Lord of the Miniatures

It was the first time I’d spent more than one afternoon in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I never imagined Alexander Girard would make it unforgettable.

Gone thirty years now, Girard was a well-known architect, interior, textile, and furniture designer after World War II. He grew up in Florence Italy before moving to New York and becoming director of design for Herman Miller’s textile division. He was also obsessed with collecting folk art miniatures from around the globe, and starting in 1939 and continuing through the 1980s and early 90s, Girard and his wife Susan amassed more than 106,000 of these pieces. 

In Santa Fe, where he spent his final years, an entire wing of their International Museum of Folk Art is filled with over 10,000 of Girard’s marvelous miniatures, and the painstakingly detailed worlds and layouts he created for them literally take your breath away, The hangar-sized wing, called Multiple Visions: A Common Bond is more entrancing and engaging than any exhibit I’ve ever seen. Blend a model railroader with a mad scientist and you get Alexander Girard. 

Each display in the room is given a number and a corresponding description in a guidebook you pick up at the entrance. Girard wanted no words on the walls so that the visitor could wander through the exhibit and relish in pure discovery. 

And there is so much to discover! From a baptism in a Mexican church with smaller villagers in the background cleverly placed behind larger ones in the foreground to create depth. To a 19th century American town with a dinner served to odd guests glimpsed through a window. To a Mexican religious carnival. To a farmer’s market and merchants on a river that seems to go for half a block. Girard’s fanciful craftsmanship is boundless; as wonderful as the rest of the Folk Art Museum is, with its exhibits of Alaskan Native coats and Japanese ghost and monster art, the “Miniatures Room” easily blows everything else away.

I have yet to see all seven other wonders of the world, but Number Eight is sure impressive, and is a must-immersion if you ever visit Santa Fe.


The Midsummer World Baseball Classic? Yes, Please!!

The Athletic website had a great piece this morning on how to “fix” the World Baseball Classic, and I wholeheartedly agree with it times ten.

Except the aim shouldn’t be to fix the Classic—which in my opinion is already great—but to fix Major League Baseball, which has sadly become a strikeout-plagued, rule-changed, unwatchable mess. What they propose is something astute baseball writers like Joe Sheehan have talked about for a while: swap out the boring, overhyped and irrelevant MLB All-Star Game every three years with the WBC in the middle of July. Work out the finances ahead of time to give MLB an extra cut in case a star player gets hurt—which WBC-haters mope about continuously—and watch the global baseball audience absolutely explode.

Rather than interfere with spring training and March Madness like it does now, the WBC would have its own stage for the short tournament, and the international exposure, if anything, would make Americans far more interested in the USA team, which this year has had some of the least enthusiastic crowds. 

Did you watch the best baseball game in years last night between Mexico and Japan? Neither team would give in, as Mexico went ahead on a three-run blast out of nowhere by Luis Urìas, before a ridiculous three-run blast on a real good inside pitch to Masatka Yashida tied things up. Randy Arozerena of Team Mexico robbed a home run and made a few other sparkling grabs, and that was all before Japan quickly erased a 5-4 deficit in the bottom of the 9th on a Munetaka Murakami double into the left-center gap with two aboard after Shiehei Ohtani began things with a different double.

Check out this Japanese radio call and tell me that no one is into this thing: 

The mobs attending the early rounds in Tokyo were insane, with cheerleaders on the dugouts leading sing-alongs throughout, and the crowds for the Spanish-speaking teams were all boisterous and more engaged than you would find at any American All-Star “classic” ever.

Enough already. Make the WBC a real global event by giving it the full July spotlight it needs. Unfortunately, because MLB can’t seem to do anything right anymore, I won’t be holding my breath.

Rediscovering Ronstadt

Yes, I watched Episode 3 of The Last Of Us (and paid for it by having “Long, Long Time” stuck in my head for well over a week), but my newfound infatuation for 76-year-old Linda Ronstadt was kindled by The Sound of My Voice, the superb HBO documentary about her that I finally got around to watching last month.

Directed by Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein, it’s an inspirational portrait of a hugely talented singer and wonderful human, told entirely through the words of Ronstadt herself and a host of other musicians and industry people. I remember admiring Ronstadt at the time of her album releases and liking a number of her popular songs, but was completely unaware of her breadth of musical knowledge, of her Mexican family heritage, and of her ability to take any song in any genre and funnel it masterfully through her perfect and astonishing voice. She may have had an innocent, girl-next-door demeanor and worn a Cub Scout uniform onstage, but the power of her vocals, which could be either raucous, sexy, or painfully heartfelt at the drop of a note, was unmatched.

