Talky Tuesday: English, do you speak it, MoFo?

Actually, the real question should be, “English, do you only speak it,” because that seems to be a huge problem with people for whom English is their first language. Particularly in America, they never bother to learn a second, and dog forbid that the average American would attempt a third.

At least Canadians have a cultural and political reason to also learn French, or at least be able to ask directions and order from menus in that language — but listen to a Canadian try to pronounce words in Spanish sometime if you want a laugh.

Oh — not all parts of America are immune to second languages, and if you live in a big melting pot city with a predominant non-Anglo cultural group, you are much more likely to be at least somewhat fluent in that language.

In Southern California, that means Spanish, which also means that I’ve heard Canadians ask for, with a straight face, “Some naa-chose and the fadge-eetas.”

Australians barely speak English, at least according to the Brits — and never mistake the latter for the former unless you want to get the look of death and have a strongly worded letter sent to the Daily Mail deriding the total lack of education of Americans. (I did that once, and I think I actually did it to Emma Thompson, whom I adore, at a charity event. Oops. Lame excuse: I was dating an Aussie at the time, and they did sound alike.)

Brits may know some words in other languages, but they make no pretense of even trying to pronounce them right. Or maybe they do, but they’re just stuck in the past.

There’s still a lot of debate over whether the way they pronounce “Don Quixote” — as “Daan Keyshot” instead of “Doan Key-ho-tay” — actually matches the way that people of Cervantes’ time would have said it.

Then again, that’s Castillian, and as most Hispanics in the Americas (except Argentina) would tell you that Spaniards can’t speak proper Spanish. Just like any American will tell you that Brits can’t speak (or spell) proper English, while the Canadians remain politely quiet because they’re stuck in a limbo between the two.

That is, they spell like Brits but sound (mostly) like Americans from the U.S. (Remember: Canadians — and Mexicans — are Americans, too.)

But this brings me back to the original question: Why is it, particularly in modern times, that most native English speakers do not know at least one other language, if not multiple languages?

On the one hand, maybe there’s no need, because English is the most spoken language in the world. However, it barely edges out Mandarin, and when it comes to native speakers, it falls to fourth place, after Mandarin, Spanish, and Hindi.

It’s all those other people who speak English as a second language that keep us in first place, but when it comes to total speakers, we’re only ahead by about 15 million out of over 1.1 billion for each of English and Mandarin.

Coming in behind Hindi is French, but the interesting thing here is that it has far more non-native speakers (203 million) than native speakers (only 77 million). This is largely due to colonial expansion, which brought the language to the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

I think a lot of people don’t realize this, but France looked to the south to colonize, and so left its fingerprints all over the second-largest continent. To this day, French and various native dialects are still the official languages in many African countries.

The influences in Canada and Louisiana are obvious, and it was the Vietnamese finally kicking out the French in 1954 that led to the involvement of the U.S. in its second-longest war.

Of course, dating back to after their Revolution, French became the language of diplomacy for one simple reason: The revolutionaries, who were actually quite conservative reactionaries, pulled a George Orwell and rewrote the dictionary with the idea that any word in the language could have exactly one meaning only.

Great for lawyers and diplomats. Shit for poets and artists.

But… once upon a time, educated people learned their own language and French. But there was more. Part of the curriculum included Greek and Latin, and this was the case in British schools until fairly recently and American schools until… I’m not sure, really, but I’m guessing sometime around or just after WW II.

However, it is still taught in some schools, surprisingly, particularly private Catholic schools, not surprisingly. Hey — they could always overturn part of Vatican II someday and go back to Mass in 100% Latin.

But go read Edgar Allan Poe, for example. He was just your average artistic drunk from Baltimore who died at forty — quite possibly the victim of a voter fraud scheme — but he frequently led off his stories with quotes from the original Latin, Greek, or French.

James A. Garfield, whose major claim to fame is as the second U.S. President to be assassinated, could write in Greek and Latin at the same time with both hands. I bet that party trick got all the ladies. Or not.

But the emphasis on Greek and Latin was so that people could read the classics — Homer, the Greek and Roman Playwrights, and the Roman histories — in the original, not to mention a lot of the New Testament in the language it was written in.

LOL — how many many people think it was written in English by King James? Nope. Hebrew and a little Aramaic for the O.T., and Greek for the N.T., mostly, although the Gospels were possibly based on an Aramaic source.

It was nearly 1,400 years later that the whole thing (as opposed to just various books) wound up being translated into English for the first time — well before the King James Version.

Meanwhile, once upon a time in America (and Britain and anywhere else with mostly native English speakers) learning a second and even third language was the norm, not the exception.

And for the rest of the world that must do business with this English-speaking cultural empire, it’s a requirement, really. That’s why you’ll wind up talking to so many call center operators with allegedly American names but that tell-tale hint of a beautiful Indian accent that makes English just sound so much nicer.

Call center dudes (and you’re mostly all dudes): Kudos! You speak my native language better than I do. Plus, if I actually bother to ask because I’m truly interested, you engage in wonderful conversations.

But as far as native English speakers, what changed, and why have Americans in particular become so averse to even taking the time to learn another language?

One big reason, probably, is that foreign languages, like the arts, have gradually been bled out of American education. I was probably among the last cohorts who got the options, so that for my entire secondary education, I was tracked into one of the big three.

I was lucky enough to be put into Spanish from the start. I had other friends who got stuck into German and French and didn’t make it past a year, and having tried to learn German and French later, I can see why.

The former has impossibly difficult declensions and the latter is impossible to understand because vowels and terminal consonants just get eaten and obscured.

I think I remember my older half-brother telling me that when he came into school, a decade before me, the choices also included things like Russian, Japanese, Greek, and Hebrew. Or something. But much more than Europe’s Top Three.

And yes, I’ve tried all four of those, and Hindi, and just… no. Russian grammar makes German look simple, Japanese has way too many writing systems, Greek… okay, I actually kind of almost made sense out of Greek. However, Hebrew. like Arabic, which build words by taking a stem, sticking it in the middle of prefixes and suffixes, and then dumping the vowels just didn’t work for me. Sorry, y’all!

But I got Spanish, so I ran with it through all the possible five years, then took a year of German after Spanish ran out in my senior year, and a semester of German in college and… dumped German, stuck with Spanish.

However, look at the subtext in all the above. I’ve dipped my toes into a metric fuckton of non-English languages, including ones not mentioned above: Norwegian, Italian, Gaelic, Hindi, Old English, Hawai’ian, Korean, and Sanskrit.

A lot of them have been way too difficult and easily abandoned, but here’s the point: I tried. And The English-speaking world does not, and the only conclusion I can come to is that it’s because of some sort of fear.

I could easily try to blame it on imperialism, colonization, and the inherited arrogance of the British upper class before WW II (“We’re wealthy and white, so we’re just better than you are”), but I don’t think that’s the cause in the long run, and not in the U.S.

However, I think that a lot of native English speakers are just afraid of words and grammar — especially ones that don’t belong to their language. That fear is kind of ridiculous if you think about it, though. Just look at English spelling. It makes no sense at all.

Or let me rephrase that: “Inglish speling maiks no sins at al.”

You probably understood that perfectly, and it’s what a language like Spanish does. If you know how to say a word in Spanish, you should be able to spell it. I say “should” because they silent H and the similarity of how B and V are pronounced does screw with native speakers, so I have seen written errors like “asta la vista” (instead of “hasta”) and spelling the word for cow as “baca” instead of “vaca.”

I’ll get to how English spelling got so messy while still being less of a mess than it was in a future post. But getting back to the concept of fear keeping English speakers from learning another language, I’ve had firsthand experience of this in my role as a playwright.

For the stage, I tend to write about historical subjects or real-life characters. Ironically, the only full-length play of mine based on an entirely made-up story is also the only one to ever almost make it to production only to be canceled at the last minute — twice.

The second time was because we had been scheduled to open two weeks after the COVID lockdown began in 2020. I’m convinced that the play is cursed.

But… writing about real people often involves other languages. For example, my play Bill & Joan, about that time in Mexico City in 1951 that William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife at a cocktail party, is built on a flashback structure with the modern-day story taking place as he’s interrogated by two cops.

That would be two Mexico City cops, so there’s a lot of Spanish dialogue. Of course, I only used it when I wanted it to appear that the Burroughs character didn’t understand what they were saying but also knowing that there was a good chance that a lot of my audience might know exactly what they were saying.

In every developmental reading I had of the play over a long, long time, whenever a non-bilingual native English speaker hit one of those lines, there was no predicting what would come out of their mouth, but it was frequently at about the level of those Canadians ordering Mexican food.

Another play, Strange Fruit, deals with a bunch of characters throughout the 20th Century, and because of those people and locations, there are lines in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, French, Chinese, and probably a few others.

In these cases, it’s not quite as extensive, but I’d see the same result in readings — except with the Yiddish, for some reason, except that in modern America, even among the goyim, Yiddish expressions have become such a lingua franca of comedy that they don’t appear to be foreign.

Of course, I’m writing them in the Latin alphabet, not the original, so that makes a difference.

One writer/actor I worked with a lot (who is, sadly, no longer with us) was a very interesting case because, despite being of Hispanic origin, he didn’t speak a word of Spanish because he was of that generation who was raised by a generation of immigrants from Mexico who wanted their kids to blend in and succeed.

The Sleepy Lagoon Murder, the Zoot Suit Riots, and a lot of anti-Mexican racism at the time probably had a lot to do with his parents wanting the kids to seem as non-Hispanic as possible. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they had tried to pass as Italian.

