Friday, December 8, 2017

Looking For Laughs 1: Positioning

I found out recently that I am a comedy nerd.  I did not know this.

I have two sources for this information:
Martin Short's autobiography I Must Say! and the sort-of oral history of the intersecting of life and comedy, Judd Apatow's Sick In the Head, a book that knocked me on my philosophical ass.

To give you an idea of how Judd's a student of the game (and Conan, to his credit, is no slouch himself): 

Not only did I not know I was one of these "nerds", I didn't know they existed...
You see, the "comedy nerd" is a person that doesn't just dig humor, but kind of studies it.   As a young teen, my stack of stand-up albums rivaled that of my music (and that's saying something).  I recorded shit like HBO's Young Comedians Special, Saturday Night Live, and the burgeoning Late Night with David Letterman, for repeat viewings.  I memorized some comedian's routines and was caught out by my sister Pam (though it was 20 years later) for repeating them.  (I never said the material was original, Sis.)

As referenced by others in those books I mentioned, I stayed up late after SNL to catch SCTV (before anyone knew what the hell it was), one-off things like Twilight Theatre, and inhaled stand-up specials wherever I could find them.  I memorized the words and actions of fictional characters like Short's Ed Grimley, The Young Ones, and the members of Spinal Tap.  I was the only kid I knew doing this, but didn't think anything of it until it was mentioned by Short and Apatow in their books....

This epiphany coincided with the remembrance of a revelatory Apatow scene from his masterful and underappreciated Freaks and Geeks:

I was that kid.

Now mind you, I missed the boat on Garry Shandling, (but hope to get educated with the help of the guy I already mentioned, Judd Apatow, thanks to his HBO doc series The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling) but you get the drift.  I had been a young kid who had spent much time alone (or with the tube) for varying reasons.  Foremost, I sought out various comedy stylings because they often grabbed me when the moments came.

Yes, I have laughed that hard at stand up.
Yes, I have spit out soda at some of the better moments of SNL or SCTV.
Laughter was and is a healing balm, and whether or not I knew I needed it as a kid, I firmly remember looking all over TV for it long before and after cable was an option for sources.

Going forward however, as I became a teen with a job and some spare cash, I started buying comedy albums and it reigned supreme along with my love of rock and roll as a major pastime.

I loved all types of comedy.  From the often absurdly observational and frequently angry (like George Carlin), to people "who didn't work blue" like Bill Cosby or Steven Wright. I went back in time at record stores to get albums by those guys and many others, while picking up new material from young upstarts.   

As a sidenote:  I cannot hold on to being a Cosby fan because he's a monster, but before we all knew that fact, he was considered ground-breaking and his material was often hilarious.  Sadly I must admit, the shit's just not as funny now.  It can never be again.

Kind of like how Ted Nugent's guitar-playing is nowhere near as good as it used to be.

As I've stated here, I love to laugh, but as I eventually broke out of my teens,  I felt stand-up comedy also opened up avenues of different ways of thinking. Opinions began to form and  my attitudes were challenged by people like Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Richard Lewis, Greg Giraldo and even some of the stage work of Robin Williams.  Pontification and chortling combine rather well, really.

I hope this series I've put together will be enlightening, not only shining a light onto my mind's workings in relation to humor, but why I am the way I am.  Even if that's not all that important to you, perhaps the history and relevance of great comedy will be.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Spectrum Files: Halloween Hijinks: He Knows You're Alone (On Lichter Road)

  Halloween Hijinks

Somewhere in the family photo archives is a genuine artifact of boundless joy.  Two of my sisters and two of my brothers sitting on the living room sofa with pillows covering the lower portions of their faces, eyes piercing whatever may have been in front of them.

Which was the divide between the sofa and the television.

They were terrified.  A moment of high tension where the only thing missing was someone jumping in the room and screaming at the top of their lungs, resulting in much noise and defecated garments.  My mother took this snapshot, circa 1982, as the family for some reason was enthralled by a horrible slasher film from that glorified era,  He Knows You're Alone.

This little known gem features the big screen (for better or worse) debut of one Tom Hanks, which he pontificates about here:

Spectrum, who as I've stated could bring the highest of quality films into your home, also could swing the crap stick. This was one of those incidents, but the whole family (and assorted friends who were there on this hilarious Saturday evening) remembers it quite well.  My mom loves to tell the tale of the fear running rampant on the sofa that night.

He Knows You're Alone was another Halloween rip-off, but apparently had enough juice to scare the shit out of four young adults, and who knows who else was present in our humble abode.  Shot in 1980 on a low budget, it came and went in the cascading wave of movies that were either made as homages or direct attempts to profit off others' art in the horror genre.  It was lucky enough to feature a young Tom Hanks, who unlike many stars who had their starts in slasher or teen sex romps (Renee Zellwegger and Johnny Depp, I'm talking to you) loves to tell the story of the movie and apparently isn't ashamed of it in the least. 

See the video above for proof:  "KNIFE RACK!!"

A search and rescue mission for the legendary snapshot my mom lensed is underway, and if unearthed, shall be posted here for posterity's sake.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Bound to the Past: A Matter of Faith

There was a time that I came out of the dark of the loss of a father, not just doubting, but absolutely not believing in the existence of a god.

It seems in that department of loss, a person can go one of two ways: one can dig deep in your faith for strength, or completely abandon religion altogether for its lack of support.

I was somewhere in the middle.

My Mom remarried a couple of years after that Cancer asshole took my old man, and I was wandering the lakeside of uncertainty, really not feeling comfortable with the idea of any sort of supreme being.  It wasn't Dad's death that locked that down, though that factor had me despising the God I grew up fearing and loving during those moments that I did believe he was there.
It was science really.  I kept looking at the facts and the physics, history, and geology, and was having a hard time grasping the whole God thing.

The aftermath of Dad's death wasn't really helping either, to be honest.

But I wanted to.  I did.  I grew up in a loosely Lutheran household with plenty of church, if not prayer.  So the ground was laid, and when Dad got sick, there was a lot of prayer books, services, and counseling of the clerical involved that added to the atmosphere of Godliness.

So as I entered adolescence, all that was becoming argumentative. It was turning into a kind of mist that I was thinking I might be able to wave away.  Still, I was a tad afraid of what life would be like without it.

So I did what I always do.  As a music fan, a sports nut, a comic book reader, a cinephile, and a writer.

I went looking.

There was a church not far from where I lived and I took a walk over there.  I stopped short of going in on multiple occasions, but on one brisk fall afternoon, I pushed on that heavy door and walked in.  At first I thought the place empty, and was about to turn around and walk back out when I heard a voice.

A deep voice, with a touch of friendly rasp.  "Hello there?"

"Hi." I said, unsure of anything, let alone that voice.

And out of an office to my right at the end of a hall came one of the tallest people I have ever met, with the deepest voice, and the warmest damn grin.

Pastor Ted.

He shook my 11 year old hand in his immense one, and asked me what he could do for me.  I was shocked by how easily enough it came out.  I had questions.  I wanted answers.

That giant hand came out again and motioned me down the hall he had come from to his office.  I sat down in his mid-sized domain in a chair opposite his side of an immense desk.  He was surrounded by books. On the desk, on the enormous shelving unit that made up the wall behind him, and on end tables and other shelves around the office.

 I was surprised as he lit a cigarette, smiled, and began asking me about myself.

I went through my history, brief and jagged as it was....a happy childhood, Dad's death, mom's remarriage, the moving, and finally, almost as if angry, my loss of faith.  There was no shock on his face at all, just a knowing nod and smile.

I wanted this man to bring it back.  Make me feel as if God was watching my back again, and return the security that came along with all of that.

He found a place to begin.

That afternoon we spoke for a couple of hours.  Comfortable and conversational, and Pastor Gundlach begin to chip away at that mountain of doubt that had been ascending for the last few years.  I spoke of science.  I brought up the word evolution.  He smiled again, and spoke of a very learned man he knew, regimented in the field of science as a researcher whose faith in his God was as strong as anyone he knew.  He also stood, reached behind him to his left and pulled a small paperback book and set it front of me on his desk.

"I think You'll like this." he said softly as I looked down at a copy of "The Handy-Dandy Evolution Refuter".

"A lot of your heavy questions will be answered in here, I'm not a scientist." He said as I leafed through it, "but I think You and I have a lot to talk about."

And so we did.  I became a member of that church, just myself, though my Mom would attend there often enough, was confirmed, took my first communion,  and became an acolyte.

Many of us have several heroes in different chapters of our lives.  It's part of the process.  I may be a bit overdramatic or hyper-warm in labelling them in this way, but that's how I am.

