Saturday, April 25, 2015

First of Three Movie Posts

I have a backlog of about ten movies, all from the favored period from 1936-1963, to write up. I am going to break those up into three posts, one for the 50s-60s, and one each for the other two decades cited

Charade (1963)

I knew nothing about this movie going in other than that it starred Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at a time when both were long established stars with definite celluloid personae. I surmised that it would likely be 'stylish' after the fashion of the time. I did not anticipate however quite how relentlessly and even absurdly stylish it is--it goes well beyond anything that ever transpires, or that probably would ever even be desirable to transpire, in actual life, from the theme music and the opening titles to the settings and clothes and the glossy smoothness of the impossible plot.

Despite my socialist tendencies. I still like Audrey Hepburn, who besides did have to flee her native Belgium as an early adolescent during the Second World War and spend her teenage years in England in a situation of some hardship. 

But I actually like it, because I sense that everybody involved was to some extent in on the joke. For all of the beautiful clothes and beautiful people and the ridiculously chic Paris of the early 1960s, all projected in glorious technicolor to an even more exaggerated pitch of these qualities, it retains the feel of being something of a lark, of not really taking itself all that seriously. Being apparently an inveterate socialist by inclination, I have always found the Audrey Hepburn fashion show which is always a big part of her movies to be annoying, lovely though even my shrunken socialist heart finds her to be. In Charade it makes up a considerable part of the character of the movie, yet, as its director and writer also conceded, it is also absurd, since in the very opening scenes we are shown that Audrey Hepburn's character's husband, before being mysteriously being murdered on a train, had completely cleaned out their apartment, and afterwards she spends much of the rest of the film rushing around and darting into the phone booths and taxicabs and subway stations of Paris avoiding a gang of thugs who are trying to get at some money they believe she has, yet she is decked out in a different fabulous designer outfit in every scene.

Forward thinking people, especially from the tech and finance worlds, are fiercely insistent about how much better across the board life is now than it was fifty years ago, and that most of us would find living under the conditions of the 1960s unbearable now. This is probably true if we talking about the suburban life of that time vis-a-vis that of the affluent modern day professional, for whom the thought of having no alternative to the food and coffee alone that he would have to endure if transported back to that time and place would cause him to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, but it still seems to me that life in the great cities of the west, perhaps especially Paris, would have been at that time close to the peak of their enjoyability as places to live. But then again I am looking at the case through a very middle class perspective, and am oblivious to the finer points of life in these cities accessible to elite types today.

Party game for sophisticates, early 1960s

The Band Wagon (1953)

A, to my mind, somewhat forgotten musical near the end of MGM's legendary run of them in the years following the second world war, directed by Vincente Minnelli, many of whose movies I am fond of, and starring an older Fred Astaire, to whom I always pay due homage for being the great star and showman that he was, playing a past-his-prime movie star kind of like himself who is taking a shot at Broadway. While there are bits and pieces of it that I like, and while all of the commentaries that come with the DVD try very hard to persuade the vacillating viewer that this is truly one of the greatest musicals of all time, I don't think it holds together. The songs are O.K., though there are none that I think of as immortal ("That's Entertainment" is probably the most famous). Fred Astaire is Fred Astaire, and I always find it uplifting to see him, though this uplift is a separate emotion from whatever is actually going on with the movie. The time was one of mild transition, from the immediate postwar Truman years to the (seemingly) psychologically less intense and decompressing Eisenhower era, and perhaps the classic Hollywood musical could not withstand this relaxing of the general tension in the culture, certainly without really great songs. I remember that I did not like On the Town all that much on the first viewing, and did not think much of its songs either, but it had an optimistic energy that grew on me the more I recollected and considered it. That has not happened overall with the Band Wagon, though I do like some of the atmosphere. I also don't really like the leading women in this, Cyd Charisse and Nanette Fabray, that much. They seem to have begun to be affected by the limp, rather gusto-less quality that became all too characteristic of traditional musicals during the 50s.

"That's Entertainment". The shoeshine number, "All By Myself", and the beer and pretzel song (ed--"I Love Louisa") are all decent, but nothing exhilarating. This is the first Minnelli film I have seen where I have not come away thinking that what he was able to do with the material was somewhat underrated (The others I am thinking of are Meet Me in St Louis, The Clock, Father of the Bride and An American in Paris). 

