BUT WORDS CAN NEVER HURT YOU … BY GARRY ARMSTRONG

Marilyn recently wrote a piece using the word chutzpah which I’ve always badly mangled in pronunciation. It’s a word, what the heck? That was my take for many years until Robin Williams and Billy Crystal gave me a proper public whupping for butchering the pronunciation of chutzpah.  I don’t try to say Chutzpah in public anymore. It’s a word. I respect it because it carries different meanings and images.

These days, people often use words or phrases without understanding their origin or meaning. I hear political aspirants, celebrities, athletes and civic leaders say things that make me scratch my head and run back to my dictionary.  Words!  They can be powerful tools if used correctly. They can be dangerous if used in ignorance.

I grew up in a home full of books, including dictionaries. Big ones and pocket dictionaries. My parents insisted on using proper language and crisp diction.  Street slang guaranteed a head slap or a smack that stung. My two brothers and I were warned about using prejudicial clichés. Since my head has never been properly wrapped, I’ve been guilty of violating those warnings because of my warped sense of humor. Marilyn warns people that I have toys in the attic.  True.  Some of the toys are very old.

A friend and I were trading insults the other day. I snapped at him with, “That’s white of you”.  His smile said everything. Words!  You gotta know who, when, and where to use them.

Way back in olden times, I was 19 years old and worked in a department Store in Hempstead, New York. I was the only goy working in the children’s shoe department. I was waiting on a customer who drove me bonkers. I couldn’t take it anymore and told the parent he was a schmuck.

The manager quietly called me into the stockroom, explained what schmuck meant and asked me never to use it again — even if the customers were jerks. I think he was smiling although reprimanding me.  It was a word I’d often heard used in friendly banter, but I didn’t know its origin or real meaning. It was just a word. What was the big deal?  I was 19 and knew everything!  I used big words, “10 dollar” words to impress people. People often complimented me, saying I spoke very well.  I didn’t understand the veiled insult behind many of those compliments.

After all, they were just words.

John Wayne, of all people, once commented on words and ethics.  It was movie dialogue but still resonates more than half a century later.

In the 1961 film, “The Comancheros,”  Texas Ranger “Big Jake” Cutter (John Wayne) is lecturing his younger sidekick, Monsieur Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman). Regret asks Big Jake to spin a lie to his superiors to alleviate a problem. Big Jake refuses. Regret doesn’t understand, saying they are just “words.”

Big Jake, with that iconic Wayne frown, says softly, “Just words??  Words, MON-soor, are what men live by. You musta had a poor upbringing.”  Regret looks puzzled, not fully grasping the ethical code of this rough and ready Texas Ranger.  It’s a sublime moment and perfect for the young 1960’s when youth was defying the older generation’s moral code.

I recalled the scene years later in an interview with John Wayne. He smiled, shaking his head because he was in the middle of on-going national dissent against the Vietnam War.  Wayne was one of the most visible and vocal “hawks” in the Vietnam controversy. He had been ridiculed by strident protesters at a Harvard University gathering earlier that day.

“Words, dammit,”  Wayne looked at me, angry and sad. “My words! No damn Hollywood script. I have as much right as those damn college kids.”  Wayne was fuming. The Hollywood legend collected himself as I redirected the conversation to my time as a Marine. I had enlisted in 1959, fired up by the “Sands of Iwo Jima” script.

“Words. Good words,” I said to Wayne who smiled broadly.

Today, words are often tossed around loosely on social media, sometimes with little regard to truth or the repercussions of ill-advised words. We have a President who uses words without thought in a daily barrage of tweets.  Our media is engaged in a daily war of words, often ignoring crucial issues facing our nation and world.

Those of us of a certain age shake our heads as we watch young people immersed in tweets rather than direct conversation with friends in the same room. Words have become an endangered species.

I remember the good old days when me and friends went face to face with verbal jousts like “Your Mother wears combat boots!”

Words!  I love them.

ME AND “THE NATURAL” (1984) – GARRY ARMSTRONG

“God, I LOVE baseball.”

