No more old movies

31 October, 2008

It’s a sadly true truism that young people react to discovering a movie is in black and white in the same way they would react to stepping in dog shit. Read the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, and you’ll see they really are offended that someone could recommend such a thing to them.

Well, things have probably been that way since the invention of colour film. Stupid people are hardly a recent invention, after all. More worrying is the lack of opportunity young people have to be exposed to these important and sometimes great products of Western culture. Old movies used to be a cheap-and-cheerful way for TV stations to fill their schedules. Students would stay up for the late movie, enjoying the unpredictable mix of horror, historical, hard-boiled and screw-ball’d. Occasionally they’d even catch a landmark like Citizen Kane, or cult classic like Cat People, and because they knew the cinematic language they knew these were important films without having to be told by some old grump in a bad suit.

In the 1980s, Australians with televisions were lucky enough to be able to watch Bill Collins hosting The Golden Years Of Hollywood, every Saturday. He would present a colour film at 8.30pm, followed by a black and white film. The presentation was simple and effective: after the opening sequence (famous clips from old films accompanied by an orchestral version of “That’s Entertainment”), music from the score of the night’s first film would swell, while the camera would zoom out from a framed poster or still of the film, revealing “uncle” Bill in one of his trademark brightly-coloured jackets.

Bill would give us idea of what the film was about, and then he would drop in a tidbit or two about the production, perhaps quoting from an actor’s memoirs, and finally suggest something of interest we should look out for. Halfway through the film there would be a sort of intermission, in which Bill would enthuse over what we had just seen, perhaps commenting on a significant point we may have missed.

In this colour feature part of the show, we saw classics like The Wizard of Oz, Ben Hur, Gone with the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, and North by Northwest. In the late segment, we saw films noirs, comedies, war movies and horrors. With the later timeslot and more obscure charms of these less famous items, staying up for the second feature felt like a really adult pursuit.

I’m profoundly grateful to Bill for this education in film. It’s now said that DVD commentaries are like a film school at home, but they can’t match The Golden Years of Hollywood for a thorough immersion in the filmography and language of cinema. DVDs must always be watched selectively, and it’s too easy to be the victim of one’s own ignorance or timidity, compared with the guidance of a seasoned aficionado.

Without the opportunity I and my generation had, what is the cinematic experience of the younger generation? For most of them, Star Wars is the oldest film they’ve seen. They’ve never seen a Hitchcock movie, or a Cecil B DeMille film. They’ve never seen Bonny and Clyde, or even A Fistful of Dollars. They have no idea who Cary Grant is; they only know Alec Guiness for his cameo appearance in Star Wars; they don’t know who was supposed to have said “Play it again, Sam”, let alone in what context. They’ve never heard the theme music to Gone with the Wind, or The 3rd Man. They can’t even guess at what they’ve missed, the fairyland power of these vividly recorded dreams of mythic simplicity.

Don’t be fooled by the plethora of collector’s editions and boxsets now available – these are feeding the appetites of a final generation, who know they’ll never see these films again unless they have a copy in their own home, and who have no way to pass on their knowledge short of tying up their children in front of the TV. The multitude of entertainment media have led to short attention spans in the young audience, and corresponding fragmenting of older forms into bright, loud, sound-bite chunks. Long movies without frequent bangs or crashes are passe. No one cares anymore, and profundity of feeling is nearing its extinction.

 

I was inspired to write this post by a review of Have You Seen …?, a rambling rant on movies and assorted vagaries by one David Thomson. I’d just like to take issue with a couple of opinions he reportedly holds. I agree with him that the Oscars have been routinely awarded to worthy but dull films that no-one really wants to see again, but, to go through the other issues one by one:

1. Ben Hur does have its longeurs, but also has a gripping central conflict and impressive action sequences. Monty Python were right that the pace of a film deteriorates whenever sacred connotations come to the fore.

2. The Rules of the Game (“the greatest film by the greatest director”) is a mature literary work in terms of themes of social comment; however, it doesn’t exactly jump of the screen in execution.

3. Swing Time is not as good a film as Gay Divorcee, Follow the Fleet, Shall we Dance, or maybe even Carefree (and neither is Top Hat).

