Fun With Easter Eggs

While they are fun, this blog is not about the coloring hard-boiled ova from hens.  Instead, this is about clever hidden references that directors and authors sometimes plant inside creative works.  For example, in my most recent novel The Hounds of Hollenbeck, the protagonist’s address is the same as Franz Kafka’s when he wrote Metamorphosis.  There’s also a little mini-scene with earthworms that’s an homage to David Lynch and Blue Velvet.

It can be lots of fun finding Easter eggs in movies.  A famous example is Alfred Hitchcock, who made a cameo appearance in nearly every film he directed.  Other directors have imitated this. For example, in Jurassic Park, Stephen Spielberg’s reflection appears in the hub cab of the jeep after it falls out of the tree. M. Night Shyamalan makes a cameo appearance in his movies.

I thought about this topic the other night while watching an old Columbo episode with Suzanne Pleshette in a guest-starring role.  Remember, she played Bob Newhart’s wife in the 1970s sitcom, but before that she was in Hitchcock’s The Birds, playing a school teacher who gets pecked to death.  In the Columbo episode, Falk asks her what she does, and she says she “used to work with children and animals.” I immediately thought of her earlier Hitchcock roll, and wondered if this was an Easter egg homage to Hitchcock.  Only the writers know.

Anyway, here are a few fun Easter eggs for your enjoyment.

Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Apparently while shooting, the cast had a real Easter egg hunt on the set.  They neglected to clean up thoroughly, though, and sharp-eyed fans spotted Easter eggs scattered here and there throughout the film.  Folklore says this is the origin of the term “Easter egg.”

Newhart.  In the final episode, Bob wakes up in the apartment he and Emily shared in his prior sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, where Suzanne Pleshette played his wife.  Suzanne is there, and he tells her he just had a horrible dream about running an inn in Vermont.  In another episode of Newhart, Bob and Mary Frann, who plays his spouse in Newhart, go to a psychiatrist’s office where Mr. Carlin, one of Dr. Hartley’s patients from the 1970s sitcom, appears.  The psychiatrist comments it’s taking him years to correct the damage done “by that quack in Chicago.”  This blog points out that in a retrospective of the The Bob Newhart Show, there are more Easter eggs, this time back to Newhart.

Silence of the Lambs.  The Easter egg here is in the poster.  It’s memorable: it shows Jody Foster’s face with the death’s head moth splayed over her lips.  Of course, the moth has a skull on its carapace, hence its name. But on the poster, the artist was able to be more detailed and more creative.  It’s actually shows seven nude women arranged to look like a skull, taken from a famous Phillipe Halsman photo of Salvador Dali.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Hidden in the hieroglyphs on the wall of the well of souls are images of R2-D2 and C3PO.  They do get around, don’t they?

Return of the Jedi. Three of Jabba the Hut’s workers on his barge are named Klaatu, Barada, and Nikto, a reference to the classic SciFi film The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The Phantom Menace. E.T. appears in the senate cheering as Palpatine announces the formation of the Empire.  Of course, Yoda appears in E.T., at least as a costumed child.  In fact, there’s a whole web page that speculates E.T., Indiana Jones, and Star Wars are from the same universe, all based on Easter eggs.

Back to the Future.  Marty crashes into a farmhouse where the son is named Sherman and the name on the mailbox is Peabody, a reference to the famous time-travelling cartoon duo.

3rd Rock from the Sun.  When Dick Solomon, played by John Lithgow, greets his boss the Big Giant Head, played by William Shatner, the latter complains about a crazy person on his flight to earth who claimed gremlins were sabotaging the space ship.  Solomon says, “The same thing happened to me!”  Of course, in Twilight Zone the Movie, Lithgow reprised Shatner’s roll in the TV series where exactly the same incident happened.

Hannibal.  In Florence, Hannibal’s first victim peals and eats an orange, in tribute to Coppola’s Godfather, where an orange appears in the scene where any character about to meet their death.

Toy Story. The carpet in Sid’s house is the same as the carpet in the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.  Of course, those two movies are exactly the same (eye roll).

20th Anniversary of The Simpsons. Fox put Easter eggs in many of their shows during the week of the anniversary.  For example, in Bones, there’s a scan of Homer Simpson’s brain (Season 5 – Episode 7, 5:19 to 5:21).  In House, the eponymous physician refers to Cuddy’s breasts as “Patty and Selma.”

Roseanne. In 1993, the actress who played Becky left the show and the producers replaced her with a new actress, Sarah Chalke.  In the final scene of her first appearance, the family is watching re-runs of Bewitched and discuss the fact that two different actors played Darrin. Rosanne makes a sarcastic comment about the producers thinking the audience must be idiots to not notice.  Then the new Becky,  Sarah Chalke, remarks that she thinks the second Darrin is “much better.”

