Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Day the Earth Stood Still

I might have seen it from the back seat of my parents green '49 Chevy at the Tiger drive -in when it was released in 1951 -- I don't remember, being only three that summer  -- but I definitely saw it in 1957, the year I was nine. It was at the Dalton Theater, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, part of a quadruple Saturday afternoon line-up. Bobby Harrison and I rode our bikes to the Dalton, paid a dime each, walked in laughing -- and came out terrified. 

When the lights went down, and after the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, what we saw was that cool flying saucer, and with it, Bernard Herrmann's extremely creepy music: The deep throb of bass, with piano and harp arpeggios, and that spooky, really spooky, therumin. That baby sent goosebumps crawling all over me in shuddery waves. The score holds up well after almost fifty years -- I'm listening to it on CD as I write this -- and it still brings up chill blains. We are talking serious monster music here, copied ad infinitum in subsequent movies

Edmund North's script for "The Day the Earth Stood Still," based on Harry Bates' 1940 short story, "Farewell to the Master," is a classic study in xenophobia. The humanoid alien, Klaatu, lands his saucer on the mall in Washington D.C. Coming in peace to let us know where we stand in the galactic scheme of things, Klaatu is naturally shot by a nervous soldier within a couple minutes of landing. This was not a smart thing to do when the guy you plink hangs out with a big honkin' robot (Gort) whose death ray gaze can vaporize guns and tanks with ease, and who proceeds to do just that. Had not the wounded Klaatu stopped him, Gort would have no doubt disintegrated Washington, and in Klaatu's place, I would have let him. 

We’d be better off.

Klaatu survives and escapes, but continues to have a real bad vacation. As part of his demonstration of power, the alien brings virtually all electrical activity on the planet to a halt for an hour, save for hospitals and planes in the air and all -- therein the title -- and that gets everybody's attention in a hurry. Along the way, Klaatu deals with politicians, the military, scientists (who are actually portrayed here as good guys) a jealous boyfriend, and a dippy kid who even Mr. Wizard probably couldn't stand.

And from the way he takes it in stride, you know he's seen it all before.

But we humans stupidly persist in our paranoia, and eventually, Klaatu takes another bullet, ending up more or less dead. As the alien visitor fades, he directs the widow Benson, (who has come to know Klaatu as a boarder who fascinates her son,) to fetch Gort. The giant robot snatches the body, returns to the ship, and is able to heal Klaatu. Kinda, sorta, with a politically-correct nod noting that only the Almighty can truly bring back the dead. 

When the mortally-wounded Klaatu miraculously recovers enough to stand up in front of his saucer and finally lay it out for us, you could have heard a piece of stale popcorn hit the Dalton's sticky floor: 

"It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet," he says, "But if you threaten to extend your violence , this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burnt-out cinder."

A burnt-out cinder. Now there is an image.

It was obvious this was no idle threat. Gort could kick ass and take names, and to make things worse, there were others like him out there. We wouldn't have a prayer if we didn't toe the line. By this point, I was rooting for the aliens and feeling like scum for being human anyhow. 

Bobby and I didn't know about the red menace and the cold war and how "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was a metaphor for our turbulent times, complete with Christ-figure undertones. Nope, what we knew after we saw the movie was that Gort was not a robot to screw with.

"Gort -- Klaatu barada nikto . . ." 

They don't make 'em like this any more. Too bad.

They tried a remake, but even Keanu couldn’t give it enough oomph, and it was lame in comparison. 


"The Day the Earth Stood Still," 1951, black and white, running time: 1:32.

Screenplay  - Edmund H. North
Based on the short story "Farewell to the Master," by  Harry Bates.

Director  -  Robert Wise

Cast:

Michael Rennie -  Klaatu
Patricia Neal -  Helen Benson
Billy Gray  -  Bobby Benson 
Hugh Marlowe  -  Tom Stevens
Sam Jaffe -  Dr. Barnhardt
Cinematography  -  Leo Tover
Editing  -  William Reynolds
Costume Design  -  Perkins Bailey  and Travilla.

Music  -  Bernard Herrmann

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Time Changes

When my wife and I got married, the first place we rented was an old, circa 1890’s, shotgun-style house near downtown Baton Rouge.