4. Bringing Up Baby is not funny, and such charm as it possesses evaporates with the ascerbic presence of Hepburn.

5. Tracing the decline of Hollywood movies to the premiere of Star Wars (“the disastrous event”) is wrong-headed, given that work’s overt homage to old space opera serials (as seen in its simple good-against-evil plotting), Odyssean narrative, and relatively sedate pacing. Star Wars led directly to several estimable science fiction movies including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. Its cross-media saturation (toys, T-shirts, etc.) is limited in imitation to a couple of big budget children’s films per year, and was besides hardly unprecedented (see the Universal monsters franchise, and Fanderson paraphenalia). The only direct negative impact of Star Wars was in leading to an expectation by studios that every movie must be an immediate blockbuster, or else yanked from the screens as a failure – and this is hardly the fault of George Lucas or his producers.

More culpable are the Friday the 13th films (leading to the undying teen slasher movie, which has practically nullified the horror genre), and the classic sci-fi pulps of James Cameron (Aliens, The Terminator). Cameron is a great B-film director, but the big budget gloss and spectacular sound design of these movies led to them being taken more seriously than they deserved, and their rapid-cutting, big-chinned machismo bloated and developed into a universal style of action movie.

Most culpable is the corporate culture of Hollywood, the ultimate result of the continuing demand for big budget films after the end of the studio system. The greedy, culturally irresponsible mindset of Hollywood’s large production names is the main reason almost every major film of the last ten years was a waste of celluloid.

But there were a couple of solid entries (e.g. The Bourne Identity, Fight Club) that may give us hope – perhaps Hollywood isn’t dead yet. Perhaps there is still an audience ready for intelligent well-told stories that don’t pander to pretention. That audience will need regular feeding, or else they’ll lose interest and go away, and then it really will be the end of the movies.

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Read this blog about hagiographic children’s books on the presidential candidates. Can you imagine such a thing in any modern Western country?

From the book on McCain (supposedly by his daughter): “the food [in the prison camp] was really bad – once he found a chicken foot in his lunch. [oh noes!] … My dad wouldn’t go home [from Vietnam] and leave his friends. I think only a great man would have made that choice.”

But the Obama book tops this: born “on a moon-lit night”, “his mother was white as whipped cream, and his father was black as ink.”

If you mixed cream and ink, I think the result would be something you wouldn’t want to eat or write with.

In Australia we don’t get the blanket electoral coverage the citizens of the US are subjected to, but every few days a news show will run a story on the latest trends. The last few stories of this kind I’ve seen have involved canvasing the opinions of stupid rednecks (as opposed to the smart sort, of whom I’m sure there are a few). From them, we hear such gems as: “He’s a socialist – he’s practically a communist!”, “We know he’s a Muslim, why doesn’t he just come out and say it?”, and “He was friends with terrorists a few years ago – he can’t just say that doesn’t matter anymore.” Yes, from the Republican Party propagandists to your ears, via the hollow heads of these empty vessels, they are talking about Barack Obama.

I’ve seen footage of McCain saying, “Now we know what he really wants – to ‘spread the wealth around’!”, which is code for “he’s a communist”. Never mind that Obama was referring to his plan to repeal Bush’s tax cuts for Americans making over than US$250,000 a year (the great majority of Americans make less than that). This came out when Obama was talking with the now-famous “Joe the Plumber”, who misrepresented himself as being about to buy a company making over $250,000. In response, McCain has said, “[Obama] wants government to take Joe’s money and give it to somebody else.” Specifically, though McCain won’t go into specifics, income over the threshold will go back to being taxed at 39% rather than 36%. Income received before the threshold is reached is still taxed at the lower rate. But anyway… now Obama’s a Red, apparently.

The terrorist connection? Obama served on the boards of couple of community organizations at the same time as William Ayers, who is a professor of education at Illinois U, but who had previously been a member of terrorist group the Weathermen 1969-1972. (Ayers was never convicted and didn’t kill anyone; Tim McVeigh was a terrorist who killed a lot more people, but he’s pretty popular with the “base”.) So there you go. I’m betting he once walked past a pedophile on the street – see, he must be a pedophile! And his pizza delivery guy is gay. Wow, all the pieces are falling into place now. So Obama must be a terrorist.

