Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Ken Burns Effect

A recent posting on Facebook of A Trip Down Market Street, this mesmerizing film of a cable car ride down San Francisco's main drag, brought to mind a couple of things:

If this looks familiar, you've probably seen bits of it used as a device in documentary films that deal with a particular time and place: America at the turn of the last century. Coincidentally, this week PBS has been broadcasting the latest Ken Burns film based upon the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Sure enough, in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, one of the thousands of clips from hundreds of films Burns uses is a clip from this movie which was actually shot during Teddy Roosevelt's administration. In fact if you look carefully, you can see the clip over and over again as it is used in a promo for the show and one of its sponsors. I'm quite certain that I've seen portions of this film over the years, used in other works of Burns and his contemporaries.

I suspect most people don't immediately recognize the city depicted in the film. As such it could represent virtually any big American city at the turn of the twentieth century, which is why using clips from it is so attractive to contemporary filmmakers. But there is a story behind this particular film that makes it in its own right much more interesting than the documentary films who exploit it simply to establish a time and place.

The film  was produced by four brothers, Harry, Herbert, Earle and Joe, collectively known as the Miles Brothers. It was shot entirely in one take, not a small accomplishment given that the cameraman, Harry Miles, had to hand crank the film traveling through his camera at a consistent rate for the entire thirteen minute cable car ride. Another not so small feat is the fact that the cable car does not come to a complete stop in the entire film. The film is beautifully choreographed as obstacles including folks standing on the tracks playing "chicken", not moving away until the last possible second, and daredevil motorists darting in between oncoming cars can't stop our cable car as it moves inexorably toward its destination, the San Francisco Ferry Building at the intersection of Market and the Embarcadero, the heart of the city.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way it shows the traffic pattern of a major artery in an American city before the time when vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine reigned supreme. The cable car, itself powered by a mechanism gripping onto an underground cable moving at a constant rate of speed, had to compete with electric powered street cars, horse drawn vehicles of all types, pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobiles. When I first saw the movie in its entirety this week, I was surprised by the amount of cars, given that the number of automobiles in the entire United States in the first decade of the twentieth century was less than ten thousand. Turns out I was not off base, according to the 60 Minutes piece you'll find below, the Miles brothers employed local motorists to appear in the film, (in some cases more than once), so the depiction of Market Street traffic c.1906 is a little deceptive.

As you may notice, there are no traffic lights, they wouldn't come around until a decade later. I guess it's debatable whether they could have used them in 1906 as vehicles with different capabilities of speed and maneuverability are forced to compete for right of way while only tacitly adhering to accepted rules of the road. Yet here everybody seems to get along just fine as the top practical speed of the "horseless carriages" on the road at the time was probably not much more than that of a carriage-less horse.

The most remarkable thing about this film is not apparent from a casual viewing. It was originally assumed that A Trip Down Market Street was filmed in October of 1905. Film historian David Kiehn would become obsessed with the movie shot in his home town and by taking note of many visual clues and doing some historical research which is documented in the 60 Minutes piece, determined conclusively that the film was shot in late March or early April of 1906, only a week or two before the catastrophic earthquake that took place on April 18th of that year. In all around 3,000 lives were lost in that earthquake and the ensuing fire, roughly the same number who perished in New York City, Arlington, VA and Shankesville, PA as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,

It's very likely that in a week or two, some of the people who appeared in the film would be dead and half of them would lose their homes. Most of the buildings would be gone. One exception is the Terminal Building visible throughout the entire movie, the ultimate destination of the cable car. The building survived the earthquake and today is still the focal point of Market Street. To all who care about such things, that building not only lives as a memorial to the 1906 tragedy, but also to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which took the lives of dozens motorists who were crushed when the double deck highway they were driving upon collapsed. A similar freeway which once stood immediately in front of the Terminal Building was significantly damaged during that earthquake and shortly thereafter was demolished.

But the building also survived that earthquake intact; it and the film stand today as testaments to a great city and the indefatigable human spirit.

If there is such a thing as an American documentary filmmaker with a household name, it would be Ken Burns. So popular is his work, many people consider his movies to be the final word on the topics he covers. His films which air on PBS, are devoted to American subjects such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Jazz, Baseball, Prohibition, the Civil War, and now of course, the Roosevelts. No matter what subject, Burns's formulaic style does not vary from film to film. In each work, an authoritative voice-over narration moves along the story line supplemented by readings of quotes from correspondence, speeches or text supplied by notable actors, and comments from experts in the field. To set the mood, a soundtrack of period music plays incessantly in the background from beginning to end.

