Entertainment

In a Word

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asmatographer
n. a composer of songs

While on the road with his 1927 musical Funny Face, George Gershwin left “two notebooks containing at least forty tunes” in a hotel room in Wilmington, Del. “After calling the hotel and learning the notebooks could not be located, he did not seem greatly perturbed,” wrote his brother and lyricist, Ira. “His attitude is that he can always write new ones.”

George was a songwriting machine, always at work. “I can think of no more nerve-wracking, no more mentally arduous task than making music,” he said in 1930. “There are times when a phrase of music will cost many hours of internal sweating.” Though he would sometimes try ideas at the piano, he insisted that “the actual composition must be done in the brain” — the fifth and final version of “Strike Up the Band” came to him in bed, and he heard, and even saw on paper, the complete construction of Rhapsody in Blue while riding a train from New York to Boston. “Like a pugilist,” he once said, “the songwriter must always keep in training.”

Ira’s struggle was less apparent. While working on lyrics he would wander the room, singing to himself or playing the piano with one finger. A new maid once asked his wife, “Don’t Mr. Gershwin never go to work?”

Fiction and Feeling

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A puzzle from University of Michigan philosopher Kendall Walton:

“Charles is watching a horror movie about a terrible green slime. He cringes in his seat as the slime oozes slowly but relentlessly over the earth, destroying everything in its path. Soon a greasy head emerges from the undulating mas, and two beady eyes fix on the camera. The slime, picking up speed, oozes on a new course straight toward the viewers. Charles emits a shriek and clutches desperately at his chair. Afterwards, still shaken, he confesses that he was ‘terrified’ of the slime.”

Was he? Walton says no. Charles may have felt intense fear, even shrieking as the slime approached the camera. But he knew that he was not literally in danger. This was not a half-belief or a “gut” feeling — he never considered leaving the theater or calling the police, for instance. Charles wasn’t motivated to avoid the slime physically. Yet he says that what he felt was fear of the slime.

What are we to make of this? “This issue is of fundamental importance,” Walton writes. “It is crucially related to the basic question of why and how fiction is important, why we find it valuable, why we do not dismiss novels, films, and plays as ‘mere fiction’ and hence unworthy of serious attention.” What is the answer?

(Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions,” Journal of Philosophy, January 1978.)

Once for All

cary guffey -- close encounters

Asked to choose a single “master image” to sum up his work, Steven Spielberg chose this shot from Close Encounters, in which little Barry Guiler opens his living-room door to see the “beautiful but awful light” emanating from an alien spacecraft. “And he’s very small,” Spielberg said, “and it’s a very large door, and there’s a lot of promise or danger outside that door.”

The scene in which Barry encounters midnight visitors in his kitchen won praise for Spielberg’s direction of untrained 3-year-old actor Cary Guffey:

The story is recounted in Joseph McBride’s 2010 biography of Spielberg: “I had to the left of the camera a cardboard partition, and to the right of the camera a second cardboard partition. To the left of the camera, I put Bob Westmoreland, our makeup man, in a gorilla suit — the full mask and hands and hairy body. To the right of the camera, I dressed myself up as an Easter Bunny, with the ears and the nose and the whiskers painted on my face. Cary Guffey didn’t know what to expect. He didn’t know what he was gonna react to. His job was to come into the kitchen, stop at the door, and just have a good time. … And just as he came into the kitchen, I had the cardboard partition dropped and Bob Westmoreland was there as the gorilla. Cary froze, like a deer caught in car headlights … I dropped my partition, and he looked over at me, and there was the Easter Bunny smiling at him. He was torn. He began to smile at me — he was still afraid of that thing. Then I had Bob — I said, ‘Take off your head.’ Bob took off his mask, and when Cary saw it was the man that put his makeup on in the morning, Cary began to laugh. Even though it was a trick, the reaction was pure and honest.”

Mob Rule

graves and brown patent

Eugene Graves and William Brown patented this grim game in 1902. A row of effigies stand on blocks under a gibbet. Each effigy is fitted with a noose, and the players take turns shooting balls at the blocks, “representing summary punishment meted out to the victim.”

In the patent abstract, the effigies are described only as “notorious criminals and persons opposed to law and order”; Graves and Brown note that these can be varied to suit the “location, place or country for which the game is especially designed.”

“A flag may be provided for each figure to designate the character or nationality of the effigy.” We’re lucky this didn’t catch on.

Shop Talk

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In 1869, composer Frederic Clay introduced W.S. Gilbert to Arthur Sullivan.