Pastor Theodore G. was a hero.

He passed away about 4 years ago, retired legend of the Wisconsin Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) and I doubt he remembered me much.  However, at the time I was there, he would tell people when I wasn't around (My mom verified this) of a young man, struggling hard with his faith, that one October afternoon had grown tired of the struggle and asked him to ease his pain.  And how proud he was to do so.

Adolescence is important.

It's a bridge to adulthood.  I feel as though if I had navigated it without a belief in the loving god that I had spend most of my youth having, I'd have grown to be a different person. I would have been harder, less quick to understand, less willing to forgive.  With that somewhat shaky but never failing belief in God, I grew to be a person with a strong ability to feel and express empathy.  With an even more powerful ability to love.

It wan't easy, mind you.  Unlike the other student's in Pastor G's confirmation classes I was quick to question. I asked with frequency and asked hard.  Pastor G always had reasonable answers to my queries, and always laid a path.  I came in as a black sheep to the Catechism classes, and I think Pastor Ted liked that and saw it as a challenge.  No one else in my group carried any doubt, and though mine was lessening, I was the only one that needed reinforcement.

Without that faith, I may have given in to the doubt and anger that was constantly at my shoulders. Perhaps not controlled the temptations I resisted as I grew up. I don't think I would be who I am today.  Right now, I may not have the same faith and belief I had then.  I may not be a strong Christian, a Stryper Soldier Under God's command, but I know I'm a good person.

I think, in large part, I have Pastor Ted to thank for that.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

George A. Romero's Land of the Dead:

   In honor of the late, great George A. Romero, my son Aidan chimes in with a look back at the most unsung of the original Living Dead films. 

   "Zombies man, they creep me out".  This statement by the character Paul Kaufman (the late Dennis Hopper) leaves the audience to the question: what is the most frightening or perhaps interesting aspect of the living dead?  Ghouls, zombies, walkers, stenches, whatever one would call them, the most important and persevering element of these monsters is that they are us.  They are a reflection of the human condition and society.  No one has had more influence and understanding of this than the master of modern zombies, the auteur George A. Romero, and this has never been more apparent and obvious than in his fourth Zombie film,  2005's Land of the Dead.  Land follows the progress of both human society and the dead since his original living dead trilogy consisting of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the dead and Day of the Dead.  While this film differs from the previous installments in terms of scale, the constants of Romero's work remain present and relevant involving his political allegories, social critique, and symbolism.

      In every one of Romero's living dead films, the director allegorically examines the society he lives in.  In Night, he tackled the topics of communism and racism.  In Dawn, he criticizes the modern consumerist culture. In Day, he depicted the issues of militarism and lack of communication. In Land he combined several elements in his political critique, most notably the war on terror.  By this time, many years after the outbreak of reanimated corpses, society has made some progress in rebuilding itself and what first appears to be an efficient way but it's revealed to be corrupt and destined for downfall.  The film revolves around the city of Pittsburgh, in a building at the center of it called "Fiddler's Green", a luxurious establishment exclusively for the upper class, while those who can't afford it (a large amount of people) inhabit the slums around it.  The city operates with a system mirroring both feudalism, where people wind up doing tasks for the powerful in exchange for favors and aristocracy, where the power for those who happen to be rich. This could be seen as an illusion to the power corrupt people with money wield in modern times.  The entire city is fenced in, more or less protected from the dead. The man in charge of fiddlers Green, Paul Kaufman, is threatened by his ill tempered lackey, Cholo Demora (John Leguizamo).  After Kaufman backs out of the deal to allow the latter into the establishment, subtly due to Cholo's Hispanic ethnicity, adding a touch of racial discrimination and inequality into the structure of this corrupt empire. Cholo threatens the destruction of the fence using the powerful arm of "Dead Reckoning", which he has hijacked.  Kaufman immediately rejects Cholo's ultimatum and opts for other means of resolution by sending the original commander and designer of the "dead reckoning" Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) to stop him.  This is an allusion to President Bush's declaration "We do not negotiate with terrorists".   A line Kaufman actually uses. The reference is among the most obvious and specific allegories Romero has used in his Living Dead films.

      Another of Romero's trademarks the film predominately features is a social critique, in this case regarding class warfare.  The rich hold all of the power and the poor are left with scraps. This is a reflection of the growingly distressed economy of modern America with some many people below the poverty line and money not getting where it really needs to be.   The reason for this is quite prevalent.  In Land, the people in power are ignoring the problem, therefore they are a part of it.  Kaufman does not acknowledge the poor people living in slums outside of Fiddler's Green.  This allusion is taking a radical step further with the zombies themselves; the dead are now portrayed by Romero as carnivorous animals as opposed to malevolent ghouls and it seems almost cruel when marauders runs through the dead's territory and sadistically destroy them. As this film takes place an undetermined amount of years after the original trilogy, the zombies have had time to evolve. They all remember routine aspects of the original lives and attempt to mimic them, and even show empathy towards one another.  Early in the film zombies are seen attempting to use their old instruments or reclaim their old day jobs, the most significant case being a zombie gas station attendant.  This is grown from a seed planted in the previous installment,  Day of the Dead.  In Day a zombie named Bub shows he recognizes objects he may have used in his past life and displays genuine grief in a  surprisingly touching scene.  Now in Land, a large amount of the dead showing these traits. With a new sympathetic view of the zombies, they now take their place as lower class and the economic allegory, and through the events of the film, may become what could be viewed as revolutionaries as they attempt to overthrow Fiddler's Green.

      On the subject of sympathetic characters another one of Romero's occurring reoccurring elements is symbolism.  In Night of the Living Dead, Romero was one of the earliest directors who bravely cast a black man as the lead hero in the form of actor Duane Jones, who portrayed Ben. While Romero states his casting decision was due simply to the fact that Jones had given the best audition, he repeated his choice 10 years later in casting Peter in Dawn of the Dead, who is played by Ken Foree. He rounded out the original trilogy following this as in Day of the dead with casting Terry Alexander as one of the protagonists named John.  He repeated this motif years later in Land, but with a twist. The casting of a black man was Eugene Clark as Big Daddy: the intelligent zombie who would lead the dead in their revolution. With this decisio,n he suggested that Daddy is a hero as much as any of the human characters, bringing the character arc of the zombies as a whole to a bizarre but effective conclusion.

        All of Romero's zombie films contain allusions that can be examined but Land of the Dead could be argued to have the most effective and specifically relevant political allegories, social critiques and symbolism to the time period, and confirms Romero's status as a true auter with his own definitive style. He creates this post apocalyptic recovering society that already displays the same problems we face today, such as the inability to resolve matters peacefully,  and the ignorance of important economic issues leading to a massive and growing gap between the upper and lower classes of society.  Using these, he closes out his original living dead continuity reaffirming the zombies many parallels with the living, and at some times leaves the audience rooting for the dead to prevail against a corrupt government.  By the films end, the viewers are still left to ponder just how different or better they are from the dead. The subordinate Mike (Sean Roberts) comments on the zombies behavior:  "They're pretending to be alive!",  leaving Riley Denbo to note "Isn't that what we're doing? pretending to be alive?"

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bound to the Past: An Uneasy Dawn

Winter, 1982.

A Saturday morning featuring my brother, my sister and her boyfriend terrifying me with tales of what they had seen the night before. Hordes of marauding ghouls piling on top of the living, chewing on them, and in turn transforming them into one of their own.

The details of what they saw, from the graphic details of the munching sequences, to the fear of their creatures' numbers were truly disturbing, but what was more haunting was the realistic description of the downfall of society under the weight of this gruesome and massive threat.

What they saw and were reiterating to me was a midnight screening of George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead", and the descriptions kept me up at night.

A week or so later, I distinctly remember hearing Kenosha's WRKR broadcasting the radio ad for the obviously successful midnight movie.  The ominous rumblings from the deep-voiced narrator telling me how the film had been banned in a gazillion countries and several planets.  This didn't sound like a sales pitch, it sounded like a damn public service announcement!

For some reason, all this made me nervous.

Flash forward about 3 years.  I'm a 7th grader, sitting in my room on a grey, boring, fall Saturday afternoon.  I decide, in an incredibly bored state of mind, to flip on my little Portland (a Daewoo product!) television and click over to WVTV 18's afternoon movie.

"The Night of the Living Dead".

Oh, boy.  Should I watch this?

