Thursday, June 27, 2013


Remember these little guys? They used to parade across the giant screen at the drive-in to lure patrons out of their cars and over to the snack bar during Intermission.

(Sometimes they sang that haunting refrain, "Go on out to the lobby..." but that was mostly in indoor theatres.)

Santa Cruz musician Michael Gaither remembers these dancing cartoon snacks. They feature prominently in the new video for his song, "Starlight Drive-In Saturday Night," the title track of his new CD. 

The song is a pleasant folk-pop ode to the drive-in experience, a vital slice of Americana Gaither fears is fast going the way of the Dodo—like real milkshakes and vinyl records.

To pay homage to those thrilling days of yesteryear, Gaither and his videographer, Jeff, of RabbitHat Productions, have put together a fresh and fun video celebration of Drive-In Nation. The "Starlite" video is not only full of nostalgia-inducing dancing cartoon food and drinks, it also cites plenty of the movie fodder that made drive-ins so much fun, from Godzilla to Plan 9 From Outer Space, from AIP biker movies to Frankie and Annette.

And don't miss the 10-second countdown (until the show begins) at the end of the video!

A lifelong patron of the old Starlite Drive-In in Watsonville, Gaither was happy to find out how many other drive-ins by that name exist (or used to exist) around the country; many of their cool, '50s-atomic marquees are featured in the video.

The Watsonville drive-in is long gone, but the story has a happy ending: in its place now stands the Starlight Elementary School. Read Gaither's blog about the pilgrimage he made to the school to take pics and sing for the kids.

Watch the video here, and prepare to start humming along!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Whedon blends Shakespeare, screwball comedy in entertaining 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Who else but Joss Whedon could pull this off?

Not only does he set William Shakespeare's romantic comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, original Elizabethan-era wit and wordplay intact, in modern-day Santa Monica, he shoots it in black-and-white—a visual detail that suggests the sparkling vintage screwball comedies of the 1930s more than the Elizabethan stage.

It's an impudent idea for a movie realized with great charm and affection by a master craftsman and his devoted repertory company of players.

 As a writer and director, Whedon is best known for a particularly wry and sophisticated brand of horror/fantasy/sci-fi genre work, from Buffy and Firefly on TV to Cabin In the Woods, and The Avengers on the big screen.  

Much Ado is something completely different; a project that as been dear to his heart for a long time, it was shot in just 12 days, using Whedon's own Santa Monica home and its grounds as the principal set. The immediacy of this shooting process only helps to remind us how timeless and timely Shakespearean stories can be.

Not that you need to know the play to enjoy the film. The central story of a bantering couple too busy flinging defensive witticisms at each other to realize they're in love is prime romantic comedy fodder in any era.

That would be Benedick and Beatrice, here played con brio by Alex Denisof and Amy Acker. They are not only funny as hell, but they bring emotional urgency to the perilous ebb and giddy flow of their thoroughly modern romance. (Read more)

Btw, I like Whedon's smart idea that Beatrice and Benedick have already been bedmates. But, in typical modern fashion, sex doesn't necessarily mean they've yet learned to value each other. It just gives the tension between them a little extra sizzle!

Friday, June 21, 2013


Happy Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year!

Ever wonder why this is considered the FIRST day of summer? Well, because it's not. In the pre-Christian Gaelic and/or Celtic seasonal year, the Solstice in the middle of June was officially Midsummer—halfway between the first day of Summer on May 1, and the first day of Autumn, on August 1.

Seasonally, this makes a lot more sense than the arbitrary assignment of Christian holy days (not to mention modern American holidays) overlaid on the old pagan calendar. In the Gaelic/Celtic year, August, September and October were the fall harvest season. (They didn't use the same Romanesque names of the month, but they were still seasonally correct.)

November, December, and January were considered Winter, broken up by the Feast of Midwinter in mid-Decmber, where ceremonies of light, warmth, feasting, and revelry were held around the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night in the year. This was the season for the Roman Saturnalia, the Nordic Yule, and, much later, Christmas.

Spring began on February 1, and the planting season continued through March and April. The big spring festival, celebrating the return or resurrection of the Sun/Son, was held around mid-March and the Vernal Equinox.

I've always thought these seasonal divisions were right on, especially here in Santa Cruz, where we're likely to get an un-wintery heat wave in February, and most of the green of summer (the hills of UCSC, for instance) have dried to crispy brown by August.

Of course, all seasonal bets are off, if climate change is allowed to advance any further, threatening our planet with a permanent Endless Summer (and I don't mean that in the "Cowabunga!" sense).

But for now, old Sol is still a welcome sight! He's putting on quite a show as we speak, in a beautiful blue, cloudless sky, and he'll be onstage until well into the evening. My advice is to drop whatever else you're doing and get out there and enjoy it!

(Illustration: Medieval threshers outstanding in their field, under the Midsummer sun, from  Les Tres Riches Heures de Jean Duc du Barry (June).

