Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tandava's Guide to the Zone--2014-15--Part II: New Year's Day--Midnight to 7pm

And the Zone goes on!!

We continue from yesterday's entry (8am to Midnight) to find SyFy keeping with the tradition of airing the superb "Midnight Sun" at the stroke of the New Year.

As before, here is a short list of my favorites (try to catch "The Silence" (1:00 PM -- TZ's only supernatural-free episode) followed by the complete list of Twilight Zone episodes to be aired on SyFy from midnight New Year's Day through 7pm, with comments and mini-reviews, so you can sift the wheat from the glurge.

Fortunately, although there is only one from the Time Top 10, it's one of the best:  the iconic "It's a Good Life" at 2:30 PM (listed in red below). And there are quite a few gems, including two hour-long episodes starting at 6 AM (just following the only hour of "Paid Programming" ☺)

A third entry will follow covering 7pm through 6:00am Thursday morning, Jan 2nd.

So, once again, the other two categories are:

(1)  My Personal Favorite Episodes – These are underrated gems with strong scripts and beautiful performances – in green.

(2) Episodes Worth Watching – These have flawed scripts or execution, but often have compelling performances and/or ideas – in blue.


My Favorites  Short List
(Click the time to jump to the episode description.)

12:00 AM  The Midnight Sun
12:30 AM – The Obsolete Man
1:00 AM  The After Hours
1:30 AM  Night Call
2:00 AM  The Lonely
2:30 AM  King Nine Will Not Return
3:30 AM – Mr. Denton On Doomsday
4:30 AM – Two
6:00 AM  –  I Dream Of Genie
7:00 AM – Jess-Belle
12:00 PM  Mr. Dingle, The Strong
12:30 PM  One For The Angels
1:00 PM  The Silence
1:30 PM  The Sixteen-millimeter Shrine
2:00 PM  Death's-Head Revisited
2:30 PM  It's A Good Life
3:30 PM  A Penny For Your Thoughts
4:30 PM –  Five Characters In Search Of An Exit
5:00 PM – The Odyssey Of Flight 33

Full List  With Descriptions

12:00 AM – The Midnight Sun – Earth has been knocked off its orbit and is gradually approaching the sun. Thermometers pop, a painting melts off its canvas (this is actually a painted wax tablet on a hot plate!), but this apocalyptic tale is most interesting for its relationships – an excellent script, beautifully acted. Note: They played this one at NYE midnight last year too... coincidence? Um... no.

12:30 AM – The Obsolete Man – The superb Burgess Meredith is back to his book-loving ways, this time as a librarian in a dystopic totalitarian future, where both he and his books are declared obsolete.

1:00 AM  The After Hours – Stunning Anne Francis finds herself wandering the non-existent floors of a creepy department store. (Wait... is that mannequin watching me??)

1:30 AM  Night Call – Originally called "Sorry Right Number," this careful-what-you- wish-for tale features calls from beyond and a beautiful performance by Gladys Cooper. It has also been recycled as internet glurge.

2:00 AM  The Lonely – Convict Jack Warden spends lonely days on an asteroid until his supply ship pal brings him a realistic robot – in the ethereally beautiful form of a young Jean Marsh (best known as Rose from Upstairs, Downstairs). A touching, romantic story. Features Ted Knight as an obnoxious crew member.

2:30 AM  King Nine Will Not Return – WWII B-25 Captain Robert Cummings finds himself stranded in the desert with only the carcass of his King Nine, lost 17 years before. Is it a hallucination? Time travel? Both? The de rigueur twist ending is now a TZ cliché, but still worth watching for a strong script and Cummings' excellent performance.

3:00 AM – The Hunt – This mediocre folksy tale by The Waltons creator Earl Hamner Jr. has been recycled as internet glurge. Guy and dog have died and are walking along the road to heaven. Guy at pearly gate says, “No dogs allowed.” Guy says, “I ain’t goin' nowhere without my hound…” Sheesh. (This one has also been recycled as Internet glurge.)

3:30 AM – Mr. Denton On Doomsday – Touching old west tale about top-gunslinger-turned-town-drunk finding redemption. Fine performances by Dan DuryeaMartin Landau and Doug McClure.

4:00 AM – Uncle Simon –  Two despicable people in a screeching, unredeemable story. Sadistic eponymous Uncle berates greedy, gold-digging niece caretaker into an "accidental" (and fatal) lapse in care. Twist ending? Yeah, but who cares. By the time it's over you'll want to twist off your head. Geeks may get a kick out of the brief cameo of Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot; the ambulatory prop also appears on "The Brain Center at Whipple's" and in miniature in "One for the Angels" (12:30 PM 1/1).