As with everything else, Google is our friend.  There are web pages of Easter eggs for movies and for TV shows.  Even these enormous lists, which have thousands of eggs, are not comprehensive.  They miss the Roseanne and 3rd Rock eggs I mentioned above, for example.

Do you have a favorite Easter egg?  Let me know.

 

 

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Notes from the Catbox

MrDinger

Meow. My name is Dinger, and I’m taking control of my pet human Max’s blog this morning.

My pet Max is kinda dumb, even for a human. Sometimes he can’t even remember my name and calls me Nonobadcat. I mean, how silly is that? I’m too genteel to repeat what he called me this morning as he dashed out to the farmer’s market. All I did was trip him because he gave me the wrong kind of cat food. I know, I know: for the last 286 days I’ve refused to eat anything but the gravy-ladled salmon and whitefish cat food, but this morning I wanted the beef morsels. With gravy, of course. How hard is that?

Anyway, Max was in such a rush to get away that he left the door to his office open. Since I’m an especially catty cat, I decided to show him. So here I am, to tell you the truth about one Max Griffin, human.

Ordinarily, I’d never read another cat’s email, but Max isn’t a feline so who cares? The first thing I saw was a note from his publisher that his short story collection, What in Dreams Abides, is releasing today. What a great opportunity for my revenge, thought I. I’ll write a review. I purred and narrowed my eyes at the thought, just like I do when he scratches my tummy. He is good for something. Sometimes.

I just pawed my way through this volume. I’m relieved to report that there are almost no dogs in this book. The last two books by Max have had those mangy creatures. The dog in The Hounds of Hollenbeck was even supposed to be super smart, which I guess doesn’t take much for a dog. Anyway, this new book has only one dog which is a big plus.

This one is all short stories. I guess as Max ages, his attention span is fading and he can’t get it together to write novels any more. I mean, he can’t even pet me for than two or three hours at a time before he has to use the bathroom or something. Bless his heart.

Some of the short stories are pretty scary, I admit. There’s one based on the old fable “The Tinder Box” that’s set here in Tulsa, or maybe in Kandahar. It’s kind of hard to tell, since the character seems to hop back and forth between the two, and then into a Disney animated movie at the end. Really, Max is getting so scatterbrained. This story has the only dog in the collection, guarding a dried-up river of sticks. Max is so subtle. Not. Dog, sticks, Cerberus, Styx. Anywhose, this dog doesn’t have much to do besides be a metaphor and gnaw on a bone.  And slobber.  After all, he’s a dog.

At least three of the stories are updates on classic Edgar Allen Poe tales. “The Eye” was really creepy, except for the crickets in the wall. They sounded tasty. The narrator needed a cat to eat them, along with that thing he left in the closet.

Other stories read like they belong on the old Alfred Hitchcock TV shows. There’s one, “Fred Cleans House,” that Max said he wrote to prove that a story about housework could have tension. I don’t get that. There was plenty of tension last night when Max and his partner Gene discussed whose turn it was to clean my litter box. I threw up on the DVD player to calm them down. It didn’t have the desired effect, though. Humans are so stupid.

Oh wait! I hear Max’s car driving down the street. I need to run downstairs and help him unload things in the kitchen. He likes it when I do that, especially when I follow him in front of him.

So, I guess Max’s new book isn’t bad, if you like short stories. It’s kind of scary and icky in places, and it re-works some old tales and folk legends in new ways. Most important, it’s only got one dog, and he’s in a minor role.

I’m outta here.

Dinger

PS  Here’s a link to the other book, the one with the smarty-pants dog in it.

 

 

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Listing Lists of Lists

It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.

I recently wanted to find a list of positive words in order to construct an acronym from the word “nice” — see “Standards Based Learning and Contests” . What I came up with was this:
          Nurture talent;
         Inspire excellence;
         Celebrate creativity; and
         Encourage improvement. 

But what’s interesting was that I found an internet page of positive words.   Who knew such things existed?

I tried to use the list of positive words to construct an acronym for how I try to write reviews:
         Respect the author;
         Promote Excellence;
         Value what is done well; ;
         Suggest ways to Improve; 
         Encourage creativity; and
         Affirm the Worth of the creative impulse.
Well, okay, that didn’t work so well, but you get the idea.

I confess to a bureaucrat’s delight in acronyms. Sometimes they are less direct. In jest, I suggested a colleague in the school of electrical engineering name his lab the “Wireless Electronic Compatibility and Advanced Design” Lab because you could pronounce WECAD as “wicked.” He loved it, and that’s now the name of his lab.

Of course, finding a list of positive words naturally led me seek out a list of negative words. Turns out there are several pages with such words, including one that charges for the list. That struck me as avaricious. For what it’s worth, I didn’t need a list of negative words come up with that description.

Thinking about it, I don’t generally need help coming up with negative words. You know old conundrum: “is the glass half full or half empty?” My daughter pointed out it didn’t apply to me, since I’d think the glass was poisoned.She knows me so well.

