The Academy Awards finally got one right last nite in awarding the supporting actor award posthumously to the late Heath Ledger for his very fine (and oddly disturbing) performance in THE DARK KNIGHT. The very phrase “THE DARK KNIGHT” has some interesting textual meanings, since it had subtextual implications regarding vigilante wars between the confederates and the african-american republican forces in the reconstruction era betwen 1865-1876, when the south was still under federal supervision, african-americans could form armed militias, and northern interests were well-represented in the south in union with african-americans. But this is a discussion for another day.

Heath Ledger’s life and death i know little about. That he was an excellent actor we now have no doubt. That this performance was outstanding, I have no doubt. Ledger turned in a mind-bending performance as the central villainous character, in the top grossing film of the year. And to be entirely fair, he was on screen so much, he really should have been the winner of Best Actor, not merely Best Supporting Actor.

Ledger’s performance as the Joker was so disturbing and so weird that it was difficult to watch–he truly was outstanding. The performance lifted the movie from cliche and banal to superb and transcendant. With a real villain, the batman and the commissioner could emerge as real heroes, not withstanding the formulaic aspects of the plot.

As for the other awards, it’s wonderful that Slumdog Millionaire did so well. In fact, I recently learned that “Mumbai” is actually the same city as “Bombay,” which is a large Indian city referred to by Rudyard Kipling, the Nobel Laureate in literature, and also referred to in “Bewitched,” where “Dr. Bombay” visits from time to time wearing ascots and quaffing dry martinis and casting strange spells on Samantha’s husband Darren.

I don’t know why they change the names of cities. “Istanbul” is actually “Constantinople”. “Beijing” is actually “Peking”. I’m not sure which city “Shanghai” is now, but clearly to be “shang-haied” was once part of the language. Constantinople used to be called “the City” a thousand years ago, but now that distinction is reserved for New York City, which is merely known as “the City,” so I guess New York City is the new Constantinople. It’ll take more than a couple of buildings falling down to change New York from being the best town in the world for any given single day or night (even though I prefer living in Philly).

Anyhow, once i figured out where the slumdogs really were from, the movie made a lot more sense. Of course, India is very upset about the fact that it is portrayed as a terribly classist society. Guess that’s what happens when your religion specifies that 600 million of your people are “untouchables.” We used to call a segment of our population “slaves” but we liberated them after a civil war and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, even though a lot of southerners (like Sen. Hammond in his “mud-sill speech) argued that god intended for the african-american to be a slave, much like india currently argues that god intends for some people to be untouchables.

This kind of argument, needless to say, fails the smell test, since here in america we know that all people are equal and all people are entitled not only to equal opportunity, but have a constitutional right to be on millionaire quiz shows and American Idol, to buy lottery tickets, go to the shore and play bid whist or texas hold ’em and go all in against an experienced pro and win. It’s what makes our country great. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll get cancer, and win the most difficult bicycle race in the world six times in a row, in France, and also get to sweep Sheryl Crow off her feet.

We’d mention winning 8 gold medals at the olympics here, but after our latest olympic hero demonstrated that a certain piece of drug paraphernalia actually still exists which I thought was obsolete and had been discarded along with polyester suits back in the 1970s, I will now say unequivocally, that Mark Spitz is the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time.

He won those medals in 1972 in Munich in the face of terrorism directed against the nation of Israel, and showed bravery and courage in doing so. His winning was a direct slap in the fact of those horrible men and reminded us that athletic accomplishments are much more memorable than violence. Steven Spielberg’s excellent film “munich” summarizes this situation, but omits the part about Spitz winning all those medals. I don’t see how you leave that out. it’s the flip side of the story.

Getting back to the academy awards, we’re probably all happy that Kate Winslet snagged herself a best actress aware, and of course Sean Penn is everyone’s best actor every time he makes a picture. The rest of the awards were also just fine.