The documentary covers every step of her career, from the Stone Ponies at the Troubadour through multiple covers of Rolling Stone magazine. Ronstadt, like David Bowie and other restless artists, was compelled to go in entirely new directions, risking her core audience without hesitation. Time and again, her “experiments” proved wildly successful, like hiring Nelson Riddle to produce two albums of old standard torch songs, or playing the lead in the Pirates of Penzance opera on Broadway opposite Kevin Kline. She recorded an album of Mexican love songs her father used to sing to her and it became one of the biggest-selling Spanish albums in history. Hell, she even kicked ass singing “It’s In His Kiss” in an appearance on the Muppet Show!

Ronstadt, as we would sadly learn, inherited Parkinson’s Disease and lost her singing voice well over a decade ago, The final scene in The Sound of My Voice is both gentle and heartbreaking, as she attempts a Mexican ballad with her nephew and cousin in her living room, her hand shaking, her eyes and smile still luminous but her voice a weak facsimile of what she once had.

As soon as the documentary ended, I burned a Ronstadt playlist for my car, alternating the rock numbers with the ballads and country-swing tracks to create an hour and twenty-odd minutes of joy. (In my opinion, her versions of “Tracks of My Tears” and “Tumbling Dice” are better than the originals.) The thing I’ve finally learned is that you don’t just listen to Linda Ronstadt, you wear her songs like a warm coat you never want to take off.

Criminally Good

I have to admit I go out to the movies far less than I did pre-COVID, but I still watch my share of them on streaming networks, and nothing I’ve seen all year compares to the tight, harrowing L.A. thriller by John Patton Ford called Emily the Criminal. Currently on Netflix, it’s my favorite film of 2022.

Aubrey Plaza, famous for playing the snarky office girl in Parks and Recreation, a host of quirky independent features and her current role in season two of The White Lotus, has never been better, and carries the film with unflappable ease. Plaza stars as Emily Benetto, a well-intentioned but troubled L.A. woman trying to dig herself out of student debt by landing a decent paying job. and soon “breaks bad” in desperate, inevitable fashion. 

After an interview with a respectable company goes south due to a past DWI charge, Emily’s friend at the high-end food delivery company she works part-time for gives her a useful job lead: a way to make a “quick thousand dollars.” It turns out to be a fraudulent credit card scam operation out in the Valley, which she is reluctant to join but finally agrees to dip her foot into. Emily has a taste for the dangerous, and every deeper dive she takes making “purchases” for her contact Youcef (Theo Rossi) brings her more cash, a fleeting relationship, and life-altering stress that finally comes to a head.

At a mere hour and 36 minutes, Emily the Criminal doesn’t waste one scene or frame of film on talky character development; all we see are Emily’s actions, reactions, and then more actions. We get everything we need to know about her feelings through Plaza’s engaging poker face and fearless expressions. Ford is both writer and director, and his neo-documentary style, masterful efficiency, and cohesiveness is evident from the first scene to the last. Using virtually no music, he creates a palpable tension in scene after scene as we experience what Emily is going through. The movie also has one of the best explorations of the sinister scam world now plaguing us more than ever, (at least the best since the incredible Adam Sandler/Philip Seymour Hoffman telephone battle in the underrated Punch Drunk Love). 

Plaza’s patented dry sarcasm is pleasantly muted in Emily the Criminal, and for once she has an opportunity to just plain act. I watched this movie four days ago, and it may be years before it’s out of my head.

Thoughts on Baseball Delirium Day

I woke up sometime between 3 and 4 a.m. this morning with baseball clogged in my head. I suppose it could have been due to the four playoff games I overdosed on yesterday, split-screening two of them at once a few times and occasionally hopping to a third game on a third channel, like an archaeologist running between multiple digs at Karnak. And it wasn’t just because the games were thrilling—one of them was a rout and another an unbearable, impotent slog—but it was because the results were purely stupefying.

This is the first season MLB voted to include a dozen teams in the postseason playoff tournament. Like nearly everything they do these days, it was a choice motivated by greed. The league has a vast array of problems, starting with hitters being incapable of making contact (see Houston vs. Seattle, 18 innings), the insertion of fan gambling into the broadcasts and ballparks, horrific ball-and-strike umpiring because the on-screen technology is so advanced it now repeatedly makes them look foolish, and idiotic TV blackout rules that keep baseball fans I know in Iowa from watching games for at least three teams in neighboring states. 

