Saturday, July 11, 2009

On the Proper Length of a Blog Entry
By Nicholas Stix

The “blog”—the contraction of “Web” and “log”—is a type of technology. Some people project onto blogs and those who use them a mystical significance; others are contemptuous of both. The dependent variable is usually the political allegiances of the writer and the observer, respectively.

People who write using blogs are typically referred to as “bloggers.” Many people call me that; I’ve been called worse.

The primary virtue of a blog is ease of use. One does not need to know any HTML (hypertext markup language), in order to use a blog. But let’s not exaggerate the medium’s virtues. My first Web site, at bcity.com, also required no knowledge of HTML, and looked better than any html-free blog. Unfortunately, corporate parent CNET shut down bcity in 2001, in the wake of the dotcom bust.

Most “bloggers” write very brief entries about their personal lives. I’m not concerned with them, however, and virtually no one else is, either, but rather with political bloggers. Most political bloggers typically excerpt a news article or op-ed, adding a pithy observation or criticism, and often linking to an article of related interest. The value of the ensuing product is wholly dependent on the intelligence and judgment of the blogger in question.

However, some bloggers will devote several hundred or even thousands of words to a given piece. I submit that the term “column,” “essay,” or “article” is proper to such an exposition, even though it appears at a blog.

Some people are wed to a particular form, but it seems to me the value of a blog is that one can use it to publish works of all different lengths. The criterion should not be the word count, but whether the writer has said his piece.

Elmer Bernstein’s National Geographic Theme (Full Length)
By Nicholas Stix

I’d call this, “Ode to Copland in Four Movements.”

Note that it has the structure of a fanfare (allusion to “Fanfare for the Common Man”), and at 0:32, it hits its musical climax, in an allusion to the musical climax that comes early in the first movement of Appalachian Spring, in what my mom calls Copland’s “wild sweetness.”

If there’s a more brilliant, ambitious, and at the same time, touching—since the whole thing is an homage to Copland—TV theme, I hope someone will tell me.

(A word of warning: The guy who put this together went a little nuts with images of the weird. Some of them might be relevant to the theme of National Geographic, but most either express his own preoccupations, or resulted when he went in a certain direction, and just kept going.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

John Wayne in The Shootist (1976): Swan Song of a Giant
By Nicholas Stix

As a child, I was never much of a John Wayne fan. The idea of someone calling himself by a royal moniker (“Duke”) should be repugnant to every red-blooded American. My hero was “Coop.”

It was only many years later that I learned that Wayne’s nickname came not from royalty, but from local firemen. Young Marion Michael Morrison delivered newspapers, accompanied always by his trusty Airedale Terrier, “Duke.” Local firemen who’d befriended Marion dubbed the pair, “Big Duke and Little Duke.” That was fine by Marion, who hated his name, and took to calling himself, “Duke Morrison.”

And so he would remain until 1930, when Fox studio heads changed his name to “John Wayne” for his first starring vehicle, The Big Trail, which bombed.

The other reason I was underwhelmed by Wayne was that his best pictures were rarely shown on New York TV channels, and I usually missed them, when they were. (In contrast, Coop and “Bogey” and “Jimmy C” and Jimmy Stewart’s classics were on all the time.) Meanwhile, most of his new pictures were duds, as the directors of his great vehicles had all retired, died, or lost their touch. Wayne had outlived his era.

In recent years, I’ve been able to watch most of Wayne’s best pictures, and come to appreciate what a fine actor he was.

The Shootist was Wayne’s last picture, about the title character—they called them “shootists” or “assassins,” rather than “gunfighters”—“John Bernard Books.” Like the man playing him, Books has outlived his time, is dying of (prostate) cancer, and wants to go out with as much dignity, and as little pain as possible. But his reputation as a legendary shootist, who has killed 30 men, keeps getting in the way.

The year is 1901.

There is a symmetry between life and art, because although Wayne’s stomach cancer had not yet metastasized, if it had even yet appeared, and he would hang on for another three years, he was a sick man when he made The Shootist. It wasn’t clear if he would even make it through the shooting. He had had one cancerous lung removed in 1964, and the Shootist crew had to shoot around him for two weeks at one point, while he was laid up with the flu. And Wayne was by then a Hollywood dinosaur. He was 68 and, having smoked entire fields of tobacco, and drunk rivers of Scotch, looked every day of it.

(When I was a boy, 68 made you an old man. The average “life expectancy” was ten years shorter than it is now, which in practice meant that men usually died of heart attacks or cancer while still in the full possession of their faculties. Today, they more frequently end their days in nursing homes in their eighties or nineties, confined to wheelchairs while drooling, staring into nothingness with empty, glazed-over eyes, and wearing soiled diapers. But, by God, they lived healthier lives!)

Indeed, as they knew Wayne was ailing, producers Mike Frankovich and William Self had initially offered the role to George C. Scott, who accepted. But once Wayne heard about the picture, he had to have in, and so they withdrew the offer to Scott.

The Shootist has a stunning opening sequence, unique to its star. And that’s all I’m going to say about it. Let yourself be pleasantly surprised.

And yet, between the opening and the climactic showdown at the end, there isn’t an awful lot of action. This is a character study. The young John Wayne couldn’t have carried off a character study, but as he had already shown in his Oscar-winning performance in True Grit (1969), the old man could, and did, splendidly.

J.B. Books has a simple creed, which fits John Wayne who, although he became the biggest star in the universe, was known for treating people pretty decently:

I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to others and I expect the same in return.”

The strong supporting cast is full of old friends who had asked to be in the picture, in order to support the ailing star, in every sense—Jimmy Stewart, as the town sawbones, who gives Books the bad news; Richard Boone, who wasn’t long for the world himself, as an old nemesis seeking to avenge his dead brother; Harry Morgan, in the movie’s funniest role, as the cowardly, talkative, town marshal; Hugh O’Brian, as a casino dealer and shootist (O’Brian, by the way, had offered to perform for free). Lauren “Betty” Bacall, who plays the widow (Mrs. Rogers) who owns the local boarding house where Books spend s his last days, wouldn’t otherwise have made a Western. Ron Howard plays the Bacall character’s son, who is growing up without a strong man around, his soul torn between his murderous thug of an employer (Bill McKinney) and his strait-laced mother, with the thug definitely gaining the upper hand. The boy is star-struck by Books, who tries to show him another way to go.

The story, from Glendon Swarthout’s eponymous novel, with a screenplay by Swarthout’s son, Miles, and Scott Hale, has a real feel for the vernacular of the time and place. The great action director Don Siegel sets the right tone, whether a scene is quiet and atmospheric, slow and talky, or violent.

Unfortunately, Elmer Bernstein’s score is not up to the standard he set in The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Escape, and while strong during the opening sequence, is exhausted there. Late in the picture, a brief, poignant moment is made all the more moving by Bernstein’s delicate music, which however does not fit the rest of the score. He cannibalized that passage from his “music box” score for Mockingbird.

Bruce Surtees' photography captures the washed-out, colorless look of the mountains and scrub of a Carson City, Nevada, winter.

John Wayne had churned out five straight duds before The Shootist, but in his swan song, he went out in style.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Karl Malden’s Father Barry in On the Waterfront was the Greatest Supporting Performance of All Time
By Nicholas Stix

Karl Malden’s “Christ Stands in the Shape-Up” Speech in On the Waterfront.

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