How Important is Screen Size to Television Watching?

by James Wallace Harris, Mondy, June 11, 2018

Some people love watching movies on their smartphone even though those film premiered on IMAX screens using Dolby Atmos speakers. Evidently, the essential quality of a film is in the storytelling. Television viewers used to watch widescreen Technicolor movies on nineteen inch black and white sets and still enjoyed them immensely.

So why should I worry about upgrading my TV to a larger screen and better sound?

Last night I watched a 1957 western, Night Passage, on a 56″ DLP television via a local over-the-air station called Grit TV. I had recorded it with my TiVo and it cut off the last few seconds. Luckily, I had a DVD copy to watch the ending. When I played the disc I was startled to discover this old western was in 2.35:1 widescreen and the color levels were completely different. When watching the over-the-air version, it didn’t feel like the aspect ratio of 4:3 of old TV pan and scan, because the frame was more rectangular. It had been cropped to be slightly widescreen in appearance.

Below is my way of faking what I’m talking about. I wish I could provide real screenshots, but this is close. I just cropped a widescreen scene with Brandon De Wilde and Jimmy Stewart to 400 x 300 pixels and converted it to black and white to imagine what 1950s TV might have been like (it would have been fuzzier). The second is a photo I found that feels more like the Grit TV version. I assume the third photo is the right aspect ratio.

Night-Passage-fake-4to3

Night Passage cropped

Night Passage widescreen

The thing is, I enjoyed the heck out of seeing this movie again. I especially enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The first time I watched this film was on a black and white television set — and I love it then too. I always remember it as a black and white movie even though it’s in color because of first seeing it on a black and white TV set. But when I looked at the DVD version, I felt like I had missed a significant portion of the film. The DVD widescreen view showed far more scenery, was much sharper and probably the color palette more accurate.

What artistic qualities do we miss from movies and television when we only focus on the storytelling? We could just read books instead if all we wanted was a story.

Would I have enjoyed the film more if I had watched the DVD from the beginning? I have dozens of my favorite westerns on DVD and Blu-ray, but quite often I watch them off of Grit TV. It’s just convenient.

I’ve been contemplating giving up the physical technology of CDs, DVDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray discs. 99% of the time I stream music or television. It would simplify my life if I got rid of all my discs.

I love the idea of minimalism, but what am I sacrificing by rejecting the higher resolution discs of my favorite movies, TV shows, and albums? For the most part, streaming music via Spotify isn’t that different from listening to CDs unless I’m concentrating. Streaming movies with Netflix and Amazon are almost as good as Blu-ray if I’m not concentrating.

Watching the DVD on my 56″ TV is probably as close as I can currently get to having seen Night Passage in the theater in 1957. That would be even truer if I had a larger television set. I assume the more I can recreate the cinematographer’s original vision, the more I can experience the original story to its fullest. But what are those extra dimensions beyond storytelling?

Visual and aural realism.

I was looking at TVs at Best Buy today, thinking I’d upgrade to a 65″ television. But my eyes loved the 75″ screens more, and I was blown away by an 83″ model. The bigger the screen, the more I felt like I was seeing reality. That’s also the difference between books and movies. Before movies, writers spent more words describing what readers would see. Such descriptions added realistic details. The better the author was at describing the world in details, the more readers felt like they were reading something based on truth.

Movies give verisimilitude to storytelling. The widescreen version of Night Passage made me feel Jimmy Stewart was actually in all those natural settings and not on a soundstage. When movies were black and white and had an unrealistic square aspect ratio, they were mostly filmed on sets and backlots. Those old films had a tinsel town feel. When we got Technicolor and widescreen, moviemakers went on locations around the world to give us more realism.

Would I experience art as more true-to-life if I built a home theater with a projector TV with a screen in the 100-120″ range? Probably. Is it needed? No. If I was watching a 4K nature documentary I’d certainly feel like I was there more than when watching a smaller set. It’s like when I play CDs and SACDs, I only hear the extra sound texture if I’m concentrating diligently.

It was when I watch a turtle swimming underwater on the largest sets a Best Buy that I noticed the details of the sand and plants it swam over. I then felt like I was there scuba diving. If I watched The Sweet Smell of Success, another 1957 film, I’d feel what it was like sitting in a glamorous smoky bar in New York City with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

If we watched Downton Abbey at an IMAX theater, the realism of the sets and costumes would be stunning compared to TV watching. Of course, when I tell my wife I want to get a giant screen television she thinks I’m crazy. Why spend so much more money when we already love our twelve-year-old 56″ television? Well, Susan isn’t a good judge of TV technology. She watches television while playing games on her laptop or using Facebook on her iPhone. She needs much less from a story to enjoy it.

The older I get the more I withdraw into my home. Our television set is the way we view the world and visual arts. Is it worth upgrading to 4K? If Night Passage was available on Blu-ray or 4K discs, should I buy them for that extra realism?

