Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Trip You Must Take, Part III


Here again we stare into the beauty known as the Hubbard Glacier, the six-mile wide, 300 foot high faced wonder of nature, one of hundreds that managed to survive the last mini ice-age. What you are looking at here, actually, is one of the many surrounding mountain ranges. Snowfall in the elevations eventually turns to hard ice and breaks loose in masses, beginning a very slow avalanche. Fjords and inlets are created as the massive chunks descend. At the bottom, the slides are halted by seawater and warmer air, resulting in some of the bergs we saw that June 5th day.



It began around noon, as we entered Yakutat Bay. Little flotating icebergs, many not larger than an adult hand, began to appear. Then, many more. We were on the chaise lounges, wrapped in our wool blankets as we felt the anticipation (to say nothing of frosty air). People were excitedly running to and fro, scoping out vantage points on every available outside level. We made our way to the top deck, near the basketball court. We eventually gazed down at the ship's helipad. Deciding that this was a better spot, we wound our path down, through the Celebrity Theater (where the nightly shows took place), and out a narrow backway. Dozens of shipgoers were already there, snapping pictures and sighing. There were also the requisite smart remarks from some of the younger set. More and more chunks appeared. Soon, much of the water's surface was covered. The mountains became more defined. We saw the mighty white shelf.


We stood out there for hours, forgetting about the buffets that awaited. This is saying something, as I usually start whining at 1 if my scheduled feeding is missed. We all stood as the ship got very close. You could hear the crackling as the hull pushed through the ice. You looked down and the water was just full of fragments, shards of intricate designs. It looked like a gigantic punchbowl. I took shot after shot. Then I just took it in. The air was so fresh. It was chilly, but not frigid. We did not see any baleen or orca whales, unfortunately. Nor did we see too many eagles or gulls, swooping in search of what is apparently a plentiful source of fish in these waters. Some of the Pacific Halibut, we're told, can grow up to nine feet long and weigh over 500 lbs.


As I said, we got close. We idled for a bit, then inched away. Like all of the spots we saw on this journey, leaving was difficult. We watched and watched until our hunger got the better of us. What an amazing vista, something everyone should see. Friends marveled at our photos, but they only scratch the surface of the real beauty of it. I felt some sort of cleansing, just being out there. Ten percent of the world's total area is covered with ice, though as you are likely aware, that stat is changing due to climate concerns. "Glaciers and polar ice store more water than all the world's lakes, rivers, and the atmosphere combined. If the world's ice caps melted completely, sea levels would rise enough to flood much of the Earth and more than half of the world's cities" saith our Celebrity Today! daily sheet. I'll leave it to experts such as Tim Flannery ("The Weather Makers") to do the math on that, but perhaps you should get out there in case it happens in our lifetimes.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Over? Did You Say OVER?

I was twisting the knob on my boom box sometime in the summer of 1988 when I first heard him. Streams of causticism that delighted my still-ansgty teenaged self. This guy was ripping on everybody-celebrities, politicians, waiters, the elderly, even the management at his radio station?! Who does this guy think he is? Eventually, I began listening to his morning show on Zeta 4, a rock station out of Miami, every weekday. Neil Rogers was a pungent alternative to all the nimrods who hosted morning drivetimes with their unfunny prank calls and crass "humor." Oh, Neil was crass, VERY crass, but his show was so hilarious and even intelligent. Not exactly like, say, Howard Stern, but he's the closest to whom I can compare. Neil was also a marked counterpoint to a then up-and-coming windbag named Rush Limbaugh (who Neil often ridiculed).

One day, Neil and his sidekick, "The Bird" (Glenn Hill) announced they were leaving Zeta. It took me a few months to discover quite by accident that they were now on AM, 610 WIOD, in all its crackling glory. The sports station. Not a totally ill fit, as Neil was an inveterate sports buff, particularly of baseball and hockey, my 2 faves. Still, "The Neil Rogers Show" in its 10-2 slot stood out quite distinctively from the comparative family fare of "The Mike Ranieri Show" in the morning and "Sports Talk" in the evenings. Neil continued his 4 hour marathons of put-downs of callers and just about everyone else. It was addictive. Obsessive fans were called "Nealies", and I became one of 'em. Not sure why, because the show also drove me crazy. Neil was everything I was not: ultra liberal, homosexual, atheist. His lampoons of conservatism and religion were relentless, and often, yes, right on target. Drove me nuts.
"You can't shut it off" he would mock when callers spewed hatred. He was right. Until I discovered Neil, I was only listening to talk radio that reflected my values. Now, I was being challenged, unnerved. What a concept! Oh, and his on-target lambasting of the behavior of many of S. FL's elderly was hysterical, often prompting agitated calls that were even funnier. Neil is also Jewish (far from orthodox) and often infused Yiddishisms for effect.

