Carl Reiner, 1922-2020

carl

For my eleventh birthday, all I wanted was a Carl Reiner movie. A little more than a year after the release of The Jerk, Reiner’s sixth film as a director and his first of four straight starring Steve Martin, the comedy was making its debut on HBO and I was desperate to see it. It was rated R, so I needed to ask permission to watch it, but I got my longed-for gift. The main draw was Martin — my youthful fandom for him was fervent — but I also knew, improbably, about Reiner’s involvement, thanks to my weird devotion to watching daytime celebrity talk shows that regularly included Reiner as a member of the old guard comedy elite. And I spent almost every day watching reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, attuned to the fact that it sprung from Reiner’s mind, in part because he occasionally showed up in the program, pugnaciously playing Alan Brady, the television star who employed the character played by the comic actor who gave the show its title. As I was first formulating the idea that the best comedy came from consistent, distinctive voices, Reiner’s voice was one of the first I heard and recognized.

A writer on the classic Your Show of Shows, Reiner didn’t start his career by creating his sitcom avatar Rob Petrie, but that’s arguably where his skill as a deceptively elegant innovator was first and most potently on display. I think it’s fair to say Reiner invented the modern sitcom, moving it away from the farcical floundering of the nineteen-fifties iteration of the form that was still deeply beholden to vaudevillian antics. The Dick Van Dyke Show was a workplace comedy, a warm family comedy, and mildly self-effacing showbiz satire all in one, developing enough distinctive characters that the jokes flowed seemingly organically from simply introducing a mild dilemma into the environment on a weekly basis and letting the figures on screen react according to their solidly established predilections. This is the mouth of the river that still feeds the best television comedy today.

Looking back, it’s remarkable how generous Reiner was in his approach to comedy. He was the straight man to his lifelong friend Mel Brooks in their famed and everlasting 2000 Year Old Man routine (which even snagged the duo a place on their beloved Jeopardy!), he based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his own life but clearly tailored it to the loose-limbed talents of his star, and made films that were dedicated showcases to the performers he cast. Among the films, none were more effective than the four outings with Martin, culminating in All of Me, released in 1984, which contains, in Martin’s partially possessed lawyer, one of the all-time great comedy performances projected onto the big screen. Reiner was even an early and persistent champion of Albert Brooks, telling anyone who’d listen, “The funniest person I know is my son’s friend,” back when Brooks was just another kid palling already with teenaged Rob Reiner. When Brooks made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, Carl Reiner was guest-hosting. Like all the most admirable funny people, Reiner was most committed to finding and celebrating others who made him laugh.

In his old age, Reiner remained fully engaged with the world around him, taking a knee or proudly donning a t-shirt to proclaim solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and generally pushing back with all his might against the corrosive liars wreaking havoc in leadership positions they gained through dubious means. He put the lie to the notion that people atrophy as they age, their ideas and outlooks turning to stone as if under Medusa’s gaze. He lived his principles to the very end, engaging his fellow global citizens with kindness, understanding, and heart.

carl reiner

The New Releases Shelf —Sideways to New Italy

rolling blackout
(source)

When I fell for Hope Downs, the debut full-length from Australian band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, it was because I heard the college radio of my own personal era in the earnest, tuneful stylings. It wasn’t true retro, reliant on nostalgia in place of originality. Instead, the band drew on predecessors but placed themselves firmly in the now on the out-of-the-mainstream rock continuum of college to modern to alternative to indie. That I heard the bygone jangle and wistfulness of the late–nineteen-eighties in the album’s skillful songs made the album mighty difficult to resist.