Anyway, this list of negative words   includes a list of links to other word lists. There’s even one for math  words.

I have to say the math list is pretty disappointing. Key words from calculus like integral and derivative don’t appear. More advanced words like transfiniteaccretiveinduction, and topology are absent. Mathematicians also name things after people, like Zorn’s Lemma. Who couldn’t love something with that name, even if it does involve the controversial Axiom of Choice? Then there’s Peano arithmetic, which has nothing to do with counting to 88.

But I’ve digressed. Chances are, if you want to find something on the internet, you can. Even a pointless
         Banal
         Lousy
         Out of touch 
         Grumpy 
blog.

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Mr. Bob’s Kåldomar

I have a friend, Bob, who’s a gourmet chef.  He sometimes shares recipes and cooking hints with me.  For example, he suggested I roll marzipan into a thin sheet and put it between the fruit and top crust of an apple pie.  Marvelous!

But this is about a stuffed cabbage recipe he shared with me.  It’s a traditional Swedish dish called  Kåldomar.

I like the name.  It sounds vaguely Viking, rather like a planet in one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s stories–one featuring Miles Vorkosigan, for example.  I can imagine Miles and his cousin Ivan eating this dish in some dark fortress.

Anyway, here’s the recipe.  It’s a bit time-consuming to fix, but well worth the effort.

 

Mr. Bob’s Kåldomar

(Swedish Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

 

Filling

Two pounds sirloin of lamb

Trim most (but not all) of the fat from the lamb, then cut into strips.

In a meat grinder; combine the following:                                                           .

  • lamb
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 shallot
  • Juice and peel from one lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • fresh parsley

Grind all the ingredients except the meat twice: Mix 1/2 cup oatmeal with the ground ingredients.

Cabbage Wrappers

Bring brine to boil in large stock pot.

Place entire head of cabbage in boiling water until outer leaves are blanched. Remove head of cabbage from the brine and strip off outer leaves.

De-vein the cabbage leaves and trim to the same length. .

Repeat the above steps with the leaves remaining on the head of the cabbage until there are sufficient leaves to wrap the filling.

Finely chop the remaining cabbage and return to boiling brine.

Reduce the finely chopped cabbage in the brine while stuffing the wrappers.

Stuffing the Cabbage Wrappers            ,.

Place filling onto center of cabbage leaf Roll the leaf into a cylinder, then fold the edges over.

Seal the folded edges with a toothpick.

Browning the. Stuffed Cabbage leaves.

Place 1/8 – 1/4 inch oil in bottom of large skillet and heat. Dredge the stuffed cabbage leaves in flour.

Brown the stuffed cabbage leaves in medium hot oil, toothpick side down until golden brown. Turn stuffed cabbage leaves over and brown other side

Drain briefly on paper towels.

Arrange stuffed cabbage leaves on baking dish treated with PAM.

Gravy

Place the remaining finely chopped cabbage in the brine. Boil until mixture is reduced to approximately 2 cups.

Retaining the liquid, strain the reduced cabbage water mixture. Discard the solids. Reduce the strained liquid to 1 cup over medium heat.

Add 2 Cups beef broth the mixture.

Make a roux using flour and oil or other fat source. Season with approximately 1 teaspoon of Gravy Master. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, a pinch of thyme or rosemary. Thicken gravy.

Pour gravy over cabbage rolls in baking pan.

Baking

Cook stuffed cabbage rolls at 350 degrees for 90 minutes. Turn off the oven, leaving the cabbage rolls in the naturally cooling oven for another 20 minutes.T

Serve over egg noodles, seasoned with butter and cilantro. Use a green vegetable such as asparagus for a side dish.

I’ll post my own photo next time I make this.  For now, the one above is from 

http://pernillaelmquist.com/2013/11/02/swedish-cabbage-rolls-kaldolmar/

Her recipe looks yummy, too, but it’s a little different.

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Inside or Outside

Inside or Outside?

 

Simple Guidelines for Opening Stories and Scenes
by
Max Griffin

We’ve all read them.  Some stories just grab you by the throat and make you keep reading.  Others kind of meander along, and you fall asleep before page two.  Everyone wants to write the first kind of story.  So, how do you do that?

I’d like to say it’s simple, but of course it’s not.  It takes practice and craft.  This essay is about some simple guidelines–craft, if you will–that can make opening paragraphs more compelling.

It’s worth starting with a bit of theory.  Some of the greatest literature of the nineteenth century used an omniscient narrator.  This technique places the author–and the reader–outside the events of the story, looking in.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. However, modern commercial fiction has almost completely abandoned the omniscient narrator.  Today, about thirty percent of all commercial fiction uses a first person narrator, while the overwhelming majority of the remainder uses third person limited.  The purpose of this short essay is to discuss the latter approach and its consequences for opening a scene in a short story or novel.

