Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tyger, tyger...

Sally and I were amazed when we watched Life of Pi in its HBO debut last night. In the future when I think of the magic of movies I’ll think of this incredible mix of story, breathtaking location photography, realism, fantasy and CGI.

At the core of the story, as you’ve probably heard even if you haven’t seen the movie, is the relationship between a young man and a Bengal tiger in a most unusual setting: a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean.

I am reminded of a famous story of a tiger, “In a Dim Room,” by Lord Dunsany. I've scanned it from its appearance in the Scholastic magazine, Thrills & Chills. The illustrations are by Earl Norem.

The ending of the story is a joke, but is also a good example of how humans without a powerful weapon, and without the benefits of being separated by bars in a zoo, aren’t any more powerful than the tiger’s weakest prey.

Copyright ©1994 by Scholastic, Inc.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jack Davis, Madman

The word came out earlier this week that Jack Davis, world famous cartoonist, had died. Thank god it was a false alarm, and word was quickly sent out that he was still amongst the living. It isn’t that Davis isn’t of an age where the inevitable could happen (he’s in his eighties), but none of us fans want to see him go.

Even if you haven’t heard his name you’ve seen his work on in Mad magazine, magazine covers, record album jackets, advertisements, even animation. He has an instantly recognizable style, and has been highly sought out for various assignments needing the hand of a master cartoonist.

As with most artists, Davis’ career had humble beginnings. In the early fifties he was part of the EC Comics stable of full-time artists. He started out kind of crude, but got better month by month. The first time I saw Davis’ work was in The MAD Reader, a compilation from the early Mad comic book stories. I was nine. I stood at a paperback spinner rack in 1956 looking at the book, knowing instantly that I loved it. The work that attracted me to Davis’ style was “The Lone Stranger,” which I’ve scanned out of The MAD Reader to present to you. It first appeared in Mad #3 in 1953.

I still have my first printing of the paperback, but the binding wouldn’t make it through the scanning process, so I scanned it from the 2002 reprint of that classic book.

Copyright ©1953, 2013 E.C. Publications, Inc.

Of the original Madmen, only Davis is left. The biography page above appeared in The MAD Reader.

Friday, August 16, 2013

An evening with Alfred Hatchplot Hitchcock

Watching a DVD of North by Northwest last night reminded me once again how good Alfred Hitchcock could be. North by Northwest had everything going for it: suspenseful, witty script by Ernest Lehman, terrific performances by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, and also excellent performances by the supporting characters played by Jessie Royce Landis, James Mason, and Martin Landau.

The movie showed that people talking about sex can be more interesting than showing the act. It also proved that copious doses of profanity are totally unncecessary to telling a good story.

The urbane and sophisticated Mr. Vandamm (James Mason) up against the snappy-talking advertising man, Roger Thornhill, whom Vandamm believes is the spy, George Kaplan. The sinister Leonard (Martin Landau) is a blue-eyed menace.

Oops! Caught with a corpse! Thornhill pulls a knife out of the back of Lester Townsend at the United Nations, in front of dozens of witnesses. A typical Hitchcock “wrong man” scene. Hitchcock’s paranoid stories about men being accused of things they didn’t do became a trademark.

Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and Grant in a seduction scene that is sexier than most sex scenes in movies. The sexual electricity is crackling all over the actors as they play out their lines. Who could resist Eva Marie Saint at such a time? Not I. Not Roger Thornhill, either.

“I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me,” says Thornhill to the Professor (Leo G. Carroll). Thornhill has been apprised of the plot, and his place in it. Using a national monument like Mt. Rushmore in which to play out the final scenes creates a lot of visual interest for the viewer.

Skulking in Vandamm’s opulent house adjacent to the monument. Are there really houses built on top of Mt. Rushmore? There are in Hitchcock’s version of reality.

Even while hanging off the monument Eve Kendall manages to keep a hold on her purse.

The precariousness of the scene on Mt. Rushmore gives way to the final romantic scene, where Thornhill pulls the new Mrs. Thornhill into the train’s sleeping compartment with him.