I continue to feel that the Academy Awards are given too much weight, that the other awards like the SAG and Golden Globes and NY Film Critics Awards are just as important.

While I’m here on this year’s awards, I will air two of my pet peeves about current hollywood and tv productions.

1) using straight actors to portray gay characters. No one would think of using a man in blackface to portray an African American in any film or theatrical production; yet hollywood continues to use normal actors to play deaf and blind characters, and continues to use straight actors to play gay/lesbian and transgendered ones. This would be fine if there weren’t thousands of unemployed gaylesbian and transgendered actors who could probably play the role just fine. I recognize that the lending institutions might not bank the film, but so what? make it for less money, and take the risk. I find it somewhat objectionable that Sean Penn is playing Harvey Milk, when everyone knows that Sean Penn is married with three kids to Robin Wright, the Princess Bride, and obviously isn’t gay in the least.

2) using countless foreign actors on television and on film. Is it just me, or are more than 60% of current hollywood actors from australia and england nowadays? With 95% of the Screen Actors Guild unemployed, does it seem fair that Hollywood is constantly importing FOREIGN LABOR to fill its best paying acting jobs over and over again? Moreover, are these Australian and english actors working for the same amount as american actors or less? I should add here that Australia, like England, is a land divided from the USA by a common language–in short, I have difficulty understanding the english Aussies or Brits speak, and this makes it much harder to understand TV and movies that they are in.

3) Other countries have quotas. They require a minimum percentage of their own countries’ actors in every film. CANADA for example requires at least 25% or maybe 40% (not sure on the number) of any production in CANADA of the actors to be CANADIAN. I know that my cousins who are Canadian actors use this provision often to get work in films in CANADA. They would not otherwise get work in CANADA. India and Europe and European countries have similar rules. Why doesn’t the USA?

–art kyriazis philly/south jersey
home of the world champion phillies

The Sixers without Elton Brand have certainly been playing a much better “Brand” of basketball since January 1, 2009. they are something like 15-5 since the first of the year, they are now well above .500, and solidly in the hunt for the sixth or seventh playoff spot in the east.

Remarkably, they now have the very same record as the Detroit Pistons, a team I really thought was upper echelon earlier in the year. I now believe the Pistons are suffering from the lack of a really good defensive center, and from their overall age. The Pistons are giving up a lot of points in the paint, and also they are fading a lot in the fourth quarter. Other than Stuckey and Iverson, they don’t seem to have fresh legs in the last quarter to finish out games anymore. They badly need a defensive center like a Dalembert or a Marcus Camby.

The Sixers are doing well without Elton Brand for several reasons. First, Elton Brand is old, slow and hurt, and he never recovered from his ACL. Second, they run the floor faster than almost everyone in the league because they are young and athletic, and because Andre Miller even at 31 runs like a gazelle and runs the offense beautifully. Third, they play defense, because Dalembert, Reggie Evans, Speights, Young, and even old Theo Ratliff clog up the middle and block shots and get rebounds.

The Sixers are currently 6th in the league in defensive rating. That’s where they are winning games–not on offense, but on defense. They are holding opponents to 95.5 points a game, while scoring just over 96, 96.5 points a game. They are still being outshot at the three point line by opponents .356 to .318, and they still need a three point shooter–this is the trade they need at the deadline–but they are winning because of defense and scoring just enough to win.

In terms of win shares, the most valuable Sixers are in this order, Iguodala, Miller, Thaddeus Young, Mareese Speights, Dalembert, and after that a big dropoff to Lou Williams, Willie Green and Reggie Evans. Elton Brand is after Reggie Evans–Royal Ivey has been about as valuable as Elton Brand in terms of win shares this year, actually. Theo Ratliff and Donyell Marshall, by the way, also have partial win shares and have contributed. Even Kareem Rush has a positive fractional win share.