“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Sullivan,” said Gilbert, “because you will be able to settle a question which has just arisen between Mr. Clay and myself. My contention is that when a musician who is master of many instruments has a musical theme to express, he can express it as perfectly upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury (in which there are, as we all know, no diatonic intervals whatever) as upon the more elaborate disdiapason (with the familiar four tetrachords and the redundant note) which (I need not remind you) embraces in its simple consonance all the single, double, and inverted chords.”

This was gobbledegook that Gilbert had simply cooked up; he wanted to see whether it would “pass muster with a musician.”

Sullivan asked him to repeat the question, then politely said he would like to think it over before making a reply. In 1891 Gilbert said, “I believe he is still engaged in hammering it out.”

STOP

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When John Barrymore was on his deathbed in 1942, he received a wire from W.C. Fields.

It said YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME.

“The Strangest Soccer Match Ever”

The football teams of Barbados and Grenada found themselves in a bizarre situation in a qualification round for the 1994 Carribean Cup. In order to advance to the finals, Barbados had to win this game by a margin of two goals; in any other outcome Grenada would qualify. Also, the tournament organizers had stated that if the teams reached a draw, extra time would be added to the match in which every goal would count double, the so-called “golden goal.”

Barbados was leading 2-0 when Grenada scored a goal in the final four minutes. With so little time remaining, the Barbados players conferred and, to everyone’s surprise, turned on their own goal, evening the score at 2-2. Their strategy was clear: If they could maintain this tie for the remaining few minutes, they’d be rewarded with an extra 30 minutes of playing time in which a single goal would give them the two-point margin they needed.

The Grenadians, realizing this, spent the last two minutes trying to get control of the ball and send it into their own goal — this would end the game at 3-2 and deny Barbados its two-goal margin.

The Barbadians, realizing this, began defending the Grenadian goal, effectively reversing the whole game. To add to the confusion, some Grenadians tried to make regular goals as well, which left Grenada attacking both goals, Barbados defending both, and most players and supporters utterly bewildered. The Barbadians eventually succeeded in holding the score at 2-2 — and made a winning goal in the extra time.

“I feel cheated,” complained Grenadian manager James Clarkson. “The person who came up with these rules must be a candidate for a madhouse. The game should never be played with so many players running around the field confused. Our players did not even know which direction to attack: our goal or their goal. I have never seen this happen before. In football, you are supposed to score against the opponents to win, not for them.” The Caribbean Cup retired the golden goal rule shortly thereafter.

(Thanks, Karl.)

Comment

In 1961, when Groucho Marx turned 71, he received a telegram from Irving Berlin:

THE WORLD WOULD NOT BE IN SUCH A SNARL
HAD MARX BEEN GROUCHO INSTEAD OF KARL.

Silent Films

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The word zombie is never used in Night of the Living Dead.

The word Mafia is never used in The Godfather.

Fact and Fiction

fact and fiction

It is often very hard to tell a fake from an original, even when you know it must be fake. Think about the opening scenes of the movie version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Some scenes were shot in the galleries of the Louvre. The museum would not allow actors Tom Hanks or Audrey Tautou to remove Leonardos from the wall, so those scenes were shot in London. One hundred and fifty paintings from the Louvre were reproduced for the London set, using digital photography. Artist James Gemmill overpainted and glazed each, even copying the craquelure and the wormholes in the frames. When Madonna of the Rocks is removed from the wall, the back of the painting shows the correct stretcher placement and Louvre identification codes.

Dealers in Old Masters who saw the movie and were familiar with the originals in the Louvre confess to not being sure which paintings are copies … The answer is that every painting in the movie that is touched by Hanks or Tautou is a copy. Paintings that appear only as background in the Louvre are real. What happened to James Gemmill’s copies after the scenes were shot? No one will say.

— Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, 2009

Short Orders

One afternoon the doorbell rang at Peter Sellers’ London flat. Sellers was working in his study upstairs, so his wife Anne answered the door. It was a telegram for her:

BRING ME A CUP OF COFFEE. PETER.

In 1960 Jerry Lewis and Henny Youngman were having lunch at a Miami restaurant when Lewis was mobbed by autograph seekers. Youngman slipped out to the lobby unnoticed and returned as if nothing had happened. Shortly afterward Lewis received a telegram from the hotel bellboy:

DEAR JERRY, PLEASE PASS THE SALT. HENNY.

You Answer Quite Slowly

What key is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” written in? It’s not easy to say; the harmony is strangely ambiguous. Musicologist Naphtali Wagner found that the song is notated differently in two reasonably authoritative sources, Wise Publications’ The Beatles Complete (1983) and Hal Leonard’s The Beatles: Complete Scores (1993):

"lucy in the sky with diamonds" key signatures

And he found that scholars disagree as well:

  • Steven Porter believes that it’s in A major, “surrounded by tonicized structural neighbour tones (B♭ major and G major), as a sort of substitute for the absence of a structural dominant.”
  • Walter Everett believes it’s in G major, citing a voice-leading graph that opens with the hypothetical notes G and B in the outer voices.
  • Allan Moore is ambivalent: The scale steps in the upper voice suggest G major, but the bass line contradicts this, and the key signatures suggest D major.