4:30 AM  Two –  Apocalypse survivors Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery approach each other warily in this sparsely written, beautifully acted episode.

~~~~~One Hour of Paid Programming~~~~~

6:00 AM  I Dream of Genie – Down-on-his-luck office slave Howard Morris finds an enchanted lamp, complete with modern-suit-clad genie offering One Big Wish. In somewhat overwritten but amusing fantasy sequences he entertains the common wishes of perfect love, wealth, and power before taking the genie up on his offer. A sweet, silly story with an adorable ending.

7:00 AM  Jess-Belle –  Jilted Anne Francis – the tale's eponymous Appalachian maiden – enlists aid from the local witch to win her social-climbing ex (James Best) back from the local rich girl. But fulfilling her heart's desire has unintended consequences in this tragic land-borne Little Mermaid penned by Walton's creator Earl Hamner Jr.

8:00 AM – The Purple Testament – Mediocre tale of a WWII soldier who sees a portentous "light" on his comrades' faces. Basically an anti-war story which offers only the resigned observation that in war people die and you can't save them (or yourself); title is from Richard III: "He has come to open the purple testament of bleeding war." Notable only for a good performance by a pre-Bewitched Dick York.

8:30 AM – Mr. Bevis – Loser gets all he desires (money, nice apartment, fancy car & chauffer), only to learn he can’t be his true whackadoo self and keep up appearances. Moral: Enjoying who you are is worth more than anything money can buy -- or money itself. A worthy message that deserved stronger delivery.

9:00 AM  The Rip Van Winkle Caper – It's Treasure of the Sierra Madre with suspended animation and blah writing. Good performances and a fun twist at the end make it sort of worth watching.

9:30 AM – Ring-a-Ding Girl – Medium episode about movie star returning to her home town and throwing a “celebrate me” performance of her one-woman show – competing with the town's annual picnic. Is this a diva craving attention, or is something else going on? Even though it’s not great, I always find myself watching this one all the way through.

10:00 AM – Little Girl Lost –  Little girl has slipped into another dimension. Can her parents and their conveniently present physicist pal rescue her before the portal closes forever? Decent script but bland acting. Tune in for the final 10 minutes for all you need to know.

10:30 AM – Hocus-Pocus and Frisby – A braggart gas station attendant's tales of prowess are believed by some seriously gullible aliens who want to take him home as a specimen of Earth's finest.

11:00 AM  Escape Clause – I'll usually watch this one because I like David Wayne, but it’s not a great episode, just a grim morality play about the value of mortality. *Yawn!*

11:30 AM – The Prime Mover – Compulsive gambler cajoles his telekinetically-enabled pal (an enjoyable Buddy Ebsen) into to helping him cheat Vegas. Doesn't work out too well, but could be worse. Moral: Be happy with what you have; know when to quit.

12:00 PM  Mr. Dingle, The Strong – Loud-mouthed salesman pisses away alien gifts on trivial feats. Worth watching for an adorable Burgess Meredith and amusing (and very young) Don Rickles.

12:30 PM –  One For The Angels – A nice way to start the Marathon. One of TZ's more successful dark comedies features Ed Wynn as a fast-talking salesman who must use his skills to save a child's life. Features the third of three cameos of Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot (miniature, in this case) in the TZ; others include "Uncle Simon" (12:30 PM 1/1 – be glad you missed it) and "The Brain Center at Whipple's" (which surprisingly will not be aired this time; it is not my favorite, but it is a treat compared to the execrable "Uncle Simon").

1:00 PM –  The Silence – Tense, beautifully acted study in interpersonal dynamics and irony. Based loosely on Chekhov's The Bet, there is no supernatural hocus-pocus in this one. And there is no need for any. (And no Doctor Who jokes please... :-> )

1:30 PM  The Sixteen-millimeter Shrine – Luminous Ida Lupino stars as a reclusive aging movie star, immersed in the films of her youth. Sunset Boulevard, served up Zone-style with a bittersweet dose of wish- fulfillment. Score is by Sunset Boulevard's composer/conductor Franz Waxman. Catch Lupino's deft direction in "The Masks" later today at 7:30 PM.

2:00 PM  Death's-Head Revisited – Former Nazi captain's trot down memory lane via Dachau brings him to some unexpected denizens. Top-notch performances by Joseph Schildkraut and Oscar Beregi Jr.

2:30 PM  It's A Good Life – One of the most famous episodes (#3 on the Time list) featuring little Billy Mumy as a terrifying child who can create and destroy at will. The brilliant Cloris Leachman is his petrified mother. ("That’s a good thing you did… A real good thing… Now please wish it into the cornfield!").

3:00 PM – A Nice Place To Visit – Another be-careful-what-you-wish-for morality tale about the true nature of Heaven and Hell. In 1960 it might not have been painfully predictable...

3:30 PM  A Penny For Your Thoughts – Not a classic, but one of my favorites, featuring a young Dick York (the first Darren from Bewitched.)

4:00 PM  Black Leather Jackets – Evil Fonzie-esque leather-clad alien (dressed this way to "blend") falls for local Earth girl in this poor man's Avatar.

4:30 PM  Five Characters In Search Of An Exit – A soldier, a clown, a tramp, a bagpiper, and a ballerina wake to find themselves in a doorless empty room. Well-played and engaging.

5:00 PM – The Odyssey Of Flight 33 – A 707 picks up a freak tail wind and travels back in time. Run-of-the-mill by modern sci-fi standards, but notable for its realistic cockpit dialogue created by Serling's aviation writer brother, Robert Serling.

5:30 PM  The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms – Spooked National Guard tank crew gets drafted into Custer's 7th Cavalry. Big whoop.

6:00 PM – A Kind Of Stopwatch – Blabbering bore gets comeuppance via magical timepiece. Perhaps an inspiration for the 80s' silly Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything?

6:30 PM  The Bewitchin' Pool – Worst. Episode. Ever. So bad it is actually worth watching in a Plan 9 sort of way... Even To Kill a Mockingbird's Oscar-nominated Mary Badham couldn't save this dismal excuse for a story. Spoiled brats escape manipulative divorcing parents by finding their way to SuperGrandma via an enchanted pool. Now, if Grandma dumped the tots in an oven, then we might have a story....

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tandava's Guide to the Zone--2014-15--Part I: New Year's Eve--8am to Midnight

... And we are back in the Zone!!

Thank you for joining me and my surprisingly devoted little group of zoney followers in this annual jaunt through the New Year's showing of that land between shadow and substance, of things and ideas: The Twilight Zone.

