Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

One More Thing…

Source: New York Times

There’s been a major revival of interest in the detective series Columbo, and since I’ve been a fan ever since I was a kid and discovered late night reruns watching my black and white TV in my bedroom, and since September 16, 2021 would be Peter Falk’s 94th birthday let’s talk about it and why the possibility of a reboot needs to die. Right now. Even if I have to kill it myself.

What hooked me from the very beginning, and why I still love Columbo, is really Peter Falk’s charm. He was rarely angry and had a quiet, unassuming demeanor that set him apart from other detectives of the era, which is also why I think he’s still popular today. Other ‘70’s detectives—Kojack, Rockford, McCloud!—were darker and grittier and, well, there’s a lot of that around, which may be why they don’t get as much attention. It’s telling that one of the other exceptions, Murder, She Wrote, is also getting a new surge in popularity, with its stories of a mystery writer who lives in the quaint New England town of Cabot Cove where the leading cause of death is living in Cabot Cove, maybe because Angela Lansbury is also the woman who murdered Sweeney Todd, but that’s another story.

There’s also Columbo’s appearance. He spends most of his time in a shabby raincoat and smoking cigars, although at least once he switched to cigarettes and coffee when he was up all night doing research. Some people point to the show’s fashions as being very ‘70’s, but some of the same looks are still around today. I think it’s more a sign of when it was made that Columbo could smoke indoors and there was an ashtray every three feet. He’s also different in that he pretends to be absent-minded, wandering around, frequently talking about his wife, whom we never see, and, as an aside, I’m going to say Kate Mulgrew deserved better. And got it, first in space, then behind bars.

The fact that we never see Mrs. Columbo has spawned a fan theory that she doesn’t exist, which is funny, but the evidence doesn’t back it up. Other people in the series also talk about her and, once, she tries to replace Columbo’s trademark gray raincoat with a bright yellow slicker that he “forgets” and leaves behind several times.

And while Peter Falk became a producer, working hard on the show behind the scenes, Columbo deliberately makes himself small, staying out of the way, often hunched over. Even the show itself frequently makes use of long shots in big rooms or outdoors, making Columbo appear even smaller. When asked what his first name is he only says, “Lieutenant,” although sharp-eyed fans know his first name is Frank, from one of the few times he flashes his badge.

The show also has a not so subtle anti-establishment streak, which I think is a product of its time but also part of the show’s ongoing appeal. Most of his suspects are wealthy, powerful people, and though there’s always a deeper motive—a fear of losing their wealth or their position, mainly—they still feel they can get away with murder, and it’s satisfying to see them get taken down. In spite of that Columbo does seem to like, or at least respect, some of the suspects he trailed. In “Any Old Port In A Storm”, when the murderer is a high-class winemaker played by Donald Pleasance,  Columbo seems to enjoy showing off his newfound knowledge of wine. Drinking while on duty—and, let’s face it, Columbo is always on duty, even when he’s on vacation—may be a violation, but in every other respect Columbo stays well above the law. And, okay, he goes out drinking again in “The Conspirators”, when he joins the Irish poet (and IRA sympathizer) Joe Devlin, and tries to impress him by reciting some limericks, including “The Pelican”:

A rare old bird is the pelican.
His bill holds more than his belly can.
He can take in his beak
enough food for a week.
I’m damned if I know how the hell he can!

And then there’s “Swan Song” in which the murderer is played by Johnny Cash, who starts with a good performance of “I Saw The Light” and ends with him being arrested for sending his wife down in a plane crash. But what also makes the episode memorable is how Cash and Falk have such natural onscreen chemistry, complimenting and complementing each other, that it’s not hard to believe actor and singer hung out together after the filming.

Even in “Murder Under Glass”, which is notable for being one of the few times Columbo comes out and says he dislikes his suspect, a professional food critic, but still wants to impress him with veal scallopini a la Columbo.

I’ve been using all this to lead up to why I want to kill a proposed reboot. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reboots in general—I even think some have been great—but, while Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and even Sam Spade, among other famous detectives, have been played by other people, and while Peter Falk didn’t originate the role, he made it his own. It’s hard to imagine the producers originally wanted Bing Crosby, and I just can’t picture Columbo as a blue-eyed sophisticate standing over a corpse crooning, “Bet she was a beautiful baby, buh buh buh…”

It’s because of Peter Falk that Columbo makes such effective use of the inverted detective story in which we know from the beginning who the murderer is and how they did it. How the detective unravels the mystery is supposed to be what draws us in, although, really, it’s just the pleasure of hanging out with Columbo for an hour or two.

