Category Archives: Entertainment

Great Ideas at TEDx Seattle

TEDx Seattle at McCaw Hall, Seattle Center

TEDx Seattle at McCaw Hall, Seattle Center

You’ve seen TED talks on YouTube, right? You can always go right to the source at TED.com. If you’re unfamiliar, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. TED began in 1984 as a conference that today covers just about any topic. These are powerful short form talks in more than 100 languages.

Considering the "Greater Than" theme

Considering the “Greater Than” theme

Have you ever gone to a TED event? Well, there are a number of these around the world. I went to an independently run TEDx event here in Seattle. You can discover more about TEDx Seattle right here. With a zeal to learn and a trusty notepad, Jen and I took in a day of TED talks. For fans of TED talks, you can imagine how cool that is!

KCTS, a proud sponsor of TEDx Seattle

KCTS, a proud sponsor of TEDx Seattle

This is the first year for TEDx Seattle, formerly known at TEDx Rainier. This last Saturday, we settled into our seats at McCaw Hall at Seattle Center and were utterly delighted with each presentation: from Ranae Holland, a biologist-turned-reality TV star on the hunt for Bigfoot all the way to Suzanne Simard, a forestry expert advocating for all us to address climate change.

The theme for this event was “Greater Than,” an umbrella concept that reinforces our sense of community which is greater than the sum of its parts. The talks were further divided into sessions: curiosity > assumptions; future > today; together > alone; and > sum of the parts.

We had stopped by Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Pine and overheard a couple of young women. One said to the other: “And you can spend your whole life in public service, like Hillary, and still lose to a man!” That’s a good sense of what clings to the air and will remain in the air for years to come. So, heading to our TEDx event seemed like quite a fitting place to be: a place to try to make sense of the rifts and the shifts we are currently experiencing.

I was curious about how each talk would act as a thread to a larger conversation. Can we answer the big question, How do we all come together? Celeste Headlee, a longtime host at National Public Radio, made the case in her talk that we are far more isolated than we may realize. The healing won’t take root, said Headlee, until we respect each other and form authentic bonds. That struck a positive and constructive chord that reverberated throughout the conference.

Scott Wyatt talks about urban density.

Scott Wyatt talks about urban density.

As the day progressed, Jen and I got really caught up in the talks. In fact, there were so many ideas presented that it is a bit overwhelming to attempt to recap everything and do it justice. I will focus on just a few with some brief comments. Scott Wyatt, a partner at architecture firm NBBJ, hit the nail on the head regarding the critical mass we have reached as a crowded city. Part of the solution is to adapt and that is what Wyatt covered. With more and more of us shoulder to shoulder, it compels us to find ways to live in harmony.

Another compelling talk was on artificial intelligence presented by Oren Etzioni, an entrepreneur and AI researcher. His main point was that the robots are not coming for us and never will. No, it’s quite the other way around. It is up to us to embrace the new tech as it is ultimately there for us and to help us come together.

Eliaichi Kimaro. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Eliaichi Kimaro. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Eliaichi Kimaro presented an outstanding talk on her journey of self-discovery. Given the opportunity and the motivation, Kimaro found herself making her first documentary without any prior filmmaking experience. She set out to tell the stories of her ancestors in Tanzania. What she came back with were stories that would summon deep reserves for healing and transformation. Her wish for all of us is that we flood the world with our stories. You can visit the website for Kimaro’s film, “A Lot Like You,” right here.

We also greatly enjoyed the talk by Judge Wesley Saint Clair who has some impressive ideas on providing options for youth who find themselves in criminal court. No, he said, this is not a Hug a Thug program. Instead, it is a no-nonsense program that provides these youth with an opportunity to become part of the community. It was a moving talk and the judge deserves all the support he can get.

We ended the day on a high note with Suzanne Simard, a professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. Her talk covered the intricate and complex nature of ecosystems. Simard made clear that climate change is very real. Ultimately, we all must come together, as Simard stated, not only for our sake but for the sake of our planet Earth.

In these uncertain times, we can always count on brave and thoughtful people to speak the truth.

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Filed under Culture, Design, Entertainment, KCTS, Seattle, Technology, TED Talks, TEDx Seattle

Netflix Review: UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT Season Two

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I’d been reading one of my favorite dark fantasy/horror writers, Dennis Etchison, when I took to watching the new season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Now, this show may appear to simply involve wacky hijinks but the connection to the likes of Etchison is significant. Kimmy Schmidt, created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, is a show of high quality in more ways than one may expect. Etchison’s short story, “Inside the Cackle Factory” is quite fitting. Ostensibly, it is about how TV sitcoms get approved. However, the veil of secrecy keeps slipping to reveal sinister underpinnings. And so it is with Kimmy Schmidt: the veil keeps falling.