And the SyFy channel has done us right this year! Not only is it airing 87 episodes of this timeless series (up from 86 episodes in last year's New Year's marathon -- with no nasty infomercials), it is featuring some of the stunning and rarely-seen hour-long episodes from the series' Fourth season:  I Dream of Genie (6:00 AM 1/1), an entertaining down-on-luck-guy-finds-genie-in-bottle story with a cute ending (a precursor to the later Hagman/Eden series, perhaps?),  Jess-belle (7:00 AM 1/1) a rural tale of unrequired love and witchcraft, penned by the Waltons' creator Earl Hamner Jr., featuring Anne Francis and James Best; and The New Exhibit (5:00 AM 1/2), a deliciously twisted wax museum saga featuring Martin Balsam.

Unfortunately, the price for these treasures comes at the expense of two of my faves: A Quality of Mercy (WWII drama with Dean Stockwell and Leonard Nimoy), and Nothing in the Dark (death comes for Gladys Cooper in the angelic form of dazzlingly-young Robert Redford), and many of the turkeys of earlier years are gone too, though a few remain....

The fun begins at 8:00 AM on New Year's Eve, and continues through 6:00 AM on January 2nd -- with only ONE hour off on January 1st from 5:00 AM to 6:00 AM for "Paid Programming".

As every year, all ten of Time Magazine's Top Twilight Zone Episodes will be featured; they are in red. As usual, the bulk of these are on New Year's Eve, with a few gems during primetime of New Year's Day, along with some lesser known favorites, such as In Praise of Pip (3:00 AM 1/2) starring a magnificent Jack Klugman, and TZ's favorite child actor Billy Mumy (also known for his work in Babylon 5), as well as Ida Lupino's "The Masks" (7:30 PM 1/1) -- the only episode to be directed by a woman --and A Game of Pool (7:00 PM 12/31) (featuring Klugman and the sublime Jonathan Winters, who both passed in recent years), in green, and finally a few that are not perfect, but have notable performances in blue.

So, as usual, here is a short list of my favorite episodes which will be aired on Monday, December 31st, followed by a full list of all the episodes to be broadcast on 12/31, containing brief descriptions and my personal, subjective, and highly opinionated reviews of each -- and hopefully not too many spoilers. Celebrity names and other items of interest are bolded and linked.

Happy Zoning!

My Favorites  Short List
(Click the time to jump to the episode description.)

9:00 AM – The Last Flight
10:30 AM – Long Live Walter Jameson
1:00 PM  A Thing About Machines
1:30 PM –  And When The Sky Was Opened
2:30 PM  Nick Of Time
3:00 PM –  Night Of The Meek
3:30 PM –  Number Twelve Looks Just Like You
4:30 PM –  Walking Distance
5:00 PM –  A Hundred Yards Over The Rim
5:30 PM  People Are Alike All Over
7:00 PM  A Game Of Pool
7:30 PM – The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street
8:00 PM  The Dummy
8:30 PM  The Invaders
9:00 PM – To Serve Man
9:30 PM – Nightmare At 20,000 Feet
10:30 PM  The Hitch-hiker

Full List  With Descriptions

8:00 AM – The Old Man In The Cave – Confused story set in a post-apocalyptic future of 1974 (!!!). Town listens to the “old man” until soldiers tell them not to be superstitious – and it doesn’t work out well for anyone. What’s the message? Don’t trust your own perceptions? Ugh. Only worth watching for a young James Coburn.

8:30 AM – Caesar and Me – Satan-spawn dummy drives hapless ventriloquist Jackie Cooper to a life of crime – matched in evilness only by tormenting then-child actress Morgan Brittany (later of Dallas fame). The same material is handled much better in "The Dummy" (8:00 PM 12/31).

9:00 AM – The Last Flight – During a hopeless dogfight, a World War I pilot abandons his best friend by flying into a cloud–and 42 years into the future, landing at a modern airfield. A touching, beautifully acted tale of cowardice, duty, and heroism at the last minute. A rarely-aired gem. And check out the vintage 1918 biplane!

9:30 AM – The Little People – Ego and physical relativity clash in this memorable (though mediocre) episode, which has been lampooned  in The SimpsonsSouth Park, and Futurama. Good performance by Claude Akins.

10:00 AM – Third From The Sun – Trigger-happy world leaders have their finger on the button! Doomsday is near! Time for a select few to secretly gather their families to escape to a nearby planet. Hm... now what planet would that be..?

10:30 AM – Long Live Walter Jameson – TZ's most successful working of the "morality of mortality" theme features fine performances, a strong script and a touch of righteous revenge.

11:00 AM – A Piano In The House – Enchanted ivories reveal uncomfortable secrets; akin to "What's in the Box" (4:00 PM 12/31) and "A Most Unusual Camera" (12:00 PM 12/31), and slightly better than either. But only slightly.

11:30 AM – Perchance To Dream – Neat psychodrama with some freaky felinesque dream sequences. Not bad; not great.

12:00 PM – A Most Unusual Camera – Lame-assed episode about three greedy morons undone by a magic camera. Hokey, ridiculous, predictable ending. Skip it.

12:30 PM – The Arrival –  Mystery plane lands itself at airport. The flight inspector "with a perfect record of solving cases" brings in a team to investigate. Everyone sees different registration numbers, seat cushion colors, then all but the investigator disappear. Could it all just be the investigator's guilty conscience hallucinating? Ummm... maybe... Sigh.

1:00 PM  A Thing About Machines – One of my all-time faves about a guy who beats up on his machines – which, in 1960, included his typewriter, electric razor, TV and car –  and they gang up to have their revenge. The dawn of Skynet... ("Now, why don’t you get out of here, Finchley!!")

1:30 PM–  And When The Sky Was Opened – Well played, creepy episode about astronauts returning to earth… or did they? Or were they ever here? Or were you?? TZ makes us question our grasp of reality.

2:00 PM  I Shot An Arrow Into The Air – Three astronauts survive a crash on an asteroid (where the atmosphere and gravity are the same as on Earth, but no one notices this). Limited provisions stir bloodthirsty behavior. Yes, Rod, people in crisis are just no darned good.

2:30 PM  Nick Of Time – A charming script and low-key performance by pre-Kirk William Shatner (yes, I used "low-key" and "Shatner" in the same sentence) grace this cautionary tale about superstition and self-determination.

3:00 PM  Night Of The Meek – Down-and-out department store Santa, Art Carney, loses his job but finds a bag of gifts and plays Santa one last time for the neighborhood kiddies. But is it just an act? Beautiful, touching episode.

3:30 PM  Number Twelve Looks Just Like You – Dystopic utopia where everyone is beautifully identical and lifts their pretty mugs with a glass of Instant Smile. (Perhaps an inspiration for Scott Westerfeld's excellent Uglies series -- where a "beautiful world" has a particularly nasty underpinning?) Mediocre script saved by Collin Wilcox's terrific performance.

4:00 PM – What's In The Box – Lame and ridiculous episode about a couple’s bickering leading to accidental murder and capital punishment. Freaky TV predicts it all. There, now you don’t have to watch it and aren’t you glad?

4:30 PM –  Walking Distance – I LOVE this episode, a classic (#2 on the Time list) about a frustrated exec who, longing for his boyhood days, visits his hometown – only to find himself a grown-up amidst his own childhood. Insightful lesson about valuing the present and not romanticizing the past.

