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The Order of Oddfish

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90-Second Newberys from RCTV in Rochester, NY: Ella Enchanted, Dear Mr. Henshaw, and Our Only May Amelia

January 10, 2014

I’m happy to report that Rochester, NY is a hotbed of 90-Second Newbery enthusiasm. I’ve received as many videos from there as I have from Chicago. In particular, the local cable access channel, Rochester Community TV, offer a summer camp in which participants learn how to make their own 90-Second Newbery movies. The movies from RCTV’s camp last year were impressive. Would this year’s movies measure up?

Absolutely! I received three superior movies from RCTV’s 2014 camp. The first is above, a version of Gail Carson Levine’s 1998 Honor Book Ella Enchanted that is done in the style of an “almost musical.” The running joke of how Ella keeps trying to burst into song, only to be hushed up by everyone else in the scene, is well done, especially when it gets to the point where folks are literally bonking her over the heads with pots to keep us from hearing her, or even stopping the movie entirely! Lots of cool touches: the dancing at the ball, the amusing prince (“Hey! I’m a prince and I’m charming! Wanna marry me?”), the Mission: Impossible-style escape from the school, and the flashy special effect when the curse is broken. Great stuff all around!

Next, Beverly Cleary’s 1984 Medal winner Dear Mr. Henshaw:

Dear Mr. Henshaw is an epistolary novel, told in a sequence of letters between an author (Mr. Henshaw) and a student. I like how they modernized the story by not doing it through letters, but emails, blogs and cell phones. I was startled by how good the acting was from both the kids playing Leigh and Henshaw. The smaller roles were also done with just the right note of comedy. The running joke of the lunch being stolen was really well done, and the best part of all was the post-credits reveal of the lunch thief shamelessly and calmly eating all the stolen lunches in the empty room. Ha!

Speaking of laughs, here’s Jennifer Holm’s 2000 Honor Book Our Only May Amelia, but done in the style of a standup comedy routine:

What a unique, creative, and effective way to tell the story! It’s such a good idea I’m surprised nobody else has done their movie in that style for the 90-Second Newbery. The cutaways to the grandmother throwing tea at her, the “dramatic” dialogue between her and her brother, or even “your grandmother’s dead!” “yessssss” all really made the story, and kept everything zipping along too. A fun concept, and artfully done!

Thanks, RCTV-TV! I’m looking forward to seeing you at the screening in New York City, and to what you’re cooking up for next year’s film festival!

90-Second Newberys from my Center for Talent Development class

January 3, 2014

The Chicago premiere of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is fast approaching, on February 1, 2014! Screenings in other cities follow. Check out the event calendar to the right for details. Our Chicago screening has been packed in the past, so if you’re planning to attend, make sure to reserve your seat in advance! It’s free!

All through January I’ll be posting 90-Second Newbery videos I’ve received. This first batch is special. Last summer, Chicago filmmaker John Fecile and I taught 5th and 6th graders a 3-week class in making 90-Second Newbery movies at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development Summer Program (and I’ll be doing it again this summer).

The students were super-talented, enthusiastic, and hard-working. It was a pleasure to help them make their 90-Second Newbery adaptations. They wrote their own scripts, shot the movies themselves, acted in the movies themselves, did editing and sound themselves—the whole shebang! I encouraged them to make bold genre choices, not only summarizing the book but also doing it in the idiom of a different movie style.

So, for instance, some students adapted Karen Cushman’s 1996 Medal winner The Midwife’s Apprentice, which was about a teenager learning to become a midwife in medieval England. But they did it in the style of a spaghetti western—here, The Good, The Bad, and the Midwife’s Apprentice:

I love how their script uses lots of Western lingo “Jesus save my soul! I’m a-cashin’ in!” “Not on my can openers!” The birth scenes are particularly fun, and I love the closeups on the eyes and mouths during the standoff scenes. Great job!

