Imaginary Voyages

The Austin airport is pretty darned cool, with some little touches that bored travelers who are walking around while waiting for their flights will appreciate–like this mock “Interimaginary Departures” board found at Gate 14. It changes just like your standard departures board, only the destinations are fictional locations from literature, film, TV, comic books, video games, and other elements of popular culture. The airlines are fictional too, of course, but very cleverly named. And all flights leave from Gate Infinity.

For example, you could catch a flight to Gotham City on DystopiAir, or head to Hogwarts on Spellbound Airlines, or visit the Hundred-Acre Wood on Wistful. I’d avoid the flight to Isla Nublar on GossAmerica, myself. On the other hand, I admit to being tempted by the chance to experience the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the known universe, so I would probably grab a seat on the 11:07 to Tattoine in order to check out the Mos Eisley spaceport.

I’ve included photos of two of the many boards with this post. Somebody obviously had a lot of fun with this great idea.

The destinations on the “Interimaginary Departures” board are a kind of litmus test of your awareness of different elements of popular culture, and I am sad to say that I am not aware of many of them. How many of the references do you recognize? And, like me, if you see a destination you haven’t experienced through books or movies or comics, are you motivated to check them out?

Return Of The Western?

We’ve watched every episode of Yellowstone, we enjoyed 1883, the first of the Yellowstone prequels (which apparently is returning for a second season), and we are caught up on 1923, the newest Yellowstone prequel. We figure 1903 can’t be far behind, and there are many more tales to be told of the rambunctious Dutton clan and their constant battles to hold on to their beautiful spread in the wilds of Montana. (Don’t be surprised, for example, if there is a 2063, about future generations of Duttons.) With the success of the Dutton shows, you have to wonder: will westerns finally be making their TV and movie comeback?

It’s hard to believe now, but in the early days of television, westerns dominated the network programming. Shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun, Will Travel, and The Rifleman dominated the nightly programming and the ratings. Westerns were so popular for so long on television that variations on traditional westerns, like Branded, about an unjustly accused soldier, and The Wild, Wild West, with its newfangled gadgetry, were introduced. During those same decades John Wayne and other stars were churning out westerns at the cinema, producing classics like The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And the movie industry also made its share of non-traditional westerns, like The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

It’s not hard to see why westerns dominated popular entertainment during those years. The western genre was very elastic, and accommodated simple good guy versus bad guy tales and much more nuanced and complicated stories that left you wondering about who really was the hero. Westerns were cheap to make, with the sets for most TV westerns found on a Hollywood studios back lot, and even “on location” shoots occurring within only a few hundred miles of studio headquarters. And, in America, there always has been a certain romance about the west, and a fascination with the gunslingers, sheriffs, and train robbers, the wars with native Americans, and the many hazards and rough justice of frontier days.

At some point in the late ’60s, though, westerns suddenly vanished from the TV screen, and movie westerns largely disappeared only a few years later. Perhaps Americans had just had their fill, or perhaps westerns just didn’t fit with the then-prevailing notions about the world, or perhaps science fiction films and TV shows co-opted the standard western plots and threw in some cool special effects, besides. Since the demise of the western genre, there have been predictions about its renaissance–in the wake of TV shows like Lonesome Dove and movies like Young Guns and Silverado–but those forecasts have proven inaccurate.

Could now be the time when American viewers are ready to return to the western, and an era when problems seemed less complicated and a simple showdown on a dusty street was seen as a way to actually solve a problem, once and for all? With Beth Dutton’s two-fisted approach leading the way, who knows? We may see a lot more horse operas in the future.

Big Boats

Oranjestad is the Aruban port where the big cruise ships dock. As we ate our dinner last night I marveled, once again, at just how huge some of the cruise ships are. This passing cruise liner was colossal, but it was dwarfed by an even bigger ship that left the port about a half hour earlier. I’ve never been on a ship of that size, but I imagine it carries thousands of passengers.