I'd heard the stories, and I knew of the connection to "Dawn of the Dead".  "Dawn" was the sequel to Romero's "Night", a low budget horror film that scared audiences and put butts in the seats back in 1968.   I had read in library books about the movies, about both "Night" and "Dawn", touting the ground-breaking effects work, the often realistic depiction of societal breakdown, and their unrated statuses.  On video shelves, I had seen the Thorn/EMI VHS tape of "Dawn" on the shelves with Roger Ebert's blurb about "The savagely satanic view of America" blasting off of it.

Still nervous.  But curious.  Like a cat.

The lead-in to Ebert's talking point was on right now.

I watched "Night of the Living Dead" that afternoon, and I was never the same again in regards to movies.  Despite it being the middle of the afternoon, broad daylight, and my parents being about 40 feet away in the living room, this movie scared the shit out of me.  I had felt this way only one time before, and you can thank John Carpenter and Michael Myers for that.   But I knew Myers wasn't real.  The stuff happening on the screen here felt like it could actually happen, and the crux of it's effectiveness lies right there. 

That's what George Romero did. He made me deal with a movie, not just watch it.

When I finally saw "Dawn of the Dead" 5 years later,  as a senior in high school, I felt the same apprehensiveness.  I was actually afraid as the opening frames unspooled across the screen.  That red carpet backdrop behind the film's title graphic served as some sort of warning. 


But like I did with "Night", I hung in for "Dawn".  It was like dipping your toe in ice cold water.  With every horrifying event on the screen, I was able to go a little deeper, be able to take it a little easier.  By the end of the movie, I felt as though I had survived something, but now I was ready.  Ready for more.  At this moment, I had truly had fallen in love with the horror genre.

John Carpenter and George Romero had given me something I had never felt before.  They had taken me to an edge.  Made me feel a shaky, electrical feeling, a combination of fear and exhilaration.   They taught me that movies were more than an entertainment.  You could actually take someone for a ride, nervously perhaps, but nonetheless, take them.  I was glad to introduce my son to the works of both of these great men years later, and have learned it was a great decision. 

George A. Romero passed away yesterday.  His oeuvre was much more than "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead",  and even the Dead films in general.  He was a great filmmaker, but one thing I learned through his interviews and even attending a screening of "Dawn" with my father-in-law, he was funny, political, thoughtful, sharp as a tack, and genuine.  Intensely genuine.

Just last fall I watched the feature "Night of the Living Steelers" on the NFL Network.  The project intertwined George's career with the heyday of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  George was a Pittsburgh native, a Steeler fan, and at one time even directed short films for NFL films.  In this featurette, his guiding hand and warm voice took you through the sounds and images of horror and football both and reiterated the down-to-Earth nature and uniqueness of this wizard of filmmaking.  "Steelers" teaches you just as much about the Steel City cinematic legend's roots as it does the Pittsburgh Gridiron stalwarts.  After seeing this little documentary, I felt closer to the man and  I'm grateful I saw it.

It effected me deeply when I had learned he was gone, and I'm going to miss him.

He was one hell of an individual, and they don't make 'em like George anymore.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bound to the Past: Heroes Can Sleep During Star Trek

In early 1980 my dad was sick with esophageal cancer.  He wasn't at the point where he was bed-ridden yet, but I think it can be safely said that time was of the essence.

In an effort to share limited time, He decided to take me to the movies.

In the fall of 1977, He took a clan of us to see "Star Wars" at the Keno outdoor theatre.  I don't need to go into too much description of the awesomeness of that. I barely remember that screening, but I sure as hell recall the effect it had on me and so did my dad's wallet.  For many reasons.  Reasons I wish I still owned.

I think with this new film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he was hoping for something close to the same thing.

Even to fans of the legendary television series, the first film of the "original cast series" is seen as a bit of a slog.  It is a bit overlong, a bit quiet in tone, a bit melancholy, and a lot cerebral.   Not to say it's pure garbage,  it's a quality movie, it just wasn't a thrill a minute.  For an 8 year old kid and his tired, ailing dad it probably wasn't a great choice. That fact wasn't either of our faults, as it was a damn Star Trek movie. It did feel more like a very strong episode of its offspring, The Next Generation.

I still have fond memories of the film, despite all that.  I vividly recall Ursula Andress speaking of V'ger. It kicked out some decent spaceship effects for its time, and a still intact chemistry between the cast members, all of them back together again after nearly 15 years.  Needless to say, I found my mind wandered often during the film, and the old man slept for long periods of it.  Often snoring.

But that's okay, heroes get to sleep during Star Trek movies.

After we shook off the doldrums and headed out through the lobby to go home, I spotted something.  This was in the days when studios would often supply theatres with "programs" to accompany their "event" films.  It didn't happen all of the time, but in this case an oversized full-color booklet was being sold to potential buyers.

I asked Dad if I could have it.  If memory serves, he really didn't want to buy the damn thing.  I liked the colorful images and pressed him, more than likely a bit whinily.  (I know, not a word)

In short, I was an asshole.

And he wasn't.  He still bought it for me.  As a father, I know this feeling he must have felt in that moment.  Despite the fact that this expenditure really is a waste, you love that little person who wants the result of it. And you want to make them happy.

Dad wanted to make the asshole happy.  At 8, I knew very little of Star Trek, series or movies.  Star Trek didn't have people shooting laser guns at each other, no swashbuckling lightsaber action, there was no Darth Vader, no furry mascots or charming robots.  It was thinking man's science fiction that I wouldn't come to respect for many more years through the gateway of that Next Generation series I mentioned earlier.   So for all of those reasons, I shouldn't have this book.  For those same reasons,  this thing means the universe, no pun intended, to me.  This man, this hero, tired and ill, loved his son so much that he spent hard earned money to buy something for someone who didn't get it.

Or maybe just to get him to shut the hell up.

Either way, that's love.

My Dad wasn't a hero because he took me to see Star Trek.  He wasn't a hero because he bought me a stupid book to go along with it.  There isn't enough damn bandwidth here for me to tell you why Bob was a hero.

I miss you, Dad.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Spectrum Files: Powers Boothe & Southern Comfort

This is the one I missed the boat on.  Every night "Southern Comfort" aired during the month Spectrum carried it, we weren't home.  If memory serves me right, it was only shown about 3 or 4 times to begin with.  Due to the description in the guide that showed up in our mailbox on a monthly basis, and the trailers that ran between the features on Spectrum, it was a movie I desperately wanted to see.

It would be many years before I found it on a $5.99 DVD shelf in a Shopko kiosk. It is now, somewhat ironically, one of my more valuable films.

I was terrified of Powers Boothe, star of Southern Comfort, during this era due to the horrifying Emmy-winning performance as the piece-of-crap, murderous demagogue Jim Jones in the TV biopic, "The Guyana Tragedy".  The concept of one person's ability to get a group of people to knowingly do themselves in with only his influence scared the bejesus out of me.  He would ironically and eventually become one of my favorite screen stars.

In "Southern Comfort", the 1980 Walter Hill-directed drama, Powers' character with Keith Carradine in tow, was the closest thing to a good guy in the movie.  A branch of the Louisiana National Guard winds up at the whims of mother nature and revenge-seeking cajuns in the swamp due to the idiotic behavior of one of the group's lesser brains.  A lot of 80's stalwarts, including Fred Ward, Alan Autry (one-time Green Bay Packers quarterback named Carlos Brown before taking on a show biz name), Peter Coyote, and T.K. Carter, among others appear alongside Boothe for a ride down the drain of a soggy, gray corner of hell.

This film is bleak and disturbing, and I have never been able to take my eyes off of it.  Most of the characters are difficult to root for, and their pursuers really cannot be blamed for their reaction to the principals' stupidity.  Another example of interlopers jacking with the strength of an unknown and often unseen adversary.  In that respect, this film could easily be seen as a Vietnam allegory.

Powers Boothe just passed away this week, and I'm not ashamed to admit I wept.   He had a long and varied career that deserved more than the recognition it got, and I watched closely the whole way.  Aside from the Emmy I mentioned earlier he didn't garner much hardware, but he was always a bright spot in a dark sky.  Through the 80's he was also brilliant in Walter Hill's Extreme Prejudice,  as well as The Emerald Forest, and as the lead in HBO's series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.  In the 90's he brought up the bar on films where it would normally be low.  His supporting turn in Rapid Fire gave a young Brandon Lee a much needed anchor, and his tuxedoed terrorist's acerbic wit and quick menace brought Sudden Death much higher than it deserved to go.  (However there is that moment, played straight for some reason, where Jean-Claude Van Damme fights a Pittsburgh Penguin mascot, but I won't go there.)  I'm not going to describe his Curly Bill Brosius in Tombstone.  I want you to go in unprepared for the sting.  It's that damn good.

