Monday, June 30, 2008

Elton John -- 11/17/70 (music)

 Elton John, piano, vocals
Dee Murry, bass
Nigel Olson, drums
Wikipedia Page

11/17/70Elton John hit America with the single "Your Song," which immediately characterized him as a sensitive singer/songwriter who just happened to use a piano instead of a guitar.  His later work showed him as a very successful pop songwriter.

But Elton John, at least in the beginning, thought of himself as a rocker in the Jerry Lee Lewis mode. He complained how "Your Song" gave the wrong impression, that he would much rather rock out than play the role of the singer/songwriter.

11/17/70* proves him right.

It was somewhat groundbreaking from the start.  Elton was asked to perform a live radio concert in A&R studios in New York on November 11, 1970.  A small group of people were in the audience, and the set went onto the airwaves. Afterwards, Elton and his producer, Gus Dudgeon**, listened to the tape of the concert and were impressed by its quality. Because of this, and because bootlegs of the concert were showing up, they released it as an album.

It's a high energy, rocking show. The concert*** stared out with "Bad Side of the Moon" from original album.  The original song (from his Elton John album) was a moderate tempo rock song with a string accompaniment.  Here, not only is it stripped down to piano, bass, and drums, but it at a faster, wilder tempo.  "Amoreena" (from Tumbleweed Connection) turns from almost a ballad to rock, while "Take Me to the Pilot," a pretty uptempo rocker to begin with, becomes a frenzied anthem.

The rest of the concert continues at this wild pace.  "Sixty Years On" slows things up a bit, but Elton goes back to rocking with a cover of "Honky Tonk Woman" and the obscure original "Can I Put You On."

The high point of the album is its finale, an 18+ minute version of "Burn Down the Mission," performed at a breakneck pace and interpolating verses from "My Baby Left Me" and "Get Back."

It is an exhilarating experience.

The album sold OK, but was his worst selling album of the early 70s.  It reached 11 on the Billboard charts, but that was nothing for an artist who had seven number one albums. Elton also went in a different direction, moving away from the Jerry Lee Lewis piano pounding to more pop songs. Those who liked songs like "Levon," "Tiny Dancer," or "Daniel," would have found 11/17/70 a bit too different and even his foray into rock and roll -- "Crocodile Rock" -- doesn't come close to the energy he showed on that one night.

The CD is still in print, often for good prices, but iTunes has only portions of the concert (because he included songs by the Beatles and the Stones).  Hopefully, it will be available there, too.

But if you want to see a different Elton John than you're used to, seek out this gem.

*In the UK, of course, the album name is 17/11/70.

** Also the producer of several Bonzo Dog Band albums. I had to mention that.

***The original album changed the order of the songs and left off "Amoreena."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Bedford Incident

Bedford Incident (1965)
Directed by
James B. Harris
Written by James Poe, from a novel by Mark Rascovich
Starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, James MacArthur, Martin Balsam, Wally Cox, Eric Portman
IMDB Entry

You would have thought that the tensions of the Cold War would have lent themselves to some interesting films back when it was going on. Yet there were surprisingly few films that dealt with it directly.  Most used a fantastic element (science fiction films about giant ants) or made it into a background for general derring-do (James Bond), or used it for black comedy (Dr. Strangelove, The Mouse that Roared). Serious dramas were rare, probably because the subject was too close to the bone.

The Bedford Incident was one of the few examples. And its strength is that it was a chilling and realistic portrayal of just how things could go wrong.

The USS Bedford is a destroyer patrolling off Greenland. From the start, there are tensions among the crew.  Its commander, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a little too tightly wound, putting immense pressure on his crew to do things right, especially on Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), who never seems to get things right.  Reporter Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) observes what's going on as he tries to write an article about life on a naval destroyer and is bothered by Finlander's attitude, but Finlander isn't interested in what a civilian things and believes his criticism of Ralston will make him a better officer.

Into the mix comes a Soviet sub. The Bedford tracks it, in a game of cat and mouse, ratcheting up the tension to unbearable levels.  Seaman Merlin Queffle (Wally Cox) breaks under the strain, but Finlander won't give it up, refusing to let the sub alone, even when it begins to leave the area.

It's a recipe for disaster.  I won't go into how it happened, but it's a tragedy in the classical sense:  where the characters' flaws lead to an inevitable conclusion.

Richard Widmark as Eric Finlander Richard Widmark is superb as Finlander.  He made a career of tightly wound men, and this is one of his best. Finlander has some depth to him:  he's not just a martinet, and he's not just a commie hunter and Widmark brings it all out.

