My eye fell across my blogroll — way down there on the right-hand rail, below the little box that shows my most recent Tweets — and I was thinking, “Probably time to go through that and see if anything should be removed, or added.” I do that about every five years, whether I need to or not.
There I saw the link to my high school friend Burl Burlingame‘s “Honolulu Agonizer,” and I felt a pang of loss. As you know, we lost him suddenly almost two years ago. I also knew that in the last few years before his death, he had sort of lost interest in his blog, and had seldom posted.
I went to see, thinking I’d probably leave the link up anyway, assuming the blog was still there. That blog helped me reconnect with Burl after 38 years or so. I had been so glad to find it, and to get to correspond with him and reflect the more or less parallel tracks our lives had followed, as newspapermen and then bloggers. You’ll see the Agonizer mentioned in what I think was the first post on my blog in which I mentioned Burl. That was in 2009. From then on, he joined our conversation here periodically.
So I looked at his old blog, and found myself delighted.
In the last couple of months before he died, Burl had inadvertently given us a parting gift — he had posted some of his movie reviews, and other pieces he’d written, from over the years. I guess they were favorites of his, but I can’t ask him, so I don’t know. Maybe something had just come up that made him think of something he’d written long before, and since he’d looked it up, he posted it.
The thing about being a old newspaperman is, the stuff you wrote back before everything was archived electronically can feel sort of dreamlike, lost in the mists of time: Did I really write that? What did I say exactly? So if you go back and dig it up, perhaps as a tattered, brownish clipping from a moldering cardboard box in the garage, it’s natural to decide to put it out in the sun here in the Brave New World, and let others look it over. Make it clickable, so to speak.
(After a couple of my kids learned that I reviewed the original “Star Wars” for my paper, they told me they wanted to read it. They asked me years ago. I’m pretty sure it’s in a box somewhere in the garage, or the attic, and I’d love to share it with them. But I don’t know where to start…)
I think Burl may have physically retyped these from paper versions, because I’ve run across a word or two that he missed in his haste, and I doubt they were originally published that way. In any case, I appreciate him taking the trouble.
There are only six pieces, but I enjoyed them. And you should know that one of them was termed, by a writer for Vogue and The New Yorker, as “The Greatest Movie Review Ever Written.”
As to my favorite, it’s a tough call between his reviews of “Excalibur” and “The Final Countdown.” But so that they might be shared with y’all as well, here’s the full list, as he reposted them, the most recent on top, blog-style:
- “Memphis Belle,” originally published Nov. 9, 1990. I really enjoyed this film. Burl says it wasn’t a great one (and it wasn’t), but finds good things to say about it anyway. It was highly Hollywoodized, but as Burl says, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It matters what the soldier believes.” Its topic, the first B-17 crew to hit 25 missions and get to go home, is treated neither as nightmarishly as in Heller’s Catch-22 (in which the number of required missions kept rising just before Yossarian got there) nor as realistically as my uncle’s real-life experience — Uncle Jack was in such a hurry to hit his own personal 25 that he flew with any crew that had an opening and would take him up. So it was less of a team thing for him. He got shot down three times. The last time was behind German lines. He was MIA when my cousin Mary Jane was born. But the Underground got him back, and he got to go home, where he resolved never to fly again. But back to the movie, which was fun. Burl had some real-life perspective to bring to the subject — not only was he a professional expert on airplanes of the period (when we visited his museum in 2015, they were restoring a B-17), but his father was a fighter pilot in the Eighth Air Force. At the end he mentions the plane sitting out rotting in the weather in Memphis. Memphis was where I went from Hawaii, where Burl and I graduated from high school. I lived in a dorm on Central Avenue. If I drove west on Central toward downtown, I’d pass that plane, sitting on a pedestal outside the Tennessee National Guard Armory. I knew it was called the Memphis Belle, but I didn’t know much else about it until much later.
- “Excalibur,” originally published April 14, 1981. This one must have been a cover story for the features section or something. It weighs in at 1,741 words! For those to whom that has no meaning, the review below of “The Final Countdown” is 498 words long. Here, Burl spends 420 words before even mentioning the movie. You might think that’s a lot of throat-clearing, but I think it’s my favorite part (of course, I’m a digression kind of guy) — it tells of the development of Arthurian legend, starting with several paragraphs of bio on Thomas Malory. So no, not just a movie review. For a newspaper piece about a popular movie, it takes an enthusiastic whack at the Matter of Britain. (Not a deep dive, but a plunge nevertheless.) Makes me think all reviews should be this long, at least. Read it and learn about one of the trippiest films of the early 80s, plus other stuff.
- “It’s Annoying Being White,” an essay written for Martin Luther King Day, 1993. This piece is very Burl. You had to know him, or at least have a similar background: “Being a kid of the ’60s. I thought this would all be over with by now. Harmony would break out between cultures by the ’90s. We’d be the ‘golden race’ that James Michener predicted, a blend of skin colors and ethnic cultures. I grew up in the world’s most integrated neighborhoods, U.S. military bases, where failure to recognize an individual except by rank was discouraged. Instead, things are more fractionated than ever…” Very much like my own perspective, only I was even more deluded: Being a military brat of the ’60s, I thought it was over already. Not necessarily because of the Civil Rights Act, or the fact that the military had been integrated in the dark ages, in 1948. It was because of all the comedy I saw on TV: Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Godfrey Cambridge. I thought, If people are joking about it on prime time, this stuff must all be behind us now. Imagine my shock as I grew older, and came to understand the complexity of comedy better.
- “Let There Be Rock-AC/DC,” originally published Sept. 16, 1980. This one interested me less than the others because I’m no AC/DC fan. But it’s always instructive to see what Burl has to say about anything having to do with pop music. Burl had been playing in bands himself since high school. At our senior class talent show, he and another guy performed together — the other guy on guitar, Burl on one of his many harmonicas he carried around with him (years before we’d heard of Elwood Blues). Lacking a talent, I performed with several friends in a slapstick routine called “The Flying Marcellos.” As a family of horrifically idiotic Italian acrobats, we were a huge hit, but I know I’d be embarrassed to see it today (fortunately, back then one’s friends didn’t perpetuate your every idiocy for you with their phones). He’d played with different bands ever since. His oeuvre was… broad. In later years, he was in a heavy-metal ukulele band called Mötley Üke. I am not making this up. And Burl always had interesting observations to make, whatever the topic.
- “The Final Countdown,” Aug. 5, 1980. I love that he included this, because — since Burl is an internationally known expert on the Pearl Harbor attack as well as a talented reviewer, his perspective on this is particularly valuable. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, even though it may have the most disappointing ending in the history of Hollywood (something I confirmed by watching it again last night on Prime) — the big finish that the whole movie has prepped you for just gets snatched away. I don’t know whether that was for budget reasons (the promised ending would have been extremely expensive to stage in 1980) or because it would have changed history to the point that there would have to be multiple sequels, and Hollywood didn’t think “franchise” that way back then, or what. I just know it was a monumental letdown. But what led up to that was a lot of fun. Anyway, never mind what I think; read what Burl thought…
- “Cannonball Run II,” July 10, 1984. Why include this? Because this was the piece that earned Burl the “Greatest Movie Review Ever Written” title. Crappy movie, but it inspired greatness.
After those six items Burl posted in those last couple of months, the most recent thing you see is a review of “Dunkirk” from 2017, posted when it was first published.
Anyway, enjoy them. I’m pretty sure Burl would have wanted you to. I certainly did.