Monday, June 17, 2013


Valiant cast battles loud, ugly action for the soul of Man of Steel

Early in Man of Steel, fourth-grader Clark Kent, the boy who will be Superman, is cowering in a broom closet at school, eyes screwed shut, hands clapped over his ears. He can't control his super powers: his X-ray vision shows him the skulls and skeletons under everyone's flesh; unfiltered noise—dogs, traffic, heartbeats—assault him from all sides.

Rushing to school, his mom kneels outside the door and asks what's wrong.

"The world is too big!" he tells her.

Then focus, she urges him. "Make it smaller."

If only somebody had given director Zack Snyder the same advice.

When Snyder keeps his focus small—the boyhood and young manhood of Clark Kent (played as an adult by supernaturally handsome and chiseled Henry Cavill), told in beautifully integrated flashbacks as he drifts though a series of itinerant odd jobs searching for his destiny—the movie is persuasive and rewarding.

But when the supervillains from Krypton, led by bug-eyed General Zod (Michael Shannon), start laying waste to Earth in a series of demolition derby grudge matches against prodigal son Kal-El (aka Clark), the movie loses its credibility and its heart.
The action sequences in Man of Steel are remarkable for their aggressive ugliness. After one CGI orgy in which Clark's home town of Smallville is devastated, I was ready to crawl into a broom closet.

Given these bludgeoning effects, it's easy to forget the good things in the movie. But here's what they are:

Superman. All three actors play him effectively, including Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry as the child and adolescent Clark.

Henry Cavill (left) gives the movies its best moments as scruffy young drifter Clark, trying to find himself.

Russell Crowe. As Superman's natural father, Jor-El, Crowe is the voice of reason, wisdom, and restraint amid the chaos.

The Moms. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer is wonderful as Kal-El's birth mother; her tender scenes with Crowe at the beginning (that's the two of them, with infant Kal-El, right), and her quiet maternal ferocity are quite lovely.

And Diane Lane is fun as a spirited, if careworn, Martha Kent, standing up for her foster son against all comers. (Read more)

Btw, diehard comics fans are enraged by the climactic moment in this film; no spoilers here, but it alters a fundamental character trait in Superman's personality.

I have to say I agree. With one careless decision, this movie turns one of pop culture's most mythic heroes into just another vigilante.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


Color me jazzed!

An essay I was invited to write about my new fantasy novel, Alias Hook, has just been posted at the excellent sci-fi/fantasy book preview site, Upcoming

It's a regular feature on the site called "The Story Behind..." where authors are invited to write about whatever on earth it was that prompted them to abandon all rational thinking and plunge into writing a novel.

In my case, it was simple: Captain James Hook started talking to me. No, seriously! There's no other way to describe it.

So if you've ever wondered where authors get their ideas, here's my story!

Thursday, June 6, 2013


With the days getting longer (and the mornings foggier) it's starting to feel a lot like summer around here. And what better way to spend a long, sun-kissed summery evening than stepping out on the First Friday Art Tour to see what's going on in the Santa Cruz art scene?

The answer this month is: plenty!

For one thing, the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County (ensconced in temporary digs downtown for the last two years) has just moved into its new forever home at The Tannery, in the historic Kron House.

The orgnization that stages the Open Studios Art Tour every October, puts real-live artists in the schools via the SPECTRA program, and funds innumerable arts projects countywide throughout the year is celebrating the next chapter in its collective life not only with a new location, but a new name: henceforth they are —ta-da!—Arts Council, Santa Cruz County.

Get over to The Tannery by 5 pm, Friday, in time for the ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate the new space. Inside, you'll see an exhibition of work celebrating local artists who have at one time or other served on the Open Studios Committee—including James Aschbacher (that's his "Ocean View Apartment," above), Faye Augustine,  Fanne Fernow, Jane Gregorious,  Roy Holmberg, Tobin Keller, Steven and Bonnie Barisof, Peggy Snider, Doug Ross, Christianna Hunnicutt, Sally Jorgensen, Lynda Watson, Peggy Waller...oh, and at least a dozen more!

The Kron House, built in the 1860s, and most recently the site of Kirby Scudder's Dead Cow Gallery, has been painstakingly rennovated and restored to preserve the integrity of the original building. (When you go, take note of the massive, original brick wall in the kitchenette area—a piece of art in its own right. They don't make 'em like that any more!)

Then wend your way downtown to the Santa Cruz Public Library to meet one of the newest artists of FFAT. Nina Lutz won't even graduate from Santa Cruz High School until next week, but she's showing a body of paintings and drawings at the library to celebrate the publication of her new children's book, Fashion Animal ABCs. It's a whimsical alphabet book whose charming watercolor illustrations combine her love of animals and extreme fashion.

Diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer about one year ago, Nina turned to painting and drawing to get her through the long process of treatment and recovery. Her original illustrations and other paintings will be exhibited at the library, and copies of her book will also be for sale. Proceeds from the book go to Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, for childhood cancer research. Reception on Friday is from 4-6pm.

