Circling Gulls

On my walk this morning I noticed a few dozen seagulls circling one of the piers near the mailboat dock, with more gulls joining every minute. They were raising an unholy racket and clearly had spotted some potential food that they might grab off the pier. It was either that, or a reenactment of a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The gulls looked very picturesque, silhouetted against the sunrise, but the harsh reality is a different story. Seagulls are trash birds that will try to eat just about anything and will fly off with the disgusting items you can imagine. We know this because we’ve found items dropped by seagulls on our deck. This summer’s seagull gifts have included a large, rotting, eyeless fish head and a gross bait bag with fish guts that probably was snatched from a lobster boat.

It’s just part of the price you pay for living in a seaside community.

What Will Get You Back To The Theater?

We haven’t been to a movie in . . . well, I don’t know how long. At least 18 months, and probably a lot longer. Like everyone else, we’ve been homebound, and theaters have been closed, and nothing that’s been shown since theaters have reopened has really sufficiently piqued our interest.

Until I saw this trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife. The original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorite movies. The sequel was okay, but it didn’t really compare to the original. And the remake didn’t tempt me, either.

But this one? Well, it looks like it might just be channeling the spirit of the initial movie. And come Thanksgiving, I might just find myself in a movie theater seat for the first time in a few years, just to see whether the movie itself lives up to the preview.

I’d say it’s time to get back to the theaters, anyway. Don’t you think?

Island Gull

Seagulls are a big part of the ambiance in Stonington. When you’re down by the harbor they are always swooping around, stark white against the blue skies, and their cries provide a contrast to the deep basso thrum of the lobster boats chugging in and out. From time to time gulls will even circle around our house on Greenhead, and when you see them up close you realize they are very big birds. There’s a reason they were among the flying horrors Alfred Hitchcock featured on The Birds.

One of the things I admire about seagulls is their attitude. They act like they own the place. The seagull in the photo above reflected that ‘tude as he perched on one of the rock outcroppings in the cove near Greenhead Lobster. He casually surveyed his domain on a cool but sunny day and pronounced it good, before taking wing to dive bomb some of the boats.

Sunday School

This morning’s walk took us past the intersection of Church and School Streets— two more examples of the factually literal street-naming conventions followed by the Stonington town founders. The sign reminded me of the other confluence of church and school from my childhood: Sunday school.

Right about now we’d be washing our faces, donning our “Sunday best” clothes, and heading off to church and our Sunday school class. There we would get brightly colored pamphlets, squirm uncomfortably in our clothes, and try to learn about the Old Testament. And, frankly, in some respects the Old Testament wasn’t too bad from a kid interest standpoint, with lots of fire and brimstone, golden calves, pillars of salt, burning bushes, general human wickedness, world-ending floods, wars, treachery, and David versus Goliath battles. You never knew when God was going to pop up and test somebody or punish the evil in some cool way. In fact, it’s almost as if the Old Testament was written in a desperate effort to hold the attention of an easily distracted ten-year-old boy. Alas, the interesting stuff was inevitably buried by rote lessons that required you to remember the names of Abraham’s kids or who Ezekiel was.

My favorite Sunday school moment is found in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Indy tells the two bureaucrats from Washington about the powers of the Ark of the Covenant. When they look surprised to learn about it, Indy says something like: “Didn’t you guys pay attention in Sunday school?” The two bureaucrats exchange guilty glances in response. Every kid who went to Sunday school knows exactly how they felt.

Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney

If you’re a Beatles fan, Amazon Prime offers a lot of ways to scratch that Fab Four itch. Over the weekend we watched an interesting two-part documentary called Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney. The film, made in 2008, traces the greatest rock music songwriting partnership in history from the beginning to the end, using archival clips from shows and Beatles appearances mixed in with interviews with journalists, writers, musicians, and friends of Lennon and McCartney who talk about the development of the duo’s songwriting abilities and the significance of some of the musical innovations, chord structures, and lyrical devices in the songs themselves. The first part of the film takes us from 1957 to 1965, after the issuance of Rubber Soul and the Beatles’ decision to stop touring, and the second part goes from 1966 to the end in 1970.

