Monday, February 26, 2007

The Oscars

The Academy Awards show has long been a platform for political messages. Most of us, I think, would prefer that actors stick to acting and leave the politicking to politicians, but this year the distinction was blurred by the multiple roles of Al Gore as (1) the highest ranking member of the Democratic Party on hand, (2) an Oscar winner, for An Inconvenient Truth, (3) an on-stage, on-camera advocate for tougher emission standards for the automobile industry, etc. and (4) the credited inspiration for several other Oscar winners, including the best-song winner, Melissa Etheridge. (You may well ask, “What is a song doing in a documentary on global warming anyway?”)

But that’s okay. By now we all have built-in filters that allow us to ignore all the Oscar’s sidebars, except the host’s monologue and the ladies’ dresses. Our filters block most commercials, the awards for short subjects and sound mixing, and the interminable lists of producers. But we can’t ignore the total incompetence of those Oscar winners who have trouble composing a succinct, coherent acceptance speech. Think of it: Here are people who have known for weeks or months that they were nominated, who moreover make their livings memorizing scripted lines, suddenly relying on a folded slip of paper and then tripping all over themselves trying to deliver four or five intelligible sentences.

The show’s audience is always worth a look, especially the celebrities who rate the choice aisle seats. (It would be fun to eavesdrop on the meetings where such things are decided.) But, filtering aside, it’s a classy event, an occasion at which the film industry shows respect for its craft and its craftsmen – as should we all, for, notwithstanding computers and iPods, movies remain our dominant entertainment medium.

For me, the appetizer for this year’s Oscar show was Christopher Guest’s latest movie, For Your Consideration, which describes the effect on the cast of a low-budget movie (Home for Purim) when it is rumored that one of the actors is under consideration for an Oscar nomination. The Christopher Guest troupe, so hilarious in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, is back. Unfortunately, the spirit that made those two movies so special is missing. Catherine O’Hara is fine as the subject of the rumor, as are Jennifer Coolidge as a clueless producer and Eugene Levy as a slimy agent, but the whole thing just doesn’t come off, possibly because Guest departed from his successful mockumentary format, possibly because the gang’s improv skills have been tapped out and it is time for a good script. There are some choice moments in the film, but Guest’s fans will be disappointed.

We should not leave the Oscars without commenting on this year’s host. Ellen DeGeneres was adequate. That’s not a knock; several hosts in recent years have been less than adequate. My own favorites were Steve Martin and Billy Crystal. Crystal seemed poised for a long run, but long runs – like that of Bert Parks in the Miss America pageant – are apparently not in the cards. Or maybe the Academy thinks Miss DeGeneres can build a following. Off this year’s performance, she deserves another shot.

Finally – also making it through our filter is the annual filmed tribute to those film personalities who died since the last Awards show. The list seems to get longer each year, which I suppose is only natural, but this year served up a bumper crop, including Maureen Stapleton, Glenn Ford, June Allyson, Jack Warden, Don Knotts, Jack Palance, Jane Wyman, and Alida Valli. They gave us many hours of entertainment and in fact still do.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Time Machine

Has it ever occurred to you that we, alone of all the people who ever lived, can experience the sights and sounds of an earlier century? Radio, motion pictures, and television, all creatures of the last 100 years, have given us a time machine whose potential we are only beginning to understand. The people who lived in, say, the year 1632 had absolutely no way to sample the sights and sounds of 1532. And the Dark Ages will always remain dark, because there are no recordings or photos to illuminate them.

Much is made about the miracle of electronic communication, both point-to-point and broadcast. Radio, television, satellites, cell phones, – the electronic harvest is indeed bountiful. We generally measure these miracles in terms of speed or distance, reflecting how exciting it is to sit here in Maine and watch an Olympic event in Asia as it is happening. But there’s another dimension that may be even more important: time. I am not talking about Tivo-like devices that push programs around by days and weeks, but about time machines that can hop whole centuries – millennia, even.

Before the twentieth century, each generation left behind written notes and drawings to tell their descendants “what it was like.” Some even left detailed histories of their times, and for that we are in their debt. But today’s history is being written, not only by the writers, but much more broadly and accurately by cameramen working in every corner of the world. The advent of inexpensive digital photography is creating thousands of visual historians every day. With facilities like YouTube, soon we will all be leaving our footprints on the sands of time.

Would you like to watch and hear a videotaped greeting from one of your ancestors living in the 16th century? You can’t, but, if you choose, you can look your descendants in the eyes and tell them, in your own voice, what life was like in 2007. The prospect may not excite you, but you can be sure that it would excite someone in 2150.

Or you can share your appreciation of an artistic experience with past and future generations. Today, for instance, thanks to Thomas Edison and his fellow inventors, my children don’t have to take my word for it that Fred Astaire was an exceptional dancer; they can watch him dance. My Dad used to tell me that Al Jolson was the greatest entertainer of his time, and if I watch Jolson in one of his movies I am in effect watching him with my father, who saw the very same movie 75 years ago. In a sense, I can compress time, just as I compress space when I watch CNN’s live coverage of events in Iraq.

The depth of a person’s education is a function of the range of his or her awareness, measured in space and time. At some distance in miles and at some interval in years most people lose interest. That near-sightedness may have been understandable 100 years ago, but today, with the ability to view events around the world and far back in time, there is no reason why we should not let our minds take wing. .

I remember the dawn of television and how, while we all watched Milton Berle and Broadway Open House, some visionaries were touting the educational potential of the new medium. For TV’s first half century, the three major networks fed us entertainment, not education. Then came cable, and the game changed. For those who want nothing but sitcoms, they are still there. But for those who want more, there are the History Channel and PBS and Ovation and The Learning Channel. They and channels like them are your time machines. Take a ride.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Next Bubble: In the Cards

Recently I was three days late in paying a $200 credit card bill, and that delinquency cost me $31.68. That’s 16 percent for three days, or an annual rate of 1936 percent.

Okay, so most of the penalty was a $29 late fee, not interest. Still, it does illustrate what a lucrative business credit cards have become, and why you get a solicitation in every day’s mail. Some of the mailers even include make-believe credit cards, so that you can see how cool your own Citibank card would look in your wallet. You probably throw the mailer in the waste basket, but they knew you might do something like that, so, when you turn on the television, there they are again, in the form of a sorry character asking you, “What’s in your wallet?” the message being that if it’s not a Capital One credit card you are doomed.

The fly in the credit card ointment, from the issuers’ point of view, is that some people always pay their full balance as soon as they get their bills. If everyone did that, the whole business would collapse. Credit-card companies, after all, are in the business of lending money. They are not in the business of providing a no-charge service to you. This is why, when you open your monthly statement, the number most prominently displayed is not your total balance, but the minimum payment now due. Minimum-payment payers are treasured by the banks, full-balance payers accursed, for obvious reasons.

If you persist in ignoring the “minimum payment“ box and paying off your full balance, the bank has another trick in the envelope: ready-to-cash checks, with your name printed in genuine ink. How can you resist what looks like free money? Are you going to tear up those checks and throw them out, after someone has gone to the trouble of printing your name on them?

What’s a credit-card company going to do about these deviants who insist on paying off their full balances even though they don’t have to, and who throw away preprinted checks? Strong measures are called for, and one of these days you may receive a letter from your credit card company, going something like this:

“It has come to our attention that for some time you have chosen not to use the credit facility our institution offers. Therefore, we must regretfully inform you that if you continue to pay your bills on time each month, your account may be terminated.”

Today’s economic model, for better or worse, is driven, not by people with perfect credit ratings, and not by out-and-out deadbeats. It is driven by people who can get credit cards but can’t keep up with the payments. Whoopee.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Immortal Lines from the Silver Screen

Movie plots and movie scripts often go down well traveled roads. The standard genres – backstage drama, war saga, sci-fi, crime, romantic comedy, etc. – offer only so many ways to create and resolve tension. The patterns are so familiar that one doesn’t need to describe them. A line or two of dialogue will bring the whole scene (and possibly the whole movie) into focus. Here are a few examples:

Gee Willikers, Mr. Anderson, Nancy and I were just walking in the field, and a bad thunderstorm came up, and the only place we could go was the old barn. And it kept raining all night. Honest!

I tell you the man came at me with a knife! Why doesn’t anyone believe me? George, you’re my husband, don’t you believe me?

Villiam, my son, I haf been your music teacher for 10 years. You haf great talent. You should be playing Brahms, Schubert, Liszt – not throwing your life avay on this – vat do you call it – jazz?

Yes, Dr. Williams, I am my father’s assistant in the laboratory. But don’t underestimate me because I’m a woman. I have a doctorate in biothermalnucleogenetic physics.

Carter, my name is Sherman Billingham, the Broadway producer. I caught your act, and I have a spot for you in our new show. But I need only one dancer, not a doubles act. It’s your big chance, but I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the girl behind.

Look you’re the district attorney, and I think you should know there’s corruption in the police force, and I think it goes to the very top, maybe even to the commissioner, or higher. All I need is a few more days and I’ll break this case wide open. Can I count on your support?

These were brave men, colonel, men who volunteered knowing they’d never come back. Their names will live forever in Marine Corps history: Smith, Scalponetti, Callahan, Shapiro, LeBreque, Kreuger, and Sitkowski.

Honey, I know how much you want to settle down and raise a family, and I promise you that after this one show I’ll give it all up.

I’m only a doctor, Fran, and your son needs more than a doctor now. He needs a miracle.

Phyllis, I have to go to the lab to check out some data on cockroach mutation. I’ll be right back. But keep the door locked and don’t under any circumstances let anyone in!

Friday, February 09, 2007


A vacation in Florida in the winter? How trite can you get? Everybody goes to Florida in the winter. Even the geese go to Florida, flying the route with JetBlue and Delta. The very thought of joining the migration was a turn-off. Better by far, we always thought, was spending the winter rounding Cape Horn, transiting the Panama Canal, cruising French Polynesia.

But we had done those things. Now, we decided, it was time to do the unthinkable. So this year we went to Florida for most of January – and we loved every minute of it! We found all the warmth and the sunshine the travel folders promise, interesting flora and fauna, lots of good restaurants, and nice people who will leave you to yourself if that is your preference.

What did we do in Florida? As little as possible, frankly. We sat by the beach, mostly, in 80-degree weather. I read three books, Jill two. We dined out most evenings. We toured a wildlife preserve, visited a shell museum, saw a play, watched a movie. It was, all in all, a blissfully restful vacation in a beautifully serene setting.

The condominium we rented was on Sanibel, an island joined to the rest of Florida by a long causeway. Sanibel is best defined by what it lacks. It has no high rises, the building height limit being the height of the tallest palm tree. It has no traffic lights. Instead, it has four-way-stop intersections, where the drivers are so courteous that four cars may wait all day for someone to make the first move. In fact, as I eventually figured out, each of the approaching drivers is expected to make a mental note of where he or she is in the queue, and you will rarely see two cars in a row enter an intersection from the same direction, while others wait. (If you do, odds are that the second driver is a tourist from Massachusetts.) There are also no parking meters and no big-box stores.

The beach at Sanibel is, I must admit, almost as nice as ours here in Maine. The sand looks and feels just like ours, although the two beaches have quite different geological origins. The beach at Sanibel has many more varieties of seashells than we do, and on more than one occasion I was indeed the literary beachcomber I claim to be. Joining us on the long strand at Sanibel were pelicans (brown and white), egrets, terns, cormorants, herons, and other sea birds. Away from the beach, the hibiscus and the bougainvillea were the showiest of the many colorful flowers along the sides of the roads.

Sanibel is 12 miles long, and at its far end a thread of land connects it to Captiva, another barrier island. There are more resort islands after Captiva, but they are accessible only by sea or air.

So we must revise our opinions and bury our prejudices. Those who spend their winters in Florida are not crazy. (Some will tell you that the crazies are those who stay in Maine, and they may have a point.) You don’t have to play golf to enjoy Florida. You can find places where life is slow-paced, where you can avoid noise and glitz. It’s not the Florida you see on Miami Vice or CSI Miami. (Come to think of it, Miami is giving Florida a bad name.) The people you meet in Florida are just as agreeable as the people you meet in New England, because, face it, they are the same people.

Sanibel is a treasure of a place to live or to vacation, mostly because the residents have successfully resisted pressures to overdevelop their island. But in Florida those pressures are powerful and unremitting. Now under construction is a new, wider, higher, faster bridge linking the island to Fort Myers. Will the new bridge overwhelm little Sanibel? Will more traffic mean traffic lights and parking meters? Will Sanibel’s two-lane main street (Periwinkle Way, if you can believe it) be widened? Will the merchants demand larger parking lots? Will tour buses from Fort Myers clog the island’s streets? I hope the good people of Sanibel are smart enough and tough enough to keep the barbarians from their gates, but it probably won’t be easy.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I first set foot on the African continent on a bright May morning in 1992. Our cruise ship, the Royal Princess, had anchored a mile or so off the coast, near Tangier, just across the strait of Gibraltar from Europe, and we had tendered ashore. Tangier looked like a busy little city, and most of our fellow passengers were content to spend their day there wandering around the shops. Not us. From among the available tours, we had chosen the one that would take us farthest into the Moroccan countryside. So we piled onto the single bus bound for the town of Chaouen, about 60 miles south.

There were about 30 of us aboard the bus, which had seen better days. A young man of Morocco stood at the front with a microphone. He offered some basic information on Tangier, which we left behind in no more than five minutes, the one lingering image being that of the beachfront, with camels sitting on the sand. Our guide, trying to establish common ground, told us that the expatriate novelist Paul Bowles had spent many years in and around Tangier, and that the area we were about to traverse was the scene of his most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky, written in 1949 and filmed (by Bertolucci) in 1990. (I have since read the novel and seen the film. Don’t bother.)

Tangier has no suburbs. One minute we were in the city, the next minute we were tooling over a two-lane highway in desert flatlands. On the distant southeast horizon were the Rif Mountains. (As an operetta buff, I was reminded of “The Riff Song” from The Desert Song. The Red Shadow had hidden in these very mountains!)

Soon we were reminded that we had entered the third world, as women by the roadside were washing their clothes in little streams. The bus then started gaining altitude as it climbed the foothills of the Rifs, and the road became so twisty that my stomach was begging for the journey to end. Just in the nick of time, we reached our destination, the hillside community of Chaouen.

As we dismounted, we were greeted by our local guide, a smiling Berber of indeterminate age who introduced himself as Toto. Toto, dressed in a white jellaba, had a sunny disposition and spoke better English than one has a right to expect in Chaouen – but with certain idiosyncrasies, such as the overuse of the word “normally” (pronounced “NAHmally.” Later I was able to extract from Toto the fact that he had learned English by listening to the BBC. The word “normally” had obviously fascinated him, and he must have found that it worked like a charm in the tourist trade.

Chaouen was nestled beneath two mountains, not very large but nonetheless imposing because of their proximity. I asked Toto the origin of the town’s name.

“Chaouen means the two mountains,” Toto explained.

“But,” said I, “I have also seen the town identified on some maps as Chefchauoen. What does Chefchaouen mean?”

“Chefchaouen means, Hey, look at the two mountains,” Toto grinned as if he thought this was funny, or rather, as if he knew that I’d think it funny. He was a born tour guide.

The first order of business was lunch, which was served in a very comfortable restaurant in a modern setting. Chauoen, like many tourist towns, has old and new quarters, to provide its guests with whatever amenities they need as well as a look at the way the town was in bygone times. After lunch, Toto led us on a walking tour of the old town – narrow winding streets, houses with whitewashed walls, big blue wooden doors, little children eyeing the strangers, and the market where exotic spices were on display and women’s faces were not.

The old town also had some tourist shops that were obviously favored by Toto, and at one of these a large circular brass piece, serving as a table-top, caught my eye. The brass was about two feet in diameter, and it bore fancy decorative inscriptions that were authentically Berber, according to Toto. After a few moments of haggling, the brass was mine. But I did not warm to the idea of carrying such a big package back to the ship, the airport, etc.

“I would like to have it shipped,” I told the proprietor.

Toto, standing nearby, looked doubtful.

“NAHmally,” he said, “people carry these with them to the ship.”

“But I want this shipped to my home in the United States.”

“No problem,” said the proprietor, and I wrote down my address. Then, since I figured that Toto was somehow related to the shopkeeper, I suggested that I was counting on him to see that the thing was shipped as promised. (Note: A month or so later, the item arrived safely in Massachusetts.)

After the shopping and the sightseeing, it was time to reboard the bus for the long ride back to Tangier. But when we approached the appointed pick-up site, a crowd was gathered outside the bus. Crisis: The bus had a flat tire. It also had no spare. It was now mid-afternoon. The ship was scheduled to sail at 5 PM.

Cruise ship passengers, when choosing land tours, have two choices. One choice is to buy a ship-sponsored tour. The other is to strike out on one’s own, negotiating a deal with one of hordes of taxis clustered around dockside. People will tell you that Option A is better, because you are guaranteed not to miss the boat, while Option B could leave you high and dry. The people who tell you that are absolutely right. In this case, a quick phone call to Tangier alerted Princess that the bus from Chaouen would be late. The Royal Princess would absolutely, positively not sail off and strand us all in Morocco.

A new tire finally materialized, the bus zipped back to Tangier, where a single tender stood by to bring us to Royal Princess, still standing a mile offshore. The seas had been building, and before we could board, the 45,000-ton ship had to reposition itself to place our tender alee. At last, we pulled anchor over an hour late and made for Lisbon.

In recent years Morocco has become trendy, with some of Hollywood’s biggest headliners zipping to places like Tangier and Casablanca and Rabat. Some of them may even have made it to Chaouen, where Toto NAHmally hangs out.

The brass disc, meanwhile, hangs proudly on our living-room wall, a treasured memento of our pilgrimage to the land of the Berbers.