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.

The Godfather Turns 50

The Godfather turns 50 this week. The iconic mob movie, uniformly regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, was released on March 24, 1972.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting article featuring recollections of the some of the actors who starred in the original movie, which you can read here. And if you’re a fan of the films, you can watch a mini-series on the making of the original movie, called The Offer, that will be airing on the Paramount+ network later this spring.

The Godfather for a time was the highest grossing picture of all time, and it set the tone for an entire genre of mobster movies in which the gangsters were portrayed as believable human beings–criminal, violent, corrupting human beings, to be sure, but human beings nevertheless. While earlier Hollywood movies were often morality plays where the bad guy inevitably had to get gunned down in the end to send the right message to the audience about being a law-abiding citizen, The Godfather allowed Don Corleone to die of a heart attack while playing with his grandson in the tomato garden and showed Michael Corleone wreaking bloody vengeance on his enemies while at the same time swearing to a priest that he did renounce Satan and his evil deeds. (And was there anyone in the audience who, at that moment, wasn’t rooting for Michael to pull it off?) The conflict between the horrible and cold-blooded violence inflicted by the Corleones and the human elements of the characters made The Godfather much more compelling than the standard gangster movie. And for that reason virtually every mob-themed movie or TV series made since then–from Goodfellas to The Sopranos to just about any other one you can think of–owes a debt of gratitude to The Godfather.

Some people argue that, as a film, The Godfather, Part II is superior to the original. I am not sure about that, but I do know this: the original was groundbreaking in a way that the sequel could never be. So I say happy 50th to The Godfather. You made us all an offer we couldn’t refuse.

William Hurt

I was saddened to read of the death of actor William Hurt yesterday. Hurt, 71, died of natural causes.

During the 1980s, it seemed like William Hurt was in one great movie every year, films that included Broadcast News, The Big Chill, Children of a Lesser God, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Altered States, and Body Heat. Two of those movies, Broadcast News and The Big Chill, are among my favorites. Hurt’s portrayal of Tom Grunick, the news reporter who faked a tear on his rise to the anchor’s chair and who didn’t quite understand why other characters had a problem with that from an ethical standpoint, was at the heart of Broadcast News; Hurt’s ability to convey Grunick as a slightly dense but generally decent and likeable guy, and not someone who was trying to rise to the top at all costs, helped make that movie work. Nick, the character that Hurt played in The Big Chill, was one of the most interesting and fleshed-out characters in that film. I also liked Hurt’s performance during that same time period in Gorky Park, where he played a criminal investigator in the Soviet Union.

After the ’80s, Hurt wasn’t quite as prominent on the big screen, but his IMDb biography is incredibly long and impressive. We enjoyed his work in one of his last continuing roles, as Tom Cooperman in Goliath, where he played a disfigured and deeply troubled lawyer. In that role, as in many others, Hurt produced a believable, three-dimensional character who might have been a caricature in the hands of a lesser talent.

Rest in peace, William Hurt. You will be missed, but your acting legacy endures.

Harvey And His Duds

When I was a kid, Milk Duds were my favorite movie theater candy, without a doubt. I would buy a box and then, as the movie played, put those little chocolate-covered caramel nuggets on my tongue one by one and let them dissolve slowly until nothing remained. With proper discipline and the intestinal fortitude to resist chewing, you could make a box of Milk Duds last for the whole film, in contrast to people who bought a candy bar that was long since gone by the time the credits rolled.

At some point, though, I outgrew the Milk Duds. However, Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul who has been convicted of crimes in New York and is awaiting trial on charges of rape and sexual assault in California, apparently still can’t resist them. Weinstein got into trouble with his jailers in November because he was found to be in possession of smuggled contraband Milk Duds. Jail officials in Los Angeles believe that the candy was passed to Weinstein as he met with his attorneys to prepare for an upcoming trial.

Weinstein initially claimed that he had brought the Milk Duds with him when he came from New York to California in July, which would mean he made a single box of Milk Duds last from July to November–which is a heck of a lot longer than the length of one movie. Jail officials reject that claim because Weinstein was thoroughly searched at that time and found to be Dud-free. It also seems to be directly contrary to Weinstein’s reported history of egregious self-indulgence and doing whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted.

I imagine the manufacturer of Milk Duds isn’t exactly thrilled that this classic movie candy is now associated with Harvey Weinstein, I know I’ll never look at a box of Milk Duds in the same way again.

A Batman Too Far

Believe it or not, another Batman movie is hitting the theaters. Industry observers are hoping that The Batman will bring moviegoers back to in-person movie watching as the COVID pandemic ends and mask mandates are lifted. (If you’re interested–I’m not!–you can read a review of the film here.)

