MORE JOHN FORD
After laying off for a while, I delved back into that VHS John Ford collection I inherited from a friend -- a John Ford freak who upgraded to DVD.
"The Informer" (1935) is a tour-de-force by brawny, pug-faced actor Victor McLaglen. McLaglen's Gypo turns in his friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), an Irish rebel with a price on his head. McPhillip is killed in a subsequent shootout. But Gypo squanders the 20-pound reward (largely on booze) in one "Twilight Zone"-esque night.
"The Informer" reminds me of a '30s horror film, for a few practical reasons.
In his famous period epics, Ford exploited vast landscapes. Here, he is trying to convey a gloomy Ireland at night, using Hollywood backlots. So the sets are dark and stylized, a la "Dracula," "The Invisible Man" or even "Svengali."
Also, there are a couple of faces that we horror geeks know well. Off the top of my head, I can name several horror films Ford was in: "The Mummy's Hand," "Freaks," "The Ape Man," "The Mysterious Mr. Wong." Then there's Una O'Connor as Frankie's brokenhearted mother, who was in "Bride of Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man." O'Connor's climactic scene with McLaglen is probably her finest hour (among many).
I also caught "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). This later Ford film almost seems like Ford had proven all he had to prove, and now was settling down for a few breezy laughs (not that the story is a comedy). And what a cast: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, my hero John Carradine, Lee Marvin (as the title cad), Lee Van Cleef (as a sinister henchman), Andy Divine (never more hilarious), Woody Strode (as ever-reliable ranchhand Pompey) and on and on.
One aside came to mind that kind of cracked me up.
The film is set in the old West and largely told in one long flashback. But the bookends at the beginning and end show a West that has been more or less civilized thanks to the railroad, the telegraph, etc.
At the beginning of "Valance," Senator Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) unexpectedly comes to town. A young newspaper reporter dashes to an old-fashioned public telephone hanging at the train station, cranks it up and phones the scoop into the office.
I had to laugh, because up until about 15 years ago, technology hadn't advanced much since the period depicted in "Valance." In my time, I've phoned "scoops" into the office via pay telephones. Today, that whipper-snapper would simply whip out his iPhone and update his myspace to tell the world that Senator Stoddard has arrived. But nobody would care, because Senator Stoddard isn't an "American Idol" contestant, a reality-show star or a celebutante charged with a DUI.
GET THEE TO MONTCLAIR
Since we last met, I buzzed up to Montclair Art Museum with some friends to take in the comic book-themed exhibit spearheaded by "Batman" executive producer Michael Uslan. I can only say that for any comics-history buff, this exhibit is a 100 percent, absolute must-visit.
With my own eyes, I got to see what is, for me, the Holy Grail: "Action Comics" No. 1 (1938), the first appearance of Superman -- or, for that matter, of ANY superhero.
I'd never seen a copy of "Action" 1 in person before, only reprints. It was under glass, of course, with a security guard hovering nearby. It looked so frail and fragile sitting there -- like it was just another comic book. It had a little bit of what we anal-retentive collectors call "spine roll," revealing the edge of yellowed pages. It's hard to believe that the whole thing sprang forth from this modest piece of printed material!
Next to it was "Detective Comics" No. 27 (1939), the first appearance of Batman. But under the glass, this copy of "'Tec" 27 was also sealed in plastic for grading purposes (a comic-book-geek thing I won't bore you with at this moment). As such, I just didn't feel the same vibe from it that I felt from the copy of "Action" 1. Henceforth, I feel as if I a have a relationship with "Action" 1; but I felt twice-removed from "'Tec" 27. It's a comic-book-geek thing.
But there are so many history-making books to see in this exhibit: "Captain America" No. 1, "Sensation Comics" No. 1, "Wonder Woman" No. 1, "Showcase" No. 4, Dr. Fredric Wertham's anti-comics diatribe "Seduction of the Innocent," and on and on. There are many pages of original artwork, and a screening room continuously running a History Channel documentary about comics. A highlight is a room devoted to artists Joe, Andy and Adam Kubert, with three '40s splash pages by papa Joe, including an unpublished Hawkman page. (Comic-book geeks are now drooling.)
