Retelling Space History in 1080i

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

50th anniversaries are big deals. This month is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. I started following NASA’s space program on May 5, 1961, when my 4th-grade class listened to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight broadcast over the classroom speaker. I was living Hollywood, Florida, just down the coast from Cape Canaveral. After that, I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school whenever there was a space launch so I could watch it on TV. I watched all the Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Walter Cronkite – except for Apollo 8. That I got to see live.

Over the years and decades, I have read countless books and watched countless documentaries about the space program, and the history of rocketry. Last night, PBS began a 3-part series commemorating the first moon landing called Chasing the Moon. I almost didn’t watch it because I figured I had seen and heard everything. But, boy am I glad I did tune in.

PBS has dug up films and facts I hadn’t seen or heard. And it was spectacular seeing these old film clips on my 65″ Sony high definition TV. I know the Apollo 11 event was filmed by dozens of news outlets, so why shouldn’t they have different films to show? But I could swear the take-off of Apollo 11 from the NASA’s cameras seemed new to me. I’m sure they had cameras from every angle possible, so why shouldn’t there be a unique one for the 50th anniversary? However, I wondered if the launch shot was from a later Saturn 5.

Chasing the Book - bookI also wonder if after 50 years I’ve just forgotten most of what I once saw? And maybe seeing the launch sequence in 1080i on a 65″ HDTV made it look different from all the small CRT screens I used over most of those years.

There were also some facts presented that I don’t remember ever knowing before either. For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.

Another surprising story was the JFK tried twice to get Nikita Khrushchev to make the space race a joint expedition to the Moon. I knew that Kennedy wasn’t interested in space and only promoted the idea to compete with the Russians, but I don’t remember ever reading about him trying to reduce the cost of the mission by co-opting the Russians. Wouldn’t history have been amazingly different if Nikita had agreed?

Chasing the Moon covers all the history I remember, but with slightly different details and film clips. It starts with Werner von Braun and Sputnik. However, the book that goes with the documentary starts back in 1903 and covers earlier rocket pioneers and the influence of science fiction. I wished the documentary had started there too.

Be sure and tune in tonight for part two. Many stations will be repeating part one, so fire up your DVRs. And the PBS streaming app should have it too. Wednesday, NOVA will be about the future of Moon exploration and colonization.

There is another reason to watch these 50th-anniversary celebrations. I’m starting to see the shaping of history. Sure it was great to be a 17-year-old kid watching the first Moon landing, but it’s also been great to see its history unfold over fifty years. I realize so much has been left out of the story. We always get the gung-ho glamor version, but the PBS documentary hints at much more. Besides covering the lost story of a black astronaut, they show clips of African Americans at the launch protesting. They came there on a mule-drawn wagon. The documentary also hints at the dirty pork-barrelling politics behind the scenes or how hard we worked to cover up the fact that our space program originated with Nazis. I didn’t know this, but the Russians eventually sent all their captured Nazis back to Germany. Of course, I knew about von Braun, since I have read biographies about him, but even those I expect were cleaned up.

There are still two parts to go and I wonder if they will try to answer the really big question that we always avoid. If going to the Moon was so great, why didn’t we keep going, why didn’t we go to Mars? We went to the Moon in nine years, but we haven’t gone beyond low Earth’s orbit since 1972. That 50th anniversary is only three years away. Was the final frontier just a cold-war political stunt? Are the plans to return to the Moon just another political keeping up with the Jones?

JWH

Echo in the Canyon – Nostalgia Denied

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 6, 2019

I went to Echo in the Canyon expecting it to be a documentary about 1960s musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon. Instead, I got Jakob Dylan Sings the Oldies. Now there is nothing wrong with that, except I never got that impression when I saw the trailer at the theater last week.

Evidently, Jakob Dylan and friends Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Powers, Norah Jones, and Regina Spektor decided to put on a concert singing old songs that came from the artists living in Laurel Canyon back when and then turned it into a film project. We see them discussing the songs over a coffee table of old albums, rehearsing the songs in the studio and then playing them live. In between this, we see Jakob Dylan driving around L.A. talking to all the old musicians that are still living and giving us some clips from the past. And for some strange reason, they kept showing clips from a 1969 film called Model Shop. Echo in the Canyon is a bit about the past, but mostly it’s about the present looking back.

