Tom Van Doran (1951 – 2012)

I’m a comedy snob.

I’m serious. I am the worst person you can sidle up to if you want to make someone laugh. Most jokes fall flat with me. Most so-called hilarious stories bore me to tears. I’ll force a smile when I have to because I don’t want to be a jerk, but I take no pleasure in it.

Tom Van Doran could always make me laugh. He was smart, he was dry, he was able to see — and had no qualms about pointing out — the absurd in everything around him. He was deeply, fantastically, sublimely sarcastic, and in the best way. What I mean is he usually saved that particular talent only for people who were begging for it. And there were never any shortages of those.

Tom made me laugh every time we got together, including the last time, at my niece Lauren’s first communion. This was after he had been fighting cancer for two years. He was different that day. Quieter. You could see in his face, and in his eyes, that things weren’t going well on the health front. But he was philosophical about what was ahead for him, and seemed to be taking things in in a way I wish we all did all the time. He also said a few things that were viciously funny. Things that made me choke on my beer.

That’s a good combination.

Tom spent half his life at a job that . . .  I’ll be honest with you: I just can’t fathom what it is that makes a man run into a burning building on behalf of people he doesn’t even know. That doesn’t make me a less of a person because as a salesman, and a writer, I’ve spent half of my life running after purchase orders and catchy phrases. It doesn’t make bartenders any less, or hairdressers, or mail carriers, or teachers, or psychiatrists, or priests. It just makes firefighters that much more.

I believe that.

He was doing the job with the best he had in September of 2001 when he caught a Ground Zero cancer that waited, and waited, and finally pounced.

He spent the other half of his life partnering with my sister to raise two kids. Raised them straight on into college. You gotta talk to these kids. They’re smart. Thoughtful. Honest. Earnest. They don’t think of the world as just so much B.S. A lot of people do, you know. Only a lucky few know better, and Tom and Liz raised two like that. They went two-for-two. You think that’s easy? You think that’s not a life well spent?

I was diagnosed with cancer in January.

It’s a powerful thing, cancer. A humbling thing. It changes you. It changed me. I’m told my lymphoma is in remission so far, and I’m grateful to God, and my doctors, and my nurses, and my wife, and my kids, and my mother, and my family. And I’m trying to live with the kind of perspective I saw in Tom, and heard from him, the last time we were together. My baldness is a choice now, and it’s a choice driven by that same desire. A reminder to hold on tight to the things that really matter.

But I know I’m falling short. I know I’m not looking at things, and soaking them in, the way Tom took to doing. I know I’m not speaking as honestly and directly to the people in my life as he spoke to me that last time. That day he was so sincere it made me uncomfortable. So I chose to be glib.

It was a lousy choice.

So this time I’m speaking straight from the heart. Just a little late, huh?

If you respect someone, care about someone, or admire someone . . .  If you’re lucky enough to know someone who can teach you real perspective, or who can make you laugh every time you see him . . .  Or all of the above . . .  Maybe you should tell him.

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Blood! Gore! Monsters!, Or, “We haven’t seen the last of those weirdies.”

One of the reasons Heavy Listing went on semi-hiatus was to use our writing time cultivating other contributors.

Louis K. Lowy is a terrific writer, whose novel, Die Laughingis both funny and exciting as hell. It is set in the black-and-white ’50s — a terrain Louis returns to today, in our Movie Night tribute to Halloween.

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Horror and sci-fi films from the 1950s tend to fall under two categories: those that are remarkably good because they are examples of terrific filmmaking and those that are remarkably good because they are examples of terrible filmmaking. I decided to go with the later category because the best of them are so damn fun to watch. I made my top ten choices with one thought in mind. Despite—or because of—the low budgets the films had to be entertaining. With that small criterion I begin my list of the Top Ten Best Terrible Horror Movies of the ’50s.

10. Killers From Space

This 1954 release was produced and directed, according to Wikipedia, by W. Lee Wilder (brother of Billy Wilder!) from an original, commissioned screenplay co-written by his son Myles Wilder. From the final product it’s obvious the fruit fell far from the Billy Wilder branch of this family tree.

This b & w film starred Peter Graves, brother of James Arness who played the monster in The Thing From Another Planet (a 1950s horror classic) and also went on to everlasting fame as Marshall Matt Dillon in the Gunsmoke TV series. Graves was no slouch himself. He starred in the Mission Impossible TV series and in the Airport movies.

The premise is Dr. Douglas Martin (Graves) while flying over an atomic test site crashes and is supposedly killed. He shows up again, but is acting weird. It turns out that aliens have revived him so he can steal top-secret info that the spacemen can use to conquer earth.

