Monthly Archives: January 2009

movie log: Way Out West (1937)

Viewed last night, January 24 2009: Way Out West, directed by James W. Horne, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

A very funny old Laurel and Hardy film, this was not the first time I’ve seen it and I doubt it’ll be the last. Laurel and Hardy are couriers on a mission to a small western town to deliver a mining deed bequeathed by a man to his daughter Mary Roberts who, inexplicably (but who cares), is in thrall to saloon owner Mickey Finn (wonderfully played by James Finlayson). Finn hatches a plan to steal the deed by having his wife impersonate Mary. Much hilarity follows.

Highlights are a soft-shoe song-and-dance number by Laurel and Hardy (which never fails to crack me up) against a western-sounding tune featuring yodelling by Chill Wills, and attempts – involving a donkey – to gain access to the second story of Finn’s saloon residence.

Great stuff.

movie log: Manhatta (1921)

Viewed January 19, 2009: Manhatta directed and photographed by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand.

Seen on TCM (the source of many a great old movie viewing), this is a short film of about 10 minutes. Well-known still photographers of the day Strand and Sheeler (also a painter) created this sequence of scenes around Manhattan, meant to depict a day in order. Most scenes are sort of a still life in motion, fixed on a subject while things happen around it. In one you look through columns in the foreground with small and distant people moving in the background, in another you see massive ships nearly motionless with whisps of steam and smoke moving gracefully above. The film is interesting not only for its artistic presentation but simply for a look back in time. Title cards contain parts of Walt Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta” – appropriate as Whitman was known, e.g. in Leaves of Grass, to sometimes speak as if he were addressing readers in future times.

Nice short film. I watched it twice.

All the mem’s Presidents

Since there probably aren’t enough blog posts inspired by this week’s inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the US, one is surely needed from me.

I was thinking about the number 43. 43 individuals have taken the oath of office. (The office has been assumed 44 times, but Grover Cleveland did it two non-consecutive times, so Obama is considered the 44th office-holder.) I voted in the elections of 8 of them. Ten of them have been part of my conscious life, by which I mean that I knew about them, had conversations about them, experienced them directly in some way. My earliest memories of there being a President involve the Nixon/Kennedy race.

This means that I, personally, have experienced nearly one fourth of the US Presidents while they were in office. (If I live to see one more, it’ll be exactly one fourth.) I find this somewhat – I dunno, stunning? disturbing? humbling? the opposite? It says something about how young this country is, or how old I am, or both.

I extend that by thinking about the family connections that I have, along the lines of: if your father, who you knew and who was was active in your life, experienced an event (was in a war, say) that happened before your own awareness of the world or existence in it, you nevertheless feel connected to that event. You were touched by an ancestor who touched that event. One could probably feel this through a non-relative that one knows, as well, but the immediate ancestral link is my idiom here. In the same way that I have experienced Presidents since 1961, my father provides another 28 years in this other way. This assumes that he became aware of Presidents at the same age as I did. He’s only 3 up on me, though, since FDR was in office for a great deal of that time. Still, I’m adding those 3 to Presidents that I feel somehow connected to. That’s 13.

(This introduces another tangent that I’ll go off on here. Since 1961, there have been 10 Presidents. By the end of Obama’s first elected term, the average duration per President will have been 5.2 years, despite the fact that five of the ten presidents were re-elected when they ran as incumbents. You could imagine a perfect world and look at this a couple of different ways. 5 dual terms plus 5 single terms could take 60 years and with an average of 6.0 years per President, or 5 dual terms within our 52-year period would leave 3 single terms, giving an average duration of 6.5 years. Either way, the 5.2 year average is awfully short considering the number of re-elections. We all know why that’s so, but I still find it – well, if not fascinating, at least something to write about. In contrast, in the 28 years before this – before 1961- the average duration per President was over 9.3 years.)

There were other ancestors involved in my life. The one born the earliest was my grandfather, who adds another 6 Presidents. I now feel that my personal reach, as given to me in the way I’ve described, extends to 19 Presidents. That’s pretty darned close to half of them.

Even more striking: compared to me, that same grandfather missed only Bush the younger and Obama; at his death he could have claimed this relationship to 17 of the 41 Presidents. His father, in turn, would have given him that reach to another 7 – to 24 of 41. He only had one grandparent that he could have known well as a young adult, and I assume he did. She adds another 4 Presidents – bringing it to 28 of 41. My grandfather, then, who died not long ago, in 1995, could claim that he was raised among ancestors who experienced Abraham Lincoln and NH’s Franklin Pierce, and that there were only 13 US Presidents outside of this kind of his reach.

