Friday, March 28, 2008

Essential Cinema - 23

Things To Come

Raymond Massey
Edward Chapman
Ralph Richardson
Margaretta Scott
Cedric Hardwicke
Maurice Braddell
Sophie Stewart

William Cameron Menzies

H.G. Wells (screenplay / novel)

Georges PĂ©rinal

The future as seen from 1939 England. As war loomed over Europe, the salvation of mankind will not be found in the politics of the past. It is up to the brave new world of science to overcome man's past mistakes.

Beware your leaders and what you are told. Thinking outside the box can lead to a brighter tomorrow. There will always be descent and fear, and learning to overcome it is our only hope.

I had seen this film long ago and recently downloaded it off of the internet (it is in the public domain). This is a fascinating work on numerous levels. Since it is a story about the future as seen from 1939, it has obvious flaws. This vision of the future is both terrifying and whimsical. This film was cutting edge for its day. The special effects are very good as is the story line. The acting suffers a bit in the British theatrical sense, in that it can lean a bit toward Shakespeare.

One of the underlaying themes of the film is that science and technology can solve all our problems, which we now know is not always true. The films other plot line is that charismatic leaders are a curse of human existence and will probably always be with us.

The underpinnings of almost all later science fiction movies can be seen in this film. The set design and wardrobe of "Forbidden Planet", the failings of technology in "2001: A Space Odessy", even the lush landscapes / cityscapes of "Star Wars" owe some amount of inspiration to this film.

The ending of the film leaves the viewer a bit perplexed. While it is optimistic in its ending sequence of reaching for the stars, we are left to wonder if mankind will ever be able to make it. Even as we reach, there are those that are trying to hold us back. This films vision of the future while interesting is also a bit humorous by todays standards. Huge flying machines and guns that could shoot people into space never materialized in the real world, but in 1939 they were considered the next logical step.

Many great British actors are in this film as young men. Cedric Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson are the most recognized and their oratory skills are evident here. Raymond Massey is a curious choice to play the lead character, Cabel. His character almost comes across as the new Christ sent to save the world from its own destruction with the new religion of science.

This is a good piece of cinema history whose themes are still relevant today even if its vision of the future missed the mark.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Great Puzzle - A Blog In Three Parts

Hawaiian Sunset, 35mm Ektachrome Slide

Part-2 - We Are All Disabled

Prolog - The Great Blue Herron
Part-1 - Indoctrination Into Our World
Part-2 - We Are All Disabled
Part-3 - The Hidden Senses

None of us consider ourselves to be Lemmings. We all see ourselves as individuals, charting our own course. But stand on a freeway pedestrain bridge and watch the cars rushing underneath you and you might wonder. Our ability to perceive the world around us is limited in many ways. Besides physical infirmities such as loss of sight, loss of hearing and mental illness, there are the blinders that society places on us as well. The thousands of distractions in our daily lives, some of them made by others and some that we burden ourselves with.

In many ways, the mainstream media treats us like so many cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse. The fact that we are told that McDonald's is food (I'm Lov'in It!) and that sitting through 45 minutes of commercials to see an hours worth of American Idol entertainment is crazy. If we weren't Lemmings we would be learning how to cook and studying how to play the piano. As humans we are distracted and manipulated into wanting the quick and the easy. To be one of the crowd and be accepted by our peers.

The more the mass-media tries to brainwash me, the more the old lessons I learned in college are born out. The #1 rule of business is; "Create a need and then fill that need". Our basic needs are already covered by the established industrial leaders of our age (Q-tips, toilet paper, canned beer, etc...). When new needs can't be created, spice things up with sex and violence. When even sex and violence can't inch up the profit margin, fear is the final act in the marketing bag of tricks. How many new drugs have you seen marketed in the last 3 years for maladies that we have never even heard of? All these distractions keep us from focusing on the really important things in life. Figuring things out, learning, helping one another, planning a better future for the generations follow.

Our greatest disability is our inability to break away from the path that the media and marketers continually nudge us toward. We stand on the verge of a great leap forward but we are hesitating at the start. As we are distracted by the melodramas of Brittany Spears and Princess Diana, we fail to question the motives of the marketers and instead are tricked into wasting time and money on their promise of instant gratification.

What our major focus should be is the possibility of a broader understanding of everything. I mean everything. In the last two decades our world and our ability to understand it has changed profoundly. When I was a boy, the personalized sum of all human knowledge was the Encyclopedia Britannica. Thirty-two hard bound volumes of knowledge that required its own book case and cost more than the family car. Today, that entire Encyclopedia can be downloaded onto my iPod, with room to spare for movies and music.

