Saturday, January 31, 2009

My Favorite Lovin' Spoonful Song

Last summer, Sara, Tom, Natalie, and Ben and I went to see the current version of one of my all-time favorite groups, the Lovin' Spoonful. Here's the original incarnation of the group doing "Darling Be Home Soon," my favorite of all their songs (see if you don't get a jolt too when the strings kick in). John Sebastian, singing lead, and Zal Yanovsky, in the top hat on lead guitar, aren't touring with the group anymore (Zally passed away a few years back); bass player Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler are still with the band, and putting on quite an entertaining show.

Relevant Philosophy

Given this story circulated today by the Bloomberg News service, the words of Thorstein Veblen written in 1899 in The Theory of the Leisure Class have particular relevance:

"The institution of a leisure class hinders cultural
development immediately (1) by the inertia proper
of the class itself, (2) through its prescriptive example
of conspicuous waste and of conservatism, and
(3) indirectly through that system of unequal
distribution of wealth and sustenance on
which the institution itself rests."

The Second Funniest Scene in Movie History

Having granted W.C. Fields the top spot a couple weeks ago, let me nominate the following scene from A Night at the Opera (1935) for the second slot:

Bonus Family Blogging Quiz

Okay, since all the quizzes recently have been so easy (generally answered by the second guess), here's one that ought to be a little more challenging.

This is one of my favorite pictures, of me and Natalie. The question is, who was the photographer who captured this great image? One hint (since this isn't intended to be a trick question): it is another member of the family. I suspect the person in question won't remember, but maybe I'm wrong. At any rate, put your guesses in the comments and we'll see if this doesn't stretch out longer than the hour or so it took you all to get yesterday's test!

Followup on Taxes

I thought this was pretty funny, and apropos in relation to my earlier post about Republicans and their aversion to taxes. This was originally published in the New Yorker in 2002 (shortly after the big Bush tax cuts) and was drawn by Lee Lorenz:

The New York Times today has a brief slide show of some other New Yorker cartoons on the economy, which you can find here.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday's Philosophical Interlude

Here's something from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (171201778), the Genevan thinker whose ideas are so inextricably bound up with the notion of Enlightenment:

"Whatever moralists may hold,
the human understanding is greatly indebted
to the passions, which, it is universally allowed,
are also much indebted to the understanding.
It is by the activities of our passions that
our reason is improved; for we desire knowledge
only because we desire enjoyment;
and it is impossible to conceive any reason
why a person who has neither fears nor desires
should give himself the trouble of reasoning."

Two Weeks Until Pitchers and Catchers Report!

No doubt about it, my favorite time of year corresponds to the baseball season. I can't wait to enjoy some warm summer evenings at Pilot Field (I know it isn't called that anymore, but please, baseball is nothing if not nostalgia for the traditions of one's youth), cheering on the Bisons.

Training camps open in two weeks, and I'm already starting to feel the excitement of new possibilities (even though my favorite team, the Braves, appear to be in a rebuilding phase). Ya gotta love the grand old game!

Friday Family Quiz

I only have access to a handful of pictures today, so it makes it tough to find something to challenge you on. Nonetheless, let's try this: Who are these two (the easy part) and where was the picture taken (somewhat harder). Leave your guesses in the comments.

Last week's quiz, in which you were asked to guess where a picture of Sally & Natalie was taken was won by Theresa, who correctly guessed the front lawn of the house where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated as president in 1901 (see how that fit with the events of last week?). Congrats to Theresa, and thanks to all who played (Lil sis had a particularly well-reasoned guess).

Friday Family Blogging 2

Here's a shot of 2/3's of the Banning branch of the family, from I guess two years ago at Niawanda Park. Not sure where Maria was... but I imagine Catie stayed behind at Theresa's to chat and play with the baby (Helen, back then). I wish all my snapshots turned out this good!

Friday Family Blogging

video

Here's a little video of Nikolaus at his Pre-K graduation ceremony. Enjoy

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Possibly the Most Brilliant Piece of Physical Comedy Ever Filmed

Here's a brief scene from the Buster Keaton classic, Sherlock Jr. from 1924. The bit referred to in the heading starts at the 1:38 mark, if you want to skip ahead (though if you do, you'll miss some other good stuff). By the way, the music is not from 1924.

A Favorite Painting 3

One of the pre-eminent works associated with the early days of surrealism, Miro's masterpiece currently resides in the Albright-Knox Art gallery in Buffalo, where I've had the pleasure of viewing it on multiple occasions (I even wrote a paper about it for an Art History class as an undegraduate way back when).

