Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mammal Watch: Fishers

The fisher is an interesting species that does not have much of a public profile. Although sometimes colloquially called "fisher cats," they are not felines but mustelids, members of the same mammalian family as weasels, otters, badgers, minks, martens, and the much more notorious wolverine. They are native to Canada and parts of the northern and western United States, from Maine to California, but are difficult to spot in the wild, making them a real challenge for mammal watchers. Oddly, they don't eat much fish, but concentrate their formidable hunting instincts on small and medium-size land prey. Unusually, they go after porcupines with gusto, one of the few predators to do so.

I've recently come across two valuable blog posts about fishers. One is from Idaho Nature Notes and compares the fisher's success in different habitats:

The other post, from Camera Trap Codger, offers some great photographs of fishers taken with a camera trap in Northern California:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hanging Out with Television Characters

Coming to the Star Trek reboot project, J.J. Abrams understood the most important thing there was for him to understand: that he had to get the casting right, or he would have nothing. And so he got the casting spectacularly right, and the movie was a triumph. Why was the casting so important? Because we really don't watch Star Trek mainly for its stories, even though sometimes the stories are very good (much of the time they're just serviceable); and we certainly don't watch it for the action sequences, even though the genre requires that there have to be some action sequences. We watch it to hang out with the (by now iconic) characters, and the actors who play them. Most of television is like that; it's an intimate, companionable medium, and it is very character-driven. Most of the series I truly love have this hanging-out aspect: I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Avengers, The Wild Wild West, Upstairs Downstairs, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Six Feet Under, Mad Men: the list could go on and on. Even that sociopath Tony Soprano and his fellow sociopaths are fun to hang out with, at the viewer's safe distance. A series like the charming All Creatures Great and Small relies so heavily upon the companionability of its characters (and animals) that one scarcely remembers the stories at all. Even with a show like The Fugitive, so strongly dependent upon a single character rather than a social set, it could be said that the viewer is hanging out with Richard Kimble; after all, the viewer is the only dependable friend that Kimble has got.

It follows that good actors can to some extent save television projects that otherwise don't have a lot going for them. I recently purchased the first season box set of White Collar because I knew that the show highlights two handsome actors (Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay) who wear suits, and sometimes that is enough for me. The series has many hackneyed elements and is not anything I could write a rave review of, but the actors bring some spark to it and make it watchable in a way that's perfect for those times - the end of a long work day, for example - when one's mind is set at "Idle." Sometimes we want undemanding as long as it is not also insulting, and medium-good TV with fetching actors can fill that bill.

Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Found on the Web: Albert Camus

While preparing my philosophy course last fall, I came across (and used in class) this marvelous clip of Albert Camus appearing on French television on January 28, 1959, to talk about the dramatic adaption of Dostoevsky's The Possessed (which I am currently reading in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, Demons) that he both wrote and was directing. Camus was legendarily a good man and a charmer, and those qualities come across strongly and very appealingly here. He somehow manages to combine confidence with an unassuming air - notice his slight but bewitching smile, especially when he talks about the interests he shares with Dostoevsky, as if to apologize (but not really) for making the comparison. (At this point, Camus was already and deservedly a Nobel Prize winner, the second-youngest Literature winner ever.) Camus's comments on The Possessed are thoroughly perspicacious, especially his description of the novel's essentially theatrical nature - it really is conceived as a series of "scenes," with definite entrances and exits.

The original production of Camus's adaptation must have been something to see, with 33 actors taking part in a complex action over a 3 1/2 hour evening. In the interview, Camus speaks of having to cut some fifty minutes of text even to get down to that length, but the excised bits are all present (and indicated by brackets) in the printed version. I have the English translation in a volume of Camus's plays, which I plan to read as soon as I finish the Dostoevsky.