We have reached the threshold of infinite wisdom where any question can be answered with the click of a mouse. The only limitation that prevents us from understanding everything that mankind has learned up to this point is the speed at which our brains can process it.

What if you could write the Symphonies of Beethoven by the time you were 12, the poetry of Byron by the time you were 15, perform brain surgery at 18? What could you understand by the time you were 20? What revelations would come to you? We already have the knowledge at your fingertips, we just can't make sense of it all yet.

In past centuries a well rounded understanding of life and human interaction was termed 'wisdom'. It could only be learned from a lifetime of experience and observation. Now our condensed understanding can give us the ability to see the connections that make up the bigger universe and the learning curve that it takes to understand it all.

The current capitalist marketing idea only benefits those that market the things that we really don't need. There are bigger questions and answers that don't involve getting the McMansion in the burbs, the Hummer in the garage and the HDTV in every room.

Life was never meant to be a distraction. It is supposed to be a profound learning experience.

(Part-3 - The Hidden Senses - coming soon....)

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Great Puzzle - A Blog In Three Parts

Picacho Peak, 35mm Ektachome Slide

Part-1 - Indoctrination Into Our World

Prolog - The Great Blue Herron
Part-1 - Indoctrination Into Our World
Part-2 - We Are All Disabled
Part-3 - The Hidden Senses

I don't drive much. I have the luxury of being able to walk to work. I think about a lot of things during these walks that most of my peers never get to ponder. I get to think about the minutia of life that we as a society seldom have time to dwell on. Many of those things have made their way into my Blogs and as I scan back across almost 4 years of writing, patterns have started to emerge.

The question of who we are and why we are here has been an ongoing theme. Walking to work in the morning twilight with my iPod and passing a homeless person sleeping on a bench makes me wonder. I realize that we have more in common than we have in differences. The only real things that separates us are money and ambition and little else.

When we are young our society and our parents provide an indoctrination into who we are and why we are here. This is usually based on family values, religious doctrine and the experiences of our elders. The religious aspect is a set of rules and codes of behavior that have been passed down through the ages. These codes come from a higher power that is more omnipotent than we can ever imagine. But from the very beginning there were cracks in this facade.

While tolerance was the watch-word in my family, the idea that there were other faiths and other ways of believing sort of puzzled me. If there was one true God, wouldn't it be sort of obvious? If there was one true God, why were we always fighting over how to worship him/her? Even as a 10 year old I was confused.

By the time I left home as a young man I was skeptical and asking a lot of questions. During this time in my life I was curious enough to check out the Bible on audio tape from a local library. I wasn't disciplined enough to read the whole thing, but I could certainly 'listen' to it while I did my laundry and washed the dishes.

Listening to the Bible proved to be an eye-opening experience. Most folks today concentrate on the 'New Testament'. The 'Old Testament' isn't quoted much anymore with the emergence of the Evangelical movement. In short, the Old Testament is a 'manual' for living. It tells you how to live, what to eat, what is right, what is wrong and what the punishment is for your sins. It references construction, medicine, social doctrine, etc, all under the gaze of the one true God. By the way, the God of the Old Testament is neither kind, merciful or loving. He is pretty black and white and you don't want to cross paths with him.

The New Testament however, deals with 'guilt'. The concept that you are going to sin, you shouldn't feel good about it, but it is OK, because god is going to make it all better in the end. This is pretty profound stuff. The first book tells you how to live, and the second book tells you not to feel bad because you couldn't live up to the first book. The more I was exposed to other points of view and other cultures the more the divine alter of Christianity got chipped away.

As I grew older the world started to compress. I moved around a lot as child which gave me a lot of different view points. I started listening to shortwave radio in college to get a more worldly view. The internet started to come online by the time I was 20 which shrunk the world even more. By the last year of college I considered myself a free thinker and religion was dead to me. It appeared that Lenin was right, "Religion was just the opiate of the masses." Constant war among religious factions, Darwinism vs creationism, Television ministries that rake in millions from the poor all made religion seem like a big sham. It seemed to me that something was just screwy if we were buying into all of this.

Then a funny thing happened. Funny things happen in life when you least expect them.

Outside the town where I went to college there is a mountain named Mary's Peak. The mountain is in the Coast Range of the Cascade Mountains and you can drive to the top it. From the summit you can see the entire Willamette Valley to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. My college buddies and I often times drove up to Mary's Peak to party the night away. Such was the case one summer night during my last year of college.

