August 2009 Archives

the house i live in

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August 28 movie: The House I Live In. I don't usually write up shorts, but this one is great. 1945 short in which Frank Sinatra sings the patriotic song "The House I Live In," then prevents a gang of kids from beating up a Jewish kid. Well, they never say the word "Jewish" but it's pretty obvious. The kid being attacked has darker hair than the bullies, and they say they don't like "his kind" because "he's a different religion" and "he's a dirty--" at this point Frank interrupts to smile and say "You don't like his religion? You must be Nazis!" in this completely innocuous tone as if he were asking them if they liked ice cream. Frank talks to them for awhile about the wide variety of people who believe different things and talk different ways and are all Americans, then sings a bit more of "The House I Live In," and like magic, the antisemitic bullies accept the Jewish kid.

I was simultaneously charmed by the appeal to tolerance and multiculturalism, and cracking up at wacky dialogue. The best line was probably "Religion doesn't matter to anyone except Nazis and people who are stupid." You said it, Frankie!

the dark angel

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August 25 movie: The Dark Angel. Fredric March and Herbert Marshall are best friends who both love Merle Oberon. Both March and Marshall are wounded in WWI, March is worse off -- blinded and presumed dead. He hides away, allowing the others to believe he's dead, because he can't stand the shame of being disabled. And clearly allowing his closest friend and the love of his life to believe he's dead, that's better than the possibility that their pity might be embarrassing. The message is fairly repulsive. I still like the movie because the three stars are so good. March especially. He was such a great actor. I love the sequence in the middle where he gradually befriends a group of children who are at first rudely curious about a blind man.

I just read a review of this movie which says that Herbert Marshall really fought in WWI and lost a leg in combat. I had no idea. I've seen so many of his movies and I never guessed. That is amazing.

wise girl

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August 24 movie: Wise Girl. Another movie I love. TCM doesn't show it very often and I always make sure to record it & watch it when they do. Stars Ray Milland as a struggling painter living in Greenwich Village and raising two kids. It wasn't clear to me whether they're his children, or his stepchildren, but either way his dead wife was their mother. Miriam Hopkins is the dead woman's sister, who wants custody of the children. She works her way into Milland's circle so she can get dirt on him to use against him in court.

It sounds depressing, doesn't it? It's actually a hilarious screwball comedy. Most of the action focuses on the eccentric artist community that Milland lives in. I particularly liked Guinn Williams as a sculptor/boxer/tailor. There's a funny scene where Milland, Hopkins and Williams get paid $3 each to dress up like bohemians and sit in the front window of a restaurant, so the slumming Upper East Siders will feel like they're getting an authentic Greenwich Village experience.

gold diggers of 1933

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August 23 movie: Gold Diggers of 1933. Georg discovered this on TCM On Demand so we watched it again. What a fun movie. Just a year later and the movie would have been subject to the Hayes Code and would have ended up very different. There's an explicit drug reference early in the movie: one character says something the others find ridiculous, and the "sassy girl" character quips, "What are you using? I'll smoke it too!"

Later on the same character has taken up with a rich man named Fanworth (or something like that. Something that begins with Fan), so she nicknames him "Fanny." She buys a little dog and when she says she's going to call it Fanny too, the pet store clerk looks dubious and says, "it's not that kind of dog." She explains that the dog is named after her boyfriend, says it's something to remember him by, and then leers, "then I'll have two Fannies!"

This exchange made me wonder, what exactly did fanny mean when this movie was made? As you know Bob, in the US today it's a quaint, old-fashioned term meaning "backside." While in the UK it's fairly rude slang for "vagina." Well I looked it up, and both terms were in use in 1933. The US meaning first showed up in the 1920s, so was still fairly new slang at the time. While the UK meaning was much older. I have to think that both meanings were intended by the movie. That line about "two fannies" is delivered like it's a really big joke, and it just isn't much of a double intendre if you only know the milder usage.

it happened in brooklyn

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August 23 movie: It Happened in Brooklyn. Very silly early Frank Sinatra movie. Sinatra stars as a shy kid from Brooklyn. He and Kathryn Grayson, Peter Lawford and Jimmy Durante arrange a performance to help a child musical prodigy win a scholarship. Hey kids, let's put on a show!

We read that the the child prodigy's performance was actually played by a young Andre Previn. Though the actor playing the child prodigy was a pianist in his own right -- he went on to play for someone. Julie London maybe?

trouble in paradise

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August 22 movie: Trouble in Paradise. I adore this movie. It's a Lubitsch comedy starring Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins as a pair of thieves, and Kay Francis as the wealthy widow they set out to rob. It's pre-code, and there's a pretty clear implication that Marshall and Hopkins are living together, lovers as well as partners in crime.

This is a brilliant example of "the Lubitsch touch" -- witty, sparkly, simply delightful. I'm so glad that TCM exists and makes it possible for me to see this movie. The dialogue is a thing of beauty. Marshall has a wonderful line when he and Hopkins first find each other: "my own shoplifter, my sweet pickpocket, my darling." This might be my favorite Lubitsch movie.

the great white hope

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By now you've probably heard that Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins of Kansas just gave a speech in which she said ""Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope. I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington." She mentioned three Republicans who happen to be white, and might be the "great white hope" to defeat the Democrats and Barack Obama. (thanks to Lee for the link.)

As you know Bob, the phrase "great white hope" first became popular as a rallying cry against Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. White boxing fans mounted a campaign to find a white boxer capable of defeating Johnson. It was explicitly racist: the goal of the "great white hope" was to return the championship to a white boxer and prove the superiority of whites. James Jeffries, the original great white hope, said "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro." There was a play about it in the late 60s, which was made into a movie starring James Earl Jones as Johnson.

Honestly, I don't think Jenkins intended to say something racist. I don't think she meant to say that Republicans need to find a white man strong enough to defeat Obama and return the presidency to white hands where it belongs. Even though that is precisely what "great white hope" means.