Should I give up over-the-air TV? MeTV shows old Perry Mason episodes cropped for modern widescreen TVs without any distortion. Perry never looked better. I tried to find a streaming version of Night Passage to compare, but it’s not available that way. Handmaid’s Tale is stunning to look at on a 56″ TV at 1080p, but what would it look like on a 75″ 4K set, or even projected to 120 inches?

Is wanting a humongous screen just crazy? I could give up all my high-resolution discs, and only live with convenient streaming on a modest 65″ television, but what would I be missing? I suppose someday streaming music and movies will have the same quality as discs and wall-size televisions will be affordable by all and we won’t have to worry about making such decisions.

JWH

 

 

 

Why We Need To Share

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 7, 2017

This morning while I was eating my breakfast I played “Your Top Songs 2017.” This is a playlist Spotify generated for me by collecting the songs I listened to most this year. If you subscribe to Spotify you can play the songs with this embedded player immediately below. For those who don’t, I’m going to embed some YouTube videos to try.

I played this music very loud while I ate and because it’s the music I love the most. It moves me in ways I can’t describe. And while this music pushed my emotional buttons I wished I had someone here to share it with. My friend Mike was my last pal who would listen to music with me, but his hearing has gone downhill so he no longer likes to share music. Getting old is sad. I worry that my hearing is going too.

The past year, more than ever, I realized that friendships are based on what we share. I think this is why Facebook is so popular. We post something we like and then see who else likes it. It’s always fun to find a video or cartoon that many friends love too. I guess it’s a kind of validation of our tastes. But I think it also allows us to feel we’re existing close to someone.

We all live in our heads, and no matter how physically close we get to another person we don’t feel that closeness unless we psychologically resonate. The easiest way to achieve this is to do something together with another person that shares our interests. For example, it’s far more enjoyable to go to a movie and both people love it than to go and only one person love the show.

I love the Bette Midler song above. I will relate to you more if you love it too. Now “Do You Want To Dance” is an easy song to like so I should find plenty of friends to share it. And “The Other Side” by Michael Nyman easily admired by most folks because it’s so pretty. But what about “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus. Mike and I connected on this song, but I don’t think I have another friend that shares this particular love.

Probably somewhere in the middle, I can find more people who will share “I’ll Play the Blues for You (Pts. 1 & 2)” by Albert King. Bette Midler’s song was pop music, so duh, that stands for popular music. Jazz is esoteric for most music fans, but blues has a decent following. I share a love of the blues with my sister Becky. I almost can’t play this Albert King song too loud.

Susan, my wife have a lot of songs we love together, but our playlists of favorite songs are very different. When we’re in the car we have to choose who’s songs get played. When a song she’s crazy about comes on and I don’t love it back Susan’s disappointed. The same is true when one of my favorites is playing and she finds it annoying.

Susan works out of town, so in the evenings I have different friends over to watch TV in the evening. Each friendship is a Venn diagram where we find what to watch in the intersection of interests. What’s really difficult is to have 3-4 people all trying to agree on a film to watch. It’s a very satisfying feeling when the pick makes four people happy.

However, there’s a range of television shows and movies I want to see that I can’t find a friend to share. This makes me feel lonelier. Even Janis, my main TV buddy goes to sleep on a many of the shows I’m most anxious to see. Generally, I have to watch westerns, documentaries, and old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s by myself.

Some of my most intense feelings come from songs, books, movies, and television shows. Often these deeply aesthetic pleasures come late at night when I’m alone. Listening to these songs this morning is generating intense emotions that I wish I could describe, but can’t. And I think that’s the key to why we want to share. We can’t describe what we feel so we at least hope to find someone to experience the same thing with us. Unfortunately, we can click the Like icon but we have no way of knowing if what our friends are feeling is the same thing we’re feeling.

Do any of these songs resonate with you?

JWH

‘Godless’ and the Western Movie Genre

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I grew up back in the 1950s watching old westerns on TV. Even though I took up reading science fiction in the 1960s and have always identified myself as science fiction fan, my favorite movie genre is westerns. I’m rather finicky about my westerns too. Although the 1950s and 1960s were the heydays of television cowboy shows, I prefer the cinema westerns from Stagecoach (1939) to Ride the High Country (1962) era. Starting with films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969) movie makers began to alter the genre. I liked these films, but they weren’t the same as the westerns I loved most and how I define the genre.

Too often today when they do make westerns, the level of violence is off the scale. We still get a quality western every few years. Open Range (2003), Appaloosa (2008), and True Grit (2010) are wonderful examples, even though their style has migrated away from how I define the classic western. But I find westerns like Quentin Tarantino’s two recent films grotesque insults to the genre. All too often, I just can’t watch the films called westerns today.

Godless - Alice Fletcher

Thus, I was both excited and a little worried when I first heard about Godless. I must say I enjoyed the series and raced through all seven episodes in days. However, I’m not sure what to make of it artistically, morally, and philosophically.