What would a reboot look like? Even the innumerable Law & Order clones that have firmly planted the idea that most crimes are committed by the special guest star look ridiculous when we have darker, more complicated dramas like Broadchurch and The Sinner that explore how crimes don’t happen in a vacuum and are never really resolved, especially after just an hour.

Source: Atlas Obscura

And let’s not forget that part of the appeal of Columbo is that it’s always funny, or at least tongue-in-cheek. The murders may be serious but Columbo isn’t. He drives a broken down Peugeot, and occasionally brings along his Basset hound named “Dog”—I’m pretty sure Mrs. Columbo has given their pet a more elegant name. Columbo and Dog both are immortalized in a funny statue in, of all places, Budapest. Columbo even has his own amusing theme song, “This Old Man”, which he occasionally whistles to himself. Outside of Columbo Peter Falk is best known for comedic roles–the grandfather in The Princess Bride, opposite Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, and an aging performer in a made-for-TV remake of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

The show also sometimes really strains credibility with Columbo picking up on farfetched clues like a pair of not sweaty socks, or an episode like “Troubled Waters”. While it’s a great story with a great cast that includes Robert Vaughn and Dean Stockwell, what are the odds someone would commit a murder on the same cruise ship where a great detective just happened to be taking a vacation?

A reboot would almost certainly heighten the comedy, but then it would be too much like the MAD Magazine parody “Clodumbo”, where the punchline is that twenty-seven innocent people have turned themselves in just to get away from the detective pestering them.

Source: Columbo Site

Columbo himself says it best at the end of the best episode, “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case”, when he’s asked if he’d ever consider another line of work. ““Me, sir? No. Never. I couldn’t do that.”

Let that be one last thing.

Miss Universe.

Source: BeverlyCleary.com

I can’t remember how many Beverly Cleary books I read as a kid. There must have been at least half a dozen on my bookshelves, not counting the ones I got from the library. I’m pretty sure a battered hand-me-down copy of Ribsy was the first full-length non-picture book I read by myself, and there were several Cleary books I went back to again and again. It wasn’t just that she wrote about childhood in a way that was really appealing—in Henry And The Paper Route, one of the ones I owned, one of Henry Huggins’ newspaper customers is a woman who’s nice but mistakenly calls him “Harry Higgins”, and Henry is too shy to correct her. He’s also bothered on his paper route by his friend Beezus’s younger sister Ramona. It’s not high drama but I could relate to it. And Cleary could get into some heavy topics. The book Ramona And Her Father dealt with unemployment: Ramona’s father loses his job, her parents argue, and even the family cat becomes a point of contention as the family tries to save money but Ramona’s father still spends money on cigarettes. And yet the heaviness is balanced out with lighter drama, like when Ramona builds a crown out of cockleburs and then puts it on her head. Her father has to carefully cut out the ones that get stuck in her hair. And Ramona Quimby, Age 8 would do a similar job of balancing the heavy and the light as Ramona’s father goes to college, her mother keeps working, and Ramona is left in the care of the Kemp family after school. Ramona’s expected to be nice to their daughter Willa Jean, who’s younger and who annoys Ramona. And, in a memorable scene, Ramona’s parents are late picking her up and the Kemps eat dinner in awkward silence while Ramona sits in the corner of the room. I’d had that same experience once. I think lots of kids have. And even if you haven’t had that specific experience I think we can all relate to learning that adults are fallible.

As a kid I didn’t appreciate how revolutionary Cleary’s books were for their time—how they were really a new kind of children’s books. Sometimes they looked at adult problems from a child’s perspective but more often they dealt with how the world of childhood can be strange and baffling—how matters that are, from an adult’s perspective, minor or even inconsequential, can seem like, well, heavy drama to a child who lacks an adult’s experience. Even as an adult Beverly Cleary remembered how it felt to be a kid.

There was something else, though, something I haven’t read in any reviews of Cleary’s work, ever. Maybe you remember it too, or maybe you’ve spotted it while reading this. She didn’t write fantasy or science fiction like Madeleine L’Engle or even Tolkien—aside from the Mouse And The Motorcycle series—but her books were sequential, following a single character’s life over years, but while Ramona is a character in the Henry Huggins books she’d go on to get her own series. Like many science fiction and fantasy authors Beverly Cleary created a shared universe. It just happened to be one we, the readers, were also part of.