He spent the 2000s on both the large and small screen.  He and fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Bill Paxton were the trifecta that gave Frailty it's grim but electric atmosphere.  To this day I regard that one as one of the most underrated horror films of all.  (And by the way, God Rest Bill Paxton, another of my favorites that I will wax nostalgic about here soon.)  Boothe's Senator Rourke in Sin City has a paranormal malevolence to it not really seen previously from Powers.   His turn on Deadwood as Cy Tolliver is just amazing work.  I've been told he was terrific on shows I've not seen like 24 and Nashville, but I don't doubt the accounts for a second. No one could ever say he wasn't always straight 100 at all times.

If I had to make a list of my favorite actors, Mr. Boothe would surely be on it.  His imposing presence and rumble-of-God voice made him a great villain, but there was a softness he could sell at the right times you could believe in.   I'm going to miss him, but I luckily have a stack of his work to look back on, as I did last week when I watched Southern Comfort for the 28th time.   Part of me still wants revenge on the cinema demons that kept me from seeing it way back when.

God Rest you,  Powers Boothe.  And thank you.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Bound to the Past: Blue Ribbon Digest

As a kid my main hero was Batman.  Hands down.  I went through different phases where my focus of the moment may be a different pop culture phenomenon, maybe Angus Young here, Bruce Lee there, Burt Reynolds for some golden months, but for much of my pre-adolescent youth, Batman was the go-to guy. 

Tons of my most vivid memories of ages 6 to 11 involve that 4-color avenger.  He took many different forms at the time.  Irv Novick was responsible for the bulk of his representations in that era, but from time to time he came in the guise of the pencils of Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, or my personal favorite of that time period, (though it seems like he didn’t draw him that often then) Dick Giordano.  There was something about this era of comics, frequently titled The Bronze Age.  The stories often were dark and creepy, but not quite as nasty as today.  A friend of mine once called them “family-friendly disturbing”.   On the covers of these monthly joys, the heroes were frequently fraught, trapped in some horrifying predicament, often with that incredibly discernible facial expression that heroes weren’t supposed to have.  That of fear.  For crying out loud, Batman wasn’t supposed to be afraid of anything!  

That’s what made me buy them. (or more so my parents).

It disturbed me to see Batman with that visage on his face.  I needed to make sure The Dark Knight was going to be alright. 

I had other comics of course.  My collection was littered with tomes from The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, House of Secrets, and Justice Society among others, but the bulk of my stack was Batman.  A decent fall-back at this time was The Brave & The Bold, a monthly drawn by Jim Aparo featuring Bats partnered up with another lesser super-hero, but I preferred the original.  Oddly, they were tough to find which made their acquisitions that much more exciting.  Occasionally my mother would find one of those drug store poly-bag specials with 3 issues inside that made her the most grandest of dames on the planet for the next week.  These discoveries were largely responsible for the growth of my prized Batman compendium. 
That, and the time my parents bought me a subscription for one year as a birthday gift.  Once a month a black mylar-wrapped issue of the greatest detective’s adventures would wind up in our mailbox.  For 12 months, I checked the post daily beating my parents to the punch, racing Ginger, my beloved dog, to the mailbox.  

The golden nugget of my Batman-obilia was a Blue Ribbon digest.  Every month, DC put a new Digest out dedicated to a different hero in their arsenal.  What the Digest was was a small omnibus of stories from different eras in the character’s history.  You usually found them in the “impulse buy” section of a grocery store as you were checking out.  Let’s see, I need some Chap-stick, a Bit-O-Honey, and 5 stories about The Green Arrow.  

In December of 1980, they ran with Batman.  The weird thing was how my Mom would come home with something like that and act like it wasn’t a big deal.  This was the golden ticket, woman!  This was the Holy Grail of Shit Rob Wants!  How can you just walk in the door with bags of food from Kohl’s and just toss that out there as a secondary thing, like “oh, and I picked you up a pack of Fruit Stripe.” 

This was the most incredible thing ever!!  Except for maybe that “treasury”-sized issue with that unsettling cover.  You know the one.  Comic book dorks know the picture.  It was the nightmare fuel image of a kneeling, screaming Batman with what appears to be a dead Robin the Boy Wonder lying motionless in front of him, super-imposed on a grainy image of a laughing Ra’s Al Ghul’s face behind him…  Getting That book was tantamount to finding the ark of the covenant.  It appeared in the ads every damn month, but never on the newsstands. It passed it’s release dates without me able to acquire it, and now fetches a quarter of a million dollars on eBay. 

But the Blue Ribbon Digest was as good.  I carried this thing around with me everywhere.  On trips it was packed with my matchbox cars, Tigger, and my underwear.  At school, it was in my Batpack, checked frequently at random inspection points throughout the day.  Had to be done.  I became suspicious of schoolmates that may want to get their grubby little digits on my prized book.  I knew Everyone wanted my Blue Ribbon Digest, damn it. 

The 4 color messiahs were a guide.  They were quietly there all day long. When I found out in January of 1979 that my dad wasn’t long for the world due to that Cancer asshole, they stood up behind me and held up my middle finger to the world.  They listened when I complained and provided answers.  The newsprint of the bronze age comic was analgesic to a soul looking to dull the edge of what was presented.  There were a lot of heroes in my life, and there still are. 

But Batman, that dark cowled vigilante, was the first.  Despite the god-awful fear implanted on his face on the covers of those monthly challenges, he was back again in 30 days. 

Today he’s still there, standing in the rain looking over my shoulder, offering the calming whisper of turned pages and the glory of pencil and ink.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Spectrum Files: Sharky's Machine

When I was a boy, most of my schoolmates at Somers Elementary School wanted to be firemen or policemen.  I think I remember one tow-headed youngster wanted to be an astronaut. Another friend wanted to be a wide receiver, but only if he played for the Green Bay Packers. 

Not me, friends. 

I wanted to be a stuntman.

One evening of thousands in the Will household, I was sitting Indian-style with my bowl of ice cream in front of an action masterpiece being watched by my namesake.  I remember there was a particular movie where Burt Reynolds or some other 70’s stalwart was thrown from a moving car, rolled to his knee and fired 5 shots from a somehow functioning pistol.  

I remarked to my dad that, wow, Burt Reynolds was some tough customer for managing all that obviously incredible physical activity. 

“Well, Robby,” he said with his trademark grin, “That wasn’t Burt.”
“What?!” I shrieked incredulously, “Of course it was!,” I continued, like the complete idiot I was,  “I just saw him do that!”

My dad went on to explain the intricacies of movie magic.  How stuntmen made the movie stars look good, and editing finished the job.  I was both disappointed in Burt and excited as hell for ugly people like myself.  After all, you can get a job not only in the movies, but throwing yourself around like a lunatic.

Heck, that’s what I do 15 hours a day anyway, I remarked to myself.

Imagine.  In my way of thinking, put on some padding and learn how to fall right, and you can get paid for being 8 years old!  Holy Crap! My dad also explained that it only looked like Burt Reynolds, Peter Fonda, and Barry Newman were driving those muscle cars.  Stuntmen did that shit for them too!  What a magical world we live in!!  A job jumping off roofs, faked fisticuffs, and pushing the limits of the greatest cars known to man!!

For a job!!  A career even!!

“That’s what I’m gonna do!” I thought to myself.  From the age of 8 until I tore my first muscle, I decided I was going to be a stuntman.  I was already known around the house for not only running around on the knuckles of my feet, inducing cringes from the masses, but leaping off furniture, sliding down stairs, and climbing shit outside, just to jump back down off of it.  I even provided my own sound effects to go with it.  I’m sure in my 8 year old mind, I began to wonder where those noises came from, and if I could pull double duty as a stunt-sound effects wizard.  I often stole dialogue from my favorite movies for the shadow boxing that took place in the back yard. This was pre-martial arts, so I began to think I could fight the baddest of movie bad guys. Heck, if stuntmen did the falling and driving the cars, I’m sure someone threw their punches too!!!

As a side note, Incidentally, as a younger kid there was a short film about stuntmen with a butt-kicker of a finale that my mom would always let me know was on. (For some reason, this brief thing aired in afternoons on occasion in The Midwest.)  It was hosted, I believe, by a celebrity like Steve McQueen or Robert Blake. I don't know, it's there and it's gone.  I've searched for hours over periods of years looking online for it, and damn if I can't find it.

Anyway, I became a stunt production designer in my own back yard.  Antenna towers became skyscrapers.  Picnic tables were stand-ins for boats.  The sandbox became quicksand. The AC unit was battlefield cover. Every surface and mildly large object also became something to be shot, punched, kicked, or blown off of, screaming to my imaginary (and tiny-distanced) doom. 

