The Art of the Sell — TV Guide listings ads

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

tv guide ad

The primacy of one particular periodical in my pop culture–obsessed youth can’t be overstated. There was a time, tender young souls, when knowing what programs were going to appear on television required the consultation of regularly published reference materials. At one point, TV Guide had the highest circulation of any magazine in the U.S., the satisfying little slab of pages offering mostly cheerful puffery about small-screen celebrities and, most importantly, a complete listing of everything airing on television across an entire week. The descriptions in the listings were merely perfunctory, giving only the barest idea of what might be happening in any given episode. Discerning readers knew to peruse the ads.

The major networks snapped up column inches positioned around the prime time listings to tout the latest episodes of their priority series. The ads were structured with a common format: images of the stars lumped together, pithy plot summaries, and always — always! — the promise of grand entertainment for those tuning in. In addition to providing urgent promotion, the ads were a barometer of the respective shows’ popularity. As series withered in the ratings, the ads for them grew smaller and less prominent, until that already canceled series just burning off episodes were lucky to get a tiny corner in a different ad, touting other shows airing on the same night. Well before ratings information was readily available to anyone who clicked their way to it, I was keenly aware of the sad fate befalling some of my favorite shows by the ad space they were afforded.

TV Guide is still published, but I haven’t picked up a copy in ages, confident the digital grid that greets me at a button push will provide more than enough information for me. And the DVR is going to catch everything I’m likely to watch anyway. I do miss flipping  pages, my anticipation juiced by the cheery, simple marketing efforts. Mentally planning my week of television viewing was almost as good as sitting in front of the set and soaking it all in. Actually, I think sometimes the planning was even better.

Outside Reading — No Room for the Baker edition

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Why I Love Kids’ Books in Translation by Rivka Galchen

I recently listened to a podcast segment that was almost entirely comprised of the wonderful writers Rivka Galchen and Jia Tolentino chatting excitedly as they browsed through children’s’ section of a Brooklyn bookstore. There was such purity and poignancy to their appreciation of the books that stirred them as children, and it was strikingly free of nostalgia. In exploring the value of the books, the duo considered the literary mechanics and emotional impacts, affording the works the exact same inherent value any any revered tome anointed properly in the canon. A phase-shift contextualization was largely set aside in favor of evaluating these books as just books. Some of that tone carries over to this new essay by Galchen, written for Publishers Weekly, though there’s also plenty of retrospective child psychology self-analysis at play. With wonderful insight, Galchen mostly offers insights on the ways in which children’s books imported from other lands have their fantastical wonderment compounded. And, in a way, that applies to books for big kids, too.



Among the Moderate Chic at Bari Weiss’s Book Party by Boris Kachka

Writing for New York magazine, Boris Kachka mingles around a Manhattan party to commemorate the release of the first book by Bari Weiss, an intellectually suspect writer with a special talent for defending hideous men. In its simple recounting of the social event’s particulars, the article exposes the blithe detachment of all those assembled, the fussbudget fanciness shaped into a flimsy disguise of substance. The most telling element of the article is the repeated demurrals of those asked about Weiss’s more controversial views, further proof that membership in the club of elite opinion-flingers is more important than the value, weight, and impact of the actual opinions.


Outline (2014) by Rachel Cusk


The plot of Rachel Cusk’s Outline — the first novel in a trilogy — can be describe in the barest of terms: A woman travels to Greece in order to teach a writing class, encounter others on her trip. On that frame, Cusk drapes the most elegant, beautiful tapestries of thought and language. Stories are told, exposing the characters through what is and isn’t said, and the small, brutal challenges — and, with less frequency, the tiny, fine graces — of merely existing in the world burble into sight. Cusk’s constant invention and deft, brisk structuring combine with an absolute command of tone to create the sort of writing that makes me a little embarrassed that I ever engage in the act of jumbling words together. It’s like making a three-orb snowman only to turn around and discovery someone else nearby has whipped up a reasonable replica of Elsa’s ice palace using the same tools and materials.

Radio Days — Speeding Motorcycle

This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.

During my first foray into college broadcasting, one of my favorite tracks to play on the radio was recorded on the air at a different station.

