Sunday, May 31, 2009

Two films

Something old, something new. We'll start with the latter.

Ventured into a mass of humanity at Regal's Pinnacle Theater at Turkey Creek last night. Big crowd. Bright lights.

I went to see "Star Trek," the new take on the old franchise, a film I have been reluctant to screen. I didn't care much for any of the later incarnations of Gene Roddenberry's space opera, but I loved the original. For William Shatner, of course, and Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, and the ties between their respective characters. I liked its vision for the future and, yes, its Cold War undertones.

Thus my initially tepid response to this film. I get tired of remakes. Makes me wonder if anybody has an original idea anymore or whether Hollywood is just too cheap to pay writers. And, also, I heard about this film's revisionism. My friend Dewayne Lawson's first words were, "It changes everything."

Well, it does, and I'll leave the particulars to the wind, in case you go see it. But, I liked it. Its take on the origin of how the crew of the Enterprise assemble and evolve is imaginative. It is exciting, face-paced, true enough to "Trek" to satisfy the old guard, avant-garde enough to bring in the kids. And, it was good to see old friend Nimoy again. And, Bruce Greenwood plays one cool Captain Pike.

About halfway through the movie, I remembered why I loved the old show, and also why I didn't much care for its successors. To me, the best thing about "Star Trek" is its interplay between James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. Theirs is a troika that feels real, a friendship that isn't fake, a bond that can't be broken.

It was good to see them again, even if played by younger and unfamiliar actors, and fly at warp speed together for a couple of hours. If this is the benchmark by which future films would be judged, here's hoping a new "Star Trek" franchise lives long and prospers, indeed.

OK, now to something old.

A few weeks ago, I watched "To Kill a Mockingbird," the 1962 classic based on the brilliant Harper Lee novel. I've waxed poetically about the film before, so I mention it now only to say that I was struck again by its excellent screenplay, written by Horton Foote. (I've often said it's the only movie that might be better than the book.)

So I did a little digging and found a few other movies with which Foote was involved. One, "Tender Mercies," stood out, because it stars a favorite actor -- Robert Duvall.

Its title sounds like a chick flick, but "Tender Mercies" is basically a cowboy picture about an alcoholic, washed up country singer named Mac (Duvall) who wakes up one morning at a tiny gas station/motel in a small Texas town. It is owned and operated by a woman named Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) whose husband was killed in Vietnam. She has a little boy named Sonny. She's a little lonely.

Mac sobers up, marries Rosa Lee, forms a bond with Sonny. And he tries to reconnect with his daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). But, she's heavily guarded by Mac's ex-wife, country superstar Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley). I won't give away too much, but let's just say that Mac starts singing again, puts his life back together, and loses one treasure just as he finds another.

I like Texas stories. Always have. Larry McMurtry. "The Last Picture Show." LBJ.

(I'm currently reading "The Lone Star," a book about former Texas governor John Connally. If the name doesn't ring a bell, he's the other guy who was shot in the limo when JFK was killed in Dallas.)

There's just something about the flat, desolate Lone Star landscape strikes a chord. Plus, Duvall did his own singing. Which wasn't bad.

There you have it. Two films. One from 1982, the other from last week.

Both are good. Be sure and see them.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A satisfying Tuesday night

Four-thirty in the afternoon and I am at the Half Barrel on the Strip.

I manage to find a meter adjacent to where I'm going. But, those who would know tell me that putting quarters in the slot after 4 is a waste. Oh, well. I found them underneath the seat.

Talk awhile with a friend and former professor. Brought back memories, fond ones, of lectures on the farce that was Johnson's impeachment, on the last five years of Lee's life, on Reconstruction and Rutherford Hayes.

It feels good. I'm going to be back in that world soon.

While I was paying my check, the talk at the bar turned my stomach. I actually heard the "N Word" used in conversation. Followed by laughs. I turned to my right and saw the source. I was no longer surprised.

Didn't want to drive back to Halls at rush hour so I headed west to the book store. (Yeah, they still have them, a real life, honest to God brick-and-mortar bookstore.)

