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Monthly Archives: July 2017

August Break 2017

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I’ve only come upon a couple of blog challenges that I’ve wanted to do; this one I did last year was especially fun.

The blogger Susannah Conway started it as a “break” from trying to write blog posts every day; she decided she was just going to take pictures instead.  And people jumped on that like whoa.  Fast forward a few years – and I didn’t even know who Susannah Conway was, but this “August Break” thing sounded interesting and there I was.  The idea is simply that you take a picture every day and that’s it.

I actually did a lot more photography as a hobby some years back and have been wanting to get back into it; this would be the perfect excuse (along with my finally biting the bullet and signing up for Instagram).

Movie Crash Course: A Note From The Projectionist’s Booth

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Time and technology are funny things.

I have been trying to watch everything in chronological order, as has more or less been captured by the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die books (and more or less compiled here).  I’ve been finding most things via Netflix, but many of the older films, most of which are in the public domain, I’ve been finding on Youtube.  Which is a boon – instead of random cat videos and clips of the kids from Stranger Things designing Pop-tart flavors or whatever, you can delve into cinema history for totally free.  There is a little of “you get what you pay for”, to be sure – the print quality isn’t always ideal, and sometimes the person who uploaded it has chosen their own music (the upload I found of Les Vampires had this super-monotonous electronic “creepy” music in a continuous loop that got occasionally annoying).

However, because some of these films are classics and are critically revered, sometimes they get a serious film-historian makeover, either because someone’s found some extra footage they thought they’d lost or someone’s restored the print or something like that.  And when that happens…it goes out of the public domain, and comes down from Youtube.  But that is also no guarantee that Netflix has it.  And after 20 movies, I’ve just run into that problem (which explains the delay in here).

I really was looking forward to the next film after Sherlock Jr. – it’s The Great White Silence, a sort of found-footage documentary from the tragic British Terra Nova expedition of 1913, when Robert Scott made an attempt to reach the South Pole first; only to be narrowly beaten by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Scott’s team all perished during the return to base camp.  However, filmmaker Herbert Ponting was on hand to record the team embarking upon their trip, but Scott had him stay behind – and so he and his footage survived. The footage became Great White Silence in 1924, ten years after the tragedy, but the wound was still a little too fresh, and the public avoided the film and it sort of lapsed into obscurity until 2011, when it got restored and presented as a historic document.  Netflix doesn’t seem to have a copy, and all the Youtube links I see refer me to questionable web sites in obscure Baltic langauges where I can “downlode free streaming 100% free okay”.  No thanks.

I’m running into a similar problem with the next film after that – and to add insult to injury, the next film is Greed, an Erich Von Stroeheim four-hour epic.  Youtube does have a paid-viewing option for only a couple bucks, but…again, it’s an Erich Von Stroeheim four-hour epic.

The weather is supposed to be a little bleak this weekend, so I may just suck it up and watch Greed, and see if I can find a similar pay-per-view approach to Great White Silence.  But I may have to skip these and come back to them later; there’s too many other films waiting.

I’m In The Money

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So I grew up in New England, and we tend not to talk about money all that much.  Especially if we’re having money difficulty; we go all stoic and stiff-upper-lip and try to “make do and mend”, resorting to repairing things that break instead of buying new or waiting for sales or reverse-engineering our own solutions.  Or just going without.  This is the kind of approach that can be carried too far, of course – there have been times that I have been almost pathologically afraid to spend money on myself.  Also, all the frugality in the world isn’t going to help you if you’re just plain not making enough money to begin with.

That latter state was my lot for the past couple years.  But – the new job has fixed that, and then some.  And it’s taken a couple weeks to sink in, but….I’m starting to get into it.

Now, I’m not going totally bugnuts, buying up entire racks of shoes or renting a yacht to go to Martha’s Vineyard just for lunch or anything like that. I’ve maybe spent more than I should on books, but the bulk of the money I got from my first paycheck went either to paying down some debt, starting a nest egg, or finally getting some long-needed house stuff. (Hellooooooooo, replacement window blinds! Welcome, stash of bulbs! Hi there, no-longer-threadbare pillowcases!)

When it comes to things I’ve been buying sheerly for pleasure, they’ve actually been comparatively modest: a couple yards of fabric to go towards a quilt I’ve been working on (yes, I’m making an actual quilt), a couple pounds of candle wax to round out the candlemaking stash Niki gave me (rather than buying the actual pre-made candles, which was getting costly), or a couple of utterly gorgeous French cookbooks (I make no excuse because I don’t need one dammit).  Or going to the occasional movie.  Or just going out for ice cream or dinner or lunch.