Here’s one place where i’ve bashed Lou Williams and Willie Green, but I’ll make it up to them a bit–the two of them are very, very good defensive players. Their defense is very, very good–their defensive win shares are almost twice their offensive win shares. Consequently, it may be that they are good to have around in spite of their inefficient shooting.

Meanwhile, Mareese Speights is a superstar waiting to happen. His offensive ratings are through the roof. he shoots spectacular efficiency ratings, rebounds like the second coming of moses malone, plays defense, runs like an antelope in heat, and quite simply, is about a thousand times better than elton brand ever will be. Per 36 minutes, he is scoring 19 points and rebounding 9 rebounds, blocking two shots and averaging only 1.5 turnovers. All of those numbers are better than Brand’s right now.

Again, the Sixers should dump Elton Brand and commit to Mareese Speights.

they should take the money they wasted on Brand and commit to a long term contract with Andre Miller.

This team is fine without Elton Brand. Brand should be traded for 2 or 3 long-range three point shooters. Even a Vince Carter would help this team, since he can shoot the 3, although he has injury issues. Jameer Nelson would be ideal, though. He’s hurt, Brand is hurt, and maybe orlando might want another big man.

The sixers are 18-11 under tony dileo, most of that because Elton Brand has been hurt. His subtraction has been addition by subtraction.

Right now, the Sixers are only 3/12 games out of the 4th playoff spot in the NBA east, behind the Atlanta Hawks, and only a game behind the Miami Heat. They could actually overhaul both these squads and earn home court in the first round of the playoffs if they continue to play as they do.

Eddie Stefanski should make the move for a couple of three point gunners to come off the bench–re-acquire korver, and maybe one other three point shooter.

That team could advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs, and maybe give boston a hard time.

–art kyriazis philly/south jersey
home of the world champion phillies

In honor of Valentine’s Day, a list of greatest love films of all time:

top ten:

1) Body Heat (1981)
2) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1944)
3) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
4) Laurel Canyon (2003)
5) Basic Instinct (1992)
6) The Seven Year Itch (1955)
7) Cat People (1941)
8) Cat People (1982)
9) The Last Seduction (1994)
10) Ghost (1990)

next ten:

11) The Thomas Crown Affair (2005)
12) Sex Lies and Videotape (1989)
13) The English Patient (1996)
14) Unfaithful (2002)
15) Titanic (1997)
16) Love Affair (1939)
17) Casablanca (1942)
18) The Thin Man (1934)
19) Rebecca (1940)
20) The Notebook (2004)

next ten:

21) American Gigolo (1980)
22) The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
23) Dorothy Dandridge (2001)
24) After Sunset (1994)
25) Before Sunset (2004)
26) The Matrix (1999)
27) True Romance (1986)
28) Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend (1956)
29) Mulholland Drive (2001)
30) 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

There’s probably about fifty more or a hundred more films that could go on this list, but these are certainly all fine films. What’s good about these is usually there’s something more than just the love story going on and that makes the film even better.

I forgot Love Story (1969), which of course was a terrific film and really did great box office at the time. Required viewing for all harvard freshmen. Bonus points for terrific footage of Harvard Hockey circa 1969, and additional bonus points for having a young and beautiful Ali McGraw in the movie. I had an acquaintance once from New York who actually grew up next door to Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen in Malibu in the 1970s, and was friends with their son/stepson Josh Evans (the son of Robert Evans and Ali McGraw) growing up, and apparently, it was very interesting growing up next to those folks.

Ali McGraw and Candace Bergen might have been the most beautiful actresses of the 1960s/1970s. A lot of people in Hollywood used to fight over them, that’s for sure. I guess this is where I add “The Getaway” (1973) to my list of films, except that it’s not so much a love flick as a classic action flick. It’s a good flick, no matter how you cut it.

–art kyriazis philly/south jersey
home of the world champion philadelphia phillies

Time Magazine just did a cover story on stem cell research, which is commendable. They also entitled the story “The Quest Resumes,” which is commendable, focusing on the fact that the Federal Government, under the Obama Administration, may finally allow (this may already have been approved by executive order) federal funds for stem-cell research at federally funded research institutions.

