Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts

Friday, November 17, 2017

Appreciating Stylishness

There are even mountain bikers who ride with a certain stylishness, although they are not as stylish as horsemen. There is no need to watch a video of myself on a bike -- it can simply be assumed that I ride with no stylishness whatsoever.

This topic interests me perhaps because an appreciation of stylishness has developed so late in life. It snuck up on me.  Blame the horse opera DVDs I watch at night as a sleeping pill. They make everybody and every horse look so glamorous.

A female rider always has long hair streaming behind her, blowing in the wind.  Male riders are prone to high jumping onto the horse, without bothering with the stirrups. Or they ride with their upper body canted at a slight angle, to make them look more jaunty and confident.

The limiting case of this is Gary Clarke ("Steve"), one of the stars of the first couple years of "The Virginian." He would jump up vertically from the ground, and somehow insert his boot into the stirrup on the way up. I would like to see a blooper reel of the times he missed. 

The saddles and horse blankets of the horses are always gorgeous. And sometimes it seems as though the mane and tail of the horse were actually wigs.

But there are other examples of unbearably delightful stylishness. The actresses wore spectacular "Victorian" costumes on "The Virginian." One guest star on the same show had the sort of figure that most male sexist pigs couldn't take their eyes off of. But an above-average pig might have noticed her unusual voice, or rather, vocal delivery.

Perhaps the explanation for this appreciation is that repeated watching of a show or movie causes the viewer to ignore the story, dialogue, or suspense. This results in a type of vacuum, which the viewer then fills with their imagination. And it moves onto other things.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Another Tourist Asking for Trouble

I was becoming inured to tourists drowning their brand new $50,000 motor vehicles in our neighborhood river. So perhaps it was a good thing that the young woman showed up at the campground and asked about how to get to her friend's remote location higher up in the mountains.

There was only an hour of daylight left, the usual time for tourists to get organized enough to do foolish things.  She had a text message, but no map. She was driving a low clearance, passenger car. I didn't quite know the place her message named, but I was suspicious. Back in my trailer, I looked up the place on one of my smartphone apps. It was as I feared. 

Did she have much of a chance to get there? There wouldn't be any car repair places open tomorrow, Sunday. She had already lost cellphone reception. Had her friend made it to that location because they had a high clearance car? 

A tourist can be so foolish and get away with it because  -- and only because -- they have cellphone reception and a credit card. I'll bet that young woman didn't know how to change a tire, and that she was not equipped with warm clothing, a tow rope, a can of expanding tire sealant, or jumper cables.

Her notions of safety and normalcy were totally dependent on that delicate tendril of communication to a cell tower, and she had already lost that.

Or was I just being an elderly worry-wart? Would somebody else come to her aid? Young women do have advantages when it comes to getting assistance from a stranger. 

I admit to feeling a foolish male urge to chase after her and help her out of the mess she was working so hard to get in to. But I pushed the urge away: this summer has taught me not to expect too much from people who need to be rescued. In fact she would probably resent my interference.

So all I could do was sigh in resignation, and think of an image from the beginning of "The Wizard of Oz," when Dorothy is running away from home, and she encounters the kind-hearted old carnival man. He cons her into returning home. As she leaves, he looks up at an approaching storm, and says, "Poor kid. I hope she makes it."

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Dog's Purpose, A Woman's Purpose

On our bicycle ride to town my dog and I have crossed paths several times with an older female jogger. What a tough ol' gal! An ideal observer would let someone like her inspire them, and then write a nice little sermon about her.

But I needed a little more. About 50 yards behind her, ran her even frailer old dawg. There is something about him that produced a lump in my throat. 

What was he thinking about? He looked so frustrated and disappointed, now that he can no longer keep up with his human -- and she is pretty frail herself. Was he thinking about a few years ago, when he was a still spry 10 year old dog, and she was a 70 year old "girl", and they were knocking off the trails one after another?

What kind of life had they had together? And now it was winding down.  

Perhaps the reader has seen that wonderful new movie directed by Lasse Hallström, "A Dog's Purpose." In the movie, a dog lives with his humans for awhile, ages or dies, and is reincarnated into a new doggie life.

How would the tough old broad jogger and her struggling dog fit into an episode of that movie?

A couple days ago someone interrupted my siesta with a knock on the door. A hiker had just come off the main trail, where he saw a couple women trying to rescue an emaciated dog. He took a photograph with his smartphone of the location. I got busy finding the phone numbers of local animal rescue organizations.

Then another hiker gave her version of the story: that two woman had gotten the dog to come to them, and they were carrying it down the trail, for a mile or so. The dog was a brown labrador, and weighed 30 or 35 pounds. I asked if I should get the wagon I had been given for heavy work, and see if I could get it across the river, so the women wouldn't have to keep carrying the dog.

