Let’s Get Physical: A Celebration of the Highest Flight of Led Zeppelin

Hello everybody! I hope you have all recovered from the hour we sprung past on our forward march into daylight savings time. If you don’t like losing an hour from your weekend then blame the Germans, apparently. I’m also doing some springing forward today (no, not that kind, you perv) as what follows is what I intended to be last week’s post, yet the deaths of two of my personal heroes took precedence, so now this post has been sprung forward into the future that is now the present and will be the past for you. So please forgive me for being later in my celebration of the 40th anniversary of my favorite music album.

On February 24, 1975, English rock and roll band Led Zeppelin released their sixth studio album Physical Graffiti. Bandmates Jimmy Page (guitar), Robert Plant (vocals), John Paul Jones (bass, synthesizer, basically every other non-percussion instrument found in a song), and John Bonham (drums, basically every other percussion instrument found in a song) were riding the crest of the wave of rock and roll admiration thanks to the success of their incredible stage performances and previous albums: Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin IILed Zeppelin III, the technically untitled album commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV, and Houses of the Holy (orange you glad I didn’t say Led Zeppelin V?). They were the top of the top in a time filled with superbands all striving to show they truly had the right… wait, that’s another thing, but every rock band in the mid-70s was definitely shooting for the moon (so was NASA, and they actually made it a few times) yet none ever reached the bar set by Led Zeppelin. And how could they? Listen to any of those first five albums of theirs and you’ll be blown away. There are so many huge hits that are still among the most played songs on classic rock radio stations around the world, and that’s just scratching the surface. Many of Zeppelin’s other great songs are simply lost in the shadow of supermassive hits like “Dazed and Confused”, “Whole Lotta Love”, “The Immigrant Song”, “Stairway to Heaven”, and “The Ocean”. Especially in the case of Led Zeppelin IV which contains the likes of “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, “Misty Mountain Hop”, “When the Levee Breaks”, and of course, “Stairway to Heaven”. You can tune into any classic rock station and stand a good chance of hearing one of those songs play without any listeners calling in to request them (By the way, why do people still do that? Do they not have the songs on some medium to listen to at their leisure? Don’t they know the internet and iTunes exists?). It’s easy to forget the songs on Zeppelin IV besides those classics (“The Battle of Evermore”, Four Sticks”, and “Going to California” in case you were wondering) and they are all really good. It’s easy to see why Led Zeppelin IV is considered by many to be the band’s best album. But fuck that, now I’m going to tell you why Physical Graffiti is the best for me.

Prior to Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin had kept to the 40-ish minutes formula for an LP, often cutting out tracks in order to maintain this rough time mark. However, while working in the studio in during 1973-74, the band and their producer, Peter Grant, realized that they had once again gone past that 40-ish minute mark and had a hard time deciding what songs were to go on the chopping block, so they opted to throw the chopping block on the chopping block and made a double album with the songs they were placing on the new album and some of the songs they cut from previous albums. One of my friends said I was cheating in declaring Physical Graffiti as my favorite album since it is a double album, but I feel that manufacturing an album that is twice as long as normal and still hitting it out of the park with every song is a tremendous accomplishment. Furthermore, no other album of theirs has such a terrifically unique ensemble of styles. Biographer Dave Lewis who wrote The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, called it “a finely balanced embarrassment of riches” and it certainly is. The previously cut tracks are all solid and it’s surprising that they were cut from their respective albums in the first place (especially “Houses of the Holy”; how was that not on Houses of the Holy?). Add in the tracks made for the sixth album, one of which is definitively one of their greatest ever, and you’ve got an album that excels beyond even Led Zeppelin IV. How does it do that? Let’s look at each of the 15 songs one by one to find out.

Side 1

Custard Pie” – Physical Graffiti begins with this hard rock tribute to Robert Johnson and his fellow early bluesmen who liked to sing about going down south and savoring the hot, wet stickiness of it all. Of course, these blues singers were not talking about where they lived in America, nor were they discussing your conventional custard pie in the kitchen. As a song, “Custard Pie” contains that signature Led Zeppelin sound when they take a blues style and crank up the volume on it. A perfect starter.

The Rover” – Continuing the heavy metal power they blast out so well, Zeppelin supplies us with a song that is very much within their style, and well it should be as it was written at the Bron-Yr-Aur Cottage that Plant and Page came up with many a song while relaxing there in 1970. “The Rover” was one of those songs cut from Houses of the Holy that thankfully was placed onto this one. Originally meant to be acoustic, Page wisely plugged into an amp for the final version. While it’s one of my favorites to strum the riff of on guitar, the band rarely played it live, which has helped it to fall into obscurity and become regarded as one of their deep cuts.

In My Time of Dying” – The longest studio song on any Zeppelin record (11 minutes, 8 seconds), this is a very Led Zeppelin heavy metal recreation of an old gospel standard called “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”. Many artists have covered the song – the exact origin is sketchy at best – since the 1930s, including Bob Dylan, but this version is easily the best known as it is the most rockin’ and received a lot of playtime at Led Zeppelin’s concerts. Not to mention even the studio version turns into a jam session that ends with Plant singing about someone’s cough in the studio.

Side 2

Houses of the Holy” – I was quite surprised when I first learned that this got pushed from the previous album that shares its name, especially since it’s such a catchy song that is a rock radio staple now. It was written as that album’s title track, but was determined to not fit the overall theme and was removed. The “Houses of the Holy” they sing about are the concert venues they loved to fill in and blare their music out of. Ready for another shock? Despite all this, they never played it live. Seriously Led Zeppelin, what have you got against “Houses of the Holy”?

Trampled Under Foot” – Another up-and-at-’em tempo jam that fits so well with Zeppelin’s style with a heavy dose of funk mixed in. Based on another Robert Johnson song called “Terraplane Blues” that was about (you guessed it!) sex, “Trampled Under Foot” is again regarding a similar subject. Plant is indeed “talkin’ ’bout love”.

Kashmir” – Simply put, this is easily the best song on the album and one of Led Zeppelin’s best songs ever. All four band members, countless music critics, and die-hard and casual fans alike have all declared it as such, and I concur. This is Zeppelin’s best song lyrically, and as such is much more complete than “Stairway to Heaven”. Jimmy Page had wanted to incorporate more eastern sounds and composed an Arabic-style song that the others really enjoyed. The lyrics were inspired by Robert Plant’s excursion through the Sahara Desert while in Morocco. As sweeping and grandiose as the desert landscape, “Kashmir” just might be Led Zeppelin’s best song, and it contains all the elements that represent the band according to John Paul Jones.

Side 3

In the Light” – If I had succeeded in my first career aspiration to be a professional baseball player then my walk-up music would be the riff from “In the Light”. I’d put on my best indifferent scowl and take my practice swings as I stare down the pitcher who would be shaken by the thumping sound pouring out of the speakers. It’d be badass. Kind of like this underrated song that unlike me doesn’t strike out. This track is predominantly John Paul Jones’ baby, and it’s the song where he proved his point that synthesizers can be supercool in a Led Zeppelin song. This also was one of the instances where Page produced a vibrating hum by drawing a violin bow across the strings of a guitar; he had done it originally on “Dazed and Confused” and would later use a similar technique on “In the Evening” – good company for a song to be in.

Bron-Yr-Aur” – Named after and written in the cottage Robert Plant’s family often vacationed at where he and Page geeked out over The Lord of the Rings and wrote most of Led Zeppelin III (including that album’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” which probably bumped this song off of that album), this mellow instrumental guitar composition by Page is a welcome respite from all the headbanging and air guitaring we’ve been doing leading up to it and it leads perfectly into the next song. At 2 minutes, 6 seconds it is the shortest of the band’s studio songs, meaning that Physical Graffiti has both the longest and shortest songs that Led Zeppelin ever recorded. Truly, this is a diverse album.

Down by the Seaside” – This chill summer tune is also a formerly cut track originally set to be placed on Led Zeppelin IV. It was thankfully transplanted to here where it fits so well behind “Bron-Yr-Aur” and before “Ten Years Gone”. It helps to keep Side 3 as the easy-going, soothing side, but fear not! There is an interjection of heavier, faster rock and roll in the middle of the song that defibrillates the tempo and reminds us that we’re still listening to Led Zeppelin and more hard rockin’ will be in store.

Ten Years Gone” – This is my favorite Led Zeppelin song, and one that I included in my list of songs that everyone should hear to take stock of life and better themselves. The song is another softer track in which a man muses on whether or not his ex from ten years ago still thinks of him in the same way he thinks of her. Page wrote it initially as an instrumental, but Plant added the poetic lyrics based on one of his own ex-girlfriend’s who gave him an “it’s me or the dog” ultimatum with his music and fans playing the part of the dog. Plant made the right choice for my satisfaction and I’m assuming his too, and besides this gem we got many other great Led Zeppelin songs, an incredibly happy fanbase, and one woman who’s probably kicking herself really hard every time she hears this beautiful piece.

Side 4

Night Flight” – This is probably the weakest song on the album, with fluffy lyrics that tell the story of a draft dodger. It comes across a little out of place, but I suppose that is expected of any song that is tasked with picking back up the tempo from the more relaxed paces of the songs of Side 3. To be fair, it was originally made for inclusion on Zeppelin IV, although I think the biggest reason that “Night Flight” leaves us wanting a little more is because it doesn’t have a guitar solo. A Led Zeppelin song where Page doesn’t pop out those duck lips and dry hump his guitar while shredding it to pieces!?! Nevertheless, I still like this song and think it fits best on an album where 14 other songs can pick up the slack for it.

The Wanton Song” – Picking up that slack immediately is this hard rockin’ jam about having a wild time with a woman of a more promiscuous nature. It’s really that straightforward, as the title implies, and this is a straightforward Led Zeppelin rock and roll romp that is in the right place on the album.

Boogie with Stu” – Nearing the end of the album we downshift into more acoustic sounds with this and the next song. On this song Page dons a mandolin and puts it to good use. The featured musical element though is a terrific piano track from Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart that plays throughout and keeps the upbeat tempo put on by the first two songs on this final side. Like “The Wanton Song” this is a jam, and even more so with an even more straightforward title as it describes the band’s sudden fun “boogie” with Ian Stewart who supposedly was hanging around and joined in, thereby keeping with the relatively open atmosphere of the Headley Grange recording house that the album’s newer tracks where written and recorded at. The song is styled after Ritchie Valens “Ooh, My Head” and as such the band and Stewart felt they should give a credit to “Mrs. Valens”, Ritchie’s mother who had never received any royalties from her son’s songs, but while she may have thought it was a nice gesture, Valens’ record company sued for copyright infringement.

Black Country Woman” – This comical little ditty was meant to be part of Houses of the Holy, but as we’ve seen with so many other songs, it didn’t work there. Fortunately it works splendidly here. This time Page grabs a guitar again and John Paul Jones picks up the mandolin while Plant sings about a woman from the “black country” of Birmingham where he and Bonham lived in their youth. The song was recorded outside in Mick Jagger’s backyard and the opening dialogue is about whether or not to start the recording again because of an airplane flying overhead. Plant says, “Nah, leave it, yeah,” as if to say, “Fuck it. This will most likely go on an album where we kind of make a collage of new and old songs that’ll combine to make magic.”