Ellie Kemper and Amy Sedaris

Ellie Kemper and Amy Sedaris

Now, I’m only suggesting a touch of horror. We know it can be a short distance between comedy and tragedy and that horror need not require a drop of blood. Another dark comedy on the same track is the now classic, “Strangers with Candy” (1999-2000) starring Amy Sedaris. This is the show about a 46-year-old former drug addict and prostitute trying to get her life together by literally going back to high school. This is so key to what I’m saying that I’m doing cartwheels right now. “Strangers with Candy” proves that dark comedy is often the best comedy. It had Stephen Colbert and David Letterman involved. And, the cherry on the top is that Amy Sedaris plays an ongoing character on Kimmy Schmidt!

Ellie Kemper getting her Kimmy Schmidt on!

Ellie Kemper getting her Kimmy Schmidt on!

Amy Sedaris plays the role of Mimi Kanasis, best pal to Jacqueline Voorhees (now Jacqueline White as she is newly divorced from her cheating billionaire husband). If this sounds like a lot of plot development going on with this show, you’d be correct. But it all makes sense. In one respect, the show is sort of spoiler-proof as it is broad comedy on one level, just fun satire like you got from “Seinfeld.” However, it does want to have it both ways with investing in character development. This, odd combination of edgy whimsy and heart-felt exploration of character tends to work out pretty well in this case.

Without giving anything away, consider a scene that can be read as a faux pivotal moment. It seems that a certain train departure is significant and may very well interrupt a “boy-meets-girl” connection. But, hey, no worries, the train is running two hours late! “Wow, what a break for that couple meeting up! You guys are running two hours late!” yells Kimmy to an Amtrak train conductor. He smiles and says, “And you thought we were just a train company. Far from it! We make love connections happen!” It is a funny and silly scene but it also does involve an authentic connection, sans irony, between characters. You can say that is a Kimmy Schmidt trademark. As Jerry Seinfeld has famously said of his show, it is devoid of any “very special moments.”

Tituss Burgess as Titus Andronicus, no...Titus Andromedon!

Tituss Burgess as Titus Andronicus, no…Titus Andromedon!

The reason for the tension between broad comedy and authentic connection on Kimmy Schmidt is that this show, as opposed to Seinfeld, is about something instead of nothing. It has a pretty heavy premise and the showrunners carry that as a badge of honor: young woman survives fifteen years hidden away in a bunker and now tries to rebuild a life in New York City. It is a premise very much in the spirit of Strangers with Candy. It’s not pure comedy but it provides some of the biggest laughs you’ll find. And it’s definitely NOT a typical comedy-drama, infamously known as a “dramedy.” It is coming from another place. That is why I think the touch of horror is so important: this is a show that is meant to make you laugh as well as unsettle you, take you out of your comfort zone. And, in that regard, it is doing a bang-up job.

Carol Kane (Lillian Kaushtupper) and Jane Krakowski (Jacqueline White)

Carol Kane (Lillian Kaushtupper) and Jane Krakowski (Jacqueline White)

It is because Kimmy Schmidt resides some place other than a typical sitcom that the show becomes this broad venue upon which masterful writing can discuss various themes. With the character of Lillian Kaushtupper (played by Carol Kane) we explore the conflict between old urban neighborhoods giving way to gentrification. Lillian doesn’t always have the best responses but she offers a compelling portrait of someone who finds herself being pushed out in the name of progress. With the character of Jacqueline White, we have a latter-day “The Awakening” story by Kate Chopin. Jacqueline comes to realize in middle-age that her whole life has been a sham of social climbing in Manhattan. She makes various awkward attempts to be true to her Native American heritage. Then we have the character of Titus Andromedon (played by Tituss Burgess) who is forced to do more and live more after having come out gay. Originally born Ronald Ephen Wilkerson in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Titus Andromedon experienced his own awakening that led him to live in New York City. However, in the intervening years, he has frittered away much of his promise as an aspiring actor/singer.

