Friday, November 21, 2014

Not just as good. Better. Way better

"Androids can now also take on a variety of human jobs such as receptionist and even news readers."

I particularly like the pop star idea. Let's give that one five years. It's going to have to be something special, with some serious tattoos.


Mike Nichols has died.  A major film director, but I often wonder if that was his greatest talent.

He attended the University of Chicago in the 1950s and later got involved with the Compass Players, who'd morph into Second City.  He teamed up with fellow performer Elaine May, and together they conquered the comedy world, making a hit on TV, Broadway and in recordings.

They were at the center of the new comedy arising then, along with Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart and soon after Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. Nichols and May represented a wit and sophistication rarely seen before in popular entertainment. But the team split up and Nichols looked for something else.  He started directing and realized this was his métier.

He may have been better at directing for the stage than anything else. I can't say for sure, only having seen his production of Spamalot--the Tony-winning musical that needed his hand to become Broadway-ready--but when one looks at the plays that started his career, it's stunning how he started at the top.  Above all, he helped establish Neil Simon with the blockbusters Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner Of Second Avenue (you may think it was all Simon's scripts, but read the playwright's memoirs and you'll see what a difference Nichols made), but also did Murray Schisgal's Luv and the Bock/Harnick musical The Apple Tree.

Later notable stage productions include Streamers, The Real Thing, The Gin Game and Hurlyburly.  He also became a significant producer, presenting unknown Whoopi Goldberg on Broadway and bringing in the musical Annie.

But he's best known to us for his work in film.  I don't know if any other director who began with such a one-two punch, making a couple of films that were both critically admired and huge hits.

In 1966, there was Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, the controversial Broadway show which he faithfully adapted (which probably couldn't have been done on screen a few years earlier).  I don't think he adds much to the play itself, but he doesn't mess it up, which is something.  Then, in 1967, came one of the best films of the era, and one of the biggest hits in the history of movies, The Graduate.  True, a lot of it comes from the amazing performances of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, and the Buck Henry screenplay closely following the Charles Webb novel, but I'm not sure if anyone else could have pulled it together.  I find some of his directorial affectations the least interesting stuff in the film, yet Nichols, attuned to the comedic feel of the times (without, ironically, being that political), was a the right man for the job, and created a classic.

He never really hit the same heights again in his lengthy film career.  He followed up those two works with a huge flop--a heavy adaptation of the novel Catch-22.  The lighter, smaller MASH, released the same year, caught the insanity of war a lot better and was the hit Catch-22 wanted to be.  After that came Carnal Knowledge, an unusually-shaped film with an openness about sex that challenged the censorship of the time--but the Jules Feiffer script has not aged well.

After that came two out-and-out flops, the sci-fi drama The Day Of The Dolphin and the farce The Fortune.  Nichols was working with big stars, such as George C. Scott, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, and trying different genres, but he seemed to be floundering in the 70s.

The 80s saw at least a bit of a return to form, with better-formed and more successful films such as Silkwood, Heartburn, Biloxi Blues (Nichols' only Neil Simon film, and one of the better big-screen adaptations of the playwright's stage work) and Working Girl.  Maybe Nichols wasn't swinging for the fences quite so much, but he wasn't striking out either.

He started the 90s with a bunch of misfires--Postcards From The Edge, Regarding Henry and Wolf, before creating one of his biggest hits and best comedies, The Birdcage.  After that, Primary Colors--some like it, but I consider it a missed opportunity--and the major flop What Planet Are You From?.

In the 2000s, he adapated some plays for TV--Wit and Angels In America.  Not unlike Virginia Woolf, I'd say he didn't add much to them, but respected the material enough not to screw them up.  His final films were minor--Closer and Charlie Wilson's War--but a reminder that he still could put out something respectable.

Over his career, he won the EGOT--an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony--and in his final years, collected all the lifetime achievement awards--National Medal Of Arts, AFI, Kennedy Center, etc.  But he never retired.  For instance, in the last few years, he directed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death Of A Salesman and Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Betrayal.

When Nichols was young, he discovered what he wanted to do--direct. And, lucky man, that's what he got to do, at the highest level, for the rest of his life.

Master Harold

Harold Ramis would have been 70 today. He maybe did his best work as a writer and director, but let's watch some of his mastery as an actor.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

So close, so close and yet so far, -are

I never quite know what to make of Megan McArdle, but she does a pretty good job here, managing to combine effectively and coherently the truth about both IT departments and financial accounting.

That is, she does a good job all the way to the end, when she completely does a little cartoon train crash: "It means that we've lost track of whose side we're on."

No, Megan, however sweet and confused you may be, the one thing they have not done is lose track of which side they are on. Indeed, the only thing they know is the side they are against. Even beheadings are not as evil as the side they are against.


Let's say goodbye to soul singer Jimmy Ruffin.


Happy birthday, Gary Green, guitarist for Gentle Giant.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Finally, we all agree

Listening to all the left and right chatter about Gruber, I'm heartened. It's pretty clear that 99 percent or so of voters think 99 percent of voters are stupid.

