Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Life of Crime: Joe Valachi, made man unmade

Joseph “Joe Cargo” Valachi felt he was going to be killed. He'd been given the kiss of death by boss Vito Genovese himself, in the Don’s jail cell, while he and Valachi were serving time. Valachi killed the man he thought Genovese had sent to kill him. In order to save himself he told his story to the Feds, a dramatic story of the Mafia. He called it “La Cosa Nostra,” as it was known to its hardcore made men. Valachi confessed to contract killings, including the one told of here in this article from the January 13, 1969 issue of New York.

Valachi is believed to have exaggerated his importance in the Mafia, but he gave the world the information no one had ever before heard about the initiation rites, the Code of Silence, and a direct link to killings ordered by his bosses. Valachi knew how the system worked, and had a keen sense of survival when it was his time to be on the wrong end of an assassination.

In '72, a year after Valachi died of a heart attack in prison, a movie about him was released, based on the 1968 book from which this article is excerpted, The Valachi Papers by Peter Maas. Valachi’s name will probably live on while other low level Mafia men are forgotten, because he was played by Charles Bronson in a movie.

Copyright © 1969, 2013 New York Magazine

Monday, January 28, 2013

The obscene gesture

A couple of days ago I watched a “reality” show on television. At one point one of the stars gave another of the stars the finger. You know. The bird; he flipped the bird. No matter what it’s called, it is that so-called obscene gesture, and so on the screen the bird was blurred. It isn’t the first time I’ve seen that on television.

This is something that has bothered me for years. Why is the act of pointing your middle finger in the air obscene? What is obscene about a middle finger? If it is truly obscene, then why aren’t we wearing something on our hands to hide our middle fingers?

If the person on television had dropped his pants and pointed has penis at the other person I would have said, “That’s obscene!” and would have been the first to say that should be blurred beyond recognition. But a finger?

Yes, I know giving someone the finger means you are telling them to stick it up their ass, which is impolite, even fightin’ words, but in today’s world is it obscene? During the same program there was a featured person who, in every sentence, had something bleeped out. He was saying “fucking,” or “bullshit” or some other obscenity. I had my closed captioning turned on. Those obscenities were rendered on CC as “bleep,” or “bleeping,” even though I could clearly lip read what was being said. However, when the same person said someone was a “son of a bitch” (or, as he pronounced it, “sumbitch”) it was not only left in the soundtrack, but spelled out in CC.

George Carlin said there were seven words you can’t say on television. Cybill Shepherd once pointed out on a talk show that the words penis and vagina can be said on television, but cock (or dick) and pussy (or its many other names) cannot be said. But when Cybill said those words they were bleeped out, and yet I could see what she was saying. There’s no consistency to any of this.

In 1974 Mad showed this cover of the finger. It was held off many newsstands and got them a lot of criticism. The creators of Mad thought they were being satiric. Others thought they were being obscene. The outrage over the cover was ridiculous; idiocy was what was really obscene about the whole thing.

It is a picture of a hand with a finger. The inferences drawn from it are in the eye of the beholder, and any bleeping bleeper who doesn't bleeping believe it needs to bleeping grow up.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Life of Crime: The Brink’s job

Much has been written about the 1950 Brink’s heist which netted a band of robbers over $1,100,000. It was the biggest haul in an armed robbery up to that time, and kept that record for many years.

I found this 1961 book by one of the robbers interesting. There are other books, including The Big Stick-Up At Brink’s by Noel Behn, which was made into a 1978 movie, The Brink’s Job, with Peter Falk and Peter Boyle.

This article from Life in 1956 tells how the robbers were finally arrested just days before the statute of limitations would have run out. The FBI and Boston cops were no dummies; they knew who had done the job, but it took several years to bring them to justice.

The robbers wore masks, but the masks aren't usually identified. In The Men Who Robbed Brink’s the story is told of Tony Pino buying novelty masks in Chicago for the job. They were of Captain Marvel Jr and Captain Marvel, popular comic book characters of the day. I found the picture of the masks on an FBI website. They are not the actual masks from the robbery, but are the same types of masks the robbers wore.