Joan Miro, Carnival of Harlequins, 1924

A big part of the painting's appeal is it's playfulness, and the cryptic narrative that it implies as you try to work out exactly what is going on. The dreamlike nature of the figures, suggestive of real animals and anthropomorphic household items, but hardly depicted in a realistic manner (or even as you might see them in a Disney cartoon) lends a cool dreamlike quality to the proceedings. While surrealism is, I think, inherently comic in so many ways, it's humor is often black and disturbing (what did Breton say? that the ultimate surrealist act is to open fire with a machine gun on a subway platform?), which is clearly not the case with Miro (in this painting or really most of his other work). I saw a self-portrait of Miro many years ago in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and have never been able to find since (either on subsequent visits to MOMA or in reproduction); but it depicted the artist as someone you could imagine inhabiting the Carnival of Harlequins without being out of place at all. In other words, the kind of guy I'd like to have met.

Philosophical-Political Comment

You may have heard that in the House vote yesterday on the Stimulus Package, all of the Republicans voted no. Despite President Obama's efforts to reach a compromise, even incorporating several concessions to the opposition into the final version of the bill, the Republican caucus apparently decided that if they couldn't get everything they wanted (essentially turning the bill into nothing but tax cuts) they were not going to play along. This put me in mind of a quote from one of my favorite philosopher's (who I previously quoted here), Lao Tzu:

"Human beings are born soft and flexible,
yet when they die they are stiff and hard...
Plants sprout soft and delicate,
yet when they die they are withered and dry...
Thus the hard and stiff are disciples of death,
the soft and the flexible are disciples of life.
Thus an inflexible army is not victorious,
an unbending tree will break.
The stiff and the massive will be lessened,
the soft and the fluid will increase."

It seems pretty clear to me that the Republicans have decided to opt for ideology over all else, adopting a hard-core stance that taxes and government are always the enemies, instead of recognizing that, especially in times of emergency, they may be among the best tools available to address the problems of such a a large and diverse economy as ours. If adhering to an ineffective, even discredited ideology is all they can imagine in response to the circumstances, then they deserve to wither and die. It's hard for me to see how this represents a stand on principle, as they might claim, as the purported principle (that free markets best govern themselves) seems patently false given the nature of the problem. If the GOP clings to this ideology too tightly, they are probably insuring their further marginalization from national power.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Followup on Kilroy

Lil Sis got the basic story of the phrase "Kilroy Was Here" in the comments to the recent post. It was a ubiquitous World War II graffiti that seemed to pop up everywhere (one story says that Hitler saw it marked up in a bathroom in Potsdam, leading him to think Kilroy was an Allied spy). The best evidence suggests the origin is with a ship inspector named Kilroy who used the saying to mark the work he'd examined; others who saw the cryptic inscription carried it forward for their own mysterious reasons.

However, what I remember best about Kilroy, was a series of programs by that name on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color from sometime in the mid-1960s. At the time (I was around 6 years old) I didn't understand why every time the main character introduced himself, people gave him a funny look. It was a joke way over my head. Kilroy was played by the character actor Warren Berlinger (that's him on the left in the picture above, though not in a scene from the Kilroy series). everytime I saw him in anything else (and he popped up a lot as a guest star on TV shows throughout the sixties and seventies) it always made me think of Kilroy. Now, I wish I could remember what the show was actually about!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Greatest Rock Band of the Eighties

There may be some other contenders for the title, but in the end, no one beats the Replacements. Here are Paul Westerberg (singing) , Bob (guitar) & Tommy Stinson (bass), and Chris Mars (drums) at the height of their powers (though the video quality is only fair, the energy of the music comes through) :

Tuesday's Philosophical Nugget

Something to consider from the mind and pen of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell:

"Dogmatism and scepticism are both,
in a sense, absolute philosophies;
one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing.
What philosophy should dissipate is certainty,
whether of knowledge or ignorance."

Super Bowl 43

It's been a long time since I actually cared who won the National Football League Championship (since the Bills were last in it, I suppose). This year is really no different except insofar as the matchup is between two teams that, when I was a kid, were perpetual doormats. So much so, that when the Steelers actually became a good, no, great team in the mid 70's, it struck me as miraculous as the sudden rise of the New York Mets in 1969. Those teams of Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert built a tradition for winning in the steel city that has been more or less constant ever since.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, were a different story. They were bad in the late sixties when I started following football, and they've mostly been bad ever since, even as they moved from St. Louis to Arizona. The exception was the couple of years of "Air Coryell" when Jim Hart was flinging passes to Jackie Smith and Mel Gray, and handing the ball to Terry Metcalf.

I'd kind of like to see the Cardinals win the Super Bowl just because they are such massive underdogs (as I believe they've been for all of their playoff games so far this year). But, on the other hand, it almost seems like their history is against them, and they are doomed to fall short. It also bugs me a little to think that they might win the big one before the Buffalo Bills do (and the Bills have at least a more balanced record of success and failure over the years). Oh well, I just hope it's an entertaining game. Who are you pulling for (post picks in the comments)?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Kilroy Was Here!

*Does anyone know the reference, and why it fits?

Monday Morning Philosophy

This morning's philosophical quote comes from John Dewey, the father of progressive education and one of the major proponents of pragmatism, especially in relation to issues of morality and democracy:

"The only freedom that is of enduring importance
is freedom of intelligence, that is to say,
freedom of observation and of judgment
exercised in behalf of purposes
that are intrinsically worthwhile."