Now, this is cool. Younger generations of musicians often love to pay tribute to the past by creating albums of oldies. Bob Dylan recently produced Shadows in the Night where he sings Frank Sinatra songs. Or when Natalie Cole did Unforgettable… with Love, singing her dad’s songs. Or when John Lennon did Rock ‘n’ Roll singing his favorites hits from the 1950s. I actually like covers. I loved when Bruce Springsteen would sing covers at the end of his concerts in the 1970s. And I really enjoy picking a favorite song and listening to all the covers of it on Spotify. I’ve heard about a hundred versions of “All Along the Watchtower” that way.

The trouble is, the covers for Echo in the Canyon are bland and over-produced. The whole time while watching this film I ached to hear the originals. Now that might just be me, the film is highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes and two of my younger friends have seen it and loved it.

I admire cover tunes that take an old song and redo it in a very original way, such as when Jimi Hendrix sang “All Along the Watchtower” or when Lili Haydn redid “Maggot Brains.” Jakob Dyan and friends did fairly straight covers. These are very talented artists but they don’t shine on these old songs. Part of the problem is the original songs were more delicately produced with fewer instruments, and these modern versions have too many musicians playing on them. They have a modern Americana big group sound, which I think distracts from the lyrics.

For the most part, Echo in the Canyon doesn’t cover the biggest hits but picks album cuts instead. I thought that was an excellent approach but it means they also picked songs fewer people liked. I loved all of these songs back in the day. However, many of these songs were originally idiosyncratically produced, giving them highly distinctive performances. Jakob Dylan and friends reproduce them all in the same kind of jangling-guitar stereotype of folk-rock.

I’m not sure how much these younger musicians really liked these old songs. Watching them discuss the tunes while flipping through old LPs didn’t reveal much passion. Their body language didn’t quite show enthusiasm. What I read was, “OMG, school report” as if this project was something they had to endure. They give a respectful history report on our generation but I never believed they play these albums at home.

Echo in the Canyon is worth seeing, but if you’re a Baby Boomer, don’t expect a lot of reliving the past. It’s fun to see a younger generation examine our times, but it’s also kind of disappointing. I often see young people with T-shirts celebrating musicians from the 1960s, but 95% of the time it’s The Beatles. I loved that The Byrds got a lot of recognition in this film. They were my favorite group in the 1960s, and Buffalo Springfield was second. The Beatles only came in third with me.

Echo in the Canyon has even made an official Spotify playlist with songs from the movie and soundtrack mixed in with the originals. It’s a great way to compare the two. I hope you have Spotify and can play it. By the way, everyone should have Spotify, at least the free version. It’s becoming the Adobe Acrobat of playing music on the web.

Actually, I prefer all these artists doing their own original work. That’s where they are exceptional, and one day even younger artists will be covering their tunes. And probably fans growing up with their generation will grumble about those covers too.

JWH

Why Did Martin Scorsese Donald Trump Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 15, 2019

After watching Martin Scorsese new film Rolling Thunder Revue on Netflix I read The New Yorker’s piece by Richard Brody entitled ‘“Rolling Thunder Revue,” Reviewed: Martin Scorsese’s Slippery Chronicle of Bob Dylan in Concert.’ It seems all my favorite parts of the film were made up. I had been lied to, I had been Donald Trumped.

When Bob Dylan showed up in New York City at the beginning of the 1960s he became infamous for lying about his past. He told such tall tales that the people around him had to constantly access his reality distortion field. Ever since then reporters, biographers, and documentary filmmakers have sought the truth about Bob Dylan in the same way modern theological scholars have tried to unearth the truth about the historical Jesus.