If it wasn't intentional, why did Jenkins say something so racist? I think she's just that clueless. Not only did she not know what the term meant, but it never occurred to her that when talking about opposing the first black president, the term "great white hope" might be a bad idea. I think she simply never thought about what she was saying, and she has the luxury -- the privilege, you might say -- of not having to think about it if she doesn't want to. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said, "when you don't practice talking to people who aren't like you, you tend to not be very good at it."

Granted that the word choice may have been a mistake, I have to encourage Republicans on their quest to find the great white hope. I think they should put all their energy into it, and make it their rallying cry. What could go wrong? If they can guarantee the same outcome (Jack Johnson kicked James Jeffries' ass) I'll even volunteer to help.

zero hour

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August 22 movie: Zero Hour. Dana Andrews stars as a WWII vet & former fighter pilot suffering from PTSD after a bad decision on his part caused the death of several other pilots. On a cross-country flight, both pilots and about half the passengers get food poisoning, forcing Andrews to fly and land the plane.

Does this sound familiar? It should if you've ever seen Airplane. I had always assumed that Airplane, the granddaddy of movie parodies, was a pastiche of many other films. And it does include spoofs of many movies, but is so closely based on Zero Hour that Georg was in the other room, hearing snippets of dialogue, and thought I was watching Airplane. Who knew? Well, Roger Ebert knew. I sure didn't.

It's all there -- the food poisoning, the hysterical woman passenger (if I recall correctly, in Airplane the other passengers line up to slap her), the annoyingly cute sick kid, the hostile guy at ground control who says "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking" -- yes, he has the same line in both movies (in Airplane he goes on to regret having quit drinking, taking amphetamines and sniffing glue). The main character even has the same name, Ted Striker. No Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Zero Hour though.

Zero Hour is a decent movie on its own merits, and essential viewing because of the Airplane connection.


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August 22 movie: Marooned. Gregory Peck stars in this 1970s movie about a manned space flight trapped in orbit due to a mechanical failure. Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna and James Franciscus play the astronauts. Peck is the head of mission control, trying to solve the problem from the ground before the oxygen runs out. Also features Mariette Hartley as one of the astronauts' wives.

This isn't a great movie; in fact I'm pretty sure I saw it on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the day. Though I have to say, it's by far the best movie I've ever seen get the MST3K treatment. There aren't a lot of MST3K movies which I would choose to watch without the bots. Marooned is slow, even stilted at times. And Peck's "Being a man's man means never changing your facial expression" delivery doesn't help with that. Still, when they get down to the end the movie was compelling. The three astronauts did a good job of depicting radically different reactions to the crisis (one of them goes to pieces, one tries to be Mr. Hero, one gets all analytical about it). There's a scene where Peck has to deliver bad news to the astronauts, and suggest a controversial solution, without coming right out and saying it, which is particularly well done.

If I had to choose between this and Apollo 13 -- well, honestly I'd probably watch For All Mankind again instead. But if I couldn't do that, I'd be satisfied with either Apollo 13 or Marooned. Heck, I might even choose Marooned. Sometimes Tom Hanks really annoys me.

note to self

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Note to self: Do not, do not engage with internet trolls. There is no upside.

crazy italian movie night

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August 21 movie: Crazy Italian Movie Night. This was a fun outdoor show in Durham Central Park, across the street from the farmer's market pavilion. We went with D. and S., got boxed sandwiches from Piedmont and set up chairs on the lawn.

The movies were an odd collection of bits and pieces, all with the common thread of having something to do with Italy. To be honest, based on the event title I was expecting the films to be a bit more .. crazy. I was expecting something from the 60s, when Italian cinema was so vibrant and fun. I even remarked to Georg that I hoped they had something from Armando Trovajoli, my favorite Italian film composer.

Well there wasn't anything like that, but there were some fun clips. My favorites were a travel show about an American expat who goes on a date with a Roman woman, and an Italian film starring Sophia Loren It was dubbed in English and subtitled in Spanish, and featured Loren dancing the mambo (very hot!). Also, wherever she lived had lots of rivers, and people would cross the rivers on small row boats. The boats were open at the end, and people would ride their bikes right up onto the boat and then pull up the back so the boat could launch. Then on the other side, they'd drop the end and ride right off.

The best part of the Sophia Loren movie was the end, at least, the end of the part we saw. Some guy tricked her into riding on the back of his motorcycle, and he's going way too fast, and she's hitting his back and yelling at him to slow down and let her off. Then somehow, well, she clearly begins to find the vibrations of the motorcycle an erotic experience. Then he deliberately spills the bike, and they fall off and he lands on top of her. I bet he does that to all the girls!

Since we didn't get any Armando Trovajoli at Crazy Italian Movie Night, here's my favorite clip by him:

hard times

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August 19 movie: Hard Times. James Coburn and Charles Bronson costar in this boxing movie set in the Depression. You can tell it's the Depression because every single thing in the movie is dingy and brown. Even the occasional blue dress was kinda brown. It was a good movie, just not my thing.

they met in bombay

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August 13 movie: They Met in Bombay. Clark Gable and Rosalind Russell star as rival jewel thieves who become partners. This was funny and charming and I enjoyed it a lot, except for the ending which is preachy and moralistic. Well, it was 1941 so I guess they had good reason. Warning: the movie includes Peter Lorre in "yellowface," made up to play a Chinese ship's captain.

forsaking all others

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August 12 movie: Forsaking All Others. Clark Gable loves Joan Crawford, who loves Robert Montgomery. Who is a cad, leaves her almost literally at the altar, then wants to shack up when he gets bored with his wife.

This is one of those uneasy movies from right after the code started being enforced. The entire movie is about adultery, but they tiptoe around it & come up with bizarre excuses for it not to happen. They all talk a big talk, but their actual behavior is completely innocent. The result of this disconnect is that everyone behaves as if thinking about adultery as the same thing as doing it. My guess is the movie must have been based on a play in which the adultery did happen, & if the movie had been made a year earlier it would have turned out rather differently.

