Between the Lines: You'll Laugh, You'll Cry ... Without Ever Leaving Your Chair
(November 2001, addition August 2002) By David Pitt
It seems to be chic, since September 11, to remind everybody, as often as possible, that New York will never look the same again. News commentators and op-ed writers say it all the time, these days, but here's what they don't tell you: New York has never looked the same for very long. If you doubt me, check out Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (Knopf, hardcover), a big, beautiful coffee-table book by architect James Sanders that's one of a fistful of entertaining new books about the business of entertainment.
Even the book's cover is glorious: an establishing shot of the Big Apple from Portrait of Jennie (1948), sunlight poking through the clouds, the city laid out like a tiny, perfect miniature. Sanders charts the evolution of Gotham through film: King Kong, Taxi Driver, Rear Window, Batman, 42nd Street, The Fifth Element, the list goes on and on. Sanders' point is simple enough: New York is a constantly-changing metropolis (or, for fans of Superman, Metropolis) that looks entirely different from one angle to the next. Upper-class glitz, lower-class poverty, ethnic influences from all corners of the world - it's all here.
Sanders doesn't concentrate on the so-called classic films, either: for him, the science-fiction thriller The Fifth Element is as important as, say, 42nd Street, because both of them show us a New York that is detailed, exciting, and entirely plausible. The book has illustrations on nearly every page (scenes from classic films, production designs, and so on), and the text is film-buff heaven, taking us behind the scenes of some of our favorite productions. But at the heart of it all is New York, the city with a variety of names and faces, the city that is new all over again, every time you look at it. An utterly splendid book.
Also utterly splendid - at least for fans of a certain cartoon character - is Keith Scott's The Moose That Roared (Thomas Dunne, paperback). Subtitled 'The Story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, a Flying Squirrel, and a Talking Moose,' it's a cheerful, funny, and altogether wonderful history of Jay Ward Productions, the studio that gave us Bullwinkle J. Moose, Dudley Do-Right, George of the Jungle, Professor Peabody, and other quirkily delightful animated characters.
Keith Scott, an Australian voice artist who is no relation to the Bill Scott who provided Bullwinkle's voice (but who has played Bullwinkle himself, are you following this?), admits to a 'not-quite-sane level of worship' for the cartoons of the marvelous Jay Ward. He has crafted a book that is, if you can believe it, very much like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons themselves: fast-paced, exciting, filled with larger-than-life characters and plenty of wit (even the book's title is a pun). So step into the WABAC - pronounced 'Way-Back' - Machine, set course for September 20, 1920, when J Troplong Ward joined the world, and follow his adventures as he revolutionized the animation industry. It's a voyage you won't soon forget.
Speaking of quirkily delightful characters, you should pick up A & R(Random House, paperback), a novel about the music business by Bill Flanagan. Jim Cantone, a hotshot young A & R man - that stands for artists and repertoire - takes a new job at WorldWide Records, run by the eccentric Wild Bill DeGaul. Soon Jim discovers that there's trouble a-brewin' at WorldWide, and he's going to have to make a choice: stay loyal to his new boss, or join the upstarts as they overthrow DeGaul and take over the company.
Flanagan, who's created a couple of series for VH1, and written a few books about music and musicians, packs the novel with plenty of insider detail: the story may be made-up, but the music-industry world it's set in seems dead-on accurate. The book's full of over-the-top characters who somehow seem entirely real: record-company execs, recording artists, assorted music-biz players, people who could only exist in the world that Flanagan has created (a world, we suspect, that's not too different from the real world). But at the heart of the story is Jim Cantone, a good man who just wants to be good at his job: a moral center, if you don't mind a lit-crit term, for a story about a business where morals sometimes get lost in the confusion. An excellent novel (and Flanagan's first, too).
A nice companion piece to Flanagan's novel might be Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones(Doubleday, hardcover). Jones's musical career has spanned five decades; he's been a performer, an arranger, a composer, a producer. He's won several major awards, been nominated for numerous others, has worked with some of the giants: Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Spielberg, Jackson. He has always seemed like a genuinely nice man, which probably explains why he has written a genuinely nice memoir. (Don't look for gossip or innuendo here.)
Jones has a personal life, but you won't find out too much about it in the book: Jones focuses primarily on his professional life. That's fine by me: there's a lot of interesting stuff here, and some little-known tidbits too (remember the great Sanford and Son theme? He composed that). Legend is an over-used term in the entertainment industry; in Jones's case, it might actually apply.
