War Movies, Old And New

I’m trying to decide whether to go see 1917 this coming weekend.

From the reviews I’ve read, 1917 sounds like a a powerful, well-made movie, with an intriguing dash of extended take technical wizardry thrown in, so it’s not that I’m afraid I’d be shelling out the money to see a clinker.  No, it’s all about the fact that the reviews of the film emphasize that it fully and very effectively exposes the brutal horror of war generally, and World War I specifically.  I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.

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Growing up, “war movies” were a pretty simple genre.  The Americans were the good guys, and the countries we were fighting — especially the Nazis — were the bad guys.  War movies inevitably involved some barracks hijinks and basic training footage showing the tough drill sergeant and the camaraderie of soldiers coming together to fight for a noble cause, and the soldiers who died did so heroically in pursuit of a clear, greater good.  War movies really weren’t really all that bloody, either.  Soldiers who were killed after taking some courageous and selfless action tended to get shot in the gut and die grimacing and clutching their midsections, like Jim Brown’s character in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, everyone — especially veterans — knew that the movies were a totally sanitized depiction of war, and eventually filmmakers began striving for more realism, first gradually and then more and more extensively.  With Saving Private Ryan and its groundbreaking treatment of storming of the Normandy beaches on D Day — showing men shot through the head, blown apart, searching for lost limbs, dying horrific deaths covered with gore and entrails on a faraway beach — the old war movies were officially gone and a new form of war movie had taken their place.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan, I found it to be a powerful and brilliant movie .  . . but boy, it was tough to watch and hard to take.  1917 sounds like more of the same, and I’m not sure I want to see it.

This sounds like a wussy reaction, and no doubt it is.  And I also think that it’s a positive that the old form of war movie, with its naive treatment of good guys and bad guys and bloodless heroism, isn’t being made to deceive people about what war is really like.  In fact, I feel somewhat guilty about feeling reluctant to go to movies like 1917 for a refresher course on how terrible war actually is.  But is it really how I want to spend a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon?

Bigger Than A . . .

We’ve had our gift exchange, and a Russell has taken the cake — or more aptly, the bread — in the nostalgic present category. He found this vintage aluminum bread box that will fit perfectly on the counter of our kitchen in Maine, which has a decidedly retro look.

Bread boxes were once a staple of American homes — so much so that, if you were playing the Twenty Questions guessing game, one of the initial questions inevitably was, “is it bigger than a bread box?” In those days American kitchens often had more shine and chrome than American cars. But bread boxes vanished from American kitchens around 1980 or so. I can’t even remember the last time I saw one.

If you’ve never seen a bread box and wondered how big it was, now you know.

Soap Dope

Some shocking news came out of Hollywood yesterday:  the entire cast of the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives were released from their contracts, and the show is going on an “indefinite hiatus.”  Things are not looking good for fans who avidly follow the comings and goings of people in the mythical town of Salem, located somewhere in the Midwest.

daysBut that’s the problem:  are there really any DOOL fans out there?  In fact, it’s a fair question to ask what was more shocking:  the producers’ decision to give the entire cast of the show the old heave-ho, or the fact that Days of Our Lives, which debuted on broadcast TV in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson was President, was still on the air 54 years later during the Trump administration.  I, for one, had no idea that, in this day and age, daytime soap operas have been carrying on to tantalize the homebound with sordid stories and dramatic pauses and egregious overacting.

There was a time, during the heyday of soaps in the ’60s and ’70s, when a kid coming home from school was likely to find his or her Mom seated in front of the TV, watching Days of Our Lives or All My Children or Guiding Light or General Hospital, waiting for the day’s routine episode-ending cliffhanger that would entice them to tune in the next day to see what happened. Soaps dominated the afternoon TV screen, and were so popular that odd efforts like Dark Shadows — which combined soap operas storylines and horror characters, with the star being a vampire — were popular for a time.  It was all pretty irritating for a kid who just wanted to come home, get control of the Philco, and watch a Three Stooges rerun on channel 43.

Soap operas seem absurdly out of touch with the modern TV world, where reality shows and talk shows and other shows can regularly deal explicitly with the cheating, scandals, and tragedies that were the grist of the mill for daytime soaps.  And, of course, the dramatic shows that are available on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, and many other content outlets are a lot more direct and graphic and ground-breaking in their treatment of murder, rape, and other shocking and controversial topics.  Soap operas seem pretty staid and conventional and old-fashioned by comparison.

TV is an ever-changing medium, and the trends are moving decidedly away from ongoing shows that plumb the depths of the ever-intertwined lives of a few families in a Midwestern town.  In fact, to paraphrase the familiar introduction to DOOL, you might say that, for the soap opera genre, the sands in the hourglass have just about run out.

Condensed Books

One of the local shops in Stonington, The Dry Dock, always has a bookshelf in front of the store that offers free books.  It’s impossible not to stop and take a gander at what’s available, and yesterday I noticed a book that brought back memories — a volume of  Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

I’m not sure whether Reader’s Digest still comes up with “condensed books” — or, for that matter, whether Reader’s Digest itself is still published — but there was a time in the ’60s and early ’70s when our family subscribed to the magazine and got the condensed books, too.  I remember Mom reading the condensed books and remarking that you wouldn’t even have known that the books were condensed.  Of course, unless you had done a side-by-side comparison of the actual novel and the condensed book, you wouldn’t know what had hit the cutting room floor in the “condensation” process.  Significant subplots, back stories, ancillary characters, scenes that helped to fully flesh out the contours and personalities of the main characters — they all could be lopped out by the Reader’s Digest editors who wanted to shrink novels and non-fiction works down to a manageable size for the busy person who just didn’t have the time to read a full-blown book.

I don’t recall ever reading one of the condensed books that were delivered to our house, although I occasionally wished that Reader‘s Digest had done condensed versions of some of the ponderous tomes we had to read in high school.  (This was before I discovered Cliff’s Notes.)  I always wondered, though, how the authors involved reacted to the finished, condensed product.  I’m sure they liked the payment they received for allowing their work to be condensed, but how did they feel about the liberal editing that occurred as part of the process?  Did the authors actually read the condensed versions to see how their work was affected?  Did they think that the condensation cut the heart out of their books, or changed their focus, or did they feel deep down that the editing process had actually improved their work?  Given the amount of time and effort writers put into a novel, it would be tough to come to the conclusion that the book you labored over was better without some of the subplots and character-building scenes.

 

Apollo’s Lasting Legacy

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon — which happened on July 20, 1969 — we’ve seen a lot of interesting articles about the space program, the Apollo program, and NASA’s lunar missions, including a fascinating Smithsonian article about Apollo 11 specifically.  Popular Mechanics also has reprinted an interview with Buzz Aldrin from 25 years ago about why he went to the Moon, and why he thinks we should go back.

as16-113-18339hrsmOne of the most intriguing pieces I’ve seen was a UPI article that sought to identify products and technologies that can be attributed to the Apollo program and that still are in use today.  (That means that “Space Food Sticks,” an awful-tasting product from my youth that quickly went out of production, doesn’t qualify.)  The UPI writer found that Apollo’s legacy goes beyond Tang, velcro, and computer chips.  Products such as the “Dustbuster” hand-held vacuum cleaner, high-performance athletic shoes, communications headsets, credit card swiping machines, and even the “memory foam” in your mattress all trace their roots back to developments that occurred during the Apollo program.

These technological advances are important, of course, and show what can happen when you hire a bunch of really smart, creative, highly motivated engineers and problem-solvers, give them a mission and adequate funding, and establish a meaningful deadline to achieve the goal.  Technological developments are a pretty predictable result of such an effort, which is one reason why I think the United States should end the 50-year drought and get back into the manned space arena in a significant way — whether through government programs, or through partnership with the private companies that are focused on space, or through some other creative means.

But new technology and techniques are not, perhaps, the best reason to go back into space.  For those of us who grew up during the ’60s space program days, and dreamed about being an astronaut like the courageous adventurers of our youth, there will always be a part of our make-up that is interested in space, and science, and the stars.  Perhaps it would be impossible to fully recreate the conditions that made the early astronauts celebrity-heroes in those innocent days, but wouldn’t it nevertheless be valuable to give the current generation of young people role models who are smart, well-educated, selfless, and brave, and encourage those young people to dream about discovery and scientific advancement?

The technological legacy of the Apollo program is impressive, but I think the real legacy is aspirational — something that touched us deeply and leaves even 60-somethings like me still keenly interested in space and hoping that one day, perhaps, I’ll follow in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps and be able to visit the Moon.  The real legacy tells you something about the power of a dream.  We should give the children of today, and tomorrow, the chance to experience such dreams again.

Where Would We Be Without Willis?

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As we deal with another day of sweltering heat in the Midwest, let’s all acknowledge the huge debt we owe to Willis Carrier — the guy who invented air conditioning.  Where would we be without Willis and his life-changing invention?

Interestingly, Willis Carrier did not invent air conditioning to increase human comfort on scorching summer days.  Instead, he came up with his invention, in 1902, to try to deal with the problems heat and humidity were causing for a Brooklyn printing business.  It was so hot and humid during the summer months in the printing plant that the ink would not adhere to the paper, so Willis came up with the idea of moving air over cooled coils to lower the temperature and the humidity so the printers could function.  The decreased temperature in the no-doubt sweltering area near the printing presses was just a pleasant by-product of the invention.

Willis’ invention caught on and air conditioning was implemented in many businesses, but it would be decades before air conditioning became common in American homes.   The first two houses I remember living in didn’t have central air conditioning.  But now, 117 years after Willis Carrier was touched by a stroke of genius, central air conditioning is commonplace, and it’s really hard to imagine life without it.

Thank you, Willis Carrier!

The Last Beetle

This week Volkswagen will make its last Beetle.  At a plant in Mexico, the last few newly manufactured vehicles will roll off the assembly line, and one of the most iconic car designs in the history of the automotive industry will end.

c7853e1d42303ca7b0e084c948a284e6The VW Beetle probably has the weirdest back story of any popular car brand, ever.  It was originally conceptualized by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a people’s car, although mass production never began under the Nazi regime.  Its production began in earnest after World War II, when it helped to lead the post-war economic revitalization of what was then West Germany.  Volkswagen sold huge numbers of its “Type 1” — known to pretty much everyone as “the Beetle” because of its familiar rounded, humped design — and then made serious inroads in America, where the VW Beetle was a cheap, small, efficient, easy to repair and customize alternative to the gigantic gas-guzzlers Detroit was cranking out in those days.

The Beetle — and especially the chronically underpowered VW van — became associated with the hippie movement in the United States, and when I was a kid it wasn’t unusual to see VW cars and vans decorated with peace symbols, bright flowers, and other signs of the tie-dyed set.  It’s no coincidence that 1968, when the hippie culture was at its zenith, was the year the most Beetles were sold in America.  In that year, Americans bought more than 560,000 of the cars.  But Japan and Detroit started to be more competitive in the small car market and their efforts made inroads into Beetle sales, and then Volkswagen started to focus on other designs.  A more high-powered Beetle was introduced that was specifically intended to target retro buyers.  Now, Volkswagen is placing its corporate bets on a newly designed compact, battery-powered car.

With the car now being retired, eight decades after the Nazis first thought of it, are there any other cars currently being sold in America that have an iconic image and design even close to the Beetle?  I can’t think of any.  Peace, love, Beetle!