I was a regular listener (and occasional caller myself, some of which I have on cassette in the archives) for a number of years. But by the mid-90s I began to lose interest. The show never seemed to change. It was the same silly sound effects and overuse of the no-longer-shocking "douchebag". Neil cussed as much as the FCC would tolerate, until this past week when his use of the F-word got him tossed off the air. He was reading listener mail and thought that the 7 second delay "dump" button was working. Guess what happened next.

Depending on the source, Neil has either been temporarily suspended or fired. One report states that he is fine with being done with radio after well over 40 years. Decades that began with what was considered serious, "issue" talk that eventually became a wildly silly show about nothing at all. Controversy always dogged the host but perhaps this truly is the Waterloo. Neil seemed to be grooming himself for his retirement, what with moving to Toronto a few years back and remotely doing the show. Now there is perhaps enough distance that a point of no return has been passed. Not that Neil cares, boychik.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Living in the Fish Eye Lens

"These people were on our lunchboxes. This is the moment when Generation X realizes they're grown up"


As you know by now, three major celebrities passed this week: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson. Of course, one of them will get infinitely more coverage than the other two; all three were significant in my younger years.

As a child, I was, like most of my peers, required to go to bed early. McMahon and Fawcett (-Majors, at the time) usually showed their iconic faces well past the time I was supposed to be counting sheep. Strangely though, I was allowed to stay up until eleven to watch Charlie's Angels. On a school night! My parents were pretty totalitarian as to what I viewed during the elementary school years, but after watching the show again as an adult I could see why this one got a pass-it was clean. Not chock full of inuendoes like Three's Company or Soap, both of which were off-limits for years. Farrah and co. raced around amongst mayhem, but it was all G-rated-no serious violence or too much skin. Enough, however for my pre-pubescent self to um, admire her and her co-stars. And no, I never actually owned the famous poster.

McMahon hi-hoe'd along with Johnny Carson every weeknight at 11:30. I had to wait until Fridays to see him but I always enjoyed their banter. McMahon was a perfect fit with Carson. Both were pretty straightlaced, but Ed was an effective counterpoint. His barbs would occasionally, visibly ruffle the host, and it was a good ego check, imo. The best sidekicks do this. Fond memories.

Later years? I attended a Chicago concert locally in the 90s and guess who came out to introduce them? A nice surprise. Ed went on to host Star Search, appear in a few films, and be the guy who might show up at your door with a million clams, but those were just mortgage payments. Farrah's career was very erratic, though she had a triumphant turn in the telefilm THE BURNING BED. She also had an effective role in THE APOSTLE. Her odd behavior and assorted health problems made many more headlines, unfortunately.

That leaves Jacko. What to say? I danced around to Off the Wall and Thriller in my school days like so many of my generation. He was an icon comparable to Elvis, I believe. Bigger than his craft. He was beloved enough to rally a fan base that stayed loyal even as his behavior got increasingly weird. I can respect that. I don't know if the charges levelled at him were accurate or fair. It's all hearsay. Like many others, though, I like to remember that gleeful young man singing with his brothers, so joyful. I also like to remember the pop star who transformed into a werewolf in the revolutionary "Thriller."

I pray all three found Peace.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On the QT

Trailer for Quentin Tarantino's latest, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS:

http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1210843929/


I remember Quentin, that overnight darling of the indie film world, an instant celebrity on the heels of 1994's PULP FICTION, a film that set some sort of filmic standard, as indicated by countless knock-offs and a whole generation of would-be hipsters attempting to ape the pop-culture-ultraviolent-sophistication. The price filmgoers have paid for PF is very high; films like LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN are still being made nearly 15 years later.

Before PULP, Quentin made a smaller indie called RESERVIOR DOGS, both a shock of novelty and a refreshing dose of old time tough guy flicks. Latter day casting (along with Lawrence Tierney, star of many yesteryear potboilers) could've included Cagney, Marvin, Mitchum, Holden. After PULP, there was some indication that Quentin was ratcheting things down a bit with JACKIE BROWN. This film's slower pace and introspection was quite a difference from the explosive power of PULP. It took me a few viewings to accept and recognize how good it was. Perhaps the writer/director realized he had to branch out a bit.