One way to think of telling a story–a modern way–is that it is a guided dream in which the author leads the readers through the events. In doing this, the author needs to engage the readers as active participants in the story, so that they become the author’s partner in imagining the story. Elements of craft that engage the readers and immerse them in the story enhance this fictive dream. On the other hand, authors should avoid things that interrupt the dream and pull readers out of the story.  In his books on the craft of writing, John Gardner was one of the most articulate champions of this idea.

To be sure, there are other theories of fiction than the one Gardner advocated.  Many powerful works of modern literature deliberately use a “distancing effect” (German: Verfremdungseffekt), promoted by Bertolt Brecht among other masters. This competing idea purposefully reminds the readers–or the audience, in the case of theater or cinema–that the fictional events are an artifice and thus strives to engage the readers on a more critical and intellectual level.

However, this essay is about commercial fiction, and in this arena Gardner’s ideas have become dominant.  One might think of the “fictional dream” as drawing the reader into the story from the outside world, while the “distancing effect” places the reader outside the story, looking in, hence the title for this essay.  Commercial fiction today is firmly on the side of putting the reader inside the story.

This dichotomy is certainly an over-simplification, but it’s a helpful paradigm to keep in mind.  If you want to construct a fictional dream, you need to draw the reader into the story and hence into a dream-like state.  You want to avoid things that pull the reader out of that state.  While the readers are inside the story, you do not want them thinking–you want them believingimagining, and feeling.

It’s not that you don’t want your readers to ever think–surely every author has a message they want their readers take away from their story.  However, you don’t want them puzzling out the details of the fictional world while they are reading the story.  Later, as they reflect on the meaning of tale, that’s when you want them thinking.

So, the basic idea is to draw the readers into a fictional dream.  The readers become the author’s active partners in imagining the fictional world, in a state of suspended disbelief.  In crafting the opening of any fictional work, it’s the author’s primary task to launch this dream.  Each change in scene runs the risk of disrupting the dream, and so the author must use all the tools of his or her craft to keep the dream-state alive and to lure the reader into the new setting.

Here are three simple guidelines.

  1. Launch the scene with action, usually by having your point-of-view character doing something.  The old saw, “start in media res,” in the middle of things, is still good advice.
  2. The action should  orient the readers.  The reader needs to knowwho the point-of-view character is, where that person is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.  If the scene is embedded in a bigger story, the readers also need to know when it’s taking place relative to the earlier scenes.
  3. At the very start of a scene, put the readers inside the head of the point-of-view character.

These are simple ideas, but difficult to carry out in practice.  It’s amazing to me how many stories I read where the authors have omitted all the informational tasks listed in the second guideline.  The third step, putting the reader inside the point-of-view character’s head, is even more challenging.  Let’s look at an example, starting with a basic opening and then tweaking it.

It was dinnertime when John walked into his brother Tom’s hospital room.  He felt bad seeing Tom’s injuries and wished he’d been more careful when planning their hunting trip. 

These two opening sentences accomplish the basics of orienting the reader:

  • We know who point-of-view character is: John.  We’ve established we’re in his head because we know he’s “feeling bad.”
  • We know where he’s at–in a hospital.
  • We know what he’s doing and why he’s there–visiting his brother.
  • We know when the scene takes place–dinnertime.

Thus, this opening does the basic job of orienting the readers.  Note you have toname John to answer the “who” question.  The sooner you name him, the better, as this helps readers to identify with him.

Do not start by writing, “It was dinnertime when he walked into the room.”  The pronoun “he” has no antecedent and makes the reader stop and think about who walked in.  Even if the point-of-view doesn’t change between scenes, a new scene marks a break in the fictional dream.  Reinforcing that we’re still in John’s head helps maintain continuity of the dream-state.

Do not start with dialogue. A disembodied voice will almost surely put the reader outside the story looking in, hearing the words on their own instead of through the point-of-view character’s ears.  Establish the point-of-view first, before anyone speaks.  Further, opening with dialogue will lead the reader to think about who is speaking and where they are.  You don’t want them thinking–at least, not yet!

The worst thing about this opening is that it does almost nothing to put the reader inside John’s head.    Doing that takes thought and craft.  The author needs to beinside John’s head, imagining entering the room, imagining the sensations and emotions that pass across his psyche as this scene opens.

John hesitated in the hall for a tremulous breath, and his nose tingled with astringent hospital scents.  He stepped into his brother Tom’s room where a nurse’s aide huddled beside the bed, spooning a liquid dinner of steaming soup into Tom’s waiting lips.  John blinked back tears at the sight of the casts immobilizing his brother’s limbs.  Guilt clenched at his stomach and tightened his throat while memories of yesterday’s hunting accident came flooding back.

