Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Only John Agar can save us now

earthI’m staring now at the alien presence in my living room. Smart TV.

I’ve been fighting this thing for a couple of months now. This alien presence, which the impotent folks at Time Warner Cable have been unable to keep from bugging out while I’m watching a show. This alien presence, with its hundreds of channels, yet rarely a program or movie of interest. This alien presence, with its array of apps in which I have no interest in accessing through my television – Pandora, Twitter, Facebook, Hulu and NFL Game Day. They are encouraging me to live my life around my Smart TV. If I have to go to the bathroom, or eat, or talk to someone, all I have to do is push the Pause button and the pitch stops halfway to home plate.

Such luxury doesn’t come cheap. And it feels as if they’re charging me per units of frustration. The more disgusted I get, the higher the Time Warner bill. Unless we call Time Warner and announce we’re cancelling cable, and only then do they magically find a way to strip a few bucks off the bill.

“That’s not much….”

“We’ll throw in HBO!”

“Well, OK….”

This summer, after the old TV died, I was ready to completely dump cable. But that Smart TV salesman reeled us back in.

“Why, look at all of the baseball games you can watch! And Netflix, all the movies you desire! And look at those apps! You must keep your cable! Think of your family! In fact we have a cable representative right here in the store!”

Now baseball season’s over. So when I need mindless relaxation – we all need that – I’ll maybe turn on the TV. That takes about 15 minutes, as I battle with the two remotes and a computer modem that’s 10 yards from me but might as well be on the moon. Then I search the Netflix offerings. It’s hit or miss. Virtually no Kurosawa movies. A few minor flicks by Peter Sellers, none of his great old comedies. I cannot believe how many films have been made about superheroes in the last 10 years. And plenty of old TV shows… hey, where’s Rat Patrol?

But what I have started watching is the old Dark Shadows vampire soap opera, with bats on a string and the shadow of the cameraman visible on the wall. And the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is really clever and well acted. I have finally discovered Portlandia, long after the rest of you laughed and moved on.

And my first love in low-culture entertainment is here as well, setting my pulse racing… really bad sci-fi movies.

If you have a film set in some uncertain corner of the world in an undefined time, where a lost jungle village of blonde women in rabbit-fur bikinis battles a Tyrannosaurus Rex, I’ll watch it. If aliens from another planet are determined to conquer the Earth, and only John Agar stands between them and our doom, I’ll watch it. If mankind’s careless testing of atomic bombs results in the creation of giant irradiated ants and only the U.S. Army, armed with bazookas, can blast them back into the desert, I’ll watch it.

But then I read a news story Wednesday morning that scared the hell out of me. Worse than giant ants. Big changes were coming to Netflix that day.

A lot of it seemed cosmetic. New background color on the display, that sort of thing. But in the last sentence of the story, almost an afterthought of reporting, was this line:

If you’ve connected your Netflix account to Facebook, it will show you what shows your friends have watched.

Oh, Lord. It’s bad enough that the National Security Agency is logging my phone calls and my e-mails.  Do I really want my friends on Facebook, seeing that last night on Netflix I watched John Agar in Invisible Invaders?

Why do today’s cars look like shit?

Now this is a car: 1957 Chevy Bel Air.

Now this is a car: 1957 Chevy Bel Air.

I went to a car show recently. A couple of hundred vintage vehicles, strong on low-slung Studebakers with chrome-studded front ends. Some excellent ’55 T-Birds, a ;’50s-era Hudson and, as always, the candy-colored ’57 Chevy Bel Airs. And cars of the early ’60s, like the 1963 Plymouth Belvedere, making the awkward transition from rocket fins to conservative lines, yet still artful. Really memorable designs.

Unlike today’s vehicles. Car shows of the future will not feature the Honda Kia and the Chevy Malibu. We are living in an automotive moment that is best, and will be easily, forgotten.

Today’s vehicles are loaded with standard and optional toys – cup holders, phone chargers and GPS, plus a bare-minimum of cylinders to prop up the mileage. But style-wise, it looks like the architects of ’70s strip malls found new jobs in the automotive industry.

