TV, I Bow Before Thee!

Like everyone, I’m anxiously awaiting the day when a vaccine is created that puts an end to the pandemic that has sent us into the twilight zone. It will be fabulous to ditch the f*cking masks and gloves that make us look like weirdo safe crackers. Better yet, getting together with friends and relatives will be back on our agendas, and the outlook will be fair or better for those businesses that were able to survive the dark times. Until that day arrives though, the overall picture, I believe, will continue to be anything but pretty.

Fortunately, life has been okay for me and my wife Sandy since coronavirus struck our part of the USA in March (we live near Philadelphia). Nowhere near as okay as it used to be, but okay enough. You adapt as best you can, after all, and try to deal with reality decently.

Among other things, the pandemic has forced me to make major adjustments to time allocation, as many of what had been my normal, much-enjoyed activities are only memories right now. That’s because, for health and safety reasons, my volunteer jobs were suspended and most of the usual outside-the-home entertainment choices that Sandy and I indulged in (socializing, cinemas, music venues, restaurants, museums) are unavailable, for now anyway.

So, how have I, a lazy septuagenarian, been filling the 16 or so hours of freed-up time each week? Well, for one thing, the living room sofa and I see more of each other than ever before. Upon its sensuous cushions I while away the time, alternating between scratching my balls and twirling the five strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. Yes, I’m proud to report that my fellas are hanging in there okay, considering my advanced age, and that the strands of hair look damn studly. Thanks for asking!

Now, the scratching and twirling account for about nine of the 16 hours, and largely are confined to mornings and afternoons. What about the other seven hours? In a word, television. You see, in early April I really began to miss the kicks I’d been getting for ages at concerts, cinemas, etc. This ol’ boy needed to get entertainment from somewhere. And I wanted to do that with Sandy, my partner in kicks-experiencing for lo these many years. Television was the obvious outlet.

It’s not that I’m a stranger to the tube. In fact, I once was a highly dedicated viewer. But that ended about 12 years ago. Since then I’ve watched TV mostly in shortish sessions and mostly late at night, compulsively and expertly flipping channels. That pattern now has expanded. Yeah, I’ve retained the late night regimen. But, in addition, several evenings a week at around 8:30 or 9:00, Sandy and I head upstairs to our bedroom, which contains the bigger and better of the two TV sets in our home. We then proceed to lose ourselves for an hour or more. Doing so is nothing new for Sandy, who always has racked up admirable numbers of evening hours in front of the home screen. But, as noted, it’s been more than a while for me.

And you know what? I love it! Laughing, gasping, oohing and aahing together has been fun. Together, of course, is the operative word.

And what have we watched? Good movies, such as The Two Popes, The Wizard Of Oz, Saving Mr. Banks,  and Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. And a not-so-good one, Roma, which won an Oscar as 2018’s best foreign language film but which left me blank.

And entertaining series, two of them (Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm) on network and premium-channel television. The others (Sherlock; Lilyhammer; After Life) were on Netflix, which has become one of my greatest pals. Man, we tore through the Netflix series zestfully, usually chowing down two episodes per sitting (no binge-watching for us, though. Maybe Sandy has the energy for that, but I don’t). And we’ve only scratched the surface of what the Netflix library holds.

Yes, without a doubt we’ll keep watching TV together till outside-the-house entertainment opens up, and probably not stop even then. I’ve learned that there’s a whole lot to be said for TV togetherness. I used to know that, but had forgotten. So, at least one positive development has come out of the pandemic.

Girls and boys, in conclusion let me say this: The last few months have been disorienting to most, probably all, of us. What adjustments have you needed to make as a result of coronavirus’ far reach? How do you spend the extra hours that you might have found yourself with? Finally, which shows and movies have you been watching on TV? I’d be glad to hear your thoughts about any or all of these items.

The End Of My Long Affair (With Turner Classic Movies)

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 I became a film buff of sorts. It all happened very naturally and wasn’t anything I thought about. There were fewer options for movie lovers back then in Philadelphia than there are today, but there were enough. In addition to first-run theaters, Philadelphia had various venues that specialized in lesser-known flicks — some were foreign, some not. I had never before seen many foreign or cult movies and found myself liking them. My cinematic diet, consisting of the mainstream, the obscure, the subtitled, has remained consistent ever since.

My wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, is a big movie fan too. Each year she and I leave the house 40 or more times to take in movies. Chez us, together we catch an additional 25 or so flicks on the tube. We like doing things together. For a span of eight years in my married life though, I also viewed hundreds of films on my own. I watched them on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. I became addicted to TCM, but I’m not anymore. Here’s the story:

In 2006 my thoughts and activities were less-focused than they should have been. My father had died the previous year and I think my restlessness was partly connected to his passing. He had lived with Sandy and me, and we spent a lot of time caring for him. With him gone I had trouble finding ways to fill up my days fully.

I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.
I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.

Sandy had been suggesting I might do well to add some prime time television viewing to my regimen as one way to get my mind off of things. But I couldn’t decide what to watch, didn’t think I’d  be happy devoting a bunch of hours to the small screen. Somehow though, I heard the call of TCM. Our meeting must have been preordained. And so a few months into 2006 I began descending the stairs on many evenings from our kitchen to finished basement, a place I hadn’t visited all that much since moving into our house the year before. In the basement’s den area sat an old bulky TV that had traveled from our previous home.

The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. I took this photo recently.
The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. This is a recent photo.

I began the affair gingerly. The first TCM movie I watched in 2006 was The Letter, a Bette Davis melodrama. It was pretty good. “OK, let’s try another,” I thought, and not too many days later Tender Mercies passed before my eyes. I had seen it when it came out in 1983 but didn’t recall it too clearly. I gave it two thumbs up in 2006.

Turner Classic Movies is quite the amazing broadcaster. Movies in their unedited versions 24 hours a day with no commercial interruptions. TCM’s core is English-speaking productions from the 1930s through 70s. Once in awhile the station throws in a foreign movie or a silent or a post-1970s film such as Tender Mercies. Despite the station’s name, however, hardly every TCM movie is a classic. There are plenty of clunkers. On many occasions I turned off a movie within its first 30 minutes and made the long climb upstairs.

And yet, duds or not, I became very comfortable sitting in a recliner in front of the basement TV. By 2006’s end I had watched 61 movies on TCM. The next year’s number was 103, and the year after that I reached the 87 mark,  my two highest totals. Since then the counts have descended, from 64 in 2009 to seven in 2014. I’ve managed merely one movie so far in 2015, The Great Santini, a good one that seemed a tad better to me when it made its initial rounds in 1983.

Why the dramatic falloff? Well, after cutting a slew of notches into my movie-watching belt I discovered that my TCM motor was running out of gas. Eventually, many of the movies I contemplated watching didn’t seem, upon investigation, good enough to spend time with. And the slim pickings of films from 1980 onward began to bother me a little.

But I tip my hat to Turner Classic Movies without hesitation. You see, to Sandy’s amazement somehow I’d made it into my late 50s and early 60s without having witnessed On The Waterfront, West Side Story, Singin’ In The Rain, From Here To Eternity and others that the general populace would deem to be true classic films. TCM rectified that situation. Contrarian that I sometimes am though, Singin’ was the only one of those that I felt was completely worthy of wearing a crown. And, besides Singin’, at least 15 more offerings that I first caught on TCM are now on my list of elite movies: In A Lonely Place, Odd Man Out, The Misfits, Darling, Sweet Smell Of Success, Hud . . .

Hey TCM. you’re a great station and I thank you for all the entertaining hours that you bestowed on me. Add some movies from the current century and maybe once again you and I will become pals.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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Amy Schumer, Take A Bow!

For decades I was a devoted television viewer, faithfully devouring series galore. That pattern largely began to fade away in the early 2000s when Sex And The City waved goodbye to its audience, followed by NYPD Blue. Since the final Blue episode in 2005 I’ve had trouble following series religiously. Instead I’ve watched some movies and sports and have done tons of channel surfing, of which I’ve become a master.

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader star in Trainwreck.
Amy Schumer and Bill Hader star in Trainwreck.

