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Charley Varrick, and six more movies

THE
NEVERENDING
FILM FESTIVAL

#115


Friday,
Dec. 2, 2022


Today at the movies — a search for the legendary yeti, alien goop takes over a space station, women held prisoner as breeding stock, a hunky gardener never wears a shirt, a bank heist goes almost all wrong, singing scales in a living room courthouse, and James Spader and Robert Downey Jr are late for high school.

• The Abominable Snowman (1957)
• Charley Varrick (1973)
• The Gardener (1973)
• The Green Slime (1968)
• The Handmaid's Tale (1990)
• One Way Pendulum (1965)
• Tuff Turf (1985)

The big surprise: One Way Pendulum.

So bad it's good: The Green Slime.

And the best of the bunch: Charley Varrick.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Forrest Tucker stars, a few years before F Troop, and gets top billing. He's playing Tom Friend, a brusque, slightly shady American leading an expedition in search of the maybe-mythical maybe-not yeti, a man-sized species or missing link high up in the mountains.

Friend's motivation is money — he wants to capture this thing, preferably alive, and sell it — but the character is written and played smartly, even delivers a few lofty speeches. He's not a two-dimensional money-grubber.

Peter Cushing co-stars, so early in his career that he's not what's scary here. He's Dr John Rollason, the scientific expert who posits that the yeti might eat small animals, hares, mice, and moles. Hmmm. When Rollason and Friend inevitably clash, it's incongruous, intentionally no doubt, that Rollason keeps calling him Friend. That's his name, after all.

Val Guest directs, and he was a very good moviemaker (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Hell is a City, Jigsaw). It's not easy to convincingly set a movie high in the Himalayas when it's actually filmed at a studio, but he's done it here, mixing grain-matched aerial and stock footage with well-made sets and realistic-looking fake-snow-blowery. The only thing missing is visible exhalation when the characters breathe and speak in what's supposed to be the cold air.

Abominable offers slow-building, subtle suspense, and it's also an engaging travelogue, even though you know nobody really traveled. The dialogue is thoughtful, there's no good guy/bad guy dichotomy, and there are genuine goosebumps at the climax, which is not the bloody mayhem that anyone but Guest would've delivered.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Charley Varrick (1973)

Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) and his gang rob a small town bank, but the heist goes wrong, and becomes a deadly shootout. One cop is killed, one's critically injured, and two of Varrick's gang are dead, including his wife. 

Varrick and one of his men get away, but when they open the moneybags they discover they've stolen more than they'd expected. Lots more, and that's bad news. A small town bank wouldn't have had so much money in the vault, unless it's Mafia money.

You can get away from the cops if you're smart, but it's much more difficult getting away from the mob. "The difference is that the Mafia kills you. No trial, no judge, and they never stop looking for you, not until you're dead. I'd rather have ten FBI's after me."

Directed by Don Siegel, who was an absolute master at this kind of material, this had me by the first scene after the opening credits, and never loosened its grip. The story, based on a novel, is like clockwork — every part clicks together, but you never see any of it coming.

John Vernon from Animal House plays the president of the bank, and Joe Don Baker at his coldest plays the man Vernon sends to get the money back. Music by Lalo Schifrin. 

"No such thing as worrying too much. Not when you got the fuzz and the mafia after you at the same time."

How have I never seen this movie before? Probably the title put me off; it's a boring title for a movie that never is. Siegel wanted to call it Last of the Independents, which is Varrick's motto as a crop-duster, his day job.

My big mistake was watching this movie in the evening. Soon as I fell asleep, a very tense nightmare came at me, with gangster types who'd tracked me down to this decapitated house where I live. They were going room-to-room to find me, just to ask a few questions, you understand.

I woke up shook up, but went back to sleep and had a second nightmare along the same general lines. Both times I awakened with my heart racing like I'd briskly jogged to the corner and back, so I clicked the lights on and read a dull book for half an hour before letting myself fall asleep a third time, to better dreams. As I simply never have nightmares like that, I blame Don Siegel and Charley Varrick.

"I never thought I'd be willing to change places with a cow. Take a look at them out there. I mean, they got it knocked. What's the worst thing in the world that could possibly happen to them? A short circuit in the electric milker. Compared to what I'm facing, that's child's play."

Reading about the movie the next day, it seems Siegel wanted Clint Eastwood for the part, but Eastwood read the script and said he couldn't see any redeeming characteristics in Varrick. Siegel gets back at him by inserting a joke about Eastwood in the script.