It had seen better days, but we started scrubbing and painting a month before we got married. The foundation was crumbling near the kitchen, couldn’t do much about that, and there was a list aft. If you dropped a tennis ball by the front door, it would roll all the way to the backdoor and out, it was open ...

House was cheap, located bicycle-convenient for college, and my part-time job, and we were nineteen. We were bulletproof.

We rented it at the tail-end of hurricane season, and there was one late-storm whirling about in the Gulf that might have headed our way. It didn’t, but we weren’t worried about it, using one of the classic examples of bad reasoning: Well, we thought, the house has been here eighty-some years, probably withstood fifteen or twenty hurricanes just fine, so one more won’t hurt it ...

This is, in a word, foolish, because a thing can be fine — until it isn’t. You are alive and kicking, but if you get hit by a train, maybe not so much.

My wife and I have been largely blessed with good health. Bumps and lumps, sprains and pains, even a couple broken bones, but neither of us has spent a night in the hospital in nearly fifty years. Some  day-surgery stuff, but nothing major.

We eat pretty well, take vitamins, exercise, get check-ups regularly, take our vaccines, keep eyes and teeth attended to as needed.

We know that doesn’t make us invulnerable — in theory — but the reality is like that hurricane philosophy. Everything is fine until it isn’t.  

So, buried lede here: My wife had a small stroke about ten days ago. We got to the ER in time for the miracle clot-buster drug, which reversed most of her signs and symptoms, but in the follow-up, found a cardiac arrhythmia that needed a pacemaker, so that was done. Five days at in the hospital, two in NCCU.

No family history of either thing on her side.

We are home, recovering slowly, getting set up with doctors to monitor things, appropriate meds, and all like that.

Since she is at the top of my list, everything else will come a distant second. You won’t see me far from home without her or somebody standing by for a while.

My family and friends have stepped up, and we do appreciate it.

IIWII — it is what it is. One moment, one day at a time.

This is my warning, heads-up to you who think as we thought: 

The next step you take can be a serious pivot, a wrenching, ankle-twisting turn onto a path you never saw coming, and it might not be your choice. And it could be the last step you take.

Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t live in that future you think is ahead. Don’t waste time fretting over the past you can’t change. Be in the moment, be here now, because that might be all you get.
Sure, make plans, but don’t live there until they arrive.

If my wife comes back, 100% — and that is our goal — things won’t be the same. Because now, what we thought was a vague,  but remote, possibility, cannot be ignored. We aren’t out of the woods yet, and if we do walk from the forest, the next trees are not far off the road.

If you aren’t ready to hear this, you won’t. If you have had to do it, you already know. But, please think about it. You can’t foresee the unforeseeable, but you can take joy in the moment on your plate right now.  


Don’t let yesterday and tomorrow steal now from you.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Poison

Scenes from a Mostly Happy Childhood:

Carl was five, in bed. His parents came and got him, took him into the kitchen, leaving his little brother asleep.

Daddy is going to leave, they said. 

Carl blinked. Leave?

He’s moving out. 

Carl was five. He didn’t understand. He started to cry. He turned away, went back to his bed, climbed in, pulled the covers up over his head.

Daddy didn’t leave. 

#

Jack was six, Carl, eight. They were at the swimming pool. Daddy was irritated that they weren’t learning to swim fast enough. He had shown them the strokes, how to breathe, but they were still afraid of the water.

So he tossed Carl into the deep end. Carl managed to flail his way to the side of the pool, absolutely panicked.

Then he tossed Jack in, and he sank straight to the bottom. Daddy waited, saw that Jack wasn’t coming up, then dived in to fetch him.

For years, Carl was terrified of the water. He compensated by learning how to swim at an expert level; became a lifeguard, Water Safety Instructor, mile-a-day in the pool, could hold his breath for four minutes. Carl taught himself to love the water.

Carl and his brother never talked about what Jack did to get past it.

#

They had a cocktail party when Carl was nine. His brother was seven. The house was small, so they were sent to their bedroom, told to stay there and be quiet, and keep the door shut.

They boys weren’t quiet. They bounced around, laughed, made noise.

The door to the bedroom opened. Daddy stood there, looking down the hall toward the living room, smiling broadly in the direction of his guests.

