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Counting backward

Some influences on one person's existence

By Todd Leopold
CNN

cover.fifth.jpg
The cover of Robertson Davies' "Fifth Business": "And that, Headmaster, is all I have to tell you."
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(CNN) -- I'm going to turn 40 on Sunday.

Forty.

As David Byrne once asked, How did I get here?

It seems like some kind of cosmic joke. When I was 18, I had such sense of purpose that I used to laugh that I was "18 going on 40." Now that I'm going to be 40, I'd rather immerse myself in the silly immaturity of 18.

Sometimes I'm not sure how it happened. I've had lots of help, and I'm grateful to too many people to list here (you'll have to wait until I win that Oscar).

I'm also thankful to the many bits of entertainment that have shaped who I am -- whomever, at this late date, that is.

For several years, the rock critic Greil Marcus wrote a regular column called "Real-Life Top Ten," in which he plumbed pop cultural artifacts and news events for significance. With many apologies to Marcus, here's my own real-life top 10, the songs, snippets, scenes, shows and what-have-you that have given me shape or stuck in my mind -- at least as of today. (Ask me tomorrow and you'll get an entirely new slate.)

And for those who'd rather skip this fiesta of self-indulgence, click here for the rest of the column.

10. "Side of the Road" (1988) and "Right in Time" (1998), Lucinda Williams. Two sides of romantic aloneness.

9. "And When the Sky Was Opened," "The Twilight Zone" (1959). Three men head into space. Three men come back. Perhaps they shouldn't have.

8. "Blazing Saddles," directed and co-written by Mel Brooks (1974). I won't argue that "Young Frankenstein" is the better movie, but "Saddles" is a little more anarchic, a little wackier -- and funnier. "It's a pleasure to present a laurel ... and hardy handshake"; "I didn't get a harrumph out of you"; "What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here?" Mel, what happened to those earlier, funny films?

7. "A Prayer for Owen Meany," John Irving (1989); "Fifth Business," Robertson Davies (1969). The perfect endings. "And that, Headmaster, is all I have to tell you."

6. "The Natural," Bernard Malamud (1952). People forget that Roy Hobbs was one hell of a pitcher. In his youth he struck out Walter "The Whammer" Wambold on three pitches, each so precisely and poetically described by Malamud he synthesizes the entire joy of the pitcher-batter contest into a handful of words.

6a. New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals, October 1, 1985; Pittsburgh Pirates at Atlanta Braves, October 14, 1992. In the first game, Ron Darling and John Tudor dueled scorelessly before Darryl Strawberry won the game with a mammoth home run off a Busch Stadium scoreboard in extra innings; in the other, the now immortal Francisco Cabrera drove in Sid Bream with the pennant-winning run in the bottom of the ninth as Braves announcer Skip Caray exulted, "Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! BRAVES WIN!" Somewhere, Russ Hodges smiled.

(6b. Belated apologies to God and my rabbi for missing Yom Kippur evening services in 1986 because of Game 5 of the Red Sox-Angels playoffs. I was planning to go, honest -- especially after the Sox went down 5-2 in the 7th -- but I came out of dinner and saw two guys listening to a pickup truck radio in the classic "this is one heck of a game" pose. So much for services.)

5. The Clash, "Brand New Cadillac" (1979); "Foggy Notion," the Velvet Underground (1969); "It Came Out of the Sky," Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969); "Jumpin' Jack Flash," the Rolling Stones (1968). Out-of-control rock 'n' roll held in check ... just. Honorable mention: Robert Quine's guitar solo in Richard Hell and the Voidoids' "Blank Generation" (1977), Jimi Hendrix's guitar in "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" (1968): A tangled mess of amused rage, and the sound of crossing over into another dimension.

4. "Love and Happiness," Al Green (1972); "Got to Get You Into My Life," the Beatles (1966). Bookends of ecstasy: Green opens "Love" with a call-and-response with a guitar, and George Harrison's guitar closes "Life" with a call-and-response against horns and Paul McCartney's vocal.