Watching it is so thrilling that I hadn't noticed, but Eastwood kinda has a point. Varrick is a smart character, and Matthau plays him much better than Eastwood would've, but he's just a bank robber. He isn't broke or anything, has no lofty motivation. He simply wants the money. 

But so what? Robbing a bank is enough to make me root for the guy. Anyway, despite his ugly face, Matthau had movie star charisma, and it's a terrific movie. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Gardener (1973)
a/k/a Garden of Death
a/k/a Seeds of Evil

Joe Dallesandro stars, with some other people whose names are much bigger in the credits but I've never heard of them.

He plays the new gardener for a rich woman and her husband, but the gardener has never met the husband, and the wife seems more interested in the gardener than the garden, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

That's understandable — though not much as an actor, Dallesandro is an extraordinary specimen of male. I'd do him, either before or after he starts turning into a tree.

The movie is sort of a cult item, but it's a little stale, semi-creepy at best, and there's no budget for visual effects, so Dallesandro's body is it.

Leading lady Katherine Houghton is Katherine Hepburn's niece, and she treats this material like it's The African Queen, but it's not.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Green Slime (1968)

On a crowded space station, an astronaut comes back from a mission with a blop of green alien mucus inadvertently smudged on his space britches. Slime should make for a great element of horror, and green is a lovely choice. Pretty soon, though, it dries and grows into a rather sub-ordinary movie monster with unconvincing tentacles and a head-wide red eyebrows. 

It's ludicrous but it's a laugh. For being set among military men, it's kooky how often even ordinary orders are questioned by underlings. "That's an order, mister!" and "Do I have to remind you that I am in command?" It gets silly after three or four such lines, but it happens at least two dozen times here, maybe more.

There are also a similar number of scenes where one character tells the other that what we're about to do is very dangerous, maybe impossible. 

It's a low-budget Japanese monster movie, filmed at a Japanese studio in Tokyo, with a mostly Asian crew, but in English and with western actors. A few B-level stars were imported, and the smaller parts were played by American military men stationed nearly, who were amateur actors in an on-base theater group.

Three writers are credited, and one of them is Bill Finger, the at least co-creator of Batman, though Bob Kane took all the credit while they were alive. 

The movie opens and closes with a ridiculous rock'n'roll song called, of course, "Green Slime," and it's so perfect for such a schlocky film, I've added it to my perpetual playlist.  

What can it be, what is the reason?
Is this the end to all that we've done?
Is it just something in your head?
Will you believe it when you're dead?
Green slime, green slime, green slime…

Verdict: YES, for entertainment purposes only.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

"We pledge allegiance to the Bible. The Old Testament shall be our sole and only Constitution."

I've never read the book by Margaret Atwood, haven't seen the more recent TV show, and never saw this movie until today, because it's an impossible story, right? Women had won their rights, and even with Republicans braying about killing babies and such rubbish, the idea of an America without rights for women seemed impossible to idiot-me.

Well, now we live in the early days of Gillead, so I guess it wasn't impossible after all. In the movie's near future, fertile women are forced into being handmaids, which has nothing to do with cleaning.

For Kate (Natasha Richardson), it means she'll be imprisoned during her training and Christian indoctrination, and then she'll be handmaiden to "the Commander" (Robert Duvall), being raped nightly by him while his loving but infertile wife (Faye Dunnaway) watches. 

It's as horrible as it sounds, and there are several scenes so over-the-top it made me laugh, but in the same way I laugh at Lauren Boebert, Elon Musk, or any of the present-day idiots in power — a worried laugh.

Despite watching it twice there's a gaping plot hole I can't make sense of: In one of the film's few happy moments, Kate and her friend Moira (Elizabeth McGovern) attack their main guard, "Aunt Lydia" (Victoria Tennant), and leave her tied up in the restroom. And it's never mentioned again. Seems unlikely that neither of them would be punished, but they're not.

The only black people in this film are seen in a very brief shot, packed into the back of a flatbed truck, being hauled away to who knows where. Which makes sense. This is set in the Republican future, where black people won't be welcome at all.

Written by Harold Pinter.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

One Way Pendulum (1965)

The elder Mr Groomkirby is building a precise replica of the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales) in his living room. The younger Mr Groomkirby (whose first name is Kirby, of course) has become fascinated with coin-operated scales that synthetically 'speak' your weight, acquired several of them, and he's teaching them to sing. 

