Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another Place I'd Like to Be

Though to be honest, it really won't be all that worthwhile for a couple months (that is, once it warms up a bit):

By the way, that's the fine young Twins hurler Francisco Liriano on the hill at the start of this clip (while rehabbing down on the farm with the Rochester Red Wings last year).

Remembering Florence

I wonder if everyone who visits Firenze (Florence to you and me) comes away thinking it is one of the grandest cities anywhere? I know I did, and when I went back nine years later, I fell in love with it all over again.

I mean, you can find all kinds of great art, right out in the middle of the street.

You can hear music coming from almost everywhere.

You can retrace your footsteps from the last time you were there (well, I could-- here's me standing more-or-less on the same spot where I celebrated New Years 2000 in front of the Duomo).

And, son of a gun if you can't also find a shop where you can buy a vacuum cleaner, even if not as conveniently located as your near-by Rosiek's Vacuums! (that's a plug, folks)

Political Comment

I don't have any particular expertise in any area of science, and have little to add to the ongoing discussion of global warming (or, if you prefer, climate-change). I have to say I tend to believe the scientists in this matter much more than the politicians and partisan talking heads who pooh-pooh the theory. Josh Marshall today has a roll-call of some of the biggest deniers at his Talking Points Memo site, and frankly it includes some real lunkheads like Senator Imhofe from Oklahoma and Steve Doocy from Fox News. The question I keep coming back to is, what possible ulterior motives do the scientists monitoring the change have, compared to the political and business interests (which aren't exactly mutually exclusive) who are resisting their findings?

Anyway, the reason I brought it up here is that in looking at that aforementioned honor roll, it reminded me of something I read many many years ago in a comic book retelling the origin of Superman. Here's the relevant sequence:

Obviously, I'm not suggesting that E. Nelson Bridwell, Carmine Infantino & Curt Swan (the writer and artists responsible for the above version of Superman's origin story, from, I'm guessing, the mid-seventies) somehow predicted the current crisis, only that they were prescient in recognizing that political hacks were sure to denounce the results of scientific inquiry they didn't want to believe. I don't know if this is a manifestation of the long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country's history, or just blind stupidity, but I worry that it's not doing any of us any good.

Tuesday's Quote

Roger Bacon (1220-1292) was a Franciscan friar and early advocate of the scientific method of inquiry. Although he wrote the following over 700 years ago, I think you'll recognize it's continuing relevance:

"There are in fact four very significant stumbling blocks
in the way of grasping the truth, which hinder every man
however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to win a
clear title to wisdom, namely, the example of weak and
unworthy authority, longstanding custom, the feeling
of the ignorant crowd, and the hiding of our own ignorance
while making a display of our apparent knowledge."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Great Song

Cockfighting wouldn't seem to be a likely topic for a great folk song (though I suppose Clifford Geertz would disagree). Nonetheless, Tom Russell wrote one, and here's Joe Ely (arguably the second greatest performer to come from Lubbock, Texas*), singing it:

*Buddy Holly of course! But the competition for the number two spot is pretty stiff; in addition to Ely, there's Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, etc. etc.

Memories of Spain

Here's another "archival" post commemorating my 1988 trip to Spain. It's also kind of a follow-up to the post last week on my visit to Pompeii since I'm focusing here on a series of photos taken of another remnant of the classical Roman era, namely the aqueduct in Segovia.

Here's a close-up of the aqueduct, which was constructed sometime in the late first/early second century AD, to bring water to the town from the nearby mountains.

Here you can see how the structure runs adjacent to the rest of the city, with the aqueduct itself straddling several streets.

Here's a view from the old walls of the city, which themselves must date back at least to medieval times.

From this angle, you really get a sense of how magnificently engineered this thing is, as its pretty apparent that those upper pillars are pretty thin. It's incredible that this remains standing, and I don't doubt that, if necessary, it could be put back to work delivering water.