No work or critic can define a genre, but there are movies called westerns that completely distort what I consider to be the heart of the genre. Even during the 1950s, there were so-called westerns where characters rode horses and carried guns but their story’s soul belong to some other historical psyche.

Goddless Frank Griffin

As a kid, I grew up believing watching westerns taught me about American history. That made my black and white television screen a window to the past. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that every decade has a different view of the American West. How do you reconcile They Died With Their Boots On (1941) with Little Big Man (1970)? Godless (2017) gives us another view of 1888, but should we consider it insight into 1888 history, or just a thrill ride fantasy like West World (2016)?

Godless is full of horrendous violence with a hard-to-believe ending. I feel any good western should be true to the 19th-century even if it doesn’t chronicle historical events. I judge westerns by these criteria:

  • Do characters talk and act like their 1800s period counterpoints?
  • Do the costumes and sets look like the era they depict?
  • Could the plot have happened in the true west era?
  • Are the guns right for the period?
  • Is the level of violence appropriate for the times?
  • Is the story connected with history?
  • If the characters are based on real people how well are they portrayed?
  • Are there anachronisms in the sets, costumes, dialog, mannerisms, or plots?

Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) is an extreme character in Godless, especially since he thunders around the country with over thirty killers on horseback. But was Griffin more violent or crazy than William Quantrill or John Brown? Was the bizarre massacre of Creede, Colorado unrealistic when you think about Lawrence, Kansas of 1863? Also, Frank’s strange adoption by Mormons is based on the real Mountain Meadows massacre. (Although Frank looks too old to have fit the real timeline of history.)

My measuring rod for western violence is the gunfight at the O.K. Corral which took place in 1881. It was probably the most famous gunfight in the old west with nine combatants and three deaths. The most famous killing of the gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s involved seven deaths, and it was an execution and not a shootout. So when movies have their characters racking up huge body counts it moves away from being historical towards gun porn to thrill our prurient bloodlust.

Godless feels both realistic and unrealistic. I found it hard to believe Frank and his band of murderers traveled without pack horses and supplies. They looked kind of silly galloping across the land like a large anti-posse with one-armed Frank in the lead. It reminded me of Forty Guns when Barbara Stanwyck would lead 40 gunfighters on 40 horses faithfully riding behind her wherever she went. In both movies, the mass of riders looked silly, even overly melodramatic. Modern movies are always trying to out-do past movies. I’m surprised Frank did have 80 outriders. Maybe the makers of Godless hadn’t seen Forty Guns. The show would have been more realistic with just a dozen in Frank’s army. It certainly could have made the ending more realistic.

Overall I admired and enjoyed Godless. But the show kept bugging me with small distracting issues. Michelle Dockery had too many outfits for a poor woman living on an 1888 ranch, some of them much too fashionable. And she changed them too often. And even though I liked the idea of a town full of women fighting an army of outlaws, it seemed cartoonish. Their last stand reminded me of The Magnificent Seven, which is a western I love, but one that’s somewhat over-the-top. Godless goes way overboard. There were other small details that bothered me too, but mentioning them might give spoilers.

I wasn’t sure about the costumes. They seemed realistic at times, especially for the men. Westerns are always changing how the old west looked. Just compare True Grit (1969) to True Grit (2010). One reason I didn’t like 1960s TV westerns was everyone’s costumes seem too clean and store bought. I’ve always wondered if the wild west fashions of cowboy films of the 1920s and 1930s were more realistic because they were closer in time to the actual historical west. I keep looking for period photos for clues, but they are hard to come by.

1888 woman of the west

[Here is Mattie Lucas 1888 from Custer County, Nebraska.]

Finally, there’s the philosophical interpretation. Westerns are inherently about violence. Guns and gunfights are the solutions to western plot conflicts. I assume Frank and his gang represent evil and the citizens of La Belle represent goodness. But I’m curious how our politically divided country will see things. To liberals, Frank and his gang may remind them of gun nuts and mass shooters. Frank could be a stand-in for Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. To conservatives, Frank is a crazy Islamic fundamentalist with a gang of terrorists. They see La Belle as proof that people need to arm themselves. The film shows women with no gun training effectively using firearms to save themselves.

The love triangle between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), and Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) was unsatisfying to me. But the one between Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever) and Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer) felt logical. So did the one between Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula).

Godless - ranch

Law and the government are shown to be ineffective at protecting citizens in this story, as is in most westerns. Plus, the press is corrupt. A. T. Grigg (Jeremy Bobb) is the editor and reporter for the Santa Fe Daily Review and a publisher of fake news. Grigg reminds me of W. W. Beauchamp, the writer in Unforgiven (1992). I believe this is realistic though because newspapers back then printed pretty much what they felt like, and dime novelists invented the Wild West with tall tales.

