Guest Star – Susan Oliver

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 7, 2018

Life is indeed full of little pleasures. Nowadays, I love watching old television shows, and it’s another small delight I can add to my daily total when I can recognize a character actor from the past. The other night I watched an episode of Route 66 with Susan Oliver guest starring. (“Welcome to Amity“- 1961:s1:e29). I had seen her a number of times lately on other old shows, including a two-parter on The Fugitive. (“Never Wave Goodbye” –  1963:s1:e4-5).

Susan Oliver made a career out of guest starring. Back in the early days of television audiences had no problem with guest actors appearing as different characters, and were usually allowed to appear in the same series once a year. Oliver was so well-liked by audiences that she appeared annually in many popular television shows, each time as a different character. Yes, Susan Oliver was strikingly attractive but more important, she always struck me as a tortured soul which uniquely revealed itself in every character she played. I never knew why until an odd incidence of serendipity.

I can’t tell you the first time I saw Susan Oliver, but I can tell you the last time. It was Wednesday night, December 5, 2018 when I saw her in that episode of Route 66. I remembered her name and face but I didn’t know anything about her history. Normally, I would have gone on to watch another show and forgot all about her for the moment. If by accident in the future I again caught one of her guest appearances I would have had another little spark of pleasure if I recognized her and remembered the Route 66 episode.

But something weird happened. It almost felt like The Twilight Zone music played. I clicked the Home button on my Amazon Fire and went to my watchlist. I don’t know why, but my eye immediately caught The Green Girl, a documentary I thought was about Star Trek. That appealed to me. I hit play. Then I discovered the documentary was really about Susan Oliver. That was spooky and fun.

I had completely forgotten that Susan Oliver had played Vina in the first Star Trek pilot that Gene Roddenberry had made in 1964. The film from that pilot was reused in 1966 to make a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” (s1:e11-12). I had seen “The Menagerie” when it first premiered on November 17, 1966. Vina might be Susan Oliver’s most famous role, and thus the title of the documentary. At one point, Vina appeared as a fantasy to Capt. Pike (this was before Capt. Kirk) as a dancing green alien woman. Susan Oliver’s green woman was also shown in the closing credits of the first season of Star Trek, making her famous to Star Trek fandom. I had completely forgotten that until seeing the documentary.

I was eight days from being sixteen when I first saw that episode of Star Trek with Susan Oliver. I thought she was beautiful then, but I didn’t memorize her name at that time. By then I had probably seen her in several television shows. Oliver was never famous, never had her own TV series, or became a movie star, but she appeared in almost countless television shows starting in the 1950s. She’s now haunting me because I’m watching all those old TV shows again.

The Green Girl is a wonderful 2014 tribute to Susan Oliver that tells her life story, interviews her friends and fellow actors, and shows clips from dozens of her performances. The documentary also chronicled her exploits as a competitive pilot. Oliver flew across the Atlantic solo and came in second in a cross-country race. As she aged she tried writing and directing but was thwarted because she was a woman. The Green Girl provides both a moving story about an ambitious young woman breaking into movies and television back when I was growing up and also reminds those of us who grew up back then of all the television shows we loved so much.

The Green Girl

When I was young I used to be frustrated with older folks when they didn’t know my favorite pop culture icons. I couldn’t understand how they could be so clueless to current famous people. Now that I’m old, I’m clueless about the identities of current pop culture favorites, and I realize I should have been more forgiving of my elders. I also wish now that I had memorized far more people back then. I feel bad in 2018 that I hadn’t become a dedicated fan of Susan Oliver in the 1950s, memorizing her name and following her career until she died.

This is kind of weird, maybe even spooky too, but for some unfathomable reason, I’m drawn to my pop culture past. I do love modern TV. For example, I’m crazy about The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel. But I can’t tell you who plays Mrs. Meisel. I’m not even going to make the effort to look it up – I’d only forget it. Why aren’t I memorizing all the details of current pop culture? I don’t even try. I don’t even feel guilty for not knowing. But it is important to me to keep up with the trivia of the 1950s and 1960s. Why?

When Susan Oliver shows up in an old TV show it brings me a little pleasure. Recalling the character actors names in shows I haven’t seen for decades gives me a twinge of happiness. And it’s not like the present doesn’t also bring pleasure. I really, really love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It gives me great happiness. Much more than watching old favorite TV shows. Yet, I feel no need to memorize the names of its actors. Why?

