Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Seven

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#7 — The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)

I stand by my longtime belief that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the tome most deserving of the well-worn honorific The Great American Novel. The appeal of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the default choice, is completely understandable given the way it weighs the toxicity of craving upper mobility along with the hollowness of wealth itself, but I find the gut-punch grimness of Steinbeck’s story to hold greater, more resonant truths. Gatsby has added layers, which tickles the inner intellect of literature aesthetes. The Grapes of Wrath gets down in the dust, almost literally, and simply relays the crushing challenges faced by those held outside of the pathways to prosperity. The Great Depression was still smarting when Steinbeck published the book, in 1939. Less than a year later, when John Ford’s film version arrived, the bruise was still aggressively purple.

At this point, I might be tempted to muse about how different this movie must have felt seeing it while the agony it depicted was still desperately fresh. That sort of mental exercise isn’t necessary with Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. The film fairly trembles with immediacy, demonstrating that nothing instills timelessness within the veins of a film quite like a ferocious commitment to telling a tale with accuracy and unwavering honesty. The pains and minor, easily thwarted triumphs within the film have correlate to those in vastly different eras because of the fearless precision brought to the depiction. As in the book from whence it sprung, Ford’s film keeps a sharp focus on the Joad family of Oklahoma, farmers who flee their dried out, desolate homeland for the feeble promise of opportunity in California. The moral core of the film is Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), recently paroled from prison and joining his clan for the journey. Injustice is something others are still adapting to, but Tom has had it pounded in to him with a uncompromising brutality. He sees the world for what it is, spotting every barrier that will keep him and his from ever succeeding, at least beyond the very limited boundaries that have been drawn by a power structure intent on preserving their rarefied place.

Ford works from a script credited to Nunnally Johnson, finding the harsh poetry within the story. The marvelous cinematography by Gregg Toland bathes the screen in shadow, as if darkness has swarmed in to take over the entirety of the national terrain. He is patient and serene, letting the indignation inherent in the work build slowly from a simmer to a boil. That’s a major reason why The Grapes of Wrath remains smart drama without ever becoming maudlin or a leaden treatise. As with the famed James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which arrived one year later, Ford’s take on The Grapes of Wrath makes its persuasive argument by presenting a stern, clear-eyed portrait of the dire situation faced by those left behind in the United States rather than through delivery of some feverishly angry treatise. A well-told story, imbued with empathy, carries more weight that any political diatribe.

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My Writers: John Byrne

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When it came to my comic book reading, I was always fiercely devoted. Completist tendencies are embedded deeply within me, which I directly attribute to my time perusing the unkempt racks of comics at the local supermarket or convenience stores, desperate to make sure I got every last issue of my favorite titles, handily numbered to help me track the the effectiveness of my efforts. While I was still comfortable in my tender youth when I started reading superhero comics — barely able to claim an age in the double-digits — I soon realized that being committed to certain series and characters was ultimately less valuable than locking in on particular creators. All this is a small enough speck in my rearview mirror that I’m speculating as much as recollecting whenever I try to settle on any statement with certainty, but I believe the first creator I followed relentlessly was John Byrne.

Byrne started his career with Marvel Comics as an artist. That’s arguably still the facet of the creative process for which he’s both best-known and most widely respected. And for many years, given the opportunity, I undoubtedly would have named him as my favorite artist without giving his efforts as a writer more than the most cursory praise, probably as almost an afterthought. That didn’t really reflect the approach I took to following him as he bounded around to different creative opportunities, with and apart from my initial publisher of choice. I may have coveted the X-Men issues he drew and co-plotted during the time that immediately preceded my plunge in superhero sagas, but my tenure as a Byrne reader truly began when he took over the writing duties, along with serving as penciler (and sometimes inker), on Fantastic Four. Even as I loved the way he drew the issues, I connected even more with the stories and the characterization, finding within his pages the version of characters that I instinctually knew was truer and more accurate than those I’d read previously (having no direct, personal experience with the foundational run by original creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at the time). Byrne’s first issue was titled “Back to the Basics,” and that’s precisely what he delivered. Byrne clearly wanted to provide comics that reached back to the qualities that had enlivened him as a reader a generation earlier, while still given them a more modern tilt. He succeeded.