Sean T. Collins over at AV Club has an episode-by-episode review of Godless, where he did a fair amount of nitpicking. I could see the faults he saw, but for the most part, they didn’t bother me. Collins gave most of the episodes a B or B-. I think I’d give the show a B+ overall. Godless isn’t Lonesome Dove, but it’s not far behind it as a western mini-series. I’d guess most fans would consider Lonesome Dove (1989) the gold standard of television westerns. I’d agree and also give Deadwood (2004-2006) an A+ too.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite westerns.

Recommended Reading

JWH

Blade Runner 2049 – The Evil of Heartless Sequels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Normally I don’t write “reviews” of works I dislike. Why waste time on bad art, huh? I prefer to promote creative work I admire. However, in trying to understand why I disliked Blade Runner 2049 I asked myself, “What did I love about the original?” It came to me instantly – the voiceover. In that moment I realized Harrison’s Ford narration in the original film was the heart of the story. That insight also explained why Ridley Scott detested the voiceover. The narration must come from a human, and Scott wanted Deckard to be a replicant.

Blade Runner 2049-2

Before seeing Blade Runner 2049 I watched Blade Runner (final cut) with a friend. I explained the history of all the versions to her and offered to show her whichever one she wanted. She picked the final cut. Normally, I always rewatch the theatrical version, which is how I first saw the film back in 1982. Whenever I see one of the director’s cuts the viewing is always a letdown. They have the same sterile quality Blade Runner 2049 has.

Blade Runner 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve, with the story by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. However, it feels like a Ridley Scott baby. Scott has always argued that Rick Deckard was a replicant and Blade Runner 2049 vindicates that idea to the point that I think of this film as an expression of his ideas.

Back in 2008, I wrote “Is It Time To Remake Blade Runner?” which was really a plea to film Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as the story was written by Philip K. Dick. I believe the book deserves a truer conversion to film than Blade Runner. I can’t document this, but I believe Ridley Scott bragged that he hadn’t even read the novel when making the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the original theatrical version of Blade Runner, but I don’t consider it very PKD.

When the screenwriters changed androids to replicants something else got changed. In the book, androids are soulless creatures who look like humans but completely lack empathy. They are self-aware but are also psychopathic sociopaths. I believe PKD intended them to be symbolic of inhuman humans. Blade Runner is about artificial creatures that were meant to be soulless slaves that have accidentally evolved empathy. We’re supposed to feel for them. And I did with the Harrison Ford voiceover.

Without the voiceover, both films are just action flicks of heartless machines killing heartless machines. Why has Riddley Scott never understood the Romeo and Juliet beauty of having a love story between lovers from two opposing houses? In Blade Runner 2049 we are taken on a meaningless thrill ride where it’s impossible to tell human from replicant – and I really didn’t give a shit either. There are a few touching scenes in Blade Runner 2049, but they are so artificial as to cause existential angst. At times we feel for K, our replicant protagonist, but the scenes are so obviously manipulating us that it’s hard to genuinely care.

In Blade Runner 2049 it becomes obvious the real problem is our lack of understanding of replicants. They are called skin jobs. That implies they are machines covered in skin. But that’s not true. In both movies, they bleed. In Blade Runner 2049 they seem to be artificially produced biological creatures that can’t reproduce on their own, and the goal of the mad scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is to create a Nexus model that is self-replicating. But what’s the fucking point of that? Humans are self-replicating, and we have plenty of them.

Wallace wants a new process to produce less costly slaves. The government obviously backs him as long as replicants don’t act like real humans. However, we also learn replicants have secretly organized into a slave rebellion. But why secret? What good is a secret mass-movement? Isn’t it obvious that replicants aren’t soulless machines?  Do any moviegoers feel the replicants aren’t equal to people? That makes the whole point of the film a straw man argument. Truly pointless. It’s funny, but Jared Leto’s character is the most inhuman character in the film and he’s supposed to be human. Or will Ridley Scott pull another juvenile joke and claim everyone in this film was a replicant.

Our world is full of robotic slaves now. They don’t have consciousness. They don’t look human. They lack any kind of consciousness. A major theme of science fiction has always been about when robots become conscious. Generally, these science fictional robots are shown as looking human. I guess SF writers assume we can’t empathize with them if they don’t look like us. By the way, the film Her did a fantastic job of overcoming this problem.

We’ve always wanted to build robots that look like us, and that’s a problem. We want them to do our work, but we worry about robots becoming self-aware as us. If they do, we can’t keep them as slaves, and we fear they may become better than us. The TV show Humans is exploring this same topic. The trouble is Blade Runner 2049 adds absolutely nothing to this topic. The film only confuses the issues in its razzle-dazzle. It lacks both a heart and a brain. Almost every character is violent and action-oriented.

