Monday, February 28, 2011

Battle of the Bands Winner

Some would argue that the Searchers invented folk-rock, or at least the jangly guitar sound so closely associated with the style, especially as employed by the Byrds. Certainly this song hit before "Mr. Tambourine Man" which lends credence to the claim. Anyway, it was good enough for them to move on to Round Three in the Battle of the bands on my radio show:

Oscar Post-Mortem

Well, I pretty much struck out on what I hoped to see from the Oscars last night, though I can't say I'm surprised. I found the telecast pretty dull, though I didn't mind co-host James Franco as much as other commentators I've read today; at least I preferred his laid back approach to the somewhat manic Anne Hathaway. In the end, the best part to me was that Lena Horne got a little extra attention at the end of the Memorial montage, which was more than warranted as far as I'm concerned. And kudos to the guys from Inception who won for Cinematography and Sound Editing for crediting their union crews for their role in those wins. Even more reason for me to think that was the real movie of the year.

Three Pictures: The Bellagio

In the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas they have a really nice Conservatory, where they change the arrangements a couple times a year (at least it's always different when I go there). The latest set-up celebrates the Year of the Rabbit, and has an overall eastern theme, as is evident in the figure at the entrance seen above.

These guys looked like giant chia pets, but they may just be carved from some kind of vegetative bricks. Below you can see the giant rabbit that marks the character of the Chinese New Year.

Battle of the Bands Update

The Beatles

We finally wrapped up Round Two of the Battle of the Bands on Dr. John's Record Shelf last night. We're trying to determine the greatest British rock band of the period 1960 to 1974. No surprise that the Beatles (seeded no. 1 in the Pop Bracket) skunked the Spencer Davis Group (9) by a 9-0 score, while the Searchers (5) made it a Liverpool sweep by upsetting Herman's Hermits (4) by a 7-2 margin.

The Searchers

Songs played included "Day Tripper" by the Beatles, "Keep on Runnin'" by the Spencer Davis Group, "Needles and Pins" by the Searchers, and "Dandy" by Herman's Hermits. I'll post the full list of Round Three matchups with songs in a couple of days in this space, so keep your eyes peeled!

A Monday Quote

Here's a line from the American activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) which I believe makes a lot of sense:

"History has a long-range perspective.
It ultimately passes stern judgment on
tyrants and vindicates those who fought,
suffered, were imprisoned, and died for
human freedom, against political
oppression and economic slavery."

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Movie Music

Watching the Oscars a little while ago they did a kind of man-in-the-street bit asking people what they considered to be the quintessential movie song. This was the first thing that popped into my head, and as they went through the bit it turned out I wasn't alone. "As Time Goes By" by Dooley Wilson, from Casablanca, was also President Obama's pick. Unfortunately, I can't embed the actual film footage, but this recording is more than adequate to convey how great this song is, and if you've seen the movie, you know how it completely captures the essence of its romantic theme:

Soup Diary 110227

While down in Las Vegas I had the opportunity to sample several varieties of soup, three at the same place (a soup and salad bar called Sweet Tomatoes). The first of these was a potato, tomato and spinach concoction that was fairly satisfying in a hearty, rib-sticking sort of way, but not exactly what I'd call tasty. There was absolutely nothing noteworthy about the flavor, which was dominated (surprisingly to me given the mix) by the potatoes. As a hot appetizer on a cold day it would've been fine; as the centerpiece of a meal it was just too bland. I'm not sure why I expected more than that, but I did. I'd say that the odds of me ever ordering this again, especially if it was one of several options, are just about nil.

Oscar Comments

I don't know who or what films will do well in the Academy Awards this evening, but I thought I'd throw out a few thoughts on what I'd like to see happen. So this is actually more along the lines of a wish list than any serious attempt at handicapping.

Best Supporting Actor: I have no real favorites in this category. I liked Geoffrey Rush a lot in The King's Speech, and Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are Alright) is almost always good, so I wouldn't mind seeing either of them win. Christian Bale was great in The Fighter, is a really splashy role. I didn't see Winter's Bone (John Hawkes) or The Town (Jeremy Renner).