Whenever I read the rare book that interviews Dylan or watch an even rarer documentary featuring Bob Dylan I hope to gain a bit of insight into the Dylan enigma. So is Scorsese’s film a documentary or mockumentary? What is fact or fiction? Is it 20 Feet from Stardom or This Is Spinal Tap? Scorsese chronicles the Rolling Thunder Revue which itself was a circus of make-believe that Dylan tried to put over that might have been great performance art or a creative fiasco. Should I judge Scorsese harshly for lying to me when he was trying to make sense of a bigger lie? Or was he merely trying to join in the same kind of fun and pull Dylanesque gags too? Dylan and all his friends took on assumed names and characters during the tour – but was that that meant to entertain or divert us from thinking about Dylan as Prophet of the Babyboomers.

But here’s the thing. Ever since Donald Trump crowned himself Emperor of Lies it’s very hard to take any kind of lying in fun. When I was growing up people generally shunned anyone who lied. No one likes to discover they’ve been lied to. Donald Trump is such a large black hole of lying that his massive lies rip apart reality. We have so much fake news and deep fake films that any kind of lying for fun is hard to take. Donald Trump has made any kind of lying a horrendous offense no matter how small or innocent. As far as I’m concerned he’s even ruined Santa Claus.

What’s even worse is how Donald Trump has made lying acceptable to tens of millions of Americans. But isn’t that what we all do? We rationalize which liars we accept. Christianity has made a religion out of piling on the fantasy. What truth Jesus might have said has been distorted by two thousand years of compounded lying. Donald Trump has become the international standard for measuring liars. So when I compare Scorsese’s little lies to his, they don’t seem so big. I loathe Republicans for accepting and promoting Donald Trump’s lies, so I now hate to see myself forgiving any liars. Plus, there’s the whole A Million Little Pieces by James Frey ordeal. We really want our nonfiction to be honest.

On the other hand, we all know colorful characters who play the class clown for life and we forgive them for their fabrications. Dylan has always passed himself off as a jester. In the mid-sixties when his fans were about to turn him into a guru of political truth, a Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Dylan freaked out. He began swearing he was just a song and dance man, a roving minstrel that sang clever tunes for your amusement.

Dylan retreated from the limelight after a 1966 motorcycle accident that some claimed may or may not have happened. He knew what the world did to their saviors. That was quite wise. When he returned to touring, first with The Band in 1974, and then with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 he had to develop a new persona. The trouble was, even after he stopped writing protest songs that inspired a generation about injustice, he still wrote songs his fans felt spoke the truth with a capital T. Everyone wanted to be near this modern-day Jesus and decode remarkable parables.

Watching the films Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, and now Rolling Thunder Revue shows what a crazy hurricane of true friends, fake friends, crazy fans, and sycophants that swirl around the man. No wonder Dylan is sick to death of trying to explain himself and enjoys making up his own myths. We know Dylan is a genius from the lyrics of his songs. He is closer to Shakespeare than any of us. Yet, I can’t help but feel his lying makes him like Donald Trump. Trump really has ruined tall-tale-telling, at least for me, if not for everybody.

All of this is not to pan Rolling Thunder Review. If you’re a Dylan fan I highly recommend it, just be careful being taken in by Sharon Stone, Stefan Van Dorp, and other trickster characters. I plan on watching the film again after studying the actual events. The trouble is original Rolling Thunder Revue was chaos. The original tour was meant to produce a film, but the result, Renaldo and Clara was so bad it’s has been hidden away for decades. Richard Brody did get to see it and says:

But too often Scorsese seems to be joining Dylan in dancing delicately around the past. After seeing “Rolling Thunder Revue,” I watched “Renaldo and Clara” for the first time—and I wish I hadn’t, because its strengths only serve to highlight Scorsese’s failures. Dylan and Sara, as the fictional Renaldo and Clara—a couple whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by a visit from another woman, the so-called Woman in White (played by Baez)—perform in scenes of psychodramatic intensity and romantic anguish. “Renaldo and Clara” also features a remarkable set of concert performances from the Rolling Thunder tour—and Dylan (who edited the film with Alk) treats them with a finer and keener touch than Scorsese does.

Now we have Scorsese’s film that covers up the original film. I now wish they’d release Renaldo and Clara to DVD so everyone else can compare to the two accounts. Trying to decipher Dylan is like trying to solve any of the major mysteries of history. It’s a fun task, but also akin to seeking gold in El Dorado.

