Classic movie report: March 2015
I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month, the weather has warmed up slightly, and much of my limited TV time has been devoted to great dramas such as Downton Abbey and The Americans, but here are two oldies that I was able to sneak in:
The Big Parade (1925) (4 stars out of 4)
I don’t know how this one escaped my attention for all these years. King Vidor directed this 1925 silent classic starring John Gilbert as James Apperson, the son of a wealthy American family who joins the Army when the U.S. enters the First World War. It’s an excellent film that mixes humor, romance, drama, and tragedy.
While deployed in France, Apperson meets a village farm girl, Melisande. Their wartime romance captures well how the silent movies could tell a story.
The “big parade” is not referring to a procession featuring the victorious heroes. Rather, it’s the march of men and war materiel going to and from the front. And as these photos attest, the ground war would be joined by a new weapon of destruction, the airplane.
Strategic Air Command (1955) (3 stars out of 4)
Jimmy Stewart stars as an aging major league baseball star and a WWII veteran pilot who is called back into active duty with the Air Force to help develop America’s post-war bomber command. June Allyson plays his treacly sweet wife. It’s more of an interesting technicolor artifact than a genuine classic, reflecting a 50s Hollywood take on the Cold War. The perceived need for strategic bombing capacity helps to drive the story, but oddly there’s nary a mention of the Soviet Union or any other communist nation.
The flight scenes are the highlight of the movie. Aircraft geeks may especially enjoy watching the B-36 bomber, a slim, long plane with a huge wing span, powered by six propellers and four retrofitted jet engines. The B-36 preceded the B-52 as America’s primary long-range bomber, which happened to arrive on the scene the year the movie was released.
The flight scenes provide the drama, for the acting among the main characters is pretty stiff, even given that we’re talking about a story set in the military. For Stewart, this role somewhat reprised real life. He was an American bomber pilot during the Second World War.
(All screen shots by DY, 2015)
On being a college sports fan: A waif’s journey
Although I’m a moderately serious sports fan, and I’ve been associated with a good number of colleges and universities over the years, I’ve never attended a school with a big-time sports program. On the pro side, I’ve maintained my strong affinity for Chicago teams (Cubs, Bears, and Bulls, oh my!), and been a fair-weather fan of the New York Mets (mid-80s), New York Knicks (80s-early 90s), and New England Patriots (Brady-Belichick era). However, when it comes to college basketball and football, I’ve been something of a waif.
I’ve been writing a lot about my college and law school experiences lately, so let’s take them from a sporting angle.
Starstruck and Bobcats
I received a very good classroom education at Valparaiso University, but its intercollegiate sports teams during the late 70s and early 80s were lackluster and not a big focus of campus life. VU had just made the jump to Division 1 basketball, and those early teams struggled for respectability. I went to only one game, against then-No. 1 ranked DePaul University, led by All American forward (and future NBA All Star) Mark Aguirre. When DePaul walked onto the court for warm-ups, the VU fans stood up — not to applaud or to jeer, but rather because we were starstruck that a top-ranked team was in our midst. The game itself played out as one might expect.
My next educational port of call was New York University for law school. During the early to mid 20th century, NYU enjoyed national success in both basketball and football circles, but by the time I arrived in 1982, intercollegiate sports had been de-emphasized to the point of irrelevance. It would relaunch its men’s basketball program at the Division 3 level during the mid-80s. They quickly assembled some good teams, even reaching the national championship game in the early 90s, and have remained competitive since then.
Each year I lived in New York, I would go to a few NYU hoops games, usually alone. D3 hoops games aren’t a big draw with the rest of Manhattan at your fingertips. Or maybe it was hard to get excited about a college team whose mascot is named after the library’s card catalog (Bobst Library Card Catalog, or Bobcat for short).
As for NYU’s football team, it remained undefeated throughout my years in the city, holding steady at 0-0. (Ba dum.)
Over the years, I’ve kept my affinity for Notre Dame football — a product of having grown up in Northwest Indiana. Fandom can be irrational; I’m neither Catholic nor a Notre Dame alum!
Because a dear friend is an Annapolis graduate (Class of 1953), I root for the Navy Midshipmen as well. Had some weird twist of fate ever led me to the Academy, I would’ve lasted about a week before getting booted out for continually questioning orders, so go figure.