It’s a line that comes up near the end of Robert Redford’s 1984 film, “The Natural.” Redford’s “Roy Hobbs” character is reflecting on the odd turns his life has taken, but he is still playing baseball, still chasing his dream. It’s a wistful, melancholy reflection because the protagonist has lost many productive years because of a bizarre and almost fatal incident.

As many of you know, I’m a life-long baseball fan with roots dating back to the late 1940’s and the Boys of Summer, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I’ve always loved baseball!  It’s had an almost hypnotic grip on me. I fantasize about baseball the way some men day-dream about a tryst with a beautiful woman. There are only a handful of really good baseball movies. Hollywood, for some reason, hasn’t been able to get a grip on baseball. The short list of good baseball movies includes “The Natural”, “Bull Durham”, “Field of Dreams”, “Major League” (The original), “42”, “Cobb”, “A League of Their Own” and one or two I’ve forgotten.

“The Natural” and “Field of Dreams” top my list.  Some baseball purists, including a couple of Boston sports writers I know, claim those films are too hokey and sentimental. I disagree. Both films carry the lyricism of baseball. They are “print the legend” movies about America’s national pastime. Pro football is great but baseball is special, part of the fabric of our American dream.

My favorite memories, then and now, are of baseball games played during hot summer afternoons. They are languid, not long. Each at bat is drama unto itself. What will the pitcher throw? Can the batter hit the 100 mph fastball? It’s really a chess match between two teams, managers trying to out-scheme each other. I still stand and gasp when great defensive plays are made. This year’s Boston Red Sox have several gifted young players. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogerts, Jackie Bradley, Jr, and Andrew Benentendi are capable of highlight reel plays in the blur of a second. It’s a joy to watch them play.

Field of Dreams – the Ghostfield

The long-maligned Chicago Cubs were the talk of the Nation last year when they won their first World Series in over a century. Everyone felt good for the Cubbies and their fans. It didn’t really matter that your team was on the outside looking in. Real baseball fans have a special bond. Our political leaders might take note.

The New York Yankees have their own core of talented young players.  Mother of mercy, did I just say that?  Never in the wide, wide world of sports did I think I’d watch and appreciate the dreaded Yankees. Applaud “The Pinstripes”?  Family and old friends would gasp in disbelief. The “Baby Bombers” include Aaron Judge, a giant of a young slugger who is setting the baseball world on its ear. Judge, 6’7″ or 6′ 8″ is a muscled Paul Bunyon who appears on the verge of becoming a legend as a rookie. He’s already surpassed Joe DiMaggio’s record for home runs by a rookie and we’re just past the midway mark of the season.  Aaron Judge has the looks and personality of one of those old “Wheaties” Breakfast of Champions heroes. I tune into Yankee games just to catch Judge at bat. His home runs are routinely Ruthian.  You have to be a genuine baseball fan to appreciate Aaron Judge in a Yankee uniform. He appears to be (so far) this generation’s new superstar without the baggage of arrogance or rumors of drugs.

The new generation of Yankees and Red Sox promises to fire up their long rivalry, hopefully with appreciation rather than spiteful dislike.

The Yanks visit Fenway Park in a few days for a four-game series. It promises to be exciting and fun for all. It certainly will get me away from our national political angst.

All of which brings me back to “The Natural.” I’m 75 and still have boyish dreams. Yes, some are X-rated. Men are pigs. No argument. However, most of my dreams are about baseball. I’m Roy Hobbs who is a composite of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and (for me), Duke Snider.

Robert Redford admits he copied Ted Williams’ batting stance, even his uniform number 9. Redford’s grace on the base paths and in the outfield remind me of my hero, Duke Snider. There’s a sense of grace to his movements, even the way he swings his shoulders as he runs. I shamelessly copied those movements when I played baseball as a not-very-gifted youth and adult.

If I could have one genie wish, it would be to morph as Roy Hobbs in his prime. I think now, more than ever, America needs Roy Hobbs to hit a walk off home run and send us home with unbounded happiness.