Or actually paying people back.  The thing that saddened me most about being so cash-poor for so long is that my friends have had to cover me more times than not – never anything big, just a couple extra bucks here, an extra five there, whenever we went out.  Or even the convenience move – if a group of us were gathering for a movie run, it would always be someone else who’d say “I’ll pick up the tickets and y’all can just owe me.”  It would always be someone else saying “what the hell, I can put dinner on my card and y’all can just owe me the cash.”  We usually settled up, I told myself, but it would always be someone else making that initial convenience step.

Tonight I am seeing a movie with a few friends; we were planning our attack this morning, and in the middle of the discussion I popped over to the movie theater site and just got our three tickets without even thinking.  “I got our tickets,” I emailed back, “so we can all just meet there.”

“Oh, great! Thanks!”

And the feeling I get simply because I am able to do that – and may even be able to cover them for a car to get them home after – is a feeling that I have been missing for a long time.

Movie Crash Course: Sherlock Jr.

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Hooray it’s another Buster Keaton film!  I clapped a little to myself as I put this in my DVD.

It’s not perfect, unfortunately.  The plot for Sherlock Jr. is actually a little thin; Keaton is a lowly movie theater owner who secretly fantasizes about being a star detective, and who is competing with the local playa for the hand of a lovely young thing in town.

One night, when both he and his rival are at the young lady’s house and her father’s pocketwatch goes missing, Keaton heroically offers to investigate. But his rival – who’s secretly stolen the watch and pawned it – plants the pawn shop ticket on him, and he is thrown out in disgrace.   He investigates the case a bit more, runs into trouble, and gives up, returning to the theater. But his sweetheart ultimately solves the case by just asking the pawnshop owner who sold him the watch. He quickly fingers the proper culprit, and she joyfully rushes to the theater to tell Keaton his name’s been cleared; he happily gives her the engagement ring he was going to give her earlier. The end.

In truth, the movie was created as a home for a series of visual gag sequences Keaton had thought up, most of which come during an extended “dream sequence” after his character dozes off in the projection booth.  The film he’s screening echoes the theft plot from his own life, and he dreams himself and his ladylove into the characters onscreen, expertly solving the case while adroitly escaping from the film-in-a-film’s bad guys.

But all that comes after the opening of the dream sequence – a plotless, but astounding, five-minute extended gag which was the very first thing Keaton thought of filming.  In the sequence, his character walks up to the screen in the theater, and then “into” the film onscreen – and is then stuck reacting to the environment changing around him as the shots themselves change.  One minute he finds himself at a pool, and happily goes to dive in – but the scene changes to a snowy meadow when he’s mid-air, and he lands headfirst in a snowbank.  He extracts himself, and goes to sit on a tree stump – which then vanishes as the scene changes to a formal garden, and he lands on his tuchas on the ground.  He stands up, brushes off, and starts to stalk off angrily – right into a column as the scene changes yet again.

My words don’t do it justice – it’s best if you just have a look.

The more I think of this sequence, and the tools Keaton had available to him, the more impressed I am. Keaton didn’t have CGI available to him – he had to measure the landscape precisely at each different location, plotting out exactly where he had to be standing in each new location to preserve the continuity. Apparently during filming, he enlisted a couple of surveyors to help him keep all the in-space correct; and the editing of that sequence more than doubled his usual production turnaround time.

Another stunt he does later in the film-in-a-film sequence raised even more eyebrows – Keaton’s detective character is trying to escape a couple goons, and gets trapped in an alleyway.  His assistant comes to help him, inexplicably dressed in a long robe and carrying a briefcase.  He positions himself against the wall, and opens the briefcase in front of his chest – and Keaton dives into it, vanishing.

For decades people would ask Keaton about that stunt, but all he would say is that he adapted it from an old vaudeville trick.  He did admit that it took a long time to set the shot up right; but happily reported that between that and the shifting-set sequence, “every cameraman in the business went to see that picture more than once trying to figure out how the hell we did some of that.”

When it came to stunts, though, Keaton would do them himself – and in this film he came very close to danger. There’s an early sequence just after he’s been tossed out of his girl’s house, when he tries tailing his rival.  But his rival is able to shake him by trapping him in one of a train’s box cars. Keaton’s character escapes by climbing out the skylight of the car, and then runs along the roofs of the moving train cars before finally jumping to grab hold of a passing water spout in the railyard, riding it down as it lowers to the ground before unceremoniously dousing him with water.

During one take, the water came out more forcefully than he expected and Keaton was slammed down against the tracks, his neck striking one of the rails.  Filming ceased that day, but Keaton returned to work the next day, and kept filming as scheduled even though he was suffering from monstrous headaches for the next few weeks.  Nine years later, a doctor pointed out during a routine physical that he had some unusual bone growth on that spot in his neck – and Keaton realized that he had actually broken his neck during the stunt and never realized it.

Neighborhoods New York Project: Catching Up

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So about three years ago I announced, with much fanfare, an idea for this blog that sort of fizzled.  I think I should revive it a bit.

I actually was checking out some various places in the city during that time; I just wasn’t writing about them.  So here, real fast-like, are some impressions from some of the places I have visited.

  • Cadman Plaza

This is actually a park; it’s the traditional border between tony Brooklyn Heights and more proletariat Downtown Brooklyn.  However, this also puts it right bang in the middle of a major business district in Brooklyn, so very few people use it as a park; it’s mostly populated by people in business attire walking purposefully on their way to meetings or sitting on benches grabbling lunch and talking urgently on cell phones, with the occasional nanny with a couple kids.  I got to walk through each day myself during the two weeks that my new job was a walking distance from my house, and passed a big statue of Henry Ward Beecher each way.

  •  Downtown Brooklyn

The aforementioned Downtown Brooklyn has been a major shopping drag since I moved in; the courthouses for Brooklyn are all here, but so are three solid blocks of clothing stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, and such all stretching down Fulton Street.  Brooklyn’s own Macy’s sits down the block from an H&M and an Old Navy and a Nordstroms, and etc., etc., etc.  Right on the edge is a new sort of mall-type building that I have to admit I’ve been to a lot (it has a Target, a Flying Tiger outpost, New York’s only Alamo Drafthouse theater, and a food court in the basement with the only Trader Joe’s I’ve seen in the city where there is no line).

But there are other little surprises tucked in – get past the shops and you see some smaller historic buildings tucked in, like the city’s main meeting house for the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the main transit museum.

  • Fulton Ferry

Otherwise known as “the buildings most people walk past to get to Brooklyn Bridge Park”.  Most tourists either line up 50-deep to get to Grimaldi’s pizza, or give up and head to the new Shake Shack that just opened up a couple blocks away.  However, I favor the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, a little ice cream shop in an old fireboat house perched right under the Brooklyn Bridge.  The ice cream is nice and simple, and the scooper staff all fresh-faced high-school kids; I always get a major flashback to the little ice cream shops you can find up and down Cape Cod in the summers.

An old boyfriend once owned the building right next to Grimaldi’s, but had to sell it during a divorce settlement. Whenever we went wandering in the city, if we passed by it, it would send him into a bit of a funk for the rest of the day.  I sort of don’t blame him.

  • Boerum Hill

Another big shopping area, with boutiques and fancy shops along Smith and Court Streets, with some tinier cafes tucked into the rowhouses further from Smith.

  • Bay Ridge

I ventured down here most recently.  The city has dramatically expanded its ferry service in the East River; instead of a single line serving three stops in Manhattan, two spots in Williamsburg and one in Astoria, there are now two more lines hopping along the Brooklyn Waterfront and the East Village, with another line heading all the way to Rockaway Beach.  Another line for Queens is coming, and there’s even supposed to be a ferry up to spots in the Bronx.

Right now the Rockaway line and the line for South Brooklyn are the only two new ones open, to encourage the development of the industrial park in Sunset Park; it also tries to give commuters from Bay Ridge, Red Hook and Sunset Park a bit of a hand getting to Manhattan.  I rode it the opposite way, though, from the Brooklyn Bridge down to Bay Ridge.

It’s pretty clear where the upscale part of Bay Ridge is; it’s the houses on the bluffs overlooking the river.   The ferry lets you off on a pier just at the head of a shoreline jogging path, with steep cliffs overlooking the water looming over you.  It’s a steep climb from the pier to the next block, and then another one to the block beyond that – so steep, in fact, that at some places the cross streets simply stop at the base of the cliff, resuming one block later at a higher altitude.  Pedestrians can walk it, though – there are stairs.

I fell in love with house after house in the little side streets I walked through; mostly the smaller, cottage-y looking places with tiny lawns and front porches, and probably just a single bedroom in the second floor.  Most of them sported flags and kitschy lawn ornaments, the occasional political sign, faded wreaths or Christian slogans.  But then I really fell hard for “The Gingerbread House”, an Arts-and-Crafts style house with six bedrooms built a hundred years ago and now an architectural landmark.

I desperately wished I could get in, wished that there was some kind of house tour.  No such luck, so I just lingered at the fence and peered through hedges, wishing I could peep inside windows.  ….I have since discovered that the house has been for sale since 2009, and the asking price is making this now one of my aspirations for if I ever win the lottery.

A couple more blocks east was 3rd Avenue, the more commercial drag; storefronts and smaller apartment buildings instead of the stately houses.  I stopped in at another landmark that pre-dates the Gingerbread House – Anopoli Family Restaurant, an old family diner that boasted a small ice cream parlor. I went in, planning to get something to go; I ordered a small dish of peach ice cream, and the man at the counter was training a teenager, clearly there on a summer job, and showed him how to dish my ice cream up and how much it cost.  But when I held up my debit card to pay for it, their faces fell.  “Only cash, sweetheart,” they said.