Sick Again” – The final song of this excellent album ties it off with another traditional hard rock session that showcases Zeppelin in their prime. And that fucking solo! Jimmy Page is my favorite guitarist behind only the incomparable Jimi Hendrix, and that quick yet potent guitar solo shows just the surface of a comprehensive talent that produced every one of the band’s albums. This song about groupies getting ever younger is as perfect an endpiece to such a wild menagerie as “Custard Pie” is as an opener.

It is ironically fitting that this last great album from Led Zeppelin was the first that they released on their own label called Swan Song Records, and that its featured image of Greek god Apollo is based on William Rimmer’s painting called “Evening (The Fall of Day)”. Yet while Physical Graffiti marked the apex of Led Zeppelin’s albums they were far from over being the gods of heavy metal rock and roll. Three more albums were released by the band: Presence, In Through the Out Door, and Coda. While none of these had the slambang power and cultural impact of any of their previous releases, there are some oft overlooked songs that are pure gold, especially the opening tracks of Presence and In Through the Out Door: “Achilles Last Stand” and “In the Evening” respectively. Coda was the band’s final release, but it was never meant to be a stand-alone album and is a collection of previously unreleased tracks and songs that were composed and/or dominated by drummer John Bonham, whose death in 1980 led the other three band members to decide to formally end Led Zeppelin. This decision still tasks many die-hard fans today, yet there are some who feel that the band wisely halted their descent into mediocrity brought on by age and the excess of success. In other words, they did a lot of drugs and it was starting to have a seriously detrimental effect on their music and relationships with one another.

Regardless of how you feel on the matter of Led Zeppelin’s exit from the music scene – or about the band in general – there can be no denying that they were on top of the rock and roll world during one of the most important periods in the genre’s history and are still a major musical influence today whose place in rock and roll lore is at the top of the pyramid with the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and the early blues acts they so often drew from (sometimes more closely than was legally permitted).

Thanks for reading! Rock on back next week for another jam of another sort. Direct your comments and questions to the appropriate section below or at monotrememadness@gmail.com.

Rock on,

Alex

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Shark Lady and Spock: In Memoriam

The discussion on the anniversary of the release of what might be my favorite album will have to wait for next week because this week’s post is dedicated to one of my earliest heroes of marine biology and to one of my greatest heroes of the big and small sci-fi screen. These two people have shaped my life in different ways, yet both helped to inspire a deeper love in science and art for me and many others. From the sea to the stars, the world is remembering the lives of Eugenie Clark and Leonard Nimoy who each died last week. Dr. Clark was a renowned scientist who studied the inhabitants of the oceans for almost 90 years. Her championing of the unjustifiably feared apex predators of the deep earned her the nickname “Shark Lady”, as well as my admiration from an early age. Nimoy needs no introduction, as most know him instantly for his iconic role as Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human who lacked emotion (with a few notable exceptions) and professed logic as the chief science officer aboard the Enterprise on the classic show Star Trek and the films that followed it after it’s cancellation. However, Nimoy also acted in and directed many other shows, stage plays, and films, sang on a few occasions, more than dabbled in photography, and wrote poetry. Today I aim to memorialize these two in thanks for their impact on my life.

Eugenie Clark was born in New York City on May 4, 1922 to an American father and a Japanese mother. Her father died when she was only two, but her mother later married a Japanese restaurant owner. This exposed Clark to some of the marine creatures she would grow to become enthralled by. When she was nine, her mother would take her to the New York Aquarium at Battery Park on Saturday mornings (they didn’t have the same cartoon selection we grew up on back then) and her excitement for the oceans continued to build. She managed a 15 gallon fish tank in her home which she filled with numerous specimens over the years. She continued to conduct both formal and informal studies as she grew, earning a B.A. from Hunter College, and master’s and doctoral degrees from New York University, but not before boiling the bones of various (already dead) animals to study, add to her collection, and according to one biography, inadvertently freak the hell out of her mother with.

Throughout her adventurous life, Clark fearlessly journeyed (Yep, she’s holding one of that basking shark’s penises in that second picture) into the depths using scuba systems and various submersibles as a means of reaching the wonders that so fascinated her. Once there she conducted pioneering research on sharks of all sizes, poisonous fish around the world, and many more maritime mysteries. From her research she developed the first working shark repellent, although she stressed that we were the invaders in the shark’s world and that we were to blame for every instance of an attack in the extremely rare instances that it happens.

I have loved Eugenie Clark ever since I first read a brief biography of her life when I was in third grade. It was entitled Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark and at 88 pages was the longest book I had ever successfully undertaken at that age. I gravitated toward it because it was one of two books in my school library that had the word “shark” in the title (the other was the DK Eyewitness book simply titled Shark which I’d already perused many times). I was already interested in sharks and the study of fish (which I would later learn is called ichthyology) and this account of Clark’s life so far fueled my new-found passion all the more.

Clark was actively working in the field and her lab right up to her death from non-smoking related lung cancer last Wednesday. She is survived by her four children and one grandson. She was 92.


The other great influence of my youth that was lost recently was the more recognizable Leonard Nimoy who died Friday at the age of 83. As I stated in the introduction, he was a man of many talents that entertained people all over the world with his work in front of and behind the camera and curtain. I mentioned his affinity to share a song, and of course there’s this gem. Gotta love the 60s. Crazy as that was it’s still a better and truer interpretation of The Hobbit than Peter Jackson’s eight hour film trilogy. Nimoy was also the king of cameos when it came to Spocking a show up a notch, and it’s only fitting that the second-in-command on one of my favorite live action shows would help kick off my favorite animated show.

However, we all knew Nimoy best as Mr. Spock from Star Trek giving council to Captain Kirk and every once in a while a nasty nerve pinch to enemies of the Enterprise. He both revered and was annoyed at the love for his classic character, and this was especially well reflected by his two autobiographies which were titled I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock respectively.

For me he was Leonard Nimoy, Spock for sure, but also the man who lent his voice to The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Pagemaster to name a few, as well as the director of the third and fourth Star Trek movies. He was a wise and kind presence at conventions and sci-fi specials, and was the only original cast member included in the rebooted Star Trek films from 2009 and 2013, which is saying something considering his fate in Star Trek‘s finest hour and 53 minutes.

I don’t like movies being spoiled for myself or others, but since plenty of newscasts have already shown part of this appropriate clip (and of course, J.J.Abrams already reversed this scene in his reboot sequel Star Trek Into Darkness) I don’t feel so guilty potentially ruining the scene that marked the peak of the Star Trek franchise. In the climax of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise is crippled following a battle with another Starfleet ship that now-Admiral Kirk’s old adversary Khan had stolen. Defeated and dying, Khan taps into his titular wrath and does his damnedest to take Kirk and company with him by arming the explosive Genesis device. With the Enterprise’s warp drive broken, it seems that our beloved original cast members are doomed, but Spock practices the logic he preaches and enters the radioactive chamber in the engine room to repair the ship and save the crew at the expense of his own life. While Wrath of Khan is definitely Kirk’s movie, the final exchange between Kirk and Spock and Spock’s funeral have Spock steal the show with a shower of tears from Star Trek fans everywhere.

Nimoy now boldy goes where fellow original cast members DeForest Kelley and James Doohan have gone before, and though I haven’t met anyone from a Star Trek cast past or present, as a science fiction fan I can honestly say that Nimoy and his associates have been and always shall be my friends.

Thank you for reading. Make the most of your gifts as Clark and Nimoy did and follow their example that is represented by the immortal words of Mr. Spock…

Live long and prosper,

Alex

An Apple a Day Won’t Do Shit Against Smallpox

Greetings one and all! As the fan(s) of this blog know, last night was the 87th Oscars Ceremony, and I watched it and want to talk about it real bad. However, I have blabbered about Oscar stars and snubs more than enough in the past weeks, so I’m going to do my best to return to my scientific and social roots for the sake of educating and bringing awareness to the masses (although I will say that I’m glad a film as creative and crazy as Birdman won Best Picture). Today’s first topic is one that’s been bandied about on the news a lot recently, and I think it’s got a pretty clear cut solution, so I’m going to explain my position as simply and politely as I can then springboard to another issue of concern in the same field. Without further ado, here is the first of two humorous videos starring Brian Huskey (you’ll be like, “Oh! That’s that guy’s name,” when you see him) to kick off the discussion.

First, If Google Was A Guy (Part 3). As you can see, Google Guy’s (Huskey) frustration is mounting because of the stupid things people request him to search for. By the time this third installment in the College Humor series kicks off, he’s kind of losing it. There are many ridiculous queries presented to him, but the one that stands out above (or maybe below?) all the others is this one regarding a connection between vaccines and autism.

[Deep sigh] Ugh. God fucking damn it. My greatest frustrations from people turning a blind eye to science, empirical evidence, and common sense are regarding the denials of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection and anthropogenic climate change, yet nothing makes me roll my eyes like the ridiculous, unfounded, and disproved notion that vaccines somehow inflict autism. You know what happens when you get a vaccine? Your immune system gets a stronger resistance to the disease the vaccine is made for, or rather from. A vaccine is produced from the weakened form of the thing that causes a disease or something closely related to it. For example, a smallpox vaccine is crafted from a related “pox” virus called vaccinia that does not cause smallpox. When given, this smallpox vaccine helps your body build an immunity to the smallpox virus. The vaccinia acts as an antigen (short for antibody generator) that your antibodies target and eventually adapt an immunity to so that if the body encounters the actual pathogen (in this case the smallpox virus) in the future it can send specific antibodies to destroy it and keep you disease-free.

Smallpox in cows (called Variolae vaccinae which is where the term vaccine originated; vacca is Latin for cow) was the first disease a vaccine was made for back in 1798 by Dr. Edward Jenner. Thanks to the widespread administration of the smallpox vaccine decades ago, smallpox has been eradicated throughout the world. Like Stan and Randy Marsh’s money in their bank accounts during the American bank bailouts a few years ago, thanks to the vaccine taken to prevent it we can safely declare that there once was a global presence of smallpox aaaaaand it’s gone.

We don’t need to get smallpox vaccines anymore because we got rid of it through the effective use of smallpox vaccines. Sadly, measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) which are related and prevented by the same vaccine commonly given when you are one year old, are not only still around, but they are still spreading more than Disney magic in the United States because of people ignorantly and staunchly against the vaccine (and other vaccines) who refuse to let their children be given it. These people are called anti-vaxxers, though I have some other terms I use to identify them that I will not list here (the word “stupid” is common among them, as are choicer words). The anti-vaccination movement against vaccines stems from a 1998 paper by former medical researcher Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield contended that the MMR vaccine could cause autism and gastrointestinal disease in those who received it. This was later discovered to be totally bogus when other medical researchers could not reproduce Wakefield’s results. Furthermore, Wakefield’s co-authors jumped ship and denounced the study, especially when investigative journalist Brian Deer discovered Wakefield had performed unethical tests on autistic children and also had “undisclosed financial conflicts of interest”. Such an interest does not mix with objective scientific research (we’ll get back to this in a bit), nor does casting ethics to the wind, so Wakefield’s claim was deemed fraudulent and his medical practice and research were shut down by the United Kingdom Medical Registry.