Friday, January 25, 2013

America’s greatest President by Britain’s greatest actor

To date, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is the best movie made about America’s sixteenth president, his times and political challenge. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but it is better than about anything else I’ve seen on the subject.

So you won't be fooled, this is the real Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

Like others of Spielberg’s successful historical films, the setting is right, and there is a strong feeling of the era. In Lincoln I felt transported to 1865; to a world of bad hair, lumpy clothing, muddy streets, women in bonnets and hoop skirts. There was one risk Spielberg and his star, Daniel Day-Lewis, faced. No one alive today has  heard Lincoln speak. The film makers went by a contemporary description of Lincoln’s speaking voice. It has upset some viewers; I think they expect Lincoln to have a voice more suited to his historical stature, perhaps deeper. Day-Lewis said Lincoln’s voice would have been more stentorian, and carried for long distances in those days before sound amplification. He gave Honest Abe the cornpone accent in a slightly higher register than his own voice. I thought the accent sounded right, even if in this case I don't know exactly what “right” is. What it did was make me think of Lincoln the lawyer, exhorting a jury in a voice and tone they would find very down home for them.

Spielberg took a narrower view of Lincoln's presidency than is usually done, focusing in on a short period of time, and Lincoln’s fight for the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery. It was a turning point in American history. For all of the teary eyes and chest-swelling the Declaration of Independence gives patriotic Americans, it’s worth remembering that “all men are created equal” meant white European men, not Africans (or the indigenous native American population, either).

Playwright Tony Kushner, who also wrote Angels in America, has given us a vibrant and living account of that period at the end of the war as the politicking and rhetoric in Congress reach high levels. Actors like David Straitharn (Secretary of State Seward) and Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln) have wonderful verisimilitude as their characters; Tommy Lee Jones, who is an important piece of the whole ensemble as Thaddeus Stevens, is played by Jones as he plays all his parts. I think they must’ve been thinking of Jones when they cast the part: “We have an irascible character…let’s get Tommy Lee Jones!” He has to be at the top of the casting list when irascibility is called for. He showed more of it at the Golden Globe Awards show. The camera caught him scowling during comedy bits when everyone else was laughing.

I was glad the assassination was, if not glossed over, at least not the focus of the story. It’s been done (you’ll excuse the expression) to death, and in this movie probably could have been avoided altogether. The real crux of the story was the Thirteenth Amendment, and Lincoln’s capture of the perfect moment in time to effect change to the stain that had been on America since the founding of the country.

A wonderful caricature of Day-Lewis in character by Ricardo Martinez.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Life of Crime: Agatha Christie

Life tells the Agatha Christie story in this 1956 article on the “Queen of Crime.” Looking back 36 years since her death January 12, 1976 at age 85, we see she is still a bestselling author decades after her last book was written. According to Wikipedia four billion of her books have been sold. A claim is made that she has been translated into more languages than any other author, and her books sell better than anything but the Bible and Shakespeare. Not bad for a little lady described as shy and “portly” in the article. (And if she saw herself described as portly it may be a good reason she was shy about interviews.)

I am  taken by the image given in Life of Christie plotting her books while in the bath eating apples, lining up apple cores along the edge of the tub. Whatever works for a writer!

The article’s header is a beautiful drawing by Ronald Searle.

Copyright © 1956, 2013 Time-Life

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Who cares about the Second Amendment? The real reason we love our guns!

To listen to the NRA leaders who find their way onto our news programs every day you’d think that millions of NRA members, and even other gun owners who don’t belong to that organization, sit around all day thinking about the U.S. Constitution and their right to own guns. Bull-oney. The only reason anyone cares about the Second Amendment is because it allows them to buy, own and carry really cool weapons.

Pandering by Postino…a beautiful bubble-butt babe and an awesome gun. What could be sweeter than a sweetie stroking her Bushmaster?

Guns are fun, guns are scary, guns are sexy. That broadens their appeal. Guns are also phallic, and if there is anything a guy loves more than his dick I’d like to know about it. Guns also make loud noises and they put holes in things like targets and people. Got a buddy you need to impress? Haul out your new gun and watch his eyes gleam with envy and gun-lust. Got someone you need to scare shitless? Do the same thing to an enemy.