Whenever I see a cruise ship of that size, I think about what it would be like if The Poseidon Adventure were filmed on one of these modern, titanic vessels. Shelley Winters would have to do a lot more swimming, Gene Hackman would have even more perils to overcome, and it was take Ernest Borgnine a lot longer to get everyone to the propeller shaft.

The Insider Versus The Average Joe

Something weird happened in the markets earlier this week. About 60 seconds before the November Consumer Price Index data was released, there was a sudden surge in trading of stock futures and Treasury futures–both of which inevitably would be affected by the report that the CPI for November was a bit lower than what economists had forecast. You can see the spike in trading in the chart above, published by Bloomberg in its story about the trading that occurred only moments before the release of the report.

It’s good news, of course, that the November CPI report indicates that inflation appears to be cooling, and we should all hope that trend continues. But the jump in trading activity in the minute before the CPI report was released is obviously suspicious, and suggests that someone who received the report prior to the release tried to profit from the good news. (In fact, the activity sounds vaguely like the plot of the movie Trading Places, where the Duke brothers tried to make a killing from getting an early copy of a government report, only to be foiled by the Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy characters. In this case, however, Dan and Eddie weren’t around, and neither was the guy in the gorilla suit.)

The Biden Administration denied that the White House leaked the report, and downplayed the trading data as “minor market movements”–when, as the Bloomberg article linked above points out, it clearly was nothing of the sort. The Bloomberg article notes: “over a 60-second span before the data went out, over 13,000 March 10-year futures traded hands (during a period when activity is usually nonexistent) as the contract was bid up.” And even if we accept that the White House didn’t leak the report, it’s obvious that something happened that requires an investigation, to see who was making those trades, and why.

Under these circumstances, in fact, I would argue that an investigation is mandatory. Trust in the markets is a delicate thing, and an insider trading scandal coming on top of the stories about the inner workings of now-collapsed FTX doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the integrity of the markets. If there is no investigation or prosecution, it will go down as just another example of the fundamental difference between insiders who get to profit from a sure thing and the average Joes who must accept the ups and downs in the accounts that hold their hard-earned retirement savings.

Elder Action

Last night we watched the first episode of Tulsa King, the new Paramount+ series starring Sylvester Stallone. Created by Taylor Sheridan, one of the creators of Yellowstone, Tulsa King is the story of a mobster (don’t call him a “gangster,” incidentally), Dwight Manfredi, who is released from prison after 25 years. Because he didn’t rat out anybody, he expects to be welcomed back with open arms and given a prominent place in the family business in New York City. Instead, he’s exiled to Tulsa, Oklahoma and told to take over the town.

We’re only one episode in, but Tulsa King looks promising so far. It’s got the fish out of water element, with the street-wise New Yorker schooling the credulous, safe-in-middle- America Bible Belters about crime, and also the Rip Van Winkle element, with Dwight having been in the Big House for 25 years and not knowing about things like iPhones and Uber. Stallone has always had good comedic talent and timing–Demolition Man, for example, includes lots of funny scenes, and so do some of the Rocky movies–and he does a good job with the humorous parts of Tulsa Kings.

The real challenge in the show, however, is the tough guy stuff. It seems weird to question the ability of Sylvester Stallone, the guy who brought to life Rocky, Rambo, and countless other hard-ass characters, to carry off the action scenes, but the actor is 76 years old. He’s evidently had some facial work–his cheeks look puffy, and his eyebrows are perpetually raised–and physically he looks to be in pretty good shape. But when your star is in his 70s, you’ve got to be careful not to strain the viewers’ willing suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. In the first episode, Dwight coldcocks one younger guy, punches out a few others, throws a water bottle that knocks out a tubby security guard, and has a bedroom encounter with a much younger woman. It all was reasonably plausible–Dwight may have been a workout fiend during those 25 years in the clink, right?–but let’s hope the show doesn’t use CGI to have the star chasing down a fleeing truck, defeating multiple attackers with kung fu moves, or beating up an Apollo Creed lookalike.