P.S. This is my 100th post this month. When I started the blog last fall, I committed to posting three times a week, and since the start of the year, I'm averaging over three posts a day. I never realized I had so much I wanted to say!

Political Comment (by proxy)

I think Matt Taibbi is one of the sharpest political reporter/commentators out there today. His regular gig now is with Rolling Stone, but I remember first discovering him as one of the co-founders of the Buffalo Beast alternative paper in my hometown some years back. Anyway, he recently posted a response to that self-serving letter that appeared last week in the New York Times from an AIG executive, and I think Taibbi's response is dead on. You can read it here (fair warning: Taibbi can be a little free with his language).

P.S. A bonus quote-for-the-day from John Ruskin (1819-1900) seems appropriate in this context:

"Whereas it has been known and declared that the
poor have no right to the property of the rich,
I wish it also to be known and declared that the rich
have no right to the property of the poor."

Monday Philosophizing

From the noted Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov, comes this (which pretty much explains why he was seen as a dissident):

"Intellectual freedom is essential to human society....
Freedom of thought is the only guarantee against
an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the
hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues,
can be transformed into bloody dictatorships."

Lou Saban, RIP

Buffalo is a city that lives and dies with its sports teams. One can argue whether that is really the healthiest or most productive form of community identity, but that doesn't matter-- it's true. I suspect a big part of the reason that the city so closely identifies with the Bills in particular, has a lot to do with the legacy of Lou Saban, the hard-nosed coach who took the team to consecutive AFL titles in the mid-1960s and later returned the team to a bit of glory in the early seventies during the O.J. Simpson era. He was our Vince Lombardi. I know as a kid in that earlier period that Saban's name was as familiar as that of Jack Kemp or Billy Shaw or Elbert Dubenion; only Cookie Gilchrist was a bigger name from those glory years (but then, I was six at the time, so how could I not be impressed by a massive fullback named "Cookie"?). Over the many years of his subsequent peripatetic career, I think most Bills fans always imagined that someday he would return to the city by the lake and rescue the team, and the city, from its all too frequent doldrums. Now its too late for that, and we'll have to find another white knight.

You can find the Buffalo News obituary of Saban here; and the New York Times obit here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What Makes a Classic?

Here's a great example of what raises a movie above the run-of-the-mill. It's a scene from the Howard Hawks version of The Big Sleep from 1946 (you won't find anything even remotely as good in the inferior Michael Winner remake from 1978). This scene hardly advances the narrative at all, but it goes a long way towards developing character and atmosphere, which are the elements that sweep you along even as the convoluted plot twists become more tangled. There's a famous anecdote about this film when Hawks and scriptwriter William Faulkner became confused about one of the multiple murders and called the author of the source novel, Raymond Chandler, for clarification. Chandler had to admit he didn't know the answer either, and the point was left unresolved in the final cut. But with scenes like this one, I'd bet very few viewers than or now ever noticed the omission. I guess my point is that a movie can be propelled by star power (was there anyone better than Bogart?) and a kind of story-telling verve that render details like that unimportant; and when it's done as well as this, well, you've got yourself a timeless classic.

A Favorite Painting 18

N.C. Wyeth, Franklin's Arrival in Philadelphia 1923

As should be evident from previous posts in this series, my reaction to a painting is often based on historical elements, whether overt or not. Even though this image is distinctly historical in topic, that has little to do with how much I like it. I saw this at the Amon CarterMuseum in Fort Worth a few years ago, and was drawn to the image by the gorgeous interplay of light and dark, so suggestive of an Indian summer evening, with the leaves turning and lengthening shadows slanting across the sidewalk. Wyeth was known primarily as a magazine illustrator, and its easy to imagine this picture augmenting some biographical narrative of the founding father. But all by itself, it's highly suggestive of the kind of fresh start one might associate with start of a new school term, or perhaps at the start of the harvesting season. In the popular imagination, we don't often think of Benjamin Franklin as a young man, but knowing what he became, this picture just seems full of promise and potential-- for him, for the country, for whoever. I think it's that sense of possibility, along with the nostalgia of Indian summers past, that draws me to this painting.