Off I went with the wagon. By the time I got to the river, the two women and the dog had crossed the river. They had been taking turns carrying this dog in their arms, for the last mile. The poor young female dog looked even more tired than the women.

Although I was disappointed to end up being useless, there was something significant and meaningful about what these two women had done. In a way, my involvement would have detracted from their experience. 

They had started a hike with no real result in mind other than a standard, meaningless, touristic experience. They had ended up having an experience about as satisfying and primal as it could be. What could be more natural and fundamental than a female of any animal species protecting and nurturing life, especially young life?

The dog's owner's phone number was on its collar. Soon he was there. The brother of the young female dog had managed to make it into our campground, on his own power. So now the owner had both of his dogs back. They had gone AWOL at a campground five miles away, with a huge mountain in between. They had been missing for five days.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Lone Rider of Chinatown Wash

My dog was giving off an unusual bark at the screen door. Although it wasn't such a great idea, I let her charge out towards whatever or whoever was bothering her. It was a pretty, half-white horse and its human 'operator.' They were moving towards us on a mountain bike single-track trail. (Actually it is for other non-motorized users, too.)

I apologized to the horseman for my dog's barking, but neither he nor his horse seemed concerned. I guess they'd seen a dog or two in their day. They walked up to about one body-length from me, and calmly 'parked' themselves.

Just to put the reader into a Western mood.

I felt an instant affinity for the man and horse, perhaps because I too am a lone rider on the same trails, albeit with a dog and mountain bike, instead of a horse.

I watch DVDs of TV westerns these days; "The Virginian" in particular. Horses always look so big in the show. But here the horse looked smaller. His eyes were even with mine. Of course they were three or four times as large. The horse stared calmly at me the whole time.

People are always getting thrown from their horses in western shows, caught in the stirrups, and then dragged. Looking at the rider and horse in front of me, I wondered why modern horsemen didn't have a stirrup "safety release," like a mountain biker or skier.

The rider didn't even look that high in the saddle. Recently the ride looked so high when Jena Engstrom mounted the horse in an episode of the Virginian. I fell in love with her riding. She even did her own stunts, once falling off the horse. (And you could see her face -- it was no stunt-girl.) She had to lift her foot up to shoulder height to get on her horse. I almost laughed when comparing it to long-legged Chuck Connors's style of mounting a horse.

Then I peppered the rider with questions about saddle-making, bits, reins, etc. He didn't roll his eyes at my city-slickerish ignorance. He patiently answered the questions, and really seemed to enjoy it. He even gave a demonstration of his horse-handling techniques.

It was late afternoon, getting towards dusk. Finally he needed to get going. His wife was waiting on the main gravel road with the horse trailer and pickup truck. His wife didn't ride with him anymore. She had been thrown twice in one year, and she was, after all, 80 years old. He was 84. Something about that fact was soothing. America seemed basically OK if there were people like them still around.

Moments like this bring on nostalgia for a West that has mostly passed, but not completely. Recall the ending of Jack Schaefer's "Shane:"
"...the man who rode into our little valley out of the heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done rode back whence he had come and he was Shane."
But even better than his evanescence into western myth, look at this photo of Chinatown Wash, just as it hits a high, dry waterfall. Thenceforth the canyon is dark and vertical. The slow trickling-down of the Present abruptly becomes fatality and the Past...

And "what was corporeal, vanished, as breath into the wind..."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Moab Is Hopeless, But Is That So Bad?

Is there something cheerful to think about when you are in Moab, UT? Let's be playful and take it as a challenge. (And no, red rock scenery doesn't count.) So far I am drawing blanks...

1.  And yet look at all the people milling around town: they seem pleased to be here. They must be doing something right. Enjoying Moab vicariously seems like the only approach that might pay off.

To fail at this completely is still good news, if it helps me to appreciate novelists and scriptwriters. This could be a big deal to me. Just think how good they must be at putting themselves into other people's 'shoes' in order for their novel or script to be the least bit interesting!

2. Quite separate from the angle of vicarious enjoyment, there is a second approach that ties in with the book I am reading, by Siedentop. Why did early Christians choose Hope as one of their cardinal virtues? I think it is pernicious. It only leads to disappointment and disillusionment.

I came to Moab without any hope whatsoever. Therefore there is nothing to lose. It's a genuinely peaceful and secure feeling. Somehow Moab may be tricked into surprising me on the up-side.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Classic Television

Chalk up another one for "all things are possible in this ol' world of ours." I am going to praise television in this post. Not all television, of course. Only classic television. I ask the reader not to quibble over what exactly is classic television, and why I should be the judge of it. 

Let it suffice to recall the proverbial supreme court justice, who, when asked to define pornography, could only reply, "Well, maybe I can't define it, exactly. But I can recognize it when I see it." What is true of porn is even more true of "classics."