The bulk of Burns's imagery consists of archive film footage and still photographs. Setting a tone, they serve the same purpose as the soundtrack. What little original footage he supplies are images of un-populated historical sites usually shot romantically at dusk, and the "talking heads" of the experts, speaking reverently about the subject at hand. Never content to allow his visual material to speak for itself, Burns cuts up films (such as A Trip Down Market Street), to suit his needs. In a similar fashion, he seldom shows us a still photograph in its entirety, rather  he selectively crops images then animates them by panning or zooming in and out, usually for dramatic effect.  Burns in no way invented the idea of panning across still images, but he has used and abused the technique so often that Apple Corporation has included what they call the "Ken Burns Effect"  in their video editing software.  The Burns Effect is so successful that it has become the default setting when users choose to include still photographs into their videos. In other words, if you want to show a still image in your video without any pans or zooms in Apple software, you have to turn off the Ken Burns effect. Given his reputation as "the people's historian", I can't think of a more suitable metaphor.

Despite being widely admired, Ken Burns has his detractors. His work has a well deserved reputation for being less than rigorous with the facts. Never content to leave any loose ends, many feel his films package their subjects in neat and tidy bundles, avoiding the inevitable lingering doubts and messy questions that real historians deal with on a daily basis. And then there's that inescapable, plug-in style of his which treats every subject exactly the same.

But my biggest gripe with Ken Burns is the way he appropriates the work of others, without giving the authors due credit. You won't have a hard time finding the names of the "talent" who provide the voiceover narration and readings, nor will you have a problem learning who wrote and produced the films. You certainly won't have a problem spotting Ken Burns's name all over his product. But if you're interested in who provided Burns with the visual theme (or as the fancy people call it, the mise en scène) of his films, that is to say the photographers and filmmakers who are responsible for about 90 percent of what you actually see in a Ken Burns film, not to mention the musicians who provided the soundtrack, forget about it. Burns only pays lip service, and that's a generous term, to the archives where the work was found, but never to the creators of the work itself.

Which in my opinion is inexcusable.

To rectify that if only a bit, as promised, here from a 60 Minutes piece broadcast in 2010, is the story of a work of art that Ken Burns has used and abused time and again. A work that in my opinion, far from being merely a brief clip used to establish a particular time and place, is more ground breaking, powerful, and enlightening than any of the films that the so called "most respected historian in America" has given us to date:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Getting into the act

Just when you thought the Vivian Maier saga couldn't get any wackier, a Virginia lawyer jumped into the fray and has begun legal action that might put at least a temporary halt to the production and sale of prints made from the late Chicago photographer's vast archive of negatives left behind after her death in 2009. As you may recall, several lots of items in lockers containing the life's work of Vivian Maier went up for auction after Miss Maier no longer could afford to pay the storage fees. Her work ended up in the hands of complete strangers including a former real estate agent by the name of John Maloof. Maloof like most of the world, was unaware of Maier when he purchased a large portion of her possessions in 2007. After deep-sixing his haul for a couple of years, Maloof returned to it in 2009 when he Googled the name Vivian Maier and discovered that she had died only a few weeks earlier. Soon he began scanning the negatives in his possession and posted the images on a blog titled: "Vivian Maier - Her Undiscovered Work."

I stumbled across his blog not long after Maloof first put it up as my post from 2009 testifies. Like so many others, I was blown away by the pictures that Maloof uncovered. Spanning five decades, Miss Maier's work, a combination very well seen street photographs. and compelling self-portraits, quickly became the talk of the art world. In 2011 the Chicago Cultural Center mounted a show called "Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer."

My own Vivian Maier bubble was burst by that show. Maier's talent and commitment certainly came through but it had to compete with the show's obsessive fascination with her profession as nanny and her eccentric personality. Along with the photographs on the wall, were cases displaying Miss Maier's belongings: in addition to the expected photographic gear were items of clothing, hats, shoes, and other personal items, which to me anyway had very little to do with her work.  Almost as troubling were the photographs on the wall, the vast majority of them were posthumous prints made in a style that bore little resemblance to the handful of vintage prints on display made by the photographer in the fifties.

This last part is important as I mentioned in my earlier post on Miss Maier, because vintage prints are the key to how an artist sees her work, while posthumous prints, in this case made from negatives some of which which Maier never laid eyes upon, represent the sensibilities of others.

Clearly I thought, the Vivian Maier we were seeing in the exhibition was as much the creation of a legend as it was an honest exploration into the work of a talented artist. That legend has grown exponentially in the subsequent years and Miss Maier has achieved in the words of cultural historian Pamela Bannos, the status of a "cult figure."

Alternate versions of Vivian Maier's life have emerged depending on whose collection you look at.

