Tuesday, May 29, 2012

There's Johnny

It’s hard to think of Johnny Carson without thinking of the Cleveland Browns. Take the Browns out of Cleveland, put them in Baltimore, start calling them the Ravens, and you’re not even talking about the same team anymore. The team we now know as the Cleveland Browns has a tradition reaching back no further than the late 1990s, when Art Modell packed up a town’s collective identity and outsourced it to Baltimore. Philosophers refer to this identity-crisis phenomenon as the Ship of Theseus, after Plutarch’s paradox of the ship that’s had all its component parts replaced and still sails under the same name. But I’m no philosopher, so I tend to refer to it as “the Tonight Show thing.”

Sunday, May 27, 2012

When 'Seinfeld' was Still Finding Its Audience

It's long-established legend that "The Chinese Restaurant" is the show with which Seinfeld found its form, because its the show with which Seinfeld proved to itself they could set a whole show just about anywhere and get away with it--that their characters and writing could sustain this special brand of single-set minimalism. But even though Seinfeld may have figured out something about itself with "The Chinese Restaurant," in the very next episode, "The Busboy," it's apparent that the audience still had a lot to discover. The show was still in its first full season--technically, it's second season--and so it's understandable that Seinfeld and its audience would still be in that getting-to-know-you phase--that even though Seinfeld was finding its form, the audience was still losing their way. 

"The Busboy" is the one where George inadvertently gets a busboy fired from his restaurant (this was before the gang took all their meals in Monk's Cafe), and then goes to his apartment to apologize and try to make it up to him. Later on, the busboy comes to Jerry's apartment to report that there are no hard feeling--that, in fact, George, by getting him fired, had actually saved his life, because of a kitchen explosion that ended up killing his replacement. 

This was supposed to just another crazy twist in the script--a way to heighten the absurdity that the show had already considered its specialty. But there was more to the joke than that, and no way would the show's standing philosophy of "No hugging, no learning" allow this to be some kind of redemptive moral-to-the-story epiphany. But the audience obviously didn't know that, because damn it if they didn't take the busboy's revelation to heart, and start applauding at this in a burst of goodwill. As for the busboy who actually got killed: apparently that's where their goodwill ended. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on the DVD commentary track for the episode, responds to this inappropriate outburst with retrospective surprise: "Look at that: applause! What the hell's going on here?"

It's not the audience's fault. There'd never been anything like Seinfeld on the network airwaves, especially among sitcoms. This was still unexplored territory, and so it's only understandable that they might take a wrong turn. The remainder of the episode disabused them of any notions that this was a show designed to serve up parables and pablum. The audience hadn't yet learned that there was to be no learning, but they would learn soon enough.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ernest Hemingway, Art Critic

Even airborne-aloft, hundreds of feet above France in a tiny plane in 1922, Ernest Hemingway was a goddamned art critic. "We headed almost straight east of Paris," he wrote in a dispatch to the Toronto Star, "rising in the air as though we were sitting inside a boat that was being lifted by some giant, and the ground began to flatten out beneath us. It looked cut into brown squares, yellow squares, green squares and big flat blotches of green where there was a forest. I began to understand cubist painting."

Remembering that same Paris years later in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway would write, "The tank wagons were painted brown and saffron color and in the moonlight when they worked the rue Cardinal Lemoine their wheeled, horse-drawn cylinders looked like Braque paintings."

Lillian Ross's 1950 New Yorker profile "How Do You Like it Now, Gentlemen?" (1950) is famous for showing us Hemingway as a boorish, oblivious parody of his own self, but it also shows us Hemingway as a sensitive critic of fine art. Of course the two can coexist within the same space. And, here, they certainly do. On a trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Hemingway tells Ross, "I learned to write by looking at paintings in the Luxembourg Museum in Paris. I never went past high school. When you've got a hungry gut and the museum is free, you go to the museum."

In front of a painting by Francesco Francia, he points to some trees in the background and tells his son, "This is what we try to do when we write, Mousie. We always have this in when we write." He settles a dispute on the questionable provenance of a painting supposedly by Rubens by stating, "Yeah, he did that all right. You can tell the real just as a bird dog can tell. Smell them. Or from having lived with very poor but very good painters."

The Breughels are roped off for maintenance, so Hemingway compensates by remembering a favorite of his,  "the good Breughel"--apparently, The Harvesters (1565): "It's the great one, of the harvesters. It is a lot of people cutting grain, but he uses the grain geometrically, to make an emotion that is so strong for me that I can hardly take it."

In front of Cezanne's Rocks in the Forest (1890s), Hemingway revisits a favorite concept: "This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and the woods, and the rocks we have to climb over. Cezanne is my painter, after the early painters. Wonder, wonder painter. Degas was another wonder painter. I've never seen a bad Degas. You know what he did with the bad Degases? Burned them."

After taking "another long drink from his flask," Hemingway stands in front of Manet's pastel of Valtesse de La Bigne and says, "Manet could show the bloom people have when they're still innocent and before they've been disillusioned." 

The novelist's imagination, amplified by booze, sees all kinds of things, outside the frame but informing what's within. Before a Reynolds portrait of one Colonel George Coussmaker, he says, "Now, this colonel is a son of a bitch who was willing to pay money to the best portrait painter of his day just to have himself painted. Look at the man's arrogance and the strength in the neck of the horse and the way the man's legs hang. He's so arrogant he can afford to lean against a tree." 

