ON NOT BEING A CULTURE SNOB

I read a post about how dreadful (yet gripping) romance novels can be. It’s true. They are the potato chips of the literary world. Bet you can’t consume just one! Even if you don’t like them (and mostly, I don’t, much), they grab you and won’t let you go, even though you know in advance exactly what is going to happen, pretty much from the opening page.

That’s not the point of these books. If as a girl, you read the back of cereal boxes, romance novels are the next step up. I’m not sure what the literary equivalent is for guys, but I’m sure there is one.

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As the former editor of the Doubleday Romance Library, I can tell you our research showed readers of romance novels to be far better educated than average readers. Many have advanced degrees in the sciences. They read romance novels exactly because they are mindless pulp. They aren’t looking to be informed or improved, to have their world expanded, reading-level or awareness raised. They want a book they can pick up, read, put down. If life gets in the way, they can just forget them without regret.

I read each 3-book volume, one per month. It contained three romances: 2 modern with a Gothic sandwiched between. Every novel had the same plot, the same outcome. They sold gangbusters.

Regardless of what we, as writers, would like, people don’t necessarily read books because they are good. Me? I often avoid “good” books. I don’t want to go where the book would take me. I’m not stupid or lacking in culture. I just don’t want to read it.

Why? Too depressing, too intense, too serious, too ugly, too educational. Too real. I read for the same reasons I watch TV and movies. To be entertained. I am not seeking enlightenment. Perhaps I should rephrase that. I am no longer seeking enlightenment. If I ain’t enlightened by now, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this lifetime.

The wondrous thing about the world of books is there are so many books. Enough genres, themes, and styles for anyone. Everyone. An infinity of literature so no matter what your taste –low-brow, high-brow, middle-brow, no-brow — there are thousands of books waiting for you. That’s good. I’d rather see someone reading a bad book than no book.

I’m not a culture snob. I think reading crappy novels is fine if you like them. Watching bad TV is fine too. Snobs take the fun out of reading. While I’m not a fan of romance novels, if you are, that’s fine. Since I love reading about vampires and witches, I’d be a hypocrite to act like your taste is somehow inferior to mine.

These days, I’m rarely in the mood for serious literature. Tastes change with the years. Mine has changed more than most. Life has been a very serious business for me. When I read, watch TV, or see a movie, I am happy to escape from reality.

Finally, my favorite professor at university — a man I believe was profound and wise in every way that counted — was a big fan of Mickey Spillane. He said there was a much truth in his books. I believe for him, there was.

GUILTY PLEASURES – REDUX

Grateful and Guilty – Whether it’s a trashy TV show, extra-pulpy fiction, or nutrient-free candy, write a thank-you note to your guiltiest guilty pleasure.

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This prompt is 100% rerun. And this response is the identical (except for a teeny tiny bit of editing) response I made the first time around, on June 23, 2013. I keep saying: if you are going to re-issue the same prompts, I’m going to republish what I wrote in response. Not that anyone from WordPress pays the least bit of attention to what we write. You guys up there think we are really not very bright, don’t you.


No matter how sophisticated we become, how many degrees in film, literature or the arts we obtain, we keep our guilty pleasures. By which I mean the movies, books, books, and television shows we know aren’t great — and may be really dumb.

It doesn’t matter. We love them anyway.

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I have a whole bushel of them, ranging from television shows about vampires with glowing eyes (Forever Knight), to reruns of the original Lassie. I’m a sucker for any movie featuring a non-human, be it cat, dog, horse, or sea creature. I’ll watch pretty much anything in which Candice Bergen starred or was at least featured. I’ll watch anything from any season of any Star Trek, even if I’ve seen it a hundred times.

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I love comedies by Mel Brooks, even the bad ones because they make me laugh. Ditto the Zucker brothers for the same reason. If you can make me laugh, you’ve got me. Sometimes, I watch things that are unintentionally funny … Xena, Princess Warrior comes to mind. I don’t know whether it was supposed to be funny, but it made me laugh until I cried.

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My lists of favorite movies, books and television shows are a study in contrasts. I love The Lion In Winter and The Seventh Seal. I love Airplane and Hotshots Deux. I never miss a run of Best Of Show or A Mighty Wind. Or the original version of The Haunting.  From the sublime to the ridiculous, I will watch or read whatever grabs my fancy or makes me laugh without discrimination.