I had to flip away from the Astros-Mariners marathon in Seattle about five times, because watching the home batters crush the hopes of their loyal, glory-starved fans was just too painful. Most of today’s hitters, largely obsessed with launch angles and pimping home runs for the nightly highlight shows, have lost the ability or desire to do anything else but swing for the fences. Over and over again, as the game dragged into endless extra innings, the Mariner batters flailed away at pitch after pitch purposely thrown out of the strike zone by a parade of Astro relievers, when all they had to do was shorten up on the bat and try and go with the pitch for an actual single with the winning run standing out at second or third base. When Houston finally won the game with a solo homer by a rookie in the 18th, I was immersed in another game, and happy that I was.

The bigger takeaway from yesterday was that with two more playoff teams added to each league mix, and the 162-game regular season made more meaningless than ever, MLB has unwittingly created Wild Card Monsters. Three of the four lower-seeded teams were forced to play all three of their wild card games on the road, and what it did was focus the crap out of them, enabling the Phillies, Padres, and Mariners to pull off surprising sweeps of the Cardinals, Mets, and Blue Jays. Now the Phillies and Padres have gone on to unseat the Braves, winners of 101 games, and the Dodgers, winners of 111 in the division series, with the Cleveland Guardians on the verge of another possible upset against the 99-victory Yankees. Shocking turn-of-events do make for great drama, and we’ve had that in spades this weekend.

But I disagree with the great Joe Posnanski, who wrote that in creating chaos, the new playoff system “has worked precisely as it was designed.” Are you serious? The system, with its built-in byes for the four best teams, was designed solely to put the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series for maximum TV ratings. The last thing FOX wants is a Guardians-Padres Fall Classic where they can’t feature Aaron Judge in every promo ad. Did you notice that when Judge was chasing the American League home run record, the MLB Network showed an entire Yankee game every night for a week and a half? They could have just cut in from a different, more relevant game or their studio programming whenever Judge came up to bat, but nope. THE ENTIRE GAME was aired. Would they have shown entire Twins games for a week and a half if he was playing in Minnesota? Doubtful.

Anyway, the Phillies and Padres’ rabid fan bases became energized by this format like they never have before, the players on those teams were fueled to victory by them, and it’s likely to make the National League Championship Series a loud, memorable event. I can’t wait. Some have said the five-day layoff for the top-seeded teams worked against them in the division series round, but I disagree. It was the new playoff system kick-starting the underdog clubs into high gear. The Dodgers, who won the NL West by 22 games, didn’t have to play one crucial must-win series all season and were certainly not prepared to face the pressure of a delirious road crowd in San Diego the last two days. 

No, MLB did not get what they bargained for at all, but fans of the “smaller market” teams sure as hell have.

Gimme the Funk Any Old Time

I don’t enjoy major league baseball much anymore. The pandemic of strikeouts has infected the game experience on every level. Hitting and fielding fundamentals have largely vanished. TV broadcasts are dreadful, two-or-three person blabfests that barely follow the action on the field. Whether they’re having a good year or not, the Yankees continue to be a shameless obsession of the national networks. The number of teams in the postseason has become absurd and is making the regular season more irrelevant, and the Manfred Man on second base in extra innings is a complete joke. Residents of Iowa, where the Field of Dreams Game has been hyped two years running, are unable to watch six different clubs on TV thanks to idiotic blackout restrictions. Finally, we have MLB’s growing encouragement of gambling on their games, making Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson’s non-inclusion in the Hall of Fame even more absurd.

So what’s left for the old school fan? Vintage radio and TV broadcasts on YouTube do the trick, as so simulation games, and thankfully, a number of great new baseball books every year. Recently I finished two fine, eye-opening biographies, both spotlighting the black baseball experience of the 1970s and 1980s, when contact hitting and speed made games continually thrilling. Cobra, by Dave Parker and Dave Jordan (University of Nebraska Press) and Rickey by Howard Bryant (Mariner Books) document everything you need to know about two of the best ballplayers in the last fifty years—in completely different ways.

