Saturday, December 10, 2005

Richard Pryor R. I. P.

Comedian Richard Pryor died this morning at age 65 from a heart attack. He had been suffering for many years from mutiple sclerosis.

Richard Pryor was born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois. He claimed to have grown up in a brothel run by his grandmother. He dropped out of school early and served for two years in the United States Army. Following his military stint, Pryor started doing stand up comedy in comedy clubs. He made his first appearance on television in 1964 on On Broadway Tonight. This was followed by several apperances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Pryor also made guest appearances on such series as The Wild Wild West and The Mod Squad.

Although most of Pryor's material seems tame by today's standards, Pryor's routines were sometimes considered shocking in the late Sixties and early Seventies. He sometimes used obscenitites and even made free use of the "N" word. Much of his material focused on racial inequality.

It was in the Seventies that Pryor came into his own. He was a regular on The Kraft Music Hall in 1966 and in the Seventies appeared many times on The Tonight Show. Beginning with The Phynx in 1970, Pryor started appearing in movies as well. By the mid-Seventies he was one of the most successful comedians in the United States and made a series of hit films, from Silver Streak to Brewster's Millions. In 1977 Pryor had his own short lived variety show on NBC, killed because his material often offended the network's Broadcast Standards department.

In addition to acting and appearing on various variety shows, Pryor was also a screenwriter. He wrote for both The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son. He collaborated with Mel Brooks on the screenplay for Blazing Saddles and wrote the story for Bustin' Loose.

Pryor's life was often complicated to say the least. He was married six times and had three children. By his own admission he was a "junkie." In 1980 he caught himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Not surprisingly, he incorporated the incident into his routine. In 1978 he was sentenced for failing to file income taxes. In 1978 he allegedly fired at a car in which there were two of his wife of the time's friends. Eventualy he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

For all his personal failings, I always did like Richard Pryor. He pushed the envelope in his early performances and refused to tone down his act even when he became famous. In 1977 he preferred for his show to go off the air rather than be cut to pieces by NBC's censors. He also focused on racial injustice at a time when the Civil Rights movement was well underway. Most of all, however, Richard Pryor was funny. As offensive as his language could be at times (I have never liked the "N" word), he could also be absolutely hilarious. He definietely had an influence on many comics who followed him, from Robin Williams to Chris Rock. I don't think he'll soon be forgotten.

Friday, December 9, 2005

When Harry Met Sally

It seems to me that since the Sixties, truly great romantic comedies have been few and far between. Aside from the films of Woody Allen, I can only think of two off the top of my head. One is rather recent--Down With Love from 2003. The other is from all the way back in 1989. When Harry Met Sally has numbered among my favourite films ever since I first saw it.

If When Harry Met Sally is one of the truly great romantic comedies, much of it is due to Nora Ephron's screenplay. Ephron created two charming characters in Harry and Sally, each saddled with his or her own neuroses. Indeed, the progression of their relationship from acquaintances who can barely tolerate to each other to best friends to soul mates may well be one of the most realistic portrayals of a relationship on film. What is more is that the film also features some of the wittiest and sharpest dialogue of any film in recent memory.

Of course, Nora Ephron's script would have been worthless without a cast to breathe life into her characters. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan make Harry and Sally flawed, yet charming and loveable (indeed, I think if my mother had her way, I would have married Meg Ryan...). Their performances are very subtle, with both conveying emotions with a single glance or gesture. Kudos must also go to the supporting cast. Bruno Kirby as Harry's friend Jess and Carrie Fisher as Sally's friend Marie are wonderful.

I must also point out that When Harry Met Sally is definitely a movie for movie buffs. There are a number of references to classic films throughout the movie. Indeed, movies figure prominently in the lives of Harry and Sally. They share a love for Casablanca. When Harry is mourning the loss of Sally, at one point he has It's a Wonderful Life on the telly. And there are references to The Lady Vanishes, Pillow Talk, Planet of the Apes, Annie Hall, and other films. Even the climax, on New Year's Eve, is remniscent of The Apartment (perhaps the greatest romantic comedy of all time).

When Harry Met Sally centres around the truly simple question of whether men and women can ever truly be friends without sex getting in the way. It must be pointed out, however, that it never truly answers this question. Harry and Sally do become friends, but it seems clear to me that they were in love almost from the beginning. Indeed, after seeing Sally at an airport for the first time in five years, Harry goes out of his way to talk to her. Even once their friendship commences, it is clear that they are something other than friends--in everything from the way they look at each other to the way they speak to each other. When Sally gets angry at Harry after they have sex for the first time, I suspect it is not because she thinks he took advantage of her, but rather because she was forced to confront the feelings they had both repressed for so long. Quite simply, When Harry Met Sally fails to answer the question of whether men and women can be friends simply because Harry and Sally were in love all along. That having been said, it does point out something very important. At the root of every successful romantic relationship there must be friendship. Every relationship Harry and Sally have fail, until they finally get together. In real life, I fear all too often people forget that to be lovers, they must be friends as well if the relationship is to succeed. Too often I think they are blinded by mere physical appearance or other unimportant matters. Given that, I think it is perhaps little wonder it took Harry and Sally a while to finally get together....