Obama must be a Muslim – after all, he has such a strange, foreign name. Never mind he’s been going to church all his life. Never mind the same people who say he’s a Muslim will also condemn him for the out-of-context sayings of his Christian minister, the “crazy” Rev. Wright. Remember, Obama is black, which means he’s not a proper American, which means he probably worships the devil or something.* And don’t think Obama’s being a black Muslim will stop the same accusers from saying he’s really a rich Jew. That’s about the level of intelligence and moral integrity we can expect from these people.

I wonder how McCain feels about the lies he has to tell. I think the guy does have some decency in his heart, so surely he’s not so power-crazed as to be oblivious to what he’s saying up there. He knows that Obama is not a socialist, or a terrorist, or a Muslim. But maybe he’s been brainwashed by the Republican machine. This crazy degraded circus is Karl Rove‘s ultimate legacy to the American Republic.

Compare this campaign with the previous few, each of which seemed more appallingly bottom-scraping than the last. We all thought, “Well, at least nothing can be worse than Bush”, but imagine if this new crew of wackos got in! There’s no real policy there, just “personalities”; no debate, just these mean, crazy lies.

What would it say about America if McCain won? Well, it would say “America is doomed”, for one thing. A bunch of “mavericks” fueled by delusion and paranoia…. The US would be the next Russia. Oh dear.

(Further reading)

* I find I agree with Gore Vidal on this one – the only religion for a person of intelligence and taste is paganism (no wonder all those Oxbridge dons loved their Classics). Paganism (at its best) is truly a personal religion, as opposed to the requisite monolithic mentality of the monotheisms. Paganism is a way to understand the world, not a dogma. It allows for the existence of conflict and even of evil, and says that people are not superior to the world in which they live. I’m not a pagan, but I enjoy the idea of the world being full of spirit, as a metaphor for the way we should live.

Wandaba Style
Giant Robo
Gokusen
Kamichu

wandaba stylegiant robo
gokusenkamichu

Wandaba Style was very weak. Gokusen was enjoyable, but I wish the ending had been stronger. Kamichu is okay but disappointing next to what I was expecting: the characters are too cute and the colours a bit dull and muted. Haven’t seen Giant Robo yet, but looking forward to it.

The Pilgrim’s Progress

24 October, 2008

Pilgrim's Progress CD cover - Boult EMI

I recently took receipt of the 30 disc Ralph Vaughan Williams Collector’s Edition, and last night I listened to the Pilgrim’s Progress for the first time (Boult/EMI). (I was minded to buy this set after hearing a moment of the opera (during an interview with Hickox) on the Gramophone cover CD, which for once was useful!) I’m not an opera fan, and whenever I decide to explore the operas of a favourite composer, I usually find they have changed to an “operatic” style, but my hopes were high.

The first act of Progress seems to be the source of most of the music from his 5th symphony; combined with singing, it reminded me of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’, and I wondered if RVW had heard this work. The second and third act were much more in a standard oratorio style, a method of choral drama which to be honest I find rather kitschy. I also began to weary of the recitative, and wish the opera was as melodic as his symphonies. And I began to wonder why an atheist would write a major work based on a religious tract – was it ultimately due to childhood nostalgia? I found I greatly sympathised with mild-mannered Mr. By-Ends, by the end of the “Morality” (that’s what RVW called it instead of an “opera”).

There seemed to be a certain musical monotony which made it difficult to sustain interest, and I think, in listening to the ‘out-takes’ on the second disc, I discovered partly why. When the orchestra was playing its parts alone, I found the music very colourful and interesting; same with the choral parts (although written in quite a churchy style). The problem was when the soloists came in – they swamped the soundstage. (And, as I said, didn’t have much of melodic interest to sing.) As I said, I don’t listen to much opera, but I have the feeling that spotlighting of vocal soloists is standard practice – ironically, it’s also a standard practice in the worst popular music, and I’m really sad that classical music producers don’t have higher standards.