Parker’s book is an autobiography, covering his 19-year all-star career with six teams, mostly the Pirates and Reds—and though the tome is longer than it probably needs to be, it’s an R-rated, hilarious, and decidedly human tale of an athlete’s struggles and eventual triumph despite physical ailments, racial tensions, and the cocaine era. Growing up in Cincinnati and headed for a career in pro football, Parker realized he was also very good at baseball, and after being drafted by the Pirates, his big size and swatting skills pushed him up through the organization until his rookie year in 1973. Seven All-Star Game appearances, two batting titles, an MVP award and World Series title with the ’79 Pirates later, Parker left behind a winning legacy, and was remembered as a great teammate who would always give his all even when hurt.

Thanks to co-writer Dave Jordan’s smooth transcribing and editing, Cobra has an entertaining flow that begins with a tense drug-era memory, then flashes back to Parker’s childhood and builds through the years, taking the reader into the tight Pittsburgh clubhouse and his encounters with Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Dock Ellis, among many others. The “brotherhood” of the Bucs is certainly the anchor of the tale, in a time when Pittsburgh was the first team to field an all-black and latino lineup, and with its largely white fan base often having a problem filling Three Rivers Stadium. Parker never flinches from telling the reader “how it was”, and we come away with new admiration for a player I always liked but didn’t fully appreciate. Cobra is a rich, revealing ride.

Rickey Henderson, on the other hand, was the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, and someone whose uncanny base-stealing (1,406 all-time), and on-base abilities (2,129 unintentional walks and 2,295 runs scored) never fail to amaze me. He played 24 seasons for nine different teams. He led off a game with a home run 81 times (54 is the next highest on the list). What’s remarkable about reading Harold Bryant’s biography is how unappreciative the media and baseball world were of Rickey for most of his career. 

Long before players began pounding their chests after home runs, pointing to the sky and pimping singles, Rickey Henderson was considered a “hot dog” for merely pinching the front of his jersey when trotting around the bases. When he went from Oakland to the Yankees in 1985 and refused to spend time with the ravenous New York press in spring training, they began a five-year campaign to crap on him in the papers, label him “selfish” and lazy” and basically drive him out of town and back to the Athletics, where he instantly helped them win a World Series in 1989. Then he went to Toronto for 1993, winning a World Series there, before moving on for short gigs with seven other teams. By that time a lot more GMs were fond of him, and knew his unique skills could help their clubs.

Bryant’s prose meanders and repeats itself at times, and when he misspells Bobby Murcer’s name as “Mercer” three times in one paragraph, it made me pine for the old days when copy editors were actually employed. Still, his opening chapters documenting the westward movement of black families from the Midwest and South to Oakland—and eventually an all-star crop of great black players like Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan, and Rickey—makes for fascinating social history. Bryant paints a complete picture of the various neighborhoods, playgrounds, and schools that shaped these players, and what the city meant to them. It’s no mystery why Rickey signed to play for Oakland four different times. 

Since then, the NBA has clearly replaced baseball as the major sport of choice for black athletes, and far little attention has been paid to the rich, multi-racial 1970s and ‘80s. After Cobra excelled with his “brothers”, Henderson created his signature “Rickey-style” and didn’t care what anyone thought of it. Above all else, the little man had supreme confidence to match his blistering talent, and in his prime it was impossible to keep him off the bases or from stealing them. The only time Rickey struck out more than 100 times in a season was 1998, with 114 whiffs. Last year? 94 major league players struck out more times than that. I’ll take those past decades of baseball any day of the week, and reading these two books confirmed it even more.

The USFL: Trump’s Dry Run of Destruction

The laundry list of things Donald J. Trump has purposefully or unwittingly attempted to destroy is a long one—democracy, journalism, truth, COVID victims, sexually abused women, immigrants, voters, and election workers for starters—but I wasn’t prepared for reading about one of his early casualties: the United States Football League.

Jeff Pearlman, author of Showtime, The Bad Guys Won, and other entertaining sports books, published Football for a Buck, the Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL four years ago, and besides being a loving testimony to the spring experiment that existed from 1983 to 1985, it is a searing account of how Trump blustered his way in as owner of the New Jersey Generals and in less than three years proceeded to destroy the league. If anything, it was a blueprint, or dry run for what he would soon begin doing to America.

The parallels with what Trump has done since 2016 are just astonishing, and I can’t tell you how many times my mouth dropped open reading this book. Starting a new football league in the spring was a bit of a long shot, but the eclectic group of rich owners were dedicated to trying to make it work, and were opening football markets and finding some early TV coverage and success with the Philadelphia Stars (15-3 in their first year), Michigan Panthers, Chicago Blitz, Denver Gold, Oakland Invaders and Boston Breakers, among others. 