For me this is one of the reasons When Harry Met Sally is so great. It does not create a simple boy meet girl plotline with all the traditionally romantic elements plugged in. Instead, it presents us with a realistic relationship in which two friends sadly will not admit how they truly feel about each other until years have passed. That they do finaly get together perhaps is hope for romantics everywhere.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Days in a Life: John Lennon Remembered

"All you need is love." (John Lennon, "All You Need is Love")

"Instant karma's gonna get you..." (John Lennon, "Instant Karma")

It was 25 years ago today that John Lennon was shot and murdered. It is perhaps a measure of Lennon's importance that many can remember where they were when they heard the news. I know that I certainly can. The morning of December 8, 1980, I was in the midst of a particularly vicious bout of the flu. I had no intention of getting out of bed, let alone going to school. It was a bit after 6:30 AM CST that my brother awakened me with the words "John Lennon is dead. He's been shot." My immediate reaction was to tell him that was BS--he was lying. I stumbled out of bed to the living room where Today was already on the air. Jane Pauley looked as if she had been crying. Tom Brokaw looked as if he was in shock. It was true. Lennon, leader of The Beatles, was dead.

For the next few days it seemed as if news coverage was devoted only to the life and death of John Lennon. Outside the Dakota in New York City, 5000 people gathered to mourn the man's passing. On show after show, those who knew him remembered him. Lennon's image appeared on both the covers of Time and Newsweek. And in many, perhaps most cases, Lennon's murder was described as an "assassination," a word usually used of the murders of politicians and heads of state. It would seem that John Lennon was not merely a musician in a rock band.

While it is clear that Lennon was mourned immediately after his death and is still being mourned today, it is more difficult to measure his legacy. Clearly as one of The Beatles he changed the shape of rock music. The Beatles expanded the parameters of the genre in ways that no other artists have before or since. They utilised chord progressions that had never been heard before in rock 'n' roll. They had the audacity to start songs off with the chorus ("She Loves You" was one of the first songs in which this was done). I don't know that they invented the concept album, but they did create one of the earliest and arguably the most influential one( Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). They revolutionised recording methods. They introduced instruments never before used in rock music--the sitar, the mellotron, and so on. Indeed, they were absolutely fearless when it came to their music. They could just easily perform a simple rock tune with George on lead guitar, John on rhythm guitar, Paul on bass, and Ringo on drums, and then turn around and perform a song complete with a full symphony orchestra. Among the firsts that The Beatles can claim is that they were the first band to perform in stadiums, although this was due more to their enormous popularity than anything else. Quite clearly, The Beatles changed rock music in ways than no other person or band has. And they may have changed it more than anyone else, too.

As a solo artist Lennon's career never quite measured up to his career as a Beatle. This was not unusual, as it it is also true of the other Beatles. Still, Lennon had an impact in a way that other rock artists never did. "Give Peace a Chance" became an anthem for pacifists everywhere. "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" has become a Yuletide regular. Perhaps no other song Lennon wrote has had the impact of "Imagine." It came in at #3 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs and has ranked high on other "greatest songs" as well. Indeed, it is perhaps the only solo song by a Beatle to have the impact of a Beatles song.

While it is hard to gauge Lennon's impact as a musician, it is even harder to measure his impact beyond his music. He was certainly an activist, but he was not the first singer to be such. Folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and others preceded him in that regard. But arguably he brought such activism to a wider audience than any other musical performer before him. And he did so in such ways that were more outrageous than any performer before. John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged "Bed-Ins" to protest the Vietnam War. On the Mike Douglas Show he urged viewers to call people and tell them that they love them. Of course, this may point to a more important part of Lennon's legacy than his activism. Pegged as a Beatle from early in his life, Lennon was the first Beatle to break free of the Beatle image. He insisted on being himself, no matter how outrageous that may be. Earlier singers--indeed, most celebrities--insisted on protecting their images. Not Lennon, he didn't seem to care about his image that much. He posed nude with Yoko Ono on an album cover (Two Virgins). He retired for five years to raise his son Sean. No matter what happened, Lennon insisted on being himself.

Of course, it is important to remember that John Lennon was not a perfect person. As much as many of his fans might regard him as a god (and I must confess that I am guilty of that myself), he was a mere mortal. His treatment of his first wife Cynthia could quite aptly be described as abusive. His marriage to Yoko Ono was not always smooth. He was by his own admission an inadequate father to his son Julian. He was a heroin addict. Although there can be no doubt of his brilliance, Lennon could also be reprehensible. On this however, we must consider two things. First, how well would many of us appear to the public if every single thing about our lives were made open to everyone? In life and death Lennon's life has faced close scrutiny, both the bad and the good. Second, it often seems that genius is accompanied by deep personal flaws. Byron, Mozart, Kubrick, and many other brilliant people were often flawed human beings. It is perhaps the curse of being a genius in an otherwise mediocre world.

Regardless of his faults, I find myself mourning Lennon today as I do every year. I don't know what the first song I ever listened to was, but chances are it was a Beatles songs. Their songs were constantly played on the radio when I was young and my older sister (17 years my senior) owned their albums. There was even a Beatles cartoon on Saturday mourning. Even if the first song I ever listened to was not a Beatles song, they were the first group I ever got into. I have been a Beatles fan since early childhood. Their breakup was big news when I was in first grade. I continued to listen to Lennon's music even as a solo artist. Arguably, he has had more impact on me than any other musician, perhaps more than any artist in any medium. Given that, I do owe John Lennon a great debt for in part making me who I am today. And it is a debt I fear I can never repay. I don't know that anyone could.