Monday, October 19, 2015

St John's College Dining Hall, Annapolis, MD

I had lunch here with five of my children on the last Saturday of September, while my wife, who was attending her class reunion, hung out at the $20 a head luncheon out on the back lawn. The dining hall was around $8 per person for all you can eat as well as ice cream and other dessert included, so it was as good of an option as anywhere else within walking distance, as we had already gone to the (in)famous Chick and Ruth's diner the night before. I had not been in the dining hall in more than twenty years. Not surprisingly, it had changed.

The Scene at Chick and Ruth's. This must be early in the day. Everything looks too clean.

The Ride. I was looking forward to the trip, as I had not gone further afield than Boston in the entire year previously. The way down was not at all onerous, and even pleasant, as we took two days in coming, stopping the first night in Philadelphia, and after some visiting in the morning, having a fast (for us) three hour ride down to Annapolis, including an obligatory stop for snacks at a Wawa in an especially flat and treeless part of Delaware. Since we seem to want very much to be conscientious workers and parents of schoolchildren, we had to return all the way home on Sunday in order to be ready for Monday morning. Besides having to leave abruptly right after partaking of the farewell brunch, this inevitably takes about twelve hours to get back home. As I get older I do care more about convenience as well as the ability to travel more leisurely. My last two times in Annapolis I have spent extra money, quite a lot of it really, to stay within walking distance of school and the center of town, and I find that it is worth it in terms of my overall mood, especially given that I am only taking such trips once or twice a year now, if that. Now I am reaching the point where I don't want to have to rush back on an extremely long ride in one day. Our trip home also coincided with the last day of the Pope's visit in Philadelphia, with the attendant closure of half the highways around that city, so we went up through York, Lancaster, Allentown and Scranton and then across I-84 to Connecticut. The first half of this ride, during the daylight, was very pleasant. on mostly empty roads through the interior of Pennsylvania. When we got to Connecticut there were three separate occasions where we got stuck in construction back-ups for at least 45 minutes. It was also, as always, considerably colder and darker and gloomier once we got back into the New England evening. It is home, but it is a dark and lonely place to drive across at night. In any case we did not get home until around 2:30 in the morning, and it took us most of the week to recover our sleep. But the trip was still worth it!

I love the Pennsylvania Turnpike's eternally empty Northeast extension

Location. St John's is an old school in the old section of an old town, so it is pretty much where it should be. Most of the students in my time had little use for Annapolis, and the cool kids especially were merciless in their evisceration of the local scene. It is true that the dominant character of the local population has never meshed well with the culture of the college, though I am surprised by how unfavorably the town seems to be considered with locales of roughly similar colleges, many of which are in far more isolated locations and have much colder weather, winter lasting in many instances (such as almost all of New England) nearly the entirety of the school year. But I have written about all of this before. Predictably, the surrounding neighborhood has become desirable and incredibly expensive compared to what it was in the early 1990s. Students, including those from the regular middle classes, used to rent well-worn rooms or apartments in the historic district within a few blocks of campus in those days, but these places have been renovated for more upmarket purposes, and I don't think too many students live in town anymore, unless they are from wealthy families. The college had to build a couple of new dormitories for the first time since perhaps the 1950s to address this issue.

The main building of the college, dating from 1743.

Day. The weather was wonderful, overcast with temperatures in the low 70s. I could comfortably wear long pants outdoors. As I had primary children-minding responsibilities I mostly hung out near the play areas during the day instead of meandering from scene to scene of social action, and, sadly, I was unable to attend any of the parties later in the evening.

Ambiance. Back now to the dining hall, the main room is largely the same as it was, with the exception of a buffet line at the front manned by two or three employees of the catering service, which I have to admit I found kind of intrusive, though this may have been because I was sitting at the front table right beside it. The booths in the smaller room that had been the smoking section in my day had been ripped out and replaced by a double row of drink and ice dispensers, not an improvement to my mind. I cannot say I got any real feel for what the social atmosphere is like now. It seemed kind of subdued. It was Saturday afternoon, and the crowd is always lighter on the weekend, and is usually absent the most intense and energetic students, who tend to be more vigorously and productively occupied elsewhere on the day off.