A Thought to Start the Week

Here's a sobering thought from noted media critic Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). He wrote this in 1964 in his classic work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and one would be hard-pressed to prove it doesn't remain true today:

"The historians and archaeologists will one day
discover that the ads of our times are the richest
and most faithful daily reflection that any society
ever made of its entire range of activities."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Last Book I Read

I haven't written before about what I'm reading, but thought I might start. Unlike movies, which I obviously watch sequentially (that is, one at a time), I'm usually in the middle of three or four books, hence it never really feels like I'm done; even when I finish one I'm still immersed in several others. But I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some comments about at least some of them, especially if I think some readers of the blog might want to look for them the next time they stop by the library or bookstore. So, the last book I finished was Blood and Thunder: The Epic of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides.

The cover promises an epic, and it is that. Kit Carson is clearly a central character in the narrative, but this is not a biography, as Carson vanishes from the story for long stretches, though he always eventually pops up again (and emerges as the central character in the latter portion of the book). And, though the idea of conquest is central to the plot, it has more to do with the defeat of a single Indian tribe, the Navajos, than a detailed exposition of how the entire trans-Mississippi region came under American control. I guess what I'm saying is that, don't let the cover mislead you about what this book is all about. The focus is on how the territory known as New Mexico was contested over about twenty years or so, between native peoples and interlopers from the south and later the east. It provides something of a split focus in the early sections, trading off chapters written from the perspective of the American military as it entered the region in the early days of the war with Mexico (and focusing on commanders like Stephen Kearney and John C. Fremont), with those offering more of the Navajo slant (particularly with respect to their famous leader Narbona). This makes for a balanced picture, and Sides does a nice job of developing the complex nature of the various groups' motives, strategies, and interactions. By the latter half of the book, as the timeline jumps ahead to the Civil War era, the overt Navajo perspective starts to fade, but because the reader has already been well-grounded in their background from the earlier chapters, we still feel the emotional weight of their round-up and re-location.

As long and as detailed as this book is, it really represents something of a snapshot of what unfolded in the American West between the days of Lewis and Clark and the end of the Indian wars in the 1890s. But it is an evocative snapshot, that has relevant counterparts almost everywhere in this country (even including much of the eastern portion going back to colonial days). While it is hardly a critique of the policies that led to reservations and even extermination of the natives, it certainly demonstrates how those policies emerged from basic competition for resources that were never as expansive as visionaries of the west (like Thomas Hart Benton or William Gilpin) promised. The ultimate tragedy is that respected and capable individuals like Narbona and Carson were implicated in treacherous acts that allowed the other side to paint them as villains, unleashing less scrupulous individuals like the vicious zealot John M. Chivington, which in turn led to destructive actions that almost always left the Indians especially weakened and vulnerable.

It's a compelling, and ultimately sad story. But at least it goes some way to restoring a human dimension to both sides, getting beyond the dime novel bally-hoo of Carson's career and restoring (for the non-Indian reader) a sense of the rich Navajo heritage of pride and accomplishment.

Saturday Morning Cartoons

I was trying to think of another regular feature to add to the blog and came up with this: classic cartoons from my youth (no doubt the idea was prompted by my stumbling over Roger Ramjet a few days ago). Anyway, I fondly remember watching Beany and Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent when I was a kid, and maybe some of you will remember this as well. The animation is pretty rudimentary, but the jokes largely hold up and the show featured one of the greatest cartoon villains of them all, Dishonest John. Enjoy:

Thought for the Day

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, has a common reputation of being a kind of benign figure. That image doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny, though that hardly diminishes the power or relevance or wit of his work. Here's something he wrote in 1899, at the height of his celebrity-- one wishes that celebrity translated into greater influence, especially on this point (feel free to speculate on the exception noted in the comments):

"I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices,
and I think I have no color prejudices or caste prejudices
nor creed prejudices. Indeed I know it. I can stand any
society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human
being-- that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mary Lou Lord Live

Mary Lou Lord is well known for being discovered some years ago busking on the streets of Boston and for singing a lot of Nick Salomon (from Bevis Frond) songs. This isn't a Salomon tune (it was written by Richard Thompson) but it is performed on the street, as you'll see, even though this was long after her discovery. It's a little chaotic visually, but I think you might enjoy it nonetheless.

