Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Monday Night Football in Pittsburgh--ceremony of the Terrible Towel Posted by Picasa
The Terrible Towel, an Origin Story

I missed the first half of the Steelers game on Monday Night Football, but even so I doubt I would have seen much of the pre-game ceremonies at Heinz Field honoring the broadcaster Myron Cope on his official retirement.

Although Cope was a local TV and radio broadcaster and civic character, he had an impact on anybody who has seen a Pittsburgh Steelers game in the past thirty years. Because Myron Cope invented The Terrible Towel.

Pittsburgh is a no-nonsense town, where a certain degree of dumb behavior is tolerated but not a lot of non-conformity. That's left up to people like Myron Cope. Pittsburgh projects all its latent rebelliousness on sportscasters and other media figures. Pittsburgh also sticks with what it likes. The news anchors who stay in town for five years usually stay in town for forty years.

Myron Cope is a gravelly voiced character with a strange accent even for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a solid Jewish community that gravitates towards the professions and the arts, and Myron Cope was an anomaly there as well.

Unless you've been in outer space for awhile, you probably know that Pittsburgh loves sports, and above all, the Steelers. The game Monday was on Halloween, but every game is dress-up time in Pittsburgh. There are no rules, except black and gold.

About thirty years ago, on his "Speaking of Sports" segment on TV, Myron Cope waved the first Terrible Towel. Inspired by the babuskas (scarves) that were a staple for working class women in western Pennsylvania, which he said he saw at games (though even then Steelers tickets were pricey and hard to come by, some steelworkers still managed to hang onto their reserved seats, even passing them down through the family), he told his audience, keyed up before a playoff game, that they should bring gold towels to the game and wave them to encourage the Steelers defense and place a hex on the opposing offense.

I saw that broadcast, and I have to tell you I thought he was nuts (not for the first time), and that it was a gimmick that would never work.

Thirty years later the stands are a sea of Terrible Towels, and the Post Gazette is interviewing a guy who is wearing a coat sewn by his grandmother made out of Terrible Towels, which have long since become "official" items that hardcore fans buy, along with their other Steelers gear. That's three generations of Terrible Towel wavers, and counting.

That's tradition. That's show biz. That's Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Flora Severini Kowinski, probably in the late 1940s after her marriage, but perhaps earlier. Posted by Picasa

Flora in the back yard of her parent's home in Youngwood, PA in 1944, about a year before she married my father. Posted by Picasa

Billy (me) and Flora (my mother) in 1948.  Posted by Picasa

The kitchen of the house in Youngwood where my mother grew up. That's her father, my sister Kathy to his right, and my mother, smiling at my sister Debbie. I'm taking the picture. Posted by Picasa

She would have been eighty-five yesterday, on September 13. My mother was born in Italy in 1920, named after the character in a novel my grandmother was reading. My grandmother was one of the few women in her village in the Abruzzi mountains who could read---she read letters for people, and wrote their replies. It's how she found out that another woman had her eye on Ignazio Severini, her intended, who was away at war in the north, the Great War. But that's another story.

Flora came to America with her mother when she was four, and met her father, who'd left Manopello to work in Pittsburgh as a tailor when she was an infant. She grew up in Youngwood, PA, a small western PA railroad town about six miles from the bigger town of Greensburg, where she lived most of her life. She married my father in August 1945. I was born at the end of June in 1946.

So I'm less than a year shy of 60 myself, an age my mother didn't reach. (Her mother, however, passed 85; I took her a birthday cake and lit 85 candles on it---it was in the kitchen in the photo above. It makes quite a fire.) Flora died in 1974, after surviving her cancer past the supposed 5 year safety mark.

So you can look at the picture here of the dreamy-eyed young woman in 1944, who doesn't know that at 24 she's got but 30 years left to live. She's lived almost half her life.

After me, two daughters, Kathy in 1950, Debbie in 1954. She knew one granddaughter, Kathy's daughter Christina ; if she'd lived just another decade, she would have known two more: Debbie's daughters, Sarah and Megan.

I can't say when exactly I developed the perspective that would have allowed me to talk with my mother without so much of the freight of parent-child relationship expectations and habits of feeling and thought. But it wasn't fully developed when she was alive. I was smart about some things at 28, and clueless about a lot more. The father-son thing is more complicated, and I may never have gotten out of that dynamic. But I often feel I could have learned a lot and had a better relationship with my mother over these many years.

Not that we had a bad relationship. There just wasn't much perspective in it, at least on my part. So I wonder what it would have been like, to be able to talk to my mother when I was 40 or 50, or now. Apart from what it would bring to the present, there would be a lot of past to talk about, now that I'm more deeply interested in the past, having acquired quite a bit of it.

I would have liked to light 85 candles on her cake. As I say, it makes quite a fire.

Friday, August 05, 2005

"Wild Strawberries" Posted by Picasa
Wild Strawberries and Bergman at 80

Though he was a young man when he started making films, Ingmar Bergman has always been the trademark filmmaker of mortality. The epic battle on the beach with the devil in "The '>Seventh Seal" is famous enough to be routinely parodied, and the intense beauty of "'>Cries and Whispers" is framed in pain and fatality. Even the child in "'>Through A Glass Darkly" seems to be glimpsing mortal lessons as the adults around him pose and flail on their train trip to the end of the line.

But oddly perhaps, his early film concerning an old man is among his most gentle. The Criterion Collection '>DVD of "Wild Strawberries" happens also to include an extended interview with Bergman when he had just passed the age of that film's protagonist. He was a sharp and physically graceful 80 (and this was in 1998. He's gone back to making films since---his latest release was 2003.) Both the movie and the interview turn out to be rather encouraging.

Ingmar Bergman's films were the closest thing to holy writ I can remember from my college days through the early 70s, when I was editing Janet Maslin's review of "Cries and Whispers" for the Boston Phoenix. Because I hadn't seen a "foreign film" until college, I was learning the cinematic vocabulary and syntax by osmosis mostly, and mostly by watching the French New Wave filmmakers, the Italian giants, and Bergman. Partly because the experience of watching Bergman had been conditioned by his reputation as being deep and depressing, I've seldom gone back to those films. But curiosity for what Bergman can tell me now, inspired me to take a look at this DVD of "Wild Strawberries."

"Wild Strawberries" is the story of an eminent 79 year old doctor, who lives alone with his housekeeper, on the day he is to receive a prestigious honorary degree in another city. It opens with a dream and contains several reveries---the kind of thing that became pretty standard on television dramas like "Thirty-something," but was disconcerting in 1957. Even with all these copycats, these scenes in this movie retain their power: they are economical, with not an extra image or a sound, and elegant.

The doctor wakes up from his unusual dream and suddenly decides instead of taking a plane as was planned, he will drive to the ceremony. Then his daughter-in-law appears; she's been staying with him, and asks to come along, since he'll be driving to the city where she lives. Why is she going back to her husband now? Why has she left?

They pick up three young hitchhikers---including the radiant young Bibi Anderssen, who reminds him of a lost love (who she also plays in his reverie). They get involved in a traffic accident, a bickering couple piles into the car, and suddenly we're in another prototype: the road movie.

The group covers a lot of ground in the past and present, and so does the movie, in a compact ninety minutes. But then, it was his 19th film. And he wasn't half done.) In one of his essays on Bergman, Truffaut comments that Bergman's women are "infinitely subtle," while his men "are mere conventions." This film is a rarity in focusing on a male character, played by Victor Sjostrom, a giant of Swedish theater and film who was all but forgotten by the time this movie was made, and he came out of retirement to act in it. Bergman said he did more than that---he took it over. The character was originally based (at least physically) on his father, but the film ceased being Bergman's, he said, and became Sjostrom's. If he meant through the subtle performance and the life he brought to the character, then it was all to the good.

This is an enjoyable film to watch, and there's extra enjoyment in watching it again with the commentary of film scholar Peter Cowie. His commentary has just the right mixture of preparation and spontaneity (as when he comments on how good a particular scene looks on DVD---the film is in glorious black and white.) When Cowie explains how precious the summers are in Sweden, just a few weeks of warmth and sunshine, it helps you feel the power of the imagery, in the professor's recollections of family summers by the sea.

Bergman directing Liv Ullman in "Saraband" 2003 Posted by Picasa
In a greenish patterned shirt with a black sweater vest, Bergman at 80 sat and talked easily with a friend and fellow filmmaker and writer, Jorn Donner, for a 90 minute interview made for Swedish television, and available here for the first time here on this DVD. He spoke about the relationship of his life to his work, elements of his autobiography (especially his exile from Sweden when he felt he was being persecuted by authorities on tax evasion charges that later proved groundless), and about his work habits, and his beliefs.