So to the NRA, quit talking like we give a damn about what someone said about guns over 200 years ago. Just go on camera and say, “We don’t want anyone to take away our guns because we love them. We fondle them, we clean them and oil them. We sleep with them. We love the sensual feel of cold steel, we love it when a gun gets feisty and bucks in our hand when we’re shooting it.” My message to the NRA: The Second Amendment is all well and good and sounds important, but just tell it like it really is.

 Patriotism is a bikini-clad hottie, a flag, a huge weapon; it's an image that brings tears to an American’s eyes.

A common reason given for gun ownership is self defense. A person wants a gun because he lives in a bad neighborhood. There are those who live in a good neighborhood and want guns to protect themselves from gun owners who live in bad neighborhoods. As far as I can tell, there are different types of gun owners who have reasons for loving their guns that go far beyond their “rights” or practical reasons. Besides those for whom a gun is a second penis, there are people who collect firearms like others collect stamps.

It's mostly not mentioned, but there are people out there, and you know who you are, who want to be heroes. They want to be the guy in the situation where someone is shooting innocent people, and they can whip out their gun and put the bad guy down. They dream of their heroic actions bringing them fame and glory.

My nipples would stand up, too, waiting for someone to come through the door I can put a round in!

There are also people, and you also know who you are, who want to catch someone breaking into their house and shoot them. They want to find out what it feels like to shoot someone and not only get away with it, but praised. Like 22-year-old Joseph Kelley, whose picture was taken by a shopper at a Weber County (Utah) J.C. Penney store, carrying an AR-15 and a concealed Glock 19C. He said he did it to prove that guns can be carried by honest citizens, and then he claimed he was protecting folks from “criminals, cartels, drug lords and other evil men.”

 The hell with the cops! We need a protector like Joe “Machine Gun” Kelley!

Joe’s the kind of guy we need leading the NRA to replace the dweebish Wayne LaPierre. Joe represents the kind of person the NRA appeals to, and I’m not ashamed to admit I share this state with such a brave person. I feel glad he is willing to risk ridicule and the fearful looks on the faces of bystanders to protect me and my fellow Utahns from evil men. Not only that, the gun makes him look sexy, wouldn’t you say? I think any of the above hot chicks with weapons would be all over that gun-totin’ dude!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Eyeball measuring the Sundance Kid

Today is first day of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It is a special time for those of us who live down the road from Park City. We are visited by Hollywood royalty and Hollywood royalty wannabes, everyone trying to get attention for their project. The festival goes on for 10 days, and so there are chances to do a little celebrity-spotting.

That’s not for me. I stay away from Park City this time of year. It’s crazy in that town. There is one main street, and that street is bumper-to-bumper with not only the royalty, but also the papparazi and the rubberneckers. But not many locals, and yes, there are people who live there year-round. They’ve learned to find alternate routes to stay out of the traffic jams.

The festival is called “Sundance” because Robert Redford – who has done more for our local economy than almost anyone else by bringing attention to both our ski and local movie production industries – played the Sundance Kid in a movie over 40 years ago. He owns his own ski resort a few miles south of us and he lives there part of the year, also.

This article, from New York Magazine, was published in 1975 when Redford was at the pinnacle of his stardom. The article does not describe his movies, his directing accomplishments, nor his techniques for creating a character. It’s about how tall he is. Or how tall the author guesses he is.

Copyright © 1975 New York Magazine

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In the midst of the flu zone

I visited my doctor yesterday for my annual check-up. The doctor wore a mask the entire time we spoke.  Before Dr. P. arrived I was led into the examining room by her young nurse. I noticed the nurse twice sneezed into the crook of her arm. From the look of her it was obvious she was under the weather.

During my time in the waiting area a woman was called into the doctor’s office. She was obviously very ill with what I think was flu. Other people were sitting in their chairs with their heads hung low. I assumed they felt pretty sick. As we know from the nightly news this is the winter of the flu. It’s been wreaking havoc around the country for a few weeks now.

