Classic movie report: August 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 I dug back to 1976 for a couple of really solid films.
Aces High (1976) (3 stars out of 4)
Although I’m a big fan of historical dramas, I somehow managed to miss Aces High until now. It’s an underrated war movie about British fighter pilots during the First World War. Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, Peter Firth, and Simon Ward are the stars of an ensemble cast.
The movie features very good aerial scenes (no irritating CGI here) and interesting if sometimes cliched personal dramas. This film was a pleasant surprise, a random streaming discovery from Netflix. It stands well above two more recent WWI aviator movies, Flyboys (2006) and The Red Baron (2008).
The Omen (1976) (3.5 stars)
The Omen is one of my long-time favorites, a movie that first sent chills up my spine back in high school and continues to do so. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick co-star as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and his wife. They have a son, and let’s just say that he’s a young man of Biblical qualities, and not the good kind.
Yup, there are some plot implausibilities that are stretches even for horror film. But it delivers on goosebumps. Suffice it to say that after watching The Omen, you’ll be wary of surprise nannies, little boys with a head of steam, and priests bearing bad news.
Latest binge view: “The Knick” (season one)
Last weekend I plowed through the ten episode first season of The Knick, a Cinemax drama set in a fictitious Manhattan hospital during the early 1900s. It stars Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackeray, a brilliant, driven, and cocaine-addicted surgeon. It has a great ensemble cast playing various doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, ambulance drivers, and board members.
The Knickerbocker hospital serves Manhattan’s poor and working class, and its medical staff attempts to be on the vanguard of treatments, diagnostics, and surgical techniques. It makes for sometimes gruesome scenes, and for this reason some readers might want to avoid it. (Think a turn of the century version of ER and you’ll have some sense of what I mean.)
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Knick is how it portrays the evolution of health care as it moves out of the Victorian Age. Even those generally familiar with the history of medicine will appreciate the sense of drama in storylines about new and experimental approaches to health care.
The Knick also depicts treatments that by today’s standards are wrongheaded and even barbaric. Ambulance drivers are profiteers and body collectors. Issues of race are dealt with bluntly, including the presence of an African American surgeon whose knowledge and experience are completely dismissed when he joins the surgical staff.
And finally — no spoiler alert necessary — the last scene of the final season one episode is simply brilliant.
My cable subscription doesn’t include Cinemax, so I’ll have to wait for the season two DVDs to jump back into the world of the Knickerbocker Hospital. I can’t wait!
A quick visit to Hyde Park, Chicago
During my recent visit to Northwest Indiana, I made a quick side trip to the Hyde Park section of Chicago, largely to browse through some of the bookstores near the University of Chicago.
As venerable universities go, U of C isn’t that old, having first appeared on the scene in 1892. However, its founders wanted to create an immediate impression that this was a place for serious study and research. That goal was partially expressed in buildings that, according to the University’s online history page, “copied the English Gothic style of architecture, complete with towers, spires, cloisters, and gargoyles.”
In other words, Chicago wanted to look more like Cambridge and Oxford, not Harvard and Yale.
And you know something, they pulled it off. Hyde Park has some of the most awesome architecture of any American university neighborhood. While the U of C has some edifice flops from the 60s and 70s (as do Cambridge and Oxford), the overall look and feel of the area is learned, old, and quiet — a sharp contrast to many other parts of brawny Chicago.
The previous site of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, since moved to roomier digs, is a perfect example. A few years ago I met up with my long-time friends the Driscoll family for a Hyde Park visit, and the bookstore was a primary reason for our gathering there. Sharon Driscoll, who is quite the amateur photographer, took the photo of me above in the Co-op building. It looks like I traveled back in time — and fortunately, my backpack made it there with me!
As for the University of Chicago, even in this era of growing vocationalism in higher education, it has managed to maintain its serious devotion to ideas. I’m sure it has made compromises to incorporate more career preparation, but it still remains a place where learning and scholarship are valued for their own sake. That is an increasing luxury in higher ed today.