JWH

How To Save The Planet–Without Detailed Instructions

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Humans are destroying the biosphere of planet Earth. Homo sapiens have overpopulated the planet, crowding out all the other species, and has initiated a self-destruct countdown. To solve this crisis requires creating a sustainable way of life, one that will ethically accommodate 13 billion people, allow other species to thrive, create a stable weather system, and not poison the biosphere with pollution. This is an immense challenge. There are countless books, studies, organizations, documentaries and pundits claiming they have solutions, but few people agree on anything. (I use the number 13 billion because most people today will see the Earth’s population grow to that number before it starts to shrink.)

The real responsibility falls on us individually. We each have to decide how to live and justify that lifestyle’s sustainability. In other words, any rational for survival you choose must be judged by what impact that lifestyle would have if 13 billion people also followed it. The Lifeboat Earth metaphor applies here. Ethically, we all have a justification to claim one thirteenth billionth of the planet’s resources, excluding the ethical share we first deem is due to all the other species. Our current philosophy is “everyone for themselves” – grab all you can get, and fuck all other humans and all the animals. It is this philosophy that will lead us to self-destruction, and why there is so much hate, violence and stress in the world.

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Finding an ethical way of living that is equitable to our fellow humans and to all the animals is hard. You will have to do a lot of research, read a lot of books, watch a lot of documentaries, and listen to countless thousands of talking heads argue and argue. One recent documentary I feel is very persuasive is Cowspiracy, a film by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. I shall use it as an example. At it’s core, the film is trying to do what I’m talking about regarding sustainability. However, I don’t trust it’s numbers, and I’m guessing it’s motivations aren’t entirely honest and straight forward. But understanding these problems I have with the film are exactly the skills we need in evaluating any solution to save the planet.

There is no reason to want or expect us all to decided on the same path. We can each develop our own consumption plan so long as it integrates into the whole, and we each use only our fair share. Before we can begin inventing our individual solutions we need to understand what is our fair share of consumables and pollution. The mathematics of such an undertaking is way beyond my ability. So I never trust other people who claim to have that ability.

I find documentaries that use lots of facts, figures and infographics to be more persuasive than documentaries that don’t. The watchers of these film must deal with is whether or not the film’s figures are accurate. Even cheap, crudely made films can have great impact, such as Cowspiracy. I was far more moved by Cowspiracy than I was the more famous and better made, An Inconvenient Truth. Both appear to be about climate change and environmentalism, but I suspect the underlying motivation by Cowspiracy is animal rights. Andersen and Kuhn contend that raising farm animals has more impact on the environment than all burdens the various transportation industries place on the planet.

Do their numbers add up? Is their basic assumption correct? They are offering a reasonable solution to save the planet. Are they right? They offer a very simplistic path to solving the sustainability problem. First, watch the film Cowspiracy (free on Netflix streaming, $4.95 digital download, $19.95 DVD). Their solution, stop eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy. We must evaluate their plan. Would choosing a plant based diet make a sustainable lifestyle? Cowspiracy defines the sustainability issue properly, but I doubt their numbers justifying their solution, even though I’m personally pursing a vegan lifestyle and I’m for animal rights. I’m willing to consider that there might be ethical ways to eat meat that is sustainable.

Whether or not to eat meat, and whether or not raising food animals has a massive impact on the environment are a highly contentious issues. You can can find people on both sides of the argument claiming they know the truth and throwing out tons of facts and figures. I wish to set the ethical issues of killing animals aside for a moment, and just consider Andersen and Kuhn’s assertion that raising animals for food has a greater impact on the environment than all of the transportation industries combined. Does giving up meat help the environment significantly? More than going to mass transit and switching to a renewable energy based economy?

My guess is we could greatly improve meat and dairy production to make it sustainable, but it might require that people eat a lot less animal products than they do now. And even then, we’d still have to bring back the issue of animal cruelty. Andersen and Kuhn do define many of the issues we have to consider in creating a personal sustainable lifestyle.