During the 2000s, the University of Hawaii had a string of successful, fun-to-watch, pass happy teams, and I enjoyed pulling for them. The highlight of that run was an undefeated regular season in 2007, culminating in a Sugar Bowl appearance.
For reasons I can’t explain, I also follow from afar (usually by checking the box scores) the powerhouse Division 3 football team at the University of Mount Union in Ohio. Although they’ve been stymied in the national championship game in recent years by nemesis Wisconsin-Whitewater, they have compiled some of the most remarkably dominant seasons in the history of collegiate football.
Back to Valpo
As for college basketball, well, I’m now rooting for Valparaiso(!), which has become a very competitive mid-major D1 team since my days there. The foundation was set seventeen years ago, when the Crusaders enjoyed a storybook season, topped off by a trip to the 1998 NCAA tournament and a Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen. Its star player was guard Bryce Drew, the coach’s son, who hit a legendary, buzzer beating 3-point shot to upset powerhouse Ole Miss in the first round:
Drew followed his collegiate glory with a solid stint in the NBA. He is now the Valparaiso head coach, and when VU makes an appearance on one of the ESPN stations, I’ll often watch or record the game. They made the NCAA tournament this year, losing in the opening round to Maryland in a close game.
This month, SB Nation ran an excellent long form piece by Justin Pahl, son of a former VU faculty member, who wrote about growing up with the emerging, underdog VU basketball program during the 1990s. It’s a very good story about life and sports in a small, Midwestern university town. I took a screen shot and pasted it in above.
Before the college application process went haywire
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is getting a lot of attention for his new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015), which urges young people and their families not to buy into the huge anxieties and nuttiness that surround the college application process. In essence, he’s saying that the people and communities that we bring into our lives have much greater bearing on life satisfaction than getting into a prestigious school.
I think the overall message is a sound one, but the topic is more complicated than first meets the eye.
A good number of friends around my age have gone through this process with their children. Especially for high school students aspiring to attend a highly-ranked school, the college admissions game has become a significant, part-time job for them and their parents, one wrought with adolescent emotions, adult anxieties, and difficult cost-benefit assessments.
Sadly, I don’t think this will change, especially in an America where families in the middle and upper-middle classes are fearful of their ability to maintain their stations in life, college costs have gone through the roof, and the promise that the kids will do better than their parents is looking more and more precarious.
As a non-parent, it’s easy for me to claim from my detached perch that I wouldn’t buy wholeheartedly into that mania, but in truth it’s very, very hard to ignore this dynamic. And the peer pressure and social expectations for young students and parents alike are significant in high school settings that are turbo-charged about college placement.
Nevertheless, as a nostalgic creature by nature, does this make me a little wistful for the days when the college application process wasn’t so riddled with anxiety?
As a high school senior, I assumed I’d go to college, but I took the process rather casually. I visited a few schools in my home state of Indiana, and I ended up applying to only one, Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. It was a smaller school, emphasizing the liberal arts, and it seemed comfortable and close enough to home. I figured it would be good enough, and it appeared that my chances of admission were strong.
I was accepted, and that was the extent of my college “search.” Easy peasy, right?! Isn’t this a perfect example of how low key the college application process was back in the day?
But herein lies the truth behind much nostalgia: It becomes a little, well,
rose-colored fictitious. Even before the U.S. News rankings of colleges became ubiquitous and top 10/50/100 lists of schools started popping up everywhere, there was a rough sense of which schools were considered among the elite. And my story of applying to only one school and basically assuming I’d get admitted is exactly that, only mine. In the meantime, thousands of others who had more focused aspirations and their sights set on certain schools were sweating out the process.
In fact, five years later, I would ramp up my own anxieties when I applied to law schools. I was considerably more invested in the process, and I took active responsibility for researching law schools and identifying which ones might be good for me. Now, that’s the generic description. In truth, I became obsessed with the whole deal, and full of the kind of self-absorption that can inflict an ambitious young person during such life chapters. The moment I received New York University’s letter of acceptance, I pretty much knew I would go there, as I had many reasons to believe it would be a very good match for me.