I’d soon follow Byrne just about wherever he went. Though there were occasional exceptions, I was far more likely to jump to where he’d journeyed if he was actually writing the title. Vivid as I found his art (to this day, most characters look most correct to me in renderings by Byrne), Byrne’s writing is what really spoke to me, positioning a comic series as deserving of attention, even when centered on characters that otherwise inspired only the most marginal interest in me. Any time I doubt my suspicion that I was more devoted to Byrne the writer than Byrne the artist, I need only remember that I bought and read both of his prose novels, Fear Book and Whipping Boy, a step I didn’t take with other comic book wordsmiths whose material I ultimately find more literary and rewarding. Byrne’s novels were pulpy and briskly compelling, recalling Stephen King’s work from around that era. That worked for me.

My journey as a Byrne fan has gotten trickier in recent years, in part because the more recent material I’ve read has lacked the zing and jubilant creativity I once associated with his work, and in part because his challenging personality, dispensed in his own online space with filterless toxicity, casts a pall over all his panels. It’s bad enough that he authoritatively expresses some appalling viewpoints and occasionally generates needlessly pissy spats with the few remaining pros who’d still defend him as a worthy collaborator following his years of setting bridges ablaze. It’s made worse that even the most tender counter-arguments are often met with apoplectic defensiveness that is almost painful to view. Byrne can still turn in a helluva drawing, but his language has picked up a touch of rot that has spread more widely than I’d like, if only because my estimation of him has taken more than a few body blows. I still prefer to see my fandom through to the end, even if it’s a little bitter. Sometimes, though, just cause arises to let a favorite creator be part of the past to free the strain of heavy disappointment on the present.

An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow
Steve Martin
John Updike
Roger Angell
Bill Watterson
William Shakespeare
Sarah Vowell
Douglas Adams
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Clive Barker
Jon Krakauer
John Darnielle
Richard Price
Art Spiegelman
Anthony Bourdain
John Irving
Oliver Sacks

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Posted in Books, Comics

Great Moments in Literature

“My favorite bit of Outside is the window. It’s different every time. A bird goes right by zoom, I don’t know what it was. The shadows are all long again now, mine waves right across our room on green wall. I watch God’s face falling slow slow, even orangier and the clouds are all colors, then after there’s streaks and dark coming up so bit-at-a-time I don’t see it till it’s done.”

–Emma Donoghue, Room, 2010


–Bill Mantlo, MARVEL PREMIERE, Vol. 1, No. 28, “There’s a Mountain on Sunset Boulevard!,” 1976

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College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 1

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1. Marques Bovre and the Evil Twins, Flyover Land

Though I wasn’t at the station at the time, I can provide all sorts of reasons as to why Flyover Land predictably landed at the top spot of 90FM’s year-end chart. The simplest explanation involves the radio station’s biggest event of the year. A weekend-long affair modestly billed as The World’s Largest Trivia Contact takes place every April. Throughout much of the nineteen-nineties the weekend prior was marked by a couple of “Kickoff” programs: a midnight movie and a concert. In 1995, the movie was an indie crowdpleaser that likely challenges the sensibilities of at least a few of the staid Midwestern viewers who felt obligated to attend (the movie had a built-in audience as there was sure to be a question or two pulled from it), and the band that played the concert was a group making a return engagement to the task: Marques Bovre and the Evil Twins. With a concert to promote, the 90FM deejays would have spun the band’s most recent album, Flyover Land, with tireless regularity. That alone would have guaranteed the Madison group high placement in the tally that closed the year.

While I’m certain the connection to Trivia boosted the band’s stature, this is an album I can easily imagine dominating at the station regardless. Even as the larger alternative music fanbase was still struggling to climb out of the tarpit of grunge (or faux grunge, as was increasingly the case), the good programmers at 90FM maintained a certain devotion to the earnest, blues-tinged sound practiced by a procession of bar bands stretching out towards infinity. Much as I love my alma mater, I’m forced to concede that — during my tenure, anyway — the station was never out of ahead of the curve of any major, convention-challenging band that formulated that percolated up through college radio first. On the other hand, they played the hell out of Hootie and the Blowfish well before Cracked Rear View was even released, much less before its stealth, slow-growth development made it into a ludicrously successful album, selling over sixteen-million copies. Though I’ll admit there’s a little disappointment to that statement (I’m snobby enough in my music fandom that I pine for the ability to gloat about landing on intense appreciation of one of the bands that approach legendary status ahead of my peers without their own FCC operator’s licenses), there’s something to be said for being able to sniff out the bands that have a mastery of a particular beer-soaked sound. If they were able to cut through the din of smoky Wisconsin barrooms, they probably had something at least somewhat interesting to offer to the great musical conversation.