Still, the performances are all very good. This isn't the first time I've seen this and I'd be happy to watch it again. Sometimes I'm just in the mood for urbane sophisticates trading quips over champagne cocktails, and this is an excellent example of the genre.

the light touch

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August 10 movie: The Light Touch. Fair-to-middling caper movie about art thieves, starring Stewart Granger, George Sanders and Italian actress Pier Angeli. The movie feels like it's trying to be Charade and it just can't manage it. It's not great cinema for the ages, but heck, I'd watch Stewart Granger and George Sanders read the phone book.

the secret invasion

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August 10 movie: The Secret Invasion. Roger Corman does the Dirty Dozen with Stewart Granger, Mickey Rooney, Henry Silva and a bunch of actors I didn't recognize. It was pretty good! Not The Dirty Dozen but not bad at all.

3:10 to yuma

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August 10 movie: 3:10 to Yuma. Terrific Western starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Heflin is a down-on-his-luck farmer who agrees to transport captured outlaw Ford to the train station in time for the 3:10 train to Yuma, where Ford will be delivered to law enforcement.

The bulk of the movie is an engaging psychological drama between Ford and Heflin. It reminded me a lot of High Noon as it's about one man standing up for what's right when everyone around him gives in to their fear.

Ford, who usually played the hero, was playing against type here. Comparisons to Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West are inevitable, and not really fair I think. Because Fonda's performance was so brilliant it changed the direction of not just his career, but movie acting in general. Ford doesn't launch himself into the stratosphere like that, though he turns in an excellent performance as an amoral (or is he?) villain with a dangerous smile. Van Heflin is convincing as the farmer who takes a dangerous job out of desperate need for money, whose moral center shines through in the end.

I read that there was a remake last year, and I read that they changed a lot, amped up the action and spent less time on the characters. I don't think I'll be watching the remake.

wake me when the world ends

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So we went to see a movie in a theater recently -- Harry Potter I think -- and there was a trailer for a new apocalyptic movie called 2012. It took us a minute to remember that the title refers to the Mayan calendar, which supposedly predicts the end of the world in 2012.

I don't know anything about this whole Mayan apocalypse thing, and this afternoon I'm in the middle of 1) a long and tedious work task and 2) a headache. Both of which prevent doing anything too interesting. So I thought I'd google the Mayan apocalypse and find out what it's all about.

The short version (as I understand it) is that the Mayans had a very complex calendar which ran in cycles, much like our calendar. Every week has a Monday and every year has a January because we restart those cycles every time they complete. The difference being the Mayan calendar is entirely built on cycles -- as if every time we got to the end of a century we started over at year 1.

The longest cycle they created was the Long Count Calendar, which began in 3114 BC and will run out on December 21, 2012. The Mayans never said what was going to happen when the Long Count Calendar ends. They believed that there was a cycle before the one we're in now, so one might assume that it will start over again, just like before. Or, one might assume that the end of the cycle predicts cataclysm, doomsday, mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together ... the end of the world. There's no reason to think that, but it's more fun than just a big old Mayan millenial celebration, right?

That's the short version. The long version is explained at a number of websites like 2012 End of Days or Survive 2012, who on their home page explain that "There is zero scientific evidence that anything will happen, but there are numerous things that could easily threaten the human species in the year 2012, such as a geomagnetic reversal, asteroid strike or supernova. Or something more intimate, like a flu pandemic, or a nuclear war." Or a Palin/Bachmann ticket. That's actually much more plausible in 2012 than a supernova. Be afraid!

the clock

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August 7 movie: The Clock. Such a charming movie. Judy Garland and Robert Walker star as a young couple who meet, fall in love and get married while he's on a 2-day leave before shipping out during WWII. The scenes where they realize they're falling in love are beautifully done.

It was genius to cast Robert Walker. There's something awkward and nervous about him. He's like that in every part, which makes me believe that it wasn't acting, it was the real him. I've said this before, but every time I see him in a movie, I just want to bake him a pie and make him feel better. He's perfect for a shy boy turning into a man before your eyes. I can't imagine anyone else in that part, and Judy was the perfect match for him. Plus, there's a hilarious scene with Keenan Wynn as a rowdy drunk in an all-night diner. I can't say enough good things about this movie.

ever since eve

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August 5 movie: Ever Since Eve. Marion Davies is a competent secretary who can't keep a job because her bosses just want to chase her around the desk. So she dresses up in an ugly girl costume and immediately gets a great job working for Robert Montgomery. As a rule I hate movies about beautiful women pretending to be ugly, and this was no exception. It did have Patsy Kelly and Allan Jenkins going for it.

harry potter and the half blood prince

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August 4 movie: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. We really enjoyed this. Some aspects were not handled as well in the movie -- for instance the "Who is the Half Blood Prince" reveal seems even more arbitrary and tacked-on -- while other aspects were handled much better -- for instance the endless series Pensieve Exposition Scenes were pared down to the bare essentials. Also, my biggest problem with the book was that I found Draco Malfoy's story much more interesting than Harry's. But the book is so firmly in Harry's point of view that we get only the briefest flashes of what's going on with Malfoy. In the movie they show us a little more of Malfoy's point of view, which was satisfying.

all the brothers were valiant

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August 3 movie: All the Brothers Were Valiant. Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger star as brothers & rivals in this movie about whaling. Warning: the movie begins with a scene in which it looks like back projection puts the actors in front of actual footage of a whale being harpooned. If you don't want to watch a whale struggle and die, skip the first 15 minutes of this movie. Or skip the whole thing, it's not that good.

the most dangerous game

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August 3 movie: The Most Dangerous Game. This movie was terrific! Often imitated, never matched (at least in the versions I've seen). Stars Joel McCrea and Fay Wray as the prey and Leslie Banks as the hunter. It takes a little while to get going, but when it does, oh man. One of the most exciting thrillers I've seen in a long time.

the farmer takes a wife

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August 3 movie: The Farmer Takes a Wife. Henry Fonda's first movie stars Fonda as a sailor on the Erie Canal who dreams of becoming a farmer and Janet Gaynor as the woman he loves. It's not a very good movie, in fact it's pretty bad. Interesting though, for its portrayal of life on the Erie Canal. The movie is set at the time when the first railroads were being built in the area, when the canal was the primary method of moving cargo but would not remain so for long. It was interesting to see how the different characters reacted to the impending change in all their lives -- some look to the future, some refuse to see the writing on the wall -- and I wonder if it really played out like that.

the little hut

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August 2 movie: The Little Hut. This movie really annoyed me. It's a bedroom farce starring Stewart Granger, Ava Gardner and David Niven. While the three are shipwrecked on a desert island, Granger and Niven indulge in macho chest-beating over who will have their sexual needs met by Gardner. (Who by the way, is married to Granger, and gets no say in who she wants to have sex with.) It's pretty vile.


