Sunday, July 26, 2009

Thoughts On Two Short Poems By Richard Brautigan

By Lars Trodson

Idealism, at least in literature, does not age well. I was thinking of this the other day after reading poems by Richard Brautigan in his book “The Pill Versus the Spring Hill Mine Disaster.” Brautigan is a writer hardly anyone reads any more, and one of the reasons is his close association with the counterculture movement of the late 1960s. He was a hippy, or at least he looked like one, and his books do have the kind of trippy, flighty looseness associated with an era when people were trying to break the rules -- both socially and literarily.

Worse still, the counterculture movement of that time is now seen as naive and ineffective. So the literature of that time is also seen through those two damaging prisms. In The New York Times obituary from 1984, Brautigan was immediately identified as the “quixotic counterculture poet and writer...” United Press International identified him as a “long-haired writer...”

Even the Brautigan title I just mentioned -- “The Pill Versus the Spring Hill Mine Disaster” -- seems to live up to that free-form looseness that, when read outside the immediacy of the time in which it was created, had a reputation for losing much of its meaning and credibility.

But the poem that bears the title catches you short with its clarity and power:

When you take your pill

it’s like a mine disaster.

I think of all the people
   lost inside of you.

That’s the entire poem, and it’s mournful, strange. It turns an act of love into some kind of devastation, which in turn give you the sense that the writer has lost control of his feelings. That the love he has is almost too powerful.

Another has the same kind of goofy title, but the poem itself is melancholy and sweet, and not silly at all. This one is called “A Good-Talking Candle”:

I had a good-talking candle
in my room last night.

I was very tired but I wanted
someone to be with me,
   so I lit a candle

and listened to its comfortable

voice of light until I was asleep.

No flights of surrealistic fancy with some wax yammering away. Just the crystallization of a thought at the end of a long day.

Brautigan was born in Washington State in 1934 and committed suicide sometime in 1984. The date of his death is not certain because his body was not found until weeks after he had died.

By then, it seemed, Brautigan was already out of date; the social movement he was associated with had more power and stamina than he had.

My copy of “The Pill” is from 1968. Page 49-50 is ripped out, and there is a handwritten note on the blank inside page that begins, “Dear Mom, I’m dying a little more each day” and gets worse after that. Books are mysterious things.

I had recently found the book on a shelf. I took it down, but didn’t look at it for some time. One day I opened it randomly and started to read the poems. It is no small thing that they gave me pleasure, and I was happy to think that on a breezy summer day in 2009 with the clouds rolling in that some stranger was thinking of Richard Brautigan.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Part 2: “Meteor: Path to Destruction”

For those who did not watch Part 2 of "Meteor: Path to Destruction" I can distill the experience down to a few lines of dialogue.

Some of my favorites:

“Can I borrow your car?” asks scientist Imogene O’Neill (Marla Sokoloff) to an old lady.

“I’m sorry. I gave it to charity last year,” says the old lady who lives out in the middle of the desert. “Could you use a gun?”


“It occurs to me we’re not the only ones with missiles.” -- Gen. Brasser (Ernie Hudson), who is in charge of saving the Earth and wants to ask the Russians and Chinese for their arsenal.


“They have to save their people - blah blah blah!” -- Gen. Brasser after being told by the Russians that they won’t give up their missiles.


“The meteor just hit the power station.” -- Unnamed military scientist.

“Dammit!” Gen. Brasser again.


“I have a granddaughter and when she grows up I want her to be just like you.” -- said by dying border patrol officer to Imogene O’Neill moments after he arrested her.


“Sir, the woman’s a genius,” said by a military scientist about Imogene O’Neill. (Miss O’Neill, it should be pointed out, could not find either a decent ride or a working telephone for almost the entire four hours of the movie.)


And finally, my personal favorite:

Bad cop Calvin Stark (Michael Rooker) turns to one of his many hostages and says: “Have you ever tried walking without kneecaps, baby?”


-- Lars Trodson


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Norman Corwin on the Passing of Walter Cronkite

Posted by Lars Trodson

We are pleased to pass along a comment about Walter Cronkite by his colleague and contemporary at CBS, Norman Corwin.

Mr. Corwin, 99, shared with Cronkite a passion for reporting, for world travel, for integrity, and for clarity of language. Norman is one of the great American writers and I have always thought that our best journalists were also the best ambassadors our country could ever have. Cronkite and Corwin filled that role with great honor.

I emailed Norman today (we've been great friends for many years), seeking a quote for a longer piece I'll post soon, and he was kind enough to send along this reply. I thought, given Norman's stature, that it shouldn't be lost in what we have to say about Cronkite, so we posted Norman's quote as soon as we could.

