The other day I ran across a video of bowling and billiards trick shots and it reminded me that there used to be a magazine called The National Bowlers Journal & Billiard Review, published from 1913 until 1978 when the magazine split into two new publications: Bowlers Journal and Billiards Digest. I subscribe to Billiards Digest even though I don’t play pool as often as I did back in college when I was a regular at Tom’s Pool Hall, but that’s another story.
Why billiards and bowling once shared magazine space is a mystery, although it was probably for economy, but it got me wondering if they really have anything to do with each other. Well, they both have shady reputations, especially on film.
Consider the following baseball films: The Natural, Field Of Dreams, Pride Of The Yankees, 42, even Bull Durham. The sport is presented as noble and heroic, as are many of its players.
Now consider the following football films: The Blind Side, Remember The Titans,Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday. Again these are films that present the sport as noble and many of its players as heroic.
When it comes to billiards, well, I can count the number of pool films on one hand and still have fingers left over–mainly The Hustler and its sequel The Color Of Money. Billiards, according to Hollywood, anyway, is a game of cheats, cons, and questionable characters. The same holds for the only film I can think of about bowling–Kingpin. In many TV series and movies, though, bowling is presented as a wholesome, family activity, whereas billiards is almost always a backdrop to a sinister plot or a prelude to a bar fight.
Anyway here’s the video.
Because I have a hard time following rules, at least when they’re arbitrary, meaningless rules I’ve decided to extend the seven days of black and white photographs by one with this final picture. It’s one I also really like and I hope others do too. It reminds me that I grew up on a cul-de-sac and for years there was no fire hydrant anywhere nearby. I’m not sure if this was an oversight or if regulations just didn’t stipulate it, but then one day in late summer a construction crew showed up and blocked off a rectangular section of asphalt. Then they came back over several more days and dug a trench that extended about four feet out from the curb and was about five feet deep. Every time they left all the kids—there were about six of us who lived there at the time—would gather around it. There was a neighborhood dog, a friendly Springer Spaniel named Freckles, who would later be the sire of my dog Friskie, but that’s another story. Freckles loved to chase tennis balls and one day as I was throwing a ball for him it bounced into the trench and Freckles went in after it. It had rained so there was a layer of water at the bottom of the trench. Freckles was splashing around down there and I thought, Oh great, how am I going to get him out? And then he hopped right out, shook himself, and dropped the ball at my feet and gave me a look that clearly said Do that again!
Within a couple of weeks a fire hydrant had been installed and the trench filled in and it just faded into the background as if it had always been there.
The story would have ended there had I not read Dylan Anderson’s post about the Carr fire in California, which has also affected Tom, who challenged me to start the black and white photographs challenge in the first place. There’s very little I can say beyond expressing sympathy with all those affected and the hope that the fire can be brought under control soon. It also made me think about how quickly things can change, how an event in the present can reframe a memory, so that something that had faded into the background can suddenly become very relevant, very important.
Continuing the black and white photo challenge here’s a very special one. This was Sagan, named for Carl. His registered name was GCH Rockstar Phoenix Written In The Stars, AX, MXJ, XF. He was a Grand Champion and an agility dog and according to the American Kennel Club and Dalmatian Club of America standard was a typical Dalmatian, for whatever that’s worth. He was, as it says, “polite but reserved with strangers.” He’d wag his tail when meeting new people but kept his feet on the ground. With those he knew and loved, though, he was a sixty-pound lapdog.
Dalmatians were bred to be coach dogs, to trot alongside the horses on country roads and then be companions and guardians by night, very loyal and protective which is why they eventually became the traditional firehouse dog.
Here’s the original version of his picture.
Sagan was, as you can see, a liver-spotted Dalmatian. He wasn’t our first liver Dalmatian, but his spots always got a lot of attention. At a dog show a woman said to my wife, “I’ve never seen a brown Dalmatian before.” My wife said, “We call it ‘liver’.” The woman then looked down at Sagan and said, “Hello, Liver.” At another show a little girl saw him and said, “He looks like a Dalmatian but he’s brown!” My wife then explained that while black-spotted Dalmatians are most common you’ll also the liver-spotted variety in the show ring. Outside the show ring Dalmatians sometimes also have spots that are brindle, blue, lemon, and there’s even a long-haired variety. In the novel 101 Dalmatians Perdita is a liver dog and helps nurse Mrs. Pongo’s fifteen puppies, which came from Dodie Smith’s real experience, and something the Disney adaptations left out, but that’s another story.