Best Supporting Actress: I'm pulling for Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit. Every few years a kid wins one of these awards, and it usually feels like a stunt, but I really do think she gave a great performance, and a more memorable one than the other candidates (though I did not see Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom-- in fact, I don't think I even heard of that film).

Best Actor: I've liked James Franco ever since he played DeSario in Freaks and Geeks (one of the all-time great TV shows), so I'm pulling for him even though I have no intention of ever seeing 127 Hours (afraid it will trigger my claustrophobia). Of the performances I did see, I think I'd pick Jesse Eisenberg's in The Social Network as the most impressive, though if Jeff Bridges (True Grit) made it two in a row, I wouldn't consider that undeserved. Of course, every one is picking Colin Firth, so it's probably a moot point.

Best Actress: I've only seen two of the performances in this category, Natalie Portman's (Black Swan) and Annette Bening's (The Kids Are Alright). I've liked both much more in other movies, but I'm kind of pulling for Bening because I have a feeling that Portman will own this award for the next fifteen or twenty years (much like Meryl Streep did for a long stretch in the eighties and nineties).

Best Director: To me David Fincher has been the most interesting director working in American movies for the past several years, and The Social Network stands with his other great movies (Zodiac, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) as part of a fantastic winning streak. I'd like to see him rewarded by the Academy, and having seen all five of the films represented in this category, I think he truly is a cut above the others, especially in taking a very verbally-oriented story and translating it into a compelling visual experience.

Best Film: Based on what I wrote above, I can definitely see The Social Network as a winner in this category as well, but in fact I think I'd like to see the Oscar go to Inception, which I believe to be the most audacious effort among the nominees. It was a true movie-movie experience, combining action and effects with ideas that were at times convoluted but never less than engaging (not the least was its implicit link of movies and dreams). I strongly doubt that Inception can win, but I have a feeling that as the years go by it will be recognized as the most starkly original of this year's class, and hold up really well in retrospect. There are several other nominees that would be reasonable selections, and that I really liked a lot (True Grit, The King's Speech, The Social Network), but I think Inception is the one most likely to stick with me over time.

Sunday Funnies

Given that today is Oscar Day, with the Academy Awards being given out later tonight, I thought I would post some examples of a strip with a Hollywood connection. Rudy, by William Overgard, followed the day-to-day adventures of an unemployed talking ape.

Once a star, Rudy now was scraping by to make a living in show business, and reduced to taking any kind of job his agent could get him. His observations on life in Los Angeles in the early eighties (when the strip originally ran) was a nice corrective to the general celebrity-obsessed culture that was emerging at the time.

Not a classic in the usual sense, but certainly a very nice strip that was unsung in its own time, and unfortunately largely forgotten today. But Overgard's work is worth remembering as a good example of the satiric potential of the medium.

A Thought for Sunday

I say "here, here!" to this statement by famed union man John L. Lewis (1880-1969):

"Let the workers organize. Let the toilers
assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim
their injustices and demand their privileges.
Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for
the future of Labor is the future of America."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Battle of the Bands Winner

Here's a great clip of the Animals performing "It's My Life" on Hullabaloo back around 1965. The intro by George Maharis is kind of interesting too:

Political Links

I've been ragging on the governor of Wisconsin for the past couple of weeks because... well because I consider him an obvious enemy of working people and democracy. Clearly, I'm not alone in drawing that conclusion. Here's a good post from Keith Olbermann, with a nice anecdote about why unions are so important (maybe I'll tell a similar story here soon), and why Walker is such a threat to democracy. And here, from the good old Buffalo Beast (which seemed to have fallen on hard times recently), a very revealing prank demonstrating just who Walker's constituency really is. The Beast is being criticized by some as a tool of some grand left-wing media empire (a joke in its own right), but if the fools making that claim had been reading it all along (as I have), they'd know that the website (nee paper) doesn't recognize any ideological master. But they do know a loathsome pol when they see one.

