Sunday, January 29, 2006

My Sunday Feeling

It is another insanely unseasonable day here in the People’s Republic of Hillcrest. We finally got a good soaking rain all day yesterday. But the sun is back out today. Rick and I played golf Friday afternoon in our shirtsleeves. Birds are singing. A guy was out running without a shirt while I was out there earlier. Girls are riding bikes in shorts.

This is late January and the trees are trying to bud. I spent most of last week without a voice after suffering my spring allergy attack 2 months early. I guess this means that I can look forward to maybe one or two more of these episodes before the summer. One of my old musician friends is trying to get me to start singing again. We shall have to see how the old throat does the next couple of months. This is the craziest winter I can recall. You can’t sing if you can’t talk. We shall see.

By the way, I noticed that I could talk again for the first time in a week after shaking hands with Bro. Richard at the Catholic High basketball game Friday night. This may be the first case in recorded history where a Protestant has been healed by the touch of a Franciscan Brother. I can’t rule it out. Or as my mother was fond of saying when I was growing up, “You don’t know that it’s not true.” Which of course, by her way of thinking made it true. It is also true that we have some grist for the Sunday mill. So let’s get to it.

A Death Notice- You know you are about to read something out of the ordinary when the first sentence of the e-mail says, “OK, you know here’s the strangest way to start your weekend that we have had for awhile.” My brother Dave had received a letter from our father’s Cousin Jack out in California. It was a funeral notice for his oldest son that stated that he died on January 2 and was buried on January 6 in Lake Havasu City, Nevada. On the back of the envelope was written “Spread the word. Jack.”

That was it. No note, no cause of death. Nothing. As Dave said, “Despite the years and the miles Jack never fails to impress with his weirdness.” That’s typical Jack. A card carrying member of the John Birch Society, he worked for a defense contractor out in the Los Angeles area. He had rococo if not paranoid beliefs about the banking system and the stock market which he would regale you with for hours if you gave him the slightest provocation. He had charts and graphs that he painstakingly scribbled on in which he tracked “market trends.” This was his system. This was going to be his ticket out of wage slavery.

Like many troubled and quarrelsome men, the women in his life were saints. His mother Lee was a tiny woman -4 ft. 10 inches-who lived in a house over on Booker Street between the Oyster Bar and Lamar Porter Field not too far from here. He had been adopted by Lee and her husband Noel who was a lawyer for Arkansas Power and Light. She gave me Uncle Noel’s law books when I came back from law school. They are in my bookcase still. Lee liked to play the piano and go bowling. Jack’s wife Fran was-is? Who knows? Maybe she’s dead too.-a kind woman who always had a smile on her face. How Aunt Lee and Fran tolerated Jack’s smooth running craziness truly passes understanding.

The last time I saw or spoke to Jack was around 1985 or so. He and Fran had come to Little Rock to close down the house after Aunt Lee had died. I went over to visit them one night out at the old place. Fran was sitting by herself in the dining room. Jack was sitting in the living room. They were eating hot dogs for dinner. Jack had a Neil Diamond album on the old record player. He offered me a beer. I noticed about 4 empties on the floor next to Uncle Noel’s chair.

“You like Neil Diamond?” he asked, handing me a beer.

“Yes. I like Neil Diamond very much.” I lied back.

About that time the first ponderous chords of “Coming to America” came wafting through.

“I love this song.” Jack said. “You know, anybody that can write a song like this is a great American.”

I allowed as how I had always thought of Neil Diamond in those terms as well.

“ Damn right, he is.” Jack said. “You’re damn right.”

And then he started singing.

After “Coming to America” had finished, he turned the volume down so we could talk.

“So,” I said. “You guys want to go out? Want to do something?”

“Thanks, but no.” Jack said. “This is what we do every night.”

“I’m not following you.”

“We sit in separate rooms and I play music.”

“What does she do?”

“She listens in the other room.”

““And you do this every night?” I looked at Fran behind the glass doors of the dining room. She shrugged and smiled.

“Pretty much.”

He took a sip of his beer. He squinted at me.
“What? Is there something weird about that?” he asked with a hint of malevolence in his voice.

“Nooooooooo.” I said. “Nothing at all.”

I left shortly after that exchange. I have never spoken to him since.

Dave has more of Mother in him than I do. He’s actually going to call out there to see what happened to Michael. He’s a better man than I am. I try to limit my unforced contacts with crazy people.