One might think that the folks who bought all the photographer's earthly possessions, the keepers of the Maier legacy if you will, would pool their resources in order to form a clearer picture of Miss Maier's life. Unfortunately that has not been the case. Each collector seems to hold on to his own piece of turf and we are left with a fragmented picture of a complicated person's life.

As you may expect, there is an economic force driving the Viaian Maier industry. Modern prints are being made in limited editions from Miss Maier's negatives and selling in the two to four thousand dollar range per print. Vintage prints are going for ten thousand dollars and up. With several thousand vintage prints and over one hundred thousand negatives in the hands of collectors in a very favorable market, you can imagine there is some very good money to be made.

I made the point in my previous post that there is nothing illegal about this. Miss Maier had no will and made no provisions for her possessions including her art work. The collectors bought Vivian Maier's work fair and square, yet there is something unsettling about the fact that while Miss Maier was living her last years in destitution, having a roof over her head only through the generosity of some of the children she took care of as a nanny many years earlier, complete strangers were buying up her life's work and upon her death set into motion the process of making a fortune off of it.

Enter from stage left, a knight in shining armor, the true defender of  Vivian Meier's legacy, in his eyes at least, a commercial photographer turned lawyer practicing in Orange, Virginia named David C. Deal. Troubled by perfect strangers cashing in on Miss Maier, Mr. Deal took it upon himself to hire genealogists to track down possible Maier relatives in Europe. Now it so happens that in an attempt to remain entirely above board,  John Maloof found an heir, a first cousin once removed named Sylvain Jaussaud of France with whom Maloof worked out a monetary agreement in exchange for the rights to Miss Maier's work. Mr. Deal's genealogists found yet another cousin, a gentleman by the name of Francis Baille, a retired civil servant in the town of Gap, somewhere in northeastern France.  Deal has filed a petition in Cook County that M.Baille be declared Vivian Maier's heir. Letters have been sent to all the collectors who have profited from the reproduction of Maier's work informing them that those transactions may at some undisclosed time in the future, be subject to lawsuit.

According to this article in the New York Times, M. Baille refused to speak with the press, wisely preferring all comments to be made through his lawyer who said the following:
It’s an extraordinary situation. You can imagine what it’s like to get a telephone call about someone who died that he never knew, with this precious legacy. He is very, very surprised.
One can only imagine.

Mr. Deal claims that he is only interested in doing the right thing and would be perfectly happy to break even in the, pardon the pun, deal. I have no reason (wink wink nudge nudge) to doubt his sincerity.

What I don't understand is this: if David C. Deal is so appalled by the ethics of strangers profiting off Vivian Maier, how is it different if the rights to her work are turned over to another perfect stranger five thousand miles away who was never aware of her existence let alone her work, who just happens to be a distant relative?
Perhaps M. Baille actually has a keen appreciation of his distant first cousin once removed, and for her "precious legacy". Perhaps he sees something terribly unjust that people who had no idea she existed while she was alive, and most likely would not have given her the time of day if they had, are profiting from her work now that she's dead. Perhaps M. Baille will decide that to truly honor his late relative, her work, now that it has come to be known to the world, should be laid to rest beside its maker.

But I doubt it.

From his lawyer's statement, it appears that M. Baille knows he's sitting on top of a gold mine. It seems very likely that M. Baille would certainly like to tap into that gold mine, as it appears to be his legal right. If that's true, it would certainly be in his best interest to support the continued publishing of her work and the promotion of her legend. And who would be better partners in that endeavor than the people who created the market for her work and tapped into it in the first place?

So if you're one of those people who are concerned that Vivian Maier's works will become unavailable to the general public because of her new found heir and the legal actions surrounding him, I would say don't worry.

Thanks to Dave Deal, there will just be another hand or two reaching out for a piece of the action.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The game still matters

In a time when folks are declaring gloom and doom for the sport of baseball, this year's Little League World Series produced no fewer than two powerful, feel good stories that prove the game we still refer to as "The National Pastime" matters.

"Throw like a girl" has been the mantra of baseball fans across this country as one of the highlights of this year's Series was a flame throwing 5'4" 13 year old from Pennsylvania named Mo'ne Davis. Young Ms. Davis, only the 18th girl to participate in the Little League World Series became the first member of the female persuasion to pitch a shutout in the competition held annually in Williamsport, PA. That performance against South Nashville on Friday August 15 turned Mo'ne into a national celebrity.

It was hard not to root for Ms. Davis and her team the Taney Dragons from Center City, Philadelphia. The Dragons team, much like my son's travel baseball team, and decidedly unlike most of their competition in the LLWS is integrated; its players and coaches reflect the multi-cutural population of the city they represent. Also like my son's team, one of its best players happens to be a girl.