“Welcome to first-year orientation” (Gulp)
For many educators, mid-August brings a sort of foreboding: Uh oh, school is starting up again very soon. The endless summer is coming to an end.
Now, this may sound odd coming from someone who enjoys teaching and is grateful for the opportunity to make a living as a professor. But yes, I feel this way, too.
I trace this anxious rumble in my belly to memories of first-year orientations as a college and law student many years ago. I suppose they planted the seeds for how I regard the beginning of an academic year.
Let me go back to August 1977, first-year orientation at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. Valpo, as it is colloquially known, was only a 45-minute drive from my parents’ home in Hammond, Indiana. But I was quite unworldly at that early juncture of my life, so that distance felt like a million miles away during those first few days (and the weeks to follow).
In terms of events, I hazily remember a bunch of meetings big and small, a large-group assembly or two, and some type of cookout. VU’s orientation program neither eased nor stirred my anxieties. However, the status quo was about as much as I could’ve asked of it, given my constricted comfort zone. It would take another two years for me to find my social and extracurricular groove at Valparaiso, mainly via my joining the staff of the campus newspaper and eventually spending my final semester in England. A good number of lifetime friendships were forged during those years.
Now let’s quickly jump to August 1982 and law school orientation at New York University. Outwardly I tried to maintain a friendly and upbeat demeanor, but privately I wondered if I was in over my head. I had moved from Indiana to the heart of Manhattan. Lots of my new classmates had gone to elite colleges. Many had done fancy internships. When a fellow 1L mentioned that he had spent the previous year working as an assistant at the U.S. Supreme Court, I decided not to offer that during the same time I was working as a stock clerk at a retail drugstore.
NYU’s law school orientation was the usual mix of welcoming speeches, panel discussions, intro classes, and receptions, but the content and people were such that I came out of it mildly reassured that I would (1) survive law school; and (2) have some good job opportunities at the finish. I was also pleasantly surprised that so many of my super-talented classmates were genuinely nice people, and I started making friends very easily. Overall I had the strong vibe that this was the right place for me, which turned out to be true.
Academic orientation programs are organized with the very best of intentions, and often they convey important information that can set the stage for the remainder of a student’s degree program. As to whether they soothe or stoke individual anxieties, well, that’s a crapshoot. I think it depends more on the specific student than on the content of the program!
Someday, when I’m in an even more nostalgic mode than is my usual state, I’ll have to sift through the memory bank to recall other orientation-type programs during different chapters of my academic and professional lives. Maybe I’ll find some similarities and connections between my reactions to them.
A nostalgic traveler’s dilemma: Explore new vistas or retrace old steps?
Travelers who suffer from chronic bouts of nostalgia (i.e., me) may face a familiar dilemma: Given a choice, do we explore new vistas or revisit old haunts? Do we step out in search of fresh discoveries, or do we retrace steps from back in the day?
When I booked my July trip to Vienna to attend the week-long International Congress on Law and Mental Health, I added a few days after the conference to do some sightseeing. I assumed that I would spend that extra time outside of the city.
My first and only previous visit to Austria occurred way back in 1981. Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck were part of my whirlwind tour through western Europe after a semester abroad in England.
Of those cities, Salzburg — small, manageable, and with spectacular scenery — was by far my favorite. I even enjoyed “The Sound of Music” bus tour that my friend dragged me on, for it included many of the city’s most beautiful sites. By contrast, while I liked Vienna, it didn’t rank as a highlight of that leg of my sojourn.
So when I planned this current trip, I figured that I would squeeze in a quick visit to Salzburg during my add-on days. Hey, maybe I’d even join the hordes of other American tourists for a redux of “The Sound of Music” tour!