So where does this leave me? At the end of a blog post, thinking about time, how short and how long it is, what distance we’ve come and how much of that distance we can feel. Connected to the past, connected to the present, and maybe providing somebody’s connection in the future.

movie log: The Namesake (2006)

Viewed 4 days ago, January 17 2009: The Namesake directed by Mira Nair and starring Kal Penn, Tabu, and Irrfan Khan; based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.

The movie opens with a man, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), riding on a train in India, reading a book of stories by Gogol. A fellow passenger urges him to travel, but he is happily rooted; all the travelling he needs to do he can do via others’ words on the printed page. There is a mostly-implied accident. Scenes change, time passes, and we find that he’s uprooted and gone to America. He returns to arrange a marriage to Ashima (Tabu) and brings her back to the US. There they have a son. They’d like to take some time to name him, but the US hospital requires that they provide a name for a birth certificate before they leave, and so they give him the name Gogol after the father’s favorite author. More time passes; a sister Sonia (played by Sahira Nair) arrives, and both children grow older. Gogol (played as a young adult by Kal Penn) has come to resent his alien name, as it isolates him from his American peers. He chooses instead to go by Nikhil – Nick for short – interestingly a variation of the author Nikolai Gogol’s first name.

And that’s the setup, modulo some details. The movie builds from there into an intricate tale of life influenced by externalities; of personal and cultural clashes, alienation and rejoining; of literature and stages of life. Significant mention is made of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat,” including a reference to Dostoevsky’s alleged remark that “we all” (meaning Russian literature) “come out from Gogol’s Overcoat” – a very self-referential, almost fractal remark about both this film and that story.

Deeper than that I won’t go, which is probably just as well. The movie doesn’t lend itself to an easy recapitulation, nor is that something I want to try right now.

When I was younger I used to have a thing, a mental defect if you will, where I would almost always refuse to see a movie that was based on a book unless I had read the book first. Nowadays I’m older, read a lost less, and see a lot more movies. But I think I might have wanted to employ that policy here. Not that the movie is bad: quite the opposite. It’s a very engaging and rewarding film, with fine performances all around, one that suggests a richness of source material. I think I’ll want to seek out the book, and you can take that as a compliment to the film.

movie log: Athens, Ga. – Inside/Out (1987)

Viewed 3 days ago, January 17 2009: Athens, Ga. – Inside/Out, a documentary directed by Tony Gayton.

Explores the issue of why the town of Athens, Georgia seems to be a fertile ground for musicians and other artists, at least from a 1987 vantage point. There are appearances by and interviews with many various local musicians and artists, including some representation by the two best-known musical products of that area, those being R.E.M. and the B-52s. Unfortunately the documentary failed (for me) to clearly define its premise, let alone examine it. While it was entertaining enough, and it was fun to see the activity in and around this town and listen to first person accounts from career artists (and hopefuls), I didn’t come out feeling very educated about the topic. Part of this, I think, was the failure of the documentary to identify its subjects. I often had no idea who was on the screen, as they were rarely or sporadically identified, and even when identified there wasn’t a lot of information about who they were or what their role was in the community. One of the main figures in the documentary was someone who we eventually found was called “Orf” – but other than seeing that he had a pretty high opinion of himself, who he was or why we should be hearing from him was never revealed. There was also an ongoing time warp: it seemed that footage was from different years or different eras (e.g., in some scenes members of the B-52s talking about their current fame and looking back to Athens, while in other scenes we see Peter Buck of R.E.M. hanging out on a sidewalk and reflecting on the niceties of not being well known), but I could never be sure, as the paucity of information applied here. It was almost an “if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you” approach.

As I say, though, there was plenty of fascinating material. Some readings by a fellow named John Seawright who had a deep Johnny Cash -like voice and looked a bit like Buddy Ebsen or Michael Nesmith appealed to me. (Sadly, a web search indicates that he died some years ago.) Towards the end there were interviews with some ex-members of group “Pylon” (who were mentioned with reverence throughout the film up to this point). We learn that the group broke up when their agent tried to book them on a tour with U2; it seemed they really didn’t want to be bothered. Now, or rather when interviewed, they were working fairly menial jobs and apparently seemed to barely remember being in a band, nor did they want to return to it.