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It’s one of the reasons I think that “awards” like the Golden Globes and the Oscars need many more categories. How can you put a screwball comedy against a serious drama and have any kind of sensible outcome? It would be like having a dog show that included camels and goats. It wouldn’t matter how beautiful a goat or camel you have entered, it would never win Best of show.

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What makes you laugh? What cheers you up when you’ve got the blues? Are you a secret fan of Gilligan’s Island or Love Boat? Time to come clean!

A POPPY IN REMEMBRANCE

World War I (WWI) officially began on July 28, 1914, though its real beginnings were rooted in events beginning decades, even centuries earlier. An ugly, devastating war consisting of 4 years of slaughter ending on November 11, 1918, they day we celebrate today.

The official number of military casualties is 22,477,500 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The combined number of military and civilian casualties is more than 37 million. If, as I do, you consider World War II as chapter two of the same conflict, the number of dead becomes even more incomprehensible.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has celebrates Veteran’s Day each year, usually by inviting historians and military people to do introductions and closing comments on war films. General Wesley Clark has been doing TCM’s commentaries, most recently for Oh! What a Lovely War.

He referred to the movie as a musical comedy. While it has amusing moments, calling it a musical comedy doesn’t cut it. If comedy can be dark, this is totally black. It’s also surprisingly informative. I can date my interest in World War I and modern American history to having seen this movie when it was released in 1969.

In his closing comments following the movie, General Clark said he hoped we had learned our lesson from this and all the other wars of the past century. I turned to Garry and said, “And what lesson, exactly, might that be?”

“Obviously,” said my husband, making a sour face, “We have learned nothing.”

I agree. Well, we did learn a few things, though nothing good. We learned to build more lethal weapons. We can kill more people faster than we did 100 years ago. Much of our military technology emerged during and post-WWI.

I don’t see this as progress. If you want to know why I’m so cynical, why I have trouble believing in a benign deity, look at the casualty figures from the collective wars of the past century.

I love this movie. Not only because of its historical veracity — it’s accurate — but because the music is wonderful. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time — Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and more, all having a great time.

I’ve seen this many times and I guess so has Garry since we can both know the words to all the songs. Very catchy.


OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Until I saw this movie, I didn’t get the connection between poppies and World War I.

All I knew was that veterans organizations gave red poppies to people when they donated money, but I had no idea why. After you see this movie, you will never forget why.

I originally saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969. It’s World War I — in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain.

The songs were sung by the troops and the cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen in the 1960s. The credits are a who’s-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand. Its causes are rooted in old world grudges that make no sense to Americans. So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918, the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered. The death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease or starvation. It paved the way for major political upheaval throughout the world.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could be called an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder a generation of men. They did a good job.

The statements of the historical characters — all lodged a safe distance from the fighting — are ludicrous. General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really said: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? He said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to save — is a great cinematic moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would Europe exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs mixed with pithy comments from generals, kings, Kaisers and soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and what those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny, catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and love great movies, grab one.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and informative, this movie is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I haven’t forgotten it.

If you are willing to pay an exorbitant price, Amazon has a few copies here.

COULD YOU REPEAT THAT?

Bad Signal — Someone’s left you a voicemail message, but all you can make out are the last words: “I’m sorry. I should’ve told you months ago. Bye.” Who is it from, and what is this about?


We used to leave messages on our answering machines telling folks to speak slowly and clearly, but too many people thought we were being funny, that leaving a coherent message was a joke. So we get lots of incoherent messages. Usually, with caller ID, we know who called and can retrieve the number, but the contents of the message is gobbledy-gook.

“Garry, your brother called. No idea what he said. Call him, okay?”

“Hey, Jim called about something. Call him when you have a moment.”

“One of your cousins called. They left a message but I can’t dope it out.”

My favorite: “Someone called. Maybe it was important. They left a number but I can’t understand it.  Guess it wasn’t important enough.” Note: If it really is important and we don’t call back? Pick up the phone and call again. Seriously. If it’s that important, make sure we got the message.

If you choose to leave a message, speak up. Clearly. Repeat the phone number at least twice. Don’t forget to include your name — in case we don’t actually know you as well as you think we do.

Don’t mumble.