But when Commissioner Chet Simmons and the other owners agreed to let Donald Trump talk his way into the league with his New Jersey Generals and star running back Herschel Walker (hmmm…), red flags soon began sprouting up. As Pearlman writes, “People paying a visit to Trump’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower didn’t merely sit in a bland reception area, waiting to meet the big man. No, they first had to endure an eight-minute film that chronicled the greatness of Donald J. Trump, New York icon and all-around amazing guy at absolutely everything.” This included an actual sales pitch for Trump Tower condos.

Unbeknownst to the Commissioner and other owners, Trump had a secret plan: to build up his Generals into a football powerhouse, then goad the USFL to move their games from Spring to Fall and take on the NFL head-on with the goal of nabbing himself an NFL franchise. Pittsburgh Maulers GM George Heddleston recalled an owner’s meeting in New York when this all became obvious:

“And then Donald Trump walks in. And he’s bombastic from the start. He’s loud, he clearly wants to be noticed. Just a jerk, and a jerk on purpose.He sits down, and the meeting starts and he’s reading the New York Times. We’re meeting, voting on things, and he’s reading the newspaper. Finally, we get ready to hold a vote and Donald holds open the New York Times, stands to get attention, talks over whoever’s speaking, and says, ‘Look at this! Look at this! I build a skyscraper and nobody cares! I sign some obscure defensive back and I get three paragraphs in the Times. That’s why I bought the Generals!” As he continued later in a separate meeting, “I don’t know about the rest of you people and I don’t know how much money you guys have, but I have the money to get into the NFL, and that’s where I plan on being.”

“Looking back,”added Heddleston, “I believe he started to single-handedly take the league down that day. Nobody in that room wanted to move the USFL to fall. Nobody. Not one person. But there was something about Donald Trump…”

There sure was, and still is. For the nearly 40 years since then, he’s been able to con people into almost anything, voting for him politically the most unfortunate. As Pearlman writes, “the optimism that carried the league through tough times was slowly being replaced by the whispers of a charlatan, dead set on getting his way.” He used his fake persona “John Barron” to call newspapers and plant stories about the USFL planning to move to fall, even though no one had sanctioned it yet. 

Eventually, though, they caved. “Even though the owners were very powerful businessmen, when Trump came into the room he dominated.” His ultimate Big Plan was to file a huge monopoly lawsuit against the NFL, expecting at the least a huge settlement, or that the USFL would win outright and fold teams into the bigger league and get a slice of the fall money pie, Trump emerging with his own NFL franchise.

When the lawsuit was first announced, Trump stood alongside famous McCarthy hearing  lawyer Roy Cohn, but when Trump learned Roy was dying from AIDS, he dumped him for another nightmare attorney, “Heavy Hitter Harvey” Myerson, who was also in Trump’s pocket. Over the trial’s 42 days in 1986, Myerson never called any of the USFL owners to testify because he was worried the NFL might depose them. “The real reason, as suspected by several owners: Trump craved the spotlight and thought his peers to be obstacles toward dominance.” Myerson was turning it into Trump vs. the NFL.

Trump then lied in his testimony about things NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had told him, botching up his own strategy, and after the NFL was confirmed of having violated the law, the jury awarded the USFL damages of…wait for it…one dollar. With his ego alone, Trump had systematically killed the league.

It took me a while to understand how this guy ever became President. Now I believe it had a lot to do with him tapping into this country’s racist undercurrent that bubbled to the surface after two Barack Obama victories, but still…weren’t the south and midwest historically wary of loudmouth New York con men? Letting this ignorant egomaniac play owner in your football league is bad enough, but to believe he can run a country? Ten seconds listening to Donald Trump and I wouldn’t hire him to run an Arby’s.

A New Work of Art

Outside of my love for the stories of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, I’ve never been a huge fan of science fiction. Alien and Blade Runner, coincidentally envisioned by the same director, are probably the only sci-fi movies I still watch repeatedly.

Which may be why the utter genius of Apple TV’s Severance took me by surprise. No need to mince words here: It’s the best cable drama I’ve seen since Breaking Bad, and nothing else is even close.