SINGING AND DANCING AT THE GREAT BIG BIRTHDAY PARTY

Yankee Doodle Dandy

We watched “Yankee Doodle Dandy” tonight. Again. This is a movie that I have watched several hundred times. They used to play it on “Million Dollar Movie” on channel 9 in New York, where I grew up.

“Million Dollar Movie” played one movie a week. It played the same movie all day every day for seven days — often horribly mutilated to make room for the advertisements –and if I happened to be home sick from school, I watched that movie all the time. They played “Yankee Doodle Dandy” often and it seemed to coincide with incidences of tonsillitis, one of my primary reasons for being out of school. I learned the songs. The dances. I know all the words not only from the songs, but from the entire script.

I love it. I still love it. Garry loves it. This despite the fact that we cannot figure out why it wasn’t made in color since it is so obviously a movie that ought to be in color — but I digress. At the end of the movie tonight, Garry commented that “All young movie makers should be required to watch this movie.”

In many ways, it is perfect. If this can’t get a little American fervor running through your veins, nothing will. This despite the current pathetic condition of America’s politics and elected officials. It still makes me sit up, smile, and sing along. I love the piccolo solos and the singing and the flag waving. It reminds me that I really am American. Born here, raised here. Went away, but came back because this is my home and I belong here. However awful it is these days, it simply has to get better. I demand it get better! I am horrified by this version of America and I want it to go away.

It’s the 6th of July again and the fireworks are over. Boom, bang, and back to reality.

When we lived in Boston, we got to see the fireworks live and hear the concert from our balcony where we lived. I know all the dog owners are dyspeptic about the fireworks and I understand, but I can’t help it. I like fireworks. Shoot me down, but I love the bang and the flash and the giant flowers in the sky. I always have. Back in New York, it was a mile walk to the park and we walked it. And back because the roads were a parking lot and there was nowhere to park even if you did manage to get there.

We would lie flat on the ground and watch the sky light up.

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We watched Boston’s show last night on Bloomberg. David Mugar is no long sponsoring the fireworks and none of the TV stations had the money to cover the show. Bloomberg stepped in and took over sponsorship. I’ve never bothered to watch Bloomberg before. It was strange not to be watching it on NBC or CBS, but it was the same great show. Now only does the Boston Pops play one rousing version of the 1812 Overture, but the guys from the Army drop by and shoot off the artillery. It has got to be the loudest concert in history.

Now today was movie time.

We watched again as James Cagney dances down the steps in the White House. We always replay it half a dozen times. Can’t get enough of it. In case you feel the same way, I’ve included it so you can replay it as many times as you want. Happy Birthday to US!

This is the beginning of American autonomy, when we stepped off the sidelines and entered the mainstream of the world’s history and politics. Let’s hope we remember that what we do matters, not only to us, but to the entire world. We aren’t a little colony anymore. We’ve moved up to “the Bigs.” We need to really make America great.

Really great. Again.

IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE – RICH PASCHALL

Watching Foreign Language Films, Rich Paschall


Unless you were born in another country or became fluent in another language, you probably have little interest in foreign language films. The language barrier is something many of us do not wish to overcome while reading subtitles. So we take a pass on them, and in turn may be missing some of the best films ever made.

Even if you are interested in films of another language, where would you go to see them? Large cities might have “art houses” that show indie and foreign language films, but that is not the case in most locales. You can always order them online, but do you want to own a foreign language DVD or stream a film to your computer or tablet? Perhaps the whole process of tracking down the good ones to watch seems to be more trouble than it is worth.

For most of my life I had zero interest in these films. Yes, I could find some and I was aware that there were excellent foreign films showing here, but basically I thought it should be left to the snobs who were proud of themselves for seeing something the rest of us did not. I saw that in much the same way I see pretentious art critics standing in front of a painting while making pronouncements about brush strokes or some other obscure point. I was wrong, not about the art snobs but about foreign language films. They are as vibrant and artistic as anything Hollywood has to offer.