3. "Heart Like a Wheel," Kate & Anna McGarrigle (1975): The sound of a broken heart. "Days," the Kinks (1968): The sound of a broken heart forgiving. "Parenthesis," Julian Barnes, from "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" (1989): The sound of a heart beating.

2. "The Third Man," written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed (1949); "The Candidate," written by Jeremy Larner, directed by Michael Ritchie (1972). Joseph Cotten and Robert Redford: Innocents lost.

1. "Blonde on Blonde," Bob Dylan (1966). Back in the olden days of vinyl, the British rock critic Roy Carr noted that he had bled white two copies of this LP and was working on a third. With CDs, I've never had to ruin my copy (and my vinyl is now safely stored away), but I understand the sentiment. I've never gotten to the bottom of Dylan's sprawling musical chronicle, and I hope I never do -- for the rest of my life.

And now Eye on Entertainment turns to something completely different.

Eye-opener

Guess Who
Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac in "Guess Who."

For its time -- during the civil rights movement -- 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was considered brave. It was a mainstream, major studio picture about the daughter of two liberal San Franciscans -- a white family -- who announces she's marrying a black man.

Of course, the movie loaded the deck, as Stanley Kramer movies often did. The black man was played by Sidney Poitier, an actor who defined class then and now, and Poitier's character was an award-winning Yale-educated doctor.

Seen today, the movie appears dated, partly because of its ham-handedness, mostly because of its God-awful soundtrack. (Anyone who can sit through "That's the story of, that's the glory of love" without heaving a brick at the screen is doing better than me.) What saves it are its terrific performances, including an Oscar-winning turn by Katharine Hepburn and a last hurrah by Spencer Tracy.

What was once tragedy -- or at least mild drama -- returns as farce, and now we have "Guess Who."

"Guess Who" turns the plot of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" on its head. Now it's a black girl bringing her white boyfriend home to her family. Her father is played by Bernie Mac, a master of the slow burn, who should provide a number of entertaining moments.

The boyfriend is played by Ashton Kutcher, who should ... well, Kutcher's a smart guy in real life who, so far, has taken idiot roles on screen. (See "Dude, Where's My Car," "My Boss's Daughter" and "The Butterfly Effect.") He'll need to do a little better than "idiot" to keep up with the engaging Mac.

"Guess Who" opens Friday.

On screen

  • Sandra Bullock had hit a career trough when she starred in "Miss Congeniality" in 2000. (Remember "28 Days"? "Forces of Nature"?) But the film about an FBI agent-turned-beauty pageant contestant was a surprise hit -- helped immensely by turns from Michael Caine, William Shatner and Candice Bergen. Bullock tries on the role of Gracie Hart again, this time to save the kidnapped pageant winner and host from the first film. But of the major stars, only Shatner (as host Stan Fields) and Ernie Hudson (as Bullock's boss) return. Opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • NBC has made a recent career of importing British sitcoms and screwing them up. Now they're trying to remake "The Office," and this time, they swear, it's as good -- or almost as good -- as the award-winning British original. It very well may be -- its producer is Greg Daniels ("The Simpsons," "King of the Hill") and its star is Steve Carell ("The Daily Show"). 9:30 p.m. Thursday, NBC.
  • ABC premieres a new series about young doctors -- at least one of which is in lust, if not love -- called "Grey's Anatomy." 10 p.m. Sunday, ABC.
  • The NCAA basketball tournament enters its Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds. Are your brackets blown yet? All weekend on CBS. (Get all your NCAA coverage from SI.com.external link)
  • Sound waves

  • Beck reunites with his "Odelay" producers, the Dust Brothers, for his new album, "Guero" (Geffen). Comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • Rebecca Wells returns to the Ya-Ya well with "Ya-Yas in Bloom" (HarperCollins). Releases Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • "Vera Drake," featuring Imelda Staunton's Oscar-nominated performance, comes out Tuesday.
  • "Closer," starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, the Oscar-nominated Natalie Portman and the Oscar-nominated Clive Owen -- and directed by Mike Nichols -- comes out Tuesday.

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