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August 1 movie: Midnight. There are a few movies that I always think of together -- this one, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, My Man Godfrey -- as perfect comedies. Ones that make me happy every time I see them. Midnight stars Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche, with John Barrymore and Mary Astor, also a small but pivotal role by Monty Woolley. It's pitch perfect in every way: just the right blend of arch wit, broad humor, and romance.

the mad miss manton

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August 1 movie: The Mad Miss Manton. Fun little screwball comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck as a wacky socialite who gets mixed up in a murder mystery, and Henry Fonda as a reporter. It doesn't have the bite of The Lady Eve but then, what does?

gun glory

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July 31 movie: Gun Glory. Forgettable western starring Stewart Granger and Rhonda Fleming. In fact, I had forgotten it entirely & had to look it up on imdb to remind myself what it was about. I wouldn't watch it unless you're an obssessive fan of either westerns or Granger. I am (of Granger), so I don't regret watching it.



July 31 movie: Salome. Rita Hayworth stars as Salome, with Charles Laughton as Herod and Stewart Granger as a Roman soldier & secret follower of John the Baptist.

This movie is kind of ridiculous. Okay, really ridiculous. But there's only one thing you need to know: Rita Hayworth doing the Dance of the Seven Veils. That makes it all worthwhile.

footlight parade

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July 31 movie: Footlight Parade. Another Busby Berkeley musical about Broadway, very similar to Gold Diggers of 1933. Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell are back. The main difference is Jimmy Cagney instead of Warren William, and no Ginger Rogers.

This is well worth watching for many reasons, number one being the stunning water ballet number. I think it's one of Berkeley's most ambitious numbers, and also one of the most daring. One image from this number shows up in the TCM "sex in the pre-code era" promo: a close-up of a woman's torso as she floats between the spread-eagled legs of a row of women.


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At the Rifftrax show, Calvin described me as "the movie reviewer on Livejournal." Which was, first of all, flattering because I don't think of these little write-ups as reviews, more like brief impressions of my feelings about the movies. Second, it made me realize that I haven't written up a movie in about 3 weeks. Ack!

July 30 movie: Spellbound. This is one of the Hitchcock movies that I rarely watch, and every time I watch it, I wonder why I don't watch it more often. Stars Ingrid Bergman as a psychiatrist in a mental institution and Gregory Peck as a patient with amnesia. The movie hinges on psychoanalysis, it's all very Freudian. Its depiction of psychology is at times quaint, at times thoughtful and still meaningful today. I particularly liked the image of the camera swooping through a series of opening doors to depict unlocking Peck's unconscious mind. There's also a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali that I like -- well it's a bit corny in terms of depicting actual dreams, and I still like it. Aside from the psychology there's a good thriller in the movie too.

in other news, donkeys fly

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It's true, politics does make strange bedfellows: Michele Bachmann just came out as pro-choice. (well, sort of.)

On the Sean Hannity show on Tuesday, Bachmann urged the American people to tell Congress "under no certain circumstances will I give the government control over my body and my health care decisions."

In case you're not obsessed with politics (and don't live in Minnesota) and aren't familiar with Bachmann, she's the congresswoman who believes Congress should be investigated for anti-American views, doesn't believe in climate change, wants intelligent design taught in public school science classes, believes Obama wants to replace the dollar with foreign currency, fears the census, believes AmeriCorps means political re-education camps, believes that Jimmy Carter was responsible for a swine flu outbreak that happened in the Ford administration. I could go on.

What a pleasant surprise for Bachmann to come out so strongly in favor of reproductive freedom! Michele, I'm truly sorry I wrote you off as a crazy wingnut. "Under no certain circumstances will I give the government control over my body and my health care decisions." Sing it, sister. It's between you and your doctor and no one else.

See you at the NARAL rally!

your stupid minds, stupid stupid


We had a great evening tonight, watching Rifftrax Live do Plan 9 from Outer Space. Rifftrax are former writers from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the Mike Nelson years). They basically do the same thing, only now they make fun of new movies and sell downloadable MP3s that you play along with the movie.

Tonight's show was Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, along with music from Jonathan Coulton. They performed in front of an audience in Nashville and it was broadcast live in over 400 theaters around the country. We saw it at the Briar Creek theater, which was packed. We got there 20 minutes early and had trouble finding seats. I was glad so many people were there. This is the kind of event that's much more fun with a crowd. And it was a good crowd too: people laughed a lot but no one talked, used their phones, let their kids run around, or any of those annoying movie behaviors that annoy me.

The audience was full of geeks, which made me feel right at home. Signs that it was a geeky crowd:

  1. There's no place like bumper sticker in parking lot.
  2. Many t-shirts I would like to own.
  3. One of the biggest laughs was not a Rifftrax joke, but the line "Particles of sunlight can neither be seen nor measured. Rays of sunlight are made of atoms" from the original movie.
  4. The audience sang along enthusiastically with Jonathan Coulton's folk song about the zombie apocalypse.

I had never heard of Jonathan Coulton before, but many people in the audience seemed to know who he was. He intro-ed his first song by saying it was a song about the future, as seen by a lonely 13 year old in the mid-80s, reading Omni magazine. I knew then that I was going to like him, and I was right. The song was about building a robot army to impress a girl. Then he did the song about the zombies, which was hilarious.