It feels like I’m giving up on the present because I enjoy the past more. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but then I don’t care either. I used to wonder why old guys wore orange plaid slacks with red paisley shirts. Now I know it’s because they are old and have an “I don’t give a shit” attitude about everything. (Although I’m quite thankful I don’t have the urge to wear plaid and paisley together. If I did, I would.) For some reason, it’s more important to remember trivia from the old days than it is to remember facts about the present.

If you feel that way, then I bet you’ll love watching The Green Girl.

JWH

 

Does Perry Mason Follow the Rules for Detective Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 29, 2018

In my last post, I wrote about becoming addicted to Perry Mason. The trouble is I’m not a murder mystery fan, so I’m clueless when it comes to analyzing the clues. I’ve never guessed whodunit while watching Perry Mason. In fact, I often feel cheated when the murderer confesses because it seems like the writers kept them mostly offstage, and Perry doesn’t give us the important clues until the end of the show when he’s explaining his logic to Della and Paul. We seldom see the murderer conviving.

Because Perry Mason won nearly all the 271 cases presented in the nine seasons of the show, I know not to suspect his clients. The show certainly would be a great deal more fun if Hamilton Burger won at least a quarter of the cases or even a third. By some accounts, Mason only lost three cases, but even those are iffy. Watching a formulaic story is comfortable sometimes, but annoying at other times.

The creative appeal of Perry Mason is the highly contrived murders. The other night I watch “The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse” which involved two women with the same name and looks. It featured a young actress Judy Tyler who had just made Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley that tragically died in a car accident not long after making the PM episode. The story was colorful and sexy, but highly contrived, while the murder and whodunit seemed more like an afterthought. In most episodes, the cleverness of how the victim was murdered seems to take a backseat to actually allowing the viewer a chance to solve the murder. To me, that’s breaking the rules.

Like I’ve said, I’ve had little experience with murder mysteries. I’ve read damn few of them, mainly a handful of novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’ve seen many more murder mysteries on television or at the movies, but I don’t seek them out. Now that I’ve got hooked on Perry Mason, I want to understand the art form.

I did find “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” by S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance mysteries. I tend to think the Perry Mason episodes often violates his rule number 10:

The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story–that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.

I have not read the Erle Stanley Gardner books, so I can’t claim it’s his fault or the television writers when the rules are broken. And part of the problem is Perry Mason isn’t a detective but a lawyer, but he seldom lets Paul Drake his hired detective do any detecting. Reading, “I Rest My Case: Perry Mason Still Rules in the Courtroom” by J. Kingston Pierce, I get the feeling that book Perry is very different from TV Perry.

Raymond Burr is the star of the show and he gets to do all the crime solving. Because half the show is usually in the courtroom, we get a mix of a detective story with a courtroom drama. Everything moves fast, and it often feels like the writers are pulling a sleight-of-hand trick at the end. This doesn’t keep me from watching, though. Maybe the appeal of the show is to recreate the logic in the post-show analysis.

I know Perry Mason is an extremely well-loved television show, but I think it could have been much better. I feel it often breaks the rules for writing detective fiction. It makes Perry invincible which makes Paul and Della feel like subservient pawns in Perry’s game. I think the stories would have been superior if Paul Drake had done most of the detective work and Della had been given more of her own skills to contribute. And the stories would have had far more depth if Perry lost one-fourth of his cases to a more cunning Hamilton Berger. Plus, I think Lt. Tragg should have outsmarted Perry some of the time too. In fact, I think it would have been thrilling if the viewer sometimes got to solve cases that Perry flubbed. Or even have murderers outwit Perry. It gets tiresome waiting for Perry do all his same old tricks in each episode. I haven’t seen many episodes after season three, so maybe things change. Or maybe someone will create a new Perry Mason series.

It’s tedious to have infallible heroes. I wished Perry Mason had broken its formula writing rules and followed more closely the rules for writing whodunits. Like I said, I’m just getting into murder mysteries. I’ll start taking notes and analyzing some of the more interesting Perry Mason cases. Maybe the clues are all there and the writers are on the up-and-up, and I’m just a terrible murder mystery solver. I need to prove my case that Perry Mason breaks the rules with more specific facts, which will require deconstructing some episodes in the future.