He stepped into the bedroom, closed the door, and his face changed from a smile to a snarl. And because Jack’s bed was closer, he caught the hard right slap and return backhand to the face, one-two, bam-bam! knocking him into the wall and asprawl on the bed.

Daddy never said a word. He left the room and shut the door behind him. 

Carl couldn’t see his face, but he would have bet his life Daddy was smiling as he returned to the party.

#

Carl and Jack were playing cowboys. Jack sneaked up behind him and cracked Carl on the skull with the butt of his toy gun, to knock him out like they did on TV. 

That didn’t happen.

Carl screamed in pain and outrage and took out after Jack as he ran hollering across the street into their yard. 

Daddy was working on the car. He looked up and saw the boys. Yelled something. Stepped between them to block Carl’s path.

Carl was blind with anger, he said, “Get out of the way!” as he lunged for his brother. 

Next thing Carl knew, he was looking up at the sky. How had he had come to be on his back on the ground?

Daddy had clouted him upside the head, a slap or fist, Carl never knew which.

#

Daddy, in a rage, grabbed Mama by the arm and dragged her down the hall to their bedroom. She yelled, Jack and Carl yelled, their little sister Susan cried in her crib. 

Daddy pulled off his belt and beat Mama, as the two boys stood there crying and begging him to stop.

Shut up or you’ll get the same!

#

Their parents were fighting. Mama found out Daddy had gone to bed with a woman he met while he was playing in a band at a local bar. She was going to leave, to leave!

It was a gray late-fall afternoon, probably a Sunday. Carl was eleven. He gathered up his brother and two sisters and took them outside to get away. They stayed out for hours. 

It wasn’t the last time they did that.

For Carl, that kind of gray late-fall day became instantly depressing. He knew why, he had tried to offset it, but the older a tape, the harder it was to completely erase.

#

Carl was thirteen. Daddy slapped Mama. Carl looked for something to hit him with, but before he could, they explained it.

He had caught her with another man, Daddy said.

Mama said, It was just Vern, the girl’s baseball coach. We were having a hamburger after the game.

He had his arm around her!

No, he didn’t! He had his elbow propped on the car seat. We were at Billy’s Drive In! Nothing more than that!

Carl was supposed to listen and choose who was telling the truth. He could not.

#  

Carl was sixteen. His mother was in the hall bathroom, crying. 

What is it, Mama?

Daddy is cheating on me again. He said he wasn’t gonna do it any more, but he has a woman at Major’s he’s seeing.

Carl was helpless. What could he say or do?

I’m sorry, Mama. 

#

Daddy died at 87, complications of Alzheimer’s, a fall and broken hip, kidney infection. Something got him unexpectedly. A stroke, heart-attack, pulmonary embolus? Nobody ever said for sure. Did it really matter?

Daddy and Mama never split up. Toward the end, they lived in different parts of the house, because she had finally quit doing what she had done her whole life, keep him the center of the local universe. Right up until he fell, he was dedicated to finding her and demanding her attention. The caregivers had to keep them separate. Turn your back, he was off to find and harangue her. He would yell. She would yell back.

He would demand: You want a divorce?

Yes! I do!

You heard her! You heard her!

She couldn’t stand him, and he wanted her to be afraid him. Both of them told Carl as much.

A friend of Carl’s said that the problems with men and their fathers fell into two categories: 

The father left. 

Or he stayed.

Maybe if Carl hadn’t cried when he was five, that would have made things different.




Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Woke Up Dead Blues

“Woke up Dead Blues”

BLACK SCREEN: SUPER, IN WHITE:


Woke up Dead Blues
A Song for the Zombie Apocalypse

FADE IN:

INT. BEDROOM - MORNING - EXTREME C.U.


A man’s closed eye. A beat, then the lid opens to reveal a bloodshot eyeball. 


Music: Guitar Intro


PULL BACK TO REVEAL:


A DEAD MAN lying on a bed, blinking at the ceiling. He sits up. Looks puzzled. Puts his hands on his chest, antics breathing. Looks around in horror.



                               SINGER (O.S.)
                            (sings)
I woke up this morning/turned out I was dead/


The Dead Man leaps to his feet, runs to the bathroom, snatches up a hand mirror. Holds it under his nose.