It was a long-running joke between us, in fact, that the tall, very white, Irish-Scandinavian dude spoke Spanish and he didn’t.

But it wasn’t even a matter of he never bothered to learn. He was never even allowed. And any time he was reading a script of mine that even had so much as a single non-English word in it, he wouldn’t even try to pronounce it or even approximate it.

Literal gibberish would come out of his mouth like his tongue had hit a speedbump that disengaged his brain.

And I think that’s how a lot of American English-only speakers react to a foreign language. It’s the old knee-jerk, “Oh, I can never learn that. It’s hard!”

But I can guarantee you this: With that mindset, you never would have learned English as a second language no matter what you started from. And how did you learn English in the first place?

Trial and error and being immersed in it, and it’s the same damn thing with any other language, no matter how young or old you are when you start.

For maybe your first five years of life, you only knew simple words and made a lot of mistakes and probably didn’t even know how to write or spell yet. But, over the thirteen years after that, you got pretty damn fluent. Hell, you were pretty damn fluent before you got out of grade school.

Judging by internet comments, however, a frightening majority of native English speakers never learned to spell. But, again, our language is not at all easy to spell.

That’s why I’m glad I learned it first. I would have given up if I’d tried to learn it second, no matter how young I was when I started.

What second language would you like to learn? Maybe it’s something from your background — what was spoken where one or more of your ancestors came from. Maybe it’s from a culture you admire — French cuisine, Japanese Manga, Korean cinema, Egyptian art, IKEA furniture…

But pick one and give it a try. There are plenty of online resources. And if the first one doesn’t stick, try another. And another. And another. And, who knows? Bottom line is that learning a new language is a lot easier than you think it is.

You just have to stop thinking that it’s not.

More stupid Excel tricks: A secret power of IF

The hardest part about working with data, especially in large sets, is the people who input it in the first place. The reason they make it so difficult is because they’re inconsistent, not only in their day-to-day habits, but between one or more different people all entering info into the same database.

When you’re creating something solely for yourself, then by all means be as inconsistent or idiosyncratic as you want. But if it’s a group project creating information that someone like me is going to have to derive useful information from at some point in the future, inconsistency can make my job infinitely more difficult.

This is the reason why things like style guides were created — and they don’t just exist for the written word. Accounting and data management have their own style guides. So does computer programming, although that field has the advantage, because the program itself won’t let you get it wrong. Excel is the same way, although it won’t always tell you how to make it right.

Little things can cause problems and cost a business money. Sally may prefer to spell out words in addresses, like Avenue or Boulevard, while Steve likes to abbreviate with Ave or Blvd. Sam is also big on abbreviations, but always with periods. Seems innocuous, doesn’t it?

It does until the only way to make sure that a massive mailing doesn’t go to the same household at the same address twice is to compare the addresses to each other. That’s because, to a computer, 1234 Main Street, 1234 Main St, and 1234 Main St. are all completely different addresses. There’s no easy way to fix that because computers don’t have a “kinda sorta look the same” function.

Garbage in, garbage out

It’s also important that a database be designed properly. For example, names should always be entered as separate units — title/prefix, first name, middle name, last name, suffix. They can be combined later when necessary. A lot of good databases do this, but it’s completely worthless if somebody enters the first and middle names in the first name field or adds the suffix to the last name. You may have heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out,” and this is a prime example of that. All of the right fields were there, but if used improperly, it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the proper fields aren’t always included. One example I had to wrestle with recently in a former career was a database showing the various insurance policies people had with the agency. Now, that is useful and necessary information, as well as something that legally needs to be maintained. And it’s all right that a person gets one row of data for each policy that they’ve had. Some people will have one or two rows, others might have a dozen or more.

So what’s the problem? This: There are no data flags to indicate “this is the policy currently in effect.” This was doubly complicated since it’s Medicare related health insurance, so someone can have up to two active policies at a time, one covering prescription medications and the other a Medicare supplement. Or a policy may have expired after they decide to drop an MAPD and go back to “original” Medicare but the only way to know that is to look for an ending or termination date — if it was ever entered.

The secret power of “IF”

This is where one of my “stupid Excel tricks” came into it. You may or may not be familiar with some of the numeric functions dealing with columns or rows of numbers, but they basically operate on a whole range. They include functions like SUM, MAX, MIN, and AVG. The usual usage is to apply them to a defined range or series of cells and they have no operators, so you get things like:


Here’s the fun trick, though. If you add one or more “IF” statements within any of these functions, you can perform the operation on a sub-range of data defined by certain criteria. In the example I’m giving, it would look at all of the insurance effective dates for one person and determine the most recent one, which is usually a good indicator of which policy is in effect.

Generally, each item you’re evaluating is in the form of [DataRange]=[CellValue], or in actual Excel terminology, it might look like “$A$1:$A$470=A12” for the version entered in row 12. After the criteria ranges, you enter the range that you want to perform the operation on, close out the parenthesis, then enter.

So let’s say that we have last name in column B, first name in column D, and the dates we want to look at to find the latest are in column N. Our formula would look like this, assuming that the first row has the field headers and the data starts in row two:


If you’ve entered it right, the formula should be displaying the right number. In effect, you’ll have created a column down the far right side in which the value opposite any particular person’s name equals the maximum date value, meaning the latest. Then you can do an advanced filter (oh, google it!) to pull out just the unique name data and date, then use that to do an INDEX and MATCH to create a dataset of just the most recent plan and effective date. (I covered those two functions in a previous post.)

Or… the original database administrator could have just put those current plan flags in the data in first place, set them to automatically update whenever a newer plan of the same type was added, and voilà! Every step since I wrote “This is where one of my stupid Excel tricks came into it” 396 words ago would have been unnecessary. Time and money saved and problem solved because there was never a problem in the first place.

The art of improv in Excel

On the other hand… solving these ridiculous problems of making large but inconsistent datasets consistent with as little need as possible to look at every individual record just lets me show off my ninja skills with Excel.

It’s really no different than improv. Badly entered data keeps throwing surprises at me, and I have to keep coming up with new and improved ways to ferret out and fix that bad data. In improv, this is a good thing, and one of our mottos is, “Get yourself in trouble,” because that creates comedy gold as things in the scene either get irredeemably worse or are suddenly resolved. Damn, I miss doing Improv, and long for the days when we can finally return to the stage, which has been seeming even more remote by the day. But I do digress…

Back to the point: In real life, not so much for easy resolution. It’s a pain in the ass to have to fix the curveballs tossed at us by other people’s laziness and lack of diligence — unless we approach it like a game and an interesting challenge. Then, real life becomes improv again in the best sense.

And I’ll find it forever amusing that the same rules can apply to both a spontaneous, unplanned, free-wheeling art form, and an un-wielding, rigid and unforgiving computer program. They both have their rules. Only the latter won’t allow them to be bent. Okay, some improv games have rules that are not supposed to be bent. But half the fun is in bending those rules, intentionally or not.

With Excel and data-bashing, all of the fun is in following Excel’s rules, but getting them to do things they were never intended to.

Image source: Author, sample output from a completely randomized database generator in Excel used to create completely artificial test data for practicing functions and formulae without compromising anyone’s privacy. Maybe I’ll write about this one some day, if there’s interest.

Sunday Nibble #79: Changing Perceptions

So the very critically acclaimed musical Annette popped up on Amazon Prime recently, and I thought I’d give it a look. And… why not?

It was directed by Leos Carax. I knew him from his very weird but totally engaging film Holy Motors, not to mention that I was a huge fan of his cast members Adam Driver and the always tasty as fuck and snack-size Simon Helberg.

But, as a film fan, here’s the really weird part. Or two. It’s that it took me multiple viewings to get through this film, and the main reason was the music.

Okay, I know that social media and Cannes has been jerking off all over Sparks for the last couple of months, but… sorry. In at least the first act of the film, and in most of the second act as well, they didn’t manage to create any compelling melodies or plot lines, or anything to carry me along.

Bonus points: They created a protagonist who was 100% despicable, made the two leads richer and more successful than fuck L.A. celebs (translation: How to make most of your hometown audience give less than two warm shits about them) and then pulled off an Act II twist that really made us say, “Okay, one down, and… do we care?”

Seriously, it took me five days and lots of pauses to get through this film.

But having gotten to the end, I might just go back and watch again from the beginning. Granted, I still think that the music sucks ass — but the direction and the use of color and the emotional path of the story actually works.

I don’t want to give away too much about the colors because it’s something to discover for yourselves, but think Golden Age comic books.

Saturday Morning Post #78: Sunday Supper, Part 1

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, presented in two parts, I steal from my own life — sort of. This is a highly fictionalized account of what I imagine my mother’s life was like when she decided to escape from her family back east and wind up in Los Angeles. It didn’t happen this way, really — she was both younger when she came here and it happened at a later date — but, you know. Artistic license. I think this is the only period piece in the collection, although all of the stories were written in 2000-2001.

Sunday dinners should have been happy, festive occasions, but were not. Especially not in the 50s, when Sean was getting older before his time, lungs clotted with years of anthracite dust, when Margaret was getting drunk more often than she should and turning into a shrill harridan that belonged in a James Joyce short story, and when most of their seven kids hated each other but pretended to be a loyal family.

Donal had not yet moved to the head of the table, but sat to the right of his older brother, Little Sean, or just Junior, who sat at Sean’s right hand. Margaret was at the foot. At her right hand sat twelve year-old Jimmy (aka Seamus), who was the family’s reminder from god of their own unworthiness.