In 1990, Yo La Tengo released an EP to accompany to boost the single “Here Comes My Baby,” culled from their covers album Fakebook. The last cut on the release was a new version of “Speeding Motorcycle,” a song that appeared on Fakebook and was originally written and recorded by Austin-based singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. While Yo La Tengo was making one of their regular appearances the great New Jersey radio station WFMU-FM, Johnston called in and suggested he and the band perform the song together, right then and in their two separate versions of there. A collaboration of musicians clustered before the microphones of a radio studio and a distant singer, his already warble-prone voice made more unpolished by the distortion of the telephone wire, the recording is magic.

Across his life, Johnston had his struggles, and, as is the case with just about any creator whose works can reasonably be characterized as outsider art, there were reasonable questions to be raised about whether he was being embraced or exploited by the entertainment machine. But my impression of him was forever set by the innocent and evident pleasure he clearly found in just singing his song with a band that clearly liked it. There are no airs, no aspirations, no cunning whatsoever. That truth is demonstrated convincingly by slight clumsiness at the beginning of the song, rapidly overcome by the understanding ministrations of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan. I this is the reason I played the cut so often: because in the shared, impromptu performance sits the pure, clarifying beauty of making music together.


Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.

Beers I Have Known — Burnt City Brewing Pterodactyl Deathscream

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.


It can be dangerous to visit breweries while traveling, especially with full knowledge that there is plenty of room in the car for consumable souvenirs. On a recent trip to Chicago, for example, I was quite sure my beer fridge back at home was stocked adequately. Then, on a recommendation, a stop was made at the District Brew Yards, a unique facility home to multiple brewers and their collective tap room built around a unique pour-your-own model. Sampling every contributing brewery’s wares was a pleasure, but the main attraction was Burnt City Brewing. Small pours were sampled and savored, and, before I knew it, a box heavy with cans was loaded into the back of the car. And someone else was driving. I was reminded of that grand adventure recently when I opened up a Pterodactyl Deathscream, a double dry-hopped DIPA and was enthralled all over again. The brewery visits might be dangerous, but they are clearly risks worth taking.

Greatish Performances #46

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#46 — Raul Julia as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991)

Movie screens weren’t big enough for Raul Julia. He started working in film in the early nineteen-seventies and picked up a few additional credits throughout the decade, but it is the stage work resume he built concurrently that better indicates the level of his talent. He delivered well-regarded performances in Shakespeare plays and earned four Tony nominations for his work as a lead actor in musicals, including two performances — in The Threepenny Opera and Nine — that almost immediately ascended to the level of iconic. The projection equipment in movie houses could make him larger than life, by literal definition. In truth, the camera diminished Julia. He needed a full auditorium that he could level his gaze upon, a mass of people to regale with his fervent energy, a whole world to play against.

In its basics, including the bare motivations that got it made, The Addams Family shouldn’t really be the project that gave Julia his finest showcase on film. Officially based on the odd, macabre cartoons by Charles Addams, The Addams Family more plainly cribs from the nineteen-sixties sitcom that drew from the same source material. The film was released at the mouth of of the river of constantly repurposed entertainment brands that carved the modern mindset of Hollywood studios. Playing Gomez Addams, the title family’s sartorially resplendent patriarch, wasn’t exactly a formidable test of the more intricate elements of Julia’s craft.  It was, however, a marvelous platform for Julia to unleash every iota of his jubilant creativity.

I can’t think of another film performance of the era — and very few when the search parameters are expanded to any era — that resounds with such evident delight. My perception of Julia’s personal feelings could be mistaken. Maybe playing Gomez was misery for him, or maybe it was purely a paycheck role, rousing no motivation in him to excel in his scenes of boisterous comedy. But Julia’s pure, unbridled gusto in every physical flourish and punchline launched like a verbal bottle rocket suggest otherwise. He is devastating charismatic and exuberantly devilish. Julia careens across The Addams Family like the screen’s last swashbuckler.