JWH

Why Am I Binge Watching Perry Mason?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Until the success of the VCR in the second half of the 1970s fans of television shows couldn’t just watch their favorite episodes whenever they wanted. I’m not sure people born after the DVR will understand that. In the early decades of television, a show premiered in its allotted time slot, and then a subset of that season got repeated in the summer reruns. You might fall in love with a particular episode and not get to see it again for decades.

Eventually, popular shows like I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Star Trek made it into syndication. If a fan was patient they could eventually see every episode of a series. Early adopters of VCRs took pride in collecting a complete run of their favorite shows, especially if it took years.

Nowadays fans can watch almost any show on demand. Some TV aficionados only watch a show when it has been completed or canceled so they can see the complete story on DVD or streaming. Meaning, they can watch an entire multi-year series by binge-watching for several days or weeks. After randomly watching about 50 episodes of Perry Mason on MeTV during the last year, I decided to start with season 1, episode 1 on CBS All Access and watch the entire 271 shows in order. They only have seasons 1-5, but I hope they’ll add the rest, otherwise I’ll have to buy the DVDs. (Maybe that’s their intention.)

I have to ask myself: Why Perry Mason? Even though Perry Mason is one of the most popular TV shows ever, it’s artistic quality pales compared to modern television series like Breaking Bad, Downton AbbeyThe Game of Thrones, The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Often when I watch an episode of Perry Mason my mind boggles by how the plot struggles to make any kind of logical sense. And Perry, Della, and Paul are completely lacking in the kind of vivid personal details we expect in 21st-century TV shows. I’ve never liked murder mysteries, never cared whodunit, and I never guess the guilty person while watching Perry Mason. Yet at this time in my life, I find the show very addictive.

I’ve binge-watched nearly of all the most popular television series since The Sopranos so I know Perry Mason is primitive in comparison. According to Wikipedia, “Perry Mason is Hollywood’s first weekly one-hour series filmed for television and remains one of the longest-running and most successful legal-themed television series.”  It premiered on September 21, 1957. The contrast between TV storytelling in 1957 and 2018 is startling. The evolution of creating TV shows during those years is worthy of countless Ph.D. dissertations.

The difference between television then and now is so stark, that I can’t imagine younger fans even being able to even watch Perry Mason. Except for one episode, it was filmed in gorgeous black and white. To the current generation, it would be like Baby Boomers having embraced early silent movies in their teens. So, why am I watching Perry Mason now when I could be watching countless superior shows? I think there’s something psychological I need to unearth. And it’s taking the length of a long Atlantic Monthly essay to scope out the problem. I doubt seriously if even my closest friends will want to read all of this, but I feel compelled to write out why. I need to explain it to myself.

Socrates warned us the unexamined life if not worth living. I’ve never argued with that. In the last third of life, such self-reflection seems truer than ever even for the smallest aspects of day-to-day living. Have you ever dissected your soul to find out why you love what you love? Stop a moment and think about that. Why is your gray goo wanting to substitute its current sensory input with data from a video screen? Watching television is a rejection of reality for a substitute, and maybe that isn’t bad, but it is revealing. When we tune in, turn on and drop out, what are we really doing?

Maybe you’ve been asked this deep question of why you love TV before, and maybe not. But let’s take it a little further, just a bit deeper. Have you ever asked yourself why you love to watch television with other people? Or do you? What we watch by ourselves tells us so much about ourselves, but what we watch together says so much more about our relationships. I bet you haven’t thought of that one before.

For almost a decade I’ve watched television with my friend Janis. Until this August, my wife had been working out of town all that time and Janis and I would watch shows together three or four nights a week. Janis moved to Mexico this August, something she’s been hoping to do as long as I’ve known her, and Susan finally got transferred back to Memphis. Susan and I discovered we no longer watch the same kind of shows, not like we did before 2008. Now, every evening we watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy together in the living room, and then I go to the den to watch my shows.

What’s enlightening to me is the shows I choose to watch by myself. I assumed I’d continue to watch all the popular binge-worthy shows I had been watching with Janis. But I’m not. For weeks I tried countless shows but my restless mind could not settle on any of them. I ended up watching old westerns from the 1940s and 1950s every evening.