Harsh parental discipline and formality felt as coldness dominated Bergman's experience of his childhood, as he portrayed in several films. While his older brother survived it through aggressive assertion, he said, he survived it by adopting a persona pleasing to his parents, and by being a liar. "I lied freely and without restraint."

It's remarkably close to what Truffaut said about his own childhood survival technique. "I see life as very hard; I believe one should have a very simple, very crude and very strong moral system," Truffaut said in an interview. " One should say, 'yes, yes,' and do exactly as one pleases. This is why there can't be any direct violence in my films. Already in The 400 Blows, Antoine is a child who never rebels openly. His moral system is more subtle than that. Like me, Antoine is against violence because it signifies confrontation. Violence is replaced by escape, not escape from what is essential, but escape in order to achieve the essential. "

Bergman affirms his continuing relationship to his childhood, which is central to "Wild Strawberries." "The whole of my creativity is finally childish," he says, at age 80. "I can, in a second, go back to my childhood...Anything I've done that's of value [is] a dialogue with my childhood."

It was his fear of death, strongest in his teen years, that led him to write and film "The Seventh Seal," released just before "Wild Strawberries," and which he says exorcised that particular demon.

Bergman writes by hand, on the same kind of thick square yellow pads that were standard issue for screenwriters in Sweden when he started in 1942, but which in later years he had to have specially made. His only concession to change is that he's switched from a fountain pen to a ball-point.

He always begins with notes in workbooks. He fills many for each project. "Workbooks are fun!" By the time he starts writing the script itself, he knows exactly what he wants to do. "It goes quickly, but it's so boring. It goes quickly because it's so boring...The workbooks are the creative process. Scripts are the process of putting it in order." He adheres to a strict schedule: three hours a day, in 45 minute sessions with 15 minute breaks. This is as much ritual as routine, he agrees.

Bergman's tumultuous private life, which got translated into his domestic relationship films, is well known. But his last long marriage of 24 years ended with his wife's death, and he says he survived only by strictly scheduling his day, and finally by forcing himself to write. He has lived alone since, and though he enjoys talking on the telephone, he is comfortable in solitude.

He says he's not religious but is aware of "the possibilities of bigger patterns...I have a lot of ideas about other realities that surround me. I also have the feeling that we're part of an infinitely large pattern, that we never analyze [or] understand. You can feel that sometimes."

But he is sternly practical about his work, which at the time of his interview was mostly as a theatre director (though he'd had a decade of writing many scripts and stories.) Fame doesn't help the next day's work, he says, when he goes to rehearsals with the same prayer: "Let this day go well. Let it be meaningful and let it be alive."

"Let the work be meaningful for those who do it and then also be alive, so that it will live its own life. That's the only thing I'm afraid of---that suddenly the ability to make something living and moving will be taken away from me. I'll no longer know how to do it."

He has that anxiety every time, "the anxiety that what I do won't live." There are many stone dead days, he says, it's the most terrible thing there is. "This is my recurring nightmare."

"I'm a craftsman, and I make a good product. I make a product to be used. I'll be terribly upset if nobody wants to use my product."

The documentary ends with Bergman walking down the beach of his island of Faro, where he lives and the only place he writes. With his walking stick carried more like a sword, his stride is quick and sure, fluid, elegant and full of authority, like Peter O'Toole playing Lawrence or the King of England.

The television movie he made at age 86 is called "Saraband." Some say it's one of his best.

Friday, July 22, 2005

James Garner, Julie Andrews in "The Americanization of Emily"  Posted by Picasa
DVD FRIDAY: The Americanization of Emily

Of all the movies he made, James Garner said this was his favorite. So did Julie Andrews, his co-star. So did James Coburn, who had a more prominent role in many other films than he did in this one.

It was producer Martin Ransohoff's favorite of his movies, and Arthur Hiller's favorite of the many movies he directed. Script writer Paddy Chayevsky, who wrote several classics and an Academy Award winner, said this was one of his two favorite films.

Yet until the newly released DVD, '>The Americanization of Emily had all but disappeared. Perhaps because in many ways it was unclassifiable: a romantic comedy, a war movie, an anti-war movie, or as director Hiller insists, "an anti-the-glorification-of-war movie."

Made in 1964 in black and white, it may have become overshadowed by other more famous films of that era and that style on something like that theme: "Dr. Strangelove," perhaps even "Fail-Safe." Set in World War II, it was more distanced and with a dryer wit than the anti-war war novel of that time, "Catch-22."

But the new DVD reveals its considerable virtues: the eloquent and characteristically Chayevsky script, the fine, committed performances by Garner, Andrews, Coburn and Melvyn Douglas, among others. The rhythms and fluid camera of Arthur Hiller's first major directing job, that managed to make a single movie out of a unique combination of elements.

Hiller's DVD commentary is a great bonus. Producer Ransohoff bought the William Bradford Huie novel of the same title, which was a pretty straightforward romance about an English girl falling in love with an American soldier stationed in England during World War II. At some point he got the idea of asking Chayevsky to write it. Chayevsky flew from New York to Hollywood, and told Ransohoff it really wasn't for him. But on his flight back he thought of a way to do it, and called Ransohoff, explained this very different approach of making the hero a selfish sensualist who despises wartime heroics, but winds up being an accidental hero himself. For some reason, Ransohoff liked it.

Various directors and actors were attached to the project---at one point William Holden was the lead, and James Garner was to play his friend. When Holden dropped out, Garner moved up, and Coburn was added (possibly at the behest of Garner.)
Julie Andrews hadn't done a major movie yet---but she went from this one directly to making "Mary Poppins."

Arthur Hiller was a young and untested director, who got the job when better known directors turned it down. He was pretty nervy for a kid. He insisted on making it in black and white, which the studio opposed, since color films made more money. He set up shots so they were done without cuts, so the studio could slice and dice his film.

Later, Hiller recounts, Ted Turner bought the TV rights and colorized it. Hiller protested loud and long, as did other directors and film buffs. Eventually Turner listened and not only stopped colorizing, he joined Hiller in leading new efforts to preserve America's movie heritage by restoring and preserving endangered films.

This is a quirky, sometimes unsettling but often surprising and always entertaining movie, a real DVD treasure for your weekend viewing.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Before Charlie, Finding Neverland Posted by Picasa
Films About Theatre: A DVD Friday Collection

Supplementing what has become a nightly diet of "Six Feet Under" episodes on DVD (an HBO series we've never seen because we didn't have HBO even when we had cable---we're into the second season now), I rented two movies that just got off the "new" list, and by complete accident they both were films about the theatre (the first two in the list below).

Films about theatre happen to form one of my favorite subgenres, and so these two new additions inspire the first of the DVD Friday lists of personal favorites. All are available on DVD unless otherwise noted, though I haven't yet seen them all on DVD.

1. '>BEING JULIA (2004) From a novel by Somerset Magham, scripted by playwright and theatre explainer Ronald Harwood, this story about a famous but aging actress in London of 1938 is smart, stylish, funny and moving. Annette Benning deserved the Oscar she was robbed of, for this film, and the other performances---from Jeremy Irons to the wonderful Juliet Stevenson to relative newcomers, at least to film in America---are uniformly excellent. And in dealing with youthful ambition (somewhat reminiscent of "All About Eve"-see below) the resolution is wonderfully theatrical.

2. '>FINDING NEVERLAND (2004) Johnny Depp plays J.M Barrie in London as the nineteenth century becomes the 20th, when after his latest play fails he meets the woman and her children who will inspire "Peter Pan," which as a play has a double role in the film's climax. Depp and Kate Winslet are outstanding, supported by perfectly pitched performances from Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman. The whole cast is very good, especially the boys who play the boys (proving that not all the talented English children are in the Harry Potter movies.)

The story is based on real events, though of course reality was much messier. Barrie did in fact write his play for the sons of a woman he met, and did later become guardian to the boys. But the woman's husband was still alive (he's conveniently dead in the movie), and for all the faith in the power of magic Barrie may have instilled in them, the boys came to bad ends: one killed in World War I, one drowned in the embrace of another man, and Peter killed himself, although he was an adult by then, and in publishing, but may have felt himself a prisoner of Barrie's imaginings.

Still, it's a very good movie, if a little saccarine about imagination and unimaginative about faith. But it has lovely touches about theatre, especially the relationships between actors, trying to support each other in the midst of not having a clue why they are dressed up as a pirate and a dog. The DVD extras are great---the deleted scenes are as good as any in the movie, and the outtakes are funny. There's one of Johnny Depp doing a scene in the park with a dog that decides to take a dump, and Depp talks to him in the same Scottish accent he employs for Barrie.

