When Brendan Fraser went away

Image from Getty via EW.com.

If 2021 goes as planned, we should be seeing Brendan Fraser in a couple movies this year — one of them a crime thriller, “No Sudden Move,” directed by Steven Soderbergh.

That shouldn’t be exceptional. For many years, from the early ’90s until about 2009, Brendan Fraser was in tons of movies. Some were box office smashes — “The Mummy” series, “George of the Jungle” — and some were critical hits, including “Gods and Monsters,” which should have earned him an Oscar nomination.

He was hot. There’s even an ancient website — it seems to run through about 2005, when Fraser had a photographic exhibit in New Orleans — that walks through his career in the movies and with his photographic hobby, in the days when a personal website was somewhat unusual.

And then he seemed to vanish.

There were several reasons for this, points out Zach Baron in “What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser?”, which was published in GQ in 2018. It’s my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: It’s a world, world, world, world Mad

It is impossible to imagine a world without Mad magazine.

Though it now exists as a brand name on primarily archival material, there was a time — before “The Daily Show,” before “The Simpsons,” before “Saturday Night Live” and “National Lampoon” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” — when Mad was the most popular, and most influential, humor source in the country. It was Mad that, in a time of mostly gentle mainstream humor, was willing to tell kids and teens (and thoughtful adults), Watch out.

“When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, ‘Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The president is lying to you,’” recalled longtime Mad editor Al Feldstein in 2007.

I’m biased, of course. I was one of the many sucked in by Mad, starting officially with the July 1975 issue with “Airport 1975” on the cover (though there’s a picture of me as an infant reading, or staring at, the September 1965 issue) and continuing for … well, though I stopped buying the magazine as a teenager, I still dip into it from time to time, courtesy the CD-ROM collection Broderbund put out in 1999. (Cheap!)

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Sunday read: The fabric that vanished

Image via edtimes.in.

When I was a kid, I read a creepy book that had a title that went something like “22 Creepy Stories of the Unexplained That Will Give You the Creeps.” It gave me the creeps.

The stories included stuff like a devilish figure whose tracks were seen in 19th-century Britain, a Caribbean family whose mausoleum, no matter how secured, was always in disarray when it was reopened to bring in another coffin, and a Pacific islander (if I recall) who was able to tell when ships would be arriving well before they could be seen on the horizon. That last passed his knowledge to younger members of the area, who did the same for the next generation, but eventually it disappeared. Nobody knows how it was done.

(It would be interesting to find the book now and see how many of the stories remain unexplained, or were made up entirely. Also, it’s interesting what gives you the creeps. I had a “Ripley’s Believe or Not” collection that had a simple drawing of a gravestone somewhere out west on which the death date was listed as “February 30, [year].” I don’t know why that gave me the shivers, but it did.)

We’re still figuring out some mysteries today, ancient — like the Antikythera mechanism, the 2,000-year-old Greek computer that had engineering (if not accuracy) not achieved until many centuries later — and more recent, like Dhaka muslin, a centuries-old fabric that was the most valuable in the world in the late 1700s but whose construction has been lost to time. The latter is the topic of my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: Notes from Roger Ebert

Image via Rogerebert.com.

A few days ago on Twitter, writer Chris Jones shared a series of Post-it Notes he’d gotten from Roger Ebert when he interviewed Ebert for Esquire in 2009. The notes were pure Ebert: funny, longing, sad, matter-of-fact.

It has been 11 years since Jones’ moving, insightful piece appeared in Esquire’s March 2010 issue. I remember when it came out: There was a great deal of surprise that Ebert, who had had part of his jaw removed due to cancer, had agreed to sit down in person and let himself be photographed. Jones, an excellent writer who’s made a habit out of surprising perspectives (try his profile of Carrot Top on for size), didn’t waste the opportunity.

His story is my Sunday read.

Ebert has been dead for almost eight years now, but his impact hasn’t faded. The website he founded, rogerebert.com, is filled with the same kind of concise reviews and thoughtful articles he wrote himself for decades; now they’re done by a whole staff of contributors, including Christy Lemire and Matt Zoller Seitz. (His own work, of course, is also available, as well as a blog from his wife, Chaz.) Now that the Internet has made everybody a published critic, one could do worse than emulate Ebert, who tried to find the good even in mediocre films.