As a dial-flipper, how could I not know about Amy Schumer? I’ve caught fragments of her Comedy Central series and a few minutes of a standup special. I thought she was funny. But I had no idea just how funny and talented she is till recently when my wife Sandy and I headed north to the Regal multiplex in Doylestown, PA to take in the Schumer-penned and Schumer-starring Trainwreck. If you are a fan of robustly foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed comedic vehicles loaded with did-he/she-really-say-that repartee, then Trainwreck is for you.

The setup: Schumer plays Amy Townsend, sexually active to the max and commitment-phobic. Amy T’s not looking for Mr Right. She’s just looking for the next one night stand, and has no trouble finding him after him after him. She’s a boozer, a pot smoker and looks at life with a most wary eye. Yet she also maintains a strong career as a magazine writer, turning out outlandish copy aimed at men for the slick and glossy no-conscience publication S’Nuff. In one scene Amy T and a few other writers are in a meeting with their Julie Christie look-alike editor-in-chief, portrayed by an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton. Townsend and her peers are pitching story ideas. Schumer’s crazily crude and politically-incorrect script shines here. How about “Where Are They Now? A Look At The Boys Michael Jackson Paid Settlements To” one of Townsend’s coworkers posits. “You’re Not Gay, She’s Boring” lobs another. Yup, I was slapping my knees during this sequence. Schumer had the funny stuff coming pretty consistently all movie long.

This is a movie where the plot almost doesn’t matter, but of course there is a plot and it’s fun. Bill Hader co-stars as a sports medicine titan, Aaron Conners, a physician who has revolutionized the arts of knee and hip and who knows what other surgeries, allowing professional athletes and working stiffs to return quickly and productively to their careers. One of his best friends is LeBron James. He also is pals with the lesser-known b-baller Amar’e Stoudamire. Amy T is assigned to write a story about Aaron for S’Nuff. She interviews him at his office, and her goofily charming side peeks through. Aaron is smitten. He invites her to lunch and, her defenses starting to melt, they begin to see one another a bit. Will Amy T put aside her wayward ways and join forces fully with the good doctor? Well, I’m not telling. No spoiler alerts here.

Judd Apatow, he of The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up fame, directed Trainwreck. A few reviewers have noted that Apatow’s movies tend to go on too long. Probably that’s true. Trainwreck might have benefited if it went under Aaron Conners’ knife to eliminate 10 or 15 minutes of cinematic flab. Truth be told, though, Trainwreck’s length (two hours and five minutes) didn’t bother me at all. I’m granting three out of four stars to the Schumer-Apatow farce.

A few notes of amazement: Who’d have thunk that professional athletes would bring so much brio and presence to Trainwreck? They do. Turns out that LeBron James has a mighty gift for comedic acting. He receives plenty of screen time and stands toe to toe with everybody in his scenes. He’s got the pacing, the vocal inflections, the confidence. I’ll say the same and more for John Cena, a famous pro wrestler about whom I know almost nothing. He is absolutely hilarious as one of Amy’s suitors, a complicated and sensitive and sexually uncertain muscle guy whom Amy is toying with. Except for Schumer, he gives maybe the best show of anyone in the cast.

And a few mild gripes: LeBron James, a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in real life and in Trainwreck, is never in Cleveland in this Manhattan-set flick. How come? The movie takes place during basketball season as far as I could tell. And one might think that Aaron Conners, a celebrated doctor for not only his work with athletes but also his donated time to countless Doctors Without Borders projects, would have an ungodly busy work schedule. In Trainwreck he’s kind of a slacker. Cafes and restaurants, gymnasiums, Amy’s apartment . . . Aaron spends far more time elsewhere than on the job.

In the end, little matter. Go with the flow, with the laughs, with the human insights that also are a large part of Trainwreck’s fabric. Amy Schumer deserves to be proud of what she has achieved here as an actor and a screenwriter.

(Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on the photo a larger image will open)

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Raul Malo Alone On Stage

New Hope Winery. The concert took place inside the Event Center.
New Hope Winery. The concert took place inside the Event Center.

