Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Almost Famous,’ In Which a Mom Shocks a Rock Musician)

Russell Hammond [played by Billy Crudup]: [swigging Miller Lite in front of groupies, then grabbing the phone away from William Miller] “Hey, mom! It's Russell Hammond. I play guitar in Stillwater. Hey, how does it feel to be the mother of the greatest rock journalist we've met? Hello? Hello...? Look, you've got a really great kid here. There's nothing to worry about. We're taking good care of him, and you should come to the show sometime—join the circus...”

Elaine Miller [played by Frances McDormand]: “Hey, hey, listen to me, mister. Your charm doesn't work on me—I'm on to you. Of course you like him...”

Russell: “Well, yeah...”

Elaine: “He worships you people. And that's fine by you as long as he helps make you rich.”

Russell: “Rich? I don't think so...”

Elaine: “Listen to me. He's a smart, good-hearted, fifteen-year-old kid with infinite potential.”

[Russell listens, stunned]

Elaine: “This is not some apron-wearing mother you're speaking with—I know all about your Valhalla of decadence and I shouldn't have let him go. He's not ready for your world of compromised values and diminished brain cells that you throw away like confetti. Am I speaking to you clearly?”

Russell: “Yes—yes, ma'am...”

Elaine: “If you break his spirit, harm him in any way, keep him from his chosen profession which is law—something you may not value, but I do—you will meet the voice on the other end of this telephone and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other?”

Russell: “Uh, yes, ma'am...”

Elaine: “I didn't ask for this role, but I'll play it. Now go do your best. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that. It's not too late for you to become a person of substance, Russell. Please get my son home safely. You know, I'm glad we spoke.”

[Elaine hangs up]

[Russell stands holding phone in stunned silence.]— Almost Famous, written and directed by Cameron Crowe (1995)

Twenty years ago this month, the dramedy Almost Famous premiered in American theaters. As with other films by Cameron Crowe, the soundtrack represents a source of nostalgic joy for baby boomers like me who entered adolescence in the early 1970s listening to hits like Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," The Raspberries “Go All the Way,” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

But the heart of the film is Crowe’s Oscar-winning screenplay, a semi-autobiographical account of his time as a teenaged journalist traveling on the road interviewing acts such as The Allman Brothers, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Joni Mitchell.

Years later, fans can still recall great scenes such as acid-tripping Russell shouting “I am a golden god!” as he dives into a pool (an incident based on an exploit of Robert Plant’s); a terrifying plane ride that climaxes with a string of hilarious near-death confessions; or William’s encounter with the nubile females who trail the rising rock ‘n’ roll band Stillwater. (As explained by one of these ladies, Penny Lane: “We are not Groupies. Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music—we inspire the music. We are Band Aids.”)

I don’t think that Kate Hudson has ever been sweeter, funnier or more moving om film than as the warm-hearted Penny. It’s not surprising that she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance—or, in a case of art imitating life, that Patrick Fugit, much like his Crowe stand-in William, fell for her.

And, in one of the few cases in which he played a real-life person, the late, extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman turned in one of his nicely nuanced turns as cynical but compassionate rock journalist Lester Bangs.

Yet, for me, the actor who stands out (and, like Ms. Hudson, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for the movie) is Frances McDormand (pictured) as William’s psychology prof mom Elaine—fiercely protective (yes, overly so) of her son (as seen in the above ferociously funny tongue-lashing) but also, in a sense, the moral center of the film. 

(Yes, Elaine is based on Crowe’s mother—who, despite the filmmaker’s concern that she would bother McDormand during filming, ended up getting on very well with the actress.) It is a far cry from the libertine musician she would play two years after the release of Almost Famous in Laurel Canyon.

Maggie Lange’s GQ analysis of the “aggressively, stunningly, transcendently uncool” Elaine captures perfectly both the character’s hilarious Mother Bear instincts (though I suspect that at least a few mothers I know have been tempted to use some variation of Elaine’s “family whistle”) and her belief in her son’s promise and goodness—a belief that Russell, for all his instincts towards that “Valhalla of decadence,” ultimately shares and honors.

It is in keeping with McDormand’s view about other mothers she’s played, expressed in a 2003 New York Times interview with Karen Durbin: “Those roles weren't just mothers in a story about a male protagonist. First they were specific, three-dimensional people."