I wonder how many anti-vaxxers would refuse an Ebola vaccine or an HIV vaccine if they existed (some exciting research going on right now). Perhaps if smallpox was as prevalent today as it once was and people were dying from it at an alarming rate, then maybe more than a few anti-vaxxers would change their tune. I don’t want to have some medical epidemic be the death of the anti-vaccination movement because that means it will be accompanied with the actual deaths of far too many people – deaths that could have been prevented. I want anti-vaxxers to actually do their research and study up on what they clearly do not understand before condemning vaccines and getting swept up in the fearful words of other medically unqualified people who have come to an ignorant and harmful conclusion. If you want to learn more about preventable diseases and their vaccines check out these WHO and CDC pages.

I’m no doctor, but if you honestly believe that vaccinations cause autism, then you aren’t either (unless you’re a doctor in the sense that Dr. Phil is a doctor). Correlation does not imply causation, and vaccines do not cause autism – end of story.

It’s also important to note that it’s necessary for you and your children to still get vaccinated against MMR and other infectious diseases even though other people have already received the vaccine. Unlike smallpox, diseases like measles are still around, and they can still infect people who have received a vaccination against them if the disease mutates inside an unvaccinated human host. So forgoing the vaccination puts more than just yourself at risk – just ask those people at Disneyland who had received the MMR vaccine.

If you’re still confused why so many people refuse vaccines, then check out SciShow’s Science of Anti-Vaccination. Hank and the gang present a better, less angry explanation than I can.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to be skeptical of doctors and what they prescribe for you, which leads us to our second major point made via video: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Marketing to Doctors. Hey, that doctor in the ending skit was played by what’s-his-name! Also, that doctor was prescribing medication to patients not because they needed it but because the company that produced it paid him to push their product. Pretty eye-opening stuff, especially seeing that marketing from drug companies accounts for a staggering amount of money – approximately $4 billion on us the consumers and $24 billion on our doctors and health care providers – not to mention that these companies’ marketing budgets are often larger than their research and development budgets!

If you want to look up your doctor(s) and see what they’ve potentially been paid for in the past you can check out the Open Payments Data page Oliver talked about in the video. Apparently my primary physician is a $10 lunch man at best to a few drug companies, but that’s probably for the better for me and his other patients.

I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about the Oscars, but there is an Oscar-winning movie that actually has a surprising amount of relevance to this issue. The film is The Fugitive (1993) starring Harrison Ford as a desperate man (it is a specialty of his) wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and Tommy Lee Jones (the man responsible for the lone Oscar the movie won) being awesome. It’s based on the popular 1960s television show of the same name and draws upon the same basic setup, but the movie adds in an expose` of the pharmaceutical drug industry’s desire to make money more than to protect people as a critical plot point. It’s more entertaining to me than a serious investigative documentary on the same subject (the drug industry thing, not the framed doctor chased by a relentless marshal thing), but no matter how you come to realize the incredible effect that money and marketing play in the United States health care system, be sure that you verify that you have qualified and honest people looking after your health needs and that you do everything you can for your well-being and the well-being of the rest of us too. Long story short: you may not need that multicolored pill with the pretty people and cute cartoon characters advertising it during your favorite show, but you should get your MMR vaccine.

Thanks for reading! I hope you will be willing to ask questions and do your homework about what is best regarding your health and the health of others. If you have questions about today’s post or suggestions for what I should write about in the future, comment below or email me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Flee back here next week for more enthralling and educational words of wisdom. Or whatever I produce next Monday. Oh, and call your parents or J.K. Simmons will slap you.

Bum badumbum bumbumbum,

Alex

P.S. Fuck Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy, as well as all those pharmaceutical company pill pushers who want your cha-ching more than your good health.

All About Oscar: A Highly Opinionated and Occasionally Entertaining Guide to Films Revered By A Naked Golden Statuette

Happy President’s Day everyone! Today, we in America celebrate the birthdays of our 1st and 16th presidents: George Washington (February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12). Furthermore, I celebrate the actual birthday of an individual more close to myself in every aspect: me! That’s right, today is my birthday! Thank you, thank you, you’re too kind. Oh no, you shouldn’t have, really, well… thank you. As much as I love to arrange admiration for myself, there are a few others I wish to pass on some birthday buzz for, including but not limited to the following people and animals who also grow a year older on February 16th:

  • My friend and coworker Chris who was the first person to officially subscribe to this blog!
  • Levar Burton – I’ve never met him, but no one else has ever encouraged me to take a look inside a book like he has. Also, he made that visor look really cool on Next Gen (his character from that show, Geordi La Forge, will be born on this day in 2335 according to Star Trek lore)
  • Ice-T, the rapper/actor, not the drink
  • Strannik, the male Amur tiger at my local zoo
  • Wayne Gretsky…’s brother
  • Mr. Jefferson, the first cloned calf, not the guy who moved on up to the East Side
  • Soon-to-be NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis
  • Jeremy Bulloch – the English actor who played the coolest bounty hunter in any galaxy, Boba Fett. If the producers of the new Star Wars movies are looking for someone who fits the same birthday criteria to portray Boba Fett in his imminent solo movie in the near future, I’ll be waiting for your call.
  • Pretty much everyone my friend and former roommate Joe knows – seriously, there are so many people in his life that share this birthday that if he can’t remember someone’s birthday he just assumes it’s February 16. He has a friend from high school who was not only born on February 16, but so were his father and son. Three generations born on the same day!

There are some other people born this day that I’m not as glad to share it with, such as the now (thankfully) deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, as well as Sonny Bono, Cher’s partner. I mean, forcing your people to scrape by in ruin while revering you as a god is terrible, but there’s a reason that Bill Murray was in hell waking up to that same song every day in Groundhog Day.

Speaking of movies, the 87th annual Oscars presentation is this Sunday February 22 at 7pm EST on ABC. I’ll be watching and scowling occasionally for reasons that I’ve already discussed in a not too far back post. There will be plenty of reasons to cheer as there are plenty of good and even great films up for Academy Awards this year. From the beginning the Oscars have recognized the merits of many a great film while leaving out others whose genius was overlooked or wasn’t appreciated at the time. Today, with hindsight as my witness, I aim to sing praises for the Academy as well as condemn neglect on their part. I will focus on the most coveted award in film, the Best Picture Oscar, while I offer my opinion on films that won it (Best Picture Winners, or BPWs), others that were nominated for it that did not win (Best Picture Nominees, or BPNs), and others that got the cold shoulder from the golden god of Hollywood.

To date there are 530 films that have been nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and I have seen 426, meaning that I’ve scored just over 80% on my Oscar sight test. I’ve done even better with Best Picture Winners of which I’ve seen 77 out of 86 (until Sunday), nearly 90%. Suffice it to say, between many, many wasted hours staring at a screen of varying sizes; my current celebration of my body’s aging and decay; and my general belief that I just know these things, I feel qualified to assess the quality of films that Oscar has shown love too, as well as the ones he took steaming crap on that truly deserved his love. What follows are three lists of 10 movies each. The first is a celebration of times that the Academy got it right by listing the Best Best Picture Winners. Second is a list of the best of the rest; films that were nominated for Best Picture that should have won the award but didn’t. Finally, I conclude with movies that received no nomination for Best Picture but were deserving of the award. In each list the films are listed in order of chronological release; not necessarily in the order that I like them best. Look for your favorites, and remember that you can’t disagree with me on my birthday.

 

Best Best Picture Winners

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – Based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name that you may have had to read for school, this was the third film to win the Oscar for what we now call Best Picture. It tells the tale of a young man named Paul swept up by propaganda to join the German army to fight in World War I. When he and his friends get there they discover that the reality of the situation is a much different one than what was painted for them back in school. As he observes the brutality of war through the loss of friends and the slaying of enemies he realizes that the patriotic ideals he thought he was fighting for are merely rousing words that quickly lose their luster amidst the mud, blood, and bodies. One of my favorite scenes is when Paul goes on leave and returns to his high school where his teacher’s enthusiasm for “the Fatherland” and protecting its glory that convinced him to enlist is on full display for a new class. The teacher proudly introduces him to the current students as a veteran solider to idolize and follow in the footsteps of. To the surprise of everyone, Paul denounces the war and begs for his hometown to wake up and realize the true horror of it all. The very best scene sums up the whole film when Paul goes back to the front and finds a small window of peace in a butterfly that lands just outside his trench. His admiration for it doesn’t last long though.

Gone with the Wind (1939) – This was the last film that I added to this list, but it’s place here is earned by its sheer scope. I decided on the other nine BPWs quickly, but was mulling between a few options before deciding on this classic. Gone with the Wind is an epic film taken from an epic novel by Margaret Mitchell that provides a very long look (the longest cut with an overture, intermission, entr’acte, and exit music is 238 minutes, making it is the longest BPW) of life in the American South during the Civil War. The first color film to win Best Picture, it specifically focuses on the fancies of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh, who’s performance is the longest to ever win an acting Oscar) as her high social status becomes useless to her and her family that she is forced to become the primary caretaker of as war rages. Her rough romance with suave Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) serves well to ascend her back to a more comfortable status, but her conniving ways prove to be too much for any man to stand, especially Rhett, prompting him to walk out on her and deliver one of the most famous lines in film history.

Gone with the Wind is on this list for its epic production that including recreating the burning of Atlanta by burning a collection of actual film sets, from pieces from The Garden of Allah and the wall from King Kong. It also gets credit for winning the top prize in 1939, considered by many film buffs to be Hollywood’s Golden Year due to the quality of the films released during it. Gone with the Wind beat out such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach. In its place, I was also considering All About Eve (the winner in 1950, which is also a major contender for the title of Hollywood’s Golden Year) and The Bridge on the River Kwai, two films that I admit I like a lot more, but the impact of Gone with the Wind is too much to ignore. Perhaps the Academy felt the same way.

Casablanca (1942) – Too many films that are considered classics leave you feeling a little disappointed in their distinction as such sometimes. They’re good, maybe even really good, but are they truly in league with the all time greats? Casablanca is one of those movies that fully deserves all of its praise. If you haven’t seen any of these BPWs on my list (wtf man?) then watch Casablanca first. Set in the titular town in French Morocco during World War II, we see a unique mixture of people from different countries and cultures converging in the same place with the same desire: to get the hell out of there and into America. There are ways to do it, but they’re not easy and many will kill to secure safe passage. One thing that is assured is that everyone makes their way to Rick’s Cafe, whose American proprietor, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart in his, dare I say, signature role) is truly the most powerful man in town. He becomes even more impactful when he acquires two letters of transit that serve as incontestable Get Out of Jail Free cards for the holder. Rick has no reason to leave the land he prospers in… until his old flame shows up. The only problem is she brought her husband with her and he’s a rebel leader who’s very wanted by the Nazis. The excellent writing, intrigue, and acting are enough to make this movie beyond great, but the love triangle and reactions of each character involved in it as the plot thickens is what raises this movie to the echelon of the best films ever made. Casablanca will have you saying “play it again” in reference to the immortal theme song “As Time Goes By” and the movie itself.