5:00 PM  A Hundred Yards Over The Rim – Underrated episode featuring a very young Cliff Robertson as a pioneer dad who will go yards, miles and years to heal his ailing son.

5:30 PM –  People Are Alike All Over – Astronaut Roddy McDowall crashes on populous Mars, and consoles his fears with the thought that Martians (who include the radiant Susan Oliver)  and humans must be "alike" ...

6:00 PM – Probe 7 Over and Out – Stranded astronaut Richard Basehart, meets hostile alien female on deserted planet. She hurls rocks at him. Or maybe it's just foreplay. Now, what shall we call this place...? (Appropriately rhymes with "dearth.") The same story is better told in "Two" (4:30 AM 1/1).

6:30 PM  Stopover In A Quiet Town – At least it was quiet until this nattering couple woke up in a strange house with no memory of how they got there, and no one to ask where they are, or why the grass is made of papier-mâché. And if they'd shut up for two seconds, we just might care....

7:00 PM – A Game Of Pool – This taut two-person drama explores winning and losing, and what's really important in the game of life. Fine performances by Jack Klugman (who passed in 2012) and Jonathan Winters (who passed this last spring). Not crazy about the end, though; the real (and better) ending was done in the 80s TZ version.

7:30 PM – The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street – #4 on the Time list. The story is included in grade-school anthologies. Beautifully written masterpiece about fearing thy neighbor. The brilliant Claude Akins is considered the lead, though it is a true ensemble piece. Don’t miss it.

8:00 PM –  The Dummy – Cliff Robertson as a troubled ventriloquist whose creepy dummy will simply not stay in the box.

8:30 PM  The Invaders –  Agnes Moorehead's virtuoso 25-minute wordless monologue; riveting  with a slick twist at the end. #7 on the Time list.

9:00 PM  To Serve Man – Aliens come to earth offering solutions to all the world's woes; their trouble-entendre mission: "To serve man." An undisputed classic, #8 on the Time list.

9:30 PM – Nightmare At 20,000 Feet – "There's a man out on the wing!!" Shatner at his whiteknuckle best. #6 on the Time list.

10:00 PM – A Stop At Willoughby – Beleaguered exec finds himself in his childhood hometown. Similar to "Walking Distance" (4:30 PM 12/31) but trades insight for sentiment. Some people really like this one; I can do without it.

10:30 PM  The Hitch-hiker – A driver keeps seeing the same hitch-hiker thumbing a ride as she heads west…. A deliciously Hitchcockian morality/mortality play about fear and acceptance of the inevitable. #5 on the Time list.

11:00 PM  Dead Man's Shoes – Bum dons dead gangster's wing-tips and finds himself stepping into the thug's revenge-thirsty ex-life. You might feel bad for the bum if you find yourself caring about anything in this one.

11:30 PM – Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up – This was voted 8.5 on the IMDB, but I think it’s dopey and ridiculous. Bus passengers are stranded at a diner – but there is one too many. Oh, and rumor has it that a spacecraft crashed nearby. Give me a break.

Monday, December 1, 2014

World AIDS Day -- December 1st

Today, December 1st, is World AIDS Day.

And although our focus has shifted to ebola to ISIS to Bill Cosby, we must not forget that 35 million people still live with AIDS/HIV worldwide.

And we must not forget the devastation it wrought on a generation.

Here are some stunning photos of an AIDS hospice taken in the early 90s.
A resident's room the day of this death from 
AIDS at the Bailey-Boushay House.

Please also watch HBO's The Normal Heart for a heart-rending dramatization of the early stages of the AIDS crisis in America.

Let us never forget the way that AIDS patients were shunned and treated callously, even by hospital staff. My father, who works in nuclear medicine, told me this chilling story from the early 80s.

He needed to run some tests on a patient who, as was typical of those suffering from AIDS, was secluded in a remote section of the hospital. When my father arrived at the room, a radiologist was already present, doing a portable X-Ray. This procedure required placing the scanner above the patient, with a tray beneath, while the image is taken. A few minutes later, the tech exited and my father went in to draw blood.

He looked at his arm for veins but couldn't find any. His skin was cool.

He looked again at the patient, who was motionless and realized... the man was dead.

The other tech had X-Rayed a corpse, and in spite of the considerable physical contact necessary to do this, he had not even noticed that the patient had probably been dead for some time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Uncomfortable Truths Part I: George Carlin and Seven Words of Rain

"There are seven words a politician would never say:  'Truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, and motherfucker!'"

Yes, NYC's Councilman Mark Levine actually dropped the MF-bomb to honor the unveiling of our long-awaited George Carlin Way (W121st Street between Morningside Drive and Amsterdam Avenue -- a block from where Carlin grew up "because," according to the NY Daily News, "the Catholic Church did not want his name displayed on the stretch where Corpus Christi Church is located."

That line was written by the great comic Eddie Brill, one of many comedians, family, and friends of Carlin who braved rain and wind to watch the Way's unveiling, and got a huge laugh from a crowd who knew all too well that George Carlin was a great champion of truth, exposing hypocrisy, and challenging dubious assumptions and boundaries:

This country was founded by a group of slave owners who told us "all men are created equal." That is what's known as being stunningly -- stunningly -- full of shit!!

Yet he was not always a notorious truth-teller.

He began his career with clean-cut material, matched by his clean cut hair, suit and skinny tie, where he delivered innocuous routines like Al Sleet, the Hippy Dippy Weatherman.

In 1971, with the release of his boundary-thrashing grammy-winning album FM & AM, he put the "Old George Carlin" to rest, and unveiled the "New George Carlin" -- or rather, the REAL George Carlin -- who made up his own mind, said what he thought without apology, pulled no punches, and changed the world of comedy and media forever.

He is best known, of course, for his infamous Seven Dirty Words routine on his 1971 album Class Clown where, like Lenny Bruce before him, he challenged assumptions about what was OK to say or think -- what "certain words" meant -- and why so much thought had gone into what can't be said.
We have more ways to describe dirty words than we actually have dirty words. That seems a little strange to me. It seems to indicate that somebody was awfully interested in these words. They kept referring to them.
They called them bad words, dirty, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar, coarse, in poor taste, unseemly, street talk, gutter talk, locker room language, barracks talk, bawdy, naughty, saucy, raunchy, rude, crude, lewd, lascivious, indecent, profane, obscene, blue, off-color, risqué, suggestive, cursing, cussing, swearing, and all I can think of was "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits!" ... That was my original list. I knew it wasn't complete. But it was a starter set.