Since we're talking about the music business, let's take a few moments to discuss FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio(Villard, hardcover), by disc jockey, programmer, and talk-show host Richard Neer. 'In 1971,' Neer writes, 'the absolute coolest place to work in radio was WNEW-FM.' Neer tells us how he wound up working at the New York station, and what happened to him later (he stayed for 28 years, before moving on to other things), but FM tells a bigger story than that: it chronicles the birth - and, eventually, death - of free-form rock-and-roll: you know, the fun stuff where the DJ spins the platters, makes with the patter, telling jokes, doing pretty much whatever they want. It's a downright fascinating book.
Also downright fascinating is The Forensic Science of C.S.I. (Berkley, paperback), by Katherine Ramsland. The covers - front and back - warn us that 'this book was not authorized, prepared, approved, licensed, or endorsed by any entity involved in creating or producing the C.S.I. television series.' (The statement is repeated on the copyright page) In case we don't get the point, the spine features the words unauthorized directly beneath the title. So, yes, this is not a 'making-of' book, not an inside look at the production of this excellent series. But here's the thing: it doesn't need to be.
Ramsland, who's written a fistful of books (several of them about the writings of Anne Rice, and something called Engaging the Immediate: Applying Kierkegaard's Indirect Communication to Psychotherapy), has a master's degree in forensic psychology. She worked with John Douglas, who pretty much invented the art of profiling. She writes articles about forensic science. She isn't merely a fan of C.S.I., and it shows: the book is a very good, very informative introduction to the science of forensics. If you've watched the show, and you're interested in learning more about what its characters do for a living, this is the book for you. Some bits of the book may seem a tad amateurish - the way Ramsland keeps referring to the C.S.I. people by their character names, for example - but this is minor quibbling.
While I'm quibbling, let me tell you about The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? and Other Essays (Applause, paperback), by screenwriter and novelist William Goldman. First, for those of you for whom the name rings only a teensy bell, some credits: Goldman won Academy Awards for his screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men (he also wrote the script for Misery, still the best Stephen King adaptation); his novels include Marathon Man and The Princess Bride; his nonfiction includes Adventures in the Screen Trade and its sequel Which Lie did I Tell?, two of the very best Hollywood books.
The Big Picture is a collection of essays written for Premiere, The Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, and New York. 'What you have here,' Goldman writes, 'is a chronicle of the worst decade in movie history' - op-ed pieces, mostly, little ditties in which Goldman tells us about upcoming movies, makes some predictions (with the help of some anonymous 'Hollywood Powers'), and just generally rambles on about the state of moviemaking today. Goldman is opinionated, blunt, even annoying at times. But he is a fine writer, and he knows what he's talking about. If you're a fan, this one's a must-have.
Oh, yes, the quibbling, can't forget the quibbling. This book looks like it was put together by amateurs. The writing is fine, but the editing is, let's be charitable, clumsy. Commas appear where full stops belong; quotation marks are missing; and too many sentences look like this: '...stars, money, and for one night only, (Oscar night) quality.' See where the comma is there? Makes me shiver. The Big Picture looks, at times, like it was edited by a functional illiterate, or by someone for whom English is a second language. Too bad, too: Goldman has a lot of things to say here, and most of them are well worth our attention. If only reading the book weren't such a painful experience ...
If you happen to like painful reading experiences, you might want to check out Madonna (St. Martin's Press, hardcover), by schlock biographer Andrew Morton. It's one of four books released since this column was written, and I'm pleased to report this biography of the Material Girl is up to Morton's standards: gossipy, badly written, thoroughly cheesy. As usual, Morton relies on third-hand stories from unreliable parties; as usual, the book reads as though he never got within spitting distance of his subject.
However, if you're a big Madonna fan, this unauthorized life story might tell you a few things you didn't know ... provided, of course, you keep in mind that there is very little documentation of anything Morton tells you. Take it with a giant grain of salt and you should be fine.
Far more entertaining is Random Acts of Badness(Hyperion, hardcover), by Danny Bonaduce. You know: the kid from The Partridge Family. (It's all right; you can call him that. He's used to it.) Turns out Bonaduce has had a very eventful life - aside from the tawdry stuff you read about in the tabloids, the drugs and other stuff, he's also become a very popular radio personality, done some very nice philanthropic things, and has managed, after much struggle, to step out from behind the Danny Partridge identity. The book is somewhat clumsily written - it reads, actually, like he dictated the book and someone else typed it up - but very interesting.
Somewhat less interesting, primarily because it's so dull, is Memoirs of an Unfit Mother (Pocket books, hardcover), by Anne Robinson. I should point out, as the author does at the outset, that the book was commissioned before Robinson became the host of the wildly stupid - I mean popular - game show The Weakest Link; so if you're looking for a behind-the-scene expose of the series, look elsewhere.