While I lay on the mountaintop meadow in a languid, inebriated state, I gazed at the stars and wondered. As my mind drifted across the universe things started to fall into place like the pieces of some vast jigsaw puzzle. I couldn't make out the whole picture, but I could see where a few of the pieces interconnected.

I looked at the millions of stars over my head and then looked at the twinkling lights of Portland to the north. I looked at the complexities of my hands and fingers and then traced the veins of a leaf that I picked up off the ground. I pondered the endless blades of grass, all similar but all a little different and compared them to the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach.

"This all can't be just random chance.", I thought. It is too complex, too intricate. There is a method here, a sort of logic, but it is just outside my mind's ability to grasp. As those pieces started to fall into place, it felt like I took a small step, a baby step. The universe ceased to be a big blur and came a little more into focus.

As the years have passed, more pieces have fallen into place. Slowly at first, and I am sure I missed a couple because I wasn't paying attention. But as I have aged, the picture they are creating has become more and more clear.

(Part-2 - We Are All Disabled .... coming soon)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Foundations Of Our Dysfunctionality

Grape - NUTS

Once in a while I visit a website called Plan59. It is a blog that displays advertising imagery from the 1930s through the 1970s. Pretty weird stuff sometimes. (click on the title if you want to stroll through it)

The site shows a society focused on image and wanton consumerism where the sky was the limit. It also shows the beginnings of our downfall. Every once in a while I find an image posted there that really hits home.

Such as the one above, of a mother and daughter in matching outfits from a Post Grape-Nuts ad published in 1958. The message being, that eating Grape-Nuts helps mother AND her daughter loose weight, so that they can both have 15 inch waists.

Now I know where our fascination with liposuction, botox injections and breast augmentation all started. It has been with us for generations. I wonder if Post every did a study on how many anorexic women they created by hocking Post Grape-Nuts with this theme.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Essential Cinema - 22

The Unforgiven

Burt Lancaster
Audrey Hepburn
Audie Murphy
John Saxon
Charles Bickford
Lillian Gish

John Huston

Ben Maddow

Franz Planer

A Mid-Western frontier family is torn apart when it is discovered that their adopted sister is actually of Native American descent.

The hypocrisy of ethnic stereotyping and bigotry. How racial hatred is learned and the consequences of realizing that all you were taught and held as true is a lie.

I started watching this film not knowing what to expect. Based on the credits, it should be a good film. Directed by John Huston, featuring Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Lilian Gish and Audie Murphy with a soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. As the story unfolded it turned out to be a very good film.

Much of our impression of the American West is overshadowed by the films of John Ford and the acting of John Wayne. This film takes a different slant on the American West and touches on some of the themes in John Ford's "The Searchers". It is more gritty and less heroic than most westerns for its day. This film was made when Hollywood was addressing the concepts of segregation and race relations in America. Similar films of this era that touch on the same themes were "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner", and "Giant".

The cinematography (shot in 70mm) along with the score by Tiomkin give a vivid portrait of the Western Plains, with broad rivers, endless skies and a sense of life on the frontier. While I have always thought of Lancaster as a bit of a one dimensional actor, he is good in this film and very believable. Audrey Hepburn as the mixed blood sister is a bit of a stretch, but she is pretty to look at. Audie Murphy as the bigoted brother is a departure from most of his western roles.

The plot of the film isn't obvious in the beginning. In the end, this is a soul searching film. By the time it has run it's course, the viewer sees the folly of racial hatred on a personal level. Even the Native Americans in the film are seen in a slightly empathetic light, willing to make amends for past mistakes, but the hatred between them and the 'white man' is too great to overcome in the end.

This is a good western and I am surprised that I had never heard of it before. It is worth seeing on numerous levels, preferably on a big screen in its original aspect ratio and with a good sound system.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Great Blue Heron

The more I write on here, the more it becomes apparent that there are two things that we all share.

a) The long term experiences that tend to get pounded into your brains day after day and only sink in over time.

b) The unexpected revelations that come out of no-where and are burned into our minds that force us to pause and question everything we have learned.

Most societies tend to apply repetitive education to their citizens. We are trained to repeat things over and over until we have them memorized and they become part of our daily routine. We recite multiplication tables, memorize the alphabet and read about the noble deeds of our forefathers. Some of it is propaganda while some is just standardized social skills. It makes us more homogeneous, more of a collective instead of a bunch of individuals. Collectives are more likely to pay taxes and not question things.