The sad part of looking at this video is realizing that less than a year later, Camus would be dead in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Found on the Web: Patsy Cline

I had never seen this clip before, a live TV performance by Patsy Cline the month before her death in a plane crash on March 5, 1963. She was only 29. This is not one of those cases when an early death made a legend; it just quickened appreciation of a remarkable talent. There is no reason to suppose that Cline wouldn't have gone on doing great work for decades: you look at her here and she seems so solid, so self-possessed.

Philosophy and Longevity

Here's an interesting fact. I've put together a long chronological list of philosophers and other figures in the history of ideas - more than 1,200 names so far. I have found out that in earlier eras when average lifespans were very much shorter than they are nowadays, and continuing right on until the present day, an astonishing (statistically significant!) number of thinkers lived into their 80s, 90s, and 100s. This tends to confirm a belief that I have, that it is our minds that keep us alive. After 50 or so, our bodies really are not much good, but allowing for the occasional memory lapses and synaptic misfires, a vigorous and well-exercised mind can continue working in strong fashion almost indefinitely. I've read about studies that back that up. So if you want to live a long and stimulating life, philosophy is the ticket!

POSTSCRIPT: It has been distressing for me to discover how much even healthy bodies change after our mid-40s. I've never smoked or taken recreational drugs, I drink moderately, I eat sensibly, I've always exercised and kept myself fit, and I have a good overall record of health. Yet at 53, the number of days on which I could say I really feel physically good has dwindled to almost none. The pep of age 35 is gone, and it ain't coming back. My mental energy doesn't seem to have diminished, yet my physical self wants to take it as easy as possible. On weekends, I nap a lot. Because of all the nonsense about how "50 is the new 40" and such, I didn't expect to experience anything that I would define as old age for another ten years or so, but I was flat wrong about that. No doubt I am just getting into the groove of aging, and it will all begin to seem like the new normal before long. But I now have no difficulty understanding why people suffer mid-life crises; the losses of aging are vaster than the culture wants to let on.

Newt Gingrich

If Newt Gingrich ever becomes President of the United States, I'm leaving the country!

Oh wait, scratch that...I already left.

Well then, I'm never coming back. So there!

Actually, I think Newt's victory in South Carolina is good for Romney. It effectively takes Santorum out of the race. Everyone else is already gone (except Ron Paul, who won't drop out but who won't accomplish anything, either). Romney will now get fired up and should take Florida handily, since Gingrich has no substantial following there (Romney is polling in the 40s, Gingrich in the teens).

Romney vs. Obama could be a dogfight. For all the talk that evangelical Republicans won't get behind Romney because he's Mormon, I think they will; they haven't got a choice. The wave of liberal enthusiasm that swept Obama into office is gone; a lot of voters who supported Obama in '08 are going to sit this one out. It might be a very close election.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Kevin Curtis Is a Dead Man

British indie film-making takes it on the chin here:

"The only reason I turn tricks and do drugs in front of my baby is so I can impress the jury at the Edinburgh Film Festival!"

Can anyone tell me why this 3:35 spoof trailer is funnier and has more quotable lines than the last ten or twelve new feature comedies I've seen? Someone give this guy Curtis funding, pronto!

(And I know that by saying this, I am helping fulfill the intention of a piece that was designed to go viral and get its director just this sort of attention - but why not? If you try for that and you fail, it's embarrassing; but if you succeed, you've made your case and deserve support.)

(Hat tip to Dangerous Minds.)

On No Longer Driving

Although I got my first driver's license at the usual age, I postponed regular driving well into adulthood because, frankly, I was phobic about it. I haven't got the world's best hand-to-eye coordination, to put it mildly, and I was afraid I'd get myself killed. When I moved to Wisconsin in 2002, though, I had to get into the driving groove, because otherwise there was no way I would be able to get to a job every day. I obtained a new license and bought my first car. Although I never became a great driver, and had a couple of fender benders, par for the course for a newbie, I didn't kill myself, and came to rather like driving. It was probably a good activity for me in some ways - it focused my attention in the moment. Small-city Wisconsin is a fun place to drive, with plentiful parking (I loathe parallel parking) and jam-free highways. When I moved to Nevada and bought an SUV, driving really started to be a blast, because the size of the vehicle suited my 6'2" frame; I had room for my legs and no longer hit my head on the roof, even when wearing a cowboy hat.