Here’s the thing about the Beatles: you don’t need to be an expert in songwriting, or even know how to play an instrument or read music, to know that their songs are great. In effect, every Beatles fan is an expert in their own right, so when the people interviewed on the film start to critique a specific song or debate which Beatles album was the greatest–this group settles on Rubber Soul, by the way–the viewer is just as engaged as the participants in the debate. I may defer to the experts on the technical stuff about key changes and other musical arcana, but I’m perfectly capable of questioning their judgments about the worth of songs and albums, because the whole point of music is to appeal to the listener. I also can remember when the prevailing consensus was that the greatest Beatles album was Revolver . . . then Sgt. Pepper . . . then A Hard Day’s Night, and there are always people like me who think Abbey Road has to be right up there, too. The fact that people are still debating this question, decades later, just shows how extraordinary the Beatles output really was. And any documentary about the Lennon-McCartney songs inevitably is going to skip over incredibly great songs, as this one does with Ticket To Ride, Let It Be, I Feel Fine and many others.

Two observations made on the film stuck with me. One was the constant theme sounded by Klaus Voorman, who knew the Beatles well in the early Hamburg days. He pointed out that the Beatles always were different personalities, and it is perfectly natural that a time came when they wanted to pursue their own lives and go their own ways. Who can doubt the truth of that observation about the human condition–or question that the normal arc of development and change in people’s lives is only going to be exaggerated when you are at the absolute center of the cultural universe, as the Beatles were? It makes you understand that it isn’t surprising that the group ended, but that it’s wonderful that it stayed together for as long as it did.

The other observation was about the Beatles’ willingness to do countless takes of a difficult song–I think the particular song being discussed was Happiness Is A Warm Gun–and what that must have necessarily meant for the dynamics within the group. The point was that the group wouldn’t do more than 80 takes to get a song just right if they really couldn’t stand each other and were being pulled apart by internal dissension. That’s a compelling thought to keep in mind as you listen to the Beatles’ later songs, all the way up through Abbey Road, the last album that they recorded, which has some of the most memorable music of all, with Paul, for example, singing his heart out in the background vocals on Something and the great, tight rhythm section work on side two. Even at the end, the Beatles were pros who cared about each others’ songs and worked hard to produce the best music they could. That’s not a bad legacy.

Explaining 2020

Why has 2020 been such a dismal failure of a year? What could have caused the unique combination of disaster and catastrophe that we’ve experienced in this fateful year?

A mummy’s curse seems as good an explanation as any.

A news story recently disclosed that Egyptian authorities have been unearthing and opening a lot of sacrophagi this year. 160 ancient tombs and coffins have been opened, to be exact — and some of them were sealed with a curse that call on the council of the gods to punish any impure person who might desecrate the graves.

What we’ve experienced so far in 2020 seems like pretty curse-worthy punishment — but of course it is unlikely that a mummy’s curse could be the cause of the pandemic and the riots and the economic disruption and 2020 election and the other unpleasantness that have made 2020 such a memorable debacle. After all, Egyptian authorities have been opening tombs for years, without causing anything more troubling than some bad Hollywood horror movies. But who knows? The ancient Egyptians were savvy enough to build the pyramids and the Sphinx; maybe this year the authorities unfortunately stumbled onto the tomb of the one ancient priest of Osiris who really knew how to cast a curse with staying power.

In any case, why take a chance, given how this year has gone? Why not take a hiatus from any further tomb disturbances, just to be on the safe side? And while we’re at it, let’s not unnecessarily provoke any witches or anyone else who might give us the evil eye, either.

Losing The Best Bond

I was very saddened to read today about the death of Sir Sean Connery, at age 90. The BBC reports that he died peacefully in his sleep in the Bahamas after a prolonged period of poor health.