The movie ends with the infamous scene of the train going into the tunnel. Ho-ho. A bit of sexual symbolism that may have escaped some, like me. I saw this movie when I was 12-years-old, with my dad. Dad liked it so much we saw it again a few weeks later. All of the sexy stuff went right over my head, but he sure enjoyed it.

Mad had fun with Alfred Hitchcock’s style, including the director’s inclusion of his own image somewhere in the movie. This story is from Mad #53, March 1960.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How, due to youth and folly I nearly died, and yet with the aid of others I did not...

I posted this originally in 2009. With some minor editing I am presenting it again.

On a Sunday morning in June, 1966, I read a startling news article. High school graduation had been the previous Friday night, and one of my former classmates, Roger K., had died after graduating. Poor Roger. He was a pathetic character. I had graduated with my class in 1965, but Roger, who was slow, had to go another year to earn enough credits. Roger had one friend, Mike. Roger, Mike and Mike's mom celebrated the graduation. Mike's mom bought them both bottles of vodka and then the three of them got drunk.

Sometime during the night, Roger, who had never had a drink of liquor in his life before his graduation celebration, choked on his own vomit and died.

A year later I was with the U.S. Army near Nuremberg, Germany. I felt particularly stressed; I was a draftee who didn’t want to be there, was having trouble finding acceptance from the guys I was with. It was a classic case of feeling that I didn't fit in.

There were a few other guys who felt the same way and so we misfits fit in with each other. It was a Friday night and we were at the PX having a couple of beers. We had a locker inspection the next morning, which meant everything had to be clean and neat, and all cleaned field gear was to be placed in precise order on our bunks. I’d been working on it before meeting the guys for a beer. I assumed I was prepared for the inspection.

One of the guys, Patrick, had been to the dispensary that day and gotten a prescription. Patrick took the Rx bottle, divided the pills into five stacks, one stack for each of us, and we took them, washing them down with beer. It was one of the dumbest things I've ever done. I still don’t know what the pills were, or what they were going to do to me, especially with alcohol in my system.

We went back to the barracks about 9:00 p.m., and Patrick pulled out a bottle of vodka. Alcohol was strictly forbidden in the barracks, so Patrick said, “Help me finish this so I can get rid of the bottle before the inspection.”

I took some swigs out of the bottle and that's the last I can remember until I was being screamed at and punched by fists. I was urinating, but I was standing at a locker in my room, using it as a urinal. Two of my roommates were doing the screaming and hitting. It was 5:00 in the morning, and time to get up, but I was obviously still intoxicated. I realized later that the position of the lockers from my bunk was the same as my bathroom toilet from my bed at home, so I was likely dreaming.

I found a towel and helped clean up, and then the same soldier who’d screamed at me helped me get my bunk prepared for the inspection by laying out my field gear. I just stood there, stupidly watching him. When it came time for the inspection I was weaving. My eyes were blurry; I hadn’t brushed my teeth and there was a rotten odor of pizza and alcohol that I could taste. My commanding officer stood in front of me and watched me sway slightly back and forth. “Are you drunk? First Sergeant, put this man on report. I believe he's drunk.”

The First Sergeant answered with a snappy, “Sir!” and wrote my name on his clipboard. He also looked at my field gear. He got in my face. “You call this clean?” he hollered. “I call it clean,” I answered. I never would have said that had I not been drunk.

After the inspection we were excused and I sat on my bunk feeling awful. I’d just screwed up and was facing company punishment, not to mention having the mother of all hangovers. It was then my roommates told me of my night. I’d staggered in about 10:00, fallen backwards, fully clothed, on my bunk. I was unconscious, but suddenly threw up all over myself, and not only that, I started to choke on my vomit. Corporal Schrage, the same man whose locker I’d peed on, who had also helped me get my field gear ready, told me the story.

“We grabbed you and threw you in the shower.”

“With my clothes on?”

“Yeah, when you stopped puking we pulled your clothes off and threw them in your laundry bag. Luckily you got most of the puke on you and not your bunk.”

Corporal Schrage and my other roommates had kept me from becoming a casualty like Roger. I thanked them. I didn’t get that drunk again the rest of my time in Germany. The First Sergeant never did discipline me for showing up hung over at the inspection, probably because he never had a morning he wasn’t hung over. Corporal Schrage was transferred to the States shortly after.