I guess I have nothing else to say about this.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

This wasn't actually on my list but I had recently read the book and thought I should like to see one of the older movie versions, and could not find a copy of the 1933 Paramount movie featuring W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and others that devotees of the books seem to have at least found interesting, I settled on the Disney cartoon. While I tend to find especially the modern Disney cartoons tiresome, I often like the ones from this era. I thought this Alice was excellent, imaginative, captured some of the manic intelligence of the story (particularly the parts voiced by the very talented ex-vaudevillians Sterling Holloway and Ed Wynn), interesting and vivid drawings. Compared to some of the other Disney films I think it is underrated today. It is also very short, 75 minutes according to the internet. This voice of Alice was done by a 13-year old English girl and cartoon Alice lookalike named Kathryn Beaumont who appears (via several extras on the DVD) to have been every American's, and certainly my, ideal of what a properly brought up thirteen year old English girl ought to be. She would also do the voice of Wendy in Peter Pan two years later.

The memory of the Disney Alice seems to have been hurt by her not qualifying as one of their proper princesses, though as far as female characters go, she would seem to be a much more acceptable object of identification for impressionable young ladies in our modern age than the unfortunately named (and fated) Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. But she does not seem to be one of their more popular characters, despite the circumstance that the adorable cartoon depiction of her is even more exaggeratedly Aryan-looking than the Tenniel illustrations, and as we all know, Disney, much to the dismay of all right-thinking people, tends to cash in when they go full-on Aryan with their female characters, as in Frozen, which features an ur-Scandinavian princess named Elsa who is so unvibrant that everything she touches becomes encased in ice. Somebody out there cannot get enough however.

There were a couple of Disney produced television programs from 1950 and 1951 not too subtly promoting the upcoming Alice release that I must say I found kind of charming. The first one was a show that aired on Christmas Day and featured a bunch of kids, including Disney's teenaged daughters and the aforementioned Kathryn Beaumont quaffing Coca-Cola along with Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, and the great Mortimer Snead. Now that I have children near this age (13) and am given to sentimentality over them when their energies are not negatively directed, I found this rather endearing. In the second program Beaumont and Sterling Holloway, who was a show business person, appeared as guests on some orchestra leader's program, as a number of musical pieces from Alice were performed. This also had I believe the footage of Ed Wynn acting out and doing the recording for the Mad Hatter, which was very impressive to see.   

Monday, April 13, 2015

On Blaming One's Parents For One's Fai-- Problems as an Adult

When I was a youth, my mother had this ridiculous friend, we'll call her Mrs B. Mrs B was ugly as sin, was frequently ensconced in a neckbrace, and was given to lamenting that 'the world was against her'. She had an equally hopeless son who was around my age, fat, myopic, hair that never managed to look clean, cheap supermarket sneakers, took band lessons but never became good or learned any songs that might have contributed to a swinging party, etc. One day Mrs B was enumerating many of the unfortunate facts of her son's existence and personality to my mother, for some reason within my earshot, summing up with the observation, 'not exactly the in-crowd', to which lament my mother found the most appropriate response to be 'sounds familiar'.

Thanks mom.

In contrast to that story I will tell one about my father's childhood from about 1961, when he would have been around thirteen. There was in his class at school a rather brutish fellow who, in evident confusion as to how to cope with some feelings he was having about a rapidly developing young lady in their class, took the path of invoking her name endlessly in a hostile and negative guise (i,e., 'your sandwich smells like Rhonda'; 'You're as dumb as Rhonda', etc*). My father, who being probably mildly sociopathic was always comfortable in routine social settings and enjoyed a good rapport with women, eventually made a witty observation in front of Rhonda and the rest of the class with regard to this gentleman's apparent obsession that caused some general laughter, and caused the brutish boy no small mortification. In fact, an hour or two after school that very afternoon, this Jimmy, or maybe it was Billy, showed up at my father's house with a couple of his cretin friends, though they were brought along merely to be witnesses, who are always needed on such occasions. My grandmother answered the door, and Jimmy asked with as ominous an air as he could muster for my father, who, after his mother had given these motley characters a quick bemused perusal, was called for. As my father made his way down the stairs or wherever he happened to be coming from, Jimmy, or Billy, supposedly said to my grandmother, "You might want to pull the shades down. There is probably going to be a lot of blood". This being 1961, another kid openly declaring that they were intending to fight with and hopefully injure your child was apparently accepted as a normal stage of development that all boys at least were expected to have to go through. "Oh, thank you for the warning," was all that my grandmother said, and she proceeded then to make a big production of closing the shades. When my father came to the door, she said matter-of-factly, "These fine gentlemen are asking for you", ushered him outside to deal with them, and swiftly closed the door. Jimmy at that point demanded that my father step out into the street and fight with him. He was larger enough than my father and accustomed enough to pushing people around that I guess he was confident he would beat him easily without too much resistance, but in reality of course my father, who turned out to be a Division I athlete and a man who could always self-generate a considerable amount of aggressive fury when he wanted to, pummeled this guy into submission within a few minutes, as his mother doubtless knew he would, though he himself had not, really, until that day. The point of this whole story is the reaction of my grandmother and the way she handled the problem is the exact opposite of how my mother would have handled any such situation involving me. She would have been hysterical and been certain that I would be overwhelmed and crushed.