Ultimately, however, I decided to stick to Vienna. To my great delight, Vienna came alive for me this time around. I now understand why it is such a global attraction. The heart of Vienna is simply beautiful, with stunning architecture, public sculptures, and old city streets seemingly at every turn. The city also offers relatively inexpensive eateries and cafes serving up hearty food and beverages.
Vienna exudes a sense of cultural and intellectual history. Given that I was attending a law and mental health conference, I considered it semi-obligatory to visit the Sigmund Freud residence and museum. Although little of the original interior decor remains, there were plenty of exhibits and photographs to give you a sense of where he lived and practiced during the early 20th century.
An exhibit at the University of Vienna presented an unexpected opportunity to roam around the main building of one of Europe’s oldest universities, founded in 1365! For an urban campus, it was a notably serene academic setting.
When I first visited Europe in 1981, I had no idea that many wonderful singers and musicians demonstrated their talents on the streets of great cities.
Since then, I have been drawn to street performers. At first glance, I wondered if this man, with his walking stick, bucket, and visual impairment, was panhandling. But then he turned on his little music player and started to sing…wow…his voice was superb. It was a privilege to tip him a few Euros.
Of course, I also had to hunt down the city’s English language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, tucked away in a nook of old Vienna that felt like a step back in time.
Thanks in part to the conference itself, I experienced a bit of Vienna’s classical music scene. Here are three of my friends and fellow conference participants, Shelley, Carol, and Nicole, in the pews of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, as we awaited the start of a classical music concert organized for our group by the International Academy on Law and Mental Health.
And here’s what that stunning cathedral looks like. Listening to a first-rate music performance in such a historic site was a treat.
The unsung star of Vienna was its subway system, which proved to be dependable, fast, and easy to navigate. In visiting a big city, I usually find that learning the basics of its subway system early on pays dividends throughout the trip. This was no exception!
Throwback Thursday: High school football benchwarmer
Some forty Augusts ago, I was sweating it out on a blazing hot northwest Indiana practice field, along with 60 or so other guys who wanted to play football. Yes folks, despite my lack of physical prowess and athletic talent, I was on my high school football team for several years.
The caption of the team photo above is a bit misleading. Any sophomore, junior, or senior who tried out for football and survived the grueling two-a-day August practice sessions was on the “varsity.” However, my role was to be practice fodder — a member of what today is called the “scout team” — helping to prepare the starting players and top reserves for the Friday night games. I would get to play in the Saturday morning junior varsity games, and occasionally at the tail end of varsity games when the result was quite settled.
Given that I wasn’t very big, you’d think that my “natural” position was running back and/or defensive back. However, my blinding lack of speed and quickness made that problematic, so the coaches put me on the line. Yup, I was a 150 lb. center, guard, and nose tackle. This was largely for practice purposes only, because unless the phalanx of guys ahead of me on the depth chart all suddenly got sick, hurt, suspended, or quit the team, no one needed to be concerned that I’d be in the lineup during key moments of a game.
At some point I smartened up and realized that this was not the most best use of my extracurricular time. I would get involved in activities such as student government, which proved to be a better match for me.
But looking back, I know the experience of high school football toughened me up in valuable ways. Lining up in practice every day against bigger, stronger, faster players, and getting up when you’re knocked down, may not be fun, but you learn that you can get up and be ready to go again. Plus, I liked being on the team. It planted the seeds for being a lifetime football fan.
Fortunately, my eventual absence from the team was not felt acutely. As one of my former teammates told me, “Dave, we missed you in football this year but managed to suck without you.”
Wanna run for President? You can!
In a piece for the Boston Globe (registration may be necessary), Astead W. Herndon reports that over 500 individuals have registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as Presidential candidates. You see, while it may take lots of political clout and mega-millions in campaign monies to get elected President, it basically requires filing the required FEC paperwork in order to be a candidate. It sounds easier than filing your taxes!
Of course, there’s more to it than that if you actually want to get votes, even those of friends and family. States have their own petition requirements and filing fees to get your name on the ballot, and to do that you’ll need campaign cash, connections, and a host of volunteers.