My imagination was my best friend for the moment, but someday, I was going to be stupid enough to drive a car off of a cliff. 

A few years later, after dad had passed, my dream of being a stuntman stayed.  One Saturday evening Spectrum aired Sharky’s Machine.  Another opus from Mr. Reynolds.  The movie has a bit of a cult following today.  It’s not among the most famous of Burt’s oeuvre, though it’s definitely one of his better films.  However, it may have the greatest stunt ever pulled off in a Burt Reynolds movie. 

Dar Robinson’s jump.

Dar Robinson was, and is still seen as, the greatest movie stuntman in history.   In “Sharky’s Machine” he doubles for the villain, who after being shot by Reynolds’ titular Sharky, goes out the window of the 220 foot high Atlanta Regency Hotel and drops down.

To this day, the highest live fall used in a film from a building. For some reason, they only used the part where Dar goes through the window initially, and then it cuts to a dummy for the rest of the fall.   He still made the drop though, and that is pure-cane insane. (He had previously bested that for the movie “Highpoint”, where he dropped 770 feet.  That, however, was off the CN Tower in Canada).

As far as Sharky's Machine goes, wow!.... As a kid, I thought that was the coolest thing ever, crashing through a window and dropping that far?  Dang!  (Yes, I thought the word “Dang” in my head).

After a lull in the action-movie intake, that film rekindled my love of the work of the stuntmen.  

Sadly Dar Robinson was tragically killed, not on a movie set, but in a motorcycle accident.  The world is cruel sometimes. 

In another show of the world’s cruelty, I never became a stuntman.   Though I have pulled some pretty cool stunts in my life.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bound to the Past: The Incredible Hulk

I'm getting older, but I still love comic books.  I love them every bit as much as I did when I was ten years old, Marvel and DC alike. Batman, The Hulk, The Flash, and Captain America.  The four color messiahs.  The new stuff's cool and all, but I still lean back into that "bronze" age as it's called, probably more for the nostalgia of it, but there it is.  My enjoyment of the medium is unchanged.

Too bad everything else about me is aging.

About 5 years ago my eyesight, until that point an easy 20/20, went to shit.  Suddenly, almost overnight, text messages on my iPhone were blurry.  I had to squint to read novels and magazines. Menus were becoming an adventure.

"I'll have the fried mussels."
"Sir, that says the menu was printed in Brussels."

What the hell was going on here?

I suddenly felt like my mother, who I once took this book to for spelling clarification...

"Ma, what's that word there?"
"Ah, hell, I can't read that!" she replied reaching for her glasses.

Now I can't either.  Seriously.   Even with readers on it's a struggle to make out the damn microscopic print on the sacred panels of this book.   The book discussed here is Volume 1 of the Marvel Comics paperback, "The Incredible Hulk" which compiles the first 6 issues of the great green beast's adventures in one stupidly tiny paperback.

These things, these amazing dead sea scrolls of books gone by weren't available just anywhere, you know. You had to make a pilgrimage to one of "them malls" to get one.  In this case, Northridge Mall in Southern Wisconsin, which I believe was located somewhere in the Himalayan mountains just between Valhalla and K'un Lun.  That's what I thought at the time anyway.

Remember that?  Remember The Mall?

Before the internet, before Amazon, there was this magical place called The Mall, and within its grand confines were places like Waldenbooks, Camelot, Sam Goody, and B. Dalton, where things you didn't even know existed could be purchased.  I found AC/DC imports at these places.  There were Starlogs and Mad Magazines.  There were Razzles and Marathon bars. I found Matchbox cars that looked like the 69 Dodge Charger Peter Fonda drove  in "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry", by God.

And I found the paperbacks of dreams.  Now, the old Batman compendium I still have is non-linear and non-specific in its chosen reprints,  but the panels were large enough that my old ass can still read them today.

Too bad they're black and white.

However, the Marvel ones now take an effort just as superhuman as old green-skin himself to read. But they're in color. What a paralyzing trade-off.

It's hell getting old.  Now I feel like my mom did, visually flailing away at these miniscule words that only a kid can see, but is too young to read or at the very least understand.  Bumbling to make out the images of Jack Kirby's seminal art.  But I tell you in all truthfulness, this book is every bit as cool as it was 37 years ago when I first got it.

No, you can't have it.

Is that the trade off the universe gives you?  You suddenly start to really appreciate the things you took for granted as a kid.  The wonder of comic book art.  Through a painful squint or expensive eyeglass prescription.  The power chords that were cool as hell are now are legendary, but surrounded by the tinnitus you obtained in your 20 hard years of labor in the printing industry.  The amazing spin kicks in Kung Fu movies that inspired you to take martial arts classes, that if you attempted now would result in you throwing your back out like a dumbass.

The powers that be giveth perspective as they take away, but who knows, maybe it helps you appreciate things all the more. That's what I'm trying to do.

Now where are my glasses, damn it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Spectrum Files: Volume 2: The Pursuit of DB Cooper

It started on a Saturday night. My wife and daughter were off for a school play, while my son and I were staying home watching "Open Range", a Kevin Costner film starring himself and Robert Duvall.  A loud bark and howl from outside began with the opening frames of the western, and did not cease until long after bed.  This continued for weeks and still happens from time to time to this day.  This dog is a beast. 

It's like the Hound of the Baskervilles across the moors.  I ventured out a couple of times during the early days of this barking blitzkrieg to try to find out if it was the same dog that my wife and I had both spotted running free throughout the neighborhood in recent weeks. I have no doubt it's the same as his first appearance of the evening is typically juxtaposed with the opening salvos of the dog's nightly vocal attack. 

Typically his verbal monotony ventures away from me upon approach, so I know it's a wanderer and not a noisy canine belonging to a thoughtless neighbor. I get close, but never close enough. Eventually I was forced to call the police. When that failed at least three times I called the local office of animal control.  They told me that they only work days, but they'd try to help in any way possible by coming out and looking for a loose dog or holes in fences.  Obviously, no go on that.  This dog has become uncatchable.  A pair of thug-like dogs in this town had achieved the nickname of "Bonnie & Clyde" in recent history, which made me want to nickname this escaped troublemaker who seems to avoid capture. 

I dubbed him DB Cooper.

If you're unfamiliar with Mr. Cooper's work, in the 70's he stole somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars.  He then hijacked a commercial airliner, parachuted off the plane somewhere over the pacific northwest with said cash, and was never captured.  His FBI case remained open until sometime last year.  Cooper was a false moniker, of course, and I guess that's irrelevant as no one knows his real name either.  He's in the wind forever if he survived.

One morning in the very early 80's  I awoke before the house, made my way to the Sylvania console and turned on Spectrum.  The first film of the day was a Roger Spottiswoode-helmed action flick entitled "The Pursuit of DB Cooper".  This movie also starred the affore-mentioned Robert Duvall as a grizzled Insurance adjuster in search of the money.  Now, mind you, this whole film is fiction, and a brief narration states such at the outset just before Cooper, played by Treat Williams, (a hell of an actor whose entire career seems fraught with either poor choices or bad representation), makes his legendary leap. 

The rest of the film is one long extended chase scene involving Williams and Duvall, Kathryn Harrold as the Cooper character's wife, and Paul Gleason as a sketchy, filthy, bum.  It really is a film that feels and looks of it's time and has it's share of fun moments...

Including what may be the worst overdubbing of all time when Duvall, just after slamming Gleason back into the trunk of a car calls him a "motherjumpin' snake dick."  I get it if you're editing for TV, I've actually seen worse in that regard.  However,  I believe these folks were going for the PG, as if you read Robert's lips, that is clearly not what he was saying at the moment of filming.

That bit of language has come out of my mouth in years past, and to this day, especially when trying to locate this stupid bellowing canine to help the local law enforcement give this neighborhood some peace.  By the way, I know the neighbors seek quiet too, as the complaints have shown up aplenty on my burb's Nextdoor page on multiple occasions. 

Sadly, (and exhaustingly) much like his namesake, DB Cooper has not been caught. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Bound to the Past: Volume 3: Lucan

There’s nothing more frustrating than a TV show that can’t find a night. Truly, that’s the network’s fault.  “Firefly”, one of the greatest television shows ever filmed was ineptly handled by its network, Fox, and never had a chance. It bounced around the week, then got pink-slipped.  The same can be said for other shows as well.  Guilty as charged,  good ol' Fox mishandled the great “Brimstone” in 1993.  