Describing the plot further is beyond my, or human, capabilities, but suffice to say that many surreal and increasingly strange things happen, culminating in a trial held in the replica courthouse.

Several members of Monty Python have cited One Way Pendulum as an inspiration, which seems perfectly logical.

"You say you were a masochist, Mr Grimkirby — are you a masochist now?"

"No, sir."

"When did you cease your masochism?"

"Oh, a month or two ago, sir."

"What made you give it up?"

"It was taking up too much of my time."

Directed by Peter Yates — you might remember him from such films as Breaking Away, and Bullitt.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Tuff Turf (1985) 

James Spader (25) plays a high school student. Robert Downey Jr (20) is his best buddy sidekick. Spader is the good guy, bullied by Paul Mones (30) and other high school adults, but he kidnaps Kim Richards (21) "just to talk," takes her to an ostentatious country club, serenades her at the piano, and everyone applauds.

There are several ridiculous scenes, including that one, and Richards stealing the stage from a stripper at a bar, and the whitest cover of "Twist and Shout" ever performed, but there's too much wrong with this movie to make an extensive list.

Special anti-kudos, though, for an impossibly dull screenplay, and for the lazy 1980s synthesizer music built around a thwomping fake drumbeat that's played thousands of times. 

Verdict: BIG NO.

— — —

Coming attractions:

A Florida Enchantment (1914)
The Fat Man (1950)
Paint Your Wagon (1969)
Rogue Cop (1954)
RR (2007)
Strange Holiday (1945)
Walkabout (1971)

12/2/2022   

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

— — —

Find a movie
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If you can't find a movie I've reviewed,
or if you have any recommendations,
please drop me a note
 
— — —
 
Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   

 

33 comments:

  1. I was born under a wand'rin star.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Paint Your Wagon... with blood, I bet!

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM5-xFenaZI

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    2. Absolutely more fun than most of the movie. And now that I think of it, the movie had no reference to painting anyone's wagon, or anything else. It was paint-free...

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  2. Claude "Grab The" ReignsDecember 2, 2022 at 11:40 PM

    Coming attractions:

    Ooooh, Walkabout! One of my favorites, don't get me started on my Jenny Agutter crush...

    And a James Benning film?! I Haven't seen RR but I have watched half a dozen of his others. Well, "watched" isn't exactly what I did, more like "played in the background while I folded laundry." What next, Michael Snow's Wavelength?

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    Replies
    1. You and me both on Jenny Agutter. And she could act too.

      Probably still can.

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  3. Hey, you're gonna watch The Fat Man? I'd suggest that you listen to some of the radio show first, assuming it's related. There is a movie based on the US radio show, I've seen it. There are 8 episodes of the US radio show, and a BUNCH of Australian-made episodes. They are all pretty good.

    I listened to (I think) all of the episodes of both shows before I found the movie. The movie was decent, IMO.

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    1. I should clarify - I think there are 8 SURVIVING episodes of the US show. Most are lost, but I think all Aussie eps are extant. Different cast, but darn good.

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    2. Yup, The Fat Man is based on the radio show, and with the same actor playing the corpulent protagonist. I've listened to all the surviving episodes too, but I didn't know they'd also made an Aussie version. Maybe I'll give that a listen.

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    3. I was also born under a wandering star, but it was Ernest Borgnine in his bus.

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    4. I definitely recommend The Aussie Fat Man. Not as good as Night Beat, but very good. I'll take this opportunity to re-recommend Box 13, as well.

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    5. My ears will be there.

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  4. Glad to see that Charley Varrick worked as well for you as it has for me. Don Siegel's an excellent director when it comes to keeping things taut. Walter Matthau is one of my favorite actors because he has no airs. He's also very good in the first Bad News Bears movie, a film that could never get made today the way it was back in the '70s. I still LOL at some of the off-color lines the kids spit out and Matthau's level of comedic alcoholism is a cherry-on-top. No apologies. No notices for local 12-step programs in case you are one. It's a kids' movie but we're all adults here. -- Arden

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    1. Bad News Bears is one of the best films ever made

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    2. "No airs." That's Matthau, all right, and it took me too long to recognize that talent. For a lotta years, I only saw him as the ugliest leading man in the history of movies, but "no airs" nails it. In everything I've seen him in, he's an ordinary guy, and he's always great at being ordinary.