I had the misfortune of losing my last two graphic design jobs when two separate creepy New York hedge fund investors bought the publishing companies where I worked and promptly began disemboweling them, so Severance’s acute, otherworldly depiction of dehumanizing corporate culture struck a big nerve. The story is about a mysterious company in the hills of Pennsylvania called Lumon that only hires new employees if they agree to be “severed” by a chip implant in their head, separating them into two selves. An “innie” works an eight-hour day “refining” cryptic data numbers, while the “outie” still lives a normal life outside of work with no knowledge or memory of anything they do at the office. Adam Scott plays Mark S., the perfect officious everyman who severed himself for Lumon after his wife died in an accident, and he’s joined in his four-way cubicle cluster in the center of a massive empty room by John Torturro (effete company man Irving), short, overweight and ornery Dylan (Zach Cherry), and skeptical newcomer Helly, played by the wonderful and arresting Britt Lower. With a coolly tyrannical Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) calling the shots and a robot-like Mr. Milchik (Trammell Tillman) as her HR enforcer and dispenser of idiotic company perks (coffee cozies, waffle parties, etc.), it’s only a matter of time before the “Lumonaries” start questioning not only who they really are, but what the hell the company does.

Executive producer Ben Stiller also directed six of the episodes, and his crack visual team that includes cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné, Production Designer Jeremy Hindle and Art Director Angelica Borrero create a workplace that is familiar, darkly funny, and terrifying. Lumon’s hallways are white, sterile, and nightmarishly endless, making the viewer feel as lost and trapped as the main characters are. Severance’s perfect narrative is also more suspenseful and thought-provoking with every episode. By the time the incredible ninth chapter and season finale ended, I didn’t just want to see Season Two immediately, but was ready to watch Season One all over again. It’s that good.

I haven’t even mentioned the unforgettable supporting role for Christopher Walken, playing Lumon’s aging, gay art collector, or Theodore Shapiro’s melancholy piano theme woven throughout the show and placed over the main credits—which happen to be the best of their kind since Don Draper fell through the air in Mad Men and landed on a couch with a cigarette.

It’s extremely rare for any film or TV series to be as expertly assembled as Severance, and when one comes along, it’s an inspiration to us all.

The Horror, The Horror (2.0)

Those who know me are probably aware of my passions for music, literature, film, nature, and baseball (in no particular order), but my love for classic horror has likely outlasted all of those.

As I briefly mention in a recently-revised introduction to RED JACARANDAS, my upcoming collection of original supernatural horror and suspense, it all began at the Bing Theater in Springfield, MA. In the 1960s, horror, fantasy, and science fiction B-movies were made strictly for kids and by the bushel, meaning a double feature for 75 cents every Saturday afternoon at the Bing. My best friend David Ihilchik (“Hooch” to us) and a gaggle of other pals were dropped off at the theater by someone’s mother, where our packed audience of pre-teens dared each other to keep both eyes open during scary scenes. The day Boris Karloff appeared in a trailer for Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and used a shock cut to this—

every one of us in the theater dropped to the cold, gum-littered floor like we were hit with cattle prods, before we quickly got back in our seats to make plans for going to that film. As much as cheap horror affected my sleep, I always returned for more because I knew it was a safe experience in terror, much like roller coaster rides would be in later years.

I watched every scary movie they would show on late night local TV, including Hitchcock classics, or Diabolique, or Fiend Without a Face, or The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. A signature feature of all of these films, including the Roger Corman ouvre at the Bing, was that they were scary in concept and effects, but never resorted to gratuitous violence. My still-favorite ghost movie of all time, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, frightens the bejeezus out of you without really showing one frightening thing.

When John Carpenter’s Halloween was released in 1978 and became a huge hit, that all changed, and slasher movies took over the genre. I became bored with them pretty quick; watching naive, impressionable teenagers die bloody deaths was not my thing. The outbreak of body-maiming movies like the Saw franchise were even worse. Thankfully, 1999 brought us The Blair Witch Project, the ingenious, non-violent indie film that launched the “found footage” horror genre, which is playing itself out now but still produces occasional gems like REC, Cloverfield, and Host

Thankfully, non-violent horror is still being made, and recent postings of my eight favorite scary movies of the last 21 years now has a champion: THE DESCENT. Neil Marshall’s 2005 film has also been called “Chicks in a Cave” in some circles, and it perfectly sums up the premise. Recovering from a traumatic car accident that took the life of her husband and daughter, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) joins her adventurous girlfriends on a spelunking expedition into Appalachian caves.