He was born with Down’s Syndrome when Margaret was 44, a condition she blamed until the day she died on “that damn Jew nurse who didn’t know what she was doing when she stuck that needle in him right after he was born.” No amount of science or lecturing in genetics would convince her otherwise. After all, to admit that Jimmy’s condition was caused by her age and her drinking would be to admit to… unpleasant truths.

There were no unpleasant truths at this table, only unpleasant subtext. Junior constantly harassed Donal, the only one of them who’d gone to college. Even now, when Junior was thirty and Donal was in his late twenties and should have just said, “Cut the shit, asshole,” the sniping and bickering went on.

And, the sisters. What a collection. Four women who truly despised each other but pretended to be best friends. There was Brigid, the oldest, married but always attending these dinners alone. Donal had guessed that she was prone to mother’s condition, but his sister blamed her weight gain and spidery facial capillaries on “my glandular problem.”

Next to her was Mary, the nun, who claimed to be the youngest but was, in fact, two years older than the next sister. She used her status as the only religious in the family as self-defense and self-justification. Her habit was her shield.

She also constantly whined, privately, to Donal about how Mother Superior was always confiscating their money, and they had never taken a vow of poverty, only chastity, and could he perhaps lend her ten dollars until…? And he always lent her the money, mostly because she was so seemingly guileless in her entreaties, but mostly because that was what family was supposed to do for each other.

Otherwise, if anyone ever mailed her money at the convent, they would stick it in a separate envelope inside marked “Family Photos.” For some reason, this kept ol’ Mama Supreme from dipping her claws in and taking the cash.

Then, there was Anne. Just turned twenty-one, she was the other rebel in the family, besides Donal, although Donal’s rebellion was a deep, dark secret that only Anne knew.

Anne’s, secret though, was quite out in the open. Of all of them, Donal loved and admired her the most, so the rest hated and resented her the most. When it was the fashion for girls to wear their hair up, she let hers trail down her back in a curly auburn spill that would have made Veronica Lake jealous.

When women were supposed to be quiet slaves to men, she’d let her boyfriends know that she wasn’t going to take any crap, and in private with Donal, she could curse like a sailor and drink like a Jesuit — not out of the sad necessity of many of her family members, but out of the need to say, “Fuck the world. I’m as good as any of you.”

She’d already been married, at eighteen, to some Polish boy from Forty Fort — a beautiful but brutish man who was probably more her attempt to escape early than her true romance. Married, and annulled, because he beat her once too often, which was once, and she just wouldn’t put up with that from anyone.

Mary had once told Donal, in strictest confidence, that she had heard Anne tell Sean, when he slapped her for some minor infraction at sixteen, that if he ever did that again, she would kick him so hard where it counted “that he’d be gagging on his man thing.” Donal had always wondered if it was just Mary’s dramatic side playing at trash the sister, but also never doubted it was true.

It was just so much like Anne.

Finally, there was Lucy, the youngest sister, and the most stoic. In a couple of years, her biggest claim to fame would be an uncanny resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. Meantime, she was the shy, quiet eighteen-year-old sitting to Mary’s left, across from Anne, staring at her plate, occasionally looking up to flash an incredible smile that seemed reserved only for people she already knew. In public, she rarely smiled and rarely looked up. Donal knew in his heart she was a jewel, and that she would never know it, because she was next to last, forgotten.

There had been six other children, but times being what they were, they had not survived. Thirteen times, Margaret had done the squat of life and spat out a baby. Six times, they had died. Most of them made it a week or a month or two. One of them had made it to age twelve, but had died in his sleep one night, victim of a genetic condition the doctors had predicted would get him at either seven or twelve or twenty-one.

His name was Peter, next in line above Anne, and her closest friend until that fateful night when she woke up at three a.m. in the bed all of them shared and realized that her brother next to her was stone cold dead.

She would claim later, whenever she told the story, that she found him that way and calmly told Mom and Dad. Actually, she had completely freaked out and ran screaming through the house because she had lost the one person she loved, and was left alone with the others, who were family only because of biology, not affinity.

It was a house full of death, she always thought after that night. Babies dying suddenly, a brother going cold in her bed. Death a regular visitor, and then those goddamn Sunday services her mother dragged them all to, in which sad and silent people paid homage to a dying god. This wasn’t how life was supposed to be. Life was supposed to be fun. We were not supposed to crucify ourselves every day. But the rest of them did, in one way or another.

Anne especially dreaded going into Margaret’s bedroom (separate from Sean’s since Jimmy’s birth) where the religious statues were absolutely morbid. Margaret had a bizarre fascination for the Infant of Prague, a tiny crowned white and blond baby Jesus who showed up in Czechoslovakia one day, or so the story went. That, and the bust of Jesus, crown of thorns jammed on his head, dripping blood lovingly painted down his face.

This was god? This was the noble thing toward which they were supposed to aspire? No, thank you. Anne had had enough of martyrdom when George slapped her around that first and only time. He had seemed the perfect man, a big, dumb blond with shoulders to die for, an incredible face and not much to say. But here he was giving her thirty-nine lashes. Different church, same story. To hell with it.

And her family had been absorbed. Mary, the nun. Brigid, with her bizarre fascination with every alleged appearance by the Virgin Mary. Lucy, the quiet sufferer who dumped tons of self-loathing on everyone. At least Anne could take gleeful advantage of Lucy’s every revelation, playing her for the stupid patsy she really was.

And — Margaret. Mother. Hypocrite, Anne would have called her, had she gone beyond the eighth grade and learned such big words. But, not knowing such big words, she only knew that this woman would ignore any sin committed by any man in a Roman collar, while digging incessantly into any imagined sin performed by her own children.

A bitch-and-a-half for six days, and madam pious on the seventh. Anne hated her for that. Not that there was any love lost between her and the rest of them. Except Donal, because he seemed to understand. Dad was useless, a small, gray man with a benign smile and a nasty cough — off to the mines before dawn, return after sunset, way too often with a rat having eaten its way into his metal lunch box.

“Hi, kids!” he’d rasp. And thence to bed, church and Sunday dinner the only time they ever saw him for more than a few minutes.

Which was why the idea of moving away — far away — had gotten so attractive of late. And why, at this last dinner of the year, she had news to drop on them like the bomb on Hiroshima, and not only did she not give a damn what they thought, she relished the idea of seeing utterly horrified faces at this table, mouths agape and eyes wide above the roast beef and mashed potatoes.

So, when seconds came around and Junior paid ass-kissing lip service to thanking Jesus (not his four sisters) for the meal again and Sean, Sr. coughed and Margaret poured herself another glass of wine and Mary made the sign of the cross while Brigid stared at Margaret’s glass and Donal stared at Anne and Junior scratched his crotch and Lucy stared at her plate and Jimmy muttered out incomprehensible sounds that only Margaret, Donal, and Anne bothered to decipher, her news became even sweeter, and more devastating and more impending, and she grabbed another slab of red meat, threw it on her plate, and tossed out to the world, “I’m moving to Hollywood.”

A brief moment of silence, in which Sean snorts, Donal nods imperceptibly, Brigid considers grabbing the wine, Lucy does nothing, Jimmy stuffs food into his mouth and Mary tries to appear outraged, because no one has offered her the money to move to Hollywood. Then Molly takes a goodly hit off her goblet, red lipstick smearing the Woolworth’s cheap class “crystal,” before she blearily focuses on that troublesome daughter and says, “The hell you are.”

Let the games begin.

“I’ve saved up enough to fly to California, and I’m going,” Anne continues.

“Why?” Molly shoots back.

“What the hell is here?”

“Watch your mouth.”

“You just said it.”

“I’m your mother.”


In his mind, Donal racks up 15-Love. Anne’s serve.

“Don’t talk like that.”

“I’m flying out in two weeks,” Anne continues.

“So you’re made of money. Flying first class?” Molly shoots back.

“Of course not.”

Oh, bad self-defense, Donal calculates. 15 all.

“Why would you want to go there?” Molly demands. “Nothing but queers and hookers.”

Jimmy snorts around his food. “Hoo-ers,” he echoes, inadvertently giving a synonym for a word he doesn’t know.

“Better than coal miners and nuns,” Anne responds, pulling an ace in Donal’s estimation.

“Coal mining gave you everything you have, missy,” Molly spat.

“Except the bruises from George,” Anne smirked, popping a hunk of meat into her mouth.

“He was a nice boy,” Molly countered.

“Until the first time he got as plastered as you do,” Anne replied, sending Brigid and Lucy into deep self-denial while Sean suddenly found his cutlery very interesting, and Junior remembered all the words to his rosary.

“So nothing I do is good enough for you, is that it?”

“Yeah, it isn’t.”

“After all your father has done, slaving in the mines just so you could have shoes to wear to school. And me. Should we talk about me for a minute? Thirteen children I bring into this world, only to have them all turn on me. It’s terrible.”

“Not me, ma,” Junior moaned.

“I love you,” Mary spoke.

“I — not me,” Lucy offered.

Brigid grabbed the wine and poured.

“Hollywood is full of faggots,” Junior suddenly opined, eyes glued on Donal, who ignored him.

“At least they’re not wife beaters,” Anne replied.

“George may have gone to a different church, but he was a good Catholic boy. You think you’ll find that in California?” Molly spoke slowly, knuckles white around the stem of her glass.

“Of course not,” Anne answered, standing. “Why the hell do you think I’m going there?”

“Language!” Molly warned.

“Oh, bullshit,” Anne answered. “I hope I find some nice Jewboy to marry. Some rich doctor, and I may even damn well convert. “

“Don’t shout, please. No shouting,” Sean, Sr., finally spoke, voice heavy with phlegm.

