Spielberg Should Make a Movie About Them

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 20, 2020

Most of our fiction when it’s not about romance or comedy is about heroes. Whether in books, television shows, movies, or video games we usually identify with a hero. Quite often the hero must confront conflict with violence, but generally the violence is over-the-top and the heroes’ abilities are unbelievable. Far too often fiction promotes the cult of the gun. But what about real heroes? Heroes are individuals who will sacrifice themselves for others. Why don’t we see more real life heroes in our fiction?

I just finished reading chapter 17 of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson about Allison and Elizabeth Stubbs Davis, two black anthropologists who were training in Germany when the Nazis came into power. This was 1933, and they decided to flee the fascists and go to Natchez, Mississippi to study class, caste, and race. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. This was the heart of the Jim Crow south well become the civil rights era and Freedom Riders. According to Wilkerson a black person was being lynched every four days. She also reported that Nazis had studied Jim Crow laws for inspiration on how to fashion their laws to oppress the Jews, and in some instances the Nazis thought the Americans went too far. By the way, I highly recommend Caste.

Allison and Elizabeth were part of a team, with white anthropologists Burleigh and Mary Gardner, but interestingly for the time, Allison was the team leader. Wilkerson’s book up till chapter 17 showed her readers just how dangerous it was for the two couples, especially for Allison and Elizabeth to work in the 1930s deep south. Their scientific undercover work meant taking potentially lethal risks day after day for years.

These scientists were real life heroes putting their lives on the line to make a better world for us. We need to see more movies about this kind of heroism. Are you brave enough to attempt anything like their quest? I certainly am not. In modern fiction the hero usually get to load up on weapons before confronting the enemy. Would you volunteer to spy on a hostile society with only Gandhi’s armament?

Their story would make a great movie. After reading this chapter I really wanted to know more about these four scientists, especially Allison and Elizabeth. However, I can’t find out much about them and their time in Mississippi. Allison went on to become the first black professor to get tenured at a predominantly white university (The University of Chicago, 1947). but with complications. David A. Varel wrote a whole book devoted to Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (2018).

According to Wilkerson the Davis and Gardner couples started their research earlier and stayed longer, but other anthropologists came after them, spent less time embedded in the culture, and published sooner. Davis and the Gardners published Deep South: A Study of Social Class and Color Caste in a Southern City (1941), but it was upstaged by Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) by John Dollard and After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939) by Hortense Powdermaker. Dollard and Powdermaker gained the academic fame, and it’s why Wilkerson said in a New York Times interview that Deep South was the book she admired most that no one reads.

I’d love to read Deep South but finding a copy is turning out to be hard. It’s not in print at Amazon, and used copies run hundreds of dollars. I hope Wilkerson’s book inspires a reprinting, at least a Kindle edition. According to WorldCat it is available in some of my local university libraries, so I will try them. Still, I’d like to see their story on the big screen.

I know Hollywood distorts history badly, but while reading Wilkerson I could vaguely imagine the intense drama of their story, I’d like it visualized for me with all the vivid details movie makers can muster. I’m burned out on modern movies. I’m no longer hooked on their fantasy violence. I crave quiet realism. I understand our world and its history is full of violence, but surely it can’t be as much as our fiction implies. I’m tired of heroes with big guns. I’m tired of cartoon combat. I read the other day that the Wild West was never as violent as westerns, not even close. We need more movies about people who save the world without shooting it up because obviously too many people are thinking that’s what the world needs now the most.

JWH

What Was the First Album Cover with Art?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September, 5, 2020

Visually, the world changes very slowly. If you’re young it will appear to have always looked roughly the same. It’s only when you get older that changes are noticeable, even disturbing. Over the decades, the look of homes, neighborhoods, shopping centers, and business districts begin to alter their appearance. The inside look of homes and stores change too. My mother, born 1916, grew up in rural Mississippi, so her childhood looked much different what the world looked like at the time of her death in 2007. My father, born 1920, saw much different world growing up in Miami in the 1920s and 1930s, than that much changed Miami looked when he died 1971.