But if you’re just looking for a personal platform, you can register with the FEC, declare yourself a candidate, and rely on our Digital Age, low-cost options to start campaigning. For example, Herndon reports that one fringe candidate is running his campaign with “a website, a Facebook public figure page, and a similar profile on LinkedIn.”
I first became aware of the plethora of unknown Presidential aspirants back in college, when one of my political science professors shared with me some campaign brochures that he had collected from fringe candidates. I sent away for more, and eventually I wrote a piece on these indie wannabes for my college newspaper. A few were known quantities who had long ago faded into the political woodworks. (If the name “Harold Stassen” rings a bell, then you know what I mean.) Others were earnest citizens from various walks of life, and a good number had single-issue axes to grind. Naturally, some were simply a bit wacko.
Throughout college I was bound and determined to launch a political career and had been very active in local political campaigns and in student government. At a time in my young life when political hype fascinated me more than policy substance, I was drawn to the ease with which someone could become a candidate for America’s highest office.
Now, I’m not about to toss my own hat into this very fringed ring. I long ago jettisoned ambitions of a political career, including quixotic runs for big offices. But there’s enough of a political junkie in me still remaining to have fun thinking about what my platform and message might be. In fact, it’s pretty liberating to think about this without the need for posturing, positioning, fundraising, and currying favor. As long as you don’t care about winning, you can pretty much say what you want. Hmm….
Throwback Thursday: Old haunts and lasting friendships
I made an extended weekend trip to northwest Indiana for a long overdue visit with friends and family, one filled with both nostalgia for the past and appreciation for enduring friendships renewed.
Concededly, I am positively masochistic when it comes to self-inflicted nostalgia. During much of this trip, I had my rental car radio tuned to an oldies station that played songs mostly from the late 70s through early 80s. Like many, I associate old Top 40 songs with memories of earlier days, so I basically had a series of mental videos going through my head, prompted by whatever was on the air.
I put the nostalgia machine on overdrive when I had some time to kill before heading off to O’Hare Airport. I decided to spend a few hours driving around to old haunts.
It started with a visit to our early boyhood home in small-town Griffith, Indiana, where my brother Jeff and I spent our early years with our parents. I had not been there in many decades. I was stunned to see a cozy little block with a narrow street. In my memories of being five years old, it is a big, humongous block with a wide street!
I also stopped at the Hammond, Indiana house that was home for most of my childhood through teen years. No real surprises there…it and the surrounding homes were much more as I had remembered them.
For some odd reason I wanted to revisit the sites of jobs I had worked before moving to New York for law school in 1982. During several college summers and holiday periods, as well as an interim year between finishing college and leaving for law school, I worked for Ribordy Drugs, a local drugstore chain that once had a couple of dozen stores dotting northwest Indiana.
It was standard low-paid retail store work, unloading delivery trucks, tagging merchandise, and stocking shelves. Although I grumbled about it at times, I now look back and realize that those experiences helped me to develop a work ethic.
When I graduated from Valparaiso in 1981, I intended to take an interim year before moving on to law school. Alas, so-called “professional” jobs were not in large supply for new graduates in recession-burdened Northwest Indiana. So I ended up returning to Ribordy Drugs, this time working at its new warehouse-style store, a local precursor of the big box chain stores that now dominate the retail outlets in the area. I worked there more-or-less full-time, while also doing some part-time reporting for a local community newspaper.
It was not the most exciting year of my life, but because I was filing my law school applications, it was filled with anticipation. My original plan was to head to the west coast, but when an acceptance letter from New York University arrived in the mail, I knew that I wanted to go there. In August 1982, I would leave for NYU and the Big Apple.
