Sunday, March 27, 2011

Monster Mash


Somewhere back in the Eighties my brother came in from California for a visit one year and we went to see a Broadway musical called “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.”

The first half of the show featured several song and dance numbers staged outside Grauman’s Chinese theater. I don’t remember much of this show after all this time, but one tune called “I Love A Film Cliché” still stands out in my mind.

The singer describes the pleasure he gets from hearing familiar movie lines. Throughout the song other cast members pop up behind him and utter such gems as “why this is an egg from a dinosaur thought to be extinct for two million years!”

Being a serious movie fan I’ve got some favorite film clichés of my own, but I haven't set them to music yet. One of them occurs in courtroom dramas when the crusading attorney stands up and makes some completely ridiculous request.

The judge will pretend to ponder this motion for a few seconds and then say something like “this is highly irregular, but I’ll allow it.”

Of course you'll allow it. Was there ever any doubt? You’re a movie judge, that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Movie judges never say “this is highly irregular and hell will freeze over before I’d ever allow something like that and if you ever make such a stupid motion again in my court again I’ll climb down off this bench and beat the screaming beejesus out you with my little hammer.”

There are also visual clichés. If a major character is ever injured in a movie and taken to the hospital, you can bet there’ll be a POV shot of the hospital ceiling lights rolling by as our victim is being wheeled into surgery. Apparently people in gurneys never look left or right--just straight up at the lights.

Look Out Below

I got around to watching Terminator Salvation last week—yeah, I know, but I kind of liked it. I thought it was a decent sci-fi action flick, though it’s probably best known for Christian Bale’s onset rant at a hapless cameraman.

Bale supporters say the tape was taken out of context, but all I heard was four minutes of paint-peeling obscenities. I think that pretty much is the context.

Anyway, this movie, despite the special effects and huge budget, manages to fall back on an old monster movie cliché. I should probably say “spoiler alert” at this point, but if you’ve ever seen a monster movie in your life I seriously doubt there will be any surprises here.

The hero will face off with a superhuman being—Terminator, Alien, Frankenstein, it doesn’t matter. The two will start fighting and the monster will display his superior strength by picking up the hero and throwing him across the room like a beach ball. Repeatedly.

He will never, I mean never, pick up the hero and break him in two, or twist his head off, or squeeze the life out of him with two fingers—even though he’s perfectly capable of doing so and it would end the confrontation instantly.

No, he’ll just throw a stuntman through the air, or into a wall, or onto a table filled with all sorts of breakable stuff. The hero will get up with some fake blood on his face and a few rips in the shirt, but he’ll still be very much alive. This will go on until the hero finds some way of killing the monster, getting the girl, and ending the movie.

I understand the monsters are evil, but do they have to be stupid, too? Can’t they see that all this showboating can be fatal? I'm not rooting for the villain, I just want the fight scenes to be a little more realistic.

Still I love a good monster movie. And even though the hero-toss irritates me no end, it’s a classic film cliché’ and I’ll allow it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Night Shall End in Day


This is Lent and the theme at Trinity Church on Wall Street is “Night Shall End In Day.”

I take this to mean that there is hope; we don’t have to live in darkness—unless we choose to do so.

I have been trying—really trying—to turn off the dark this week, but I sometimes feel like I’m running short on matches in a drafty room.

In January I applied for Hunter College’s Creative Writing MFA program. I graduated from Hunter three decades ago, when, as I said in my application “Jimmy Carter was president, bread cost 48 cents a loaf, and Hunter’s West Building was just a hole in the ground.”

I thought it would be great to go back to my old college and work on my writing. Well, I learned this week that the program’s selection committee had decided not to extend me an offer of admission, according to the online message I received.

In other words, I didn’t get in.

I was a little bummed, of course, but I’m okay with this—seriously. It was a long shot to begin with, and to be honest, I wasn’t really sure how I would be able to attend classes and go to work at the same time. Now I don’t have to worry.

My return trip to my alma mater began last fall when I heard a BBC radio interview with the novelist Peter Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda and other works.