After I had my chat with the doctor and she handed me a prescription I volunteered that I noticed a lot of sick people, and I was glad I had gotten my flu shot in December. Dr. P. said, “Good luck with that. I hope it’ll work, but we’ve had a bad match with the vaccine this year.” I suddenly envisioned millions of microscopic viruses flying about our heads, a swarm of them settling into the mucus membranes of my nose, looking to do their deadly work on me. I also saw my flu vaccine as being overrun by those viruses, not challenged at all in gaining entry to my system.

I consider myself a healthy person, and since I retired I’ve played the numbers game with getting a flu shot each fall. I got vaccinated every year when I worked at the school district because there were kids sneezing and coughing all over me. After retirement I let down my guard. This year I decided to get a shot. My wife and I were vaccinated, and I felt immune. So much for immune; lately I’ve been hearing that the strain of flu causing all the misery was not covered in the vaccine, so those of us who got the shot are on our own. I’ve also heard if I do get the flu it won’t be as bad, but that is cold comfort to me. I do not want any kind of flu, even a weakened strain.

I’m no fool. I went straight into the clinic’s restroom and scrubbed my hands, a process I repeated when I got home. It’s been less than 24 hours, and it takes a couple of days to come down with flu once exposed. I feel vulnerable. Even if I don’t get the flu, within a couple of days I need to do some shopping for groceries. Going out in public during an epidemic is chancy enough, but I guarantee stepping into a clinic or doctor’s office during that same period will ensure maximum exposure to whatever is in the air at the moment. My recommendation, if your planned visit to your doctor is for some sort of annual or routine visit, postpone it if you can. I believe your doctor will understand, and may even thank you for rescheduling. I wish I’d thought of it before stepping into the flu zone yesterday morning.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Philip Wylie’s “An Epistle to the Thessalonians”

Philip Wylie (1902-1971) was a writer of novels, short stories and screenplays. He wrote the famous science fiction novels (with co-author Edwin Balmer), When Worlds Collide and its sequel, After Worlds Collide. As a youngster I read them both, and they gave me much food for thought about the possibility that one day we could wake up to find the planet under our feet is gone, and us along with it.

He wrote The Murderer Invisible, parts of which he incorporated into his screenplay of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, and he also wrote Gladiator, about a superhuman, Hugo Danner, who does many of the things that Superman later did. While it has been alternately denied and acknowledged that Gladiator was an inspiration for Superman, Wylie believed it.

This short story, “An Epistle to the Thessalonians,” which appeared in the Damon Knight-edited science fiction digest, Worlds Beyond,  is given a copyright date of 1934 and called a reprint, although Wylie’s bibliography lists it as first appearing in this issue, Worlds Beyond Number One, in 1950.

“Epistle” is satire. A giant “one thousand miles tall” appears, standing in the ocean. Americans go to war with it. Scientists study it. They count how many times an hour the giant blinks, or how many miles his arm moves, or what his shoes are made of, but they cannot tell why he has appeared. The giant, by moving just his foot, causes major damage to the New York/New Jersey area. The story is also a shaggy dog story. It builds and builds until its ending, which is —

— well, read it for yourself.

Monday, January 14, 2013

One hullabaloo of a shindig!

Back in the days of three television networks, music programs featuring pop acts were all over the place. The networks had Shindig, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, and there were many syndicated programs like The Lloyd Thaxton Show popping up on local stations all over the U.S.

My brother and I, and the crowd we hung out with, especially liked Shindig and Hullabaloo when they featured groups like the Byrds, the Stones, or any and all longhaired blues rockers or British invaders. Ed Sullivan’s often cornball variety show, even Saturday night's Hollywood Palace, were on our must-see list when our favorite groups were scheduled to appear.

If you see a black screen above it’s because YouTube removed the video, probably for some complaint about copyright. Sorry! But it isn’t my fault.

We didn't think of it at the time, but the shows were produced by people of our parents’ generation, and to them the music was a commodity, not a lifestyle as it was for us. We were just grateful to see it.