“This whole goddamn town is choking us,” Anne added, stepping from the table.

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” Mary spewed, smug expression of righteousness aimed at Molly.

“God, god, goddamn,” Anne aimed back at her. “You wouldn’t know god if he bit you on your fat pimply ass.”

Lucy suppressed a giggle and Donal hid his smile behind his hand. God, if only he had the balls his favorite sister did. Then he could do things. But, instead, he watched in silence.

“You are not going to California,” Molly finally proclaimed.

“The hell I’m not,” Anne ended the conversation with a toss of her hair and a stomp out of the room. The momentary silence was deafening, until Molly finally demanded the wine bottle back, and Mary quickly grabbed it from Brigid and poured, over-filling the glass and staining the tablecloth. Molly took a deep swig of the red, then stared at Sean.

“She’s your daughter,” she said. “Do something.”

But Sean just shrugged and Junior shook his head and above them, on the second floor, a door slammed, and the rest of Sunday dinner — like so many of them — was consumed in silence.

* * *
“So what do you know how to do, honey?” Shirley eyed Anne over the dark bags under her eyes, flame red locks drizzling from her hair-net, the filter of her lit but neglected Chesterfield spinning idly between her lips as she spoke.

“This,” Anne answered, gesturing at the long chrome counter at Van de Kamp’s. “I worked a few places back home, coal miners for breakfast. These suits will be easy.”

“So you say now,” Shirley sneered, hiding her instant liking for this girl. “We get some real weirdoes in here.”

“Good,” Anne answered. “Keeps it interesting.”

“You union?”

“There’s a union for this?”

“Honey, in LA there’s a union for everything. Mostly good for leeching dues from you, then telling you when you can’t work because some honcho in a three piece gets a wild hair up his ass. The bright side is, we get paid more here than places that aren’t unionized. I take it you ain’t union?”

“No. I just moved here.”

“Ninety days, you get in. Hours are four to noon, and a half shift Saturday or Sunday, your choice. Personally, I recommend any time but Sunday afternoon. Those churchy bastards are really lousy tippers. When can you start?”

“I got it?”

“You want it, you got it. So, when?”

Anne glanced at her watch. “Now?”

Shirley laughed with a racking wheeze and smiled for the first time. “Kid, I like you. You’ll light a fire under some of the lazy keisters around here. Tomorrow morning?”

“Sure. What do I have to do?”

“Show up. Three-thirty, let’s say. I’ll let Miss Liberty know. She’s the night supervisor.”

“Miss Liberty?”

“That’s her real name, and believe me it ain’t ‘cause this broad has ever carried a torch. Don’t worry. I come on at four, so you only have to put up with her for half an hour. Oh, we’ll get you a uniform. They deduct twenty cents a week for that until it’s paid for, but it’s completely tax-deductible. For the moment. Bastards. And that’s about it. See you tomorrow morning, then?”

“See you then.” Anne said.

“Unless I win the Irish Sweepstakes tonight,” Shirley laughed back.

Anne stepped through the heavy glass door and onto Wilshire Boulevard, which seemed to glow in the winter light of a late mid-morning. They called it the Miracle Mile, and right now she could see why. She pulled the list out of her purse; a dozen restaurants within walking distance of the bus-stop at La Brea, and Van de Kamp’s had been the first she went into. She considered the rest of the names briefly, then crumpled the paper, dropped it in a nearby trash-can, and walked back to the bus-stop.

Why check anywhere else? This had been easy, Shirley looked like fun and it was union. Anne wasn’t exactly sure what that part would involve, but it sounded great, and her father was a union man, close to retiring on disability now, and the union was taking care of the family, so it must be something good.

Her father. He was the only thing she really missed about home. That and the river, the Susquehanna, crossing under the two bridges that connected Kingston and Wilkes-Barre. It was a small town, but the view of the Market Street Bridge as you crossed up and over, passing the huge and elaborate 19th Century Courthouse, made it seem almost cosmopolitan, a mini New York City plonked into the despoiled greenery of Eastern Pennsylvania. The river was beautiful, at least when it wasn’t turning on the town and overflowing its banks. A lot of things were like that.

For the moment, L.A. was beautiful. Above her, a blue glass windmill spun in the still air, the long windows giving diners a view of passers-by on Wilshire, and vice versa. And there were plenty of people here, dumped out of offices, bustling back and forth. Men in sharp suits and fedoras, crewcuts and wide ties, the cuffs of their pants just so and sharply pressed, stepping in and out of office buildings, carrying briefcases and all of them in intent conversation, with plans, ideas, goals, and dreams.

Dreams that were happening above and around them in quiet offices where the miracle of air-conditioning had banished the outside world and fluorescent light made the rooms glow with hope. The tide of men was counter-washed by a flood of women in matching skirts and jackets, perfectly accessorized, purses clutched purposefully under their arms, a profusion of hats as they tottered along on three-inch heels, guided missiles aimed for the May Company that towered above Wilshire, all five stories of it.

Anne glanced down at her shoes; simple black flats she’d worn since High School. And her purse — brown, plain; she wondered if Shirley had noticed the mismatch, or if she’d care.

And then Anne saw the window at the May Company, a line of mannequins in the latest from New York and Paris and Dallas, all of them looking like Audrey Hepburn, staring aloofly at some point far above everyone’s heads, perfectly accessorized and coiffed and immune to it all. They wouldn’t have cared if their purses and shoes didn’t match, but all of their accessories did.

“A hat,” Anne thought. “I need a hat.” That and so much more, since she had come to town with so little. But she wouldn’t be working until tomorrow, and was sure she wouldn’t be paid for two weeks at least, so would have to set her dreams aside.

Except… this was the Miracle Mile and miracle times, and the businessmen who came in for breakfast on the way to hopeful prosperous days were optimistic and friendly and generous. Anne had started on a Thursday, and took Shirley’s advice regarding Sunday and, by Monday afternoon had made enough in wages and tips to cover half a month’s rent, pay the twenty cent a day round-trip bus fare and see three movies, with money left over. Breakfast was free, and she could manage lunch and dinner cheaply and every day was sunny.

Maybe this had been the place to come and the time to do it, after all.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #75: New thing, tests, easy come, three jobs

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What’s the last new thing you tried?

I wrote about the overall experience on Sunday a couple of weeks ago, after I had gone to see Free Guy at a Regal Cinema that had just opened in a still under-development mixed-use complex under construction not far from me.

Now, I’ve seen lots of movies in theaters, and in various iterations of 3D, but the totally new part of this experience was seeing a movie in 3D with 4DX technology

Yes, I’ve been on motion capture rides before. Star Tours at Disneyland and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal, the latter having been in 3D for a few months until too many lightweights were having issues with motion sickness. (I was fortunate enough to catch it during its preview week — a perc of being a local — so experienced it 3D and all.)

Universal City Walk also used to have a small motion-control theater that showed very short films — maybe twenty minutes max — designed around the technology.

So, what is the technology? Basically, the seats your sitting in are designed to move with a lot of degrees of freedom. On the Harry Potter ride, you’re basically dangling from a moving crane that can raise, lower, tilt, and turn the bench you’re strapped into. You can’t see it because the ride is normally dark and the assembly is above and behind you.

In the case of Star Tours, as well as the motion control theater and the Universal attraction that started out as Back to the Future to ultimately become The Simpsons, you don’t actually move through a ride building. Instead, the mini-theater you’re sitting in, which generally as four rows, is designed to move via hydraulics to simulate the motions you see on screen.

4DX in a movie theater is similar to this, except that it operates on a single bank of four seats at a time, which can twist, turn, tilt, vibrate, blow air or mist past you and even tickle selective parts of your anatomy.

The big difference, of course, is that I experienced this for the entire runtime of a feature film, not just the duration of a dark ride or short-subject cinema. I supposed you have to pick the right film, but it certainly worked with Free Guy.

One thing I did notice, though. They showed a couple of trailers that used the technology, as well as a promo for 4DX itself — the latter most likely a latter-day This Is Cinerama created to get the audience used to experiencing the tech, although in under five minutes instead of an hour and fifty-five.

Also note that there were no existing Cinerama theaters at the time — the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles wouldn’t open until late 1963, while This Is Cinerama premiered in New York in late 1952 and in L.A. in early 1953. In order to show it, one theater in each city was selected to be temporarily fitted with a three-projector system in order to show the 2.65:1 aspect ratio movie.

But what I did notice with the trailers was this: Since they were for action/superhero films and were cut to highlight that, each trailer was nothing but non-stop 4DX effects, and that got tiring fast. In the feature film, during quiet, talky scenes, the seats calmed down. At the most, they might gently rock back and forth if the actors were talking and walking.

Anyway, I can get used to this.

What do you think of standardized tests?

There’s exactly one thing that standardized tests are good for. Well, okay, two.

Number one: They measure how good you are at taking a standardized test, which is a huge problem, because if all you’ve learned how to do is take a standardized test, then you haven’t really learned anything about the subject.

Number two: They perpetuate institutionalized racism and inherent classism in that they are designed by and for the elites in society — so if you’re a POC, a recent immigrant or first-generation child of immigrants, or from an economically disadvantaged class, you’re going to have a lot harder time with a standardized test.

Well, at least as long as that “standard” is “affluent white kids.” Then again, that was their entire purpose in the first place when these tests designed to winnow down the pool of college-bounds kids was created nearly a century ago — they were absolutely intended as passive gatekeepers to keep POC out.