Though success away from his Dairyland home base was limited, Bovre definitely had something to say. Among his disciples, and there were many, Bovre elicited comparison to no less than Bob Dylan for the accomplishment of his songwriting. While the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota is the clear and obvious standard bearer when it comes to pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll creation, at least when it comes to a largely unadorned combination of words and music, it always struck me as a somewhat ill-fitting imagined bond, if only because Bovre was more direct, delivering his material with a humble plainspokenness that seemed, well, highly Midwestern. As he sings on Flyover Land‘s title cut, “Flyover land is a land that I love/ Smells like a barn and it fits like a glove/ And we’re here/ In the middle.” Those aren’t the words of someone toying with the listener through abstracted poetry. That’s someone who, blessedly, wants to be clear, connecting with his audience with a heartfelt openness.

And Bovre left a legacy. As I tap these words out, we’re closing in on the three year anniversary of Bovre’s untimely demise, which came after an extended struggle with a brain tumor. Around Madison and the surrounding music scene reminiscences of the man and his music still pop up with some regularity, and the Evil Twins have been known to occasionally go out and play. 90FM didn’t forget him either. Fittingly, given the band’s stature in the station history, a full radio show was devoted to remembering him shortly after he died. As I turned out, I was listening that morning. Then living a long, long distance from my native state, that was how I found out about Bovre’s passing. I had a melancholic appreciation that I received the news that way. It was through my time at 90FM that I was introduced to the music of Bovre — I bought a CD copy of Big Strong House at that first Trivia Kickoff appearance — so I’m glad that station officially provided me with the sad news that there would be no more of the man’s music to hear.


An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed
— 12 and 11: Post and Deluxe
— 10: Yes
— 9: To Bring You My Love
— 8: Garbage
— 7: 100% Fun
— 6: Only Everything
— 5: Brainbloodvolume
— 4: The Bends
— 3: Foo Fighters
— 2: A Boy Named Goo

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From the Archive: Run


One of the main reasons I could never take the concept of Patrick Dempsey as “McDreamy” seriously is that I remember all too well when he was a young actor in terrible movies, many of which oddly featured him seducing older women. I don’t remember a bit of Run, beyond lumping it into the big, vague category of Indistinct Junk We Used To Need To See In Order To Fill Out A Weekly Radio Show. Here’s yet another in the brief procession of reviews that needed to employ the nonsense word “thrill-omedy.” I notice I did a terrible job keeping my antecedents and pronouns clear in this review. 

The latest subdivision of Disney Studios is apparently well on its way to becoming the home of the “thrill-omedy.” the new subdivision is called Hollywood Pictures and last summer it made its debut with the dismal film ARACHNOPHOBIA, billing it as a combination of thriller and comedy. HOLLYWOOD PICTURES has finally released its second feature: another piece of moviemaking in the thrill-omedy vein called RUN.

RUN presents Patrick Dempsey as a college student who finds himself in a small town somewhere between Boston and Atlantic City. The early exposition scenes have told us that Dempsey is a good runner and that he likes to gamble. That’s about all you need to know to understand this movie. He needs to kill some time in this small town, so he gets involved in a poker game in a casino hidden in the back of a restaurant. He finds himself in the middle of an incredible winning streak that infuriates another person at the table. This man gets so furious that he attacked Dempsey. As he is running towards him he trips and hits his head solidly on a countertop. This blow to the head kills him. This causes some difficulty for Dempsey since the man is the son of an organized crime figure named Halloran who runs the small town. The man wants revenge and puts his own goons and the entire local police force in motion to get him. Dempsey has nowhere to turn in this small town, so he has to RUN.

The remainder of the film mixes your average chase scenes with several jokes. The film also throws in a half-hearted romance with a townsperson played by Kelly Preston for good measure. Dempsey knows that he’s not guilty of killing Halloran’s son, so all he’s looking for is some justice. He tries as hard as he can to get out of town honestly, but he’s quickly stooping to attacking people, using a gun to threaten people, and of course stealing cars so he can drive them real fast.

The film continually pushes the believability meter too far. It becomes increasingly difficulty to believe that this scrawny college kid could evade large groups of policemen and mobster tough guys with machine guns for so long. Dempsey has occasionally been quite good on film, lending an offbeat charm to his characters in the movies IN THE MOOD and STAYING TOGETHER. But here he’s not even given a chance with a completely one-dimensional character which chiefly presents the acting challenge of ducking and running. Much of the action is predictable and extremely boring, and all of the jokes that are presented fall flat, many of them coming at the most inappropriate times imaginable. And the final fate of Halloran is so easy to see coming that they might as well have put it on the movie poster. Just like Hollywood Pictures’ first attempt at a thrill-omedy, RUN can claim to be nothing more than a slightly interesting but ultimately misguided failure.