How did this strange new appreciation even happen? More classic television shows are available on DVDs, these days. I wouldn't watch them with commercials.

Perhaps it was listening to (director) Sidney Lumet's commentary track on the DVD of "Network."  He reminisced about the early days of television, when shows were performed in front of live audiences, on stages in New York City. They had a deep reservoir of talented actors and writers to draw on. Then the TV industry moved to southern California, and the laugh track was invented.

Since I watch DVDs primarily to fall asleep, I decided that dialogue-intensive, low budget television was a better medium than eye-candy-intensive, high-production-value movies.

So then, which show do you choose first? Remember, 'classic' does not necessarily mean old, famous, or popular. I chose "The Rifleman," and was immediately pleased and impressed. It was one of the first shows to use a widowed father, with the obvious advantage of permitting plot possibilities. Chuck Connors had a rugged, athletic presence on the screen that exceeded most Hollywood western stars, who were usually un-tough 'pretty boys' with big hair. 

The son, played by Johnny Crawford, was still young enough to be a cute kid; he was also the best boy-actor I know of, and a great horsemen. They gave this 11-year-old squirt a full-sized horse to ride. He had to practically high jump up to the stirrup. He could dismount when the horse was still moving.

I was overwhelmed by the moral decency in these episodes of "The Rifleman." Modern television shows are pure trash, by comparison. The "center held" in America in 1958. The politics was not as polarized. There was a certain amount of consensus about basic values that you could agree to, whether you were Democrat or Republican.

Today it only takes a code-word or two from somebody's mouth before you decide you have nothing to say to them.

The guest starts were amazingly versatile: Peter Whitney, Dabs Greer, Whit Bissell, and Royal Dano. I never before appreciated how the television program format has an advantage that movies lack: movies give so much screen time to the star, and yet, I typically enjoy the performance of the supporting actors more than that of the star.

Television inverts that: the so-called star becomes a bit bland due to his over-exposure, and he soon recedes to the background. The real star of each episode is the 'guest star.'

And then there are the women guest stars:  Joanna Moore, Patricia Blair, Julie Adams, Patricia Barry, Christine White... all of them outrageously beautiful women in their thirties. Here again, television added 'value': such women would have been neglected by the movie industry, which is always trying to discover the next hot new starlet. But the female guest stars on television were better and more experienced actresses in their thirties. 

At first I was surprised by "The Rifleman" being in black-and-white. But of course color television was not yet mainstream in 1958. I vaguely remember the famous opening shot and theme song of this classic show. It actually occurred a couple years before 'my time.'  How ideal! Something that is only half-remembered is imbued with a glamor, romance, and nostalgia.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

John Wayne's "Advice" to Travelers

Some time ago I mentioned that I had little appreciation for John Wayne's performances, other than as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit". A commenter or two agreed.

Perhaps it was the roles and the writing more than his acting. To me, he merely had some mannerisms, such as the funny walk, and verbal trademarks: "Tryin' don't get it done, Mister!", "Ready? I was born ready", "Sorry don't get it done", etc.

So it came as quite a surprise when I watched his "Hondo", and saw him actually doing something useful. He was working as a ferrier, getting the coals and horseshoes hot, and banging the horseshoes on an anvil. He appeared quite expert at these operation, too, not that I could really tell. But it was gratifying to at least see him pretending to make a living as a cowboy, instead of just looking tall in the saddle, having shoot-outs, and talking macho.

This seemed important. I've been at this full-time RV lifestyle for 19 years now. Long ago I renounced the attitude of a city tourist looking for pretty scenery, and have always been on the lookout for ways to make the lifestyle seem more authentic and interesting on a long-term basis.

For instance, when a guy goes mountain biking, what makes it seem authentic rather than just an activity for weekend warriors from the big city? That question is certainly timely, because the winter social-hiking season is over now, and the mountain biking season has started again. (Hiking is just too hot over 50 F.)

A local told me that a certain road we had once hiked has been graded, and is nice and smooth. Such events are rare, and deserve to be seen as small miracles. So off we went. (I thought of John Wayne's dog in "Hondo".) And indeed the dirt road was pleasantly smooth.

Something unusual came around the bend: a man on a mule. He was surrounded by a pack of eight hounds, each with a GPS antenna sticking out of their brain. He was dressed in kit that would have made John Wayne envious: a great Western hat, leather chaps, some kind of vest, and a six-shooter on his side. Even though these things sound a bit kitsch, they looked good on him. Maybe it was because they were dirty. They looked useful, authentic.

We talked for five minutes before I noticed he had his quarry strapped to the back of the mule. He was a hunter and a rancher. He also did some guiding for rich city-slickers -- hence the clothing. As always, I tried to earn the respect of guys like this by asking some halfway-intelligent questions. The trick is to put entertainment and prettiness aside, and treat nature as a serious and potentially dangerous business. But such guys see mountain biking as a city slicker sport, so it took some persistence to earn his respect.