But let me get back to people. The photo above is from a mini-reunion last Friday of college friends from Valparaiso University and assorted family members. The company of Hilda, Mark, Brad, Don, Maggie, Dave, Dorothy, Jim, Elena, Abby, and Matt made for a most enjoyable evening. The many smiling faces in the photo were more than snapshot poses. We were laughing a lot, unearthing stories from back in the day and sharing news of the latest goings-on in our lives.
At my motel, I also bumped into another group of VU alums holding their own little reunion, including friends Sheralynn (and a most articulate contributor to a running e-mail exchange about the suspense series 24 when it aired) and Rachelle (fellow study abroad participant). Their sorority was doing a kind of Chicagoland summer reunion caravan that concluded with a visit to their alma mater. Getting to see them was an unexpected treat.
The next day, I drove to Hammond, where I joined with my brother Jeff and old friends Mark and Karen for a meal at the House of Pizza, a restaurant than enjoys legendary status for its uniquely excellent thin crust pizza. Mark and I have been friends going waaaay back to the 3rd grade. And all four of us have been going to House of Pizza since we were kids. Sharing a meal at one of Chicagoland’s many superb pizza places has become a sort of tradition during visits there.
I then met up for a visit with my long-time friend Katherine (going back to high school), who first took me to the local Community Veteran’s Memorial, featuring some very well done historical exhibits and timelines. We then went to one of the local casinos (none of which were around when I grew up there), where we enjoyed a first-rate meal and won $10 playing the nickel slots. (I cannot recall the last time I was in a casino. What a surreal world onto itself.)
So here’s the lesson, especially for us nostalgia freaks: Old haunts are what they are, places of days gone by. It may be meaningful to revisit them, but they are of the past. When it comes to people, however, it’s about the present. The relationships built over the years may have their roots in long ago, but when they remain vibrant, and thankfully stripped of
our my early immaturities (er, at least some of them), that is a pretty cool thing.
A delightful book browsing pleasure
I received a terrific gift recently, a copy of the latest edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. (18th ed., 2012). It’s a behemoth of a book, clocking in at just over 1,500 pages.
It’s also a browser’s delight, a history lesson and time machine, and an exemplar for writers in how to turn a phrase. Here’s a very random sampling:
- “Every human being is an archeological site” (Luc Sante, The Factory of Facts, 1998)
- “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” (Irving Berlin, Ziegfeld Follies, 1919)
- “Books, the children of the brain” (Jonathan Swift, A Tale of the Tub, 1704)
- “Nobody’s as powerful as we make them out to be” (Alice Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970)
- “You will find rest from vain fancies if you perform every act in life as though it were your last” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)
- “If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind whom shall we serve?” (Abigail Adams, Letter to John Thaxter, 1778)
- “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” (Chester Nimitz, Of the Marines at Iwo Jima, 1945)
- “It is far, far better and much safer to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled seas of thought” (John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, 1958)
- “Man, if you gotta ask you’ll never know” (Louis Armstrong, Reply when asked what jazz is)
- “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!” (Edna St. Vincent Millay, God’s World, 1917)
…and so, so much more. Buy, borrow, or be gifted a copy and enjoy.
Many thanks to Tom and Phyllis Schaaf for the kind gift that inspired this blog post!
Those eminently re-watchable movies
Here is one of those countless Internet memes posted to Facebook, but it grabbed my attention because I immediately started making my list.
These 25 are pretty much off the top of my head, in no particular order:
- Animal House
- Singin’ in the Rain
- In Harm’s Way
- Starship Troopers
- The Horse Soldiers
- Von Ryan’s Express
- The Patriot
- The Producers
- Sink the Bismarck!
- Master and Commander
- The Sound of Music
- The Shift
- Patriot Games
- All the President’s Men
- When Harry Met Sally
- Major League
It’s hardly an exhaustive list, but definitely representative. A mix of genuine classics and others that tend to fall in the good-but-not-great category. It is very short on foreign films and art house releases, reflecting my very middlebrow tastes.
What’s on your list?!?!