Political Comment/Link

I know that there are inevitably going to be a number of different positions taken in relation to the economic stimulus plan currently being debated in Washington, but it seems like some of the criticisms made against the package favored by President Obama are based more on adherence to ideology (or perhaps native contrariness) than a reasoned analysis of the situation. I find the mantra from some of "more tax cuts" to be particularly baffling, given that that was the governing policy as we fell into the current mess. I'm not suggesting a direct cause and effect-- I know things are more complicated than that-- but it seems to me that there needs to be flexibility in the tactics used to deal with the problem, and closing that door just hamstrings the process.

Evidently, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman also sees some problems with the voice of the opposition at this point, as you can see in his column in today's New York Times.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Classic Rock'n'Roll from the Sir Douglas Quintet

This is one of my favorite bands from very early in their career, from an appearance on the NBC program Hullabaloo. That's Doug Sahm singing, Augie Meyers on organ, Johnny Perez on drums, Jack Barber on bass, and Frank Morin on tambourine & maracas. They made a lot of great records, but this is one of only two or three that became big hits. Great stuff!

Philosophy for a Sunday Morning

Today's words of wisdom come from the legendary Hypatia of Alexandria, perhaps the most significant female philosopher of the ancient world.

"Life is an unfoldment and the further we travel
teh more truth we can comprehend.
To understand the things that are at our door
is the best preparation for understanding
those that lie beyond."

A Favorite Painting 2

Asher Brown Durand, "Kindred Spirits" 1849

I often show a slide of this painting in my course on American Cultural History. It's a great illustration of how central nature was to defining the American character in the years before the Civil War, and in particular, how creative folks embraced that element as a theme in the work they did (whether painting, prose, or poetry). The two figures depicted are the painter Thomas Cole (holding the paint brush) and the poet William Cullen Bryant, communing with nature. I like how the image draws one's attention to the peaks receding back into the center of the picture, which is suggestive of the role environmental factors will continue to play on our nation's development (this is, among other things, a product of the age of Manifest Destiny, and I expect that was at least in the back of Durand's mind). Both Cole and Durand were members of what came to be known as "The Hudson River School," and you can see other examples of their work by clicking on the link.

The Value of Math (for Ben)

Having had the "when will I ever use it" conversation with my nephew Ben on several occasions, I couldn't help but think he (and hopefully the rest of those reading) would get a kick out of today's Luann strip by Greg Evans:

Saturday, January 24, 2009

And on That Point...

... as long as I'm thinking of Italy, let's go with Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) for today's philosophical snack:

"Historical judgement is not a variety of knowledge,
it is knowledge itself;
it is the form which completely fills
and exhausts the field of knowing,
leaving no room for anything else."

Feeling a Little Nostalgic for Italy

It's kind of gray and overcast today in Dillon, which made me think of my recent trip to Venice, which was also gray and overcast during our stay (though not as cold). So, here are a couple of pictures that didn't make it into my previous summary of the Italy trip.

My next "big" getaway from Montana will probably be to Las Vegas in March. But I have to say, the canals at the Venetian Hotel there can't hold a candle to the real thing.

It's a Mad World

Mark Evanier recently posted an item saying that Mad magazine is about to reduce it's publication schedule from monthly to quarterly, perhaps the first step to ceasing print publication altogether. I haven't more than flipped through an issue of Mad in probably 30+ years, but I consider this sad news nonetheless (and not just because of how representative it is of the magazine publishing industry as a whole). I've spent considerable time and effort researching the relationship between comedy and politics in the second half of the twentieth century, and one of the surest conclusions I've been able to draw is that Mad was one of the three most influential forces affecting virtually all American humor since the 1950s (along with comedian Mort Sahl and the Second City improvisation troupe).

It's highly improbable that Harvey Kurtzman (first editor), Al Feldstein (his successor) or William Gaines (longtime publisher) had any idea of the impact their comic would have, but in hindsight there's little doubt that it was instrumental in shaping the audience for satire that would come of age in the 1960s and beyond. It's hard to imagine such landmarks of American humor as Doonesbury, the National Lampoon (and its spin-off enterprises, especially in film), David Letterman and The Simpsons as emerging without the solid foundation laid by Mad. Here's hoping this current set-back doesn't cause folks to forget that fact.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday's Philosophical Quote

I couldn't find a picture of Barrows Dunham, who supplies me with today's philosophical nugget, but it comes from his book Man Against Myth (1947). As always, I hope it prompts some thoughtful consideration:

"...illusions multiply, and among them there is,
I suppose none more ubiquitous than the idea that
'you can't change human nature.'
This ancient platitude might long ago
have been relegated to a home for superannuated ideas
were it not so constantly useful."

Friday Family Blogging Quiz

Okay, I'm sure everyone playing will recognize my sister Sally and niece Natalie. The question is, where was this picture taken? Be as specific as possible. Two hints: it was not from the family reunion (documented in the previous post), but it is from last summer. As always, leave your answers in the comments section.