Blade Runner 2049

PKD’s original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t about action. His androids are conscious, self-aware beings that lack empathy. Rachel is alluring and beautiful, but a cold-blooded killer. Dick’s theme wasn’t robot suffrage. PKD believed the androids in his story deserved to be destroyed because without empathy they are evil, and in doing so infers that humans without empathy are evil too. PKD’s story wasn’t about killing androids but identifying inhuman humans.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is vastly more complicated than Blade Runner. If I could film it I would give it the look of 1959 films, because I believe PKD formative decades were the 1940s and 1950s. Its future setting would be very retro-future. It would have the Penfield mood organs and Mercerism. And the story would focus on philosophy and psychology rather than fights and shooting. The film must keep Iran, Deckard’s wife. And it needs the fake police station, having Deckard doubt himself, and eventually proving he’s human. And it needs the artificial religion of Mercerism.

Blade Runner leaves so many fascinating concepts out from the original novel. First off, Rick Deckard isn’t a tough-guy like Harrison Ford, but a married man trying to save his marriage. Their livelihood depended on the bounty from killing androids. The novel opens with their marital squabbling, and the use of mood organs. Mood organs are personal devices for controlling psychological states. People in this future use them to subtly control how they interact with other people, cope at home and work, and explore hundreds of emotional states. PKD uses this imaginary device to dissect human nature. The book is stuffed with observations about what it means to be human. Blade Runner uses none of that. PKD was obsessed with psychiatry, psychology and philosophy and his stories constantly explore those subjects. The Blade Runner movies only faintly hint at the issues PKD brought up in endless ways.

Blade Runner 2049 does not define humans or replicants. We can’t tell them apart. In fact, the evil scientist who creates the replicants acts like a heartless AI, and K, the Ryan Gossling character, who we know is a replicant, when left alone is humanly hung up on an AI girlfriend (who may be a future descendant of Alexa).

Blade Runner 2049 fails horribly if you need a human story. For moviegoers who love eye candy, violence, and a rollercoaster plot, you’ll probably be happy enough.

What’s evil is trying to make millions by making a movie that lacks heart, based on a novel that struggles to define our hearts. Seems kind of heartless, don’t you think?

Blade Runner 2049 is chock full of touchstone analogs from the original Blade Runner. That felt manipulative like Ridley Scott wanted to push our emotional buttons as if we were replicants. Did he expect us to emotionally resonate with air hoses being pulled out, yucky eyeballs, pianos, giant billboards animated with Japanese women, microscopic photo scanning machines, bicyclists riding in parallel formation, machines that measure artificial minds, old abandoned apartment buildings, drinking whiskey from squarish glasses, women dressed like 1970s hookers, giant pyramid-shaped buildings, flying cars, sentimental photographs, umbrellas and rain, and so on.

Everything in Blade Runner 2049 seems set-up for additional sequels, but like his Alien franchise, they will probably continue to abuse the original. I’ve gotten so I hate sequels to books and films. There are few exceptions, but for the most part, sequels feel like they are conning me for my money.

JWH

 

Why Do I Love Old Black and White TV Shows and Movies?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Normally I watch the latest hit TV shows, usually on Netflix, HBO, or Amazon Prime. Generally, I watch these shows with friends. I’ve gotten so I don’t like watching TV alone. However, when I do, it’s because I’m too tired to do anything else and it’s too early to go to bed. When I’m alone I’m drawn to old black and white television shows, movie westerns from the 1950s and old Hollywood movies from the 1930s. Why do I prefer black and white shows? Why do I save shows in color for when I’m with friends?

MeTV got me hooked on two old TV series this month, The Fugitive and The Outer Limits. Both shows premiered in 1963. As a kid, I discovered The Outer Limits when the first episode aired. It ran on Monday nights at 7 on ABC. My father loved The Fugitive which came out on Tuesdays on ABC at 10 pm. I watched it some back then but didn’t really care for it. I generally hated the TV my folks loved. I don’t know if that was rebellion or I was just too young for the content.

I have a hard time remembering my dad being home, but he loved TV, and he liked it best when us kids weren’t around. There was nothing on Tuesdays at 10 my sister Becky and I wanted to see, so we left him alone to watch The Fugitive in peace. A half-century later, I’m staying up late watching The Fugitive alone like he did. I wonder if that gives me any kind of psychic connection to how my father felt?

Fugitive

Becky and I were horrible TV hogs. We’d have huge shouting matches with our dad on Sunday nights during the 1966/67 season when we pleaded to watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and he fought to see Bonanza, his favorite western. I loved westerns too, but not Bonanza or The Virginian, my mother’s favorite cowboy show. Gunsmoke was my TV shoot-em-up. I don’t think Becky ever liked westerns, but I should ask her the next time she calls.

This year I’ve also bought the first seasons of Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Route 66, and Cheyenne. I bought the complete series of The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray and The Fugitive on DVD. I’m thinking about buying Perry Mason and Maverick.

Route 66

I used to hate Perry Mason, which was my mother’s all-time favorite TV show. She also loved to read the Perry Mason mysteries. But for some reason this year, I started watching them on MeTV. I liked that it was in black and white and sometimes featured street scenes of the early 1960s. That’s why I bought Route 66 because it was filmed on location, viewing 1963 America in contrasty black and white.