All About Eve Posted by Picasa
3. '>STAGE DOOR (1937). The struggling actor or most often actress who makes good is a staple of dozens of filmed stories: musicals, comedies, dramas and melodramas. This is one of the best, which seems to incorporate all possibilities, veering from screwball comedy to melodrama and ending up a fairly authentic kind of human comedy. It's singular for the appearance of star actresses who seldom worked together, so it's a treat to see Katharine Hepburn trade barbs with Ginger Rogers, while Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller wisecrack around them. It's also one of the better roles for Gail Patrick, who is seldom remembered now but excelled at playing cold manipulative women with just a touch of vulnerability.

Though the film tends to sag where the story does, Gregory La Cava keeps it moving briskly most of the time. (La Cava, a very busy silent movie actor who became a prodigious producer and director, had just directed his best film, the classic comedy '>My Man Godfrey---with Gail Patrick's most memorable performance. "Stage Door" was not only about the theatre, it started out as a play, by the formidable team of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman.

4.'>ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) The dark side of "Stage Door" and one of the best written movies of all time (written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Famous as a Bette Davis vehicle, it also features outstanding performances by George Sanders, Gary Merill, Celeste Holm and Anne Baxter. Also an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe.

Looking for Richard in Manhattan Posted by Picasa
5. '>SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998). Then there are films about the actual process of creating theatre, the heart of this subgenre. This has to be the ultimate, not just because it's a romantic comedy about the young William Shakespeare writing Romeo and Juliet, with lively and passionate performances by Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow (both their best, in my opinion) and some scenes stolen with relish by Dame Judi Dench.

The script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard incorporates so many delicious theatrical in-jokes (for instance, actors always describe the play as being about their character. "What's Romeo and Juliet about?" "Well, it's about this nurse...") as well as delightful bits of throwaway anachronisms. But the real heart of it is the performance of the play that leads to one gorgeous climax after another. Not only is the movie within the play within the movie handled brilliantly, but we get an idea of why Elizabethan theatre was so vital: the audience crowded against the stage, totally involved in every moment. Yes, and it's a mystery.

There isn't anything I don't like about this movie, from the color to the music. I'm looking forward to seeing the Collector's Series DVD with the commentaries, but it looks like I'll have to buy it---the ones for rent here are the extraless version.

6. A MIDWINTER'S TALE (1995) (also known as IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER). In contrast to "Shakespeare in Love" which won the Best Picture Oscar, this little movie about a ragtag group of actors in England putting on a Christmas production of "Hamlet" is unknown. But it is also funny, with lots of heart and lots of theatre texture. It was written and directed by Kenneth Branagh around the time he directed his huge "Hamlet" for the screen. It's filled with affection, yet Michael Maloney's frenetic performance as the neurotic director and star of the play keeps it moving at a fast pace. And unlike Albert Finney's A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (1994), another excellent film about a provincial man who tries to find himself through theatre, this one has a theatrically happy ending.

7. '>LOOKING FOR RICHARD(1996). This is a completely unique film---part documentary in which Al Pacino lead us through his attempts to understand Shakespeare's Richard III and mount a production, culminating in Pacino and his cast performing key scenes of the play. It is entertaining from start to finish, thanks to Pacino's personality, the skillful editing of the cinema verite glimpses of the process (Pacino also directed) and the other oddballs he gathers in, and the power, complexity and ultimately the simplicity of Shakespeare's play. Much of it was shot in Manhattan, so it's Shakespeare with true contemporary grit. It ends up being a great film about the process of actors "finding" the play and performing what they find.

Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, R& G in perpetual immobility Posted by Picasa
8. '>ROSENCRANTZ AND GILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990). Then there are films about theatre within theatre. Tom Stoppard directed this film version of his famous play about two minor characters in Hamlet, and what they do when everybody else is watching the Prince of Denmark. The play is a classic, though its echoes of Beckett are now a bit jarring in view of Stoppard's later work. The movie is visually interesting and moves along at a goodly pace, but its chief virtue is the performances of Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss as the Player. Oldman and Roth play R & G like a literate Laurel and Hardy, and there are numerous anachronistic sight gags that suggest Stoppard was responsible for that brand of humor in "Shakespeare in Love."

The DVD bonus disk is amazing, featuring an interview with Tom Stoppard of over an hour, and exceptionally revealing (but shorter) interviews with Gary Oldman and Richard Dreyfuss. Trust me, you've never heard actors talk like this in public.

Of course, there are lots of film versions of famous plays, with waves of contemporary Shakespeare still washing over us, but that’s another list. Still it’s worth mentioning here that Gary Oldman said that he and Roth had so much fun being R & G that they rehearsed continually, and in public—they would even do scenes in the pub that they had already shot. Plus, when Mel Gibson did his “Hamlet” they volunteered to play R & G in it, wearing the same costumes as in this movie. Apparently the Gibson folks didn’t get it.

9. '>VANYA ON 42ND STREET (1994). This is another collaboration between Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory and Louis Malle, the team that created the unique "'>MY DINNER WITH ANDRE" (1981), an apparently spontaneous but in fact scripted conversation that was largely about theatre and its connections to contemporary life.

This time, we watch a group of New York actors gather one morning in an abandoned Ziegfield Follies theatre. They chat, get coffee, and suddenly, seamlessly, their chat becomes Chekov's "Uncle Vanya," and you are utterly hooked. Shawn plays Vanya, and Gregory directs from a script he adapted from David Mamet's very contemporary translation. This group of actors in fact had gathered periodically for years and years to simply work on this play with no thought of performance. Thanks to Malle's intimate camera work, we are privileged witnesses.

And with this, we have come full circle, to a film that is not only about theatre, but is theatre.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

speed, quickness and lightness Posted by Picasa
From the Basketball Diary

This was the first in many years I didn't watch a single NBA game on TV until the finals, and then only parts of the last three. There's nothing much to watch---not when I've got old tapes of Michael Jordan and those Bulls teams, the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe championships, and even some of the Magic Johnson Lakers. So from time to time I watch them.

But I can't turn off the writer completely, so I do wonder what those announcers are talking about. If you know anything about the game, you know that some of what seems like dumb redundancy really isn't, like "He's got speed and quickness." They really are two different things. Speed means running fast: foot speed. Quickness means reflexes and all kinds of movement--lateral, up and down. It takes quick feet to play tight defense, quick hands to strip the ball or change the shot. You get the idea.

But then there are other habitual expressions that always bother me... The one that comes to mind is "shot attempt." Certain announcers are always talking about shot attempts. How many shot attempts. What I wonder is the difference between a shot attempt and a shot?
A made shot is a score. He shoots, he scores. Not---he executes a shot attempt, the attempt is successful, the shot is off, and it fulfills the requirements of the rules such that two points ensue.

They really should ask me about these things.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Unhand me, aliens! Your hairdryer will give Dale split ends!
Okay, so this has nothing to do with the post below
but it's dull around here without pictures. Posted by Hello
Interim Report

I've recently made the first in what will be a number of changes eventually affecting how I interact with the ever-changing Internet.

It may not seem related, but it is: I cancelled most of my cable television channels. We now have what is called "basic" cable service, the 2 through 13 channels, which consist of local outlets of the old networks, and public service/access channels.

This was partly a protest against the dereliction of the cable news channels, now united in an agenda of fluff and right wing propaganda. Paying more than $30 a month for what else cable TV had to offer was absurd as well as an elective payment for one's own oppression and degradation. We'll miss the Daily Show and the new Monk series, but that's about it.

Frankly if it were practical, I'd have it shut off altogether. The network news---and increasingly, disturbingly, this includes PBS though to a lesser extent so far---are becoming as irrelevant and noxious as cable. It may come to that, but for the moment I am investigating which way to go in the inevitable move away from dial-up Internet service: DSL or cable. As I'm leaning towards cable, I need to keep the minimum service. In either case, the money saved from cable bills will help offset additional one-time expenses for either choice.

Any advice on the DSL versus cable question would be welcome.

A change from my current dial-up account, which has migrated up the food chain as Tidepool was bought out by a slightly bigger fish and then consumed whole by a California-wide whale, will necessitate a new email address and change things for my web page and probably my blogs.

Though I don't know what the changes will be yet, the blogs are unlikely to remain in their current form for much longer. As an interim report on blog traffic, nothing much has changed in terms of ranking. This blog is still one of the least visited. My most visited blog by far is still Soul of Star Trek, and I'll say more about that below.