On a meta level, I had problems with the DVD. The 2.1 track played just fine, but the 5.1 track was noisy. There was also a commentary track that was added some years after the documentary was mde, but this was also too noisy to bear. A shame, as it might have exposed some of the things that flew over my head.

I did find this film entertaining, which almost goes without saying; I rarely see a documentary about (and featuring) real music and art that I don’t find appealing. I only wish it had been more informative, as with similar-themed documentaries (i.e., about music in a particular city) such as Made in Sheffield or even with documentaries about specific groups, e.g. Edgeplay (about The Runaways) etc, etc, where you can learn a great deal even if you come in fairly ignorant about the subject. This one may have been intended more for insiders than for outsiders, which is fine – that’s just a matter of defining the intended audience.

movie log: Sputnik Mania (2007)

Viewed 5 days ago, January 11 2009: Sputnik Mania directed by David Hoffman and narrated by Liev Schreiber.

(A new blog and already I’m 5 days behind. This is, though, the only pending movie log entry. I waffled for a while about whether or not it fits my criteria for logging as a movie. But it does, so here it is.)

This is a documentary about how the US reacted to the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in October of 1957, and about the early days of the space race. It had been 50 years between that launch and the release of this movie, and many people have forgotten (or never knew) what the climate was like and to what degree the entry into space was seen as a military threat or opportunity. The documentary focuses on the culture and times, on the atomic weapons race, on each country’s view of and fear of the other – on those elements of circumstance as much as it does on the mere facts of launching satellites into space.

It’s hard to connect with what a shock the Sputnik launch was to people in the US at the time. To ordinary citizens who arrogantly believed that only the US was truly capable of making great advances and that the Soviets couldn’t even build a decent refrigerator, USSR being in space rudely revealed a different reality. Mentioned are the amateur rocket clubs that sprung up around the country (Homer Hickam, author of “Rocket Boys” — which coincidentally I read not too long ago — had a brief appearance) and the push for more and better science education. To the military, the initial space launch and those that followed were more sinister: to be able to put a heavy satellite into orbit was blatant proof of the current ability to launch a nuclear missile strike to any target on Earth. It also implied a future ability to put arms into orbit, stockpiling them until they could be hurled downwards.

A lot of interesting tidbits are to be found in this film. Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita and now a naturalized US citizen, remembered a joke about the USSR’s advice to its citizens. In one analog to the US’s “duck and cover” instructions, soviet people were told to tamp down the radioactive dust and then remain covered. The joke was that if you see a bright light, you should cover yourself up and crawl very slowly to the graveyard.

Interesting if you like this sort of thing (goes without saying, no?).

movie log: We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1993)

Viewed 3 days ago, Saturday January 10 2009: We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story – an animated feature based on a book by Hudson Talbott, and including the voices of John Goodman, Rhea Perlman, Walter Cronkite, Julia Child, Kenneth Mars, and others. Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, recently noted for the play “Doubt” (not to mention the movie), and who will always be highly regarded (by me) for the under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano.

This is the story of a bunch of dinosaurs who are happily, hungrily, and savagely minding their own business when a scientist from the future feeds them “Brain Gain” cereal that makes them smarter, and who then brings them into the future to fulfill the wishes of children who want to meet real dinosaurs. Also in the present is the scientist’s evil brother who has his own nefarious plans.

No fancy animation, no real elaborate story (in fact, one that is downright silly), but the grandkids sure are enthralled by it. This is not the first time we’ve watched it and I doubt it’ll be the last (more log entries to come?!). 5-1/2 year old grandson watches it with rapt attention, and 3-year-old granddaughter mostly so, except when the dinosaurs are acting like beasts, during which times she sometimes averts her eyes.

If you have some youngsters of about this age and you want to watch something with them, you could do worse. Kids and dinosaur stories, they go together. There’s really not much more to say about it than that.

Movie log: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Viewed three nights ago (Jan 9, 2009): Shadow of a Doubt directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, with a supporting cast that includes Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers.

This – purportedly one of Hitchcock’s (and Wright’s) favorite films – is billed as a suspense picture, but there really isn’t a lot of suspense to it. The story centers around the relationship between Charlie Newton (Joseph Cotten) and his niece – also called Charlie Newton (or “young Charlie”) (Teresa Wright) who is named after him (more or less; her name appears to be “Charlene” but she is called Charlie most of the time).