Tina Fey as Andrea Bayden on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"

Tina Fey as Andrea Bayden on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

Finally, we come back to Kimmy Schmidt. Who is she and what does she want? Well, as she learns from stumbling into a friendship with a psychiatrist, Andrea Bayden (played by Tina Fey), she has a lot of work to do on her own personal baggage. For starters, she is too helpful. Again, without any irony, Andrea suggests that Kimmy is an “enabler.” Kimmy, the good doctor points out, is too busy trying to help others, perhaps more than for their own good. And, on top of it, Kimmy is avoiding helping herself. She, after all, was kidnapped and lost fifteen years of her life huddled in a bunker with three other women. The cult leader abused the women. Pretty dark stuff in the background that keeps coming up to the surface like PTSD. Ah, but if only the good doctor could take her own advice. It’s not like Andrea is in the driver’s seat, especially with her having Kimmy as her own personal Uber driver. Very funny, and very touching, stuff. It takes formidable comedic, and general writing, chops to pull of a show that has bite as well as provides a hug. See for yourself. If you have not already, go on your merry way to Netflix and get all caught up on Season Two of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

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Filed under Amy Sedaris, Comedy, Dennis Etchison, Entertainment, Horror, Humor, Netflix, Television, Tina Fey

Emerald City Comicon 2016: April 7-10

From ECCC's TALES FROM THE CON by Brad Guigar and Scoot McMahon

From ECCC’s TALES FROM THE CON by Brad Guigar and Scoot McMahon

Where do great ideas come from? They come from all over! There is no one community, no one magical place. But great talent does gather at different times and different places. Consider Emerald City Comicon. So, some fans can get out of control as demonstrated in the above cartoon by Brad Guigar and Scoot McMahon. But, the fact is, we’re all in this together. Everyone has their own particular interest and passion. And there is plenty is find at ECCC.

ECCC 2016 Postcard

ECCC 2016 Postcard

Indeed, there you will find an enormous gathering of creative and entertaining folk in comics and related pop culture. If you are in Seattle, the place to be is ECCC from Thursday, April 7th, through Sunday, April 10th. For more details, visit our friends at ECCC right here.

Elden Henson (DAREDEVIL)

Elden Henson (DAREDEVIL)

You will definitely find a wide spectrum of talent. In comics, you will find an impressive array of folks: Chris Burnham (BATMAN INCORPORATED), Faith Erin Hicks (THE NAMELESS CITY), Matthew Southworth (STUMPTOWN), Colleen Frakes (PRISON ISLAND). The list goes on.

And, in other entertainment: Nathan Fillion (FIREFLY), Gigi Edgley (FARSCAPE), Elden Henson (DAREDEVIL), Norman Reedus (THE WALKING DEAD). And, again, the list goes on. I look forward to providng you with full coverage. As both an enthusiast, a reviewer, and a creator, I will guarantee you a full perspective on the many fun things going on at ECCC. So, see you there or see you here again soon. Yes, the place to be is ECCC.

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Filed under Comics, ECCC, Emerald City Comicon, Entertainment, Seattle

Chris Rock Leaves Big Shoes to Fill

Once upon a time, you could rely on one host for the Oscars, Bob Hope, who hosted for 19 years, a record that is never to be broken. No, not when we look upon Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart, and Chris Rock as old-timers with each of them having hosted twice. No doubt, each would make a great host again, maybe as early as next year. Speculation is already brewing on who the next host will be for 2017. As for this year, the Oscars will be remembered for one thing: what Chris Rock had to say.

We once had the Bob Hope gold standard full of wry humor and brash for its time. Bob Hope told it like it was. And Chris Rock tells it like it is today. After all the mounting pressure from #OscarsSoWhite, Rock masterfully defused, and refocused, the situation with some passionate humor and honesty. He began by asking, “Why this year? Why now?” and then went for the kill, “In all those other years, we had more important things to protest about, like getting lynched!” His monologue was the highlight of the show, a message for today and beyond. As I had stated earlier, I was in a perfect vantage, the 25 Degrees bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. What I observed was a very attentive audience for Mr. Rock.

Making a political statement at the Oscars is far more challenging than it may appear. Chris Rock did it with skill and heart. He had been honing new material in the days leading up to his monologue and it resulted in something that ranks up with the best. The Oscars have that tradition of protest. It rarely works. However there are exceptions. The best, perhaps the first, is Sacheen Littlefeather refusing to accept the Best Actor Oscar on behalf on Marlon Brando for “The Godfather” in 1973. This was a protest over the treatment and depiction of Native Americans in the media as well as reaction to Wounded Knee. Talk about arguing for diversity! It is a graceful, articulate, and authentic moment, a far cry from the blather of today.