American Dash is the second most visited, but by about 10% of the number visiting Soul of Star Trek. With only a few exceptions in the past month, there have been fewer than 10 visitors per day, with an eyeball average of about six.

Because AD is updated frequently, these numbers probably indicate readers, whereas for some other blogs, it's clear from the searches that resulted in a hit, that visitors were looking for something else and probably didn't stick around long enough to read anything. That seems to be the case for Shopopolis and Kowincidence (which I regard as a kind of archive anyway.)

I had hopes for Books in Heat in particular, and Shopopolis, as well as my local experiments, the North Coast blogs. But traffic hasn't established any of them. Reviews in Books in Heat are quoted in publisher publicity, and there's sometimes been a nice bump when its address is appended to my reviews in the SF Chronicle (usually from the online link) but that's been about all the notice it's gotten.

I never intended to keep them all going, and so eventually they will be abandoned or fused together somehow.

By contrast, though not by comparison with truly successful blogs, Soul of Star Trek is at least healthy. It rarely receives fewer than 40 visitors a day, and in the past month has exceeded 100 on 10 days, with the one-day high approaching 400. Three times during the month it got more than 100 visitors on 3 successive days, and once it was over 100 for four of five days.

It benefits from links for specific posts from the big Trek boards (Trek Today mostly, but also Trekweb and a couple of similar sites in Europe), plus specific links from smaller blogs and BBS posts. That's when the higher numbers usually occur, although once this month it got over 100 visitors without being mentioned anywhere.

Soul of Star Trek has a healthy number of returning visitors, and an interesting geographical spread. United States visitors normally comprise around 65% of visitors, with reliable contingents from Canada and the UK. But there was a day this month when the second largest number of visitors were from Germany. I continue to be amazed by the geographical variety--really from everywhere in the world, including China.

The Soul of Star Trek blog has its fans as well. Someone with a Harvard address visits a lot and someone in Arizona visits very frequently. There was a day when somebody in San Francisco visited all my blogs. If the logs are to be believed, this person spent the entire day reading them. But how computers register on this system may not be always accurately reflected in the categories of the report.

Soul of Star Trek also gets comments, which none of the other blogs do, except rarely. I suppose it's helped to focus me on the work I've been doing anyway in this area, as I finally may be getting a draft of a publishable book together.

The summer movies have helped expand the subject matter of Soul of Star Trek some, so I'll be writing there about H.G. Wells soon, and I enjoyed doing a long piece on Douglas Adams, which gave me the opportunity to post photos from some of my 60s faves.

A couple of other factors are conspiring to keep me in that neighborhood these days. One of them is the possibility of publishing a book on Star Trek. I am in the weird position of being told by the editors at Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster who are in charge of Star Trek books there, that I am their choice to write the official 40th anniversary of Star Trek book. Unfortunately, the publisher isn't willing to commit to it, because Trek nonfiction hasn't been selling, and Paramount isn't yet focused on the matter.

So it is possible that late this summer I will learn that I have a couple of months to write this book. I've known this for awhile now, so I've gone ahead with writing what could be adapted to this book, or could be a book I would self-publish, through Xlibris probably, around the time of the 40th anniversary next year. Whether it will be positioned as a Star Trek book, or more of a Soul of the Future book, is yet to be determined.

The feedback I've gotten from the Soul of Star Trek blog, as small as it is, has been encouraging. It constitutes the only current encouragement from the outside world. Last year I freelanced for the arts sections of the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times, and I did several fairly long client projects for Humboldt State University. So far this year, I haven't gotten any more work from HSU (my contact and champion there left to literally go sailing), and after soliciting a proposal on the new Star Wars, a Times editor apologetically told me that word had come down from on high: no freelance. I heard the same from an editor at the Chronicle. (Although I eventually published a piece on the Star Wars movie in the Chronicle's Insight section.)

So things have been very, very quiet. Yet some work and some royalties and permissions fees has come through, enough so I could concentrate on the Trek/future book and related writing. At a certain point it felt like it was working, and I knew I had to go with the momentum. After all, I've been working on this off and on for at least six years. It feels like something (who knows what) may yet come of it.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

East meets West in "Lost Horizon" Posted by Hello
Lost Horizon Found

When I recently heard a reference to Jane Wyatt in Frank Capra's 1937 film, '>Lost Horizon, it dawned on me that this was a famous film I hadn't seen since I was very young, and then only on television. I had only a hazy memory of it, as somewhat mystical but mostly confusing.

After that, I don't recall it being mentioned much in the company of classic films, or even in references to Capra, his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and the Oscar winning It Happened One Night being the ones usually cited.

So I rented the DVD, which turned out to be a restored version from 1999. The history of this movie would be bizarre even if it wasn't shared with a lot of less remembered films. Capra was the producer as well as director of this epic attempt to film the best selling novel by James Hilton. His rough cut was something like 5 hours long. The first version tested with an audience in Santa Barbara was 3 hours, and was considered a disaster.

With lots of cuts, some reshaping of the narrative and even new scenes shot, the movie was released in Los Angeles and other big cities in 1937 with a running time of 132 minutes. But the version that went out to theatres across the country was considerably shorter, by about 25 minutes. Even at that it was longer than the usual 90 minute movie, and individual theatres cut even more of it.

Then thanks to an offhand reference to Shangri-la by President Roosevelt, it was re-released during World War II, with more cuts for content reasons-taking out questionable references to allies, and too much of that pacifist stuff. (It is rather remarkable that it was made by the director who would soon be fashioning the Why We Fight "documentaries" ---they were actually mostly composed of pieces of Hollywood films---but then these Capra productions probably saved a lot of Italian Americans from internment camps.) By the time the movie got to television in the 50s, which is probably when I saw it, it was pretty much an incomprehensible mess. A plane wreck, snow, Shangri-la, escape, more snow, an avalanche, and a young woman suddenly becoming old. That was about it.

By the early 1970s, there wasn't a good intact negative of any version of the film anywhere. The American Film Institute, and later the UCLA film preservation project, began a series of restorations. The major finds that made the 1999 restoration possible in particular was an intact 132 minute soundtrack, discovered in British film archives. Several prints and dupe negatives of varying length and quality were located and though they were all shorter than 132 minutes (some considerably shorter), they were missing different scenes, and some had scenes the others didn't.

Two versions were particularly notable: a British dupe, shorter than even the 108 minute version but containing scenes no other version had, and a knarly print cut for Canadian TV, dubbed in French. This version had key moments missing from the others, usually within scenes.

The restorers even used some outtakes preserved on a reel shown to film exhibitors at a convention in Ohio before the film's release---in fact, before Capra had finished shooting the movie. With all that put together, they still lacked about seven minutes, but the 1999 restoration uses the complete soundtrack, so still photos are substituted for these minutes (using photos of the scenes where possible.)

Another remarkable fact about this restoration is that in 1999, digital enhancement and repair was still prohibitively expensive, so only a few scenes were given the full digital treatment. Most repair was done by "wet-printing," a technique then new that fills in film scratches with liquid so they fade from the print.

Given all the versions Capra assembled, and the cuts he made at the studio's insistence, it's fruitless to try to establish a definitive version, but this is as close as 25 years of restoration work could come to reproducing "Lost Horizon" as it was seen at its Los Angeles premiere in 1937. Though not quite the clarification that the restored "Metropolis" was a few years ago, it is still quite a revelation.

The film's flaws are perhaps even more clearly exposed. American action actor John Howard was obviously miscast as Ronald Colman's mercurial, weak and prejudiced brother (David Niven was said to be the favorite, but Howard was cast just days before shooting began.) The minor characters, while well acted for the most part, have a certain charm but don't quite jell. This isn't Capra at his characteristic best. Yet at this remove, even these flaws say something memorable.

Today the sight of Shangri-la is not quite as awe-inspiring as it was supposed to be, since it resembles a jumble of Frank Lloyd Wright and a half dozen other styles in a complex that looks like a World's Fair exhibit, or maybe a 1960s housing development crossed with a corporate campus. Some of the doorways and interiors seem borrowed from a Flash Gordon serial.

The idea that the heathens of Tibet need to be taught civilization by a European priest, whose natural superiority they recognize by making him their High Lama, is laughable. Yet none of these flaws, not even Capra's uneasy sentimentality about the idea of Shangri-la, completely distort the timeless power of this film, revealed especially and in some ways, for almost the first time, in this restoration.