For the band’s follow-up, Sideways to New Italy, it feels to me like they move ahead a few year with their baseline influences, as if embarking on the second leg in of a time travel tour of what dudes with guitars and an aw-shucks eschewing of pop slickness can come up with. “Falling Thunder” is like a peppier Death Cab for Cutie, and “The Cool Change” reminds me of something Wilco might have put on a mythical record between Being There and Summerteeth. “The Only One” has the easy charm of drifty, dreamy Britpop bands of roughly the same era, the lads who listened to the Go-Betweens and the Housemartins in their teenage bedrooms and thought they could give it a go, too, but landed on the endearingly basic version of the same music.

If Sideways to New Italy doesn’t offer quite the same surge of excitement as its predecessor, it’s still clearly the product of a smart, sharp band. “Cars in Space” has a racing energy to it, and “Cameo” is full to bursting. Al the elements come together in songs that are chunky and satisfying. For obvious reason, there’s a particular metaphor that’s primarily applied to flatly enjoyable movies that aren’t particularly demanding. But I think it’s fair to say that Sideways to New Italy is a popcorn album. 

Outside Reading — Canon Fodder edition

burnett filming

Rethinking the Film Canon by Rich Juzwiak

Earlier this year, I was listening to the Little Gold Men podcast as they discussed the newly announced Academy Award nominations. As they mostly expressed relief about the small signs of voters looking beyond the usual array of white-dudes-with-guns movies, even as they felt obliged to concede appreciation for the usual suspects among the honorees. (As did I.) Almost as an aside, one of the cohosts raised the idea that what was needed to shift away from the constant threat of #OscarsSoWhite controversy was not diversity initiatives mounted by the Academy, but a wholesale reevaluation of what kinds of stories and films are considered important and therefore Oscar-worthy. The recent Gone with the Wind kerfuffle provides the entryway to do exactly that, and Rich Juzwiak makes a good start with this article, written for Jezebel.

 

caroline
(via)

You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument by Caroline Randall Williams

In this absolute powerhouse oped, published by The New York Times, Caroline Randall Williams makes the strongest possible argument against statues honoring Confederate soldiers and does so with unflinching candor about her own identity and family history. In particular, the opening sentence is devastating. Any comments I might add are doomed to inadequacy.

 

statue

Confederate Monuments Getting Removed By Protesters Is a Statement of People Power by Jane’a Johnson

In the city I call home, debate turned to the sanctity of statues this week. Angry protestors responded to the needlessly rough arrest of one of their fellow activists by pulling down two statues near the State Capitol that commemorated progressive causes and an abolitionist, hardly symbols of bigotry and oppression. Those eager to cast aspersions on social justice protestors quickly snarling with satisfaction about the ignorance of the action, ignoring that reasonable explanations behind targeting the statues were offered almost immediately. Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with invaluable local journalist Scott Gordon, who wrote, “We could spend a whole lot of time here parsing what the statues torn down this week mean or represent, but I also think the fixation on the statues is kind of deranged.” But that thought also brings me to this piece, written by Jane’a Johnson for Teen Vogue, that persuasively argues for the power inherent in citizenry taking it into their own hands to remove these bronzed commemorations of the wrong parts of our past rather than waiting for some sort of political process to grind through its slow work to the same end.

 

kit

The Rape Kit’s Secret History by Pagan Kennedy

In this corrective to history, published by The New York Times, Pagan Kennedy explores the genesis of the rape kit. Often credited to a Chicago police officer (because he demanded the credit), the investigative tool was actually conceptualized and created by Marty Goddard, an activist dismayed by the lack of attention and effort given to the crime of rape. Kennedy’s story is full of amazing details, most of which reflect very poorly on the systems set up to deliver justice in this country. That the manufacture and distribution of the kits was taken more seriously by Playboy Enterprises than any government or police officials — and that the fact of that isn’t particularly surprising — is one thread in thickly snarled explanation of how we’ve reached the current point of broad disenchantment with law enforcement.