He had better catch him before 7 p.m. PST. Otherwise, he may have “Cracklin’ Rosie” in the background while he conveys his sympathy.

Wally- I haven’t written much lately about Wally Hall, the mostly illiterate editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I try to be fair around here and I think that Wally hasn’t been too bad. I expressed these thoughts to my youngest brother the other night.

“You need to shoot yourself.” he said.

Well, the Wally Hall we know and love was back today. Here are some of the gems found in today’s column:

Upon the perfervid loyalty of a waitress that attended him once in a restaurant in Lexington: “She was a Kentucky graduate who wore the heritage like a blue sweatshirt on Derby Day.”

Upon Wildcat season ticket holders: “Kentucky basketball is not just for the mink and diamond crowd. It is for the royalty of this jeweled oasis that is primarily intense poverty.”

Ok. I don’t know what the hell that is supposed to mean either.

And finally, upon the improving Razorbacks: “[A victory in Lexington] means the Hogs are ascending the basketball ladder from the depths of four years of humbleness.”


“For the Razorbacks, it is about beating the blue bloods of basketball. It is about turning a corner those just four years ago was no longer in sight.”

Maybe we could send Brother Richard over to the newspaper’s office. Maybe he could work another miracle and heal Wally’s prose.

But that would violate the Biblical injunction against putting the Lord to a test.

So maybe I had just better lock up the guns until basketball season is over.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Duty Now For The Future

As if being a parent were not tough enough, Disney has released a CD by a band that it is calling Devo2.0. As far as I can tell, Devo2.0 consists of a group of pre-adolescent kids doing covers of Devo’s biggest “hits” which also gives you some idea of the depth and complexity of the body of Devo’s work. If you want to check this out go here (although tmfw accepts no liability for any resultant brain-damage as a result of hitting this link):

I always wonder who thinks this stuff up. Did somebody over in the music division at Disney one day wake up and say, “Hey! You know what might just work? A more autistic version of the Cowsills! Brilliant!”

In truth, I always kind of liked Devo. Their brand of music, which Rolling Stone magazine referred to as “the sound of things falling apart” sort of fit as an antidote to the synth-rock and disco of the Reagan years. Want to hear something else fucked up? Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo’s front man, wrote the “music” for “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” which ran on CBS for years until Paul Reubens got himself arrested in a gay porno theatre.

I almost got killed at a gas station in Tallulah, Louisiana back in 1980 because of them. Some rednecks that had stopped there took offense at my Devo t-shirt and were about to kick my ass on general principle, to the extent these cretins were susceptible of principled acts, that is. I was saved by the timely appearance of a Madison Parish Sheriff’s deputy who pulled in to get some smokes. Regarding both my shirt and the stickers on my car with a look of pity, he told me to “get my ass on back to Tulane.”

But these are not the Reagan years. These times are far worse. Kids don’t need to be listening to this. Buying this CD for your kid may even fit the statutory definition of “abuse and neglect.”

Still, if you know a parent of a small child who you feel like getting even with, buy their kid this CD. They will love it and they will play it constantly. Your revenge will be complete.

But do what you want. Sink, swim, go down with the ship.

Use your freedom of choice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Got a Minute?

I don’t mean to distract folks from the real issues of the day. You know, gay marriage, intelligent design, the campaign against Christmas, whether stem cells deserve the protection of the Bill of Rights, critical stuff like that. Oh. I forgot. Prayer in Schools. Completely slipped my mind.

But I thought I might pass along a little light reading:

Hey! Sorry! I didn’t know Bill O’Reilly had Ann Coulter on tonight.

Forgive the intrusion. I know you are busy. Get to this when you can.

Your nervous friend,


Sunday, January 22, 2006

My Sunday Feeling

Frederick Exley called it “the nervous light of Sunday.” That’s how he described the light emitted by the television during broadcasts of New York Giants football games in his novel “A Fan’s Notes.” For those who don’t know the book, “A Fan’s Notes” is a “fictional” account of a man’s obsession with pro football. If you ever want to read something that is brilliant, under-edited, terrifying, heart breaking and stupid all at once, I commend it to your attention, even if you don’t like sports.

I thought of old Ex when I noticed that the NFL Conference Championships are today. I also thought of an old college classmate and something that happened out on the golf course years ago.

My buddy PM used to live out in West Little Rock before he and his wife had the sense to move back to civilization. Back in those days, he lived across the street from a guy named J who was a year or so behind me in college. One day in the late summer or early fall, we all met out on the golf course to play a round.