The Miami I saw growing up in the 1950s and 1960s looked like another world from the photos I saw of my dad’s youth, even though it was just a couple decades later. I moved away from Miami in 1971, but returned periodically, each time to be disturbed by the visual change. I remember coming back one time to find tall Norfolk Island pines filling the sky, something that was empty in my childhood. Another time I was shocked by flocks of loud screeching parakeets careening in the air alienating old memories. The last time I returned, after Hurricane Andrew, all the Norfolk Island pines had been knocked down and the skyline was big and empty again, like I remembered from the 1960s.

I get the weirdest urges to see things that require research to sooth a kind of visual angst. I’ve been going further and further back in time looking for albums to play on Spotify. I know the LP first came out in the late 1940s, and before that music was sold on 78s. The trouble is I’ve seen very few 78 records, and they rarely had covers. Most were just in paper sleeves. I’ve seen a few 78 albums that had a cover with several pages of paper record sleeves, but I think those came out in the 1950s after LPs but before the demise of the 78. This has made me wonder, when did cover art come to albums?

Record stores in the 1960s and 1970s had their look, as did the LP covers, then CDs came in and records stores and album covers morphed into a different look. Then record stores disappeared and I forgot about them for years, and now they are coming back, with LPs again, so now in my 60s record stories look like they did in the 60s. That’s a weird sensation that I don’t often get to feel.

For some reason I ache to see what records stores looked like in the 1940s and early 1950s, and maybe the 1930s. I listen to music from that era on Spotify, but I have no idea what it would have looked like to shop for those songs and albums when they came out. I wish I had thought to ask my parents before they died.

If I collected old records, that might quinch some of my visual thirst, but not completely. I’ve reached an age where I want to downsize everything. I still love exploring old music, which I do with Spotify, but I don’t want to collect old records. Spotify does little to let me virtually visualize collecting records from the past, and I dislike that. It’s one thing to recreate the music digitally, but there was so much more to music than just the music.

I’ve seen photographs of old guys with their 78 collections, with shelves and shelves of discs in boring brown paper covers. I suppose that’s why I generally only see the round record labels in histories of music before the LP. It must have been pretty dull shopping for music back when my parents were growing up in the 1920s and 1930s.

I’m not sure my parents were into music. We never had a radio or record player before Becky and I got one for Christmas in 1962. The only time I heard music before that was when I rode in the car. My father did all the driving and he hated when I’d messed with the radio, but I loved listening to rock n’ roll in the late 1950s. I didn’t even know what music was, but it intrigued me in big way. My parents did like crooners on TV. My father favored Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and my mother dug Nat King Cole and Perry Como, but they never bothered to buy their records.

Still, as I play the early albums of Sinatra, King Cole Trio, Doris Day, I wonder what it would have been like to shop for their music in the 1940s, in those years before I was born in 1951. My earliest memories of Miami 1955-1960 looked different from Miami of 1960-1965. Partly, because we moved around, partly because the cars and clothes changed enough to really notice, and partly because Miami began to grow — fast. I’ve seen old movies that were set in Miami. I don’t know if they were staged in Hollywood, or actually used exterior shots. But I never saw any films, and few photos of people in record shops. What I have seen suggests people didn’t flip through bins of albums. However, I expected 1945-1955 Miami to have looked very different. I hunger to see that too, like I hunger to see old record stores and albums.

Today and yesterday I’ve been playing Doris Day and King Cole Trio from the late 1940s and early 1950s. I know some of the songs were first published on 78s, but so far I don’t think Spotify presents 78-album collections. What I’m finding are early LPs repacking of 78 recordings. It’s like I’ve reached a geologic layer in music history. Spotify recreates the era of LPs but not the earlier era of 78-albums. As far as I know, Spotify doesn’t try to recreate 78 (or 45?) singles (A-side and B-side) either, but it does have some EP collections.

ca. 1950s, USA — Record Store — Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

What Spotify presents is pretty much what’s been sold as CDs for the past several decades. For the most part, all those songs from earlier LPs and 78s have been reissued, remastered or repackaged over and over again.