Chris Rock interviews Compton moviegoer

Chris Rock interviews Compton moviegoer

The 88th Academy Awards ceremony had a number of responses to the current outcry. One of the funniest had notable African-American stars Leslie Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan, and Chris Rock green-screened into nominated films. Leslie Jones steals the show as the bear from “The Revenant.” And Tracy Morgan follows with his line, “I’m a Danish Girl!” as he bites into a pastry. More to the point, a segment with Chris Rock interviewing moviegoers in Compton helped to demonstrate that the typical outcrop of Oscar nominated films like “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” did not resonate with a black audience.

In the end, Chris Rock rose to the occasion. He was presented with a significant moment in time, recognized it, and ran with it. On that night, he filled the big shoes of the likes of Bob Hope and left a pair of big shoes of his own.

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Filed under Academy Awards, Chris Rock, Entertainment, Hollywood, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Hotels, Oscars, pop culture, Race, Race Relations, Racism, Travel

The Oscars and the True Meaning of Entertainment

Hollywood and Highland

Hollywood and Highland

I found myself in Los Angeles these last few days of February for a number of reasons. Let me put it to you this way, I was there as much to enjoy a day long visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as I was for anything else. And, of course, I devoted a chunk of time to the Oscars. Here is the key to a lot in life: keep an open mind. Now, when it comes to entertainment, the more flexible you are, the better. I keep things to a broad spectrum, from the intellectual to the spectacle. That said, I’ll share with you some observations from this last visit. In the end, we can explore the idea of what it is to be entertained.

Gumbo Pot in the Farmers Market, Los Angeles

The Gumbo Pot in the Farmers Market, Los Angeles

Seattle is my home base. It is in this relatively small, yet bustling, city that various forms of entertainment are created by some very talented individuals in music, film, fiction, comics, and so on. And then there are just as many, perhaps even more, individuals involved in commenting on all this creative work. That’s something I am very sensitive to as I am both a creator and a commentator. Let’s just say I appreciate when the air has gotten too thick. Sometimes, you just want some frog legs at The Gumbo Pot in the Farmers Market, which I definitely enjoyed. And, to be sure, the level of discourse at tables was quick, smart, and unpretentious. If I say I am going to talk to you about the true meaning of fiction or entertainment, it’s in the spirit of an open discussion without the pretense. Please, we have too much of that.

Chris Burden's "Urban Light," at LACMA

Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” at LACMA

It’s all about going from the specific to the general. Take the time to give one particular subject its due, focus on that, consider its merits, and then reap the rewards of entertainment and insight. I will compare for you two events in Hollywood that are closely related: a tribute to screenwriter George Clayton Johnson at the American Cinematheque this last Friday; and then some observations on the Oscars this last Sunday. I really wasn’t planning on doing this. I want to keep it light but offer you a few ideas. The best thing I can do is jump right in with some observations beginning with the tribute. Here, I want to make clear that much depends upon your understanding and knowledge.

George Clayton Johnson tribute at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood

George Clayton Johnson tribute at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood

If such things as the literary background of The Twilight Zone are new to you, then perhaps this will spark interest. I know a great deal about this subject, particularly the writers known as, The Group, from which much of this springs from. George Clayton Johnson was a key member of The Group. He had within his power the ability to write some of the most compelling magical realism. That’s important because, despite the many disadvantages he had in life, he was a writer with not only a vision but a determination. George went on to create some of the most iconic and beloved episodes of The Twilight Zone which is the gold standard for what can be done when melding the art forms of fiction and television. Don’t let yourself think that Masterpiece Theater holds the key. That is too obvious a venue. Actually, it is within The Twilight Zone, at its best, that you will find much that is stimulating and intriguing with great literary merit.

George Clayton Johnson tribute at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood

George Clayton Johnson tribute at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood

So, here you have this very special individual, George Clayton Johnson, who understood better than most, the fundamental inner workings of fiction. He took his insight, skill, and hard work and did what he did with it. He primarily wrote for television. All of his work on The Twilight Zone is remarkable. This led to him writing the first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast. Among other TV work, he wrote an exceptional episode of Kung Fu where the main character experiences a flashforward, as opposed to a flashback, to help him save his life. And, to cap it all off, George and William F. Nolan wrote the classic dystopian novel, Logan’s Run. Beyond those achievements, it is George’s life story that is inspiring. He was close friends with such greats as Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. George was simply a man who loved to keep it simple: write what you believe in, give back to the community, love thy neighbor. The outpouring of love and admiration for George at this tribute was very moving. I had the opportunity to get to know George. I can fully understand how bright his light shines.