The winner of last week's quiz (which wasn't anywhere near as difficult as I thought it would be), is Catie, who correctly identified Maria as the figure on the hilltop.

Also, wrapping up the quiz from three weeks ago, in which you were asked to guess who was kissing Emma, the winner was Lil Sis, who correctly identified Emma's Uncle Tom as the mystery smoocher and also reminds me that I'm falling behind on the issuance of prizes. Keep you eye on the mailbox, Lil Sis, as I'll have something heading your way shortly. I may be tardy, but I promise I'll come through with the goods!

Friday Family Blogging

I don't think I've posted any pictures from last summer's big reunion near Titusville, so here are a couple from that event. Recognize everyone in this group? (No this isn't the weekly quiz-- too easy.)

In this one, from one of the hay-rides, it will be a little tougher to ID all the faces, partly because you can't really see them all. But if anyone wants to take a shot in the comments, please do...

To be fair, there is one non-family member in the hay-ride pic, so don't let that throw you.

Funny Funny Comic Strip

As someone who has been resistant to cell phones and all they represent (in the cultural sense), I found today's Doonesbury so on target it made me laugh out loud, which doesn't happen too often anymore when I'm reading the funnies. For those of you who perhaps avoid reading Doonesbury because of its politics, let me assure you that today's is not in that vein. Check it out.

p.s. if you happen to be reading this sometime after Friday, January 23, the link may not be for the strip I refer to.

p.s.s. I fixed the link, so that it now should take you to the strip referred to in the post.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Philosophical Thought for the Day

Today's quote comes courtesy of one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire:

"Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities
has the power to make you commit injustices.
In the midst of all the doubts which we have discussed
for 4000 years in 4000 ways,
the safest course is to do nothing against one's conscience.
With this secret, we can enjoy life
and have no fear of death."

A Favorite Painting 1

I've discovered that regular features make it easier to come up with daily posts, and since the political and historical comments are somewhat dependent on events beyond my control (that is, they are generally in response to something else happening in the world) they don't really count. So, herewith, I'm initiating a new recurring topic that ought to pop up a couple of times a week to go along with the philosophy quotes and Friday Family Blogging: Favorite Paintings. The first one I've chosen to highlight is Grant Wood's "Stone City, Iowa" from 1930.

Although I consider myself more of an urban person, preferring big cities to the country, this image has a lot of appeal. It seems so sunny and lush, and it's easy to imagine feeling safe and secure in a place that looks like this. My occasional travels through Iowa actually match up pretty well with this picture, and I've often thought it would not be a bad place to live (though I'd probably opt for Des Moines as a residence, with trips to the country left for weekend relaxation). I guess that's what I like about this painting: it makes me imagine a better future (regardless if it actually plays out quite that way) even as it evokes a bucolic past.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An Alternate Inaugural

From the classic Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup, here's the scene introducing the new president of Freedonia:

Political Comment

Last night I went to a party to benefit the local Humane Society. It was also an inaugural party, and we watched a big-screen replay of the oath of office and inaugural speech from earlier in the day. I can honestly say that I have never, in person, seen such a large group of people so happy over something political, especially given that Obama's speech was clearly more a call to work and sacrifice than a jingoistic litany of patriotic platitudes. I had heard some radio and TV commentators bemoaning the fact that there were no grand historic turns of phrase in the speech, no "nothing to fear..." or "ask not what your country can do...." That sure didn't matter to the folks I was with, whose evident happiness was, if anything, fueled by the realistic approach promised by the new president. To me, his invocation of our history, of the immense struggles already overcome by the people of this nation going back to the Revolution, and involving people of all walks of life and all econonomic and social classes, native and foreign born, was the most inspiring part of the address. I'd like to think that message will resonate enough to generate grass-roots activism across the country in support of conservation, education, economic innovation, social justice, etc. etc. I know that's a tall order, but I also think that the only way those things can be accomplished is if we all act as responsible citizens and recognize that government is merely one tool for change, but we have the responsibiltity to see that it functions correctly and in our service. I think that Obama understands that (as a former community organizer, he should), but now the rest of us have to demonstrate that we are prepared to play our part in realizing the nation's shared goals.

Wednesday's Philosophical Nugget

Today's pearls of wisdom come from the eminent William James:

"Yet the fact remains that war
is a school of strenuous life and heroism;
and, being in the line of aboriginal instinct,
is the only school that is universally available...
What we now need to discover in the social realm
is the moral equivalent of war;
something heroic that will speak to men
as universally as war does,
and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves
as war has proved itself to be incompatible"

Monday, January 19, 2009

More W.C. Fields

If yesterday's post was the funniest 6 minutes in all of movie history, this scene (also from It's a Gift) may be number two (though it falls a bit shorter in length). Enjoy:

Political Comment: Good Riddance!

