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Tag Archives: John Steinbeck

Great Odes to the Open Road

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Oh, but the tug of the open road is contagious. We’re draw to the uncertainty, the adventure and the promise of new experiences. Any number of artists and ordinary souls have been inspired to share this excitement. These are some of my favorite examples.


For many, Jack Kerouac’s classic story of wondering and wandering is the last word on road trips. It’s a marvel of stream-of-consciousness writing. “On the Road” perfectly conveys the intoxicating, surreal, gritty, dangerous sexiness of hitting the open road.


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a road trip and found myself warbling Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” It has such a pleasing lilt and sense of movement. Road trips may be grueling sometimes, but they usually start off happy.


Here’s an action movie comedy, featuring odd couple Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. DeNiro is a bounty hunter bringing in a mob accountant, played by Grodin, who has skipped bail. Like many great tales of the road, it’s a journey of transformation – in this case, with guns, punches and comedic slow burns.


Toward the end of his life, the great John Steinbeck directed his magnificent reporting skills and humanity to a cross-country road trip. He and his dog, Charley, traveled the highways and byways in an RV. Through brief interactions and keen observations, he painted an insightful picture of postwar America. Some critics have questioned his journalistic accuracy, but the power of his writing is unassailable.


In a way, road trips are just an excuse to search for the best slice of banana cream pie or the best plate of cheese fries. Jane and Michael Stern dug deep into the heart and soul of America’s glorious greasy spoons and dreamy diners for this gem. On a personal note, I found the best banana cream pie, ever, while traveling a mountain road in Montana.


For more than a decade, Trail Journals ( has provided a digital home for hundreds of thousands of photographs and pieces of writing by long distance hikers around the country. The Appalachian Trail is prominent here, but there are many other trails represented, as well. The best trail journals are utterly engrossing. They tell stories of beautiful vistas, animal encounters, physical hardship, budding friendships and deep, solitary thought – all unfolding day by day.


I loved everything about this old TV show from the 1960s. The variety of locales, the gritty narration by William Conrad, the central storyline of a guy on the lam from the law for a murder he didn’t commit. Mostly, I loved David Janssen’s low-key, understated hero. After four seasons, “The Fugitive” ended with one of the most satisfying finales in TV history.


Hundreds of films since 1934 have attempted to recapture the chemistry and romance of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night.” It’s a silly story about an heiress and a newshound making their way across the country during the Great Depression, but it’s sheer bliss. Witty banter, funny supporting characters and a classic hitchhiking scene. For a different sort of road story from the Depression, there’s …


We return to Steinbeck for one of the great American novels. “The Grapes of Wrath” follows a family searching for work and dignity as they flee from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Instead, they encounter greed, poverty and indignity. It’s a harrowing journey, one that strips individuals down to their core beliefs and little else. I’ll never forget reading this book for the first time and thinking about the pure poetry of a human being deciding who and what he is.

Now let’s go a bit beyond the reach of the American road.


This show actually IS amazing. You want to test a marriage/friendship/relationship? Send people halfway around the world in the middle of the night and ask them to go from the airport to some out-of-the-way local landmark as fast as they can without killing each other. It exposes every hidden grudge and emotional sore spot before the first commercial break. Want to have your mind blown? Imagine your parents as contestants.


Best. Road. Ever.


Matt Harding, also known as “Dancing Matt,” has recorded a series of videos of himself doing a crazy, happy dance in dozens of countries around the world. Millions of people have watched these videos and been charmed by the simple joy of a goofy, global dance. That’s what I call a great road trip.

So tell me, what are your favorite road trips from pop culture?

Tops in Hops: Best Rabbits in Movies & TV

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The Easter Bunny will get all the attention this weekend, but he’s not the only rabbit to hop down the pop culture pike. Here are a few hares from TV and movies that I’ve come to admire.


Who doesn’t love this wascawy wabbit? With a great Brooklyn accent, courtesy of Mel Blanc, and an endless supply of wiseguy bravado, Bugs glides smoothly through life (crazy hunters, cowboys and Tasmanian Devils notwithstanding). Also, his “Rabbit of Seville” is priceless.


For those not familiar with the 1950 film (or the stage play it was based upon), “Harvey” is an invisible rabbit who likes to tag along with Jimmy Stewart to the local pub. It’s an appealing meditation on the virtues of pleasant goofiness over cold, harsh rationality. Stewart does a nice job with it, at a time when special effects were severely limited.