Save for the music, all is silent, no sound, (and MOS throughout.) 


SINGER (CONT’D)

Yes, I woke up this morning/turned out I was dead.

ANGLE FAVORS THE MIRROR


It doesn’t fog up. No air coming out. 


The Dead Man drops the mirror and rushes from the bathroom. 


CUT TO:
INT. BEDROOM  

ON THE CUT, The Dead Man rushes in, all in a panic. 


DEAD MAN
(MOS)
AHHHHHHH! 

SINGER
When you wake up not breathin’/it really screws with your head. 
Music: Turnaround to next verse


ANGLE ON THE DEAD MAN


He turns to look at the window. TRACK WITH HIS GAZE


ANGLE ON THE WINDOW - PUSH IN - A dark figure stands outside.


SINGER
The Reaper stood by my window/

CUT TO:

EXT. BEDROOM - YARD

THE REAPER stands there. Holds up one hand, beckons, like Neo in The Matrix: Come here.


SINGER
I heard him clear as a bell/

RESUME:


INT. BEDROOM - DEAD MAN.


His eyes go wide in horror, he shakes his head. No way!


SINGER
Yeah, the Reaper stood by my window/ I heard him clear as a bell/

SMASH CUT: 

THE REAPER

He taps the face of his wristwatch impatiently, then gives the Dead Man the “Come here.” gesture again.


RESUME:

THE DEAD MAN

Oh, no!


SINGER



He said, “We better get movin’/cause it’s a long way to Hell.

Music: Turnaround.


FAST FADE TO:

INT. BEDROOM - MORNING

The Dead Man is loading stuff into a back pack on the bed. The Reaper stands in the B.G. watching.


SINGER
Better pack some popcorn/he said with a smile.

ANGLE FAVORS THE REAPER

Probably can’t see it, but he smiles.


SINGER (CONT’D)
Yeah, you better pack some popcorn/he said with a smile/

REFIELD - ANGLE ON THE DEAD MAN - PUSH IN CLOSER ON HIS FACE

SINGER (CONT’D)
                      You gonna be hungry when we get there/and the food there is vile.

Music: Turnaround

FADE TO BLACK

FADE IN: EXT. EMPTY ROAD - DAY

The Dead Man and The Reaper, walking. Trudging.


ANGLE FAVORS THE DEAD MAN


He shakes his head. 


DEAD MAN
(murmurs, but MOS)
Motherfucker. Motherfucker. Motherfucker ...

SINGER
I’m a walkin’ dead man/right down to my shoes/

POV - THE DEAD MAN - LOOKS DOWN AT HIS FEET

SINGER (CONT’D)
Yeah, I’m a walkin’ dead man/right down to my shoes/

LONG SHOT - DEAD MAN AND REAPER

They walk slowly along.


SINGER (CONT’D)
              I’m on my way to meet the Devil/and I got the woke up dead man blues.

Music: Turnaround.

FAST FADE TO:

INT. BEDROOM - MORNING - THE DEAD MAN

The Dead Man sits on the foot of his bead, head in hands, looking morose.  


SINGER
I woke up this morning/turned out I was dead/

The Dead Man sits up, puts his hands down, but is still slumped and miserable-looking.

SINGER (CONT’D)
Yes, I woke up this morning/turned out I was dead/

The Dead Man shakes his head sadly, stand, shuffles O.S.
The bedroom is empty.


SINGER (CONT’D)
              When you wake up not breathin’/it really screwwwws with your ... head.
FADE TO BLACK


CREDIT CRAWL, Music over, then FADE OUT ...


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Setting Goals


It sometimes helps an activity to have defined goals. Not always -- go-with-the-flow and see where it leads is valid, but a sharper focus can be useful, and achieving various platforms on a long climb, helpful.

In martial arts, there didn’t used to be colored belts. They came to be many-hued in judo, primarily because the creator and head instructor, Kanō Jigorō, looked up and realized he had so many students he couldn’t keep track of who knew what. With standardized ranks denoted by colors for each, he could walk into a satellite dojo with a hundred students and know at a glance where, within a certain range, each student was.

If you are wearing that purple belt to keep your gi closed, then you know katas x and y, but not z.

