The Significance Of Sound

Doug Grindstaff died late last month, at age 87.  It’s a loss for anyone who has enjoyed the Star Trek universe.

Who’s Doug Grindstaff, you say?  He’s the guy who came up with all of those nifty sound effects on the original Star Trek — the beeps and bloops and whooshes that made the show a feast for the ears.  The sssshhh sound when the doors from the turbolift to the bridge opened.  The blurbling bleeps that were emitted when a communicator was opened.  The puffing air that we heard when Dr. McCoy injected someone with some advanced medicine.  And the kind of crackling, whirring humming that the transporter made when Scotty beamed the away team down to the surface of a new planet, where one of the anonymous red-shirted security guys was bound to meet his maker.

We forget about how important sound can be to TV shows and movies.  But take a look at this snip from the beginning of the epic Star Trek “City on the Edge of Forever” episode — and then think about what it would have been like without all of those classic, memorable, and entirely fitting sound effects.  It’s hard to imagine Star Trek without those sounds.  We can thank Doug Grindstaff’s special form of genius and creativity for that.

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Noisy Jobs

The TV show Dirty Jobs features host Mike Rowe checking out jobs that involve difficult, hazardous, and frequently disgusting conditions — like working in a sewage processing facility.  The jobs featured on that show would be a tough way to earn a living, but I’m wondering whether having a job that exposes you to noises all day wouldn’t be worse — for me, at least.

spinaltap_128pyxurzWe’re having some work done to the exterior of our house, and the crew that’s doing the job is using an assortment of tools that make a wide variety of different loud noises.  There’s the humming drone of the air compressor.  There’s the sharp, staccato bark of the nail gun.  And then there are devices that make grinding noises, devices that make sawing noises, and devices that make incredibly high-pitched whines.  It’s like being in a This Is Spinal Tap dentist’s office from hell, with the volume on the amplifier turned up to 11.

For a while every day, when the crew begins their work, I think I can screen out the noise.  And for a while it works.  But ultimately the different sounds, occurring in different combinations, break through the mental barrier.  And once that happens, all I can think about is when the nail gun is going to be sounding off again, and I’ve got to get out and go somewhere where I can find peace and quiet.

The guys who are on the crew are a good group.  They work hard, know what they’re doing, and seem to enjoy having jobs where they get to work outside on sunny days and sing along to the songs on the radio while they saw and grind and nail.  The noises don’t seem to bother them.

My hat’s off to them, but I couldn’t do what they’re doing.  I’ve realized I really need a quiet place to work.

Revisiting Ulysses

These days, there is a Ulysses S. Grant renaissance.  I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are reading — and raving about — Grant, the new Ron Chernow biography of the former Union Army General and President.  And now the word is out that Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in discussions to team up on a new film about Grant that is in development.

ulysses_s_grant_by_brady_c1870-restoredIt’s a good example of how perceptions of historical figures can change, and quickly.  During his lifetime, Grant was credited with being essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and was a popular President, and as he was dealing with the cancer that would kill him he wrote an autobiography that was immensely popular and helped to provide funds for his family after his death.  But the narrative soon flipped, and Grant’s reputation changed in the years after his death.  His generalship was called into question, and he was viewed by some as a drunkard who knowingly butchered his men, coldly calculating that the Union was better situated than the Confederacy absorb the losses.  He was presented as a kind of know-nothing President whose two terms were marked by corruption and endless scandal. Only Grant’s autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, maintained its reputation, and has been consistently regarded as one of the finest examples of autobiography in the English language.

The reevaluation of Grant began with the publication of Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses:  A Life of Ulysses S. Grant in 2016 and became broader and deeper in 2017, with the publication of Grant.  When two talented biographers turn to the same subject in a two-year period, things are bound to be shaken up, and that is exactly what has happened.  I read American Ulysses, an excellent book, and I think anyone who does so will inevitably come away with a greater appreciation for Grant.   I understand from friends who’ve read the Chernow biography that readers of that book reach the same point.  (Richard got me the Chernow book for Christmas, and I’ve been saving it for some summer reading, and then I’m turning to Grant’s autobiography.)