Hail and farewell, Beverly Cleary.

It Could Happen.

Source: Sitcoms Online

Certain corners of the internet are exploding with the news that the new streaming service Blitz will launch with a reboot of the classic sitcom My Mother The Car. The show’s premise was typical of the ‘60’s, and perhaps even less ridiculous sounding now: attorney David Crabtree, played by Jerry Van Dyke, buys an antique car, specifically a 1926 Reichenbach, only to discover that it’s inhabited by the ghost of his deceased mother. She talks to him through the car’s radio and only he can hear her. She helps him through various difficulties with his wife and career as he evades the unscrupulous Captain Manzini, who’s determined to acquire the valuable antique car.

With its moody lighting, lack of a laughtrack, and muted performances My Mother The Car continues to be widely acclaimed as the worst sitcom of all time but still managed to develop a loyal cult following. It even spawned a series of comics published by DC with Crabtree and Mother becoming crime fighting quasi-superheroes.

Most attempts to bring back My Mother The Car since its 1966 cancellation have failed. Perhaps the most notable was Steven Spielberg’s 1986 big screen adaptation. Because of the film’s raunchy humor, including a subplot of Mother working for an escort service, it barely got by with a PG-13 rating and posters of Mother sporting an oversized cigar under her hood were quickly pulled from theater lobbies. Fans who continued to hold occasional “car-ventions” at Jerry Van Dyke’s Ice Cream Soda Shoppes around the country lamented the steady decline of their beloved franchise.

Then in 2018 interest was renewed with the cinematic release of the four and a half hour superhero epic Justice League: Quantum Fracture, which pulled together a vast range of DC characters, including David Crabtree and Mother. Although Jerry Van Dyke, who sadly passed away before the film’s release, was too ill to appear as himself he did record the dialogue and the onscreen David was played by a digitally enhanced Andy Serkis, who also provided Mother’s voice.  

The new series features a cast of largely unknown actors and, while the producers say they want to remain faithful to the original, will feature greater diversity and much less reliance on mother-in-law jokes. They also describe the new series as “a mashup of Herbie The Love Bug, Knight Rider, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Speed Racer, Wonderbug, The Magic School Bus, Speed Buggy, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”.

Environmental concerns will be addressed too. Reichenbachs of that era operated entirely on whale oil, an issue that will be dealt with both in the series itself and through the Blitz service’s new sponsored conservation program My Mother The Narwhal.

I’ve now watched the three screener episodes Blitz provided to critics, social media influencers, members of the official My Mother The Car Fan Club, and pretty much anyone who asked and I think it’s safe to say it will be universally acclaimed as not too bad.

It’s All Connected.

Source: Wikipedia

So a bomb blew up in downtown Nashville early on Christmas morning, near the AT&T building that’s also known as “The Batman Building” because, well, if you see it you’ll understand. It’s a feature of the Nashville skyline and although I can’t see it from where the building where I work–or rather where I worked until last March when everything shut down, and where I’ll eventually go back to work sometime in the coming year–I could go to the roof of the parking garage next door to where I work and see The Batman Building from there. For all that Nashville has grown and is still growing it’s still got a fairly compact downtown area, easy to get to and, in normal times, easy to walk around in if you don’t mind the crowds. Needless to say these aren’t normal times and when the bomb went off a lot of people just sighed resignedly and said, “Thanks for one more thing, 2020.”
Although why the bomb in an RV was sent off downtown is still a mystery at least it went off early on Christmas morning when not many people were out and about–and it even made an announcement that it was a bomb and that people should get out of the area. For all the damage it did to the surrounding businesses, and as much as it would have been better if it hadn’t gone off at all, at least there’s a bright side.
It’s also interesting to me that Nashville made it to the front of The New York Times, which we still get in actual print, delivered to our driveway, on the weekends, the day after Christmas because of the bombing and also on Christmas Day because photographer Ruth Fremson made a trip across the United States to document the way various cities around the country were celebrating the season in these not so normal times.

The New York Times, December 25th, 2020. Nashville is the city with the Grinch.

The New York Times, December 26th, 2020. Below the fold but still on the front page.

That reminded me of when I was a kid and I’d been with my parents to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center downtown to see, of all things, CATS. As we were coming out we heard a woman say, “You know, this town reminds me of New York thirty years ago.” My mother groaned and said, “Oh please no,” and about twenty-five years later when my father retired my parents moved to Florida which is the most New York thing they could possibly do, but that’s another story.
One of the down sides of the bombing is because it affected the AT&T building it’s left a lot of people not just in Nashville but even in Tennessee and Kentucky without internet access. It’s left a lot of people, in other words, disconnected at a time when they want and need to be connected. It’s only temporary but here’s hoping it can all be restored before the end of the month–here’s hoping people will have a chance to say, thanks for bringing us back together, 2020.