Wagner shows that a case can be made for three rival interpretations: A major, D major, and G major. “Each is consistent with the Beatles’ harmonic style and has precedents in many other songs.” But he adds that one solution might be to abandon the idea of monotonality and see the song as oscillating between two keys: A in the chorus and pre-chorus and G in the chorus. “This version could be defended with the argument that oscillation between tonal centres separated by a major second is found in other Beatles songs, such as ‘Doctor Robert,’ ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Penny Lane.'”

(Naphtali Wagner, “The Beatles’ Psycheclassical Synthesis: Psychedelic Classicism and Classical Psychedelia in Sgt. Pepper,” in Oliver Julien, ed., Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles, 2008)

Misc

  • Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times.
  • EMBARGO spelled backward is O GRAB ME.
  • The numbers on a roulette wheel add to 666.
  • The fourth root of 2143/22 is nearly pi (3.14159265258).
  • “A prosperous fool is a grievous burden.” — Aeschylus

Six countries have names that begin with the letter K, and each has a different vowel as the second letter: Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan.

(Thanks, Danny.)

Diamond Verses

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Masaoka Shiki, the fourth of Japan’s great haiku masters, is a member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Described as “baseball mad,” Shiki first encountered the game in preparatory school in 1884, only 12 years after American teacher Horace Wilson first introduced it to his students at Tokyo University in 1872. Shiki wrote nine baseball haiku, the first in 1890, making him the first Japanese writer to use the game as a literary subject:

spring breeze
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch

like young cats
still ignorant of love
we play with a ball

the trick
to ball catching
the willow in a breeze

Throughout his career Shiki wrote essays, fiction, and poetry about the game, and he made translations of baseball terms that are still in use today. Eventually he taught the game to Kawahigashi Hekigotō and Takahama Kyoshi, who themselves became famous haiku poets under his tutelage, and today a baseball field near Bunka Kaikan in Ueno bears his name. He wrote:

under a faraway sky
the people of America
began baseball
I can watch it
forever

Foot Work

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“When you come to the evolution of the dance, its history and philosophy, I know as much about that as I do about how a television tube produces a picture — which is absolutely nothing. I don’t know how it all started and I don’t want to know. I have no desire to prove anything by it. I have never used it as an outlet or as a means of expressing myself. I just dance.” — Fred Astaire

Eccentric Cricket

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From Edmund Fillingham King’s Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860:

On the 9th of August, 1796, a cricket match was played by eleven Greenwich pensioners with one leg, against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new cricket ground, Montpelier gardens, Walworth. At nine o’clock the men arrived in three Greenwich stages; about twelve the wickets were pitched, and they commenced. Those with but one leg had the first innings, and got 93 runs; those with but one arm got but 42 runs during their innings. The one-leg commenced their second innings, and six were bowled out after they had got 60 runs; so that they left off one hundred and eleven more than those with one arm. Next morning the match was played out; and the men with one leg beat the one-arms by one hundred and three runs. After the match was finished the eleven one-legged men ran a sweep-stakes of one hundred yards distance for twenty guineas, and the three had first prizes.

From Henry Colburn’s London “calendar of amusements,” 1840:

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From “Eccentric Cricket Matches,” Strand, 1903:

A few winters ago, when a fine stretch of water in Sheffield Park was frozen over, his lordship [the Earl of Sheffield] organized a match on the ice, in which several of his house guests appeared. All the players used skates, the wicket-keeper, as might be imagined, having no little difficulty to keep still, and the bowlers being continually no-balled for running, or rather skating, over the crease. The beauty of ice-cricket lies in the fact that the batsman may score half-a-dozen runs while the fieldsman is endeavouring to regain his feet and pick up the ball, which may be lodged in a bank of snow.

http://books.google.com/books?id=iq4vAAAAMAAJ

Fools’ Play

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In Top Hat, Ginger Rogers shuns the ardent Fred Astaire because she thinks he’s her best friend’s husband. How she could persist in this belief for any length of time is never explained — the misunderstanding drives the whole story.

This is an “idiot plot,” defined by Roger Ebert as “a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot.”

The term was coined by science fiction author James Blish, whose colleague Damon Knight added the second-order idiot plot, “in which not merely the principals, but everybody in the whole society has to be a grade-A idiot, or the story couldn’t happen.”