But then, after years of embarrassing cameos and innactivity, he returned with KILL BILL, VOLS. 1 & 2. Part 1 was absolutely pornographic in its cartoonish violence. OK, I thought, he's indulging. Then, VOL 2 once again calmed things down. My favorite scene is near the end, when Beatrix, "The Bride" (Uma Thurman), has a through-the-door plea with her would-be assassin. After some gunfire, both remain standing and the assassin wishes the bride good luck after learning she is pregnant. An unexpected moment that again indicates that Quentin has some thought and heart at play. He wasn't merely showing off.

GRINDHOUSE followed in 2007. Another indulgence, actually two features (the first, PLANET TERROR, directed by QT pal Robert Rodriguez) strung together to recreate the sort of sleazy low budgeters seen in the 1970s in less than savory movie theaters. DEATH PROOF, Quentin's episode, was typical in its verbosity of pop nonsense and bursts of violence. Redeeming at all? Very debatable. Great stuntwork, no question. Still, it was ultimately a revenge picture that leaves you with something to think about, like many of the B-films to which he was paying homage.

INGLORIOUS BASTARDS was another such 70s pic. QT's remake (substituting the "e" for reasons that will be explained) looks to continue his fetishism, and I'm not sure if this film will rock solely for its vicarious thrills or if there will be some further evidence that Quentin is moving forward as a filmmaker. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Trip You Must Take, Part II

Just as the sign above says, Ketchikan, AK is the "salmon capital of the world." Many types of salmon, to boot. One of our tour guides even provided a dandy mneumonic device to remember the 5 main ones. Look at the 5 fingers on your left hand:



Thumb = Chum

Pointer = Sockeye (put your pointer in their eye!)

Middle = Kingfish (king rising up, I guess)

Ring = Silverfish (jewelry)

Pinkie = Pink


Nifty! Anyway, we got off the ship and were greeted by a small downtown filled with merchants catering to cruisers: tctchoke shops, ice cream parlors, and lots and lots of jewelry stores. The main deal-Diamonds International (DI). Celebrity owns them, apparently, and relentlessly sells up all the deals to be almost as soon as you board on Day One. The rest of the main drag and side streets has a mishmash of hardware stores and cafes, one of which, the Pioneer Cafe, had some really good pancakes and a great "taco omelet".

As we were bussed out to the lake for our first port excursion: the "Rain Forest Canoe & Nature Trail", we saw how the town changed to primarily marine businesses, catering to the seaplanes and plethora of small craft in the harbor. Everything became very industrial until it all gave way to gorgeous countryside. Our bus driver, a mid-20s blonde who was very folksy and filled with local tidbits, enthusiastically told us how lucky we were it wasn't raining. Then, as we got closer to the lake, the sun even showed!

My wife and I joined 13 others in a large (37 ft.) canoe and paddled across a lake in the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S. The lake itself was carved from a glacier many years earlier, our youngish tour guide informed us. The young lady also explained how she was spending the summer in Ketchikan to work but home was in Syracuse, New York. She was very informative and stated that we were an expert bunch of paddlers. A group from Clewiston, FL (one adult and three teens) hammered her with questions that she answered patiently and was able (mostly) to deflect their caustic tone.

When we reached the other side of the lake we repaired with fresh salmon and a large kettle of clam chowder. Also, hot chocolate. Actually, this was after we had a short tour in some woods. Some interesting data on the various growths: large light green leafy pads are informally known as Bear Cabbage. Our guide explained that it works as a laxative for bears, as their diet of tree bark mushrooms tends to bind them. What if a human eats some bear cabbage? Nasty mouth sores and more toxicity than anyone would care to deal with.

After the paddle back we boarded the bus and again enjoyed lovely scenery (including melted snow). Nearly every "Deer Crossing" sign we saw was riddled with bullet holes. This provided endless laughter for one guy on the bus. "They must get bored out here," offered another passenger.

We ate then meandered around downtown Ketchikan until our next event, the unabashedly touristy "Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show" Maybe you've seen them on ESPN. These guys, Josh Snook and Jacob Justus among them, put on a very entertaining show with contests of climbing and speed axing and sawing through thick lumber. Depending on where you sit, you are assigned one of two team names, and are encouraged to cheer your lumberjack and boo the other. "Jackpine Jane" (concocter of a famous moose stew) was our emcee and as bubbly and down home as could be. The finale involved the men trying to balance on logs in a pond without falling in the dip. Good, silly fun. Not surprisingly, the only way out after the show was through the gift shop.

Sonia then went to DI to retrieve a free gift and some other items before we got back on the Infinity bound for Hubbard Glacier. Bring your parka for next time!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Up

"Damn you, Pixar, with your melancholy metaphors" was the status of a Facebook friend after she had seen the latest from what has continued to be the most innovative studio in Hollywood. That statement really gets to the grain as to why I love these movies so much. Yes, there is imagination to spare, fun characters, ingenious scenarios, but the idea that these entertainments are born from adult sensibilities with a childlike sense of wonder, that for all of the color and wow there are wounded souls telling bittersweet tales. These tales, with their heartwarming yet never calculated whimsy really touch the soul of this filmgoer.