One of the things I actually like about golf is that you spend a lot of time waiting around and shooting the bull. We were on a tee box waiting for the fairway to clear when J mentioned that he and some friends were going to New York. They were not going to take in the shows or eat at the restaurants or to go to the museums. They were going so they could hole up in a hotel for 2-3 days and draft players for their fantasy football leagues that they place wagers on all season.

I remember asking why they had to do this in New York. I mean, wouldn’t the Red Roof Inn on I-30 suffice? He told me that I didn’t understand. And in truth, I did not. But it seemed that the only way that the wives tolerated this operation was if it took place somewhere where they could go have fun while the men in their lives discussed things along the lines of Aaron Brooks’s throwing motion while eating room service.

This seemed to me to be a pretty God-damned expensive way to keep peace in the family. “And besides,” I said. “If the NFL quit doing business tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss it one bit.”

All of a sudden, it was like a switch went off in his brain.

“Let me tell you something buddy!” J said, his voice tremulous with anger. “It’s damned important to some of us. And don’t you forget it!” I thought for a moment that he was going to take a swing at me. You would have thought that I had spit on the flag or set the Bible on fire judging from the vehemence of his reaction to what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment.

Looking back on it, I should not have been surprised by his reaction. Anybody that thinks nothing of dumping a couple of grand to go make a vacation out of drafting the adult version of imaginary friends to bet on has a fairly serious relationship with gambling on the NFL.

Another friend of mine that bets a lot on sports says that the object of the game is to make sure that the bookie has to leave the house with money on Monday morning; meaning that he has to go pay off on the bets he took. Betting on NFL football is huge in this country. The truth of the matter is, I don’t see how you can really make much money wagering on the NFL. The only way to make-or lose-big in sports wagering is if shit happens and you are on the right side of it when it does. The NFL is organized to minimize that. Contrary to its buttoned down corporate image, the NFL is set up as a quasi-socialist organization that shares revenue with its teams on a fairly equal basis. The bad news for fans is that under this model, there is no real penalty money-wise for being the Arizona Cardinals. The good news for most fans is that while you have a few really good teams and a few really bad teams, everybody else is pretty much in the middle. Which minimizes the opportunity for shit to happen.

Shit happens in college sports because you are dealing with kids. Shit happens in the NBA. Ask Donnie Walsh, whose Indiana Pacers played a lot of last season with about a third of the team suspended after Ron Artest’s legendary foray into the stands. It is true that shit rarely happens in Major League Baseball. But that’s because MLB has rigged the game to where only the big media teams have a real chance. But even at that, baseball is pretty much run by idiots who spend money like water on has been free agents in hopes for a one year run. And so last season the World Series was won by the Chicago White Sox whose bargain basement pitching staff held up better than those of the far richer Yankees and Red Sox. Quelle surprise!

If the Seattle Seahawks or the Carolina Panthers win today, eyebrows may rise. But nobody will be shocked. Apart from a Terrell Owens here or a Hurricane Katrina there, shit doesn’t much happen in the NFL. It may be a good business model but it makes it hard to bet on.

Like I told J, I don’t watch much NFL football apart from when the Saints are on. I know. I also look at car wrecks too. Neither one are admirable traits. But it is a rainy, nasty day today. There’s nothing much else to do but watch the playoffs. What the hell, maybe there will actually be some good games. But it will be strictly background noise as I read the New York Times, hang pictures or shred documents in anticipation of the tax season. You know, the usual rainy day activities.

But that’s just me. I know that J and millions of other people will spend this afternoon in the nervous light of Sunday. And they will hope, no, they will bet, that tomorrow the bookie will leave the house with money for once.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Guided by Voices

It is Martin Luther King Day and I am tired. The last 48 hours or so have been a whirlwind of activity around here. My friend Don was here Saturday and Sunday. He and his friend Cathy were traveling from Los Angeles to North Carolina where he is taking up permanent residence. Last night, I had a bunch of folks over for dinner since Don was in town.

By the way, this is why I didn’t do the usual Sunday post. The only reason I mention this is that I have gotten a few inquiries about it. It is gratifying to know that people actually read this stuff.

My house, like many of the houses here in the People’s Republic of Hillcrest, is small. But it has a large deck, a spacious kitchen and a nice porch. When the weather is nice, people can spread through out the house or go outside. I have had a lot of fun here. Last night was no exception. I had stuff going on the grill and on the stove. Everybody brought a little something. And soon my little house was full of the happy sounds of friends talking and laughing.