However, the subtitle of the article is “After eight years of political ostracism, stem-cell scientists like Harvard’s Douglas Melton are coming back into the light—and making discoveries that may soon bring lifesaving breakthroughs.” Time Feb 9, 2009 at p. 36.

Now, let’s examine that for a second—In Massachusetts, where Prof. Melton plies his craft, the Commonwealth and State of Massachusetts, like the State of California, has voted state support of stem-cell research at institutions of higher education. Therefore in Massachusetts, like California a bastion of biotechnology, the biotech lobby was able to secure state support for stem-cell research during the eight-year long federal ban on such research. So compared to the other 48 states, Prof. Melton was actually at an advantage because his lab was in Massachusetts.

Because of the federal funds ban, a great deal of stem cell-research has begun to spring up in places like Southeast Asia, as the Time Magazine article correctly notes, and as it well-known in the biotech industry. But a lot of it is also staying put in Cali and Mass due to those states putting up seed money for biotech research that is stem cell oriented.

Next, Prof. Melton works as co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), which Harvard has committed substantial resources to supporting over the past eight years and well into the future. According to their 2008 report, their annual spending has grown in the past two years from just over $5 million to over $16 million in fiscal year 2008, most of that culled from private and corporate donations. HSCI currently has no less than eight ongoing challenge grant research projects sponsored for $75,000 each, all of them stem cell oriented.

Now I am a powerful supporter of stem-cell research, and I strongly advocate that the federal government support stem cell research. The question I have for Time Magazine is, and maybe perhaps for the Federal Government, is HSCI the most needy recipient for federal funds for stem cell research? The article omits that HSCI is well-funded by private donors, and omits that Massachusetts provides state support (it is not clear if HSCI accepts Massachusetts money) and therefore the article in Time is somewhat misleading.

The argument for funding HSCI federally has to be this; we, e.g. HSCI, made a good faith effort to get the ball rolling the past three years through private financing, we have already a lab in motion with research projects, so if you fund us, we will be three years closer to getting results than any other academic lab you choose to fun. Consequently, their NIH grant requests will carry a certain heft.

On the other hand, they are not as dramatically in need of the money as some other labs who don’t have any private funding at all.

A more useful article would have been to depict the overall situation in the rest of the United States, and some of the labs outside CA & MA.

This is an interesting issue and one on which arguments on both sides would and could be marshalled.

It should be pointed out that I strongly support the work of Prof. Melton and the work of HSCI. Those initiatives were put into place by then President Lawrence Summers, along with the Broad Institute initiative, a few years back, and clearly they have had the effect of putting Harvard back on the map in terms of genetics and molecular biology research.

The good news about the Time article is that the words “Stem Cells” made the cover, along with a nice bio-photo. If nothing else, Americans this week can forget about the economy and the war for a moment and realize that stem cell research is an answer to many of our problems that don’t involve boundaries and account balances and fumes spewing out of our cars.

–art kyriazis philly/south jersey
home of the world champion phillies

David “Fathead” Newman, one of the great R & B and jazz saxmen, has passed away January 20, 2009, and Freddie Hubbard, jazz trumpet player extraordinaire, December 29, 2008. Newman is most well-known for being part of Ray Charles excellent R & B band of the 1950s, from 1954-66. Newman played on almost all of Ray Charles important hits of the 1950s and 1960s, including the great “I Got a Woman.”

Newman is also one of the great hard-bop jazz saxmen. He released no less than 38 of his own albums, and also worked as a sideman with dozens of the industry’s greats. One of his greatest albums was STILL HARD TIMES from 1982, a title for our times if ever there was one. But truly, any Newman CD/LP is a good one. He never cut a bad one, truth be told.