I was quite impressed and I learned that Carey was the head of the creative writing program at Hunter. When I found out that Hunter would be hosting an open house for the Creative Writing MFA, I made sure to get up there.

Me, Again

The auditorium was packed and the instructors and students on stage gave off this fabulous energy.

“We’re not teachers who write,” Peter Carey said at one point, “but writers who teach.”

I was so amped when I came out of that place that I decided I would apply for the program.

But it was strange being back at Hunter after all this time. As I wrote in my application. "this is where I tutored English, met a woman I wish I had married, and made the decision that I wanted to write."

And I remember making that decision. I was a sophomore, doing poorly in several classes, and I thought I'd better crank up the writing and try to make a living that way because I didn't see myself working on the stock exchange. I started reading Ellery Queen Magazine and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and writing crime stories of my own. I also signed up from creative writing courses.

In returning to Hunter, I found myself looking over my life and asking what have I actually done in the last 30-odd years?


You’re not rich, you’re not famous, this dark voice inside me said, and while you write for living, it’s as a reporter, not as the novelist-screenwriter-poet warlord you want to be.

I know so many people who have started families, created their own businesses, and generally done a hell of lot more with their lives than I have with mine.

I've also allowed my social circle to shrink, using the lousy weather as an excuse to sit in front of the TV most weekends and watch movies.

I think I applied to the Hunter program because I wanted a second chance at being a college student, a do-over, because I didn't do such a hot job the first time around. I thought I could write, hang out with really cool people, finish that novel and get on with my career before I became eligible for Social Security.

So it looks like that’s not going to happen. It’s no fun being rejected for anything, but I’m not going to crash and burn on this. And I’m certainly not going to give up on writing. I'll finish that manuscript sure as the night shall end in day.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Kind of Town


I’ve finally found the perfect place to live. Too bad it no longer exists.

The spot I’m thinking of is post-World War II New York City, the time ranging from the mid-forties to the early Sixties, when Manhattan was the center of the universe. This is my Camelot, my Shangri-La.

It’s the world of “Sweet Smell of Success,” one of my favorite movies, where Burt Lancaster, portraying a psychotic gossip columnist, witnesses a scene of midtown mayhem and happily declares, “I love this dirty town.”

So do I, Burt, so do I.

This is back when people went to clubs and men wore suits and ties and hats. Everybody ate steaks, smoked cigarettes, and drank bourbon round the clock. The neon lights really were bright on Broadway back then.

There were no laptops, cellphones, I-pods, or other such devices that I like to complain about, but, of course, would never give up now that I have them.

Newspapers were still the dominant media and this town had a dozen of them. Radio had its place, of course, and that pesky television thing started gaining attention, but typewriters still banged out the news of the world.

I got reintroduced to this period recently when I watched Kristi Jacobson’s fabulous documentary “Toots,” a film about her grandfather, the renowned bar and restaurant owner, Toots Shor.

Toots Shor’s seemed to be the epicenter of post-war New York. Movie stars, athletes, gangsters, and reporters all gravitated to Toots’ place.

One of the people interviewed in the film talked about walking into the restaurant one night and seeing Chief Justice Earl Warren on one side of the room and Frank Costello, the “Prime Minister of the Underworld,” on the other.

Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Bing Crosby, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Frank Gifford are just a few of the people who found their way to 51 W.51 Street.

"Match Me, Sidney!"

Yet it seemed to be the kind of place where ordinary shmos could go to have a good time, too; where you didn’t have to beg for entry, the way Studio 54 patrons had to do a generation later.

The film includes footage from an episode of the show “This is Your Life,” dedicated to Toots and an audiotape interview that Shor made shortly before his death. In telling the story of one man, the film also chronicles a vibrant time of American history.

My parents met and married in this time so they knew--or knew of-- a lot of these people and places.

My father, a World War II veteran and heavy duty sports fan, used to tell me about the time Billy Conn took on Joe Louis for the heavyweight title. Conn, the former light-heavyweight, gave Louis a tough time, but he eventually fell in the 13th round.

A lifelong gambler, Shor said he dropped $100,000 on that fight—his biggest loss ever—when he put his money on Conn. I don’t even want to think about how much that translates into modern day dollars, but you can be sure that it’s a lot.