While we’re on the subject, how about those cell phones, eh? On which you can’t hear anything? From either end? I miss telephones on which you knew you had a connection that wouldn’t drop and on which you could hear what someone said to you — and know they could hear you.

“Can you hear me? Hello? Are you still there?”

It’s 1904 all over again. Without wires or operators.

The other night, my husband and I watched — for the umpteenth time — Meet Me In St. Louis. It’s the old Judy Garland musical. Vincent Minnelli directed it. Great movie, one of our favorites. Terrific songs, Margaret O’Brien about as cute as a kid can be. Nostalgia on the hoof.

The story is set in 1904 when the World’s Fair was coming to St. Louis. Telephones in private homes were the hot new technology. A call from a distant city was a big deal. Early in the story, the oldest sister, Rose, receives a long-distance call from New York.

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FROM “Meet Me In St. Louis” — SCENE: The phone rings.

Rose Smith: Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?

Warren Sheffield: Yes, I can hear you. (Pause)

Rose Smith: What did you say, Warren?

Warren Sheffield: Nothing. I was waiting for you to talk

Rose Smith: Oh. Well, did you want to discuss anything in particular?

Warren Sheffield: What?

Rose Smith: I said, was there anything special you wanted to ask me

Warren Sheffield: I can’t hear you, Rose

Rose Smith: That’s funny. I can hear you plainly

Warren Sheffield: Isn’t this great? Here I am in New York and there you are in St. Louis and it’s just like you’re in the next room.

Rose Smith: What was that?


ANOTHER SCENE: TODAY, MASSACHUSETTS

Me: Hello? Hello? Cherrie?

Cherrie: (Faintly) Hello? I’m in New York … (something I can’t understand) … signal.

Me: Bad signal?

Cherrie: No signal.

Me: How are you?

Cherrie: Tired. Running around.

Me: Miss you.

Cherrie: Miss you too. Having trouble getting a signal here.

Me: We watched “Meet Me In St. Louis” last night. Remember the phone call from New York? We’ve gone back there. Worse. THEY had a better connection.

Cherrie: (Laughter.) You’re right.” (More laughter.)

Me: I don’t think this is progress. (Long pause.) Cherrie? Hello? Are you there? (Long pause.) No, you aren’t there.

(Click. Sigh. Pause. Ring. Ring.)

Me: Cherrie?

Cherrie: Can you hear me?

Me: I can hear you, can you hear ME?

Cherrie: Hello? Hello? (Pause, faint sounds.) Is this better?

Me: Yes. A bit.

Cherrie: I turned my head and lost the signal. Boy, was that perfect timing or what?

Me: We couldn’t have done it better if we’d scripted it.

Cherrie: I’ll call you when I get back. I think I’m  losing … (Silence.)


I love progress. Especially how advanced technology has made everything so much better and easier.

WESTERN BAD ASS VIOLENCE FIX – TOMBSTONE, 1993

TOMBSTONE POSTER

The first movie I remember seeing with my mom was Gunfight at OK Corral. It was a busy day at the Utopia on Union Turnpike in Queens. Not a big theater, especially back when movie theaters were palatial.

There were hardly any seats left when we got there, having walked 2.5 miles from home. I had a non-driving mom who was a subscriber to healthy outdoor exercise. We did a lot of walking — she with enthusiasm and I because I had no choice.

We found a seat in the second row, from which vantage point Burt and Kirk had heads 20 feet high. It left an indelible mark on my mind. I became an O.K. Corral aficionado, catching each new version of the story as it was cranked out of Hollywood.

When movies became available on video, I caught up with all the earlier versions, too.

I stayed with “Gunfight” as my favorite for a long time. Maybe I’m just fond of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Garry generally favored “My Darling Clementine” but he is a John Ford fan. We have our preferences and they aren’t logical.

In 1993, along came “Tombstone.” One viewing and it was my favorite version of the gunfight story. A few more viewings and it morphed into our mutual favorite version of the OK corral and one of our top 5 westerns of all time.

I don’t love it for its historical accuracy. As do all the Wyatt Earp – Doc Holliday movies, it omits more than it includes. The Earps were wild and crazy guys, a lot wilder and crazier than even the wildest, craziest portrayal Hollywood has yet put on the screen. Add Doc Holliday — who was a real nutter, a charming, psychopathic killer — and you have a seriously lethal bunch of guys.