However, even as I enjoyed driving more, I never lost sight of two facts:

1. Most drives are solo drives. Almost all of mine were. As someone once said, to expend the energy required to move 4,000 pounds (the weight of the average American car) in order to move 175 pounds (the weight of the average American) does not make any sense.

2. Owning a car has got to be one of the worst money-sucks ever invented. I figure that between the installment payments for my (always used) cars, gas, maintenance, and insurance costs, the vehicle was eating up about a third of my take-home pay. In a big city with gas and toll costs, negligible in Northeast Wisconsin, it would have been worse. The car doesn't support the American lifestyle; the American lifestyle supports the car.

When I moved to Korea to teach English in mid-2010, I sold the SUV (but I am, however, still paying it off, and will be until the end of 2013). ESL teachers seldom have vehicles on their international assignments; that is one of the main ways they save money. One Texan I knew in Korea felt completely deprived without wheels and did buy an SUV after cracking up two motorbikes (!), but it was not a sensible move. I would not drive in either Korea or Mexico, because I really would get myself killed; it takes going abroad to appreciate how generally polite, patient, and rules-obeying most American drivers are.

Free of cars again, I can't say I miss them that much. As I approach retirement - I turn 54 this year - I doubt I will ever be able to afford one again; and as I plan to work the rest of my career internationally and to retire internationally, my days of regular driving are probably behind me. Cars are the irrational American obsession, and giving up that obsession becomes much easier when you live in an environment that does not require it of you. By 2020, ordinary people around the globe, including the United States, are probably not going to be able to afford the automotive lifestyle anyway.

RIP: Johnny Otis and Etta James

Marc Myers at JazzWax does his usual excellent job of summing up the careers of the legends Johnny Otis and Etta James, who both passed away this week, and who were linked by virtue of Otis being one of James's producers. The audio/video clips are, as always with Myers, exquisitely chosen. The performance of "Misty Blue" from James's last, 2011 album triumphantly demonstrates that she kept her gift right until the end. We should all sound so good at 73!

The Telegraph (UK) posted an excellent obituary of James that doesn't shrink from the troubled aspects of her life. British newspaper obituaries in general are incomparably superior to American ones.

Here is a wonderful performance of George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" from James's 1995 album Time After Time.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Found on the Web: The Ballad of Billy McCaw

In my opinion, the best tune in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats is "The Ballad of Billy McCaw," which in the original British production was inset within the larger sequence "Growltiger's Last Stand," but was subsequently cut from the American version of the show. The Italian producers of Cats, however, had the good sense to keep the parrot in, and the song is on the Italian cast album. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in Italian it sounds a little more operatic, a little less music hall. But still good.

Oh, how well I remember the Old Bull and Bush
Where we used to go down of a Saturday night
Where, when anything happened, it come with a rush
For the boss, Mr. Clark, he was very polite

A very nice house, from basement to garret
A very nice house. Ah, but it was the parrot--
The parrot, the parrot named Billy McCaw
That brought all those folks to the bar
Ah! He was the life of the bar.

Of a Saturday night, we was all feeling bright
And Lily La Rose -- the barmaid that was --
She'd say, 'Billy, Billy McCaw!
Come give us, come give us a dance on the bar!'
And Billy would dance on the bar
And Billy would dance on the bar
And then we'd feel balmy, in each eye a tear
And emotion would make us all order more beer

Lily, she was a girl what had brains in her head
She wouldn't have nothing, no not that much said
If it come to an argument or a dispute
She'd settle it offhand with the toe of her boot
Or as likely as not put a fist through your eye
Or when we was happy and just a bit dry
Or when we was thirsty and just a bit sad,
She would rap on the bar with that corkscrew she had
And say,

'Billy, Billy McCaw!