The film has an abundance of ultra low-tech effects that blow away any credibility. It begins with scratchy stock footage of a nuclear test site intermingled with studio shots of Graves in a jet cockpit. The aliens bulging eyes made from ping-pong balls cut in half and dotted in the center for pupils give new meaning to the term bug-eyed monsters. The spacemen are conveniently holed up in a cave (a favorite haunt of outer space creatures in the 1950s) where they are developing gigantic bugs and lizards obviously normal-sized but shot in extreme close up to look humongous. One of the most excruciatingly memorable scenes is the four-minute travail of Dr. Martin trying to find his way out of the cave as he attempts to avoid rear projection images of the enlarged cockroaches, grasshoppers, monitor lizards, horned toads and any other creature W. Lee Wilder could find to film. Killers From Space is a film filled with horror for all the wrong reasons.

It can be watched or downloaded for free at Internet Archive:  http://archive.org/search.php?query=killers%20from%20space%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms

9. Robot Monster

Another ‘monsterpiece’ of the so-bad-it’s-good films. Apparently 2-D wasn’t good enough for this 1953 b & w film, so they also released it in 3-D. It was shot in Bronson Canyon, Los Angeles where (according to the DVD blurb) Ro-Man, a sex-starved robot monster…has destroyed all of humanity with the exception of a small band of survivors (who must) re-populate the human race and destroy…Ro-Man and his commander, The Great Guidance.

What makes this film so special is the laughably bad costume of Ro-Man. From Wikipedia: Twenty-five-year-old writer/director Phil Tucker made Robot Monster in four days for an estimated $16,000. The budget did not allow for a robot costume as intended [but they could afford 3-D?] so Tucker used his friend George Barrows who had his own gorilla suit to play Ro-Man. Tucker added (a dive) helmet.

There is, of course, the requisite cave where Ro-Man dwells, and the extreme close-up giant creatures spliced from stock footage of 1940′s One Million B.C.  Elmer Bernstein, the prestigious composer who wrote the score for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, composed the music though I doubt Robot Monster was included in his resume.

Again from Wikipedia, the film (received) decent reviews and grossed $1,000,000 in its initial release, more than sixty times its original investment.

Which just goes to show you that sometimes bad can be good – very good!

8. The Giant Gila Monster.

I almost excluded this 1959 b & w release filmed in and around Cielo, Texas, because the star is another extreme close-up. As the title suggests, this time it’s a Gila lizard who lives in—what else?—a cave. What saved the day was the inclusion of teenagers. By 1959 producer Samuel Z. Arkoff had discovered the power of teenage dollars and had produced a slew of films to harness that financial windfall. Director Ray Kellogg jumped on the bandwagon with this entry.

The movie opens with a thirty-second voice-over warning us of the dreaded giant Hilo lizard (his pronunciation) that lurks in forbidden lands. At the same time ominous music plays and the camera pans across dried forest. We dissolve to a ruckus rock ‘n roll soundtrack and the most common trope in teen horror movies – a boy and girl parked in lover’s lane working their way toward the nasty.

Suddenly the car lunges forward and tumbles over a ridge. Screams and heart pounding music takes over. The film cuts to a colossal lizard paw bearing straight down on the camera until the paw overwhelms the lens, and is replaced by the film’s title. Wow, and all that in the first minute! Another highlight scene takes place at a sock hop. Our hero, misunderstood teen Chase Winstead is warbling a heartwarming ballad about God telling all his children to sing, when the Gila monster decides to pay a visit. Mayhem ensues which eventually leads to Chase defeating the creature with help from his hot rod and four quarts of nitroglycerin.

The Giant Gila Monster can also be found on Internet Archive: http://archive.org/search.php?query=the%20giant%20gila%20monster%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms

7. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

This one would make the list if only for its poster. Drawn by Reynold Brown, it has everything a horror fan could dream of: a 50 foot tall voluptuous half-clad, redhead; bare legs spread across a multi-level super-hiway, a Chrysler in one red-fingernailed hand and the other reaching down for panicked, scrambling drivers caught in a maelstrom of wrecked vehicles. A 1958 b & w Allied Artists release, IMDB says of the plot: When an abused wife grows to giant size because of an alien encounter and an aborted murder attempt, she goes after (her) cheating husband with revenge on her mind.

The effects are wonderfully awful. Not only do we get the extreme close-ups and model-sized sets, we get the worst gigantic rubber hands to ever grace a film. As the trailer proudly spouts, “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Incredibly huge with incredible desires for love and vengence!” I heartily give this low-budget horror/funfest a jumbo, rubber thumbs-up.

                       

 

6. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein           5. I Was a Teenage Werewolf

Numbers six and five are the definitive 1950s teen horror, or, rather, horror-teen movies, both released in 1957 under the auspices of the aforementioned Samuel Z. Arkoff, through his company American International Pictures. He once explained the Arkoff film formula thusly:

  • Action
  • Revolution
  • Killing
  • Oratory
  • Fantasy
  • Fornication

Arkoff ran with his formula. Another rule he had was to develop the most enticing posters for his movies that money could buy. Many were drawn from the title alone, before the scripts were even finished. Consequently many of the AIP posters of that era and genre are the most sought after and expensive ones on the market. Unfortunately they were nearly always the best part of the films.