I used to entertain with something approaching frequency. Indeed, my brother John once dubbed this section of real estate “The F Street Sports Bar.” People have always felt free to just show up for something to eat or drink, with emphasis on the latter. From this porch swing I have fed and watered happy people, depressed people, drunks, psychopaths, liars and saints. I have dispensed whisky and legal advice in equal measure. I have urged second helpings while withholding judgment. Sometimes troubled souls just need a place to light for a bit, somewhere where nobody will read them the Riot Act.

Here is a secret that I have learned from years of this ministry: Want to know a sure fire way to help a woman stop quit crying? If you are cooking, give her a bit of something for her to taste. Ask her what she thinks it needs. Works every time. Really. I once, with a hastily produced buffalo wing, staved off a complete meltdown this one woman was having over an exceedingly dubious relationship with a coworker.

Her: "How could I have done this? How did I get myself into this situation?"

Me: "Here. Eat this."

Her: "Gee. That's good.

Me: "How about another?"

Her: "Sure. Thanks. Got any more wine?"

Of course, if you don’t happen to be cooking at the time or if you happen to be the reason for the crying jag, you are pretty much stuck. And while I don't have any experience with crying men in the house, I suppose there's no reason it wouldn't work with them either. If "Why don't you dry the hell up?" didn't work first

Anyway, somewhere along the line I just kind of stopped having people over. In fact, as I sit and write this, I’ll bet that last night was the first time I’ve had folks over since last spring or so. I had forgotten how good it is to hear other voices floating back to me in the kitchen. I had forgotten there are two ways of learning who is coming through the front door: People don’t knock. Instead they call out “Knock, knock!” Secondly, as each person shows up, they are greeted by everyone else hollering out his or her name. Who needs an intercom?

And I had forgotten how happy these sounds have always made me.

Proving once again that great minds think alike, I was cornered in the kitchen by Karen as I was loading the dishwasher.

K: “Ya know it’s been a long time since you’ve done something like this.”

Me: “I know. It has.”

K: “You need to get back to having people over. Everybody always has so much fun and you enjoy doing it so much. Ok?” She had the “agree with me or I will hit you in the head look.”

Me: “You’re right. OK.”

And she is right.

So let’s put it this way: The F Street Sports Bar, along with the proprietor, was closed for renovations. It is now back in business.

It will be good to hear the voices again.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

My Sunday Feeling

As I write this, I am sitting out here on my porch swing. I am wearing shorts and a golf pullover. I am drinking ice water. This is crazy. It is January for God’s sake. Arkansas weather is notoriously unstable and often dangerously so. But try as I might, I cannot remember a longer stretch of warm weather (it is 73 degrees right now) in the dead of January.

It feels like March except that it can get pretty cold in March. The wind is howling out of the West. It is coming at 25 miles per hour easy. The little girl across the street is helping her mom throw out the Christmas trash. She was almost rendered airborne while carrying a large cardboard box.
Weather like this makes one-or me at least-start thinking about the Spring even though I know that we can expect to be pimp slapped at least a couple more times by Mother Nature before the President throws out the first pitch. Still, it is nice to know that sooner than later we will be gearing up for Little League, doing stuff to the house and the yard and watching the NCAA Tournament. These are the thoughts that get a man through winter. If we were actually having winter, that is.

Pat Robertson- This week Rev. Robertson interpreted the stroke sustained by Ariel Sharon as a sign of God’s displeasure with him for returning Gaza to the Palestinians. Earlier this year he allowed as how Katrina was also dialed up by a vengeful God who was all angried up by abortion on demand and the general climate of wickedness that obtains in the greater New Orleans area.

Look, it has long been my belief from over here on the porch swing that Pat Robertson is smooth running crazy. I was no more surprised when I heard about his latest pronouncement than I would have been if he had gotten up there back in September and tried to pray Katrina out of making landfall.

Wait. I forget. He’s already done that. Maybe that trick only works if a hurricane is about to hit Virginia Beach.

About all I have to say about this foolishness is that there are folks out there more worthy of a good smiting than Ariel Sharon. Osama comes to mind along with any of those like minded clerics over there that are whipping up impressionable fools into a suicidal frenzy. They got it coming, big time. You could make a good case that Bill O’Reilly and any of those other lying gasbags on Fox could use a good smiting, if only to shut their asses up. Having said that, it would trouble me not a whit if Jehovah or one of his designees would open up a can of smite ass and spray it all over Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan.

Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints, should be smote twice for attempting to use the greatest disaster in American history as an excuse to move the franchise away from their rabid if long suffering fans. Maybe he should be smote or maybe he should just be stuck with Aaron Brooks as his quarterback for the rest of his life. Whatever God ordains in this matter will be just and fair and it is not for us to question. Marcus Vick should be smote for being a dumbass, although it would be my hope that God, in his mercy, would let his brother Michael do the smiting via a size 12 boot up his ass. And speaking of Katrina, all of you con artists that are scamming FEMA for disaster benefits, may God smite you and consign you each and every one to the hottest Bunsen burner in Hell.

I’m sure that you all have your own particular candidates for divine punishment and maybe you should pass them along to Pat Robertson who would probably give them prayerful consideration if you were to sufficiently grease his palm for his trouble.

I just have this bit of advice for the good Reverend. Since he obviously believes in a God that strikes down those that displease Him, maybe Pat had better hope like Hell that God never grows tired of mouthy has-been televangelists lest he someday acquire a headache that BC powder won’t cure.

And speaking of Cindy Sheehan- One of my best friends is a woman I grew up with who now lives in Seattle. Annette is a flaming liberal. This is a characterization that I don’t think that she would seriously take issue with. In fact, she is damn proud of it. Anyway, she is always forwarding stuff to me from the Internet that is of a left-wing political bent. She recently sent me an open letter to- President Bush I guess…I don’t remember- written by war protestor Cindy Sheehan. When I allowed as how I really didn’t think that Sheehan was a particularly credible person, she accused me of “talking like a Republican.” Not only that, she voiced the dark suspicion that my view of the matter had been colored by exposure to conservative commentators.

I have a defense to the latter charge: I don’t listen to conservative commentators.

But what struck me about this exchange was how much it exemplified what passes for political debate in our time. Remember, this was not written by somebody in a chatroom or something. This was written by a woman who loves me. Hell, her mama loves me. I just checked on her the other day to see that she got all signed up for Medicare D.

What I think is really dangerous and poisonous about the political climate that we are in is that any sort of nuanced view of an issue is looked upon with suspicion. I think that you can be opposed to President Bush’s prosecution of the war in Iraq and still support the troops. I believe that one can think that just because Cindy Sheehan lost her son in combat doesn’t give her any greater moral gloss than any other parent whose child has fallen. It certainly doesn’t make her views on policy any more relevant either. That doesn’t mean that you are a Republican or that you have been hijacked by Fox News.

People can hold more than one thought in their heads about the issues of the day. And maybe it doesn’t mean that you are liberal or conservative. Maybe it just means you are thoughtful.

But enough about this. It is way depressing.

I would rather contemplate the spring. My buddy from Baton Rouge will be here then. We will play golf and drink whiskey. He will bitch about the cold. My friend is somewhere to the right of Attila on most issues. He also watches Fox News. He takes special delight in trying to goad me into debating him. This is mostly after he has had 3 or 4 glasses of Knob Creek. You know, to ward off the cold.

And this is how I handle him. I just tell him that it is impossible to argue with a sick mind. And I tell him every year that if he doesn’t put a goddamn lid on it he can go stay at the La Quinta down the road. Which he never wants to do since they don’t serve Knob Creek for free over there like I do over here at the Hillcrest Liberal Sports Bar. There are some principles that transcend politics. Or Bill O’Reilly even.

Can’t we all get along?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Hook Em

I know a woman from Texas. She is lovely, intelligent, and funny and she can charm the chrome off of a trailer hitch whenever the mood strikes her. But this otherwise lighthearted and delightful person turns dour and utterly humorless when the subject turns to Texas football, particularly Texas Longhorn Football.

Texans can be like that. Now, I will state at the outset that I have no particular use for Texas. Or for Texans either, with the possible exception of my friend from the preceding paragraph, the former Bishop of the United Methodist Church here in Arkansas and Dan Jenkins. Maybe Nolan Ryan. But that’s about it. Texans, for the most part, pretty much think they are better than the rest of us. This is how snooty Texans are: they look down on Virginians. I have always found this attitude puzzling.