Think About It.

Source: USA Today

Unlike most other game shows, especially those that proliferated in the 1970’s, Jeopardy! is beautifully simple, almost minimalist. Sixteen categories—or seventeen if you count the final round—and one hundred and twenty-eight questions—or one hundred and twenty-nine if you count the final round—and the only real strategy is be quick with your buzzer and stick to what you hopefully know. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the final round—if you’re far enough ahead you won’t have to do any complicated math for your final wager.

It’s the game’s simplicity that made Alex Trebek the ideal host. I don’t mean he was a simple guy, but he knew that when hosting Jeopardy! less is more and he was perfectly understated and kept the same even tone throughout everything. Yes, I laughed at the SNL parodies, but, with all due respect to Will Ferrell, I don’t think he ever really got Alex Trebek. If Sean Connery—who, sadly, also left us recently because, well, 2020–really had been a competitor on Celebrity Jeopardy! first of all I think he would have been too classy to make crude jokes about Trebek’s mother or draw pictures of him having sex with a horse, but if he had I think Alex Trebek would have chuckled politely, given a sardonic look to the audience, and moved on.

With that in mind I’m reposting this as my way of saying, or rather asking, what is hail and farewell, Alex Trebek?

[Jeopardy! theme music plays. Alex Trebek stands center stage.]

ALEX TREBEK: And we’re back to this very special episode of Jeopardy! Let’s take a moment to talk to today’s contestants.

[He crosses over to the contestants.]

ALEX TREBEK: Count Dracula, you’re an undead Romanian prince. I understand you can assume the forms of a bat, a wolf, and a white mist, and you travel extensively. Tell us a little about the charity you’re playing for today.

COUNT DRACULA: Is blood.

ALEX TREBEK: Can you elaborate on that?

COUNT DRACULA: Of course. Is great need for blood in Romania. I bring people of all kinds to castle in Wallachia. I take blood and dr—uh, give…give to those who need blood.

ALEX TREBEK: That sounds like a great cause. Moving on, Frankenstein’s Monster, you’re an assemblage of body parts from different corpses. Some people call you “Frankenstein” but that was in fact the name of the doctor who first animated you.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: GAKH!

ALEX TREBEK: Okay then. Tell us about what charity you’re playing for.

FRANKESTEIN’S MONSTER: GRRRRGH! HANNNN! GARGH!!!

ALEX TREBEK: Yes, the Firefighters’ Association is a noble cause. All right, and our third contestant was going to be The Invisible Man but we couldn’t find him.

VOICE FROM AN EMPTY SEAT IN THE AUDIENCE: I’m right here!

COUNT DRACULA: Children of the night, what music they make.

ALEX TREBEK: We were very lucky to get as a replacement the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Creature, I’ve been admiring your suit.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: Thank you, Alex, it’s specially designed to pump water through my gills and keep my skin moist. It’s made by Armani. But I’d really like to talk about my charity.

ALEX TREBEK: Go ahead then.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: It’s called River Run, an organization that purchases, preserves, and reclaims large parts of the Amazon rainforest. Once we lose biodiversity it’s impossible to get it back.

ALEX TREBEK: Well okay. Maybe later we can talk more about that suit. I get a little dry under these lights myself.

[Trebek crosses back to his podium.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, we have one two-thousand dollar clue left in the Double Jeopardy round under the category Sci-Fi Food, and the clue is: Revenge is a dish best served cold, but this Klingon dish should be warm and wriggling.

FRANKESTEIN’S MONSTER: GAGH!

ALEX TREBEK: That’s correct! I have to remind you again that we ask contestants to phrase responses in the form of a question, but since we’re playing for charity we’ll bend the rules again. Frankestein’s Monster, that brings your total up to seven dollars.

And now for final Jeopardy! The subject today is Renaissance Artists. Take a moment to think about that while you make your wagers.

And here’s the clue: this Italian artist was both a painter and a sculptor, known for both the Sistine Chapel ceiling and a statue of David, and he made a mean Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Thirty seconds, contestants.

[Think! music plays.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, let’s see your answers. Count Dracula, we come to you first. You had $200 and you wrote down…“is blood”.