This business of blaming and holding grudges against one's parents however is very much frowned upon among the leading people, certainly of my generation. They consider it banal. I am highly conscious of this, though the temptation to rouse it up as a cause of or excuse for any deficiency anyone might judge me as having--at the very least to myself-- remains strong. I do not even rationally believe that they could have done anything that would have made any massive difference in the outcome of my life because of my inherent nature, and if anything I have probably done slightly better in most areas than might have been predicted based on the available data. Still, my sense of emptiness with regard to having any kind of real personhood, past or present, is such that somebody has to be the scapegoat for my unhappiness about this, I need someone on whom to focus my displeasure who might actually feel it, and my parents are the obvious candidates. I harbor some hope that intensive psycho-analysis would demonstrate that there is some cause deep in my background that prevented me from developing into a dominant force in the world; whether the particular cause is my parents, or an unexplored phobia of water fountains or carrots or Austrian economics is a matter of indifference to me. Nothing is really their fault, unless all of my frustrations with life can attributed to inferior genetics, but even in that case they would able to plead that I had been the victim of extraordinarily bad luck.

I would discuss this with a psychiatrist but I have not had satisfactory results in dealing with such people in the past, as the ones I have seen haven't seemed to consider my problems either serious or interesting. Perhaps they are not. Still, I would be willing to pay somebody to humor me just a little, at least pretend that I was an adult or some other kind of serious person. I don't know why no one is able to do this with me. I have been told that I lack gravitas, but still, my lack cannot be that much more pronounced than other that of people who manage to get themselves considered as adults.

When I consider how if I could somehow be transported back into the body of a 16-25 year old but possessed with my present mind, if my development and life outcome from that point forward would be substantially different. I am not sure that it would be in any grand way. I think I would be a little better organized with school work and be able to keep up a little better, but would I dedicate myself to habits and a program that would guarantee my entry into medical or law school or some other grand, prestigious and high compensation field? Probably not, because at some point doing that has to become your ruling priority in life, almost your second nature, and I don't seem to have either the background or the sensibility to get to that level. Would I drink less? Again, probably not. I would hope I would be able to curtail some of the more desperation-driven episodes with regard to all bodily lusts, though even if I were to possess my current mind, I would be burdened with the hormones of a twenty year old again and even my present mind is likely not  strong enough to constrain and channel those urges in more productive directions. I also miss the camaraderie and social aspects of drinking, which I have not really had now for about 18 years, since I left Prague. Similarly I miss sitting around at meals with people and listening to their conversation as one did at school, even though at the time it was widely noted that the very top students and achievers did not waste time in this way but ate quickly, evidently getting all the social nourishment they required from lunch in ten or fifteen minutes, before going back to their studies, or to exercise, or to work on internship applications and so on. I would probably fall back into that habit as well, because I would not feel the same sense of purpose back alone in my rooms as the high achievers did while knowing my friends were still yakking it up at table. The big changes I would make would be in terms of presence and attempts to be more social. I would try to join more activities, widen my circle of acquaintance. I would go to the dancing lessons, hopefully retaining enough self-possession that the women would find my presence there somewhat welcome and not 'creepy'. I would probably try to join some kind of outing club and a literary society as well. Again I hope I would not approach these things with anxiety or stress. I believe I would be able to control my day-to-day drinking enough now to show up every day for class, at least have read if not understood all the assignments, and be able to bring in my papers on time, though I still do not know that the quality of them would be especially high. In doing all this I could at least cultivate a relationship with some of my teachers as a responsible and well-meaning if not brilliant person, to the extent that they might be willing to write a recommendation for me. For whenever I considered going to graduate school the necessity of having three recommendations was always the major stumbling block (my grades probably would have been another, but I never got so far as to check those), as I could not think of anyone I felt comfortable or justifiable in asking for one from...

My self-imposed time limit on this post is up...