John Fecile and I were astonished when we realized that almost nobody in the class knew about Monty Python. When we showed it to them, most of the class of course thought it was hilarious, and so one group decided to adapt the 1949 Honor Book My Father’s Dragon in the style of Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

The pitch-perfect imitation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s opening credits is a nice touch. I’m glad they nailed the necessary inclusion of the servant imitating the sounds of the horse with the coconuts. The accent on the “French mouse” was fantastic, as well as King Arthur’s Graham-Chapman-esque mannerisms. Great all around!

An even wilder genre-twisting choice was to adapt Lloyd Alexander’s 1966 Honor Book The Black Cauldron in the style of the sitcom I Love Lucy. Instead of an epic quest to destroy a black cauldron, it’s a small dinner party ruined by complications over a black crock pot:

Great performances, camera work, editing! A loose adaptation but still valid—it does more or less track the plot, down to Ellidyr “sacrificing” himself (but instead of throwing himself into the black cauldron, he eats the stuff in the black pt). Everything clicked here. I like how the witches are just a bunch of neighbors, and how Taran is a “Babalu”-playing Ricky Ricardo and Eilonwy is an anxious Lucy. Nice use of laugh track and sitcom tropes.

Here’s another black-and-white one. It’s another adaptation of My Father’s Dragon, but this time done in the style of a horror movie:

There are parts of this that are legitimately scary—something about all those masks and hissing. And I love the way every animal that Elmer meets dies a grisly death, starting with the cat at the very beginning who is knifed to death! Grim! Great use of horror music here, too.

And The Midwife’s Apprentice was once again adapted by a different group of kids, but this time in the genre of a surreal superhero story:

That one gets so bonkers I’m not quite sure what to say about it. (“Oh no! The babies are eating the Constitution of the United States of America!”) It’s such accelerated nonsense I can’t help but love it . . .

And finally, here’s The Midwife’s Apprentice done in the style of a musical:

Great job with the original songs and singing, girls!

Thanks so much, students from the CTD! I look forward to seeing many of you at the screening in Chicago on February 1!

I am Rick Kogan

December 29, 2013

On December 14, 2013 I performed at Christopher Piatt’s Paper Machete Show (“Chicago’s Weekly Live Magazine”) at the Green Mill. As a longtime fan and admirer of legendary Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan, a man who’s seen and done it all in Chicago, I decided to do my piece as if I were he, if only to imitate his famously gravelly voice.

The audio is below; my part starts at 14:45. The transcript follows. Some of it might be obscure for non-Chicagoans. Thanks to Christopher Piatt for inviting me and Rick Kogan for his (I hope) indulgence.



Hello there. I’m Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune.

Christmas is almost upon us in this stormy, husky, brawling city of big shoulders, which means it’s time for another “Kogan’s Christmas Corner,” in which I take off my newspaperman’s hat—a hat I’ve worn for over 50 years at the Daily News, the Sun-Times, the Tribune—and I loosen my broadcaster’s tie—a tie I’ve worn for decades on WGN, WBBM, and WBEZ—and I even remove my jeweled titanium codpiece, which is not yet associated with an achievement—and answer emails from listeners asking that annual conundrum: what gift do you get for the person who is just a nightmare to buy for?

The first email comes from Diane Kordowski of Bridgeport.

Dear Kogan’s Christmas Corner,

My grandmother is in her late seventies. She doesn’t have room in her house for extra bric-a-brac. If anything, she’s trying to get rid of stuff! Still, Nana would be heartbroken if I didn’t get her a gift. What to do?


Well, Diane, I’ll always remember this.

December 1983 and I’m standing outside the Billy Goat with one Mike Royko, who was then, and always will be, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the best newspaperman in America. Royko had seemed preoccupied all night, and even though it was snowing hard enough to get Jane Byrne re-elected, Royko and I were outside smoking, not outside because of some ban, but because back inside, Studs and Ebert had once again stripped to the waist, slathered their bare chests with hot cooking grease, and were grappling on the countertop, with the rude animal spirits of young bucks in their prime, the natural horseplay of this hard-drinking, two-fisted, grubby, glorious town—I was flush with victory, my pocket bulging with the severed pinky-toe of an impertinent David Mamet—then Royko turned to me, snow glittering behind him in the blackness, his eyes haunted—terrified—he began to speak—but then the door flung open, it was a breathless, nearly nude Ebert, with Studs in a headlock, roaring at us to come back inside or we’d get the “thumbs-down treatment,” we all knew what that meant, we’d all had that done to us before, so we headed back in, and the drinking began anew, and went all night long.