American Ulysses tells the story of a decent, good, unassuming man who came from humble beginnings and never lost his sense of personal humility.  He struggled with alcohol, moved from the Army to a series of civilian jobs that were marked by business failures, but rejoined the Army at the outset of the Civil War and seized the opportunity that conflict presented.  Through determination, careful planning, and a willingness to make calculated gambles, he won a series of crucial battles in the western theater, lifted the spirits of the North during the early days of the Civil War, rose rapidly in the ranks of Union generals, and eventually became general-in-chief and was transferred to Virginia, where he met, and defeated, Robert E. Lee.  To be sure, there were some battles he deeply regretted — something he confessed in his autobiography, which tells you something about his character — but his Civil War record is remarkable.  President Lincoln viewed Grant as essential to the Union victory, and Grant’s comrades in arms, like fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, shared that view.

With a fresh look from a modern perspective, Grant’s presidency also has been reassessed.  He was incredibly modern and enlightened in his policies about native Americans and Reconstruction, and principled and resolute in his willingness to defend the rights of “freedmen” who had just recently escaped the chains of slavery.  Unfortunately, Congress didn’t always share his views.  And while there were scandals in his administration — as there seem to be in most presidencies — Grant’s personal integrity was not touched and his primary failing was in faithfully trusting friends and colleagues who ultimately lacked the same integrity that Grant possessed.

His life is an amazing journey, and one in which he traveled widely — to Mexico during the Mexican War, to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush, and then around the world after his presidency — at a time when the primary means of transport were horses, trains, and steamships.  Through it all, he never seemed to hate his enemies, and generally viewed the world with keen interest and a gentle, forgiving eye.  When I put down American Ulysses, I thought that Grant was a person I’d like to know and call my friend.

It’s interesting now, more than 100 years after a public figure’s death, their legacy can be revisited and their reputation greatly revised.  In Ulysses S. Grant’s case, it’s well deserved.

Revisiting 2001, 50 Years Later

2001:  A Space Odyssey has been one of my favorite movies ever since I first saw it.  The only word that adequately describe the film, in my view, is “awesome.”

2001-space-odyssey-watching-recommendation-videosixteenbyninejumbo1600Awesome in terms of its enormous storytelling sweep, taking us from the discovery of weapons by a bullied group of protohumans to a voyage to Jupiter; awesome in its special effects, which kicked off the rapid development of special effects in films, made “space movies” a new genre, and gave all viewers a new perspective on The Blue Danube; awesome in its anticipation of new technology and artificial intelligence; and especially awesome in its absolute embrace of an inexplicable, entirely weird, jaw-dropping storyline.  Oh, and there’s some funny moments in the film, too, such as when one of the characters has to figure out how to use a zero-gravity toilet, which involves carefully studying a long set of instructions.

It’s one of those favorite movies that I’ll always sit and watch if I stumble across it being shown on TV.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on 2001, its initial critical reception, and its anticipation of technology that is well worth a read, whether you are a fan of the film or not.  It’s fascinating.  And who would have thought that a movie that one highly regarded critic dismissed as “trash masquerading as art” would, 50 years later, be universally regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made?  It just reinforces a valuable lesson:  sometimes — perhaps often times — movie critics can be dead wrong, and paying too much attention to them might cause you to miss seeing a classic on the big screen.

A Pepper Spray Present

Every year, the nominees for the Oscars get a lavish gift bag with all kinds of special items donated by companies that are looking for a little big of PR.  The bags are not officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but they’ve become a kind of tradition and are loaded with goodies like plane tickets, high-end cosmetics, and new, uber cool gizmos.

So, what’s in this year’s swag bag?

promo343614230Well, among other things there’s a 12-day trip to Tanzania, something called a “24 carat gold facial” — that sounds like it will fit right in with the Hollywood tradition of wretched excess — and a “conflict-free” diamond necklace.  Oh, and multiple kinds of pepper spray, now that the Harvey Weinstein horror story and the exposure of many other producers, directors, agents, and actors have revealed Hollywood to be a place of rampant sexual harassment, gross sexual imposition, and outright rape.

It’s therefore not surprising that this year’s Oscar swag bag has a decided personal safety and security element to it.  It includes at least three different pepper spray options — including a key ring-sized device — two personal body alarms, and a kit that allows you to determine whether your drink has been drugged that no doubt will immediately come in handy at one of those Oscars after-parties.