Cicero Psychic

I was reading from The Harvard Classic Five Foot Shelf Of Books. The particular volume, published in 1909 by P. F. Collier & Sons, was a collection of work from Cicero and Pliny (the Younger).

The introduction to Cicero by E. S. Shuckburgh (that's Evelyn Shirley, and he's a man) talks about the great Roman orator's life.  It was a time of transition, and Cicero supported Pompey over Julius Caesar. A bad move, but Caesar was lenient and let him stick around.  Cicero supported the conspirators who assassinated Caesar, and his opposition to Mark Antony didn't work out so well.  That was the end of Cicero, but he's lived on as one of Latin's greatest stylists.

Anyway, in his intro, Shuckburgh writes:

The evils which were undermining the Republic bear so much striking resemblances to those which threaten the civic and national life of American to-day (sic) that the interest of the period is by no means merely historical.

Yes, because we all remember the parlous state of the nation in the early 1900s.

Classics are classics because they're always relevant.  When they stop becoming relevant, they stop being classics.  Facile connections to life today don't make Cicero more significant--if anything they cheapen him.  Were his thoughts so specific to 1909?  More so than, say, later decades when no doubt America would be going through other, unforeseen upheaval?

If you thought Cicero would remain relevant, you should have taken the long view. If you thought he'd be less important, than maybe you should have translated someone else.  I'm disappointed in you, Evelyn Shirley.


We were so busy yesterday with tributes that we skipped over Johnny Mercer's birthday. Let's correct that right now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Let's give a tribute to one of the great artists of our time, and today's birthday boy, Dennis Haskins, aka Mr. Belding on Saved By The Bell.

And please note because these following clips are taken completely out of context that they're far superior to what they were in the original.

Call A Cab

Great jazz vocalist Cab Calloway was born on Christmas day, but we may have other fish to fry then, so let's celebrate him on the day he died--exactly twenty years ago.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Same Old Same Sex

A friend of mine who's a high school teacher told me about a change in his union's health care coverage.  Previously, domestic partners in homosexual relationships could be covered by a teacher's insurance.  But now, in the growing number of states that allow same-sex marriage, this is no longer the case.  Either you get married or you lose that coverage.

It makes sense.  Formerly, your insurance could cover your wife or husband in traditional marriages, but not your girlfriend or boyfriend, no matter what your living arrangement. It makes sense the same rules should apply to same sex marriage.  Show them you're serious, or get your own insurance.

Jersey Bob

Happy birthday, Bob Gaudio.  Frankie Valli may be the voice of the Four Seasons, but you were the one who wrote all the great tunes.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


So I was in my favorite coffee shop and logged on to the wifi, and my second choice for powerful signal was "FBI surveillance van #884."

Nice try, guys. I'm not about to fall for that one. It's surely a federal crime to piggyback on government wifi.

Off The Balcony

Life Itself is a pretty good biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, taking us back to the days when he and Gene Siskel led the pack in introducing us to what's coming to our local cinema.  The format continued after Siskel died, but when Roger left, it was essentially over.

The final iteration of the show featured critics Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.  If you haven't heard of them that's probably why the show didn't last long.  But now Igantiy, who writes at the A.V. Club, discusses what it was like, and why the program died.

There was a strict learning curve.  Writing for print and for TV are two different things, and talking naturally but compellingly on camera is not, generally, a talent you're born with.  As Vishnevetsky notes, Siskel and Ebert had years to perfect the process before going national.

But, and I agree with Ignatiy again, the real problem was the format. In the 80s, having a couple guys clue you in to what's happening at the movies was fun, even exciting. You felt like an insider. In the age of the internet, a weekly show on what's available out there will always be one week behind.

Perhaps the format could still work with two truly compelling figures, but it could never command the field as it once did.

Oh Donna

Happy birthday, Donna McKechnie.  A Michigan girl who ran away to be a dancer, and made it.  She's best know for her steps on Broadway, but she wouldn't have gone so far if she couldn't act and sing as well.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Big Data

Alibaba Links Women’s Bra Sizes to Their Online Spending Patterns

I've never felt so lucky to be a man. There's no simplistic size comparison they can use on us.

At least until they invent (reveal the existence of?) an app that inputs size autonomously. At some point, I'm wondering, will the equations all boil down to "gene . . . more"? What am I saying. Of course they will.


I recently was in a nearby smoke shop.  I don't smoke--I was there to purchase a drink.  As soon as I walked in there was an overwhelming incense smell.  I'm not sure if this is a normal part of the smoke shop racket, where they show off their wares, or if the owner just liked it, but it made me sick.

Which got me thinking.  What kind of jobs really smell bad.  Like working in a rendering plant, or the like.  And how much is the rotten smell figured into your salary. Or do you get the position based on your talent to ignore bad smells.

For that matter, do you get used to even the worst sort of smells. The nose gets fatigued after a while in any case, but can you train yourself not to be bothered by something?

PS  I'm sorry to be so ungallant, but occasionally I get stuck in an elevator with a woman wearing far too much perfume.  I try to hold my breath until I'm out of there.

Ole Bolet

It's the centennial of great pianist Jorge Bolet.

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