The b & w Teen Werewolf is the better of the two flicks. It’s actually pretty good and has the added bonus of Michael Landon of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie fame starring in his first movie as our ill-fated protagonist.

It has a great scene in a high school gym. A female gymnast in tights (Fantasy) is working out after class on the ropes (Fornication.) Tony (Landon) is watching her. The school bell blares. This somehow causes poor Tony to flip out and transform into the furry, gruesome-toothed, salivating creature. The snarling werewolf in a varsity jacket descends upon the girl (Killing) who is hanging face down on the ropes. Her P.O.V. scenes are effectively shot upside down. All-in-all it’s not a bad movie for its genre.

Both Teen Werewolf and Teen Frank had the B-film great Whit Bissell as separate mad scientists who turned the hapless teens into monsters.

Teen Frank also starred Phyllis Coates, who played Lois Lane in the first season of the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series. The plot revolves around university-employed Professor Frankenstein (Bissell) who has an alligator pit beneath his house. He steals dead athletes from a plane crash and from their body parts constructs a creature with a beefcake body and a monster face. The creature goes around murdering people. Shot in 99% black and white, in a possible homage to The Wizard of Oz, as our teen monster goes to his final reward via electricution from laboratory machines, the film shocks us with a glorious color shot! I Was A Teenage Frankenstein and I Was A Teenage Werewolf are Arkoff and A.I.P. at their finest.

4. The Wasp Woman

Another metamorphic monster makes number four on my list of favorites so dreadful they’re exceptional. What separates this one from the previous two are it’s protagonist, who is a high-powered female that owns and runs a cosmetic firm, and its late-50s avant-garde vibe to it. The sets are decked out in chic design and the sound track is centered on jumpy jazz music much like The Twilight Zone employed.

This 1959 quickie shot in fourteen days by Roger Corman is the tale of cosmetics magnate Janis Starlin (Susan Cabot) who tampers with nature thanks to the help of yet another misguided scientist in her quest to regain her youth. At first the wasp enzyme injections produce the desired results but rapidly take a woeful turn.

Starlin changes into a murdering entomological nightmare with insect mask and hands that are a disaster. Shot in glimpses of light, the upper portion of the head piece looks like a rubber mask with a Fun Fur scalp and turgid pipe cleaner antennas glued to the forehead. The eyes resemble bottom convex portions of pounded out metal goblets minus the stems. The lower portion of the mouth has a pair of protruding canine teeth. Still, The Wasp Woman is a sassy mix of late 50s panache and low budget horror film non-wizardry that gives it a special air.

Find it at Internet Archive: http://archive.org/search.php?query=the%20wasp%20woman%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms

3. Godzilla

One last behemoth, this one from the other side of the world (sort of), comes in at number three. This Japanese b & w classic was originally released in its home country in 1954. Shortly after, American producers bought the foreign footage, re-edited it, dubbed it in English and inserted scenes of reporter Steve Martin, played by Raymond Burr, the future TV star of Perry Mason and Ironsides.  Burr never set foot in Japan. He was made to blend in with existing footage by use of Japanese doubles in matching suits filmed from behind, and creative cutting. In 1956 it was released in the United States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

This film is terrific not only for Burr’s ludicrous ‘interacting’ with the dubbed in Japanese actors (and the added factor of him being named Steve Martin), but, to the Japanese filmmakers credit, they do a decent job with their giant creature, a man in a rubber suit who tramps around spewing fire and crushing pint-sized landscapes. It’s also a 1950s message film on the dangers of the atomic age.

The American producers spent around $100,000 for the footage and the revamping. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! grossed two million. As Blue Oyster Cult sang in their song titled after the film’s star: Go, go, go, Godzilla!

Check out the trailer at Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/GodzillaKingOfTheMonstersTrailer

2. The Blob

What can you say about a movie that debuts one of the iconic stars of the last fifty years, features a theme song co-written by a seven-time Grammy winner, was shot in one-hundred percent color, and has a title star that resembles a cross between hair gel and toothpaste?

The Blob (1958) stars movie great Steve McQueen as teenager Steve Andrews and Aneta Corseaut as teenager Jane Martin. (Apparently there weren’t any ethnic families in the 1950s.)

McQueen went on to play in the classics Bullitt, The Great Escape, and Papillion. Corseaut achieved fame (?) as Andy Taylor’s love interest, Helen Crump, in The Andy Griffith Show.

Misunderstood, angst-ridden teen Steve Andrews comes to the rescue after the appropriately named Blob falls to earth and the stupidest senior citizen in horror film history picks it up on a stick and watches it slowly ooze onto his arm.

The Blob gobbles him up, grows bigger, and continues to find others to consume. There are two highlight scenes involving the creature invading the sanctity of 1950s teenage icons, a movie theater and a train car diner.

The oddity of watching McQueen in a film like this is alone worth the price of admission. Even without him, it’s still a good look at a 1950s culture that was more fantasy than reality. Oh, and the Grammy winner who co-wrote the theme song? None other than Burt Bacharach. The song’s title is the same as the movie and plays over the closing credits. It’s so marvelously lousy that if I were on the Grammy committee I’d either strip him of a couple of his awards, or give him a few more.