I saw a headline this morning saying that George W. Bush has already moved out of the White House. All I can say is good riddance. Whether he ends up being judged the worst president ever ultimately doesn't matter; it ought to be shameful enough that he's in the running. I think there are a lot of reasons to be grateful to be finally rid of this bozo, but here are the main ones:

For corrupting conservatism, collaborating in reducing an honest if debatable intellectual perspective to little more than self-serving dogma and brain-numbing cant.

For valuing personal loyalty over accountability to the American people, and as a consequence elevating the interests of his party over those of the country.

For lowering the bar so dramatically that the likes of Sarah Palin are taken seriously as presidential contenders even as they mirror his own appalling lack of curiosity or engagement with the world and its multiplicity of ideas.

For denigrating science in particular and academia in general, so that issues of health, safety, and security became defined strictly in terms of their money-making potential for the few who knew how to manipulate the system.

For equating religious faith with what’s right, but only when it served the self-interest of his supporters rather than the general good of the nation.

For creating an administration so larded with hacks, sycophants, and conscience-less prigs that any effort at investigation of wrongdoing in their departments resulted in blatant whitewashing and exoneration of responsibility for the most egregious of crimes.

And more than anything else, for the poorly concealed glee he often displayed when reporting the most dreadful violence against fellow human beings, to much of which he was an accomplice.

George W. Bush deserves to go down in history as a bad president, and one can only hope that the American people will learn some valuable lessons as a result of his failure.

Monday Morning Philosophy

With the impending inauguration of Barack Obama, there's a lot of comparisons being drawn with previous presidents. Nothing wrong with that-- but it might be worthwhile to keep iin mind the words of Niccola Machiavelli:

"Men ever praise the olden time, and find fault
with the present, though often without reason...
Having grown old, they also laud all they remember
to have seen in their youth.
Their opinion is generally erroneous...
we never know the whole truth about the past."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Historical Comment

President Bush and Vice-President Cheney have spent much of the past few months attempting to re-write the history of their administration. They've been proven wrong on so many of their statements that you'd think they'd be embarrassed in being caught in such bald-faced lies given all the evidence (much of it video tapes of statements they now claim never to have made) offered by those with more accurate memories.

What seems clear to me is that their intentions are not to convince a contemporary audience (well, except maybe for that tiny segment that still thinks they've done a good job) so much as future generations. That is, they are engaging in a little historical ploy that is associated with discredited ideas, notably in recent years the holocaust deniers. The idea is to generate enough "debate" about the issue in the present so that a hundred years or so down the line historians will evaluate the debate itself as evidence of a legitimate difference of opinion, thereby validating the lie. As other evidence becomes more obscure, or even disappears (will future generations retain the technology to view video tapes? who knows?) the interpretive nature of the discipline will open the door to false conclusions.

So it's important that these efforts at revisionism be quashed now, in the present, so that Bush does not back his way into the future favorable evaluation he so desperately craves.

A Sunday Morsel of Philosophy

Courtesy of John Stuart Mill, the great English political thinker:

"If all mankind minus one were of one opinion,
and only one person were of the contrary opinion,
mankind would be no more justified
in silencing that one person,

than he, if he had the power,
would be justified in silencing mankind."

Quite Possibly the Funniest 6 Minutes on Film

A classic scene from the W.C. Fields movie It's a Gift (1934):

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Last Movie I Saw

Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino is an expert piece of workmanlike filmmaking. By that I mean it reaches a level of entertainment I associate with the kind of b-movie melodramas that transcended their assembly-line origins in the old Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 1940s (something like Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour, for example; or maybe the early films of Sam Fuller). That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but I don't mean it that way. On any given night, watching Turner Classic Movies on TV, one is likely to stumble across something both obscure and surprisingly good. Obscure because it lacks stars, or production values, or maybe just because nobody deemed it worthy of attention at the time of its release (there have always been blockbusters generating massive publicity, and they often swamp inaccurately pre-determined "lesser" films), but regardless of those factors still manages to be both entertaining and artistic, ripe with small pleasures to tickle the right audience.

Of course, there are few stars bigger than Clint Eastwood, who gives a tour de force performance in Gran Torino. But it is the kind of story that today one would normally associate with the more quirky independent scene, and if it lacked someone of Eastwood's stature at the helm would no doubt be consigned to the arthouses, or maybe go straight to video. Eastwood's presence makes it appear to be more of a prestige project, but I'm not sure it really resembles anything else in that category, at least since Eastwood's own Unforgiven. It certainly doesn't look like the other "high concept" nonsense that garners wide release (just the name Paul Blart: Mall Cop cynically telegraphs the mindless dreck that awaits anyone silly enough to actually buy a ticket-- but there will be lots of folks who do).