Ben-Hur (1953) – This film is the epitome of epic. Excellently crafted in every way, William Wyler’s magnificent direction makes everything in this movie bigger than anything previously made, and compared to most films since too. The sets are huge, the action scenes are wildly intense, and the story is so grand that Jesus Christ is a supporting character. Ben-Hur is about Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince living in Jerusalem in the same time as the aforementioned Messiah. He is pleased to see his childhood friend Messala has become the commander of the local Roman Legion. That is until a simple misunderstanding turns into an issue of Romans versus Jews that is easier for Messala – who has become further disillusioned by Roman ideals in the years he was away – to wrap up by imprisoning Judah and his family to show his strength as a commander and the strength of the Rome. Judah bides his time and builds his strength, swearing revenge. Yet as he comes closer to fulfilling this goal he realizes that another figure of strength of a different sort is arising, and that this man may truly topple Rome’s tyranny and leave a legacy that will be everlasting.

Ben-Hur is subtitled A Tale of the Christ, and based off the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace and some earlier stage and film versions, it is certainly a Christian-influenced movie. Charlton Heston was a very devoutly religious man, and I’m guessing that many others involved in making the film were too. Nevertheless, even if you’re not into the whole Jesus thing, you can enjoy this film for its thrilling scenes and powerful score, especially the chariot race, one of the most exciting scenes ever filmed. This movie did win 11 Oscars (a record for most won by a single film it shares with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) for a reason.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – Another one of the best and most influential films ever made, this marvelous sand-filled spectacle is the best film from one of the best directors in movie history. If you don’t know who David Lean is you are missing out on greatness. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly knew who he was, as do countless directors since his time who do their best to emulate him. He and many of his films were nominated for Oscars over the decades he was actively making films the likes of which are definitive epic works. Some won the big prize, like The Bridge on the River Kwai, others probably should have, like Doctor Zhivago, but his masterpiece is his nearly four hour biography based on the memoirs of Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British soldier who set off into the desert and united the Bedouin tribes of Arabia to fight against the Turks in WWI. Lawrence was a fascinating man to say the least, yet this does not mean that everything in his movie is historical fact. Most of the officers and leaders were real people, and the war certainly happened, but it is a matter of debate as to how much Lawrence actually did and how much he claimed to do. Lawrence was a well-educated man with talent for embellishment, and according to some (including our filmmakers) he also had quite the ego. Whether real-life Lawrence did everything he wrote he did or not is moot though because the film turned out to be incredible in every aspect. Countless fans and filmmakers love this film for its story, acting, influence, etc., and Maurice Jarre’s sweeping score is one of the greatest ever composed.

The Godfather (1972) – With the help of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James, Caan, and many other great actors, Francis Ford Coppola established himself as a great director. Factor in an excellent screenplay he co-wrote with Mario Puzo, and you’ve got another one of the best movies ever; one that definitely surpasses Puzo’s novel it’s based on. This is the movie that I’m guessing is the most popular and frequently seen on my list, and for good reason. It lives up to all of its hype and delivers on every level. There are so many memorable scenes and lines that ingrained it in popular culture. The pacing is so good that even after nearly three hours it leaves you wanting more (of course Lawrence of Arabia had the same effect for me). Fortunately there are two more is one more great film that follows it and it might be even better than this first in the franchise. Speaking of which…

The Godfather Part II (1974) – Continuing the story of the Corleones, this second installment in the mafia film franchise was the first sequel to ever win Best Picture. It manages to both wrap up material from the book that the first film did not show and to carry on the story crafted specifically for the film. Robert De Niro, who obviously was not chosen to play Sonny in the prior film, gets into the Godfather franchise as a younger Vito in flashbacks woven between the modern day material that show the Don’s rise to power. De Niro became the first actor to win an Oscar for playing the same character previously played by another actor who also won an Oscar for the role. But before you hurry out to make your own version of the Godfather and portray Don Vito in the hopes of obtaining some acting hardware remember that the two winning actors we’re talking about are Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. In other words, fahgettaboudit! At least you can watch the first two Godfather movies to cheer yourself up. Just avoid Part III at all costs.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Did you know that Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) only appears on screen for 16 minutes in this movie? To put that in perspective, that’s as many minutes as Godzilla was on screen in Godzilla (2014). Wait, that’s my primary argument why Godzilla was underwhelming, but still, Godzilla didn’t win Best Actor for his 16 minutes. Hopkins is so dominating for the short time we do see him that he is ever present in our minds. Not to mention the fantastic directing and editing, and don’t even get me started on Jodie Foster. Okay, I’ll get started; it’s the best performance of her career. Thank goodness she and Hopkins got into this movie because it could have been very different. Originally Gene Hackman bought the rights to Thomas Harris’ novel, but his daughter was disturbed by the graphic subject matter and urged him to reconsider. This was good news for Foster who ran out to buy the rights right after she read the book only to find that Hackman had already got them. Still, she almost didn’t get the part of Clarice because director Jonathan Demme wanted Michelle Pheiffer who had worked with him previously. The producers wanted Foster, but they also wanted an actor like Robert De Niro to portray Dr. Lector. They tried to get a few other A-listers for the role, but Demme insisted on Hopkins after having seen him in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. The director and producers compromised and each got one of their choices, and it worked out far better than anyone could have possibly imagined.

The Silence of the Lambs is a terrific thriller that showcases spectacular acting alongside some truly horrific sights and sequences. An FBI trainee is enlisted as bait in a last ditch effort to coerce pertinent information about an active serial killer who skins his victims from the once esteemed Dr. Hannibal Lector. He is a refined and cultured man who is well spoken and educated. Also he kills and eats people. This movie is the most recent of the three winners of the Oscar Big Five Awards for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress. It’s been followed (and even preceded) by other adaptations of Harris novels featuring the demented doctor, but this one is still easily the best.

Schindler’s List (1993) – Every once in a great while a film is made that really matters. It displays important subject matter in a beautiful work of art. Schindler’s List is such a film. This movie shows humanity at its very worst and its very best. It tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a real-life German industrialist whose interest in utilizing the cheap labor of Polish Jews detained by the Nazis gradually turned to an effort to save as many of them as possible from certain death.

Steven Spielberg was the man in 1993, first churning out Jurassic Park before filming this masterpiece. As a matter of fact, he was contractually obligated to make the films in that order because Universal Studios feared he would be too emotionally consumed after Schindler’s List to effectively deliver dino goodness. He later acknowledged this was a good move. Now Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies and one that I seriously think was worthy of a nomination for Best Picture in 1993, but Schindler’s List is one of those aforementioned once-in-a-while films that earned its award not because it shows someone doing very nice things for a suffering ethnic group but because it really is that good and the fact that it’s taken from real history makes it all the more resonant.

Spielberg often says Schindler’s List is the most important film of his career and he actually refused to be paid for it as he felt it would have been “blood money” and considered it more of a documentary. There are intense scenes of the horrors of the Holocaust and lots of deaths both on and off-screen, but ultimately this film is uplifting. The scene at the end where Schindler says, “I could have got more out. I could have got more.” is truly, truly heartbreaking.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – The culmination of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal masterpiece is the best yet. The only fantasy film to ever win the big award, it managed to also be the only movie to date that won all of its awards when it was nominated for at least 10 (it got 11 total, the biggest clean sweep in Oscar history, and tied for the most all time, but you knew that already because I said it earlier). Few films have capture the great character embodiment, pacing, and rousing action needed to make an epic film work, and this one has got all that, terrific technical effects, makeup, and costumes, and scenes that keep amping up the excitement and topping what you just saw. Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning score is grandiose at the best moments like the lighting of the beacons, and the actual moment of the return of the king, and not to mention this happens. But the best part of the whole series is right here. You want to make the next time you help your drunken friend stumble on home fun? Say that.


Best Best Picture Nominees That Didn’t Win That Should Have

Citizen Kane (1941) – Regarded by many critics and classic film fans to be the best movie ever made, it is a stunning wonder this movie did not win Best Picture. What did win that year was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, about Welsh coal miners and their troubles. It’s not bad, but it sure ain’t no Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane was Orson Welles announcement to the world that he had arrived and Hollywood better look out! (You know, because he got really fat and took up a lot of space.) Loosely based on the life of news tycoon William Randolph Hearst, this movie is the best you’ll ever have spoiled for you by Peter Griffin. Its style has influenced so many filmmakers since its release and it has truly stood the test of time. Also great that year and much better than the actual BPW, Humphrey Bogart’s other best movie, The Maltese Falcon, is a close second best behind Citizen Kane, and is one of the greatest films ever made as well.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – Let me just say right now, I love My Fair Lady. But just how long I could have danced (all night!) is irrelevant to the discussion of which movie was best in 1964. That honor should have gone to Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy that is as ridiculous as its long-winded title. What began as a serious adaptation of Peter George’s novel Red Alert, which depicts a nuclear war started on accident, quickly turned into a satire when Kubrick realized just how hilarious some of the scenes he had written were. Add in incredible performances from Peter Sellers (in three roles), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and many others, as well as hysterical lines (“Gentlemen you can’t fight in here; this is the War Room!”; “You’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.”) and you’ve got yourself a winning combination. Plus any movie that gives Slim Pickens the chance to be Slim Pickens is great (see Blazing Saddles), especially when he gets to ride a nuclear bomb through the sky.

Jaws (1975) – My favorite movie that I think is as close to a perfect film as has ever been made. Steven Spielberg’s major directorial debut was the first summer blockbuster and started a trend that continues today and looks to forever. It lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which was the second film to win the Big Five, but I don’t care. It’s a good movie that deserves to be in the mix, but Jaws has everything: suspense, horror, action, adventure, drama, romance, and a 25 foot great white shark. In fact, the mechanical shark is the biggest problem for the film. It is not an accurate depiction of any shark in behavior or ability, but it doesn’t look exactly like one either. Still, it’s scary and clearly a shark, and Spielberg did a fantastic job of hiding its flaws. His excellent direction (which I know the Academy hates themselves now for not recognizing with a nomination then) and John Williams iconic score (which did win) make it so that the shark is scariest when we don’t see it. Factor in perfect casting and acting and you’ve got the best movie ever made. A must see for everyone, just maybe wait until after you’ve learned how to swim.

Star Wars (1977) – Another of my top five favorite films, Star Wars is the most important cultural phenomenon in film history. This is one of a very select few science fiction films to have been nominated for Best Picture, but it lost to one of Oscar’s favorite people: Woody Allen. Now I’ve got nothing against Woody Allen (as a filmmaker that is), and Annie Hall, the BPW for 1977, is really good and quite hilarious, but the Academy loves the hell out of him to a fault. Know what they don’t love? Sci-fi. At least John Williams was again recognized for composing the greatest cinematic musical score of all time.

George Lucas does a wonderful job of presenting his most brilliant universe in the galaxy far, far away. The greatest modern take on the mythological hero quest, Star Wars is a fantastic story that happens to be complemented by then-groundbreaking special effects that still stand up today (and often actually look better than the CGI used in the inferior prequels). Lucas does a marvelous job of incorporating influences from almost every great science-fiction and fantasy story ever told – everything from Homer’s Iliad to Herbert’s Dune – and still presents an incredibly original story.