But there are times when we stop and start asking questions. When we say to ourselves, "Wait a minute, is everything I've been told really true?". These questions aren't necessarily about science or skills. They are about the way we have been trained to perceive our world. Questions about religion, reality, our souls and our purpose.

It is these experiences that keep coming back to me in these blogs. The recollection of questioning what infinite really is on a dark forest path and wondering, if just for moment, if there were unseen doors that no one every told us about.

As a small child I took a train trip from the west coast to Iowa with my mother. We had a sleeper car and the clickity-click of the rails lulled me to sleep at night. I had a small bunk that folded down by the window. In the middle of the night I felt the train come to a stop. I rolled over and parted the curtains to look out. There was a snow covered station platform illuminated by a single overhead light. Someone from the train walked down the platform, hugged a waiting relative and they both exited into the darkness. As the snow continued to whirl in the night breeze, the train slowly pulled away into the inky blackness. I went back to sleep and the next day I wondered if it was all a dream. I still do. How much of what we perceive is real or just imagined?

As a young man attending Oregon State University, I was able to take a single skull out on the Willamette river. A skull is one man oared boat that can do 14 mph in calm water. They are barely a foot wide and sit only inches above the water. One cold spring morning I checked out a skull and launched into the fog shrouded Willamette for an early morning workout. About a mile downstream, I stopped rowing and just listened to the world around me. Because of the fog I couldn't see more than 20 feet in any direction and the only sound was the water rushing beneath the hull. My mind told me I was about a hundred feet from shore. But my thoughts said I could be in the middle of a vast ocean. I was alone and surrounded by water. As I pondered the silence a shape appeared out of the fog. A Great Blue Heron, with a five foot wingspan, flew out of the mist and floated directly toward me. He swooped over my head and disappeared into the fog from which he came. He was visible for about 5 seconds. If I hadn't stopped to ponder and listen, I would never have seen him.

Just like nature shows us glimpses of the world before we arrived on the planet, our fellow man can sometimes shows us the darker side of the human experience. This is something that isn't usually pounded into our brains. Text books and teachers don't usually emphasize what the ramifications of fear and failure are and how it is perceived by others. The emphasis these days is to focus on the 'positive'.

I spent the summers of my youth in Fort Dodge, Iowa with my paternal grandmother. There was a park at the end of the street that had a miniature steam train. You could ride it for 10 cents and to a small boy it was the coolest toy in the world. One summer, when I returned to the park, the train was gone. For the next 10 years, I would return to that park in hopes that the train would have returned, but it never did. The path in the ground where the rails used to be was still there as a reminder. The last time I visited the park as a young man, a building had been erected on the site. I wondered if I am the only one that remembers it even existed. If no one else remembers it, was it really there? Are we just ghosts in the machine?

My paternal grandmother used to save stale bread so we could take it to the park and feed the tame deer that were in a large enclosure there. It was a traditional thing. The deer would come up to the fence and eat the bread out of our hand. As an 8 year old boy we thought of them as huge pets. I would rather go back and feed those deer for 10 minutes than spend hours playing video games. In my mid-thirties, I learned that some drunken teenagers had jumped the fence and killed most of the deer. They probably never knew how many memories they erased that day or how much innocences was lost.

During Christmas as a little kid, my parents always made me leave a glass of milk, some cookies and some carrots out for Santa and his reindeer before I went to bed. When I awoke the next day, I always noticed the glass was empty, the cookies where gone and only the stub of the carrots remained. I suppose the key to making a child believe in the impossible is to not leave out the details. Back then I believed that a man could actually fit down a chimney and deliver gifts (and we didn't even have a chimney).

During my honeymoon, my wife and I were visiting all the places in the Midwest where we had grown up as children and visiting all the cemeteries where our ancestors lay. While walking through a cemetery with my video camera I spied my new wife lost in thought and focused the camera on her. As she stood in the setting Midwestern sun, bathed in light and surrounded by trees, the breeze blew through her hair and made it appear to float around her face and shoulders. I thought to myself, "Damn, what a beautiful woman." Almost anyone can be more beautiful than we ever imagined, if we just take the time to see them in a certain light.

The older I get, the more these memories and questions haunt me. Most of the things I was taught growing up have been slowly chipped away by experience. We weren't put here to be trained to do repetitive tasks and be homogeneous. We are supposed to wonder about and question everything. It is our gift. We need to unwrap it more often.

(this is a re-write / expansion of a previous blog that I wrote over 2 years ago entitled Home....) It is also a prelude to an upcoming blog...stay tuned.