Classic movie report: April 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. Here are my two selections for April:
WarGames (1983) (3.5 stars out of 4)
WarGames may not be a great movie, but I find it so eminently entertaining and re-watchable that I have to give it 3.5 stars.
Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a young computer maven and high school student who manages to hack into the U.S. Defense Department’s new super computer. In doing so, he engages its artificial intelligence in a way that almost causes a nuclear war. Ally Sheedy plays his adorable sidekick, Jennifer Mack, and the two become partners in crime.
The chief adults in the movie are Dabney Coleman as Dr. John McKittrick, the computer expert who persuaded the government to adopt the new mainframe, and John Wood as Dr. Stephen Falken, a withdrawn scientist whose theories become central to the story.
WarGames has its serious side. On occasion it has been cited by scholars as an excellent pop culture depiction of how Cold War mentalities and an uncritical worship of the “wisdom” of computer technology could lead us down a disastrous path.
But it’s also a ton of fun. Broderick and Sheedy are well-paired in this movie, and their scenes together include some hilarious high school moments and (now) nostalgic depictions of early personal computing and video games.
For me it pushes nostalgia buttons as well. I first saw WarGames when it was at the movie theaters in the summer of 1983. It was right after my first year of law school, and I was living in one of the law school dorms. In consultation with a couple of friends, we picked it out of the Village Voice listings and decided to give it try. I enjoyed it from the opening scenes, and I’ve watched it many times since then.
Gallipoli (1981) (3.5 stars)
Mel Gibson and Mark Lee co-star as young men from Western Australia who enlist in the Australian Army during the First World War. They find themselves deployed to the Ottoman Empire (now modern day Turkey), as part of the Allied Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.
The film starts as something of a buddy movie with some 80s-style artistry, but by the time the climactic battle scenes arrive, it is a story of the terrors of trench warfare. It also reinforces a common First World War theme of utter futility, with senior officers repeatedly ordering their troops to go “over the top” in charges met by murderous machine gun fire.
Gallipoli isn’t the best of the WWI movies, but it belongs on a list of “should watch” films about the war, including the classic All Quiet on the Western Front and the excellent Paths of Glory.
In terms of 20th century history, I relate more strongly to the Second World War than to the First, but that gap is closing as I learn more about the Great War during this period of centennial observation (1914-18). It is a fascinating historical story, one infused with a haunting sense of loss due to the brutality of trench warfare, as well as the knowledge that the terms of surrender eventually imposed on Germany would help to fuel the rise of Nazism in the decades to come.
We’re in the Golden Age of television dramas
On Wednesday, after teaching an evening class and heating up some leftover Chinese food for a late dinner, I wanted to watch something halfway decent on television for an hour. Fortunately, I had recorded the evening’s episode of Broadchurch (BBC America), a British crime drama set in a small coastal community, full of complicated relationships and interesting, intense, edgy characters. The show co-stars David Tennant and Olivia Colman as detectives dealing with a murder case that has shaken them and the local citizenry.
Broadchurch is an excellent show, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. With all the choices available to us, I am reminded once again: We are in the Golden Age of TV dramas. There is so much good stuff on the small screen right now! Between network fare, cable offerings, public television, DVDs, and streaming services. the options seem endless. Even someone on a tight budget can squeeze a lot of good TV dramas out of a Netflix subscription and the Internet.
I especially enjoy crime and suspense dramas, so right now I’ve also got The Americans, Gotham, Scorpion, and Blue Bloods on my DVR list. I’m a big fan of Mad Men, and I’m already lamenting the series conclusion in a few weeks. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Downton Abbey has become a big favorite as well. I’ve saved the first three episodes of PBS’s Wolf Hall, and I anticipate doing a binge view when time allows.
The variety on TV is such that I’m pretty selective about what I watch. I don’t mean that in a snobby sense — there are plenty of shows that get better reviews than, say, Major Crimes, which I happen to enjoy — so it’s more about what strikes my fancy than what’s getting raves from the critics. Even a cultural Golden Age needs its middlebrow followers.
The Apple Watch: Cool, but too close to being a computer implant for my taste
So if the hype is accurate, the Apple Watch is the Next Big Thing in digital gadgetry. According to the product descriptions, it’s basically a mini-computer that doubles as a wristwatch.
I’m betting that the Apple Watch will be very popular. Once it creates a new market for watches that do everything except walk and chew gum — and Apple has a knack for creating new markets — it will spawn many imitators as well. (Surface Watch, anyone?)
While I own my share of Apple devices, I’m gonna take a pass on this one. When it comes to smaller e-gadgetry, I’m already ambivalent about cellphones, to put it kindly. Especially if I’m not traveling, many days can go by without my bothering to check my smartphone. To me, the Apple Watch seems to be only a step or two away from surgically implanting computers into our brains.
I know this is an overreaction from a 50-something who now sounds like a Luddite. But I’m really not anti-technology. I’m on my computer for hours each day. And hey, I do write two active blogs. It’s just that personally speaking, there’s a point at which the gadgetry is too close to becoming a part of me, literally and figuratively.
As for my friends who are drooling to get their paws on an Apple Watch, I do get it, because that’s how felt about the iPad. I would go into Apple stores and play with the machines there, while trying to convince myself that so long as laptops were around, these tablet thingies would be expensive indulgences at best. My thriftier instincts lost out, however. Fortunately the iPad would prove to be much more than a plaything, and now it often goes wherever I go.
My fascination with Abraham Lincoln
One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) died of a gunshot wound to the head, fired by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth the night before at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. It’s a story that gives me chills.
I remember when I realized that Abraham Lincoln is one of the most fascinating, compelling figures in history. It was 1986, the year after I graduated from law school, and I made a quick trip to Washington D.C. to see friends and play tourist. The latter included visits to the Lincoln Memorial, Ford’s Theatre, and the Petersen House across the street from the theatre, where a wounded Lincoln was carried after the shooting and cared for until he died.
Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House were especially powerful and haunting; I simply felt something there about the tragedy, sadness, and enormity of what happened. I bought a couple of Lincoln biographies and dove into them. By the time I returned home to New York, Lincoln was very much on my historical radar screen.
The draw of Lincoln has continued for me, coupled with a like fascination over America’s Civil War. It is a deep interest shared with friends. For example, in recent years, I’ve accompanied my long-time friends and fellow history buffs the Driscolls (yeah, the whole family — too numerous to list out here!) to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, as well as to other Lincoln sites in the city, including Lincoln’s law office.
Among great historical figures, the most compelling thing about Lincoln to me is his humanity. We know today that he suffered from severe bouts of depression, dating back to his earlier years. With his humble roots, we might call him a self-made man. He became a lawyer largely by private study, in the days when one could become an attorney without going to law school.
The United States was breaking apart between North and South when he assumed the Presidency in 1861. He carried the weight of the world on his shoulders during the Civil War, while dealing with the death of a young son due to typhoid fever and the devastating effects of that loss on his wife, Mary.
Perhaps to counter his sorrows, Lincoln had a sharp sense of humor and loved to tell humorous stories to punctuate his points, to the exasperation of more “refined” senior advisors and Cabinet members. His beliefs about race, while in some ways advanced for his time, would fall short of modern standards of political correctness. He was also a shrewd politician who knew how to get things done, even if it meant
breaking bending the rules a bit.
So many great historical figures seem personally inaccessible to me. But it seems that Lincoln could carry on a conversation with just about anyone, and if we were to go back in time and bump into him on the streets of Washington (which he often walked, without security escort), I bet that we could strike up a chat with him, too.
In praise of the ice cream sandwich
Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a neat little photo feature on the merits of the ice cream sandwich. Ligaya Mishan’s piece opens with this lede on the origins of this long-time favorite:
The American ice cream sandwich was born in the Bowery district of Manhattan in the early 1900s, when a pushcart vendor slapped together skinny wafers and vanilla ice cream and handed them for a penny each to shoeshiners and stockbrokers alike.
The photos show some pretty fancy incarnations of the ice cream sandwich, at prices a lot higher than those you might recall from the corner store.
When my brother Jeff and I were kids, Mom usually brought home the Sealtest brand from the supermarket, and that was mighty fine for us. I always regarded the ice cream sandwich as being higher up on the frozen dessert food chain than the Klondike bar, Dreamsicle, and Fudgesicle options. It ranked a close second to the Drumsticks with ice cream, chocolate covering, and nuts plopped into a sugar cone, which were a little pricier and thus reserved for special occasions.
Even today, I much prefer the old-fashioned, unadorned, long rectangular ice cream sandwich with two chocolate wafers and vanilla ice cream. (For some reason, I’m less enamored of overstuffed ice cream sandwiches that are harder to manage.) However, I, too, have gone a bit upscale. My current ice cream sandwich of choice is Julie’s organic brand, which I’ll purchase by the box a couple of times a year from the City Feed & Supply store across the street from my home:
These little guys remind me of the Sealtest brand back in the day. They’re quite tasty, with healthier ingredients to boot.
