Saturday, June 23, 2007

On the road

Traveling this week, with little internet access, so no blog entry this weekend. Back soon.


JULY 1 UPDATE: Still on the road, but we - finally - have a winner on the June 16 trivia question:

In which of Donald Westlake's "Richard Stark" novels does Parker pull off a job in Monmouth County, N.J.?

James Cubby of Fair Lawn, N.J., was the only one to come up with the correct answer, 1963's THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE. In that second Stark novel, Parker and his crew rob an armored car outside a diner in Freehold (though they hide out in Old Bridge, in neighboring Middlesex County, afterward). Jim wins a first-edition hardcover of Stephen King's BLAZE, the lost "Richard Bachman" novel.

Back on blog next week.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tony, Bozo, trivia and a giveaway

In conversation with a friend last week, the topic of television urban myths came up. You know the type - Mikey from the Life cereal commercial died from eating Pop Rocks and soda, Alice Cooper was Eddie Haskell on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, etc. What prompted it, oddly enough, was the release on DVD of the first season of the BOZO THE CLOWN SHOW. The topic soon turned to the oft-repeated story about the tyke who, angry at losing a ring toss, told Bozo on live TV to "Cram it, clown!" before being warned that was a "Bozo No-No."

The story is at best apocryphal, though latter-day Bozo Larry Harmon has said it actually happened - though his story changes from time to time (also, there was no single television Bozo. Different actors played him in different markets. Individual stations purchased the Bozo "franchise" and then produced their own shows). That hasn't kept it from being passed on as fact though, and you'll occasionally find someone who says they actually saw it broadcast live. Ditto Soupy Sales and his "I see F, you see K" jokes. Fortunately, thanks to the internet, we now have a resource we didn't have when all of this stuff was originally being passed on to us as kids -

Snopes is the encyclopedia of urban legends, which are then confirmed, debunked or left uncertain (Snopes color codes them by verdict). Snopes classifies the Bozo story as "indeterminate" but likely false. The Soupy Sales jokes? Never happened. The Groucho Marx "I love my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while" line? He never said it.

The phenomenon goes back even further. The 1930s kids show radio host who signed off and then said "That oughta hold the little bastards", not realizing the mike was still live? Totally fictional, but given further life by the "bloopers" records craze of the late 1960s and early '70s. But as Snopes also points out, those records mostly consisted of "re-creations," re-recordings and outright fabrications.

On the other hand, e-mail now allows these things to spread like wildfire. And a few days after the Bozo discussion, I got a flurry of forwarded messages claiming to have the true explanation of the final scene in last week's show-ending SOPRANOS episode. According to the e-mail, all the clues point to Tony being killed in that last cut-to-black moment, and that the diner where he and his family are eating is filled with characters from previous episodes, all of whom want Tony dead.

Though there may be some validity to the "Tony got killed" explanation (though I don't agree with it, as I wrote last week), the evidence the e-mail uses to prove its point is deeply flawed and in some cases totally false. Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Ledger had to go on record more than once debunking the theory point by point, but readers were still forwarding it to him days later.

As someone who's spent more than 20 years in the news business, I have a deep-seated animosity for these sorts of things - rumors masquerading as fact, arguments built on fiction, total untruths passed along as conventional wisdom. It makes me angry to get anecdotal e-mails ("Don't go to the malls this Halloween," "Don't flash your car lights" etc.) that have been forwarded by people who never once stopped to think about what they were passing along, or checking into whether it was true or not (or even likely) before they did.

The SOPRANOS e-mail is a relatively harmless example of this, but it's still the same thing - careless disinformation. And as news services move away from print and struggle to get things on-line as quickly as possible, there are more opportunities for these things to get out there, under the guise of actual news. Alan cites a Reuters story that quoted an HBO spokesman agreeing that the line "Everything turns black" in an earlier episode was a significant clue to explaining the finale. However, as Alan explains, there was never any such line. The Reuters story was eventually pulled and rewritten, but not before it had already been picked up by thousands of other news outlets. The SOPRANOS e-mail hasn't made it to Snopes yet, but I'm guessing it will before long.

Apologies for the soap-boxing. In return for your patience, and in keeping with our SOPRANOS theme, it's time for another giveaway, this time a copy of Alain Silver and James Ursini's great new collection GANGSTER FILM READER, featuring more than two dozen essays on the gangster film (and plenty of SOPRANOS content as well). But, of course, it comes with a trivia question:

In which of Donald Westlake's "Richard Stark" novels does Parker pull off a job in Monmouth County, N.J.?

First one to message me at my Web site with the correct answer is the winner.

And while you're searching the net for the answer, check out this brilliant recreation of a memorable scene from Martin Scorsese's CASINO.

Monday, June 11, 2007

More Sopranos

As advertised, Alan Sepinwall of the Star-Ledger's exclusive interview with David Chase about last night's SOPRANOS finale can be found here.

ALSO: Although I neglected to mention it in my original post, I did write a short piece on the various demises of other fictional gang bosses that ran in Sunday's Star-Ledger. It can be found here.

Addio, Tony ...


It's probably a little too early to have even processed my thoughts from tonight's episode, but I'll give it a shot:

As in previous seasons, the major action took place in the penultimate episode. After the chaotic gangland violence last week, this one took the "life goes on" approach that some had predicted. After a suspenseful opening, it totally undercut the tension 20 minutes in with Tony having a sitdown with representatives of the N.Y. crew and settling their major differences. From there it was on to non-Family family matters (except for the killing of Phil Leotardo, popped at an Oyster Bay filling station), and, as in the past, a season-ending tableau of the four Sopranos gathering for dinner. No earthshaking events, no major conclusions, except for the curveball thrown at the end, when some nervewracking cutting (Is it a hit? Who is this guy eyeing Tony?) led only to a fade-to-black - long enough to make you think there was something wrong with your TV - and then silent credits. Life does go on, creator David Chase (who wrote and directed tonight's episode) seemed to be saying, and if this guy who just walked in the restaurant isn't there to whack Tony, maybe the next one will be.

Other thoughts:

+ I had a hard time buying Agent Harris' decision to tell Tony where Phil Leotardo was hiding out, or his seeming joy ("Maybe we'll win this thing!") when he heard about the murder. It seemed uncharacteristic, based on what we've seen of Harris over the years. To give mobsters information that would directly lead to a murder - and to know that beforehand - just seems like too large a moral and professional transgression for Harris to make. That Chase showed him in bed with a female fellow FBI agent - after an angry cell call from his wife earlier in the show - didn't help much. It felt like a necessary plot device to give Tony's crew enough info that they could locate and murder Phil, in order to resolve that storyline.

+ Chase's daughter, Michele DeCesare, made a return appearance as Meadow's friend, Hunter Scangarelo, for the first time since 2001.

+ Livia's spector loomed larger than ever in these last few episodes, with several dialogue exchanges directly recalling her ("Oh, poor you" and "Always with the drama" especially).

+ The seashore safehouse scenes were shot in Long Branch, N.J., blocks from the house where I grew up.

+ Though Chase's fade-to-black ending made perfect sense dramatically (like the final shot in John Sayles' underrated 1999 film LIMBO), I can imagine it made a lot of people *very* angry.

For much more coherant thoughts on all this (written, amazingly, within 15 minutes of when the episode ended), read Star-Ledger TV critic Alan Sepinwall's story here. Alan will also be talking over the finale with David Chase tomorrow (June 11) and will be posting that interview afterward. And for additional vigorous analysis and discussion, drop by The House Next Door as well.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Eat the Monkey: A true tale

While in the local Rite-Aid around midnight Friday night, I noticed something new in the frozen food case: a small red and white box bearing the label "Dwight Yoakam's Chicken Lickin's Buffalo Style Bites. " "Wow! Only $1" the box read. "Just Heat 'Em and Eat 'Em."

Of course, I bought two.

Why? Not because I'm a huge fan of the country singer/actor, whose cowboy-hatted silhouette appears on the box, or even because I was hungry. I bought them because from the moment I saw the box, I knew I'd be telling people the story of how I stumbled upon a Dwight Yoakam food product in the middle of the night in a 24-hour drugstore at the Jersey Shore. And, of course, I knew their first questions would be "Did you buy them? How were they?"

So I bought them - and ate them. Because without that, the story had no ending, no payoff. For the story's sake, I had to do it.

Here's a better example:

In 1990 I went on a rather Graham Greene-ish vacation to post-invasion Grenada. Tourism on the island was still in a free-fall at that point, restaurants and hotels were few, and my traveling companion and I were among only a half-dozen American tourists on the island. An empty lot across from our hotel had once been the site of the Cuban military barracks, long-since blasted and bulldozed, and a scenic taxi trip up the mountain passed a blockhouse that had been destroyed by the 82nd Airborne, whose members spray-painted their ALL-AMERICAN logo on the side of the bombed-out building. It made me strangely proud to see it.

The island was beautiful, and aside from the occasional surly cabdriver (we were told that many former militia members and party hardliners had been relegated to menial jobs post-invasion), everyone seemed very happy to meet and talk with a couple of Americans. Sometimes though, they'd cut a conversation short if it drifted too far into politics. It was like they were wondering who you *really* were, and were watching what they said accordingly. One Grenadian told us that in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion, the local medical school suddenly saw an influx of new students - all of whom were American, male and inordinately fit. They were CIA and military intelligence types, who seeded themselves among the mostly American students so that they could see to their safety and control their whereabouts when the invasion came. In other words, everyone knew something was coming. It was just a question of when.

But I digress.

On one of our first nights there, we dined at a highly recommended local restaurant. The setup, we were told, was a little different. You called ahead, told them you were coming and then they put on an extra plate for you - of whatever they happened to be cooking that night. No ordering. No menus. No choice.

The restaurant itself was kind of endearing. In fact, it was someone's house - with prefab metal sheets propped up over an improvised outside dining area. Spider monkeys skittered through the trees and the taxi ride there was often interrupted while the driver tried to nudge an errant cow off the road.

The meal was varied - a sampling of local Grenadan dishes, brought to us by a charming hostess who announced each dish as she placed it before us. Grilled beef, lobster fritters, goat, mixed local vegetables and finally a dish of what looked like tiny beef slices. This, she informed us, was filleted monkey.

What to do? I knew from the moment she identified the dish that I would be telling this story when I got back home, how one night in the tropics I was unexpectedly served a plate of primate, man's closest relative. And I knew that when I told the story, the first questions would be "Did you eat it? How was it?"

So here it was, a new life experience being made available to me, as well as a good story to tell. Do I pass on the monkey and rob my story of its payoff? Or commit a crime against nature and possibly evolution? I had to decide quickly, before my monkey got cold.

I ate the monkey. It was excellent.

It tasted like beef, but flaked almost like fish. It was light, but flavorful. Not gamy at all. It went down very easy, helped no doubt by the 14-oz rum punch that was served with dinner. I enjoyed it.

So there it was, the punchline, the payoff. "Yes, I had monkey offered to me and yes, I ate it and this is what it tasted like." All in service of a story.

The moral? It goes for writing as well as any type of storytelling. When you're offered a new experience, take it. To tell the true story, the *whole* story, you have to live it. You have to dive in.

In other words, you have to eat the monkey.

The Buffalo Style Bites weren't bad either.

NEXT WEEK: Addio, Tony