Richard Widmark

I can’t say that the death of Richard Widmark, at 93, is much of a surprise at this point, but I must say I’m disappointed his death was not caused by being pushed down a flight of stairs by a giggling psychopath. And I say that with the deepest respect.

Rest in peace, big guy.hitcounter

Paul Scofield

It is not the function of this journal to become an Endless Parade of Death, but here we are again.

Paul Scofield didn’t make that many movies, and when he did make a movie he generally played classical roles, guys in doublets and funny hats. He’s best known for his performance as Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons (opposite Robert Shaw as Henry VIII, who we were just discussing the other day). But I will always remember him as The Dad in Quiz Show, a film about which

  once said: “You could bounce a quarter off that movie.”

One of the things that movies do, for good and for ill, is teach us how to behave.  You like to think that, if you were a secret agent charged with saving the world, you could witness the grisly death of a mortal enemy and a witty quip would simply come to you, you wouldn’t need to practice it beforehand or have a running list in your head.  You like to think that, if you were a nightclub owner in wartime Africa, you’d have the moral rectitude to force your old girlfriend to go off with her husband for the good of the world, even though every fiber of your being longs to have her with you always.  On some level, dramatic structures exist to do just this: to present moral and behavioral circumstances and instruct us on what is the best way to behave under those circumstances.  If your father is shot down in the street, you rush to his side and protect him, even if he’s a Mafia don and you can’t stand that part of him — that’s just what one does.

There is a scene somewhere in Act III of Quiz Show where The Son goes back home to ask The Dad for advice in his plight, and it’s the middle of the night, and The Dad is in his bathrobe, and the two men sit at the kitchen table and have some chocolate cake. And Ralph Fiennes and Scofield are wonderful in the scene, and director Robert Redford knows the lives of privileged WASPs like nobody’s business, and it’s a perfectly realized scene of WASPy father-son relations. And it all revolves around this chocolate cake, which symbolizes all the comforts and rights The Son has lost in straying from the True Path, and that cake in that scene is photographed so well, so dark and so light, so moist and so solid, so well photographed that it made me intensely nostalgic for some ideal lost piece of chocolate cake in my own wayward WASP life, and of course for the absence of a kind, wise, brilliant WASP father. Scofield in that scene became a kind of framework I could hang my notions of WASP fatherhood on, and someday, when my own full-grown son comes to my house in the middle of the night with a humiliating tale of dishonoring the family name by cheating on a quiz show, I hope to God I will have the foresight to have a perfectly-realized chocolate cake in sitting around nearby for comfort. And of course the wisdom Scofield so effortlessly conveyed.


Anthony Minghella

Oh my God, I completely missed the news that Anthony Minghella died. The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of my favorite movies of all time and now I’m sad I never got to tell him so. He also directed a stunning adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Play that was a highlight of the Beckett on Film project, and is well worth seeking out.

At least I don’t have to worry about him being bored or uncomfortable during his long elevator ride to Heaven, he’s got Arthur C. Clarke to talk to. Unless, of course, Clarke went straight to being reborn as a giant foetus orbiting Jupiter.


Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke will, presumably, be re-born as a giant foetus orbiting Jupiter.


For loyal readers of this journal, bear with me. I am on a deadline for another project, this one that Hollywood staple, the comedy of divine retribution.hitcounter

R.I.P. Roy Scheider

I am greatly saddened by the news of the passing of Roy Scheider.

I was about to say that the first time I saw Mr. Scheider was in the police thriller The Seven-Ups, but that’s not quite true. I first saw Roy Scheider in the Mad magazine parody of The French Connection, which was entitled What’s The Connection?

In any case, by the time Jaws came out in 1975 I was looking forward to it almost as much as a Roy Scheider vehicle as a Steven Spielberg movie. I enjoyed his work in Marathon Man, Sorcerer, Still of the Night, Blue Thunder, Naked Lunch, The Punisher and especially, of course, All That Jazz.

Few people probably know about his work as the voice of Japanese author Yukio Mishima in Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. That movie blew me away — I was working at a theater it was playing at when it was released and would watch it several times a day for weeks. When the DVD was released, I was shocked and dismayed to find that Scheider’s precise, measured readings of Mishima’s texts were gone, replaced with voiceovers by Paul Schrader. They’re not the same, and to me the movie is greatly diminished because of the change. I’ve never figured out why that change was made (I have read somewhere that there was a rights issue with the translations used), but it is definitely a loss.