The heart of the film is in Colman's wonderful performance, but its soul is in Sam Jaffe's haunting speeches as the High Lama. This was the most controversial part of this movie even while it was being made. Columbia Studios demanded Jaffe be replaced, and his scenes were shot with another actor, before test audiences affirmed Capra's choice of Jaffe's portrayal. Then much of the key scene was shortened and reshot again, after the Santa Barbara preview. (Another character was given some of its exposition, which required more shooting.)

Frank Capra monitored the restoration until his death, and requested that in particular the Lama's scenes be restored. This is in fact this version's great gift. It's remarkable how much of it was cut out in the various versions. Some of the most important lines have no existing footage at all, others only the grainy remains of the Canadian TV dupe.

The view of the world expressed here can be understood as coming from the Great Depression era and after the Great War, during the obvious prelude to another World War, just as the censoring of these scenes would be a product of World War II and the Cold War. But in another sense they are, if not timeless, then of our time as well as theirs.

This is a film worth seeing. If you've seen it in earlier versions, you probably haven't seen the lovely scenes with Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt inexplicably cut from most versions---and without them the movie really doesn't make that much sense. It's worth seeing for Ronald Colman--"beautiful of face and soul, sensitive to the fragile and gentle, responsive to poetic visions and hard intellect," as Frank Capra describes both the character and the actor in his autobiography.

But if you don't get around to it, here is the best transcription I can offer of the High Lama talking about the meaning and purpose of Shangri-la. It could have been delivered yesterday, or tomorrow.

It came to me in a vision long long ago. I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw their machine power multiplying, until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time in which man exalting in the technique of murder would rage so hotly over the world that every book, every treasure will be doomed to destruction.

This vision was so vivid and so real that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and of culture that I could, and preserve them here against the doom toward which the world is rushing.

Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. A time must come, my friend, when this orgy will spend itself. When brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword.

Against that time is why I avoided death...When that day comes the world may begin to look for a new life. It is my hope they will find it here. Their books and their music, and a way of life based on one simple rule: be kind. When that day comes, it is our home that the brotherly love of Shangri la will spread throughout the world. When the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic will at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth."

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in "Lost Horizon" Posted by Hello

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Pope John XXIII  Posted by Hello
Pope John

All the Pope talk and controversy sent me back to see if I still had a handle on Vatican II and the papacy of Pope John XXIII. I remembered his encyclical "Pacem in Terris" and re-read it for the first time in many years. It was an emotional experience. The language is so pure, and the document is amazing. For as long and strange as this trip has been, I will always be grateful that I came of age in those brief years when Pope John and JFK were there to help form my principles and ideals.

I posted a version of this on Daily Kos, the big southpaw political blog, and discovered in the responses that I wasn't alone in this. One person referred to Pope John simply as "the Sunshine."

Pope John XXIII is associated in many American minds with JFK. John's papacy and Kennedy's presidency occurred at almost exactly the same time. They died within a few months of each other in 1963.

This period also coincides with my years at a Catholic high school, with a faculty comprised almost entirely of nuns and priests. Both Johns were of considerable and sometimes daily interest.

Pope John was a surprise choice when Pope Pius XII died in 1958. He was considered a compromise and caretaker pope, and like the new pope, his age seemed to guarantee a short and therefore inconsequential papacy.

He was Angelo Roncalli, the son of a sharecropper in a small Italian village. In World War I he was drafted into the Italian army and served as a medic and chaplan. At the start of World War II he was the Apostolic (Vatican) Delegate to Turkey and Greece, and saved thousands of Jewish refugees throughout Europe by working with the Jewish underground. He is considered by some Holocaust groups to be a Righteous Gentile.

In 1944 he was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Paris, and Charles DeGaulle became so fond of him that when Roncalli was named a cardinal in 1953, President DeGaulle claimed an ancient right of French rulers to ceremonially bestow the red hat of the Cardinal himself.

When he became Pope in 1959, he was immediately popular as the people's pope. With his open smile and peasant face, he was an obvious contrast to the formal and aristocratic Pius XII. Pope John Paul II was famous as a world traveler, so it's strange to note that until Pope John XXIII, no pope since 1870 had left Vatican City on official business. John's first foray outside the Vatican was to visit prisoners. He also was the first Pope to reach out to other religions, first by meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1960, the first such meeting in 400 years.

In the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party since 1928, when the Democrats nominated Al Smith. (Though Smith lost, some credit his running with moving Italians and other immigrant Catholics to the Democratic party, a process solidified by FDR and the New Deal.) Some of the same charges as helped defeat Smith were raised against Kennedy: that a Catholic would be bound to take orders from the Pope.

Protestant fundamentalists were particularly virulent in their opposition, fearing the collapse of the separation of church and state., and perhaps something else... The Reverend Harvey Springer, "cowboy evangelist of the Rockies," proclaimed: "Let the Romanists move out of America! Did you see the coronation of Big John? [meaning Pope John.] Let's hope we never see the coronation of Little John...How many Catholics came over on the Mayflower? Not one...The Constitution is a Protestant Constitution."

Kennedy confronted the issue by affirming that he would honor his oath as President first, and maintain the separation of church and state. In Rome, Pope John was trying to learn English. When an American bishop told him that Kennedy had a good chance of being elected, John joked with him: "Do not expect me to run a country with a language as difficult as yours."

JFK and John XXIII never met, although as First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy had a papal audience in Rome. The Wikipedia bio of John preserves the story that the Pope had nervously rehearsed the proper greeting, "Madame, Mrs. Kennedy." But when he saw her he rushed over and cried, "Jackie!"

Vatican II

John XXIII shocked even the inner circle in the Vatican by calling for the Second Vatican Council just a few months after he became Pope. (The first council had been some 90 years before, was cut short by war and had little effect.) There were several years of preparation, and four sessions from 1962 to 1965. Pope John was alive for only one of the sessions. Most of the Council was actually run by his successor, Pope Paul VI.

Most of the Council's work, such as changes in the liturgy that allowed modern languages to be substituted for Latin, affected only Catholics. But the larger ramification was in opening dialogues with those outside the church. It was called an Ecumenical Council, and this was the word we heard the most---ecumenical, which means the whole church, and was interpreted to mean the possible unification of all Christians to some degree, and perhaps beyond that.
Observers from other religions were made part of Vatican II. Pope John's intention was preserved in this quote: "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in."

As evidenced in the excerpts below from his encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John based many of his thoughts on natural law, in the manner of Thomas Jefferson, for instance. This was to both include other traditions, and to place Catholicism within a larger context.

Why was the Council so controversial? Conservatives within the church didn't like change. I remember that some of my teachers were enthusiastic, but others kept quiet about the Council. One of my English teachers had high hopes that the Council would end the "Index of Forbidden Books," or at least take off some recognized classics that Catholics were reading away. This was the modernization trend, and together with the rest of the 1960s, it did cause a lot of wrenching change, and sometimes chaos.

For instance, a lot of rules governing religious orders were "liberalized." Just a few years after my graduation, two younger siblings of a classmate told me how much the school had changed. Some of the nuns who had taught me had left their orders altogether (my French teacher, who used to pretend to be scolding me when she read aloud my rather free translations---I just made up funny stories using words reminicent of the French words---showed up at a homecoming game a few years later with flaming red hair.) Others were out of their habits, and living in apartments (my old English teacher got in a tiff with her order over her car allowance). And just as some had feared, discipline had broken down at our old high school. Students were essentially laughing at their teachers, and going outside to get high. So if you're wondering why conservatives get apoplectic over the 60s, this may be a clue.

Personally I'm not sure the folk Mass was an improvement over the Latin I had to learn as an altar boy. But being able to legitimately use local language and music was important to places that had them as vital parts of their cultures, like Africa.

But to me the greatest legacy of Pope John was his final encyclical, "Pacem in Terris" (Peace on Earth). It is to me the greatest liberal document since the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Even today it reads like a Bill of Rights for the world.
I recommend reading the whole thing:
But here are some excerpts to give you the flavor, and whet your appetite. (I should point out that although this encyclical doesn't mention abortion, it does reserve the right of the Church to instruct its members on moral issues, thus offering some justification for the current Pope's letter as Prefect of the Congregation to American bishops that essentially read John Kerry out of the Church for his position on choice. But it seems unlikely to me that Pope John would have sanctioned such an extreme and both morally and politically troubling action.)

From Pacem in Terris:

"Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.

We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.

Moreover, man has a natural right to be respected. He has a right to his good name. He has a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and-within the limits of the moral order and the common good-to freedom of speech and publication, and to freedom to pursue whatever profession he may choose. He has the right, also, to be accurately informed about public events.