Sometime in the 1940s, I’m guessing, record companies started adding cover art to albums. This essay was my quest to find out. I assume single discs (singles?) still came in brown paper sleeves. Then in 1948 Columbia introduced the LP, and in 1949 RCA Victor released the 7″ 45 rpm single. Evidently, that was when cover art finally began to catch on in a big way. For some reissues on Spotify, I see the original LP art. Like I said, some 78 rpm albums had cover art, but evidently not many, and I haven’t encountered it on Spotify.

For example, this is Doris Day’s first LP album from 1949, but her discography shows she had many hits before then. Her 1945 breakthrough song was “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. The flip side was “Twilight Time” and it was on a 78. What did that record look like? All I can find is this:

I’m sure 78 record collectors have a special fondness for labels and see great diversity and beauty in them, but they don’t visually thrill me like 12″ LP covers. I can’t imagine the act of record shopping in that era had the same visual impact I had during all those years of pawing through bins of LPs.

The King Cole Trio 78 album from 1944 had four 10″ discs and did have a cover with art. This proves some 78 records came with covers, but how many? When did the process start?

I’ve tried to find more examples, but it’s work. It’s disappointing that Spotify doesn’t recreate 78 records and albums, and show their original artwork, or a brown sleeve and disc label. I can simulate a 78 album by making a playlist, checking Discogs for the original track listing, and then assembling the songs. A lot of old songs are repackaged over and over again into various LPs collections. It would help if Spotify had a column for date released.

For example, Spotify doesn’t offer The King Cole Trio album above, which was the first Billboard #1 album. There were three followup albums #2-4. It appears Spotify offers some or all of their songs on The Nat King Cole Trio – Complete Capitol Transcription Sessions. So I can enjoy that music from the 1940s, but not in the order it appeared on the four album sets.

I did find The Great 78 Project at Archive.org. And it has The King Cole Trio albums, but with way too many tracks. Mostly different versions with different recording settings, but that confuses the feel of listening to how the album’s songs would have been originally arranged/ordered on the discs.

In my research to find covers from 78 albums I did find Guity Novin’s A History of Graphic Design: The Online Textbook with “Chapter 72: A History of Record Covers.” Novis claims Alex Steinweiss produced the first album cover in 1939 for Columbia Records. From that clue I found, “Alex Steinweiss and the World’s First Record Cover.” And that led me to this:

Persistence pays off. From that article there are numerous clues to pursue to continue my research. There’s even a whole art book devoted to Alex Steinweiss. But this essay is getting too long, so I shall continue it some other time in some other way.

JWH

Playing All The Albums I Never Bought

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 27, 2020

A subscription to Spotify allows me to play all the albums I never purchased. For example, I called up “The 100 Best Albums of the 1970s” from Pitchfork and saw that back in the day I had bought 37 albums on their list — meaning I missed 63 great LPs.

That includes their #1 pick, Low by David Bowie from 1977. Over the years I have bought several David Bowie albums but somehow I completely missed that one. Not only did Pitchfork think Low the best David Bowie album of the era, but the best album by anybody for the decade. So I played it this afternoon, and their #4 pick There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly and the Family Stone.

I liked both of those albums. I’ll probably play them again, but I bet I would have liked them more if I had bought them when they came out. Music is a product of the times, so my first listening of these old albums is more like time traveling than listening to new music, especially when I read about them now. It’s like studying art history.

Paste Magazine had a whole different take on “The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s.” Low by David Bowie came in at #34. Their #1 pick was Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, which I did buy back then (and later on CD, and finally on SACD). Blood on the Tracks was and is a fantastic album for any decade.