Chris Rock tells it like it is at The Oscars.

Chris Rock tells it like it is at the Oscars.

A couple of nights later, lo and behold, it’s the Oscars. Now, mind you, I did not have any set plans. How I wish my Comics Grinder credentials would have gotten me a press pass. Perhaps they would had I pursued it. I’ll tell you something, I am a keen observer and a friendly interviewer. I can easily adapt to any situation. This segues to what I did for Oscars night. Due to a few things going on that night, I found myself outside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Let me back track a bit, a buddy of mine suggested that as a great spot to maybe see something going on. In fact, the plan was to meet up with him. I show up and, yes, it is a great spot, right on the corner of Orange and Hollywood overlooking that whole block of Madame Tussauds, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the Dolby Theatre.

25 Degrees at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

25 Degrees at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

Well, on that corner are a bunch of onlookers, of course. Shades of “The Day of the Locust.” I mingled for a bit. No one knows exactly what to expect, if anything. I then made my way into the Hollywood Roosevelt and 25 Degrees, one of the hotel’s seven bars. 25 Degrees is known for its gourmet burgers and onion rings, which I fell in love with. I patiently waited for a cozy table overlooking the bar and two big screen TVs broadcasting the Oscars. Chris Rock was doing his monologue. I saw any number of what appeared to be otherwise jaded industry folk carefully listening and giving way to outbursts of laughter. Just as I was assured by my hostess that I could have the table, this one lady sat down at that very same table. The hostess explained to her that I had already been given that table but I said it was alright. Sure, it’s the Oscars, I’ll share the table. Well, it was definitely for the best. The lady turned out to be an executive with a Mexican network. We ended up chatting about the decline of culture in general and the disturbing rise of Donald Trump.

Behind the scenes at the Oscars

Behind the scenes at the Oscars

It always comes down to the coveted issues of time and space. That table had a fixed value of one hour. You could not stay at that table beyond an hour. I sweet talked my hostess into letting me begin a new hour given that I had to share it. In the meantime, my new friend, the Mexican TV executive, had hoped that I could hold on to the table as she had wanted to return after a while. Well, there must have been a lot of discussion in the back. At first, yes, I could keep the table if I ordered more food. After having the delicious Patty Melt, and a half jug of Pinot Noir, I opted to start with a Dark and Stormy. Later, the supervisor negotiates with me. It turns out that the table really needs to be relinquished. If I am alright with moving to the bar, he will treat me to another drink. Well, that’s fine with me. And, well appreciated too!

Behind the scenes at the Oscars

Behind the scenes at the Oscars

We always hear the long-running jokes about the Oscars being too long. The crowd that night enjoyed every minute of it and would have been happy to see more. The high points were the Chris Rock monologue, the announcement for Best Actor to Leonardo DiCaprio, and the announcement for Best Picture to “Spotlight.” In between, and throughout, careful attention was given to each category. I ended up chatting a bit with other patrons at the bar. The consensus seemed to be that this was one of the best Oscars. I certainly found myself in a perfect setting. The bar, with its old-school charm, was impeccable.

Here I am in front of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.

Here I am in front of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.

One Oscar tradition never fails to move me. That’s when a tribute is given to notable members of the Academy who had passed away in the previous year. I was certain that George Clayton Johnson would receive a mention. While he wrote primarily for television, he also co-wrote the story that was the basis for “Ocean’s Eleven” and he also co-wrote an Academy Award nominated animated feature with Ray Bradbury, “Icarus Montgolfier Wright.” But he did not get his mention. That left a sad note hanging in the air. But it was still grand to be at the Hollywood Roosevelt on Oscar night. I can tell you, I can share with you, the fact that both nights, the tribute to George and Oscar night, were both magical. George is still remembered and people will enjoy his work whether they realize he wrote it or not. George will always be part of that magic that people seek out whether they know it or not.

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Filed under Chris Rock, Entertainment, Farmers Market, George Clayton Johnson, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Oscars, pop culture

Review: ‘A Year of Movies: 365 Films to Watch on the Date They Happened’ by Ivan Walters

Watching "Groundhog Day" on Groundhog Day! Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Watching “Groundhog Day” on Groundhog Day! Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

On February 2nd, Groundhog Day, if it’s cloudy when the groundhog emerges from its burrow, spring will come early. If it’s sunny, then the groundhog will see its shadow and there will be six more weeks of winter. So goes the folktale. What better way to celebrate this holiday than by viewing 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell? It’s an idea that totally makes sense to author Ivan Walters. He takes that even further by offering you a movie for every single day of the year. He provides vital info on his featured choice, a synopsis, plus an alternate pick. The book is entitled, “A Year of Movies: 365 Films to Watch on the Date They Happened,” published by Rowman & Littlefield.