Not to mention the museum's many wonderful permanent installments, such as its American Indian section and a painting of George Washington for which the father of our country actually sat! I love this museum.
Of course -- and I'm starting to sound like a broken record, or should I say a corrupted iPod -- revisiting Montclair Art Museum provided many "habituation" moments. Kathy and I twice visited MAM to take in its 2003 exhibit on the paintings of Man Ray, "Conversion to Modernism," which Kathy dearly loved. She purchased MAM's book about the Ray exhibit, which I brought with me last week to have autographed by an in-house essayist. What a sentimental fool I am.
LAST POST UNTIL 8/26
(Program note: This will be my last Web column -- OK, blog -- until Aug. 26.)
Our next gig -- the Mad Jack/Scream double-bill -- is continuing to shape up. It's looking like Friday, Nov. 2, in Gloucester City, but it's not booked quite yet.
Mad Jack, staunchly a four-piece, has broken tradition and added a fifth member. I'll just call him The Kid. He's 19 years old. I'm the old man in Mad Jack at 49, which makes me 30 years older than The Kid. What are we going to talk about? I'm gonna have to buy an iPhone and start watching "Heroes." All joshing aside, The Kid is really terrific, and he's done a lot of work on behalf of we four sagging, slowing, dimming midlife-crisis victims.
Since the guys are all in South Jersey and I'm here, they sometimes have weeknight "satellite" practices without me. My brother played me some of last night's practice. They were working on "Green Grass and High Tides" by the Outlaws. They sounded sweet. It's been a dream of Brinie's and mine to do that song all our playing lives!
When we were high school kids, you were in one of either two camps: "Freebird" or "Green Grass and High Tides." Both were long Southern-rock jams with lots of screeching guitar, but the similarities ended there. Me 'n' Brinie were firmly in the "Green Grass and High Tides" camp. When I'd be listening to, say, WMMR, and those spooky opening notes would come on, I would immediately put life on hold.
It's not an easy song to do. You need three guitarists, and they've gotta be sharp. The Kid is going to make it happen for us. Hell, I might even wear a cowboy hat.
WISH OR MONEY-STEALER?
This time of year, you might see milkweed pods -- those little, white, wispy things that float by in the summertime.
When we were kids, we called them "wishes." Catch one, and you can make a wish. It didn't matter whether or not the wish ever came true. When you're a little kid, the very act of wishing is an end unto itself.
Later in life, I heard someone call them "money-stealers." If you let one touch you, your piggy bank or your wallet might get a little lighter.
That's quite a difference in definitions. If you're in the "wish" camp, you run after these things. If you're in the "money-stealer" camp, you run FROM them.
Today, I was nearby to a woman I know and her little angel of a granddaughter, who is just under 3 but is very articulate for her age. A milkweed pod was floating by. I heard the little girl say, "What's that?" Nana didn't see the milkweed pod, so I thought I would step in and answer. I had a split-second debate: "Do I say 'wish' or 'money-stealer'?"
(As I've shared before, we Irish are superstitious. My answer could be the chaos theory in action. My gentle influence could decide whether this little girl will consider milkweed pods to be friends or foes for the rest of her life! It's a responsibility not to be taken lightly.)
"That's a wish," I said.
The little angel smiled. I think she "got" it right away. I made the right choice. Those things don't steal your money. They grant wishes.
SMOKE 'EM IF YA GOT 'EM!
It was New Year's Eve 2004, and a bottle of bubbly awaited in the refrigerator, but Kathy and I decided not to pop the cork.
How could we celebrate when so many people had been killed, or their lives ruined, by the Dec. 26 tsumani?
I think it was my suggestion to abstain in observation of the stricken.
It turned out to be our last New Year's Eve together. We will never drink to the new year again.
So I say unto you, brethren and sistren, that if thou hast them, thou shouldst smoke them.
My father was a great believer that you should celebrate while the celebratin's good. And you know something? He was right. For the last few months of his life, he'd lost the power to swallow, so he wasn't drinking any champagne, either.