What’s more, he always kept a sense of discovery about him — and he brought that spirit to the country through his long-running partnership with Gene Siskel. As I wrote about the pair in an appreciation of Ebert, “They were, in a word, refreshing – especially for those of us, like me, who grew up far from the film centers of New York and Los Angeles. Where else could you get a sense of movies that might never come to your town? Where else could you take part, even from your living room, in the debate between two guys who really knew their stuff, and were entertaining as hell to boot?”

Jones went much deeper.

Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other—unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.

I probably read Jones’ story two or three times when it came out. He was fair and he was honest and he captured something … heroic in the midst of struggle. (Ebert would probably hate that I termed his medical battles “heroic.”) It led to a lot of chatter among the chattering classes, which I’m sure Ebert — who enjoyed the spotlight — liked, but it wasn’t written as that kind of “Up Close and Personal” sentimental glurge that TV networks and celebrity magazines like to put out. It was matter-of-fact, like the man himself.

I miss that ferocity.

You can read “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” here. (And follow Chris Jones on Twitter. You won’t be disappointed. The man has a very real girlfriend and does not let anyone insult his CBC T-shirts.)

Sunday read: It’s the pictures that got small

The Oscar nominations will be announced Monday morning, and I mean no offense to the prospective nominees when I say they seem … small.

I saw a handful of them — “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “Da 5 Bloods” — and I plan to catch up with “Sound of Metal,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “One Night in Miami,” among others, in due course. But, like probably all of you reading this (that is, both of you), I saw them on my television, in my living room — not in a theater on a big screen among dozens or hundreds of people. And an HDTV, even a home-theater-sized one (which mine isn’t), is no substitute for the moviegoing experience. I mean, I also watch “Saturday Night Live” reruns and the wonderful “Ted Lasso” on a TV.

So, even though many of those Oscar hopefuls probably look great on the big screen, virtually nobody saw them on the big screen. We saw them on streaming services.

As a result, they seem diminished. They’ve become just another TV show, something to flick past as you’re channel-surfing, or to freeze-frame when you go to the bathroom. (I can hear Christopher Nolan sobbing.)

The films of 2020, at least in the way they were presented, are another victim of Covid.

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Sunday read: What would E. Howard Hunt think?

Image of the “three tramps” being led away after the JFK assassination. E. Howard Hunt may be the man in the hat. Or he may not.

Late last week, a former State Department employee and Trump appointee, Frederico Klein, was arrested on charges that he took part in the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection and assaulted an officer. And then Friday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) released a 2,000-page report that noted the social media activity of GOP members of Congress between the election and the riot.

I wonder what E. Howard Hunt would think.

Hunt, famously, was the former CIA agent who got wrapped up in Watergate as one of Richard Nixon’s “plumbers,” who were tasked with stopping administration leaks but ended up planning wiretappings and the Watergate burglary itself. He was a mysterious fellow who ended up as one of the threads Woodward and Bernstein pulled on to unravel the whole scheme.

Hunt had a history well before Watergate. He’d helped bring down the government of Guatemala in 1954. He wrote dozens of spy novels, some highly praised. And he may have had knowledge of John F. Kennedy’s asssassination.

The last, from a 2007 story in Rolling Stone, is at the center of my Sunday read.

Now, I’m an agnostic on the Kennedy assassination. It’s always seemed a little odd that an eccentric figure named Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK on November 22, 1963. Surely he must have been connected to something — the Mob, the CIA, Texas oilmen, maybe the whole racket. On the other hand, it’s always seemed odd that an eccentric figure named Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and helped kick off World War I when the archduke’s car, having avoided a thrown grenade not long before, flukily went past him as he was waiting near a delicatessen. History is full of such improbabilities.

I’m not going to get into the details of Hunt’s confession — that’s why I’m linking to Erik Hedegaard’s story. I’m not even sure I believe much of it. Hunt very well could have been one of the “three tramps” in Dallas that day (many sources say otherwise), but he also fingers Lyndon Johnson as one of the conspirators, and having read the most recent volume in Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, I don’t buy that.

But as part of the CIA? Allen Dulles‘ CIA? The place that tried to get Fidel Castro’s cigars to explode? Which had an operative who met with Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy about their idea of smearing LSD on muckraker Jack Anderson’s steering wheel? I can see that. And Hunt himself was the kind of guy who didn’t flinch about such things.