'Come give us a tune on your pastoral flute!'
And Billy'd strike up on his pastoral flute

And Billy'd strike up on his pastoral flute

And then we'd feel balmy, in each eye a tear
And emotion would make us all order more beer

'Billy, Billy McCaw!
Come give us a tune on your moley guitar!'
And Billy'd strike up on his moley guitar
And Billy'd strike up on his moley guitar
And then we'd feel balmy, in each eye a tear
And emotion would make us all order more beer

Billy, Billy McCaw!
Come give us a tune on your moley guitar

Ah! He was the life of the bar.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Commonplace Book: Hollywood Suicides

George Sanders?...Pills. April 25, 1972, in a Costa Brava hotel room...Pier Angeli, 1971 or '72, also pills. Donald "Red" Barry, shot himself in 1980. Charles Boyer, 1978, pills again. Charles Butterworth, 1946, I think. In a car. Supposedly, it was an accident, but, you know, he was distraught. Dorothy Dandridge, pills, 1965. Albert Dekker, 1968. He hung himself. He wrote his suicide note in lipstick on his stomach. William Inge, carbon monoxide, 1973. Carole Landis, pills again. I forget when. George Reeves, "Superman" on TV, shot himself. Jean Seberg, pills, of course, 1979. Everett Sloane - he was good - pills. Margaret Sullavan, pills. Lupe Velez, a lot of pills. Gig Young, he shot himself and his wife in 1978. There are tons more.

Tobey Maguire as James Leer, Wonder Boys

"But, you know, he was distraught." Classic.

By the way, Wonder Boys, what an amazing film, Michael Douglas never better.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Found on the Web: Thai Wildlife

Through, I found this report of a wildlife expedition to Thailand's Petchaburi Province and Tenasserim Mountain Range by naturalist and high school teacher Coke Smith and his family. Some seriously gorgeous photographs here; the whole website is worth exploring.

Since I am distinctly not an outdoors, roughing-it type, I could never take these sorts of trips myself, but I enjoy it when others share the bounty of their travels.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Found on the Web: Ernie Kovacs's Mini-Film Noir

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of television genius Ernie Kovacs's untimely death, and the blog Dangerous Minds remembered the occasion by sharing an astonishing piece I had never seen before, Kovacs's take on film noir from his legendary 1961-1962 series on ABC:

I wouldn't call this comedy - rather, it is a miniature meta-noir, a commentary, a distillation, utterly knowing but poetic rather than snarky. What struck me immediately about the piece is how dreamily, eerily beautiful it is - a deconstruction that respects the power of the originals. The noir images alone are beautiful, and the pairing of the images with the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra - inspired choice! - is sublime. I am impressed.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Menswear Moment: The Hardy Boys

"After we call at the jewelry store," said Joe, "I want to buy a new necktie."

"What's the matter with the one you have?"

"Not smart enough. If we're going to the Mortons' party to-morrow night, I want a necktie that will make people sit up and take notice."

"Franklin W. Dixon" (Leslie McFarlane), What Happened at Midnight (1931)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Blogroll Update

I removed a number of blogs that were moribund or didn't seem to be producing compelling work. I added the East German Cinema Blog, a delightful discovery:

I also added Decadenthandbook's Blog, which hasn't had a new post since June, in the hope that it will soon get active again, because the material - obscure turn-of-the-20th-century artists and writers - is totally to my interest:

The Pallor of Strange Tears: Symbolist Poetry, Art, which covers similar material, is kept more current, and has also been added:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Great Images

First, from the major rediscovered street photographer Vivian Maier (1926-2009):

That we know about Maier at all - and we are just starting to - is a bit of amazing luck:

In 2007, Chicago Realtor John Maloof paid $400 at an auction for a storage locker filled with rolls of undeveloped film. He was searching for photos for a book project about his Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park. In a moment straight out of an episode of "Auction Hunters," Maloof discovered a treasure-trove of thousands of negatives that turned out to be from a nanny who took up street photography in her spare time yet kept most of her work hidden. The photographer was Vivian Maier. After scanning a few of the images Maloof quickly realized he stumbled onto something remarkable.