The Rifftrax guys started with a late-50s short about airline stewardesses, which was hilarious. The best joke in the short was "There's not a man on the wing of this plane!" Then they did the main feature, Plan 9 From Outer Space. The movie was so darn bad that at times they didn't even need to make jokes. One of my favorite bits they did was a running gag about the police detective's habit of waving his prop gun around, pointing it at the other actors and gesturing with it. At one point he even scratched his chin with it! Every time he did that, the Rifftrax guys would either yell "look out! ahh!" or make "pew! pew!" noises. But the funniest parts were from the movie itself. Like the line about sunlight particles or the spaceman's rant about our stupid stupid minds.

On the way out we saw Calvin and his lovely girlfriend. And then we got home and got to watch the season premiere of Project Runway! What a great evening.

According to Wikipedia the Les Paulverizer, of which I just posted a video, may not exist:

During his radio shows, Paul introduced the fictional "Les Paulverizer" device, which multiplies anything fed into it, like a guitar sound or a voice. Paul has stated that the idea was to explain to the audience how his single guitar could be multiplied to become a group of guitars. The device even became the subject of comedy, with Ford multiplying herself and her vacuum cleaner with it so she could finish the housework faster. Later Paul claimed to have made the myth real for his stage show, using a small box attached to his guitar, which was really just a stage prop. He typically pretended to lay down one track after another on stage, in sync, and then play over the repeating forms he had recorded.
They don't have a citation for this so who knows if it's true or not. (Rolling Stone mentions the Les Paulverizer as an actual invention in their obituary of Paul.) It's still fun to watch him play the Paulverizer, whether it was a real invention or only a prop. Tune in to WXDU today at 2pm for a tribute to Les Paul.

finally, a protester who makes sense

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Thanks to The High Definite via Georg.

the joy of a cluttered life

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Clutter can be a pain (and people who treat any level of clutter as a sign of either moral failure or a mental disorder can be a real pain). And sometimes it can be a joy, like when you discover something you really want and/or need, and forgot you had.

Case in point: I wanted to do a tribute to Les Paul on tomorrow's show, but I only have one CD. Turns out the station has none. (By the way, how can that be? We have a weekly rotating show devoted to guitar rock and there's no Les Paul in the entire library?)

D. suggested searching Youtube for Les Paul tracks that weren't too rock, and using Audio Hijack Pro to get them into a format I could use on the radio. I was thinking I'd have to do that tomorrow. In the meantime I wanted to get some work done this evening. For no particular reason I decided to play one of those old time radio CDs I bought a couple of months ago. Went through the stack and discovered a CD of the Les Paul Radio Show! I had gotten the CD just because I needed one more CD to get the quantity discount, and had forgotten all about it until just now.

It's a great CD. Good sound quality and terrific performances by Paul and his wife Mary Ford. There are over 20 episodes of their show, plus tons of guest appearances on other shows. The tribute tomorrow is on!

careless and negligent

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Dear Marriott International,
I am writing regarding the Stamford Marriott Hotel & Spa's defense in a case in which a rapist loitered on Marriott property for days looking for a victim. He raped a woman in the parking garage in front of her children. The Stamford Marriott denied all responsibility and claimed it was her fault because she was careless and negligent.

I travel to car shows in cities all around the country. I stay in hotels at every show, and along the route if the show is more than a day's drive from my home. Sometimes my husband attends with me and sometimes I travel alone.

I have to thank you for making a public statement that you do not feel any responsibility to prevent violent crime against your hotel guests. Had I not known this, I might have risked my own safety by staying in a Marriott hotel. Believe me, I will never again be so careless and negligent.
no love, Sarah Ovenall

Dear Sarah Ovenall,

Thank you for contacting Marriott.

We wish to convey our respect and sympathy for Ms. Doe and her family, who were the victims of a horrendous crime in 2006.

Marriott is profoundly sorry that such a terrible thing happened to the victim of this violent crime. And unfortunately this situation has created a mistaken impression that Marriott lacks respect and concern for Ms. Doe or other victims of violent crime.

However, out of respect for the privacy of the victim and the expectations of the Court in the pending litigation, we are not at liberty to comment on the claims or defenses in this case.

Marriott Customer Care

les paulverizer

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Here's a great video of Les Paul demonstrating one of his inventions, the Les Paulverizer. He was amazing. Almost every genre of music was shaped by multi-track recording, which he invented. Music truly sounds the way it does today because of Les Paul.

r.i.p. les paul

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Guitar legend and inventor Les Paul died last night. Paul's inventions were crucial to the development of multitrack recording and the electric guitar. He was 94 years old.

they drag me back in


So it looks like I'm volunteering again. I didn't plan on it. Every time I get out, they drag me back in!

I had fun at the health care table on Saturday, and they were talking about organizing visits to our reps' local offices, and then I got an email from OFA asking me to visit David Price's Durham office. I have to say, they're really good at these requests. They know just how much to escalate: you do one thing and then they ask you to do a bit more, every time.

I have a "meeting day" on Thursday where I know I'm not going to get any work done anyway, so I signed up to visit Price in the morning before meeting day gets started. They had a PDF with instructions & it sounds pretty easy.

The funny thing is that less than 3 hours after signing up for the visit, I had a message in my inbox inviting me to a conference call tomorrow with David Axelrod. I got a few of those calls last fall and I always thought they were a genius tactic. For less expense than a Youtube video they can make their volunteers feel special & motivated. They never say anything of too much substance, just "you're great volunteers, you've done so much, and now we need you to do even more because this is so critical." And somehow it works.

My only disappointment last fall was that I never got in on a call with Joe Biden. I got Barack Obama a couple of times and Michelle once, but never Biden. He's my hometown guy so I really wanted to hear his pep talk. Actually, now that I think about it, the time right near the end that my whole group missed a national conference call with Obama, because the conference call phoned my house and we were all working late at the staging area, that was a big bummer. I was like, "but, but, I was working for you! I missed the call because I was working late for you!"

tip for the day

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The old saying that a frog placed in cold water which is slowly heated, will boil to death without trying to jump out? Completely false. Still a useful metaphor, just not an accurate description of frog behavior.

political comment spam

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Got home from my show just now and discovered comment spam on this morning's post about the health care table at the farmer's market. 11 paragraphs of ranting about how bad our health care system is, how badly we need reform, and how evil Republicans are. Not one word in the comment was a response to my post. It didn't sound like he had even read my post.