Freddie Hubbard trained with the greats, including Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and cut a lot of sides with Joe Henderson and Kenny Barron. Because of the untimely death of Lee Morgan, the heir apparent to Miles, Hubbard was more or less thrust into the role of heir apparent to Miles, a role Hubbard was never quite comfortable with, though Hubbard was a fine and excellent trumpet player.

There are a lot of stories about Freddie’s personal life. He liked to live large, and his career was not managed well, nor did he keep his accounts straight with creditors or bill collectors.

But Freddie Hubbard, whatever his personal faults, was a living jazz legend, and lest we forget, he played with all of the greats, and left behind a vast recorded jazz legacy that stretches over more than fifty years, both as sideman and band leader. Moreover, his recorded legacy, as the memory of his actual life fades, will seem greater and more imposing, as time passes.

David Fathead Newman and Freddie Hubbard collectively have left us with nearly a hundred recordings of some of the most excellent hard bop jazz in existence, recording alongside the best sidemen in the business.

Newman in addition has left behind all his recordings with the Ray Charles band from the prime of that group, and Hubbard played as sideman on many albums to some of the greatest in the business as well.

These recordings are a lasting legacy to a couple of the great jazz musicians of an era.

–art kyriazis philly/south jersey
home of the world champion phillies

Two great American writers have passed from the scene recently in Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike. Vonnegut exerted a dramatic pull on me while younger, since we read a good deal of his work during prep school english, and here I refer to Vonnegut’s classic works such as Slaughter-House Five and Player Piano. This work was imaginative, clever, funny and crossed the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy and plain old story telling. It’s hard to think of another writer who wove plots the way Vonnegut did across time and space. Naturally with all the science fiction we see on TV and the movies today, we accept this as a commonplace, but back in the day, this was not a conventional way of writing.

Vonnegut’s other work was so well-known that it made its way into the popular culture, into rock and pop lyrics, into band names, into other people’s novels and short stories, and was the inspiration for many television and movie scripts. Vonnegut has probably been “sampled” more than any other twentieth century writer. He had a distinctive voice, a distinctive style, and once you read him, you didn’t really look at things the same way again.

Of course, Vonnegut is best known for his depiction of the American fire-bombing of Dresden in one of his books, and the not-so-subtle comparison of it to the napalm bombings of Vietnam. It’s very likely that his literary use of WWII to make an antiwar comment about Vietnam gave rise in part to the Robert Altman directed movie MASH, which used the Korean War to make an antiwar comment about Vietnam, which in turn gave rise to the nearly ten year long TV show MASH. As I noted, Vonnegut’s ideas and notions were widely influential. The idea of protesting one war by fictionalizing another was uniquely Vonnegut’s, but it had slid into the mainstream by the mid-1970s and was hit comedy television.

Vonnegut was funny, disrespectful, and interesting to the end of his days. For this, we should commend him. We will probably never see his like again.

Updike was a prolific fiction writer. I never really got behind his Rabbit Run series about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. I never bought into the seventies malaise of suburban growups trading wives, having affairs, or searching for answers after 40 and 50 in the arms of younger women. None of that made sense to me and consequently, none of his fiction resonated particularly with me.

What I did love were his essays about sports. He wrote about golf in a way that really made sense to me, and of course, he wrote one of the most famous baseball essays of all times, the essay about Ted Williams last at bat, which is so famous that if Updike had written nothing else in his career, he’d probably have gotten a pretty long obit just for that. But he seemingly tossed those off with ease. Of all Updike’s many obits, only Sports Illustrated noted his sports essays; what an omission by the general press.

John Updike on October 22, 1960 in the New Yorker Magazine published what is arguably the greatest baseball essay ever written, the essay that really gave rise to the entire mythos and legend that we now know as “Red Sox Nation”. Before this essay was written, the Red Sox were just another team. After it, they became the darlings of the Harvard and Northeast intellegentsia forever.