It was before coming to this one that Hemingway had been arguing with his son, pontificating sententiously on the art they were seeing. He stopped himself, though, saying, "What the hell! I don't want to be an art critic. I just want to look at pictures and be happy with them and learn from them. Now, this for me is a damn good picture."

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Scariest Moment in NBA History

Those earnest chaps over at Grantland have their own idea for what makes it as "the scariest moment in NBA history": a bunch of dipshits on the court throwing down with a bunch dipshits in the stands. That's their opinion, and, sadly, they're entitled to it. To most of us, however, such a situation plays more as comedy than anything resembling tragedy. But there is nothing at all comic about that night in 1977 when Rudy Tomjanovich took a punch from Kermit Washington and nearly left his brains on the floor of the L.A. Forum. 

To call it a punch doesn't even start to say it. Tomjanovich was running at top speed toward a fight that had broken out when Washington spied him from the corner of his eye, turned, and nailed Rudy T in the kisser with the hardest punch he could muster--which, in the case of Kermit Washington, is about as hard a punch as any man can muster. Remember, this is with Tomjanovich approaching at a full gallop. You don't need to be a physicist to understand the implications of this. 

"I'll never forget that sound," Washington's Lakers teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would tell John Feinstein for his book The Punch, a virtuoso investigation of that night, as well as its preamble and aftermath. "I had turned [the Rockets' Kevin] Kunnert away from Kermit, and suddenly I heard this crack, like a melon landing on concrete. It's twenty-four years ago, but I can still hear it."

Tomjanovich really thought he was still gonna finish out the game that night, just as soon as he got checked out by the doctors. He didn't know that the doctors would soon be prognosticating a possible end to his career. At the emergency room, Dr. Paul Toffel asked him, "Do you have any kind of a funny taste in your mouth?" 

"Yeah, I do," Rudy answered. "It doesn't taste like blood either. It's very bitter. What is it?"

"Spinal fluid. You're leaking spinal fluid from your brain. We're going to get you up to ICU in a few minutes and we're going to hope your brain capsule seals very soon."

As Feinstein's book makes clear, Tomjanovich was not the only victim that night. Washington paid dearly for  the punch he threw--a punch that seemed, in the split-second with which he decided to throw it, an act of purest self-defense: "I saw a blur of red," he'd recall, referring to Tomjonavich's uniform. "I grew up in the streets. You learn there that if you're in a fight and someone is coming up from behind you, you swing first and ask questions later."

He would ask those questions later. Some of them, 35 years on, he's asking still.

Monday, May 14, 2012

George Clinton, Institutionalized: The Mothership Lands in Chocolate City

In the 1970s, on behalf of his bands Parliament and Funkadelic, as well as all their spinoff satellites and solo stars, George Clinton created a cosmological mythology so dense and elaborate and wonderful, it’d take a Joseph Campbell to properly cross-index and contextualize. But no matter how you manipulate its meanings–its myriad metaphors merged with musical virtuosity–at the symbolic and sometimes literal center of the P-Funk universe is the stage-set Mothership that used to descend in the midst of concerts, a 1,200-pound life-sized landing craft constructed, collectively, in the name of the P-Funk ideal. Clinton as Dr. Funkenstein would emerge and strut down its stairs to the opening bars of Funkenstein’s eponymous song, this otherworldly presence with his otherworldly sound, secure enough in his band’s own excellence to indulge such a clownishly contrived conceit.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Rude Awakening You Need

The only dreams like this are the kind you want to wake up from anyway–that’s how you’ll know you’re not dreaming when the Sonic Bomb makes its alert. And by the time this knowledge has been acquired–by the time your Sonic Bomb has been shut off and you’ve decided to confront the day–the day has already met you more than halfway. That’s the kind of shift in consciousness that occurs.

Read the rest at The Faster Times. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Most Important Meal of the Day: A Cereal History

Which came first: the Cap’n or the Crunch? The Cap’n did; the Crunch came later, as a way to capitalize, cerealistically, on the Cap’n's character, conceived in advance. And not just conceived–even the first commercials had been shot and approved before Quaker agreed to make the actual cereal. Before 1963 was over, there were already two cereals—Seadog and Magnolia “Maggy” Bulkhead—featuring characters from the Cap’n's milieu, like characters spun off from a bad sitcom. There would be no less than nine other spin-offs from Cap’n Crunch in the years following, the most recent coming in 2000.
I knew none of this before reading The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast Got Its Crunch, by Marty Gitlin and Topher Ellis. There’s so much great lore in these pages, for those who collect odd fragments of Americana–so much colorful ephemera, like prizes found at the bottom of the box.

What Michael Herr Didn't Tell Stanley Kubrick

Michael Herr thought he was done with Vietnam by the time he first met Stanley Kubrick, at a dinner party at Kubrick's estate in 1980. He’d just given prolonged and painful birth to Dispatches (1977), his sui generis masterpiece about his time as a correspondent in Vietnam, and had then lent his hand to Francis Ford Coppola for the voiceover narration on Apocalypse Now (1979). But as Herr recounts in his memoir Kubrick (2000), after their first meeting, the period 1980–83 became “one phone call lasting three years, with interruptions.” This began a twenty-year friendship. Starting in 1985, Herr and Kubrick collaborated on adapting Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers (1982) into Full Metal Jacket (1987),  for which their screenplay would receive an Oscar nomination.

One thing Herr confessed during those early long phone conversations was that he had reviewed Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) during his first writing gig after college, a year-long pro bono stint at The New Leader, where he “had followed Manny Farber . . ., one of the best of all writers on movies.”