Sure, Texas is a big place with a wad of money and a lot of people, and fairness compels me to admit that many of them are actual legal residents. But Texas is also a haven for deadbeats and polluters, high-haired bidnessmen and jackleg preachers. Its criminal justice system is so bloodthirsty it makes Florida’s look positively clement by comparison. It is ugly and flat and the wind makes you feel as if a portable hair dryer is in your face no matter which direction you turn. Texas is Oklahoma with a waterfront.

Texas gave us brisket and the Alamo. And don’t get me started about the supposed bravery of the mercenaries and adventurous fools that checked out behind its hallowed walls after foolishly taking on the Mexican Army. If the damn thing had been designed with a back door we would have been bilingual 150 years ago. Last but not least, the Lone Star State gave us Tom DeLay and George W. Bush. Thanks a lot.

The misplaced hubris of the average Texan pervades the mindset of the average Longhorn fan as well. The main distinction that can be drawn between the Longhorn Nation and the fans from the Southeastern Conference is that the average SEC fan is a dark paranoid that literally despises every other team in the conference. This even includes Vanderbilt now that the Commodores have gotten all uppity and insist upon not being blown out every Saturday. Texas could give two hoots in hell about anybody other than Oklahoma and Texas A&M. And the Aggies haven’t been worth kiss my ass in about 5 years. Yet, Texans being Texans automatically assume that the Longhorns, despite playing in a weak sister conference such as the Big 12 and despite having not won a national title in 35 years, deserve consideration as a perennial national power.

But this is a fair minded blog run by a fair minded man. And it says here that that was one hell of a ballgame put up by the Texas Longhorns the other night when they defeated the Southern California Trojans in the Rose Bowl.

And you know why Texas won? Sure. Vince Young was phenomenal. His 467 yards of total offense was a performance for the ages. And these words have never been written about anyone ever associated with the Tulane Green Wave, but Mack Brown probably out-coached Pete Carroll if no other reason than he had sense enough to keep the ball in Vince Young’s hand while Reggie Bush was virtually dormant in the fourth quarter of the contest. Hey, Pete! How does your decision to use the second coming of Gayle Sayers as a decoy look to you now? Oh wait. That’s not fair. Reggie Bush, the winner of the goddamn Heisman Trophy wasn’t even on the field during the Trojans last possession. But that isn’t why Texas won either.

Texas won because the guys in white were tougher than the guys in burgundy. They stopped one of the most powerful offenses in the history of college football not once but twice on 4th and 2. When they weren’t doing that, the Longhorn defense was having a fine old time running around in the invigorating night air handing out headaches and sore jaws to Matt Lineart and his receivers. On offense, they gave the USC defense all the respect that it deserved: which is to say none. They never panicked even when the Trojans started to go off in the 3rd quarter. They just lined up and got ‘em all blocked. No big deal. You got two Heisman Trophy winners? Cool. We got Vince. And he’s pissed.

And so we give the Devil its due and congratulate the Texas Longhorns on becoming the undisputed National Champs. They are the best team in the country. There can be no doubt. Darrell K. Royal can now go on to that Big Shootout in the sky and maybe their fans, after basking in the afterglow of this accomplishment, will stay off Mack Brown’s back.

Don’t count on it. Most likely they will once again return to regularly calling for Brown’s scalp and whining about how they get no respect. This will not appreciably decrease when Young jumps to the NFL and Brown is forced to hand the keys to a redshirt freshman.

Because they’re the Texas Longhorns. They’re just better than everybody else.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

My Sunday Feeling

Today is the first day of 2006. I am not going to ruminate too much about 2005 today. This blog has done nothing but ruminate-a fancy word for bullshit-about the events of the past year. Which is mercifully past. I’m also not going to write about resolutions. I have a couple and it is my present intention to keep them. But you know about resolutions. They are pretty malleable things and they seem to be mostly honored in their breach. Besides, they are boring. Neither will I make bold to set out my predictions for 2006. My track record as a prognosticator is worse than my track record with women. Besides, just because it is New Year’s Day is no reason to junk the usual Sunday format. So I won't.

Neither J nor I are big New Year’s Eve people. There is no point in getting out there with the amateur drunks and the cops. Besides, she carries a badge. The prospect of getting pulled over would not exactly jibe with her career path in law enforcement. As if all of that was not daunting enough, who wants to be on the road when someone crosses over a center line or rear ends you at a stop light? Nope. We decided to play it safe, take in an early flick, get some takeout and return safely to the People’s Republic of Hillcrest before Dodge City broke out.