Seinfeld was barely even watched when its first season completed, but NBC thought there was enough there to give it a shot and the rest is history.  One of the, if not THE, greatest sitcoms of all time. 

Those days are gone.

In this day and age, viewers have the ability to see when a show is struggling thanks to the power of the internet and instant ratings results.  They often get involved in a struggling show’s attempts at survival.  Constantine and Hannibal are examples of shows that have fan bases who took to the internet in massive campaigns to attempt to save their show, to no avail.

Lucan, airing in 1977 and 1978 had one of the weirdest broadcast schedules ever.  With a premier in September of 77, and two months until the second episode, it was hard to get in to it.  Then it took a month off after it aired for 5 weeks straight.  Who the hell was running the show down there at ABC anyway?  This program never had a chance.  Even with maybe 4 operational channels in a given area, how could a person find the damn thing?

Less than 12 episodes ran. Hardly a case study for a successful launch.   In any case, Lucan was a show about a boy who had been raised by wolves, and the drama that enfolded his reintroduction into society.   It starred Kevin Brophy as the seminal character.  Its debut was a made for TV movie that someone saw enough potential in that they decided to sell it to series, although it appears that they jumped ship like it was on fire after that point.  Ned Beatty, Stockard Channing and John Randolph were all involved in this, and I wish for the love of God that I could remember it better.  The reason?  Because from all accounts when you pissed ol’ Lucan off, his eyes glowed amber, and he, as the theatre instructor in Teen Wolf put it, would “Wolf up, Wolf out, uh… Wolf it”. 

The show went off the air quickly, and I remember being hugely disappointed.  I was 6, what did I know?  So I talked my Dad into buying me the novelization of the pilot movie.  What the hell was I thinking?  How was I going to read this thing at that age?  I eventually did a few years later, long after having lost interest, because I was bored. 

It’s a bye gone era, the era of the novelization. They still exist to an extent,  but it’s not the same.  Before there were VCRs, you could go to the grocery store and buy the paperback version of the movie you saw at the theatre that you were so in love with.  It was a way to keep the images alive in your mind as a kid.  For me, Lucan was the first example of many to come. I was a huge novelization fan.

By the by, if you’re into novelizations, (or were) check this out: 

And despite 40 years gone by, and only 12 episodes airing, someone still cares (this is a pretty sharp site, actually)

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Bound to the Past #2: Strange Unsolved Mysteries

Volume 2: Strange Unsolved Mysteries

As a kid, I was an explorer.  On a small scale, I ventured.  I often found myself alone wandering the house, inspecting corners, looking into cabinets, behind curtains, through yards big and small.  Paying sharp attention to the small details.

It was a quiet path, but one I enjoyed.  At our house in Somers, Wisconsin, we had a tuft of miniature woods, a small but dense affair that stretched about 10 yards in diameter.  It hardly qualified as a forest, but the thickness of it would drop the temperature about 10 degrees when you stepped into it. I loved to run into its small opening to hide from an idiotic uncle with a tickle-fetish when he came over.  The knoll sat within viewing distance of the ogre's car, and I could peer back through the brush toward the house, waiting for him to leave.

Sometimes time would go by slowly in this pensive game, but I had a couple of collections in there to keep me busy.  I would often go on long walks next to the train tracks with my Dad, way too deep in his thoughts,  collecting empty shot gun cells and vintage bottle caps.  He let me keep them, and let me know that was okay with his crooked grin and brush of the hair.  The yellow shells were hard to come by, those were the piece de resistance.

It was in this patch of woods that I stored this for inspection and organization.

In colder months, when outside wasn't an option,  I'd wander into the basement.  There the tool area, the rec room, and the basement were areas to stroll, think, and look.  One afternoon I wandered into the rec room, adorned with ultra-thick texture paint, drop ceiling, hand-made bar and an extra bathroom.  Looking around, I spotted a small paperback book that must have belonged to my older sister, Linda.

The cover struck me as creepy, but I was interested by the title, "Strange Unsolved Mysteries".  It was a collection of "true-life" short stories involving hauntings, strange creatures, eerie coincidences, and ESP.  It was of it's era for sure, as my Dad also had books on paranormal and extraterrestrial dealings that I'd wander through.  Paperback copies of "The Late Great Planet Earth", "The Bermuda Triangle", and "Chariots of the Gods" lay about the house.  This item, however, was a combo of all of them, but a Scholastic PG version for young adolescents with short attention spans.

I was stunned by these stories.  This shit was real!  

A small town in Texas was the locale for a strange yellow blob that scientists couldn't categorize!  A plane crash avoided due to a dream!  A picture drawn that was the exact visage of something someone else saw years before!  Terrifying cryptids!!  Good Lord, this stuff needed to be investigated!  If it came from a book order in Weekly Reader, it had to be true!!

It was at that point that I began to draw an interest in Sasquatch,  Loch Ness, hauntings, and shifty-eyed people.   Though I was years ahead in the reading department ( I think I would go on to read "Mandingo" and "Jaws"  in the third grade,  "The Shining", and "Amityville" in the fourth), I was probably too young to read this stuff and infer what was needed.  As a result, I took it way too seriously.  Being a viewer of "In Search Of" and "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom", I began to see cryptozoological wonders in every corner, UFOs next to all stars, ...ghosts behind every click and creak.

I only saw these great mysteries in the walls of my home and the plot of our land, and the adventurous territories of my mind, enhanced by these books and television shows.

Going forward, my eyes continued to always be wide open, as all young explorers' are.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Tears of the Dragon

I grew up a huge Bruce Lee fan.  As I've waxed on here before about him being a nice surrogate for the eradication of the bullying in my life as a kid from childhood to adolescent youngster.   He was gone long before I became a fan, as he passed away when I was two.

Not many two year olds attending screenings of "Fist of Fury", though that's probably something that should happen, if I have anything to say about it.

Bruce has become known for far more than his movie stardom as time has gone by.  He has become largely regarded for furthering martial arts beyond its "classical mess" status, creating a hybrid form of the science he referred to as Jeet Kune Do, which is still studied and taught today.  He was a deep philosophical thinker and many of his own creations are deeply felt and repeated.

Be Water, My Friend.

Emotional content, not anger.

He inspired me into the two plus years of martial arts study that I wrapped myself up in, not just the films I saw him in growing up, but reading "The Tao of Jeet Kune Do" and his famous letters and other writings about training your mind.  I've have engaged in some, and am still trying to incorporate more of the wisdom....

It's hard rewiring an old house, but not impossible.  I started in my 30's, and am still a work in progress.

But without The Little Dragon, I may not have even begun.

As a kid thinking back, I used to get sad when I'd remember that he was gone.  He was 32, and like Jimi Hendrix, Roberto Clemente, and Anton Yelchin, had a hell of a lot more to give.   If I think much about it, it can still tear me up to this day.  So I try to focus on the positives the man brought to the ethereal table in his flicker on this plane.

He also brought us his son, who was trying to carry on that flame.

Brandon Bruce Lee died on this date in 1993 from an unfortunate and unnecessary gunshot wound on the set of "The Crow".  That movie is demonstrably melancholy, and coupled with Brandon's passing while trying to bring James O'Barr's graphic novel on grief and recovery to life, the film contains power few movies have.  I can name maybe 3 other movies that have hit me in that place.

By all accounts Brandon was as wise as his father, if far less intense.  In interviews he had a calm demeanor coupled with a self-deprecating humor that was as charming as the smile he and his father both flashed like a sword.  He seemed to carry a more relaxed angle on life and peace, though I'm sure Bruce and he had the same views on where the world should be as a whole.

He didn't explode onto the scene as much as back into it.  After having the lead in one Hong Kong action film, "Legacy of Rage", he starred in an updating of the television series, "Kung Fu" (I won't go into the irony there) before roles in smaller films "Laser Mission" and "Showdown in Little Tokyo".   They were lackluster affairs that still showed his potential screen presence, if little else.

Then came "Rapid Fire"

Brandon was wicked good at Kung Fu.  he may not have been dad by a long shot, but he could get it done.  What Brandon brought to the table was choreography heavily influenced by legend Jackie Chan. I was excited by a martial arts persona more than I had since I was a kid.  Then I had read in an article that he had been given the lead in Alex Proyas' upcoming film, "The Crow".

He died without much shooting left for his character. That's why the film, after being in turnaround a couple of times, was finally finished and released.

There was no martial arts in "The Crow"... It was unabashed id.  Melancholy and rage dripped from every frame of the movie, and Brandon's death only seemed to burn it into the images on screen.  If there ever was a movie for a person so immersed in hurt, so unflagging in their sorrow, it's "The Crow".  It may not be medicine for when you feel that way, but at at least a person can know someone identifies with them when they're in that place.