So, apart from the problems of this unique work, I’m wondering: does the Hickox recording have a more natural soundstage? If so, I would certainly be interested in investigating that alternative. Can anyone compare the two recordings? Thanks.

(Another thought – how would Pilgrim’s Progress compare with Messaien’s St. Francis of Assisi?)

An article in the Washington Post (Behind the Bluster, Russia Is Collapsing, by Murray Feshbach) has repeated the truism that Russia is deteriorating to the point of collapse, which may cheer those worried about Russia’s aggressive hegemony, but is really based on self-delusion.

First, it is said that Russia’s military is “in tatters, armed with rusting weaponry and staffed with indifferent recruits”, wielding “a badly outdated arsenal, one that would take many years to replace”. I will have to take the author’s word and assume him to be knowledgable on the details of Russia’s military capability, but the outdated arsenal is obviously current enough to dispatch the Georgian forces with ease. It will probably serve equally as well against any other of Russia’s immediate neighbours (except China). Russia’s army may well be behind the forces of NATO and the United States, but there is more to war than the battle – the “international community”‘s impotence in the face of the recent Georgian excursion was painfully predictable. As long as Russia confines its efforts to expansion of influence rather than terrority, there is little chance of another Poland ultimatum.

In the matter of face to face combat, Russia has had a hot war going on in Chechnya virtually since 1993 (they broke for a couple of years in the late ’90s). Its troops are battle-hardened, with experience against guerilla fighters. Its leaders have a long, serious tradition of military thought. A Western assault on Russia would be very costly, with the potential to make Iraq look like a picnic. In light of this, dismissing the Russian military as antiquated is a serious error.

Next: althought “Russia’s resurgence has been fueled … by windfall profits from gas and oil”, its “economy is almost totally dependent on the price of oil”, and “a predicted drop of about one-third in the price of a barrel of oil will surely constrain Putin…”. Who has predicted a 1/3 drop in the oil price, and do they live in the real world? What oil producers have learned from recent events is that they can increase their profits even as they decrease their sales. As oil becomes rarer, it will become more profitable, until alternative energy sources become viable not just for cars but for industrial purposes. Russia has ten years minimum to fatten its bank accounts on oil money, and then, as oil is phased out, gas will become even more important. So fossil fuels will sustain Russian aggression for at least 20 years. Collapse is hardly imminent on that front.

Then there is the health “crisis”. Crisis for whom, exactly? One exciting statistic is that one million Russian’s have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. This is about 0.5% of the population. Most of these are IV drug users; most of the rest are low-level sex workers. Doubtless a multitude of suffering and personal tragedy is involved here, but economically and socially these people contribute little, and are perhaps in sum a drain on Russia. If so, their illnesses and deaths will only advantage the Mother country.

And what of tuberculosis? It killed “an astonishing 24,000” in 2007. Of course, since tuberculosis is most likely to attack people with suppressed immune systems, such as HIV sufferers and the aged, there is again not much economic loss involved here. Other likely to suffer include the malnourished, people living in close proximity with sufferers and IV drug users (there’s the HIV connection again).

“Average alcohol consumption per capita is double the rate the WHO considers dangerous to one’s health.” How much is the WHO rate? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s exceeded in every country where drinking alcohol is legal. If Russia is so bad, how come “Europeans are the heaviest drinkers in the world“? (This was an EU study, which would have excluded “oriental” Russia from European statistics.) Heavy drinking has been a part of Western culture for centuries, and yet it somehow flourished. There’s no reason to think Russia will be the unique exception.

“Three times as many Russians die from heart-related illnesses as do Americans or Europeans.” Well, they have to die of something. If that something happens to strike down citizens at the end of their working life, and obviate the need for lengthy treatment, so much the better, economically speaking. It’s a bit of a Logan’s Run solution, but effective.

But, you cry, surely all this illness and death is hugely expensive to the state? Well, it would be if they paid for it. But Russia’s welfare system is even more dire than the USA’s – illness and death are mostly privatised, so Russia pays little and reaps much in the elimination of economically inconsiderable persons who are chronically unemployed or indigent, socially marginal, or aged and unable to work.