Maier's story - she supported herself by working as a North Shore nanny; Phil Donahue was among her employers - is an archetypal tale of unnoticed genius that has attracted a lot of attention. Interestingly, actor Tim Roth is the co-curator of a new gallery exhibition of her work in Los Angeles. More on Maier:

More than 150,000 of her negatives remain to be developed, so she continues to be a discovery in progress.

The second gorgeous and suggestive black-and-white image is from a contemporary Yorkshire photographer, Robert Norbury:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Merrily We Roll Along

For a show that folded after 16 performances, Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along has certainly proven to be one of the most durable works of the modern stage, and I doubt a year goes by when it doesn't have multiple productions around the world. There may have been problems with the book and the staging concept in 1981 (opinions differ), but the show has been revised and tweaked over the years to let the glories of the score shine on.

I have never been able to take seriously the suggestion that the mere fact of the action running in chronological reverse poses any serious barrier to enjoyment. Movies have used that and similar tricks many times, and audiences are nimble - let's give them some credit. A considerable emotional power can arise from the flipping of chronology, so that when you finally get to the beginning of the story - which is the end of the narrative - the effect is overwhelmingly moving. The reason why is clear: beginnings abound in possibilities, but the forward movement and eventual denouements of storytelling ultimately foreclose all possibilities but one - the story we have been told. When we see a beginning already knowing what will be foreclosed, the result often seems tragic even though the beginning itself is optimistic. Two works as otherwise dissimilar as Merrily We Roll Along and Gaspar Noe's film Irreversible make powerful use of this technique.

The closing number of Merrily, "Our Time," chokes people up because of the juxtaposition of what we know and the characters don't. A group of young people are gathered on a New York rooftop in October 1957 to watch Sputnik go by. This video clip is from a 2006 performance in Barcelona, I'm not sure whether in Spanish or Catalan; the performers are fresh and appealing and give the song its full emotional value (although I have to say, I will never get used to visible miking!). I give the English lyrics below.

Something is stirring
shifting ground
It's just begun.

Edges are blurring
all around
and yesterday is done

Feel the flow
hear what's happening
We're what's happening

Don't ya know
We're the movers and
We're the shapers
We're the names in tomorrow's papers
Up to us, man, to show 'em.

It's our time
Breathe it in
Worlds to change and worlds to win.

Our turn
coming through
Me and you, man, me and you.

Feel how it quivers
on the brink

Gives you the shivers
Makes you think
There's so much stuff to sing

And you and me
We'll be singing it
Like the birds
me with music and you the words
Tell 'em things they don't know.
Up to us, pal, to show 'em.

It's our time
Breathe it in
Worlds to change and worlds to win.
Our turn
We're what's new
Me and you, pal, me and you.

Feel the flow
hear what's happening,
We're what's happening.

Long ago
All we had was the funny feeling
Saying someday we'd set them reeling
Now it looks like we can
Someday just began.

Something is stirring
shifting ground
It's just begun.

Edges are blurring
all around
and yesterday is done

Feel the flow
hear what's happening
We're what's happening

Don't ya know
We're the movers and
We're the shapers
We're the names in tomorrow's papers
Up to us, man, to show 'em.

It's our time
Breathe it in
Worlds to change and worlds to win.

Our turn
Coming through
Me and you, pal, me and you.

Years from now
We'll remember and we'll come back
Buy the rooftop and hang a plaque
This is where we began
Being what we can.

It's our heads on the block
Give us room and start the clock
Our dreams coming true
Me and you, pal, me and you.
Me and you.
Me and you.
Me and you.
Me and you.
Me and you.
Me and you.
Me and you.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

CBS Radio Mystery Theater

CBS Radio Mystery Theater was a weeknightly hour-long anthology series that ran from 1974 to 1982, and was hosted by E.G. Marshall and (towards the end) by Tammy Grimes.