Four Pictures: Las Vegas

I spent the past few days down in Las Vegas visiting family and catching some sights. Here are a few pics I snapped my first evening in town, just strolling around the strip. First is a shot of the plaza in front of Bally's, with the Paris' Eiffel Tower in the background.

This is from a little ways up the Boulevard, looking across to the Bellagio sign, and behind that, the blue lights of the new Cosmopolitan complex.

The light here is a giant Prada sign, that makes a great background for silhouettes as pedestrians pass it front. This is just outside the second level of the mall at the new City Center complex.

Last is a traditional shot of the water show at the Bellagio, which always attracts a crown. It's one of the nicest spots to be outdoors in the evening in all of Las Vegas. I'll have a bunch more photos to post in coming days.

Saturday Morning Cartoon

I always got a kick out of the way Warner Brothers integrated real movie stars into their cartoons. Here's a good example, as Bugs Bunny meets Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre (in character, of course):

Battle of the Bands Update

Bachman-Turner Overdrive

I'm a bit tardy with the results from last week's Battle of the Band competition on Dr. John's Record Shelf, but here they are. In the Teddy Boy Bracket, the Animals (seeded #3) took down Black Sabbath (6) by a narrow 6-5 vote, while Bachman-Turner Overdrive (10) upset Cream (2) by the same close score.

The Animals

Competing songs were "It's My Life" by the Animals, "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath, "Takin' Care of Business" by BTO, and "Tales of Brave Ulysses" by Cream. Round Two action wraps up this Sunday with "Day Tripper" by the Beatles against "Keep On Runnin'" by the Spencer Davis Group, and "Needles and Pins" by the Searchers vs. "Dandy" by Herman's Hermits. Feel free to vote in the comments section below, if you have an opinion on those songs' relative worth.

Saturday's Quote

When I read about the governor of Wisconsin, this is the line, courtesy of Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), that immediately comes to mind:

"The world is made up for the most
part of morons and natural tyrants,
sure of themselves, strong in their own
opinions, never doubting anything."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

On the Road Again

Posting will be light to non-existent for the next week, as I head out on a little trip to Las Vegas. Of course, that means I should have lots of pictures to share when I return, and in fact my main goal for this trip (aside from hanging out with family and friends) is to take pictures. So, in the meantime, go and take a guess on the Family Quiz and look for new material here next Saturday or Sunday.

Beautiful Song

I first discovered the Portuguese group Madredeus from their appearance in the Wim Wenders film Lisbon Story (which is really good even beyond the music it employs). Here's the tune that won me over-- see if it doesn't have the same effect on you:

Sunday Funnies

J. R. Williams Out Our Way was one of the classic single panel slice-of-life strips that originated back in the 1920s. These few examples are all from 1925.

These really deserve the label of Americana, offering a wonderful snapshot of the kind of small scale events that defined life in espeially small town America (or at least, what we'd want to believe such life was like).

The strips focusing on kids are especially favorites of mine. They represent a view of childhood that's tough to capture in popular culture without coming off overly sweet or exaggerated. In that way, they kind of remind me of the best Little Rascals movies which depicted kids just being kids.

Today's Quote

Here's a great line from a true American hero, Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), who understood something of the connection between one's work and one's dignity:

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and
forget about progress and prosperity for our
community... Our ambitions must be broad
enough to include the aspirations and needs
of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Good Song

Here's another one of those bands seemingly flying beneath the radar of mainstream radio: the Broken West. This song is off their album called I Can't Go On, I'll Go On:

The Last Book I Read

There have been a bunch of books over the years devoted to bad movies. I remember, for one example, reading The Golden Turkey Awards way back before author Michael Medved became the pop culture maven of right-wing radio. That book, like many of the genre, was all about scoring cheap-shots on its targets without offering anything resembling critical analysis (now that I think of it, a perfect calling card for someone who would eventually get into the right-wing radio biz). Such books were often funny, but ultimately forgettable since they weren't really intended as anything more than an exercise in snarkiness. Nathan Rabin's My Year of Flops is a different kind of project altogether. Collecting columns written for the Onion A.V. Club, it truly is a work of criticism in the noblest sense of that term. Rabin is much more interested in examining how and why the selected films fell short of expectations (both commercial and artistic) and, though he offers his fair share of funny asides where appropriate, he's really more interested in making sense of the eventual disconnect between filmmaker and audience that defines each failure. Actually, even that oversimplifies the breadth of the book, since in any given instance there could be multiple points of such disconnect, any one of which might derail a particular project. Beyond the filmmaker/audience dichotomy, there also lurk such players as the studios, the critics, and broader social forces that all contribute to the context for disappointment (or for that matter, with different films, success). Recognizing how these factors combine (in various ratios) to effect the prospects of any individual project, and then applying his own critical perspective, Rabin offers a concluding summary for each film covered, labeling it a failure, a fiasco, or a secret success. If you've followed movies over the past half-century, you'll be familiar with virtually all of his subjects-- Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, and most of the other predictable candidates for inclusion. But there are some more esoteric choices as well-- e.g. The End of Violence, Pennies From Heaven, Tough Guys Don't Dance-- which, while eminently qualified as flops on one scale or another, were hardly the pop culture landmarks of their more notorious brethren. In all cases, I found Rabin's analysis thoughtful and useful, insofar as it made me think (or rethink) through some of my reactions to these or even other films. It also made me want to go back and look at some of these so-called flops (Heaven's Gate, for one) with, as much as is possible, fresh eyes untainted by the expectation I'll be witnessing a train wreck.

Saturday Morning Cartoon

Here's one of the all-time great cartoons: the story of Marc Anthony and the kitten. To my mind, it's about seven and a half minutes of sheer perfection:

Saturday's Quotation

The current governor of Wisconsin wants to strip state workers of their rights to collectively bargain and sic the National Guard on them if they complain. An earlier governor of Wisconsin, Robert LaFollette (1855-1925) had a much clearer understanding of what American values are supposed to look like:

"Let no man think we can deny civil liberty
to others and retain it for ourselves. When
zealous agents of the Government arrest
suspected "radicals" without warrant, hold
them without prompt trial, deny them
access to counsel and admission of bail... we
have shorn the Bill of Rights of its sanctity..."

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Rock and Roll Pioneer

This must be one of the first, if not the first, rock and roll performance on network TV. It's Bo Diddley's appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1955 (months before Elvis appeared on the same program). Bo is one of those figures who can stake a legitimate claim to being one of the originators of the style, and in fact may be the original rock guitar hero. Cool stuff indeed:

Friday Family Blogging Quiz

Over the years, I've had the chance to literally criss-cross the nation with my niece Natalie and her family. So, there are a lot of potential answers to this question: in what state was this photo taken? Put your guesses in the comments section.

Last week, I wondered who was keeping an eye on Natalie as she played in her swing, and Gramma knew, right off the bat it was Grampa (as seen in the full picture below). Thanks to everyone who guessed, and better luck this week!

Check It Out

I stumbled onto this website today and thought I would pass along the link. It provides information on an art project/book by the artist Robert Shetterly celebrating, as the title puts it, Americans Who Tell the Truth (aimed primarily at young people). It's a fairly eclectic group, contemporary and historic, each represented by a portrait, quote and brief biography. In every case, these are the kinds of people who deserve more of the public's attention than the legions of blowhards presently corrupting our social and political discourse (mainly because our media gatekeepers favor loud noisy confrontation over thoughtful analysis and discussion). Maybe this project will help to start re-establishing their place in the public consciousness, though I admit that seems like a mighty tall order at this point.

More Friday Family Blogging

While the last picture of Natalie was rather wintry in tone, here's a nice summer shot (albeit in b&w) of Sara. This was taken, I'm pretty sure, at Saltwater State Park near Tacoma.

Friday Family Blogging

This picture of Natalie was shot in early January out at Hunter's Creek. I think it turned out pretty good, but then it helps to have a good subject.