Here, I refer of course to the famous essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, which documents the final at bat of Ted Williams’ career, in which he hits a home run. The essay is so brilliant, I wouldn’t want to omit you reading it for yourselves, so here’s the link page to the New Yorker so you can read it for yourselves;

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1960/10/22/1960_10_22_109_TNY_CARDS_000266305

The essay is filled with Updike-isms. Ty Cobb is the “Einstein of Average”. Fenway Park is “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” Ted Williams was known as “TED, KID, SPLINTER, THUMPER, TW, and, most cloyingly, MISTER WONDERFUL.”

Updike’s description of Williams’ last home run is immortal:

“Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”

New Yorker, id at p.6.

“Gods do not answer letters.” A true Updike-ism. That I consider this to be Updike’s finest essay, or that anyone might consider this to be Updike’s finest essay, should come as no surprise.

We live in an era of flawed heroes. Athletes who are constantly arrested, constantly in court, constantly discovered to have cheated, to have used steroids, brandishing tatooes, illegitimate children and other paraphernalia of personal baggage.

Ted Williams was a true hero. He served his country with distinction in the second world war and the korean conflict as a fighter pilot, and thought nothing of giving up five of his prime years of baseball to do so. even giving up those five years, and without juicing, junking or cheating, he managed to hit .400 in a season, win batting titles and smash home run records, drive in hundreds of runs, and hit more than 500 career homers while hitting well over .300 for his career, while drawing a huge number of career walks and scoring a ridiculous number of runs.

I’d like for someone to show me one professional athlete (other that the late Pat Tillman) who has given up pro sports to serve his country lately. It would be refreshing if the United States rekindled the draft and didn’t exempt professional athletes. a couple of years in the army might do them some attitude readjustment good. They might actually learn the meaning of the word “team”.

Updike of course understood all this. That’s why he loved Ted Williams and immortalized him for all time in his essay. Updike knew the difference between a hero and a mere mortal. Gods don’t answer letters. They just do heroic acts like serving their country and performing on the field.

A great book by Updike that also resonated with me was a wonderful collection of essays “Hugging the Shore,” which usurped his many fine essays from the New Yorker and elsewhere.

I used to love Updike’s essays in the New Yorker. I remembered one he wrote, which must have been five thousand words or more, on the joys of hanging out at the beach in the summer at Cape Cod. But Updike he also wrote many fine critical essays, as well as such personal essays, and all of them were finely crafted and well written. They were the essence of what you wanted to read in the New Yorker while commuting home from work, or just laying at the beach yourself.

Updike was a literate and intelligent man, and a writer’s writer. He was the editor of the Harvard Lampoon of 1954, but he was no buffoon, and no poonie turned Hollywood script writer. Instead, he became directly a man of American letters, an acknowledge novelist, critic and spokesman for his generation. He had a way with words.

Born outside of Reading, PA, in Shillington, he referred to his hometown always as “pollenny Pennsylvania,” a clever and abstract alliteration. Needless to say, he was a north shore man, not really a Cape Cod man at all, cleaving to Ipswich, Mass and their fine food and exquisite antiques.

Here I have to note that I have never liked Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, or any of a dozen other novelists who competed for attention on the shelves of bookstores with Vonnegut and Updike during their heydays. Much seventies writing seemed overly obsessed with self, sex, religion, or other personal subject matters that were hideously Dostoevskian and self-absorbed. It was as if writing one’s own life down on paper had become an acceptable substitute for the actual drafting of fiction.

Vonnegut and Updike didn’t buy into this. They actually were craftsmen. They seemed to transcend all, or at least a great deal of this, Vonnegut by consciously making fun of it all, and Updike by writing so well about so many things, he transcended the subject matter. In short, they didn’t fall into the malaise that many of the writers of their generation did, and consequently, they stand head and shoulders above them.

–art kyriazis south jersey/philly
home of the world champion philadelphia phillies