Friday Family Blogging Quiz

Okay, this is one of those "use your imagination" quizzes (since I don't actually know what the right answer is, though maybe Natalie does). What do you think the name of the cat in the above picture should be? Put your responses in the comments section; most creative response wins.

Last week I asked if you could identify the setting for the picture of Sara, and wouldn't you know it, Theresa got it right out of the box (at least her correct answer didn't convince everyone else, so there were some additional guesses). By the way, the midweek geography quiz is still waiting for a right answer, as is the informal question from yesterday about where the flowers are (or to put it another way, I love getting comments so keep those guesses coming).

More Friday Family Blogging

Here's another one I like from 1988 (more than twenty years ago-- yikes!) when Catie and I went to Spain to visit Nick. This was taken in Toledo (actually, maybe just outside the gates of the city). Toledo was one of many very cool places we visited and I hope I get the chance to go back some day.

Friday Family Blogging

The digitizing of old photos continues. I'm not doing this in any kind of orderly fashion, which allows me to stumble across stuff I'd forgotten about (actually, that would probably happen even if I were doing it in an orderly fashion). Anyway, here's a nice picture I found that I thought you might like:

This isn't the weekly quiz (but in a baldfaced attempt to spark some comments), anyone know where this was taken? A hint, we were hiking down a ski hill in the summer time. In case any of the faces are unrecognizable this is (l to r) Nick, Richard, Sally, Liz & Marenka, Theresa, Joe. That was a fun day.

Friday Philosophy

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was a Scottish historian and sociologist. Here's something from a lecture he delivered in 1840, which retains some contemporary relevance:

"The first duty of man is that of subduing fear.
We must get rid of fear; we cannot act at all till then.
A man's acts are slavish, not true but specious;
his very thoughts are false, he thinks too as a slave
and coward, till he has got fear under his feet."

If I Were in Buffalo...

I'd go see this guy at the library tomorrow (it's free):

One of the most interesting creative people working today (according to me), Harvey Pekar is giving a presentation tomorrow at the downtown library. I hope if anyone reading this does attend, they'll send me a full report in the comments.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is It Spring Yet?

There's a Winter Advisory in effect for Dillon tonight, but I know that somewhere, the flowers are in bloom!

These photos were taken in the last two weeks-- anybody want to guess where?

A Favorite Painting 17

Jackson Pollack, Lavender Mist: No. 1 1950

The years after World War II were fraught with anxiety for a lot of Americans. No one knew if the economy might collapse back into depression. It wasn't clear if veterans, especially those who'd been in combat for most of the previous four years, could be effectively reintegrated into civilian society. Those who did not return left shattered families that, in particular, hinted at juvenile delinquency increasing in the absence of strong paternal influence. The Red Scare promoted paranoia and accelerated numbing conformity. Women who'd played their part in building the nation's defenses were stripped of their nascent independence and the options it provided them. Massive emigration had dramatically redrawn the racial, ethnic, class lines of communities across the country and as a consequence, longstanding social relations had to be re-examined. Revelations about the horrors of the Holocaust and the use of atomic weapons gave pause to those who imagined the course of human history as unwaveringly progressive and positive. Amidst all that, it seems to me that Pollack's work was almost inevitable and, amazingly, reassuring through its capture of the elements of dynamic beauty that existed regardless of those troubling circumstances (though that may be easier to say now with the benefit of hindsight). This painting, which I saw at the National Gallery in Washington DC, is both the embodiment of, and antidote for, the time of its creation.