In the economic sphere, it is evident that a man has the inherent right not only to be given the opportunity to work, but also to be allowed the exercise of personal initiative in the work he does.

The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity.

Each man should act on his own initiative, conviction, and sense of responsibility, not under the constant pressure of external coercion or enticement. There is nothing human about a society that is welded together by force. Far from encouraging, as it should, the attainment of man's progress and perfection, it is merely an obstacle to his freedom.

Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.

... a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides men with no effective incentive to work for the common good. And even if it did, it would certainly be offensive to the dignity of free and rational human beings. Authority is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every man has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no man has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart.

The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities. In working for the common good, therefore, the authorities must obviously respect its nature, and at the same time adjust their legislation to meet the requirements of the given situation.

The common welfare further demands that in their efforts to co-ordinate and protect, and their efforts to promote, the rights of citizens, the civil authorities preserve a delicate balance. An excessive concern for the rights of any particular individuals or groups might well result in the principal advantages of the State being in effect monopolized by these citizens.

Here, then, we have an objective dictated first of all by reason. There is general agreement-or at least there should be-that relations between States, as between individuals, must be regulated not by armed force, but in accordance with the principles of right reason: the principles, that is, of truth, justice and vigorous and sincere co-operation.

Furthermore, relations between States must be regulated by the principle of freedom. This means that no country has the right to take any action that would constitute an unjust oppression of other countries, or an unwarranted interference in their affairs.

The United Nations Organization has the special aim of maintaining and strengthening peace between nations, and of encouraging and assisting friendly relations between them, based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and extensive cooperation in every field of human endeavor.

A clear proof of the farsightedness of this organization is provided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The preamble of this declaration affirms that the genuine recognition and complete observance of all the rights and freedoms outlined in the declaration is a goal to be sought by all peoples and all nations.

We are, of course, aware that some of the points in the declaration did not meet with unqualified approval in some quarters; and there was justification for this. Nevertheless, We think the document should be considered a step in the right direction, an approach toward the establishment of a juridical and political ordering of the world community. It is a solemn recognition of the personal dignity of every human being; an assertion of everyone's right to be free to seek out the truth, to follow moral principles, discharge the duties imposed by justice, and lead a fully human life. It also recognized other rights connected with these.

What has so far been achieved is insufficient compared with what needs to be done; all men must realize that. Every day provides a more important, a more fitting enterprise to which they must turn their hands-industry, trade unions, professional organizations, insurance, cultrual institutions, the law, politics, medical and recreational facilities, and other such activities. The age in which we live needs all these things. It is an age in which men, having discovered the atom and achieved the breakthrough into outer space, are now exploring other avenues, leading to almost limitless horizons."

Monday, April 11, 2005

Bonus Track!

This little piece was a rejoinder to a column in the local Eureka Reporter, and was published there as a Guest Column. I'd just give you the url except it has an annoying typo that this version doesn't. Discerning readers in this space won't be surprised by the opinions, but I couldn't let a chance go by to say Something Nice about one of the few new things in the world I actually like.

Unlike Wendy Butler, I love the bonus features on DVD. If I didn't, I just wouldn't watch them. Sometimes they are even the main reason I rent or buy a DVD movie, apart from the image quality, especially if I've already got it on tape.

Bonus features typically include short documentaries related to the film, a commentary track for the movie itself, and scenes that weren't in the theatrical release version, either reintegrated into the film, or by themselves. They are all hit or miss, of course, but they often add new layers to the experience of the movie.

The documentaries I often like best are retrospective interviews with directors and actors years after release, when they can put their efforts in perspective, and they can say things that maybe they couldn't before. But I also like to know how movies are made. I enjoy learning about the process.

Commentary tracks can be maddening, especially when the voices don't bother talking about what you're watching, and what you'd like to know. The worst I'm come across recently is "Spiderman II." The director (Sam Raimi) is cueing the star (Tobey Maguire) to talk solemnly about how he learns his lines while I'd like to know why they kept that scene with the neighbor bringing Peter Parker a piece of pie is the movie. It's also nearly impossible to follow both commentary and movie, even when you select for subtitles (which I usually do). But fortunately there's scene selection, pause, review---and fast-forward.

But much of the time, the commentary is enlightening (between descriptions of how effects shots were done, George Lucas describes a surprisingly serious intent for the Star Wars cycle: "how a democracy becomes a dictatorship, and a good person becomes a bad person") or it's just entertaining (counting the number of times that director Roland Emmerich says "this is one of my favorite scenes" during "The Day After Tomorrow.")

Sometimes the commentaries are even better than that. The dialogue between writer/director Nancy Meyers and actor Jack Nicholson on the DVD of "Something's Gotta Give" is hilarious, and a master class in film acting as well. So not only is this movie worth repeating, so is the commentary.

If DVDs have done nothing else, they proven how stupid movie studios can be in editing scenes out of movies just to make them shorter. They leave gaping holes in the story and make the actors look dumb, just so they can have more showings to confuse more people. But without the need to sell more tickets on opening weekend at the multiplex, DVDs can restore the scenes that at least give the movie a chance to make sense. That's more of a restoration than a bonus.

The bonus scenes work best when they actually put them back where they belong in the movie (and the commentary track can tip you off to this). Sometimes when they're offered as "deleted scenes," you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking when they deleted them. I remember several of the deleted scenes from the second Harry Potter movie better than I do a lot of the scenes that are in it. They tended to be mood pieces, like Harry and his owl sitting on a hill high above the landscape, but the movie needed some quiet moments, some beauty that evokes magic.

Selecting imaginative and high quality bonus features, delivering smart and honest commentaries, are becoming part of the DVD. package. I look forward to more.

Oddly or not, while nursing the cold I thought I'd avoided for this year, I watched a lot of DVD over the weekend, including bonuses. I even played some of the Harry Potter games (scored two goals in Quidditch, too, even in my weakened condition.) After hearing Star Trek's Dan Curry call the 1938 Erroll Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood the best adventure movie of all time, I thought I'd see it again with that in mind. It came with a film scholar's commentary, pretty informative, and a bonus disk, not too impressive except for a terrific long feature on the history of Technicolor (seems the name came from MIT, where the inventor went to school).

What I missed in the commentary but what I saw in the film was historical context: the Depression and already ravaged Europe of 1937-8. The scenes of Robin showing Maid Marion the plight of the poor was reminicent of similiar scenes in Sullivan's Travels and My Man Godfrey. Also, the scholar mentioned that in the earliest Robin Hood legends he was a trickster, and a figure in the May festival. What he failed to note was that in this film, Robin forcing the nobles to exchange clothing with the poor reproduced the Lord of Misrule reversals of those festivals. It was neat to see that the final sword battle between Flynn and Sherlock Holmes was as exciting as I remembered it as a kid, watching it on TV, probably in black and white.

Monday, April 04, 2005

How I Solve CRIME!

During the school year, Margaret likes to watch a little television to unwind before she sleeps. We generally watch either a half hour (which means The Daily Show) or one of the hour shows I tape for these occasions. These days they are: Boston Legal, Numbers, American Dreams, The West Wing, three Law & Orders (all but the Special Crimes Unit) and when it has new shows, Monk.

Most of those shows turn out to be crime shows, partly because most of the shows on TV are crime shows, when they aren't just a crime against humanity. We steer a course between my curmurgeonness (I have still never seen a 'reality show' nor used a cell phone) and Margaret's desire not to have nightmares (which leaves out certain crime shows.) We tend towards the whodunit variety. I have consequently become adept at solving the crimes or at least figuring out who the key people are, generally before halftime.

How do I do it? I'll tell you my secret. No, it's not learning to "think like a criminal." At least, not the kind of criminal the shows are about. No, the secret is to think like a TV writer.

The writers have less than 40 minutes to give you the wrong impression, the false clues and the innocent suspects, while slipping in somebody who really did it, or knows who did, or is the key to finding who did. That's not a lot of time. There aren't a lot of false clues or a lot of people who won't turn out to be the killer, etc.

How about CLUES? Yes, very important. And what are they? Well, motive and opportunity and all that are important, but the biggest clue is generally casting. If you recognize the actor as a current or past heavyweight (for few Law & Orders go by without my recognizing an actor I've actually met in a small part) in a seemingly innocuous one-scene role...probably not so innocuous.

Casting comes into play with physical attributes and how the actor plays the character. Cause you know the actor knows, and he or she has got to play it. Is the innocent guy too innocent looking, and the guilty guys too obviously guilty? Does the superficially innocent bystander have a little too ingratiating a manner, and a little shiftiness in his glance? You'll be seeing him again, being chased by the FBI.