 

At the start of the 1963 TV season, we were living on Homestead Air Force Base. I started the seventh grade at Redlands Junior High in South Florida, when I was eleven. After a few weeks, we moved back to Hollywood, Florida, and I attended my second 7th-grade school, but I forgot its name. I thought it was Broward Junior High, but I can’t verify that on the internet. I was in class at that school when they announced over the PA that JFK had been shot. Three days later I turned twelve. After that, we moved to South Carolina, where I went to my third 7th-grade school, John F. Kennedy Junior High.

The Outer Limits

Memories of 1963 represent living in two states and three schools, and for some reason the 1963/64 television season also vividly sticks in my mind. I started regularly listening to rock music at the end of 1962 when I got an AM clock radio for Christmas. I became much more aware of the world around this time. It was during that time period I became a bookworm, rock & roll fan, addicted to the boob tube, and started going to the movie theater on my own.

High Barbaree

I remember watching TV since I was four or five, probably with the 1956/57 television season. My family didn’t get a color television set until 1965, so my first decade of TV was in glorious black and white. All my life I’ve loved old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s. I wonder if that’s because I spent my formative years viewing a B&W TV screen? My earliest memory of my father is waking up in the middle of the night when I was four, and walking out to the living room to find my dad watching an old movie on television. He let me stay up and watch it with him. This is my first memory of television and the first movie I ever remember seeing. I didn’t discover until years later it was High Barbaree (1947) with June Allyson and Van Johnson.

Why now? Why has my mind started craving old black and white TV shows again, ones from long ago? Is it just nostalgia? Is it a way of communing with my dead parents. And isn’t it odd that I’m not watching the shows I loved as a kid but prefer seeing the ones my parents watched when I wasn’t around?  I still can’t stand Bonanza or The Virginia. Both of those shows insult my sense of what a western should be.

The other night my friends and I watched The Solid Gold Cadilac and I found it immensely pleasurable it was in wide-screen black and white. I can only remember a couple wide-screen black and white films at the moment, The Apartment and The Big Trail, both of which I have on Blu-ray. It’s a shame B&W wide-screen didn’t catch on back in 1930.

Am I drawn to the black and white, or to the period content? I don’t know. I’m not sure I would like The Fugitive as much if it had been in color for its first three seasons. For some reason, I’ve never liked the remakes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits which were made in color. And the only horror movies I enjoy are the classics from the 1930s which were in black and white.

I wonder if nostalgia comes in black and white and modernity in technicolor? The 1950s were definitely a black and white decade to me, even though I have some personal photographs to prove it was indeed in color. I wonder if kids who have always lived with color TV ever think of the past in black and white? Were my formative years corrupted by black and white TV sets? Will children today remember the world in LCD/OLED imagery? How would my consciousness of the past be today if I had never seen a TV, movie or computer screen, or photograph of any kind? Would I even conceive of black and white?

The world does turn black and white in low light, or when you’ve had way too much to drink. But now that we preserve the past digitally in color, will that eventually eliminate an appreciation of viewing reality in grayscale?

JWH

 

 

 

How Much Time Do You Spend Consuming Pop Culture?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 24, 2017

In past centuries, living left little free time. Survival was all time-consuming. Twelve-hour workdays were the norm once. Few people had time for hobbies or pursuing pop culture. And if we weren’t working we were raising families or maintaining our little castles.

Times have changed. The work week keeps getting shorter. More people choose not to have kids or even marry. Some people spend as much time watching TV as working. And a lot more people are retired or unemployed. Probably, if you’re not depressed, strung out on drugs, or chasing someone to have sex with, you’re consuming popular culture with all that extra time.

Pop culture

How many hours a week do you spend reading, watching television, going to the movies, listening to music, binge-watching the internet, looking at comic books, going to museums, attending plays, or any other popular pursuit reported on by Entertainment Weekly? And what about video games? Or VR? Are they pop culture or something new?

Are the hours starting to add up? Is mass consumption of pop culture good or bad? I really don’t know. As a retired person I realize most of my time is occupied with pop culture pursuits. I’d like to think I’m consuming art, that I’m psychologically imbibing in the most creative cuisine our culture offers. Is that true? I also like to believe I’m learning about the past through consuming popular culture from other eras. For example, how well can I understand the 1920s from reading Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wharton, Joyce, Lawrence, and Hemingway, listening to old jazz, watching silent films, look at art, and reading history books?

Would the time I spend on consuming pop culture be better spent on hobbies? TV watching and going to the movies are a big part of my social outlet. Music and reading are solitary pursuits. Hobbies are generally solitary too. I could get up every day and do something more productive than consuming art and writing about it.

Most biological beings spend most of their time looking for food, mating, rearing their young, and avoiding being prey to other biological beings. Isn’t it rather fascinating that humans excrete art and consume it? We used to say humans were the only animals that made tools – until we discovered a whole bunch of other tool using species. Then we said humans were unique because we have language. Well, we discovered that wasn’t true either. More and more we’re finding examples where animals play, have friends, and show curiosity. But do other animals create art? What about the bowerbird?