The movie opens with uncle Charlie and two men who are obviously chasing after him. Charlie manages to duck them in the streets of his city, and leaves town to visit his niece Charlie and her small-town family. From the start we see that young Charlie adores her uncle, in a way that seems a bit extreme, almost unsettling. As the movie progresses she learns a bit more about Charlie’s true character and the adoration gradually fades and turns to something darker. The uncle, as we find out early on, may be involved in a string of murders “back east,” and she learns that he does not share her small-town optimism about the world and the people in it. The world is a sty, he tells her, filled with “horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.” Charlie and Charlie are at odds, and as she learns more about him, he becomes threatened by it and something has to give.

We quickly see how the stage is set. Uncle Charlie the misanthrope and young Charlie the youthful idealist; the evil of the big world encroaching on the cozy little town and the tight loving family. A running gag has father Joseph (Henry Travers) and family friend Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) obsessed with thinking up interesting ways to kill each other. They are playing at evil, unaware of the real conflict between the two Charlies unfolding around them.

Frankly, though it’s a top-ranked Hitchcock film, it just didn’t grab me. It’s well-executed, and there are a lot of interesting elements, including the relationship between young Charlie and a police detective (very well played by Macdonald Carey) who is investigating the uncle. There is the occasional jump in continuity where it looks like a little too much was chopped, and that was a bit distracting. Likewise for a bit of potential misdirection that was never really fulfilled. One might think that it’s got something to say about US isolationism leading up to WWII, making some sort of commentary on small town self-centeredness vs an outside world that can’t be ignored when it intrudes, but the movie is set in 1942 when the US was already in the war. The small town vs outside world aspect does parallel young Charlie’s naivete vs big world harsh reality; given that Thornton Wilder was involved in the screenplay, I imagine small town life is deliberately given a bit of a knock. But I’m going off the tracks here a bit.

All in all a mixed bag for me. It’s not clear that there are any real lessons learned by most of the characters here, nor any huge change in the small town and family (other than a couple that I won’t spoil, even though there’s not much that is spoilable – as I say, it’s not really a suspense). But it was eminently watchable, with some interesting parallels and contrasts. Perhaps on a repeat viewing some day I’ll find more.

movie log: Running the Sahara (2008)

Seen last night: Running the Sahara, a documentary directed by James Moll and narrated by Matt Damon (who is also listed as executive producer).

This follows three men – Kevin Lin from Taiwan, Ray Zahab from Canada, and Charlie Engle from the USA – (plus their support team) as the three set out to run across the Sahara. This run is to start at the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal and end at the Red Sea near Cairo. The progress is given in terms of kilometers, miles, and number of marathon equivalents – about 4300, 6920, and 164 respectively. It’s fascinating to watch as they start out in good cheer and with high undaunted expectations, and see where and how they end up. One almost feels drained at the end. Since the documentary can only devote less than one minute, on average, to each marathon unit, it’s hard (uh, impossible) to extrapolate the actual experience from the viewing experience. Indeed, at the end one of the runners reflected on how even then he could not grasp it: how this emphasized to him how one can only really absorb bits of a grand experience as it is happening, and never the entire thing afterwards.

It’s interesting to see how the people change as the run progresses, particularly as they near the end. The three runners lose almost all of their bodily reserves; small and large injuries are everpresent. Pretty much all of the good cheer and bantering has vanished, mostly replaced by dogged persistence. From time to time there is bickering and recrimination, and it’s tempting to think of this or that person as being kind of a jerk. And then I think about what I’m like after being with somebody for only 24 hours, and suddenly they seem like saints.

While the film promotes the cause of providing water to Africans, the subject matter is more about the run than being a social or political commentary. Yet there are elements of both as they thrust themselves into the path. At one point they come across a 7-year old boy who has simply been left alone by himself in the desert while his father goes on a 2-day search for water. The boy is obviously frightened (of his situation and of the strangers); they visit with him for a time and move along. At another point they see a well-digging project, a very deep well being dug by hand by one person at a time, lowered to the bottom via rope. One of the runners wants to see what it’s like, and does.

This film has been playing on Showtime HD, which is where I saw it. As of this writing there’s a website about the run at .

Well worth the viewing time, especially if you’re a documentary hound as I like to believe I am. As a point of trivia, there are a lot of co-executive producer credits; a pair that jumps out at me is Nomar and Mia Hamm Garciaparra.