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Another long, awkward elevator ride


Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni ride in (what else) silence.

MA. Well.  This is weird.

IB. Mm.

MA. You with the whole “is there a God” thing, me with the whole “existential angst” thing —

IB. Mm.

MA. And here we are.

IB. Here we are.


MA.  What was it finally did it to you?

IB. Mm?

MA. ‘Cos we both got up there, man, you know?  80s, 90s, I mean, that’s a load of years for a couple of guys who made such a big deal out of how miserable life is.

IB. Mm.

MA.  Me?  That Chuck and Larry movie.  I saw that, I just said “forget it, I’ve had enough, I’m out of here.”  Billy Madison was cute, but I drew the line on Sandler with The Waterboy.  What about you?

IB. Me, oh, you know me.  The weight of a Godless world, the the suffocating oppression of memory, the haunting terrors of family.

MA. I gotcha, sure.

IB. And Transformers.

MA.  Ooh, yeah, that one hurt.

IB. I’m like, “what, I expanded the vocabulary of cinema to explore the most important, penetrating questions of the human condition so that monster robots could fight each other?”  Give me a break.

MA. I totally get you.


IB. By the way, I’ve always wanted to tell you —

MA. Yes?

IB.  I hated Zabriskie Point.

MA. Oh yeah?  Well I hated The Serpent’s Egg.

IB. You —


IB. Ah, the hell with it.


MA. Jesus, this is one long elevator ride, isn’t it?

IB. You ain’t kidding.

MA. Did you, when you got on, did you happen to notice which way it was heading?

IB. Well, I assumed —

Pause.  They look at each other.

The elevator dings.  The doors slide open.  Bergman and Antonioni go to step out, but TOM SNYDER steps in.

TS. Hey, Ingmar Bergman!  Michaelangelo Antonioni!  Good to see you!

He slaps them on the back.  They look distinctly uncomfortable.

TS. Boy, this death thing, this is wild, isn’t it?  I tell you, I wasn’t ready for this one.  Reminds me of the time I was taking a train to Bridgeport once, I was in the station, and you know how they’ve got those newsstands, right?  Where they sell all the newspapers and candy and whatnot.  And there’s a shoe-shine guy next to the newsstand, right?  And I’ve always wondered about the shoe-shine guy.  You know?  Who is this guy?  Is this what he wanted to do with his life?  “Shoe-shine guy?”  Has he reached the pinnacle of his career?  “I am a shoe-shine guy?”  And he’s got this hat, it’s kind of like a conductor’s cap, almost like maybe a conductor gave it to him, like you know, maybe this guy’s a little “simple,” you know, and one of the train conductors took pity on him and gave him a hat, you know, to cheer him up, make him feel like he’s part of the team.  Anyway, so I’m there in the train station and this skycap goes by, huge stack of luggage on one of those rolling things, what are those things called, dollies?  Not dollies, but like a dolly, with the handle, you know?  And I’ve always wondered, who decides whether the cart gets a handle or not?  And —

Bergman and Antonioni wither as Snyder chats on and on.  Fade out. hit counter html code

Johnny Hart 1931-2007

I’m conflicted by the death of Johnny Hart. When I was a kid, B.C. was my favorite strip in the world for a long, long time. I collected the books, read them over and over, compared one to another, mentally charted the development of ideas and themes, thought about how the characters differed and how they acted toward one another, learned to draw all of them. It was a big part of my life for what seems like years.

I had not read the strip in decades when I learned that he had decided to go out of his way to inject his strict fundamentalist Christian views into his work. Strips like this, this, this and this seem unasked for at best and hateful at worst. To start with only the most obvious, how do you explain a bunch of cavemen discussing evolution? Or Jesus? In a strip titled, ahem, B.C.? It’s one thing to write according to your beliefs, but why use an art form (on the funnies page, no less) as a tool to bludgeon Jews, Muslims and, essentially, anyone who isn’t also a fundamentalist Christian? Charles Schulz was a devout Christian and wrote of his beliefs with elegance, charm and great warmth. Not every cartoonist can be a Schulz, and my early life was greatly enriched by Hart’s work, but he ended his career on a decidedly sour note of intolerance.

hit counter html code UPDATE: An eloquent appraisal of Hart’s talents can be found here.