Tried to pull the plug on Eric Foner's best-in-its-field study on Reconstruction. But, I know I can find it cheaper on Amazon. (Ironic, given my previous statement, huh?)

I once held a hardback copy in my hand. Five bucks. Had it in my hand. Put it back. Some of the biggest regrets of my life are putting good books back on the shelf.

I am a nerd. Sue me.

After going belly up at Borders, I waited out the storm (saw Bill "Heartland Series" Landry!) and then stopped by McKay Used Books. Ahh, a little more luck. Here I found a 75-cent gem, "Nixon Reconsidered," as well as a first edition of a book that made quite an impression a decade ago, Pauline Maier's "American Scripture," on the making of the Declaration.

I am curious as to what I will think about it now. Plan to read it after "The Coming of Rain" and something I just had shipped to the Halls Branch Library on the 1876 presidential election. (Yes, Tilden should have been president.)

Ate dinner with the family (sort of -- I took it home), then watched the Red Sox lose to Minnesota. (Oh, well. Heidi was wearing black tonight.)

Don't have a point here. Just a few moments on a satisfying Tuesday night.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

'In the Heat of the Night'

Watched a movie last night I'd never gotten around to seeing.

"In the Heat of the Night," Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, United Artists, 1967.

A man is found murdered late one night in the sleepy Southern town of Sparta, Miss. The initial search turns up a black man (Poitier) who happens to be sitting in the train station waiting to go home. The local doofus deputy hauls him in because, well, he's black. And he has a wad of cash in the wallet.

The sheriff (Steiger) soon finds out that Virgil Tibbs is a homicide detective who knows a bit more about this kind of business than he does. OK, a lot more. So, he "suggests" that Tibbs hang around to help solve the case.

This doesn't set will with virtually everybody in Sparta. But, the story unravels, "Mr. Tibbs" solves the case, then hops on the train. He and Steiger reach an understanding and smile at each other just before "The End" pops onto the screen. Point seems to be black and whites can bridge their differences if they worked together.

Viewed 42 years after its release, "In the Heat of the Night" seems a bit heavy handed. The racial attitudes are cartoonish. Or so you think.

But, this was 10 years before my time. I know a bit about the history. In some places (North and South, though) this could have been a documentary. In some places in the South as late as 15 years before I was born (!), blacks couldn't eat at lunch counters or use the same restrooms as whites. It seems like something from Mars.

I read somewhere (maybe in the excellent "Nixonland") that Poitier was the top box office draw for a few years in the late 1960s. I have seen several of his films, including "To Sir, With Love" and "A Raisin in the Sun." I always liked him.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if this film doesn't still have something to say. Vitriol verbalized during the 2008 presidential election was nauseating. Whatever one thinks about Obama -- and there is plenty to think -- the fact that he is black shouldn't matter. But, of course, in some circles it does.

I have often thought that in some ways our country has reverted. A show like "All in the Family," which dealt openly and honestly about affairs of the day, would never be aired on TV today. Some of the things I read about that are still believed in parts of the good ol' US of A makes me wonder if we're entering a modern day Dark Age.

And then I think, "No, we've come a long way." Obama's election in many ways proves that.

An interesting side note: The small town depicted in the movie was actually filmed in Sparta, Illinois.

Just some thoughts on a movie I watched during the late hours after the baseball game ended. Not a bad flick.

Oh, almost forgot to tell you: The Ray Charles theme woven throughout the film is fantastic. That guy was a genius.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Please come to Boston

The greatness that is Dustin Pedroia just grounded out to second. But, that's OK. Dustin will get a hit at some point during the next 8 innings. I have faith.

I like to watch Sox games in the evenings. Particularly if they are playing in Boston. I love that green field and the Green Monster. And the greatness that is Dustin Pedroia.

(Not to mention talented play-by-play announcer Don Orsillo. Although, here's hoping Jerry Remy gets better soon. I can't take too much more of the Eck.)

Sideline reporter Heidi Watney deserves her own sentence. So here it is...

Heidi Watney.