We saw The Producers: the film version of the wildly successful musical based on the famous Mel Brooks movie starring Gene Wilder and the late and wondrous Zero Mostel. The plot is familiar. Nathan Lane plays Max Bialystock, a Broadway producer whose productions are so execreble that the “Opening Night” marquee above his shows can be reversed to “Closed.” During an audit, nebbish accountant Leo Bloom, played here by Matthew Broderick, discovers that Max has been cooking the books. Perusing these phonied up numbers and reflecting on Max’s dreadful track record as a producer, he opines that under the right circumstances if you could get enough backers, an unscrupulous producer ( Leo: “Let’s assume you are dishonest.” Max: “You may assume that.”) could intentionally put on a lousy show in the hopes that it would bomb on opening night, thereby putting the loss on the backers and leaving all the invested money for the producers.

Max Bialystock is just that unscrupulous producer. And away we go! Max and Leo become partners. They find the worst musical ever written (“ Springtime for Hitler”) and hire the worst director on Broadway, flaming queen Roger Debris, to direct it into the ground. After getting the author of the play( the unhinged Naziphile Franz Liebkind ) and Debris (along with his equally flamboyant assistant Carman Ghia) on board, Max busies himself raising the money for the show the way he raises money for all of his other doomed ventures: by wooing wealthy elderly ladies all up and down Park Avenue to induce them to give up the money. Meanwhile, back at the office, nervous Leo falls in love with the secretary they have hired, Swedish blonde bombshell Ulla played by Uma Thurmon. Naturally, they decide to stick her in the upcoming production for no other reason that it is the producer’s prerogative to put his girlfriend in the cast. That is all I will say about the story for those of you who don’t know anything about the show.

I enjoyed the new version of “The Producers” very much. It was like being in the presence of an old friend. However, it struck me as a bit stagy for a motion picture. Lane and Broderick, who after portraying these characters for years on stage know each other like brothers, seem to sometimes pause between lines when they play off each other as if they are, by reflex, waiting for the laughter from the audience. It is a disconcerting effect. You wonder why somebody didn’t get them to pick up the pace. Matthew Broderick is good but he has to work way too hard. As Leo, he is pretending to be crazy, whereas Gene Wilder, the original Leo, is crazy. And suffice it to say, nobody will go home whistling a tune from The Producers. The music is just a vehicle to get this sucker onto the Great White way.

I was also struck by how The Producers has aged since it was first foisted upon an unsuspecting public by Brooks back in the Sixties, World War II was still fresh in the memory of its audience. Hitler jokes just don’t seem to have the same relevance now that they must have had back then. If indeed they had much relevance. Further, Zero Mostel’s Broadway, the one he sent up as the original Max, no longer exists. The characters in The Producers are period pieces along the lines of Damon Runyan’s with whom they have much in common. Finally, they had to go and tinker with the original ending for no good reason other than to give Nathan Lane an extra scene to do his shtick.

But all of this is small potatoes. It is clear that Mel Brooks loves these characters and he loves this book. And besides, this ain’t exactly Mourning Becomes Electra. It’s The Producers for Chrissakes. Who cares what he does to the ending?

Nathan Lane is just wonderful. He could recite the Code of Federal Regulations and make me laugh. Uma Thurman, who bumps and grinds around in porn star stiletto heels, is one serious physical presence. Not only does she tower over all the men in the cast except Farrell she dead lifts Broderick twice. And she and Matthew Broderick can really dance. I had no idea. Farrell’s Franz Liebkind is fairly restrained considering all of the mayhem going on around him. And considering it’s Will Farrell. Rubber faced Andrea Martin has a cameo but you have to look real hard to catch her. Even the ever servicable Michael McKean appears at the end.

Like I said, it is clear that Mel Brooks loves this show and he loves these characters. If you want to see a better movie about putting on a show, go rent Christopher Guest’s howlingly funny “Waiting for Guffman.” But if you want to see a labor of love that represents the final hurrah of a legend of comedy, see The Producers. The original version was conceived for Zero Mostel, a legend of both Broadway and the Yiddish Theatre and for Gene Wilder, an up and coming crazy person in those days. If you like this incarnation of The Producers you owe it to yourself to rent the older version to see its heritage.

I am glad that 2005 is in the rear view mirror. I am also glad it ended on such an enjoyable note. Like I said, it is always good to spend time with an old friend even if he is a lot more scattered than he used to be. Maybe there is hope for 2006 after all.

Happy New Year!!!