And as always with these guys, he had some tall tales, which I listened to, eagerly. It's funny ain't it? Suburban coffee-table-book sentimentalist environmentalists think there is something holy about endangered species. Non-human species, that is. But I would rather see people and their vanishing way of life as precious. Like that man and his mule.

Back in the day... at 15 years of age, the Little Cow-puncher still cast a long shadow across the golden West.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Taking Sensual Pleasures to a Higher Level

The other day, I sat out on the porch of the "Chatterbox" cafe. It was noon on an unseasonably warm day. Already I felt a mild dread about warm weather returning, and on top of that, I was drinking hot coffee.  But the porch was shaded. The gentle breeze felt so cool and reassuring.

Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that I would pop my insulated bib overalls on and lie out on the 'patio' (ramp) of my cargo trailer, with it facing the still-valid Arizona sun. Then, I was asking relief from the wintry air. 

These two experiences were as pleasant as they could be. They were mirror images of each other. Today's pleasure was even more piquant because of the contrast with the oh-so-recent mirror image.

But the pleasure didn't stop there. Recently I posted about the visual metaphor from "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," with the ugly Creature swimming upside down while stalking the beautiful girl swimming on top of the water, with the sunlight rippling the surface. [*] (The camera was underneath the water, looking upwards.)

With this visual image in mind, the experience was transported to a higher level -- from the purely sensual to the aesthetic realm. This made a noticeable difference. I'm glad that I've finally come to appreciate, and actively shop for, visual metaphors from the movies. It is possible to find examples from the world of cartoons or even sculpture.

What a shame that visual metaphors are so hard to find in the world of (still) photography! It may be possible that many photographers don't even know that they are supposed to aspire to visual representations of ideas or fundamental components of the human condition. 

[*] As usual, lots of good movie trivia is available at

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Other World Under the Glistening Winter Desert

Just about everybody has had a powerful, subjective experience -- say, an automobile accident or illness -- and then been crushed by the indifference of their listeners. Usually the listener starts squirming away in just a few seconds, even if they know you quite well.

And yet I persist in using odd, and rather subjective, experiences as the starting points of personal essays. It still seems like a good idea, as long as I move briskly away from the anecdote to seek out the more General.

The oddest such experience of recent days was getting a glimpse into the world underneath a Quartzsite RV dump. The winter sun is low in the desert. It almost glistens off the desert pavement. The air is chilly. The desert seems so clean: no bugs or creepie-crawlies. Perhaps that is what made the experience memorable: first, surprise; and thirdly, the contrast with the world above ground. And 'secondly'? Ahh yes...

It took several seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. You think you see something, but you aren't sure. During that time, the Imagination runs riot. This is the origin of a human's appreciation of so many things: religion, poetry, metaphysics, hope during revolutions, fears about the future consequences of important decisions we are making at the time.

Recall your Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: 

"In reality a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever." 

"A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea."

“Whatever is fitted to excite the ideas of pain and danger, whatever is terrible, is a source of the sublime; that is, it produces the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling."
The idea of a shadowy netherworld is quite universal. It manifests itself in so many ways:

1. Children playing, and sometimes doing nasty little things because they 'fly under the radar screen' of the adult world.

2. The great appeal of gangster movies, gunslinger cowboys, or pirates.

3. The shadowy truth that lurks under the trivial chirpiness of normal, socially acceptable conversation. Important things lie hidden, like the proverbial iceberg.

4. 'The rest of the story' about that used car, after listening to the 'positive thinking' of the salesman.

5. The rest of the story about so many things. The politician yammers endlessly, but what is the real angle? What are they really trying to pull off? Who is pulling the strings behind the scenes?

6. You've just had a great piece of luck, or a great success. What ironic disaster is setting up in the background...right then... to nail you a year later?

I've gradually learned to appreciate classic visual representations of ideas. Creating these opportunities is what a real photographer should do. I got a chance to enjoy a classic image of the Underworld for the first time: the famous scene from the "Creature from the Black Lagoon." The camera was under the water, looking up at a beautiful girl swimming. The commentary track mentioned that the girl was a body double (stand-in) for Julie Adams.

Julie Adams, from
Why they would need a body-double or an anything-double for Julie Adams, I cannot fathom. Perhaps she wasn't a good swimmer.

The camera showed the Creature swimming up to the girl on top, while imitating her swimming stroke, and getting closer...and closer. Remember that they were wearing three-dimensional glasses in the movie theaters at that time.