"Walter Cronkite was one of two towering journalists in the world. The other was Ed Murrow, who first hired Cronkite. I was privileged to know, be a friend of both, and work with them.

"Their like in a lifetime is very doubtful."


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

NBC’s “Meteor: Path To Destruction” Destroys Planet, Movies

By Lars Trodson

We may have reached a point in time where we have this thing -- and I think it can only be called a “thing” -- that has all the earmarks of a movie but yet, on even the most cursory inspection, you realize it isn’t even a movie at all.

This thing has got a cast of actors whom you presume were actually paid, as well as a screenwriter, a cinematographer and, yes, a director. It has all the crew that goes into what we would once, back in the olden days, would call a movie.

And yet...and can’t really be called a movie. Because a movie, even the worst God-damn movie ever made, you would argue, was at least being made by people, no matter how delusional they may be, who thought they had talent. So what I mean to say is the guy who made “Myra Breckinridge” or “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” or even, God rest his soul, Ed Wood Jr., at least had the hubris to believe they had the ability to make movies they thought other people would pay money to see.

That time, ladies and gentlemen, may now be past. I enter into evidence the made-for-television movie “Meteor: Path To Destruction”, which debuted on NBC on July 12.

I have to admit that maybe this isn’t even as much fun as it should be. The movie doesn’t even bother to come up with a new name, or, to make a short list, a new plot, new characters, new special effects, or even new cliches.

This film, after all, is called “Meteor”, which is the same name of a movie that had the same plot and situations that was released in 1979 with Natalie Wood and Sean Connery. That “Meteor”, which also starred Henry Fonda, was considered the last, pathetic gasp of the so-called “disaster movie” genre that started with the much-admired “Poseidon Adventure” in 1972.

What nobody has really noticed is that the “disaster movie” genre took about a decade off, and then came back when everyone realized that computer generated effects could finally accommodate the grander dreams hidden inside their more modest predecessors. It is no accident that the the “The Poseidon Adventure” -- which has superior and inventive production values -- has been remade twice.

The reason “Poseidon” (original novel by Paul Gallico) has been remade twice is not because anyone wanted to improve on the original -- it was simply because someone thought the scenes where the wave consumes the ocean liner could be improved upon digitally. What no one took the time to notice was the effects in the original were fine, and the filmmaking after the wave hit -- the editing especially -- was excellent.

Let’s face it, everything since “Jurassic Park” to last year’s remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” are so-called “disaster films” -- they’re just gussied up with big stars and glorious special effects.

But now we can only dream of the days when even the cheesiest remake or not-so-subtle ripoff had first-rate effects and movie stars (think Matthew Broderick and “Godzilla”).

This new “Meteor: Path to Destruction” could easily be confused with the movie “When World’s Collide” (1951), which chronicles the days leading up to when a big fat asteroid slams into Earth. Or “Armageddon” or Steven Speilberg’s remake of “When Worlds Collide” -- due in 2010. It could be mistaken for “Deep Impact” (1999) -- which is about a comet. Or you may think it’s “Earthquake” -- starring Charlton Heston, but that was a terror that came from within, not without. But how could you know?

Not only are the plot elements familiar, so is the title. “Meteor: Path To Destruction” is part of a weird trend where writers and producers have no issue with naming their film after a film or TV show that has come before. I remember a few years ago there was a Queen Latifah movie called “Taxi”, and I just assumed it was a big screen version of the great TV show. But, no. It had no relation.

I just read that there is a new TV show in production called “Parenthood” that has no relation to lovely and charming Ron Howard film of the same name. So it is no wonder that the producers of “Meteor: Path to Destruction” not only trotted out an old name but also every sad element ever presented in any movie of this sort. It has the scientist who no one believes (Christopher Lloyd), the sexy scientist (Marla Sokoloff), the genius who will probably save them only they don’t believe him at first (Jason Alexander), the gruff military man (Ernie Hudson), the gruff but moral law enforcement officer (Stacy Keach) and assorted townspeople who are either violent or compassionate.

It has not one, but two people who run out of gas at convenient plot points. It has a Mexican police officer who sounds like he came out of regional theater in Ohio, and plot holes -- cliche alert! -- you can drive a truck through. And many people in the cast do.

The special effects are beyond terrible. They look muddy and out of perspective. When Stacy Keach looks out over a burnt out field where a small fragment of meteor has landed, the CGI is so inferior that they looked bad on my TV -- which is a Sony more than 25 years old. How they must have looked on HD is mind-boggling.