By the way, IQ tests arose about the same time, and for similar reasons. Due to a recent, huge influx of immigrants to America, certain factions had a vested interest in proving that White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) were the superior intellects, and therefore the “Great White Hope” meant to save the not-quite-so white people from themselves.

At the time, “not-quite-so white” not only included people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and any indigenous group, but it also covered a lot of Europeans, like the Irish, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Scandinavians, Slavs, people from the Balkans, and Jews whether they were Sephardic or Ashkenazi. Catholics also need not apply.

A huge notable exception to this? The Germans, who put the “Saxon” in Anglo-Saxon and put the still ruling British House of Monarchs on the throne way back at the time of George I, great-grandfather of George III, famous for going mad and letting the colonies escape.

Germany double-down on the British monarch thing with Queen Victoria, and the current Royals, the Windsors, are as German as you can get, except that they don’t speak the language. Of course, along the way, there was that whole mess with Edward VIII, who abdicated ostensibly so that he could marry a divorced American commoner, but it was more like that he did so because his Nazi sympathies and being all palsy-walsy with Herr Hitler wouldn’t have gone over very well during WW II. He abdicated in 1936, conveniently just before Hitler started getting all belligerent in Europe.

It was less than two years later that Neville Chamberlain rolled over for the Nazis and basically handed them Czechoslovakia and, later, Poland.

So that’s what I think of standardized tests.

What’s your best example of easy come, easy go?

Lottery tickets. Sure, I do play, but I limit it to about $10 a week — two entries in the Super Lotto on Wednesday and Saturday, and the daily Fantasy 5 drawing, bought in blocks of three draws in advance.

Occasionally, I will buy a $1 or $2 scratcher, but that’s it.

I’ve participated in probably two office pools when one of the jackpots got ridiculously huge and we all kicked in enough money to buy several hundred dollars-worth of tickets. End results? After all of the winnings were tallied and calculated evenly, I think that the biggest return any of us ever saw was about $1.25 based on a contribution of $10.

In other words, a loss. But that’s how games of chance work — they always favor the house.

I live about a city block away from a liquor store that has become something of a Lottery mecca. In fact, I don’t think they make most of their income by selling liquor or cigarettes or any of the basic bodega groceries and whatnot in stock.

It’s a small store, but it has six full-size lottery scratcher and ticket machines, a café table and some chairs for gamers, and a dedicated LCD screen to display the constantly ongoing Keno games and Pick 3, or whatever the other multiple times a day game there is.

Like I said, I spend very little on only two games because I know that the odds of winning are astronomical. But when I go into that liquor store, I see the saddest example of “easy come, easy go” that there is. Somebody might buy a $20 scratcher and actually win just under a hundred bucks with it — a C-note being the max that a retailer can pay out in cash.

So, what do they do? If they were smart, they’d take the money and run, but they aren’t. They will immediately buy more scratchers, and then proceed to win… nothing. I’ve seen it a bunch of times going in and out of the place — forlorn looking people scratching off the last in a stack of tickets, faces falling as they win not a cent.

If I’m lucky, they’ll just toss those tickets on the ground or in the cardboard box in front of the store, and I’ll scoop them up on my way out. Hey, every one of them is worth an entry in the weekly Second Chance Drawing, so if they’re just going to throw potential money away, I’m quite willing to take it.

What are three occupations that machines will soon replace?

Note that I’m not saying it like these are good things. They are actually very bad things, but then again, if I’d lived just over a century ago, I might have lamented the fact that automobiles were going to put horses out of jobs.

I would never have bothered to ask the horse, though.

Anyway, what three occupations are in the most danger? Let me start with the ones that are not.

I’ve seen a lot of ads lately on social media trying to hype AI designed to do voiceover acting, copywriting, and creating art. And in no way whatsoever is AI ready to take any of this over from humans.

Okay, I’ll admit that I do use an AI voice for my weekly podcast, which is based on this blog, but that’s only because I don’t have the time or resources to hire a voiceover performer or do it all myself. I do record the intros to each episode and any necessary interstitial narration, and then do all of the editing and post production.

But here’s the thing: While the AI voice is quite capable of reading a blog post, it still has its unavoidable glitches that make it decidedly not human. These range from really funky cadences in the reading that I will have to edit gaps from to strange pronunciations or inflections — for example, always pronouncing words like read or lead as past-tense verbs instead of present tense.

As for art, just plain no. AI can only futz around by taking a bunch of pictures and spitting out patterns, but there’s not mind or meaning behind it. And, finally, when it comes to copywriting — with this heinous entry aimed at marketing execs more interested in saving money than actually, well, you know, creating effective marketing — every last example of AI written copy I’ve ever seen is pure and boring shit.

Of course, this is the particular app that hits really close to home for me, because it’s the one that would love to put me out of a job. Fortunately, it’s not going to do that any time soon.

But here are the three jobs at the biggest risk of being automated away — and why we need to prepare to supply a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to anybody automated out of a job. Actually, it’s two-fold: UBI plus re-education benefits in the form of a full-ride scholarship to learn a trade that hasn’t been automated out of existence.

So who are the most vulnerable right now?

I’ll start with the obvious: Checkers. Whether they work in grocery stores, big box retail, or even smaller outlets, the powers that be are trying to force customers into the self-check lanes. Now, I wouldn’t object to this if I got a discount for my time spent doing other people’s work. But I do resent it when only one or two human-operated check stands are open and, in these days of COVID, the lines stretch down the aisles.

You know what? I’d rather go with a human checker any day. Why? The conversation is better, they do it much faster and more efficiently than I ever could and, considering that I’ve been going to the same grocery store for over thirteen years and my parents went to the same (but different one) the entire time I was growing up, people wind up forming relationships with their regular checkers.

When I was a kid, my parents were on a first-name basis with our regular checker (Donna), the liquor department guy (Don), and the butcher, whose name I don’t remember. That was a Vons about a mile from home. Now, I go to a Ralph’s about a mile from home, but I’ve gotten to know a couple of the checkers in a professional way and am now on a nodding basis with the regular guard skulking behind the sticky-fingers scanner at the entrance.

Occupation number two will probably be ride-share drivers, at least if Bond Villain Elon Musk has his way and figures out how to stop killing people. Amazon may also have a hand in this if it moves to driverless delivery trucks.

Especially given that the California Supreme Court just overturned (and rightly) the so-called “gig workers’ initiative” which was sponsored by major ride-share companies and basically turned said workers into low-paid serfs, these corporate a-holes are going to look for ways to get rid of human drivers entirely.

Not that things are exactly going smoothly for Elon and his self-driving cars right now, but someone is going to fill in the slack.

Occupation number three: Cue the autonomous robots, and warehouse workers are going to become a thing of the past, at least in giant warehouses that ship a lot of different things in great volume every day.

Or, in other words, Amazon.

This one actually kind of makes sense because the job is way too mindless for humans — Amazon’s employee turnover per year is ridiculous. But robots that can follow painted markings on the floor, scan and match QR codes, pull and package products, and so much more.

They also never need bathroom breaks, aren’t going to want to unionize, and won’t quit due to stress. And, if they break down, they won’t require expensive healthcare; rather, send in the in-house (and still quite human) mechanics, or just order a replacement.

Out of all of these, I really don’t want to see checkers and cashiers go, and I’d much prefer that ride-share companies go tits up and we bring back union taxi drivers with predictable rates and fair pay for the drivers. As for the warehouse workers (and, for that matter, Amazon delivery drivers) they are just being abused for Jeff Bezos’ benefit, and a lot of the ones that actually work in Amazon’s hub city can’t actually afford to live there.

So, if they get automated out of a job then give them a UBI that covers more than the cost of living in whatever overpriced city they’re in, give them a full-ride scholarship to whatever college or trade school they want to go in order to learn a new profession, and remind them that they are free of ever being a serf again for a greedy billionaire who doesn’t know the meaning of the word empathy.

Now there’s an occupation I would love to see eliminated altogether: Greedy billionaire. And managing that is simple. Tax the hell out of them, the way we did in the 1950s, under a Republican president, Eisenhower, when the top marginal tax rate was above 90% and it kicked in above an income level of $200,000.

This was the equivalent of around $2,000,000 in current dollars when Eisenhower took office, but by the time he left, it was below $1,800,000. Or, in other words, deflation had increased buying power by 10% in eight years.

Now imagine that one. Somebody makes a billion dollars, and we tax everything above two million at 91%. This means that they pay that rate on $ 998,000,000, or $ 908,180,000.

This leaves them with “only” $ 89,820,000 on top of their two million.

Or, guess what? Let’s give them the same deal Eisenhower gave the super-wealthy back then. If you put that money into employee salaries and benefits, capital development, charitable work in the community (particularly arts and education) or otherwise spend it in ways that benefit everyone and not you or your shareholders, then you get a tax break.

Or you can just send the government a fat check, and we’ll figure out how to spend it.

Kind of a no-brainer, really.

Next up: How to figure out how to replace elected officials with AI, who would most likely be much better and less stupid at it.

Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better: part 2

Hey — today was Rosa Parks’s birthday! And Ida Lupino’s! And mine! Show some love, whether it’s by commenting, subscribing, or dropping by that tip jar up there.

Last week’s post was all about how the film version of Cabaret was much better than the original stage musical, although that musical was based on a play that was based on a book.

This time around, the derivative work started out as an off-Broadway musical that went to Broadway and then to film, so there aren’t any other layers to unpack. The stage show premiered in 1967 and hit Broadway the next year. It took just over a decade for it to make it to film, directed by a Czech immigrant to America, Miloš Forman. And, honestly, there’s a really good reason that he can relate to political protests in 1968.