 

brief history

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James

A colossal, complicated novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings has an assassination attempt against Bob Marley at its core, but puts layers upon layers atop that incident until the sprawling story starts to feel like it’s touching upon every trouble embedded in the human experience. Marlon James has an enviable command of language throughout the book, developing enveloping rhythms to the dialogue and storytelling which remaining fiercely direct, like some implausible hybrid of Stephen King and Don Delillo. It’s one of those books that is exhausting and thrilled in equal measure.

This Week’s Model — Eric Church, “Stick That in Your Country Song”

eric church

I barely follow it, and even I know it’s been a helluva week for country music. I’m sure there are still plenty of practitioners of the form still relying on pickup truck cliches and jingoistic garbage to propel their creativity, but at least some country artists have decided the time has come to draw some lines. As part of the welcome, elongated trek back into music-making, a trio of unlikely agitators dropped Dixie from their name and released a fiery new protest song that further increases the likelihood that I will ask the proprietor of my favorite independently-owned record store to set aside a copy of what will now be the first album billed officially to the Chicks. At about the same time, Eric Church delivered his own tuneful demand for change, specifically calling out his country music peers for shying away from the significant social issues of the day.

“Stick That in Your Country Song” is a roundhouse punch of dissatisfaction, especially powerful because it’s coming from someone who’s hardly a disgruntled outsider. Three of Church’s last four studio albums topped the country charts, and at least six of his solo singles have reached the same pinnacle on their respective list. So when he offers the challenge to write and perform songs about wounded veterans, abandoned cities, and underpaid teachers, he’s implicitly including himself in the call to do better. On that front this stomper is goddamn good start, reminding me of vintage Steve Earle. I can muster few higher compliments for a country song.

 

Then Playing — Ashes and Embers; Brewster McCloud; A Star is Born

ashes and embers

Ashes and Embers (Haile Gerima, 1982). Made around forty years ago, Haile Gerima’s experimental drama opens with Black men driving in a city who get pulled over police officers that immediately escalate the situation, presuming guilt as a default for no other reason than skin color. That’s how far we haven’t come. That’s only one piece of Gerima’s powerful film that also addresses the lingering psychic wounds harming U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War and the general and persistent troubles faced by Black citizens as they tried to operate safely and fairly in a nation that too often demonized them just for being. Gerima’s approach is about registering impressions rather than clicking through plot points, giving the film a quiet, impassioned verisimilitude that was a hallmark of independent film of the era. John Anderson gives a strong, committed performance in the lead role, but it’s Evelyn A. Blackwell, as a worldly-wise, no-nonsense grandmother whose responsible for the most engaging acting.

 

brewster

Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman, 1970). The same year as M*A*S*H, Robert Altman offered this delightful oddity, as if he felt compelled to rapidly signal the Hollywood establishment that having a box office hit on his resume didn’t mean he was going to play by any recognizable set of rules. Brewster McCloud follows the title character (Bud Cort), a virginal young man who lives in the utility corridors of the Houston Astrodome, dreaming and scheming in pursuit of the freedom of flight. He also works briefly for a corrosive nursing home magnate (Stacy Keach, under a thick slab of old age makeup), falls in love with a sweet oddball (Shelley Duvall), and avoids the probing of an out-of-town police detective (Michael Murphy) trying to solve a series of mysterious killings in the city. And that’s only describing the portions of the film that are remotely conventional. Working from a screenplay by Doran William Cannon (who also wrote the nutso Skidoo), Altman is in rascally mode, with a false-start opening credits, slippery satire in every narrative nook, and René Auberjonois escalating in lunacy as a lecturer-narrator who drops in periodically to expound on birds, gradually adopting the behavior and demeanor of the feathered creatures in the process.