UP tells the story of an elderly man who is about to be carted off to a nursing home. He still lives in a vintage house, the last in a neighborhood being bulldozed to make way for tanning and sushi palaces. The man, Mr. Carl Fredericks, was a helium balloon salesman his entire life, and this is an integral plot point, seeing as his ticket away from the confines of assisted living involves those balloons. Yes, he concocts a method with all of those old helium tanks to propel his house up and away from its foundation and towards no less than South America, to a magical place, a Shangri-La of sorts he and his late wife had always dreamt of reaching.

The first 15 minutes or so of UP, we see Carl's previous life, all the way from childhood when he met his eventual sweetie, Ellie, to her passing. Ellie and Carl were both aficiandoes of travel, specifically through airliner. They gawk in astonishment at the exploits of world traveler Charles Muntz, a great white hunter who frequents every corner of the globe to collect animal fossils. Both aspire to live such a life of adventure. It is never to be. In a sequence of absolute cinematic grandeur, we see a silent montage of Ellie and Carl's marital bliss, complete with all the ups and downs that accompany. This sequence is touching in ways that completely blindsighted me, especially when the couple makes a particularly heartbreakening discovery. We never hear a word during this entire sequence, one of the best I think I've seen in any movie.

UP continues as I described, with the addition of other characters on Carl's unusual journey. A series of complications drives the running time, amusing predicaments that mount to ultimately a very moving conclusion. But along the way, there are some hilarious bits. Like that Doberman who communicates in a very high register. Don't ask; just see it. Like other Pixar films, a liberal dose of humor, some slapstick, some very sly, infuses the essentially sober screenplay. Melancholy, like my friend stated. Several scenes are included to make quiet statements about loss, pressing on, prevailing over disability, mediocrity. Very mature themes that may or may not have flown square over the heads of our very vocal juvenile audience last Saturday afternoon. UP is another masterful film as told by an incredibly gifted group of insightful adolescents. Adolescents who matured enough to be thoughtful adults, yet never quite letting go of youthful exuberance, and hope.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Trip You Must Take, Part I

I look at this photo of Hubbard Glacier as the Celebrity Infinity inched closer and closer through iceberg shards. I'm still there. Still on the helipad, stunned with dozens of fellow cruisers. I may never leave.

Third day back from a whirlwind honeymoon out West and I still can't shake the calm. That's right, peace. Once again I've taken a trip "home" to a new place that nonetheless felt like I had been there my entire life, or should've been. Revealing, this. The faithful will recall that a trip to Minnesota last year had me waxing all sentimental over the state's natural beauty and decided lack of flash. Plus, the less noticeable, possibly intrinsic qualities that words can't seem to portray. After having been to Washington state, Alaska, and British Columbia, Canada, I sing again.

My mother-in-law very generously booked our passage on the Infinity for an Alaskan cruise honeymoon. I have heard about this trip, usually spoken with quiet excitement, for years. I even recall an episode of The Love Boat where such a journey was made (Gopher seemed to dig it most, IIRC). My supervisor went last summer. I never heard anything contrary, nothing less than a rave, actually.

It's all true. Believe the hype! Let's start with the cruise itself, my first. Friends have been encouraging me to take one, somewhere, anywhere. Ships leave ports as close as Ft. Lauderdale and Miami all the time. Just never got to it. People described the pampering, the glowing crews, the luxurious pace of life. All true. If I could've given 1000% gratutities to the butler, stateroom attendant, maitre d'. etc., I most certainly would have. Each of them made this trip more spectacular than I was expecting. Trays of goodies every afternoon, information, special seating, it never ended. And warm. I realize they get paid to smile all the time but our crew seemed awfully genuine. One of our hosts even showed us a picture of his family back in Columbia. He was counting the days until he was reunited with them.


While on board, we:

1. Got a couples' full body massage

2. Swam in heated and outdoor (brrrrrrr!) pools. On the latter, were we nuts?

3. Indulged in the hot tubs

4. Wrapped ourselves in blankets on the chaise lounges outside while sipping hot chocolate and Bailey's (in keepsake Celebrity thermoses)

5. Jogged the 11th deck outdoor track

6. Worked out like fiends in the gym (to counteract all the goodies we consumed)

7. Were mesmerized by a string trio who performed multiple times

8. Ate at a restaurant called the S.S. United States that was a multi-course extravaganza unlike anything I've had in years. Sonia had the sea bass; I had the filet mignon for the main. An array of cheeses, a sublime lemon lime dessert, ahhhh. This meal is in my all-time Top 5.