Such contrivances are annoying, but we’ll forgive a lot if we get to watch Fred Astaire dance. “How is it that Ginger has never met her best friend’s husband?” asks critic Alan Vanneman. “Well, Europe is a big place.”

Box Scores

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“It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation.” — RCA president David Sarnoff, 1939

“Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good can come of it.” — Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott, 1928

“Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.” — Rex Lambert, The Listener, 1936

“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — movie producer Darryl Zanuck, 1946

“Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.” — BBC school broadcasting director Mary Somerville, 1948

“How can you put out a meaningful drama or documentary that is adult, incisive, probing, when every fifteen minutes the proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?” — Rod Serling, 1974

“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.” — Orson Welles, 1956

The Kuleshov Effect

In the 1910s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated the power of film editing with a telling experiment: He intercut the “inexpressive” face of actor Ivan Mosjoukine with images of a plate of soup, a child in a coffin, and an attractive woman. Though the footage of Mosjoukine was the same in each case, an audience “raved about the acting,” noted director Vsevolod Pudovkin. “[They admired] the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”

This reveals the effectiveness of montage, Kuleshov said. An audience reacts not to a film’s elements but to their juxtaposition — the sequence of images suggests an emotion to them, and they project this onto the actors. Alfred Hitchcock demonstrates:

Skin Deep

During the filming of Planet of the Apes in 1967, Charlton Heston noted “an instinctive segregation on the set. Not only would the apes eat together, but the chimpanzees ate with the chimpanzees, the gorillas ate with the gorillas, the orangutans ate with the orangutans, and the humans would eat off by themselves. It was quite spooky.”

James Franciscus noticed the same thing filming Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1969. “During lunch I looked up and realized, ‘My God, here is the universe,’ because at one table were all the orangutans eating, at another table were the apes, and at another table were the humans. The orangutan characters would not eat or mix with the ape characters, and the humans wouldn’t sit down and eat with any one of them.

“I remember saying, ‘Look around — do you realize what’s happening here? This is a little isolated microcosm of probably what’s bugging the whole world. Call it prejudice or whatever you want to call it. Whatever’s different is to be shunned or it’s frightening or so forth.’ Nobody was intermingling, even though they were all humans underneath the masks. The masks were enough to bring out our own little genetic natures of fear and prejudice. It was startling.”

(From Joe Russo and Larry Landsman, Planet of the Apes Revisited, 2001.)

Out of This World

Tunisia has an unique tourist draw — its southern desert contains the abandoned sets of five Star Wars movies, in which the Sahara stood in for the planet Tatooine.

A list, complete with photos and geographical coordinates, is here.

They’re popular with European tourists, but they won’t last — the 20-building set of Mos Espa, Anakin Skywalker’s hometown, is being engulfed by sand dunes.

On Time

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Japanese puzzle maven Kobon Fujimura devised this mind-reading trick. Ask a friend to look at his analog watch and mentally choose one of the hour numbers. Tell him, “I’m going to point to various numbers on the face of your watch with a pencil. As I do so, count silently, starting with the number after the one you’ve chosen. For example, if you’ve chosen 7, start counting with 8. When we reach 20, say, ‘Stop.'”

Point to any seven numbers at random, pretending to concentrate deeply. Then point to 12, then 11, 10, and so on counterclockwise around the dial. When your friend tells you to stop, you’ll be pointing to the number he had chosen.

Making Luck

The audience was stunned when contestant Michael Larson won $110,237 on Press Your Luck in 1984, easily the largest one-day total ever won on a game show to that date. As lights flashed randomly on the Big Board, somehow Larson was consistently able to stop on squares that led to cash and additional play, and avoid the “whammy” that would bankrupt him.

It turned out that the light indicator wasn’t random. In studying the game at home, Larson had discovered that it followed five recognizable patterns; after memorizing these he could always be sure of landing on winning squares.

CBS producers divined the scheme, but they could find no cause to disqualify Larson, as he had broken no rules. They paid him his money, fixed the board, and established a maximum sum that future contestants could win.

Larson may have congratulated himself, but he didn’t get to enjoy his winnings — he lost the money in bad real estate investments and died of throat cancer at age 49.

Slow Muse

Uninspired film titles listed by Patrick Robertson in Film Facts (2001):

  • **** (U.S., 1967)
  • (Argentina, 1971)
  • ←→ (Canada, 1969)
  • A 100% Brazilian Film (Brazil, 1987)
  • An Animated Film (Poland, 1984)
  • Dutch Movie (Netherlands, 1984)
  • Film Without Title (West Germany, 1947)
  • Untitled (Italy, 1973)
  • Still Lacking a Good Title (Yugoslavia, 1988)
  • Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title (U.S., 1965)

Greta Garbo said, “If only those who dream about Hollywood knew how difficult it all is.”