Gran Torino shows multiple signs of having been made quickly (some minor continuity glitches and small holes in character development), but they are ultimately irrelevant and fail to stall the momentum of the story that earns the right to end on a highly (one might almost say hamhanded) symbolic note. Because Eastwood is such a pro, and knows how to shape a narrative to spark audience involvement, he gets away with the petty lapses that might sink a more complicated scenario. To put it another way, he keeps it simple. Eastwood is definitely capable of much more (as evidenced most recently by his Iwo Jima diptych); but much more is not always necessary to make a worthwhile movie.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Today's Philosophical Tidbit

Arthur Schopenhauer is much more of a pessimist (not to say misanthrope) than I am, but I think there's a great deal of truth in this particular quote:

"If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease,
a land flowing with milk and honey,
where every Jack obtained his Jill at once
and without any difficulty,

men would either die of boredom or hang themselves;
or there would be war, massacre, and murders;
so that in the end mankind would inflict
more suffering on itself

than it has now to accept at the hands of Nature."

Friday Family Quiz

The challenge this week is to name the person sitting on the bench at the top of the hill in the photo below. Please put your answers in the comments section. The winner will be announced next Friday.

The winner of last week's quiz, which asked you to say who Helen looked like in the posted photo, goes to Lil Sis for suggesting Mister Magoo (with hair). Here's a picture to compare:

Harry Potter was a good comp too, but Magoo seemed just a little bit more imaginative. Good luck with this week's quiz!

Friday Cat Blogging

I usually don't have something to fit the tradition of those bloggers who post pictures of their cats on Fridays (see for example this site), but came across this little video from Christmas Day that I forgot I shot:

video

Ben or Natalie can correct me if I have this wrong, but I believe it's Puss up on the ottoman (brother Montana was lurking somewhere alongside). A couple of really cool cats that it's my pleasure to know.

Friday Family Blogging 2

In keeping with my near constant yearning for summer during these cold winter months, here's a photo of a bevy of bathing beauties:

Doesn't that water look inviting (well, I mean if it were actually sunny and warm outside)?

Friday Family Blogging

Let's go way back for this one. I believe this is from Thanksgiving of 1957, although I could be wrong. I think I know everyone here with one, maybe two exceptions. This isn't the weekly quiz (that's coming up a little later), but I'd like to know who the toddler is in the high chair at lower left (cousin Brian?) . If you know, put the answer into the comments.

Also, if anyone has any memories to share about this or any other family gathering, by all means toss that in too.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Daily Dose of Philosophy

The heading of this blog promises some philosophy, but so far that has not been a staple feature. To rectify that, let me share a a few words of wisdom from the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

"Be Content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
"

I think that's pretty good advice. Let's see if I can find something equally profound tomorrow.

Beware the Mummy!

This is mostly for Ben (I hope he's reading), who is something of an amateur Egyptologist, but perhaps others will enjoy this too. At this site you can actually wrap a mummy the way they did on the good old Giza Plateau. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Favorite Films of 2008

Last year was kind of an off-year for me and movie-going. I suspect that I saw probably 30% fewer films in 2008 compared to other recent years. Partly this was due to the high gas prices, as I must drive more than two hours to have a selection of films that goes beyond the current blockbusters or family fare that are the bread and butter of the one theater (two screens) in Dillon. Since my tastes generally run a bit more eclectic than that, I either have to make special trips to Bozeman, Missoula, or Idaho Falls, or catch up on things when I travel back east (as happened over the recent Christmas break). Not only did I see fewer movies last year, but I also think the general quality of what I saw was somewhat lower, which further dampened my enthusiasm to make those long drives, especially in the first half of the year. Anyway, here's a breakdown of what I liked (and didn't like). Some may have actually been released in 2007, but I saw them in 2008. Your tastes may vary (and feel free to offer comments on any agreement or disagreements my list might prompt).

Favorite Film of the Year:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Rest of the Top Ten (no particular order):
In Bruges, City of Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Visitor, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, My Blueberry Nights, Appaloosa, Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

Other Movies I Liked:
Atonement, Charlie Wilson's War, Doubt, Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Valkyrie, Cadillac Records, The Counterfeiters, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Milk, The Changeling

Guilty Pleasures (Not really very good, but I enjoyed them):
Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War, Inc.

Forgettable:
Wall-E, Journey to the Center of the Earth

Disappointments:
Burn After Reading, Savage Grace, Hancock, Dark Knight*, Leatherheads, Son of Rambow

*I feel obliged to say that this is despite the truly great performance by Heath Ledger which deserves all the accolades he has (and likely will) receive for his portrayal of the Joker.

Again, feel free to take issue with any of these-- though remember, I'm only telling you what I like, not necessarily saying your tastes should align with mine.

Remember This?