For the last few years, whenever I’m alone watching TV, I binge on Hollywood classics, westerns, film noir, 1960s comedies, or Pre-Code Hollywood from the early 1930s. These have all been life-long favorites. They’ve also been the kinds of films my friends don’t like watching. Then I got hooked on the 1950s and 1960s television shows I hadn’t seen much of when I was young, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, and The Fugitive. After Janis moved away I mostly watched westerns for weeks, mixed it with some Perry Mason. Strangely, all these television shows and movies are in black and white. I wonder what that means?

I’ve gone through a number of psychological changes since I retired five years ago, including how I watch television. I’ve been a TV addict since 1956, but the level of addiction and types of shows I craved have changed many times over the years. The hole in my TV watching schedule is making me think about my lifetime relationship with TV and who I watched it with.

Watching TV by myself is so different from social TV watching. Looking back, I realized I’ve mostly been a social television watcher. There have always been shows I watched by myself, but there have been more shows I watched because of other people. When I was young, I watched shows with my family. Once I got past the sixth grade, I loved watching shows with friends, either at my house or theirs. I got a job in high school in 1968 and quit watching television for many years. That ended some friendships. I seldom watched TV in my college years. As I got back into television around 1975, I began social TV watching with a new generation of friends. Then when I got married to Susan in 1978, and we found prime-time bliss. I would watch her shows and she would watch mine. When Susan move to Birmingham to keep her job, my television life fell apart. Then Janis became my TV buddy during the time that coincided with the era of binge-watching on streaming TV. We picked shows that made us want to watch two or three episodes at a time.

For the last few months, I’ve tried many new series, but my mind can’t stick with them. I keep hopping from one show to the next for about ten or fifteen minutes. Every once I a while I could find a series that would hook me like Sisters season 1 or Man in the High Castle season 3, but for the most part, I’d fall back on westerns. Then I got hooked on Perry Mason.

Remembering my television watching habits when I was 5-15 is a hazy affair. I’d love if my memories were perfect. I do have clues. I have memories of my parents always asking me what was on television even from an early age. There were only three channels back then, so I imagine it wasn’t a great feat for a kid to memorize the schedule. One of the first magazines I remember reading is the TV Guide, but I’m not sure how often we bought it, or when my mother started bringing it home from the grocery store.

What I realized now is I watched all kinds of shows back then because sometimes my parents picked them, and sometimes Becky, my sister, and I got to choose. It wasn’t until I, Spy (1965) and Star Trek (1966) that I tried to never miss an episode of a favorite show. That got interrupted in 1968 as I mentioned before when I got my first punch-the-clock job after school in the eleventh grade.

Wanting to see every episode of a television show became a real habit after Susan and I got married. We loved NBC’s Must See TV Thursday nights. Then in this century with whole season DVD sets of television shows and Netflix. Binge-watching a series from the first episode to last become a thing.

I believe part of the attraction to Perry Mason is because it’s a complete work, and available on DVD. It also appeals to me that I can buy The Perry Mason Book by Jim Davidson for my Kindle, a handy-dandy comprehensive episode-by-episode reference guide to supplement my Perry Mason watching. Even though I don’t care about whodunit in a murder mystery, I do care about what model car Paul Drake drove or where a picturesque scene is filmed. One aspect of Perry Mason I love is the location shooting from 1957-1966. The show is full of little details I find compelling.

Of course, these are piddling details. The urge to go deeper into my unconscious pushes me to find greater insight. I’ve known for years that living in the last third of light resonates with the first third. When I was young I was often disappointed with older people when they told me they were clueless about the current pop culture I valued so much. Now that I’m older I know what it means to not be able to keep up. Perry Mason is familiar territory. The beautiful black-and-white photography is comforting. All the then new cars are the ones I coveted growing up and wished I owned now as classic old cars now. Plus the women in their conical bras and tight sweaters are the prototypes of feminine beauty from my earliest memories of horniness.

Perry Mason 2Back in the 1990s I flew down to Miami and got my old buddy Connell to drive me to a house where I lived in 1955 when I was four. I stood on the sidewalk in front of my old home, the site of some of my earliest memories of playing outside. I felt like I was standing on the Big Bang beginning of my universe. Watching 1957 Perry Mason takes me very close to that origin. It’s the inflationary period when my mind began to be expanded by television.

So, what does this say about my psychology? Why do I pick a 62-year-old TV show to watch by myself at 67? If I watch TV with friends we’d watch a 2018 show. Susan too watches old TV shows by herself, but they are usually from the last decade, except for Friends. Are the shows we pick reflective of the escapism we need? Is the political incorrectness 1957 much easier to handle than political insanity of 2018?

I wonder what my friends watch by themselves and why? Is everyone sitting alone turning back the hand of time? Some people I know have the TV on all day long to keep them company. They tell me it helps with loneliness. I hate hearing a TV in the daytime. I love TV when it’s dark and late, and I’m too tired to do anything else. I realize now that I categorize my friends by which pop culture references we share. I go flicks with some friends and other films with other friends. I share old science fiction with a couple of friends, but not with the rest. My love of westerns requires hanging out with strangers on Facebook to find anyone to share that enthusiasm.

I have one friend that loves Perry Mason but we seldom see each other anymore since she was a work friend and I’m retired. She watches Perry every night at 10:30. I wish I could watch it with her. But she is younger than I, so I’m not sure we resonate with the same aspects of the show? None of my close friends will watch Perry with me. None of them like the old movies and westerns either. This got me to thinking about how our personalities are divided by what we do alone and what we do together.

I went to see Green Book with a friend after getting positive reviews from several other friends. And I know a few other folks who want to go see it. That means we’re all bonded by this one current movie. I like that. Back in my K-12 days, I’d go to school and seek out other kids who had seen the same TV shows the night before. The same thing happened during my work years.

Some people I know get their feelings hurt if you tell them you don’t like their favorite TV show. I don’t. I am disappointed sometimes when someone I like a lot won’t try a current show I love. I feel like I’m making an offer of connection, and they refuse. I don’t care if they end up hating the show. It’s the willingness to try to communicate that counts.

When I go to a party I ask people what they are watching on TV or going out to see at the movies. When I find someone who has seen what I have, and we both are crazy about the story, I actually like the person more. And if I hear a person put down a show I love, I feel like there’s a side to the person I can’t comprehend. It’s like the old generation gap – a pop culture divide.

Comparing tastes in television shows makes me realize just how different people are in my life. What we share is a kind of Venn diagram of commonality, what we don’t, defines our borders. But I wonder. Is it the shows we watch alone that define us the most, or the ones we share with each other?

JWH

 

 

 

Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

What I Loved and Hated About Lost in Space (2018)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 20, 2018

I remember watching the first episode of the original Lost in Space when it premiered back in September of 1965. I was thirteen and hooked on reading Heinlein juveniles. Science fiction was my religion. Even as a kid, I thought Lost in Space rather cheesy, but I watched it every week for a few months. I have fond memories of the 1965-66 television season. My favorite show of that season was I, Spy, but I also loved Twelve O’Clock High. I was embarrassed to admit I watched Lost in Space to my friends because I didn’t have any that were into science fiction, and they made fun of it as a kid’s show — but hell, we were kids. I loved the robot and thought Penny (Angela Cartwright) awful cute (hey, I was her age at the time).

Lost in Space - Robot and Will

I was a little apprehensive about giving Lost in Space (2018) a try. I was afraid they’d make it into a campy joke like before. I was wrong. It was ten episodes of action-oriented science fiction, visually pleasing, with engaging characters who were complex. This time around I still liked the robot best, but found Maureen (Molly Parker), the mom, the most attractive female, even though I’m way too old for her. It’s a weird headspace to remember a show that I watched as a kid being remade when I was older than any of the characters.

The Robinsons of Lost in Space is inspired by Swiss Family Robinson which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.  The Robinsonade is a very old literary type and has always been one of my favorites. I highly recommend In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin (currently $3.99 for the Kindle) if you want to read a fascinating history of lost on deserted island stories. In the original series the Robinsons were alone in space, but in the reboot, they have some company.

Lost in Space - Mauren

This time around the female characters get a lot more screen time, and Dr. Smith is played by a woman, Parker Posey. In fact, I would call Maureen Robinson the main protagonist, with Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell) getting as much or more story time as Will (Maxwell Jenkins), John (Toby Stephens), and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio). Even though the characters have the same names as before, their backstory and present stories are much different. Sure, everyone is super-smart, but each has a flawed history, which the show presents in flashbacks.