It’s quite a brilliant concept. The trick is to find an explicit mention of a date in a movie. Inevitably, the date is either crucial to the plot or is part of a pivotal moment in the movie. For instance, say you wanted to view a movie that has a significant attachment to the day that this review is posted, January 18th. That date leads you to 1976’s “Logan’s Run.” and a pivotal scene. To quote the book: “Logan, Jessica, and the old man return to the city on January 18th, 2274 (1:43:40 to 1:56:39), for a confrontation that will change their world forever.”

Movies-Ivan-Walters

This book has a high fun factor to it. Many of the movies are within the last 20 to 30 years with a generous helping of older classics like 1941’s “Citizen Kane.” It is a refreshing and entertaining way to look at movies. It becomes an offbeat game anyone can enjoy while also providing insight. I like how the book kicks off with 1976’s “Rocky.” January is so symbolic, full of hope and fresh starts. I think of “Rocky” as that quintessential shaggy dog story about self-empowerment and beating the odds. Great idea to have set the big fight on New Years Day, January 1st, 1976. Not all the dates are so easy to spot. In the case of “Citizen Kane,” for example, it is attached to December 4th 1919, the date that Kane’s mistress-turned-wife has a nervous breakdown and ends her floundering career as an opera singer. Kane’s world steadily darkens from that point onward.

“A Year of Movies: 365 Films to Watch on the Date They Happened” is a 454-page hardcover. For more details, visit our friends at Rowman & Littlefield right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Entertainment, Groundhog Day, Hollywood, Illustration, Logan's Run, Movie Reviews, movies, pop culture, Rowman & Littlefield

Review: THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE

Great-American-Dream-Machine

There is much to discover in the offbeat television program, “The Great American Dream Machine,” now collected for the first time on DVD by S’More Entertainment. It first aired on PBS for two seasons from 1971-1972. And it remains unusual even today in its honest and idiosyncratic approach. It has been labeled as a “political satire” but it was more than that as it held true to a Sixties idealism. Here you find extended pieces that simply celebrated a people power ethos: interviews with average Americans on the topic of the American Dream; an urban artist who creates art from manhole covers; or a decidedly unplugged segment hanging out with the popular daredevil of the era, Evel Knievel.

Amanda Ambrose

Amanda Ambrose

The best way to view this collection is to skip around the way you would if you happened to stumble upon a curious item in your attic or thrift store, or think of it this way: this program is like surfing the internet if it existed back in the Sixties. Here is a veritable cornucopia of content. In one respect, it recalls the ambitious installations created by Charles and Ray Eames overflowing with information. What makes this program notable is how well it holds up today and that is because it was carefully curated, not just controlled chaos.

Host Marshall Efron

Host Marshall Efron

I would not necessarily watch it from the very first episode onward. In fact, the first episode is a bit clunky as the program was still finding its feet. I think it may have been leaning towards being a show for teens and, later on, it became more of a show for teens on up. It was a trailblazer for the mashup of news and entertainment we know today but without the glitz and sensationalism. And, with its people power energy, it foresaw YouTube and citizen journalism. What it did so well was evoke a feeling of flipping through a magazine or exploring randomly. One program would run the gamut from a segment on a marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van to children interviewing another child playing the role of God to a tour of the program host’s tiny cluttered apartment. With great panache, Marshall Efron assures us that he created his home from a plastic kit that only costs $4.95.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

Among recurring segments, there was journalist Studs Terkel moderating a gathering of average citizens discussing current events. The discussion would begin with a somewhat uncertain tone but would steadily gain ground. A construction worker, who seemed all full of hot air, would emerge as more insightful than given credit for. His insistence that he, and his working class and middle class neighbors, should not bear the burden of paying for federal social programs is initially met with scorn by Terkel. But the guy’s argument remains measured. Why don’t those at a much higher level of income pay their fair share? he asks. To that, Terkel nods in agreement.

A marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van

A marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van

Much in the same spirit as the magazine Adbusters, here was a program that could be a bit didactic, yet clever, with its social commentary. There’s one segment led by journalist Nicholas von Hoffman that takes aim at advertising commonly found in medical journals and stitches them together into a soap opera. It’s pretty easy given all the seduction used to sell everything from anti-depressants to laxatives. That segment segues to a dramatic piece with Linda Lavin and Rob Leibman. They create their satirical ode to romance which includes reciting advice on love from a teen magazine.

