Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Darren McGavin

The actor Darren McGavin died over the weekend. Most news services listed a quick biography for him but they left out some important accomplishments.

I became a fan of McGavin during his short-lived series The Outsider. McGavin played a seedy ex-con turned private detective. This was 1967 and the tv networks were trying to reflect reality better than before. In the opening sequence, McGavin's character was shown drinking milk from the carton before realizing it was sour. This "life can be sour" image typified the show, but it was a footnote in a long list of roles that McGavin played.

In 1970, McGavin played a Marine drill sergent against Jan Michael Vincent's hippy draftee in Tribes. This was a cult hit during the height of anti-war feelings. McGavin had the difficult part of making a tough marine still seem sympathetic.

Two years later he was in Nightstalker. Most of McGavin's biographies mention the series but none of them mention the original movie. This is a major oversight. The series is a cult-classic but the movie was something else - it was an event. It scored the highest ratings a made-for-tv movie had ever recorded, a record which stood until Roots.

McGavin played Carl Kolchack, a seedy reporter similar to the detective he had played in The Outsider. The plot involved a serial killer in Las Vegas and the authorities' attempts to cover it up. Along the way it turned out that the killer was a vampire and Kolchack was the only one to believe. Considering the subject matter, it is not surprising that the producer was Dan Curtis who's soap opera, Dark Shadows, had just ended.

McGavin made one more classic, A Christmas Story which is probably the only memorable Christmas movie made in the 1980s. In the two decades since it was made, Christmas Story has achieved classic status. A good bit of this status is due to McGavin's over-the-top portrayal as the "old man".

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Creating a Classic

The first time I read Lord of the Rings I was struck by how the tone changed when they reached Rivendel. Tolkien's son published all of the fragments and early drafts that his father went through while writing the novel. After reading this I understand what happened.

The Hobbit was so popular that the publisher asked for a sequel. Tolkien wasn't sure. He felt that he had done about everything he could with hobbits but he tried anyway. The plot was a problem. Bilbo was supposed to have lived happily ever after which precluded further adventures.

Tolkien started by writing the Long Expected Party. He was vague about who was holding the party and why but he liked it. Originally Bilbo was holding the party before going off in search of more money or a wife or both. Later he and his wife had gone off and his son, Bingo, was throwing the party. Bingo became a nephew instead of a son and in some versions Bilbo threw the party and in others Bingo did. By this point it was clear that it was Bingo's story but Tolkien had no idea what that story would be.

At first Bingo was going off in search of gold and adventure. The ring got mixed in with it in a fuzzy way - possibly it made the owner want to go looking for dragon gold.

Regardless, the party was held by someone for some reason and Bingo departed with some friends. They didn't get very far before they realized that they were being followed and hid. Their pursuer was a figure covered in black so that not even his nose could be seen but it turned out to be Gandolf.

Scratch that. Tolkien immediately changed it to something worse. He wasn't sure what, yet nor was he sure how many riders there were. At one point the dark riders were barrow wights.

By the time they met Tom Bombadil and made it to Bree, Tolkien had worked out that the riders were wraiths and that they were after the ring for some reason.

Bree was a town of hobbits. Even the mysterious ranger they met was a hobbit - Trotter - who wore wooden shoes. They never found out but Trotter was a long-lost cousin of Bingo's.

Bingo was attacked at Weathertop and they finally made it to Rivendel. Bingo recovered and it was time for some revelations.

Except Tolkien didn't have them. He realized that it was time to figure out what was going on. While he was at it, he realized that he had too many hobbits so Bree became a village of men with a few hobbits, and Trotter the hobbit became Strider the man.

While he was at it, Tolkien changed the group of hobbits. He considered renaming the main character "Frodo" but he was too used to "Bingo".

Where Bingo had been accompanied by three young and interchangeable hobbits before, he cut that down to a pair of younger hobbits and added Sam Gamgee.

The ring became THE ring. The seven dark riders became nine nazgul.

There had to be some sacrifice on Bingo's part so he still had money but he had to leave the Shire because of the ring. There had to be a reason for him to go (Gandolf would never have left him if he had known that the Nazgul were abroad) so Gollum was brought into the plot. Bilbo was given a reason for handing over his ring.

Things were shaping up.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Lost Agenda?

Is Lost pushing an agenda? It never occurred to me until a few weeks ago when the local TV writer complained about the baptism episode pushing religion down our throats. This caught me totally by surprise. To me, the episode was "Charlie goes crazy, has visions, and totally screws up." That it ended in a baptism was a minor plot point. Lots of people are baptized and you expect that on an island with a priest (sort of) that this will come up.

Granted one of Charlie's visions had some religious significance but the others didn't. My bigger question was if he had kept his word and had not broken open any of the statues or if the visions were drug-induced?

The next new episode was straight-forward, Sawyer conned everyone with Charlie's help.