Sean Connery will of course always be remembered for defining the role of James Bond — and doing so in a way that was so total and complete that every other actor who played the role was measured against Connery’s portrayal. Some of the actors, like Daniel Craig, have done a fine job as 007, but I’ll always view Connery as the best Bond, and I don’t really think there is any argument. Connery brought dash, humor, and tremendous physical presence to play, and was totally believable in every part of the Bond character — whether it was flirting with Moneypenny, trading witty remarks with M and Q or the villains always plotting to seize the world, seducing any woman who might help make his mission a success, or fulfilling the ultimate element of “00” status — and employing his license to kill. Connery’s fight scenes in To Russia With Love and Goldfinger are classics precisely because Connery was utterly plausible in standing toe to toe with Odd Job and Robert Shaw’s soulless assassin for SPECTRE.

But Connery wasn’t just James Bond. Unlike other actors who could never quite escape the long shadow of a career-defining role, Connery went on to a long and distinguished movie career that included winning an Oscar for his role as the tough, incorruptible cop in The Untouchables and making memorable contributions to The Hunt for Red October and The Rock. My favorite post-Bond film is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Connery stole the show as Henry Jones, Indy’s bookish, disciplinarian Dad who was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail and who was instrumental in helping Indy find the Grail–and who reconciled with Indy in the process. It’s no coincidence that many fans, like me, consider The Last Crusade to be the best Indiana Jones film — in my view, just edging out Raiders of the Last Ark.

It’s sad to lose a great actor like Sean Connery, and our thoughts go out to his family. It’s a comfort to know, however, that his roguish charm and cinematic contributions have been preserved and will always be there for us to enjoy.

It’s All In Your Perspective

I’m guessing that most of us have loved The Wizard Of Oz since we were kids. Like the Cowardly Lion, we might have been scared by the flying monkeys and the evil Wicked Witch of the West or the loud Wizard of Oz face and flames and smoke and sound effects, but we enjoyed the innocent story of Dorothy and her faithful dog who were transported by a cyclone to a magical land — and then brought back home just because she wished it.

But what if you took an alternative perspective of the story, as the writer did above? Suddenly The Wizard Of Oz goes from being a delightful children’s film to a dark movie in the film noir genre. And the best thing about the alternative description posted above is that it is factually accurate in every detail. It just goes to show you that perspective is everything — and if you look at things from a different perspective you might see a different side, even of something as familiar as The Wizard Of Oz.

I’m late to the game on this; the description of The Wizard Of Oz above was written for the TCM channel by a writer named Rick Polito in 1998, was noted by people at that time, and then “went viral” again in 2012 or so. Being out of it, I missed it both times, but I got a good laugh out of it when I saw it recently — and a good laugh in 2020 is definitely something to share.

Steve McQueen

Our summer TV fare this summer has featured a lot of trips to the Turner Classic Movies On Demand channel, and lately we’ve been checking out a number of films featuring one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the ’60s and ’70s — Steve McQueen.  We’ve watched some of his most memorable movies, including The Magnificent SevenThe Great EscapeThe Cincinnati KidThe Sand PebblesBullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Papillon.

Steve McQueen was an iconic figure, and I’m not sure that any actor since has created the kind of distinctive persona that McQueen so firmly established.  He was the ultra-cool, imperturbable character who didn’t say much, comfortably moved on the fringes of society, and wasn’t beholden to conventional behavior or lifestyles.  And his most popular roles contributed to that particular persona — like The Great Escape, where McQueen played “The Cooler King,” an unflappable prisoner of war who constantly tried to escape and was routinely sent to the “cooler” for solitary confinement, where he entertained himself by bouncing a baseball off the wall of his cell and catching it, and Bullitt, where he played a tough-as-nails police detective who didn’t show a drop of sweat during the film’s classic car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco.

My favorite McQueen film is The Magnificent Seven — it’s one of those movies that I will always stop to watch if I see that it is on — but the films we found to be a bit of a revelation were The Sand Pebbles, where McQueen played a disaffected sailor serving on a U.S. gunboat during troubled times in China in the 1920s, and Papillon, where McQueen played a French prisoner serving time in a notorious prison camp in French Guiana who never loses his iron determination to live and reach freedom.  McQueen wasn’t just the walking embodiment of cool — the guy really could act, and he was nominated for a best actor award for his work in The Sand Pebbles.

Kudos to Turner Classic Movies for screening multiple films for certain actors that allow us to take a deep dive into the career of one of Hollywood’s most memorable stars.

 

Old Movies

Our cable TV set-up in Maine isn’t quite as . . . robust as our arrangement in Columbus.  We don’t have Roku, or Netflix, or a lot of the other on-demand options, and many of the channels offer only pay-per-view movies.  If you’re in the mood for TV watching rather than reading your current book, the choices are a bit limited.

Fortunately for us, one of the options is Turner Classic Movies on demand.  This summer, we’ve been catching up on some old movies, and it has been a real pleasure.

thin20man-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Our practice is to go to the TCM channel, scan through the menu of movies that are available for viewing, and pick whatever strikes our fancy.  We’ve gone on a mini-Spencer Tracy marathon, watching Captains CourageousAdam’s Rib, and Father of the Bride.  We’ve screened High Sierra and Spartacus and The Magnificent Seven and 2001 and a weird western called Three Godfathers about would-be bank robbers who help deliver the baby of a dying woman and then get the baby to safety.  And on Sunday night we watched The Thin Man, the classic William Powell-Myrna Loy vehicle that was so popular with audiences that it produced five sequels.  And we’ve enjoyed them all.

Our prevailing reaction after our summer of vintage cinema has been:  they don’t make them like they used to.  Of course, TCM isn’t listing the Ed Wood catalog or the other dogs of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, so comparing the TCM offerings on any given night to what might be available on HBO On Demand isn’t really a fair comparison . . . but TCM regularly offers more movies that we’re interested in seeing.  You can’t help but notice some key differences.  No superhero movies.  No hyperviolent movies, or movies with lots of computer-generated scenes or explosions or extended car chases or lots of overt sex scenes.  Instead, the older films tend to feature simple stories and plots that are character-driven, letting the cast carry the load.

The Thin Man is a good example.  Although the story arc is about whether a reluctant detective can solve a series of murders, the plot is almost an after-thought:  the film is really about the obvious and enjoyable chemistry between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), their dog Asta, and their cocktail-drinking, high-living, formal dinner party hosting lifestyle and relaxed, bantering, funny, and obviously deeply loving relationship.  We don’t really care much about who committed the murders, because we’re fascinated by how many cocktails Nick can imbibe, Nora’s wardrobe, and their delightful repartee.

When human interactions can carry the story, there’s no need for explosions or robots or superheroics to keep the audience entertained.  Perhaps modern moviegoers just don’t have the patience or appetite for movies like The Thin Man anymore.  It’s too bad.  In years to come, though, I expect people will continue to enjoy movies from Hollywood’s golden era.  Will they still be watching Transformers remakes, too?

The Greatest Public Auction Ever

Usually, U.S. Marshals Service auctions are a pretty tepid affair.  The auctions are a way to dispose of property that has been forfeited and confiscated as the illegal proceeds of drug operations or other criminal enterprises.  The typical items being sold at such actions would include cars, houses, other real property, and assorted household goods. The same people undoubtedly show up for them, yawn a lot, and use the auctions to stock up on their inventory of, say, used cars.

I’m guessing that the U.S. Marshals Service public auction that will be held on August 1 at 9 a.m. at Skipco Auto Auction in Canal Fulton, Ohio — that’s a tiny town located near Canton — will be a little bit different.

1431629947-marty-deloreanThis particular auction will include three replica cars that have a storied role in American popular culture:  the DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future, the “Ecto 1” 1959 Cadillac station wagon from Ghostbusters, and the Chevy Caprice Classic customized as the Batmobile from Batman Returns.  The three cars are part of the property forfeited by an individual who pleaded guilty to 60 counts of criminal activity related to a health fraud scam that, according to the government, illegally charged Medicaid millions of dollars for drug and alcohol treatment that was either never provided or not medically necessary.

Only 120 people will be permitted at the live auction site, due to social distancing concerns, but people can register and bid remotely — either by submitting their maximum bid in advance, or by participating in the auction on-line or by phone.