I had owned 42 of the 70 albums on the Paste Magazine list. Probably, that’s due to buying popular albums. I’m sure hundreds of albums, if not thousands came out during the 1970s. I wonder how many I could play now that I’ve never heard and they would be as good or better than those I bought and loved back in the 1970s? In fact, could I have hated albums back then that I would love now?

If you look at the Best Ever Albums site for the 1970s, which appears to rank albums by sales and weeks on charts, you see a whole different view of the decade. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd comes in at #1, and of course, it’s one of the best selling albums of all time. Like Blood on the Tracks I bought it on first on LP, then CD, and finally SACD. Now I just stream it when I think about hearing it.

Low came in at #16 on this list. Pitchfork and Paste Magazine lists have a lot of overlap, but each found favorites the other didn’t. I wonder if I took the time to listen to a few hundred albums from the 1970s, what would my Top 100 be?

My actual favorite albums of the 1970s was, and still is, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. It came in at #20 on the Best Ever Albums list.

Looking at all three lists shows many popular albums I missed discovering back then, and never stumbled upon in the following decades. Oh, there were many albums, such as those by Genesis or The Clash that I missed when they first came out but I eventually bought in later decades. Overall, I missed stacks and stacks of supposedly great albums.

We never absorb all of pop culture. Narrow tastes and limited opportunity keep us from experiencing the complete spectrum of art in its time. Streaming music lets us rectify those limitations if we want. I shunned Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday as a teen for being too the 1960s, but now that I’m old, they are wonderfully timeless.

With Spotify I can now play almost everything from these three lists. Yet, I wonder if my current reaction would be anything like my 1970s response? Every week I’d spend hours in record stores flipping through bins of albums looking for just the right ones to buy. My financial situation limited me to one or two a week, although if I was without a girlfriend or dope I’d sometimes buy three or four. I frequently joined and quit record clubs to game their system and periodically acquire shipments of a dozen new albums. And I often bought or traded albums with friends. So for some peak months, I might hear 30-40 albums.

I used to have this fantasy about burglarizing a big record store and taking one of every albums. Try imagining the logistics of such a heist. With Spotify I don’t have to daydream about stealing albums, although it looks like the system of streaming music is now doing the thieving.

It’s a shame recording artists aren’t paid properly for us to legally listening to those millions of albums. I feel guilty I get so much pleasure for my $10 a month, and all the artists don’t get to become rich stars like they hope and dream. I’m not going to quit Spotify, but I do wish the system could be changed so music creators could their fair share.

Artists now get a tiny sliver of a penny for each time we play one of their songs. I can’t believe they don’t even get a whole goddamn cent. I believe the streaming services should charge us $2.99 a month for accessing their service, and then charge us a penny a song that would completely go to the artists, musicians, and publishers. I believe the split should be one-third to the composers, one-third to the performers, and one-third to the publishers. And the new deal should supercede any previous contracts. I hate that all those great session musicians of the past aren’t earning income from the music I play every day.

JWH

War and Peace – Book v. TV

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Last night I binged watch the first four episodes of the 8-part mini-series War & Peace put out by the BBC in 2016. This is notable, at least for me. In the past year, I’ve been having a terrible time focusing on TV. Every evening I try out several TV series and movies hoping to find something to hook me. I rarely succeed. I quit most shows after just a few minutes, even the ones I feel are high-quality and interesting. I don’t know if my mind is deteriorating, or I’ve just become jaded with TV. I wrote about it here.

Now, and then, I do find a show my mind will latch onto, and War & Peace was one. Strangely, the other two that I can remember at the moment were Sanditon and Black Sails. This makes me wonder if my mind has a thing for literary-historical stories. But don’t think my taste is all high-brow, I also got hooked by Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein not long ago, and it’s quite low-brow. I never can predict what my mind will settle on.