There were quite a few other Earp brothers who are always left out of the story, maybe because they didn’t go into the peacekeeping business. Daddy Earp was a real piece of work and deserves a movie of his own. Although I tend to be persnicketty about historical details, I’m not when I watch westerns. No percentage in it. They are all wildly inaccurate.

Tombstone has a perfect balance of classic western ingredients. Justice, revenge, violence, horses, great lines, wit, drama, humor, excellent cinematography and enough mythology to make me go “Yeah!!”

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Quotes of the Day:

Curly Bill: [takes a bill with Wyatt’s signature from a customer and throws it on the faro table]

Wyatt Earp: Curly Bill, huh? I heard of you.

C. S. Fly cabinet card portrait of Josephine S...

Josephine Sarah Marcus. She was for a time Sheriff Johnny Behan’s girlfriend but left him for Wyatt Earp. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Ike Clanton: Listen, Mr. Kansas Law Dog. Law don’t go around here. Savvy?

Wyatt Earp: I’m retired.

Curly Bill: Good. That’s real good.

Ike Clanton: Yeah, that’s good, Mr. Law Dog, ’cause law don’t go around here.

Wyatt Earp: I heard you the first time. [flips a card]

Wyatt Earp: Winner to the King, five hundred dollars.

Curly Bill: Shut up, Ike.

Johnny Ringo: [Ringo steps up to Doc] And you must be Doc Holliday.

Doc Holliday: That’s the rumor.

Johnny Ringo: You retired too?

Doc Holliday: Not me. I’m in my prime.

Johnny Ringo: Yeah, you look it.

Doc Holliday: And you must be Ringo. Look, darling, Johnny Ringo. The deadliest pistoleer since Wild Bill, they say. What do you think, darling? Should I hate him?

Kate: You don’t even know him.

English: Wyatt Earp at about age 25 at about t...

Wyatt Earp, about age 25 in Dodge City, Kansas. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Doc Holliday: Yes, but there’s just something about him. Something around the eyes, I don’t know, reminds me of… me. No. I’m sure of it, I hate him.

Wyatt Earp: [to Ringo] He’s drunk.

Doc Holliday: In vino veritas. [“In wine is truth” meaning: “When I’m drinking, I speak my mind”]

Johnny Ringo: Age quod agis. [“Do what you do” meaning: “Do what you do best”]

Doc Holliday: Credat Judaeus apella, non ego. [“The Jew Apella may believe it, not I” meaning: “I don’t believe drinking is what I do best.”]

Johnny Ringo: [pats his gun] Eventus stultorum magister. [“Events are the teachers of fools” meaning: “Fools have to learn by experience”]

Doc Holliday: [gives a Cheshire cat smile] In pace requiescat. [“Rest in peace” meaning: “It’s your funeral!”]

Tombstone Marshal Fred White: Come on boys. We don’t want any trouble in here. Not in any language.

Doc Holliday: Evidently Mr. Ringo’s an educated man. Now I really hate him.

Tombstone is deliciously violent. The gunfight at O.K. corral is merely the beginning. There’s a deeply satisfying amount of killing to follow. I revel in it. When Kurt Russell declares that he’s coming for them and Hell will follow … I am there. Yes, kill the bad guys.

It’s so cathartic! The only piece of armament I’ve ever owned is my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun and a 22 caliber target rifle, but I can pretend. And I’m a dead shot with the rifle and have slaughtered paper plates and other inanimate targets from New York to northern Maine.

I have a rich and rewarding fantasy life.

Thank you Tombstone!

WHEN LEGEND BECOMES FACT – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

I am writing this with mixed emotion. It comes in the wake of pre-election, shared conversation about truth and honesty in today’s news media.  I’m old school, with more than 40 years logged as a TV and radio news reporter. Truth always came first with me regardless of pressures from elsewhere. It still does, even in retirement.

I’m a fan of western movies. Western heroes. Western myth. I subscribe to John Ford’s “print the legend” motto. But that’s contradictory if you take a close look at Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”.

Today I watched a show on the “American Heroes Channel.” You can guess what the channel is about from its name. This “documentary” says that a diary penned by one of General Santa Ana’s colleagues mentions that (gasp) Davy Crockett didn’t go down fighting but was, instead, executed following the battle — “like a common criminal” — to quote the narrator.