That was 46 years ago. I’ve thought occasionally about that incident. Before my assignment to Germany my mother and father were worried I’d be sent to Vietnam and killed. How would that have been to get notified that their 20-year-old son had died, not from enemy bullets, but from choking on his own vomit?

I had a near-death experience and through the quick actions of others my life was spared. I wish poor slow-witted Roger had also had someone looking out for him.

Monday, August 05, 2013

I don't remember what I didn't see

I posted this originally in June, 2009. I'm re-posting it with some minor edits.

The famous drug reference quote by the Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner is, "If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren't really there." Looking at a 1965 book, Interior Decoration A-Z by Betty Pepis made me realize I don't remember some things about the sixties, but it has nothing to do with drugs. In that era I didn't pay any attention to my surroundings. I walked into a house and didn't notice anything but people. I never looked at furniture or floor coverings or wall decorations or...say, isn't that just like a guy?

So I looked at this book with some curiosity, and some memories came back but they are almost false memories; I recognize some of these things because you can still find them in thrift stores and antique shops. The sixties are now part of a bygone era, gone long enough that what came out of it is cool again. In that respect I appreciate what I didn't see at the time.

What I do recall about furniture in my parents' house is that we were shabby chic long before shabby chic was hip. A couch developed a deep rip in a cushion and the stuffing came out, so Mom had us move it into the basement TV room. That was our version of recycling. Raised during the Depression when people made do, Mom seldom threw anything away. She lived with an avocado green sofa from the early sixties until 2004 when Mom went into the nursing home, and the couch was donated to a thrift store.

Mom and Dad bought a 1950 RCA television when it was new, and it was our only set until 1962 when Dad got a deal on an RCA color TV. It lasted until Mom sold the house in '72. I don't see TVs in any of these pictures, but I see an interesting stereo/radio built into a coffee table.

I also like the built-in bookshelves. I don't think people have those anymore. What would they do with them? Does anyone have books anymore? Kindle, anyone?

Something my wife does now is buy sixties clothes in consignment stores. Personally, most of what she tells me is from the sixties I don't recognize. So I just nod and say, "hey, very cool!" I remember her in the sixties. She was a really cute girl no matter what she wore; still is.

Just as clothes in the late sixties were very colorful, so are the color schemes of these room designs. I love how vibrant they are.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sally, me, and the night The Mary Tyler Moore Show said goodbye

I saw this cartoon in the book, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker. It reflects a time and place and show I remember very well.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is something I recall with fondness, because Sally and I watched it every week; we liked the characters, the writing was top-notch, the acting was wonderful. And most important, it was funny.

I had a crush on Mary Tyler Moore from her days with the Dick Van Dyke Show. I thought she was totally hot, but wasn’t prepared for seeing exactly how hot she really was when I saw her in person during the filming of an episode of that show in 1962. All of the cast members came out between scenes to entertain the audience. When it was Mary’s turn she used it to introduce her mother, father and sister, who were sitting a couple of rows from us. They all stood up and we clapped politely. I had that in mind a few years later when I read that Mary’s sister had committed suicide.

It was only natural that a few years later I caught her self-titled sitcom from its first episode and continued to follow it during its seven-year run. My crush on Mary remained throughout the life of that series.

The night the show had its last episode was March 19, 1977, the night after my son was born. David was born premature; both he and Sally were close to dying. Sally was very sick with toxemia. She was drifting in and out of consciousness for a couple of days after giving birth. But I sat in her hospital room with her and we both watched that final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. My own recollection jibes with the Wikipedia entry on “The Last Show (The Mary Tyler Moore Show).” I don’t know how much of that episode Sally remembers, but she does remember watching it with me, even in her state of drifting consciousness.

Some things are cultural icons for Americans, and the most popular sitcoms stand as icons. Surely The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which broke ground by showing an independent, beautiful woman in the workplace, is among the top comedies ever shown on American TV, and was part of an era when network television was what everyone watched. If true (and it is, at least in my estimation), then with The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore starred in two of the most influential, popular, and important situation comedies ever.

So, if your mind works like mine, going by when the show aired, the date on the New Yorker cartoon would be March 20, 1977.