Living in a largely German American neighborhood, I often heard of the 1981 German-made World War II movie, Das Boot (The Boat). Some friends talked me into watching the gritty and often claustrophobic tale of life and conflict on the U-Boat. At the time it was made, it was the most expensive German film ever produced. The picture received six Oscar nominations. It was both unpleasant and powerful.

Years later a French intern at the company that gave me my day job was surprised to learn I had never seen the highly praised French film, Amelie (French title: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain). The 2001 comedy concerns the title character and her attempts to manipulate everyone’s life but her own. She even sets out to improve the life of her father, depressed since the death of his wife. Without giving away too much, I can say there is a travelling gnome. Seriously.

My friendship with several Frenchmen has led me to a number of French films, including the classic comedy La Cage Aux Folles. Roughly translated this means The Cage with Madwomen (or Queens, as in homosexuals).  I have enjoyed the French films, and while my French is terrible, I followed along nicely with the aid of subtitles.

When I was reading a list of best films of 2014, I found a Portuguese language film from Brazil, Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (Today I Want To Go Back Alone), but titled The Way He Looks for English-speaking audiences. It is based on a highly regarded 2010 short film, Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho (I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone) by the same film maker. The coming of age story originally ran just 17 minutes, the feature runs 96.

There are plenty of coming of age stories and I thought I had seen my fair share. This included the German language film Sommersturm (Summer Storm) which I viewed at the Music Box theater in Chicago. The one time first run theater, and home of many of my Saturday afternoon movie and cartoon features as a child, has mercifully found new life playing indie films and old features. A former screening room, holding less that 100 seats, is now the site of many of  these foreign language films that will not find a wide audience.

On the recommendation of the reviewer, I sought out the Brazilian short film on You Tube. It was easy to find and I confess I was impressed by the tale of the teenagers trying to make their way in the world.  The writer and director Daniel Ribeiro found his young players through auditions. They are all perfectly cast and totally believable in their roles. This was particularly difficult for the lead character as I will explain below the short.

When it came time to make the feature, some years after the short, the director faced an interesting decision. Who shall be the lead teenagers in the movie? After all, the charm of the short, now with over 5 million hits on You Tube, is the principal players. The solution was to bring the two boys and lead girl back.  The fact that they looked a little older actually works in pushing the story a little further. No, you will not see portrayals of teenage sex. There is nothing even close. You will learn how they feel as they grow to realize their feelings for one another.

At the time I researched the availability of a DVD, I also discovered that the feature was playing that very week at the Music Box!  I made plans to see it.  The longer version meant additional characters. Leonardo, the main character portrayed by Ghilherme Lobo who was still a teenager, now has protective parents. Additional classmates include boys who torment him for being different. He’s blind. Giovana, portrayed by Tess Amorim, is the girl who helps him get around and develops feelings for her friend. The new boy, who gets a seat in class behind Leo, is Gabriel as played by Fabio Audi. His introduction into the mix creates both an awakening and confusion of feelings for Leo.

When someone mentions that Gabriel is good-looking, Leo asks Giovana if he himself is good-looking. He has no idea the way he looks (Hence the English title). When Gabriel takes Leo on adventures only sighted people have, Leo is intrigued and Giovana is jealous. Just who loves whom will become clear enough in due time. The ending, while not a total surprise or even huge in a cinematic sense, is nonetheless satisfying.

Having opened in Brazil in April 2014 to strong attendance and critical acclaim, and after a round of successful screenings and awards at film festivals, Brazil chose this film as its entrant in the Best Foreign Film category at the 87th Academy Awards. Fifty countries submitted their best efforts. The short list for consideration by the Academy was cut down to 9 movies. The Way He Looks was not on it. Perhaps it did not stand a chance against the heavy crime dramas and political stories. It is just a charming film, beautifully enacted by a crew of handsome young players and a strong supporting cast. It will leave you with a smile, and sometimes that is all a film should aspire to do.