Needless to say I didn't approve the comment. My guess is the guy is searching blogs for the phrase "health care reform" and posting that same comment everywhere. Annoying people who are already on your side is a curious tactic. I wonder if he'll post another spam comment to this entry?

[The show was fun by the way. 4 hours because I was subbing for the person after me. I started with an hour of songs about heat and sunshine. I'm pretty tired now.]

where do i sign

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What does it take to get me off my ass? I guess it takes a death threat against a local pol I like and respect.

Yesterday morning I volunteered for the first time since the election. Durham for Obama (the political group in need of a new name) runs a table at the farmer's market every Saturday morning. I worked from 8 to 10 am.

The woman running these events was a bigtime volunteer last fall, and also one of the sweetest people I've ever met. I also saw a couple of friends from the campaign who were shopping at the market. One of them sort of sheepishly apologized to me for not continuing to volunteer after the election. I tried to explain to her that this was the first thing I'd done, otherwise I'd been completely out of it too, but she was so busy being embarrassed that I don't think she heard me. She worked really hard last fall -- she basically kept the campaign office clean and organized and running, every day for months -- and I don't think she has to apologize for wanting her life back now. She told me that she had spent the entire spring & summer trying to repair her garden which had been totally neglected last year. I know how that is!

At the table we had a glossy flyer from Organizing for American which was pretty much content free, an information-dense flyer from DFO about what "public option" actually means (hint: it doesn't mean Obama will be serving Soylent Grandma at state dinners), a flyer with suggested actions for potential volunteers, and a bunch of flyers on how to get assistance for people who need help paying for health care. It was interesting to see that we gave away lots of the info-dense flyer and almost none of the glossy one. I think people want facts, not hype. (I even forgot to take one of the glossy flyers for my own collection of campaign materials.)

The main point of the table was a petition in support of a national public option. This was so much easier than the work we were doing last fall. The farmer's market is probably the friendliest territory in all of Durham, and it showed. All we had to do was say "Petition in support of health care reform?" and most people were like "Where do I sign!! Give me a pen!!"

I was worried beforehand that I wouldn't know enough about health care reform to work the table. What if someone asked me a question I didn't know the answer to? Well I shouldn't have worried. I'm no expert on health care, but I've been paying attention and I easily knew enough to answer the questions I got. The most common question was from people who were confused by the screaming on TV and didn't understand the difference between public option and nationalized medicine. As soon as we explained it they were happy and signed the petition. "Oh, that's all? What's all the fuss about?" was a common reaction.

Only one person approached the table in order to give us a hard time, and he wasn't aggressive, just smug. We smiled and told him to have a good day and he went away. A couple of people snarked at us while they were waiting for their spouses to sign the petition. (In both cases the spouses told them to can it. It must be hard to be married to someone who mocks your principles right in front of you.)

The weirdest reaction we got was from two men (separate, not together) who refused to sign because they wouldn't support anything less than full-on nationalized medicine. They were the only people all morning who were outright hostile. I didn't understand their anger. It was kind like saying "Help! I'm drowning!" "Here's a life raft" "Fuck you, I want a yacht! Keep your stupid life raft!" The current health care situation in America is untenable. I'm willing to support reform that isn't perfect if it will be better than what we have now.

You might be thinking to yourself that a petition sounds like a waste of time and energy. And I wouldn't totally disagree with that. But during the two hours that I was there, we gave real information to people who were frightened & confused by the bullshit on the news. We recruited a bunch of people to call their representatives. We recruited two people to visit Kay Hagan's Raleigh office. And we gave information on public assistance to a man who had just lost his health insurance and didn't know how he was going to pay for health care. Plus I got to see some of my old friends from the campaign again. A morning well spent!

call your congressman. seriously.

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I called Brad Miller's Raleigh office just now. I told the lady who answered that I think Miller is doing a great job and I hope he keeps doing it, especially on health care. And I really hope he isn't being intimidated by the crazy people.

She sounded really grateful to hear a positive voice. She said no one ever calls to say attaboy, they only hear from people who are angry. I told her that I had to call when I heard about the threats because I wanted them to know that there are a lot of North Carolinians who support Miller and support health care reform. I said I thought it was a bullying tactic, and the screamers don't represent the majority, and she said she agreed & she thinks Miller knows it too.

I'm really glad I called. I almost didn't because I'm not in his district. I did admit on the phone that I'm not a constituent but I live only a few miles outside his district and I think he's great.

If you are appalled by violent intimidation tactics against elected representatives, and you're worried that your rep. might give in to the fear, please call and thank them for supporting health care reform. You'll make a big difference to some poor staffer who has to listen to abusive phone calls, and your message might actually get to the rep.

who could have guessed

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Democratic Congressman Brad Miller receives threatening calls, including death threat, over health care bill.

Clearly the calls must have come from dissatisfied voters acting in isolation. It couldn't have anything to do with a coordinated astroturf campaign to work people up into a frenzied rage and then set them loose on public meetings, for the purpose of disruption and intimidation. After all, inciting people to near-violence never leads to threats of violence.

The weird thing is, Brad Miller isn't all that liberal. He couldn't be to get elected in a district including six rural North Carolina counties plus Wake. I hope Miller isn't letting the "Scream Real Loud Movement" intimidate him.

green fire

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July 30 movie: Green Fire. Lesser Stewart Granger vehicle about an emerald mine, costarring Grace Kelly. They were clearly trying to recreate the magic of King Solomon's Mines, and clearly failed. It's not a bad movie, just not high on my list of Stewart Granger must-sees.

a night at the opera

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July 25 movie: A Night at the Opera. I tend to prefer the Marx Brothers' paramount movies; in general I think there's too much plot getting in the way of the story in their MGM movies. So I don't watch the MGM movies as often, which is a crying shame when we're talking about A Night at the Opera. Okay, it's true, there's too much plot, especially in the second half. But so many funny bits! The one where they shove all those people into the stateroom, the one where they argue about the contract ("you can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Clause!"), the one where they're hiding from the hotel detective and keep moving the beds from one room to the next, the final chaotic chase around the opera stage. So much funny.

the saint

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July 24/25 movies: The Saint Strikes Back, The Saint in London, The Saint Takes Over, The Saint in Palm Springs. I can't possibly do a separate write-up for each Saint movie so I'm going to cover them all in one post.