Just down the road, the Felix Kulpa Gallery will be hosting one of Santa Cruz's most venerable and well-known artists, Gloria K. Alford.

A long-running Open Studios veteran, and 40-year resident of Santa Cruz, Gloria is known these days for her bold abstract paintings and beautifully textured paper collages.

At her one-woman show at Felix Kulpa, called 16" x 16", Gloria will be showing recent and vintage work. Artist's reception will be from 6-9pm. (To get in the mood, click here to watch Gloria discuss her work and her upcoming show with KZSC's Artists on Art hostess Nada Milijkovic.)

Meanwhile, over at True Olive Connection, catch up with another longtime local artist, Evelyn Jenkins Drew. Justly famed for her popular, sun-splashed watercolors of woodies and othr seaside and surf culture scenes, her artwork has graced numerous local event posters, from Capitola Art and Wine and the Capitola Begonia Festival to Woodies on the Wharf.

Evelyn's original watercolors will be in display at True Olive, not only of local scenes, but also work inspired by the tropical landscapes of Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean, where she and her husband travel on their sailboat for four months out of every year. Artist's reception from 6-8:30 pm. (But after soaking up Evelyn's paintings, don't be surprised if you get the urge to head across the parking lot to Hula's to keep the tropical buzz going!)

These are just a few of the 41 venues hosting art exhibits on this month's FFAT. Feel free to design your own personal tour!

Monday, June 3, 2013


Here's a tip from the Inconstant Traveler. If you want to soak up the art, culture, and/or history of a place, forget the museums. Check out the doors!

I speak mainly of Europe, since I've rarely been anywhere else. (That's why my travels are inconstant!) But there is nothing so mysterious and beguiling as an Old World door you stumble across by sheer chance, on your way to someplace else.

Like this wonderful little Hobbit-like door tucked under a stone archway in the walled medieval town of Noyers-sur-Serein, in the Burgundy district of France. Art Boy and I fell in love with this door! Where does it lead? Who used it? What was its story?

That's the thing about the Old World; it's so much older than the New World! History is right there in front of you at every turn, begging to be discovered, and plumbed. If only we could find the password to get in.

Not all doors are small and atmospheric.

Some are inexplicably massive. I loved the gigantic carving (a man, a mermaid, and some sort of heraldic shield, is my best guess) above what is apparently a residential door in downtown Stockholm, Sweden.

The heavy wooden door is pretty cool too, once I get out of the way so you can see it; look at the size of that doorknob!

Another massive architectural carving decorates this arched double doorway in Leopoldstadt, Vienna, about a block away from the bridge over the Danube Canal into the Inner Stadt (downtown).

Judging from the little plaques, I think this building now houses offices—however grand a past it might have once had.

Here's another wildly carved doorway (although in a very different mood) from the Inner Stadt in Vienna.  My guess is this dates from the highly decorative 1910s or 1920s (although it could be much later).

 The figures look mythic, and from the star patterns that decorate them, I think they must represent constellations—Perseus, with the snake-haired Medusa head, on the upper left, and Andromeda, in chains, on the right.

The doors inside the alcove are impressive too; I love the contrast between the warm, brandy-colored wood and the cool grey concrete.

The buzzer placket suggests apartments or offices inside, but, sadly, unlike museums, doors you find on the street don't come with labels, so what the use or intent of this portal originally was is lost to the murky depths of Time.

Here we have another very arty door from wonderfully arty Prague.

This is half of a wrought iron gate that leads from a bustling little commercial street in Mala Strana (Little Town) into a quiet courtyard dotted with a couple of shops.

This castle-knight-ship design looks very modernist to me—possibly post-Communism—and as whimsical and charming as all of Prague.

 These ornate carved wooden double doors are attached to a small house that has stood empty for years in Mala Strana; we passed them every day when we were in Prague last summer.

Our traveling companion, Donna Mekis, poses here with Art Boy, as we all fantasize about moving in!

Sometimes it's not the door itself, but the decorations that get me.

 Look at these wonderful medieval-ish carving on a private door we passed in Prague one day in the vicinity of Nerudova Street!

They don't appear to be door knockers, but simply whimsical carvings for the sheer joy of it. The figures are not exact mirror images of each other, either, so your guess is as good as mine as to why one is upside down.

I thought they might be jesters with very stylized ass' ears, since the jester/fool is the official emblem of Prague (for a people who were as occupied and oppressed for so long as the Bohemians, what can you do but laugh?), although it's hard to tell. But the detail is amazing, especially the faces!

And finally, perhaps the most mysterious of all: this rather alarming, riveted iron door stood in an otherwise unremarkable wall of the tiny kitchen in our apartment in Vienna.

It was locked and bolted, of course, although without this pic as a reference point, I'd be tempted to remember it as being swathed with chains and padlocks—that's how forbidding it was!

It might have been a cellar door guarding dark family secrets (except it's on the fifth floor). It might have been built to keep out the Nazis during World War II.

But—like all the other mysterious doors of Europe—it's like a mystic portal into another world entirely.