The Addams Family was a sizable hit, spawning a sequel. Julia wasn’t able to truly capitalize on his suddenly elevated status. Less than three years after the release The Addams Family, Julia died after a series of escalating health problems. He was only fifty-four years old. Coming so soon after The Addams Family, the news was a particular shock because one of the best ways to describe Julia’s performance in the film is as vibrantly, dazzlingly alive.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold

Laughing Matters — How Lord of the Rings Should Have Ended

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Without delving into the particulars, I had cause today to recall director Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved literary epics. Although I will still gladly champion at least twothirds of the first trilogy the filmmaker brought to the screen, my nostalgic appreciation of its virtues is always accompanied by — and tempered by — persistent thoughts of this expert comedic exposure of a major plot problem. I can’t claim to have watched every tidbit crafted by the commendably prolific people behind How It Should Have Ended, but I’m skeptical they ever topped the ingenious simplicity of this early entry in their canon.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #656 to #653


656. The Headboys, The Headboys (1979)

“At the time, it was important to construct an image,” guitarist Lou Lewis noted in explaining the origins of his band the Headboys. “I got a pretty severe haircut and went to the schoolwear shop on Commercial Street. I bought a school shirt, tie, and blazer, and wore them with white Kickers and skintight jeans. I was due to meet the guys at a pub in Edinburgh and I turned up like that. The next thing I knew, they were off to do the same.”

After starting operations as a band called Badger, the Scottish quartet adopted the name the Headboys and became the subject of a small bidding war between record companies. They eventually settled on Robert Stigwood’s RSO Records, deciding it was going to be more fun recording for it, and the band set out to make their first album, all before they’d played a live gig together. The Headboys was released, heralded by the modest hit single “The Shape of Things to Come,” which sounds like choice power pop with a prog rock hangover. Musically, it’s one of those songs that encapsulates the end of the nineteen-seventies, as one form was giving way to others.

The Headboys is full of strange little gems that reflect and refract the era. “Stepping Stones” has the crispness and ease of Pete Townshend’s solo work, and “Experiments” could fit nicely onto one of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled efforts. There’s a nifty jitterbug bounce to “The Breakout,” and “The Ripper” comes across as the product of a veddy British version of Kiss. Some other finger-swirls in the zeitgeist haven’t aged as well. “Schoolgirls” is pretty gross, and another sign that lecherous pining after teenaged girls was evidently as obligatory for late-seventies male performers as invective against Margaret Thatcher was for U.K. punks bands was a few years later.

Some European touring followed, including at least one gig at which some Irish upstarts going by the name U2 opened up for them, but the Headboys were mostly interested in getting back into the studio to record their next album, at least initially. As they were finishing up their sophomore album, the group collectively decided they were worn out by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. They called it quits, and the new material they recorded went unreleased for over thirty years, finally showing up in 2013, on a CD dubbed The Lost Album.


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655. Prince, 1999 (1982)

1999 was Prince’s fourth full-length studio effort, but, in practically every respect, the double album was where his artistic revolution began. To dispense with the pun quickly, 1999 was the first album to feature his most famed backing band, though the Revolution doesn’t receive the same prominent official billing they’d enjoy on subsequent releases. The album also provided a major commercial breakthrough for Prince. Three years after his sole Top 40 single to that point, 1999 delivered three different songs into the glory land of the Billboard chart, and the album itself was Prince’s first to reach the Top 10 and log multi-platinum sales. Those formidable achievements aside, 1999 is significant because it was arguable the first instance of the Prince asserted the full force of his unique musical genius.

The astonishing side one is enough to settle any debate about the album’s greatness. “1999,” “Delirious,” and “Little Red Corvette” arrive in succession, an opening so potent that even the most aggressively stacked greatest hits collections can’t touch it. No other stretch of the album truly approaches that early, dizzying peak, but there are mind-spinning concoctions of sound all over. The jittery “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” and the sweet soul groove of “International Lover” attest to the Prince’s easy mastery of whatever style he adopts, and other tracks offer equally convincing evidence of his ease in drawing boundaries only to stroll past them. Sometimes only fanciful metaphor will do, as with “D.S.M.R.,” with its floaty, buzzing quality that suggests the funk song an especially cool bumblebee might cook up.

As the album wears on, Prince sometimes lets songs meander, drawing dangerously close to mere noodling. “Lady Cab Driver” extends the blithe straying to the lyrics (“Help me girl I’m drownin’, mass confusion in my head/ Will you accept my tears to pay the fare?”), but any problems are minor, counterbalanced completely by the churning nebulae of pure invention. It’s almost undeniable that a major artist in emerging in the album’s grooves. “Automatic” might be the clearest forecast of the relentless innovation and unchecked mastery that Prince would deploy on his next album, the mega-selling Purple Rain.


game real

654. Game Theory, Real Nighttime (1985)

On the sophomore release from the California-based band Game Theory, the primacy of frontman and chief songwriter Scott Miller was affirmed. Following a tour meant to showcase the new music they’d created, Game Theory essentially fell apart, with every member except Miller leaving the band for various reasons. The album’s original group shot front cover was hastily replaced with a photo of only Miller, and the band personnel were officially billed as simply contributing musicians, with no higher status that the studio players recruited to help fill out certain tracks. Real Nighttime was still a Game Theory album, but it represented the establishment of Game Theory as Miller and whoever he brought along with him.