Friday Philosophy

It's amazing to me that the enemies of organized labor fail to recognize its significant role in shaping the vast success of the United States in the twentieth centruy. Those who would dismantle such institutions as unions would do well to remember the words of cultural critic Herbert Croly (1869-1930):

"Unless the great majority of Americans
not only have, but believe they have, a fair
chance, the better American future will
be dangerously compromised."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cool Song

I picked up the new Decemberists album today, called The King is Dead. It's really good-- a little more stripped down than past efforts. Here's one of the songs off the record, in a live version:

Toonerville Thursday

Whenever current events have got me down, I can always count on a visit to Toonerville to make me feel little bit better.

Further Evidence...

... that Governor Walker of Wisconsin is a lying gasbag (I'm tempted to use even stronger invective, but I guess that makes the point). Needless to say, this kind of grandstanding on the backs of hard-working state employees really ticks me off. In another classic Captain Renault moment, I'm shocked-- shocked!-- to see that noted man-of-the-people (if those people happen to be very rich) John Boehner is backing this assault on workers' rights. This paragon of hypocrisy even has the gall to claim he supports such blatant union-busting in the interests of protecting jobs. Let's see, according to these creeps unions (workers) are bad and government is bad-- who does that leave as their constituency? Oh yeah, corporations-- as we all know, the very heart of any functioning democracy. It's downright sickening.

A Thought for Thursday

I certainly don't see anything to disagree with in this quote from the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910):

"In all history there is no war which
was not hatched by the governments,
the governments alone, independent of
the interests of the people, to whom war
is always pernicious even when successful."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Tribute to My Home Town

I'm hoping it's more than two degrees back in Buffalo, for the benefit of all my friends and family back there. Regardless of the weather, you might enjoy this song about one of the great, unsung cities of this nation or any other; I know I can't wait to get back there for a visit.

Three Pictures: The Pacific

Once again, as the snow falls outside my window, I'm thinking of warmer climes. Here are three pictures of the Pacific Ocean taken on a trip down the coast of Southern California back in 2007. The first two were taken at Pismo Beach (as I recall), a couple hundred miles west of Los Angeles.

The third is a shot off the Santa Monica Pier, where obviously I wasn't the only one enjoying the view.

Wednesday's Quote

Today's words of wisdom come from the noted Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov (1860-1904):

"A good upbringing means not that you
won't spill sauce on the tablecloth, but
that you won't notice it when someone
else does."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Eighties Classic

For some reason there are no live clips of the Del Fuegos performing material off their first album (which I like better than their later output). But here's one of those songs (without accompanying video), which I suppose is just as good:

Three Photos: Las Vegas

I'm looking forward to a visit to Las Vegas next week, and thought I'd look through some photos of past trips to put myself in the proper mood (by which I mean, the mood to take more pictures). Above is a night view of a part of Caesar's Palace from Las Vegas Blvd.

Here's part of the facade outside of the Paris Hotel & Casino. The latticework is part of the base of the faux Eiffel Tower there.

Last is a shot looking north up the strip from the walkway connecting the MGM Grand and New York New York. Las Vegas is definitely a fun place to carry around a camera, and it especially lends itself to black and white. Look for more after I return.

This Week's Top Five

This may not be as funny as last week's list, but maybe you'll learn something that you didn't know...

Today's Quotation

Kudos to the thousands of state workers in Wisconsin who turned out today to stand up to their troglodyte governor (read about it here, and note the very last line). No doubt they knew the sentiment, if not the exact quote, offered here from Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926):

"If it had not been for the discontent of a few
fellows who had not been satisfied with their
conditions, you would still be living in caves.
Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of
civilization. Progress is born of agitation.
It is agitation or stagnation."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Battle of the Bands Tune

Here's one of the most famous riffs in rock and roll history. I remember this being played endlessly on WGRQ the summer of 1973, the year that station went on the air, and it kind of defined my idea of cutting edge rock at a young age (as opposed to the Top 40 stuff I grew up listening to on AM radio). So I'm glad to see Deep Purple moving on in our little competition:

Battle of the Bands Update

The Guess Who

Last night on Dr. John's Record Shelf, we completed the Second Round in the Mod Bracket. The Guess Who (seeded no. 3) knocked off Yes (11) by an 8-3 score, while Deep Purple (7) upset Pink Floyd (2) by a narrow 6-5 margin. This means that Deep Purple will face the Guess Who in Round Three.