But the crowning achievement is the motley crew of characters that carry this story up into the stars throughout the saga. The film can seem a little slow at first with so much time spent on the desert world of Tattooine to establish the story, but every minute is filled with wonder. The whipped cream and cherry on top of this glorious sci-fi fantastic sundae is the explosive finale, the assault on the polar trench of the Death Star, which is nothing short of the greatest climax in cinema history.

Star Wars clearly has had the bigger impact in every possible way, but back in 1977 it was only able to get into the mix while Annie Hall was given the gold. That’s like flying down the polar trench of the Death Star and trusting your targeting computer to make the shot.

Apocalypse Now (1979) – After he made the Godfather movies ,Francis Ford Coppola set out to make a Vietnam film. Based on his recent successes he was basically granted carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted, but studio producers soon regretted this. Coppola’s record of coming in ahead of time and under budget exploded into the sky as he poured in millions upon millions to achieve his perfect vision. The result was a very expensive project that didn’t get made on schedule (kind of like this post, but hey, one does not simply spend his birthday writing over celebrating), and it was one of the best war movies ever made. Was it the end for Coppola? You bet, in this sense. More great direction, writing, performances, and even better scenery than any previous Coppola project. Certainly it excelled beyond the divorce court drama Kramer vs. Kramer.

If you were to ask people what they feel is the most enduring film of 1979 the answer would most likely begin with an “A”, involve a small crew in mortal danger thanks in part to the people they’re working for, and owe a debt of gratitude to Joseph Conrad. Surprisingly, two films fit this oddly specific criteria. First is Apocalypse Now, the superior film from that year that brilliantly translates Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the context of the Vietnam War. This is no easy task considering Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s best known work that evokes the horrors of venturing into the unknown, losing yourself in the wild, and 6th period English. You said it, Marlon Brando.

Speaking of which, the next best film of 1979 is my vote for scariest ever. Naturally it’s another terrific science fiction film done by a promising young director.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Back to Spielberg and George Lucas (and back when Lucas was on top of his game), this collaborative effort was made as an homage to the great adventure films of their youth and early film, yet it soars to a level above all others before and after thanks to their direction and writing, and the writing of Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman (both will be mentioned again), as well as a man named Harrison Ford who looks better in a fedora than anyone else. This film introduced the world to Indiana Jones who gives us all the running we need in a movie in the opening sequence. (Alfred Molina was thinner back then.) This is historical fiction at its finest, intelligent and action-packed with plenty of good humor and old-fashioned ass-kicking at the expense of the Nazis. What more could you ask for? (Don’t say aliens.) Thankfully Harrison Ford’s exhausted logic took away a probably too ridiculous whip versus sword fight and gave us this best part of the movie instead. We still get to hear that whip crack plenty of times anyway. Did you know that the crack of a whip is from the tip breaking the sound barrier? This achievement of creating a sonicboom is integral to the next movie on our list as well.

The Right Stuff (1983) – Based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name (a great read btw; my favorite nonfiction work), this is the real-life story (with some dramatic liberties, of course) of the beginnings of the American space program. Opening in the post-war experimental aviation boom that was kept mainly top secret during its time, the film starts by introducing us to Chuck Yeager, the greatest pilot to ever grace the skies, as he is selected to attempt to fly faster than the speed of sound. The story gradually progresses over the next 16 years (and by gradually, I mean it’s over three hours long – but totally worth it), showing Yeager’s rise as the most respected pilot and the training of the Mercury 7, the first American astronauts who became more well-known and loved than Yeager and the fellow test pilots they beat out for the space job.

Per the favoring of director Philip Kaufman (told you he’d pop up again), the film glorifies Yeager above all else, which was more than an annoyance to Tom Wolfe and screenwriter William Goldman. In fact, Wolfe ends the book pointing out how Yeager was still one of the best, but wasn’t regarded as the best anymore. He was an older man and had been knocked off the top of the pyramid of men with “the right stuff” by younger pilots and astronauts. Maybe true, but I can’t say I blame Kaufman for getting caught up in the heroics of Yeager as each plane disaster we see him avert on film actually happened in real life. For more on this consult my love letter to Yeager from a few months back.

Pulp Fiction (1994) – 1994 was one of the more recent years that many film buffs consider to be one of the greatest ever in film history and the Oscar noms from that year show why. Classics like BPW Forrest Gump, and The Shawshank Redemption have gone down as some of the most revered films of more than just the 1990s. Even the oft overlooked Quiz Show is a solid film (Robert Redford knows how to make a movie). Shawshank is a close second for me for 1994, but number one is undisputed, and it’s not Forrest Gump (which I do really enjoy). Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s and 1994’s best film, is a vivid collage of crime that throws linear timelines out the window and mashes together an interesting interwoven set of stories that are filled with great characters and some of the best dialogue you’ll ever hear in a film. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of best you’ll hear in a film, get a load of that score! It’s all great underground rock, soul, R&B, and whatever the hell theme songs and sound effects Tarantino liked hearing on TV as a kid. It’s almost the best collection of non-original music (as in not written for the movie; I don’t mean that it’s plagiarized or anything) in a movie, but we’ll get to that later.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) – It still stuns me that this excellent film lost to Shakespeare in Love. Again, a cute movie that I enjoyed more than I anticipated, but goddamn it, Saving Private Ryan earned the Best Picture Oscar just with the D-Day sequence that opens the movie. This is my favorite war film, and it just may be the best one ever made. It doesn’t glorify the war, but it does glorify the men who fought in it while highlighting their humanity, especially as they ask the question, “What is the life of one man worth?” Things are further complicated when they finally do find that man and he refuses to leave his band of brothers. Filled with all of what you would expect in a Spielberg movie (except plucky children), this is one of the few films that is spilling over with celebrities in major, minor, and bit roles and no one is out of place or steals the show but only adds to it.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – No other film introduced us to a cinematic version of a literary world like Fellowship did when it took us to Middle Earth. Brilliantly adapting the best book I (and many others) have ever read and loved, fans of Tolkien and people who had never heard of him alike loved this movie when it came out. I actually hated it when I first saw it, but that was because I was kid who didn’t know how long of a movie he was in for at the time and I didn’t understand what all the fuss over a piece of simple jewelry was. I do now, much more than I probably should… but the long and short of it is that this film altered the cinematic landscape and brought fantasy to the Oscar party for the first time in a long time. It was actually nominated for more Oscars than the third film in the series that swept the ceremony away two years later, but though it got four, the big one it should have gotten went to A Beautiful Mind instead.


Best Pictures That Weren’t Even Nominated for Best Picture That Should Have Won Best Picture

Duck Soup (1933) – It was a tough call to decide between this and King Kong, but much as I love that giant gorilla, he’s just not as funny as the Marx Brothers. Not to mention, this finest film of theirs is positively snapping with biting satire. Actually banned by Mussolini who felt it was a comical critique of him specifically, this laugh a second affair details the rise to power of an inept and corrupt politician (Groucho Marx) who is backed by a wealthy woman who is so absolutely baffled by him that she fails to see how hilariously harmful he is in a position of power. The conniving nation next door sends equally bumbling spies (Harpo and Chico Marx) over to create havoc, and in this they actually succeed, but only in ruining the dastardly plans of their superiors and the days of many a comely young woman. On the surface this seems like a typical Marx Brothers romp, but hidden among the chuckle-worthy chaos is a damnation of corrupt politics and dirty dictators. Mussolini might have actually been onto something there.

The Third Man (1949) – As good as Citizen Kane is, it is far from Orson Welles’ best movie. Carol Reed directs this caper like Hitchcock at his best (which we’ll talk about in a moment), tilting the camera to provide askew glances at a similarly off-kilter society. Set in post-war Vienna, this adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel is regarded by many film lovers as the best movie ever made (I feel like I’ve said that a lot). It’s quite a shock that it didn’t even get nominated. Much like the surprise that American Western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) gets when he travels to Vienna to work with his old friend Harry Lime only to find that Harry is dead. Apparently Harry was killed by being struck by a car, but Holly feels like there are holes in the story and investigates further. What he discovers is that everything is not as it seems, but is in fact, much more surprising than he could have imagined. Orson Welles is only in the movie for a limited amount of time, yet his performance is widely considered one of the best of his career, and his entrance is one of the best by any character in any film.

Vertigo (1958) – One of Hitchcock’s best films, which is saying something. He works again with James Stewart who plays a former police detective turned private eye who is afraid of heights after a traumatic experience that ended his police career. He is hired by a friend to follow his friend’s wife (Kim Novak) who has been acting strangely. He follows her around for a while, and even ends up saving her life when she jumps in San Francisco Bay. They fall in love with each other but such happiness is not meant to last as tragedy ends the romance. That’s when things get really strange.

1958’s BPW, Gigi, is generally considered the worst movie to have won Best Picture. It managed to beat out good movies like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Auntie Mame, and The Defiant Ones, but the biggest crime is the lack of nomination and win for Vertigo, which is better than all of these combined. Actually, all of those movies combined would be weird and really long, so we’ll just say Vertigo is better than each of them and every other film in 1958.

Psycho (1960) – Hitchcock’s defining work, which is really saying something considering how much he made before and after this film and the quality of each of those films. Defying and defining horror film conventions, this classic was shocking then and still is now. The instantly recognizable score is chilling and matches the frenetic acts of murder that occur on camera, but those violins are hard at work discomforting us before we even get to the Bates Motel.

I really like The Apartment, the Jack Lemmon movie that won Best Picture in 1960, but Psycho is just so good and should have been a contender and champion that year.

Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo [The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly] (1966) – Speaking of signature scores everyone knows before they see the movie it was written for, Ennio Morricone’s classic and quirky western “wah-wah-wah”s are perfect blended with Sergio Leone’s masterful direction for his third and final installment in the Man with No Name series (although Clint Eastwood’s character is addressed as both Monco and Blondie in the films, so while neither is probably his proper name, he is christened). Taking place in the western United States (despite the fact that it was filmed in Spain and Italy) during the Civil War, it tells the tale of three men – all of whom are more bad than good – searching for a gold-filled grave and racing the other two to find it. Blondie and Tuco (the Good and Ugly) team up here and there, but the end finds each one staring down the others in a climactic and suspenseful standoff. Leone succeeds in bringing the best Western the screen had ever seen, which happened to be the best movie of 1966, and he may have done it again with C’era una volta il West [Once Upon a Time in the West] in 1968 were it not for another film…

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Once again I’ll say it: this is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. Extraordinary in every aspect, this is a hallmark film on innovation, style, and substance. Technically impressive and philosophically incredible, 2001 asks the biggest question we possible can: “Why are we here and where do we go from here?” I guess it’s a two-part question.

More people need to see this movie if for no other reason than to get the joke I always make whenever someone is experiencing computer difficulty: “What’s the matter? HAL won’t open the pod bay doors?” There is a reason the background on my computer is the smiling face of the most famous AI ever conceived in fiction. Also, it’s also one of the greatest films ever made. Not just one of the best science fiction films, one of the best films. It certainly has the best unoriginal musical score of any movie with a perfect selection of classical music for each scene. It fits so well that one can clearly see that some scenes are built around the musical composition that plays throughout them.