Sidney Poitier had recently won his Oscar and also puts on a fine performance as the voice of reason that Finlander refuses to listen to, and MacArthur's Ralston is a wonderful portrayal of a man who is trying to do his best -- and exactly the wrong type of person to be under Finlander's command.  It's also interesting seeing Wally Cox not only acting (instead of being on game shows), but in a dramatic role.

The movie did OK, but was no hit. It got grouped in with Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe as "The nuclear disaster trilogy," but since it was the last of the three to hit the screens, it made the least impact. Director Harris made a few more films, but nothing that made any impact.  MacArthur went on to play Danny Williams ("Book 'em, Dano") on Hawaii 5-0 and, of course, Poitier is still well-regarded today.

The movie was a warning and a tragedy, and I'm sorry that it seems to have sunk out of sight.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Friends of Digi-Comp Yahoo Group.
A nice overview.

I was interested in computers at a very early age. They were so science fictional (I loved science fiction) and the idea of one of those big electronic devices (with vacuum tubes and blinking lights, or course) was pretty exciting to a kid.

So, one year, my parents gave me one as a gift:  Digi-Comp


Digi-Comp was a mechanical computer.  No power source.  It was made out of plastic, some metal, and rubber bands.  You programmed it by putting a series of one-inch long plastic tubes* on pegs.  The location of the tubes determined the programming, and you could do arithmetic operations by moving a lever back and forth.  The numbers were in binary, of course, and there were three digits, so you could only get up to seven before overloading the computer.

Here's a nice little Youtube clip.  If you look closely, you can see the white numbers on the left side increase each time the computer is cycled.


Digi-Comp was clearly not designed for any serious computing, but it did display the principles nicely.  I took it into school to show how computers worked.

I did grow tired of it, mostly because moving the tubes around was always difficult and slow, and debugging involved making sure they were all in the right place.

But it was a great toy while it lasted.

*Just like the Internet!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Directed by
Richard Pearce
Screenplay by Beth Ferris, with additional scenes by Bill Kittredge.  Based on the letters of Elinore Pruitt Stewart
Starring Rip Torn, Conchata Ferrell, Megan Folsom
IMDB Entry.

image We all know what the American West was like -- outlaws and cowboys and Indians all shooting it out among themselves, with an occasional sheepman for color.  The marshal wore a star and everyone lived in towns with wooden sidewalks and hitching posts, whose only businesses were the livery stable, the general store, and about three saloons, all of which had those swinging half doors and a poker game going on at all times.

Heartland is nothing like that. It's one of the more realistic portrayals of the American West, concentrating on the human drama instead of shoot-'em-ups. 

That's because it's based on a real story.  Elinore Pruitt Stewart wrote letters back East about her life, and someone managed to collect them an turn them into a movie.

The plot is simple.  Eleanor Randall (Conchata Ferrell), with her daughter Jerrine (Megan Folsom), travels to Wyoming to work as housekeeper for the reclusive and taciturn farmer, Clyde Stewart (Rip Torn). Despite his pennypinching ways, they slowly develop a relationship until Clyde asks him to marry her.  But life is difficult and lonely on the plains and it puts a strain on their lives.

This is a real human story, the type of tale that tells more about how people actually had to live than any other Hollywood film.  The cinematography (by Fred Murphy) gives the audience a real idea about just how desolate life on the plains could be, and how much a struggle it was just to survive.

I've spoken about my admiration of Conchata Ferrell  before, but this is truly her best role.  Eleanor is brave, determined, and very human, fighting to make a better life for her daughter and herself.  It's a shame she hasn't been given a chance to repeat something this memorable.

Rip Torn is also terrific as Clyde, a man of very few words and who seems emotionally distant, but who shows flashes of the true personality beneath his hard exterior.

The film was an art house hit (at a time there were still art houses), but not a big money maker.  Torn's career took off afterwards (this was at a relatively low point in his career curve, before he started getting major roles again.  Director Richard Pearce worked in TV and got good reviews for his film The Long Walk Home, but has never had something like this to work with.