Remembering Commander Tom

I was having breakfast with some friends this morning and the topic of classic cartoons came up, prompted by the sighting of a vanity license plate "BOO BOO" and speculation on what it meant (if you don't see the connection, then you probably haven't been thinking about Yogi Berra recently, like I have). Anyway, it reminded me of the Commander Tom Show that I used to watch when I was a kid, on channel 7 in Buffalo. Hosted by the station's weather man, dressed up in a faux military/space uniform, Commander Tom showed old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, Little Rascals shorts, and of course cartoons. The one I remember best was Roger Ramjet, which I hadn't actually seen in possibly 40 years. But thanks to the wonders of Youtube, which I logged into as soon as I got to a computer, rediscovery was just a few keystrokes away. I have to say, it holds up pretty well! In fact, I'm kind of heartened to see that even a kids' show in the 1960s could poke fun at Cold War hyperbole. Check it out for yourself:

Today's Great Thought

I don't know anything about the Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881), except that I fully agree with this statement, which is as true today as when he wrote it in 1856:

"Truth is not only violated by falsehood;
it may be outraged by silence."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Sometime back my nephew Ben asked me to post some pictures from my visit to Pompei back in 2000. I've finally gotten around to digitizing some of those pictures, so here they are. Pompei was the last stop for me on the trip (my traveling companions were there a couple days longer and also took in Capri). We'd previously visited Rome, Florence, Venice and Pisa (actually following an itinerary that was very similar to my visit last fall). As I recall, Pompei was cold and largely empty of other tourists, though we did make the acquaintance of a presumably local dog who followed us around for most of the day.

I don't have these properly labeled to be able to say exactly what they are, but above is a little crossroads in the city, with Vesuvius visible in the distance to the right.

Here is a particularly well-preserved facade of some public building, along with the remnants of some columns. It's actually kind of creepy wandering among these ruins, knowing the fate that befell the last inhabitants.

In various spots around the town, you find these cages filled with archaeological artifacts that have yet to be cataloged for display. It's just piles and piles of stuff- the recovered possessions of those who died (or fled from) the eruption. I suspect that any one of these cages holds enough fascinating material to keep someone who's interested in ancient history occupied for days.

More columns. One wonders if this won't ultimately be what someplace like Las Vegas will look like when the water runs out.

Last, a more lighthearted image. My friends emulating the figure in the statue in the foreground. That's Evan, Lindsey, Christine, Jim and Lindy. If any of you are looking in, drop me a line and let me know how things are going.

Midweek Geography Quiz

Okay, let's see if I can't spark a little more interactivity around here. This is a photo I took almost 25 years ago in a place I imagine most of you have heard of. Can anyone guess where? Be as specific as possible, and put your answers in the comments section.

A Book I Want to Read

There's an interesting interview today at Salon.com with author Allen Barra who has just published a biography of baseball great Yogi Berra. I remember reading Barra's columns in the Village Voice back in the 1980s, and always found his work to be both thoughtful and engaging. As he points out in this interview, although recognized as a star, Yogi was an even better player than many realized. His reputation often suffered as a result of the well-reported malapropisms that signaled him as something less than an intellectual (to put it mildly). But despite that wide public perception, Yogi was pretty much a success at everything and largely as a result of his own efforts, both mental and physical. What sounds particularly interesting about the book is the attention paid to Berra's salary battles with the Yankees during his heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. There's a common misperception that baseball only became a business with the advent of free agency and players agents in teh 1970s. Nothing could be further from the truth, it's just that teams retained so much clout in negotiations before that, that it was rare for that aspect of the game to be reported. Anyway, this looks like a good read, and some of you may want to check it out too.