This opening is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s constructed to make some specific points about craft.  It starts with John doing something personal–hesitating for a “tremulous” breath.  We learn that he’s in a hospital when his nose tingles in response to the “astringent” hospital scents.  All of this combines to make this bit of information more intimate and immediate, since it’s about what John smells rather than just telling the reader that he’s in a hospital.  In the next two sentences, we learn about Tom’s injuries in specific ways: he can’t feed himself, he’s on a liquid diet, and his arms are immobilized in casts.  We also learn that he’s getting dinner, which answers the “when” question.  Finally, we learn that John “feels bad” through descriptions of his physical responses to seeing his brother: he blinks back tears, his stomach clenches, and his throat tightens.  These are all visceral, inner sensations that help to put the readers into John’s head and establish him as the point-of-view character.

It takes approximately twice as many words to establish the point of view–the first opening is 29 words and the second is73 words.  But notice that the second does a much better job of drawing the reader into John’s head and hence into the scene and the story.

Never forget that guidelines are just that.  They are suggestions, based on both theory and practical experience.  Your story may have different demands or structure.  Maybe you want to employ the “distancing effect,” in which case nothing in this essay applies.  Maybe, for example, discovering why the character is where s/he’s at is integral to the plot, and thus you’ll leave the “why” out of the introductory paragraph.   Always follow your muse, not that of someone else.  At the same time, take advantage of things that make sense for your story and your style.

Good luck, and good writing!

Max

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Notes From the Cat Box

Max is busy writing today, so we have a guest blogger.  His name is Erwin Schrodinger the Cat, or Mr. Dinger for short.  

 

Notes from the Cat BoxMrDinger 

November 27, 2013

My pet human, Max, is pretty weird.  Selfish, too.  I mean, he wanted to sleep this morning at 5 AM when I wanted petted.  Then he fed me the wrong cat food.  I just had the salmon with gravy yesterday.  What was he thinking?  When I showed my displeasure by trying to trip him on the stairs, all he did was swear at me.  I guess he learned those words in the navy.  Certainly, no proper cat would even think such obscenities.

Anyway, right now he’s shut up in his office working on the next chapter of his latest novel, Timekeepers.  Or so he says.  Speaking cat-to-reader, I think he’s playing solitaire.  But he won’t ever let me in his sanctum, so who’s to say what he’s really doing in there?

He did spend some time petting me this morning before turning into a solitaire-playing hermit, but it turns out he wanted a favor.  It seems his novel Murder Me Tender released today, and he says he’s too busy to blog about it.  He wants me to do it!  I mean, it’s not like I don’t have a dozen better things to do.  Like lying in the sun.  And sleeping. Oh, and pooping.  Okay, so I’ve only got three better things to do.  Still, he did pet me this morning, so I guess I owe him something.

murdermetender_smallHe thoughtfully left his notebook computer open on his nightstand, with the electronic edition of his book right there for me.  The first thing that I noticed was the hunky guy on the cover.  Of course there’s a hunky guy on the cover.  This is Max’s novel, right?  I’d never do anything as shallow and human-like as judge a book by its cover, but I’ve got admit I can see where certain of Max’s species might be attracted by this guy.

The next thing I noticed as I pawed through the pages were the chapter titles: they are all song titles.  Really old song titles. Things like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Don’t Know Much About Algebra.”   I mean, I know when Max passed his PhD comprehensive exam in algebra he nailed his copy of Rotman’s An Introduction to the Theory of Groups shut, so he probably really doesn’t know anything about algebra.  But what’s with that for a chapter title?  Like I said, it seems it’s always about him.  Instead of me.

Supposedly, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca inspired this novel.  I looked, though, and I couldn’t find Mrs. Danvers or Mandalay anywhere.  There’s a big mansion in southwestern Wisconsin, and an estate manager named Daniels, but that’s not the same.  Oh, there’s a May-December romance, too.  Well, it’s really more of a May-August romance, between Brandon and Rick, the estate’s owner.  I did notice that Brandon’s the only character who has no last name, kind of like the nameless narrator of Rebecca.  He’s pretty cute and whip-smart, but Rick’s a bit of a nebbish, like de Winter in Rebecca.  Who knows what Brandon sees in him.  My favorite character was Rick’s sister-in-law and ex-fiancé, Sandra. She cracked me up. I know there was no one like that in du Maurier’s novel.

The mystery had some twists that would make a nice CSI episode. Wait, I think something like this was in a CSI episode.  Brandon even mentions it.  In fact, it was in an old Columbo episode before that.  We felines have excellent memories. We’re smart too.  Smarter than Brandon, or at least we’re brighter than Max. After all, that doesn’t take all that many smarts. Anyway, I saw through this from the very start.  In fact, I wrote down the name of the murderer at the end of chapter one, and I was right!     So there, Mr. Smarty-Pants Author.

My biggest complaint about this book is that it doesn’t have any cats in it.  Who wants to read a book with no felines? There’s this stupid dog who drools and sniffs around.  If Max has time to write about dogs, why doesn’t he feature a handsome Abyssinian like me?  That would be way more interesting.