As evidence, examine the evolution of the Thunderbird over the decades. The first couple of years were classic, the next few acceptable, occasionally interesting, distinctive, always some sense of sporty. But by 1971, Ford’s designers lost it. They started creating 4,400-pound monsters. Square and dull. By the mid-’80s, the Thunderbird looked like every other car on the road. By 1990, the pounds-per-wheel pendulum was swinging back the other way, and the  poor, confused Thunderbird looked like a Pinto.

Why is it that car designers, floundering for new ideas, don’t go back to concepts that people really liked? Remakes don’t often work – did anyone see that McHale’s Navy movie? But people like retro furniture, which was pretty much what we had in the 2002 Thunderbird, a resurrection of the old ’55 Thunderbird’s sporty lines. Its brief experiment in style over substance declared a failure, Ford went back to making all of its cars look like SUVs.

This is an era of automotive identity crisis. A car goes down my street, the driver honks at me and waves. I don’t know who it is, because everyone’s car looks the same. The headlights and taillights all now have that squinty, wraparound appearance. The cars don’t look sleek, but blunt. And there’s a 72 percent chance that it’s silver. Or some fantasy color like Atlantis Blue. Really? Atlantis disappeared beneath the waves centuries ago, if it even existed at all. How do we know what shade of blue was preferred by Atlanteans?

I haven’t owned a piece of automobile chrome since my 1972 Impala.

I recognize what’s going on here. Automotive design is being strangled by the same corporate culture that’s killing talk radio, sports commentary, news reporting, pop music, fast food and hairstyles. Group think. That fella over there is doing it, he must know something, we’d better do it too.

Group think spills over into car names. They’re killing me. Back in the day, car names held a degree of romance. Buick Riviera. Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Hudson Terraplane. Rolls Royce Silver Wraith. Corvette’s Sting Ray really did look like a sting ray. And I doubt that anyone knew what this thing was when it was first introduced in 1938. But years later Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, knew a good name for an alien journalist when he saw it: Ford Prefect.

Today’s cars? Walk through a mall parking lot reading the names of the vehicles, and be prepared to be walloped by the numb world of marketing. Prius, Scion, Fiesta, Forte, Elantra, Altima, Fusion. The focus groups that approve of these names even named a car for themselves. The Ford Focus. But the car of today that I most fear is the Ford Probe. Who wants to be stopped at a red light, only to get rear-ended by a probe?

The Critical Mass

OK, so call me a Twit

I continue to arrive in the the 21st century: Follow me on Twitter @jeffspevak1.

I started Tweeting last month because Steve Martin wasn’t doing interviews. But Martin is a big Tweet guy, with 2.7 million followers. Maybe, if I sent him some Tweets, he’d respond. That would be like an interview, right? So I directed four quick Tweets to him, each one focusing on an aspect of his life. Collecting art, playing the banjo,  his comedy and his writing:

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

@SteveMartinToGo $120 million for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream?” Isn’t Thomas Kinkade a better investment?

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

@SteveMartinToGo Has the banjo ever figured in the commission of a serious crime? If so, I can’t find it.

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

@SteveMartinToGo What’s this about a curse on those who first enter the tune of King Tut? Are you OK?

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

@SteveMartinToGo In “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” the painter encounters Albert Einstein in a bar. Ty Cobb could out-drink them both.

As best as I could figure, Martin never replied. Unless this was directed at me, I’m not sure:

Steve Martin @SteveMartinToGo

Working on reality show based on Venus’s transit across the Sun.

So he’s saying he’s too busy to respond right now. But I’ve made lots of new friends. Twitter recommended that I follow Alton Brown, who is one of my favorite celebrity chefs. And the actor George Takei. And comedian Albert Brooks. I’ve also discovered that I can use Tweeting for self-promotion:

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

I’ll have copies of my book “Chasing the Wind” at “First Fridays” at the Hungerford Building, 1115 E. Main St., Studio 307.

And restaurant reviews:

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

Favorite restaurant Mr. Dominic’s re-opened today. Just had the swordfish au poivre and grilled Lonsberry.

But mostly, it’s important stuff:

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

I just found a three-leaf clover. Pretty damn close!

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

UPDATE: The God Particle was found in that kitchen drawer where you keep twist ties and the keys to the car you traded in five years ago.

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

The Sadies at Abilene: I am comforted by any band with half-empty beer bottles sitting on the amps.

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

Looking forward to “Zappa Plays Zappa” tonight. And happy Pat Boone’s kids didn’t have the same idea.

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