The song can be heard on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCtcgI4BcIQ

1. Plan 9 From Outer Space

Here it is, the Citizen Kane of horror movies gone irrevocably wrong, Ed Wood, Jr.’s 1959 b & w masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space (original title Grave Robbers From Outer Space.)

Go ahead. Admire the wobbly cardboard tombstones . . .  The rotund, heavily accented Swedish wrestler-cum-actor Tor Johnson, who can’t work his way out of the grave . . .  The cop who lackadaisically scratches his forehead with the tip of his gun . . .  The remainder of the recently-dead Bela Lugosi’s role being taken over by Wood’s foot-taller dentist . . .  The toy flying saucers hung by visible strings being utilized for UFOs . . .  The effeminate spaceman portrayed by someone named Dudley Manlove . . .  The hourglass-figured TV hostess Vampira creeping around . . .  The inept acting . . .  The inane dialogue . . .  The curly-cued prognosticator, Criswell, spouting such wisdom as “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives” . . . All of these, and more, are worth your admiration. But the true star of this film is director Wood, himself.

This is a man who believed in his heart that he was making a serious piece of work. That’s the key to the greatness of Plan 9. It is not told with a wink to the viewer. Wood sees greatness in every frame of his film. It’s what makes this film magical. The viewer never gets the notion that this was made to grab a quick buck like the Arkoff films, or that someone such as Roger Corman was hastily cranking it out so he could move on to the next one.

Wood’s sincerity comes through. The actors (and that term is debatable) take their roles seriously because their leader takes it seriously. Tim Burton did a magnificent job in his tribute film Ed Wood, but to truly understand this man’s genius treat yourself to Plan 9 From Outer Space.

You can find it at Internet Archive: http://archive.org/search.php?query=plan%209%20from%20outer%20space%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms

One last word, all of these films are best enjoyed with popcorn and whatever gets you through the night.

By Louis K. Lowy

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October Madness, East Region, Round Two, Or, “Paint it black.”

We’re back with chapter seven in the ultimate rock & roll smackdown: our exclusive single-elimination bracket-style tournament to determine the greatest artist in rock history.

The rules are simple: We took a consensus of VH1’s and Rolling Stone magazine’s lists of the top 100 artists, and sorted the top 64 of them into four brackets, just the way the NCAA does every spring in its March Madness tournament. During round one, we compared the artists’ best albums. In round two we’re considering their second best. Winner moves on, loser goes home.

Click here for a recap of the tournament results so far.

Today’s contest opens by pitting two artists who burned down stages all over the world because they just couldn’t get no “Satisfaction.”

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#1 The Rolling Stones vs. #9 Otis Redding

Otis had already died when this album was put together by guitarist Steve Cropper. I can imagine no higher tribute. The title cut changed everything (or would have if a plane crash hadn’t been a bigger game changer), but the album also gave us “Let Me Come On Home,” “I’m Coming Home,” “Ole Man Trouble,” and the wonderful “I Love You More Than Words Can Say.” Let It Bleed shows the Stones in transition, and it’s hard to believe it was this good with so much going on. Brian Jones was on the way out (he played on two cuts and died before the album’s release), Mick Taylor on the way in (he played on two others). The band was playing around with genres (they include an acoustic blues, an extended conceptual piece, even “Country Honk”). Keith Richards stepped up and sang lead for the first time. When the smoke cleared, the album gave birth to such classics as “Gimme Shelter,” “Let It Bleed,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Stones win.

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#4 Michael Jackson vs. #5 Nirvana

Off the Wall was the album that announced Michael Jackson was going to continue being an industry phenomenon, even after moonwalking away from the Jackson 5. It’s hard to know how much of the credit should go to producer Quincy Jones, but the album staked out where Jackson’s sound was heading for the next ten years: dance beats, orchestral strings, and guitar funk. In Utero was Nirvana’s third record, their last one in the studio, and it is in many ways a difficult listen. It was meant to be a difficult listen. Loyal reader, Eric Saltz, provides this neat synopsis: “In Utero was an even better record than Nevermind. It was written and designed to be harsh, aggressive, and ugly. It was meant to be a big middle finger to the critical success put upon them by an industry they hated, and universally adored by a demographic that they never wanted to gain acceptance from. They went from a punk band from the outskirts of Seattle, to getting their music played on morning shows and in sports arenas. The irony of this album is that the record company hated it, and almost blocked its release. The intention by Nirvana was to knock all of their fringe audience off of the bandwagon. Instead, it went 5X platinum in the US alone.”

We’re seeing a lot of death in today’s bracket . . .

Nirvana lives on.

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#3 Chuck Berry vs. #11 The Doors

Former Washington Post columnist and current ESPN talking head Tony Kornheiser hosts a Washington-based radio show that touches on sports, politics, animals attacking humans, and anything else Mr. Tony finds himself interested in. He’s a big music fan, and is fond of pointing out that Chuck Berry is the only artist who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Rock & Roll that no one can take issue with.