“He was a complete self-centered WASP who saw himself as this blue blood from upstate New York,” says his son in the Rolling Stone article. ” ‘I’m better than anybody because I’m white, Protestant and went to Brown, and since I’m in the CIA, I can do anything I want.’ “

I don’t know what we’ll find out about January 6. There are many loose ends and unexplained events — Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s torn-out panic buttons, why folks are pushing off-the-wall conspiracy theories — that may lead to some dark places. Or they may lead nowhere at all. E. Howard Hunt died in 2007, so there’s no way to get his opinion on things. But he left behind some interesting stories.

You can read “The Last Confession of E. Howard Hunt” here.

Sunday read: The book of forgetting and forgetting

Image by Peter Fordham © Yoko Ono via UDiscoverMusic.com.

Do you remember Fred Allen?

You probably don’t. You probably have never heard of Fred Allen. But at his peak, in the 1930s and 1940s, he had one of the most popular radio shows on the air, was hailed as one of America’s foremost humorists, and influenced everybody from contemporaries Jack Benny and Groucho Marx to future talk-show host Johnny Carson (the “Mighty Carson Art Players” was a take on the “Mighty Allen Art Players”). One of the characters on his show, Sen. Beauregard Claghorn, was the inspiration for the Warner Bros. character Foghorn Leghorn.

Do you remember Harold Robbins? James Michener? Fannie Hurst? They were some of the best-selling authors of their day. Robbins was greatly responsible for the kind of sex-dripping novel we now think of as an airport potboiler. Michener wrote doorstops, such as “The Source” and “Hawaii,” that tried to sum up centuries of history through a handful of characters. Hurst, who is name-dropped in Mel Brooks’ song “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” wrote some of the best-selling books of the 1920s and ’30s. She was, perhaps, the Jodi Picoult of her day, seizing on social themes and getting hooted at by critics.

Do you remember “Imagine”? The 1971 John Lennon song?

Of course you do. It’s practically an anthem. As recently as last year, Gal Gadot rounded up a bunch of celebrities to sing it in the face of Covid. It didn’t go over well, but it wasn’t the song’s fault.

But if you asked one of Cesar A. Hidalgo’s students at MIT about “Imagine,” she would be clueless, as Hidalgo found out while listening to the song one day.

“Is it Coldplay?” the student asked.

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The ends of the earth

Image from HouseofTeresa.com.

I’ve got a couple Sunday reads lined up, but I don’t feel like writing about them. I’d rather write about something more immediate: the end of the world.

What? The world’s not ending?

I don’t know if I agree. Did you think the apocalypse would come from a nuclear conflagration or an asteroid strike, something that would wipe out all life (except the roaches and ants, of course) instantaneously? Or even a pandemic resembling the one we have, except more dramatic, like Stephen King’s Captain Trips?

No, I think this is the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a whimper.

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Sunday read: Three love stories for Valentine’s Day

Image from Thinkstock via Britannica.com.

Today is Valentine’s Day, so instead of whining about the state of the world, I figured I’d look up some nice love stories on the web. But clickbaity websites being what they are, the headlines were enough to make even a Hallmark executive retch: “18 True Romantic Stories That Will Make You Believe in Love,” “True Love: Real-Life Couples Share Their Adorable True Love Stories” (which is the Google headline, not the website headline), “inspiring real-life love stories that will deeply touch your heart and restore your faith in love.” (That last is a description.)

I actually believe in love — hi to my wife, who I hope is enjoying those chocolate-covered strawberries — but as much as I want to go “aw,” I know from experience that love isn’t just those bubbly hearts that fizz in cable movies. It’s friendship and acceptance and — dare I say it? — a little work, too.

So for my Sunday read, I decided to go with something more low-key. Not depressing, not tragic, just three stories with a touch of wisdom about them.

They’re from the Guardian and they’re told matter-of-factly. Two of them feature older couples who have seen a few things — widowhood, divorce, rejection. A third is the best kind of right-place-at-right-time story. (I’ve got a friend who has a wonderful one of those featuring an Atlanta ice storm.) I hope they provide some pleasure on this sometimes too-sentimental occasion. (Take it from a sentimental fool.)

You can read “‘Fate brought us together’: three stories of serendipitous love” here.