Despite the fact that it’s got no cats, I liked this book.  Tell Max I said so if you see him.  Maybe he’ll give me some lobster next time he feeds me.

Erwin Schrodinger the Cat

AKA Mr. Dinger

Murder Me Tender is available from Purple Sword Publications.

I got the idea to ask Mr. Dinger to be my guest blogger from Gary Pennick, whose Jack Russell Penny often appears on his blog.

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Cartoon Canticles

At one time, I thought about being a musician.  That lasted about thirty seconds, and then I remembered that my ear is worth its weight in tin.  I played flute and piccolo in high school, and you can imagine the fingernails-on-the-blackboard screech when I tried to preform, say, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune or even the solo from The Stars and Stripes Forever.  Suffice to say, everyone’s ears were saved from what would have been a disastrous and failed musical career.

Still, I’ve had a life-long love affair with music.  My tastes tend to be pretty all-inclusive, ranging from Richard and Karen Carpenter to Bela Bartok.  Looking back, I have to say that my earliest introduction to music had to come from after-school cartoon shows, and in particular the genius of Chuck Jones.

I can still watch classics like The Rabbit of Seville, set to the tune of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with enjoyment.  In this work Bugs Bunny is barber who shaves Elmer Fudd not once, but three times. There is almost no dialog in this piece; all of the drama and comedy derive from clever sight gags that are perfectly coordinated with the score.  The music itself is remarkably faithful to Rossini’s original, although the tempo is accelerated to match the madcap frenzy of the action and some recapitulation is eliminated.

Igor Stravinsky once said he wouldn’t criticize Disney’s Fantasia since he didn’t want to remark on an “unyielding imbecility.”  Of course, he may have been a bit miffed since Fantasia quoted Le Sacre du Primtemps without paying royalties to the composer.  It was “Russian,” you see, and at the time the US had no copyright treaty with the USSR.  However, who among us can hear Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice without thinking of  Mickey as the hapless magician?

These short movies are part of our cultural heritage.  There are compositions I can no longer hear without seeing Bugs, Daffy, or Mickey prancing on the screen.  Chuck Jones in particular brought a visual energy, dramatic flair, and biting social commentary to this unique medium.  Four of the five greatest cartoons of all time were directed by Jones.  His One Froggy Evening features not only tin-pan alley classics like “Hello My Baby” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” but also Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville.  Spielberg called this masterwork the Citizen Kane of cartoons.

However, by the 1960s the cost of producing high-quality animation began to cause the visual quality of these films to degrade.  The difference between, say, What’s Opera, Doc? and sixties classics like Rocky and Bullwinkle or Huckleberry Hound are obvious.  It’s not that the latter aren’t clever and well-written, but it’s hard to imagine these dramas succeeding in the absence of dialogue in the way that The Rabbit of Seville does.

That’s not to say that Jones’ heritage doesn’t live on.  In some ways, feature films like Shrek or Ice Age are modern manifestations of his genius.  Even in the sixties, shows with live actors owed a huge debt to the cartoons of the thirties, forties and fifties.  Indeed, last night I re-watched a TV episode from October, 1966 that I hadn’t seen in at least thirty years.  When I saw it was available on Amazon, I jumped on it to see if it was as clever as I’d remembered.  It exceeded my expectations.

The episode was “The Producer” from the third and final season of Gilligan’s Island.  Okay, so your eyes probably just rolled out of your head.  I’ll give you a moment to pick them up and reinsert them.

Ready? Here we go.

Truthfully, this is a show I’ve excoriated whenever it worms its way into my brain. However, I confess that I watched this episode with new eyes last night.  Gilligan’s is a cartoon–one with live actors, but a cartoon nonetheless.  Just watching the zany and frenetic action in this episode confirms this.  Gilligan drives a straw “car” that zips around the island, the camera under-cranked to make him seem to move at lightning speed.  When the islanders put on their musical version of Hamlet, they manage to find appropriate ostumes for the eponymous hero, for Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Laertes.  The Powells play the king and queen–of course!–complete with golden crowns and heavy chains.  Later, guest star Phil Silvers reprises the entire musical play at twice the tempo, playing Ophelia in drag–reminiscent of Bugs’ appearances in drag in The Rabbit of Seville and in many other Chuck Jones’ creations.

Best of all, the musical choices and lyrics are perfection.  We’ve got Gilligan as Hamlet singing “To be or not to be,” to the tune of the “Habenera” from Bizet’s Carmen.  Then Ginger, as Ophelia, advises Hamlet to chill out, singing the melody from Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” in The Tales of Hoffman.  Next, the Skipper as Polonius tells Laertes “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” this time lampooning the Toreador Song, again from Carmen.  The music and lyrics fit together seamlessly and tell the story in just a few short, brilliant minutes.

I could go on with other examples of classical music in cartoons, but this is enough for today.