But, yeah. Baseball is a relaxing game. For whatever reason, it is more so when viewed at the friendly confines of Fenway Park.

I was to spend a weekend in New England this summer. Drew, Mike and I were going to take in a Sox game and drive up to Maine and down to Newport Beach. Had to postpone it, though. It's a bitch being poor. Plus, I need to go visit Ole Miss. Might wind up there next year.

The Sox are playing the Toronto Blue Jays tonight. Solid team. Quality pitching; consistent hitting. The Braves should take notice.

Some nights I feel like baseball is a distraction. I could be reading. Or writing. Or jogging in the park.

But, heck, it's (almost) summertime. Perfect moment for our national game. We need a little more escapism in our overstressed lives anyway.

So, please come to Boston for the springtime. Even if the journey is made vicariously through the magic of DirecTV, to Fenway Park, on a picture perfect Wednesday night.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Back to reality

In a mellow mood.

John Fluker piano playing softly on XM. Danny O'Keefe lyrics dancing in my head.

Got my pills to ease the pain/Can't find a thing to ease the rain.

It is working.

Am going to need it to transition back into reality. Especially since this weekend was what I needed. And now today is a Monday. And I have to go to the dentist. And to school board.

Spending a Saturday in a place wedged into the Cumberland Plateau brings back the old dreams. Little cottage by the water. Writing in the mornings. Reflecting in the afternoons. Quiet nights or crazy nights, depending on the mood.

All this, on the heels of a new friend sharing photographs of her family's property in Maine. It has fanned the fire. (Sorry for the cliche, Mrs. McNeeley.)

Here is the thing. Instead of dreaming, I am going to do it. Might take awhile. But it is going to happen.

Somebody once said that only an educated person realizes how ignorant one is. (Pardon the dangling preposition.)

That is true. So many books to read. So many movies to dissect. So much music to experience. So much life to be lived.

Stephanie and Daniel tell me about the folks they have encountered at the university. I hate I missed the playwright in residence. Would have loved to have chatted with him. Mainly because that is an art form that is exciting and a bit foreign to me in the sense that I doubt my ability to write it.

I might have mentioned last night that Tennessee Williams deeded the royalties to his plays to the University of the South. I have read "A Streetcar Named Desire" and seen a few of the films based on his work.

It reminds me how much I love the theater. But, living in Knoxville (or being broke) keeps me from seeing much of it. Oh, they have a Broadway series here. But I don't much like musicals. Guess I could drive out to the Cumberland County Playhouse or up to the Barter Theater this summer if anything is playing. Maybe I will do that on vacation.

So now it is back to the real world, to the dentist, to school board. It is OK. My batteries are recharged. My thirst for intellectual discourse has been quenched.

It will last a few weeks. But, more of it is on the way.

You can count on it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Where the trains no longer run

COWAN, Tenn. -- At first glance it is tempting to say this is the town time forgot.

Cowan, down here in Franklin County, is a bit sleepy on a rainy Saturday night. The restaurant we planned to duck into has closed.

A teenager is taking a drag underneath a tree. A stray cat is strolling down the sidewalk. And that's about it.

But, look a little closer, and you realize you've found a slice of Americana.

Cowan is a historical railroad town. Years ago, several branch lines of the North Carolina & St. Louis Railway converged here. It was the last stop before the trains ascended the Cumberland Plateau. So, of course, that meant a lot of pusher engines were kept waiting here.

The town's economy declined after Highway 41-A was built in the 1940s. It coincided with the decline of rail travel nationwide as cars became readily and inexpensively available and highway construction boomed after World War II.

The old rail station is now a museum. In front of it is a restored Texaco gas station that is also a museum. The town center includes an antique shop, a bed and breakfast, a cool little place that contains nothing but old jukeboxes, an excellent Italian restaurant and a quaint antiquarian bookstore.

The proprietor of the latter says that his book selling is a hobby. His wife was paralyzed in a bicycling accident a few years ago. So they came home to settle down.

He stored books in his home for years and sold them on the Internet. But, he needed to free up some room and says he likes having a brick-and-mortar store.