We proceed from a rabbit that is never actually heard to one that is heard all too well. Sid, part of Craig Ferguson’s late-night puppet gallery on CBS, is almost certainly the most foul-mouthed rabbit in TV history. Got to admit, though, the little stinker makes me laugh.


We’re going back into the musical vault for this 1967 gem of psychedelic rock from Jefferson Airplane. Grace Slick sprinkled lots of references to Alice in Wonderland in “White Rabbit.” She also gave it a trippy, drugged-out vibe. Best of all, it’s a cool song, full of drama.


I love this little guy’s ears. They’re like loaves of French bread stuck on the back of his head. “Crusader Rabbit” was a pioneering bit of TV animation from the 1950s that managed to work its way onto the air occasionally in reruns even in the ’60s and ’70s. Crusader went on cliffhanger-type adventures, had a tiger (Rags) for a sidekick and – my favorite part – had episode names such as “Sahara You.”


The famous feminist Gloria Steinem worked briefly as a Playboy Bunny in the 1960s in order to write a magazine article about the experience. The result, “A Bunny’s Tale,” turned heads by showing how demeaning such work. The article was turned into a movie in 1985 starring … Kirstie Alley.


Admittedly, I found the Energizer Bunny somewhat loathsome at first. But, like his product, he simply kept going. And you know what? The commercials kept getting better. The Energizer Bunny has smartly hitched his TV wagon to some of the most iconic characters in our culture, from King Kong to Darth Vader.


The first of John Updike’s famous “Rabbit” books got the Hollywood treatment in 1970. James Caan played Rabbit Angstrom, the self-obsessed guy who runs away from his wife and life and finds nothing but confusion. It was like a highly literary version of “Mad Men.”


Believe it or not, 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was considered a technological breakthrough. It blended animation with live action better than anything up to that point, and it gave us a smart look at older characters such as Betty Boop and Daffy Duck.


John Steinbeck’s timeless novella, “Of Mice and Men,” has been the basis for several movies and TV productions. Two of the best were in 1939 (Lon Chaney, Jr., and Burgess Meredith) and 1992 (John Malkovich and Gary Sinise). Steinbeck used the imagery of rabbits in a powerful way. The story is about two drifters, protective George and man-child Lennie, who find jobs on a California ranch during the Great Depression. Something tragic happens, and the only way Lennie can be soothed is by hearing George talk about their dream of having their own farm. The farm would have soft, calming, lovely rabbits to pet – which is not a bad stand-in for the dreams we all have tucked away to keep the demons at bay.

Fine rabbits, all. So – do you have other favorites?  Be sure to add them to The List!

6 Films That Show the Best and Worst of America

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There are great movies that show America at its best (“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Singin’ in the Rain”) and great movies that show America at its worst (“Citizen Kane,” “GoodFellas”). Here are some great movies that show both.


12 Angry Men



Every person serving jury duty today should be required to watch this masterpiece from 1957. It represents the triumph of objective, thoughtful citizens over the forces of bigotry and disinterest in society. Yet just as clearly, it also shows how powerful those negative forces are in the American judicial system.



The Right Stuff



With its stirring music, imagery and subject matter, you might think Philip Kaufman’s film adaptation of the Tom Wolfe book about the first years of the space program is altogether positive. But it’s not. It carefully weaves in elements of mass media idiocy, political idiocy and individual idiocy that are just as much a part of the American fabric as heroism and ingenuity.



American History X



Edward Norton is riveting in a central performance as a young man who becomes a white supremacist and later tries to change his ways. Always intelligent and unsparing, this movie somehow also gives off a vibe that harkens back to the dramas of the 1950s. Shout-out to the very talented Avery Brooks, in this scene with Norton.



All the President’s Men



Despite all the political scandals since Watergate, all the failings of the press that have come to light, and even the fact that we now know the identity of Deep Throat, this movie still amazes. In America, a couple of scribes knocking on doors and making phone calls can take on a corrupt government and bring its misdeeds into the light of public scrutiny.



Moscow on the Hudson



Paul Mazursky’s comedy about a Russian defector who comes to New York, starring Robin Williams, is underrated. It’s an upbeat comedy, to be sure, but it also offers commentary on American consumer culture, the brutal nature of capitalism and the difficulty many immigrants encounter.



The Grapes of Wrath



You can’t watch this film, based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel of Depression-era America, and not feel sick over how often the working poor in this country take it on the chin. It’s a punishing, intractable poverty that by rights should break the American spirit. But it doesn’t – not then and not now. I’ll leave you with Henry Fonda’s “I’ll be there” speech and wish you a happy and healthy July 4 weekend.