Those were the good times.

I never found out what Royko was trying to tell me, that night. It never seemed the right time to bring it up again. And yet I remember the way his face looked. The peculiar geometry of his head. His eyes, suddenly nightmarish.

So Diane, that’s what I would get for Nana. The unspeakable terror locked deep in the heart of famous columnist Mike Royko. A truth so horrifying, he could not tell it even to his best friend. When you find out what it is, please drop me a line at rkogan@tribune.com.

The next email comes from Patrick O’Connell of Old Town.

Dear Kogan’s Christmas Corner,

My son is 15. He’s into musicals, World of Warcraft, Manchester United, and tumblr. I don’t understand half of what he likes! Half the gifts I give him wind up ignored. Any ideas?


Patrick, your email hit close to home. I too grew up in Old Town. Nowadays Old Town might be more of a neighborhood of web designers than Grabowskis, but when I was a boy, it was vintage workingman’s Chicago: hardboiled eggs soaked in Old Style for breakfast, piggyback rides with Nelson Algren at lunchtime, an Italian beef sandwich with Bernie Sahlins backstage at the Second City for supper, and 16 inch softball in the alleys until sundown —and no gloves, where are you from, Winnetka?—anyway, back in 2002 Studs and I were walking around Old Town after our weekly poker game with Congressman Dan Rostenkowski and Liz Phair, who was still smarting from the tepid reception of “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” a fine, fine album. But for some strange reason, all the taverns seemed to be closed. A strange electricity was in the air, the distant rumble of thunder, and massive, gravid clouds bearing down on our heads like our own inescapable pasts—when Studs and I chanced upon a glittering Oriental shrine I’d never seen before, seemingly constructed of alien obsidian, eldritch stonework curling in upon itself in nightmarish geometries, the incalculable architecture of a madman—and in the center of that monstrous sepulcher, a simple wooden door.

As if in a dream, my fingers moved toward the door. Studs yanked my hand back, and hissed at me, “Rick Kogan—don’t touch it—for the love of God man, walk away from this abomination before it’s too late.”

But I would not be deterred. Studs averted his gaze. I opened the door—and closed it.

Studs whispered, “What did you see, Rick Kogan?” I answered, with a short bark of a laugh, “Nothing, Studs Terkel—it was nothing at all.”

We made our way home in shaken silence, our plans for drinks and companionship forgotten. Studs knew I was lying.

I was.

For inside that little door was the desiccated, disembodied head of Mike Royko—its eyes aflame with hideous green light, rattling with unspeakable energy in its cage of damnation, its lips trying—vainly—to say the secret it could not tell me, so long ago.

So Patrick of Old Town, that’s what I would get for your son. The monstrous disembodied head of famous columnist Mike Royko, its eyes on fire, its mouth gibbering the unspeakable. If we’re lucky, maybe your son will post that unspeakable secret on his tumblr, before committing himself, you, and your entire family to the flames. When he does, please send me the link at rkogan@tribune.com.

Our last email comes from Teresa Vasquez of Humboldt Park. It reads,

Dear Kogan’s Christmas Corner,

I’m a landlord. Last Christmas my tenants, young artist types, surprised me with an elaborate blown-glass nativity scene they’d made themselves. It was way over-the-top and not my style—still, I feel I should reciprocate somehow this year. Any ideas for appropriate stocking stuffers?


Teresa, the year was 1998 and I was skeet shooting in Back of the Yards with Del Close.