Despite the show's title, [creator Himan] Brown expanded its scope beyond mysteries to include horror, science fiction, historical drama, westerns and comedy, along with seasonal dramas at Christmas: A Christmas Carol, starring host Marshall as Scrooge, aired every Christmas Eve except 1974 and 1982. In addition to original stories, there were adaptations of classic tales by such writers as O. Henry, Ambrose Bierce, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and others. Brown typically devoted the first full week of each January to a five- or seven-part series on a common theme. These included a full week of stories by an American writer, (Edgar Allan Poe in 1975, Mark Twain in 1976); week-long adaptations of classic novels (The Last Days of Pompeii in 1980, Les Miserables in 1982); and original dramas about historical figures (Nefertiti in 1979, Alexander the Great in 1981)...Actors were paid union scale at around $73.92 per show. Writers earned a flat rate of $350 per show. Production took place with assembly-line precision. Brown met with actors at 9am for the first script reading. After he assigned roles, recording began. By noon, the recording of the actors was complete, and Brown handed everyone checks. Post-production was done in the afternoon.

Himan Brown (1910-2010) had been an extremely active producer/director during the Golden Age of Radio, and although that era was a while past as he neared "retirement age," he was not in the least ready to be mothballed. It took some persuading on his part to convince CBS to revive a format they hadn't utilized in more than a decade, but an eight-year run was a handsome pay-off for his efforts. The nostalgizing of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties was in full swing by that point - noir had shifted into neo-noir, for example, with Chinatown also coming out in 1974 - and the CBS Radio Mystery Theater was very knowingly a part of that trend, advertising itself at listeners "old enough to remember classic radio."

The good news is that all 1,399 episodes (!) are now available for free listening at a dedicated CBS Radio Mystery Theater website. (Hat tip to Steve Lewis at Mystery*File.)

UPDATE: Here is a photograph of Brown directing, wouldn't you guess, Frank Lovejoy (and Betty Winkler):

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Commonplace Book: Taking an Aesthetic Stand

Charlton Heston is an axiom. By himself alone he constitutes a tragedy, and his presence in any film whatsoever suffices to create beauty. The contained violence expressed by the sombre phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle's profile, the haughty arch of his eyebrows, his prominent cheek-bones, the bitter and hard curve of his mouth, the fabulous power of his torso: this is what he possesses and what not even the worst director can degrade. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his existence alone, gives a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like Hiroshima, mon amour or Citizen Kane, whose aesthetic either ignores or impugns Charlton Heston.

Michel Mourlet, Cahiers du cinema (May 1960)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Rooftop Singers

They were an ad hoc group initially, brought together by folk singer/guitarist and ex-Weaver Erik Darling in 1962 to record an old tune, Gus Cannon's 1929 "Walk Right In," that Darling shrewdly sensed might have a certain contemporary resonance. And how - it became a mega-hit. And so the Rooftop Singers, consisting of Darling, Bill Svanoe, and Lynne Taylor, started to perform live and kept recording. Taylor backed out relatively quickly and was replaced by Mindy Stuart, who herself was later replaced by Patricia Street. I gather from a YouTube commenter that there was romantic competition between Darling and Svanoe which can't have been good for the health of the operation. The group disbanded after five years and is today more or less thought of as a one-hit wonder.

But Erik Darling was quite a guy. Long-time readers of PMD will know exactly the sort of man who makes my heart flutter, and after looking at the videos below will correctly surmise that I think the compact, clean-cut Darling is a darling. His friend and acolyte Don McLean called Darling, who also recorded several solo albums that I must get my hands on, "a genuine philosopher and perfectionist...Undivided mental attention to every aspect of music making and performing is a hallmark of Erik's work." He died in 2008 at age 74.

