On this week’s ‘Not My Job’ segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, the guest is actor and musician Craig Robinson who’s had a long and varied career, though is best-known for being on The Office. His conversation with host Peter Sagal is very light-hearted and fun, and goes in a direction than you might not think, starting with him growing up in Chicago and being a music teacher in his early days.
This the full Wait, Wait… broadcast, but you can jump directly to the “Not My Job” segment, it starts around the 18:30 mark.
You Can Call Him Al
The guest on this week’s Al Franken podcast is Norm Ornstein who talks about, as Al puts it, the Radical Right takeover of the House and the dangers ahead.
The Fuller Blues Man
In the Peter, Paul and Mary concert video I posted yesterday, it had a section where Paul Stookey talked affectionately and amusingly about the legendary blues musician and songwriter Jesse Fuller, who was famous too for being an very offbeat one-man band. The group then went into a joyous version of Fuller's great song, "San Francisco Bay Blues."
Stookey's introduction was so entertaining -- and I love the song so much -- I decided to see if I could track done any footage of Jessie Fuller. And happily, I did. And further, all the better, to show that Stookey was not exaggerating, here is a 1968 video of Jesse Fuller with his one-man band performing his most-famous song.
You Are There
We haven’t had a “You Are There” article for a while, but yesterday seemed to cry out for one again. After all, as the old TV series You are There asked -- what kind of a day was it? A day like any other with Republicans still pushing the Big Lie and now in slim control of the House, except…You Are There.
It was stunning to see such widespread bipartisanship in the House. But there it was – Marjorie Taylor Greene offered an amendment to prohibit President Biden from selling oil in the future to help combat high prices, and it went down to defeat with Republicans crossing the aisle to join Democrats. But “join” doesn’t do it justice, it was a stampede. Her amendment lost by a vote of...14 votes in favor and 418 votes opposed! This wasn’t just a bad vote, it’s the sort of thing where, if she keeps doing stuff like this, some moderate Republicans might start to peel off sooner than later, especially once they see that they can cross the aisle and vote with Democrats and not explode.
A CNN poll reports that 73% of those polled are unhappy with House Republicans, feeling that they aren’t prioritizing important issues. Gee, what ever could have given them that idea. It’s stunning though that the public has recognized it already – and by “already,” I mean after just 23 days into the session. The thing is, that's NOT the bad news for the Republican Party. It's that this being the House GOP's "honeymoon period" is when their approval will be at the highest. Which now sits at 27%. For the number to be that low, it means a lot of Republicans had to join Democrats and Independents in expressing their displeasure. President Biden’s approval currently sits around 44%. For House Republicans to be that significantly below President Biden – and this early in their session, with all their insane impeachments and investigations and proposals (like a 30% sale tax, instead of an income tax, which only benefits the very wealthy) and risking causing world economic crash – is seriously problematic for the GOP.
The California Bar Association is now officially hearing whether to disbar John Eastman, who is considered the architect of Trump’s Insurrection strategy. I’m currently reading the House Select Committee January 6 Report, and am near the end. I’ll just say that it’s not shocking to see this happening to Eastman. It’s not just that his fingerprints are all over the strategy in his advice and speeches, most notably that Vice President Pence should refuse to accept the certified votes, but in private he regularly acknowledged that there was no validity to the strategy he kept pushing Trump to take.
When William Barr was Attorney General, a New York Times blockbuster report shows that he pushed Special Counsel John Durham to get Italian officials to help discredit the Mueller investigation of Trump ties to Russia. And it turns out that the Italians did provide a tip – except it wasn’t about Russia, but about what appeared to be financial crime by Trump. A tip so substantive that it couldn’t be ignored. So, Barr had no choice but assign Durham to investigate, evening going to the lengths of opening a criminal investigation...and then buried whatever he found -- all the while leaving the impression with the public that what Durham was investigating was about misdeeds in the intelligence services towards Trump, rather than possible Trump crimes.