Unfortunately, what with all the fame that came from the show, The Weakest Link is pretty much the most interesting thing about Robinson. She writes here about her long career as a respected journalist, her early years trying to break into the writing game, her marriage, her skills as a parent, but all of it seems kind of ho-hum. For a veteran journalist, she sure does turn out a boring book. But, as I said about the Madonna book, if you're a big fan - well, you'll probably want to read this one.
Finally, at least until the next update, we have TV Land To Go: the Big Book of TV Lists, TV Lore, and TV Bests (Fireside, paperback), by Tom Hill, the creative director and head writer of the cable network devoted entirely to reruns. It's a nifty reference book, crammed with weird lists (the nine best production slates, Chuck Woolery's six careers, stuff like that) and, most importantly, the 100 best sitcom episodes ever.
I won't tell you who placed first, or last, but remember the Brady Bunch episode when Jan is really ticked off that her older sister gets all the glory, and she whines: 'Marcia, Marcia, Marcia'? Well, that episode came in forty-fourth. The list includes episodes from shows both old (My Little Margie, 1954) and new (Seinfeld, The Simpsons), and it makes you want to fire up the ol' TV and spend a month or so catching up with some old friends.
Here's a buncha entertainment-biz biographies that showed up since the last update:
Will You Miss Me When I m Gone? (Simon & Schuster), by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg, tells the story of the Carter Family, who kept country-music fans' toes a-tappin' for roughly four decades (the thirties through the seventies). Many people, including television documentarian Zwonitzer, credit the Carter Family with originating the genre we call country music, and -- later -- with beginning to move country music closer to the mainstream.
The Carters -- Alvin, his wife Sara, her cousin Maybelle -- started out just havin' fun, playing for their rural Appalachia community. They took the act on the road in the late twenties, recorded some tracks in Tennessee, and wound up on the radio, where they became a hit. As a family who also made a living as performers, the Carters had their share of ups and downs, but -- and this is a very good thing -- Zwonitzer concentrates mainly on the ups: this is a book that celebrates its subjects, that allows us to celebrate them, too.
In a similar vein, here's Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (Little, Brown), by music journalist and filmmaker Robert Gordon. His biography of McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, is affectionate and respectful. Waters had quite the interesting life -- he got his big break in 1941, when a fellow stopped by the cotton farm where Waters worked and recorded some of his songs -- and Gordon tells the story with the enthusiasm of a fan.
Waters, who essentially invented the modern blues and laid the groundwork for rock 'n' roll, lived the life of a musician, and the Gordon's treatment of the seedier aspects of his lifestyle is frank and precise -- but entirely without, I'm happy to report, any of the cruddy, tawdry, yucky taste in the mouth that many 'celebrity biographers' seem unable to avoid. (I won't mention names.) If you're a blues fan, you must read this one.
Speaking of music, you might want to check out Will Friedwald's Stardust Memories: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs (Pantheon). Here you'll find out how such favourites as As Time Goes By and My Funny Valentine were created, how Mack the Knife and Stormy Weather got to be so well-known that we can hum them almost without being aware of it. On the way, of course, we also get to know the artists who wrote and performed these songs; we get immersed in the culture that produced them. A unique and rather charming book.
Neither unique nor charming -- at least in my opinion -- is Fran Drescher, the actor with the annoying voice who scored an inexplicable hit with the television series The Nanny. Thankfully, her new memoir, Cancer Schmancer (Warner Books), isn t nearly as aggravating as its author -- mainly, of course, because you can't hear her. The book chronicles Drescher's battle with uterine cancer, a truly frightening manifestation of the affliction. It's honest, and straightforward, and sometimes moving, and it goes a long way to erasing my impression of her as a barely-talented performer who, if she had a merely normal voice, would never have registered in our consciousness. I don't think much of her as an actress, but she can write, anyway.
I don't think much of Rosie O'Donnell as an actress, either, which is why I'm sure glad she decided to host a daytime talk/variety show. The Rosie O'Donnell Show was a lot of fun, and so is Rosie's memoir, Find Me (Warner Books). Rather than tell her life story from the beginning, she concentrates on a single aspect of it: her relationship with Stacie, the young rape victim who changed O'Donnell's own life in a fundamental way. It's an unusual, and in this case appropriate, way for O'Donnell to introduce us to her: by showing us how her concern for young Stacie overwhelmed her, Rosie allows us to observe her as she discovered new parts of herself. Instead of writing a book that tells us who she is, she's written a book that shows us what she has become. Fascinating.
Anyway, these ought to keep you entertained for a little while. Tune in next time ...
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