9. Other nights, we had the early seating at the Trellis restuarant, and met two delightful older couples.

10. ALWAYS took the stairs (again, all those calories to burn!)

11. Did nothing at all


Next time, Ketchikan, our first port of call (excluding Seattle, from which we sailed).....

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Coonskin

 What is it that makes a work of art “ageless”? What precludes the inevitable dynamics of the zeitgeist, fashion, mores? Some works seem to be relevant no matter what the climate, even if certain artifacts within seem dated. Perhaps it is that the protagonist is hammering away on an IBM Selectric rather than a wafer thin laptop. Or, the attitude of the writer, director, composer, etc. seems to be “narrower” than our more pluralistic times are comfortable with. Some artists saw far ahead, refusing to tow some imaginable line of what was considered appropriate. Too many to name, but I’m thinking Samuel Clemens, Aldous Huxley, Phil Ochs, Jean Luc-Godard, Philip Glass, that bunch. Infuriating to some, liberating to others.

Animator Ralph Bakshi may also claim membership to the above club, arguably. Once a team artist behind Mighty Mouse and others, Bakshi went on to realize vulgar, gross canvases of theatrically released “cartoons” that were certified with restricted ratings. FRITZ THE CAT (1972) was perhaps the first X-rated animated feature to play in respectable movie houses. Audiences observed that psychedelic hipster feline from R. Crumb’s 1960s comics in a series of obscene misadventures chock full of naughty language, drug abuse, violence, and human (and non-human) nudity. It was shocking to many. To many more, the irreverent, often amoral attitude signaled both a sign of the times and a loud raspberry to the Establishment. And it was a cartoon, for pete’s sake.

Several other celluloid shockfests (to varying degrees) followed in the 70s and 80s. HEAVY TRAFFIC, HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’, AMERICAN POP, others. Somewhere in between, Bakshi tried going PG, with a take on Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS and the apocalyptic WIZARDS (an interesting memory for me as my father yanked my 8-year-old self out of the theater after a mere five minutes or so of it). An attempt at a comeback was seen in 1992’s unsuccessful COOL WORLD. The most unusual and daring on the Bakshi resume to me is a number from ’75 called COONSKIN.

Unique is really the best descriptor. That covers it, whatever your personal taste may dictate. Once again, Bakshi combined live action and animation in trashily vibrant and undeniably creative ways to tell his story. Narrative? Somewhat, but mainly a commentary, a visual essay on the African-American’s role in American society: politically, spiritually, as victim, aggressor, perceived aggressor. From Harriet Beecher Stowe to blaxploitation. Actual history to art. It’s all covered in one way or another. Vignettes portray personifications of the black man through all manner of phylla, distorted human shapes and animal kingdom, as rabid hounds who chug malt liquor in segregated saloons while slapping around their white cupcakes. Well, at least one white woman wields here power as no less than the U.S. of A. herself. Short stories are told, then overlap with the next one as we follow three convicts after their jailbreak and into the urban landscape. We see the principals first in live action (Phillip M. Thomas, later Tubbs on Miami Vice, the famed raspy crooner Barry White, and that classiest of the class acts of a charcater actor himself, Scatman Crothers, who also sings over the opening credits), then as the aforementioned shapes, acting out history like I've certainly never seen.

The film was a powderkeg upon original release. The NAACP didn't ban it but called it a "difficult satire." The studio yanked it. A few years later it was given a marginal video release and absurdly retitled STREETFIGHT. This didn't help its revenue potential, and it became a curiosity. No official DVD exists yet (ever?).

COONSKIN is expectedly ribald, tasteless, crude, like other Bakshi flicks. The ugliness is again smeared across the screen to drive home points, but this time the director manages to convey larger, more thoughtful observations through quieter satire as spot on digs at Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH (itself long since banned in the U.S. for its controversial caricatures) are played out. We hear Scatman as he sings and narrates the Desperate Plight as he and his compadres saunter the jungles of the human soul. Through storms of ignorance and fear, all set to often uncharacteristically sunny melodies. Art can be very effective with the incongruity of the bleak and the rosy. But make no mistake, there may be roses of insight, but they’re still floating in a grandiose cesspool, kinda like what Frank Zappa did a lot of the time. You puts on your wetsuit and googles, and yous occasionally find the gems in the mire after swimming through miles of shit. Whether or not the swim is worth your breath is something you have to decide for yourself.