The Saint was a detective series starring George Sanders. Every movie is basically the same. There's a murder, Sanders is witty and urbane, he makes quips, drinks cocktails, solves the crime, usually exonerates a pretty girl who was wrongly suspected, he makes fools of local law enforcement, and then lets them take the credit. There. Now you've seen The Saint.

It's worth watching if you like George Sanders, which I do. The series, like many, started strong and then went downhill. I would recommend starting with The Saint Strikes Back and The Saint in London, Sanders' earliest efforts as the Saint (though Louis Hayward played the character first). I thought both were pretty good, London especially. I probably would not watch The Saint in Palm Springs again, might watch The Saint Takes Over if nothing better was available.


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Jul 21 movie: Satchmo. Seems like just a couple of weeks ago I was celebrating being caught up on the movie list for the first time in ages. And here I am again, with over 20 movies to right up. I'm nursing a headache tonight and am tired of lying around doing nothing, but not really up to doing something. So let me get to the movies.

Satchmo was, as you might guess, a documentary about Louis Armstrong. I complained a lot about the other music documentaries we watched recently. Well this one was everything I wanted. 2 hours long so they had room to get into some depth; lots of concert footage; interviews with people who had known him and performed with him. Best of all it was written by music critic Gary Giddins, whose enthusiasm for great music is infectious. Giddins wrote the definitive book on the first half of Bing Crosby's career. He said years ago that he was working on a second book, about Bing's immense contribution to the development of radio. I hope he finishes that book.

Anyway, if you want to learn about Louis Armstrong I highly recommend this movie. We think it was done originally for PBS; it's available on Netflix.

This article about the cancellation of Guiding Light is spot on, I think, on the appeal of soaps. It's the only format where you can watch characters live their entire lives day in, day out. I've been watching the ABC shows on and off since 1980 and there are characters I saw born who are still on the shows, now married with children of their own. I've seen these people grow up, sometimes literally -- in a couple of cases there's never been a recast and the same actor played the toddler 20 years ago and the adult today. Sure their lives are crazy, full of histrionics and bizarre plots. It's soap opera!

She gets a couple of things wrong though. First, a small thing: she speculates that the attempted conversion of soaps to HD flopped because the raw ugliness of standard video matched the raw ugliness of soap plots. Well that's an interesting idea, which kind of hinges on soap viewers being idiots. I have a much less kooky explanation: HD looks like ass on a standard TV. I bet most people who watch soaps don't have high def TVs. I remember when All My Children suddenly started looking like ass on my (standard) TV, and I remember when it went back to normal a few months later. I should have realized it was HD; I just didn't put it together. That's a trivial point, I know. It's just a pet peeve of mine when TV critics assume that everyone in the country has HD and therefore HD is an improved experience for everyone.

Second, she says that the pitfall of soaps is that you have to watch every day. "Miss a few episodes of a soap," she says, "and you've lost the thread completely. It becomes a cycle -- the more you miss the less interesting subsequent episodes are." This is completely wrong. So wrong that it makes me wonder if she has ever watched a soap, though she writes with some familiarity about Guiding Light. Daytime soaps are written so you can watch 2-3 times a week and easily keep up. Once you're familiar with a show, you can skip two weeks and barely miss a beat. I've stepped away for half a year or more, and needed only a couple of weeks to get back up to speed.

Soaps are designed that way. Think about it: a show that had to be watched every single day would never succeed. Most people don't want to invest that much time in a TV show. And even for those who do, real life intervenes. The people creating soaps know this. They learned how to do this long before VCRs and now DVRs, back when if you missed a show, you missed it. They fill the shows with repetitive "as you know Bob" dialogue to help sporadic viewers keep up. Characters repeat plot points and thumbnail descriptions of their relationships constantly. And a barrage of advertising in magazines* and during the shows lets viewers know what day to tune in for key events like a wedding, popular couple reuniting, villain getting their comeuppance, etc. If everyone watched every day, there'd be no need for that.

I think the author's larger point is correct though, that the era of soaps is over. It's been clear for a long time that ABC's goal is to move the soaps off ABC and onto the Soapnet cable channel. Which will mean massive budget cuts, which will likely mean the departure of many of the characters I really like (the ones who've been around for a long time, so they have higher salaries). Plus, I know you'll roll your eyes when you read this, but the writing quality will go way down. Believe me when I say there's plenty of room for dis-improvement. I watched Port Charles; I know what truly bad soap writing looks like.

I'm not looking forward to this happening to the shows I follow. I'm a bit sad to learn that Guiding Light was cancelled even though I never watched it. It's been on the air for more than 70 years, and still includes one member of the original family from the show's first years.

(In case you're wondering, I watch 2 shows, All My Children and One Life to Live. I probably wouldn't if not for the DVR. Skipping commercials, a show only takes 40 minutes. All My Children takes less time because I also fast-forward plot-lines that I'm not interested in. And I can save them up and have a show marathon while I'm doing some repetitive task like filing my CDs.)

*Correction: I'm not sure if the magazines technically count as advertising. Because they aren't ads in regular magazines; they're soap magazines with cover stories about what's going to happen when, which actors are coming and going, show recaps, and etc. Some soap mags are produced by the networks but I don't think all are.

a whistle made of beer?


So, unless you live under a rock you probably heard about "the Beer Summit," at which President Obama, Vice President Biden, Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley sat down to have a beer together last Thursday. Don't worry, I'm not going to rehash the endless pontificating about what it meant for race relations in America (answer: nothing). Instead I have an observation about the brands of beer consumed, and the press coverage thereof.