America is growing older, so it makes sense that action characters would grow older, too. Who knows? “Elder action” might become an entirely new genre on TV and in theaters. I’ll be interested in seeing how Sylvester Stallone’s character develops in Tulsa King, and whether he experiences some of the issues that afflict the rest of us who are aging out. And I’ll also be interested in seeing how Harrison Ford, who is 80, is presented in the fifth Indiana Jones movie, which is to be released next year. You’d expect Indy to be using a lot more of his gun and a lot less of his whip at that age. Will Indy–who once famously observed that “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage”–recognize that the years take their toll, too?

Major League

The Guardians playoff game against the Yankees that was scheduled for tonight has been rained out, so I am going to get my baseball fix by watching a guilty pleasure baseball movie: Major League. The fact that the fictional Indians beat the Yankees to make the playoffs is just icing on the cake.

It’s a dream movie for Cleveland sports fans, of course, but it also is one of the best movies about baseball ever made. You can argue about whether it’s the finest baseball movie ever, but can anyone dispute that it’s in the top five?

If you want to watch it, incldentally, it’s on Paramount+

Arizona Gunslinger

When we were ordering breakfast yesterday at the Feedlot Cafe in Marana, our friendly waitress asked if I would like hot sauce with my meal. She rattled off five or six options, then added, with a note of doubt in her voice: “Or would you like to try some Arizona Gunslinger?”

Somewhere a clock chimed, a hot gust of wind blew, and a lonesome piece of sagebrush rolled by.

“Arizona Gunslinger?” I gulped, as a horse in the distance whinnied in alarm, the hinges on the saloon door creaked loudly, and an ominous chord of music sounded in the background. “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” The waitress left and brought back a bottle of deep green chili sauce that promised it was “smokin’ hot.” “Here you go,” she said with a note of trepidation in her voice.

As I examined the bottle, I noticed that mothers were pulling their children indoors and the shopkeeper across the street was closing his doors and shuttering his windows.

When my eggs and sausage and hash browns were delivered, I tried some of the sauce, using deliberate and judicious application rather than a quick draw technique. And I found I liked the Arizona Gunslinger sauce. In fact, I liked it quite a lot. It’s got a kick like a mustang and a nice warm finish in the throat, and definitely added a bullet-like zing to my eggs.

When I finished my food, I ambled out the front door, glad that I had survived my encounter with the Arizona Gunslinger rather than being carted off to Boot Hill.

James Caan

I was sorry to read of the death yesterday of actor James Caan. Caan, who had a long career in Hollywood, died at age 82.

Of course, most people will remember James Caan most for The Godfather and his depiction of Sonny Corleone, the explosive hothead son who temporarily took over leadership of the Corleone crime family after his father, Don Vito Corleone, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. That’s not surprising because Caan absolutely nailed that role and was riveting as a man who loved his family–memorably explaining to his little brother Michael about how Mafia killings are messy, up-close and personal affairs and then kissing him on the head–but eventually was done in by his temper and impulsiveness.

My favorite James Caan role, however, was his pre-Godfather turn as Brian Piccolo in the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week Brian’s Song. That film tells the story of Piccolo, a running back trying to make the team for the Chicago Bears and competing with the legendary Gale Sayers. After Piccolo does make the team, he and Sayers develop a great respect for each other that deepens into a loving friendship that helps Piccolo deal with a devastating disease that tragically cuts his life short at a young age. Caan was perfect as a guy who was cocky, funny, mischievous, decent, and a good football player, too, and his memorable performance and obvious chemistry with Billy Dee Williams, who also was excellent as Gale Sayers, helped to make Brian’s Song one of the best movies about sports ever made.