The auction raises an interesting question:  which replica car will sell for the most money?  I’m pretty sure it won’t be the Batmobile, because there have been so many different versions of the Batmobile in the various Batman movies (and the classic ’60s TV show) over the years.  As between the DeLorean and Ecto 1, it’s a close call– but I’m guessing the ersatz Back To The Future DeLorean will fetch the higher price.  Who knows?  Maybe the buyer will be hoping that Dr. Brown’s flux capacitor actually works and they can use the car to get the heck away from 2020, once and for all.

In A Star-Crossed Year, Anything Can Happen

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t been a great year so far.  In fact, it’s fair to say that 2020 is not only below average, it is probably the worst year that I’ve experienced in my lifetime.  With the coronavirus pandemic, government-ordered shutdowns, massive shocks to the economy and resulting unemployment, and widespread civil unrest, it’s safe to say that, when the clock nears midnight on December 31, no one is going to be looking back fondly on the year limping to a close.  To the contrary, I would expect that people will be drinking heavily to forget the year gone by and to toast the arrival of a new year that is bound to be far better — that is, assuming we make it to December 31.

And that’s really the significant, underlying problem with 2020:  it has forever altered our perception of what could actually happen.  Before 2020, anyone predicting the arrival of a strange new virus, sweeping closures and stay-at-home edicts, and the other elements that make this year such a bummer would have been laughed out of town.  But now — well, it seems like just about anything is possible, doesn’t it?  That’s why gun sales, survival gear sales, and, relatedly, liquor sales are through the roof.  So far, 2020 has been like Edvard Munch’s The Scream brought to life.

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So when I read that scientists have measured significant “earthquake swarms” underneath Yellowstone National Park that could presage the eruption of a catastrophic “supervolcano” in one of Earth’s hottest hot spots — something I would have scoffed at until recently — I now think:  “well, it’s 2020 — why not?”

The strikingly counterfactual element of 2020 opens the doors to many possibilities that seemed absurd only a few months ago.  Remember those stories we see from time to time about asteroids and meteors coming uncomfortably close to Earth?  Well, it’s 2020, so . . . better get that survival gear handy.  And for everyone who’s wondered about when we’re actually going to make contact with intelligent alien life, well, it seems like 2020 is the ideal year for that to happen, doesn’t it?  And it’s not going to be cuddly, adorable E.T. aliens, either.  Because it’s 2020, after all, think Independence Day or Predator or Aliens, and you’re probably going to be closer to the mark.

To prepare myself mentally for the rest of this year, I’ve tried to identify every worst case, disastrous scenario that we’ve been warned could happen — locust invasions, massive solar flares, global warming and cooling, zombie apocalypses, Ragnarok, the reunion of ABBA — and am bracing myself that they all might happen this year.  And if we make it through without finding ourselves on a denuded, brutalized planet that has to endure a remake of Waterloo, I’ll raise my glass to 2020 come December 31.

The Crowd Factor

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How many industries will be put out of business by the coronavirus pandemic?  Many people are predicting that movies will be one of the victims.  I’m hoping that isn’t so.

There is something magical about experiencing things in crowds.  I”m not a fan of Hollywood culture and its enormous phoniness, but no one who’s seen a good movie in a packed theatre can deny that there’s an energy, and a shared communal experience, that simply can’t be replicated by watching something in your living room.  Sporting events are one of those things that really has to be experienced in crowds.  So are movies.

Who here saw Jaws when it was first released in theatres?  And who remembers the hushed stillness and expectation in the crowd when the Richard Dreyfus character went down into the deep to explore the wreck and heard the collective gasp of literally everyone in attendance when the corpse popped out to startle the heck out of everyone?  Or hid their eyes when Quint fought desperately, and unsuccessfully, to stay out of the shark’s huge, unforgiving maw?  Who remembers the thrill that ran through them when the shark’s theme music thrummed through the auditorium, and they knew that another character was about to be launched into the infinite?  For many of us, the theatre experience is part of their collective experience, to be shared and discussed with our friends.

Think of every other movie that had that raw, communal effect on an audience.  Whether your tastes run to slasher films, or science fiction awesomeness, or weepy chick flicks, there is something indefinable, yet very real, about experiencing a movie in a crowded theatre full of people ready to be entertained.  Can we really give up the richness of that experience because of a simple virus?  Doesn’t doing so take some of the richness out of our lives?