The last classic image of the Underworld, I can not show you, and wouldn't even if I could. Much of the action of Carol Reed's "The Third Man", a film noir classic, takes place chasing through the underground sewers of Vienna. At the end of the movie, one of the characters is shot in those sewers just before he could escape. His fingers reach up through the sewer grate, wiggling, weakening, like dying worms.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Doing Serious Things In an Un-Serious Way

Wasn't there a best-selling book of the 'self help' type, several years ago, with a title like "Everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten?" I never read it. Perhaps it referred to the fact that most people agree with many of the general principles and proverbs that are supposed to guide you in living your life. But the trouble is in the applications...

...or rather, putting the moral platitudes into practice. I don't think the main problem is intellectual; rather, it is the inability of a cliché to engage our imaginations and to motivate us to alter our behavior. That is why I was excited about the consequences of failing at reading Dostoevsky for the umpteenth time: for the first time in my life I became wildly appreciative of the principle of doing serious things in a not-so-serious way.

This is not a new idea of course. Essentially it is equivalent to Walt Disney's "whistle while you work" song in one of his animated classics. But what a difference it is to breathe life into an old principle, and to make it yours.

Usually it is 'suffering' or dire necessity that brings a platitude to life for me. I can't think of a better topic to write about on a personal blog. But what if the personal experience that brought the platitude to life for me is uninteresting and useless to the reader?

One possible solution is to move the general principle to a more universal context, such as a classic movie or book. Many readers have probably seen or heard about the award-winning movie "Amadeus", made back in the 1980s. Personally, I never appreciated Mozart's music until I saw this wonderful movie, despite being a classical music and opera fan for many years before the movie.

Apparently this happened to many people. To some, listening to Mozart is something you do only when it is homework. Imagine a BBC or NPR program on Mozart: a professor of Musicology or History of the Movies would talk at the camera. A bald, middle-aged, white guy with glasses, lecturing the camera. How exciting! He would bore you with a thousand-and-one historical facts about Mozart and his times, or the technicalities of music, etc. He would condescendingly tell you what the consensus of the experts is, about Mozart. The word 'genius' would be used 15 times. And you would change the channel.

But in the play and the movie, Mozart is presented less as a historical personage than as an object of envy to his rival, Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. (His old man/young Salieri performance is the best I have ever seen in the movies.) 

Before a musical performance there was food, drink, and talk. During this, Salieri tried to guess which young fellow actually was Mozart. The answer astonished Salieri. Salieri then acted out the music that Mozart conducted. I think that this performance (and the writing behind it) converted me to Mozart, once and for all.

Throughout the movie, the viewer is delighted with humor and wit, and visual scenes. The historical buildings in Prague were gorgeous and authentic. Or consider the late 18th century costumes: for male chauvinist pigs there was ample decolletage in the women's dresses, sometimes to the point of making the woman look like toothpaste squirting out the top of the dress. For fools like me, there is a scene between Mozart and dogs! Even the kiddies looked cute in their little 18th century costumes, and I am not prone to calling children cute.

The music was well chosen. Even better, it was made visual: Mozart's operas were featured so the viewer could see something. Just think how easy it would have been to let the camera rest on an orchestra of musicians sawing away on their instruments. Could anything have been more boring?

Thus, every trick of trade was used to delight the movie viewer with Mozart's music. He wasn't homework anymore! That is a significant and serious addition to a person's life, and yet it was accomplished in a delightful way.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Benefits of Enjoying a Not-So-Great Movie

Last episode I went boldly into the present by buying my first Blu-Ray disc. Disappointed as I was by the technology itself, I at least had the pleasure of seeing a pretty good movie, "Rio Bravo" (1959), directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Dean Martin, John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and Angie Dickinson.

As usual John Wayne did not interest me. The Dmitri Tiomkin score was a disappointment. But Dean Martin's acting was surprisingly good! Then of course, there was the wonderful Walter Brennan. I think he is my role model as a cranky tough old goat. Give me a couple more years.

Male sexist pigs will be able to tolerate Angie Dickinson, then in her twenties. Next to Brennan, she was my favorite character. Here is a photo as she appeared in character, at the end of the movie:

It was so refreshing to see a beautiful female character who doesn't take herself so seriously. She was no fool; she knew the effect she had on men. But she had a nonchalant sense of humor about it. Normally, everybody around such a woman seems obsessed with her, which causes me to dislike them and her. Here that didn't happen. She acted a bit like a girl who grew up with four brothers, and who knew how to talk back to them, and smack 'em around if they needed it. 

As I watched and enjoyed this movie, I realized I was no longer bothered by stories that didn't interest me, or by dialogue that was flat. It's as if I were decomposing the movie into its component parts, and shrugging off the components that were losers, while consciously dwelling on the good components. (Extra credit points to any reader who can supply the pertinent parable from Ben Franklin's Autobiography-- something about a good leg and a shriveled leg.)