Wednesday's Words of Wisdom

I can't believe I haven't yet posted something by the quintessential Renaissance Man, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519). So, to rectify that situation, here's a quote that ought to serve as a general motto for all of us:
"Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses
its purity, and in cold, weather becomes frozen;
even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

You know what they say about imitation... well, here are three movie scenes that kind of prove the point. The first is from the classic Jean Luc Godard film Band of Outsiders from 1964. The actors are Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Clause Brasseur. The film was not a musical, just included this neat musical moment:

In 1992, Hal Hartley did his variation of the communal dance in his film, Simple Men (definitely worth seeing if you are looking for something to rent), and I think you can see some similarities. The dancers here are Elina Lowensohn, Bill Sage, Martin Donovan, Robert Burke and Karen Sillas:

Last, here's the famous dance scene from Quentin Taratino's Pulp Fiction (1994), with Uma Thurman and John Travolta. Actually, the scene following this one, where Uma dances solo to a tape of Urge Overkill doing "Kentucky Woman" (which I couldn't find a clip of) makes the connection to the Hartley film even more pronounced as she mirrors some of Lowensohn's moves in that sequence. But this is close too:

The point I want to make here is that great artists inevitably borrow from one another, and there's nothing wrong with that as long as the borrowings are relevant to the work as a whole (as is certainly true with Simple Men and Pulp Fiction, and Band of Outsiders too, though I'm not sure where to look for its particular antecedent). I remember noting the nod to Simple Men in Pulp Fiction, but only later discovered the Godard film. Personally, I find the continuity suggested by these links fascinating and appreciate that one generation is paying tribute to their creative ancestors. This is more obvious, I think, in music, but clearly is a factor in all artistic endeavors.

Tuesday's Quote

Robert M. LaFollette (1855-1925) was a mainstay of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. He served as a governor and Senator from Wisconsin for many years, and founded the magazine that continues today as The Progressive in 1909. The warning quoted here has as much relevance today as it did when he wrote it in 1920:

"Let no man think that he can deny civil liberty to others
and retain it for ourselves.... When zealous agents of the
Government arrest suspected "radicals" without warrant,
hold them without prompt trial, deny them access to
counsel and admission of bail... we have shorn the Bill of
Rights of its sanctity as a shield to every American citizen"

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Musical Interlude

Here's one that maybe even Mom will enjoy: Anita O'Day (her name means "money" in Pig Latin) and Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge with the Gene Krupa Orchestra from 1942. To me, this is rock and roll in everything but name (but then I tend to a very broad definition of rock and roll ;-)

A Favorite Painting 16

Aaron Douglas, Slavery Through Reconstruction Aspects of Negro Life, 1934

During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, for the first time, creative work done by African-Americans was given a degree of attention and respect as a legitimate expression of American culture. Up until that point, black artists had little opportunity to display their work before the broader public. But following the first world war, in which African-American servicemen and workers proved for the umpteenth time their claim on full citizenship, there was a flowering of both output and patronage that finally paid tribute to the wealth of talent within the black community in everything from poetry to sculpture. Not too surprisingly, much of the work that surfaced in this period commented back on the earlier generations, and Aaron Douglas' painting is a good representative of that tendency. In it, we see the prevailing historical perspective that too often suggested that black folk were incidental to their own experience. In the foreground, the white cotton bolls signify its prominence in defining southern culture, even as the people who worked the crop and guaranteed its economic primacy are cast in shadows. Still, even from that marginal and indistinct place, their actions take on the appearance of accomplishment and even celebration. This painting strikes me as an assertion that despite mainstream ignorance, blacks were ready to claim their rightful place in the nation's historic social hierarchy, a place defined not by those who sought to enslave or dismiss them, but rather by their own contributions to the success and prosperity of the nation. In this way, it's a great American story, representing the promise of our core national values and how they resonate across any arbitrary racial or class divisions.

Political Comment

For the past couple of weeks, it seems like everyone has been caught up in the imbroglio over bonuses paid to executives at companies that have been rescued from failure by taxpayer dollars. This is clearly an issue that strikes a chord, not just because of the cash involved, but also the a commonly held basic notion of fairness: how is it that individuals largely responsible for the economic misfortunes of not only these particular companies (most notably AIG), but really global financial markets in general, can be rewarded for their malfeasance?

