10/9/14

The Cold War


The Cold WarI was reminded by an article on Slate that the (to me) iconic film of the Cold War, Fail Safe, was released fifty years ago this week. And as the article records, more people remember the satirical film, Dr. Strangelove than the more chilling drama, Fail Safe. Perhaps they have forgotten it, as they have the Cold War itself.

Forgotten too are the tensions and the fears that pervaded that era; the threats of nuclear war. the suspicions and paranoia about Communism, the McCarthy hearings, the accusations and the innuendo. It seems as distance today as the era of Frederick the Great or Napoleon. For some people, anyway.

For a younger generation, the Cold War must seem as far from their world as my grandfather’s days in WWI seemed to me: a time of antiquated technology, of difference music, of style and fashion that seems so archaic. Watching the 1964 version of Fail Safe today must seem so dated, so antiquated. No tablets! No smart phones! No Facebook!

I came of age through the most tense, most confrontational years of the Cold War.

My first political memories are of the contentious “Kitchen debate” between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice President, Richard Nixon. Nixon visited Moscow in July, 1959 and almost immediately got into a scrap with Khrushchev. There’s a photo of Nixon poking K in the chest, with K frowning. The two got into a heated argument at an exhibition of American kitchen appliances that was broadcast worldwide. It almost seemed the two would start WWIII right there.

Yet despite the apparent animosity generated during that visit, Khrushchev made his own tour of the US a few months later, in September. I recall the black-and-white images on TV of him and his wife, and President Eisenhower, riding around in the limo.

That visit is delightfully retold in Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top. As Carlson relates it, the event was a combination of surrealism, politics and Marx Brothers:

Illustrating the adventures of K in America were photos of the pudgy traveler, who mugged shamelessly for the cameras like a mischievous eight year old. Khrushchev may have been a dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, but he was also an incurable ham who couldn’t bear to disappoint a photographer. Consequently, the pictures in the clip folders were wonderfully wacky: Khrushchev grabs a live turkey! Khrushchev pats a fat guy’s belly! Khrushchev gawks at chorus girls! Khrushchev pretends to shoplift a napkin holder by stuffing it into his suit jacket while laughing uproariously!

Khrushchev’s trip was, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed it, “a surreal extravaganza.” Within an hour of reading the first clipping, I was hooked. For months, I spent my Thursdays and Fridays following the adventures of K as he traveled from Washington to New York to Hollywood to San Francisco to Iowa to Pittsburgh to Camp David, creating hilarious havoc all the way.

Fifty-five years ago, this past September 25, that tour. I still have a memory of it, a trifle hazy but still intact.*

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07/10/14

Lawrence in Arabia


Lawrence of Arabia

I recall with some vividness seeing David Lean’s masterpiece film, Lawrence of Arabia, when it was first shown in Canadian theatres. I was 12 and utterly astounded by the movie. Not simply the great, sprawling, adventurous tale that meandered through 220 minutes (plus the intermission), but by the incredible scenery. It was a world totally alien from my cultivated, manicured suburbia: wild, dangerous, exotic. And stunningly beautiful.

So much of an impression did it make on my young mind that today I can still remember sitting in the Golden Mile theatre with my parents as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed.

I went back to see the film again, I think at the Saturday matinée showing. My memory suggests I did this a few more times that summer (Saturday matinées were a ritual for many of my early teen years). Despite its length, I have watched it numerous times since that first viewing (I can still hear the theme song in my memory, when I think of the movie).

(I owned it on VHS when that technology was current, then DVD and this week got the Blu-Ray version to watch again. With almost four hours of viewing, it’s a two-nighter show for me, plus a third to watch all the extras on the making of the film.)

During my first viewing, the minute the desert scenes came onscreen, I was hooked, wide-eyed. The silver screen filled with an immensity of utterly stunning, utterly alien landscape in dazzling colour. My young brain raced. Where was this? What was it really like? Is the sky really that blue and does the horizon really seem to go on forever? What happened there? Why wasn’t this in my history class? Who was this man?

Of course, I really wasn’t aware at that age about how films were made; that locations and sets weren’t necessarily the real place (except, of course, for those B-flick scifi and horror films I delighted in at that age; even then I knew that there were no Martians or werewolves or vampires but I loved them anyway and still do).

Nor was I aware of the actual history being portrayed (and the later criticisms about its authenticity and accuracy). It captivated me, easily, and opened the doors of my mind to a world and a history I had no inkling about. I developed an interest in the Middle East at an early age – it’s geology, history, ecologies, cultures, religions… although it would take another decade before I really started to look deeper into the political-religious-military conflicts of the region. Not that I ever truly understood all of them (does anyone?).

Everything from the earliest days of that region fascinated me. I can’t say now exactly when I first learned about the early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, but from that movie on, I was hooked on reading about Sumeria, Babylon, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites. I read every book in the local library about the archaeological expeditions to that region.

(It still fascinates me: my blog and my Twitter page both have an Assyrian image in the background – a photo I took at the British Museum where I stared agog at the pieces in their galleries. And I recently re-read Gilgamesh in a new translation.)
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06/21/14

Fifty Years Ago


In mid-August, 1964, a modest-budget, British black-and-white comedy movie hit the theatres. And instantly exploded to being the most popular film of the year. It was the Richard Lester flick, A Hard Day’s Night, starring the young Beatles in their debut on the silver screen. It was a paradigm changer in so many ways.
Hard Day's Night

It was a madcap, faux-autobiographical/mockumentary story – a style of filmmaking not previously seen on the big screen – punctuated by the Beatles’ music, including several new songs not yet released on vinyl. They would soon be, though and the soundtrack album would rise to number four on the charts.