It's uncertain to me if that's a good thing, though.  As powerful as "The Crow" is, it sadly acts as a reminder of how good Lee was.  He could act. He was far more than a martial arts icon.  His performance is on par with the rest of the film, morose, longing, and on the edge.

It seems to be grief encapsulated.  "The Crow" shows there is no answer for the wrongs of the world, why this young man had to die so young, on screen and off.  The film seems to underline the ridiculous uncertainty and ultimate unfairness wrought by the world, while being a vile, black example of it at the same time.

And then you remember his father died mysteriously of a cerebral edema himself in 1973, 20 years prior.  Two strange, unfair, out of nowhere losses of two people, father and son, who had so much to give and were just ready to start unleashing it on a global level.

As much joy as these two men gave me, the disappointment at what could have been starts to creep over it.

But I have to remember:  They wouldn't want me to think that way, they wouldn't want anyone to think that way.

So I don't.  Not for as long as I probably would have, had it not been for them.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bound to the Past #1

I had never gotten the chance to see "The Empire Strikes Back" theatrically. Life was as Billy Crystal's Fernando called it, "Crazy-go-nuts". My Dad, who had taken several of us to see the original "Star Wars" in its initial run, had passed away. There wasn't time to go "to the show" anymore during that period, really.

I did catch "Empire" theatrically in a re-release sometime in the summer of 1981 in Marshfield, Wisconsin, but that, my friends, is truly irrelevant and sadly anti-climactic.

Anyway, in a drug store somewhere, my Mom and I had stumbled across a paperback-sized version of the Marvel Comics graphic-novel styled novelization. I was exceedingly thrilled. At least I would know what the hell happened. I guess you could call what I was feeling relief, really.   I began reading it on the ride home, and thanked my dear mother about 235 times in the process.

When discussing the epic film (which has since become my favorite in the long-winded series) at school with my chums, I would now at least know what the Hoth I was talking about. I still acted as though I had seen the film going forward. For the opposite to be true would be a disgrace.

Several years prior, I had an over sized (what comic book nerfherders call "Treasury-sized") edition of the whole Marvel schpiel of the original 1977 classic. I loved that thing. I brutalized it in the process. Alas, at the age of 6, you didn't prospect comic books, man. You read the damn things.

Over and Over.

I can now glowingly re-read that masterpiece thanks to Frank and Mary, my mother and father-in-law, as last Christmas they purchased me the entire thing in a glorious hardbound edition. When I re-read it, I physically experienced an explosive wave of nostalgia. I wish there was a single-word encapsulation of that emotion. Sorry I can't do that for you, but my regret is overcome by my sadness at my own verbal ineptitude.

The "Empire" paperback isn't quite as cool as the original, but it still means a lot to me to this day. Great work by writer Archie Godwin, whose name comes up to this day as creator of the great Luke Cage character, a superhero who has a great show running on Netflix.  The pencils by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon were pretty slick. Yeoman's work by all 3 gentleman.

I also loved the paperback size as opposed to the Treasury, it's one distinct advantage. For that sizing made lugging it around easier and less damaging.  After all, this was the melding of Comic Books and the Star Wars universe, and it aint to be played with.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Spectrum Files #1: In Which I Salute Chuck Barris

Volume 1:  The Gong Show Movie

Not too long ago my wife and I sat down to watch George Clooney's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind".  It's the supposed autobiographical journey of one Chuck Barris. 

Yes, he of "The Gong Show" fame.  

Now it's pretty well known that he wrote the hit song "Palisades Park" that Freddy Cannon made famous and was a game show genius producer being behind "The Dating Game" among others including "The Gong Show".  What this film (based upon Barris' own book) is trying to tell you is that besides all of those credit-deserving ventures, he was once a highly successful assassin for the CIA. 

I won't give any more credence to that voluminous tidbit other than acknowledging that it made for a hell of a premise and an even greater movie. 

As a kid in the early 80's Spectrum showcased "The Gong Show Movie".  I was completely confused, as other than catching a few moments at the end of an episode that was an early evening lead-in to prime time television, I had never seen the show.  (Later when my parents eventually got cable, I caught some reruns on the fledgling USA Network, however.)

The movie mystified it me.  The premise of "The Gong Show Movie" is that it is a fictional week in the life of Barris, as he tries to put together episodes of the show for impending broadcast.  I remember a lot of weird things happening including bizarre auditions,  Jaye P. Morgan with a ridiculous strip-tease, and a "Doors"-like venture into the desert as a result of a nervous breakdown for Mr. Barris.  Also, one of the auditioners sang a song about legalizing prostitution that his wife danced to, resulting in my friend and I getting into trouble for singing later.

Hey, I had no idea what we were singing about. I was 10. 

I didn't make much out of the film other than the fact that Barris was a really strange guy.  Overall,  he confused me as a kid, entertained me as a teen later in those affore-mentioned reruns, and then completely had me twisted around as an adult thanks to "Confessions".  

What an INSANE story!!  CIA??  Really?  I think he claimed something like the CIA never came down on him for speaking up, as no one would believe him anyway.  Seems unlikely,  but I digress.

Chuck Barris passed away this past week at the age of 87.  Say what you will about the man, but he accomplished several lifetimes worth of craziness (minus the CIA assassinations, you include those, it's a whole nother story) in his single one.  Plus, he made me laugh. I will always see him doing that repetitive and predictable clap that the audience did with him as he introduced guests.  I'm sure they did it out of insult and affection both.  The way he tipped his head back during the intros like Drew Brees does just before a throw.  The difference being I think Barris' eyes were closed. 

I guess you could say I admire him in a weird way for all of that, and he entertained millions during his lengthy show biz career.  I'm no Chuck Barris expert, but I know a dynamo when I see one. 

Now here's some Gene Gene the Dancing Machine:  (For a late 70's variety show, the editing here is big-league)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Spectrum Files

Growing up in Southern Wisconsin, "out in the county" as it was referred to by family and friends, caused limitations.  As gorgeous as the surroundings were, the limitations could be irritating in the entertainment department for a kid my age.

It's not like there was never anything to watch, though.

This was the early 80's, well before most had cable television.  Mind you, we picked up Chicago's 5 & 7, NBC and ABC affiliates respectively, with Milwaukee's 4 and 12 doing the same.  CBS was channel 6 out of Milwaukee and remained that way until it converted to Fox in the 90's. (VHF upstart 58 took CBS reins at that point.)  With the benefit of a rotary antenna towering some 12,000 feet above our house, excellent reception of these channels was almost never an issue.

Speaking of VHF, Chicago's 32 and 44, coupled with Milwaukee's 24 and 18 brought some other options, which is where a lot of my early movie watching  and cartoon connosieuring were derived from.  Black Belt Theatre, Svengoolie, and Creature Feature were awesomeness personified. (a certain joy was brought to me this last Christmas season when I found that Svengoolie is still alive and kicking and carried on ME TV, in all it's syndicated glory, down here in my current home in Texas.)   Mind you, I was about 10 or 11 at the time in Wisconsin, and had no clue what I was looking for to expand my viewing horizons.

One day in the fall of 1981 my parents decided to get Spectrum TV.  Spectrum was, along with ONTV, and SelecTV, also available at the time, a one channel movie subscription option.  Spectrum was broadcast from UHF Channel 66 located on the John Hancock center in Chicago.  You had to buy a descrambler box and pay a monthly subscription fee to receive the signal unfettered.

Spectrum was a mixture of first-run movies, uncut older films, and an "after midnight" viewing window that featured "adult" material.  (It wasn't all what you're thinking, however).  After the late night adult/cutting edge material ended, the channel shut down until the next morning.  Some woman doing calisthenics for 20 minutes opened the following broadcast day, before the channel itself took the air.

Initially I was disappointed in that first month. The featured movie was "The Four Seasons", and Alan Alda/Carol Burnett opus, that did not really fit my demographic.  Nothing else that month must have been very watchable either, for I don't remember anything beyond that.  I complained to my brother who told me that I "never appreciate anything".

"I don't appreciate the smell of marijuana in my pajamas either, Einstein, but we can discuss that later",  I replied.

 I'm sure he smacked me or put me in an arm bar or something at that point.  Whatever.

What I didn't know at that age as I watched Spectrum, often by myself, was that the programmer must have been some kind of cinephile genius.  Yes, I'm sure they had to satisfy a sales department, which explained a lot of the first-run claptrap that aired on there. But hidden in-between the cracks, between the "attraction" showings were a lot of what current movie afficianados call gems. (Remember, this was 1981.  Dude (or dudette) was way ahead of their time.