 

a star is born

A Star is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937). The original take on the muchfilmed tale of star-crossed showbiz figures on opposite career trajectories might very well be the best of the lot. It has a zingy efficiency and cheery bravado, the melodramatic tragedy of the plot nicely balanced by comedy that takes some bold swipes at the still-emerging entertainment industry. In this A Star is Born, Janet Gaynor plays the hopeful ingenue whose dreams of being in the pictures are trod upon until she catches the eyes of a boozy movie star (Fredric March), who becomes her champion at the studio where he works. Her career takes off and his tumbles down. Both actors are in fine form, with Gaynor especially charming in a handful of moments where she clearly gets to play, such as a bit set in the studio commissary where she tries out a half dozen iterations of the throwaway line she’s been given in a movie. William A. Wellman gives the film a buoyant energy and demonstrates especially crack timing with the smart, funny script that was touched by several, including Dorothy Parker. I’m assuming she was responsible for the many sharp lines about downing drinks.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Twenty-Nine

top 50 10s 29

#29 — American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)

Rife with absurdity and energized by misguided bravado and crass capitalistic scheming, David O. Russell’s darkly comic rendering of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation would feel off if it didn’t have “American” in the title. This sort of conglomeration of criminality, opportunism, slippery morality, and rationalized hedonism could only be hatched in the land of the free, home of the brave, this place where delusion is a virtue as long as it is aligned with ruthless greed. The original title of the screenplay, as penned by Eric Warren Singer, was American Bullshit. When Russell took the acclaimed script and started reworking it to his own sensibility, the name was obviously going to need to change to find a place on theater marquees, but the rebranding to American Hustle isn’t a lamentable concession to social norms. American Hustle is better anyway, because the hustle truly never ends for the sort of hucksters that populate the story, whether they’re two-bit con artists or duly appointed law enforcement officials.

The event receiving the dramatization treatment unfolded as the venal nineteen-seventies evolved into the glossily empty nineteen-eighties, giving Russell plenty of garish trappings to work with, front disco collars to combustible microwaves. The Abscam sting involved luring elected representatives into a scenario where they took what they believed to be bribes from an Arabian company, with political largesse expected in return. In Russell’s rendering, this sordid business is presented with verve. Borrowing the shifting narrators and general rambunctious energy of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Russell depicts a milieu of anxious striving, of problem solving as the walls are closing in. Every character is splashing in flop sweat, desperately looking around for a hurled life preserver.

At the point he made American Hustle, Russell had completely rejuvenated his career with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Among other accolades, those two films resulted in seven nominations and three wins in Academy Awards acting categories. Performers came to Russell’s productions fully motivated to give their all, and American Hustle boasts an amazing set of performances. Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner are all terrific as schemers moving through this scramble of shaky ethics. The obvious standout, though, is Amy Adams. As Sydney Prosser, a woman whose situational duplicity is abetted by the men who can’t help falling for her, Adams has carbon-fiber strength and trembling vulnerability at the same time, the gears of her brain in perpetual motion as she surveys the emerging chaos around her and tries to figure out where her preferences and the most prudent strategic movies align. Sydney is casing her own life, and Adams shows the precise excitement of  that fraught and exciting approach to getting through each treacherous day.

Russell’s film is enthralled by the nonsense of human interaction, particular the ways in which all the imperfections of various encounters mound into a trash heap of comic misery. American Hustle is about a particular event at  particular time, but its escalating tension was found again in any number of fumbling maneuvers in search of quick dollars in the many years that followed.  In the U.S., the type of scrambled aspiration depicted here never goes out of style.

Laughing Matters — Meet The CONAN Staff: Conor Oberst – Production Assistant

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.

The official announcement of the first new Bright Eyes album in nearly a decade seems as good of reason as any to share this recent favorite chunk of comedy. And the Phoebe Bridgers cameo also makes it timely.

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #494 to #492

neil rust

494. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Neil Young had a record to promote when he went on the road in 1978. With backing band Crazy Horse sharing the bus, Young undertook a monthlong trek meant to draw attention to Comes a Time, a collection of understated, largely acoustic guitar–based songs. But fans who were hoping to enjoy the singer-songwriter operating exclusively in the mode of Harvest, the early–nineteen-seventies album that was — and still is — his greatest commercial success were nudged from that expected path by a true iconoclast deep in his lifelong exploration of creative oddity.