Think about it. He may be right.

St. Louis to Liverpool rocks as hard as any Berry record, and includes “No Particular Place to Go,” which alone makes it essential. But it sounds like a blues record—it would fit comfortably with any Muddy Waters or B.B. King offering from the same era. And that is as high a compliment as I can bestow.

L.A. Woman was Jim Morrison’s final album. His voice here sounds great to me, despite the strain.  It sounds the way a hard-living rock star’s voice is supposed to sound. The title cut is one of the greatest songs in rock history. “Riders on the Storm” closes the album with a haunting goodbye.

It’s a difficult call because Chuck Berry is undoubtedly a more important figure in the history of rock & roll. But I think we would have been more diminished without L.A. Woman than we would have been if we’d been denied this particular Chuck Berry record. I’m going with the Doors.

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#2 James Brown vs. #10 Public Enemy

Selecting James Brown’s second best album (behind the incendiary Live at the Apollo) is harder than usual because the man spent half of his life on stage, and the other half churning out hit singles. Every four months his label would gather a bunch of them, seemingly at random, and release a mostly forgettable album. His early hits were repackaged so many times, that I Got You (I Feel Good) is an arbitrary choice. I am admittedly at a loss to advocate for Public Enemy in this kind of competition. Fear of a Black Planet gets in your face no less than In Utero. It oozes attitude, cleverness, ambition—talent. But it ain’t James Brown. It ain’t even close to James Brown. The Godfather advances.

One of the hardest things about conducting this tournament is having to compare artists with almost nothing in common. Like Hendrix versus the Everly Brothers. Michael Jackson versus Janis Joplin. Next week we’ll return to the South Region, where we’ll be comparing apples and condominiums. Led Zep vs. Little Richard. Marvin Gaye vs. Buddy Holly. The Beach Boys vs. Madonna. Bob Dylan vs. the Ramones.

My head hurts already.

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The Best Sounds in the World, Or, “We’re gonna be short and sweet this time, but don’t get used to it.”

Leave music out of it for a moment. What’s your favorite sound?

Like most things, it’s easier to identify the worst sounds we encounter: Jackhammers, screams, the drill at the dentist’s office . . .  My vote goes to the tines of a fork on the surface of a plate. Aiyeee!

Selecting the best requires a few moments of serene contemplation.  We’ve done that for you, and come up with the following list.

An Almost Top Ten List of the Best Sounds in the World . . .

5. “I’m letting you off with a warning this time.” A cop or trooper jockeys into traffic behind you, hits the lights, does the slow walk-up, and runs your license, registration, and insurance. All the while, you’re muttering nasty things inside your head. You guess there weren’t enough murderers or burglars or drug dealers to occupy someone’s precious time today. And you check the calendar to see how close you are to the end of the month, otherwise known as Quota Time. You’re going to be in a hideous mood for the rest of the day, and the other people in your life will know it. Here he comes, another slow walk-up right out of central casting. Only this time he throws a switch. “I’m letting you off with a warning this time.” And your day is suddenly brighter than any you can remember.

4. Steaks being thrown onto a hot, well-oiled grill. With apologies to our vegan readers, this sound is sublime. You have to remember to brush oil onto the grates, and make sure you let the temperature climb above 400F, so you get a decent sear on the meat. And it’s better to have an audience, so you can begin by saying, “Listen to this…” Don’t be talking on the cell phone, or you’ll miss the moment, which is at its absolute apex when the second steak hits the grill and adds its hiss to the first one’s early sizzle.

God, I love summer.

3. Baseball practice in early spring. You’ve been away from them all winter, but now the sounds are coming back, along with the grass and the sun. The thwock of balls hitting the pockets of gloves, the distinctly sharper sound of them jumping off bats, relaxed insults flying back and forth. The sounds of a good high school or college team getting back to work evoke the coming of spring, and that always brings a surge of hope.

2. The sound of your spouse or partner breathing as he or she sleeps. Especially if you’ve had a crappy day. I realize this one comes with its own jackhammer sounds sometimes. Try to look past that. Think of the snoring as tangible evidence that you’re not alone in this world. (A lot of people are, you know.) If your life partner doesn’t snore, spoon up close behind and just listen. It’s nice to be reminded that another human being thinks highly enough of you to trust you with that sound.

1. A laughing baby. This needs to be triggered by something silly. (She’s an infant, for God’s sake. She’s not gonna get Bill Maher.) A game of “Boo” will do just fine. This has the added benefit of taking you out of yourself, because it’s hard to remain self-absorbed when you’re making a funny face and saying, “Boo!” And the baby starts laughing, a little tentatively at first, but unabashedly by boo number three. By the fifth boo, the child’s entire body spasms with every laugh, and you can’t help but become a baby yourself and laugh harder, and better, than you’ve laughed in a long time. And you wish your life partner could be there with you.