If you're fond of films with great characters and an unblinking look at how the West was won, this is a good place to start.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Renaissance (music)

RenaissanceKeith Relf, Vocals, Guitar; Jim McCarty, Drums; Jane Relf, Vocals; John Hawkin, piano; Louis Cennamo, bass
All Music Guide Page

The Yardbirds is one of the seminal groups of British rock, second only to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers as the place where great musicians first came to prominence. Their original lead guitarist was Eric Clapton, of course, and when he left, Jeff Beck was chosen as his replacement.  Later, Jimmy Page joined the group, but disagreed with Beck, who went off to form the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart doing vocals.  There were further disagreements and eventually Page took over the group and formed the New Yardbirds (with a trio of unknowns named Robert Plant, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones) to fill out some concert dates.*

But the least known connection -- and the one that seems so unlikely -- was Renaissance.

You see, the leader (and vocalist) of the group during much of its time was Keith Relf, not the guitar heroes that gave it its fame.  When he and Page started arguing about the direction the group was going, Relf (along with original drummer Jim McCarty) went off to form Renaissance.

It was a radical departure from the heavy blues (and India-influence music) that made the Yardbirds famous. Relf was going for a more acoustic sound.  He and McCarty provided a rock basis, and the real find -- keyboardist John Hawkin -- provided a baroque classical  and jazz-tinged mood. Relf's sister Jane provided some beautiful vocals and the result was an album entitled simple "Renaissance."

The album starts with a bang with a long piano intro to the first song "Kings and Queens" and never disappoints. The other songs ("Innocense," "Island," "Wanderer," and "Bullet") are all exciting primarily because of Hawkin's amazing piano and Jane Relf's voice.  It is a powerful melding of classical and rock music, and a first-class debut.

Alas, it did poorly, not even charting. A second album was recorded but left  unreleased, at which point the Relfs and McCarty left the group.  But the group continued on. They added Annie Halsam on vocals and emerged with the album "Prelude," (which had none of the original members**) at which point the name Renaissance because a cult favorite.  But the group was blander and smoother, without the edge of Hawkin's piano to give it bite.

In many ways, this is a parallel to the situation with Blood, Sweat, and Tears, whose original lineup was not the one that became a success (though BS&T were more successful, and actually had memers of the original group when they found their success). Keith Relf tried several bands before dying by accidentally electrocuting himself while playing guitar.  The other members of the group formed Illusion, which had limited success and split up, Hawkin joining the Strawbs. The art rock movement not only was dead, but was the subject of derision by punk rockers, so there was no point any more.

I'm a fan of the art/rock genre -- the melding of classical and rock -- and the first Renaissance is one of the high points of the genre.

*I can imagine people showing up and complaining that it was only Page and a bunch of nobodies and demanding their money back.

**Jim McCarty has a credit on the album, but was not the regular drummer.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Fresno (TV)

fresno (1986)
Directed by
  Jeff Bleckner
Written by Mark Ganzel, Barry Kemp, Michael Petryni
Starring Carol Burnett, Dabney Coleman, Gregory Harrison, Teri Garr, Charles Grodin, Luis Avalos, Pat Corley, Valerie Mahaffey, Anthony Heald, Teresa Ganzel, Bill Paxton, Jerry Van Dyke

TV miniseries are almost always dramas. If you want to do a comedy, you create it as a series, mostly because it's unlikely that people will want to stay for several nights (some have suggested that comedy usually outstays its welcome when it goes on for too long, and a look at movie running times seems to confirm that).  But one exception was Fresno.

This was in the 80's, when prime time soaps like Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest ruled the air.  So Barry Kemp and Mark Ganzel decided that the time was right for a spoof of the prime-time soaps.  Kemp decided on Fresno because at the time the city was listed at the top of several "worst place to live" lists. 

Fresno was the epic of the Kensington family, wealthy raisin growers and the threat to their empire by the evil raisin tycoon Tyler Crane (Dabney Coleman). Charlotte Kensington (Carol Burnett) drinks too much, mourning the death of her husband in a dehydrator accident. Cane Kensington (Charles Grodin) tries to save the farm by making a deal with to be a toxic waste dump, while his wife Talon (Terri Garr) goes from one affair after another, and sets her sights on the farmhand Torch (Gregory Harrison), who always appears without his shirt.

The plot is impossibly convoluted, playing off the nighttime soap opera cliches of the time. And while there are few one liners, the little tale about the naming of the city is funny:

Two Spanish conquistadors present a load of grapes to the commandante.  He takes one taste and spits them out.

"You call these grapes?" he asks.  "They taste like fresno!"

Everyone had a great time on the show. Dabney Coleman is always great as a villain and the others get the most out of their roles, underplaying very nicely.