I obviously don’t know whether the film industry will survive the current pandemic.  I just hope that it does, because I don’t think watching Netflix in your living room holds a candle to the crowd-watching experience.  When the new James Bond movie hits the theatres, I’m going to try to watch it in a theatre with other thrill-seekers.

Breaking The Good News

Recently I wrote about the choices politicians have had to make in breaking bad news about how their states, and the residents of their states, are going to have to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.  Breaking bad news to people is a tough job — but in some respects breaking good news is arguably even more challenging, at least under our current circumstances.

And, for the first time in a long time, there seem to actually be some glimmers of good news.  Ohio, for example, has carefully managed to avoid “hot spot” or “potential hot spot” status, and yesterday the state’s number of reported new cases was below the curve of projected COVID-19 cases for the eighth day in a row.  In fact, Ohio’s number of new reported cases was less than one third of projections.

There are also some tantalizing signs that the curve flattening and bending is happening elsewhere, too.  In yesterday’s federal coronavirus task force briefing, for example, Dr. Anthony Fauci reported that recent data from New York indicates that the number of hospitalizations, intensive care admissions, and intubations in that hard-hit state have started to level off, and Dr. Deborah Birx reported that social distancing — the countrywide mitigation strategy that has been implemented on the largest scale ever attempted — appears to be working.

But therein lies the good news challenge.  The curve seems to be flattening and potentially bending precisely because the vast majority of American have taken the stay-at-home instructions seriously and have tried, responsibly, to isolate in their households.  But if you give people good news, might they relax in their precautions and let up a bit in their zealous pursuit of social distancing, thereby increasing the risk of a new flare-up and outbreak?  And if you get people’s hopes up, won’t they feel even worse if it turns out that these preliminary signs aren’t the bend in the curve we are hoping for?

21a9dbf8-44ea-4df2-a49b-28802063afc6In this case, I’m in favor of giving people the good news as it comes out, with appropriate caveats.  People have made a lot of sacrifices during this shut-in period.  Some have lost their jobs — for now, at least — and everyone has experienced disruption and more personal isolation than they would want to experience otherwise.  We all need to know that our sacrifices are making a difference.  And, as Andy Dufresne wrote to his friend Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing . . . maybe the best of things.”  In this case, there’s nothing wrong with a little hope to leaven our collective spirits during difficult times.

I’ve got a lot of respect for the innate sensibilities of the American people.  For every jerk who has ignored social distancing to party on a beach, there are tens of thousands who have acted prudently and without complaint during this period to protect themselves, their families and their communities.  I’m confident that people will continue to act responsibly if they receive some positive news about how their efforts are making a real difference.  In fact, I think there is a good chance that Americans react to such news by redoubling their social distancing efforts, to finally bring this scourge of a virus to its knees and drive a stake through its ugly heart.

All Together Now

As I’ve taken walks around Schiller Park over the last few days, I’ve noticed that people are interested in publicly expressing their collective community spirit.  The above sign appeared in the window of the Hausfrau Haven, and I’ve seen similar messages chalked onto sidewalks — like “#RallyColumbus.”  It’s all part of an effort by the common folk to show some mutual support, and let their fellow citizens know that we’re all in this together, and that together we will get through our coronavirus trial.

I’m confined to the German Village area, of course, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the signs and sidewalk messages I’ve seen here are just the very small tip of a much larger iceberg that can be found across the country.  Americans have a way of coming together during difficult times, helping each other out, and working to lift each others’ spirits.  Our political representatives might fight like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but the people stand together during the tough times — and messages that express that sentiment in a tangible way, for all to see, really help.  And, of course, there’s a lot more that we can’t see publicly that also reflects a fighting, mutually supportive spirit, like texts among groups of friends and co-workers and e-mail chains and virtual get-togethers and Facebook memes.

The attitude of toughness and resiliency makes me think of one of my favorite Beatles’ songs and video snippets, which appeared at the end of the Yellow Submarine film — All Together Now.  Let’s hope that we can maintain that ‘tude, and it will carry us through.