First of all, it's ridiculous that with everything going on in the world, so much time was spent discussing what particular beer each man drank. Couldn't that time have been better spent talking about health care, or the situation in Iran? I read that a group of over 100 demonstrators had been imprisoned and tortured into false confessions (excuse me, coerced using harsh interrogation techniques into providing questionable intelligence) and the Iranian government is planning a round of show trials. I'd sure like to know more about that. But who am I kidding, we're talking about TV news here. Beer brands it is!

I heard a lot of bitching and moaning about Obama drinking Bud Light. Both from right wingers complaining that Bud Light is now owned by a Belgian company and Obama should buy American (to which all I can say is, really? Because Obama drank it, Budweiser is now un-American? Good luck with that), and from left wing yuppies who sound crushed that Obama would drink a crappy beer like Bud Light.

I have to admit that I was puzzled by the choice of Bud Light. Of course I know that there's no accounting for taste, and no way to predict what someone will like, especially someone I've never met. But still, set aside the fact that he's president and ask yourself: A Chicago mover and shaker, law professor, wasn't born rich but doing just fine now, eats healthy, likes fine food, favorite bottled drink is Black Forest Berry Honest Tea;* what beer does he drink? It's not Bud Light.

Well I finally heard an explanation that makes sense: Budweiser is union made. Miller is also union made (and is even worse beer than Bud, or so I hear from people who drink beer). Coors, which the Fox & Friends yahoos were proposing as a better choice for the President to drink, is not union made. Also, the owner of Coors is a major Republican donor.

Of course I don't know for a fact that Obama drank Bud Light because it's union made. But I remember last fall, the official campaign website said all over that everything they sold was union made. So it's obviously something he's thought about.

This got me to thinking. Well first of all, it must be tough to know that every single thing you do in public will be analyzed and judged like a statement of some kind. Second, does this count as a dog whistle? As you know Bob, a "dog whistle" is a statement by a politician meant to appeal to a particular group, while anyone not in the target group misses it entirely. The first time I ever heard of the concept was George W. Bush in 2000, dropping phrases from evangelical hymns into campaign speeches and debate responses. Most people didn't even notice, or if they did shrugged it off as an odd turn of phrase. Evangelicals heard it and thought, "He's one of us."

So does a Democratic politician drinking Bud Light count as a dog whistle? Most people won't even notice, or if they do, will wonder why the heck Obama would choose to drink such bad beer. People who care about buying union made are more likely to notice. Are dog whistles speech only, or can they be an action as well?

*I read that Obama liked Honest Tea during the campaign, but didn't remember the flavor & had to look it up. I'm really not an Obama stalker, really.

smokey smoke

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trying out the smokerWe have a smoker! I got it for Georg for his birthday. Instead of a freestanding smoker (which costs a lot and is one more thing to be stored, a perennial problem in our tiny house) I got the Smokenator, a gadget that fits inside a Weber kettle grill.

It's basically a metal divider which contains the charcoal on one side of the grill. Which has the dual effect of making the heat indirect, and reducing air to the charcoal so it burns more slowly. In the top of the divider is a water pan, which keeps the meat from drying out. It also included a thermometer which clips to the top of the grill and an extra grill rack in case you want to smoke a lot of meat at once.

I found out about the Smokenator on Amazon -- I was looking at stove-top smokers, which are simply a rectangular pan with a rack inside, you put sawdust in the bottom of the pan, put the meat above on the rack and put the whole thing on the stove for four hours. That seemed like it would only really work for food that can be quickly smoked like small pieces of fish and chicken. Because who wants to have the stove on for four hours in the middle of summer? And it seems like you'd also end up with a house full of smoke, which would be a real a problem since we don't have an exhaust fan over the stove.

While I was trying to make up my mind I saw reviews for the Smokenator, which sounded like it would work better for us. Someone was selling it on Amazon but I googled and found the maker's own website. Bought it direct from him because I figured he'd probably make more that way, though the cost was the same to me either way.

So I gave it to Georg yesterday and he's trying it out today, with country style ribs and potatoes. Of course we won't know until dinner time how well it really works, but it seems to be doing the job so far. Ribs only take four hours, maybe next time we'll try something more involved like pork butt or brisket. Brisket is the holy grail of smoking so maybe we should work our way up to that.

Along with the Smokenator I also got Georg a barbecue cookbook which is geared towards competition and has all kinds of good advice. The cookbook author (a barbecue champion) says good brisket is all about technique and you really have to practice and take lots of notes if you want to get good at it. Practicing means lots of brisket so I have no problem with that! The cookbook also suggests finding a good local butcher shop and befriending the butcher. I think this would be more critical if you were going into competition and were going to need to order mass quantities of meat repeatedly during the year. We're not ever going to need, say, 20 racks of ribs and 5 whole briskets, so we don't need to know the butcher's ordering schedule in advance. Then again, we're already friendly with one of the meat guys at Whole Foods (in fact I told him last week I was giving Georg a smoker). If tonight's ribs turn out well, maybe I'll take him one tomorrow. That is if we have any left over!

[ETA: The country ribs turned out great! Wonderful smoky flavor. They didn't even need sauce. The meat was tender but not falling-apart tender, which is how I prefer it. We had a little trouble regulating the temperature, nothing too problematic. For a first effort it was a smash success. I think we just need practice. Lots and lots of practice.]

mini pie

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This afternoon we stopped in at Southern Season for the end of their annual inventory sale. The high ticket items (All Clad pans, canned truffles, things like that) were pretty well cleaned out. We found a few nice things though. I bought a small pie pan, which I've been wanting for a long time. It takes an awful lot of fruit to fill a regular pie pan, and then it takes the two of us almost a week to eat the pie.

So I got a small pie pan, and used it to make a plum pie this evening. The recipe called for lemon zest, which I didn't have, so I grated in some ginger. Unfortunately I didn't have a recipe for a small size pie, and didn't know how much thickener to use. I tried to estimate by decreasing the proportions in a regular sized pie recipe. I must have gotten it wrong because the pie turned out really runny. It was basically plum soup with a piece of crust on top. On the bright side it tasted really good. The ginger gave it a nice sharp flavor.

Maybe it will thicken more overnight. Or not, in which case we'll have plum soup again tomorrow.

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