It takes a big man to cry

… but it takes an even bigger man to laugh at that man.

The immortal words of Jack Handey, I was reminded of them recently when I started blubbering like a little bitch while watching that De Niro tear-jerker, Everybody’s Fine. We of Italian descent are an emotional people, but I prefer to blame the Native Americans, for that crying Indian in the anti-pollution commercial in the ’70s. However, he was played by Iron Eyes Cody, who turned out to be of Sicilian ancestry, so maybe it is an Italian thing.

Ever since my father died, I’ve gotten teary-eyed from anything with some sort of paternal redemption, or heaven help me, that emotional musical upswing. The Iron Giant‘s “You stay. I go. No following.” turns me into Old Faithful. I can’t watch Field of Dreams when anyone else is around. Even stupid movies get me. And it’s completely beyond my control. I don’t get upset at all, my eyes just start leaking like an excited puppy on an expensive carpet. If I was that self-conscious, it would be embarrassing.

Thankfully I do have limits. Sloth & Chunk might get a tear or two, but I still don’t find myself moved by Indy and Short Round. That would be unacceptable. So, what movies make you cry like a fat kid who dropped his ice cream?

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Hey, we’re not birds! We’re a Jug Band!

The grass does not grow on the places where we stop and stand!We’re the River Bottom Nightmare Band!

Ah, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas Special. It was one of my favorite Jim Henson creations. The music is great, the characters come to life, in the end Heavy Metal TRIUMPHS. It doesn’t have a smarmy happy ending; there’s no miracle, and the otter family still has to struggle. But they’ve come together and found their talents, and perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for the years to come, if Doc Bullfrog is true to his word.

It’s a simple tale based on O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” as Ma Otter and her son Emmet both vie for the prize in a talent contest so they can buy one another the gifts they want for Christmas- a piano, and a guitar with mother of pearl inlays. It’s based on a children’s book by Russell Hoban, who may be more famous for writing a cult classic post-apocalyptic novel called Riddley Walker. I had no idea. Strange coincidence, is it not? The songs were written by none other than ’70s icon Paul Williams, he of The Phantom of the Paradise who appeared on many Muppet show episodes too.

It all comes together as a tale of bittersweet poverty that reinforces the adage that your health and your loved ones are the real gifts to be thankful for, and that talent and hard work never go unrewarded. Even if the biker gang rock band leaves you in their dust. I haven’t watched this one in a few years, but recently found that my sister has a copy, and we’ll be watching it this Christmas Eve, I’m sure.

Since the internet is bare of the music, here’s a band covering the Nightmare song at Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis:

Lonesome Dove

I made the mistake of avoiding this King of epic mini-series for many years. The title made me think romance, and I didn’t think a primetime TV mini-series could be that good. I also didn’t know how great a writer Larry McMurtry is. Lonesome Dove is every bit as worthy as the much-lauded Band of Brothers, and perhaps even paved the way for such violent epics of great scope. Originally written as a screenplay for John Wayne and Peter Bogdanovich by McMurtry, the Duke bowed out and the writer bought his script back, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and then Hollywood wanted it again. But instead of cutting it down to movie length, it was given the full spread of over 6 hours of primetime television- 8 hours with commercials. And it’s worth every minute.
American Movie Classics HD played it last weekend, restored to widescreen glory. In the age of “Deadwood” I was concerned that it would feel sanitized, and while it is safe for TV, it’s bloody and bawdy, befitting the Western mythos from which our country developed. The story revolves around two old retired Texas Rangers, the likeable, fun-loving and philosphical Augustus “Gus” McCrae (Robert Duvall), and his quiet old friend Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones). They’ve got a ranch on the border with Mexico, but Call has plans for cattle in Montana. The story takes its time setting up, letting us get acquainted with the characters. There are a lot of them, but Gus is the center.
We also meet Sheriff July Johnson (Chris Cooper) who’s henpecked by his sister-in-law into hunting down ex-Ranger Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), who killed his brother in an accident. Now Jake is riding with Call and McCrae, as they undertake one of the first big cattle drives across the now cinematically famous Red River. Their paths will cross many times. Jake falls in with the rather gorgeous town whore Lorena (Diane Lane) and she ends up on the drive with them. But Gus has a liking for her too; he knows Jake isn’t true and Gus has a habit of stealing women away from him. Danny Glover plays Joshua Deets, a driver and excellent tracker; Newt (Ricky Schroeder) is Call’s bastard son, but he doesn’t recognize him.

Simpletons are a staple of TV mini-series like “The Stand” and we get two of them here! Roscoe Brown is July’s dimwit deputy, and he’s played to endearing perfection by Barry Corbin. Best known to me as the General in Wargames who says “I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it would do any good!” he was also in No Country for Old Men. He’s barely recognizable here and really gets into the part. As soon as his story arc ends we get Big Zwey, a more violent type who’s moon-eyed for July’s wandering wife Elmira. He smashes Steve Buscemi’s face in against a wagon wheel. Steve’s quite good in this, and it’s the first Western I’d seen him in.
The acting is some of the best you’ll see from these actors. Robert Urich of “Spenser” and The Ice Pirates, is a wonder as Jake Spoon, a flawed man who is a mere shade of a lawman when faced with Gus and McCrae. Ricky Schroeder . We’ve come to expect great things from Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall and they certainly deliver here. Jones plays the driven, ambitious tragic figure to a tee, while Duvall is the more human of the two. Both are capable of heroism, but Duvall’s McCrae is the one we’d want to have a drink with. He hunts down Blue Duck when he kidnaps Lorena; he smashes a disrespectful bartender’s face in when he talks down to them. Call is the man who does the impossible, at great detriment to his relationships around him; he’s larger than life, but McCrae is the one who lives it. His motto translates to “a grape is changed by living with other grapes.” He improves the vintage of those around him, while Call turns them bitter with neglect.
Diane Lane has never stood out to me, but perhaps that is her strength. She becomes the role, and doesn’t impose her personality on it. Her Lorena is effortlessly desirable, and Gus is the only one who sees her as a person. The other strong female role is Anjelica Huston’s Clara Allen, Gus’s old unrequited love, a strong woman who ends up delivering Elmira’s baby as she seeks her own old love.
Tommy Lee Jones is well known for evoking great emotion with a stone face and cold stare, but here he’s quite the physical actor on horseback. If he was any more comfortable riding, he’d be a centaur. He performed all his own stunts, even breaking a stallion; the actor has long bred horses and it makes him a perfect choice here. When two hands fight, he breaks it up by riding up within an inch of them, as naturally as if he’d turned around and grabbed them by the ears. When Newt is being whipped by an Army quartermaster who wants to requisition one of their horses, Tommy barrels his own steed into the man’s and unhorses him, one hell of a stunt. This also shows Call’s unspoken love for his son, as he nearly beats the man to death with a branding iron.

This is an epic mini-series, and the story is one you should watch yourself. Two of our best living Western actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, should be all you need to know. This lives up to its stellar reputation, and stands by Band of Brothers as one of the best mini-series ever made. It is available on widescreen DVD and Blu-Ray. The HD presentation on AMC was stunning and the locations make the barrens of Texas and the wilds between it and Montana come alive. This is one of those stories that makes me think, “why the hell didn’t I watch this sooner?”

Top Ten Favorite TV Characters Meme

I caught this from retrospace, my favorite nostalgia blog. I don’t watch a lot of television except food shows to hunt down fodder for the Greasy Spoons column, and a few cable series. And Lost, of course. I’m not made of stone! So most of these characters are ancient, but I remember them all well and would like to honor their contribution to my formative years.

John Amos

Yup, Dad on Good Times. I’ve written about him a few times. The man has presence. He’s a bit scary and intense, so much that in Coming to America (full review) they gave him a Cosby sweater and glasses so James Earl Jones would be the imperious one! He was funny, but you never knew if he was gonna whup your ass if you stepped out of line. The perfect father figure for the ’70s, when that was still allowed.

Uncle Floyd

You can’t be from New Jersey and not like Uncle Floyd! The man’s an institution. Floyd Vivino’s corny, cheesy show on local access was an ’80s staple, with crazy musical numbers and guests- including the Ramones, among countless others- and characters such as Eddie Meatball, and Oogie the hand puppet. He inspired me to be wacky, because he didn’t care what people thought, and he made it to TV! He still performs at lounges, and this reminds me I need to drag Firecracker to one.

The Incredible Hulk
I wanted to be the Hulk’s sidekick, Scrappy Hulk.

I liked him best the way Lou Ferrigno played him. The smoldering hulk from the comics? Bah. Lou’s Hulk was more of a giant baby, gentle to the weak and unmerciful to the cruel. I still want to grow up to be the incredible hulk someday, I’m just waiting for technology to pelt me with gamma rays and allow it.

Shirley Hemphill

Shirl from What’s Happening?! was the best. Sure Raj, Duwayne and Re-Run were funny, but mean ol’ Shirl could cut them off at the knees with a single outburst. I had the luck to see her perform at a comedy club at the Mall of America before she died, and she was still funny as hell.
Archie Bunker

My grandfather, who I called “Abby” because he used to say “Yabba Dabba Do” to me as a little kid, looked a lot like ol’ Arch. And he was just as grumpy. All in the Family was one of the most groundbreaking TV shows, and by making this grumpy old bigot the lovable misguided Falstaff of blue collar America, they helped make the world a better place.
Dorothy from the Golden Girls

Bea Arthur recently passed away, but she was part of the popular culture thanks to her acerbic wit and tough attitude which began as “Maude,” one of many spinoffs of “All in the Family,” but was solidified in “The Golden Girls.” Who’da thunk a sit-com about a bunch of retirees would be so funny? All four of these gals were hilarious, but Dorothy was the best. She made the show. And she reminded me of my grandmother, who wasn’t as tall, but had the same attitude.


The Carol Burnett Show was one of the great skit shows of the ’70s and ’80s, and one of the best characters to come out of it was “Mama,” another nasty old woman. Mama’s Place was a great spinoff, with Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett showing up as her hapless children.


Who wouldn’t want a car this cool? Though I never watched St. Elsewhere, where the voice of KITT was revealed, I’d still love to have my car or GPS talk in his calming voice. His aloof attitude and subtle humor made Hoff’s cluelessness tolerable. My Dad had a Firebird, so my ’80s fantasies of being Knight Rider were fulfilled every time we drove to Chuck E. Cheese.
John Peter McAllister, aka The Master

Lee Van Cleef as a ninja master? Damn right. Angel Eyes and Colonel Hawk combined to be one grey-haired bad-ass mofo. I think my Dad was happy that a balding gray-haired old dude could still kick ass, so we watched this a lot. Ninjas were big in the ’80s, with the awful Enter the Ninja movies. Sho Kosugi was everywhere. We got in trouble for bringing throwing stars to school, which our Junior High Principal (who looked a lot like Milhouse’s Dad) called “Weapons of Death.”

Soupy Sales
Old Soupy was a weird children’s show host. On Little Steven’s Underground Garage on satellite, they often play one of many novelty hits he sang, “Do the Mouse (yeah),” an infectious little tune that makes as much sense as his show did. He got in trouble for joking that kids should go into their parents room and mail him all the green pieces of paper they found, but his show attracted all sorts of guests, including Alice Cooper:

So if you read this, consider yourself tagged. Who are your favorites, and why? Put ’em on your blog or do it on facebook.

Latino Images in Film on Turner Classic Movies

Got a late start on this one, but Raquel over at the excellent Out of the Past movie blog- named for that awesome Robert Mitchum noir but so varied in scope that you’ve always got something interesting to read- is reviewing many of the movies on Turner Classic’s marathon of Latino Images in Film. Now I’m not Latino, I’m of Italian & Irish descent, but I get mistaken so much- as evidenced by Latino restaurateurs insistence on addressing me in Spanish, then looking puzzled when I say I can’t speak it- that I feel that I can speak about issues such as “brown face” as Raquel calls it. Because if I were an actor in the ’40s, I’d probably be doing it.

“Brown face”

I’ve always been fascinated with old Hollywood’s treatment of race; it began with theater, when Shakespeare would have actors cross-dress, and do you think he got a Moor to play Othello? That carried over, and in high school I got my first look at insidious prejudice when a theater troupe came to perform Romeo & Juliet for us. Romeo was played by a big black dude who’d have made a great Othello, and I thought he did a great job, but my classmates couldn’t get over his race. This was the era of “reverse racism,” when Clinton was about to be elected, and whitey was scared. If a black guy can play Romeo, how come Charlton Heston can’t play a Mexican in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil? Well, no one wants to erase Charlton and use CG to put in Jimmy Smits for crying out loud. I think Welles, with his theater background, who had played Othello himself, was a product of his times. He wanted the best performance, and meant no disrespect. He just wasn’t enlightened enough. It’s still one of my favorite films, but it’s a sure improvement to hear filmgoers complain about Heston in brownface, and not carp on Baz Luhrmann using Harold “Waaaaalt!” Perrineau as Mercutio in Romeo + Juliet.

“Says here you immigrated from the Planet of the Apes.”

I’m most interested in seeing these:
Salt of the Earth (1954), a docudrama about a New Mexico miner’s strike that was mired in the shameful House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. This film shows how progressive Hollywood was getting after the Code made things child-safe in the mid-30s, only to be smacked down by another witch hunt. The Mexican-American workers are striking for equal wages, and the film follows the effects on them and their families at home.

Terror in a Texas Town (1958) which stars the always-excellent Sterling Hayden in even-whiter-face as a Swede whaler who fights a greedy rancher who killed his Paw. I’m assuming this is in the series because Eugene Martin plays Pepe Mirada. I love Hayden, and the script is by that other blacklisted pinko Dalton Trumbo, whose talents are well-known, so this is worth watching. Let’s see how Trumbo writes the Mexican characters- patronizing, condescending, or believable? Plus, I hear Sterling kills with a harpoon in this. A western with harpoons? Cool.
Popi (1969) I love Alan Arkin, and we watched this a lot as children in the ’70s. We were too young to wonder why Arkin- who also played *cough* Bean in Freebie and the Bean (full review)- was doing “brown face” or to think about the poverty of Spanish Harlem. We did know that a lot of Cuban refugees were coming over on boats and that’s why Popi- a Puerto Rican immigrant working 3 jobs to support his children- comes up with his crazy scheme to pass the kids off as Cuban refugees seeking asylum. I wonder why TCM didn’t also choose Freebie and the Bean, where Arkin plays a Mexican-American cop with a temper, arguing with his wife when he’s not saying “let’s get a taco.” (Yes, that’s where the line in Reservoir Dogs comes from). Well, actually I do- it’s pretty offensive, hearing him called “Bean” the whole time. It’s been ages since I’ve seen Popi and I want to see if it’s any better.

Thankfully nowadays instead of suffering through brown-face, we’ve gone full swing- now Italian-Americans are portrayed by Latino actors. Andy Garcia being called a “stinkin’ wop” by Sean Connery in The Untouchables, John Leguizamo as Vinny in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam are two examples. Now we just need Hollywood to understand that we don’t need movies with more ethnic roles, we just need to realize that Leguizamo doesn’t need to do “pasta face,” he can play any character. This is America, we don’t need to make excuses for ethnicity like in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies! “How come he’s got a French accent? Um, he’s a cop from Quebec, on vacation, when uh, terrorists strike!

“pasta face”

We’re slowly seeing that happen now that casting directors are more enlightened. At least Leading Man’s Ethnic Comic Relief Pal is better than Gang Member or Mechanic at Shady Body Shop. That’s about as lame as making every token Asian character a tourist or laundry owner. In New York City, the Chinese run the taco shops now anyway. It does bug me that some of my favorite actors like Luis Guzmán are often relegated to the same kind of role, so the problem still exists. But no one ever complains about Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface, or Cesar Romeo in whiteface as …. the Joker! Those are funny now. But Hollywood needs to stop worrying about what will play in the Walmart belt. “Ethnic” people live there too. All Americans were “ethnic” once!

Grey Gardens Trio

I approached the HBO movie Grey Gardens with trepidation, since I loved the documentary by the Maysles and was unsure how they’d approach the material. It invites camp, but I always saw the Beales as sympathetic figures, and thankfully the movie does too. It doesn’t let the ladies off the hook for their eccentricity either, and this pair of shut-ins are colorful enough before the novelty of their relation to Jackie Kennedy is discovered.

Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore

If you don’t know the story, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” were mother and daughter living on an estate in the Hamptons called Grey Gardens. The mother and father became estranged, and after he died she lived at the estate on a meager trust; she had become agoraphobic, though it is never called such. She’d hold parties at the house, and send little Edie on errands once no one would deliver. Little Edie envied her socialite cousins the Bouviers, such as Jacqueline, and dreamt of an acting, or dancing and singing career. She pursued it in New York City, but it never came to pass.
She suffered from alopecia, and took to wearing headwraps to hide her hair loss. Once Jackie became the First Lady, the paparazzi descended and eventually discovered the Beales, living in a decrepit old house full of cats and raccoons. Jackie paid to have the house cleaned of garbage and repaired, but two documentarians, Albert and David Maysles of Gimme Shelter fame, came to document these eccentric characters. I was introduced to the documentary by my friend Emma, and when it was released by Criterion. For years it was a camp classic; diva nerds loved that Jackie O had such tawdry relatives, and Little Edie was a bizarre counterpoint to Jacqueline’s classy demeanor. This was the ramshackle shed behind Camelot where the embarrassing relations lived.

The real Edies

Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange play the Beales, and we flash back to their better days, to see the slow descent into reclusion. Little Edie was always an extrovert and unreserved; we see her audition before a producer while he’s at a business luncheon. And slowly, her chances to break free of her mother disappear, and she becomes trapped in Grey Gardens. Jessica Lange is fantastic as the reclusive Big Edie, who goes from a boisterous party thrower to a bedridden cat lady once her paramours cannot tolerate one more wrinkle.

The two actresses are both fantastic; they had the Maysles documentary and another made from the outtakes, The Beales of Grey Gardens, to study and they are perfect. Drew Barrymore has the more difficult job, as Little Edie is practically unbelievable as a person. You really ought to rent the 1975 Grey Gardens to check her out. Her story eventually gets a happy ending, but only after a long imprisonment under her mother’s thrall. I highly recommend the HBO movie whether you’ve seen the documentaries or not; if you’ve seen it already, hunt down the originals to see just how good the performances are.

the misery of a caged bird not allowed to sing

I revisited the Maysles documentary it made me wonder how much it influenced Errol Morris when he made Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida; they share the “give ’em enough rope” method of Grey Gardens, where the camera seems to fade away, like a fly on the wall. It’s common now, but leaving the camera around until the subjects became comfortable, and vulnerable, was a far cry from the father of the documentary’s nearly staged scenes- such as the basking shark hunt in Man of Aran.
Instead we get the slow realization of the bars on Little Edie’s cage, the poison from her mother’s mouth. A faded rose whose thorns encircled her daughter, keeping her from growing taller or brighter than herself. It’s depressing, but just as powerful as any Oscar-winning drama. The second film, The Beales of Grey Gardens, released in 2006 from remaining footage, is lighter in tone and less oppressive. It makes for an entertaining film in itself, but I’d definitely watch the original first. If it starts to depress you, remember that Little Edie eventually got her own dance revue and lived the rest of her life in Florida on her own, after her mother’s passing.