Or, in other words, he showed how an immigrant can get a better handle on life in America than most Americans can and in this film, he nailed it.

But back up a bit. The original stage show was a pretty shallow review that only ever got attention because the cast got nude, they sang dirty words, and explicitly mentioned issues of race and vaguely protested the Vietnam War. That was pretty much it, and the thing really didn’t have any kind of plot beyond that, nor much of a real relationship between the characters.

Honestly, the script is a hot mess, more interested in abstract symbolism than in anything else.

But when this whole thing becomes a movie at the end of the ‘70s, Miloš gets what was going on in the ‘60s, and, bonus points, decides to take the approach of staging all of the musical numbers in real life. In other words, he’s going throwback old school — the exact opposite of the Cabaret approach — and, oddly enough, he makes it work.

Oh. Did I mention that part where the original stage show really didn’t have any coherent story? Right, I did.

This was the other big thing that this version brought to the table through two simple tweaks: Take the Lead Couple (a musical tradition), remove them from the hippie tribe, and make them the fish out of water (Claude and Sheila), then eliminate the concept of secondary couple entirely, and replace it with the rest of the core Tribe: Berger, Woof, Hud, and Jeannie — any one of whom could have been in a couple with any of the others.

In case you’re wondering, this is the show I’m writing about.

Hair (1979)

Much like the film adaptation of Pink Floyd — The Wall would three years later, Hair begins in relative silence as our lead character, Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), leaves his house in Oklahoma. It’s a foggy and probably very early morning. Sound and colors are subdued and muted as Claude’s father drives him to a roadside bus stop in the middle of nowhere.

We won’t know for sure until almost the last shot of the film, but this is most likely the summer of 1967, which tells us something else: Claude is no poor boy from the sticks, as his father insists on giving him $50 cash, in case of emergencies.

Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $390 now.

Claude hops onto the bus and sets off for New York City, and this is where the music begins as he gets closer to his destination. By the way, Forman makes the very interesting choice to have the camera track from right to left instead of the other direction. I don’t know whether he was just confused about American geography, but the tradition in film here is that right to left means going west, while left to right means going east.

So, in other words, to an American audience, the instinct is to feel like Claude is heading to California.

On the other hand, having come from Czechoslovakia, this may have been a very conscious choice on Forman’s part, representing a metaphorical journey to the west, from an oppressive, gray place to the land of freedom and color.

As soon as we hit Central Park and the opening number Age of Aquarius fully kicks in, we definitely explode in a riot of color in more ways than one. The entire cast of the movie was about as diverse as possible, and we pretty much have every ethnic group represented in the opening, with several interracial couples included.

Here, the costuming (and, naturally, hair) also manages to be spot-on, avoiding any of the usual media screw-ups when it comes to portraying the look of a fairly recent youth culture a decade after the fact.

There’s a lot to unpack in these opening six minutes, and they’re worth watching.

We’re a witness with Claude as he stumbles into this be-in in the park, and we also meet The Tribe — Berger (Treat Williams), Hud (Dorsey Wright), Woof (Don Dacus), and Jeannie (Annie Golden) — who will become that all-important collective secondary couple.

Here, Claude also has his first vision of Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), clearly a member of the patrician class, as she rides with two chaperones. She and Claude spot each other, and both are clearly smitten.

There’s also a lot of magic going on, and one particularly delightful moment comes when two mounted policemen approach the group. Most of the flee, but a brave duo of dancers remains, and their movements seemingly control the horses, making the cops powerless. It’s a really nice touch along with everything else.

The choreography here and throughout is stunning, and I have to give a big nod to Twyla Tharp, who does remarkable work, and pops up onscreen several times. This was her first of five film credits, a small part of a very long and illustrious career.

It’s very interesting to contrast her choreography with Bob Fosse’s in anything he did, but particularly Cabaret. Fosse was all about control through the concept of isolation. What this means in choreography is that a dancer should have precise control of any particular part of their body at any time, right down to a fingertip or a toe.

This is why a lot of Fosse’s moves seem to be intentionally robotic or jerky, with emphasis frequently being given to, say, just the hands, or the way a dancer tilts their head. Compare the choreography in the clip above to this bit featuring Fosse himself, with Gwen Verdon, in the film adaptation of Damn Yankees.

On the surface, it may seem like those are loose movements, especially given the tempo and tune, but if you watch closely, they are anything but. And you can also see the emphasis of ballet in Fosse’s work.

Tharp’s work in Hair, in contrast, seems to defy gravity, and clearly combines influences from tai chi and gymnastics. The dancer’s bodies are loose and limber, and rather than clearly controlling themselves, they seem to be drawn along by external forces.

It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the film, in fact.

Now one thing about the original is that it has a bunch of character intro songs at the beginning that don’t really introduce the characters. Sure, they give an actor something fun to sing, but they didn’t really have any greater meaning. Here, they become background to the more important thing happening, which is actual character development.

One of the first and most important of these is right after Claude meets The Tribe. They ask him for change, and he wonders why he should give it to them. At first unmoved by their claim that Jeannie is pregnant and they haven’t eaten for two days, he finally tosses them what’s probably half a buck — about $3.90 now.

Now, one of the things that happens in the opening is that The Tribe comes across Sheila and company on their horses, and Woof sincerely asks if he can ride for just five minutes, because he’s never done it and he’s always wanted to. Naturally, they refuse.

But as soon as Berger realizes they have enough money, what does he do? He makes sure that his friend gets his wish. They rent a horse and go for a ride and, when they catch up again with Sheila and her chaperones, Forman puts Woof’s intro number to perfect use.

It’s a little ditty that I like to use as an audition piece and it’s called Sodomy. It has exactly 23 words in its lyrics. Five of them are references to sex acts, none of them involving missionary sex, and two of them refer to basically the Indian Big Book of Sex.

Naturally it scandalizes the two older women with Sheila, although it’s not clear whether she’s so upset. Still, the trio rides off, passing Claude. Moments later, the horse that Berger and Woof were on runs by rider-less, and the Tribe implores Claude to catch.

Remember: Claude is from Oklahoma, so he does, and takes the opportunity to show off some trick riding skills to Sheila, only to have them go one way at a fork in the trail while he goes the other. Another potentially intentional move by Forman: Sheila and company go right. Claude goes left.

The other intro numbers, which do have some powerful political content, come together during Claude’s first night in New York, after the Tribe has convinced him to hang out with him, then get him higher than fuck. In short order, the titles of these numbers are Colored Spade, Manchester, and I’m Black/Ain’t Got No.

The first one, performed by Hud and the people of color in the cast is basically a litany that throws just about every racist slur about black people right back at the white people, and Hud owns it here — clearly the original intention of the number.

It may seem un-PC now, but in reality it’s a clear and early example of “taking back the words.”

As if to emphasize that, Manchest is Berger introducing (and speaking for) Claude, and significantly all of the people of color vanish. Poof, instant erasure, as Berger describes Claude as being from Manchester, “England, England, across the Atlantic Sea.” It’s the American Empire in a nutshell.

Everyone returns and launches into the number Ain’t Got No, which is a litany worth repeating now, because it describes the true struggle that was going on at the time. It wasn’t about black vs. white. It was, and is, about have vs. have not.

After all, in this song, it’s all of the Tribe and hippies singing together.

Then morning comes, Claude wakes up, and starts to head off on his own. He’s about to leave when Berger notices a newspaper on the ground identifying Sheila, who is having her debutante party that very afternoon.

Side note: This means that she is probably sixteen. Since Claude comes to New York in response to being drafted, he’s probably not that much older. Pay no attention to the casting of actors who were 28 and 30 at the time the film was made.

But, again, Berger ignores logic and reason to help give a friend their dream. When Claude balks at crashing because he wasn’t invited, Berger replies, “Do you want to go to a party with me?”

And that’s the end of just the first act, which has already packed in a lot more character development, relationship, and meaning than the source material did in its entire length.

I could continue the deep-dive through the rest of it but that could easily turn into a 10,000 word post so, instead, I’d just urge you to see it. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime — I’ll leave you to search it yourselves because I’m not trying to monetize.

But the message of this film, which comes through much more clearly than it did in the stage show, is far from dated. The struggle we’re in is one of greed vs. community, fear vs. love, and hatred vs. hope.

Just substitute the concept of forcing people to go fight in the Vietnam War with the concept of forcing them to go back to work during a pandemic because, economically, they have no choice.

The rich could always wiggle their way out of the draft, whether it was via student deferments, daddy knowing Congressmen (they were all men then), or bone spurs.

The poor, not so much, unless they were willing to do things that would ruin their lives in other ways, like pretend to be homosexual, or insane, or flee to Canada — although one of Jimmy Carter’s first acts when he took office was to pardon the so-called “draft dodgers.”

Kind of seems familiar now, though, right? Hole up in your well-stocked mansion with no worries about where the money is coming from, lobby your Congressperson, Senator, or Governor to end the lockdown — for the people who work for you and earn you your money — or fly off to your private island.

Or… go back to work without proper PPE, maybe via public transportation, without health insurance, while you’re taking care of your kids and your elderly parent, and take your chances.

Watch Hair, listen to the message, and then do something. And remember: in the film version, Berger goes full on Jesus mode in order to help his friends.

Why astrology is bunk

A lot of people believe in astrology — but not only is there no basis in fact for it, believing in it can be dangerous.

This piece, which I first posted in 2019, continues to get constant traffic and I haven’t had a week go by that someone hasn’t given it a read. So I felt that it was worth bringing to the top again.

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially whenever I see a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.


Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.