When I was going through chemotherapy Sagan and I would take naps together. As soon as he knew we were headed to bed he’d jump up and down and spin, then he’d run to the bed and spin more and wag his tail. Then, because Sagan could go from sixty to zero in 1.8 seconds, as soon as I lay down he’d curl up next to me and fall asleep. If I moved even slightly he’d let out a long sad moan. That always made me laugh.
Less than two years later we’d have to say goodbye to Sagan. It’s the hardest thing we do. They give us so much love, companionship, and laughter, and in the end what we give them in return is to be with them. It doesn’t ever feel like that’s enough. We still have one of Sagan’s children and one of his grandchildren, and I love all of our dogs equally, and I miss all the ones we’ve loved who are gone, including Sagan. He was smart, sweet, and funny in a way that was anything but typical.
Another day, another entry in the Black & White Photographs challenge.
A British friend told me that back in the ‘50’s Spike Milligan once announced that he’d be on the BBC making a special color—excuse me, colour—broadcast. Everyone rushed home to their black and white sets. At the appointed time Spike Milligan strolled out, pointed to his jacket, and said, “Blue.” Then he went around naming the colors—excuse me, colours—of all the things in the studio.
A few years later on the other side of the pond Ernie Kovacs opened one of his shows with a closeup of his face and explained that while he was being filmed in color—yes, color, since, thanks to Mr. Webster we don’t waste U’s, but that’s another story—most viewers would see the show in black and white, so he wanted to do something to compensate. The camera then pulled back revealing that everything was labeled with its respective color.
Those are just a couple of funny stories that have nothing to do with this picture that I call How To Get Ahead.
Robin Williams once asked, “If Woody Allen’s dreams are in black and white does Ted Turner buy them and color them in?” That’s funny if you’re old enough to remember when there was a sudden surge of black and white movies being badly colorized and if you’re culturally unaware enough to not be depressed that Robin Williams is dead and Woody Allen is a terrible person—in other words it’s a hilarious joke if you’re living in the late ‘80’s, but it hasn’t aged well.
Anyway, here’s my entry for day three of the Black & White & Pictured All Over Challenge, a little number that I didn’t just turn black and white but also manipulated a bit to get extra shading and sharpness, and I call it Someday My Prints Will Come.
This is my second entry in the Seven Days, Seven Black & White Photos Challenge which seems like it should have a catchier name. Black and white always seems to me to bend toward abstraction, giving different things an often surprising sameness yet also highlighting differences which are unnoticed when the world is in technicolor, which reminded me of the comedian Tom Rhodes who said:
Keep mixing the races until we’re all the same grayish color — then there’ll be no more racism, once we’re all the same shade, man. ‘Hey, gray!’ ‘Who you callin’ gray, gray?’ And then we’ll actually be able to hate someone for the person that they are.
And that in turn inspired me to take this picture which I’ve decided to call Fifty Shades Of Gravy:
There’s still not a catchy name for the photo challenge so here’s a little more Tom Rhodes. There’s some adult language so be sure to crank up the volume and play it for your kids!
If there’s one thing I enjoy it’s a challenge, unless it’s a really difficult or even impossible challenge. Basically what I’m saying is I enjoy a really easy challenge like, say, a crossword puzzle where I can figure out at least half the answers and even if I can’t it doesn’t matter because I’m going to leave it on the bus anyway, but the challenge of defusing a nuclear bomb set to go off in three minutes right in the middle of a crowded circus is not exactly my thing although, now that I think about it, the hardest part would be saying to the crowd, “Well, we’re all gonna die,” and unlike most people I actually enjoy public speaking.
What I’m getting at is that I was challenged by Tom of Tom Being Tom to share seven black and white photos over seven days and I gladly accept. Tom is a fun and interesting guy known for his blog, his devotion to his wife, the Rams, and his dogs, and for being made up of two ounces dry gin, two ounces lemon juice, and one teaspoon sugar, all topped up with soda water and served with a slice of lemon and a cherry, but that’s another story.