Finally, there is the declining birth rate. Actually, I think every Western country is experiencing this decline, except the USA, which has been propped up by early-generation immigrants from poor countries. Affluent countries experience declining birth rate – this is a fact. (And immigration generally has bolstered Western statistics for some time – given Russia’s negative attitude to immigration, perhaps this is part of the reason for its population decline?) Declining birth rate is seen as a problem for two reasons: first, one may end up with a situation in which the working generation must support a numerically superior retired population. Second, a shrinking (or static) population reduces economic growth. In fact, the larger part of the West’s economic growth in the 20th Century was due to population expansion. The fact that indefinite expansion is untenable has been dismissed as Commie talk, though this may change in light of recent economic problems.

Russia escapes the problem of a large aging population to support by reason of its low life expectancies. The diseases of middle age, alcoholism, cancer, cardiovascular disease, are a benefit to the state, as long as the state is callous enough to provide only minimal care. (BTW, the low standards of Russian TB hospitals are probably comparable to American or British facilities of 100 years ago – again, these conditions did not lead to socioeconomic collapse.) The issue of reduced economic growth will not apply until the gas and oil run out, before which Putin will have plenty of time to wreak havoc in his neighbourhood.

The only logical argument for Russia’s imminent decline is the statistic that “70 percent of [newborns experience] complications at birth”. Sadly, that’s all the information Feshbach gives on this problem. I wonder of all Caesarean births are classified as “complications”? That could explain this otherwise phenomenal claim, which seems worse than one might expect from the poorest parts of Africa or Asia, and worse that what our ancestors experienced a couple of centuries ago.

I wonder what motivated Mr. Feshbach to publish this article, apart from a desire to put all his interesting statistics to some sort of use? His strong implication, that Russia is not a military or economic threat of stature, does not stand up even to cursory examination. It can only serve to mislead policy makers and endanger us all.

My initial impression of the vice presidential canditates’ debate was that there was no clear winner. Palin spoke in complete sentences, and seemed upbeat and basically coherent. However, she sometimes gave long answers that didn’t address the question and seemed to be an assemblage of rote learning. Biden made a couple of verbal slips early on but was generally solid and specific, and seemed like a guy who knew what he was talking about.

Details? I don’t think many points were made in this debate that haven’t been aired many times recently. In regard to energy self-sufficiency, Palin repeatedly dodged the issue of alternative fuels, and said voters wanted her to “Drill, baby, drill!” I’m guessing that will be the title of a porn video in the very near future. Biden, establishing his “struggle-street” credentials, talked about coping with the death of his wife and daughter and having to raise his boys on his own. This was new information to me, and made him seem like more than just another Washington suit. He also choked up a bit when referring to one of his sons’ imminent military tour of Iraq. On rights for gay couples, Biden said he and Obama were for equal legal rights but not in favour of gay marriage. Palin surprised me (and probably a lot of the Republican base) by emphasising she had nothing against gay people and thought they deserved equal respect.

On radio, I think the consensus would be that Biden came out ahead, but this was televised, and while Biden might have won the debate, Palin won the show. Whatever she was saying, she kept smiling straight into the camera, even winking at one point, and I think people who aren’t that bright will automatically think, “Hey, she likes me!” This tactic would not have worked, by the way, if Palin hadn’t been a young conventionally good-looking woman (with a permanent smile), but as things are, Palin is able to count on people actually feeling protective of her when she is less than adequate. Not a great way to pick a national leader, but then democracies tend to elect the idiots they deserve.

Will Palin’s personableness be enough to swing the election? It’s obviously too soon to say, and the two presidential candidate debates to come will be important. But the VP factor in this election has turned out to be surprisingly large, thanks to McCain’s risk-taking choice, and all other things being equal, Palin’s down-home persona might get her past Biden’s fairly bland appeal and over the line.

Comments on the internet subsequent to the debate were disappointingly partisan – I guess I’m not yet used to disappointment. Apparently Karl Rove has put it about that Biden’s answers were full of errors, but given Rove’s lack of familiarity with the concept of “the truth”, this will probably only have credence with the hardcore base. I’m looking forward to someone more knowledgable than myself posting a point-by-point analysis of the debate on the internet.