Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Uncle Orly

My Uncle Orland died yesterday. He was my father's older brother.

We weren't close. My father moved us to Maine in the mid-'60s, and the families, which had previously been very social (we summered together at Lake Vermillion, always did the holidays together, and had dinner often at each other's homes) went their separate ways. I saw my Uncle Orly only twice after I reached adulthood. The first time he took the fedora off of my head and rearranged the creases. The second time he called my car "an American piece of crap" (well, he was right) and told me, "This is what 84 looks like."

That bluntness was characteristic of Uncle Orly, but also of my father and of their father, Grandpa Adolph. Uncle Orly often said things that he shouldn't have said, especially to my father. Once, he took my father aside and told him off for being so critical of me. He said, "Don't you see what you just did? He was working really hard, and when you cut him down he completely deflated."

Once, he took me aside and complained about my father's hair. "He has beautiful snow-white hair, and he makes himself look ridiculous by washing it out with that Grecian formula stuff."

Remembering comments like that makes me wish that I had known Uncle Orly better. He was right about a lot of things, but being right doesn't always make it right to say it. There were sometimes Inappropriate Incursions.

Uncle Orly had white hair for as long as I knew him. He had piercing blue eyes and a strong voice. I used him as the physical model (though not a character model) for Mr. Sentack in my short story "Punch & Judy" (available elsewhere on this blog). He liked the outdoors and he liked racing cars, and he liked being the Alpha Dog.

I didn't have those words to describe him when I was a little boy, but I could sense it about him, and it's confirmed when I watch the footage of him in our family home movies. When he entered any room he was in command, but somehow in command from a distance.

There were stories from my father about their scouting days, about pranks played. One of the pranks involved the streetcars of St. Paul, although the details are lost to me. I'll have to ask my father. On another occasion, a Scouting trip (this was back when the Boy Scouts were really Boy Scouts, and much time was spent in the wild), the boys were investigating an abandoned house and Uncle Orly rigged up pranks to play on the others, to make them think the place was haunted. According to my father, Uncle Orly was deeply engrossed in this when he sensed a presence in the room, felt a hand on his shoulder, turned around to find himself alone. But that may have been a prank as well.

Uncle Orly was legendary for the Treasure Hunts he would sometimes set up for us kids, if he was cajoled in the right way. My sister and I had a taste of this when his family visited us in Maine, I think during our second summer. He started in the front yard and went deep into the woods out behind the house, leaving us clues of various kinds at every step of the way. Some were written, some were blazes on the trees. Some were too hard for us to figure out ("What's a hoosegow?" we asked our mother. It was the jailhouse that now rests in my back yard). We spent the entire afternoon on my Uncle Orly's Treasure Hunt, and finally found a cache of lollypops and candy in the mailbox far down the hill at the end of the drive.

I have nothing but supposition to base this on,.but after the loss of his middle son Brian (who has been very much on my mind of late; I'm planning another post about him), Uncle Orly appeared to go into a tailspin. Bad things began to happen. I won't type about them here.

Based on what little I know about their relationship, I would describe Uncle Orly's marriage to Aunt Lucille as one based on mutual disrespect. And yet they married for life, and seemed to have some good times with the bad. If Uncle Orly treated my Aunt badly, he paid for it in later years when his health began to go and he had to rely upon her "mercy." Once he fell on their front step and broke his hip. Aunt Lucille walked right past him, she had a church function to go to and couldn't be bothered, she left him lying there in the front yard. That's probably the most extreme example of how she dealt with him on a daily basis in his last years.

This week, the nursing home called to let her know he was going. She had another church function and that was more important. By the time she got home from that, they had called again telling her not to bother.

From my father's reports of Uncle Orly's final days in the nursing home in conditions that I am certain he found intolerable, I do not feel sad for his loss. But I feel terribly sad for his family and for my father, who loved him warts and all. And I feel terribly sad for me: because it seems like they are beginning to drop like flies, and I know that within a decade's time I'll probably be all on my own. I cried all last night and this morning, and at the same time felt disgusted with myself for all the tears over someone that I never made the effort to know as an adult.

My mother disliked Orly, and she had good reasons, but they were the reasons of grown-ups, and as I've already pointed out more than once I really only knew Uncle Orly from the perspective of a child. Still, her feelings colored mine as I grew up, which accounts for why I regarded him warily on the occasions when we did meet.

She disliked the way he treated my father. My dad worshipped his elder brother, and in return Orly was often condescending at best. She disliked the way that he treated his wife. She disliked the whole Alpha Dog thing.

For my part, I prefer to remember him as the man who created the legendary Treasure Hunts.

-- Freder.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mickey's Gala Premiere


. . . is one of my favorite Mickey Mouse cartoons ever -- and, really, one of the greatest cartoons of all time. It has no plot whatsoever. A new Mickey Mouse cartoon is having its premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater, and all of the Hollywood glitterati -- beautifully caricatured by the Disney artists -- turn up for the event. Garbo and the Marx Brothers are there -- hellfire, even Dracula, Frankenstein and Mister Hyde are there, laughing uproariously at all the inappropriate parts.

But that's neither here nor there.

My boss is the sort of person who will never call any job done so long as she can think of one single different way to do it. This is oftentimes infuriating to me, because I am the sort of person who calls a job done if it looks good and feels "right" and complete -- and it doesn't matter if I can think of a HUNDRED other different ways that it could be done. Everything can always be done differently, but will doing it differently make it better? Sometimes you just have to type the period and move on.

What I'm really typing around here is that my restoration / recut of the family home movies had its Gala Premiere at my father's house yesterday, to strongly positive reviews.