This is a challenge going around and there are some really great people who are already taking part (visit some of them here, here, and here). The one part of the challenge I have to demur on is challenging others to share their own photos. I hate putting people on the spot but if you’d like to be challenged say so in a comment and we’ll make it official with a virtual spit and handshake, or just a polite wave if you’re uncomfortable with electronic bodily fluids.
Here’s my first official entry, dedicated to Tom, and called Ale Be Seeing You.
For several summers in the late 1980’s Nashville tried to revive its derelict downtown with a festival called City Lights. Vendors, some local, like radio stations, others national, like insurance companies, set up booths along the sidewalks and handed out cards, pens, tote bags—the usual swag. Restaurants from around the city, since there weren’t any downtown, set up tents and sold food. It’s where I tried sushi for the first time, but that’s another story. There were also stages where local musicians performed. The whole thing was a big multi-block party and then when it was over everybody left and downtown emptied out again. It was fun, but there was one year I decided not to go. I don’t remember why exactly although I wasn’t old enough to drive and always went with my parents, so it was probably because my friends were doing something more interesting. When my parents got home that night my mother told me, “The funniest guy was there, but no one knew who he was,” and handed me a Commander USA Fan Club card. Commander USA, my hero, had been at City Lights and I missed him.
At the same time that Nashville was trying to make its defunct riverfront funct again cable TV was sweeping the neighborhoods, and that probably put a bit of a dent in City Lights because why would people go and sweat up and down the sidewalks for a cheap t-shirt when they could stay home and watch Godfather II without commercials and with all the bloody violence? And in addition to the premium movie networks there were the basic channels which were basically unregulated and, at the time, kind of a wild west of television. MTV was still all about music, Nickelodeon was struggling to fill time with content mostly ripped from other continents, and the USA Network hadn’t yet become a dumping ground for Law & Order reruns, but every Saturday and then Sunday afternoon it was time for by Commander USA’s Groovie Movies. Commander USA was a retired superhero who wore an old raincoat over his red, white, and blue costume. He had a painted on mask and was a member of the Legion of Decency, who, from his secret lair under a New Jersey shopping mall, would host old horror films and I don’t think I should have to explain why I was an immediate fan. Most of the time it didn’t matter what the movie was. I tuned in just to see Commander USA banter with a stuffed deer head he called Monroe and his pal Lefty—a face he drew on his right hand with cigar ash. And for some reason at the City Lights festival that year the USA Network had set up a booth and brought along Commander USA.
Commander USA was played by actor Jim Hendricks who, in the horror host documentary American Scary, explained that his original idea was to play the role as Uncle Willie, a character he’d created as a disc jockey. It would have been a very different take on the conventional horror host, but then so was a superhero, which was the idea the producers had instead. Most horror hosts, like Nashville’s own Sir Cecil Creape, or Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark, had darker personas, but Commander USA was easygoing and a little goofy. Some hosts are sarcastic, or just blunt, about how terrible the films they’re hosting are, but Commander USA was always positive. No matter what the movie was his “Holy cats! It’s real excitin’!” sounded completely sincere. I was a fan of old horror movies—and horror hosts—before Commander USA, but his upbeat persona assured me it was okay to like them, and his enthusiasm appealed to more than just me. My friend John’s parents were the first people in the neighborhood to get a VCR and they used cable to build up a massive movie library, some from the movie channels, but sometimes his mother would sit through network movies, her hand over the Pause button on the remote, carefully editing out the commercials. One Saturday we watched the original Little Shop Of Horrors, hosted by Commander USA, together, and about halfway through she said, “I wish I’d thought to tape him too.” The commercials may not have been worth keeping but Commander USA was.
Here’s a copy of the fan club card:
Nashville no longer has a City Lights festival—downtown is thriving, some might even say it’s doing a little too well, but every year in late summer I get a little nostalgic, and after all these years I’ve never given up the hope that Jim Hendricks and I might actually cross paths, even though I’d probably be just as starstruck and speechless as I would have been meeting him when I was young.