 Th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!

 

 

 

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Five good Movies I Hated

Five Good Movies I Hated

This is a companion piece to my last blog, Five Bad Movies I Liked This list is eclectic and not inclusive, just like the other list.

I can understand why some of these are beloved, but others…well, you’ll see.

Gone With the Wind

I know, I know. This movie has signature performances by Gable and Vivian Leigh.  There is the awesome Oscar-winning performance by Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win one.  Max Steiner wrote the incredible score.  There is so much to love from a technical standpoint about this film.  But I just cannot watch it.  It’s the same with Birth of a Nation.  The pervasive racism and a script that’s an unquestioning love-letter to the slave-holding culture that’s “gone with the wind” is more than my blood pressure can stand.

Pulp Fiction

This has to be the most boring three weeks I ever spent in a movie theater.  Oh, wait.  This movie only lasts 168 minutes in real time.  It just seems like it lasts three weeks. Don’t get me wrong: I like Quentin Tarrantino’s other movies.  Reservoir Dogs is full of drama, suspense and humor.  This movie though, from the very first scenes, is just smarmy. The characters weren’t interesting enough to engage me in what little plot there was. I don’t have to like the characters, but I they do have to be at least interesting. These characters were boring, in somewhat the same way that Hannah Arendt talked about the banality of evil.  I get that this was a turn-around performance for Travolta that reinvigorated his career.  In fact, I’m happy for him: I’ve always felt he was an under-appreciated actor.  But this is a movie that the critics loved and I absolutely loathed.

The Graduate

I was eighteen when this movie came out.  According to everyone, it has a stupendous performances by Ann Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman. I have no reason to doubt this. They seem to always turn in awesome performances.  The soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel has many of my favorite songs from my favorite group of the era.  It’s supposed to be the signature movie of my generation.  I first tried to watch it on a date with the woman who was to become my wife.  I fell asleep about a quarter of the way through.  Later, after we were married, she insisted I see again, this time at a drive-in.  Same result.  When we could rent it on VHS, we tried again.  Zzzzz.  Since then, I’ve tried two more times, on DVD.  I just cannot stay awake through this movie.  I had to watch the famous bedroom scene with Bancroft and Hoffman on Youtube.

I imagine this must be a good movie. Everyone who stays awake through the whole thing agrees.   For sure I cannot say whether it’s good or not.  I can attest that it’s my ideal cure for insomnia.

How Green Was My Valley

This much-loved film by John Ford from 1942 won the Best Picture Oscar. It stars the ineffable Walter Pigeon, Maureen O’Hara, and a young Roddy McDowell.

I understand that the artistic approach to cinema has changed over time, but dammit it’s a visual medium.  It’s all about showing your story, not telling it. By 1942 everyone knew that, except apparently John Ford and the Academy.  This movie starts out with an establishing shot of the valley and an extended voice-over telling the audience stuff. Lots of stuff.  Boring, out-of-context stuff.  The dialogue and plot were so trite my eyes threatened to roll out of my head.  It was so awful, I stopped watching, and I sat through Look Who’s Talking 2.  Twice.

Maybe this gloppy stinker won Best Picture because the competition was weak.  After all, the other nominees included films no one has ever heard of, like  Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Hitchcock’s Suspicion.  Oh, wait, I bet you have heard of those.  Even Here Comes Mr. Jordan–remade by Warren Beatty in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait–was better than the winner.  The Academy must have been even more brain-dead than usual that year.

Destination Moon

Okay, I love Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novels.  I grew up with them, looking forward each year to snatching up and devouring the latest one.  He wrote, or co-wrote, the screenplay for this movie. In his semi-authobiography, Grumbles from the Grave, he complained bitterly about how awful it was working in Hollywood and how even the second director’s girlfriend wrote dialogue.  Maybe.  But he was also involved in developing other projects for film and TV, and they were even worse: they had all the narrative flaws of How Green Was My Valley.  Voice-overs telling the story instead of showing it.  Hackneyed characters, and even more hackneyed dialogue.  Indeed, it’s astonishing how bad this movie is just from a story-telling standpoint, since the flaws apparent in the movie are absent–except for occasional political rants–from his books. This movie seems to be widely praised because (a) Heinlein, the Dean of Science Fiction, was involved; and (b) it has ground-breaking and Oscar-winning special effects for the era.  Still, I’d definitely pass on this period piece.

 

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Five Bad Movies I Liked

Five Bad Movies I Liked

When my daughter entered first grade, we started a family tradition. I would take off work early on Friday, and we’d all go to a matinee. We did this every week until she went to college. This tradition survived divorce, various boyfriends (hers and mine), and other incidental traumas of adolescence. Later, when she was in graduate school and once more living at home, we took it up again. Now that she lives in San Francisco, it’s a little far for me to commute from Tulsa, so our weekly family tradition has died. But it went on for almost two decades. If you watch a movie a week for that long, you see lots of bad movies. You see good movies, too, of course.