2001 has a lot going on in it even when it doesn’t have a lot happening. It’s definitely worth watching more than once, but I will admit that first viewing can be tedious. In a word, 2001 is hypnotic; it’s incredible captivating throughout the entire film, but you still might be asleep at the end of it.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – My favorite movie that takes place in space is no contest. Many do also call this the greatest film of all time, but I will admit they are mostly nerds. Nevertheless, they’re nerds with a great taste in favorite films because this is the greatest sequel of all time; besting its predecessor in every conceivable way – and its predecessor was pretty damn good. Not to mention, 1980 was a weak year for BPNs, so Empire should have been a shoo-in. What gives, Academy? No love for the Lucas? Did you get a glimpse in the future and see what he would do with this franchise and preemptively punish him for it? It’s still not deserved. Besides, Empire was directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Lawrence Kasdan (told you he’d be mentioned again!) and Leigh Brackett from George Lucas’ story. The characters we love show more depth and pain, we meet new characters and see new worlds, and we get a great lightsaber duel which culminates in the greatest twist that everybody already knows now. This is the best movie of the 1980s and it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture in its own year.

The Dark Knight (2008) – I explained in my previous Oscar gripe post that 2008 was a key year in the expansion to the current up-to-10 film format for the Best Picture award. A major reason why was this excellent film that is the best from Christopher Nolan. Had it been nominated for Best Picture as it should have been, The Dark Knight would have flown back to the Batcave with some shiny new hardware. For what it’s worth, at least Heath Ledger was awarded his much deserved Supporting Actor Oscar posthumously for the incredible performance he gave to the Joker that blew the previous portrayal by perennial Oscar winner Jack Nicholson out of the water.

Drive (2011) – Bloody and brilliant, the former probably scared off the Academy from nominating this dynamic film adaptation of James Sallis’ novel. Like some of the other minimalist movies I’ve mentioned here, Drive does so much by doing so little. For example, the use of the quadrant system, as explained here, is a simple yet effective technique that subconsciously drives (no pun intended) the film along. The acting is soooo good all around too. Seriously, look at the people in this movie and observe how none of them steal more scenes than their characters are supposed to (Albert Brooks is supposed to steal a lot of scenes). Ryan Gosling showed he can be a badass and a reserved dramatic actor in this. Carrie Mulligan excels again as a woman in a complicated romantic situation. Bryan Cranston, well, c’mon. Albert Brooks, God Damn, Man. I was not expecting that dark side from Marlin the clownfish. This film also has a great collection of music that adds to its signature style. Then there’s the driving. Oh yeah, even though he didn’t have a driver’s license at the time, director Nicolas Winding Refn showed he knows how to film people in cars (probably why he got the job directing those Lincoln commercials with Matthew McConaughey). The car chases are heart-pounding and rank as some of the best ever filmed. But if blood makes you squeamish then you might want to look away during some scenes because there are some showers of scarlet.

Interstellar (2014) – I’ve kind of belabored my point on this one enough, so read my past posts if you want to hear more.

Whew! That was a long one, I know, but now you’ve got 30 great movies to think on and assess the value of just as I did. Whether or not you agree with me or the Academy or neither doesn’t matter because ultimately it’s whatever you want to watch that will rate as your favorite film of each year. Our favorite movies may have a few flaws, or a lot, or be what we refer to as a “guilty pleasure”, but they’re our favorites for a reason, just as the Academy’s favorites are theirs. But what fun would it be if we just shrugged our shoulders and said, “Okay, whatever,” to their selections every year? Everybody makes mistakes, and filmmakers and raters are no different; look at how many more shitty movies than good movies get made each year.

Thanks for reading! I apologize for the tardiness, but you try writing this much and enjoying your birthday at the same time: something’s gotta give, and I hope it’s the writing part. So live a little and send me questions, comments, requests, and all that jazz to monotrememadness@gmail.com. As movies are a favorite subject of mine to ramble on about I may start a specifically movie oriented blog in the near future with more posts complaining about Oscar selections of past and present, so keep your eyes open for that. That’ll probably be a once-in-a-while posting venue if I make it, and I’ll let you all know if and when I do on this site. Fear not, I will stop writing here. You can still expect whatever random topic pops into my head to find its way somewhat poetically onto this page every Monday/very early Tuesday.

R.I.P. Jon Lovitz,

Alex

Why Black History Month Is Bullshit

Oh, I’m going to get it now. But I don’t care; this needs to be said. I’m not even the first person to say it, and I’m certainly not saying it with my face on national television like others have. No, I have a point to make, and I’m going to make it while there is still some veil of anonymity shrouded over my identity. So far most of you only know my first name and home state, and there is no guarantee that either is even what I’ve said it is. Nevertheless, I stand by what I’m saying here today, and I hope that, rather than unleashing unnecessary anger, these words will help people to see how silly assigning a month as the official history of anything is.

Let’s begin with, appropriately, some history. Before there was a Black History Month there was Negro History Week. Started in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard educated historian born to former slaves, Negro History Week took place during the second week of February because of the proximity of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). The focal point of this week was to teach American public school students about the history of American blacks, but it didn’t take off soaring right away. Nonetheless, it carried on enough that in just a few years it had been taken up in schools, churches, and other communal organizations throughout most of the United States.

Fast forward to 1969 when student leaders at Kent State University encouraged stretching the week into a month. In February 1970 they celebrated the first Black History Month on KSU’s campus. Six years later, in the mix of America’s Bicentennial Celebration, President Gerald Ford announced the official recognition of Black History Month every February in America.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, I am on-board with Woodson’s creation of Negro History Week as a means of promoting more study into black history in America during a time when the impacts of the American Civil War were still felt and when black Americans were fearful that the good and bad of this and other significant events in their country’s history could be forgotten. Woodson and his supporters were attempted to preserve history and educate the masses about it, and this is always an admirable and necessary task for the advancement of any society.

I can also understand the desire for this celebratory week to be expanded, and I don’t have an issue with that sentiment, yet I think that Black History Month was better suited for the time it started than it is now. Bear in mind, I wasn’t alive for the start of either Negro History Week or Black History Month, but I have taken a few history classes and have been to Kent State University’s campus, so I’ll try to justify my beliefs based upon what I’ve learned from observance in the time I have been here and, well, history. I feel that the adoption of Black History Month in the 1970s was similar to the advent of Negro History Week in the 1920s in that it started as a means to promote the recognition and continued education about the history of a specific group of people in America – a minority group that had endured great oppression in recent memory, no less. That being said, I think that placing a month of special emphasis on the specific history of such a group of people is not a bad idea for that time. I don’t believe that Black History Month was bad from the start, but I do believe it is bad for America now. In order to explain why I feel this way, I will piggy-back on the dulcet tones of one of my favorite actors, the great Morgan Freeman, who had this to say during a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace in 2006.

This took many people aback when it aired. Why would a black man not want there to be a Black History Month? The answer is simple: black history is American history. Just as Jewish history is American history. This is true, of course, only when the people we are studying are from America, but you get the idea. Americans, whether they are black, Jewish, or whatever other color, race, ethnicity, or creed anyone assigns them are Americans. We have a better and broader understanding of this now than we once did thanks to great people of many different heritages from America and other countries. People like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as his great non-violent civil disobedience influence, Mahatma Gandhi. Let us celebrate their contributions to human society always. We can place extra emphasis on dates of significance, such as the officially recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January here in America which is held always on a Monday close to King’s birthday (January 15). Nowadays our schools teach the history these men made and fought to preserve alongside the history of every other ethnic group, so what need do we have for a Black History Month anymore?

I don’t feel that there is a need for such a month, and furthermore believe that it does more harm now than good. As Freeman said in the interview, it serves to relegate a specific group’s history to a confined window of time. Sure, it’s a month, but that’s only 1/12th of the calendar, and it’s the shortest one! Let’s face it: February sucks. The weather is shitty, single people get a heavy dose of lonely reality in the midst of it, and every four years it goes on for an extra day! Fuck February! If I wasn’t born in this month I would have nothing to look forward to about it. So who really wants some of their history crammed into one month, this one especially?

Going by this logic, Black History Month strikes me as an example of further segregation of black Americans. What’s more, as a white man, I’m not sure how much of Black History Month today is meant for me. I always enjoy learning about historical figures, especially Americans (because, hey! I’m one of those!), but some of the celebrations of the lives of black Americans who are highlighted during this month seem to be put on exclusively for black Americans. Closes things off a bit, doesn’t it? Do we really want to respond to years of other groups shutting off their worlds from blacks by having blacks do the same? I know it’s a natural tendency, and many past actions of shutting off of the “white world” in the past were done with some unforgivable actions, but we’re never going to be one big, happy family if we’re too busy splitting into cliques and closing the doors behind us.

I have an issue not only with the continuation of Black History Month, but the continuation of incorrect terms of identification. I don’t give a crap what you call me as long as it’s accurate. Am I white? Sure. I am also descended from English and Polish families, so feel free to call upon my heritage there. However, I do not hail from the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas, so calling me a “Caucasian” is not accurate. Similarly, using the term “African-American” to identify someone based solely on their skin complexion and not their recent family history is incorrect and ignorant. And I say recent family history because if you trace any human being’s lineage back far enough you’ll end up in Africa. Certainly specific families come from African ancestors more recently than others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are black. One of my favorite examples of how stupidly used the term “African-American” is comes from one of my favorite interests: movies. In 2001, Halle Berry won the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball and was declared the first African-American to win the award for an actress in a leading role (Hattie McDaniel was the first black person to win an Academy Award, Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind in 1939). Halle Berry may be black, but she was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, so she wasn’t born in Africa or directly descended from parents from Africa. Her parents actually met in England and her mother’s side also traces back to Germany, so she has a globally-rich family background, but not anything to justify calling her African-American. More accurately, Halle Berry could be considered an English-German-American. Fast forward two years to 2003 when Charlize Theron won that year’s Best Actress Oscar for Monster (there are many similarities in this example). Even though Theron is a white actress, she is actually the first true African-American actress to win the award because she was born in Benoni, South Africa, and later moved to America, thereby making her African-American.

In today’s America we have succumbed to “political correctness” so much that we no longer use such identifiable terms properly. Do you really want to identify the background of a citizen of this country without insulting them? Let’s call them what they are: Americans. Unfortunately we still base so much on color – contrary to the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that we hear so frequently every February.

I’m not asking for a “color-blind” world, or for equal slots of time throughout the year dedicated to each ethnicity. I want to be able to live in a world where we manage to embrace our differences while recognizing that we are all one people. It’s easier said than done, to be sure. Racism has certainly not gone away with our recent societal progressions. It may not be as harshly prevalent across America as it once was, but it has unfortunately stuck around quite stubbornly in certain ways. Where once were constant audacious instances of oppression against black Americans from white Americans in the Deep South are now softer, more passive aggressive, yet still wrong, occurrences of continuing racial demeaning from any and every group towards any other. Such tendencies are kept alive in the little things that we do and don’t do. It may not be easy to tell grandma off for recounting a racist whim of yesteryear, but at the very least we should educate our children (and remind ourselves) that such comments are inappropriate. We cannot let hate of any sort continue along even at a lessened pace lest it finds ground to thrive in once more, and you sure as hell don’t want that ground to be in the hearts of your children.