A few days ago I checked Wikipedia and learned that Jim Hendricks, Commander USA, passed away on March 17, 2018. I’d missed his passing, I’d missed him, again, and I won’t get another chance. And maybe it’s better that way. Aside from a few details about his career I don’t know anything about Jim Hendricks, what he was like as a person, and maybe it’s better that I missed him. One of the advantages of age is I’ve come to expect being disappointed in my heroes. Not that I want to speculate ill of the dead—maybe he was, in life as well as on screen, an all around good guy, and I’m happier thinking that he was. It may even make me a better guy. The good we imagine in our heroes reflects the good we’d like to see in ourselves. The mask matters more than who’s behind it. Now that the telepsychotronic screen heat and radiation shield has closed for the last time I’ll take his parting advice to keep my nose in the wind and my tail to myself, and remember the pledge and try to remain an All Around Good Guy. Forever.
A few months ago the radio show/podcast Studio 360 asked listeners for submissions on the subject of, “Is there a particular adaptation you hate?” My submission has been met with deafening silence–maybe they’ve scrapped the project, so here’s an expanded version of it. And there will be spoilers.
A week after school let out a local movie theater held a free midday screening of The Secret Of NIMH just for kids. We filled up every auditorium. The one I went into had Poltergeist on the marquee and I hadn’t developed a taste for horror yet so I was prepared to run if they had the wrong film, but that’s another story. After it was over I asked a friend who’d read the book what he thought of the movie. “I hated it,” he said. After I read the book too I understood.
It’s not that I hate The Secret Of NIMH. Considered as a film by itself it’s understandably still considered a classic by critics and still has devoted fans more than thirty-five years after its initial release. It’s the first film by director Don Bluth, who left Disney to form his own production company, and it’s better than what a lot of Disney had put out and would put out. The animation is amazing and the casting is perfect, especially Dom DeLuise who adds just the right amount of comic relief to what otherwise is a pretty dark story. Considered as an adaptation, though, it’s a failure, and a terrible betrayal of its source material, Mrs. Brisby & The Rats Of NIMH, the Newbery-award winning novel by Robert C. O’Brien.
For the most part the plots of both are the same: Mrs. Frisby, renamed “Brisby” in the film to avoid confusion with Frisbees, is a field mouse whose home, a “slightly damaged cinder-block”, is threatened by the farmer’s plow. It’s early spring but she can’t move her family because her son Timothy has pneumonia. On the advice of an owl she goes to the rats who live in a rosebush and learns they have a complex mechanized society, and the engineering skills to move her home.
In the film Timothy is a shadow, barely seen and almost always asleep, so we never learn what makes him different from the other children. In the book Mrs. Frisby knows he’s “the smartest and most thoughtful of her children, though she never would have admitted this aloud.” We learn later on that he entertains his younger sister with stories. He’s also the frailest child and while the stunted artistic type may be overplayed it underscores the importance of diversity and brains, even among field mice.
Brisby’s meeting with the rats is the beginning of the film’s divergence with the book. In both the rats, feeling they’re too dependent on what they steal from humans–including electricity–have a plan to leave and form an independent society. In both a group led by a rat named Jenner disagrees with this plan, but while in the book Jenner and the others have already left he’s present in the film and secretly plotting a coup against the rat leader Nicodemus.
Nicodemus himself is another major difference between the book and film. In the book he’s very much a rat, although he’s scarred and wears an eyepatch. In the film he’s a frail wizard with a narrow nose and glowing eyes; beautifully animated but very un-ratlike, and so removed from the others it’s hard to believe he’s their leader. He seems more like a hermit sage. In the film he gives Mrs. Brisby an amulet and tells her, “Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it’s there.” This is not only bad poetry. It’s also heavy-handed foreshadowing.
Source: The AV Club that says “the movie’s reputation has endured largely on the basis of scaring the shit out of impressionable young minds.”
Nicodemus also explains why he and the other rats, as well as the late husband of Mrs. Frisby/Brisby and another field mouse named Mr. Ages, came to be so unusual. Once ordinary rats experiments conducted on them at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) turned them into super rodents, able to read, write, and engineer. In the film this is compressed into a sequence so short it seems to happen overnight. This is unfortunate because it’s one of the best parts of the book, a story within the story. Switching from a third-person limited perspective to a first person narrative so far into a novel is a risky thing to do, but it pays off. We learn the extended backstory of Nicodemus, that he left behind a sick brother when he was captured. We learn that the rats advanced faster and farther than their human captors realized, but are smart enough to hide the fact, and we learn they’ve been so radically changed they can’t return to the society of other rats but have to build a society of their own. And we learn just how vital Jonathan Frisby was in their escape.