COUNT DRACULA: Is answer to everything.

ALEX TREBEK: And you wagered two-hundred dollars, so I’m afraid that leaves you with nothing. Next we come to Frankenstein’s Monster. You wrote down “Abby Someone”. Interesting, but incorrect. What did you wager? Nothing.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: GARGHHHH!

ALEX TREBEK: So you still have seven dollars. Finally we come to the Creature From The Black Lagoon who looked like he couldn’t be caught with a score of fifty-four thousand, seven-hundred dollars. Uh oh, you’re shaking your head. It looks like you wrote “Michelangelo” then crossed it out and replaced it with “Donatello”. I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. And what was your wager?

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: I figured go big or go home, Alex.

ALEX TREBEK: You bet it all. Well, that means Frankenstein’s Monster is today’s champion. Congratulations!

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: TREBEK GOOD!

Public And Private.

Source: Boston Globe

Public tributes to Chadwick Boseman, like the one in Graffiti Alley in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are a reminder that he was a public and very prominent figure. And yet he kept his cancer diagnosis private so that many of us who are fans were shocked by his death. I know some have criticized him for not speaking up, saying he missed an opportunity to educate the public about colorectal cancer and its changing demographics. It’s rising among younger people and Black people. I won’t repeat or even link to the critics but at the same time I will acknowledge them. He didn’t choose to get cancer, but he could choose how he responded to it. I don’t know why he chose not to talk about it but I know when I was diagnosed with cancer I didn’t want to talk about it, and didn’t tell anyone outside of a few people for three weeks. And when I did talk about it I joked about it because it was hard for me to admit even to myself, even after I’d started chemotherapy, that it was really happening.

There are a lot of reasons my own fight with cancer is different: I had a different, and much more treatable, cancer, and my own treatment was probably a lot easier than his. And yet I remember days when I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed. I was out of work for six months because my immune system crashed. He kept working, filming and co-producing Marshall, Black Panther, and two Avengers films. He was even confident he could finish Black Panther 2.

Also consider four major roles that help define his career, a career that was cut too short: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and T’Challa, the Black Panther. There was some luck involved—in art and in life none of us can control everything—but he chose to portray four people, three real and one fictional, who are all legendary. He chose roles that contributed to discussions about race in the United States.

Respect his choices.

Hail and farewell Chadwick Boseman.

 

Past And Present.

Source: Nashville Scene

The Nashville Scene is featuring three paintings of George Floyd. They’re really extraordinary, at least in pictures, and I wonder how long they’ll be up. Hopefully they’ll be around long enough for me to see them in person. I’m not leaving the house much these days, and even when I do it’s only for short trips for necessities, and while I do think art, especially seeing art in person, is a necessity, it’s not one I can justify right now.

That got me thinking about George Floyd and how, as far as I know, he never came to Nashville. He did spend much of his life in the south—he was born in North Carolina, and lived in Texas before moving to Minneapolis in 2014. And his murder, as we know, sparked outrage around the world, and has intensified discussions of race and history in the United States. Some say “prompted” but, really, race has been an issue here even before the United States was a country.

The public portraits, painted by local artists Wayne Brezinka (whose painting is available as a free download), Paul Collins, and Ashley Doggett, are a visual reminder of what will hopefully be a continuing conversation. George Floyd didn’t ask to be a martyr, and he is, unfortunately, one of far too many who deserve to be remembered. Many of their names are included in Wayne Brezinka’s portrait.

I thought too about the civil rights leader John Lewis, whose recent passing comes at such a difficult time. Lewis’s own life is another reminder of just how long and difficult that conversation has been. He lived in Nashville and was a student and activist here before he’d lead the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7th, 1965, which we now know as Bloody Sunday. Lewis was attacked for asking for the right to vote, a right that’s supposed to be granted freely to every citizen.

The bridge Lewis crossed, which was built in 1940, is named for a Confederate brigadier general and Ku Klux Klan leader. There have been calls to rename the bridge for years, and it would be more than fitting to rename it after Congressman Lewis who not only crossed it but worked so hard to build metaphorical bridges between people throughout his lifetime.

The bridge’s current namesake is part of a very powerful recent essay by another Nashville native, Caroline Randall Williams. You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is A Confederate Monument is a powerful statement about history and its influence on the present. Despite claims to the contrary changing the name of a bridge, or a military base, won’t erase the past. We can’t change the past either. We can, however, change how we let the past inform the present.

Here’s Williams reading her essay.

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