James Caan was good in other roles, too: as the writer at the mercy of lunatic Kathy Bates fan character in Misery, as Buddy’s Dad in Elf, and as the star player in Rollerball (which is also a pretty good sports movie). He even co-starred in a western with John Wayne. But the best testament to his acting skill, in my view, was his ability to portray Brian Piccolo and then, one year later, convincingly present himself as the volcanic Sonny Corleone. James Caan clearly could act. He will be missed, but his legacy lives on on screen.

The Wrong Kind Of Capital

When I was a kid, living in Akron, Ohio, the city proudly boasted that it was the “Rubber Capital of the World.” Akron wasn’t alone–lots of cities and towns presented themselves as the “capital” of this or that.

No city or town, however, wants to be identified as the “shark capital of the world.” And particularly, no one wants that designation with a map of their town’s location next to a big picture of a scary shark flashing a horrifying row of shark teeth.

Unfortunately for New Smyrna Beach, Florida, a newspaper has attached that designation to the town after a string of recent shark attacks off its beaches. The newspaper article describes the circumstances of recent attacks and quotes the manager of the International Shark Attack File as saying that the chances of getting bitten by a shark in New Smyrna Beach are much higher than anywhere else in the world.

I wonder how the mayor of New Smyrna Beach is taking this news? And do you suppose you hear creepy music when you wade into the waters at the beach there?

The Relentless March Of Progress

In America, the march of progress is relentless, and what once was casually assumed be a permanent thing can be wiped clean by new technology or new approaches and vanish without a trace. The latest evidence of that classic aspect of the American Way is that the last freestanding public pay phone booth has been removed from New York City. The phone booth, which was located in Times Square, had become a kind of kitschy tourist attraction before it was hoisted away last month.

According to the Bloomberg article linked above, New York City once had 8,000 freestanding public phone booths. They were a familiar feature on Manhattan street corners. Phone booths were used by superheroes to change clothes, and figured prominently in countless spy dramas and action movies. Bad guys who were planning to commit bad acts used the booths to place anonymous phone calls demanding ransom payments, and spies used the booths as dead drops or meeting places. How many films over the years featured a star rushing to make it to a particular phone booth on a busy street in time to answer a call?

Now New York City is a phone booth-free zone. I’m not sure if there are any phone booths left in Columbus, and I frankly can’t remember the last time I saw a phone booth anywhere. They have been so rare for so long that I wrote about an unexpected sighting of a phone booth in upstate New York in 2011. Of course, screenwriters long ago adapted to the demise of the phone booth by using burner phones as the new anonymous device to move plots along.

In short, phone booths have officially joined the horse and buggy, television static, and Blockbuster stores as relics of a bygone era. That’s the American Way.

Random Weirdness In The Interstellar Void

The Voyager 1 probe, like the crew of the starship Enterprise, has literally gone where no one–or at least no person or machine associated with the planet Earth–has gone before. It is 14.5 billion miles from its home planet, which it left in 1977. Voyager 1 has traveled beyond the orbit of Pluto and is now out in interstellar space. It is so far away that it takes two full days for a message sent by the spacecraft to reach NASA on Earth.

Apparently, things are weird out in the interstellar void, because Voyager 1 has started behaving . . . strangely.

Voyager 1 still receives and executes commands from Earth, and transmits data back to NASA. That means the probe’s attitude articulation and control system is working and keeping its antenna pointed precisely at Earth. But the problem is that the telemetry data that the spacecraft is beaming back home doesn’t make any sense, or reflect what Voyager 1 is supposed to be actually doing. NASA engineers described the data being received as “random or impossible.”

What’s up with Voyager 1? NASA’s project manager for the probe notes that it is 45 years old, which is far beyond its anticipated lifespan, and the interstellar space that Voyager 1 is now traveling through is high radiation territory, which could be messing with the probe’s systems. So maybe Voyager‘s random or impossible data transmissions are just a glitch from an aging machine. But isn’t it curious that Voyager‘s issues came to light at the same time Congress was holding its first, highly publicized hearings into UFOs in decades?

Perhaps it is just a coincidence. But anyone who remembers the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture will feel a little unsettled when they hear that V’ger is behaving . . . strangely.

Whither The Family Driving Trip?

We’re just about at the time of year when American families normally would pile into their Family Truckster, hit the open road, and head west, or east, or south, or north for their magical summer family driving vacation. But in Ohio, and elsewhere, gas prices are continuing to climb–raising the question of whether, this year, the Griswold clans throughout the country will be forced to conclude that they just cannot afford those hours in the car.

According to the AAA, the average price for a regular gallon of gas in Ohio is $4.464 (and $5.125 for a gallon of premium). That compares to $3.764 for a gallon of regular a month ago, and $2.887 a year ago. And dire predictions about what lies ahead suggest that in a few months $4.46 for a gallon of unleaded regular may seem like a bargain. CBS News is reporting that commodities analyst Natasha Kaneva, with JPMorgan, predicts we may see a “cruel summer” in which gas prices top $6 a gallon for regular by August. Her research note published earlier this week explains: “With expectations of strong driving demand — traditionally, the U.S. summer driving season starts on Memorial Day, which lands this year on May 30, and lasts until Labor Day in early September — U.S. retail price could surge another 37% by August to a $6.20/gallon national average.”

That’s the kind of news that makes me glad I walk to work. But the fuel price increases also make you wonder whether many families will be able to afford the classic American driving trip this year. The CBS News article reports that the average American family now pays about $4,800 a year for gas, which is a 70 percent increase from a year ago. How many household budgets can accommodate another 37 percent jump in gas prices, at the same time that costs for food and other staples also are climbing?

At some point that driving trip just becomes unaffordable, and a stay-at-home summer is the only realistic option. That means some American families will miss out on the kids poking and prodding each other in the back seat as the long freeway hours roll by, paying visits to roadside hotels, and seeing cheesy “attractions” like the Corn Palace or Wall Drug. That’s too bad, because it means they will be missing out on a classic American experience and a chance to savor the freedom to roam and see different parts of the country at ground level. As the Griswold clan can attest, those traditional family driving trips can be the stuff of which lasting memories are made.

Just Shy Of The Cuckoo’s Nest Line

Yesterday I went to get my hair cut. In recent years, my haircuts have been an exercise in getting my locks clipped progressively shorter and shorter, because I find that I really don’t like longer hair and the work it involves at this point in my life. So I go to my hair-cutting emporium, say I’d like to have my hair trimmed a bit shorter than the last time, and my stylist responds with numbers that I don’t understand.

“Okay,” she says, with a look of knowledgeable determination. “Today we’ll try a 3.5 on the sides.” I recognize she is referring to some kind of setting on her professional-level electronic clippers, but I have no context for what that means in reality. It would be like the produce manager at your neighborhood grocery store earnestly telling you that the onions in the bin are a 3.5 on the Pyruvate scale. You might nod knowingly at that information, so as not to appear stupid to a guy wearing an apron, but you wouldn’t know what a 3.5 means until you actually taste the onion to see what that amount of Pyruvic acid tastes like.

As a result, it seems safer to approach things incrementally, and inch toward the ideal cut as the stylist gradually ratchets down the settings.

In my mind, I’ve got a pretty clear sense of what I ultimately want to get to: the same on the sides but a little bit longer on top than the haircut Christopher Lloyd sported in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, shown above, so that the hair on top can just barely be combed. I’m reminded of the old Jerry Seinfeld line about how they develop “maximum strength” pain relievers: apparently they determine what amount of pain relief will kill you, and then back it off just a bit. I want to find a haircut just shy of the Cuckoo’s Nest line.

Those Empty Theater Blues

As America works to recover from the various social, cultural, and economic impacts of the COVID pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly clear that one segment of the economy is facing a particularly difficult challenge: movie theaters.