This is an idea that everybody thinks about from time to time. For some people, decomposition is an entrenched habit. They derive great benefits from it. Do they even think about what they are doing, or do they just do it automatically, because of their temperament? Or maybe they are unconsciously imitating somebody else. 

But for some people like me, decomposition is not a really strong habit. On top of that, it is inherently difficult to decompose people, jobs and other important situations into good and bad components, and shrug off the bad if there isn't anything to do about it right away.  These big and important problems can seem like one gigantic monolithic block that impedes our way.  We get angry at the mighty Monolith, and charge into it, as if we can conquer it just by butting heads with it. Instead, we should have learned to sneak around it, or erode it with water and chemicals, or find a crack in the Monolith and tap at this crack until it easily breaks.

In contrast, it is pretty easy to decompose a movie. Sometimes an intellectual or philosophical idea, no matter how obvious it is or how much we agree with it, just doesn't alter our behavior. We benefit from a visual representation of the idea. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Retro-Grouch's Bold Leap Forward

Who says there is no drama in the life of a retro-grouch? Every now and then, the retro-grouch finally decides to give in on something that 99% of the population gave in on, years ago. There is a gravitas and honour to this ritual.

How many years has it been (?) since Sony tried suckering the world into more expensive Blu-Ray discs, rather than perfectly adequate DVD discs, which are excellent when played in an up-converting DVD player.

It was probably ye olde "Give 'em the razor -- sell 'em the blades" business model. Oddly enough, many of the customers resisted this trap. Why pay twice as much for a Blu-Ray disc, when up-converting DVD players and HDMI televisions produced excellent results?

But over the last decade, DVD players became cheap throw-aways. They are as noisy as a lawnmower, to the point of distracting the viewer from the movie. Also, Walmart started putting inexpensive Blu-Ray discs in a bin. I reasoned that Blue-Ray players must be built to better tolerances, and with better components. Thus I finally surrendered to 'progress.'

But what would be the first movie that I bought for this new Blu-Ray player? Only 1 out of 50 movies in Walmart's cheapie bin is worth getting. I always look for classics or at least semi-classics. Howard Hawks's "Rio Bravo" seemed the best I could do.

When I popped it into the Blu-Ray player, my retro-grouchery was immediately validated: I couldn't tell much difference between a Blu-Ray and an up-converted DVD disc. So I was wise to hold off for years and years.

But at least the movie pleased me. More on that later.

But say, this is the Nth time in my life that retro-grouchery has proven beneficial. Why doesn't everybody do it?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Television's Unrealized Potential

Perhaps it is easy to admire someone with a talent that you yourself have no pretensions to. Envy doesn't intrude. And if they live and work far, far away from your own milieu, then the capacity for romanticizing kicks in.

That must explain some of my admiration for a certain stage actor who stars in one of the episodes of Star Trek that I fall asleep to on many a night. He was John Colicos, a Canadian stage actor who also had a Hollywood career. He plays the first Klingon in Star Trek (the first season episode, "Errand of Mercy.")

It is almost a good thing that the story doesn't interest me that much. Nor does the outdoor scenery --  there were no Trona Rocks in this episode; it was shot almost entirely on stage. Nor is there an alien hottie to be romanced by Captain Kirk, as there usually was. No distractions. Nothing but that remarkably nuanced voice of Mr. Colicos. He could have read the telephone white pages and made it sound interesting.

Although his character didn't really say anything profound, he was a charming villain. It really is the villain that makes the story.

Commentary tracks on DVDs are developing as a new medium right in front of our eyes these days. Once I was listening to Sidney Lumet on the commentary track of "Network." He expressed the greatest respect and appreciation for the writer, the late Paddy Chayefsky. 

He also reminisced about the early days of television, which was largely "live" television, produced in New York City. At the time I thought he was just doing an old-man-nostalgia thing, or looking at the issue from the prejudices of a theatre-oriented, New York City local yokel. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe he was right.

Imagine working in live television in New York City in the early 1950s. Television was unshaped, unrealized. But anyone could see how important it would become: a TV set in every household in America, just the thing that had happened to automobiles, radio, and so many other things. There are always such high hopes when a new and big project is started. (Before reality sinks in.)

New York City had a deep pool of talented theatre actors, directors, set designers, musicians, and writers. Only a few would become stars. The rest waited on tables at restaurants most of the time. Now, suddenly, there was more employment; not a great part on the TV show perhaps, but at least a chance to practice their craft and be exposed to a wider circle of directors and producers.

The world of theatre was available to a few ten-thousands of people living in large cities and with large incomes. Television was reaching the millions. It must have been an exciting time of great optimism. 

Look at the advantages television had over live theatre, with its need to reach the back row, its goofy makeup, the over-acting, and the stentorian vocal delivery. Television had multiple cameras that could zoom in; everybody in the audience had a great view.