It tells you something about what it must be like to be a part of the oversexed, overprotected, underinvestigated, and underbrained world of the Hollywood glitterati.  Normally I would object to the idea of Oscar nominees getting thousands of dollars in freebies on “rich get richer” grounds, but this year maybe the swag bags offer some hope and some perspective on what a wretched place Hollywood really is.  Maybe at least one of the nominees will grab their pepper spray and spiked drink kit, don the personal body alarms, sell the “24-karat gold facial” and the “conflict-free” diamond necklace for a little ready cash, jet off to Tanzania for that 12-day holiday — and wisely decide to never come back to the lewd and lecherous land of Oscar.

In Praise Of Bingeing Technology

You can argue about the value of some technological advancements that we have seen in our lifetimes.  Is the invention of Roomba vacuuming robots, for example, really a good thing?  However, the significance of one development is indisputable:

The ability to engage in TV and movie binge-watching during the cold Midwestern winter months is one of the greatest leaps forward for the human species since the ancient Egyptians developed papyrus.

tmp_uirc5w_4f3814e036213fed_harry_potter_photoConsider this week in Columbus, Ohio.  It has been so absurdly cold, with ambient temperatures hovering, with leaden immobility, in the single digits and wind chill factors below zero, that there is absolutely no incentive to go outside voluntarily.  Unless you’ve got to go to work or to an appointment, there is no rational reason whatsoever to venture into the frigidity.  So, you’re stuck inside.  What to do?  Well, you could read a book, of course . . . or, you could be intellectually lazy and binge-watch TV, thanks to options like Netflix and Amazon TV and cable channels that offer premium options.  The last few days Kish and I have curled up on the couch at nights and begun watching the entire Harry Potter movie series — thanks, HBO and AT&T Uverse! — and it’s been a lot of fun.

You don’t have to watch the Harry Potter movies, of course — you could watch The Wire, or Deadwood, or Lost from start to finish, or a whole season of 24, or the John Wayne westerns in sequence, or the Thin Man films from beginning to end, or every movie in the Shirley Temple collection.  With the amount of new content being produced these days, and the amount of old TV shows and movies that remain available for casual viewing, your binge-watching options are virtually infinite.  And whatever you choose, you’re going to be entertained . . . and out of the cold.

I’m not suggesting that binge-watching TV is something that people should do constantly, week-in and week-out — but when the cold fronts plant themselves in your neighborhood and going outside becomes a bleak, frigid experience, binge-watching is a wonderful option to have.  As I said, it’s right up there with papyrus.

Downsizing

Hollywood films frequently employ what’s called the “high concept” approach. That’s when you can describe the gist of the movie in a sentence. For the original Ghostbusters, for example, the high-concept sentence might have been: “A comedy in which geeky paranormal scientists use high-tech gadgets to catch ghosts and save the world from an ancient evil being.” Pretty compelling!

For Downsizing, the high concept pitch probably was something like this: “The world is changed when scientists discover a way to shrink human beings to five-inch size in order to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint and allow the tiny people to live like kings.” That sounds pretty interesting, too, and like Ghostbusters would allow for lots on great special effects, too.

But where Ghostbusters built great ideas and characters, like Mr. Stay-Puft and the controlling EPA twerp, into the plot and made the movie a classic, in Downsizing the premise just sits there, thrashing around in search of an identity. Is it a comedy, or a serious approach to global warming, or a treatment about how humanity is ultimately frivolous, caste-bound, and uncaring? Potentially interesting notions of how the big-people world and the little-world world would interact get raised and then vanish without a trace. Characters come and go, seemingly at random, stereotypes bizarrely intrude into the plot, and by the end of the movie, when a five-inch Matt Damon is beating on a drum on the shores of a Norwegian fjord with a band of hippies who are preparing to go underground to save the human species, you’re scratching your head and wondering what the hell the movie is really supposed to be about.

Downsizing shows that the initial high concept only takes you so far. The special effects are good, and the weird twists and plot holes will give rise to lots of after-movie analysis, but this film is a quickly forgettable dud.