      Bad News Bears? Really? I saw it when I was a little kid, and all I remember is a kiddie movie. And of course, Tatum O'Neal, because I was so young that thinking she was hot wasn't even creepy.

      If you guys insist, all righty then — I'll give Bad News Bears another look.

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    3. Bad News Bears is by Michael Ritchie, who is somewhat similar to Hal Ashby in style and range, but I find him more subversive, more funny, less pretentious, better all around.

      Prime Cut, Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Fletch, Smile, etc.

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    4. As for Tatum O'Neal, you should absolutely check out Little Darlings, if you haven't seen it.

      When I think of growing up in the 70s, it's films like BNB or Little Darlings or Over The Edge that take me back. And I pity anyone younger than me who had nothing but sanitized dreck to watch in their formative years.

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    5. Ha ha ha. Over the Edge! We had a TV station at my high school with broadcast quality cameras, the real deal. Whenever our teacher was out for any reason, they pacified us by showing Over the Edge on VHS (this was the mid-80s). We used to wonder if our teacher was encouraging us to blow up the school. Great film. Always wanted to see Little Darlings back then but never did. Will have to look for it -- Arden

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    6. I've seen Over the Edge, and remember it fondly. Looks like I've never written about it, so a re-watch is now on the list.

      Also seen Little Darlings, but I'm surprised y'all remember it so fondly. I'll admit I wasn't looking for highbrow art when I saw it. Two hot babes in a race to lose their virginity, is all I remember, except that it sure wasn't sexy so I was disappointed. I was an idiot then, of course. You're telling me there's a movie there? I'll put it on the list.

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    7. Arden, how heavy was a broadcast quality camera in the 80s? Were these porno quality or network quality? We had 1950s quality films on 1940s quality projectors with about 20 splices per film at my high school. It was Woodrow Wilson High School until last year. Somebody found out that he was from Virginia and wasn't particularly attuned to the needs of Black people so they renamed it. I hope they finally ditched the projectors.

      jtb

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    8. I am uncertain about this renaming-stuff binge. Can't argue the good intentions but it sure seems superficial while 2022 remains not particularly attuned to the needs of Black people.

      Also, my mind remains boggled over the idea of a high school TV station. We didn't even have a school paper, just a bulletin board.

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    9. I understand the renaming concern. As far as I know, the school history department still admits that Wilson was President from 1913 to 1921 (if memory serves).

      Tacoma is an odd town. In the sixties, the school district built a new middle school in the North End and named it Truman Junior High. The Birchers raised holy hell, claiming that Truman was a communist and that they might as well name it Stalin Junior High. The name was actually in limbo while construction was underway. Thankfully, the school board didn't back down, although Stalin Junior High has a nice ring to it. But since Truman is one of my favorites I'm glad they prevailed. My first wife attended Truman and she always voted for Democrats, although it's possible her divorce attorney was a Commie. Time marches on.

      John

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    10. The John Birch Society used to be widely considered loons. Now they're perhaps independents, a little too left-wing for the Republican Party.

      Rename the US military bases named for Confederate officers. That's an easy one. I'm not so sure about Woody Wilson, but whatever makes the locals feel good, I guess. Amerigo Vespucci was a well-known racist, so we should rename America, too.

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    11. How about compromising and renaming military bases for bad Union generals. For example, Fort Lee, Virginia becomes Fort McClellan. One problem with this plan is that our own federal government already named a base Fort McClellan. It's now decommissioned, but stupidity still thrives.

      jtb

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    12. In fifty years or so, when Republicans have won their culture wars, the world will be melted from climate change and pollution, women will have minimum childbirth requirements (with waivers, of course, for the well-connected), the First Amendment and minimum wage will be long-since repealed, and all sorts of public buildings, streets and avenues and parks and perhaps an entire city or two will be named Trump, to honor America's most beloved leader.

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    13. My god, man, you think there will be parks in fifty years? Sounds crazy to me, but I admire your optimism.

      John

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    14. Maybe it was a brain fart and I meant 'parking lots'.

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  5. Hey BasketJohn,

    To answer your question: my high school had a serious, professional TV studio that aired programming on a town wide cable station. We had three broadcast cameras that had to be mounted on professional, industrial tri-pods. We learned to calibrate them to a chart (this was the mid-80s, so forgive me if I forget the exact names) and had a dedicated Iris operator in the studio to control lighting exposure. We taped to 3/4" U-matic video-tape. We had a professional grade switcher that allowed for crazy variations on cheesy wipes and fades.