Be sure to hit the CC at the bottom for captions, unless you know Portuguese, of course. Here is the trailer for American audiences:

A LATE QUARTET – BEAUTIFUL MUSIC AND FILM

A LATE QUARTET (2012)

Director: Yaron Zilberman
Writers (screenplay): Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman

The Cast:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Robert Gelbart
Christopher Walken, as Peter Mitchell
Catherine Keener, as Juliette Gelbart
Mark Ivanir, as Daniel Lerner
Imogen Poots, as Alexandra Gelbart
Wallace Shawn, as Gideon Rosen
Anne Sofie von Otter, as Miriam.


Garry and I watched A Late Quartet  the other day. We read the reviews — and it sounded like a movie for grown-ups. There have been a dearth movies starring adults — men and women — which are not about getting old. Jokes about getting old begin to get old after a while, so we were ready for a grown-up movie about life and living.

The reviews were right. It’s a fine movie.

If the movie has a “hero,” that would be Christopher Walken who plays against type with elegance and grace. Add Marc Ivanir — usually playing an Israeli CIA sort-of-bad-guy on NCIS (he actually is Israeli and a hero) — as the dedicated, haunted first violin. Phillip Seymour Hoffman did his usual excellent job as the quartet’s jealous second violin. Catherine Keener (on viola) is the “could be better” wife to Hoffman  It’s a great mix of characters and some of the best work done by Walken and company.

Their movie musicianship is realistic. They did not actually perform the music on the sound track, but it looked like they knew their way around string instruments. Some of them may have had some early training, the rest were coached for the movie. However it was accomplished, the cinematographer was able to follow the actors’ performances closely, without resorting to long shots to disguise their identities. Well done!

While doing a little research on the stars, I discovered that Walken attended the same university as Garry and I. He was probably there during one of Garry’s years at Hofstra University. Walken was there for just a year, then left for a gig in an off-broadway show. It was news to us that he’d been there at all.

It is one of the many ironies of Garry and my education that most of Hofstra’s most famous graduates are not graduates, but attendees who left before getting a degree. We had a good drama department. Perhaps the biggest measure of its success is how many of its students were “discovered” before they got degrees, then went on to fame and fortune. No formal degrees, but plenty of magic.

Although it doesn’t hurt if you know some classical music, the movie works just fine if you don’t.

The Story

It’s the 25th anniversary of “The Fugue”, a classical string quartet. Time is catching up with them. Christopher Walken, their cellist and oldest member of the quartet has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and needs to retire. The first violinist is in love with the second violinist’s daughter, and the second violinist wants to be the first violinist … and sex in the form of “oops” infidelity adds enough spice to imperil the survival of the quartet if the rest of their problems were not disruptive enough.

Walken as the sensible, down-to-earth member of the group, dealing with his own burdens and unwilling to tolerate the childish carryings-on by the other performers, is wonderful. “The Fugue comes first,” he says, or words to that effect. It’s interesting to see Walken cast as the stable, adult, not even slightly crazy, member of the group.

The Music

A Late Quartet refers to Opus 131, one of a group of string quartets written by Beethoven towards the end of his life. It is magnificent. I’ve rarely heard this piece performed at all. It’s challenging music, written when Beethoven had already lost his hearing, yet was still able to hear it in his head. It’s one of Beethoven’s most complex, intense pieces and it’s beautifully performed.

I love the music, studied classical music for many years. I love Beethoven. He is my favorite composer, whose music I play as I drift off to sleep at night and whose symphonies have been my companion on many journeys through my life.

It did not disappoint us. It’s not a light piece of fluff, nor is it depressing or hopeless. Problems come, problems are addressed, problems are resolved. Not everything has a happy ending but within the limits of what’s possible, these adults work out through their issues — music, health, personal, and relationships — like … adults.

How refreshing!

WHY ARE YOU WEARING THAT THING?

“How come Gibbs is wearing a coat in Arizona in the summer?”

I was talking to Garry. It was an NCIS rerun. We watch a lot of reruns, though this new fall season of TV is shaping up better than I expected, so maybe there will be new shows to watch.

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The question about costumes comes up often and on various shows. One of the more common “duh” moments is when the male lead is wearing a coat and the female lead is skimpily dressed. No explanation needed for that one.