The data on movie theater ticket sales tell a very sad tale for the industry. Ticket sales hit a high point in 2018, when 1,311,300,934 admission tickets were sold, producing revenues of $11,945,954,034. Sales dipped a bit in 2019, the last full pre-pandemic year, when 1,228,763,382 tickets were purchased–and then the bottom fell out. In 2020, when theaters were closed for most of the year in most of the country, only 221,762,724 tickets were sold, and I would guess most of those sales came in January and February, before shutdowns occurred in earnest in March. From that low point, sales rebounded slightly in 2021, to just under 500 million tickets, and if current trends continue, ticket sales in 2022 are on pace to hit just over 725 million–which is slightly better than half the industry’s best year.

In short, if you go to the local movie multiplex right now, you’re likely to find a lot of empty theaters, and you’ll get pretty good seats.

Interestingly, Gallup has periodically asked Americans about their movie attendance, and the recent data is dismal. In January of this year, Gallup announced that its polling data showed that Americans watched an average of 1.4 movies in a movie theater in the prior 12 months. The more compelling story, though, is told by individual movie attendance: 61 percent of respondents didn’t go to a theater at all during that 12-month period, 31 percent went out to watch between 1 and 4 movies, and 9 percent (figures are rounded for the math mafia out there) watched 5 or more movies. In 2007, by comparison, 39 percent of respondents attended between 1 and 4 movies in theaters, and 29 percent saw five or more movies. The Gallup data shows that movie attendance is particularly depressed among older Americans.

Gallup suggests that the movie theater business was grappling with challenges posed by competition from streaming services when the pandemic hit. With theaters then closed during the early days of the pandemic, and many people avoiding reopened theaters as new COVID variants emerged, the question now is whether people’s habits have changed to the point where going to a theater to watch a movie is even considered. And some of us would question whether the offerings being served up by Hollywood, where superhero movies and special effects rule the day, are going to entice broad groups of Americans to buy a ticket and a box of popcorn and settle into a theater seat to watch a film again.

Hollyweird

I haven’t watched the Academy Awards broadcast in decades, so I didn’t see the slap incident involving Will Smith and Chris Rock that happened Sunday night. Of course, that incident ended up being the focus of news reports on the show–rather than who actually won the Oscars in the various categories–and has been a huge topic of discussion in opinion columns and on social media.

My primary reaction to the whole thing is that it’s another in a long line of illustrations of just how weird and awful the whole Hollywood culture really is. In any normal reality, no rational person would even consider marching up on stage during a television broadcast, striking a person across the face because of an offensive joke, and launching an f-bomb for the national viewing audience, but the entertainment industry isn’t a normal reality. Instead, it’s an otherworldly, toxic culture, a witches’ brew of countless sex scandals, substance abuse, philandering, cheating, colossal egos in constant search of recognition, cowardly failures to expose sexual predators, toadying, posing, lack of accountability, and just about every other negative quality you can identify.

In saying this, I’m not blaming the culture for what Will Smith did; he’s got to be responsible for that. Instead, I’m just making the observation that no one should be surprised by anything that happens in Hollywood these days, no matter how inappropriate or shameful. The messed-up culture is fertile, enabling ground for misconduct, and this incident won’t be the last example of it.

Chris Rock apparently handled the incident with incredible professionalism on Sunday night, which is the only thing that kept the matter from escalating still further. The entertainment industry should recognize that it is forever in his debt for that. Not many people would have been able to restrain themselves from responding in kind to a slap, and if Rock didn’t show enormous self-control we would have been treated to the unseemly spectacle of tuxedo-clad celebrities brawling on live TV. As for Will Smith, he’s now issued a public apology to Chris Rock, and the celebrity culture will undoubtedly promptly close ranks and say that the incident is behind us and it’s time to move on.

But for many of us, we’ll still wonder what on earth is wrong with these people–and we’ll be grateful that we aren’t part of their titanic weirdness.