Perhaps it’s my more pragmatic, biology-background side, but as far as I’m concerned we are all animals on this Earth, and we are all part of the same (sub)species: Homo sapiens sapiens. The rest is genetic variation that arose from natural factors and our own choices in mates. We should be glad that no matter what we look like that we are alive. Is there anything else as important as that?

Alex

State of the Season 2: Veteran’s Day to Alien Rain – Don’t Worry; the Football and Christmas Seasons Are Over

Happy Groundhog Day everyone! I don’t know whether or not the beloved Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, nor do I recall what it signifies if he does, not because I wrote this before the rodent was dragged from his hollow this morning (the very thought!), but more simply because I don’t care. We have Doppler 10 Millions to forecast weather patterns these days, and after living in Cleveland for five years I simply don’t trust much of anything that is popular in western Pennsylvania. Well, that’s not completely true; I do love me some football, and if you’ve been a loyal reader of this blog you’re well aware of that fact. During the last three months I have written two posts exclusively about my favorite football team and have made plenty of mentions of how great I think they are in other posts. To be fair, it was the climactic finish of the season and they did win the national championship. Whether or not you’re a football fan like me, you undoubtedly heard about the game that was on last night. If you didn’t, you actually missed a pretty entertaining contest that saw the Seattle Seahawks snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against the now (once again) Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Congrats Pats fans, the gopher got you 30 feet more of snow. For those of you tired of reading about football, breathe a sigh of relief. Yesterday’s Super Bowl marked the end of football games until the waning summer rolls around. I am going to miss those introductory player line-ups, though. (Fun fact: all the people not played by Key or Peele are real NFL players using their real names. Except for A.A. Ron Rodgers. God knows who that is.) What’s more, the game wasn’t even the focal point of everyone’s fascination yesterday. That honor firmly belongs to the dancer in the shark costume to Katy Perry’s right during the Halftime Show. Apparently my friend Dan and I were the only ones less concerned with her backup dancers and more hopeful for a wardrobe malfunction. Alas, Lenny Kravitz’s clothing stayed on throughout the performance. Nevertheless, I am happy to see a shark in the spotlight for favorable reasons (even if it was a fake shark at a football game) instead of being called a man-eating machine on the news.

Actually the high point of Super Bowl XLIX (which I’m bummed my San Francisco 49ers weren’t playing in. How perfect would that have been?! Ahh. At least Seattle lost…) was not the game or the halftime festivities, but the second trailer for Jurassic World that kicked off the commercials last night. Let’s face it, the rest of the advertisements were underwhelming at best. The trend of a highly entertaining game (not counting last year) and progressively less amusing commercials continued, so Universal Studios could have just shown the logo with the T. rex skeleton again and I would have been satisfied. Thank the dino gods they opted for more, especially the confirmation that Chris Pratt’s character is indeed training mother fucking velociraptors and will unleash them to go hunting after the super T. rex that Ron Howard’s daughter “cooks up”. Can it be June 12th already? No, really. I’m tired of shoveling snow. You know what I’m not tired of? Chris Pratt. While everyone is going bonkers over the new girl-power Ghostbusters (bitchin’ casting btw), I’m Homer Simpson woohooing in joy on the floor over the rumor that Chris Pratt will be the next Indiana Jones. Fuck yeah! As much as I love Harrison Ford and will forever for being the man in my two favorite trilogies of all time (as far as I’m concerned, there were only three in each – little kids belong only in one series; aliens belong only in the other) it is time for someone else to take up the whip if it’s ever going to be cracked again, and who better than Chris Pratt? Honestly, the guy is red hot right now (in more ways than one) and is proving his action-star capabilities more and more. Besides, if it wasn’t Chris Pratt donning the fedora things would be a little more like this.

All that is nice, but the point of today’s post is to recap the past 12 posts I’ve featured each Monday over the last three months. Without further ado, here we go!

Monday November 10, 2014 was a busy day for me on this site. I first published a segment about Veteran’s Day and my father’s time in Vietnam. I spent most of the day (and the week leading up to it) digging through my dad’s memoir for stories he told and experiences he had during his stint as a Marine in the Vietnam War. It was something I had meant to do for a while, and I’m grateful that my desire to compose a post about Veteran’s Day encouraged me to final reopen the pages that I had left closed for too long. I hope everyone, military servicemen and civilians alike, was able to appreciate the hardships of the era that came both in the DMZ and almost as harshly in the unrest at home. Not to say that all war protests of the time were violent, but too many were and both protesters and law-enforcement were to blame for things getting out of hand in many of the more notable examples of peace rallies becoming anything but peaceful. I hope that what I shared from my dad’s experiences in that era helped to also honor military personal of all eras in America and throughout the world. War is hell I’ve heard, and my dad chimed in his concurrence with that sentiment, although he stressed that sometimes it’s sadly necessary to ensure peace in the world. It’s certainly a paradox, but I think the United States has had just cause to enter into almost all of the conflicts it has rallied troops for. Let’s all remember what war can be whenever we see a veteran. This doesn’t mean that all those who’ve served are infallible heroes, but patriotism and a willingness to put the lives of others you won’t ever know ahead of yours is an admirable dedication that should be appreciated by those of us here on the homefront.

Soon after I submitted my Veteran’s Day discussion I also provided Google and Network For Good’s collaborative fight against Ebola in West Africa with some free advertising. I did so because I believe the outbreak is one of the most important health concerns in the world today and merited some extra exposure. The campaign Google sponsored has since ended, as has the unfounded panic here in the States, yet the outbreak has not. The number of total cases has exceeded 22,000 and almost 9,000 have died. Looking at the CDC’s web info on the West Africa outbreak one can see that this epidemic is far from over and should not fall out of mind. There are more people getting infected and dying every day. Therefore, in addition to thanking our military veterans we should also applaud those brave health workers who come from all around the world to West Africa to wage war on one of the most dangerous diseases we’ve ever known.


Another common theme of discussion from me over the last three months was space travel, which happened to play a vital role in my favorite movie from last year, which I happened to see on the same day the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a probe on a comet for the first time in history. I talked about all of this in this post. The ESA has long since lost contact with the Philae probe it successfully stuck on the Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet, and they recently gave up trying to get back in touch with it, turning to hope that it will call them back if it ever reboots. (If you love something, let it go….) Still, the ramifications of the success of this mission are very exciting and will usher in new technology for space research and ideally greater public interest with it. In the movie Interstellar which I tied into the comet craziness, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Cooper, says, “This world’s a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now.” Our world hasn’t quite kicked us out of the basement just yet, but it’s definitely been asking us to turn down the thermostat. We better damn well get our space programs rolling more than ever if we want to at least have the contingency plan to bail this wonderful world for another. Of course that ain’t exactly Plan A, and our first priority should be stopping our warming effects. If we could work on that, really work on it… (I’m looking at you Congress. [I’m looking at you specifically, Republicans. You want my vote? Actually fucking do something other than constantly argue and slam your fists on the table anytime anything with the word “science” in it gets brought up. Shame on you all for putting money before people and academics. That goes for you dipshit Democrats too. You just haven’t made as notable of headlines lately.]).


The third post of this “second season” was the first dedicated to my Buckeye pride, both for my home state and my favorite football team. I wrote it leading up to the biggest game of the season for The Ohio State University. No, not the National Championship versus Oregon; no, not the Sugar Bowl against Alabama; and no, not the Big Ten Conference Title Game to face Wisconsin. Make no mistake, even when Ohio State plays in games this big, the most important game of the year is always the finale against Michigan. This is true even with a third-string quarterback as big as these stakes. Seriously, Cardale Jones is like 9’10” 647lbs and has the graceful leap of a bounding impala coupled with the powerful pushing ability of a charging rhinoceros. Fortunately this year Ohio State won all four of these final games, but I’ve mentioned that once or twice or countless times before – at least enough times to make fans of other teams or sports tired of it. To make it up to you I’ll explain why I capitalized the “The” when I mentioned OSU above. It may seem pretentious, and I guess that it is, but it’s actually part of the university’s name. Back in 1878, the school was known as Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College (btw, anytime you see a school with “A&M” in its name, that’s what it stands for, not “Aggies & Manziel” as they may believe in Texas). The Ohio General Assembly completed what was started by once Governor and then-current President who rocked the best Presidential beard ever, Rutherford B. Hayes. They opted to develop the school into a more complete university, so they reshaped it and renamed it, placing an extra emphasis on the inclusion of the now signature “The” in order to set Ohio State apart from other universities of the day. It has since worked so well that every time they have the opening lineups at a football game (see the above Key and Peele skit) almost every player includes a “The” before his school’s name, but only The Ohio State University actually has “The” in its officially recognized title. So us Buckeyes were pretentious before it was cool. Another fun fact: I didn’t even go to Ohio State. Those five years I mentioned I lived in Cleveland earlier were spent in study at John Carroll University, home of the Blue Streaks (I’m as confused as you are as to what that actually is). JCU may not have as many NFL players to boast as OSU; being a D-III school there is only one so far who made it to the bigs: London Fletcher. Fletcher had a pretty damn good career though; he won a Super Bowl with the Rams, was a four-time Pro-Bowler, and is one of only four NFL players to never miss a game in his career which lasted an incredible 256 games, 215 of which he started at linebacker, the current all-time record for starts at that position. Of course, John Carroll is a coach’s school and boasts many renowned football coaches as graduates including Don Shula, the winningest NFL coach of all-time, and Josh McDaniels, who you probably saw on TV last night calling the offensive plays for the Patriots. Suck it Mount Union.


In order to not fall into what I just did and continuously talk up the football accolades of people and places I have extremely tenuous connections with at best, I opted to write my next post about my other great entertainment love: movies. Most specifically I rambled on about movie trailers and how they have evolved over time to accompany films (mainly blockbusters). I included links to a few for big-budget movies I’m super excited about for this summer and beyond, including Jurassic World. I made it very clear that the new Star Wars movie due out in December is at the top of my list, but I did not mention the movie that’s stirring my loins almost as excitedly that comes out just a month before that, but that is because it has yet to have a trailer released. Due out November 6, Spectre will be the 24th James Bond movie and will return Daniel Craig for what will probably be his last ride as the eternal secret agent. Sam Mendes, who directed the last installment, Skyfall, also is helming this production, but the real returning star here is the titular diabolical underground union of bad guys from the early films that starred Sean Connery. Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa, Dr. King Schultz) and Dave Bautista (Drax the Destroyer) join in the fun that will also reunite us with the enigmatic Mr. White who made brief yet crucial appearances in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

Look at that poster! Holy shit it’s so good. (If you haven’t gathered, I’m a fan of minimalism.) My comic book fan friends have told me that the next wave of Marvel movies are going to be incredible. Where they know Marvel mythology, I know Bond, and believe me when I say that only a seventh Star Wars movie can steal the show from what is going to go down in the Bond franchise this year.

This was also the post in which I uttered the words: “Poor James Cameron.” This was in reference to the trailer for Terminator 2: Judgment Day spoiling one of the secrets Cameron had carefully crafted. It still sucks what happened, and I feel for the guy as an artist, especially since T2 is probably his best movie (I’m a huge Aliens fan too, so I bounce back and forth between the two), but he’s done alright since he initially turned his recurring nightmare into box office gold, so maybe coddling Cameron isn’t necessary.