Because, he says with a smile, "I can go right to the book I need. Plus, people stop in with books to sale or trade. You don't get that much on the Internet." His dream is to help Cowan become the antiquarian book capital of the South.

I found an autographed first edition of a collection of short stories by Macon, Ga., writer Ferrol Sams. Five bucks. Can't beat that.

Earlier in the day my friends Stephanie and Daniel, both faculty members at the University of the South, gave me a tour of the campus. I will tell you more about that tomorrow, but for now will say that this quaint university, with its faux Gothic architecture and Episcopalian dignity, would be a lovely place at which to make a life.

When we finished our walk around Cowan, somebody lamented the fact that this town of 1,770 is struggling just to keep a restaurant.

"Maybe it will come back," I said, knowing in my heart that I hope the same for all the Cowans of the world.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Stream of consciousness (Part II)

Stream of consciousness again. Just for fun...

You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma. Love that song. Time has passed. Not sure I even like country music anymore. Scratch that. I don't like it. At least the new junk.

Wonder if I'll ever get to sing with my girl again? Snubbed. Who would have thunk it?

Oh, well. It's gotten too draining for me anyway. Need a summer break. As much as it will hurt.

Need to be asleep. Can't. Looking forward to my trip. Sewanee. An old friend.

Is that rain I hear? Again?

Gonna take the old highway down to Chattanooga. Don't like driving on the Indy 500 that is I-75. Like to take my time. See real America instead of that bland crap every 10 or 15 miles.

Southern lit. "The Coming of Rain." Like it. Nice change of pace from that Columbine book. Tragic. Tough.

Please let me sleep. Not sure how much more of this I can take. Dark circles under my eyes.

So surprised at meeting a new friend. Have been starved for such conversation. Inspiring. Gives me hope.

Ole Miss. Going to visit. Might apply. Think I'd like to study and teach Southern history. We'll see. Afraid of the GRE. Will work hard.

That pretty face. I will never forget it. Please don't let it end this way. Puzzled. Been 'fraid of changin', cause I built my life around you.

You can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

Gotta get some sleep. On the road again the morrow.

Screw the criticism. Forget the jerk even if it caused embarrassment in front of my friends. I can't control it. Worrying is useless. Isn't worth it anymore.

Time to make some changes. Soon. This summer. Wheels in motion.

It's time.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Games people play

Human beings are funny.

Some of our rituals are downright bizarre. One of my least favorites involves dating -- and getting to know a new friend.

I have always hated the notion that you have to back off at first, play it cautious, keep it close to the vest. Others tell me this is one of my "mistakes." And, I suppose it's led to a few disappointments. But, heck, I jump right in head first. If I like you -- whether you're a woman I want to get to know, or even just a friend, you'll know it right away. I don't bother to hide it. It's a good way.

I'll tell you what I hate, though. Despise, even. It's this psychological game playing business. Pretend you don't "like" them (I HATE when that word is used in this context.) Play hard to get. Drop off the face of the earth for a few days. It's balderdash.

I reflect often about the Grand Canyon that sometimes exists between men and women. Think back to my experiences. Write about it from time to time in both my musings and my fiction. Texas author Larry McMurtry observes it better than any other scribe I know. It is one of life's mysteries.

Joe South sang a song years ago called "Games People Play." It contains a great line. "But neither one will ever give in. So they gaze at an 8x10. Thinkin' back on things that might have been. And pray the other was to blame."


Whether she knows it or not, a good friend disappointed me last weekend. I will be honest. It hurt. Then I got over it. Said, "What the hell." Not going to worry about it anymore. But, it's sad.

Then there's this other situation. I can't bring myself to verbalize what I feel. For reasons both legitimate and imagined.

So here's to being honest. To meaning what you say, now, and saying what you mean.

It's probably too much to hope for. But, it's a pretty thought.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

My day off

Rainy Saturday afternoon and for once I have nothing to do.

So, I'm taking it easy, watching one of those fun little situational comedic films from the early 1960s on TV. Rod Taylor and Jane Fonda pretending not to like each other on a Sunday in New York. Peter Nero piano music on the soundtrack. Retro and quaint.