Clearly this is a big story, but on some level I can't help but think it is also a distraction. So much time and energy is being devoted to an issue that is easy to grasp, but only really symbolically representative of the ongoing problem. Yes, these companies have been profligate, and that needs to stop. But how exactly does taxing the bonuses address that problem? Do we really think that the corporations won't figure out other ways to compensate their executives that would be equally evasive of general notions of their actual worth? Wouldn't we realize a more equitable and satisfying (in the long-term) return if efforts were made to establish functioning regulatory oversight of the industry, close corporate tax loopholes, and criminally prosecute those who we are now suggesting may have actually engaged in fraud? I don't see any of those things really being discussed, certainly not with the vehemence of the bonus issue. Maybe something is happening behind the scenes, but it seems if any real progress is to made in areas of real substance-- as opposed to some form of symbolic public retribution-- it would be nice to see the powers-that-be in the Obama administration out front generating public support for those efforts.

Monday's Musing

Courtesy of the Spanish-born American philosopher, George Santayana, here's a little something to think about:

"Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is
shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first
comer: there is nobility in preserving it cooly and
proudly through a long youth, until at last, in the
ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely
exchanged for fidelity and happiness."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Last Movies I Saw

I caught a couple of films over the weekend, and they kind of lend themselves to a combined review. Each centers on a couple whose romantic impulses are brought under tremendous pressure by respective doubts about shared goals and motives.

The first of these two films is Tony Gilroy's Duplicity (Gilroy also wrote and directed one of my favorite films from last year, Michael Clayton), starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owens. I guess we could call it a caper comedy-thriller, wherein two experienced spies (Roberts' caharacter was in the CIA, Owens's in MI6) go to work in the private sector with the intention of ripping off their employers for $40 million. It plays out with multiple twists and turns and frankily, in the end is pretty forgettable. I like Owens a lot, and his charm carries the film; I'm not so big a fan of Roberts, and to me she's a little over her head in this film-- not bad really, just kind of one-dimensional and, aside from her obvious beauty, rather charmless. Maybe that's just me (and to be fair, I've seen her in other movies where I thought she did just fine).

The other film was Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet. In this story, two young dreamers (he of travel, she of acting) find themselves married with kids and living in the suburbs of 1950s America. Both know they are unhappy, but find themselves incapable of fully breaking the chains that have locked them into their middle class prison. The acting by both leads (and all of the supporting cast) is fantastic (I'm a little mystified why Winslet's performance here was overlooked in Academy Award nominations in deference to The Reader-- I found this to be a much more subtle and compelling performance). It's kind of a harrowing story in many ways, and ends on a downbeat note. But throughout it is thoughtful and realistic in a manner that goes beyond the period detail in costumes and sets (in fact, it makes me want to read the source novel by Richard Yates).

I guess that is ultimately the key difference between these two films. One is all flash and style, the other deals in substance. Duplicity was a reasonably entertaining way to spend a couple hours, but ultimately meaningless and forgettable; while Revolutionary Road provokes continued thought and consideration. I think the main reason for this, is that the latter actually deals with real people with whom I can identify, while the former is just a couple of movie stars playing roles that have virtually no connection to anything real. I think I was also somewhat put off by and underlying conceit of Duplicity, which is that corporations are smarter than people (whereas Revolutionary Road, with its "Organization Man" subtheme posits a more complex take on the corporate world). This may actually be true on some level, but I hardly think its something to celebrate, which is how it plays out in this film.

The Wonder of Krazy Kat

There is something fundamentally satisfying about the work of the great George Herriman, especially in his masterpiece, the Krazy Kat strip. His landscapes appear surreal (unless you've ever visited the canyons of the Southwest United States) as do the relations between his characters (unless you've ever truly negotiated the tangled web of real human interaction). Krazy loves Ignatz the Mouse, who expresses his undying contempt for the Kat with the utter violence of regularly flung bricks to Krazy's noggin. Offisa Pupp harbors his own unrequited for the Kat, and fails to see that Ignatz' regular attacks are welcomed by Krazy, since they demonstrate that Ignatz's feelings for him are intense and result in constant attention.