Movies tend to be a visual medium. The star is actually the Director, then the beautiful leading actors and actresses, the camera itself, and in modern times, the computer-generated special effects.  But try naming three important scriptwriters in the movies!

On the stage, the playwright is the star. Television lends itself to the same quality. Whether heralded or not, the television writers were the real stars. Usually writers are rather unglorified, but Star Trek credits start off with the writer first and in the biggest letters. Does any reader know whether this was rather unique? Is the emphasis on good scriptwriting the key to its anomalous longevity and success? 

Talented and imaginative writers, great lines, less camera-worship, and actors like John Colicos; and all available virtually for free to the whole world. What television could have been!

And what will the generation-to-come think of those of us who experienced the naive and optimistic salad days of the early internet?

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Lure of Incomplete Information

If only I had a nickel for every time somebody said, "Buying a DVD doesn't make much sense, because once I've seen the movie, it isn't interesting anymore." They are correct of course if they are thinking purely in terms of how the story turns out.

But I prefer to ignore that issue and focus on identifying classic lines from classic movies. These become philosophical building blocks, comparable to Aesop's Fables, famous quotes and speeches from Shakespeare and the Bible, and the proverbs of folk wisdom.

The same thing can be said of classic jokes. For example, consider one of Jack Benny's, from the days of Radio: menacing footprints are heard approaching, as he is walking down the sidewalk at night. It  turns out to be a mugger. The mugger tells Benny, "Your money or your life." There is a long pause after that. Benny finally blurts out, "I'm thinking about it!"

There was a joke similar in spirit in Sydney Pollack's mid-1990s remake of Billy Wilder's "Sabrina." Harrison Ford played the money-making ogre. After his playboy-younger-brother is taken to the emergency room after sitting down on glass champagne flutes, the Harrison Ford character tells a business associate and doctor about it, on the telephone:

Doctor on the other end of the phone, unheard by the audience: " ... "
Harrison Ford: "Uhhm we have no idea. Mother thinks the glass flutes were left on the chair by some guest."
Unheard response on the other end of the phone: " ... "
Harrison Ford: "He's not going to sue his own mother."
Another unheard response.
Harrison Ford: "Well he's not me."

No matter how many times I rewatch this movie I always laugh at this joke. This seems odd, because I hardly ever laugh at the lame jokes of movies and television. 

What both jokes have in common is incomplete communication -- the audience must fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Without that trick, the joke wouldn't be all that funny.

But now that you mention it, isn't that the trick that increases our enjoyment of many things? I recently had someone, not terribly experienced at RV boondocking, email me for a list of camping sites in southwestern Colorado. I tried to convince him that being spoon-fed a list of such places would detract from his pleasure, since it depends of the effort of finding the campsites. Once again, it is incomplete information that creates mystique, fear and doubts, drama, and ultimately, triumph. Sure, I could have given him fairly complete information, but that would have reduced him to a passive consumer -- his opportunity to be an honest adventurer would have been destroyed.

I return to this part of Colorado (Gunnison) every year. There are no famous tourist traps right here, although they are close. The big peaks are visible, but off in the distance. There is a mildness to the sagebrush hills in the foreground that lends itself to dispersed camping and non-technical mountain biking.

It takes effort to bring my camera along on mountain bike rides, because this landscape -- that I love the crap out of -- isn't vertical enough for standard gee-whiz internet postcards, as if the world really needs any more of them, anyway. Sunrise and sunset are the only times when the camera does this land justice. But I don't really care, I'm not living for the camera.

A lonely Gibraltar of decomposing granite, set amongst a vast sagebrush sea... how's that for purple prose, befitting the travel blogosphere?
Once again I think it is the incompleteness, the subtlety, of this landscape that affects me so strongly. I like the big peaks off in the background, rather than having them slosh right into my eyeballs. It is like standing on an ocean shore, and watching the fog lift. Off in the distance an uninhabited island appears...

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why is the Anti-Hero So Important in Classic Movies?

The other night I was re-watching Billy Wilder's classic movie from the early 1950s, "Stalag 17." It is a strange mixture of comedy, detective story, and cynicism. William Holden certainly deserved the Oscar he got for Best Actor.

The commentary track kept talking about how good the comedic supporting actors were. I could not agree: the comedy seemed dated and un-funny. But the anti-hero, played by William Holden, did not seem dated. Why?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

One of Cinema's Greatest Moments

The local library had a DVD copy of the movie "A Room With a View." Since it had been awhile since last seeing it...

In order to fully appreciate a movie like this, you must look at the overall context of movie-making: the money problems, the tastes of the general public, and the 'Media is the Message' syndrome. There is every reason to expect successes to be rare. But they do happen.

