The Risks And Rewards Of Book Recommendations

Recently JV strongly recommended Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  I like biographies, so I got a copy of the book from the library, read it, and concluded that JV was absolutely right:  it’s a terrific, thought-provoking book about a fascinating, almost unbelievable genius that is well worth reading.

61acccc4wwl-_sx330_bo1204203200_JV’s review, though, got me to thinking about the act of making book recommendation to your friends.  When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of trust and courage to do it, because you’re exposing a bit of your inner self in doing so.  If you read a book and give it a rave review to your friends, there’s a risk that they will read it and think it’s not exactly the bee’s knees.  What you think is a deeply moving tale they might find to be banal and superficial, and what you think is a fascinating bit of history they might conclude is a long, boring slog.  And, through the prism of the book and your review of it, they might just revise their perception of you, too.

It’s a chance you take whenever you give a hearty thumbs-up or a crushing thumbs-down to any piece of popular culture, be it a book, a movie, or a TV series.  People have different interests and will find different things appealing, or off-putting.  The risk that people will disagree, though, probably causes some vulnerable people to shy away from talking about their reactions to books, movies, and the like.  If so, that’s a shame.  Anything that might discourage people from talking about books is a bad thing.

I like getting book recommendations from friends and family, precisely because they do give you some insight into the personality and preferences of the recommender.  And, too, I find that their real-world reviews tend to be a lot more reliable than some lofty, self-consciously intellectual review written by a literature professor in the New York Times book review section.

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Egon Sadly Gone

I was very saddened today to read of the death of Harold Ramis.

Ramis was a titanic yet nevertheless underappreciated cultural figure who played a large role in many hugely popular, clever, often brilliant movies — like Animal House, Groundhog Day, Stripes, and Caddyshack — and who dazzled in some small roles that helped to make good films, like As Good as It Gets and Knocked Up, even better. Anyone who could write Animal House, direct Groundhog Day, and bring a poignancy and warmth to the role of Ben’s Dad in Knocked Up has more talent that most people could even fathom.

I’d like to focus specifically, though, on Ramis’ depiction of Egon Spengler, the genius who created the hard-scientific core of the spirit-catching team in Ghostbusters. Egon Spengler is arguably the greatest depiction of a true scientific nerd ever to grace the silver screen. Ramis captured every element of the character, from the Eraserhead-like hairdo to the lack of awareness of normal social behavior to the immediate knowledge of every page of obscure spirit guides and ghostly treatises to the willingness to create catastrophically dangerous ghost-catching devices without a second thought. We knew the Bill Murray was the clown and Dan Aykroyd was the rumpled everyman, but Egon Spengler and his protonic inventions is the one who allowed the Ghostbusters to match up with Gozer and could explain the extraordinary danger in it all by using a Twinkie as a illustration.

Ghostbusters is a great movie — one of the first “high-concept” blockbusters, where the gist of the plot could be captured in a single sentence — and Egon Spengler is what really made the movie work. The Spengler character made the Ghostbusters concept plausible, and Ramis had to sell that brainy, socially oblivious character as someone who could design ghost-catching traps and understand cross-dimensional portals. He did it brilliantly and hilariously . . . and, equally important for the nerds among us, in the process he somehow made being the nerdy scientific geek kind of cool.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many other modern figures who had the impact on popular culture of Harold Ramis. He was only 69, and these days you can fairly say that people who die at 69 die much too young. He will be missed.

The Twilight Of Talk Shows

Last week Jay Leno stopped hosting The Tonight Show. I was amazed to see that he had been the host of that venerable show for 22 years. That means it’s been 22 years since I last watched The Tonight Show.

I’ve got nothing against Leno, who could capably tell a joke and mug for the camera. He’ll be replaced by the smug Jimmy Fallon, whose claimed talents have always been lost on me, and I won’t watch the show then, either. It’s just that the talk show concept seems so trite and formulaic, it takes a gigantic talent and iconic figure like Johnny Carson to make it watchable. None of the current crop of hosts even comes close — which means the appeal of late-night talk shows is strictly limited to insomniacs.