Almost Famous also reflects Crowe’s ongoing fascination with Billy Wilder. Crowe had conducted lengthy, intense interviews with the Sunset Boulevard filmmaker about his techniques and themes (later collected, like a volume that Francois Truffaut did based on talks with Alfred Hitchcock, into Conversations With Wilder). Crowe had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Wilder to play a character in his hit Jerry Maguire, and a late scene in Almost Famous pays homage to Jack Lemmon’s desperate floor-walking with a suicidal Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment.

I was stunned to read that, despite all of its critical acclaim, Almost Famous underperformed at the box office, clobbered by a re-release of The Exorcist. But over the years, it has found its audience—not just the musicians who inspired and appreciated it, but the millions of fans who had their heads blown away by a piece of music (as William is by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds classic LP) and seek every moment they can from then on to re-experience that sense of youthful transcendence. It has reached cult status, even inspiring its own podcast.

Moreover, as with Crowe’s best other works (Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire), it celebrates the necessity of idealism and openness to love amid the “compromised values” that Elaine Miller fears, battles, and girds her decent son to withstand.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Movie Quote of the Day (‘The American President,’ Showing That Even Ultimate Power Has Limits)

President Andrew Shepherd [played by Michael Douglas] [muttering in disgust]: “Seven-trillion-dollar communications system at my disposal and I can't find out if the Packers won.” —The American President (1995), screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Rob Reiner

Hmmm…Well, right now they’ve started this season 3-0. (And even in 1995, when this romantic comedy opened, they won their first division title since 1972.) So I’d say, “Don’t sweat it, Mr. President.”

(That’s Michael Douglas—presumably, using his remote, without success, to locate the Packers—with Annette Bening by his side in The American President.)

Quote of the Day (John Updike, on Ted Williams’ Last At-Bat)

“The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky."—American fiction writer and essayist John Updike (1932-2009), "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," The New Yorker, Oct. 22, 1960

Sixty years ago today, Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams accomplished something that most players desire desperately but can’t achieve: retire on top, with a home run in their last at-bat. John Updike’s account of this game is one of the classic baseball articles.

As seen in this passage, Updike endowed the last homer of the Hall of Famer’s 521-HR career with mythic majesty. He did the same thing in evoking how the 42-year-old Williams, who had quarreled with the press and even fans throughout his career, stayed true to form, refusing to tip his cap or come out of the dugout to acknowledge the wild cheering from the roughly 10,000 fans in Fenway Park after his eighth-inning blast.

Updike summed up the disdain of “The Splendid Splinter” simply, in perhaps the most quoted line of the piece: “Gods do not answer letters.”

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Photo of the Day: Calvary Lutheran Church, Bergenfield, NJ

A few days ago, while stopping at the Bergenfield Public Library, I was struck by the sight of this church, and decided to photograph it.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Book of Isaiah, on a Soul That ‘Rejoices in My God’)

“I delight greatly in the Lord;
    my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
    and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up
    and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
    and praise spring up before all nations.”— Isaiah 61:10-11 (New International Version)

(The image accompanying this post is Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet in the Sistine Chapel.)

Saturday, September 26, 2020

This Day in Western History (Death of Daniel Boone, Restless Frontier Legend)

Sept. 26, 1820—Half a continent away from his Berks County, Pa., birthplace, Daniel Boone died quietly in his sleep at age 86 near present-day Defiance, Mo., still yearning to hunt far from the thousands who had followed his lead into the interior of the vast North American continent.

Partly because as a child I watched Fess Parker playing him for six seasons on TV in the 1960s, I associated Boone for years entirely with Kentucky. It would be a long while before I realized he also spent considerable time elsewhere—Pennsylvania, North Carolina, present-day West Virginia, and Missouri.

Many myths already existed about this legendary American frontiersman, and I’m afraid Parker’s TV series dispelled few of them and maybe even added some more. (He probably preferred practical wide-brim felt hats and wool and fabric to the coonskin caps and buckskin in which he’s usually depicted, for instance—and was hardly an Indian fighter, since, by his own admission, he only killed three men throughout his long life.)

It is true that he established the settlement Boonsboro; escaped from captivity by Native-Americans (and helped his daughter do the same); and clashed with the British in the American Revolution.

Other aspects of Boone’s life are not as well known, but explain much of his nomadic life:

*Slaveholder: Despite being raised by Quakers, Boone owned slaves in adulthood—as many as seven at one point. Slaves were used to help farm at Boonsborough, and were among the casualties he died during Native American attacks. At the same time, a slave named Burrell guided the frontiersman in the 1760s as he looked for a potential settlement; another, Adam, owned by another settler, told him about the death of Boone’s son James in a 1773 Indian attack, enabling the grief-stricken father to recover the remains; and an ex-slave, Pompey, was able to save his life when Boone was captured by the Shawnee in 1778 by translating his pleas to Chief Blackfish.

*Land speculator: Like other major figures in the early republic—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and financier Robert Morris—Boone was an active land speculator. In Boone’s case, his inability to provide adequate written documentation led to heavy debt, loss of his properties, a warrant for his arrest, and a permanent move out of Kentucky in the 1790s.

*Public official: Hardly the solitary figure of so many legends, Boone was, like his father, Squire Boone, a leader. Aside from his role in helping settle Kentucky, he was a member of the Virginia legislature and, in his 70s, a justice in the new territory of Missouri.

*Legend in his own time: Unlike a frontiersman of the second generation, Davy Crockett, was not interested in generating publicity for himself. But legends began to accrue about him even in middle age. John Filson started the process in 1784 with an appendix about the hunter in Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. Very problematically, the “interview” with Boone sounded suspiciously flowery. By the end of his life, the English poet Lord Byron extended his legend across the Atlantic by including him as a character in the epic Don Juan.

In encountering Boone’s grandchildren decades later, historian Francis Parkman hailed their famous ancestor’s “quiet and tranquil spirit.” Quiet, even given his disgust with the court system in Kentucky, taciturn, perhaps; but tranquil? That’s not a word I would use to describe someone with Boone's wanderlust.

While slightly romanticized, Theodore Roosevelt’s portrait of Boone in the 1890 book he wrote with friend Henry Cabot Lodge, Hero Tales From American History, offers a judicious appraisal of this pioneer:

“The toil and hardship of his life made no impress on his iron frame, unhurt by intemperance of any kind, and he lived for eighty-six years, a backwoods hunter to the end of his days. His thoughtful, quiet, pleasant face, so often portrayed, is familiar to every one; it was the face of a man who never blustered or bullied, who would neither inflict nor suffer any wrong, and who had a limitless fund of fortitude, endurance, and indomitable resolution upon which to draw when fortune proved adverse. His self-command and patience, his daring, restless love of adventure, and, in time of danger, his absolute trust in his own powers and resources, all combined to render him peculiarly fitted to follow the career of which he was so fond.”

Quote of the Day (Jack Germond, on the Outsized Importance of a Debate Gaffe)

“[A] single stumble may cost the election. Spend hundreds of millions; talk endlessly about issues; present 12-point plans for education, the economy, and the environment. But in the end, the election of our next president can turn on a gaffe.”—American political reporter and pundit Jack Germond (1928-2013), I Can’t Believe He Said That,” The Washingtonian, September 2007

Whatever justification Presidential debates may have had in the past, they possess precious little in 2020. The President has been in office for four years, with a record readily apparent, for better or worse. His opponent was a U.S. Senator or Vice-President for more than four decades. Voters have had plenty of time to know their positions and accomplishments by now, and if they don’t, shame on them.

Equally important, the type of gaffes that Germond examined in his essay were, in the grand scheme of things, trivial. Past brain-freeze responses to the fate of Communist-dominated Poland, a President’s invocation of a young daughter in discussing nuclear arms, or massive sighs and eye-rolls should have mattered little when it came to assessing who would lead our country.

Moreover, candidates’ opportunities to avoid answering questions and introduce their own factual distortions with inadequate chance for rebuttal are likely to rise markedly with the first debate this Tuesday and continuing into the final two. One candidate has a habit of exaggeration that he finds difficult to resist. The other purveys staggering falsehoods with virtually every breath he takes. Some reporters will not be inclined to note these, while others will simply throw their hands up at the unending task this involves.

Presidential debates offer the kind of theater that ratings-hungry news organizations crave, but this year especially, it threatens to degenerate into the worst combination of reality show and carnival act. It is time for the media to rethink their commitment to it.

(Two generations have passed since the event captured in the attached image, so, for any younger readers, this picture shows incumbent President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan in one of their 1980 debates.)