Working with producer Mitch Easter, who was sought out by Miller because he was impressed by R.E.M.’s Chronic Town, Game Theory delivers an album of limber, expressive pop-rock, bearing the Americana-touched sound and eager earnestness of mid-nineteen-eighties college rock. Cascading “24,” anxious, forceful “Friend of the Family,” and echoing mid-tempo number “She’ll Be a Verb” sound as though they were produced in a lab to appeal to serenely sincere student broadcasters hovering around the age of twenty. Growing into young adulthood was a theme Miller explored on the album, and the music has the quality of shifting between enthusiasm and hesitancy familiar to anyone whose struggled to find their way in their post-collegiate years.

Game Theory comes across like a gentler Joe Jackson on “I Mean It This Time,” and unleashes a nice college rock nugget spiced with squalling synth work in “Curse of the Frontierland.” Completing the portrait of a band settling comfortably into their time and place, there’s an appropriately aching, spectral cover of Big Star’s “You Can’t Have Me,” which is a calling card of impeccable taste for obscure, inspired ancestral artists. Real Nighttime is steady and lovely, ideally crafted to enrapture music fans glued to the left end of the radio dial. It’s also so specifically attuned to those fans that it’s almost impossible to imagine it gaining much traction anywhere else. Some bands of the era shimmered with the possibility of crossover. Game Theory sounded like they were destined to stay put.



653. Robbie Robertson, Robbie Robertson (1987)

In late November of 1976, in the early morning hours, Robbie Robertson stood on stage with the band and played the final notes of “Don’t Do It.” He stepped to the microphone and waved at the crowd as he said, “Thank you. Good night. Goodbye.” The Last Waltz concert was complete and the members of the Band were off to pursue other endeavors. As the chief songwriter of the group, it was widely assumed that Robertson would soon embark on a solo career. Instead, Robertson meandered in his entertainment career, starring alongside Jodie Foster and Gary Busey in the gloomy 1980 drama Carny and serving as music supervisor for several pictures directed by Martin Scorsese, who’d also turned the Last Waltz into a concert film. Even when the time came for Robertson to finally craft a solo album, his pace was slow. He first announced the intention to record in 1983, made preliminary agreements in 1984, hired producer Daniel Lanois in 1985, and started recording in 1986.

Led by the breathless cheerleading of Rolling Stone, by then solidly committing to worshipping any new album dropped by a rocker who qualified as an old hand, Robbie Robertson was met with an enthusiastic reception. Robertson was the beneficiary of MTV airplay and got booked as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. His long history was invoked to highlight the album’s pedigree and the presence of comparative newcomers — including members of U2, BoDeans, and Lone Justice — as guest performers on the record provided the endorsement of cool new kids. Robbie Robertson felt like an event.

If all that attention were puffing up a weak album, it would seem desperate and misguided. Instead, Robbie Robertson is a sterling effort, rich in evocative feeling and graced with remarkably sharp songwriting. Robertson is an iffy frontman, stating songs as much as singing, but the withdrawn emotions suit the material in the same way Tom Waits’s froggy gargle brings the correct personality to his tales of barroom woe. Robertson is more than capable of conveying the quiet pain in ballad “Broken Arrow” and the crushing desire in “Sweet Fire of Love.” His plainspokenness accentuates the humid storytelling of “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” and the resigned recounting of hardscrabble lives on “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight.” As a tribute to doomed celebrities James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe, “American Roulette” probably skews too literal in its lyrics (“Lord, please save his soul/ He was the King of Rock and Roll”), but I’ve never been able to resist its hard rock conviction.

Robbie Robertson didn’t usher in an era of prolific music-making for the performer. Though the follow-up, Storyville, arrived a reasonable four years later, the span between each new album from Robertson grew ever longer. In the thirty years following his debut, Robertson released only three true solo albums.


To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs