Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Aftermath of terror

The Boston bombs were a week-and-a-half ago as I write this, and the 9/11 attack was over a decade ago. The residual effects of these events are long-lasting. I expect the Boston bombing will go into the history books alongside the Oklahoma City bombing. 9/11 has already become the 21st Century equivalent of Pearl Harbor, creating as it did a war we’re still involved in.

A couple of weeks after 9/11 my wife and I were visiting our friends in Berkeley, California. As we walked by a newspaper box I did a double-take at the headline:

I have not included the whole article because all of the pertinent stuff is in what I am showing.

I have kept that paper. I thought the writer was way off base in his assessment of the anti-war Bay Area residents, even in the still heated aftermath of the worst terror attack on U.S. soil. I didn’t blame him for being emotional, not at that moment, but considering what two wars fought in the name of 9/11 have cost us Americans in total, I wonder what he thinks now of the peaceniks who question our government when it chooses war as an answer.

The short answer to the writer is no matter the provocation our citizens are allowed to question our leaders, are allowed to question the efficacy and need for war. Unless someone like those folks in the Bay Area do stand up and question our leaders then we are not a democracy but a dictatorship.

The editorial cartoons from that newspaper are below. Of the three, the Deering vision of the Taliban is how I felt about the Taliban even before 9/11. At the time there were many stories about their religious intolerance and treatment of women. If attacking Afghanistan achieved anything it was putting the Taliban on the run, and providing opportunities for women. I’m not certain what will happen when the last U.S. troops pull out. Maybe the Taliban will just march back into Kabul and go back to their old nasty way of enforcing their religion on others. Whatever happens I want the United States to stay out of it, to consider their job in that country is finished.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick

I wrote this post in 2009. With some editing, I am presenting it again.

A few years ago, smitten with nostalgia by a display in a game shop, I had my wife, Sally, buy me a Christmas present, a commemorative edition of the original 1949 board game, Clue.

As a kid in the 1950s I played Clue endlessly. My goal was to be a detective in the Sherlock Holmes style, you see. I figured I needed as much practice as possible. I was pretty good at Clue, and just knew I’d make a crackerjack detective. All I needed was a Meerschaum pipe, deerstalker cap and a large magnifying glass. I never got the first two, but I have the magnifier. At my age I need it.

Sally and I played our Clue game for the first and only time on a snowy New Year’s Eve. I won three games in a row and then we stopped because it wasn’t a contest. Poor Sally was up against my Sherlockian logic and could not hope to win.

If you’ve never played the game, the cards you see in the illustrations, plus the room cards (not shown), are shuffled face down. One card is taken from each of the three stacks and put into an envelope unseen by anyone. With dice a player determines how many spaces to move forward, in and out of rooms. At some point when a player has asked questions of other players and amassed enough clues he is allowed to make an accusation: I believe it's Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with a candlestick! At that time the cards are taken out of the envelope and if they match that player’s deductions he wins.

There is a time to enjoy childish delights and there is a time to put them away, so the game went back into a closet where it’s been since, undisturbed, until I thought about it today. Parker Brothers did a nice job on this edition, The reproduction of the original board, murder weapons and cards is impeccable. It was just like looking at my original game of 50 years ago.

What struck me this time is that as you can see by the illustrations, the revolver is not a revolver, but an automatic pistol. I was always under the impression that Clue was set in a British house. I associated houses with conservatories or libraries as English. But one of the weapons is a wrench, and we know that what we call a wrench of that type in England is called a spanner.

The bathroom and the bedroom are missing from the board. If you think about it, maybe Miss Scarlet was boffing the victim, Mr. Boddy (who is never shown, and like all most old-style murder mysteries, unimportant except for the fact he’s dead), in the bedroom and Mrs. Peacock, a socialite widow who had been trying to get Mr. Boddy to marry her, caught them in flagrante delicto.

At the time this game was originally made bathrooms could be shown in movies, but usually lacked a toilet. Bedrooms could be shown, but usually included double beds lest someone get the idea that a couple were actually sleeping together or...shudder...having sex. Parker Brothers avoided them altogether.

But despite those things, and Scarlett O’Hara and Scarlett Johansson notwithstanding, Miss Scarlet is probably a scarlet woman. Maybe they don't use that term anymore — it's probably gone the way of “soiled dove” — but it means prostitute.

Mr. Green could have killed Mr. Boddy because he’s green with envy. Nice house, even without a bathroom or bedroom, and he had his eye on Miss Scarlet.

Clue is about murder. It's not about greed, like Monopoly, or even just getting home, like the Uncle Wiggily Game. It’s about a body, Mr. Boddy, who has been slain by one of his guests. It’s about murder weapons: a gun, a knife (to be fair, a butter knife), a rope for hanging or garroting, and both a lead pipe and wrench for some good old-fashioned blunt force trauma. In retrospect I’m surprised my parents let me play this game, and play it a lot, too. But then, murder is entertainment. We see it every night on television, we see it in movies, from the deadly serious to lightest comedy.

Entertainment, of course, unless it happens in real life. Or to someone we know.

In that regard, Clue is part of the past. I love my memories of the game, and in the age of violent video games who’s to say it’s any worse — and it might be a lot better — than what kids use or watch today to entertain themselves. But for me, Clue will stay in the closet until I decide to pass it on to someone else.

Here are two of my Clue games. The smaller box is of an early edition; it has partial contents and a board. I also have a more modern Clue which I’ve chosen not to show. Parker Brothers updates popular games every once in a while and I can’t keep up.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Get your White Rocks off

In 2007, before I wrote yesterday's post about Subliminal Seduction, I wrote this post about an ad that seemed much more obvious than subliminal.

This is an ad from a 1946 issue of Life Magazine.

Remember Allen Funt and Candid Camera? In 1970 Funt released a movie, What Do You Say To a Naked Lady?, with hidden camera shots of guys suddenly being confronted by a nude woman. Apparently that's what is happening to this train passenger. Without the hidden camera, of course.

Were those postwar days more sexually innocent times? You couldn't have an ad with a near naked girl, even one with wings and a diaphanous skirt and not provoke someone's prurient interest. Those advertising people weren’t dumb. They knew exactly what they were doing. Millions of returning servicemen were looking at Life Magazine. Every guy would notice this ad. The title is “Holy Cow, where did YOU get on?” and it should be subtitled, "And will you get me OFF?"

So the ad seems to be about a naked — or near-naked — girl, Psyche, the White Rock Sparkling Water gal, enticing the businessman to have a few drinks. The next morning he’s getting off the train, waving to her, as if they spent the night together. Even after a few drinks he’s feeling “…fit as a gross of fiddles.” A “gross” of fiddles? “Gross” is not how he's feeling.

We can tell the man isn't just in some sort of drunken fantasy because the Pullman porter (referred to as “boy”)* and bartender apparently see her, too. That's dangerous, because in those segregated, Jim Crow days it'd be dangerous to look at a naked white woman. You wouldn't want to invite the KKK to visit.

*Pullman porters were also referred to as “George,“ after George Pullman, who created the Pullman car, natch.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sexing it up

Originally posted in 2008; edited and updated for this post:

Sex! Sexploitation! Seduction! Good buzzwords, words to make anyone look twice at a book, then pick it up. Wilson Bryan Key, the author of these two 1970's paperbacks, caused quite a stir when these two books were published. On page after page he tells us the tricks of ad-men to introduce subtle sexual images into common advertising in order to seduce us into buying a product.

Well…maybe yes, maybe no. I'm not convinced, reading these books, that such techniques would actually work, manipulating artwork of a mixed drink, for instance, to simulate images of animals or human genitalia in the ice. Or in the author’s most insistent claim, that the word “sex” is woven into many photos, so even if we don’t see it consciously, our unconscious mind tells us there’s something hot there.

In 1974 after reading the book, Subliminal Seduction — and what could be more seducing than “seduction” in a title? — I went through dozens of magazines, looking at ads through a magnifying glass. The only thing I saw was in a fashion magazine where some graffiti arteest in a printing department somewhere had written the word “suck” onto the blue printing plate of a fashion ad, in letters so microscopic it took my magnifying glass to pick it out. I'm not saying stuff like the author claims didn't happen, but sometimes it’s all in the eye of the beholder, right? And if you can't see it, does it count?

Pornography and images of sex and death are so implanted in our brains that no one really needs to be subtle about inserting them into advertising. This cover — and a cover is advertising — of a 1946 detective magazine is an example of a drawing within a drawing, but it isn’t all that well hidden. I spotted it immediately, and I’ll bet you did too.

Death's heads, skulls, skeletons, are attention grabbers. Every publisher knows if you put a skeleton on a cover sales go up. It also doesn't hurt that the flower in her hair repeats vaginal images over and over. Flowers are like that, just ask Georgia O'Keeffe.

On the other hand, the cover of this old paperback book jumped off the paperback book rack and clobbered us with SEX! Buy me! Look inside! I am about SEX and WANTON WOMEN and FANTASY FULFILLMENT! There was no need to be subtle or use the subconscious. It was all spelled out for us in titillating detail.

But the cover was the sexiest part of the book. Once a reader got inside it was all pretty humdrum; it might have some references to sex, but in a way designed to get past the bluenoses of the era. The best sex is always in our heads, and we can see what we want to see, when we want to see it. Pornography notwithstanding — showing us everything in graphic, sometimes nauseating, detail — sex is everywhere in all its forms. We really don't need anyone to tell us that when selling us products, advertising is aiming at our crotches.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Ronald Searle sketching from Life

Ronald Searle, a very important artist and cartoonist, had an instantly recognizable style. Searle (1920-2011) produced thousands of drawings in his long and productive lifetime.

Searle had been a British prisoner of war of the Japanese, captured after the capitulation of Singapore in early 1942. He had been one of the men unlucky enough to have to work on the Burma Railway. The story, highly fictionalized (and criticized heavily by Searle himself), became a famous novel by Pierre Boullé, and film directed by David Lean, The Bridge On the River Kwai. In real life over 13,000 prisoners of war and 80,000 to 100,000 civilians died during the building of that railway.

During his years as a prisoner Searle was able at times to add to his sketchbooks what was around him. He did it to provide an historical record, and to that end it’s a miracle — considering the conditions under which his art was created — that it survived the war. One way he was able to keep the drawings (some of which would have been enough for his captors to put him to death) was to hide them with the men who had cholera. The Japanese had a fear of cholera and wouldn’t go near a sick prisoner.

He did the book, To the Kwai — and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945 in 1986. I’ve scanned the cover and a couple of pages. The sketches show how, even in the face of overwhelming adversity, he was able to use his artistic eye to capture the moments for posterity.

I believe most people who know Searle’s work immediately think of his cartoons, especially his illustrations for the Girls of St. Trinian’s books. Here are three representative drawings I found by just googling Searle’s name:

An excellent blog is called Perpetua, Ronald Searle Tribute. I have added it to my links list on the right.

In 1957 Searle did the courtroom illustrations for a murder trial at the Old Bailey. Life magazine used several pages to tell the story, prominently featuring Searle’s sketches, which remind me more of his POW drawings than his cartoons.

Copyright © 1957, 2013 Time-Life

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Audrey Hepburn and the Three Scourges

I've been going through my archives, finding posts I like for re-showing. With some editing, this is a DVD review I originally posted in August 2008:

When I saw Wait Until Dark in its original 1960s theatrical release I didn't see what I saw when I watched it on DVD a few days ago. What I saw over 40 years ago was a suspense movie about a blind woman being manipulated by some criminals, and what I saw on DVD was a very resourceful woman outwitting some criminals despite her blindness. My perception had changed over time. In the sixties women's lib was a big buzz, but I wasn't taking it serious. I was wrong. The people who made Wait Until Dark were ahead of me. They knew the power of a smart woman.

Audrey Hepburn is one of my favorite movie stars. I think she exudes star quality a lot of today's stars just don’t have. My impression of Audrey is of her stunning beauty, but that was downplayed in this movie. At the time it was made she was in her late thirties, but still had a glow of youthfulness, as you can see in this screen capture from early in the movie. She looks more like a cute housewife than a movie star, and that's right for this film.

The movie is from a play, and is staged like a play. Except for a few establishing outside shots, most of the movie is set in a basement apartment. The tension is supplied by the group of criminals out to get a doll stuffed with heroin, the MacGuffin of the story. Alan Arkin as Harry Roat is superb. He is easily the most chilling because of his flippant attitude. You can just see the psychopath in him oozing out.

Two solid character actors, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, complete the trio of crooks out to get the goods. Nowadays you wouldn't expect to see anyone go to so much trouble for some dime bags of smack, but for the purposes of the plot we believe it.

As Susie Hendrix, Audrey is completely self-reliant, despite being blind only a year. She’s afraid of fire, which is what caused her blindness. Roat exploits that fear. The end scene, which must have played extremely well in a theater, is still completely chilling. The lights go on and off, putting Roat in the same situation as Susie. It was something I well remembered despite the time lapse of four decades.

As chilling as that last scene is, equally chilling is Susie’s entrance into the story, as the men wait in her apartment. That is where credibility goes out the window, though. Crenna and Weston don’t know immediately she is blind. Why Crenna didn't just grab her as she came in the door is a puzzle, except that it serves the plot — and the visuals — better if Susie is allowed to go through her paces while the men stand motionless, undetected.

Even though it’s stagy it's still a fine movie, a suspenseful story made great by the performances. The only character who doesn't get a lot to do is Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., as Susie's husband, Sam. Zimbalist was moonlighting from his TV gig at The FBI.

Director Terence Young did a terrific job with the material. In a stage play we couldn't have gotten such well-composed shots as Carlino standing half in shadow while Susie walks through the room, unaware. Brrrrr.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The death ray

Since the laser was invented, and more importantly, since I saw a demonstration in 1964 (okay, it was fictional, in Goldfinger) I've wondered when the U.S. would finally unveil its secret death ray.

U.S. Navy LaWS video:

Inventor Nikola Tesla claimed to have built and demonstrated such a device. See an article about it here.. There have been a lot of claims made for Tesla’s genius, and some of his inventions — if they weren’t just figments of his imagination and the imaginations of a couple of generations of conspiracy theorists and people who believe science fiction is real — would have been decades, maybe centuries, beyond his time. We’ll never know for certain. He died in 1943.

Briton Harry Grindell Matthews claimed to have invented a death ray, but was never able to demonstrate it. The story is told in this 2003 issue of my favorite magazine, Fortean Times, and the article is available online here.

So is this U.S. Navy LaWS system the so-called “death ray” of lore, or is it just a propaganda device to scare U.S. enemies? Even with its potential as a weapon there are drawbacks to the system. Even the Navy admits LaWS doesn’t work very well in bad weather (beam is diffused), and so some of what the laser could do might be limited to its ability to track incoming missiles, or heat up an enemy vehicle to make it a target for a heat-seeking missile. Well, that’s not too bad. It can also dazzle pilots (ask pilots who have had small lasers beamed by vandals into the cockpit during landings how that has already worked). According to claims it can also blind out the optics in satellites, which would be handy until an enemy did it to us in turn. Man, don’t be messin’ with my TV, Internet or cell phone reception!

I think the timing of the announcement of the LaWS at the time of more North Korean saber-rattling may be meant for dictator Kim Jong Un. It can be a not-so-subtle message: “Hey, ‘Un,’ no matter what you do, no matter what you intend to do, the U.S. is far, far ahead of you techologically. Nuclear devices are so 1940s and '50s. This laser weapon, this is now, and you’re way behind us. Give up the belligerent talk and bellicose bluster and work to help your people in the traditional ways of diplomacy and making friends rather than isolation and weapons building. Do as we say, not as we do, as we say in America.”

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Crisis in comedy — 1957!

This Life article from April, 1957, describes a troubled period for television comedy. Mainstays of TV comedy/variety shows like Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason were having problems keeping viewers in the wake of musical shows like The Lawrence Welk Show or Perry Como’s Saturday night program.

The article doesn’t mention situation comedies like I Love Lucy, which had high ratings, and ended its run in its original format that year, still on top.

If there was a true crisis, it may have been because television was still young. It might not have been prepared for how fickle a TV audience could be. Networks also tied up a lot of money in talent. Both Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason were paid whether their shows were on the air or not, which cut into revenues for new shows.

The main focus of the article is on the innovative (and often odd) comedy of Ernie Kovacs, which I remember. Some of the special effects they mention in the article, especially the milk-pouring gag, I recall. The effects seem very primitive in our digital age, yet appeared advanced and different at the time. Kovacs believed that using television's technology was part of the comedy, and it got him noticed.

Kovacs died in a car wreck, January 13, 1962, just ten days short of his 43rd birthday.

Copyright © 1957, 2013 Time-Life

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Suspense the Coen Brothers way

 I’m a fan of the Coen Brothers’ movies. I believe they take the best of vintage cinema and bring it up to date. No Country for Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, is a movie in the Hitchcock tradition. It has a strong lead, Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, it has an amazing villain in Anton Chiguhr, played to psychopathic perfection by Javier Bardem.

As I watched the movie yesterday for the third time, I picked out one sequence to show how the Coen Brothers cinematic knowhow show us how suspense and audience anticipation build.

Llewelyn, who has found $2,000,000 of drug money in the aftermath of a bloodbath in the Texas desert, is on the run from a stone-cold killer, Chiguhr. Chiguhr has a terrifying gimmick, a large canister of compressed air. With it he not only kills, but is able to blow the locks out of doors.

Llewelyn always seems just one step ahead. At about the one hour mark of the movie he is still on the run.

It’s night, and the road stretches on to the next town.

At a cheap hotel Llewelyn checks in, gives the desk clerk some money and makes a request.

While lying on the bed he suddenly realizes how Chiguhr is able to find him.

He checks the bag of cash, and finds a transponder hidden amongst the bills.

Llewelyn, who is a hunter himself, understands the advantage his hunter has over him. He is instantly alert.

He figures the killer will come at him through the door.

Llewelyn makes a phone call to the front desk. No answer. That is a bad sign.

He listens at the door, and settles on the edge of the bed with his shotgun.

Shadows cast by the hallway light show someone standing outside his door.

The shadows disappear. We in the audience know this isn’t the end. We also have an advantage over Llewelyn, because we know about Chiguhr’s air canister.

Llewelyn watches as the crack of light under the door goes dark. Someone has turned out the hallway bulb.

Pow! the lock is blown out by the air gun, hitting Llewelyn in the chest.

His instant reaction is to fire right through the door.

Now is the time for him to leave by the window.

The scene reinforces what we know about Llewelyn. His circumstances in life may be strictly working class (he is an unemployed welder, he lives in a double-wide trailer with his wife, Carla Jean, who works at Walmart) but he has two things going for him (or against, depending on your point of view): he’s brave, and once he’s caught on he knows his adversary won’t give up until he is dead. It answers the question we have been asking. Why, when he realizes Chiguhr is on to him because of the transponder and is in the hotel with him, doesn’t he just go through the window and run?

Well, for one thing it isn’t the kind of guy Llewelyn is. He wants the money, and knows that until he kills Chiguhr the killer will remain a threat, hot on his tail.

What follows this scene is an action sequence. Lots of shots are fired, there are car wrecks and the hero escapes by mere inches. The follow-up to the action shows how tenacious Chiguhr is. Although struck in the leg by Llewelyn’s gunshot, Chiguhr creates a diversion. He steals medical supplies from a pharmacy and later in his motel room does surgery on his own leg.

Chiguhr's malevolence pours out on him, as we see in this early scene of him picking a quarrel with a hapless elderly gas station attendant.

Tommy Lee Jones, as “Ed Tom,” the sheriff, is listed as the star of the movie, but really the core of the movie is a chase film with Llewelyn and Chiguhr, and Ed Tom kind of follows along behind, trying to figure it all out.

 Jones has carved out his place in movies, but he doesn’t create any surprises in this performance. He’s homespun and folksy, deliberate in his actions.

No Country is the first movie I ever saw with Bardem, and understood then why he was a star in Europe. Brolin reminds me a lot of Jeff Bridges. He’s second generation as an actor; Bridges' father is Lloyd Bridges, Brolin's father is James Brolin. Like Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin has become a genuine presence in movies with a lot of range, and  a genuine presence on screen.