For anyone who was afraid to swim in the ocean (or a lake) after seeing Jaws for the first time, The Descent taps into an entirely different phobia—fear of tight spaces. Indeed, one of the scariest moments ever on film is a scene where Sarah crawls alone through a very tight tunnel a mile below the earth’s surface and suddenly has a full-blown panic attack. And this is before the group encounters a race of hideous cave-dwelling creatures that are never explained and begin picking them off. There have definitely been more thoughtful, textured horror films this century, but for sheer “safe” terror, nothing for me has topped The Descent.

Here are the recappings of the other seven films from my list…

2. MIDSOMMAR (2019)


4. THE RING (2002)

5. TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

6. THE BABADOOK (2014)

7. A QUIET PLACE (2018)

8. THE OTHERS (2001)*

*While I admired The Witch, The Conjuring, Get Out, Drag Me to Hell, and 28 Days Later, they didn’t quite make my Scary Eight.

Which brings me finally to the aforementioned Red Jacarandas, my attempt at capturing the fun terror of the Bing Theater experience—in book form and transported to modern Los Angeles. The book will be released Tuesday January 11th (Amazon page), and if you get the e-book version, be sure to view the two screenplays in white on black type for maximum spooky effect. You can also find links to my three video “pre-readings” on the Grassy Gutter Press page, which you can follow for news of any upcoming Red Jacaranda items or events. Scream on!

The Most Important Book You Can Read

Type Wilmington, NC into your Google Images search window and you’ll be delighted by gorgeous color views of the city’s quaint, active waterfront and gorgeously restored 19th century homes. Hell, it sure looks like a fine vacation destination. You would never know that one of America’s most sickening racist catastrophes occurred there 123 years ago.

Thankfully, David Zucchino’s unforgettable book Wilmington’s Lie has burned the long buried and re-written incident into our minds forever. Fresh off its Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction a few weeks ago (the second by the author), the book is a masterpiece of reporting, and a searing document of a white supremacist coup that overturned perhaps the most successfully integrated Southern city following reconstruction. 

With blacks elected to numerous city positions, racist white North Carolina Democrats (the parties were flipped back then), reacted with seething rage and planned an overthrow for years, cobbling murderous militia groups, soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan, and ex-Confederates into “Red Shirts” vigilantes, and using a host of racist newspapers to condemn the “Negro rule” and “black beast rapists” who were allegedly terrorizing Southern white women and “planning a revolt” that didn’t even exist. Memories of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the 1830s still terrified many in the white community, and come hell or high water, Wilmington was going to pay the price.

Wilmington newspaper cartoon, late 1890s

Zucchino’s thorough collection of newspaper quotes, political cartoons and inflammatory speeches make it crystal clear that the coup was in the planning stages for a long time, and that the attacks on black leaders and citizens of November 10, 1898 were so murderous and traumatizing, with thousands of black families forced to flee into the nearby woods, that it’s no wonder that the hideous truth was buried for nearly a century. Attempts by many blacks who escaped or were banished from the area to bring the matter to President McKinley were met with silence, McKinley being preoccupied with the Spanish-American War at the time.  

The most chilling aspect of Wilmington’s Lie, though, are the direct parallels between what the white supremacists of 1898 accomplished and what the Republican party of 2021 is trying to do now in numerous states—keep the black race from voting. By unleashing their campaign of terror, beating and whipping and often killing blacks who attempted to vote, and by stuffing ballot boxes with fake ballots for white politicians, black voting was all but eviscerated from the region, Jim Crow laws were soon put in place, and little changed until voting rights were secured in 1964.

Along with the prominent blacks, the white politicians, or “Fusionists” who helped them get into government were also banished from the city. Alexander Manly, a mulatto editor of the Record, the lone black newspaper in Wilmington which had its building torched, was forced to flee the state after publishing a rebuttal editorial to Rebecca Felton, who sent a letter to the Atlanta Constitution that riled up the white masses with lines like this:

“The black fiend who lays unholy and wistful hands on a white woman in the state of Georgia shall surely die!”

Manly’s “crime” was to suggest that some black-white relations may have been actually consensual.

I won’t even get into the sickening speeches of Colonel Alfred Waddell, the chief orator of the white supremacists, or of editor Josephus Daniels of the racist News and Observer, and many others, but they are well worth reading if only to see the length that these lying monsters went to strip the blacks of their dignity and citizenship. Critical Race Theory is becoming one of our new battlegrounds, but let’s start with the obvious: Wilmington’s Lie should be required reading in every high school in America beginning today.