Let it be noted that in the original “When World’s Collide” the scientists caught wind of the impending collision with Earth months before our beloved, peaceful plant is destroyed. They had time, in 1951, to design and build a rocket ship that would take a select group of people to safety. Then they sent them off into space, not into underground bunkers as they do in the new film.

In “Meteor: Path To Destruction” they only discover the speeding asteroid 48 hours before it will hit our beloved, peaceful planet.

It is obvious, despite advances in science and technology, things have not improved.

Part 2 of “Meteor: Path To Destruction” will air on your local NBC affiliate on July 19.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Give the Public What It Wants: Audience Voting Should Be Next For the Oscars

By Lars Trodson

The recent announcement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that the group is expanding the Best Picture category to 10 films is, in one sense, a fairly meaningless thing. But it may be the first delicate step toward something the purists don’t want to think about: audience voting for the winners. Here is my theory: by loosening the rules over time, the Academy will simply ease its way into having at least one category in which the winner is chosen by viewers. That’s my prediction and I don’t think this is a bad thing.

Apparently confused over a declining interest in the show and a precipitous drop in their influence, the Academy is trying to spruce things up. So far the results haven’t been so great.

Last year, they picked a group of past Academy Award winners to introduce the nominees in certain categories. While it may have seemed like a good idea -- nostalgia and star power all rolled up into one -- it made for stodgy television.

To give the presenting actors extra time, we lost out on seeing film clips from the movies and the performances. These clips can still be fun, despite the fact that the only parts of the movie that the studios seem to license out are the trailers, but we didn’t get to see the clips at all. And some of the actors presenting the nominations seemed, um, under rehearsed. Adrien Brody’s introduction to Richard Jenkins made it seem like Brody was wholly unfamiliar with the actor.

Also, it would have been nice to have actors who have achieved nominations but not wins sprinkled in among the presenters. That way you at least give a passing nod to the idea that it is an honor simply to be nominated, as they say. By just having those who have won the statuette you’ve diminished that notion.

The Oscar race is, of course, a popularity contest, but its cache once lay in the idea that the experts, the actual members of the Academy, would validate the feelings of the audience. This happened when the Academy recognized films that audiences either respected and/or flocked to see. That was the connection. You felt part of the club. When this relationship reached perfect pitch (popularity + critical acclaim = Oscars) -- as in “Gone With the Wind”, “The Sound of Music”, “The French Connection”, “The Godfather” and “The Silence of the Lambs” -- everybody, audience and industry alike, was happy.

Nobody is really happy any more.

I think the 1997 “Titanic” represented a cultural shift. Here was a movie that was a global phenomenon and that also tied for the most Oscar wins ever, but the critics (highbrow) didn’t much like it. They didn’t like the script, the acting was hokey, some of the CG wasn’t so hot. Now it was the critics that had been dissed by the Academy, and they weren’t go to have that! The critics then started waging the same war that audiences had been quietly talking about probably since the Oscars began: What is the meaning of these things, anyway? (No one likes to have their views dismissed, but critics were used to actually influencing the outcome of these things.)

So the debate began to simmer on all sides: audiences and critics feeling disconnected.

Now the fracture is pretty complete. Two years ago, the two critical darlings, “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men” were not warmly received by audiences. There were people who passionately believed in these pictures, and there were others like me who were openly disdainful of them. But now we all had the Internet that allowed us to join in the debate.

Slumdog Millionaire” from last year had a schizophrenic reaction. Some people were elated by it, others found it mean-spirited and violent. (I haven’t seen it.) And then, of course, there is the black elephant in the room that has really jump-started this debate once again, a little art film called “The Dark Knight.” When the Batman film was dismissed (audiences and critics loved this film), everyone began to pile on.

And so here we are. No doubt, in an effort to accommodate both “The Dark Knight” and “No Country for Old Men”, the Academy has opened up the Best Picture nominees to 10 (this was the way it was decades ago).

I don’t think, frankly, that it will matter who or what is nominated; the debate will still revolve around the winner. So I’m not sure this gesture will help much.

But I do think it is one small step for Oscar toward an “American Idol” type of audience participation. If they do it, they should have the audience vote during the Oscar telecast itself.

The barrier between critic and audience has long been smashed anyway -- I see more trenchant observations about art and culture from blogs than I do in “Newsweek” or “Time” or many other established pubs. So this step, when it comes, obviously won’t wreck the track record of the Oscars (insert joke here). And, well, who really cares if the critics are unhappy.

So bring the audience in to the Oscars. Don’t even wait. Do it next year. It could make the Oscars relevant - and critics may even be surprised who people vote for. It may even make the Oscars fun and suspenseful again.