Then we come to the Sayid episode. [spoiler] The backstory is how Sayid came to be a torturer. During the first Gulf War, the Americans needed to know what happened to a downed flier. They found out that Sayid spoke English and sent him in as translator, except we discover at the end that the commanding officer speaks perfect Arabic. What the Americans needed was someone they could outsource torture to.

The situation was a bit contrived. The Iraqi officer was not only uncooperative, he was also responsible for using poison gas on Sayid's family, not that coincidences are unusual in Lost. One of the soldiers was Kate's adopted father.

The outsourcing of torture has bee an issue in recent months which makes its inclusion in Lost questionable. The other question is what we are to make of it? Should we be outraged at the trick that the Americans played on Sayid? Should we look at this as an example where someone needed torture even if we are not allowed to do it? Or did they simply toss it out as an example of what happens in war?

It has been noted that Americans are often outraged in principal about torture but we expect our TV and movie heroes to do whatever it takes. This appears to be such a situation.

A few other observation:

Jack is a losy leader. He cannot be trusted. Not long after agreeing with Locke that neither would open the safe without consulting the other, Jack broke his word. If Jack could be trusted then Locke would not have felt the need to move the guns. Jack also broke his word to Kate about who would carry the dynamite. He is ready to start a war with the others but is not ready to torture a possible other to verify his identity.

It appears that you have a few seconds to press the button after the counter counts down but something was happening. We saw hieroglyphs and it sounded like the blast doors were closing.

Sayid blames the others for Claire's death. He was also conducting a poor interrogation. This may be because he was rushed but the proper way would be to ask lots of questions while taking notes and keeping the prisoner on edge. If the prisoner was lying then his answers would not be consistent.

Speaking of the prisoner, Henry Gale, I think that he was lying. Crossing the Pacific in a balloon is not something that you do for a lark. It is very difficult and dangerous. It can only be done with a high-altitude balloon and a pressurized gondola. Gale didn't mention that. You also have to have a ground crew constantly tracking you since chances are pretty good that something will go wrong. Also, when asked how he became rich Gale answered that he was into mining. Minnesota Mining (aka 3M) is the state's best known business. That seems like word association.

Finally, Sawyer does not get along with the island's wildlife. First a wild boar messes up his camp and pees on his stuff, then a tiny frog drives him crazy. Chances are that the island will get him back for crushing the frog.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

LoTR to Kevin Bacon

There is a theory that if you take everyone you know and everyone they know, etc. then by the sixth iteration you have included everyone in the world. This is known as the Six Degrees of Separation. There is a related trivia game known as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. This says that you can take any actor and by linking everyone he has stared with and everyone that actor has stared with, eventually you get to Kevin Bacon.

Here's the link for the Lord of the Rings.

The original novel inspired a wicked parody, Bored of the Rings. Instead of hobbits, this had boogies who were often petty criminals. Strider the ranger became Stomper the Lone Ranger. You get the idea.

The two authors of the book went on to found the National Lampoon in 1970. This was such a success that it spun off a few stage productions. The ensemble cast from this and National Lampoon's managing editor went on to found Saturday Night Live.

Which eventually had Kevin Bacon as a guest.

Side note - best line from Bored of the Rings. During the guessing game with Gollum, Bilbo asks what is in his pocket. He then pulled out a gun and shot Gollum.
"He would have finished him off then and there, but pity stayed his hand. It's a pity I've run out of bullets, he thought, as he went back up the tunnel..."

Monday, February 13, 2006


It's been a long time since I posted to this blog. Time to get things rolling again.

Back in November I said that the best picture Oscar wasn't worth following. I was correct. After nine week and constant publicity, Brokeback has taken in around $60 million. It made its production costs back a long time ago but these days movies have to break $100 million to be considered popular. None of the other nominees have done any better. Everyone knows the Brokeback will win big, hardly anyone saw any of the nominees. No one cares. The ratings for the Oscars will be dismal. Jon Stewart will get the blame.

The bright spot is the best animated movie spot. Previously CGI has dominated this award but this year all of the nominees were hand-animated one way or another.

I admit, I goofed when I was making my prediction. I forgot that Howl's Moving Castle was released this year or I would have included it in my nominees. I haven't seen it but I have seen others by the same director. Based on that, I don't think that it should win, mainly because many of the concepts do not translate very well. It may not be multicultural but I think that American awards should go to movies easily understood by American audiences. The contents can be challenging, but not puzzling.

Wallace and Grommet are the favorite based on past performance with Howl coming in second. Both directors have won Oscars before.

I'm still pushing for Corpse Bride. Wallace and Grommet is light-weight and not as funny as it should have been. Corpse Bride dealt with more adult issues - does someone have the right to happiness even if it ruins someone else's happiness and should a woman define herself by marriage? Add in some issues about duty and promises and you have more meat than most live-action movies.

Besides, Corpse Bride just looks better than the others.