Unlike the countless comics since who pad their mediocre humor with nervous laughter elicited by those Seven Words, Carlin's biggest laughs come not from the words themselves, but from his observations about them -- and about our use of language, what we allow and what we prohibit and why -- in short, the values we profess and impose on others, as opposed to the values hidden in our actions.

In Class Clown, he points to contradictions, hypocrisies, and the arbitrariness of labeling certain words as "bad":

"There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can't say on television. What a ratio that is! ... They'd have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. ... There are no 'bad words'... [there are] bad thoughts, bad intentions ... and words...!"

In Occupation: Foole, his 1973 follow-up to Class Clown, he further prodded at why we believe these words will "infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war."

"Fuck," he observes, "leads a double-life. ... It means 'to make love' ... the act that begins life. So there's the word hanging around with words like 'love' and 'life' ... And yet it's also a word that we use to hurt each other with... It's one you save toward the end of the argument...'Fuck you and everyone who looks like you!'"

It was this more nuanced version of the "Seven Dirty Words" routine that WBAI aired uncensored exactly 41 years ago on October 30, 1973 that launched the landmark case and ruling which to this day governs free speech in broadcast media.

We can never underestimate Carlin's spirit to always question morality handed down to us by others:

If a thing is deemed "bad" ask why. Is it truly "bad/hurtful" or is it an arbitrary device to control others?  And if it is hurtful, then ask whom does it hurt and how? And what exactly is doing the hurting? Is it the word, or the intention behind the word?

And, as Carlin, Brill, and Levine would concur: always, always look for the underlying truths beneath the surface of what we are told, no matter how uncomfortable these truths may make us, no matter how much they show us what we'd rather not see, no matter how much they may rain on our parade.

Because a little rain can wash away a multitude of ills. And George Carlin fans aren't afraid of a little rain, anyway.

To be continued...

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Readiness Is All -- So YIP to It!!

"I find bad poetry to be extremely motivating...."

Thus quoth our beloved Mary Crisman, of YIP Podcast fame, in response to my eager plea for a new podcast (her pod-partner, Tammy, had informed us that the long-awaited cast was ready, but that Mary was "holding it hostage").

Drastic measures were necessary.

I warned Mary that I "once wrote Karim Nagi a limerick for his birthday and he has never fully recovered..."

To which Brave Ms. Mary replied: "Bring. It. On."

That was in April.

I toyed with a few ideas for a week or so, glanced through RhymeZone for some ideas ... Nothing "clicked" and I put it in the back of my mind and secretly hoped the YIP ladies would forget the offer altogether...

Back in High School I'd learned a bunch of Shakespearean sonnets for a contest and got hooked on iambic pentameter. So I tried my hand writing them and found I had a knack with rhyme and meter.

I'd write them as gifts for friends, or random silly stuff -- which went over much better than my usual overwrought musings.

But somewhere in my late twenties I pretty much stopped writing.

Each year, I wrote less stuff -- bits and pieces now and then, an occasional poem, a monologue or short play or two. I'm not sure whether this was because my main focus had switched to performing, or that I had started to lose confidence in my writing ability.

In '96, I took a class in writing a solo show and hated everything that came out of me -- the writing, the way I performed it. To this day I have never watched the showcase performance video.

There was a lot happening with me emotionally and psychologically at that time, but the bottom line was that my standards were getting higher and higher -- way beyond what I was able to produce. So I found myself mercilessly crushing even the beginnings of any idea that flickered in my mind.

And this thinking seeped into other areas of creativity: I increasingly doubted my ability to act, improvise, or even do stand-up comedy.

In other words, wanting to create good art demolished my ability to create any art. And since I was too afraid to suck, I stopped.

There is an excellent talk by Ira Glass that is variously referred to "The Gap" or "On Taste" that addresses this kind of creative block, where he says:
For the first couple of years, what you're making isn't that good ...but your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you're making ... is still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that point ... they quit. 

So he advises anyone who is stuck at that phase to just crash on through and create a lot of work, and remember:  "It takes a while .... and you just have to fight your way through that." And even though Ira himself was still finding his feet on This American Life at that time, I had heard similar advice from other artists.

But at that point I didn't know if I wanted to write or act or go back to comedy.

So I started to bellydance.

And it was in dance, and with encouragement from various teachers and fellow students whom I admired, that I found myself moved by the music and the juicy bellydance moves, that I couldn't help but dance!

And second, I began first to develop a tolerance for "The Gap", and for not caring so much if I was "good" yet.
Ranya Renée, photo by Lina Jang

Ranya Renée, who is most responsible for transforming me into a professional dancer, challenged us:  "Dare to be boring!"

In her Performance Prep workshop series, she encouraged us to come from a place of feeling, not worrying so much about how we looked but focusing on connecting to the music.

And, most importantly, she helped us lose our fear of sucking.

"Because sometimes," she'd grin, "You have to let yourself suck if you want succeed!" We groaned, but the message was clear: Work hard, do your best, but don't get stressed if you're not as good as you want to be.

You'll get there.

And slowly, the paralysis melted ... I began to take Dancemeditation classes, where Dunya encouraged us to connect writing to dance. I felt awful and awkward ... but I wrote.

And then I started blogging ... then writing and performing some comedy again ... even doing a little Shakespeare now and then.

And I took classes in comedy, sketch writing ... and creating a solo show.

So here it was April 2014, I had every reason to be confident in my writing abilities.

And once again I was stuck.

Months went by. Then in late June the YIP Podcast thread on Facebook picked up again. Other listeners started griping:

Where was the darned podcast?!?!?

Mary quipped, "I'd like to blame my glacial pace on Carol's blatant refusal to furnish me with a bad poem...."

She promised the next YIP would be forthcoming, regardless of my poetic lapse. But as I read through the chain of endearingly silly comments, I started feeling inspired.

