CHEAP THRILLS ON THE ROAD
By Joe Brancatelli
July 16, 2009 -- Racing through the local warehouse store yesterday, I literally crashed into a DVD display. The best of the knocked-down items selling for knock-down prices: Three seasons of The Greatest American Hero for just $9.99 a year.
The cornucopia of cheap discs encoded with dozens of hours of mindlessly entertaining, superhero-spoofing 1980s television now resides in my carry-on bag, waiting its turn for viewing during another ultra-long-haul flight or when one too many repeats of Larry King Live on the hotel-room TV sends me around the bend.
I'd never suggest that The Greatest American Hero--William Katt plays a doofus with a magical suit, a hot girlfriend (Connie Selleca) and an over-eager FBI sidekick (Robert Culp, riffing off his 1960s I Spy character)--is the stuff that dreams are made of. In fact, maybe I shouldn't even quote a classic like The Maltese Falcon when talking about mostly forgettable television of another generation.
But with DVDs of motion pictures, TV shows and documentaries now so damned inexpensive, I leave space in my carry-on bag for a decent amount of digital diversion. And in the mid-summer doldrums that is business travel, I thought it would be interesting to take a peek at what's sitting in my bag just now. Most of it is fondly remembered programming that I want to see again.
Here are the cheap thrills that I'm carrying to get me through the summer on the road. What's in your carry-on bag? I promise to report on your most interesting and off-beat choices in a future column. Because you know what they say: We are what we watch and listen to while our flight is delayed and all our paperwork is done. (Okay, nobody says that, but maybe they should…)
WANT TO UNDERSTAND THE MIDDLE EAST? UNDERSTAND WORLD WAR I.
World War I never truly "ended" and we're living--and dying--with its consequences today. Unrest in the Balkans was the immediate cause of and is still the European loose end of the Great War. All the chaos in the Middle East is a direct result of the criminally inept political carve-up of the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. If you crave a better understanding of the troubles of today's world, gobble up The First World War, a breathtaking four-DVD primer on the watershed event of the 20th century. Based on the scholarship of Hew Strachan, now the definitive authority on World War I, the 8.5-hour series is absorbing, endlessly revelatory and, dare I say it, cracking good entertainment. The strength of this British-made 2003 documentary is neither its reams of archival footage nor its extensive use of primary source material. It is Strachan's approach, which eschews a blinkered concentration on the Western Front and focuses instead on the global geopolitical machinations. The First World War may be the best $19 you will ever spend on your own enlightenment.
HER NAME IS BARBRA. SHE USED TO SING.
Barbra Streisand stands alone. Literally. And that's the problem. She became America's first pop-music diva--isolated, aloof and encased in amber--at the instant her talent and creative chops would have led her to collaborate with other great musicians and experiment with her miraculous voice and meticulous phrasing. But you'll be thrilled to know that her five groundbreaking television specials are now available in one DVD box set. The one-hour shows, beginning with 1965's My Name is Barbra and 1966's Color Me Barbra and culminating with 1973's Barbra Streisand…and Other Musical Instruments, won Emmys and reworked the format of TV musical specials. Mostly, though, they reveal Streisand entertaining. The fourth DVD, the one-hour 1968 TV version of 1967's landmark concert, Barbra Streisand: A Happening in Central Park, may be the last live date that was more about the music than Streisand herself. Streisand today is a force of nature: actor, director, filmmaker, activist, diva, icon and probably anything else that she wants to be. But the DVDs remind you when Streisand was simply great and, at just $39, greatness is cheap to own.
WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE A HAMSTER THAT SMELLS OF ELDERBERRIES
Travel Insider David Rowell put together a Scotland trip a few years ago and it drew a diverse social and political crowd. At one point, Rowell was bringing us to a sheep-shearing exhibition. But as the bus passed a directional sign for Doune Castle, someone said, "Hey, isn't that the castle from Monty Python?" Rowell redirected the bus and we all gleefully tromped around Doune Castle, farting in people's general direction and doing our best John Cleese/French Taunter impersonations. It's that kind of nutty devotion from even the sanest human beings that has made 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail a nihilistic classic. A two-disc Special Edition DVD is appropriately anarchistic and includes: a phony Japanese version with subversively phony English subtitles; a brilliantly funny film with Lego-block knights acting and singing "Knights of the Round Table"; corrosive commentary from the Pythons; a film with Eric Idle as a British bureaucrat teaching you how to do the coconut routine; a surreal 1974 "making of" video; and lovely animated menus that berate you if you dawdle too long between selections. This is all-too-appropriate company for a life on the road and, for just ten bucks, much cheaper than a shrubbery.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO EDDIE IZZARD
Eddie Izzard has been called the funniest man alive and a one-man Monty Python troupe, but he much prefers to be called an "executive transvestite." And therein hangs one of the many hilarious tales on Dress to Kill, the DVD version of the British comedian's 1998 concert tour. With dazzling outfits and even more dazzling wit, Izzard takes on religion, imperialism, American and British moviemaking, the "new" Europeans, languages, squirrels in makeup, the invention of the Heimlich Maneuver, and, amazingly, how British singer Jerry Butler chose the stage name "Englebert Humperdink." Taped in San Francisco, the concert is a linguistic, comedic and intellectual tour de force. You'll find yourself quoting seminal lines such as "Cake or death?" and "Do you have a flag?" in meetings for months to come. The DVD-only extras are also wonderful, including a Ken Burns spoof that follows Izzard (in black and white and out of drag) around New York. Izzard is an instant, $15 antidote for pompous front-desk clerks and nasty flight attendants.
THE DAY THE JOURNALIST CAUGHT FIRE
Know what drives journalists such as Martin Deutsch, Chris Barnett and the others to volunteer their time and talents to JoeSentMe.com? For me, it was a 1961 British sci-fi thriller called The Day the Earth Caught Fire. A riveting Cold War-arms race flick--the screenplay won the British Oscar--it follows a washed-up reporter (Edward Judd) and his sympathetic editor friend (Leo McKern) as they unravel the mystery of a sudden global environmental nightmare. I was nine years old when the movie made it across the pond in 1962 and I was seduced by the film's denouement: a shot of two front pages, one heralding the Earth's salvation, the other using what we ink-stained wretches call "end-of-the-world" type for its literal purpose. From that moment, I knew what I wanted to be: The guy who gets the story and, not totally coincidentally, the girl (Janet Munro). The Day the Earth Caught Fire was released on DVD in the United States in 2004 and promptly went out of print. But a region-free DVD is easily and cheaply available (less than $15 including shipping) from AmazonUK. I recommend it both as entertainment and as explanation. If JoeSentMe has helped ease your life on the road since 9/11, it's all because a nine-year-old saw a movie.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.