Given the power of self-suggestion when it comes to goodies, I’ll probably pick up a box within the next few days. It is, after all, getting a tad warmer here in Boston, so I think I’ll celebrate with a nice a little treat.
If you had to stop buying books today, how long would it take to read through your home library?
Those of you who enjoy shopping for books are invited to ponder this question with me: If you had to stop buying books today, how long would it take to read (or re-read) through the goodies already in your personal library?
In my case, I estimate over a decade, assuming I’d be working during that time. Even if I found myself under house arrest with a court order not to have cable, I’d still have at least several years of good reading in front of me.
Having a collection of books sufficient to dub a “library” means a lot to me. I’ve never cared much about furniture, interior design, clothes, kitchen gadgetry (ask some of my friends about my dishwasher story), and most other home accoutrements. However, having bookshelves filled to the brim…well…that’s my idea of material success. I haven’t counted my books at home, but I estimate they number around 2,000, with a healthy chunk — maybe a third — being at least somewhat work-related.
Now, as far as getting around to reading them, well, this is a problem. I work pretty hard, and a lot of my reading is related to various writing and research projects, which means using non-fiction books and articles mainly as resources, not cover-to-cover reads. That brainwork can leave me a little fried, and at the end of the day I might prefer to watch a good TV show or a movie.
I keep telling myself that all the unread books will wait for retirement, whatever and whenever that is, as I don’t intend to ever truly “retire.” If I am so blessed to have more leisure time 10 or 15 or 20 years down the line, then I will enjoy many pleasant hours with my library.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to wait that long to dive into many of these good books, so I’ll have to continue to find ways to sneak some quality reading time into my life.
In the meantime, the books are on shelves, or sometimes in piles. That’s okay. They are my inanimate friends, and more than a few have sentimental value to me. I can look at some of my favorite books and immediately recall stories associated with them. Such is a life grounded in geekdom, but I consider myself fortunate in that regard.
“Had Anne Frank been able to survive for just a few more weeks…”
It has been one of history’s heartbreaking “what ifs”: What if Anne Frank had been able to survive the typhus that would claim her for just a few weeks longer, when the Allies liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she was imprisoned? Would she have recovered under the care of the Allies? If so, what would’ve become of her life and her diary?
It had been estimated that Anne and her sister Margot died in late March of 1945, and the Allies liberated the camp on April 15. Hence, many have contemplated the excruciating possibility that the Frank sisters barely missed being rescued.
Now, however, the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam estimates that she died sometime in February. From an Associated Press story by Mike Corder (via Yahoo! News):
Anne likely died, aged 15, at Bergen-Belsen camp in February 1945, said Erika Prins, a researcher at the Anne Frank House museum.
But [Prins] said the new date lays to rest the idea that the sisters could have been rescued if they had lived just a little longer.
“When you say they died at the end of March, it gives you a feeling that they died just before liberation. So maybe if they’d lived two more weeks …,” Prins said, her voice trailing off. “Well, that’s not true anymore.”
You can read the full article for details on how the new approximate date of their deaths was determined.
The story of Anne Frank can do numbers on us. We may engage in rescue fantasies, wondering how Anne could’ve held on just a little while longer, until the camp was liberated. We may speculate, with twinges of guilt, whether her diary would have ever been published had she made it through the war.
So now the likelihood is that when Anne and Margot Frank were suffering from typhus, liberation was not just a few weeks away.
This can trigger questions that cross into the religious or metaphysical, with still more discomfort attached: Did Anne Frank die so that millions could be moved by her diary?
In 2013 I visited the Anne Frank House museum. I was participating in the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, held that year in Amsterdam, and this was the one “must see” item on my list for a first-ever visit to the city.
The exterior pictured above doesn’t give you a hint at what’s inside. The interior has been recreated to show us how Anne and seven others lived in hiding for some two years. I am among countless others to say it, but it was a very moving experience to stand in the same cramped spaces of the “Secret Annex” where they lived before they were discovered and arrested.
For me, the most chilling part of the tour was walking up the long, narrow stairwell to the Annex, located behind the moving bookcase that covered the entrance. It was the same walk their captors took to find and arrest them. Of course, it also was the stairwell taken by the residents of the Annex as they were being escorted out of their hiding place.
You may take a virtual tour of the Annex here.