After all, this was YIP Podcast for crissakes -- the best, funniest, most appreciative audience around -- specifically asking for a bad poem.

Yes -- BAD!

Laughing, I sat down around 11pm on June 24 and, in about a half-hour, banged out fourteen lines of perfect iambic pentameter Fakespeare silliness:

O why hast thou forsaken us, dear YIP
When but a snip or quip would surely sate
Our thirst for podcast YIPpage?? Yet your grip
Still fiercely holds the treasured aural bait!
You tempt and tease your audience too much
Dear YIPsters -- we grow barb'rous at your gate
And rain upon you thund'rous cries--as such
Demand that you RELEASE THE YIP, lest Fate
Confound you with a YIP-borne curse so dire
That all the goddesses of YIP would weep
To plead on your behalf; but we require
The long awaited YIP held in your keep
     And thus will not relent till it is freed.
     For once released, the YIP brings joy, indeed!

A few days later, I read it to my parents who got a kick out of it, and remarked that it was strange took such a short time to write. "Sometimes it can take days or weeks to finish a poem," I said. "Even though it's only fourteen lines, it's kind of like a puzzle. It can take a while to fit it all together."

"Well, maybe you had been working on it all along," my father said. "Like with any problem. You focus on it a bit, and then walk away for however much time is necessary. Then a while later the solution comes to you all at once."

This, I think, is true, not only with this bit of poetic silliness, but with what I had experienced for years as a "blocked artist; perhaps it wasn't simply that I was "blocked" -- that I could have pushed through it with a blast of willed confidence -- but rather that I wasn't ready.

But I was getting ready ... slowly.

As I focused on developing more external aspects of my personal and creative life -- on the craft and technique of dance, the basics of joke writing, improvisation skills -- my unconscious was gradually assembling larger works which emerged quickly once they and I were ready.

To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet: "The readiness is all."

And while that context had more to do with fatedness, I prefer to think in terms of patience and trust: First -- try to sit down and do the work. If I can't work, then I don't force it. I'll do other things. Or do nothing for a while.

But I continue to listen, and trust that whatever I'm trying to create is brewing.

And once it's ready -- and I'm ready -- it will let me know.....

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

James Gandolfini, Peter Jensen, and the Importance of Acting from Wholeness

Ten years ago, James Gandolfini was interviewed on Inside the Actors Studio. He spoke candidly about emotional honesty both onstage and off -- particularly dealing with intense and taboo emotions like rage.

And although it took a few years to sink in ... his words changed my life.

I have found myself revisiting those words over the years, in daily life and in my performing work -- most recently in my current scene class at the esteemed T. Schreiber Studio, with my teacher Peter Jensen. (Yes, I'm totally psyched to be working with this studio again!)

Here is the full quote (the first part can be seen here starting at 7:50, and the last bit is continued here) but I've highlighted the sentences that stuck with me:
James Gandolfini on "Inside the Actors Studio"
One of the major things in an [acting] class... is to get up in front of people and just start to be able to make a fool of yourself. ... I remember one thing [my first acting teacher] did for me that ... got me to a new level was--  I had such anger back then... When you're young ... everybody does. You're pissed and you're not sure why. That's probably why you're all sitting here [at the Actor's Studio], because you want to express something and you don't know what it is. And she kept telling me, "Go ahead, go ahead." And I never wanted to. ... Something happened ... 
I think she told a partner to do something to me, and he did it. And I destroyed the place, you know, just all that crap they have onstage. And then she said at the end of it -- I remember my hands were bleeding a little bit, and the other guy had gotten off -- and she goes, 'See, everybody's fine ... nobody's hurt. This is what you have to do. This is what people pay for. If you don't want to do it, get off. But this is what people pay for to see. They don't want to see the guy next door...'  And that was a big step for me because then I could start to go to where my anger was ... and realize that I could control it.
Although I had not done theater for a while -- and didn't plan to as I'd started bellydancing -- I thought of this interview again and again. It became a heartening refrain for emotional, psychological, and creative integrity:

"Be able to make a fool of yourself."  Go ahead and lose it, because "this is what people pay to see."

Years later, when I returned to scene study class, Peter echoed this refrain, encouraging us to allow those behaviors and qualities most repugnant to us, because "the character is basically yourself under certain circumstances."

James Lipton of "Inside the Actors Studio"
In acting, we often forget this.

We get so involved with "creating" a character, that we forget that all we have to work with is ourselves.

Even if we are portraying a character that is wildly different from us -- so wholly anathema to the person we'd like to be that it frightens us -- onstage and off we are still always ourselves.

We must reach inside ourselves to find an authentic seed of the character, or we'll end up faking our way through each line, hoping the audience doesn't catch on.

Even if they don't notice or don't care because we've turn in an entertaining "fake" performance, it won't be satisfying  because we know it's fake. And we know the audience deserves better than that.

So this is what I've been working on in class -- finding those uncomfortable "seeds" in myself and letting them be felt and seen.

A few weeks ago, Peter assigned a scene from Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind between a man who had just beaten his wife to the point of brain damage, and the man's mother ... me.

Like much of Shepard's work, it's a twisted comedic melodrama that nests disturbing emotional truths within extreme characters and interactions that stretch plausibility. In our scene, my character is spoon-feeding her grown son "your favorite [soup]... Cream of Broccoli I made it special in the blender ... just how you like it!", as he lies tight-lipped in his childhood bed.

She babies, then bullies him, then goes on about her own life, and babies him again until he explodes. And she explodes right back. And it becomes very clear very quickly that she made him into the monster he is.

This woman combines the dark, needy manipulation of Livia Soprano with the saccharine maternal cooing of a Mommie Dearest who will do anything to get what she wants -- and what she wants is to make her Golden Son stay with her forever and ever and ever and ever.

In short: she is everything I hate about women.