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We’re told that a total of seven defenders survived the historic battle. The usual number of surviving combatants is listed as three, but the total list includes 50 — slaves, couriers, scouts, women, civilian combatants and non-combatants, children plus a few people whose presence is disputed or uncertain. The “documentary” offers “evidence” via a computer reconstruction of the Alamo. It re-examines (fake, real, falsified, forged, accurate, fictional) documents of the battle. You can take your pick because whoever put together the show wasn’t willing to make a clear statement on the subject.

The story unfolds, accompanied by popular scenes of Davy Crockett portrayals by Fess Parker and John Wayne, supposedly ready to strike a dagger through the heart of the legend of the Alamo. We’re shown teams of historians re-examining roads in and out of the Alamo. But time and mother nature have eroded whatever new evidence is being sought by these researchers. This is just a single documentary and we have no basis on which to judge the authenticity of the so-called newly revealed evidence.

Supposedly, the idea is to raise doubt about a beloved piece of American history. Their conclusions leave you wondering why they bothered. They have no new evidence one way or the other. Moreover, would it matter if they did? It wouldn’t change anything, and if they had evidence, would anyone believe them? Or care?

Personally, I stand with Truth, but adore myth. It doesn’t have to make sense.

TO RIDE FREE WITH THE WIND

Fourth Wall – You get to spend a day inside your favorite movie. Tell us which one it is — and what happens to you while you’re there.


NO ANIMAL IS HARMED OR HURT. NOTHING BAD HAPPENS TO ANY ANIMAL DURING THIS MOVIE (OR IN ANY OF THE BOOKS, EITHER). IT’S ALL GOOD, ALL HAPPY ENDINGS. PHEW!


I grew up yearning for a horse and devoured any book about them. My favorites books were the Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. I probably read the book so many times its cover fell apart.

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All through my childhood, Walter Farley wrote a steady stream of new Black Stallion books  – and I read every one of them. About his colts and fillies. About Alec Ramsey, who grew from a teenage boy to a man in the course of the series. Of Henry Daily, the old horse trainer whose career is revived by his accidental encounter with Alec and The Black. Many stories, as the years went on, were about the racing stable Alex and Henry build in upstate New York for which The Black was the founding stud. To this day, I know more about horses and horse racing than most people … because Walter Farley told me all about it in book after book.

Throughout my young years, I wished they would make The Black Stallion into a movie. I wanted to see The Black, to see Alec ride him. To see him come from behind and become the greatest horse to ever run on a track. I was bewitched by horses and was convinced I would need nothing else in this life if I had a horse.

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Oddly, the great Secretariat’s real accomplishments — winning the Triple Crown in 1973 — remarkably mirrored those of the fictional Black. Watching Secretariat’s career — in the real world — made up for never having seen The Black race.

I never got a horse. Gradually real life overtook my fantasy life. College, work, husband, baby, home, friends replaced dreams of riding bareback on the greatest stallion of them all.

But the magic wasn’t over me because in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola made the movie I’d yearned for since childhood. He based the movie, The Black Stallion, on the first of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, the one he wrote in 1941. In making the movie, they changed the story some. This would have made me crazy as a kid, but by the time I saw the movie — in an old theater in Jerusalem, Israel — I was a 30-year-old mother living overseas and able to cope with relatively minor digressions from the original tale.

Last night, Turner Classic Movies showed The Black Stallion. Again. I’ve seen it before, obviously. Many times. Every time I see it, it is seeing it for the first time as I am swept away to a desert island for the adventure of a lifetime. Even if you aren’t a great horse lover, the score and the cinematography are so extraordinary, the movie is like a dream. They set the story in its original time period, the early 1940s which helps augment the dreamlike effect.

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I want to be on that island with The Black. To ride him along the edge of the ocean, free from everything but the sun, the wind, the sand beneath my horse’s pounding hoofs. I would give a lot for just one day to live that dream.

As a movie, The Black Stallion is stunning. It’s a paean to horses, nature, and overcoming adversity. You don’t have to be a kid. It also contains the least dialogue of any movie since the talkies took over Hollywood. Director Carroll Ballard tells the story with luscious cinematography combined with a breathtaking soundtrack … music fusing with images to wrench your heart.

If you love animals and especially horses, this is a movie you must see. If you have seen it, see it again. Let it sweep you away to that island and a world out of time.