Sorry. I’ve been laying low in the past few days. I caught the flu. Not the dreaded H1N1 (don’t call it Swine) Flu, thank goodness. It got really bad over the weekend; now I’m coasting out of it in a general haze of ickiness. In honor of the occasion, I have some vintage PSAs from the last swine flu outbreak in 1976. The technique may be dated, but the paranoia is timeless. Your taxpayer money at work!
Back to pills and plenty of fluids for me.
1408 (2007). Showtime taping. Stephen King adaptation about a jaded writer (John Cusack) who has frittered away his promising career writing travel guides for haunted places. Tipped on a mysterious hotel room where several tenants killed themselves, the skeptical Cusack books a night — despite the warnings of hotel manager Samuel L. Jackson. This was more creepy than scary, and somewhat disappointing despite a winning turn by a perfectly schlumpy Cusack. The filmmakers decided to take a mainstream approach, leading to several moments where I wished it had gone into really freaky and bizarre territory. Instead it plays it safe, although having a clock radio that only plays the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” at full blast would truly be horrific.
Here Come the Waves (1944). Genial, brainless WWII entertainment. Bing Crosby stars as a crooner who enlists in the Navy. Betty Hutton plays twins — one a brassy blonde, the other a demure brunette. As the “aw shucks” fourth wheel, Sonny Tufts once again makes me wonder why he was ever a movie star. Predictable flag-waving stuff, with several handsome production numbers involving multitudes of marching uniformed women. The biggest surprise is Betty playing the low-key sister. She’s actually very good, giving off a subtle, Eve Arden-ish vibe very different from her more typical persona as the ditsy blonde sister. I watched her in this part and thought, “Here’s a lady that should have been given more chances to prove her versatility.” Alas, she went back to playing ditsy blondes seemingly for the rest of her career.
Miss Potter (2006). Showtime taping. Beautifully produced and insanely sweet movie about the life of Beatrix Potter. Renée Zellweger is her usual squinty-eyed self in the title role. She admirably transforms herself into a plain-looking, eccentric woman who speaks to the animals in her drawings. Still, I felt like I was watching an actress playing a part, never truly witnessing scenes from Potter’s life. I also felt that the film’s central proto-Feminist theme has been done a million times before, and the direction was too goopy and sentimental (at times it was like watching a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie). I did enjoy this movie, however, and unlike many others I found the sequences with an animated Peter Rabbit and other creatures incredibly appealing.
Together (2002). Slice-of-life Chinese family drama about a gifted young violinist who attempts to find a mentor via his pushy and uncouth father (kind of a male Stella Dallas). This is one of the most Western looking Chinese films I’ve ever seen; a good suggestion for a subtitle-phobic movie viewer. It has a wry sense of humor that reminded me at times of the Japanese version of Shall We Dance?. It won’t knock anyone’s socks off by any means, but this was a warm and appealing story that went down like a cup of slow brewed herbal tea.
The Wire: Season Four (DVD set). I started renting DVDs of The Wire last year, managing to get Christopher hooked as well. This week we finished watching season four, which both of us agree is the best yet. I loved this season’s focus on the education system (man, our schools are totally f—ed up), and the new cast of talented young actors really brightens up what was already a top-drawer ensemble cast. This is one amazing, gritty show, which makes me surprised that it wasn’t showered with Emmy awards when it was on HBO. Check out the Amazon page for some interesting “prequel” vignettes of the characters. Onward to Season Five …
Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon (2008). Considering that it focuses on a ’70s porn star, this was a sweet little documentary. Part of its appeal comes from current interviews with a silver-haired and chatty Jack Wrangler, nee John Robert Stillman, who rose to fame projecting a masculine image that contradicted gay stereotypes of that era. This film also served as a fascinating look into the world of ’70s gay porn (which I previously didn’t know much about — honest!) with several cool and campy clips and illuminating interviews with those who were there. Wrangler later crossed over to straight porn and turned heads by marrying an older woman, singer Margaret Whiting. What drives this film is the present-day Stillman’s own self-deprecating bemusement at the strange path his own life took (sadly, he died earlier this month).
For being faithful satellite service customers, we found out here at chez Scrubbles that we’re getting three free months of Showtime (including ancillary channels Sundance and Flix). Blockbuster movie overload! Amongst the new offerings was Gumby Dharma, an hour-long documentary on the life of Gumby creator Art Clokey. This was totally fascinating, of course. One of my favorite parts came when they showed snippets of Gumbasia, a short film that Clokey created in his own garage in 1953. According to the doc, Clokey showed this to a 20th Century Fox studio exec in the hopes that they’d pick up the film for theatrical distribution. The exec was duly impressed, but instead of taking on this film he commissioned Clokey to created a new set of shorts geared towards children. Voilá, the creation of Gumby!