*I don't think her name was really Rhonda

Monday, April 06, 2015

Picture Meme

I was looking around for one those picture memes that sometimes go around on the internet--the kind that goes 'open the eighth file on your computer and choose the 23rd picture in it and explain what it is' or something along those lines--but I couldn't find one so I decided to pick a few numbers and do my own. I got lucky with the results, insofar as being able to explain the pictures and also for their comparative quality.

1. Late Last Summer (Probably August), Camp in Brattleboro

This camp in Vermont was my wife's grandfather's house. He died about 20 years ago but it has been kept to this point in the family mostly as a weekend getaway. There is a pool there that this grandfather dug out and poured himself back in the 1970s. The house itself is small and still has something of a 1970s time warp effect, though occasionally a piece of furniture is updated. There is no internet service or cell phone reception, and there was no television there until a few years ago, when some basic service was installed. I actually buy newspapers and magazines when I go there, and I enjoy this, especially in the summer when I can sit out on the patio and read them. It reminds me of some of the parts of my childhood that I like. Anyway, we are very lucky--privileged, really--to have this old place to go to, and we usually have it to ourselves, especially outside of the summer months.

2. Last April Vacation--Acadia National Park, Maine

We went back to Acadia last April after having finally gone there for the first time the summer before. There are so many wondrous places to go just in New England, and I am pretty conscious of this, but time slips by all the same, and especially with six children now it is tough to coordinate more than a couple of outings beyond an hour or two from home in a year. But as I noted on the site I think previously, I was very excited to go to Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island on that first visit, and I enjoyed our second trip also, though it was out of season and a little less glamorous as far as places being open and the crowd around town and at sites goes. The real travellers, writers, etc would have liked the spring trip much better, or claimed to, but I am kind of mesmerized by crowds, especially if they seem to be from the expensively dressed and educated segment of society, and are not overwhelmingly large, which I almost never feel to be the case in North America as compared with the famous tourist centers of Europe. It was much more the regular Maine people on the spring trip, though as I went to high school in that state I still feel some emotional affinity for the place and the people.

I think this hike was on Gorham Mountain by the way.

3. Just Last Week. New Baby Daughter.  

In her Easter costume. It is hard most of the time to get a clear look at her face in real life, because she is either thrashing her head around, or crying, or has her eyes closed, or has a pacifier in her mouth.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Dysgenic Breeding Even Within Comparatively Upmarket Communities?

Dysgenic Breeding, or the idea that society has been organized to a condition which encourages people deemed to be inferior (usually with regard to general intelligence and competency, often with a racial component involved) to reproduce at much higher rates than the better and more able classes find to be prudent to do themselves, is a popular theme in certain corners of the internet populated by people who are usually considered contemptible and defective of intellect themselves by the ascendant segment of the thinking population, who nonetheless often have ideas of their own that certain people perhaps more than others would do well to limit their fertility with the aim of producing a more desirable social, cultural and ecological environment in which to live. While I do think it is likely the case that people with certain characteristics would be more likely to produce children compatible with what I would consider to be a desirable organization of society, I do not consider myself or anyone else as having the right to restrict the fertility of others on this basis; that the existence of these others who are troublesome to me in some way is something I need to accommodate myself to as much I am reasonably able; and that those who consider me and my offspring as the dysgenic element at work in society would be bound by the same restraint and responsibility towards us.

This all came about because I happened to be thinking the other day about how the people who had been the most superior students, who had won all of the academic prizes and earned Phds and fellowships and are at least contending seriously to have distinguished careers in cognitively-restricted fields are almost uniformly childless into their early and mid-forties, and even among that minority who did have children they seemed to limit themselves in most instances to a single offspring. I have to admit I am not clear who exactly would have been considered the very stupidest students by the academic world and other professional assessors of cognitive talent (I suspect I would be put front and center in that group, but maybe not), but I'm sure they have collectively had more children than the most accomplished group has. Certainly the people (of varying degrees of intelligence and spirit) who habitually missed classes due either to being hung over or because they wanted to get an early start on their daily drinking have outproduced the stellar students in this regard. I presented this theory to my wife (who, it probably goes without saying) is also a graduate of the school. She didn't think much of it, though she did at least give me a couple of backhanded compliments, asking me "Do you really think you were the stupidest person there?", and "Do you really think (the school) would rather have someone like (names person with multiple graduate degrees from world-renowned universities) than you?" Since I did not feel like getting into a drawn out fight which would involve my questioning my dear one's understanding of what kind of people college professors and administrators like and don't like, I answered "I guess not" to this second question, though the answer is obviously otherwise, and should be. But really, I'm practically a walking composite of everything in an individual that the better colleges have spent the last forty years trying to get away from, and that is even irrespective of my racial background and gender identification, which I guess some people might find objectionable in themselves, but in terms of personality, palpable ambition, talent set, potential for seriousness, and the like.