Peter, I think, knew I was less than comfortable with this character; plus the scene started with a massive page-long monologue that would take me a while to memorize, so he suggested that my partner Adam and I improvise a scene that occurs sometime before the action of the play.

Peter Jensen
Peter Jensen in the indie film "A Memory"
So we went about six years back, to the evening Adam's character decides to announce to his mother that he has asked his girlfriend to marry him. This, we figured, would hit every button for the mother.

As the scene began, I had no idea how I would react to this news, and I was surprised to find my/herself simply choosing not to hear him (this, I later realized, was my grandmother's strategy -- if you hear something you don't want to hear, just block it out and continue with your own narrative).

And the scene became a nasty little comedy -- of him trying to tell his mother how much he loves his finaceé ... and of her going on about Wheel of Fortune, and how he should find himself a pretty girl like Vanna White. In short, invalidating -- annihilating -- him with each exchange.

And when he finally gets upset, she/I innocently asks why he is upset, "and maybe this is why you can't find a good woman!" At each turn she forces her own reality down his throat until he threatens to leave.

And then her threats came out:  "If you leave, don't think about coming back" -- anything, anything to get him to stay.

When finally, through sheer, brute force, he slams his own reality (as in the real reality) down her throat so that she has no choice but to hear it ... I felt a desperate, searing, percolating rage ... I bellowed like a beast and raised my hand to strike his face.

His eyes flashed wide and the other students held their breath. And in that moment I felt a rush of power. He had backed down!! ... But then I saw my partner, Adam -- not my wayward strikeworthy son.

And immediately, I realized, "Whoa ... so that's why people do this -- bullying, intimidating -- anything to control the other person." And then an impulse to rein it in reached up inside me, not wanting to hurt, not wanting to control ... And my hand stopped.

But then I realized that this is what made me not her. We all have these rages, these screaming, struggling infant needs to make the world into ourselves -- but most of us have the impulse not to hurt, while this character does not.

And I needed to let go of that part of myself if I was going to be true to her.

So as my hand was raised to hit him, I felt an inner hand release control. And I ripped into him again.

And his eyes flattened back into his character's cold defiance. He battered me with maelstrom cruel truths and stormed off. I wailed for a moment and then, realizing he was gone, true to character calmly brushed myself off and went back to Wheel of Fortune.

Of course the moment the scene was over, and I was myself again, I was teary and shaken through the feedback session. After a breath, Peter began, "Both of you ... went somewhere new here."

We glanced at each other, nodding "yes."

Tears slid from my eyes as we continued -- partly because I had frightened myself by losing control (even though I hadn't fully lost it), partly because I had never consciously allowed myself to experience that level of destructive rage, but mostly because I finally understood this character and felt her icy echo in myself.

And although I have seen this behavior in others, I had never understood the impetus behind it -- never felt it fully from the inside.

So to be able to say -- "Yes, I have this in me too" -- was a blow to my ego, because I would like to believe I am for the most part kind and goodhearted and well meaning, that I would never do what this woman does.

And yet, as an actor, I must do those things; I must truthfully allow those forbidden parts of myself.

I must be my whole self.

When we perform, our audience needs that -- anything less and both they and we are gypped.

Part of the reason we prize actors like James Gandolfini so highly is that they reach those hidden, forbidden parts of the self; they express what we can't, fully and without reservation. They both express extremes cathartically for us, and reassure us that such powerful emotion can be erupt fully, truthfully, and safely -- invoked within the containment of a theatrical play, and deeply humanized through a character with which we empathize.

And in this way, a great performance opens something in us, gives us access to those parts of ourselves that we dare not see, much less express -- allowing us, perhaps, a path towards those uncomfortable emotions that we try to deny, granting a sliver towards our own wholeness.

Because when we deny uncomfortable emotions, attempting to crush their very existence -- that is when they do become dangerous, looking for breaks in our armor through which they can erupt with with all the vengeance of a repressed creature. And we become afraid of ourselves (and, consequently, afraid of others).

Theater -- great storytelling of any kind -- expresses, metabolizes, and humanizes what seems most foreign to us, and in so doing brings the performer and audience to a greater understanding and wholeness.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Flow and Gratitude: Blood on the Veil in Orlando -- Part 4 -- Magical Moments and Hidden Helping Hands

When last we saw our heroines (and heroes!) they had survived scheduling insanity, travel travesties, and automotive madness among the mudpies ... and now it was SHOWTIME!!!

Friday, August 8th started as a surprisingly normal day (save for a little weed-whacker-induced sleep deprivation, due to our neighbors' accursed early-to-rise ways ... Oh Florida!).

Cheerful audience members Claudia Selene Smith, Jayne Arrington
(of DanceCraft, who took these lovely photos) and Yvonne McKenna
Mariposa and I got our chi flowing with a little bikram in the tropical garage/studio, then pulled together props and costumes. Unfortunately, Mariposa's shamadan suffered an injury in transit -- but Matt and Leann Drury saved the day by lending us their own gorgeous candelabra.

I banged the programs together and sent them off to Staples for printing, and we were out the door shortly before 6pm.

We swung by Staples to get the programs (which apparently had never been received), but thankfully I had the job on a thumb drive and got them printed within 20 minutes.

And to think I NEARLY left the thumb drive at home.....

Isis wows us with her dumbek stylings in the finale!
This is typical of pretty much every near-disaster that has occurred at so many performances of Blood on the Veil:

Something unexpected and potentially catastrophic happens close to curtain. BUT because someone in or near to the production just so happens to have or know what is needed -- the show goes on!!

To quote Tom Baker's Doctor:  I have a sort of vague faith in the nature of things. Things may look bad, but if you hang on and keep faith, it puts you in a kind of flow, a rhythm, where what is needed either presents itself in the moment -- or beforehand you bring something along which turns out to be the very thing you need... and you have saved yourself.

And so no matter how bad it looks, it can work out. Something, somewhere, will pitch in to help you.

Hardly a day passes when I don't think of Joseph Campbell's exchange with Bill Moyers:
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden hands?
"I wrapped the veil around me in a peek-a-boo style
when I heard a knock at the door...!"
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time - namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be. [emphasis added]
And when we got to the theater, programs in hand -- the magic that makes it all worthwhile unfolded spectacularly.

Since we had arrived late, there was no time for a cue-to-cue (this is when you give the tech the line before a cue occurs, and they run the light or sound effect so you can make sure it happens properly).

But our tech, Hannah, was amazing!

She programmed the entire show blind as the eager audience entered... And Melody, our superb stage manager, whipped props and costumes into perfect order.

Showcasing Fan Veils with the divine Phoenicia
The lights went up ... our magnificent emcee, Marc B Lee, introduced the evening and brought up our first two acts -- the oriental stylings of Isis, followed by the sultry Lisa Stern.

And then it was my turn....

At the beginning of each show, I always feel like I am approaching the top of a roller coaster ... I can almost feel my body pitch backwards as the lights begin to rise.

"For most of my life..." the show begins, "I was at war ... with my belly... Because the belly was the enemy of dance, and I wanted to be a dancer!!"

And the story unfolds ... how my beginnings in ballet brought me to love movement ... but to hate the unruly curves of my body. How, like so many women, I'd battled my bulges, and abused my body to the point of collapse.

Stunning Phoenicia enraptures the audience with her fan veil solo.
Two hospitalizations and three herniated discs later, I found bellydance... and with it renewed passion, courage, creativity and love for my soft, rounded body.

"For as long as you dance, this ancient women's
dance will rise and laugh in the face of...attacks."
"My curves flourish in this dance... and in my teachers and fellow dancers I can see the Promised Land:  They are every different age, size, race, background  -- and every single one of them is beautiful!!"

After intermission, our Senior Dancer, Phoenicia, wowed the audience with a riveting karshilama followed by her breathtaking fan veils.

And then the lights went up for Act 2....

But rather than continue on about the show myself, here are some of the thoughts of those who were with me for this remarkable journey!!!

I owe them such a debt of gratitude for their faith and fortitude during this adventure.

And we are all looking forward to doing it again in 2015!!


Winged Mariposa wows the audience in the Parade of Props
Mariposa (Cane Dancer): When Carol told me that she was bringing the show to Orlando, Florida, I was thrilled! She contacted me along with several other local dancers to ask if they could participate in the show. I immediately responded with a resounding, YES!

All dancers performing in the cane dance was given video of the choreography and breakdown of the dance. I enjoyed learning the choreography this way. It was convenient; the video was very detailed and I could do it when I had time.

I performed the Cane Dance as well as other props in a segment at the end of the First Act called the “Parade of Props.” I think that this segment in the show is priceless and highly educational to the audience.

Many do not know much about bellydancing, which Carol lends her expertise throughout her entire performance defining the Art in detail. But the props section takes it a bit further. The props are the dancer's tools to bring another dimension to the Dancer and her performance. The props are the dancer's paint brush, illuminating the stage with various hues and tints and in some cases, vibrant colors as endless as the sea, floating levitating silk veils, leaving the audience gasping at the sheer beauty of it.
Audience member Odalis Ramos joins us
for the cane dance!

Carol’s Blood on the Veil is a priceless piece of art and personal story.

It is provocative, riveting and as comfortable as a Sunday afternoon watching the sunset across the deep blue sea. Carol succeeds at transporting you to her moments in time, her struggle and her own personal victories.

It leaves you inspired and ready to go out and conquer your own dreams and goals.

Phoenicia (Senior Dancer): As a "mature" dancer I have been involved with many groups and individuals with something to say about belly dance and I have performed in countless shows, benefits, haflas, parties, workshops, and conventions over the years.

Dancing for an audience is always a privilege and delight but when I was invited to open the second act of BOTV it became one of the highlights of my dance life. Carol's show is not only entertaining but also empowering and bringing in local dancers when she travels with it makes each performance even more special to that audience.

I hope BOTV runs for decades because there will always be new stars to showcase and yesterday's stars to pass on their love and knowledge of the dance. Well done Carol!

"Seven years earlier an injury had brought me to
this dance... but I had not learned my lesson..."
Leann Drury (Host): What an incredible show! Not at all what I'd expected. The name of the show, initially was challenging as the word "blood" denotes lots of different images, none usually positive, but being a bellydance show aficionado and having attended shows from intimate house parties, to studio haflas, to community run charitable shows, to full stage productions over the last 20 years, I knew there was something different about this show and the appeal of this dancer that I just had to sate my curiosity. Boy did she deliver!

Carol shared her transformative story in a courageous, touching, entertaining way that explored and played with her past, the challenges of healing, politics, perceptions, adventures around the world and stops along the way in a self-effacing manner that draws you in and makes you a part of the journey.

She touched me in a way that left me wanting to hear the next chapter and for this appreciative fan, that's saying something.

Emcee Marc B Lee dances with the cast and audience
members during the finale!
Lisa Stern (Pre-Show Dancer): My first impressions of the show … was that I really didn't understand what it was! The title made no sense to me and I had little interest with my busy schedule. A dear friend of mine asked for dancers and of course that's a big fat yes.

The more I heard about this, watched practice, learned that my friends were dancing, and of course met Carol, the more intrigued I became. After all we all have a story and we all have that one prop we LOVE.

 Well come to find out Carol not only is hilarious, but she is a wonderful dancer, has a huge heart and what a talent! Every single prop she is a master of and basically does a 2 hour one-man show non-stop that she wrote herself! Incredible lady, very entertaining show, and I was very honored to meet her, call her my new friend, and participate in such an amazing event. Thank you Carol!

Hanging out after the show with the lovely
Nicole Palmer and Odalis Ramos.


P.S. Check out the special feature on Blood on the Veil in the next issue of Zaghareet!!