All the inhabitants of Coconino County are playing out the roles that destiny has assigned them, in an environment that magnifies their individual insignificance, at least insofar as they try to assert some kind of control over their fate. Krazy rolls with things and is happy, even when laid out by another brick, while Ignatz and Offisa Pupp are endlessly frustrated in their efforts to alter the outcome of their little "play." I think there's a lesson in there, but even if not, it sure is a beautiful strip to view and think about.

Sunday Philosophizing

Today's quote comes from Jose Ortega y Gasset's classic dissection of the dangers of conformity and group-think, especially in relation to false notion that the distribution of political power (through democracy, for instance) is itself sufficient to elevate the individual out of ignorance. This comes from his classic work, The Revolt of the Masses from 1929:

"The most radical division that it is possible to make of
humanity is that which splits it into two classes of
creatures: those who make great demands on themselves,
piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand
nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to
be every moment what they already are, without
imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection;
mere buoys that float on waves"

Friday, March 20, 2009

My Favorite TV Show of All-Time

Believe it or not, Maverick was my favorite TV show when I was about 4 years old (watching it in daytime re-runs while waiting for my older sister Sally to come home from kindergarten for lunch), and it is probably still my all-time favorite show. Periodically over the years, it would pop up in syndication and I'd be able to reacquaint myself with Bret and Bart and Beau (and yes, even Brent), and unlike most older shows that one re-encounters, this one holds up very very well. Obviously the charm of stars James Garner and Jack Kelly was a big part of this, as was the sense of humor that infected many episodes, offering up direct and not-so-direct parodies of the western genre and competing programs from its initial run from 1957-1962. You know it was a great concept because it kept being revived, first in Young Maverick from the 1970s, then Bret Maverick (with Garner back in the title role) in the 80s, and finally with the Mel Gibson movie version of a few years ago. It's a shame that with so many other old shows getting deluxe releases on DVD, that this true classic somehow is ignored. Anyway, here's a video I found of the theme and title song over the end credits of an episode from 1958 or 1959. Can anyone else sing all the words?

As long as we're on the topic of favorite TV shows, why not let me know your favorite(s) in the comments section.

Hope Springs Eternal!

It's the first day of Spring, but baseball's spring training is actually winding down, with the regular season set to start in about two weeks. So far, my team, the Atlanta Braves, have been just incredible in Grapefruit League games (what they call the exhibitions by teams training in Florida), with 15 wins against only 3 losses. Needless to say, that creates an awful lot of optimism for the upcoming regular season, even despite their disappointing showing last year. They've got some good young talent coming up (like pitcher Tommy Hanson in the center of the photo above), and filled some holes through trades and free agency over the winter. They certainly aren't quite the power they were through the nineties, but just maybe they'll be able to compete for a wild card playoff spot this year. But then, I guess every fan of every team is harboring the same feelings at this time of the year. For the rest of you fans who may be reading this, how about letting us know the prospects for your team in the comments, even if there're only based on Spring-fueled illusions (like mine).

More Family Blogging

The reddish tinge on the right side of this photo is some kind of technical messup on my part, but I think it adds to the charm of this photo. I assume most of you recognize the three urchins at rest?

Friday Family Quiz

Okay, this is another "where are they?" deal. I know the background is a little fuzzy, but I think there's enough visual information to prompt some good guesses. Maybe I should ask Sara to refrain from answering until others have a chance, but I think I may her stumped too, so have at it. Put your guesses in the comments.

Last week, you were asked to guess where the picture of Mom was taken, and Lizzie correctly identified the setting as Colonial Williamsburg from the 70s (actually, 1975). At least it took a few guesses before that answer came in. Good luck to everyone this week.

Friday Family Blogging

I thought Ben and Natalie especially might like to see this picture of their Mom from about 30 years ago. Is that the last time you had such long hair Sally?