Lost in Space (2018) is mostly about family dynamics, and that’s what makes the series compelling this time. Each episode has lots of science fiction action, usually with one or more Robinsons escaping death in the last few seconds. Now that’s copied from the original. Interestingly, the cliffhangers in the new series don’t fall between episodes. The original series ended each episode with a new cliffhanger, which added to its cheesiness, demanding viewers to tune in next week. 2018 episodes have a nice closure to each.

21st-century television shows, especially those with limited seasons and high production values like Westworld, The Man in the High Castle, and The Handmaids Tale, are light years ahead of 1960s television productions. Back then TV was considered crap, and movies were art. Now movies are comic books and TV is art. Lost in Space isn’t at the level of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, but I think it’s as good as Stranger Things.

However, I do have some disappointments to register. But they aren’t unique to Lost in Space, but to current science fiction in general. Lost in Space (2018) looks very realistic. The sets, props and special effects are excellent. However, the science behind the story is rather lame. They practically don’t try. The Jupiter class spaceships are fueled by liquid methane. That’s just silly. Even sillier is when they find a substitute in high-grade alien-bat guano. Plus the apparent amount of fuel that each Jupiter holds is only a couple hundred gallons. I won’t give away the story secrets of the interstellar travel methods, but it’s closer to comic book terminology.

What disappoints me about modern science fiction is the total lack of realism regarding space travel. We’ve just given up and turned outer space into fantasyland. Spaceships are now equal to flying dragons or magical portals. Writers, if they make any effort at all to explain how we can travel in space, throw out a few gobbledygook words. The word wormhole is the new abracadabra. Man is that depressing.

I grew up reading science fiction believing that some stories were serious speculation about how humans might one day travel into space. I doubt 1-in-100 SF stories today even try to imagine something real.

Lost in Space (2018) has become a 1965 kids story for 2018 adults. Science fiction now lives on nostalgia. Hell, most visual science fiction today are remakes of films, shows, and comics from the 1960s and 1970s.  I read “What’s Going Wrong With Sci-Fi?” this morning from Esquire, which the essay opens with:

“One of the problems with science fiction,” said Ridley Scott back in 2012 ahead of the release of Prometheus, “is the fact that everything is used up. Every type of spacesuit, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar. The corridors are similar, the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and the characters.”

And Scott is only complaining from a filmmaker’s perspective. I’m complaining that science fiction has practically given up on any kind of basis in science. Readers and watchers only want escapism. Lost in Space (2018) is good escapism but bad science fiction.

Half a century ago, NASA gave us Project Gemini and Project Apollo. Being a science fiction fan in the 1960s meant believing that humans would make it to Mars and beyond in our lifetimes. Well, our lifetimes are almost over and we’re still orbiting the Earth dreaming of beyond.

The new Lost in Space imagines life on Earth getting bad enough that people would want move to Alpha Centauri to start over. Suggesting that idea is wrong on so many different philosophical and scientific levels. It’s a fantasy on the level of Superman comics. A few hundred humans might one day colonize the Moon and Mars, but they won’t be places for pioneers seeking escape dismal lives on Earth. And travel to the stars is completely impossible by the science we know today. And I hate when true believers answer that with, “But we don’t know what science will discover in the future.” Study the problem. Wormholes and warp drives are only slightly more realistic for space travel than magical wardrobes in the Narnia books. Star Wars is no more science fictional than Lord of the Rings.

Lost in Space (2018) is fun television, but its science is no more advanced than Lost in Space (1965). Writers use scientific terms like magical spells in Harry Potter movies. Of course, this is the norm. I shouldn’t complain. Movies like Gattaca and Her which are at least philosophically realistic about the impact of science aren’t blockbusters. The reality is we live in a small world, orbiting an average star, in a nothing special galaxy, and the likelihood of going anywhere else is almost zero. So, is fantasizing about space travel really that bad? It is if we think we can escape Earth once we’ve trashed it.

I found a lot of pleasure watching the new Lost in Space, but I’m also depressed that after 57 years of traveling in space, spacefaring humans only live the distance from Memphis and Nashville above the Earth. I thought humans would be dwelling much further away by now. Instead, we’re still just watching unrealistic science fiction dreaming we had.

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