Seriously . . . another Batman movie? That statement, by itself, is an irrefutable indictment of the lack of creativity and risk-taking in modern Hollywood. The same story, with the same familiar cast of heroes, sidekicks, and villainous characters–this movie apparently includes Alfred, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman, for example–has now been told and retold countless times, just in the last few decades. Virtually every actor in Hollywood has played either Batman himself or one of his evildoers, and we’ve seen numerous depictions of the dark, brooding, crime-ridden Gotham City. Will the Batman remakes ever end?

Either Hollywood legitimately believes that the saga of Bruce Wayne is the most riveting story ever conceived, or it believes that big-budget remakes of the same story, over and over again, will dependably, safely draw a good crowd of moviegoers and allow the movie studio to recoup its enormous investment. As fascinating as the tale of a fabulously rich cowled crime fighter might be, I’m guessing the second reason is the real one. We’re fated to see Batman, and Spider-Man, and other superhero movies until people stop going to see them and send a clear message to Hollywood that we actually want to see something new and different where, perhaps, the main character doesn’t wear tights or exhibit superpowers. And the moviemakers may legitimately argue that you can’t fight the box office returns, which show that moviewatchers are perfectly content to mindlessly watch the latest Batman.

The prevalence of Batman and Spider-Man movies makes you wonder whether the surprise movies that become huge hits–movies like American Graffiti or the original Star Wars, for example–would even get made these days, or whether every Hollywood dollar gets sucked into the remakes and churning out new content for the streaming services. The only way we’ll find out is if we stop going to see the latest Batman reboot and hold the studios to some requirement of actual creativity.

If you’d like to see something fresh and new in the theaters, vote with your feet: don’t go see The Batman!

The Fistfight At The Golden Corral

We’ve all heard about the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, when the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday had a deadly confrontation with the Clanton-McLaury gang in Tombstone, Arizona. This week, the news has brought us reports of the Fistfight at the Golden Corral.

It happened last Friday at the Golden Corral restaurant in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. A massive brawl involving about 40 people occurred and reportedly began when the Golden Corral buffet was running out of steak and somebody cut in line. An astonishing video of the incident, which you can find at the above link, shows a turbulent and dangerous scene in which customers are throwing haymakers, swinging and then hurling wooden high chairs and other large items at each other, knocking around the restaurant furniture and colliding with overhead light fixtures while employees try to stop the madness and someone standing nearby repeatedly says “Oh shit”!

Have we really reached the point where Americans will get into mass fistfights at generic suburban restaurants about people cutting in line to get a piece of steak? It’s disturbing to think that general tensions have risen and people are on edge to the point where the slightest provocation could cause them to start hurling wooden chairs at complete strangers in a riotous melee. It makes you wonder just how many people are walking around with a hair trigger, ready to burst.

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been made into multiple movies. I doubt that the Fistfight at the Golden Corral will be memorialized on anything other than cellphone video–but that’s bad enough.

The Single-Digit Days

We’ve been experiencing some very cold weather over the past few days in the Midwest, with the temperature falling to the single digits during significant chunks of the day. On many days, we go about our lives without really paying much attention to the weather. When the temperature falls into the single digits, however, there is no ignoring it: Mother Nature is demanding your serious and careful attention.

It’s amazing how physically invasive frigid weather can be. You can bundle up, wear multiple layers, don a scarf or two and your warmest wool cap, and scrunch up to protect your core from the cold, but after a few minutes outside, your most vulnerable spots have been identified and you notice that extreme cold seeping in. And don’t even think about removing your gloves to check your cell phone! If you do, your fingers will immediately feel like desensitized wood, and you will never get them warm again until you get back inside. In fact, if we wanted a surefire method to reduce cell phone usage by teenagers, we would insist that they go outside on the icy days. We would see an immediate drop in texting, Snapchatting, TikToking, and every other sign of cell phone use.

When you’re walking outside in the arctic chill, there’s no real opportunity for daydreaming, either. The cold is too immediate and intrusive to permit that. You feel the cold with every intake of breath, with every steamy cloud that appears when you exhale, with your face becoming stiff with cold, and with your fingers becoming numb inside those gloves. And if your walk requires you to take a turn into the wind, all you will be able to think about is how to get the heck out of the way of those icy blasts and back into a place that is reasonably warm. And even when you do, it takes a while for your fingers to thaw so that you can unlace your boots and remove all of those layers.

In the classic movie Groundhog Day, Phil Connors–the Bill Murray character–spent hundreds of lifetimes reexperiencing the same wintry Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He taught himself to speak French, mastered the keyboards, saved a falling child, helped old ladies, and learned everything there is to know about every person in town. In the process, he became so enlightened that he could even appreciate the dismal, cold weather, and speak movingly of a “long and lustrous winter.” In my view, that last change in the character’s outlook was the single most unbelievable part of the film. I’ll never reach the level of enlightenment needed to appreciate the single-digit days.