There are hundreds of comments on IMDB or Amazon on this movie. I sighed and then quit, after reading one comment that the Puccini musical score "enhanced the movie." Enhanced, indeed. It stole the show!

Now, long-suffering readers are just going to discount this opinion as that of a Puccini fanboy. But in fact I have seen movies exploit the use of operatic scores to little avail. What I am praising here is not Puccini per se, but rather, the re-combination of his music with the right visual and situational context.

To me, the movie's plot was OK, but I don't go gaga over English accents and genteel manners. The love triangle is as cliche-ridden as they get. But it is always fun to see Mediterranean Europe (Catholic, economically backward, chaotic, sensual, and artistic) contrasted with the repressed, more affluent, orderly, drab and colorless, Protestant drudges of northern Europe. Let's call it the north/south European split, for brevity's sake.

In the movie this Split is brought into focus by a masterful combination of eye-candy and ear-candy. The photography is delicious, both in Florence and in the nearby countryside.  But what really caused an explosion of pleasure for me was Puccini's music. It is indeed true that the 'whole is greater than the sum of the parts.'

The climax was 40 minutes into the movie when the uptight English tourists went for a tour in the countryside outside Florence. Something started happening to them, something  unintentional, something that they were powerless to stop. Uptight northern drudges though they may be, they could not resist the living force of landscape and music that imposed itself on them.

 The landscape was one of barley-covered hills, with trees in the background. The music was chosen carefully: the aria started off easily for an audience that presumably does not listen to much opera: it was just a peaceful solo-piano prelude. When the Fat Lady finally sang, she was restrained and soothing; and yet, the audience knew that she could shatter glass anytime she wanted. So as the aria developed, there was suspense, combined with feminine kindliness and grace.

If you have any claim to possessing a soul, you have to be affected by this scene. (grin) 

Why does this matter, especially to a Puccini non-fanboy? Choosing the right music for a movie might be a second-rate skill compared to that of Puccini himself, but 'second-rate' does not mean lowly or unimportant. It is the kind of accomplishment that many of us can understand and therefore aspire to, whereas the accomplishments of a Puccini are too hard to imagine. I can imagine doing something like the music editor did, in various arenas of life. Aren't these humble steps-forward, taken my numerous anonymous people, a big part of the advance of a civilization?  Normally we only think of the gigantic steps of the overtly famous.

Consider the basic form of the music editor's work here:

1. Deconstruction. Removal of the Bad. Identification of the Good. Normally in an opera, magnificent music gets combined with the drivel of some fool of a playwright. Hence love triangles, mistaken identity, revenge, rags-to-riches, True Love overcoming Conventional Love, etc.
2. Appreciation of new potential.
3. Reconstruction. A new combination. Opera is a good idea because instrumental music is combined with the human voice, and with human situations and visual context in the background. In this movie, the background was the Florentine landscape and the story of the North/South split. This is probably a more interesting background than the libretto of the original opera. (I'm not familiar with that of "La Rondine;" but if it was a typical libretto, it was probably idiotic.)

As a consequence of this creative new combination, millions of moviegoers were exposed to the idea that opera was a beautiful thing that they could actually enjoy.  The music-editor's success can be seen as a template-model that millions of people could use in their own lives in any number of ways; so could people who blog. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Movie Recommendation

You may freely admit to giving recommendations of various types to other people, over the course of your life, without feeling too foolish about it. But why does it hardly ever work, whether the recommendations are for movies, books, or blind dates?

That's what pops to mind after watching a movie from the local library, "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman", directed by Ang Lee, who later directed "Sense and Sensibility" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."  "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" is what put his career on the map, I suppose.

But the movie isn't too well known or popular. There are reasons. The only audio choice on the DVD is spoken-Chinese with English subtitles. There is a lot of dialogue, so you have to read the subtitles fast.

From time to time I read movie reviews on Amazon/IMDB. Usually they aren't too helpful, and because there are so many of them, I usually give up. Sigh, that's an old problem in the information biz. Some blabber-mouths tell you too much, and ruin the ending for the prospective audience. Others rehash the plot in detail. (Why?)

It's easier to see what is wrong than to come up with a clear idea of what is right. Perhaps the most useful thing a review can do is to match the mood of a viewer with the movie, because only then will the viewer be receptive. 

There are people who tire of Hollywood movies: their cliches and predictability. Such people want a breath of fresh air. Maybe they are the kind of person who would be an excellent world-traveler, if the budget allowed it. But they might not want to watch a depressing, pseudo-intellectual movie made in Europe, and funded by the Ministry of Culture. For such people, "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" might be just the ticket.

The second best contribution that a review can make is to be convincing! Here, I'm afraid I've trapped the readers. Since I get (undeserved) credit for being anti-woman, a movie has to be something special if it gets me to recommend what is essentially a Taiwanese chick-flick. So the recommendation should count for something.