At the dawn of TV, the staples of programming were westerns, variety shows, news documentaries, and talk shows. The Tonight Show, for example, started in 1954 with Steve Allen as its host. Sixty years later, the westerns and variety shows and documentaries are gone from the airwaves, but the talk shows remain.

In 60 years, the creaky format of talk shows hasn’t changed much, either. We’ve seen Jack Parr, Carson, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and countless others I’ve long since forgotten sitting behind their desks and coffee cups, with some phony backdrop behind them. There’s a monologue, a skit or parody, and some banter with the band leader or sidekick, and then the guests come out — a film star pitching her movie, a new comedian trying to hit the big time, and perhaps a political figure or quirky character who won a yodeling contest or collects rocks that look like U.S. Presidents. A few rote questions, some banal conversation, and its time to move down the couch and bring on the next guest.

Why are talk shows still on their air? Do people find some comfort in the familiar format? Why is a vintage concept that began decades before the internet, CDs, streaming video, and Netflix still around, when everything else about our popular culture has changed so dramatically?

Drifting Into Old Fartdom

Justin Bieber was arrested last week for drunken driving and resisting arrest. It was one of those pop cultural stories that dominate the headlines even though, in the grand scheme of things, Justin Bieber’s difficulties are of no significance whatsoever.

I’ve never listened to one of Justin Bieber’s songs or seen him perform. I know he is, or was, one of those child stars who had a carefully cultivated squeaky clean image. Now he seems to be rebelling against it and, like other child stars before him, wants desperately to establish an adult persona. It’s a familiar, downward path that typically includes public drunkenness, arrests, and an “edgy,” embarrassing, hypersexualized public performance. Before they know it, they are universally viewed as jackasses and their squeaky clean images are gone forever.

But I digress . . . or actually, I don’t. The kind of outburst above is a sure sign that I am sliding into Old Fartdom. For some reason, the Grammys seem to bring this out every year. Because I long ago stopped listening to on-air radio stations I don’t know most of the popular artists, and I’m fed up with the self-absorption and conspicuous consumption of many of those I do know. I don’t need to see people sticking their tongues out at me or “twerking,” thank you very much.

I think the long drift into Old Fartdom begins with music. You eagerly listen to new music through your college years, try to keep up with it when you start working, then finally quit listening to insipid on-air radio in disgust and really focus on music that you like. After a decade or two, the current hits and artists like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and interchangeable hip-hoppers are as alien to you as Rudy Vallee.

When that happens, you’ve taken your first step onto Old Fart Avenue, and you may as well embrace it. You’re not going back.

Where, Precisely, Do The Lines Of Propriety Lie?

Martin Bashir, a host on the MSNBC network, resigned yesterday.  His resignation came several weeks after he made an extraordinarily vulgar and offensive comment about Sarah Palin.  In his resignation statement, Bashir described his comment as “ill-judged” and added:  “I deeply regret what was said.”

It’s nice to know that, in a world where popular culture seems to grow irreversibly coarser with each new performance of a song or comedy routine, there are still some lines that can’t be crossed.  Of course, drawing the line at statements that someone should perform a gross anatomical act in the mouth of a political figure doesn’t exactly say a lot about our current cultural boundaries.  Such statements may be off limits — for now, at least — but where does the line lie?  Why didn’t Bashir immediately realize that his contemplated comment was “ill-judged” and then refrain from saying it in the first place?

