies are visited upon the Crawley family. I haven’t decided yet, and my initial reaction to the finale of season three was like Sally’s: “I’m not going to watch this ever again.” But given time to heal and  for my outrage to fade, I will probably be one in the masses of fans who will have by then forgiven the writer and the producers, and will again spend my Sunday evenings at Downton Abbey.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Life of Crime: “Willie the Actor” Sutton

Poor Arnold Schuster. The 24-year-old good citizen recognized wanted bank robber Willie Sutton and turned him in to police. Albert Anastasia, mob boss of the Gambino crime family, took a dislike to Schuster, called him a squealer, and ordered his murder. When the biography of Sutton was excerpted for Life magazine in January, 1953, Schuster’s murder had not been solved.

At one time Sutton, who reportedly stole about $2 million from banks over his lifetime and who spent more than half his lifetime in prison, was famous in a way reserved now for mass murderers. Standards have changed. Nowadays a clever bank robber is lower on the pecking order of notoriety than a killer who goes into a building spraying bullets at random victims.

Sutton was apprehended on this day, February 18, 1952. He was released from prison in 1969, and died in 1980 at age 79.

Copyright © 1953, 2012 Time-Life

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Gun crazy

Robert Kirby is a columnist for my newspaper addiction of choice, The Salt Lake Tribune (loyal subscriber for 40 years!) Kirby is a humorist, an active member of the LDS Church and a former police officer. He sees things differently than those things would suggest. He has a lot of fun with church traditions (including how boring services can be), and he also takes stabs at behavior he perceives as nutty.

In his column of February 13, 2013, he went after a group of gun lovers demonstrating at the Utah State Capitol building. Kirby describes himself as a gun owner and says, “I own guns in a number generally associated with ‘a lot.’” He also says he’s no fan of big government. But he took issue with the appearance of the gun rights demonstrators. A third of them were wearing camouflage, “conspicuously toting weapons of various calibers and rates of fire, and waving flags and signs daring the federal government to do something about it.”

He continued: “Even a dullard like me with lots of first-hand firearms experience could relate. I watched the crowd and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of scary gun owners. Maybe there’s something to this gun control thing.’

“Among the symbols of pro-gun defiance was a flag featuring an assault rifle and words, ‘Come And Get It.’

“Really? If it came to an actual fight over your guns, do you honestly think it would be a fair one? The government could deprive you of your guns by simply flying a bomb through your window some night.”

Which is something I’ve often thought: what chance would gun owners have against the military or militarized police forces of the United States? My guess is that if an armed insurrection were to be at hand there would be a lot of pushback from the government to end it, and they always win. Some of these folks could take to the hills. Survivalists would be good at that. It would be hard to ferret them out of the woods, but look what happened to Christopher Dorner, rogue policeman who killed four, when he hid out in a cabin at Big Bear Lake, California. He brought down an overwhelming force upon himself. Eventually the government has its way. And really, if they found a camp of self-proclaimed “patriots” and militia-men, what would stop them from flying a drone over and delivering a payload right into the campfire?

Then I thought, how much of what Robert Kirby described was real anti-government sentiment and how much was posturing? I see responsible gun owners who don’t have to wave their weapons around to make a point, and I see a bunch of redneck types who like to make some sort of a show about it.

And as I’ve said before, I don’t think the Second Amendment much enters into the minds of people like that.

This guy describes himself as “the world’s strongest redneck,” and he likes to show off how he can fire two semi-autos at the same time. What do you think he’d say if you asked him to quote the Second Amendment? Do you think he cares what the Second Amendment says? I don’t. People of all types like guns for all types of reasons, but if someone tells you he owns a gun because he believes in the Second Amendment I think he is overstating his case, if not telling a flat-out lie.

Fat redneck

Thursday, February 14, 2013

More fun with your .22 rifle

Before the National Rifle Association got taken over by the politics of paranoia, it was an organization for  marksmanship, sports and target shooting and teaching safety with firearms. It put out this undated booklet sometime in the '50s or '60s. It is full of good sense for people who want to use a .22 rifle for something other than defending their household against criminals or phantom government officials who have come to take their guns.