The world keeps moving and the days of Toots Shor eventually came to an end. Drugs, urban decay, and the upheaval of Sixties, all pushed the old generation aside. Athletes started making more money and opening up their own clubs.

The likeable rogue type gangster gave way to heroin dealers, who, Nicholas Pileggi observes, could never be considered likeable. Shor got into trouble with the IRS and lost his place.

I vaguely remember seeing ads for a restaurant called “Toots Shor’s” in the Seventies, but, according to the film, he was little more than a front man by that time.

Toots Shor died in 1977 and New York was in hideous condition by then. It has bounced back dramatically, but it’s not the same place.

Everyone has a favorite time period that looks great on paper. And to be honest, one man’s golden age can be another man's reign of terror. It’s easy for me to wax poetic about a time I never knew. If I lived back in that Fifties, I’d probably long for the days of spats and speakeasies.

You can’t live in the past and you can’t stop time. And no matter how much it changes, I'll always love this dirty town.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Riding the Rails


I got some high praise the other day when I held the elevator door for a guy in the lobby of my office building.

“You’re a great man,” he said as he stepped aboard.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I wasn’t going to argue. You don't get called great every day of the week. Or least I don't.

The elevator service was anything but great, though, as the thing just sat on the ground floor making obnoxious beeping noises. It gets annoyed if you mess with the doors.

“Oh, come on,” my fellow passenger said in mock exasperation. “I’m a Southern gentleman, but I’ve got my limits.”

The elevator got the hint, promptly closing the doors and starting to move. I made sure to wish my travel companion a good day as I got off. I had a rotten commute that morning and I appreciated a little positive energy.

It had been freezing cold, the trains were all fouled up, and some loser insisted upon bullying his way on to the R train like he was racing to perform open heart surgery at Beth Israel. Everybody else on the platform were just obstacles.

I managed to get a seat on this sardine can, stuck my nose in a book and forget all about this cad. But the local morphed into an express and when we got to 36th Street, the blowhard pushed his way off the train in the same manner in which he had stormed on. However, someone didn’t take kindly to this and the two had a testy exchange on the platform.

“Fuck you,” the bum rusher said, stretching the limits of his vocabulary.

The two verbal combatants were apparently from the same country because they switched to another language—possibly Arabic—and I assume they swapped the F-bomb in their mother tongue as well. It’s great to be bilingual.

Transportation has been much on my mind lately. A few weeks ago I had gotten goat-roped into participating in a travel survey by some research outfit.

"And then I took out my Metro Card..."

I was supposed to record my travel experiences for one day--trains, buses, tug boats, walking, pretty much everything but elevators. I’m not sure what the point of this thing was but I went along, making note of what time I left my house and when I arrived at work.

I also had to record my walk to church at lunchtime, my ride home, and the walk to the grocery store near my home train station. It felt weird tracking all this mundane activity and I was tempted to throw in a motorcycle jump over the East River to spice things up a little.

I had to load all of this stuff onto a website, which proved to be quite difficult for some reason. Maybe I should have watched that tutorial before I started filing.

I kept backing up, deleting stuff, and typing it in again. I was really sorry I had agreed to be part of this survey. I’m a northern gentleman, but I have my limits. I finally managed to finish the survey without throwing my computer out the window and took the subway home.

Friday came around and as I rode to work I heard the motorman of my train greet one his colleagues who was at the helm of the D train across the platform.

“Another day in paradise,” he said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

Sarcasm runs pretty heavily in the subways most days, but there are some bright spots. As I sat in first seat of the first car a young man brought his little boy up to the front window so the kid could watch the train heading down the tracks.

The boy was so excited I was going to peer over his shoulder to see if I’ve been missing something.

When I was this boy’s age, my brother told me about how cool it was riding in the front car and looking through the big window. I was so thrilled that I imagined something like the screen on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. Reality was a bit of a letdown.

I smiled and encouraged the boy to keep looking at the window. He and his father got off at Rector Street and I was grateful for getting a little bit of paradise before going to work.