Deep Purple

Songs in the competition this week included: "Hand Me Down World" by the Guess Who, "I've Seen All Good People" by Yes, "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple, and "See Emily Play" by Pink Floyd. Next week will see the last pairings in Round Two, with the following match-ups: "Day Tripper" by the Beatles v. "Keep On Runnin'" by the Spencer Davis Group and "Needles and Pins" by the Searchers (5) v. "Dandy" by Herman's Hermits. Feel free to cast votes on those pairs in the comments section.

Quote of the Day

George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was a pretty well-known man of letters in the first half of the twentieth century, known primarily for his theater criticism. Here's a line of his that I agree with:
"A life spent in constant labor is a life
wasted, save a man be such a fool as
to regard a fulsome obituary notice
as ample reward."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Classic Scene

After heaping praise on Destry Rides Again in the last post, I thought it only natural to follow-up with a clip of what may be its most famous scene: the catfight between Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel. I don't know it it ever gets better than this:

It Was a Very Good Year

I mentioned the other day that, given the ten films nominated, I would've voted for Stagecoach for the Best Picture Oscar back in 1939 (supposedly the greatest year in film history). But even so, I'm not convinced that John Ford's great film was even the best western made that year. In fact, for pure entertainment value, I'd likely give the nod to Destry Rides Again. Directed by the the incredibly prolific, if not exactly exalted, George Marshall, Destry is a near perfect blend of comedy and action. Jimmy Stewart plays the low key title character, brought to a wild town to restore order by an old pal of his father's who suddenly finds himself wearing a sheriff's badge. The new deputy, much to his boss's surprise and shame, arrives and immediately eschews the use of guns or force to maintain order (totally contrary to his reputation, or for that matter, his father's). Of course, as the story unfolds, he is forced to revise his attitude somewhat, but this is one of those cases where the sum of the plot is ultimately much less interesting than the little bits of business that make up the individual scenes. Most of these are stolen by some of the greatest character actors in Hollywood history: Billy Gilbert as a bartender, Una Merkel as a boarding house proprietress, Mischa Auer as her mail order husband (he may not literally be that, but it amuses me to think so, given his role in the story), Charles Winninger as the sheriff nee town drunk, Allen Jenkins as a henchman to the main villain. None of these folks are stars of the rank of Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy or Stewart-- all of whom are also really good-- but it is their presence and performances that elevate this to classic status. Without them it would be a run of the mill oater. Auer in particular makes me laugh, and is almost as good here as he was in My Man Godfrey, struggling to get out from under the gilded reputation of his wife's first husband (made all the more difficult when he loses his only pair of pants in a poker game). I believe one of the hardest things to do in movies (or maybe any kind of story-telling) is to strike a true balance between comedy and drama, especially when violence is a strong element in the latter. But Destry Rides Again could be the model for getting it right. I watched it last night (at least the fourth time I've seen it), and I'm already looking forward to seeing it again.

Sunday Funnies

Abbie and Slats was one of the most beautifully drawn strips ever. Created by the noted illustrator Raeburn Van Buren and Al Capp (creator of Lil Abner, who wrote the scripts for Van Buren's artwork), it featured the adventures of , Abbie, the bighearted but prickly maiden aunt and Slats, the rough-edged young man who often found himself at odds with the bluenoses of little Crabtree Corners.

The real star, at least in the more comic Sunday adventures, was "Bathless" Groggins, the reprobate father of Slats' girlfriend Becky. As you can see from the above example especially, "Bathless" had a knack of getting under other peoples' skin.

I only discovered this strip years after its heyday (it ran from 1937 to 1971, but never in a paper I saw as a kid). But it made an immediate impression and deserves to be remembered as the classic it was, every bit as good as contemporary "good art" strips like Terry & the Pirates and Prince Valiant.