    Our town, population roughly 55,000 in a county of half-a million, was located about 30-50 minutes to NYC without traffic. We were not nearly as affluent as some surrounding towns but we had pockets of wealth (some mafia, for certain) among the professional class alongside plenty of blue-collar workers and single parent households.

    It struck me as odd that our TV station was so well-prepared and stocked, but I guess someone on the Board of Ed saw it as an advantage of some sort, some kind of bragging rights. I was a student in the CAST department (Communication Arts and Sciences Training) for two years, taking two classes in TV that were indistinguishable to me in my senior year. I managed to miss every single football game and other sporting event that needed to be broadcast and still walked out with straight As.

    I did partake in doing camera work for a dull sports wrap-up show after-school. My fellow cameraman when I was a junior was a senior named Artie Lange, who went onto Howard Stern, and who wrote and starred in the not-totally-great movie, Beer League, which does reflect some of the atmosphere of where I grew up. (It misses the burnout vibe a bit.)

    CAST was a ton of fun and provided a safe haven for freaks throughout high school -- I also managed to stack the deck by encouraging other directionless youths to sign up so we'd all be in the same class. It made high school tolerable. -- Arden

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    1. Just one more thing. With three cameras, did you have a full control room with monitors for the director so he/she could set up shots: "Ready one, take one, ready two; bring up the lighting two points, ready three, take two . . ."? which also asks the perhaps obvious question whether the cameras were on casters.

      We had a vocational school in town with a pretty good setup (for the '60s). A friend of my sister's took the "cameraman" course and became a camera operator at the NBC affiliate 30 miles north of us. She worked there her whole career and retired recently. I think the Voc School only had a UHF channel, but if you clicked the dial and squinted you could pick it up OK (this was before cable TV).

      Thanks for responding. I still think it's remarkable.

      John

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    2. I have nothing to add, except that you guys are fascinating. I would expect camera classes at voc-tech, but the idea of a high school TV station still amazes me. Totally cool, and educational. Schools *should* have something to do with education, so hooray.

      Also, gotta find and watch Beer League.

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    3. Yes, we had a control with monitors showing what each camera was focused on (or not focused on) and the main monitor showing what we were airing. There were headsets for cameraboys n girls and the director who got to instruct everyone and call the shots to the kid working the control board. "Take 1" meaning camera one. If the lighting was dark, that would be because the iris operator was falling down on the job. I got stuck with that moronic job more than once. You stared at some sort of waveform thing and if the lines dropped too far above or below the main line you either tweaked the iris up or down to maintain an appropriately lit set. Our classroom was off the control room and on a regular sized auditorium stage with audience seats for maybe 300 people down and further out. I suppose the cameras were on casters. They were extremely strong for tri-pods and rolled if not locked and allowed for camera panning left to right and up and down.

      The beauty of the class for me was that the teacher running it was a very funny guy who enjoyed his students. Like Les Nessman on WKRP, he had one record album in the record stand. But not Johnny Mathis but Endless Summer by The Beach Boys. Whenever we had to clean the studio, he'd ask if there was any music we'd like to hear. Some kids were down and didn't notice the set-up for the joke and would mention they had a Metallica tape on them, but me and a few buddies knew the score and we'd feign ignorance and ask, "Do you have anything by, uh, maybe The Beach Boys?" and our teacher on cue would light up and say "Why, I believe we do have that one."

      One other time he had taken a Jerry Reed tape from his car and was listening to it in his control room (the one that ran out to broadcast the station over the cable) and I walked in with a few others and acted like there couldn't possibly be any other music to listen to other than The Beach Boys and stood there dumbfounded as I read off "Jerry Reed? Who's Jerry Reed? Was he in The Beach Boys?" Teacher always on top of it, "Why no, but I think you fellas will really enjoy this fine cassette." It has When You're Hot, You're Hot and it just seemed so perfect for this quirky TV expert who ended up teaching kids.

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    4. Oh, man, I love your teacher. Great telling, too.

      Do you know if he'd worked in the arts before teaching?

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    5. Thanks for the clear answer and the stories. This is a nice site for stories. If you fuck them up or get tangled in your own prose as I often do, there are only a few people laughing at you. If you tell stories well, those few people are worth entertaining.

      Thanks again.

      btj

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    6. "A nice site for stories." I like that. Put it on the urn for my ashes. :)

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