And in an all-caps, crazed social media post, Trump claimed that he can get Putin and Zelenskyy (who Trump tried to blackmail and got impeached for it) to agree to peace in just 24 hours. That is so cool! It's like we're playing, "Name That Tune"! So, okay, I'll give it a whirl and try... I CAN GET PUTIN AND ZELENSKYY TO MAKE PEACE IN...23 HOURS!!! The ball is now in Trump’s court. Ding!
Peter, Paul and Mary and the BBC
The other week, I posted a wonderful video here that was a collection of performances by Peter, Paul and Mary at the Newport Folk Festival at the height of their popularity, between 1963-65. I mentioned that I had another terrific video of them upcoming, and we have now reached what is no longer “upcoming.”
This is 50-minute video of a concert they gave on British TV in 1965. (Actually, it’s a bit odd and might be two half-hour shows, since there are credits in the middle. My guess is maybe it was one performance edited into two shows.)
It’s really good, and – coming early in the peak – is not a “Best of…” show, since many of those hits came later. And what stands out is how excellent so many of their lesser-known songs are. Though there’s plenty of well-known ones (including, yes, they sing it. And what’s fun is seeing an early British audience singing along with “Puff, the Magic Dragon”).
There are two interesting songs at the beginning. One is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Place,” which was later a huge hit for Roberta Flack. It turns out that the song was written by Scottish folk singer Ewan McColl – and is about his wife, Peggy Seeger…who was the half-sister of Pete Seeger.
The other is the following song, an utterly joyous performance of “San Francisco Bay Blues,” written by Jesse Fuller, who Paul Stookey given an endearing description about.
I’ve always read how long and hard the group rehearsed to get their harmonies and arrangements so impeccable (something Stookey off-handedly addresses later), and how that work pays off is very clear in this performance.
(Side note: You'll get to see their longtime bass player Dick Kniss a lot here. He's the fellow I referred to meeting with Stookey in my tale about O'Hare Airport when I was a little kid that I wrote about with the Newport concerts video, that I linked to above.)
I never saw Peter, Paul and Mary together, though after they had their temporary split, I did see Peter Yarrow in Chicago, and then Paul Stookey unexpectedly in Maine. I was working on a Stephen King movie at the time, Pet Sematary, which was filming in the small town of Ellsworth. As it happened, Stookey lived about 5-10 miles down the road in Blue Hill, so he’d periodically perform in the area. And one night I saw he was going to do a show in Ellsworth – but it was sold out. I went to the theater anyway, and happily a father and his young daughter had an extra ticket since the mother couldn’t make it.
By the way, what got Peter, Paul and Mary back together was a “Come Together” reunion concert fundraiser for George McGovern when he ran for President in 1972. Held at Madison Square Garden, three famous “split partnerships” reunited for the concert – Peter, Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkle, and also Mike Nichols and Elaine May!! Yowza. I remember reading about it at the time, but there was no way I’d be going to New York. But I’ve always wished that that concert had been filmed. How on earth could it not?? And then released on video to raise even more money. Ah, well…
Anyway, Peter, Paul and Mary got on so well together and missed performing as a group that they decide to periodically reunite for other concerts. And eventually those went so well, they just reunited, period. (Though I believe they’d still do separate concerts on occasion.)
Anyway, here they are at their peak, being very entertaining, in 1965 on the BBC.
Though I have thoughts about the tragic shooting deaths on the set of the movie Rust, they are just personal presumptions, and I don’t have nearly enough information to make them even remotely meaningful.
However, after indictments came down last week, I’ve seen a bit of professional commentary that tried to add legal and social perspective, but didn’t have much sense of what a movie set is like. And two reactions in particular struck me as -- well, I think the best way to describe them is “nuts.” And those are worth addressing.
To be clear, this is a deeply serious matter, and I'm not dismissing that. In fact, that's the very point. Because it is so serious, that's why I think the analysis of it should be as accurate as possible, to reach the best understanding and ultimately the best results.