A laughing baby paves over a lot of stupid bickering.

By Michael Gavaghen

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Introducing the Sorov, Or, “Looking at the best hitters in baseball through a reverse lens.”

Last week we applied the principles of baseball analyst Voros McCracken to this year’s crop of pitchers, which is precisely how he wanted them applied.

Some years back McCracken presented evidence that the vast majority of what happens when a baseball is put into play is just luck. Guy hits the ball, maybe it’s within reach of a fielder, maybe it’s not. If it is, he’s out. If it isn’t, he’s on base and the inning continues.

McCracken discovered that pitchers really can’t control whether non-home runs are hit to a “fieldable” spot. As a result, the best predictors of future pitching success are the stats that have nothing to do with what happens when a ball is in play: specifically, the numbers of walks, strikeouts, and home runs each pitcher records.

These were shown to be highly predictable from season to season, and they almost always pointed toward the game’s best pitchers.

By combining McCracken’s insights with the research of Pete Palmer, we were able to identify the pitchers who had saved their team the most runs independent of the defense.

This week we’re flipping the analysis over, and applying the same analysis to hitters.

We’ve known since the days of Babe Ruth (and at least until Brady Freaking Anderson) that home run hitters tend to hit lots of home runs every year. We’ve known since the days of Mickey Mantle that certain hitters tend to strike out a lot every season. And we’ve known since the days of Bill James (and Joe Morgan) that certain hitters tend to draw more bases on balls than others, year in and year out. In fact, the hitter tends to have more influence on whether he walks than the pitcher does.

So there is no reason Voros McCracken’s analysis shouldn’t be able to identify the best hitters in the game, independent of the defense played against them. And since we’re flipping the analysis from the pitcher to the batter, we’ll also flip the letters of Mr. McCracken’s name, as Bill James did some time ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Sorov:  (Home Runs TIMES 1.4) PLUS (Unintentional Walks TIMES 0.33) MINUS (Strikeouts TIMES 0.28) EQUALS the number of runs the batter delivered or cost his team independent of the performance of the opposition’s defense.

Before we get to our list of the best pure hitters in the game, I should offer this disclaimer: The stats in use have not been normalized for park effects. So the guys swinging in Coors Field or Camden Yards are going to look better than their counterparts in Pittsburgh, Seattle, or Frisco. I’ve left that element out of the equation because I’m not sure how to account for park factors affecting strikeouts and walks. I know they exist, but I’m skeptical of their accuracy.

Look. A guy may strikeout more often in one ballpark than another because the visibility stinks (a real park effect), or it may be because he becomes more of a free swinger because of how easy it is to hit a home run there (a peripheral effect). I think that distinction matters, so I decided to leave it out of the rankings. A reader may wish to apply adjustments for park factors and come up with his or her own rankings.

An Almost Top Ten List of the Best Pure Hitters, National League . . .

9. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh (produced 25.3 runs more than an average player on plays that didn’t involve the defense)

8. Carlos Beltran, St. Louis (26.6 runs)

5 (tie). Chase Headley, San Diego (27.2 runs)

5 (tie). Aaron Hill, Arizona (27.2 runs)

5 (tie). Buster Posey, San Francisco (27.2 runs)

4. Adam LaRoche, Washington (27.4 runs)

3. Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee (28.4 runs)

2. Yadier Molina, St. Louis (28.9 runs)

1. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee (37.4 runs)

An Almost Top Ten List of the Best Pure Hitters, American League . . .

9. David Ortiz, Boston (produced 32.1 runs more than an average player on plays that didn’t involve the defense)

8. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles (32.6 runs)

7. Josh Willingham, Minnesota (33.3 runs)

6. Robinson Cano, New York (36.2 runs)

5. Adrian Beltre, Texas (36.7 runs)

4. Jose Bautista, Toronto (39.0 runs)

3. Prince Fielder, Detroit (40.6 runs)

2. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit (50.3 runs)

Raise your hand if you expect Mike Trout to pop up in the next slot.

1. Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto (56.2 runs)

I was surprised, too.

Just for the hell of it, because I know I would want to know, I’ll give you the opposite end of the spectrum. I should point out that these guys are not necessarily the worst players in the game, or on their teams, or even bad players. They are usually in the lineup for reasons other than their bats.

That said, here are the guys whose success at the plate, such as it is, is most dependent on luck:

An Almost Top Ten List of the Most “Impure” Hitters in Baseball . . .