Of course, TV writers almost always cheat, at least a little. There is always something, even if it's too add drama to a scene or exposition, that doesn't make sense. Sometimes they spend so much time building false motives and tearing them down, that the real killer has a flimsy motive at best, if you find out what it is. But then, it's only 40 minutes. And since I taped it, I didn't even have to deal with the commercials. Sometimes crime does pay.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

the 2002 edition---at your favorite online bookseller now! Posted by Hello
It was Twenty Years Ago Today

Twenty years ago this February, my book The Malling of America was first published. "It's a famous book," Michael McClure said to me when I interviewed him last year. "It's a famous title," I said, and though that's more accurate, the content has maintained a presence over decades. Untold classloads of students have had to cope with a chapter on "Kids in the Mall" that has been reprinted in dozens of scholastic readers over these two decades, one of which arrived in the mail today. It continues to provide a little income--- and it is still a little amazed to find itself between the same covers with Thoreau, Shakespeare, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jim Harrison and James Baldwin.

The paperback edition of The Malling of America that I updated, edited and published through Xlibris in 2002 continues to sell a few copies each month. I just got my latest royalty check. I don't want to boast but it's in the mid two figures. Getting it back into print became a personal necessity, and the experience of doing so summoned up raw memories surrounding the book's publication that I shaped in several new chapters I added. Though not much response to those chapters has gotten back to me, I hoped they would open a window to the processes---the quite different processes---of writing and publishing, which are imbued with so many illusions.

That these illusions persist in 2005 is evidenced by a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, by a first-time nonfiction book author whose eyes were opened to the realities of publishing today. As much as I thought I knew already, I learned even more from this piece, which you can find here.

For one thing, I learned that the relationships of authors, agents and editors has, let's say "evolved." It used to be that agents were the writer's advocate, and editors were the customers, but basically it was editors who dealt with content. Today it's apparently the agents who deal with content, working with prospective authors to shape proposals, before any editor gets involved.

So it's no wonder that prospective authors spend more time and energy writing proposals. It's unpaid work, done with only what resources they can muster for research, so almost all non-celebrity authors are otherwise employed. I've written several books worth of proposals over the past twenty years, all seduction and no experience. Everyone knows that the book is discovered in the act of writing it, but nobody much is willing to invest in that anymore.

Unless of course you are a celebrity, which means a defined and apparently established market (though the quantities of celebrity-authored books in the remainder bins belies that assumption in many cases.)

I continue to think up book ideas, which I sometimes worry about: could it be my version of Tourette's syndrome?

Book advances also seem to be slipping into inconsequence (again, for non-celebs), which leads me to place this ad before you all:

AUTHOR FOR HIRE to busy celebrities in all fields, as well as to freaked-out editors with a deadline and an unpublishable manuscript. I write, I edit, I work to perfection and deadline. I've got the skills, you've got the money: let's talk. Nonfiction, fiction, Mr. In-Between, I can do it all. HAVE LAPTOP, WILL TRAVEL. Email: bilko@tidepool.com

* * *
Much of my writing these days goes into these blogs (even if published first elsewhere.) They present different challenges, and besides, unlike some writers, I enjoy reading my own writing. (And yes, it has occurred to me that this might not be a good thing.)

Very recently, however, I installed invisible counters on my various blogs---they count the number of "hits" and visitors, and give some other general information (not names or addresses or anything.) After only a week or so, I have detected some patterns.

By far my most popular blog, with the "greatest hits," has been Soul of Star Trek, with several hundred visitors in the span of a few days. It's also my most international blog, with visitors from Canada, UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, Poland, Italy, France, Germany and Namibia so far, as well as from all regions of the US (including Shawnee Mission, Kansas.)

Next in traffic is my newest and most local, This North Coast Place. Most of the traffic is from the North Coast of California, as is appropriate, but since a recent post describes a community forum here in Arcata conducted by members of the Humboldt State University geology department on the recent South Asia earthquake and tsunami and its lessons for our locality (there are many),there have been several visitors from Indonesia.

The portal and political blog, American Dash, the one on which I post every day, is in the mid-range, with this one, Blue Voice, getting fewer hits. I haven't sent out my group emails in awhile, not wanting to contribute to in-box clutter, but I suspect there's a lot of people who haven't yet gotten in the habit of bookmarking and visiting sites regularly.

I will probably be making changes in response. For example, Kowincidence got some early hits, so I've added "Numbers" (which was here, and still is, down there before the Cat Blogging gets started.) It's clear that some hits are the result of searches for something else, and the visit is just long enough to demonstrate that this isn't what is being searched for. I suspect that's been the case especially for Shopopolis. But I can't account for many others. They're just the mystery of the Internet, and of people using it.

My book review blog, Books in Heat, is the first to be mentioned in a print newspaper and their website (at the end of my SF Chronicle book review) and also the first to be quoted. So far it is also in the mid-range of hits. The last two reviews I posted were of new books, and I emailed the publicity directors of the presses. The morning after the most recent, I noted hits from both the city where the publisher is, and the city where the author lives. Maybe that blog is my way of honoring the process of writing and publishing. Mostly of writing.
The Short Story of A Long Sentence

Margaret was reading my book review in the SF Chronicle today and remarked that she especially liked a particular sentence. When she was finished reading, I asked her which sentence it was. It's this long one, she said, and started reading it aloud. I smiled, partly because when I re-read the review a little earlier, I noticed it, too.

I'd written the review several weeks ago, and this was the first time I revisited it. The review is of Simon Singh's book on cosmological history, THE BIG BANG. Here's the sentence: "Singh dramatizes the process of observations that raise questions about established theories that solve those problems but suggest new ones, all in a long chain of surmises and surprises, flashes of imagination and long cold nights nursing mountain-top telescopes, accomplished by the men and the less heralded women who had little in common but a talent, an insight or an obsession that led to a new piece that fits into the great puzzle."

I re-read the sentence when it was published, remembered what I was trying to do, and felt that I'd done it. That's usually the end of it. But Margaret had noticed it so I told her what I'd been up to: the sentence attempts to mirror what it's about: the "long chain." It's one of those sly games played at the keyboard late at night, the first pleasure of which is to pull it off, and the second, that people may like the sentence without knowing why. The music of it has to work, and it summarizes a great deal of what's in the book, but the journalistic thing to do would be to slice it into smaller pieces. But to make this work on another level was the fun of it.

I try similiar tricks pretty often. But they almost always remain my secret. It's nice to see one have its effect once in awhile.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller 1915-2005 Posted by Hello
From Arthur Miller's autobiography, Timebends:

"It would strike me years later how many male writers had fathers who had actually failed or whom the sons had perceived as failures. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway (his father was a suicide), Thomas Wolfe, Steinbeck, Poe, Whitman, Melville and Hawthorne, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky and Strindberg-the list is too long to consign the phenomenon to idiosyncratic accident. As different as these writers are, they share an ambition to create a new cosmology, not merely to describe the visible world around them. If they could, they would devise a new order of perception that would make the world all new, as seen through their eyes."

"But the first church is in the skull, and there the gods face in two directions."

"Until I began to write plays my frustration with this doubleness of reality was terrible, but once I could impersonate all conflicts on a third plane, the plane of art, I was able to enjoy my power-even if a twinge of shame continued to accompany the plays into the world."

"Dramaturgy was the physics of the arts, the one that failed when it lied and succeeded when it cut to the first principles of human life."

"Science was reason's triumph, we had been so pridefully taught, the defeat of the Beast. But what happened when the Beast learned science?"

[commenting on Sinatra singing for Kennedy, then later for Reagan, as if he were royalty and the presidents come and go] "Could this signify that the business of America was not business, as an innocent Calvin Coolidge had said, but show business, symbolic display, the triumph at last of metaphor over reality and the domination of the performer with his pure and pointless charm?"

"We had come to prize and celebrate in our art disconnection for its own sake, but this was not at all the same as tearing apart the givens of experience in order to recreate a fresh unity that would inform us newly about our lives. Our surrealism was naturalism disguised, and as incapable of projecting alternatives to what we were doing and why as naturalism had always been."

"It was more and more difficult to imagine in the last quarter of the century the naked selfness of a free human being speaking with no acknowledged interest except his own truth."

Arthur Miller Posted by Hello

Thursday, February 10, 2005


I'm not very good at numbers. (All the math genes in the Severini line went to my cousin Tom.) But I've been thinking about them a lot these past few days. We are so used to seeing huge numbers---$80 billion more for Iraq, $25 million a year for a baseball star---that we judge them only in relation to other huge numbers.