We were standing on the roof of St. Joseph’s Church on Hermitage and 48th, I had a modified Mossburg model 500 shotgun I’d bought in a pawn shop downstate and Del had a fancy Browning BT-99 that Harold Ramis had given him as a gag gift for IO’s 15th anniversary. We were firing at clay discs about 5 inches in diameter, 2 inches thick, each emblazoned with a satanic emblem Del had designed himself and arranged to have thrown from launchers operated by the syndicate of homeless wizards and IO team members Del kept at his beck and call, but to tell you the truth I just wasn’t feeling it.

I hadn’t slept in days.

My life had become a waking nightmare.

Every morning, I open my refrigerator door for milk for my Cracklin’ Oat Bran, and there he is, between the Mott’s applesauce and last night’s doggy bag from Ruth’s Chris—the disembodied head of Mike Royko, gibbering. I go to work, I open my desk drawer, and there is he is, between my unfinished novel and a boxed set of the best of Richard Marx, the disembodied head of Mike Royko, shrieking hideously. I take the Red Line and look out the window and there he is, between Grand and Lake, Mike Royko’s head floating in the darkness, his eyes flaming, following me home, floating over my bed all through the night, glowing in the blackness, staring at me with his flaming eyes, and now he is here, I see him coming right at me, out of the sky, his mouth opens with an unholy gabbling, I shriek, I fire the shotgun—and in an explosion of light, Mike Royko’s demonic head disintegrates into dozens of rotten chunks, splatters all around me, and yet simultaneously expands into a massive glowing cloud, envelops me, enters me, I shriek, “What have I done, oh what have I, Rick Kogan, done? What have I done, Eli, Eli, Lama sabachthani?”

I looked around. Del was gone. The homeless wizards, gone. The IO teams were playing zip-zap-zop in front of some confused, unhappy schoolchildren. I was alone on the roof of the church, in the evening’s gloaming. I signaled to Audrey Niffenegger, and she brought around my rickshaw. As I watched Niffenegger’s magnificent porcelain shoulders flex, pulling my rickshaw up Ashland, I realized that Mike Royko was not trying to tell me a secret, but ask me a question—a question, I now knew, that had entered deep inside me—slid inside my guts as ineluctably as cold iron—and turned some secret lock, opened some horrible door—I whispered, “Mike?”

There was no reply but the cold wind coming off of Lake Michigan.

So Teresa, for a stocking stuffer might I suggest the demonic severed head of Mike Royko, a disembodied skull that will haunt you every day, looming around every corner, following you down every street—always present but chillingly unseen—asking you the question no man dare answer. You can pick it up from me directly, free of charge. Drop me a line at rkogan@tribune.com.

The question . . .

Rick Kogan. Born in Chicago. Rick Kogan, raised in Chicago. Rick Kogan, more than 5000 bylines in the Tribune. 8 books by Rick Kogan, Rick Kogan Chicago’s Best Reporter 1999, Rick Kogan Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame 2003—

And after all that, to have my life be the subject of a dippy comedy bit by some no-name jagoff, read to a bunch of drunks grab-assing at the Green Mill on a Saturday afternoon—

My generation, we were giants! Our Chicago was real! What did you do last night—see some crappy band at the Empty Bottle and then vomit into someone’s mouth while you’re making out with them at the Continental? I DID IT FIRST, IN ’76, BUT OUR CONTINENTAL WAS JUST A BUNCH OF POTATO CHIP BAGS BEING BLOWN ABOUT BY THE WIND IN A VACANT LOT, and I was vomiting into the mouth of a bicurious Gary Sinise.

I don’t know. Sometimes I think the disembodied head of Mike Royko is right. We live our lives, some of us might become slightly famous, and yet after you’re dead, 20, 30 years—no one remembers you. I’ve watched them all go. Algren. Royko. Studs. Ebert. Ann Landers. We’re all just sliding down the drain together, holding on to each other the best we can as we slip into a fiery pit. Kind of like that scene at the end of Toy Story 3. My daughter Fiona watched it the other day. Scared the shit out of her.

Scares the shit out of me, too.

If you want to talk about it, drop me a line at rkogan@tribune.com.

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