Curtis sent me a bunch of pictures from the Blizzard of '77, and I thought this one was especially interesting, looking over a snow-covered downtown Buffalo. What I remember best about the blizzard was that it meant all my midterm exams at Cardinal O'Hara High School were canceled. I'm not sure I'd be quite so sanquine about such a thing today, being on the other side of the teacher's desk (then again, maybe I would ;-)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cheap Entertainment

Here's a computer game to test your... well, I don't know what it tests, but its a nice little diversion if you're trying to avoid doing something else (as I well know).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Preparing for the Celebrity Life

Emma seems to have already developed the skills to thwart unwanted invasions of privacy:

video

Think I could sell this to TMZ? It seems to be the kind of thing they like...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Most Underrated Rock Star

As some of the readers of this blog know, I'm a huge music fan with pretty eclectic taste ranging across virtually all genres and eras. I've been thinking lately about who I would consider the most underrated rock star of all-time, and after careful consideration I've arrived at what I think is an obvious answer-- Dion DiMucci. I just listened to his newest album, which came out a couple of months ago, called Heroes, in which he pays tribute to a number of artists who started their careers around the same time he did in the 1950s, paying particular attention to the guitar work on their classic songs. This is not your typical "oldies" set, performed by an artist locked in an earlier age. Instead, Dion makes this material fresh and delivers stellar performances, both vocally and on guitar.

Of course, one album does not explain why I consider him the most underrated rock star of all time. I'm sure most of you reading this remember his classic singles from the late fifties (with the Belmonts) and early sixties, like "Teenager in Love," "Little Star," "Runaround Sue," and "The Wanderer." What you may not know is that he has remained consistently active as a performer and recording artist in all the years since, moving easily from doo wop to folk-rock (another big hit-- "Abraham, Martin & John") to Christian music to blues. He's done incredible versions of songs written by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, and also written some classics himself, and though they never achieved the chart success of those early hits, they are every bit as good. Prior to the Heroes album, he released two incredible blues albums which critics raved about, and represented a return to his own self-proclaimed roots. He also put out a great live album a few years back on which the music is supplemented by some great stories, both funny and touching.

I can't think of anyone who has sustained as long a career over the same period with absolutely no drop-off in quality (with the exception of Sonny Rollins, who works in a different genre). The reason why I call him underrated is that he does not seem to be mentioned as one of the pantheon figures of rock and roll, even though I think his artistic accomplishmentse warrant consideration for any such list. Since his work has given me such pleasure over the years, I just want to tip my hat to Dion and say that I hope he's got a lot more music to give us in the years to come, and that more people pay attention to it.

Ah, Summertime!

Everything is so cold and gray around here that I just thought I'd post something green and sunny. Spring can't come too soon for me!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Friday Family Quiz

Well, first of all, no one got the right answer in last week's quiz, so I'm going to leave it open for a few more days (c'mon Lil Sis, you're usually the first one on these and last week, no guess?).

Here's this week's quiz, and it's more of a "creative" than "objective" question: who (or what) does Helen look like in this picture?

Post your answers in the comments, and the winner will be announced next week (remember-- it's the most creative/funny/weird that we're looking for).

Friday Family Blogging

Here are three photos I took at the Burchfield-Penney art Center in Buffalo. They give you a little idea of what a cool space it is, and the kids could enjoy it even if they weren't necessarily paying attention to what was hanging on the walls. Here's Helen getting tactile with a glass block window:

Here are Ben, Helen, Nicky, and Sally in the "Flower Room:"

And one more, of Ben acting bored on some of the coolest stairs you'll ever see:

I'm really looking forward to re-visiting the Burchfield-Penney Center on my next trip to Buffalo-- it's sure to be a treat, no matter what they decide to put on display.

More Seasonal Comparisons

I took this picture the day before I left NY to head back to Montana. It is the winter equivalent of this image (minus the people, for good reason), which I posted several months ago. I like the way the fog causes the fade-out effect in the background here, but I definitely prefer this spot (Nia-Wanda Park) when its bustling with joggers, bikers, strollers, etc.

The Last Movies I Saw

The last two films I saw over my holiday break in WNY were Clint Eastwood's Changeling and John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. Both continued my run of good movies seen, which lasted the length of my vacation, though that probably has more to do with it being "awards" season when the studios trot out their best for consideration at the Oscars, Golden Globes, etc. In other words, I had a lot of good films to choose from, and never felt tempted to see something just to be seeing something (which does happen to me on occasion when I just want to watch a movie).

Anyway, I enjoyed both of these films, which once again turned to some degree on a common element-- the faith placed in traditional figures of authority. In Changeling, it's the police, who assert a rather brazen contempt for anyone who questions their version of the facts. When its violent criminals who challenge them, well, maybe the cops do deserve the benefit of the doubt; but when it's a mother who claims the child returned to her is not the son who was abducted, that's another story. There's some really fine period detail in the film, and although Angelina Jolie overacts (I think) a bit in the early scenes immediately following the abduction, for the most part she gives a solid, sympathetic portrayal. The rest of the cast, virtually all of whom are unfamiliar names (though not necessarily faces), is stellar, which I suspect ultimately helped keep Jolie from completely going over the top (though Eastwood generally keeps all his actors on an even keel, so maybe that was the key factor). The story unfolds at a deliberate pace, allowing considerable identification with several of the characters, so that each becomes fleshed out enough for us to fully grasp the defining qualities of their nature, which makes their subsequent actions appear natural and somewhat inevitable even as we know they are fruitless or an outright mistake. Needless to say, that adds to the tragedy of the story.