More weird is when each cast member is dressed randomly, apparently without regard for the plot. One is wearing a heavy winter coat, another a light denim jacket. A third is in shirtsleeves. Some are clothed in jeans or other casual stuff while others look ready for Wall Street … or a cocktail party. Women are supposedly hiking. Or running from or after serial killers while wearing 4-inch spike heels. My feet hurt looking at them.

Garry and I have done a tiny bit of movie “extra” work so I’m guessing it goes like this:  “Go find something that fits in wardrobe and be on set in ten.”

Everyone hustles off to wardrobe, which looks like a jumble sale or the clothing racks at the Salvation Army store. Most of the clothing in wardrobe probably came from some second-hand source or other. The cast dives in looking for something that fits. As soon as they find an outfit … any outfit … they head for a changing booth, then off to be on set before someone yells at them. Stars get slightly better wardrobe or wear their own clothing. Wearing ones own clothing, both on TV shows and movies is quite common. I understand why.

The real question is not why everyone on a show is poorly or inappropriately dressed. It’s whether or not the people who produce the show think we won’t notice.

My theory is they don’t care if we notice or not. They don’t want to spend money on wardrobe. They figure if you and I notice, we won’t care. In any case, we’ll keep watching. And they’re right. It’s a bottom-line  world. Wardrobe is an area where corners can easily be cut.

The thing is, we do notice. You don’t need to be a professional critic or especially astute to see the incongruities of television costuming.

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It’s not just costumes, either. Sloppy editing, crappy scripts, stupid plots that include blatant factual and continuity errors. Ultimately, we do stop watching. Because it’s obvious they don’t care so why should we?

You notice it on long-running shows that had good scripts and editing, but not any more. Quality drifts away. Producers are baffled when loyal fans stop tuning in. Obvious to a normal person, but apparently incomprehensible to network executives. Disrespect for viewers is at the root of much of the illness besetting the TV industry.

They should be nicer to us. We’re, after all, the customers. Aren’t we?

THE DIALOGUE: JUST PICK ONE!

HER: “We always watch the stuff you want to watch. How come we never watch my movies?

HIM: “That’s not fair. I try to find things I think you’ll like.The other night I recorded ‘The Wind and the Lion.’”

HER: “You like that one. You always have.”

HIM: “That’s besides the point.”

HER: “No it isn’t. There a pile of DVDs I’ve bought during the past year. Most of them, I bought for you and most of them have at least been opened. None of mine have even had the cellophane removed. We never watch anything you don’t like.”

HIM: “Well, let’s make tonight different. {pause} You’re still sulking. I can tell by your face.”

HER: “You don’t mean it. As soon as one of those movies goes on, you’re going to start to make faces, or fall asleep. Instantly. You only do that to prove how boring my taste is.”

monty python British comedy movies

HIM: “I promise, I’ll watch. If I really hate it, I’ll tell you.”

HER: {Long Pause} “Okay, but you better mean it. Or …”

HIM: “Just pick a movie.”

HER: {Unwrapping} “It’s ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ I don’t want to hear how you ‘don’t get’ British humor.”

HIM: “Do they have closed captions? Comedy is hard when you don’t get the words.”

HER: “Lemme see. Well, they have Full Script, English, French, Spanish, German, and Hard of Hearing.”

HIM: “Let’s try ‘Hard of Hearing.’ ”

HER: “It’s probably a goof.”

HIM: “I’m curious.”

HER: “Okay.”

Movie comes on. Someone is shouting loudly over the film. Cute.

HIM: “Okay. English, please.”

A year later, we did the exact same maneuver, only this time, the movie was “Going Postal,” one of the mini series they made in England from Terry Pratchett’s novels. For anyone interested, there are three of them, but I’ve only seen two –“Going Postal” and “Hogfather.” Garry actually seemed to like “Hogfather”! Could this be a trend?

There is one more movie — “The Colour of Magic,” but now, there are a pile of movies Garry needs to watch. Maybe we’ll get there. At this rate (one to two per year)? Who knows?

Some things never change.