What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.


If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So… stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.


The late, great James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, did a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge-watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Plus I don’t think it’s even possible for Uranus to go retrograde from the Earth’s point of view.


If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s probably what created the Moon. So ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.

Talky Tuesday: Careful where you stick your ‘but’

Conjunction junction, what’s your function… this is a refrain many of us might know from Schoolhouse Rock, but the important conjunction here is “But.”

And is the conjunction that puts words together: “This and that.” Or is the one that allows both options: “This or that.”

Then there’s but, which pretty much excludes whatever comes after it.

You’re probably already jumping ahead to a common sort of phrase it appears in, but let’s hold back for a moment.

“I like pasta and sushi,” she said. So what’s the function of that sentence? Inclusion, pure and simple.

How about this one? “I’ll take pasta or sushi.” Both options are acceptable although, while it’s not clear whether the speaker is making the choice or only responding to the options given by someone else, there’s no judgement.

Finally, “I like pasta but not sushi.” This is basically a refusal, whoever was given the choices. The speaker reads a menu to make their own choice, picks pasta, done. Or… the speaker’s date asks what they want, and the reply is pasta, but not sushi — which could be a really big dismissal of what the date likes, intentional or not.

However, this conjunction gets a lot more troublesome in other contexts, as we’ll see in a moment. First, let’s look at the others.

“And” and “Or” are inclusive, always.

“Do you want to watch some BBC, and then Netflix?” Boom. Both. Done.

And “Or” isn’t as inclusive, but not dismissive. “Would you rather watch BBC or Netflix?”

“I don’t have a subscription to Netflix, so BBC?” (or vice versa) or even “I don’t like (BBC/Netflix), so the other?”

When we get to but, there’s a bit of a problem. Any invocation of “but” requires a condition to go with it. You cannot just say, “I like A, but not B.” Even though that B comes with a not, that “not” means nothing without a qualifier.

And when the construction that comes before “but” is in the form of “I’m not a (blank)…” then you really need to think long and hard about what the hell you’re saying.

As in things like, “I’m not racist, but…” Guarantee you that the next words out of your mouth are going to be 100% racist.

And stick any other –ist or –ic in there, and you’re done.

“I’m not homophobic, but I wish that gay men weren’t so swishy.”

“I’m not misogynistic, but why are women so pushy?”

“I’m not racist, but why don’t Mexicans speak English?”

And on and on and on.

Well, I hope you get the idea by now.

Any phrase that begins with “I’m not (X) but (Y) immediately tells the rest of us that you are absolutely X, and you absolutely believe that whatever bullshit you spew in Y is true.

Period, end of quote.

So, especially in these trying times, if you ever try to say, “I’m not X, but…” stop right there before you open your mouth, think about what you were going to say, then go ask a smarter friend to bail your ass out before you go full-on stupid.

And… happy almost end of (social) summer, and or happy surviving the really weird times we’re still going through right now.

Momentous Monday: Dog day

For me, August 23 will always be a special day because it’s the day that I chose as the first family’s dog’s birthday. We had adopted Dazé around Thanksgiving when she was twelve weeks old.

In fact, it was about a week before Thanksgiving, and when I did the math backwards, I hit the end of August. T-Day had been on November 22nd, which is the earliest date it can possibly fall. I think that we must have adopted her the Saturday or Sunday before the holiday, which would have been either November 17th or 18th. Calculating backwards, this landed me on either August 25 or 26, but I didn’t like either of those dates.

Since my parents didn’t really care either way — Dazé to them was “just a dog,” after all — I set her birthday as August 23rd, mainly because I’d read somewhere that 23 was a very important number, and the 23rd of August was when Sirius first appears in the Northern Hemisphere.

Well, more or less. But Sirius is the dog star, August 23rd is close enough for jazz, and so that was from then on Dazé’s official birthday.

If I had ever believed in astrology, I would have put that date back one day, because no way that bitch was a Virgo. Dazé was a little lion. But I don’t believe in that bunk. I do believe that she had the personality she was partly born with and the one that I nurtured in her.

I’ve mentioned this here whenever I’ve mentioned Dazé — despite the fact that she was technically my mom’s dog, since Mom was the one at home all the time while Dad and I were at either work or school, Dazé never saw it that way.

I was her human from the second we first laid eyes on each other at the rescue shelter, and that was that.

It’s kind of funny, because in a strange way she wound up actually being a kind of surrogate mother to me, since my own mother died less than three years after we’d adopted Dazé. I wound up being responsible for her — the walks, the feeding, everything — and she did an excellent job, when I wasn’t, of giving me gentle reminders.

“Hey, dad — what time is it?”

Now, my dad had to take over when I moved off to college and dogs were not allowed in the dorms — not that I would have wished that atmosphere on any non-human living being at all. Hell, I couldn’t even keep a goldfish alive for more than two months because while I was home for a weekend, my roommate decided to see if it liked beer.

Hint: Goldfish do not do well when their breathing medium is flooded with alcohol.

I don’t hold it against him, though. We were both kids, really. Young and stupid and with all of our own hang-ups, since we were thrown together at 18. We were kind of oil and water for the time we shared a 12’x10’ cinderblock-walled room, but I can’t help but think that if we’d first met after our mid-20s, we would have gotten along fine.

And maybe if I hadn’t run home every weekend because it was only 26 miles, we might have bonded during those wild Friday and Saturday night dorm parties. But I had to run home to see my doggy.

That was the only real reason. Honestly, I figured that my dad could survive without seeing me again until my first year ended in May, and I could always do laundry at the dorm, even though it cost a few quarters and I had to do it myself.

Okay, I still had to do it myself at home, but the machines were free and much nicer.

College passed and I moved on to adulting and into an apartment with two… well, acquaintances. I wound up stumbling into the deal because a college friend was living in a three bedroom place with these guys (he was in a band with them) but then he got stupid and proposed to his girlfriend (Dude — you’re 22!) so was ready to move in with her, leaving a spot open.

So I popped into the master suite of bedroom and private bath — a fair trade-off for the lone parking space, I think — and was there for about a year and a half. And the two guys were not total strangers to me, since I had been the manager of the band they were in with my friend.

But, of course, the band went “poof” as soon as he slipped his… er, slipped that ring on her finger.

I was really tempted at that time to move Dazé in with me, but something told me to wait and I did. Eighteen months later, my two roommates went their separate ways. Meanwhile, it just so turned out that three of my co-workers — a single friend and another friend and his fiancée — were looking to move as well.

We found a very old house in Van Nuys — I think it was built originally as a tenant-worker home on a rancho around 1919. The construction was basically lathe and plaster, which meant that it had absolutely zero insulation.

Also, although the front house had two bedrooms and a bathroom, it was tiny. In fact, I’d almost venture to say that it had fewer square feet than the one-bedroom place I live in now.

But… the kitchen was really nice, and my small bedroom also happened to have one wall with built-in shelves and drawers and the like which gave not only a built-in desk and storage, but no need to move any kind of bulky furniture other than the bed with me.

It also had a nice backyard, a very ancient garage that was just as likely to have held a horse and carriage in its early days as a car and which we quickly converted into a mostly sound-proofed studio — I was in a band with the non-affianced roommate, another co-worker, and a bass-player we’d found through an ad.

Finally, there was a guest-house in the back, where said single roomie lived. It was essentially a studio with a bathroom off to the side, but it was remarkable for its 1920s-era tiled kitchen and the probably 1950-s era leather banquette diner-style booth in the, well, dining area.

Oddly enough, it was a lot more accommodating than the main house for small gatherings, so all of us spent a lot of time there.

Once I was settled in, I decided that this was the right place for Dazé, so I brought her to live with me, and life was awesome.

We did have a lot of parties but, thanks to the front door lock being gnarfy, we only ever let people in through the garage gate and back door, so there was never really any worry of her wandering out.

Not that she would have been inclined. It was clear at these parties that she had two jobs. Number one was keeping an out for daddy. Number two was scamming food from people and stealing beers when they weren’t looking.

Oh, yeah. I was both annoyed and oddly proud of her when I saw that one. Cue a debauched 20-something evening, bunch of people I don’t know because they’re mostly our bassist’s friends sitting or standing all around the living room, and one guy who seems about to nod off sits on the floor in front of the far end of the sofa and sets his beer down.


Suddenly, a white, furry snout pokes its way around the edge of the sofa, black nose sniffing. The snout has a goatee, which flutters as the nose exhales sharply.

The snout moves forward, followed by THE DOG. She scans the room, in full-on Ethan Hunt mode. Then, realizing it is safe, she zeroes in on the objective: The beer bottle.

She grabs it with her mouth and backs out of sight.


THE DOG settles back with her reward, adjusts the bottle so that its mouth is in her mouth, then tilts sideways and chugs.

REVEAL THE DOG’s DAD peeking around the corner to look at what THE DOG is doing.


Well, fuck me sideways…

A totally appropriate way to present it, since I fancied myself a screenwriter at the time. Ah, to be young, stupid, and in Hollywood — and without having worked out enough to just go right into porn.

But Dazé actually did steal a beer, one time. She got really hyper and really silly fast, then started wandering around bumping into things until she managed to find the bedroom and then she never tried to steal a beer again.

Smart girl.

Meanwhile, she lived with us until stupid Dad managed to stick his dick in crazy and make the same mistake, slightly delayed, that the friend whose moving out had put Dad into these housing situations in the first place.

I.E. Dad agreed to move in with the first one-night stand who went out with him two more times.

Yeah, if I had a time machine, I’d go back and bitch-slap some sense into me, too.