Young had lately been working on a film project, barely released a few years later under the name Human Highway, that included a collaboration with Devo. It was during a jam session with the art rock band that the term “Rust never sleeps” was intoned by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, quoting a Rust-Oleum slogan he remembered from his days working in the advertising industry as a graphic artist. Young liked the sound of it, and basically adopted it as a credo of constant creativity. If rust never sleeps, he better not either. The tour was emblazoned with that name, as was the album that followed it. Rust Never Sleeps was recorded in concert, pulling from both the solo acoustic sets that typically opened the shows and the hard rocking workouts with Crazy Horse that usually comprised the second half of the gigs, all of it supplemented by props, costumes, and other theatrical accouterments. According to the critical consensus of the time — which hasn’t shifted much in the decades since — the result was one of Young’s best albums.

Although a live album (overdubbed in the studio), Rust Never Sleeps is stacked with new songs, all showing Young at peak of his formidable powers. “Pocahontas” is a dreamlike exploration of the historic and ongoing hardship endured by Native Americans, and “Powderfinger” tells the story of a young man facing down a warship, punctuating with a squall of guitar rock that’s simultaneously ferocious and easygoing. The music goes glammy on “Welfare Mothers” and resoundingly lovely on “Sail Away.”  The intricate ballad “Thrasher” uses farmland imagery to extoll the satisfying feeling of seeking personal liberation, the simplicity of concept made transcendent through Young’s phenomenal songwriting (“It was then I knew I’d had enough/ Burned my credit card for fuel/ Headed out to where the pavement/ Turns to sand/ With a one-way ticket/ To the land of truth/ And my suitcase in my hand”).

The dual pinnacles of the album are also its bookends. The spare “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” opens Rust Never Sleeps, and the thundering “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” closes it. The overlapping message of the songs provides more detail to Young’s overall manifesto. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is the lyric that provides the bumper sticker version of the philosophy, but the magnificence of the songs together is the overall statement of endurance, the promise of legacy to those who give it their all, who invest in the power of music as a matter of defining belief. It’s a collective statement of aspiration and responsibility. Young showed — and still shows — the value in living that principle.

 

positively dumptruck

493. Dumptruck, Positively Dumptruck (1986)

The Boston band Dumptruck was enjoying the college rock version of a four-ace hand. Their debut album, D is for Dumptruck, had generated enough attention to get them signed to the emerging independent label Big Time Records, an investment that led directly to band landing in Mitch Easter’s Drive In studio with producer Don Dixon at the soundboard. Thanks to the benchmark success of R.E.M., who’d worked with the Easter and Dixon team on their first two albums, securing this combo of collaborators was absolutely the dream. And the resulting album, Positively Dumptruck, shows precisely why that was a worthwhile dream to have.

Chiming and crisp, the music on the album hits the perfect balance of rough yet polished, tuneful and raucous. Album opener “Back Where I Belong” establishes the Dumptruck musical personality: Americana with a funkier undercurrent and a warm, appealingly workaday guitar, bass, and drum sound. The tight, swirling rock song “Walk Into Mirrors” is more of the same, as are the chewy “Secrets” and the loping, almost hypnotic “7 Steps (Up).” The hangover-tinged lament “Autumn Light” has an opening couplet that approaches the evocative descriptions of Paul Westerberg, the poet laureate of regretful insobriety: “Woke up this morning in a foggy autumn light/ I don’t remember anything I did last night.” None of the material is groundbreaking, but it’s all admirably sturdy, the product of a band that clearly had to make their way on the rough, ungenerous club circuit that demand nightly proof of mettle.