The next three weeks I went cuckoo for Christmastime, or about Christmastime. Either way, there was a lot of Christmas going down in December all throughout world, and this blog was no different.

First, I complained about excessive and way-too-early playing of Christmas carols.

Next, I raced the clock to squeak out a quick post about some of my favorite television episodes that are holiday themed. While I got some good ones out there, unfortunately I did miss some things. There is a great lack of Holiday Armadillo and Robot Chicken Christmas Specials of both the Half-Assed and Full-Assed variety. Yet the most apparent dead patch of needles on the tree is the instant classic that is “Anatomy Park”, the third episode of Rick and Morty, the best show on TV today (although not at the moment as it’s between seasons). Following the sci-fi adventures of a reckless and frequently drunk grandfather and his uneasy teenage grandson, Rick and Morty is the bizarrely entertaining offspring of Dan Harmon (Community) and Justin Roiland (Adventure Time). In “Anatomy Park” they provide their own take on one of my favorite films that I’ve already talked about a lot today. What makes Rick and Morty great is the terrific characters and great blend of ridiculous A and B plots that come together into hilarious situations and occasionally offer great life lessons. This particular episode ends quite spectacularly in a way that I think I can safely say has never before been seen on TV. You can watch the whole thing here. If you’re worried about seeing it out of season, don’t even trip, dawg; Rick and Morty can be enjoyed any time of the year. Just don’t watch this with the kids.

Finally, I concluded Christmas with a selection of offbeat Christmas movies that I enjoy almost every holiday season. Again, I’m proud of the list, but I feel it’s incomplete. I submitted it without realizing that I hadn’t listed National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) for the sole reason that I was so sure I had already included it. My apologies to Chevy Chase. Also missing is the best version of Dickens’ classic Christmas tale: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), another that no self-respecting Christmas is complete without. While I’m at it amending my list that I clearly didn’t check twice, allow me to add another of my favorites from years ago that definitely isn’t on par with these two. You want a real deep cut? How about Invasion U.S.A. (1985) with Chuck Norris? It’s a typical Chuck Norris as a one-man-army (in this case literally) who battles back Communists who take advantage of our religiously-derived celebration to catch us unawares. Merry Christmas, mother fucker.


For New Year’s I churned out a list I’ve been adding to over the years of songs that I feel are excellent at putting life in perspective. It’s by no means complete as there are new songs being made all the time and I haven’t heard all those that have existed for a while longer, so there might very well be another of these.


As I’ve already mentioned, Ohio State had a few big games in the first two weeks of 2015 and I wrote about them here. I took that picture!


I made my most “Dear Diary” post yet with “London Calling: The Clash of the Wild” where I channeled frustration with my grandfather and climate change deniers together with my one-man protest against mechanized driveway snow removal to celebrate Jack London’s birthday. It still has nothing to do with The Clash.


The following post was also anger-based, but this time the frustration stemmed from Interstellar and The Lego Movie not receiving their due love from the Oscar nominations. At least “Everything is Awesome” is up for Best Original Song which it has to be, and Hans Zimmer should win for Best Original Score for Interstellar. Still, ugh. If you saw Interstellar, listen to this and tell me that that sound-byte sans picture of the best scene in years doesn’t drown you with intensity and emotion greater than anything you’ve seen in any of the nominees for Best Picture. God I hope something great and original like Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Whiplash wins. (Note: I still haven’t seen Boyhood or Selma yet, so I will continue to reserve judgment for these.) Someday Nolan, someday….


Last week’s post was inspired by a segment in an episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True that I saw earlier that Monday. The red rain of Kerala was a fascinating anomaly that I had to check out more than 20 melodramatic minutes of. The story itself was very interesting and seemed to be the perfect opportunity to discuss the panspermia hypothesis. While the rain wasn’t what the initial researchers thought it was, it is still interesting to think that aliens may very well be among us because they are us. Science can be so sexy sometimes, right Jon Stewart?


Just so you don’t get mad at me for merely recapping old material, here it is, your tidbit of fun.

  • The next time you’re at a restaurant and the server tells you, “Be careful; the plate is very hot,” (because they have to to avoid being sued) as he/she hands you your food, take it in your hands and do your damnedest to show no pain and simply say, “I am the blood of the dragon.” They’ll be impressed.

Thanks for reading today and in the previous weeks! Keep on coming back for more fun and the occasional serious point. Next week will feature just such a post, and it will be the boldest thing I’ve ever written. No joke, shit gets real next week. Until then, keep warm, turn into the skid, and most importantly of all, don’t drive angry. If you’ve got anything to say, say it here in the comments or at monotrememadness@gmail.com.

Then put your little hand in mine, there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb,

Alex

Louis and Kumar Go To Kerala

They never meant to cause you any sorrow

They never meant to cause you any pain

They only wanted one time to see you laughing

They only want to see you laughing in the red Kerala rain

Red Kerala Rain, Red Kerala Rain!

Maybe it’s not as catchy as Prince’s legendary song that was the climactic culmination of his musical film of the same name, but the real-life instances of red rain falling in the Indian state of Kerala in the summer of 2001 was in many ways just as bizarrely brilliant and entertaining. First beginning on Christmas in July (July 25), residents of Kerala watched in wonder, horror, and confusion as the sky poured open with rain the color of blood. The strange phenomenon occurred after a loud booming noise that did not seem to be thunder as it wasn’t preceded by lightning. Was it a message from the gods? Was it a surreal scientific happening? Or was it something that validated the craziest sounding idea for the beginnings of life on Earth?

“Blood rain” is nothing new. It is an odd yet fairly common occurrence where red colored rain falls instead of the regular, more expected clear rain we’re used to kissing an upside-down hanging Spider-Man in. Blood rain is never actually blood (although some locals in Kerala in 2001 believed that exploding bats were the cause) but rather a mix of colored solid particles that fall with the rain that give it its strange signature appearance. More often than not it is reddish colored sand from a desert such as the Sahara or Gobi that gets swept up into the clouds and blown over to anywhere the wind drops it off. Such events have happened before in London, various parts of India, and pretty much everywhere in between. There are even some recorded instances of fish being whirled up by a storm system in the North Sea and dropped onto an unsuspecting England! Nevertheless, Kerala did not experience anything like that. The red rain that fell from late July to late September was not the typical “blood rain” scientists were used to seeing, but an anomaly that led to many questions and even more answers, each more outlandish than the others.

A physicist by the name of Godfrey Louis from the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, checked out some samples of the red rain and was surprised to find the source of the red color wasn’t dust or dirt, but living cells. Transparent living cells that looked a lot like blood cells in almost every respect except for the fact that they didn’t test positive for blood cells. Louis and his colleague Santhosh Kumar could not find any DNA present in the cells either, but they did make the startling discovery that the cells could not only stand up to, but best replicated at temperatures around 300 °C (572 °F). Holy Four-Armed Vishnu! That’s fucking hot! Believe it or not, it gets crazier. Louis and Kumar added up the evidence they had and felt it pointed at one conclusion: the red cells that rained down upon Kerala were extraterrestrial cells that were attached to a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere and caused the colored cells to fall as rain. It all sounds quite farfetched, and in a moment I’ll provide the reasons why it is, but I’ll also explain why the weirdest sounding part of it all is actually a valid hypothesis for how life began on Earth, and could begin or might have begun on other worlds.

Louis and Kumar stumbled upon something unique for sure, but as experienced as they were in one scientific field (Physics), their lack of experience in another (Biology) led them to a conclusion jump that was a bit too bold. They admitted that they were not experts on finding DNA in cells – an admirable admission for scientists who had hoped to have made the greatest discovery of humanity’s lifetime – and they sent off the samples to other scientists more experienced in doing so. All of these biologists determined the presence of DNA. This doesn’t seem to completely discredit the duo, but it does weaken their authority on a hypothesis that claims the existence of alien lifeforms. Furthermore, they didn’t account for the effect that wind and weather would have had on a meteor that had debris scatter from the sky onto the same area for two months. Nor did they submit any of their reports on their findings to a peer-reviewed scientific journal. You may recall my emphasis on the importance of the peer-reviewed journal process from a few blogs back, but suffice it to say that if you put a paper out there with your research findings and don’t submit it through a review process from other scientists in the field, it’s comparable to a poorly made horror movie not giving film critics a preview: it’s not going to go down in the annals of history for a good reason.

Scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Kerala took a look at the red rain samples and discovered its true colors. They determined that the living cells were most likely of this world and were algal spores from the genus Trentepohlia which is fairly common in the Kerala region. Not to mention that this is not the first nor last occurrence of red rain which has wet the land of Kerala; one fell as recently as 2012. Moreover, the findings by Louis and Kumar of the extreme temperature surviving abilities of the cells was unsubstantiated by anyone outside of themselves.

This is not to say that cells and living organisms cannot endure extreme conditions. Extremophiles are organisms (usually microorganisms) that live quite comfortably in places that organisms like us most certainly cannot. Places like thermal vents well over 100°C, deserts that are harsh and unyielding, and potentially in the icy crags of rocks whizzing through space. If such hardy organisms can survive in the freezing vacuum of space, then they can travel on asteroids, comets, and other objects in space, including artificial satellites, and could possibly take up new residence on planets that their cosmic carrier crashes into. It is possible that the first lifeforms that arose on Earth came from the far reaches of deep space in just such a way. This planetary “seeding” of life is what is proposed by the hypothesis known as panspermia. Greek for “all seed”, panspermia is analogous to the beginnings of life in animals like us where a sperm fertilizes an egg to begin development of new life. Just consider this happening on a much, much larger scale where a meteoroid (that is soon to be a meteorite; the sperm in this instance) carrying extremophile microorganisms crashes into a planet (the egg) and those lifeforms take hold on their new homeworld and evolve so that over time there are many new species that have developed from the original lifeform(s). The question of where the first life in the universe developed is still unanswered, but it is exciting to consider that we may have been Martians before Earthlings somewhere in our evolutionary past.

It is important to remember that panspermia is not a scientific theory as it has not yet had enough evidence to back it up (as in really any). Louis and Kumar have made adjustments on their original findings from their research on the red rain of Kerala but still maintain the position that the cells are extraterrestrial and proof of panspermia in action. It seems unlikely in this instance, but that doesn’t kill the panspermia hypothesis. We have to keep pressing on with an open mind and an objective resolve to try to decipher the answer to how our planet first became lively, and when we’ve got that figured out we can hitch a ride on our success en route to uncover the next great mystery of why things are the way they are.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to drizzle on back here next week for the second State of the Season! It’ll only be a couple of  weeks late of the President’s State of the Union, for what that’s worth. Any questions, queries, qualms, or comments can be directed below or to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Feel free to send me any ideas for future topics; I’ll at least read them all. Be nice to everybody you see on the street in the meantime. Yes, even Todd from high school. I know he was a douche then and it’s still lingering a bit now, but he’s trying, and it’s not nice to laugh at the fat guy on the treadmill who’s making an effort. Besides, we’re all lucky to be we where are anyway.

Your Cosmic Character,

Alex

Making Mondays a little less Mondayish for all with words to educate, inspire, and try out my stand-up routine with.