  • We all have a fair share of fresh water this is sustainable, but will vary by location.
  • That a sustainable lifestyle will impact specific area of land.
  • That land set aside for humans should leave plenty of natural areas for animals.
  • That the impact of our land requirements not impact the weather, pollution or the biosphere.
  • That our personal energy use must be sustainable.
  • That we shouldn’t let people starve while we feed animals to produce meat.
  • Can we raise animals so they have quality lives before we kill them?
  • Are there humane ways to kill animals?
  • Is it ethical to kill animals?
  • Should you eat any animal that you didn’t personal kill?
  • Should we give land to food animals when wild animals have so little?
  • That factory animal raising is not sustainable.
  • That free range animal raising is less sustainable than factory animal raising.
  • That industrial fishing isn’t sustainable.

I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, and in the last couple years I’ve been veering towards veganism to reduced the clogs in my arteries, so Andersen’s and Kuhn’s solution would be no sacrifice for me. It would demand a tremendous change for most people, and a drastic transformation of society. Can you imagine if all restaurants were vegan and all grocery stores health food stores? I’m going to assume Cowspiracy plays fast and loose with its numbers simply because the film is on the amateur side. On the other hand, I’m going to assume they might be right and explore their solution.

We often admire members of The Greatest Generation because they survived The Depression and WWII. We admire their determination and sacrifice. We admire first responders and soldiers for their dedication and heroism. Often I meet people who wished they had done more good in their lives, or even lament they hadn’t done something extraordinary like their heroes. Some even feel their life has been without meaning. I don’t believe you need to be Pope Francis or Martin Luther King to help other people and make a great sacrifice. Just being decent, law abiding and nonviolent adds a lot to our society. Choosing not to act like an asshole and controlling your temper goes a long way toward bringing peace on Earth. Of course, I think many folks reading this will say they’d prefer to work inside burning buildings or go to war in Afghanistan than give up eating meat. However, from now on out, the best thing we can do for our fellow humans and our descendants is live a sustainable lifestyle. Are we willing to make that sacrifice and dedicate ourselves to meeting the challenge?

You need to see the film to be convinced that animal farming is having a greater impact on the Earth than all forms of transportation combined. Cowspiracy asks why all the major environmental groups are not focusing on the biggest problem the planet faces. If Andersen and Kuhn are right, then the single quickest way to fight climate change, the current mass extinction of animals, the destruction of the oceans, the collapse of civilization and create a sustainable society is to give up eating animals. The documentary points out that a plant based diet is sustainable, and it’s healthy. My own research into healthy diets is uncovering more and more doctors advocating a plant based diet. Giving up meat is better for the planet and better for you, and gives us hope for our descendants. However, I don’t know if Andersen and Kuhn’s numbers are anywhere near accurate.

Will people give up eating meat? I doubt it. Republicans are taking the brunt the responsibility for not doing anything about climate change because they refuse to give up fossil fuels. What if giving up meat could actually solve climate change without waiting on new renewable energy technologies? I doubt even liberals would embrace that solution. Why are bacon and eggs, milk and cheese, beef, chicken, pork and fish so important to us? What if the facts and figures in Cowspiracy are right?

Are there any sustainable sources of animals products? If people raised chickens and rabbits in their backyards, feeding them with yard grown food, would that be sustainable? What about hunters culling deer populations every year, or other animals that could live abundantly in the woods without human support? What if all fishing was from hook and lines? Andersen and Kuhn make it obvious that neither factory animal farms, or free range animal farming are sustainable. But what if everyone hunted their own meat? What if you really wanted to eat meat and were willing to hunt down an animal, kill it and butcher it, you could eat it and be sustainability justified? Andersen and Kuhn assumes all the land that went into grazing or raising food for livestock would be returned to the wild. Would that be true?

We all ignore the fact that we’re consuming more than the Earth can give. Humans are increasing in numbers while everything else is decreasing. We’ve been laughing at The Limits of Growth for forty years because the book hasn’t come true. We always assumed science and technology would continually solve the problems of exponential growth. The Club of Rome didn’t anticipate disruptive technology, but their basic premises were still correct. The Earth’s resources are finite and consumption can’t increase forever.