8 (tie). Brent Lillibridge, Chicago (and two other teams before them) (cost his teams 12.1 runs more than an average player on plate appearances that didn’t involve the defense)

8 (tie). Brandon Crawford, San Francisco (-12.1 runs)

7. Alcides Escobar, Kansas City (-12.8 runs)

6. Clint Barnes, Pittsburgh (-12.9 runs)

5. Drew Stubbs, Cincinnati (-13.0 runs)

4. Jordan Schafer, Houston (-13.2 runs)

3. Brett Hayes, Miami (-13.4 runs)

2. Everth Cabrera, San Diego (-14.5 runs)

And I’ll bet just about every baseball fan in the country expects to see his own team’s worst hitter—the guy who makes you cringe whenever he comes up in a big situation—right here:

1. Danny Espinosa, Washington (-15.3 runs)

By Michael Gavaghen

Posted in Saturday: Sports | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

An Almost Top Ten List of Best Mockumentaries, Or, “Certain Changes of Format Post for Make Benefit Exciting Blog of Listing Many Things”

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7. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

It seems to me Sacha Baron Cohen owes a debt to Andy Kaufman. Does anyone remember Kaufman’s Foreign Man stand-up act (a precursor to his Latka character on Taxi)? He was Borat before there was a Borat. This Borat’s pretty funny, though. I liked the scenes in Kazakhstan more than the ones in the states, although I don’t know if they could have sustained an entire movie. And I think Borat’s sister, the country’s fourth best prostitute, should have ranked higher.

6. Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Theatrical producer Corky St. Clair is hell bent on staging his original musical, Red, White, and Blaine!, for the town of Blaine, Missouri’s sesquicentennial celebration. (The town was founded by Blaine Fabin, who was leading an expedition to the Pacific Ocean, got confused in the fog, and declared the journey complete.) Along the way we learn about the side effects of being probed by aliens, meet one of the few survivors of penis reduction surgery, and become wary of “bastard people.” Make sure you keep watching through the credits, or you’ll miss the lunchbox offer of a lifetime.

5. Zelig (1983)

By inter-cutting the character of Leonard Zelig into actual newsreels of 1920s and ‘30s events, Woody Allen paved the way for Forrest Gump, and did it before the advent of digital technology. Zelig is one of Allen’s most sympathetic characters—a simple man who wants so much to be liked and to fit in, he takes on the characteristics of whatever strong personalities he finds around him. This is Allen as a sad clown, and it is absolutely brilliant.

4. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

I don’t have to do anything but namedrop here, or maybe combine that with a little word association. Marty DiBergi. Saucy Jack. Stonehenge. Bizarre gardening accident. Smell the Glove. Eleven. David St. Hubbins. If you’re like me, you’re now at least 40% likely to dig out your Spinal Tap DVD this weekend. You can thank me later.

3. Real Life (1979)

Like the genre or not, you have to concede the people making these movies are incredibly smart. Albert Brooks is the smartest one in the group. Real Life is an early take on reality film making. It follows veterinarian Charles Grodin’s family by the use of the revolutionary Ettinauer 226XL camera system. The Ettinauer is worn on the head, so throughout the movie you keep seeing skinny cameramen (one of whom was Harry Shearer—Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap) with these enormous electronic helmet-cams over their heads getting in each other’s shots. “Only six of these cameras were ever made. Only five of them ever worked. We have four of those.”

2. Best In Show (2000)

A fake documentary about an almost-too-real dog show was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed. Christopher Guest’s improv troupe was never funnier or more fully believable. As for the director . . .  From the base doctor at Guantanamo in A Few Good Men, to the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride, to the aforementioned Corky St. Clair, to ventriloquist wannabe Harlan Pepper in this movie, who can name many kinds of nuts, has any character actor ever disappeared more thoroughly into more disparate roles than Guest?

1. Take the Money and Run (1969)

We talked about this one a couple of weeks ago. A lot of people who haven’t seen it know bits from this movie. Virgil Starkwell is a career criminal on a long losing streak. One minute he’s robbing a bank, but confusing the teller with his poor penmanship. (“I have a gub. Abt natural.”) The next he’s breaking out of prison with a gub gun fashioned out of soap. This is Woody Allen before he started hearing what a genius he was. This is as good as that Woody got.

By Michael Gavaghen

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The Bad Food Smackdown, Or, “Hold the lettuce, will you? I don’t want to make this lunch any healthier than it has to be.”

I am writing this from my local branch of a national fast-food emporium. I am sitting at a round table, two feet in diameter, along a dividing wall, which is on my left. I have just finished a salad that delivered 34 grams of fat and more than 1,600 milligrams of sodium to a body that manifestly doesn’t need them. It was the healthiest thing on the menu.

I’m trying to write this post from the same little table, but I’m having a problem. A gentleman arrived a few minutes ago. He has dark hair, about three days of stubble, and a blank expression. He has a large freckle or mole or something right next to his left eye.

I know all this because the son of a bitch just sat at the next little two-foot table, and he sat facing me.  His nose, which I can describe in some detail but will not, is about eight feet from my own, which I can also describe in some detail, but will not.

This isn’t right. It’s a big restaurant, and there are other unoccupied tables. He could have sat at any one of them. Or, if he really likes the intimacy of a tiny little table along the dividing wall, he could have sat facing in the same direction. Then I could have described his hair follicles and the back collar of his polyester polo shirt.

I don’t need this.

I was going to write an informative piece about how you can find healthy choices at even the worst dives, but Freckleman has put an end to that. Now I’m getting mean.