The first was from a legal expert on MSNBC. While he thought certain people would be in trouble, he felt that the indictments against Alec Baldwin were wrong-headed and likely to go nowhere. Now, that might be true -- but if so, not for the reasons he gave. I was not surprised to find out later in the report that he was a defense attorney. But if he was the one in court, he'd likely be laughed out of the building.
What he said was that there was no case against Baldwin because a prop gun is like giving a brick to an actor. The actor would have no expectation to think a brick can shoot a bullet and kill anyone, and so by the same token there’s no expectation an actor would ever have that a prop gun, which has been checked and given to him, is unsafe. It’s like a toy gun, the attorney said.
He’s wrong. Incredibly wrong. A prop gun is a real gun. It’s called a “prop gun” because it’s used in the scene as a prop, not because it’s fake. Everything used in a scene is a prop. A car used on a movie set will be called a “prop car”…but it’s quite obviously a very real car. A prop kitchen knife, prop chair, prop rug are all real knives, real chairs and real rugs. And a prop gun is a very real gun, that can shoot very real bullets, as we tragically found out.
When a prop gun is brought onto a movie set, the assistant director will call out a warning -- “Gun on set!!” They want everyone to know they should extra special care. No A.D. I’ve ever worked with has ever yet called out “Brick on set!!!” Nor do I expect ever will.
If a defense attorney tried to make this same case, I'd love to see the prosecutor traipse in an endless line of people who have ever worked on a movie crew and asked under oath, "Do you consider a gun on the set to be nothing more than just like a brick?" The outraged laughter and cries of "Hell, no!!" would echo through the chambers.
And a prop gun is not a toy gun. It’s a real gun. That has the capability to shoot very real bullets. (An episode of Columbo with William Shatner as the murderer has him breaking into the prop room of the TV show that his character is working on and taking the gun to use for committing his murder.) It's certainly possible to have a toy prop gun on a movie set -- but they don't shoot blanks, they don't shoot anything, they don't make noise, they don't emit smoke, and they most certainly aren't cared for protectively, cautiously as if they could. And no one on a movie set thinks real prop guns inherently are just toys. And even when they are toys, you make darn sure of it.
Further, what the attorney overlooked is that Alec Baldwin was a producer of the movie and had a leadership responsibility for the safety of the crew. The lawyer did eventually address this, but only tangentially and dismissively, as if an afterthought and a minor matter. While some actors are just a producer in name only, and get the title merely as "vanity credit," which happens in Hollywood, that would indeed be a minor matter here. But if that’s not the case on Rust, a “name only” thing, then being the producer is a very real, very serious matter. And ultimately, the legal analyst was not addressing that, he was only focusing on the indictment as being actor-related, which it most definitely was not.
The other instance was an editorial in the Los Angeles Times. Which, being the Los Angeles Times -- the paper of record in the movie capital of the world -- should know better. Should have a sense of how movies are made. If they didn't, well, there is no dearth of of people in town to ask. Like, even perhaps your waiter.
It caught my eye when reading through Twitter last week, and I saw this --
I read that and thought, surely this was just poorly phrased as a tweet. So, I checked out the day's newspaper and, no, the tweet got it right. That’s what the editorial was suggesting -- banning guns from movie sets.
You can read the full editorial here. It actually makes some good points in its opening discussion of the Rust tragedy. But then it plummeted into the abyss when it attempted to make suggestions that sounded like it knew what it was talking about.
The point is that no one has to use any kind of gun on a movie or TV set. Even though accidental shootings like this are thankfully rare, too many things have to go right so that nothing goes horribly wrong. “Under the best circumstances, mistakes can be made, props that purposely look identical to each other can get mixed up, and the necessary handling of these props can cause malfunction,” says Spencer Parsons, associate professor and head of production at Northwestern University in the School of Communication’s Department of Radio/Television/Film.