This isn’t a question of free speech, or rough-and-tumble politics, or rejecting antiquated Victorian notions of correct behavior.  It is a deeper issue that strikes at the core of our society.  It isn’t improper to insist that people treat each other with respect and propriety and recognize that not every public performance or statement needs to push the envelope.  If political figures, Democrat or Republican, have to endure appalling, mean-spirited, over-the-top comments as the price for their involvement in the political world, people who might otherwise help us find our way out of our current predicament aren’t going to throw their hat into the ring.  That’s obviously bad for everyone.  We need to show that we can disagree with each other in ways that are proper and dignified and reflect well on the maturity and fundamental decency of our culture.

I’m glad Martin Bashir realized that he crossed the line with his comment, even if it took him a while to recognize that fact.  I’m hoping that this incident helps to establish a stronger, clearer line that all radio and TV hosts and pundits, regardless of their political affiliation, recognize and respect — a line that falls well short of the crassness, vulgarity, and unseemly personal attacks that we seem to see with increasing frequency these days.

The Rehabilitation Quandary

Last night, on our way to a visit with Richard in Columbus, Missouri, Kish and I spent the night in Terre Haute, Indiana.  (For the record, Terre Haute means “upland.”)  We stayed in a Candlewood Suites downtown.

IMG_5032One block away was a magnificent movie theater — the Indiana.  Located on a corner, it had a fantastic wraparound front, a central ticket window, a fine neon sign, and especially beautiful, detailed stone or plaster work above the entrance.  You could easily imagine walking into the theater to watch new releases like The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or some other film from the golden era of Hollywood.

I could only imagine what the interior looked like — because the Indiana was closed, of course.  Like many of the magnificent downtown theaters in America, it has fallen out of favor in an era of multiplexes and cinemas where a dozen films are offered and some theater screens as only slight larger than the big screen TV offered at Best Buy.

There was a big dumpster outside the Indiana, and a small piece of machinery that indicated there was a rehabilitation effort underway.  That’s the big quandary for towns like Terre Haute, I suppose.  You’ve got tremendous structures from your glory days, but they just aren’t economical anymore.  What do you do with them?  Do you sink money into them, and hope that you can figure out a way to keep them busy and marginally profitable?  Or do you just recognize that societal forces have sent structures like the Indiana the way of the dodo?

I say give it a shot.  Keep the Indiana, and hope that you can find a way to support something that is beautiful and unique.

“Knee Ticklers” In The Age Of Innocence

In 1971, our family moved from Akron to Columbus.  We left behind the world of Cleveland TV personalities, like Barnaby and Captain Penny, and moved into the orbit of Cincinnati TV shows that were carried on Columbus stations.  One of the Cincinnati shows was a silly daytime variety show called The Paul Dixon Show.

Paul Dixon was an older man who appeared to wear an obvious toupee.  I’m not sure whether he had any special talent, but he had been hosting his show for years and was a celebrity in the Cincinnati area.  One of his trademark segments was to attach a “knee tickler” — a kind of dangling ornament — to the hems of the dresses of the housewives who made up the studio audience for his show.  Campy music would play, Paul Dixon would make a few lascivious facial expressions at the camera, and then he would demurely attach the “knee tickler” to the one-piece, just above the knee mini-dress of a stocky middle-aged woman with a beehive hairdo.  This routine was viewed as “naughty,” edgy, just barely acceptable stuff in the world of daytime TV in the early ’70s.

It was a more innocent time then.  I thought of The Paul Dixon Show recently when I saw a grown man wearing a t-shirt that had a depiction of a hand giving the finger and used the “f”-word, spelled out in bold letters.  He was at a sporting event where lots of people, including kids, were in attendance.  He obviously thought it was hilarious stuff, but for me it epitomized the increasingly vulgarity and crassness of our popular culture.  We’ve gone from times where putting a “knee tickler” on a woman’s dress pushed the envelope to the point where the queen mother of curses is casually displayed on clothing worn at a public event.

I don’t yearn for a return to Victorian sensibilities, but I regret the direction in which we are heading.  If we’ve reached the point where obscene t-shirts are an accepted part of popular culture, what’s the next stop in our downward spiral?