Of course, what I didn’t see at the time was that this dude was manipulative, a total gas-lighter, abusive, and probably borderline psychotic, and one of his first demands was “No dog. I’m allergic.”

So what did I do? To my discredit, I thought with my dick and shipped Dazé back home to live with Dad again.

Fortunately, this little mistake didn’t last all that long, and by the time I threw his sorry ass out I was at least making enough to pay the entire rent on our WeHo studio so that I didn’t have to move soon, so Dazé came back and she was with me until her final breath.

That final breath was on April 30, 2001, and she had been with me through a ton of incarnations and ups and downs. And, despite all of the times I’d shuttled her back to my dad or nights I didn’t come home until nearly dawn, she never gave up on me.

Even at the very end, it was like she was hiding her pain and illness from me because she didn’t want to put me through it. And even though I happened to be unemployed (but with fuck you money) at the time, I did everything I could to try to save her.

It was not to be, and I had to let go of my best friend since forever.

And then, eleven days later, to fill the hole in my heart, I adopted Shadow, who was around a year old. I found her since I searched “American Eskimo,” since Dazé was probably American Eskimo and West Highland Terrier, and Shadow was presumed to be a mix of White German Shepherd and American Eskimo.

Shadow was only slightly bigger than Dazé, but the same shade of white, and even though the math didn’t quite work, her official birthday in my heart was also always August 23.

The big difference was that Dazé took care of me and taught me how to take care of myself. Shadow needed every single thing that Dazé ever taught me. Yeah. She was a needy girl. But so what?

So why did Shadow get Dazé’s birthday? Because it’s a special day for me and my dogs. On the other hand, Sheeba was the combo breaker in a lot of ways. I adopted her Labor Day weekend when she was eleven months old, but wound up pegging her birthday as November 14, mainly so that she wouldn’t have to share with Shadow.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention — my dogs always got crazy special birthdays — human food, as in “I’ll have what daddy’s having,” and a dog-friendly muffin with a candle. I used to let Dazé eat at the table with me because she was smart enough to know this only happened at special times.

Shadow and Sheeba, not so much. They got plates on the floor.

Meanwhile, it’s been way too long since I’ve gotten to celebrate a dog birthday, which I really wish I was doing today. Maybe, before too long, I’ll get to do it again.

Sunday Nibble #76: Films colorful and not

Something about finally going back to the movies to see Free Guy the other week just triggered something in me, so I started actually streaming movies again — something I also have done for a long time, plus I went to the theater yet again. It was the same chain but different location, and Thursday seems to be turning into my movie out night.

Why not? I’ve discovered something else: Catch a movie a few weeks after it opens, and you can easily be the only one in the entire theater.

This week’s at-home movies were two classics, one that I’d never seen and the other that I had several times. The premier (for me) movie was Pixar’s Ratatouille, written and directed by Brad Bird, who also did both of the Incredibles films.

In fact, Ratatouille was his next film right after the original Incredibles, and I found it to be very delightful and totally enjoyable. This was still in the earlier days of character animation, but each one of the players, human and rat, was incredibly distinct and full of character.

Again, this isn’t going to be so much of a review, since the film is older, but more my impressions. In case you’ve been living in a cave, this is a 3D animated comedy in which a rat with an incredible sense of smell and taste winds up in Paris, eventually finding a formerly five-star restaurant.

At the same time, Alfredo Linguini, a young man with a letter from the (now dead) former head chef’s mistress arrives, seeking work. The current (still living) head chef takes the letter without reading it and makes Linguini the garbage boy.

Of course the rat, Remy, wants nothing more than to be a chef, inadvertently exposing his talents to Linguini in creating a soup that the customers go nuts over. Skinner is livid, thinking that Linguini went way out of his station to dare cook in Skinner’s kitchen, so challenges him to recreate the recipe.

From there, Linguini and Remy establish a relationship and an understanding. What’s remarkable about this is that although the rats can talk to each other, all the humans ever hear is squeaking, so we don’t get the stereotype of the lovable talking rodent.

The film is all that much stronger for it once Remy figures out how to communicate with Linguini after hiding under his toque.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a watch — not only for the beautiful animation, but the pitch-perfect voice performances. And some of these voices you will not recognize even if you know in advance. Patton Oswalt plays Remy the rat and Janeane Garofalo voices Colette, the only female chef in the establishment who becomes Linguini’s mentor. Peter O’Toole is perfect as the villain of the piece, food critic Anton Ego, and one you probably haven’t heard of as an actor, Lou Romano, voices our lead, Linguini, perfectly.

Romano is more frequently behind the camera as an animator, artistic director, etc.

There are a few surprises in the cast besides Garofalo, though — Ian Holm sounds nothing like himself as Chef Skinner, and neither does Brad Garret as the now dead chef Auguste Gusteau. Will Arnett is also well hidden as the German-accented sous chef.

Again, it’s a delightful romp with plenty for the adults to enjoy but not so complicated that the kids will get bored, and it all comes to a wonderfully happy ending.

The next two films on the list are both colorful in their own way.

The first and other streaming film was Disney’s The Black Hole, which was (gasp!) their first ever PG-rated film. Of course, it came out before the PG-13 rating was created in response to two PG-rated films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins.

They were classified as too intense for PG but not gory enough for R and wound up in some weird netherworld where they probably were too much for younger children but totally appropriate for teens.

Don’t worry. Disney’s The Black Hole is quite firmly in PG land, despite having some pretty grim elements to it. But despite the laser battles all of the victims are of the non-human kind.

The film itself feels like a combination of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Moby Dick, featuring a brilliant but possibly mad scientist who has lived alone for 20 years on a ship held in stable orbit above a black hole. The film begins as a ship from earth discovers the craft, and everything goes from there.

The whole thing is a surprisingly brisk 98 minutes and the special effects are decidedly old school. The closest we get to anything CGI comes in the opening credits, after the nearly three-minute overture played to a black screen — that should date the film quite nicely. The CGI comes in the form of a green grid that eventually reveals itself to be the very familiar wireframe rendering of the bottomless gravity well created by a black hole.

Computers were also used to solve all the complicated formulae to calculate the motion of the onscreen blackhole although, obviously, they hadn’t quite gotten sophisticated enough to give us the familiar modern image of the black hole a la Interstellar — with the accretion disc around back also being visible in front due to gravitational lensing.

The film used computerized motion-controlled cameras to seamlessly integrate multi-exposure shots of actors, miniatures, and matte paintings, and those effects hold up quite well. Not bad for 1979.

The story itself is rather light and somewhat cheesy, and includes such non-scientist written plonkers as Yvette Mimieux’s character mentioning that her ship’s mission is to find “inhabited life” in the universe (no, really).

On the other hand, Maximilian Schell’s Captain Nemo manque casually tosses off mention of possibly encountering an Einstein-Rosen bridge if they cross the event horizon. That fancy talk is what is more commonly known as a white hole, although they never refer to it as such in the movie or, to their credit, explain it.

Anyway, The Black Hole is more about the whiz-bang of old school filmmakers trying to make something predictive of future filmmaking techniques. The interesting part is watching an all-star, although also old school, cast running through their paces.

Incidentally, getting back to the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea reference, if you’re thinking that it refers to depth beneath the sea you’d be wrong, because that depth beneath the sea would put you 69,047 miles down. This happens to be almost nine times the diameter of Earth, so you’d wind up going into orbit at some point.

But it’s not an error in the title. The 20,000 leagues doesn’t refer to a depth but rather a distance traveled without surfacing, and this is much more reasonable, representing circumnavigating the Earth entirely underwater just over three complete times.

Save that one for trivia night some. You’re welcome.

The final film is a current release, The Green Night, which a friend of mine described as a combination of Excalibur and The Emerald Forest, and I have to agree. I caught up with it rather late into its run so it’s probably leaving theaters soon, but it’s worth seeing on the big screen if you can.

Of course, because it’s so late in the run, I lucked out in having an entire theater to myself, which was great.

Starring the always amazing Dev Patel, The Green Knight tells the story of Gawain (which sounds like it’s always pronounced “Garwen” in the film), and his year-long adventure after the Green Knight shows up at Camelot’s Christmas celebration and Gawain takes up his challenge.

Unfortunately, that challenge means that in a year’s time, Gawain has to trek a six day’s journey north to the Green Chapel to meet the knight again, at which point he will strike the same blow on Gawain that Gawain did on him.

If only Gawain hadn’t lopped the Green Knight’s head off…

The film dives deep into the legend of Gawain, taken from an anonymous 15th Century poem, although one reference to the King having defeated the Saxons puts us at about 500 CE.

What’s nice is that the film never explains anything, but gives us fascinating little clues so that we know immediately that the king and queen are Arthur and Guinevere, and we can also pick out Merlin. We also learn that Gawain is Arthur’s nephew without that word ever being spoken, and that Gawain’s mother is into some very pagan magic — but this is not at all surprising if you know who Arthur’s sister was.

This particular story, though, ignores a certain incestuous offspring and the eventual battle that kills father and son, which was the major focus of the film Excalibur.

Oh yeah — the sword also makes an unnamed appearance.

If you’re an Arthurian Legend nerd, you’re going to love this one. It’s got everything. Headless saints, talking animals, meandering giants, dishonest thieves, seductive wives, and more.

And everything about the production is gorgeous — from the cast through to the sets, design, cinematography, effects, editing, and locations. You’ll believe that you’re in the mid Dark Ages watching legends being born.

Hurry though if you want to catch The Green Knight before he slips out of theatres, because, like I said, you want to see this one on the big screen.

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