Here is "Walk Right In," with Darling on the right:

A couple more classic tunes from a live gig:

Bad Santas

[A discussion is in progress at The Blackboard about the relative paucity of Christmas-themed noir films.]

See, the horror genre has got this so much better covered. Here is a list of the "top ten" Christmas horror films (well, admittedly standards are kind of low):

To All a Good Night (1980)
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974)
Don't Open 'Till Christmas (1984)
Jack Frost (1996)
Santa Claws (1996)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Santa's Slay (2005)
Gremlins (1984)
Black Christmas (1974)
Christmas Evil (1980)

More homicidal Santas than you could shake a stick at, really. And of course, Terry Zwigoff's and Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa is a variety of Christmas horror movie...maybe a neo-noir comedy, too.

Then, if you want to move forward a week, there's New Year's Evil (1980).

The horror genre is just uncommonly tied to holidays, so much so that one of the triumphs of short film-making of recent years, Eli Roth's faux trailer for Thanksgiving in Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse project, was expressly created to fill a festivity gap. (Not for the squeamish.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Night Beat

[Cross-posted from The Blackboard.]

I like you. You're attractive and average. - Jeff Donnell's Sylvia Nicolai to Frank Lovejoy's Brub Nicolai, In a Lonely Place

It is difficult to find discussions of the actor Frank Lovejoy (1912-1962) that don't include the word "everyman." On film and television, his handsomeness was approachable, his manner was relatable. This made him a perfect foil for the magnetic and dramatic Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place. Lovejoy is the sensible, empathetic guy that the film ultimately puts forward as a model in preference to the violently unpredictable "genius."

Listening to Lovejoy as a radio actor in the classic series Night Beat, you can easily discern that a key to his empathetic quality is his handling of his voice. I firmly believe that the radio acting which most Hollywood stars practiced as a lucrative sideline was very good for their craft. It forced them to focus on one part of their acting instrument and develop it fully. That pays off nicely in their screen performances.

In Night Beat, Lovejoy plays a newspaper columnist for the fictional Chicago Star, who is very good at getting people to talk to him - certainly an essential for a columnist then or now. The episodes of the show are essentially lengthier, narrated versions of the columns we imagine him writing for the morning edition of the paper.

The nocturnal gig brings out the poet and philosopher in Randy Stone. He frequently encounters people in desperate situations, but has a steadying way with them. It is clear that he loves his work, although he might not stoop to say so directly.

Night Beat enjoyed a 104-episode run over a three-year period (1950-1952), although the sponsoring network, NBC, inhibited its success by constantly changing its time-slot. There was one try at bringing the Randy Stone character to television in 1953, for the anthology series Four Star Playhouse, but it didn't result in a series.

At least three-quarters of the Night Beat episodes exist and are in circulation. A nice one to start with is "The Night Watchman" from early in the run, May 15, 1950, available in an excellent MP3 at Old Time Radio

The story involves the world of warehouses located on the city's fringe, wee hour acts of arson, and a very messed-up family each of whom is related in some way to the whole fiery scene. The plot actually offers a good twist that I did not see coming!

A comprehensive guide to Night Beat is available at The Digital Deli Too:

Jake Hinkson of The Night Editor blog wrote a warm appreciation of Frank Lovejoy's career in his "Mug Shots" series:

The Consolation of Philosophy, Part 2

Philosophy has a reputation as a forbidding subject, and it certainly can be one: I would not underrate its difficulty. But there is also considerable joy to be found in it, and wonderful occupation for the mind. In compiling my lists of philosophers and other significant figures in the history of ideas, I found out that in earlier eras when average lifespans were very much shorter than they are nowadays, and continuing right on until the present day, an astonishing (statistically significant!) number of such thinkers lived into their 80s, 90s, and 100s. This tends to confirm a belief that I have, that it is our minds that keep us alive. After 50 or so, our bodies really are not much good, but allowing for the occasional memory lapses and synaptic misfires, a vigorous and well-exercised mind can continue working in strong fashion almost indefinitely. I've read about studies that back that up. So if you want to live a long and stimulating life, philosophy is the ticket!