This is it. I guess the full length portrait of William of Orange must be at the other end (behind the photographer)

Crowd. Mostly students obviously. I only noticed a couple of other older people in there, though there is no objection to their going in. I sat facing away from most of the students and was pre-occupied with prodding my children through the meal so I actually did not have much opportunity to observe the students.

Food. I had fired my children for this dining option beforehand with promises of chicken patties or fishwiches with fries being on the menu. Times have changed however, and the type and apparent quality of the food being served is of a much higher standard than I actually ever encounter in my own current life. Indeed, it is in this matter of food and diet that I most worry that our family may have dropped out of the college-going classes, or at least those classes that attend colleges like St John's (I confess that, never having gone to the kind of school that the Buffalo Wild Wings crowd went to, I am mildly terrified of them). They had whole grain pasta, potato latkes,good quality pastrami on a fresh onion roll. They did have some French fries, though these too looked to be more of some kind of modern hand-crafted variety rather the old freezer burned crinkle cut model that we used to know. It was all very good, and I know that these offerings are hardly exotic, but the whole presentation, remodeling of the serving area and so on struck me as riffing on some kind of San Francisco, i-pod, vaguely exclusive aesthetic, in the sense of, some people have the mannerisms, thought processes, etc, that assure you that they belong in this environment, and other people, like me, really do not. Incongruously, there was one of those flip-over waffle irons that they always have at the continental breakfast at hotels along the interstate. My children were most grateful to see this, and I think it was the main part of the lunch for the younger ones.


Friday, October 09, 2015

Two Movies by Josef von Sternberg

An American Tragedy (1931)

Josef von Sternberg was born in Austria but emigrated to the United States with his parents when he was fourteen, so that professionally he came up through the American film industry, first in New York and then Hollywood, though he would later make movies in Germany as well. He seems to be well-regarded by experts, though none of his catalog of movies stood out to me as a familiar classic title.  An American Tragedy, based on the then six-year old Dreiser novel that I happened to read, and thought highly of, over the summer, is a somewhat forgotten adaptation--it does not appear to have ever been been released even on VHS--in the shadow of the later A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Someone has posted it, apparently in its entirety, on Youtube. As is to be expected with an 874 page book condensed to a 90 minute movie, the plot of the movie is considerably streamlined from that of the source material, but as an admirer of the book I found it a good treatment, probably better in that regard than A Place in the Sun, though I also like that version as a movie qua movie. Von Sternberg's version has the advantage of being nearly contemporary with the book; this is especially helpful where the actors are concerned, as they all conform more to my idea of what the characters were like both as far as looks and general temperament went. Also the 1931 version placed its emphasis more on the relationship between Clyde and the factory girl Roberta, who was played beautifully (and far more sympathetically than Shelley Winters's depiction 20 years later) by an actress named Sylvia Sidney, whom I had never heard of before, but who had a very long career, earning an academy award nomination in 1973 and appearing in movies as late as 1996's Mars Attacks!, while the later one was much more interested in that between Clyde and the wealthy Sondra Finchley character, which was the role played by Elizabeth Taylor. The Sondra role in the 1931 movie was played by the way by Frances Dee, whom I had never seen before either but whom I remember having been praised by James Agee for 'having a face' and 'never being around nearly enough', and indeed her part in this was surprisingly small. As is often the case in old mid-list type Hollywood movies of this type, the general impression one gets is that there were an absurdly large number of beautiful women under contract in Hollywood in the 30s. In this movie even among the extras and non-speaking, whether among the factory workers or Sondra's chi-chi friends, there are just rooms full of gorgeous girls.

Sylvia Sidney (with the much-maligned Joseph Holmes, as Clyde)

The dialogue in the courtroom scenes in the book were I thought unusually well-written, and the writers of the screenplay had the good sense to transfer several of the key exchanges pretty much as they were into the movie, which maintains its interest and intensity, despite the circumstance that the verdict in the case is never for a second in doubt, more than is common in courtroom dramas.

...and Frances Dee

Whenever titles are employed to indicate a passage of time or a change of locale, they appear against a backdrop of a shimmering lake with a frame of leaves, which I thought was a really fine aesthetic touch, and a nod to the serious quality of the book.

Highly recommended.