“Oh.  Uh…is there an ATM?”

“You could go to the pizza place next door.”

“Okay.  Uh…I’ll leave this here, then,” I said, pushing the ice cream back towards them, “and I’ll just go get it.”

“What? No.” The man scoffed.  “Stay here, eat your ice cream, then you can go get the money.”  I hesitated, thinking about the ferry I wanted to catch. “G’wan,” he chided me.  “Sit down. Relax.”

“….Okay, I probably should,” I said, meekly taking the only open seat at the counter, next to a woman with bleached-blond hair eating a plate of fried shrimp.  Almost the second I sat down another older man I hadn’t even seen put a glass of ice water in front of me as well.  I was a little worried he was going to try to chat with me – I wasn’t really in the mood for conversation – but instead, he left me alone, and I instead just listened to the patter as he teased the woman with the fried shrimp, or occasionally lectured the teenager about how to serve up pre-packed ice cream or sundaes.  He raced through all his lectures, and I wasn’t sure the kid would be able to remember it all; but when I finally got my money and paid for my ice cream, it was the kid who rang me up, and he was spot-on.


Movie Crash Course: Strike

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Is this my first Soviet film?  I think this is my first Soviet film.

Strike was released in 1925, and was the first film by director Sergei Eisenstein.  His better-known Battleship Potemkin was released that same year and quickly overshadowed this one in terms of notoriety; I was aware of Potemkin even as a child, well before starting this project.

In terms of plot, it’s a bit thin on the ground – a strike at a small Russian factory in 1903, which ultimately fails.  Eisenstein had planned it to be part of a series ending with the ultimate victory of the Proletariat; however, this was the only one of his planned seven-film series that got made.  Still, the thin plot is made up for with some striking visuals, starting in the very first scene as the factory’s workers are whispering amongst themselves about their dissatisfaction.

The owner of the factory, meanwhile – who is depicted as a fat buffoon – suspects that discord is afoot.

He enlists a series of spies to circulate amongst his workers and figure out what’s going on.  Eisenstein takes a break to introduce us to four of these spies, each of whom is named after a given animal, like “Monkey” or “Owl”.

However, after that build-up, the factory workers seem to be pretty good about avoiding them, and they are pretty quickly forgotten.

The strike is triggered when one of the workers steals another’s tool; the victim reports the theft to the manager, and is bizarrely accused of committing the crime himself and ordered to pay for it.  Instead he hangs himself, leaving his comrades a note decrying the manager. His comrades are angry enough to stop work then and there, and storm off the factory floor, spreading to the various departments of the firm and rallying the others before finally storming to the foreman’s office and loading him onto a cart and dumping him in the river.  They then head home, leaving the machines of the factory silent.

Things seem optomistic in the early days of the strike, with Eisenstein treating us to lots of idyllic vignettes as the workers enjoy their break. Fathers play with their kids. Families picnic by lakes. Everyone generally seems to be having a blast.

These shots are intercut with vignettes of pigeons roosting on the abandoned machines and the factory owner getting increasingly pissed off as undeliverable orders keep piling up.

He’s already sent in some toughs to threaten the strikers by the time he receives their written list of demands, bringing them to the factory’s shareholders to discuss a plan of attack.

They ultimately refuse to give in, and as the strike approaches a stalemate, the workers’ idylls are broken up with tension and squabbling.  A man ransacks his house for things to sell so the family can buy food. Children cry over their hunger.  And the shareholders continue to increase the tension, up to the very end, when they send in a mounted police force to break the strike.  Shots of the mounted soldiers chasing the fleeing strikers and firing at them are intercut with some actual footage – which is frankly gory – of a cow being slaughtered.  After both bloodbaths, the film pretty much ends there.

The film wears its propaganda on its sleeve, seriously. The factory owners and managers are all depicted as selfish and cruel – one of them drops a lemon wedge on his foot as the team are reading over the workers’ demands, and he grabs the paper on which they’re written to wipe up the spill.  Eisenstein includes a pointed juxtaposition of clips a moment later, when one shareholder is showing off a new juicer to produce fresh-squeezed lime for their gin and tonics; “you just put the fruit here,” he says, showing off the contraption, “and you squeeze it to get juice!” And the subsequent clips of him letting his colleagues try it, urging them to “Squeeeeeeeeze!” are intercut with clips of the workers being threatened by some police toughs.

Subtle this ain’t.  And I really should warn anyone who may be wanting to watch along at home that the footage of the cow’s slaughter towards the end is really graphic. But – it absolutely gets Eisenstein’s point across.