The show didn't overwhelm in the ratings.  It was probably too subtle, and the six hour length was a bit daunting, especially since the humor was more like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman than Carol Burnett's soap opera spoofs. In addition, it was suggested that it might have been a little too well written -- the plotting was never as slapdash as in the real things.

Like most miniseries, this vanished after it was first run.  It got some Emmy nominations, but not in any category anyone but the people nominated (and their families) cared much about.  Mark Ganzel went on to produce Coach and the infamous Dads*.

Fresno has been on DVD, but seems to have gone off the market.  It would be great to see it again.

*Dads would probably be up there among the worst comedies on TV, except for the fact it I'm not sure if it ever appeared on TV.  However, the tape is still being used by market research firms, who will ask you to view a videotape of it purportedly to determine if it goes on the air. In actuality, they want you to watch the ads in the middle and then, when they do survey you, they ask two questions about the show and a dozen about the ads.  I don't know why they don't just send you the ads to see instead of trying to fool you (not that anyone would be fooled by this gambit).  The last time a market research firm asked me about sending me a video to give my opinions about the show, I asked them, "Are you going to send me Dad's again?" 

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Turtle Diary

Turtle Diary (1985)
Directed by
John Irvin
Screenplay by Harold Pinter, from a novel by Russell Hoban
Starring Ben Kingsley, Glenda Jackson, Michael Gambon

I keep a list of films and shows I want to write about here on the blog, and sometimes I can see patterns.  I know I've been featuring Alfred Hitchcock, and also Harlan Ellison, as well as Stephen Frears. But sometimes I find other connections that I hadn't realized -- good films that have a director in common, but which I never realized the connection. This happened awhile ago when I realized that two fine films -- Little Voice and Brassed Off -- had the same director.

But John Irvin is the first time I listed three films before realizing the same director was involved in each.

I'll start with Turtle Diary. As you can see by the screenplay credits, it had an impressive genesis.  I remember Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker as an interesting science fiction novel, one of the few (A Clockwork Orange is another) that created an entire new language for the future and told the story in that language. And Pinter, of course, is one of the 20th century's greatest playwrights.

Turtle Diary is the story of William Snow (Ben Kingsley) and Nearea Duncan (Glenda Jackson), two lonely people who meet at the turtle tank at the London Zoo and embark on a quixotic task to release the turtles into the wild.  They are aided by the turtles' keeper George Fairburn (Michael Gambon) and work to free the turtles -- and also free themselves. 

It's a quiet movie without a lot of plot, but Jackson and Kingsley are marvelous as two shy people who learn to trust one another and open up to the world. It's charming from start to finish, with nice flashes of humor. 

Irvin went on to direct some other films in the same vein (which I'll talk about some day), but this one really stands out.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Hero (1992)
Directed by
Stephen Frears
Written by Laura Ziskin & Alvin Sargent and David Webb Peoples
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis, Andy Garcia, Chevy Chase, Joan Cusak

Some directors seem fated to go unrecognized. One example is John Irvin.  And another is British director Stephen Frears.

Frears list of films include Gumshoe, My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Dangerous Liaisons (the John Malkovich/Glenn Close version), and The Grifters. After he moved to Hollywood for The Grifters (a modest success), he got his first big-time cast in Hero, a fascinating look at heroism.

Bernie Laplante (Dustin Hoffman) is a petty thief and lowlife who happens to be in the right place at the wrong time as an airliner crashes. Reluctantly, he pulls people from the wreckage, saving lives, then goes off to avoid the glare of the spotlight.

The mysterious savior becomes a media obsession -- "The Angel of Flight 104" -- and Gayle Gayley (Geena Davis) goes off to find the hero of the hour.  The evidence points to John Bubber (Andy Garcia), who shows up with the evidence -- one of Laplant's shoes -- to claim a reward.  Bubber is charming and sympathetic, but he's also a fraud.  Laplante is sleezy and dirty, but really the hero. 

The plot uses this turnaround to say some fascinating things about heroism.  The movie is funny, but also has a lot to say.

Hoffman, of course, is great as Laplante, a riff on his Ratso Rizzo role. Garcia is just as strong, and Davis is good as she starts to fall for Bubber only to begin to suspect he might not be what he seemed.

The movie did very poorly at the US box office, especially for a film with such star power.  It broke even overseas, but Frears seemed to go back to the UK, where he continued with such gems as The Snapper and The Van (semi-sequels to the film The Commitments), High Fidelity, Mrs. Henderson Presents and The Queen.

The film wasn't a drag on his career, but it deserves to be remembered as more than just one name in a distinguished list.