It’s funny, but while watching War & Peace last night I thought Tolstoy might be the Jane Austen of Russia, even though he was a contemporary of Dickens. Austen’s stories often referred to the Napoleanic Wars, and since watching War & Peace involves a lot of scenes with fancy dress balls, whispered marriage intrigue, socializing by candlelight in manor houses, servants in elaborate outfits, and riding around in elegant coaches during those war years with Napolean, watching War and Peace feels very much like watching Jane Austen.

I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich but have been intimidated by its size and reputation. I’ve probably read less than twenty foreign-language translated novels in my life, sticking primarily to books from the English speaking world. For the last couple of decades, I’ve tried to read one 19th literary classic each year, and every once in a while throw in a European classic. Mostly, these reads have been from England. Seeing War & Peace offered on Hulu last night tempted me. I figured it might get me interested in reading the novel, and it did, but for a strange reason.

As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, “How can a six-hour TV production do justice to a novel that runs 55-74 hours on various audiobook editions?” After finishing the second episode, I was so curious to know that got up and bought an ebook and audiobook edition of War and Peace to compare. Luckily, Amazon offered a deal I couldn’t resist, buy the 99 cent ebook edition, and they would sell me an audiobook edition for $1.99.

I didn’t immediately jump on the offer. I’m very picky about audiobook narrators and book translators. I went to Audible and tried the samples from four different versions of the novel, and the Amazons Classic edition on sale did indeed have the narrator I liked best. I then found and read “What’s the best translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy?” The translation for the Amazons Classic edition was by Aylmer and Louise Maude, and it came in number two on their list. Their number one choice was by Anthony Briggs but it didn’t seem to be available at Audible. So I bought the deal. I figure if I fall in love with the book I’ll eventually buy the Briggs translation.

Before I started episode three, I listened to the chapters of the novel that covered the first episode, especially Anna Pavlovna’s party. The show had tried to cover much of what was in the novel, at least in introducing the characters, setting, action, plot, and relationships. Sure it conveyed the essence of the story, but was it really Tolstoy’s story? It left out all the background information, and the actors sometimes didn’t match the descriptions of the characters they played. Is it important for actors to look like their literary descriptions?

Tolstoy’s omniscient point-of-view gives us so much about the characters’ motivations, but the television show just ignores that content. On the other hand, the show gave me gorgeous visuals, ones my mind’s eye would never imagine. And that brings up other things to ponder. Did all the clothing, uniforms, hairstyles, furniture, table settings, houses, etc. all actually look like their early 19th-century Russian counterparts? But then book readers, what do book readers imagine in their heads? Is it anything like Tolstoy imagined when writing his story?

Wikipedia has several helpful guides, including: “War and Peace characters order by appearance” — an invaluable cheat-sheet of who’s who as they show up in the story, with links to entries for the historical characters, often with photos or paintings. There is also an entry listing characters alphabetically. And, this Google search by image provides many valuable links. I wish this War and Peace family tree was in English.

War and Peace family tree

Watching War & Peace has convinced me to read War and Peace. It’s also making me want to look at other movie and television versions, as well as try reading different translations into English. I consider visual presentations to be another kind of literary translation. I also thought this when I read Anna Karenina and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, researching both their novel translations and their various visual presentations.

It looks like War and Peace will be my classic novel for 2020. Well, what the heck, the pandemic is giving us all plenty of time to try those big novels we’ve always meant to read.

JWH

 

 

 

Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 27, 2020

Psychically, our nation, our world, has made an abrupt U-turn. The stock market was soaring, unemployment was at an all-time low, and everyone was running around the planet doing everything they dreamed. We thought we had a handle on the future. Then BAM! Now we’re all huddled in our homes fearing the grim reaper and hoarding ass-wipes. (Of course, this ignores all the other forms of endless suffering so many humans were already combatting.)