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier

What will ultimately strike the viewer is a spirited vision and sincerity. Just listen to the stirring words of Ron Dellums, who had just been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In a montage segment of interviews, his eloquent advocacy for racial harmony remains relevant today. And then there is a segment with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte on the set of “Buck and the Preacher,” a Western with a focus on the black experience. Poitier speaks to black history and how it is part of a bigger picture, that of human history. And he speaks to moving beyond dreams, and nightmares. With determination, and against excruciating odds, an African American would someday become President of the United States.

"Up is Down" animated short

“Up is Down” animated short

“The Great American Dream Machine” wholeheartedly embraced the counterculture just as a new golden era of television was on the horizon. It was to be a heady time for offbeat humor spiked with social commentary. This would include, to varying degrees, such programs as Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” and Martin Mull’s “Fernwood 2 Night.” It is a legacy that was to be carried on by such programs as “The Daily Show,” “This American Life,” and “Saturday Night Live.”

THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE is a 4 DVD set brought to you by S’More Entertainment and available at Amazon.

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Filed under Counterculture, Entertainment, pop culture, Television

Open Letter to Bumbershoot: You are Too Expensive! And I Won’t Go Anymore.

Has Bumbershoot Become Seattle's Burning Man? Photo: Trey Ratcliff / Flickr

Has Bumbershoot Become Seattle’s Burning Man? Photo: Trey Ratcliff / Flickr

EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s a great piece in The Seattle Times by Danny Westneat that sheds light on the upsurge in Bumbershoot ticket prices. I wasn’t aware of this development but Bumbershoot, according to Westneat, is now run by Anschutz Entertainment Group. That doesn’t change what I have to say below. But it adds more information to work with. Read it here.

For those of you in Seattle, Bumbershoot is this Labor Day weekend, September 5, 6, and 7, 2015. I suggest that you NOT go. That is, unless you really want to burn through what have recently shot up to $100/day tickets. I was reading an insightful look at how Burning Man went from a groovy and authentic happening to a corporate playland just the other day. And it got me to thinking about Bumbershoot. If nothing else, maybe this could open up some discussion.

“Today is the last day to buy the $29 any day tickets, with which you can buy now and choose later.” — The Bumbershoot website, May 31, 2011

For those in Seattle, this letter to Bumbershoot may seem harsh or even unpatriotic somehow. But hear me out. For those outside of Seattle, here’s a taste of what happens when something good turns sour. Just how do you go from a $5/day, to a $30/day, to a staggering $100/day event–and pretend nothing’s wrong? And now you’ve got additional VIP-enhanced ticket prices too for an event that originally was simply a place to hear a lot of great music. At some point, Bumbershoot had no business expanding in size. It’s still held within the 74-acre Seattle Center. Total attendance last year was estimated to be 125,000 visitors. The venue has NOT gotten any bigger. Bumbershoot is a study in an overwhelmingly clogged gridlock of humanity. At some point, bigger is by no means better. That should be a lesson to the City of Seattle in general. And it should be something that compels Bumbershoot to stop and rethink.

What is, or was, Bumbershoot? This article from The Seattle Times from Sunday, August 27, 2000, proves useful. Read it here.

Dear Bumbershoot,

I wish we could somehow turn back the clock and return to a more carefree time. I’m wondering if that’s possible. I believe that it is. How do other similar events manage to entertain the city for a weekend and even do it for free? Now, I fully understand that there is only one Bumbershoot but I think you could learn a lot from the free and fun Northwest Folklife Festival. Sure, they incur plenty of expenses themselves and they make an organized effort to collect donations. Couldn’t Bumberhoot make a serious effort to drop ticket prices and seek out donations?

You don’t have to be an old fogie to recall when it was relatively cheap to buy tickets to go to Bumbershoot, Seattle’s landmark music and arts festival. Just observe the notice above. $30/day tickets were still a reality only four short years ago! Maybe you have to be a bit older to recall when it was totally affordable to the point that you bought a pass for the whole shebang without blinking an eye. And for you new locals, check this out, the event used to be free!