("If I were you, I'd kiss me!" "I was thinking if I lived to be 1,000 years old, I'd never understand women.")

I guess something is going on out there in the world. But, today I'm going to ignore it.

I have been reading this book on the Columbine High School shootings. Engaging but disturbing. Particularly the chapters describing the killings. It doesn't mesh with my view of the world. It has bothered me.

And I heard this damn David Gates song the other day. Made me think about a situation I can't change. Made it worse.

Guess that's why today I'm going to listen to the rhythm of the rain, watch a slice of cinema that has nothing to do with reality, drink a Coca-Cola and take a nap.

No worries, no deadlines. Nothing serious.

Just a quiet day off.

Friday, May 08, 2009


Still can't get used to this.

I don't quite understand it. Although this night I think I know the source.

Somebody sang a song once. It talks about life standing still. And being afraid it always will. And then looking in the center. Suddenly, everything is clear.

I have been there.

The rub lies in the waiting, walking through the valley, hiking up the mountain. Sometimes you wonder if the journey is worth it. And you wait for the moments that tell you it is.

I see myself walking along the shoreline, listening to the relaxation of the surf, enjoying the beauty of the morning. I want to be there. I am a million miles away.

It is getting hard to keep up. The idealism of youth is fading. Rose-colored glasses giving way to muted hues of cynicism. The bland homogenization distorting whatever brilliance existed.

Just makes me wonder how in the hell I lost my way. For so long the whole darn thing made perfect sense.


Thursday, May 07, 2009

A stone marker

Last week I told you about Dr. Robert Drake, the UT English professor that made such an impression a decade ago.

Have to share an unexpected -- and poignant -- moment that happened earlier this week.

Dr. Drake has stayed on my mind, so I began looking for someone who could talk about him. A colleague. Another former student. A friend.

I have no idea what happened to the others in that Southern Lit class. I asked the English Department head, Chuck Maland, whether he knew of anyone. He suggested a professor emeritus, Allison Ensor.

That night I remembered the Robert Drake reader sitting on my bookshelf. Something clicked that two of his grad students edited the book.

And, sure enough, Randy Hendricks is still teaching at the same Georgia college at which he worked when the book was published. I sent him a note. He responded the next morning.

Later in the day came a second e-mail from the other editor of the book. He teaches up north. Both shared special memories, moments, the time Dr. Drake shot down James Perkins during a seminar, saying "So what?" to his argument.

Perkins told me that he noticed while visiting Drake's hometown Ripley, Tenn., a few years ago that his grave contained no stone marker. He arranged to have one placed there.

I am glad.

Dr. Drake deserves more, though. If nothing else than for his genteel, wonderfully anachronistic, conversational prose. More so, for the lives he touched, the careers he influenced, the work he encouraged.

This afternoon, I tracked down the literary journal that devoted several pages to him in the spring of 1992. It is on its way from Mississippi State.

It feels good. His life's work is still with me. And, therefore, so is he.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Brilliant Technicolor in a monochrome world

The bombastic wonder that is local Realtor Scott Frith doesn't like for me to write about girls or baseball.

But, they are two of my favorite subjects. So I will ignore Scott for the time being and tell you a story. I will attempt to refrain from the sentimentality that is one of my sincere traits.

She was something of an anachronism, this girl with the musical talent. She spoke to me once, with her originality, with her surprising temperament, with the gentleness I saw in her eyes.

I listened to her awhile and thought about an old Roberta Flack song. When it was over I drove off into the evening and mused awhile on the fact that world seems empty and bland.

I didn't get a chance to know her, or even speak, but something stirred. I think in part it was her determined independence. And, of course, a propensity to rock her ass off.

It was a stark contrast to the homogenized way of modern life, how every interstate exit looks depressingly similar, a Wal-Mart in every town and a McDonald's on every corner.

Everybody watches "American Idol." Everybody goes to the same films, reads the same books, wears the same clothes.

But she was different, brilliant Technicolor in a monochrome world. Having seen something else, it was nauseating to return to the same ol' thing.