So how do these schools look in the rear-view mirror some 30 years later? I’ve written on this blog many times about my experiences at Valparaiso (here, for example). My relationship with it has changed much for the better over the years, in large part because I have a greater appreciation for the quality education it gave me, and I have treasured friendships from those years that I know will be lifelong. As for NYU Law School, I am deeply grateful for the experiences, friendships, and opportunities it provided. In many ways, it was the right place at the right time for me. (You can read a bit more about that, here.)
As I reflect on all this, maybe Frank Bruni’s title — Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be — is overstating it, even if we welcome its underlying message. Many of us have been shaped profoundly by the schools we attended, though not necessarily because they were/weren’t considered “prestigious” in the eyes of others. The deeper questions associated with the college application process are more vital and complicated ones, fostering considerations about how much we should allow markers of prestige to shape our beliefs, decisions, and experiences.
In sum, for anyone who believes that upward mobility and “success” are, generally speaking, worthwhile aspirations, but that a good life embodies much more than collecting trophy lines on resumes, this conversation may be rife with honest and very human contradictions and inconsistencies. Easy peasy it ain’t.
Throwback Thursday: Discovering Jack Finney’s “Time and Again”
You may have to be a bookworm to fully appreciate a soggy, nostalgic Throwback Thursday post about, well, reading a book, but here it is: About 30 years ago, I discovered Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), an illustrated novel about a Manhattan advertising artist named Si Morley who is enlisted in a U.S. Government project experimenting with time travel.
No spoiler alerts are necessary to give you a preview. Let me first quote from the back cover of my paperback edition (pictured above): “Did illustrator Si Morley really step out of his twentieth-century apartment one night — right into the winter of 1882?” I’ll say no more about the story, except to say that if you love New York City and enjoy time travel stories, then this book is for you.
I discovered Time and Again in 1985. I had not heard of the book when I kept glancing at it during repeated visits to Barnes & Noble’s giant sale annex at 5th Avenue and 18th Street, but finally I decided to buy it. As I was reading along, soon I realized that it was becoming one of my favorite books. (It remains so.) Again, I’ll skip the details, but Chapters 7 and 8 provided some of my most cherished reading moments ever.
To grasp such a geeky memory, it helps to understand where I was in my life. In the fall of 1985, I had just graduated from NYU’s law school, I was living in Brooklyn, and I was working as a public interest lawyer in Manhattan. I had also become completely smitten with New York City. I doubt that I will ever again experience such deep affection for a place. If a big part of me will always be a New Yorker, then those early years in NYC will have a lot to do with it.
Time and Again spoke to that love of New York, and its story captivated me. Finney had a knack for writing the time travel tale — as his other books and short stories also attest — and he got it just right with this one. It may be as close to genuine time travel as I’ll ever get, a reading experience approached only by Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (2011). (In fact, in the Afterword to his book, King calls Time and Again “the great time-travel story.”)
So, if a tale of discovering olde New York is to your fancy, then you might give Time and Again a try. I think you’ll be glad you did. Don’t forget to close your eyes and see what Si Morley saw.
Bowing to my middlebrow appetite: Give me a good diner any day
When it comes to food, my tastes are distinctly middlebrow. Fancy French meals? Nah. Pricey steakhouses? Ok, but I don’t crave them. A place setting with multiple forks, spoons, and glasses? Too confusing.
If there’s a type of restaurant that best captures my appetite, it’s a good quality diner, with a menu featuring sandwiches & burgers, comfort food entrées, salads without too much junk in them, and day-long breakfast offerings.
Oh, I can enjoy pizza and seafood. And Asian food agrees with me, as do many other ethnic cuisines.
But there’s something about diner fare that I just like.
Pictured above is the Silver Diner in Reston, Virginia, part of a small chain in the Washington D.C. metro region. When I visit friends in Northern Virginia, a meal at the Silver Diner is usually part of my stay. Breakfasts, burgers, dinner platters, desserts — all very good, at decent prices.
When I moved to New York City in 1982, it seemed that diners were everywhere, especially in Manhattan! Many are simply gems, and my favorite is the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway & Astor Place in Greenwich Village.
My law school pal Joel introduced me to the Cozy during our second year at NYU, and I was a regular customer throughout my years in New York. I still go there almost every time I’m in the city, sometimes twice! My order is usually the same: Turkey burger (I top it with ketchup and cole slaw), a cup of split pea soup (really awesome), and occasionally an order of rice pudding (rich & creamy).