Skinny Single Elimination Tournament, Fast Food Division . . .

By far, the most popular feature we’ve rolled out here at Heavy Listing is the ongoing Early-Autumn Madness tournament designed to identify the greatest artist in the history of rock music. Those entries get more readers, more hits, more searches, than anything else we do.

I thought it would be fun to work up a slimmed-down tourney to identify the fast-food chain that offers the unhealthiest menu items.  I took the top eight national chains (not counting Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts) and identified three foods from each with the worst nutritional profile.  We’ll compare the worst item on each restaurant’s menu in the first round, the second worst in the second, and the third worst in the finals.

Let’s see how they stack up . . .

#1 McDonald’s vs. #8 Chick Fil-A

Mickey D’s 20-piece Chicken McNuggets provides 59 grams of fat and 59 grams of carbohydrate. Now that’s what I call a balanced meal.  It also contributes 940 calories and 1,800 mg of sodium to your daily intake.  The very heterosexual Spicy Chicken Sandwich Deluxe counters with 27 grams of fat, 50 carbs, and ten mg less salt than McD’s entry. McDonald’s wins. (Remember, the worst nutritional profile advances.)

#4 Burger King vs. #5 Taco Bell

BK’s Triple Whopper Sandwich with Cheese sounds like it ought to make you fat. Peering under the bun reveals 82g of fat, and a whopping 1,230 calories. The Volcano Nachos at Taco Bell lets you off easy with only 58 fat grams and 970 calories. But they have 92 carbohydrate grams, versus only 53 on the Triple Whopper with Cheese. Tough call, but I think a steady diet of Triple Whoppers will kill you faster than a bottomless bag of Volcano Nachos. The King has a chance to be king.

#3 Wendy’s vs. #6 Pizza Hut

Wendy’s ¾ lb. Triple Cheeseburger is our first entry to top the 2,000 mg sodium threshold. They also push the sodium to the side so they can squeeze in 67g of fat and 1,060 total calories. Pizza Hut offers something called the 9-Inch Personal Panormous Pizza for Meat Lovers. Good God: 123g of carbohydrates, 80g of fat, 3,670mg of salt. This item delivered more sodium than any item from any restaurant we looked at, more carbohydrates than any item from any restaurant, and the second highest concentration of fat. Oh, and at 1,470, the most calories. Pizza Hut crushes the competition.

#2 Subway vs. #7 KFC

We had to make a judgment call on how to measure the nutritional content at Subway restaurants. They publish the numbers only for their six-inch subs. But they also sell 12-inch subs. So just as we look at the Triple-This or the Quadruple-That in the burger joints on our list, we doubled the nutritional counts Subway made available, to get the best reading we could on their 12-inch sandwiches.

Subway’s 12-Inch Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt including Cheese turned out to be a formidable contender. 1,140 calories, 94 carbs, 2,160mg of sodium. Jared, how could you? Kentucky Fried countered with its Chicken Pot Pie. Ah, real comfort food: 45 grams of fat, 66 of carbohydrates. Not exactly healthy, but not bad enough to win. Subway rides again.

Round Two:

Wherever possible I looked for a substantially different menu item. Meaning, I didn’t count the Triple Whopper as one contestant, then count the Triple Whopper Without Cheese as another. We looked for another line of offerings, or at least another named grouping, although it wasn’t always easy or apparent.

#1 McDonalds vs. #4 Burger King

Having used their woefully unhealthy large McNuggets to beat down Chick Fil-A in the first round, McDonald’s tapped the Angus Beef and Cheese (790 calories, 39g fat, 63g carbs, 2,070mg sodium) in Round Two. In a bit of gamesmanship, BK trotted out its own 20-piece Chicken Nuggets (950 calories, 55g fat, 50g carbs, 1,530mg sodium). It’s close. It’s damn close. But I think that creepy king mascot just knocked Ronald McDonald on his fat ass.

#2 Subway vs. #6 Pizza Hut

Subway’s 12-inch Big Philly Cheesesteak (1,000 calories, 34g fat, 102g carbs, 2,620mg sodium) squares off against two slices of Pizza Hut’s 14-inch Large Pan Pizza for Pepperoni Lovers (860 calories, 46g fat, 74g carbs, 2,140mg sodium). We used two slices for the same reason we used a 12-inch sub for Subway, not that it matters. Subway wins.

Final Round:

#2 Subway vs. #4 Burger King

Is anyone else surprised to find Subway in the finals?

They have a line of low-fat six-inch sandwiches which are relatively healthy by fast-food standards. I don’t deny them their marketing claims, even though Jared makes my skin crawl. But they offer nutritional disasters on the same menu. And that’s what we’re looking for.

BK’s Country Pork Sandwich (810 calories, 42g fat, 78g carbs, 1,910mg sodium) versus Subways’ 12-inch Spicy Italian Sandwich (960 calories, 48g fat, 92 carbs, 3,040mg sodium). It wasn’t even close.

Subway. Eat fresh. Keel over.

By Michael Gavaghen

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