Spectrum was where I first saw Bruce Lee's The Big Boss, the seminal horror works of Wes Craven, long before Nightmare on Elm Street, and the current cult diamond Vice Squad, among tons of others which I will wax nostalgic about here on my blog.  But it wasn't just low budget action/horror fare that filled it's time slots. Here I saw Fantastic Planet in its bizarre animated glory, as well as the German nightmare fuel drama, The Tin Drum, which still has me disturbed to this day.  Was I ready for some of this stuff?  Probably not, but a whole world was opening to me.  I was watching foreign gems like the Jean-Paul Belmondo flick, High Heels, Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!, and the almost-forgotten but still cult Australian flick The Long Weekend. 

Sometimes windows of time will be filled by short films, like Sam Raimi's student film Cleveland Smith (Indiana Jones parody), a bizarre short film with Don King in it, among many others.

Did I have any clue what I was watching half the time?

Probably not.

However, I think my love of cinema was deeply refined by the (possibly too intense) cinematic primer I was getting from that programming genius down at Spectrum.

Anyway, I will be writing reviews and rememberances of the films I viewed on Spectrum here on the blog, and an inkling of how the film affected my young psyche.  Yes, you will wonder how responsible my parents were for letting a 10 year old kid watch Last House on the Left or Shogun Assassin by himself, but I'm grateful I had the opportunity.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Rob, The Fights Are On

November 1982:   I never even considered boxing, really.

 As a kid, not at all.....But one day, out of the corner of my eye I saw a couple of dudes boxing on the television screen. I believe it was an Alexis Arguello/Aaron Pryor fight.

Out of both curiosity and a wanting to bond, I asked my dad "Who you going for?"

"Neither, really. They're both really good fighters. I just want to see how this plays out."

I was in.

I watched one hell of a fight that Saturday afternoon, one that would be the first of many. Hundreds probably.   I took a seat on the floor to the left of my Dad's recliner, comic books in hand, and absorbed.

The man taught me everything he knew about the fight game, which was a lot. He observed like an objective scientist, taking in the art of it all, while I usually found someone to root for, because that was how my mind worked. Like a moron, I usually asked one too many questions, and got the old chestnut: "Rob, I'm trying to hear the commentary!" which was followed by a knowing glance of sympathy with a twist of "You oughta know" from my Mom.  But this boxing tutelage was among the great unfolding stories of my life.

Dad loved the game. "The Sweet Science", it was poetically called, and I love that phrasing for it. Unlike today's MMA, boxing has a balletic approach, at least when it's done right. There's a strategy, a humming fluidity to it, a savage beauty, that is amplified over it's sometime brutality.

There are rules, he told me decades before UFC, there is an artful game plan.

We did this every Saturday.  I learned and chose sides for the names of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini (who brought me to a conscience-twisting moment, as an opponent of his died after hitting his head on the ring apron during a knockdown), Bobby Chacon, Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whittaker, Johnny "Bump City" Bumphus, and dozens more.

One night I was an impromptu drink and snack server when my Dad got the Larry Holmes/Gerry Cooney pay-per-view from good old Spectrum TV, for a houseful of his buddies.  I pulled for the "Great Irish Hope", but like many before him, "The Easton Assassin" slowly destroyed him.  It wasn't nearly as embarrassing as the demolition of Randall "Tex" Cobb a few years later, but it was ugly nonetheless.

I had a great time that night, as several of my Dad's friends, in concert with the Old Man himself, tried to teach me the point system and how to apply it to what I was watching.  Sadly, round after round went to The Assassin.  As a kid, I abhored cockiness, and Holmes embodied it.  I still don't care for that to this day.  I roll with humble.  Can't help it.

He provided me with fight ads and a cool Sugar Ray Leonard for my bedroom door.  On a sales trip, he had gotten a rain check with Gerry Quarry's signature on it.  It said "To Dick, Keep Punchin'".  But Quarry's chicken scratch looked like "Kelp Porcini" instead.  I initially thought it may have been a case of the once great pugilist sharing a recipe suggestion for Seaweed Mushrooms.  But I digress.

God, my Dad was wizened in this sport.  He explained footwork, both good and bad, the necessity of a good jab, how the right hook is, while not a desperation move, one to hold in reservation.  He related how petroleum jelly was used to stop bleeding, how swelling was reduced so the fighters could see despite it.  I was schooled in The Standing 8, the referee's taking points for low blows, the TKO, and the reasons for fight stoppage. He had an eerie ability to predict the outcome of the fight, and why it was going to happen.

"He's dropping his right, Rob. He's gonna take one on the chin."

"He's getting tired, he needs to clinch to the bell."

"That's it. He's got a glass jaw."

Dad wasn't just a technician, the man was a history teacher.

I learned of The Greatest, Ali.  His words, his political stance, both the butterfly and the bee.  Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Marciano.  Man, the stories my Dad told.  I wanted to see those fighters so bad, as the tales he told of their ring exploits, the vim and vigor of their skills, had me on the edge of my seat. He told me about Cus D'Amato, trainer extraordinaire, and about Don King and Bob Arum, promoters who turned boxing into the million dollar extravaganza it became.

He was a guru, and I his padawan. I'll never forget any of the things he shared with me for the rest of my life.

This went on for years.  Through the 80's, we chuckled at the "Heavyweight Champion of the Month" as no fighter was good enough to keep what appeared to be a hot potato.  We had personal bets on Mike Weaver, Greg Page, Michael Dokes, Pinklon Thomas, Tim Witherspoon.  No one was good enough to hold the damn title until we together watched the rise of Mike Tyson and his inevitable fall.

Even up through High School, where ESPN brought their names into the boxing hat, and my Dad and I watched the fights with great regularity.  I still remember the Doug DeWitt/Tony Thornton barnburner that had our hearts pounding, and how exciting that was.  A USBA middleweight title fight, DeWitt took it in 13, an extra round fought due to the draw at the end of 12.
My Dad and I marveled at DeWitt's heart, as he put on what I felt was one of the sport's great comebacks of all time.  We looked at each other after that one like we had just witnessed history. That was probably my senior year in High School and may have been the last fight we watched together.

I haven't watched boxing in a long time.  I moved away from home the day after graduation from High School, and have tried to watch the fights on a couple of occasions, but without Pop telling me how it is, it's not the same.  I couldn't get my son Aidan to watch boxing with me, as I had always dreaming of passing the symbolic fight book on, but that was a no-go.  However, the mutual love of cinema that my son and I share did indeed make a connection.  I took my boy to see "Rocky Balboa" when it came out a few years back and we toasted Cokes to his grandpa afterwards.  If not for my Dad and our mutual love of the sport, I'd have never seen the original. I reminded Aidan of that, and we both love that film for multiple reasons, not just its ability to return past glory to the faded franchise.

I miss Dad so much.  I lost him a little over a year ago, and it still stings.  Just this last year "Hands of Stone", a biopic about Roberto Duran, and the Vinny Pazienza story, "Bleed For This" were both released and all I could think about was how bad I wanted to take Dad to the movies.  Not too long back, my wife and I were at a book store and they had a great deal on a gorgeous hardbound history of boxing.  I wept a bit when I it dawned on me, only after having the book in my hands and getting ready to buy it for him, that he was gone.  I was so excited at the thought of giving it to him, my mind didn't want to deny the moment.

It's a strange thing, boxing.  Especially being an unexpected connection between a young man and his new Dad.  But it worked, and it was a glue that acted as a bond.

There's a line in "City Slickers" that Daniel Stern executes with the perfection that only he can:

"But when I was 18, and my Dad and I couldn't communicate about anything at all, we could always talk about baseball. Now that--that was real."

Interject boxing for baseball, and there you have it.  When I'd call him in years gone by and beat around the bush for advice, we could always talk fights.  He kept up after I had gone, as it was his favorite sport.  Long after I had graduated, years after my sister and I had bought him a gold boxing glove to go along with the Italian horn and hand that hung from a chain around his neck, decades after I had so proudly bought him a subscription to "Ring" magazine for Christmas, he stayed with it. He still knew the game, regaling me with how quick this one was, the power another one had.

A thing that brought us together, a confirming thread, also provided a space filler, an ice-breaker, through to the end.

Don't worry, we always got to the advice when we spoke, those golden words, he spun through his footwork, as he danced in the ring around our conversations.  Throwing jabs of fight stories, clinching me with boxing memories, until he finally landed the knockout punch of what I needed to hear.

We always got there.

He was a great fighter.