Oh boy, this is making me hungry. And I’m writing this post here in Boston, where diner fare is scarce. You see, although Boston has its share of good eateries, it is woefully lacking in quality diners. I think a city has to be more of a 24-hour kind of place to support a multiplicity of diners, and that’s just not Boston.
I’m sure I’ll find something else to my liking. In the meantime, if the owners of the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger or Silver Diner want to open a restaurant close to my home or work, I pledge to be a loyal customer.
“Airplane!” is 35 years old
Airplane!, the gut busting, hilarious send-up of airplane disaster movies, turns 35 this year. For a long list of reasons, I’m not sure that a similar kind of movie could be made now, but especially for Gen Jonesers who grew up with the movies and television shows poked at and parodied in the film, it doesn’t get any funnier.
The IMDb.com profile gives you a list of the awesome cast, reader reviews, a list of classic quotes from the movie, and more.
In a great interview with co-producer David Zucker conducted by Yahoo’s Jordan Zakarin, we learn some of the backstories that led to the casting of the movie, including that of Peter Graves as Captain Oveur :
Peter Graves famously didn’t want to play the aspiring-pedophile pilot at first. Was he reluctant to deliver lines like “Have you ever seen a grown man naked”?
Peter Graves’s reaction [to the script] was, “This is the most disgusting piece of garbage I’ve ever read.” His wife and his daughter read it and they laughed all the way through and they said, “Dad, you have to do it.” So he was ready to do it when we shot.
Across the pond
My first experience of watching Airplane! was odd and memorable. It was the spring of 1981, and I was spending my final undergraduate semester at Valparaiso University’s Cambridge, England, study abroad center. I went with a group of fellow VU students to a local movie theatre. Amidst a somewhat sparsely attended screening, we were the only ones laughing uncontrollably throughout, while the rest of the (presumably British) audience chuckled politely on occasion.
How could our British moviegoers have understood how LOL funny this was! If you’re not familiar with Barbara Billingsley’s role as suburban housewife June Cleaver in the TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver, then you have no idea how hilarious it is to listen to her speaking jive to a couple of black passengers.
Of course, perhaps the Brits that night didn’t fully appreciate Airplane!‘s over-the-top, un-PC American-style humor, done in such rapid-fire, equal-opportunity target style that you don’t have time to become mortally offended.
I only know that my stomach was sore from laughing so hard.
If you’ve got some time to kill…
As some of you know, I’ve been writing a professional blog, Minding the Workplace, for over six years. A lot of the material is heavier stuff, looking at employee relations, workplace bullying, employment law, psychological health at work, and so on. But on occasion I’ve written pieces with a lighter touch that may be of interest to readers here. I thought I’d dig into the archives of that blog and share a few of them:
Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments? (2014) — “So, in the absence of these colleges for 40-year-olds (and beyond), how can we think and reflect upon our lives to date, our lives right now, and our lives to come? For those who, like me, sometimes turn to good books for guidance, let me introduce a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater.”
What now, not what if (2013) — “Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them….That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy.”
The perils and pleasures of nostalgia, even about work?! (2013) — I get especially nostalgic about two work experiences. The first was my initial year as a Legal Aid lawyer in Manhattan, following my graduation from NYU’s law school….My second nostalgic focus: Returning to NYU after six years of legal practice as an instructor in its innovative first-year Lawyering Program….Both clusters of memories, however, gloss over the fact that I was years away from discovering my true passions as a teacher, scholar, and advocate. I was clueless about a lot of things, and not exactly on the leading edge of emotional maturity.”
August 1982: Next Stop, Greenwich Village (2012) — “This month, I find myself particularly nostalgic over events of 30 years ago, when I moved from Hammond, Indiana to New York City to begin law school at New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village. This was a pretty big deal for me. Although I had benefited greatly from a semester abroad in England during college at Valparaiso University, I was far from worldly and had never been to New York City before applying to NYU….Within a few days of my arrival, I would start classes in Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building, on the southwest corner of Washington Square….”
Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts (2012); Collegiate reflections: Working on the campus newspaper (2012) — “With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts to reflect upon my own collegiate experience….”
Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide toward good transitions (2012) — As we turn the calendar to a New Year, I wanted to gather together some recommended titles for those who are engaged in or contemplating a major work or personal transition….If you’re in the midst of big changes, these books may prove a worthy investment in terms of your livelihood and well-being. I hope you find them helpful.
Does life begin at 46? (2010) — “Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age. The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40.”
Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010) — “Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity. Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this. Hilda Demuth-Lutze is a friend from college days at Valparaiso University (Indiana) who is the author of historical novels for young adults. Mark Mybeck is a friend going back to grade school in Hammond, Indiana, whose band, Nomad Planets, is creating a niche for itself in the Greater Chicagoland indie rock scene.”
On TV, crime dramas are my thing, so why am I hooked on Downton Abbey?
So…why does Downton Abbey do a number on me? Why do I completely lose myself in each episode?
Without question, my favorite TV genre is the crime drama, whether it be the quirky, L.A. light Major Crimes, the serious, New York-y Blue Bloods, the dark, twisty Prime Suspect, or the gritty, real The Wire.
As for Downton, until I binge viewed the first two seasons, I was completely dismissive of it. I figured that I would have no interest in a drama about upstairs/downstairs life in a stuffy old across-the-pond estate. That kind of program has never caught my eye.
Well, I’ve gulped down the Downton Kool Aid, and there appears to be little I can do about it.
Convincing performances, interesting characters, entertaining plots and subplots, and top-notch production values pretty much tie it up in a bow for me. The show draws you into the daily goings on of the Downton denizens, and both the little and big things in their lives start to matter — as they do in our own.
Season 5 has just finished here in the U.S., capped off by a two-hour “Downton Christmas” special that set the TV reviewing blogosphere afire. I won’t give up any details — no spoiler alerts necessary — but suffice it to say that the two hours were very well spent.
About that blogosphere: After each Downton episode, you’ll find dozens of clever, funny, and poignant commentaries online, not to mention blow-by-blow summaries to remind you of everything you saw and point out a few things you missed. Judging from the comments left to these pieces, a lot of people are watching intently and then taking to their computers to compare notes with others.
I’ve read articles praising The Wire for being like a modern day Dickensian tale, set in the underbelly of modern urban society. The kudos are well deserved, but Downton Abbey merits literary comparisons as well. Like readers of serialized stories by Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle back in the day, viewers of Downton are immersing themselves in the weekly episodes and debriefing the latest twists soon afterwards.
In other words, the medium might be different, but the cultural ripple effects are quite similar. We follow the stories, and we talk about them later. Cool.
Dreaming of spring training
During this winter of our discontent here in Boston, baseball season seems as far away as the moon. Perhaps that’s why I find myself waxing nostalgic about the game, thinking back to my boyhood years when I became a fan.
During my latter grade school years, I discovered baseball, both watching and playing. The watching was inspired by my 80-something grandfather, who was living with us in Northwest Indiana and enjoyed Chicago Cubs games on television. He didn’t speak much English, but he could follow the ballgames, and so after school and during summers, we’d often watch with him in our little TV room. Here’s the song that would open many a Cubs telecast:
The playing was by way of my friends, who were big sports fans. A few were on organized Little League teams, but for most of us baseball was a pick-up game played on the local parkway, with improvised diamonds. I was terrible at first, but I had fun and kept at it, to the point where I could hold my own hitting and fielding.
In fact, my affinity for the game grew quickly, and the slightest sign of spring became reason to get out my baseball glove and bat. Once the temperatures hit the 60s, I would be full of anticipation for the coming Cubs season and for our parkway ballgames. I’d check the newspaper for news about spring training and search out neighborhood pals to play catch. I also became a fan of tabletop baseball games that used statistical charts and cards to simulate the performances of real-life baseball players — the forerunners of today’s sophisticated computer and video games.
As I got older my focus on baseball waned. But after I graduated from law school, I rediscovered the game. I was in New York City by then, and in the mid-1980s it was still possible to get Mets grandstand seats for under $10. I shared a pair of season tickets with friends during the Mets 1986 World Series championship season, and it was a blast. I also joined fellow Legal Aid Society lawyers for weekly softball games in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Yup, those were good years.
Today, I’d be in better physical shape if I was still playing softball, instead of anticipating the start of fantasy baseball season and playing baseball board and computer games! Whatever. Until this snow starts to clear up, any manifestations of baseball around here will be virtual anyway.