The Wikipedia post on Bumbershoot is rather thin. But it begins with one intriguing fact: the event was first run by the City of Seattle. It began in 1971 as a way to lift everyone’s spirits amid a major economic slump. Talk about doing the right thing! Bumbershoot ultimately fell under the control of the nonprofit, One Reel, which is known for a very expensive cabaret show, Teatro Zinzanni. I’m sorry but I’ve tried it, byway of a gift, and found their glitzy dinner theater extravaganza to be an overpriced spectacle. And I see that is what has become of Bumbershoot. As a nonprofit, you would think that One Reel would have it worked out where its ongoing Teatro Zinzanni, geared to upscale customers, would help finance the so-called people’s festival, Bumbershoot.

Anyway, all I wish to do here is say that I’ve got some good memories from Bumbershoot. However, I’ve also seen Bumbershoot become less accessible and more limited in its overall offerings. Keep in mind, I do appreciate that these packaged experiences don’t come cheap. I used to go to Lollapalooza when it was affordable too. Well, no one is going to boycott one of these events if they’ve convinced themselves it’s the most amazing thing ever. Bumbershoot used to be pretty amazing but I’ve seen the life sucked out of it. And part of the problem, the ongoing problem that will only get worse, is too many people! So, to some extent, if I were to persuade anyone to stay home, I’m doing Bumbershoot a huge favor.

I’m sorry, Bumbershoot. I’m just not feeling the love, despite your branding yourself as a people’s festival. But I still hold out some hope. Maybe you’ve just let yourself fly too close to the sun. It’s time to come down back to your roots. What do you say, Bumbershoot? Do you really want to be seen as Seattle’s Burning Man, a rich person’s version of cutting loose and having fun? I hope this may strike a chord with some old Bumbershoot fans from over the years. Again, I’m sorry but I had to say something. Did you think that no one would notice the skyrocketing prices? Or, if they did take note, did you think people would simply shrug it off? Well, maybe you did. But I speak for those who can’t just shrug it off. If you are truly a people’s festival, you will find a way to scale back and bring this event back to the people. Bumbershoot, you are no longer being true to yourself.

Think about it. Help me understand. But, at the end of the day, there’s got to be a way to lower those ticket prices. Don’t worry, we won’t miss any of the razzle dazzle that you may feel you need to cut from the schedule. One Reel, you can save that for Teatro Zinzanni. Hey, the show wasn’t all that bad. Just consider this: You won’t lose your core audience if you scale back and scaling back can be a good thing. Also look at it this way, it is a very practical idea. I miss you guys already.

Sincerely, your friend,
Henry

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Filed under Bumbershoot, Entertainment, Music, One Reel, pop culture, Seattle

Whitney Matheson Completes a 15-Year Run with USA Today

Whitney-Matheson-Pop-Candy-Meetup-2011

A routine that was so essential to so many of us out there has come to an end. Whitney Matheson completes a 15-year run of Pop Candy, the pop culture blog at USA Today.

We will all miss Whitney Matheson at Pop Candy at USA Today but, of course, when one door closes, another door opens. September 3 was her last day as she was laid off from her post that she had held for 15 years. Of course, fans have been caught by surprise and are showing their support at Whitney’s Twitter.

Here is one from the archives: A CNN iReport put together by Jennifer Daydreamer and yours truly, this is an impromptu interview with James Sime, owner of Isotope, The Comic Book Lounge, that segued into an impromptu interview with Whitney Matheson. The discussion here involves the state of comics, which is always evolving, and how they coexist with Hollywood. This is from 2010, the year that “Scott Pilgrim” and “The Walking Dead” were big winners at the Eisner Awards at Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Whitney hosted some awesome Pop Candy meetups through the years. Well, perhaps there will be something similar in the future.

Good luck to you, Whitney! We look forward to future observations and excellent writing! You are one of the best!

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Filed under Comic-Con, Comic-Con 2010, Comics, Entertainment, Hollywood, Isotope Comics, James Sime, Jennifer Daydreamer, Journalism, Media, movies, Newspapers, Pop Candy, pop culture, Television, Whitney Matheson

Robin Williams, RIP

Fisher-King-Robin-Williams

They always say of the greats that they make it look easy. Robin Williams was a master at what he did. It is a facility that could be taken for granted. And now his best work lives on and speaks for itself.

I was just revisiting “The Fisher King” and it is a humbling experience to see Robin Williams with the news of his death still ringing throughout. The iconic mannerisms are there, the ones we could take for granted. Oh, that’s just Robin Williams being Robin Williams. But there is only one Robin Williams and now he’s gone. Now comes the time to revisit his work and appreciate his talent.

It always happens this way in these situations. We enjoy such a talent. We begin to take it for granted. And then one day, we turn a page, and realize it is the end of an era.

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Filed under Comedy, Entertainment, movies, Robin Williams