I pushed the job through, staying up until past three-thirty in the morning, because I'm basically seven years old on the inside and could NOT wait another day to get the finished product onto a DVD and watch it on my telly.

You know that you're working with some large honking files when it takes four hours to render them, another hour to export them to the DVD authoring software, and another forty-five minutes for the authoring software to compress them for DVD. At a couple of points I just wandered off and racked out on the porch while I waited.

The computer spit out its first disc a little after two AM, and of course I had to sit down and watch the whole thing, all 72 minutes of it (up from about 45 minutes in its original version).

All of which made going to work the next day a little bit heavy.

Over the next couple days I made ten more copies and packaged them up. Yesterday I hand delivered them to Dad, who, although he didn't know it yet, is my designated distributor to his side of the family.

My father's wife was acting extra weird yesterday. While Dad was updating me on my sister's condition following her heart attack (she's having a rough time of it), his wife interrupted twice to deliver lectures about asian cucumbers. What was that about?

I'd brought pizza makings with me to whip up a quick lunch for the three of us, and when I set the raw crust down on some paper towels to start working on it, she reached right in under my hands and flipped it over onto its top. Pause. I flipped it back. Pause. She flipped it over again. I finally said, "No, that's the bottom," and flipped it back. I mean, who's the pizza chef here anyhow?

All I can think of is that she's not used to having someone else working in her kitchen. I'd brought an eggplant with me to use on her portion. I meant to fry it up before putting it on. Instead, she grabbed it, sliced it -- and threw it into the microwave! Anyone who'd microwave an eggplant hasn't been watching Chef Ramsay as much as I have.

Without even giving me the chance to do it properly, she piled the eggplant so deep on her portion of the pizza (I mean, it was an inch and a half of eggplant stacked up) that all I could think of was "vomit." Sure enough, when it got to the table she took one bite, choked on it and beat a hasty retreat. That's what happens when you interfere with the guy who knows what he's doing.

I don't know how she managed it, but she did come back and choked the whole thing down somehow. She strikes me as the sort of woman who likes to prove a point.

I also learned that she is the sort of woman who, if she sees some job of work that she thinks needs to be done to your house, she will come over to your house while you are away and just do it whether you wanted it done or not. That's another thing that happened this week. I wasn't aware of it until they mentioned it to me yesterday. When I got home, sure enough, there was a metal plate screwed onto the side of my house outside the second floor landing.

You see what I have to put up with?

Moving right along. Dad wanted to watch the movies right then and there, so I had to sit through them again for about the millionth time. I guess my opening scenes were just about as effective as I thought they were, because not more than a few seconds in Dad announced, "I think I'm going to start crying."

Before yesterday, his wife had always refused to watch the home movies on the grounds that they were "his past, not hers" -- fuzzy logic if you ask me. But yesterday she sat down and joined us, and actually paid attention and seemed interested. If it was genuine, and I've no reason to assume otherwise, I call that quite an achievement. After all, I do imagine that there are few things in the entertainment world worse than having to sit through someone else's home movies. If I've succeeded in making them watchable and even enjoyable for people whose past it isn't, then I award myself two thumbs up.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Final (?) Cut of Memory

I put in some long hours at the computer over the weekend and am happy to report that my "Version 2.0" of the family home movies is more or less completed! I'll wait a bit before I push the button, in case it needs a tweak here and there, in case I change my mind about some aspect of the piece, but this feels suspiciously like it belongs in the "done" box.

I was so excited to have actually seen a creative project through to fruition! Not even the prospect of Moanday Morning could get me down! This is a milestone -- my first completed project since well before my mother's death. I just wish she could see it.

My father was erratic in his moving-picture-taking habits. He shot a fair amount of my sister as a toddler, but he didn't shoot anything of me at that stage -- so my part of the story lad to be built from scratch out of still images. Likewise, I had film of just three out of the five houses that we lived in while I was growing up, so there was a fair amount of scrambling to unearth stills that I could use to tell the complete story. I was dismayed not to have any pictures of Cliff House in Cape Elizabeth. Then, very late in the game, in one of my grandmother's photo albums, I found three.

In the process, I added a wide range of photos that fleshed out the telling considerably. With music and a neat "pan and scan" process built into iMovie (they call it "Ken Burns"), the still pictures really come alive.

I even found one still photo that had been taken by somebody at the exact same moment that my father had been shooting film from a different angle. You can bet I cut that one in!

The home movies come to an abrupt halt after my sister's wedding, and one of the problems I needed to solve was, how to end the story? I settled on a long fade to black out of the wedding, and then created an epilogue out of pictures from later years.

Titled "Within the Realm of a Dying Sun" (from a song by Dead Can Dance), the epilogue pulls no punches. I show the last pictures of my grandfather and grandmother. I show some of the many beloved cats who have been and gone. Using old pictures and new ones that I took after Mom's death, I show the main rooms of the house dissolving from how they appeared when we first moved in to the state they were in after years of hoarding antiques and collectibles. And I close with a scene that I won't describe, but which really takes the story full-circle, and puts an emphatic period on the end. All set to the tune of Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere," as performed by Tom Waits -- one of Mom's favorite songs.

I knew it was "right" when I burst into tears as I watched the playback.

Following the dedication and a scroll of the music credits (to the Supremes "Reflections"), there's a stretch of empty black screen. I expect most of the family will tune out at that point, if not earlier. But if they stay, my stupid little comedy short that I wrote about a while back will appear as a kind of "easter egg."

I finished that, too. . . and surprise! It's actually kind of cute now. I found the perfect musical accompaniment for it -- Scott Joplin's "Fig Leaf Rag" -- and with its new titles and new look, I can actually watch it without cringing.

Next up -- making the slide show of all the unused photographs. I did it once, last night, and it was easy as can be to get a smashing result -- but exporting the file proved to be another matter. It was looking to take hours . . . and then I realized the program was exporting all the photos in the system, not just the ones I wanted. I aborted the export. When I tried to open the slideshow again, it was gone! Back to the old drawing board!

And the "help" menu!

-- Freder.

Monday, August 22, 2011

National Endowment for the (Low Comic) Arts

I have NO idea why this popped into my head this morning, but I can tell you why I remembered it in the first place, and it's one of those things that, if you haven't heard it already, you'll wish you didn't know. So, be warned before you read on!

I learned it from a book about the early years of Saturday Night Live. (Gad, it's a bit on the depressing side when they start publishing histories of things you were there for!) One of the writers (and no, I can't remember his name) got his start writing "roast" jokes for Milton Berle, so when Uncle Milty came to host Saturday Night Live, they had a chance to sit down and talk about Olde Times.

And the writer said something along the lines of, "Funny, my having to write all those jokes about your penis..."

Uncle Miltie replied, "You mean you haven't seen it? Do you want to see it?"

That's why I can't purge this story from my memory. Milton Berle was everywhere when I was growing up, even on Batman fer crine out loud, and his range of expression is embedded in my mind, and I can just hear his voice and see the expression on his face when he said those words.

The writer then went on to describe Berle taking it out and laying it across the table, and that's where I'll stop.

A couple of years later I was working as a typesetter for Thorndike Press (the best job I ever had and probably ever will have, until the Evil Corporate Bastards at Thomson/Gale laid off the whole production department). Late in the game I had to set a book by Jack Lemmon's son. It was a memoir about their golfing experiences together, pretty dry stuff. The best story in the book was about Harpo Marx and his ongoing battle with a tree on a particular golf course. Harpo seemed to hit it every time. He finally put the tree out of his misery by sneaking onto the course one night and chopping it down!

 But the book also contained a postscript to the Berle story. One day, in a private room at the Hollywood club where all the stars played golf, with Jack Lemmon and his son present, Milton Berle and Forrest Tucker got into an argument. Call it a cockfight. They had it out, so to speak, right then and there, and Berle, in the words of Jack Lemmon's son, "won by a head."

Now I know why Corporal Agarn was afraid of Sergeant O'Rourke.

Anyway. Moving right along. . .

-- Freder.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Baby Steps

I knew that this blog was coming up on a milestone, but as it turns out, we've just passed it. On August 13, the blog turned one year old.

In that amount of time, I've made just over 300 posts. Some of them were about as inconsequential as it gets; others were plain frivolous. Still and all, I think the blog has been just about the best thing I did for myself all year. Sometimes I think it's the only way I could have gotten through that year! It's been the only voice I had through some, shall we say, interesting times.

With any luck, the worst of it is behind me. Whatever's ahead, good or bad, you can bet I'll continue to vent about it here.

Many thanks to the kind indulgence of those who have spent some of their valuable time here. In the year since I started doing this, the blog received over 10,000 pageviews (one post, "The Peter Pan Syndrome," has had well over 800 hits all by itself). In the world of the blogosphere, where success is measured in the millions of hits per day, that's inconsequential. But given the nature of most of what I yammer on about, and given that I started the thing strictly as a means of coping, of self-therapy, that's not just Pretty Damn Good, it's amazing! I still can't imagine why anyone would want to read this crap, but I'm glad that there are people who do, and I appreciate the feedback more than you can possibly know.

It's nice to know that you're out there.

-- Freder.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Reflecting on Change

Things I miss about the Old House:

  • The sound of the screen door slamming behind me in summer.
  • The QUIET! The one good thing about living in the middle of nowhere is that you don't have to waste energy blocking out noise from the outside world. In summer there was birdsong and the sound of wind through the trees. In winter there was complete stillness. On a busy day, perhaps eight or ten vehicles passed by our house. It was possible to achieve Perfect Inner Silence. At the new house, it's quiet enough at night, as the town rolls up the sidewalks at about 8:00 PM. But during the day it's a nightmare of cacophony, sirens and constant traffic whooshing by, trucks always backing up somewhere with their backing-up beepers on. I'm learning to ignore it, but it's actual work.
  • The view of the back field, down to the pond and farther beyond, all the way to the Appalacian mountains, that I had from my bedroom window. In the New House, the view from nearly every side is of neighbors. 
  • The sense of history. This was our home for thirty-five years. We left a lot of ourselves behind. The walls are saturated with memories.
Things I don't miss about the Old House:

  • Well, it was falling apart, and I didn't have the resources to do anything about it. This became even more evident after the auctioneers raped the place: behind one large antique cupboard, the entire living room wall was coming apart from water damage. It will probably cost the new owners an additional $100,000 just to refurbish and make it solid again. I would have had to put the same amount into it -- and I only had the right to stay there for five years. 
  • The commute, especially in winter.
  • The Generator! That machine was a good thing to have around in a power outage, but keeping it in working condition was sometimes the bane of my existence. It was already twenty years old when we moved into the house, and we had to have it refurbished several times -- never a cheap proposition. But during the ice storm it kept us in heat, refrigeration, and a single light for fourteen days. . . 
  • During the winter months, the quiet often turned into a depressing sense of isolation, as though we were living on the moon.
  • The farmer who harvested hay off of our land also frequently spread manure there. This was a hideous stench that lasted for several days every summer.
  • The horrible sense of vacancy that settled over the place after Mom's death. 
Things I don't like about the new house:

  • The upstairs bathroom. It's tiny and cramped and  the only window is small and too high to peer out of. The toilet works by itself only occasionally; the rest of the time I have to lift the lid of the tank and prompt it to refill with water. Sometimes it doesn't stop -- so I have to hang around waiting to make sure that it doesn't continue to run all day.
  • The basement is even scarier than the one at the old house. I don't like going down there.
  • The issues mentioned above.
  • The very steep bit of lawn at the side of the house that, on a hot day, is a heart attack waiting to happen.
  • The ugly plants growing outside my back study window. Too low to the ground, the flowers last just a few days. I need to replant them in the back garden, and put some proper white hydrangea bushes in their place. Ditto with some of the daylillies.
  • The sense of No History, of life waiting to happen, that I can't shake despite all the baggage and history that I brought with me. The sense that the house views us as Something New.
Things I quite like about the new house:

  • The open layout and the big wide-silled windows that offer lots of places for quats to sit and look out of (they had only two or three useable windows in the old house), and which keep the house well-lit and well-aired.
  • No storm windows or doors to change out twice a year! Winterizing is as simple as pulling down the outer glass.
  • The faintly gothic outward appearance of the place. Very different from the old house. Much suited to my personality.
  • The way the downstairs rooms, while being much smaller, evoke the rooms of the old house. Even the paint colors are similar, so that the stuff from the old house really looks like it belongs.
  • It's much easier to clean.
  • Although I'm surrounded by what remains of Mom's work and life, there isn't the oppressive sense of loss that I felt every day in the Old House.
  • The front porch, for sure! Not just a great place for the quats to hang out, but a space that, when it's open,  makes the whole house feel like a Summer Retreat. When I was little, our family often summered in different places from where we lived in winter. As I re-edit the family movies and re-visit those times, it's lovely to have the porch, looking out as it does on the stand of pines that line the opposite side of my driveway, kind of evoking those same memories and feelings, I actually slept out there on the couch one night last week. It was delightful at first. Then two quats came along and slept right on top of me, and by morning I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed again. Well, that's one of the purposes of a Summer Retreat, isn't it?
-- Freder.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Down the Road a Piece

Up at an ungodly hour to get out to Albion by 8:00 AM for my three-week follow up with the doctor. It went so smoothly and quickly that I got back into town with time to kill. I was able to do my grocery shopping, take it all home and unpack it, and still get to work fifteen minutes early.

Last time I went out there, by blood pressure was 171 over 110, and nobody even wanted to discuss my liver. I was drinking nearly half a bottle of vodka every night, and for all of the Wrong Reasons -- only slightly less than what put me in the hospital last year around this time.

It all started with that disastrous experiment a couple of months back of cutting the Prozac dosage in half. By day three, as you may recall, I was crying all the time. The little detail that I left out was that I immediately returned to self-medicating in a big way, draining the bottle to numb the sadness and stop the tears. You start drinking for those reasons, that's when you're really in trouble. You think you need more all the time, but what you're doing is feeding the Melancholy Beast -- which immediately starts to demand more. And I didn't stop when I felt the drug begin to kick back in -- the Prozac never seemed to work as well after that. I never made the connection.

It wasn't easy at first, but I managed to dial back significantly on the vodka. . . and the difference it made on my emotions was, as I told the doctor, both immediate and dramatic. That, in turn, made a deeper reduction possible. I can drink in moderation when my emotions are under control. When they're not -- forget about it, all bets are off.

My blood pressure today was 144 over, I think, 98 -- still high but within the acceptable range, or so I am told. At least, he didn't make me go on medication for it, which is a triumph all by itself. As well, I know -- for reasons that we won't get into -- that my liver is doing better.

Of course I got the speech that I should stop altogether, and I know that my doctor is right about this. I'm not in denial. I know and am the first one to admit that I'm an alcoholic. It's not for nothing that I've labeled dozens of posts here with the word "alcoholism." When it gets out of hand as it did recently, it ceases to be a pleasure and becomes a problem that needs to be brought under control. But I've no interest at all in stopping completely. I won't make any excuses about that. It may well be, as the doctor suggests, that this is the addiction talking, but if so, it's not talking alone. With my whole heart and conviction, I say to you: I have few enough pleasures as it is. Not giving this one up, at least not now. 

Lesson learned: that I'm on Prozac for life. Because if I ever try to get off of it again, it could shorten my life by a considerable bit. . . for more reasons than just one.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Y'ever have one of those days when you're feeling just plain cranky and mean for no reason at all and you want to punch someone in the mouth just because they're standing there taking up space in your life? That's where I am today.

In E.C. Segar's great Thimble Theater comic strip, whenever Bluto or Popeye or anyone else is in this kind of a mood and spoiling for a fight, they walk around with a scowl on their face, and "GRRR!' GRRR!" sounds fly out of them. I can't afford to scowl or grrr at the customers, but I sure want to.

Rule number one in Customer service: Never Punch Out a Customer.

Patches (my cranky quat in the picture above) has long known herself to be the Queen of the Universe, and whenever I pick her up and hug her and smooch on her and she's not in the mood to be hugged and smooched on, she will grrrrr quite loudly. If that doesn't work, hatpins sprout from her paws, and if that doesn't work her whole body explodes in my face and she vanishes in a puff of smoke.

I wish I could do that stuff.

It's probably why Wolverine is the most popular of the "all new all different" X-Men. Rub him the wrong way and ka-SHINNNG! out come the claws, and who's going to argue with you when you can stick three foot-long razors under their chin at a moment's notice?

I often think that, as super-powers go, the Radio Shadow's mysterious power to cloud men's minds so they cannot see him is a little bit under-rated. Think of how useful that could be when performance review time comes around, or when people come up to you with looks on their faces that say, "I'm going to ask you a completely idiotic question that you've answered a hundred times already this week."

A lot of you already know that the Radio Shadow was different from the Pulp Magazine Shadow, although they were ostensibly the same character. About the only things they had in common were a fondness for night work and a tendency to laugh their heads off at things that aren't funny. The Pulp Magazine Shadow didn't have any super power at all. What he did have were two ginormous .45 automatics that he never hesitated to use. Piss off The Shadow and you could end up pushing up the daisies.

I guess there are a lot of characters in fiction and the movies who we love because they don't take crap from anyone. Humphrey Bogart played most of them. Edward G. Robinson played the rest. I don't count Actual Monsters like Dracula or the Wolf Man, although you want to stay on their good side, too.

People seem to know when I am feeling cranky and then go out of their way to push my buttons. This is not surprising, as most neurotypicals are trained to sense the invisible Target signs that often superimpose themselves over the backs and faces of people like me. I no more than got off the phone with a person who spoke like they had a mouthful of marbles, when a woman came up to me and asked a question -- in a whisper. This isn't a church, lady -- it's a bookstore. Speak up or feel my wrath!!

No, what really gets me is that most inanimate objects seem to know, too. The books and boxes and bits of furniture all seem to be in communication with each other. They begin throwing themselves into my path or refusing to stay where they are put. This causes me to get flustered and frustrated in addition to being cranky, which in turn causes me to become even clumsier. The next thing I know, the whole closet shelf is coming down on my head. If you ever walk by and hear me swearing like a sailor at some inanimate object, now you know why.

I guess it's not a good thing, overall, to be this cranky -- but it's better than some other emotions I could be feeling.

-- Freder.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Out of the Past

While going through the family photos to select shots that needed to be incorporated into the home movies, I found this picture of my Grandpa Claude -- and my mother, when she was a toddler.

I'd never seen it before, and I think it's just smashing. It really shows Grandpa's spirit and personality -- and Mom, well she seems never to have changed in some ways. She loved toys and teddy bears to her dying day.

I can't use this shot in the home movies, because it falls well outside the time period that they cover, but you can bet I'll include it in the slideshow that I'm planning as an "extra feature" for the DVD.

I'm guessing that I scanned another hundred and fifty pictures today, and I've only just begun working on their restoration. It's kind of tedious work, and it's getting more emotional, too, because we're getting up to our earliest days at the farm in Albion.

In those days the house was bright and attractive and open. The plaster was clean and solid; it was a house meant for entertaining and my folks did a lot of that. By the End Days, the house had transformed into a deeply eccentric folly, shot through with cracks -- a funhouse, all right, but one with a distinct Gothic side, a shadow behind all the happy faces that stared out of every available space.

That world isn't covered in the Home Movies either, but somehow I feel that I must give it a nod. I'm not sure yet exactly how I'm going to end the new version of the movies, but I've been working hard all through the recut to give it the shape of a story with a beginning, middle and end. It seems to me that I have to at least indicate the shape of things to come, to at least point at the way it ended. I don't want it to be maudlin, but there needs to be some sense of the damage that time and trouble inflicts on us all.

-- Freder.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Perfect Giant Gorilla Movie

Last night TCM ran the original Mighty Joe Young. I didn't need to watch it; have seen it many times and own the DVD. But with nine thousand channels on tap there was absolutely nothing else worth playing while my dinner defrosted, so I did take in the first few scenes, right up to the introduction of the grown-up Joe.

I think I like this better than King Kong, because it's got heart (if anything, heartless is the word to describe Kong, with its merciless treatment of man and dinosaur and ape alike) -- and a good deal of flat-out schmaltz. I like schmaltz, if it's not forced or artificial, and the thing about Joe is that it's remarkably genuine. I saw it first sometime before I reached my teens, and while it's not exclusively a kid's movie, that's the perfect age to see it for the first time. Its scary bits and melodramatic bits all prey on a child's innate fears, and at the same time the whole wish-fulfillment thing of having a giant ape for a pet is expertly calculated. Although as a boy gets older, that scrumptious Terry Moore becomes the character you'd rather have by your side.

How do I know when something is just perfect? It's embarrassing to admit this, but it makes me cry. That's why I often weep over things in movies and books that aren't at all sad. I know. It annoys me, too.

But the climactic scene where Joe rescues the little kid from the burning orphanage? It's just perfect. And it gets me every time, from the first time I ever watched it right up to now.

Thankfully, I didn't get that far last night. Don't know if I could have taken it! As it was, even the opening scenes with the little girl falling in love with Joe and bartering for him were getting to me. That little girl is just perfect. "Oh, I'm being very naughty!" But does that stop her?

We couldn't move on to the city and Robert Armstrong soon enough to please me, and watching it this time I experienced a real Coin Drop. If there are any comics fans out there, get this: isn't Robert Armstrong as Max O'Hara the obvious model for Spider-Man's J. Jonah Jameson? I mean, it's exact! The haircut, the 'stache, the moodswings, the fabrications -- it's all here! Stan Lee rather famously never created anything original in his life -- what he did was to cleverly re-combine existing things in new and interesting ways, and lend them a contemporary attitude. When he was casting around for a foil to play off of everyone's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, Max O'Hara is surely what must have come to mind!

The other remarkable thing about Joe is that he still holds up remarkably well as a special effect, even in today's CGI-saturated world. We're aware that we're looking at something real, not a digitally generated illustration. By this time, Willis O'Brien had perfected his many tricks and techniques for combining animation with live-action, and he had the added benefit of having the extraordinarily gifted young Ray Harrihausen on his team. O'Brien was a pretty good "actor," too -- he always got great emotion out of his puppets, never more so than here.

My dinner, by the way, was "Frozen Mexican Stuff." It wasn't horrible, but I could have gotten better at Buen Apetito just two minutes drive from my house. Oh, well.

-- Freder.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Blooming Tragedy

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post with the saddest news. Terry Pratchett, British author of the Discworld novels, has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's and says he will consider assisted suicide when the time comes. Presumably, when he can no longer write or work for legalizing assisted suicide in England.

Here's a link to the NPR story.

I can't say that I've read all, or even most, of his novels. The man is prolific. The one bitter little gripe that I have about him is that nobody who is that prolific has the right to be so good.

Lots of writers have attempted the comedy-fantasy, but none, to my knowledge, have brought such humanity to their work. Pratchett isn't just a genre writer -- the stories are character-driven and the humor is a full-blooded mix of satire and verbal slapstick that masks an underlying seriousness and concerns some of  the big questions of life. It's not for nothing that Death is a recurring character in Pratchett's novels; in Reaper Man (one of his best) The Powers that Be actually sack Death because he's developing a personality. Can't have that happen!

The bumbling witches and warlocks that populate his early novels aren't shallow characters. They bumble not in the form of pratfalls but because they are human.

A friend of mine is a huge fan of P. G. Wodehouse. I don't know why I was surprised to learn that she is also a big fan of Pratchett's, but it's easy to see the connection once you think about it. They share the same lightness of touch and a distinct British-ness that colors their work. Like Wodehouse, you can pick up any one of Pratchett's books, start anywhere, there's no one beginning point, all avenues into their worlds are good. But there the similarities end: where Wodehouse draws eccentricity out of the natural world, Pratchett draws humanity out of the most eccentric of fantasy worlds. More so than Wodehouse, Pratchett has something to say. If you haven't read him, you should.

I don't feel sorry or sad for Pratchett. My sense is that he is as emotionally well-equipped to face the challenges ahead of him as well as anyone. And although the prospect of Alzheimer's must be worse for a writer, who makes his living and defines himself out of his own head and personality, all the evidence indicates that Alzheimer's is harder on the family than it is on the sufferer.

I'm sad -- and angry -- for us. It's not fair. More damn tears to hold back. Pratchett might have had more than twenty years of activity and as many more books ahead of him. It's a crime. We're being robbed. Why couldn't this have happened to Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steele, instead of Pratchett? Why does this sort of thing have to happen to people who bring good into the world?

Thank you, Mr. Pratchett. You will be missed.

-- Freder.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Robert Wise and Me

When I was in, I think, the eighth or ninth grade, I made a (very) short film. It was supposed to be a comedy, but it was really just a bad joke in more ways than one. It told the story of a Wacky Spy who steals a Top Secret document only to have it blow up in his face.

I was terribly disappointed in the end result. With no means of editing, we shot it in sequence and in one take for each shot. All the fluffs ended up in the "finished" piece. To make matters worse, I was shooting indoors with outdoor film under low lighting conditions, in the hope that this would give the finished film a yellow, faded "silent movie" look, the way it had done with one of the reels of home movies my dad had shot years earlier. Imagine my dismay when the film was developed and gaudy, bright seventies colors flooded the screen.

I didn't even get the title cards framed properly. They were dumb and unfunny enough to start with, but in the "finished" film you couldn't even read them. My venture into comedy film-making was an embarrassment.

I can only suppose that Robert Wise felt a bit that way about his venture into Star Trek movie-making. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was made under appalling conditions, with a script that was never finished and a schedule so tight that the movie went out essentially uncompleted. It never had a proper post production, no time for a sound mix or foley work, so the bridge of the Enterprise was dead silent. Effects shots were still arriving the day before the premiere and they were not what Wise wanted, but he just had to cut them in as-is. The next day he hand-delivered the "finished" film to the premiere. The print was still wet!

So in 2001 he jumped at the chance to do a "Director's Cut" that was far more elaborate than these things usually are. With a rule in place that his crew not do anything that wasn't possible in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was completely rebuilt from the ground up. A new edit restored scenes that got lost in the rush of the original release, and removed dead weight; new effects shots were created, the picture was finally given a proper sound mix. Wise got the chance to complete his unfinished movie.

With the result that it is no longer the worst movie in the series. In fact, it's jumped both The Final Frontier and The Search for Spock to land in the number three position (I'm only counting the films that feature the original cast). Granted, that's not saying much, as both of those other movies are dismal. But Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with all of its story flaws still intact, now at least possesses a professionalism and polish that makes it worth sitting through.

And now I'm getting the same chance that Robert Wise got! Thanks to Apple's iMovie software, my stupid little one-joke "comedy" is getting the post-production that it so desperately needed.

The first thing I did was strip the color out. What an improvement! There's a reason why the great comedies (and even some bad ones like mine) are all in black & white: color distracts and overwhelms. In this case, the black and white also highlights the scratches and age of the film, which I like. And it's now (slightly) less obvious that I shot this in my bedroom and the upstairs hall of our house!

Next the flubs came out. At one point I walk into a wall, and then spoil the take by grinning. At another point I freeze in my tracks and tell the cameraman (my dad) to "Cut." You get the idea. A few frames of film shaved, a cross-dissolve added here, a fade to black there -- goodbye flubs!

Thanks to some stock photography I was able to add establishing shots, exteriors, that will help set the stage and clarify things: a "top secret government facility" (actually the Googleplex) and an "international spy organization headquarters." I'm creating new title cards and insert shots in Photoshop that are at least legible and, I hope, slightly more humorous. Finally, I'll score some silent-movie music from one source or another, and Voila! My stupid old one-joke "comedy" will no longer be quite the embarrassment that it once was.

It's still going to be a stupid little one-joke "comedy," nothing can change that. As with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the raw material is what it is. But I'm having a ball and learning new things and who knows? I've always wanted to write a script. With the tech that's out there now, all things seem possible. . .

-- Freder.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hearts and Flowers

. . . and now with our pow-wow of the weekend behind us, my typing fingers are freed and I can safely reveal that my friend of approximately 32 years, one of my best friends in the world -- BC, I've referred to him numerous times on the blog -- is getting married.

And my reaction, my feelings, as you already know, are exceedingly mixed.

There is the part of me that is genuinely happy for him. This is something he's worked on for a long time.

And on the other hand, there's the part of me that's going: What the fuck??!! Where in fuck's name did that come from??

But even the shock is secondary to the feeling I can't shake, that I am losing one of my best friends ever, that my life is being diminished yet again.

And don't give me that line about "Oh, you're not losing a friend, you're gaining another friend!" That line is such a load of cod's bollocks that even the people who spout it don't believe it. Fact is, this changes everything from here on. There's a reason why the tarot card named "Le Morte" always features a scythe-swinging skeleton. Death and Change are the same devil.

And I guess that's where a lot of the anger that flashed through me when I heard the news came from. Still mourning one loss. Didn't need another.

Well, that and the fact that I thought I'd reached the stage in my life when I would never have to attend another fucking wedding, ever again. To steal from my friend EWR's vast catalog of colorful sayings, I'd rather gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon.

But there's more. Those of you who have been reading here for a while must know by now that I am quite the perverse and capricious bastard.

I'm jealous. What's he got that I ain't got? I'm at least as good a catch as he is, warts and all. How come he can make this happen and I can't?

Fact is, I have never walked out of any relationship. I'm always the one who gets dumped. I've tried to learn from the mistakes of the past, but it always ends the same way.

The one I lasted with longest was Lorna. We lasted barely over a year. She had a bad case of "Guess What I'm Thinking" and "Guess Why I'm Angry at You." Had I known then that I had Asperger's I might have been able to make a better case for myself. As it was, I used to beg her, "TELL me what you're thinking. TELL me what you're feeling. DON'T make me try to guess. I can't read your mind." Truth was, I couldn't read her face or her body language, either, and now I know why.

She told me early on that she never wanted to get married again, because her first marriage had been such a terrible experience. Her first husband did things like throw bricks at her, or strangle her until she went unconscious and then anally rape her while she was out. I listened to all this and took her at her word.

As time went on, I kept getting a vibe from her that I couldn't understand. Because I took her at her word, I didn't even want to mention the M word. One day when she was particularly cranky at me I said, "I would marry you. . ."

And she said, "That's not what I want."

I wanted to shake her. I wanted to say, "What do you want? Just tell me!"

One afternoon I called her and she said, "We have to talk."

I was so stupid in those days that I said, "About what?"

So that was it. She broke up with me over the phone. I wish I could say that I never saw her again, but we worked for the same newspaper, and with all the daily stress of banging out advertising on the tightest of schedules mixed with my sadness over losing Lorna, I eventually had a nervous breakdown and walked out of that job.

Which was a mistake, really. I'd have been so much better off staying there. I could have managed it without the complications. Never date anyone you work with.

Strangely enough, that lesson still hadn't sunk in when I started seeing a lovely lady that I worked with at the first bookstore that I worked in. We lasted about three months. I had it in my head that I had lost Lorna and a couple of others because I was too withdrawn, too reserved, and so I dropped the "L" bomb early on.

Now, mind you, I don't understand to this day why the "L" word should be so toxic. I've loved a lot of people in my day -- doesn't mean that I wanted to jump into a Marriage Ceremony with them. But, oh dear, suddenly I was a threat to her freedom. I went over to her house one evening bearing pizza and a movie, expecting a nice, normal casual evening, and instead she broke up with me.

I went out into the dark and sat alone on the front steps of her house. I could physically feel something breaking inside of me. It wasn't my heart. I know this because my heart still troubles me with feelings of wistfulness on a daily basis, feelings that can't be pursued because That Way Lies Madness and, perhaps, an appointment with the tallest building in town. What was breaking might have been my last connection with the world that Most Everyone Else lives in.

That was a decade ago. I haven't had a relationship since. I'll probably be alone the rest of my life. In the words of The Great Man, W.C. Fields, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No sense being a damn fool about it."

So Anyway.

Although they have little reason to know it, as we see each other seldom enough and when we do get together I am usually withdrawn and distant in the manner of those who share my disease, I value my friends highly. It's a blow to lose this one.

-- Freder.

Second Bond Syndrome

When Pierce Brosnan took over as James Bond, his debut vehicle, GoldenEye (directed by Martin Campbell), was absolutely smashing. But the follow-up, Tomorrow Never Dies, was just exactly half as good, and they kept getting worse after that.

Yeesh, I hope the same thing doesn't happen to Daniel Craig. I'm on record as thinking Casino Royale (also directed by Martin Campbell -- do you sense a pattern here?) is one of the best of the entire series, right up there with From Russia With Love, so I was scared away from the theatrical release of Quantum of Solace when its reviews skewed so very negative. A friend of mine assured me this weekend that Solace was "even better" than Casino Royale. So when I found it in the five dollar bin at Wallyworld (at  least I didn't overpay for it) I took a risk.

Alas, my friend was wrong and the reviewers were right. Roger Ebert hit it on the nose: Bond is not an action hero!

Following the worst theme song and opening credits sequence ever, the first hour of Quantum is a complete write-off, with one annoying action chase (usually poorly shot, all quick cuts and herky-jerky camera moves) after another. In cars, on foot, in boats, lord knows what all else, for nearly fifty-five minutes things hurtle about and poor Daniel Craig barely gets the chance to speak.

This is not what makes James Bond James Bond. Of course you want a big action set-piece to begin the movie (I would have cut the opening car chase -- a waste of screen time if ever there was one -- entirely and begun with the questioning of Mr. White and the subsequent on-foot chase between Bond and Quantum's mole. There, you see? The movie's better already!), but Bond's main weapon is his personality, and the screenwriters and directors seem to have forgotten that here.

When, finally, things calm down for half a tick and Craig is actually allowed to speak and play the character, Quantum of Solace at last begins to feel like a James Bond movie -- but by then it's more than half over. This isn't so much a James Bond movie as an episode of James Bond tacked on to the first hour of one of those Fast and Furious waste-of-timers.

Daniel Craig may be the best actor to ever take on the role. He brings a genuine gravity and even some heart to Bond that Bond never had before, and most of this movie squanders it.

My advice to the Broccoli family is pretty simple: Don't stint on the director's fees. You have a guy who gets it, who knows how to do it -- Martin Campbell, Use him, please. I'd rather see his name on a Bond picture than on Green Lantern any day.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Little Angina in the Night

It is reported that my sister has had a heart attack. It was apparently bad enough that they flew her to Portland (why didn't they do that for my mother?), but the latest news is that there was "no serious damage" and that she will pull through.

I'm not entirely without human feeling and I wouldn't wish this sort of thing on anyone, but I've divorced myself emotionally from my sister so far that the feelings I do have are more or less abstract.

There's certainly a part of myself that can't help but recall my sister's well-developed sense of Drama.

When my mother was in the hospital recovering from the amputation of her right leg, and the spotlight was off of my sister for sixty seconds, instead of being there to support Mom, my sister chose That Moment in History to flamboyantly walk out on her husband, take up residence in a shelter, and come in to the hospital late at night after visiting hours to hit up Mom for money.

She ended up moving back in with him anyway, soon after my mother was released. It was all just a stunt.

Over the years, my sister has done herself harm or threatened to do herself harm in flagrant bids for attention.

So forgive me if at some level. . . well, it doesn't smell rotten exactly, but mainly what I'm feeling right now is a bit weary of this.

She works two very stressful jobs, is under a lot of pressure to support her family, and, last I knew, had pretty horrific eating habits, not to mention the long family history of heart attacks on my mother's side of the family. She's also abused her body with a wide variety of chemicals over the years -- much worse than I ever thought of being, because she mixed alcohol with drugs. One time she put herself in the hospital because she'd been driving under the influence of LSD.

Neither my father nor I know whether or not my sister has health insurance. Dad is concerned that he's going to have to take on some of her family's expenses, and asked me if I knew whether or not a payout from the estate is possible. My answer was that I didn't know, but that until recently she had taken much more money out of the estate than I, and that she may be close to the end of what she's entitled to. What she's done with all the money she's taken out so far remains a mystery. Her husband and family haven't seen any benefit from it. I should remind my father that she claims to have $30,000 in a retirement account, and say that if worse comes to worse, she may have to dip into it. Otherwise, her husband and her son will just have to knuckle down and get a job.

I wish her well, but will not visit her in hospital. For me, she exists only in these occasional calamitous dispatches, and in the reports from my lawyer of her constant demands for money. The person in the family home movies that I work on every night is already a ghost.

-- Freder.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Things Normal People Do

 I hate it when people give me food. I know that it's meant to be a gesture of something or other, but to me it's just one of the ways that normal people are trying to rob me of control over my own life. The stuff is usually fresh and needs to be eaten right away -- but what if I don't want to eat cucumbers or peas this week?

Not being at the mercy of someone else's good intentions is  a big deal to me at this stage of my life.

I rarely go out and do things on my own hook because normal people are always coming up with ways to steal my days off, and after that's happened I always need time to decompress. There goes the weekend! The first and only recreational-type thing that I've done for myself, on my own hook, in more than two years was to go to the movies last week to see Captain America.

Otherwise, the only time I leave the house its to go to work, go to the store, or because someone is scheming up plans that they think will improve my life.

Yesterday I had to go out to my father's house again for lunch. About the only reason I didn't mind this is because it gave me an excuse to drive my new car for longer than three minutes.

I expected to be made uncomfortable and I was, although forewarned is forearmed and like that. My father's wife gave me a tour of her garden and forced me to eat raw peas. The only thing I eat raw is carrots. I chewed manfully, but really wanted to spit the damn things out.

Food is as personal a thing as clothing and sex: we should always be allowed to make our own choices in these things. We have so little control over almost everything else.

I heard some of the same stories that I've heard before, was pressured once again to come to the theater with them (for deeply personal reasons, I don't want to attend live theater anymore, but especially not under these circumstances.. I've tried to explain this to them, but I always stop short because I can see that. for them, it's not about my feelings). I was aware that my father was studying me to see if my hands were shaking. This awareness usually makes me nervous and causes the shaking, but yesterday I was steady.

I had a space heater forced on me. My father has been trying to give me one of these damn space heaters for at least two years now. While Mom was alive I at least had a valid excuse not to accept it: there was no room in the house to put it anywhere! Yesterday he was not taking "no" for an answer.

Too much time was spent with my father and his wife giving me a hard time because I told them that I'm unwilling to attend -- that thing I can't write about because my friend won't just tell everyone his secret like a normal person, no, he has to sit on it so that he can make it into a Big Presentation, turn a get-together into another episode of The Fucking *their name here* Show.

Normal people do things, I guess, in an attempt to be friendly. Instead, I just always feel like I'm being Railroaded.

I had very little freedom -- of movement or anything else -- for some considerable time. Now that I have choices, I want to be the one who calls the shots in my life -- and incursions from the outside world like the thing I'm not allowed to talk about really make me cranky! I'm feeling more protective than ever of my free time. . . not to mention my larder.

-- Freder.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...