Likewise, Mad magazine, which was at the height of its popularity, was written and drawn by men born the same time as our dads and moms. They saw through the fads. It was their job to dissect and find the silliness in all of it, then give it back to us. When I spoke of my sarcastic attitude in my last posting, I didn't mention that the guys who produced Mad had something to do with my attitude, tainting my worldview with their skewed reflections of authority, society and popular culture. All worldly cynicism aside, my brother and I were beside ourselves with joy when our favorite cartoonist, Jack Davis, did the artwork for this Mad slam at our favorite shows. We didn't even mind Mad blaspheming the rock gods. We loved it anyway.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

“No one likes a smart ass.”

Last Friday I woke up at my usual early morning hour when I do my thinking and a memory from over 40 years ago jumped into the forefront of my waking consciousness. In 1972 my brother, some friends and I went to the University of Utah for a showing of some award-winning experimental short films. I don’t remember much about the program except one truly awful film, a home movie of some young children playing on the floor of a bedroom. There were visual effects done to the film, warping and distorting the image. It was a loop which repeated over and over again. It went on for a long time. I think 20 minutes, but it may have just seemed that long. Accompanying the film was a soundtrack that I remember sounded like WAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH, a low, slow tone that might have come from an early synthesizer. When the film was over there was a silence of several seconds, broken by me exclaiming out loud. “THANK GOD IT’S OVER.” There was a small amount of tittering, and then the audience gave some light applause, not for my remark, but because it was polite to applaud each film.

Here is what I thought about in those small hours of morning a few days ago. What if the person who made that film had been in the audience? I went cold with the thought. Perhaps he’d brought his family to witness his triumph, since his film was an award winner (what he won for I’m not sure), and then, at the end of the film as he was set to bask in the adulation of the crowd some bass voice, my voice, spoke up from the back: “THANK GOD IT’S OVER.”

I made a note in my insomnia notebook: “short films, 1972, U of U, thank god it’s over, what if filmmaker heard me.” Usually I can write my note and then roll over and go back to sleep, but that time no sleep came. I was upset with myself over a distant memory of an event I hadn’t even remembered until waking up with it on my mind. Where had that memory been all those years? My brain jumped to the commercial on television for a shingles vaccine. Shingles, the ad says, comes from chicken pox. If you had chicken pox as a child decades later the virus can come out of hiding and attack your body in the form of a painful rash. That was the story of this memory; it had suddenly attacked me without warning, giving me not physical pain, but psychic pain.

Nowadays remarks like I made would be called “snarky,” which is a catchy word for sarcasm. I had grown up using sarcasm; it was a defense mechanism. I couldn’t throw a punch, but I could sting with a remark. I made cutting remarks like that in school, in the Army, and on my job. If they handed out plaques for putting someone down I’d have a room full of them. Such comments usually got me in trouble. In that early morning rumination I suddenly felt bad, but comforted myself slightly by reminding myself I have gotten less acerbic as I’ve aged. I haven’t resorted to such tactics for a long time. Well, not in person, anyway. Writing about politics brings it out in me, but late night TV hosts and people like Jon Stewart make a living with snarky remarks. It’s expected. But it doesn’t mean it’s always fit and proper, especially in everyday situations.

I remembered what my dad used to say to me when I was in one of my sarcastic moods. “No one likes a smart ass,” he’d say. It’s true, because in that moment, sitting up in bed writing, I didn’t like a smart ass either, and that smart ass was me.

Friday, January 11, 2013

How William Boyd turned Hopalong Cassidy into the first ’50s television craze

Hopalong Cassidy was already an established brand by the early 1950s, having appeared in books by Clarence Mulford. They were optioned for motion pictures starring Bill Boyd as Hoppy, beginning in 1936. The Hoppy of the movies was very different from the illiterate, tobacco-chewing cowhand described by Mulford, so the author took his money and in disgust at what had been done to his character washed his hands of the whole franchise.

By the end of the forties Boyd had mortgaged everything he owned to buy the rights to Hopalong Cassidy, which included 66 movies, plus the television rights, and then he created an empire. This 1950 Life article describes what he did and how he did it. I wouldn't doubt that Walt Disney, who was already a master of publicity and licensing, took careful note of Boyd’s success and duplicated it a few years later with Davy Crockett.

Boyd died in 1972, and by then the real success of Hopalong Cassidy was well behind him, but nowadays those licensed products that when new cost kids 49¢ or a buck are now high-priced collectibles.