But what really is a billion? Or a trillion? Or even a paltry million?

Everybody's favorite number is, how much do they make? Rueben Mark, CEO of Colgate-Palmolive, got $148 million last year, compared to "only" $75 million for Michael Dell of Dell computers. How does that compare with what you make? With what you spend, or can even conceive of spending? With what you need?

When we get to the sums bandied about concerning corporate and especially government spending applied to public policy questions, then the relative values become even more revealing, and important. But we hardly ever look at numbers that way.

I was inspired to do so by an actor. Not Rob Morrow, the erstwhile Dr. Fleishman who stars in a new police procedural called "Numbers." No, it was Sharon Stone.

As many know by now, Sharon Stone, the blond woman actor most famous for steamy movie scenes, attended a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week. The panelists had been talking about world poverty for an hour or so, when a UN official mentioned that 150,000 African children die of malaria each month, principally because they don't have mosquito nets protecting their beds.

Sharon Stone suddenly stood up, pledged $10,000 to buy bed nets, and challenged others in the audience to pony up. The chair of the panel, Republican House Leader Bill Frist reportedly tried several times to shut her up. But she persisted. And in five minutes, she had raised one million dollars.

There were a couple of even more important number in the Associated Press story about this incident. It said that the nets, pretreated to protect against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, cost $7 each. They last as long as five years.

Now, everyone is fascinated with the idea of raising a million dollars in five minutes. But in politics and public policy, we are also used to thinking of a million dollars as not buying very much. It won't buy you a 30 second ad for very long in very many markets. It bought only 1/40th of an Inaugural celebration this year.

But according to my calculator (which comes from the Dollar Store, and has never before had to work with figures anywhere near this large), one million dollars will buy almost 143,000 bed nets. With volume discount, let's say 150,000.

So in five minutes, Sharon Stone and her partners gave the grim reaper a month off, when it comes to African children and malaria. 150,000 children protected not just for one month but for 60 months, or five years.

Think about ad buys during the campaign. I saw reference to one: for 13 spots on TV stations in 100 markets, nearly $57 million. Four million a spot. For each million, 150,000 lives by buying bed nets in Africa. For $57 million, nearly 32 years of grim reaper vacation for children in Africa dying for lack of these nets. If you look at in terms of numbers of kids times years of protection, it's more like 160 years.

Now let's look at some numbers for the Iraq war. I saw one report that figures the U.S. military spending in Iraq at $1 billion a week. A few days later, an article by George McGovern stated that the U.S. is spending $5 billion a week in Iraq, so that's a billion a day, with weekends off.

In his article, McGovern talked about how that money could be better used: a billion for tsunami relief, a billion for Iraq reconstruction, one for veterans' benefits, one devoted to ending world hunger, the last one to the national debt.

But notice McGovern is still talking about billions. What could Sharon Stone do with a billion? A billion is one thousand times one million. $1 billion would buy one million five hundred thousand mosquito nets. That is very close to the number of African children who die of malaria each year.

I looked up a few other numbers. I didn't note all the sources, but they all seemed reputable and they are all easily found with a Google search. There are 500,000 new cases of childhood blindness each year, 70% to 90% of it in the developing world. 75% of global blindness can be prevented or cured. Less than half the children stricken with blindness survive to adulthood. The average life expectancy is about four years. Others say that because blindness is related to illnesses and poor nutrition, half don't make it beyond one year.

Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause in 70% of those half million children going blind every year. A single dose of Vitamin A costs $0.05 US. I don't know how many doses it takes, but let's say we want to buy a dose a day for all of those half million kids. That's about $10 million a year.

$10 million is 1/100th of what the U.S. spends on military operations in Iraq in one week, or maybe it's closer to in one day.

Vitamin A deficiency as well as other causes are implicated in blindness caused by glaucoma. No one seems to know the number of children affected, but it is a significant proportion of the total. Like other causes of blindness, most cases are in the developing world.

The Himalayan Cataract Project has performed more than 25,000 cataract surgeries to restore sight since 1994. The cost of each surgery, including intraocular lenses, is $12 US.

One million dollars buys more than 83,000 cataract surgeries.

One billion dollars buys 83 million.

I read yesterday that the market is booming for houses costing one million dollars or more. It is possible that some people reading this have a net worth that approaches a million dollars. Maybe a lot more. But thinking about numbers, I tried to figure out what I've made in my lifetime, and my father, and his father. I conclude that the three of us, through roughly the past 75 to 100 years, likely did not make more than a half million dollars combined. But my math is shaky and over that kind of time you probably need to figure it using some sort of constant dollar. So double it, to be safe.

One hundred years of working = 83,000 cataract surgeries=1/150th of the CEO of Colgate's annual salary=1/1000th of what the U.S. spends in Iraq in one day.

No wonder I have trouble with numbers.

Here are a few more, from a forthcoming book by Jeffrey D. Sachs, special advisor to the UN Secretary General on global poverty. To meet the basic needs of all the poor in the world until 2015 (including medical needs) would cost about $80 billion per year. After that, with adequate planning, poverty would be over.

$80 billion is the amount just requested as a supplementary appropriation for military needs in Iraq, for this year.

Sachs figures that not just one country but 22 countries pony up to pay it, so the US contribution would be a fraction of $80 billion.

A committee of 22 wealthy nations has set a target of devoting 0.7% of their annual income of more than twenty trillion dollars (a trillion is one thousand billions) to eradicate poverty. Sachs estimates they can do it with 0.6%, given the rest of the program he outlines.

Now let's return for a moment to the U.S., to California, where the bill for "custodial care" in a Kaiser Permanente hospital is $3,200 a day. That's not counting medicines or treatment, though meals are presumably included. (Which, by the way was not true at least until recently for soldiers wounded in Iraq sent to stateside hospitals; they were billed for meals.)

I saw that room price quoted in a story about a woman who was checked into the psychiatric wing of a Kaiser hospital and refused to leave a week later when told there was nothing wrong with her. She is 84 and says she was kidnapped and lost her place in her rest home. She won't leave the hospital until they find her a new rest home. She's been there a year. Her bill so far is $1.1 million.

100 years of work= not quite one year custodial care in a Kaiser hospital. But of course for the CEO of Colgate, it's maybe three days work.

Health, by the way, correlates with income. The higher, the better, and vice versa. Gee, I wonder why.

Now there's debate on proposals to gut Social Security in order to allow investment schemes, which is upping the ante into beyond the bogglesphere. A modest estimate of the cost, by one of the proponents no less (VP Cheney) is $758 billion initially and then "trillions after that." Trillions? A slightly less conservative estimate is $1 trillion to start, and $3.5 trillion after that. And there are people who think it would cost a lot more than that.

Except that the world doesn't seem to have a lot more than that. And I get the feeling that not even that will stop them.

So what does all this add up to? For me, it's a series of eye-openers. We tend to talk in categories. When we talk about government spending, it's in billions. Baseball player salaries, in millions. Car prices, tens of thousands, etc. And we compare within categories.

To a certain extent, this is reasonable. There are lots of zeroes at the end of a federal budget line, but then there are lots of zeroes at the end of the line of people served, or at the end of prices of each item paid for (like attack helicopters and smart missiles.)

And so when you're talking about hundreds of billions, it seems reasonable that accounting problems would mean that you lose track of nine billion dollars, as has happened in Iraq.

But the ease with which our tongues move from the M word to the B word to the T word can distort reality, and can hide questions of value, as in, what do we value? And what does it really cost?

Personally I can't quite understand how someone can be paid one hundred million a year (100x1000x1000), and someone else, in the same company perhaps, be paid 10x 1000. How do they get away with it?

How do they get away with burning 1000x a million dollars a day (or a week), and a total of some $10 billion going to Halliburton (10x1000x1,000,000) on a war that 60% of the public paying for it doesn't want?

The nuns were probably right about me, that I couldn't buckle down to do arithmetic because I had my head in the clouds. But at this point I have to conclude that I can't hold a candle to the fantasy life of the people who toss these numbers around.

Those are the numbers that filled my head last week. What were yours?

P.S. a Daily Kos contributor called baba durag added this: Suppose you were born with a billion dollars to your name. And suppose you lived to be 100 years old. If you spent $10,000 every day of your entire life, you would still have almost 3/4 of the money left. And that's if you kept your billion in the basement. Even a modest savings account interest would just about ensure that you could live a full and very rich life and never need to touch the principal, the one billion. Maybe there is no free lunch. But for some people, there are lots of free banquets.