Joy of joys, I actually found the full-length version of Gumbasia on YouTube. Dig the jazzy score and the eye popping colors:
When you think about it, a sketchbook is often the only place an artist can truly be him- or herself, with nothing to prove to anyone else. In Sketchbooks: The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators and Creatives, Richard Brereton persuaded several prominent people in the field to share pages from their own sketchbooks — weirdness be damned. Each subject gets 4-6 pages of lushly photographed sketchbook spreads, along with a short statement in which the artists explain their own personal histories with sketching and what compels them to sketch. Many choose to doodle or write cryptic passages with illustrations; others do completely uninhibited stuff that may reveal something about the artist’s subconsciousness. In the latter category, I really want to know why the famous British designer Peter Saville felt the need to write his own name dozens of times back in 2001.
Flipping through this book is a little like browsing through the Moleskine: One Page at a Time flickr group. The art on display boasts a diverse variety of subject matter and media (one artist even mentions sticking a hunk of raw meat in a sketchbook!). If I had one misgiving about this book, it’s that the subjects are very Euro-centric with very little representation from Asia or the Americas. I was also disappointed that the handful of American artists here all seem to be based in New York. Other than those issues, this is a beautifully done project, inspiring me to break out the ‘ol Moleskine and draw away.
Sketchbooks: The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators and Creatives is published by Laurence King. Buy at Amazon here.
P.S. If anybody knows of any other new books coming out of a design/art/retro/pop culture persuasion, please let me know. Thanks!
The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006). An addendum to Grey Gardens that patches together outtakes from the chronicle of Edith Bouvier Beale and “Little Edie” Beale in their crumbling Hamptons manse. What this means is lots of footage showing Beale pals Jerry and Lois (and her awful paintings), more of Edith’s wisdom and Edie’s tone deaf singing, and a fabulous montage of Edie’s unique outfits. The footage here makes Edie seem more needy and schizophrenic than she did in the feature film, but at least we get a tantalizing glimpse of her going to church outside of Grey Gardens. Scattershot but fascinating.
The Great McGinty (1940). The film gods have bestowed this comedy as minor Preston Sturges, but actually it’s a buzzy political satire that would do well on a double bill with All the King’s Men (1949). As a Depression era bum who rises to great heights in the political field, Brian Donlevy is an odd yet in the end compelling presence. As with other Sturges films, this has a dynamite supporting cast which includes the fiery William Demarest and Akim Tamiroff. One quibble: the film ends abruptly. It actually plays more like half a film, but since The Great McGinty 2 apparently never saw production, I will take this as it is.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – Volume 1 (DVD set). Bought this last summer as “in between” viewing for whenever I didn’t have a DVD or something on the TiFaux to watch. This week, I finally completed every one the first 25 episodes contained on this set. What a bizarre, fascinating show this is. Louise Lasser strikes the perfect dead-eyed tone as a frustrated housewife in this soap opera parody created by Norman Lear. Like a real soap, this was produced on the cheap, overlit and often clumsily directed, and broadcast five nights a week. The pacing is so leisurely and the comedy is so dry that often an episode will go by with only a few obvious jokes. Personally, I loved how the show perfectly captured the defeated tone of mid-’70s America. I only wish Sony would get off their butts and release all 325 episodes on DVD (doubt it). Next “in between” viewing: Knots Landing, Season 2.
The Onion Movie (2008). I remember when I first heard about this. I thought “How could anyone possibly make a movie based on The Onion?” Now I know that the answer is “just barely.” Canned since it was made in 2003, this got a belated release on home video last year. We caught a bleeped out broadcast showing on G4. Although it has a few brilliant bits (the Goofus and Gallant style terrorist training video, for instance), most of it played like a deadly dull Saturday Night Live parody.
Turner Classic Movies has been on the air for fifteen years this month — wow! Noel Murray of the A.V. Club salutes the anniversary in a blog post. I remember when TCM first started very well. Ted Turner’s other cable channel, TNT, broadcast previews of their new venture that spring. As soon as I saw Robert Osborn’s classy intro for Flamingo Road, I knew that this was gonna be something new and interesting. The retro logo, ad campaign and identity system designed by the wonderful Charles S. Anderson company confirmed that fact. This wasn’t like American Movie Classics at all. Although I was a fan of AMC, the channel (as it existed in 1994) was a more humble affair generally geared towards oldsters who remembered classic films when they were new. Enjoyable, but not cool in any way, shape or form.
Seeing the Now Playing program guide cover posted at the A.V. Club reminded me of something else. In the early years, TCM published their monthly schedule on a single, folded up piece of paper. And it was shipped for free to anybody who was interested. Even before I could get the channel (being an apartment dweller with limited income was not fun), I pored through these schedules with their enticing titles. Later on, I participated in a customer survey that helped to determine the format and listing style for the glossy, more detailed schedule that we know and love today.
I can also remember that it wasn’t so easy to get the channel in its early years. A co-worker at the time was housesitting for someone with a fancy satellite system. I handed him a bunch of blank VHS tapes and told him to just put them in the VCR and record TCM; I didn’t even care if it only caught parts of movies. In late Spring 1996, I was a new homeowner — with cable setup — and could finally enjoy them 24/7. Unlike many other cable channels, TCM hasn’t changed a lot over the years. They know not to tinker with a good thing. Happy anniversary, TCM.
P.S. Another good, albeit unrelated, read: Typeface Inspired by Comic Books Has Become a Font of Ill Will (thanks Christopher!).