What’s surprising to me is how often the critics would pan a movie I sort of liked, or like a movie that I loathed. That’s what generated this blog. I’ve been watching movies most of my life, and I got to thinking about the bad movies that I actually kind of liked. Looking at the five that percolated to the top of my list, I see that most of them are not ones I saw with my daughter. Some of the ones I hated that the critics loved are in my contrary list, Good Movies I Hated, but that’s another blog for another day.

In no particular order, then, here are five movies that the critics either hated or ignored that I kinda-sorta liked.

Glen or Glenda
As with all Ed Wood movies, this one is spectacularly bad. It’s even worse considering that it’s semi-autobiographical. It seems that Wood himself was a cross-dresser, given to wearing fluffy, Angora sweaters.  You would think his personal experience would have brought some verisimilitude to the movie, but then this is Ed Wood.   Anyway, Wood plays in the title role, Angora-sweaters and all. Besides the Glen/Glenda story, there is another about a “pseudohermaphrodite.” Bela Lugosi provides a lugubrious voice-over as a scientist. The story is highly nonlinear, with flashbacks-within-flashbacks and weird dream sequences. There’s also an earnest lecture on tolerance. Bad as this movie is–and trust me, it’s bad–it was made in 1953 when any kind of sexual non-conformity was not only criminal but thought of as insane. It had to take enormous courage for Wood to make this movie and come out, as he did, as a transvestite. Of course, he was either courageous or stupid to put any of his dreadful movies out for the public to see, so maybe it’s stupidity rather than courage that leads to this movie. Still, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and give him kudos for courage. This time, but not for Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Zabriskie Point
Another film from 1970, this one is by Michelangelo Antonioni. It’s kind of the consummate 1960s rebel movie, with disaffected and aimless Mark on the one hand hooking up with anthropology student Daria on the other. We’ve also got the wonderful character actor G.D. Spradlin playing the Evil Capitalist. By the way, Spradlin is a fellow Oklahoman from Paul’s Valley, and he ran JFK’s Oklahoma presidential campaign before he became an actor. This movie also includes a signature, artsy scene of the Evil Capitalist’s snazzy, Brutalist desert home blowing up. More like…

B…..L…..O…..W…..I…..N…..G      U…..P

filmed in loving, Technicolor slow motion. Mark Frechette, the unknown who played Mark in the movie, provides ample eye candy. Oh, by the way, Frechette turned to robbing banks after his star-turn in this movie and died in prison. The best part of the film is the soundtrack, featuring the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.

Doing Time on Maple Drive
This is a made-for-TV movie. Matt Carter brings his fiancé home to meet his family. His brother is an alcoholic; his sister is married to a failure–according to Matt’s father–and the father gives new meaning to the word “perfectionist.” At least Matt’s mother is as loving and full of cheer as June Cleaver, although with less depth than plastic wrap. Everything in this family is a competition to please good old Dad, which seems to work out pretty well for Matt since he’s the Perfect Son. That is, until his fiancé finds an old mash note from his, er, boyfriend hidden away in his pocket. Things go downhill from there, with excellent performances all around. Most particularly, James Sikking is sterling as the father who turns out to love his son no matter what, and the then-unknown Jim Carrey shines as Matt’s older brother.

Friends
Paramount-UK released this film in 1971, so I saw it while I was a junior in college. In a chance encounter, Paul, who is fifteen, and Michelle, who is fourteen, flee to the rural French countryside from their dysfunctional families in Paris. They hide out in an abandoned mill, surmount many obstacles, fall in love, and have a child. They not only survive, but build a resilient and meaningful life for themselves. Until, that is, the ending. I re-watched this film a few years ago, and still enjoyed it. What I noticed the second time around is that one of the songs is by a then-mostly-unknown minstrel named Elton John.

No Blade of Grass
MGM-UK released this really bad film in 1970. I was sick with mono at the time I saw it, so my memory is doubtless flawed by high fever and incessant coughing. This was an early entry in the natural-disaster-apocalypse genre. It’s notable since the premise is that a virus has killed off all the grass on the planet, thus devastating the food supply. In our era of food monoculture and industrialized agriculture, it’s a prescient warning. Don’t expect anything here you’ve not seen a zillion times before, but in 1971, it was actually kind of new.

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Clever book promotion

Lexa Cain is a good friend and colleague of mine. MuseItUp Publishing will release her terrific new novel, “Soul Cutter,” on December 6, 2013. I’ve been privileged to be a beta-reader for this, and I can tell you that it’s full of adventure, romance, and exotic settings. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, she’s got this clever idea for promoting her book–a sort of a “Where’s Waldo” game based on her cover. It’s all explained on her blog. Check it out!

The game is fun. It’s worth a visit. Don’t forget to purchase her book when it comes out.

Max

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