I don’t much enjoy the artsy and touristy central section of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Haven’t been there in several years. The crowds, the traffic, the bad news parking situation. Who needs it?  But I have been to New Hope’s fringes a bunch of times last year and this year, as I mentioned in my article about Kim Richey. The New Hope Winery lies a couple of miles south of the “I’m not going there” zone, and that’s where my wife Sandy and I have become semi-regulars.

Pre-showtime.
Before showtime.

Behind the winery’s gift shop is a roomy building dubbed the Event Center. On its small stage the winery presents a nice variety of musicians year-round. On Thursday evening, June 18, Raul Malo, lead singer of The Mavericks, stepped into the spotlight. Malo is on tour with The Mavericks but took a short solo side trip to New Hope, where he had played the previous evening too. The next day he’d be back rocking and rolling with his band in Rochester, New York. But in New Hope the audience got a full dose of his contemplative side. He picked up his acoustic guitar at 8:10 PM, and for the next 100 minutes had the audience, me and Sandy included, in the palms of his hands.

Raul Malo has been a pretty big name for the last 25 years. His voice is the reason why. It’s a rich tenor, wide-ranging, and moves nimbly in upper registers where others may fear to tread. In New Hope Malo brought the volume and assured passion at appropriate times, but largely kept things reined in. The point is that he has wonderful vocal taste and great control. His singing is a thing of beauty.

Raul Malo in action.
Raul Malo in action.

I’d seen Raul on television, heard him perform on the radio, but New Hope was my first live visitation with him. He sang 17 songs, ten of which he wrote or co-wrote. I was smitten from the git go, but in a million years wouldn’t have guessed his choice for show opener. Picking his guitar slowly and easily, he quietly sang not one of his own numbers, but Summer Wind, the tune made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1966. Raul did the song proud.

Summer Wind is a lament about lost love. All 16 songs that followed, self-penned and not, also were about love in one way or another. Love in bloom, love desired, love remembered. Raul covered all bases. I never thought I’d hear a version of Harvest Moon, a gorgeous and pure love song, to rival that of its author, Neil Young. But Raul came close, singing with restrained emotion, hitting the high notes with clarity. He did excellent work on his own Born To Be Blue, and Lucky One, the Roy Orbison-like operatic qualities of his voice emerging on those two numbers.

The most stunning moments arrived late in the show. (Call Me) When You Get To Heaven gave me goose bumps. Raul wrote this song for The Mavericks’ In Time album. From my seat 15 feet from stage left, I took it as a song about a breakup, a relationship not meant to succeed on planet Earth but destined to flower in a better place, maybe one of the mind. Raul sang slowly, mournfully. He drew out the song for many minutes. When introducing the tune, he had asked the audience to join in towards the end. They did. And that’s where the goose bumps came in. Though surely some males were part of the choir, somehow I heard only female tones. As Raul fingered the refrain’s chords over and over, angelic sweet voices rose throughout the room. Call me when you get to heaven . . . Call me when you get to heaven. It was just so beautiful.

Raul Malo from a different angle.
Raul Malo from a different angle.

During that number I realized who Raul reminds me of. José Feliciano. Like Feliciano, Malo possesses both fervor and quiet strength, and the ability to be in-the-moment. None of this was lost on the near-capacity crowd seated at the room’s red tablecloth-covered cocktail tables. They went wild with claps and yells between songs. But when Raul sang, they were seriously silent and attentive. Raul loved them back. Happy, laughing and joking around during the interludes, he especially made the night for a lady celebrating her birthday at the show. She was a super fan, it turns out, saying that this was the 80th time she had seen Raul perform. To honor her, he sang Can’t Help Falling In Love, the Elvis hit from 1961. And then he threw out two of his best and funniest lines of the evening. I hadn’t planned to use any profanity in this blog, though I curse aplenty in my non-blogging life. But I’m going to repeat verbatim what Raul Malo said after the final guitar strums of Can’t Help faded away. “That ought to buy me some karma points. Now I can go back to being a shit.”

A worthy side note about choice. The night that Sandy and I were in Malo pastures, two other splendid musical events were available not far away in the Philadelphia suburbs: The Richard Thompson Electric Trio and Graham Parker And The Rumour, great bands that must have brought down their respective houses. For discriminating music fans of any age, June 18 presented one of those uncommon convergences when deciding where to pay one’s money was a tough call.