Digging further into this question of dysgenic tendencies, however, I found it notable as well that most of the men, not many in number, who were broadly allowed by the ladies to be campus hearthrobs, have not by their early forties had any children either, or at least they have not publicized the fact, and none have large families. There is another related group, consisting of those men who manage to sleep with a couple of dozen women even though none of the latter were ever known to admit to 'liking' them, and these guys have even fewer children than the heartthrob group. So here again we have a sampling of men who distinguished themselves in their college years as markedly of a superior desirability to the run of men, and twenty years on they have virtually no children, and fewer on the whole than those their erstwhile classmates who were more memorable to the majority of their female peers for their defects than any charms they might have pretended to possess.

How about the women who were most broadly and uncontroversially accepted in their college days as having been the primary beauties of the place? Among the ones who come to mind who might be considered to qualify almost all would appear to have had at least one child, though none that I am aware of have big families, i.e. more than three children. Of further sociological interest, almost every woman who fell into this category married someone unconnected with the school, which is not surprising, given that the small size and general low level of average grooming and attractiveness which prevailed at our school exaggerated the impression anyone who came across as at all conventionally good-looking made on the pulchritudinally downtrodden mass of the student body there and seems almost to have enveloped them in a strange kind of aura that precluded them from being able to either seriously entertain marriage possibilities within the community, or be the objects of such entertainments themselves.

This leaves then the larger families, in which I include anyone with four or more children, though the majority of the ones I can think of actually have six or even seven. All of the mothers of these large families I consider to have been above average in attractiveness in their school days. This does not surprise me. Having five or six children is no joke, and I think it is probably necessary to have a more than ordinary amount of charm or likeability to persuade even the most pliable man (or arouse the requisite enthusiasm in a more vigorous one) to commit to having a family of that size with you. If they were not as widely celebrated in cafeteria and locker room banter, I suspect this can be attributed to the circumstance of the more accomplished ladies' men, who tended to direct these conversations, with their superior experience and understanding of women being able more readily to detect the presence of this incipient baby-lust and being, in keeping with their nature, somewhat repelled by it. Their husbands by and large seem happy enough to have gotten them, and in most instances at a pretty young age. Contrary to the title of this post, I don't really think there is a lot of real dysgenic breeding here, because this group of parents is I think very intelligent, certainly not below the median level for the school, well-read and cultured. For the most part they did not expend their energies very stridently in academic competition or striving, however, so they would not really stand out statistically as the Best and the Brightest, and probably they are not that. But they are people who ought to have some identifiable value and stature in a survey of the contemporary social landscape.

The husbands in most these families are like the solid second baseman who can hold down a starting position for seven or eight years without being a liability, and are among the favorite players of the manager, but will never receive all-star or MVP consideration by the media and general public. Indeed, I am a bit of an outlier among this group of men, most of whom were quite responsible and working in 'adult' professions pretty much right out of school. I also have the sense that these men get along well both socially and in the world of work with other men, are received as competent and worthy of their respect and so on, which are statuses I have never really been able to attain. There was even one guy in this group whom I took for a potential superman in his youth, as he was very fit and driven to win competitions and master skills and so on with an unusually effective tenacity. But even he changed his profession in mid-life to something which, while still traditionally masculine and involving leadership and so on, was still a considerable downshift from the testosterone-heavy life he seemed to inhabit comfortably when he was in his twenties.**

None of these people are divorced. It is not really worthwhile to divorce when you have many children unless you are extremely wealthy or guilty of extremely reprehensible behavior.

**Not really on-topic, but I have been considering the various capabilities and handicaps men have in meeting women, and I got to thinking of that class of men who can reasonably expect, when young, to meet women when shirtless, which is a massive social advantage, since probably 90% of men at least cannot even dare to try to pull off. I realized that the times when I had been most comfortable and felt most confident in bantering the fair sex was on occasions when the women themselves were dressed in some kind of retro or traditional costume, though I was always too self-conscious to ever dress in such a way myself. This was an extremely common affliction at our school, by the way, more than I think people are fully conscious of, and the question should probably be probed more thoroughly. Such occasions are fairly rare in actual life, especially if one if too obtuse to seek them out. Still, this explains in some part my secret lifelong attraction to 1840s style squaredancing clubs, renaissance fairs, and country-western themed bars and hoedown type events, though I have never been to any of these kinds of things...