Rest in peace, Larry “Bud” Melman

It’s difficult to imagine now, 25 years later, the impact the early days of the NBC Letterman show had on us young hipsters.  Cable was still  a rarity and TV comedy in the days after Monty Python was Mork and Mindy.  The 1982 Letterman show was a bizarre, cathartic psychotic freakout of TV culture, a show that took everything that had preceded it and turned it inside-out, and then devoured it, and then shat it out and devoured it again.  You could turn on Letterman in 1982 and, quite literally, have no idea what to expect.

(I remember, early on, there was a “wheel of fortune” bit they did where Letterman would spin the wheel to see what would happen next.  Selections were all mundane or ridiculous things, but then one choice was “Surprise Visit From Mick Jagger,” and there was a booth onstage with the hand of “Mick Jagger” waving out the top.  In 1982, the idea of Mick Jagger showing up for Letterman was a cruel joke; now it would be commonplace.)

One of the high-water marks of the period was the character of Larry “Bud” Melman, a cranky, befuddled old man who was too real to be fake (although, of course, he was fake, an actor named Calvert DeForest).  His timing, whether produced by comic brilliance or simple ineptitude, was absolutely stunning, and he could destroy a routine in the blink of an eye, then resurrect it into another realm in the following breath.  Letterman would thrust him into situations clearly beyond his comprehension, seemingly to make fun of a sorry old man on national television, and Melman’s palpable haplessness, rage and desperation could become almost unbearable.  You couldn’t figure out why Letterman kept using this guy except to make fun of his ineptitude, and you couldn’t figure out why Melman would keep showing up for the gig when he was only there to be laughed at.  His every appearance in the early days was a high-wire act, with the audience not knowing quite what to make of this cranky, easily distracted and opaque old man.  He couldn’t tell a joke — Christ, he could barely read his cue-cards — but the electricity between him and Letterman was astonishing.  Routines would fall apart or turn into horrifying, cruel shouting matches and you didn’t know whether you wanted to laugh or cry but you certainly weren’t going to change the channel.

It turned out it was all a joke, but I never knew to what extent the joke was on Melman, DeForest, Letterman or the audience.

Nowadays, Letterman’s art of spinning comedy gold from the common man (Rupert Gee, Sirajul and Mujibar, et alia) is the norm on the show and everyone is in on the joke, but in the beginning, it was untested, even dangerous ground he was treading and the volatile Larry “Bud” Melman was his advance scout.
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This is going to be one awkward elevator ride.

Almost as bad as the time Richard Nixon and Kurt Cobain died within days of each other. hit counter html code

Robert Altman

Well, I couldn’t let the day go by without mentioning the passing of Robert Altman.

He had a gigantic filmography with all kinds of stuff in it. 87 directing credits, including anonymous TV piecework, a decade’s worth of adaptations of American plays, some bizarre (and failed) experiments, some charming frippery, a few expensive studio misfires and probably twenty or so visionary masterpieces of American cinema.

If you’ve never see MASH, or only know the material from the insipid TV series, do yourself a favor and see the original. It will blow you away. It’s profane, hilarious, bloody, shocking, electrifying and defiantly frank in its depiction of the human condition.

Altman could be distressingly erratic but his successes were so definitive and inspiring that they always made up for his failures. You could sit through a dud as hapless as Beyond Therapy knowing that, sooner or later, he would come back with a superior entertainment like The Player or the flat-out masterpiece Gosford Park.  Eclectic, prodigious and up for anything, his unpredictability made him relentlessly uncommercial but also gave him the most daringly alive career of any American director.

I am dismayed to find that I have only seen 17 of his movies: Countdown, MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, California Split, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Popeye, Streamers, Fool for Love, Beyond Therapy, Aria, The Player, Short Cuts, The Gingerbread Man, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park and The Company. As I peer over this list, I find six staggering masterpieces, one expensive, fascinating failed experiment, five worthwhile but lesser works, one atrocity and two mainstream studio pictures that could have been directed by anyone (both of which were, by the way, commercial failures). That would have been an entire career for most people but for Altman it’s barely a fifth of his output.

I also note that Altman’s breakthrough work, MASH, was released when he was 45 years old.  45 and he was just beginning!  So there’s hope for me yet.
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