John Gorka Brings Love To The Philly Burbs

The audience, before twilight set in, at Bryn Mawr Twilight Concerts.
The audience, before twilight set in, at Bryn Mawr Twilight Concerts.

I’m always on the lookout for live music. My musical tastes are wide, so my antenna is open for jazz, rock, Celtic, classical  . . . the list keeps going. One series I keep tabs on is Bryn Mawr Twilight Concerts, held on mid-year Saturday evenings at a park in the center of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a handful of miles west of Philadelphia. This series brings in some rock and R&B bands, but primarily sticks to acoustic folkie singer-songwriter types, most of the latter well known in that genre’s circles. The musicians set up shop in the park’s large gazebo. I had noticed a few weeks ago that the series opener on June 6 would be John Gorka, a singer-songwriter road warrior with over 30 years’ worth of original material to draw from. On Gorka Day, I checked the Bryn Mawr weather forecast. It emphasized a zero chance of rain. Bryn Mawr here we come. As the sun began approaching the horizon, my wife Sandy and I plunked ourselves down in our folding chairs, joining about 200 others at the park, and settled in for what we expected would be a night of good music. The skies were filled with friendly clouds, the air cool and dry. Hardly a better place to be.

I’ve been familiar with John Gorka for many years, but had seen him in person only once. That was about six years ago at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where he was part of a round-robin song swap with other musicians on a small stage. I knew his backstory a bit, how he had honed his craft at the legendary Godfrey Daniels folk music club in Bethlehem, PA, and how his career began to take off around the time his first album, I Know, came out in 1987. Since then, he has logged too many miles to count in North America and overseas. The Bryn Mawr show probably was somewhere around the 3,000th concert performance of his career. During that career, Gorka has tended to take the solo route — Have Guitar, Will Travel — but on this refreshing Bryn Mawr night he brought along a friend.

Music critics often note the fine quality of Gorka’s baritone. That’s true. His voice is deep and burnished, but he doesn’t go for extra volume. Soothing and comforting are words I’d use to describe his singing.  He’s like a lower register version of James Taylor. Between songs he is funny and somewhat jittery, slyly putting himself down and reminding me a bit of Woody Allen. The Bryn Mawr audience loved his on-stage personality, which might very well be his real life personality too.

John Gorka with guitar, backed up by Russ Rentler with mandolin.
John Gorka with guitar, backed up by Russ Rentler with mandolin.

From within the gazebo he sang only self-penned songs, 20 in all. Four came from I Know, and five from his latest release, 2014’s Bright Side Of Down. The newer material was as smart and flavorful as the songs from his young man days. His pool of inspiration hasn’t dried up. For the ninth song of his 100 minute set he brought to the stage Russ Rentler, his mandolin-playing pal since the late 1970s. I figured that Russ would garnish a couple of tunes and then depart. Better, he remained till the concert’s end. The mandolin’s tight and high tones, the swirling notes from Russ’s fingers, added a lot of energy and contrast to the music. Gorka’s vocal and guitar work through the first eight songs were just fine, but Russ took the performance upward.

John Gorka’s makeup leads him to produce songs that unfold mostly at slow or medium paces. Which is fine with me. He examines love and relationships regularly, as do nearly all songwriters. And he also writes about people’s day to day struggles. I connected with nearly all of the songs he sang. I’ll mention some lines that made my ears bend stageward.

Love Is Our Cross To Bear is a gentle song about falling in love. It comes from I Know. As the air began to chill with descending twilight, and I realized how wise Sandy had been to tell me to bring along a light jacket, Gorka sang, “I didn’t know that I would find a way to find you in the morning/But love can pull you out of yesterday as it takes you without warning.” Beautifully put, John. And five tunes later he reached into Bright Side Of Down and gave us Outnumbered, a love song for his wife. Gorka’s voice, steady and strong, was something you could believe in. He sang, “Suddenly you were there behind a smile, behind a name/After that summer day I’d never be the same.”

John Gorka is a romantic. And he put on a good show.