We all want to get back to those tomorrows we were planning just a few weeks ago. I imagine the emotional reactions to the pandemic vary greatly, especially by age. I am 68, going to turn 69 this year, and I was already feeling oddly emotional about getting close to my seventies. The growing aches and pains of aging, as well as the deterioration of my various organs and digestive system, was already leading me into gloomy thoughts about the future. Running out of time has become more and more inspirational, but when the plague hit, that emotion went into hyperdrive.

We are experiencing something very new and different. It’s not that humans haven’t been on the brink before, or that we don’t think about it often, but we’re getting to feel it for ourselves in a very intimate way. Last night I watched the first episode of The War of the Worlds on Epix, where billions of humans are wiped out by invading aliens. I’ve read books and seen shows about apocalyptic events countless times in my life, but watching this one last night felt more realistic than ever before. The worse this pandemic gets the harder it will be to vicariously enjoy fictional apocalypses in years to come. The Great Depression and WWII inspired a lot of fluffy fun films in the 1930s and 1940s.

We still don’t know what this plague will bring. It could be over in weeks, months, or years. We don’t know how many lives it will terminate, how it will change the economy, or how it will alter our future daily outlooks. Essentially, it’s fucking with our sense of the future. What I love, and I imagine most of my fellow humans do too, is normalcy. We want orderly lives that we can control and predict. Remember, “May you live in interesting times” is a curse. Sure, there is a percentage of the population that are thrill-seekers, but most of us are not.

I was already stressed out for political reasons. The plague has both trumped Trump and swept away the 2020 election. I realize if I had the psychic energy I would ignore both and get on with my plans. I can pursue all my old ambitions at home while sheltering in place. But the dark clouds of rapidly shifting futures disrupt my thoughts. I assume they do you too.

If I was Yoda I suppose I could separate thinking from my emotions, but I’m not. The fear of being put on a ventilator keeps me from mentally seeing straight. And the fear of Donald Trump being elected a second term still eats away at my sense of wellbeing. If I had Zen Master mind-control I’d phase out these psychic ripples caused Covid-19 and Trump and get on with business. Unlike Trump, I don’t think we should all plan to go out by Easter. On the other hand, until the virus grabs me, I don’t think I should sit around and wait for it either.

The reality is I’ve already got other age-related health problems. Worries about the pandemic just exacerbate them. My health is easily disturbed by disruptions in my diet, exercise, sleep, and thinking. That wasn’t true, or not apparently so when I was younger. All of this leads to the realization that controlling my emotional reactions to the daily news is vital to my health. At 68, staying positive is critical. Fearing the future is just as dangerous as actual viruses. What we want is to act on the now to bring about desired futures, rather than wait in the now for scary futures.

When I was young I used to tell people I never worried about getting old because I didn’t fear wrinkles and going bald. I thought being old was all on the outside. I never imagined the psychic components of aging. What getting old is teaching me is the breakdown of consciousness is scarier than the breakdown of the body. Of course, they go hand-in-hand, but ultimately we need to fight for mind over matter.

What the plague is teaching me is how positive emotions are tied to our planning. And experiencing a plague later in life combines two very similar storms of emotions. I used to think I was like Mr. Spock, all intellect and no emotion. That delusion was possible when I was young, healthy, and society was stable. But looking back, I realize society was seldom stable.

I have a hard time imagining how the young are reacting to the pandemic mentally and emotionally. Do their youth overpower their fears, or do their fears undermine their youth? I am too distant from them psychically to empathize. I assume it’s quite a trip being laid on them.

I live in the American South and all the reports tell us we’re next in line for major pandemic growth. Ignoring that is hard. The older I get the more I envy robots. Being a conscious mind on top of a soup of chemical and biological reactions is a razor’s edge of a tightrope to walk. The idea of just having discrete circuits and powerful fast emotion-free thinking is so damn appealing.

The reality is I’m not a robot, nor am I Yoda, and I’m definitely not a Zen Master, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so. I also feel sorry for all the people who have faith in prayer or Donald Trump’s reality avoidance systems. Our emotions have a hard time when hard reality canes us viciously about the head and shoulders.

JWH