It’s a powerful story, like Flowers For Algernon from the mouse’s perspective, and this is where it’s clear that the book has too much depth for a feature film and needed to be a miniseries at the very least for a proper adaptation.
A crucial point in both book and film is that the rats depended on Jonathan to drug the farmer’s large and dangerous cat Dragon. After Mr. Ages breaks his leg Mrs. Frisby/Brisby agrees to do the job, giving them cover to move her house.
The moving of her house is the moment where book and film really part ways and the film’s biggest weakness. In the book they simply move the house. Mrs. Frisby has overheard that people from NIMH are coming to the farm and passes this information on so the rats speed up their evacuation plans. In the film Jenner cuts the ropes that are lifting the house. It falls on Nicodemus and then starts to sink into a conveniently placed mud patch. Mrs. Brisby’s amulet glows and using its power she telepathically moves her house herself.
It’s not that I have anything against magic but it’s out of place in this story. O’Brien’s novel is about the potential and limitations of science, and a medallion ex machina betrays that. It’s also, we’re told, Mrs. Brisby’s “courage of the heart” that causes the stone to glow. She’s already a single mother who takes incredible risks to save just one of her children. She’s learned that her husband had a secret life that resulted in his death. Instead of taking the time to feel hurt she steps up to take his place. Do we really need it underlined that she’s got courage in spades? The amulet seems like a cheap excuse to add some impressive but unnecessary special effects.
The home successfully moved and Timothy safe Jenner is then killed by his waffling co-conspirator and the rats go ahead with their plans to leave. Nicodemus’s death is pointless, especially since he was so frail and wizened he looked like he was pushing Death’s doorbell anyway.
I know this criticism isn’t going to sit well with the film’s fans so I’ll say again that, as a film, I think it’s very well done, beautifully animated, but I’m glad I went in that summer day without having read the book first. For my friend who did I can understand why he would have preferred Poltergeist.
The hardest part of writing is submitting, and the hardest part of submitting is the waiting. This is not to say that the writing part of writing is easy. It is, of course; it’s writing something good that’s the hard part of writing, but even that, for me anyway, isn’t as hard as the submitting part and the waiting part.
One of the first things I learned about writing, maybe even the first thing, is that the only way to get better is to do it. A lot of writers set goals of daily word counts, the idea being that if you go through enough chaff you’re bound to find some wheat. Hard work isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success, but not doing it is a guarantee of failure.
Anyway I decided to take a similar approach with submitting. At the beginning of the year I set a personal goal of submitting something somewhere at least once a month because I figured the best way to get over my fear of submitting is to just get out there and do it. Yes, I have this blog where I have complete editorial control and regularly put up pieces that elicit a range of responses from deafening silence to quiet murmurs of approval, but there’s a special thrill in thrusting something at a complete stranger and having them say, “Yeah, I’ll take this and put it up with the others.”
Or at least I assume there is. I have a long, a very long, history of rejections, or worse than rejections. What’s worse than rejections? Well, in high school I took my first creating writing class and one of the requirements was that we submit the stories we wrote to out-of-state publications. In those days that meant combing through the Writer’s Market for publications that said, “We’re so incredibly desperate we’ll even take stuff written by high school students.” And it meant sticking typed copies in envelopes and mailing them off and waiting. In my case the envelopes always came back with “Moved, no forwarding address.” A little more research turned up that most of the places I submitted to had gone belly-up. In at least one case it had happened right after I mailed my submission, which gave me the idea that maybe I could build a career out of being the world’s most unpublishable writer. I could hold literary magazines hostage, demanding that they pay to keep me from submitting, but that’s another story.
As for how I’m doing with that goal of submitting something once a month, well, it’s May, and three out of five ain’t bad, and while two of those submissions, sent a couple of months ago, have been met with deafening silence the place where they went is still up and running so hope still springs. The third has just been placed in its virtual envelope and the <Send> button hit, so the waiting begins. And maybe, just maybe, if I keep trying I’ll actually get better at this submitting thing.