Show-biz folk say, "The show must go on." I'm a great believer in that. To we journalistic types, deadlines are king.
Heck, when Kathy died, my brother and sister-in-law had to talk me out of coming to the office! It's not that we're cold. It's just our training.
I read a story -- one I like to assume isn't entirely apocryphal -- that Lou Costello once told his little son to listen to his daddy on the radio that night. Tragically, the boy drowned in the Costellos' swimming pool. But Lou didn't cancel his radio performance. The story goes -- and this is the possibly apocryphal part, but I dearly hope not -- that Lou said that he'd told his little boy to listen, and somewhere -- heaven? -- the boy would be listening. Lou didn't want to let him down.
SMOKE 'EM IF YA GOT 'EM!
"Not everybody got what Bernie did," said harmonica player "Big Nancy" Swarbrick of Bernie Brausewetter, the South Plainfield blues guitarist who died April 15 at the tragically young age of 52.
I know exactly what she means. I call what Bernie played "super blues" or "cosmic blues." It wasn't traditional blues like B.B. King or Buddy Guy. It was weird, trippy, spaced-out blues like Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter or Robin Trower. Even among the last three guitarists mentioned, there are wide gulfs -- wide, beautiful gulfs.
Bernie reminded me most of Trower, who is not as widely known as Henrix or Winter. To me, Hendrix is a '60s cat; Winter is a '60s/'70s cat; and Trower is FIRMLY a '70s cat. And I am, at heart, a '70s cat.
The first time I met Bernie was when he opened for Johnny Winter at the former Club Bene in Sayreville. I think the year was 1998. Kathy and I were covering Johnny's show. We didn't know from Bernie's band, B.B. and the Stingers. (By the way, don't you agree that it's pretty ballsy to use the acronym "B.B." for the name of a blues band? "B.B." was kind of already taken.)
Over the years, we've seen many local bands opening for past-their-heyday artists. But the Stingers got through to me immediately. Once Bernie started playing, I could hear all that cosmic '70s stuff flying through the ether. I shouted to Kathy over the loud music, "This guy's awesome! Shoot his set!"
Anyway, we met Bernie and the guys, and they were very sweet. I did a few interviews with Bernie over the years. We would see him around; we went to see him play a little bar in Long Branch, ran into him at The Stone Pony. He would call me with career updates, send me his postcards. Now, he and Kathy are both gone.
It just goes to show you: If there's someone in your life who you appreciate, TELL 'em once in a while.
"THE SIMPSONS MOVIE"
Me 'n' some pals caught the midnight premiere of "The Simpsons Movie" last Thursday at Monmouth Mall. People have been asking me what I think of the film. I kind of hem and haw and say, well, the crowd loved it. It must just be me.
I loved the first half-hour -- all the jokey setups. It was a rush hearing the sound of a live audience laughing at the jokes, after more than 15 years of laughing at home while watching "The Simpsons" in my living room. It was almost like a reward.
But then at mid-point, the movie started getting kind of, I dunno, "heartfelt" (as TV episodes often did). And then it began to barrel toward the Big Movie Ending (as, again, TV episodes often did). This is when "The Simpsons Movie" lost me.
But here's what I SUPER, SUPER DUG about attending that midnight screening.
Preceding the film, there was one insipid "family friendly" trailer after another. We saw trailers for "Bee Movie" (Jerry Seinfeld didn't make enough sitcom money, so he's grabbing that easy animated-franchise-voiceover money); "Daddy Day Camp" (Cuba Gooding Jr. continues to risk having his Oscar revoked); "Alvin and the Chipmunks" (you'll lose all respect for Jason Lee when you see him scream "ALVIIIIN!" and the camera zooms into his mouth); "Horton Hears a Hoo" (for the second time, Jim Carrey causes Dr. Seuss to spin in his grave). And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.
But the response of the midnight crowd after each trailer was priceless. No one shouted. No one cursed. Everyone just grumbled.
After every sappy, sugary, cynical, tell-Mommy-to-bring-you-to-this-movie trailer, the audience just grumbled the kind of grumble that usually follows, say, an announcement that your train is being delayed.