The biographical and sociological side of philosophy also offers considerable attractions. In teaching my intro course this fall, I tried to make the personalities of the philosophers as vivid as possible, not merely as a "hook," but because, as Fichte noticed long ago, the sort of philosophy you choose to espouse depends upon the sort of person that you are. The interactions of philosophers who knew one another are also illustrative and entertaining. My favorite story of that sort involves the vituperative breakdown of a budding friendship between David Hume and the always cranky Jean-Jacques Rousseau after Rousseau accompanied Hume from Paris to London. Here is a good article about their feud:

I love this bit:

Several of his philosophe friends tried to shake Hume from his complacency. Grimm, D'Alembert and Diderot all spoke from personal experience, having had a spectacular falling-out with the belligerent Rousseau in the previous decade. In consequence, they had totally severed relations with him. Most chilling was the warning from Baron d'Holbach. It was 9pm on the night before Hume and Rousseau set out for England. Hume had gone for his final farewell. Apologising for puncturing his illusions, the baron counselled Hume that he would soon be sadly disabused. "You don't know your man. I will tell you plainly, you're warming a viper in your bosom."

There are actually two whole books on the subject, Rousseau's Dog by the authors of the article, and The Philosophers' Quarrel.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Antonio Lopez Saenz

On Friday, I visited El Museo de Arte de Sinaloa here in Culiacan for an exhibition, apparently the first in a long while, of Sinaloa's most celebrated living painter, the Mazatlan-born Antonio Lopez Saenz (1936- ). With his seaside emphasis and gently magical realist approach, he proved to be an artist very much to my liking.

This painting, La llegada de Angela Peralta a Mazatlan, is part of the retrospective and captures the arrival of the renowned Mexican operatic soprano in Mazatlan in 1883:

There is quite a story behind this image. Peralta, who was a gifted pianist, harpist, and composer as well as singer, had been the toast of Mexico and Europe from her operatic debut at the age of 15, but ran into some social trouble:

On a visit to Mexico in 1871, Peralta established her own touring opera company for which she frequently sang her signature roles – Amina in La sonnambula and Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor...In the mid-1870s she began an affair with the Mexican lawyer and entrepreneur Julián Montiel y Duarte, which caused a scandal in Mexico City. The city's social elite boycotted her performances and hired hecklers to harass her during performances. Her reputation recovered..., but she kept her vow never to sing in Mexico City again.

Her 1883 arrival with her troupe in Mazatlan was triumphant:

On 22 August, the troupe arrived in the port city of Mazatlán, where they were to perform Il trovatore and Aida. The city of Mazatlán prepared an elaborate welcome for her. Her boat docked at a pier decorated with garlands of flowers, and she was greeted by a band playing the Mexican National Anthem. When her carriage arrived, her admirers unhitched the horses and pulled it themselves to the Hotel Iturbide, where she once again saluted the crowds from her balcony. However, within a few days, she and 76 of the troupe's 80 members were to die in the yellow fever epidemic that swept the city shortly after their arrival.

Her lover Julian Montiel y Duarte arrived at her deathbed to marry her - this story isn't about opera, it should be an opera!

One of the many reasons to be impressed by Peralta is that she played a significant part in the development of a national music:

She...created the leading female roles in three operas by Mexican composers: Ildegonda (1866) and Gino Corsini (1877) by Melesio Morales, and Guatemotzin (1871) by Aniceto Ortega del Villar.

Back to Antonio Lopez Saenz: This article in English gives the flavor of his personality, a single man dedicated to his art, but in a cheerful rather than tortured way:

Here is another article, translated from Spanish:

I hoped that there would be a book about him in the museum's gift shop that I could buy, but the only monograph is sadly out of print.

Commonplace Book: Money

I do want to get rich but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.

Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography