Wednesday, January 27, 2010


One of my favorite lines in any movie is from The Rutles' All You Need is Cash. In this Beatle parody, Eric Idle plays the narrator. From the parking lot outside the site of the Fab Four's most famous concert, he refers to the first outdoor rock concert held at "Che Stadium (named after Cuban Guerrilla leader, Che Stadium)." Cracks me up every time.

Not so funny is Steven Soderbergh's 4 1/2 hour epic bio Che. No laughs , to be sure, but it makes for compelling viewing. Constructed as two separate movies, the first part is the better. The jumping off point is a Che visit to the UN. Filmed in glorious, retro-looking black and white, this segment flashes back to Che's first meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico City in the early '50's, tracking their beginnings, their struggle and ultimate victory over Batista's tyrannical government.

Nothing is mentioned about Fidel's tyrannical leadership in Part 2. This story comes at you as a straight drama, with Che in Bolivia stirring up and supporting a native uprising against the military government. I thought that, like Part 1, it would start in Bolivia 1965 and flashback to the Castro regime. Uh-uh. It's kinda boring as a result, and I have to say I was disappointed at the gap in the story. It is filled with cinematic highlights. Like Butch Cassidy and Sundance, nothing goes right in Bolivia. In one shot, Che and his men see a single peasant they think is out for a walk. Slowly, more and more people appear and grow into a mob on the hillside looking for the rebels. Towards the end of his efforts, Che is nestled behind a rock, tending to an injury when we see above his head, a menacing group of Army soldiers approaching through the thick cover. We see it - Che doesn't.

As David Bowie sings in "Panic in Detroit," Benicio Del Toro "looks a lot like Che Guevara." BDT is wonderful in the role, though perhaps a bit too saintly. His rebuttal to the condemnations delivered by the ambassadors of other nations at the United Nations is a tour de force. the picture belongs to him and him alone.

Matt Damon makes a surprising cameo as a local Bolivian official. He's got a pretty believable Spanish accent. No traces of Boston southie here. Soderbergh, whose directorial prowess is omnipresent, uses his Ocean's star to great effect. So, where's Brad Pitt?

Che is well worth your time, though I recommend watching one disc per night. They work very well as individual movies, completely stand alone stories told in distinctly different ways.

As for Benicio Del Toro, I can't wait until his next movie. It's the story of another hairy revolutionary, The Wolfman.

Monday, January 18, 2010


When Diner came out in 1982, it immediately jumped towards the top of my favorite movie list. Watching it for the first time in decades last week, a few things came to mind.

First, I was struck by how the opening of Reservoir Dogs, is a ripoff (or homage) of the Diner repartee of the Baltimore six. While the dissection of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" in Dogs
seemed shocking upon first viewing, it's just a filthier version of the friends of '59 discussing the relatives merits of Sinatra v. Mathis.

Second, there is a large percentage of the cast that went to SUNY. Steve Guttenberg (Eddie) went to Albany; Paul Reiser (Modell) is a fellow alum of Binghamton. Not bad. Granted, Guttenberg's career went down the shitter, and Reiser has long been forgotten post - Mad About the Jew (wait, that's Mad About You). Still, I felt great local pride.

Third, there's The Scene, the one part of the movie that hit me down to my soul then, and now. Can you guess? It's when Daniel Stern's character "Shrevie" is reclassifying his albums. You know that's my bailiwick. Exasperated, he yells for wife Beth to come in, then berates her for putting his James Brown LPs in rock and roll and for not knowing who Charlie Parker is. Then, he forces her to quiz him on the B-sides of his 45's. She is lost, not grasping how anyone could care about such trivialities. He, in turn, is disgusted that she doesn't get how important all that minutiae is to him.

When everyone I knew saw that, and I mean everyone, they came back to me gleeful. "Did you see Diner? That was you!" And I relished it, I did. It all made sense to me and having someone close not share my obsessions seemed like a character flaw - of them, not me. It was a scene I was proud to be associated with.

Now, not so much. Sure, I still adhere to strict rules of categorization and, like "Shrevie," alphabetical and chronological are the only ways to go. But with age comes the knowledge that the person closest to you doesn't have to be a part of every single aspect of your life. For years I wanted K. to look through all my albums. She said when we met, and still repeats it now, that my copy of Black Market Clash sealed the deal for her. I was so proud of my record collection. It was an integral part of who I was, my children.

Then I had real kids, human, not vinyl, and the records, though still a looming presence in my life, became less crucial to the "who" of me. And when I watch "Shrevie" yell at Beth, it makes me really sad, because, I know I shared that bit of meanness. Watching some old home movies yesterday only confirmed the impatience and curtness of the old me. Now I look back at the person who connected closely to Diner and I'm not pleased.

But my records are in order.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Big Mac Atones

Mark McGwire finally admits to the worst kept secret in sports. He took steroids on and off throughout the 1990's. Where's Claude Rains when you need him? Shocked, yes, we are all shocked, at this revelation.

Big Mac takes the Andy Pettite approach. PEDs were not taken for performance enhancement (though that's what the P and the E stand for), but in order to heal more quickly. It's a decent approach - "just doing it to get healthy for my team." It feels pretty good.
What McGwire says, and what I've said in a slightly different way with an outsider's point of view is this: "I had good years when I didn't take any, and I had bad years when I didn't take any. I had good years when I took steroids, and I had bad years when I took steroids." Though McGwire has the credibility these days of a member of the Nixon White House, I believe him on this. It would be unbelievably odd to have only good years on steroids and then, what, he stopped taking them and did poorly, then decided he should take them again? Once he took them, I assume it was a fairly consistent part of his per diem.

If you look at the list of players implicated in the Mitchell Report or elsewhere, you get a hodgepodge of talent. The great players were great, the mediocre players were mediocre and the poorer players still sucked. For every Barry Bonds there are ten Randy Velarde
types. So ultimately, do steroids really change the game? Maybe on the margins, and that's where purists bemoan the new records. I understand that. But the breast beating that the game in total was skewed and that a Roger Clemens isn't a Hall of Famer is absurd. The vast majority of players were taking some kind of drug and doesn't that even things out in the long run.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Hawk and Me

We had just moved to Chicago from New York. It was a big transition; neither of us had lived anywhere but the East Coast. I was looking forward to it, having visited Jimmy in 1985. I was stunned when the attendant at the rental car lot at O'Hare wished me a pleasant visit. What? In New York, people in toll booths fucked with you as a matter of occupational pride.

Early March of 1987 was unusually warm when news of the Cubs' signing of Andre Dawson hit town. It was Sunday, March 8, and we were at Ranalli's, one block north of our Dearborn & Maple apartment. Sitting on the second floor outdoor deck, eating an oh so delicious double-decker pizza (two crusts, but not thick), I read the Tribune's account on how Dawson's agent Dick Moss, trying to puncture the baseball owners illegal collusive behavior to halt free agent signings, offered Cubs General Manager Dallas Green a blank check, literally. Fill in what you want for one of the best outfielders in the game, a man four years removed from 2nd place in the National League MVP voting. Dawson, on rickety knees, was desperate to leave the iron-like playing surface in Montreal's Olympic Stadium for the cushy grass of Wrigley. For a base salary of $500,000 the Cubs got a steal.

It was Dawson who was the heart and soul of the late '80's, early '90's Cubs. Not Ryne Sandberg, not Rick Sutcliffe, not Mark Grace, not Greg Maddux. Dawson had the stature, the power and the demeanor that exuded leadership. When he was drilled in the mouth by Padre hurler and John Bircher Eric Show, a horrific beaning that resulted in 20 stitches, the Cubs rose in force to protect their man. It was a melee and showed that behind "The Hawk" the Cubs were not to be toyed with.

What a year that first one was for Andre. An MVP year, with 49 homers and 137 RBI. And that arm! One of the best ever. Sure the Cubbies finished last in '87, but that year began a mini-renaissance for the team that resulted in a division title two years later.

I look back at 1987 and feel inextricably linked to Andre Dawson. It was our rookie season in our new city. His was much better than mine, but over the next few years I had some fine campaigns myself. Our time in Chicago was, in my estimation, our golden era. It was where we had all three boys, owned our first homes, and built something of a successful career. I had a close view of the Cubs those years from Section 131 behind first base. Though I never succumbed to Cub fever, I did love Dawson.

Now, we're both in Cooperstown, though I preceded him by about 6 1/2 years. I'll be there at Induction for sure. I may even run into him at the Friday night party before the big Sunday. I can only hope Dawson's entrance into the Hall of Fame means this will be a good year for ex-Chicagoans.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Let Me Lay Something On You

My only goal in college was to read as much as possible. I had entertained the idea of going to law school, but that lasted about a month or two. I was a great student, but enough was enough. I didn't want to stay in college beyond four years. So I majored in political science, and took a lot of history and English courses. Nary a thought for career.

When I graduated, and embarked on a book a week schedule (commuting helped), I was frustrated by the inability to really make a dent in literature. How would I ever cover all the ground I needed to in order to become "well-read"? Now, 25 years later, I have made serious incursions into the great works and, rather than feeling inadequate due to the impossibility of reading it all, I move onward as fast as I can.

So with movies. Fine, I've seen all of Fellini, Truffaut, Scorsese, (save 1 or 2), but there's much ground to cover. The nice thing about films is that 1 1/2 - 2 hours later, you're all done. Here's the latest hole to be filled.

Though knowledgeable about the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970's, I'd never seen any. Not even Shaft or Superfly. I knew the soundtracks, not the movies. A few months ago that struck me as horrific and I began correct myself. Thank God for Netflix!

These movies always have better music than story. Shaft, Superfly, and Trouble Man are helped by a false sense of excitement due to their driving scores. It was quite a coup to enlist titans like Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye to write original music for B-movies. Slaughter gets a dynamite theme from Billy Preston. Even Blacula gets the funky groove treatment, weirdly inappropriate for a vampire flick.

Speaking of Blacula, it may have the best acting of the bunch. William Marshall plays the cursed Prince Mamuwalde with a grandness and hauteur that befits his royal breeding. He'd bring this same proud bearing to his role as The King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Thalmus Rasulala puts in a fine performance as well. These movies are marked by overall crappy acting, but Richard Roundtree as Shaft, Don Gordon (yeah, I know he's white) in Slaughter, these are great performances.

I was mostly disappointed by Melvin van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Seminal, my ass! It's unwatchable, although by sitting through it I proved otherwise. My favorite line is from Superfly, when Priest's partner Eddie can't believe his man main wants out of the drug game. "You got an 8-track stereo, color TV in every room and all the cocaine you need. You're living the American dream!" Something like that. Considering Priest lives in a tiny project apartment, a color set in each room may add up to one. Slaughter, starring Jim Brown as a guy who should have stayed a running back, was also pretty rough, except for the aforementioned Gordon and the always hot early '70's Stella Stevens. Ever since I saw her in a man's dress shirt and nothing else, climbing up the ship's ladder in The Poseidon Adventure, I've been a changed man.

I've written before about what a shit hole New York was in the 1970's, and how much I love a good filthy NYC picture. Shaft, Superfly, they've got that down, but all these movies are grimy. I like that. One thing about '70's nudity, and these movies tend not to be shy about a naked girl or two. There's an uncomfortable personal element to that decade's love scenes, and I know why. It's because these women are real! There's a sense that you are watching actual people, and that feels wrong. Not like today, when the actresses are created in a lab and bear no resemblance to actual human females.

Those are some preliminary impressions. Oh, there are so many to come: The Mack, Dolemite, Shaft in Africa, Black Caesar. You know that jolt of excitement when you stumble on something unexpected while thumbing through stacks of records, books or DVDs (or whatever you may shop for)? I had that last week, when I bought Slaughter and Blacula, each for for $5. The prospect of these movies hitting the remainder bin bodes well for a happy new year.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Spreading Myself Around

(Wow, that title sounds way dirtier than I thought).

My list of 2010 writing projects is set. Tomorrow begins the work, building on 2009 and hoping to reach some of the goals that were just out of my grasp last year.

Though my lists are quite good, they are always thrown a curve and, when that hook comes, I'm ready for it. So, when I got the pleasantly surprising offer at the end of '09 to become Music Editor of ragazine, I happily accepted. For those who read Katz Komments via Facebook, you've seen this already. For the rest of you, here's column number one:

Look for a new piece every month. And don't forget Maybe Baby, of course. Or Katz Komments. Or any of the other bits on my list that may come to fruition.