The Docks of New York (1928)

Taking us back to the silent era, this movie feels like being dropped into a Eugene O'Neill play (The Hairy Ape, especially), with its desperate, brutish machine-age laborers, dive bar never more than an inadvertent jostle or stare held a second too long from bursting into violence, and prostitutes and other damaged women who never had a chance. I didn't like this one quite as much--even with O'Neill, I have to admit I prefer his plays which feature somewhat more evolved and articulate characters--though the (presumably) restored print from the Criterion Collection I saw was striking. But I don't have much more than that to say about it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Notes on the Death of Frank Gifford and Other Old Sportsmen

Frank Gifford died about a month ago--maybe two months ago, by now. Like everyone younger than retirement age, I remember him only as the fossilized, stupefyingly vacuous football commentator of the 80s and 90s, but at one time, as it was dutifully noted in the aftermath of his death, he had been a great football player and an A-list celebrity in New York City and 'always the coolest guy in the room'. This time was so long ago that most of the contemporary people noting these circumstances were hazy on the details of the forms these had taken, or even could have taken, since the idea of Frank Gifford either as a football great or, perhaps especially, a cool New York socialite does not translate into any context that is recognizable to the modern media consumer. It was also observed by many commentators, apparently unable to think of anything else to say about him, that Gifford had been blessed throughout his life by an almost uncanny run of good timing, continually finding himself in exactly the right place at the right time, relative to where his inherent abilities would enable him to land in today's world.

I will postulate that the main reason Gifford's football stardom, both at USC and with the New York Giants, on which his long media career was contingent, was almost impossible for post-1970 football fans to conceptualize, it that the type of player he was has gone extinct. Gifford was an elegant, good-looking, even glamorous white running back of the sort that held a prominent place not only in football but in the national psyche throughout the early part of the 20th century, especially in the college game, where he was the epitome of the oft resented and always envied B.M.O.C., whose lineage ran from the Gipper to F Scott Fitzgerald's idol Hobey Baker to Red Grange ("The Galloping Ghost") to Glenn "Mr Outside" Davis from the legendary West Point teams of the 40s to Gifford and Paul "The Golden Boy" Hornung. This progression came to a dead halt around 1965. Indeed it is fitting that Hornung's last signature performance came in the final pre-Super Bowl championship game in the mud in Green Bay in 1965, which game in retrospect marks ever more symbolically the break with football's pre-modern era. Gifford played for the Giants from 1952-1964, though he took off a year in 1961 after getting knocked out by Chuck Bednarik in the most famous play in Philadelphia Eagles history, and coming back in his last three seasons as a receiver. His heyday was the late 1950s. He was named to the All-Pro team in 1955, '56, '57 & '59, peaking in 1956 when he was voted the league MVP and the Giants won the championship. Presumably this is the period when Gifford became established as a popular New York City personality. My impression is that the late 50s would be considered among the culturally blander times in post-1880 New York City history and therefore more accommodating to vapidly handsome, colorless jock types with less than transcendent athletic achievements than might ordinarily be the case, that the differences between the City and the rest of America were less pronounced and the relationship between the two more reciprocal in that brief era than two allow themselves, or desire, to have today. The Giants in that time, helped by the rise of television and, I suspect, the professional sporting void left in New York by the departure of two of the city's three baseball teams in 1957, were one of the first pro football teams to achieve a wide popularity, and numerous players on it in addition to Gifford, such as Rosey Grier, Kyle Rote, Pat Summerall and Sam Huff remained fixtures on television through my childhood in the 70s and well beyond.

That hair.

This is a pretty good overview of Gifford's incredibly long career as a pitchman and TV personality. Maybe it is because I am from Philadelphia, where he will always be in the pantheon of hated Eagle-enemies, but I don't understand who his fans are, and at whom his constant media presence over a period stretching four decades was aimed.  

Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone. From age 7 to 12, I was a fairly conscientious follower of the Philadelphia 76ers, from the 1976-77 playoffs, at the beginning of which season they acquired Dr J and ended by being upset in the Finals by the Bill Walton Portland Trail Blazer team, until 1982, a period which included 2 more losses in the championship round against the Lakers, and the blowing of a 3 games to 1 lead against the Celtics in the '81 Eastern Conference Finals with a mediocre Houston Rockets team awaiting in the trophy round. The '82 loss I remember taking especially hard, I think even to the point of crying, though perhaps I was affected by hormonal issues in addition to my disappointment at the team failing In the 1982 offseason of course the increasingly desperate Sixers acquired--in actual effect stole--Moses Malone, then the reigning MVP, from Houston, got rid of the underachieving Dawkins and proceeded to dominate the league, going 65-17 and storming through the playoffs, including a sweep of the detested Lakers in the finals. Yet I found once the season was underway that the interest in the team I had had formerly had dissipated as far as watching the games on television, though I still followed the results every day in the newspaper. I don't think I even watched any of the playoff games that year, and none from the final round, after having watched all of the ones I could during the previous few seasons, and I certainly experienced no satisfaction from the championship--the last one any Philadelphia pro team would win for 25 years--comparable to the unhappiness, even humiliation, that I had personally felt when they lost the previous year. A part of this disconnect I think was my 12 and 13 year old self's sense that it was not quite fair that the Sixers, already the second-best team in the league, should acquire perhaps the best player (at the time), and certainly the best at his position. That was the kind of thing the Lakers or the Dallas Cowboys or the Yankees would do, not a Philadelphia team (of course they had similarly acquired Dr J when the ABA collapsed a few years earlier, but that had been necessary to take them from mediocre to a contender; the Moses Malone acquisition seemingly guaranteed them the championship). Also the character of the team changed a bit, probably for the better, given that Darryl Dawkins especially was something of an underachieving clown, but in any event in importing a new superstar they didn't feel like the same team anymore, and it never seemed to me that this was going to count as redemption for all the chokes and playoff defeats of the previous six season even if they did win the title. So, like Roger Kahn of The Boys of Summer fame, whose fascination with the Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the early 50s who always fell short in the end did not translate into joy when 'next year' finally came in 1955, I never wholly embraced the state of the art remodel that was the '83 Sixers. Anyway, this effusion was inspired by the circumstance that both Dawkins and Malone died recently.

Yogi Berra. Who doesn't love Yogi Berra? I like him, as I like most sports-related things, for shallow and sentimental reasons--I do not get much into the gritty substance of the sporting life, I am afraid. Berra 's playing career stretched from the real old days (segregation, train travel, the sixteen franchises of the 1901-1960 era in their original cities in their classic stadiums) into the color TV and baseball in California age, and his heyday from around 1950-1956 takes place in the modern imagination very much against the backdrop of the Marty and Honeymooners era, a lost black and white, smoky, unironic Ballantine beer drinking and Lucky Strike smoking New York world that has more romantic connotations than the day to day life of the time, especially the baseball time, probably merits. Such images of him as a superstar player that I have belong still to the realm of print rather than image or the blather of sportstalk, due to playing in the underfilmed era that he played in. He was famous as a bad ball hitter, and for being in Casey Stengel's eyes the backbone of the team. And yes, I am aware that he really was a tremendous player. I have studied the statistics and the popular literature of the era more than I would like to admit.  

Yesterday, or last Sunday now, marked the end of the regular baseball season. As with nearly all of the team sports, I find I am usually more interested anymore in the regular season than I am in the endlessly expanded playoffs. I still like seeing how the records and statistics over 162 games add up, who finishes 1st in the league and so on. The expansion of the baseball playoffs of course is the worst by far. Yes, the old days of baseball were racist and no one knew how to interpret statistics properly, but they had enough sense to know that finishing the World Series by October 12 (and playing the games in the daytime), at least north of the Mason-Dixon line, was the most sensible way to conclude the season. Since I grew up with having the League Championship Series round with the four division winners leading into the World Series I could go back to that, but the current system is just inane. It is October 7th and the round of eight series haven't even started yet. The World Series is still 2 and a half weeks away. I think it is way too removed from the actual season now. It is not a big event anymore, by the time it actually happens even I don't care about it unless one of the teams I like is in it, and I follow the season! The TV ratings for it (The World Series) have been shrinking to near-irrelevance for years, the games are on too late and last too long for either children or anyone over 40 to watch with any enjoyment. I don't see why they cannot, or would not, go back to playing the World Series games during the day (it isn't like workforce participation, particularly among males, isn't at the lowest rate in recorded history anyway). Because it would be giving up?  It think it would make for a much better experience, though it be even better if it could at least be brought back to mid-October.  

I will have to save my latest lamentations against the abomination of interleague play and the absurdly ever-shrinking number of innings pitchers are asked to throw for another day. `