Positively Dumptruck is a record full of promise. But maintaining a band is hard work, especially when there’s just a teeny touch of success that doesn’t yet include financial prosperity. Not long after the release of Positively Dumptruck, guitarist and singer Kirk Swan and bassist Steve Michener separately left the band, and there were questions about whether Dumptruck would continue. The remaining member eventually decided to keep going, in part because of the urging of label executives. But their next album, For the Country, came with its own considerable problems.

 

bram

492. Bram Tchaikovsky, Strange Man, Changed Man (1979)

Born Peter Bramall, the guitarist and singer Bram Tchaikovsky first gained a bit of fame with a brief tenure as the frontman for the pub rock group the Motors. He moved on from that band, recruited drummer Keith Boyce and bassist and keyboardist Micky Broadbent, and lent the resulting trio his own distinctive, memorable stage name. After securing a deal with Radar Records, Bram Tchaikovsky released their debut album, Strange Man, Changed Man. Modest yet propulsive, the album is nice representation of the end of the nineteen-seventies, when pop was splintering in countless directions and mastery of basic rock mechanics was its own sort of revolution.

That’s not to imply that there’s no edge to the tracks. The title cut almost makes the band sounds like the new wave version of Gang of Four. But Bram Tchaikovsky mostly comes across as a more rough and ready version of any number of rock ‘n’ roll true believers who were poking the heads out in the waning days of the disco era, checking to see if it was safe for guitars again. “Girl of My Dreams,” a U.S. top 40 single for the band, is like one of Tom Petty’s instant rock standards, “Lady From the U.S.A.” resembles the work of Jackson Browne, albeit at his blandest, and “Bloodline” could have been lent out to Humble Pie.

Strange Man, Changed Man is thoroughly enjoyable in its eager torch carrying. “Robber” has some guitar licks right out of nineteen-sixties British rock, and “Turn On the Light” is like a nineteen-fifties barnstormer, Eddie Cochran made current. The most significant misstep is when they reach to the past explicitly on a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” which is obnoxious in its sloppy bar band aesthetics. At this stage, Bram Tchaikovsky was too good to simply throw away a song like that. The rest of the album implicitly argues that they could have found their way to a new classic with that one, too.

 

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

Outside Reading — After the Boys of Summer Have Gone edition

unraveled

MLB Is Crumbling. Blame the Owners by Stephanie Apstein

I’ve a fan of baseball since I was a kid, when WGN’s afternoon airings of Chicago Cubs games hooked me. But I’ve also been highly aware for many years that the owners who preside over the various teams making up Major League Baseball are greedy and outright villainous, always willing to sabotage the storied pastime in the interest of sabotaging the players who take the field. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Stephanie Apstein expertly details the simple ways in which MLB owners — and the commissioner who is completely beholden to them — are fomenting an unnecessary existential threat to the entire league in this time of COVID. Sadly, I’m beginning to hope the succeed. Tear it all down and let smaller, semi-pro leagues take its place. Maybe the love of the game and a commitment to community will come to the forefront instead of constant, exhausting greed.

 

charity-adams
(via)

Five Women Veterans Who Deserve to Have Army Bases Named After Them by Erin Blakemore

It is absolutely inexplicable that anyone could make a straight-faced objection to the proposition of no longer having U.S. military installations named after bygone figures who fought against the U.S. Largely bypassing the debate that shouldn’t be a debate, Erin Blakemore opts instead to make suggestions of five women who are more far more deserving of the honor of a installation bearing their name. This article was published by Smithsonian.

 

hamilton kids

My 11-Year-Old Came Up With a Better Government by Jake Halpern

In The New York Times, Jake Halpern shares the results of an assignment he gave his tween son as part of his impromptu home schooling curriculum. As Halpern, he fully expect the suggestion of conjuring up a society from scratch on an imagined distant planet would result in fanciful science fiction adventures, like an amateur Star Wars galaxy. Instead, Halpern’s son was notably thoughtful, coming up with a social structure and corresponding legal system committed to consistency and fairness. We could do far worse, as the headlines prove on a daily basis.