Later, other arts adopted the scheme, and the secondary reason wasn’t long in coming: Breaking a two- or five-year arc into shorter, recognizable segments via belt colors was encouraging. A student looking at the long journey of a thousand miles might find several segments of much smaller distances easier to essay.

Six months to get that yellow belt was achievable; five years to that first black belt could seem daunting.

Um.

This brings me to my musical education. On my current instrument of choice, the tenor ukulele, I have in my repertoire a couple hours’ worth of material I can play from memory. Thirty songs, plus maybe fifteen instrumentals. This gets revised and adjusted — some songs I used to know I don’t play often enough to do so without looking at the words and tabs. Some new ones I am learning will replace older ones I don’t find as interesting. The set list evolves.

But the goal thing: I am going to crank up the Blue Yeti microphone and the QuickTime video recorder and see if I can’t get a recorded version of each piece I have. 

That’s the goal. Not planning on cutting any albums, but I have been dabbling with this kind of thing off and on for years, first with the guitar, now the uke, and a couple of times, it has come in handy. Seeing how you do a thing is a good way to learn how to do it better.

I had a pretty good version of “Dixie,” on the guitar that I recorded and stuck on YouTube. Still holds up, though I can’t play it on the guitar now. When I saw that the Ken Burns Vietnam thing was about to air, I remembered that I used to play “Ashokan Farewell,” which was the main theme for The Civil War series, on guitar, then ukulele. I let it slip away. When I went back to revisit and relearn that one on the uke, I had a video reference of me doing it, so I could look at the tabs and see where I held my hands when I could play it. 

No long-term use for these videos comes to mind. Probably I’ll put the best ones up on YouTube, though I don’t expect much of an audience, but that’s the point. The point is, it seems like a good idea in this moment …



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Check this Out

Not available yet, but ain't it cool?


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Funny Guy



Back when I spent a lot of time going to science fiction conventions and had duty as the toastmaster, or MC at the costume thingee, I worked up what I thought were some pretty good stand-up routines and snappy patter. Three of my favorites were:

Redneck in overalls with raygun

The Man With Nine Wives

Best Job in the World: Being an Optometrist in Metropolis (This one began with me reciting the opening for the old George Reeves TV Superman show, with a tape recorder playing me humming the music for that show as b.g.)

“Faster than a speeding bullet!” (Dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum-de-de-dum)

I was, I thought, a pretty funny guy. 

We have company coming up for the eclipse in a couple days, and my wife remarked that maybe we might want to buy a couple new towels. 

Me: Um, well, we’ll have to wash the new towels like five times before they get here. In two days.

Her: No, we won’t. Once will be enough.

Me: I went to see my buddy and his wife a few years ago, and his wife bought some new towels for me. I don’t think she washed them at all, though she might have, once. Have you ever tried to dry off with a new, unwashed towel? You might as well use a giant sheet of Saran Wrap covered in Scotch Guard. You do better sluicing the water off with your hands!

Her: I’m sure you exaggerate. 

Me: No, no I do not.

Her: Well, you can get what color you want. Those nice blue ones.

My wife is the sweetest, nicest, most lovable woman in the world, bar none, but like many women, she thinks that men worry about things like what color their towels are. 

Don’t you think the blue ones are nicer than the tan ones?

Uh … yeah, of course. Sure, I do. The blue ones. Definitely.

Same way I do while sitting at supper and getting into a conversation about the dinner plates: Don’t you just love the pattern on these dishes?

Pattern? They have a pattern? 

We have been using these dishes for twelve years!

Um. Oh, wait, you mean these dishes. Sure, I … love this pattern. Hey, look, it’s almost time for the news!

So I decided to shower before I headed to Costco. I was thinking about what I needed to buy, getting a new belt for the vacuum cleaner and all, and of a moment, I looked around. Did I wash my hair? I honestly couldn’t remember.

That ever happen to you? No? Just me? Well, crap!

Maybe senility is setting in, hey, Steve?

Could be. 


Which is why I have learned to write little notes to myself on the yellow sticky pad on my desk. Because memory is a sieve; if it is on the pad, I will see it eventually. 

Which is where the picture above came from. The note I wrote to myself to remind me to write this piece ...