Satin-Bower-Bird-Nest

Is art tools we make to stimulate our minds? Or is art external remembrances we make for shared memories? Pop culture is art for the masses. Art used to be unique, a one of a kind piece. Pop culture depends on mass producing artwork that we like to share. Pop culture feels more nourishing to my soul than air, water, and food, although I couldn’t survive without them, and I could survive without pop culture.

Maybe I shouldn’t use the word soul. The soul doesn’t exist. It was a creative fiction of religion. (And couldn’t religion be the first pop culture creation?) Even though science cannot find any evidence for the soul, and philosophers have refuted its existence, we all feel we have one. Science shows we are not minds and bodies, but just bodies that are biologically programmed to react to our environment. So what is pop culture?

Pop culture is something we add to reality. Of course, we rearrange atoms and molecules that already exist to create art, but there is something new there. Yesterday I read “All the Animals that Love Touchscreens” and learned another way humans are not unique. Pop culture is something that even animals might perceive.

Pop culture is mass-produced art. But that also means it is art that can be saved and preserved. Pop culture artifacts remember aspects of our collective souls. There’s that word again. Religion is wrong about immortal souls. Nothing lasts forever. Neither we, our culture or our art will survive forever.

If you spend several hours a day watching television you’re consuming pop culture. Is it just a way to kill time. To distract you from life? Or do you value pop culture as an artistic achievement?

JWH

My Favorite Angels and Ghosts

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Have you ever wondered why you watch TV? It’s kind of weird to think about how much we stare at screens. Have you ever analyzed what actually entertains you? Last night I had a friend over to start watching season 5 of House of Cards. I had watched season 1 with her but she leaped ahead through seasons 2-4 without me. As we watched Frank and Claire Underwood I was horrified by the show. Those characters were as depressing as Donald Trump, and I’m definitely not entertained by him. Our current prez has turned me off to all politicians both real and imagined. Then I remembered the movie I had watched the previous night, about angels. Now that was entertaining. And, I don’t even believe in angels.

For-Heavens-Sake-1950-1I suppose it’s rather odd for an atheist to enjoy movies about angels, but I do. I had watched For Heaven’s Sake (1950) with a couple of friends. My friends weren’t aficionados of old movies, so it was kind of them to hang out with me while I had such a good time. I had first seen For Heaven’s Sake decades ago and remembered it mainly for one scene and concept. Back in 2008 when I wrote “Angels in the Movies” I remembered that unique take on angels and wanted to see it again. It wasn’t available. Years later I saw it was out on DVD but the price was too steep. I didn’t buy it, but the urge to see it lingered. The other day I was in the mood for an old movie and saw For Heaven’s Sake was two dollars off, and clicked the order button. It really wasn’t worth $18, but it was cheaper than three people going to the movies. And I laughed out loud a great deal during its 87 minutes, so it was entertaining.

Angel-aThe reason why I remembered For Heaven’s Sake all these years is its unique take on angels. (Of course, the most unique is Angel-A (2005).) For Heaven’s Sake is about a little girl (Gigi Pereau) and boy (Tommy Rettig) waiting to be born, and two angels (Clifton Webb and Edmund Gwenn) trying to assist them. Every movie about heaven, angels, and ghosts have a different theory about how the afterlife works. In this one, kids exist in heaven as angels or angel-like beings before they are born on earth. I thought that a neat idea. Sort of a version of reincarnation. However, seeing the film again last night I heard a line that suggests a problem. Evidently, little angels are created in heaven and begin aging before they are reborn in our realm. If they have to wait too long to make it to Earth they mentally develop in heaven. Clifton Webb tells the little girl she doesn’t want to become a child prodigy and compose music at age four as if that was something nasty.

Many anti-abortionists believe souls are conceived when human eggs and sperm hook up. This movie, as does the theory of reincarnation, suggests that souls exist before birth. Most scientists and philosophers have abandoned the concept of the soul. I like to use the word soul as a label of our sentient/self-aware mind, which I believe develops well after birth. Sentience is a difficult concept, especially if you think about animal rights and artificial intelligence. Stories about angels and ghosts are really speculation about non-human beings, souls, immortality, reincarnation, mind transfers, multiple dimensions, and other philosophical questions. They explore some of the same concepts that science fiction explores.

However, most movies about angels are light-hearted and fun, and this one was too. I tend to over psychoanalyze everything, but then that’s entertaining to me.

the-bishops-wifeThere’s a problem with angel movies. Originally, as told in The Bible, angels were another species of beings that existed with God before creation. Often angels are God’s henchmen, doing his dirty work – his enforcers.  In modern times people believe when you die you become an angel. I don’t know when that idea got started. Two movie classics, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947) seem to be in between on this idea. Clarence has to earn his wings, but he remembers Mark Twain.  Dudley remembers a lot of human history, but I’m not sure if it was from human experience.

Here Comes Mr JordonIn Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), are we dealing with angels, ghosts, or former humans now residents of heaven? The film has a hierarchy of bureaucratic workers who manage heaven and its potential residents. Are they angels? Maybe our culture has repurposed any occupant of heaven to be angels. Me, I prefer angels to be different from humans. Movies like Wings of Desire (1987) (remade in 1993 as City of Angels) have angels envying humans because we can experience things they can’t. Isn’t it ironic that we want to go to heaven, but angels want to come to Earth and live like us? I’ve always loved the title of this book PKD interviews, What If Our World Is Their Heaven. Even though there is great suffering on our planet, what if Earth is the hot destination for the advanced soul?

Mr. BrinkAnd what is Mr. Brink in On Borrowed Time (1939)? Is he death? Or an angel of death? Is he related to the specter of death in The Seventh Seal (1957)? I like Mr. Brink far better. He’s far more philosophical and worldly, and not a strange biblical creature that tags us out when our time is up. Death is played even more suavely by Fredric March in Death Takes a Holiday (1934). In it, Death envies us and tries out being human for a while. In For Heaven’s Sake, Clifton Webb the angel is corrupted by taking human form. Dudley, in The Bishop’s Wife, is also tempted to become human because of Loretta Young.

TopperIn the world of Topper (1937) Cary Grant gets to play a ghost. Strangely, he has some of the same powers as Dudley, the angel he played in The Bishop’s Wife. I think that might be why people are confused by ghosts and angels, they often have similar magical abilities in stories to teleport, appear and disappear, and watch people while invisible. Most of the time angels in movies don’t have wings, at least not like John Travolta in the 1996 film Michael. My favorite fun ghosts are Horatio Prim (Lou Costello) and Melody Allen (Marjorie Reynolds) in The Time of Their Lives (1946), where Abbott and Costello are separated by the veil of death. Do Horatio and Melody convert from ghost to angel when released from their curse?

I wonder why I love movies about angels so much? Generally, I’m not fond of fantasies. I prefer science fiction, but as I’ve written elsewhere, science fiction is a modern substitute for religion. When you think about it, religion, fantasy, and science fiction are fun forms of speculation about what’s possible in reality.

Which makes me wonder if House of Cards is too realistic? I loved Breaking Bad, which was also very realistic, and I cared about Walter White, even though he became a monster. Frank and Clarie are monsters I want burned at the stake. We switched from House of Cards to Better Call Saul and I immediately realized why I liked it better. I care about what happens to Jimmy McGill, Kim Wexler, and Mike Erhmantraut. I couldn’t care less about Frank and Claire. In every scene they were loathsome.

Maybe movies about angels are inherently likable because their stories are about caring about people. Angels are usually guardian angels in most stories. Maybe that’s why people like the concept of angels – they love the idea that someone is watching over them. (Of course, if you think about that, that’s an invasion of privacy. The next time you take a moment out for onanism, just think about what beings might be watching. It does help to be an atheist sometimes.)

I still don’t know why I love movies about angels. If you’re a perceptive reader you might have noticed that most of my favorite angel movies are old, and in black and white. If you’ve seen these films you know they have a certain feel. Maybe I just love the vibes of B&W 1930s and 1940s. I’m not sure I find that same vibe with modern shows. When we watched Big Little Lies I was caught up in the mystery and story, but I found the characters revolting, until the very end, when the show provided a feel good ending, and the characters became likable.

I wonder how Big Little Lies would have felt if it had one additional character, Dudley the angel from The Bishop’s Wife to help those women. Were we better people back in the 1940s?

I’m reminded of this quote from Abraham Lincoln:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Maybe just the idea of angels are the better angels of our nature. Frank and Claire Underwood have no better angels in their nature. And do we when we watch them? My wife has always hated many of the modern TV shows and movies I love because I like stories about complex characters which often means unlikable characters. As much as I hate Donald Trump, I’m sure even he has a better angel in him somewhere. However, watching the nightly news I wonder if all our better angels have flown away to another planet.

I recommend watching On Borrowed Time, a richly complex film, showing both our better angels and worse devils of our nature. And then ask yourself, “How much have we changed since 1939?” Maybe not that much. Is Mr. Smith Goes To Washington that much different from House of Cards? Our entertainment is more explicit, violent, and sexual – but have we really changed? Liberal philosophy has made us better people in many ways, more conscious of the diversity and equality of being fully human. And that’s often reflected in our entertainment.

I think something has been lost. I can’t say what. I believe conservatives are looking for it too, but their nasty belief that the end justifies the means suggests they have already lost their souls. What we watch on TV is revealing. Do people love House of Cards because they despise our government? It’s probably Pollyanna of me to suggest that what we watch does affect us.

Even though I’m an atheist maybe I love movies about angels because I believe humans could be more angelic, even without the fear of God.

JWH