The whole thing cost about $500,000 to make, but netted $12 million. Professor Witney Seibold writes:

The film is most certainly a classic, not only capturing the energy and obsession and youthful humor of the band members themselves, but also displaying a new kind of New Wave filmmaking that was part musical, part comedy, and part documentary. A Hard Day’s Night is a great film… perhaps the best rock film ever made.

But of course the biggest result was to introduce the world to Beatlemania, then still a nascent movement about to become a cultural tsunami. If anyone before the film was unsure what it meant, what all the excitement was about, who these guys were, they didn’t have any uncertainty after watching it. The film not only showed the world what Beatlemania was,, it swept up everyone in its wake and drew us unprotesting into the madcap movement.

People in the audience laughed and wept and screamed along with the audience in the film. Teens in the USA, in Canada and elsewhere were united in a virtual onscreen world with the British teens shown in the movie. It internationalized us.

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06/10/14

The Hollow Crown


Wikipedia image

Richard II, the first English king of whom we have a real portrait, not just a stylized one.

I’ve watched three of the four productions in the 2012 TV series, The Hollow Crown, this past week, and am greatly impressed by the productions and the acting. Wonderful, rich stuff.

The series consists of the second Shakespeare tetralogy, the Henriad: Richard II; Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, each roughly two hours long.  I expect to see the last remaining one this week. (N.B. A new production of the first tetralogy, The Hollow Crown II, is in the works this year).

There’s a bit of an irony in the tetralogy’s name: Henriad, because Henry doesn’t appear at all in Richard II: he is only mentioned in a offside mention by Henry Bolingbroke, his father and newly-crowned king, at the end of the play. He’s  a major but not the main character in Henry IV P1 and P2 – rather Prince Hal shares the stage with Falstaff, Hotspur,his father, and in Part 2, his brother John of Lancaster. Plus the various rebels have their time on stage. It isn’t until the final play that he comes into his own.

One can never get too much Shakespeare in one’s life, and this series feeds my need for film versions that of late has been sadly lacking.* Of course I read the plays frequently – at least one a year, as well as books about the plays and the Bard – but a good film production can be so much more powerful, more engaging. And who, really, doesn’t love Shakespeare?

Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree, from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

Every production of the Bard is, by necessity, both an interpretation and a compromise. Few of the plays fit comfortably within the time constraints imposed by TV (and dwindling viewer attention spans), so they are often abbreviated to fit the usual two-hour comfort zone for movies. That means some dialogue, some scenes, some subplots must be cut. Visual effects often replace dialogue or at least embellish a scene so less verbiage is needed, especially in action scenes.

And then there are the many ways a director chooses to portray the characters, the scenery, the secondary characters. Is the lead a villain or misunderstood hero? Was the line said in anger or in jest? Is it irony or ignorance? Is the audience expected to be sympathetic or angry at the character? Is the king strong or infirm? Is he bold or indecisive? Often the characters lend themselves to a range of portrayals.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Each production is in itself a work of art that has a unique relationship to Shakespeare. So it is with The Hollow Crown; the story of the beginning of the War of the Roses when the Plantagenets split into the competing houses of York and Lancaster, which vied for power and the throne.

At least that’s Shakespeare’s view and if modern historians disagree, his version at least makes for great drama. The result, however, is incontestably one of the greatest collections of Shakespeare on film.

If there is any flaw, it lies in the audio, which is sometimes less than clear, especially in crowd scenes (and the often thick accents – likely authentic to Shakespeare’s audience, but ahistorical for the era – may obfuscate some dialogue for the non-native viewer). Still, the stories are rich, the characters deep and well-fleshed, and the sets make the audience feel as if they were there, not in some stylized set pieces.

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05/24/14

The Three Stooges


CurlyI bought a DVD set called The Ultimate Three Stooges this weekend.* I was rather surprised that even 20 DVDs could not contain all of the film work the trio (more on that, below) put together in their long career. But it does contain the core – and the very best – of their work, including several rare and forgotten early pieces.

I’m delighted to have it – before this set I only had a scattered collection of pieces, but nothing this comprehensive.

I grew up in the 1950s watching the Three Stooges in B&W on a TV that showed a test pattern early in the morning and late at night. TV channels didn’t run 24/7: they started and ended at specific hours. I developed an affection for them from back then.

Mostly TV showed re-runs of shorts from the 30s and 40s. My parents fretted over my brother and I watching them; they were considered too violent for children. It was the era of growing awareness of how media affected children. I didn’t see the Stooges as much more violent than the other series we watched – Tarzan, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dragnet, The Naked City, The Untouchables, the Twilight Zone, Combat, Rawhide, The Outer Limits, Ernie Kovacs, Dragnet…

Of course unlike today, there was no graphic violence. And sex? None at all (TV couples were usually shown having separate beds if not separate bedrooms!)

At the summer drive-in we watched films like The Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Them, Village of the Damned, One Million BC, Dracula and others. The Three Stooges seemed so innocent, so mild to us kids, in comparison to some of these films. Yet they have stuck with me all these years. Continue reading