To start with, no, the point actually is that guns are not a danger on a movie set at all. Bullets are. Live ammo. The issue with Rust is not that there was a gun on the set, but that somehow real bullets were in the barrel, rather than blanks. With blanks in the gun, the tragedy wouldn't have occurred.
(We mustn't conflate guns and ammo on a movie set with the Fourth Amendment. Guns exist perfectly fine on movie sets without ever touching a bullet.)
There also are not "too many things" that have to go right. Very few things do. The armorer has to check the barrel to make sure it has blanks, and the assistant director has to do the same.
As for the lightbulb suggestion of, hey, here's an idea to try, why can't special effects be created to simulate the discharge of gun shots from live guns, in fact that's already done and has been in use for a while – and should be used when it can. It's don't done as often as it should, though, because special effects are expensive and especially would be prohibitive for a low-budget movie, or even perhaps a TV episode.
But the "point" of the editorial was not about simulating the effects of a gun shot (which should be done when it can), but to literally get rid of the guns themselves, indeed very specifically recommending that movies be made “without having a real weapon on set.” Really?? How is that supposed to work?? Imagine now making a Western. Or a cop show. Or an action movie with big shoot-outs. Without having guns on the set. Never mind, again, that guns aren't the problem on a movie set, live ammo is.
While it might sound technologically adept to throw in phrases like “Hollywood screen wizards” and reference an AI doll from a current hit, they have no bearing on the special effects work required to bizarrely replace how guns are used in a movie. Could it be done? Replacing all guns, rifles and semi-automatic weapons in movies with special effects? Whether it could or couldn't be accomplished some day, it's a false argument because the issue is not how they created “M3GAN,” and suggesting that they’re the same is like saying, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t my TV get better sound?”
And again, having real guns on a set, rather than special effects ones is not the problem -- live ammunition is.
A personal disclaimer. I wish I didn’t have to address the comment from the professor at Northwestern who heads the Radio/TV/Film production department. In part for what was said, but more because I not only went to the beloved Northwestern, but got my degree from that very department. It sounded scholarly on the surface, but in the real world I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. An issue like the one on Rust had absolutely nothing to do with mixing up similar looking props, nor a malfunction. The gun tragically worked like a gun is supposed to -- the problem was the mishandling of protocol.
Further, to be clear, accidental shooting deaths like this are not only “thankfully rare,” as the editorial calls them, but in the over 100 years of making movies, they are almost unprecedented. There have tragically been far more deaths from other causes on movie sets than because of gun shots. That is not to dismiss them or excuse them, but to put a perspective on the problem. Deaths from gun shots are so monumentally rare over 100+ years because there are procedures in place to keep them monumentally rare. The reason it occurred here, with Rust, is what is being investigated because those safety procedures -- that keep movie sets very safe from such things -- weren’t followed.
What I do agree with in the editorial is that efforts, whether within in the film industry or labor regulations, should be made to ensure that movie sets are as safe as possible. But for situations like this, solutions can be far simpler and significantly more basic.
For instance, as long as we're on the topic of safety suggestions, here's one: require that the armorer on a movie set has to not only check a gun before handing it over to the assistant director, but sign off on a form that it was done, which creates proof of accountability. And then, the A.D. has to additionally check the gun and also sign the form that it was, creating extra proof of accountability. And then, the actor shouldn't be allowed to just accept that the gun given is fine…but also must check the gun and sign the form. Three levels of documented accountability. Without which, it wouldn't just be someone's word that they checked or were told everything was okay, but creating a level of individual responsibility on the record. And if you wanted to add a fourth level, with a separate producer or director checking and signing, fine, all the more protective.
Again, I don’t know how live ammunition got on the Rust movie set. I don’t know where procedures broke down. But when analyzing the outside analysis, I know two things -- that a prop gun is not the same as a brick, and that guns are not the problem on a movie set, bullets are.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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