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Alive Inside: The Most Inspiring, Emotional and Scariest Movie I’ve Seen in Years

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 24, 2014

At the end of the classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, when Big Brother wants Winston Smith to confess his thought crimes and betray his lover, they tell him that every person has one thing they fear more than anything else, and that fear can be used to break a person. Over the years, I’ve noticed that my friends each have something they fear to see in movies. That there is a subject they can not bear to see, and will always avoid films that have scenes that trigger those fears. Often that fear is to see cruelty to animals or children, or realistic violence. I have met people who claim they can watch movies about the most horrible monsters that can be imagined so long as they are make-believe, but any movie about a realistic monster, whether serial killer or cancer, is something that’s too frightening for them to handle. It makes them run away. What makes you run away?

In recent years I’ve noticed that the deepest fear some of my friends have is of getting old, and they can’t handle any portrayal of elder years. The sight of the aged, especially in a nursing home, is enough to put them into a deep existential panic. And stories about Alzheimer’s or dementia, is their trigger that Big Brother was talking about when they spoke to Winston Smith.

So, it’s going to be a hard sell for me to recommend Alive Inside, a documentary about how music brings memories and self-awareness back to aging souls slumped in wheelchairs and warehoused in nursing homes. This film shows us humans deformed by age and memory loss, some that can no longer respond to any verbal commands. Then Dan Cohen puts a pair of Koss headphones on their time-ravaged heads and presses play on an iPod shuffle, and we see their souls return. It’s like in the book/movie Awakenings, about real life Rip Van Wrinkes who had gone to sleep in the 1920s because of side-effects of the 1918 influenza and given L-DOPA and reawaken in the 1960s. The effects of music on releasing lost memories was dramatic like that in Alive Inside. It’s as if music can reanimate long dead personalities and bring them back to the awareness after leaving reality for years.

I found Alive Inside profound. It made my spirit soar, and my body cry. Alive Inside has a simple message: we can help millions of people that we’ve hidden away in nursing homes. The film also asks why did we lock up all those old people in the first place.

Even though I’m promising people a peak emotional experience, I’m guessing many of my friends will quickly put this movie recommendation out of their minds. I am often accused of being morbid because I like to dwell on depressing subjects. I never feel depressed by facing reality. It’s quite the opposite. I was feeling lonely last night, and watching this documentary exhilarated me, and filled me with positive energy. I woke up at 4:30 this morning thinking about it, and got up at 5:30 to write about it.

Yet, there’s still the problem of getting my baby boomer friends to share this experience. Sooner or later we must face getting old. We must accept that our bodies are going to morph into the scary figures we see hunched down in wheelchairs in Alive Inside. The only way to escape this fate is to die, and the fact that millions of people are living in nursing homes tells us death won’t rescue us all.

You can contribute or volunteer at Music and Memory. Remember, Christmas is coming up. And they take used iPods too.

If our fate is to grow very old, then we need to start preparing our psyches for it now, and that brings me to another documentary we saw Friday night that tells another story about getting old, Advanced Style. This film was about older women living in New York City that use fashion to keep their hearts young. It’s message is to keep trucking in style until you die. The film was based on a book and blog of the same name.

The old people in Advanced Style are much easier to watch if you’re age-phobic, because the women are outrageously charming characters, independent and not living in nursing homes. So Advanced Style might be the first to see of these two if you are a baby boomer afraid of dementia and wrinkles.  Alive Inside is far more powerful, but to be honest, it’s not for the faint of heart. I do think both films are great strengtheners for our hearts – but sometimes its hard to look into the face of the future. I recommend Nietzsche’s advice, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Watch Alive Inside even if you are very afraid of getting old and losing your mind, it will make you stronger.

See, here’s the thing I see in films like these. We all die, but some of us die a long time before our bodies go. What we want is for the mind and body to go together. Sometimes that’s beyond our control, but sometime it is something we can control. Alive Inside hints that even when it looks like our minds have been flushed down the toilet, we’re still here, hiding behind the neurons. Both movies offer hope that if we keep trying we can survive until we die.

Alive Inside and Advanced Style are available on Netflix streaming, and the usually sites to buy.

JWH