1 and 1/2 stars, out of 4.

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One for Friday: The Plugz, “Achin”


Sometimes I have no recollection of how a track came into my digital possession. Much as I appreciate the wide open bounty of the interweb, especially when it comes to those old and new acts that I surely would have never discovered without it, I sometimes miss the bygone ability to always identify the rough moment of discovery, to conjure up the origin story of each personally held piece of music, as it were. The vastness of what I can access now is better. But I can still be a little wistful about portions of the experience that are chipped away.

I don’t think I knew a thing about the Plugz until I somehow, sometime downloaded (probably illicitly — sorry, Plugz!) their song “Achin,” which appeared on their 1981 album, Better Luck. They also appeared on the soundtrack to the movie Repo Man, but that was never a touchstone film or record for me, as it was for many of my fellow Gen-Xers. It’s entirely possible I saw them when they were tapped by Bob Dylan to serve as his backing band during an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. That’s only speculation. Again, there’s no specific recollection to call upon.

In the end, though, the how, why, and when of it all doesn’t matter. I have a little something from the beloved Latino punk band nestled there in my iTunes, and it sounds damn good whenever it shuffles up. I’ll send out a nebulous thanks to whoever unwittingly delivered it to me.

Listen or download –> The Plugz, “Achin”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that the music of the Plugz, save the stuff on the Repo Man soundtrack, is entirely out of print. The hefty prices their albums command on eBay suggests that as well. Still, I mean no fiscal harm to the performers or the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store by posting this track. Given that, and my general grudging willingness to comply with the strictures of our current overly-oppressive copyright laws, I will gladly remove this song from my corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Eight

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#8 — Letter to an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)

Max Ophüls worked on five films during his aborted tenure in Hollywood, including Vendetta, which would have been his U.S. debut had he not been fired from it (one of several directors who passed through the troubled shoot). The moody, elegantly visual style favored by the European director fit awkwardly into the stateside model, even as it had obvious connections to the deliberate film noir approach that prevailed at the time. His movies were too deliberate, too cerebral, too firmly serious to truly succeed in a U.S. market that, even then, was chained to more slam-bang entertainments. Of course, commercial success doesn’t speak to quality, and Ophüls made amazing cinema when he had the resources of the biggest movie factory town at his disposal. Letter to an Unknown Woman arrived right in the middle of that five film stretch. I’m not familiar enough with the director’s professional biography to know whether he was feeling empowered or pressured at this point, supported or abandoned by the power structure that hired him. What I know — or believe, to be fully accurate — is that he made a masterwork.

Adapted, it seems somewhat faithfully, from a Stefan Zweig novella, the film zeroes in on the enduring heartache of Lisa (Joan Fontaine). When introduced, Lisa is a girl verging on womanhood. She lives in Vienna, in an apartment building that has recently acquired a new resident: a musician named Stefan (Louis Jordan). She becomes obsessed, pining after the oblivious bon vivant. The rest of the film traces the way the pair slip in and out of one another’s orbits. More importantly, it intricately, empathetically traces the emotional impact of those encounters, especially once Lisa gets the briefest of glimpses of the life she’s dreamed of, only to have it cast away as a result of Stefan’s callous entitlement. The title of the film refers to dispatch Lisa eventually sends in one last, tragedy-tinged attempt to imprint herself upon Stefan’s life.

The mechanics of the story recall any number of other Hollywood entertainments pitched squarely at a female audience with a cold certainty that spilled tears is the outcome those fairer ticket-buyers craved the most. Ophüls, though, repels standard melodrama. Instead, he finds his way to the piercing, true emotions that sit at the center of a story. There’s no instinct toward manipulation, even when he inserts especially intense flourishes. In other creative hands, tactics that comes across as pushy have the heft of great literature. In particular, Ophüls had a unique talent for moving the camera with entrancing fluidity. The shadows cascade across the drama, and the actors operate with a paradoxical mix of dreamlike spirit and firmly grounded feeling. He crafts an immersive, quietly thrilling cinematic landscape. If he was out of place in Hollywood, that was Hollywood’s loss, not his.

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November 2015
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