In Doubt, it's the authority of religious faith and the paternalistic hierarchy of the Catholic church (far from the same thing, as posited in this story) that comes into question. The pretext for the story is taken from all too frequent recent headlines, but that is only a pretext. The conflict arises from one nun's unshakable belief that a parish priest has done something wrong, and the priest's efforts to maintain some degree of privacy (for himself and a schoolboy) that may or may not involve inappropriate behavior. The movie (which originated as a play, and it kind of shows) plays with the audience's sympathies which are only somewhat motivated by the strict facts of the narrative. Certainly a contemporary audience would know something of the events widely reported over the past few years, and perhaps be inclined to believe the worst about the priest. But the performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep as the accused and accuser generally serve to draw one's sympathy to the former (he's a good guy and she's a bit of a shrew)-- which makes the viewer wonder to what degree they're being played, which I suppose we are. But if you accept that the subject here is not molestation, but the means by which we arrive at and perpetuate our beliefs, spiritual or otherwise, then it makes for a keenly engineered exercise demonstrating the validity of skepticism. It would have packed more of a wallop if it could have engaged the soul as much as the mind (and maybe that was more my personal shortcoming than the film-maker's), but even so it's something of a rarity in American movies, prompting thought instead of just visceral gratification.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

All the World's a Stage...

... and it looks like Helen is the director:

Also, sometimes you have to get down real low to really see what's going on:

It may be a couple days before I post again, as I'm traveling back to Montana tomorrow. In the meantime, I hope everyone stays warm and happy.

Followup

I got around to reading the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," on which the recent movie is based. As I guessed, it involves few of the specific events used so effectively in the Fincher film, though it does mirror them at least in passing (the Spanish Americaan War, for example, instead of World War II). The short story is much more satirical in nature, and Fitzgerald actually referred to it as an intentionally comic piece. While the film's more powerful drama is leavened with a fair amount of humor, it obviously has more important ideas to convey (though again, those ideas are not exactly alien to the original story-- there just not so overt). Fitzgerald said that he was prompted to write "Benjamin Button" by Mark Twain's famous comment that human aging ought to be reversed, and there is much that is "Twainian" about the short story, not the least its slightly biting sense of humor. Anyway, I'd recommend that you see the film and read the story for two different, though clearly related, approaches to the tale.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Political Comment

I thought I might weigh in on the controversy surrounding the seating of the newly appointed junior Senator from Illinois, Roland Burris. You may be aware that the Democratic leadership has decided to deny him his seat as the replacement for Barack Obama named by the scandalized governor Rod Blagojevich. Harry Reid, Senate majority leader called Burris "tainted." I think Reid has botched this whole process, and I think it's unfortunate that Burris is the one who is being implicated by such charges. I understand why there is concern about Blogojevich, but this pick seems to have been made in an effort to restore something of his reputation-- in other words, there are no evident, valid concerns about Burris' suitability for the position, merely another example of strained guilt-by-association that has become all too familiar currency in our political process. I don't blame Burris for being upset as his reputation is being unnecessarily sullied by what can only be described as the inept political gamesmanship of Reid.

By the way, in a related matter, Al Franken has been certified the winner in Minnesota's Senate race recount, and has also been denied his seat just yet (there are legal challenges afoot). I heard that Mitch McConnell (R, KY) has threatened to filibuster Franken's seating, saying (paraphrase) that the "people in Minnesota need to resolve this dispute." Seems to me they already did that by recounting the ballots in an incredibly open fashion over the past few weeks. I wonder if McConnell remembers something that Franken wrote some years back, when he first floated the idea of running for the Senate. Franken said that should he win, since the new Senate takes office a few weeks ahead of the new president, it was his intention to bring articles of impeachment against G. W. Bush before he leaves office. Maybe the Republicans are afraid he'd carry through on that threat?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Is It Art? (or, A Blatant Stab at Validation)

A couple of days ago I visited the brand new Burchfield-Penney Art Museum here in Buffalo. Actually, the museum has been around for quite a long time, but it recently moved into new digs adjacent to the Buffalo State College campus, and the new building is a peach of a public place, with multiple galleries offering multiple contexts to display the works. The cornerstone of the collection is of course, the work of Charles Burchfield, who called Buffalo home for a number of years at the peak of his career. One of the exhibits currently on display is a collection of some of his works celebrating the Seasons. Another focuses on the work of a group of Buffalo photographers from early in the twentieth century, whose purported mission was to replicate classical subjects from painting (like still lifes, landscapes, etc.) on film.

Anyway, inspired by these two exhibits, I set out with camera in hand tot he Tifft Nature Preserve (along with Natalie, Ben & Tom) this afternoon, and while there, shot the above picture. I think it qualifies as a landscape picture, but what I want to know is, is it art? I'd be interested in any comments you'd like to share on the topic, keeping in mind that I, at least, would like to believe it is [ingratiating smile].