But I couldn't root for the Taney Dragons on August 21st because that day the team from Philadelphia faced the team from my home town, Chicago: Jackie Robinson West.

The team that is known affectionately around these parts simply by its initials JRW, is an all-star team, its members chosen from a league of the same name located on the south side of Chicago. Much has been made about this all African American team representing a part of town that lately has gotten more publicity for bad things rather than good. People have expressed amazement at their success given that in our time fewer and fewer African American players play in the Major Leagues and interest in the game in the black community is at an all time low.

But there's nothing at all amazing about the success of JRW. The league was established back in 1971 by Joseph H. Haley, an educator by profession. His league has become one of this city's most cherished institutions, thousands of Chicagoans from all walks of life including a few major leaguers have had the honor of calling themselves members of Jackie Robinson West. In the words of the Illinois General Assembly's official proclamation marking Mr. Haley's passing in 2005:
From a league with just five teams, Jackie Robinson West Little League has grown to more than 1,000 players on 36 teams; the league has instilled the values of good citizenship, perseverance, team effort, sportsmanship,and self-discipline in generations of young people; Mr. Haley wanted the children in his league to get a good education and taught them that school was more important than baseball.
On the evening of August 21st, the alderman of the ward where my son plays baseball, arranged for a viewing party to watch the game between JRW and the Taney Dragons, which would determine who would go on to the US finals. It was one of dozens of such parties around Chicago to support the team that represents not just the south side, but our entire city.

In that game Chicago would never look back after scoring four runs in the bottom of the first. Despite a late rush from Philly who down by one run, loaded the bases in the top of the last inning, the game ended 6-5, JRW.

The mostly white crowd at our event went wild when Philly harmlessly lined out to the Chicago second baseman to end the game.

It took a spectacular double play to win the next game against a strong, highly favored Nevada team who smoked both JRW and the Dragons in their first meetings. But in the end, JRW won that game too and became the US Little League Champions.

Unfortunately, JRW lost the World Championship to South Korea the following day but it hardly mattered. The city of Chicago threw them a huge party that culminated Downtown at the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park. It was the kind of celebration normally held all too infrequently when one of this city's professional sports teams wins a championship. Sadly I missed the event as I was out of town.

Public figures and executives from both of Chicago's major league baseball teams were there to speak words of encouragement to the young players and to all young people of the city, black, brown and white, at least those who cared to listen. The message was simple: their most important job was to get a good education first, and good things most likely will follow.

In both victory and defeat, JRW has represented Chicago honorably. As a result, the team and the league have rightfully been embraced by the entire city.

Coming as it did on the heels of a well publicized national tragedy, some writers could not resist the temptation to frame the story of a Little League baseball team winning the national championship within the subtext of race in America. In a blog for The Nation, directly under a picture of the young members of the JRW team aboard a float being cheered on by throngs of white people during a parade in Williamsport, Dave Zirin wrote this:
... the events of this summer show with bracing clarity that there are huge swaths of this country that love black culture and hate black people.
The whole point of Zirin's piece was to compare the public's reaction to this year's Little League World Series, to that of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Zirin expresses his astonishment over JRW "beating the odds" as an all black team from the inner city where: "the gutting of the social safety net, the explosion of economic inequality and the hollowing out of our cities" has decimated "Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands." These are the very conditions Zirin argues, that paved the way for incidents like the one in Ferguson.

In other words, blacks don't play baseball anymore, so the story goes, because society has taken away the apparatus for them to do so.

If anything, the events of this summer have proved (to anyone who didn't know it already) that theory to be nothing but hooey.

The point Zirin seems to miss is that successful Little League programs, like so many other successful institutions involving children, are not the result of any social safety net, but are the result of the one most important factor in determining the course of a young person's life: parents.

From an article written by Bob Cook in Forbes Magazine, published just before the start of this year's tournament:
What makes Jackie Robinson West succeed as a league is the same as what makes any league succeed, no matter the players’ race, ethnicity or income status. 
“It’s a combination of factors,” said (Joseph Haley's son who took over the league upon his father's death, Bill) Haley, a dispatcher for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Our league has a strong tradition. The coaches were once players. It’s taken hold in the community. You pull kids from a limited area, so there’s a sense of community to start out with. Being state champions (the league has won two Illinois championships in a row) is incidental to what we’re trying to do.”

The key, Haley said, is not the children. “It’s the adults. Baseball is a family game. It starts with just a dad playing catch with his kids. You’ve got a dad who hits pop flies on a Sunday. That’s where the connection comes in.
“That’s how it started for me.”
Those words ring true for anyone who has ever been involved with Little League baseball at any level.

In expressing his amazement over the success of the team from the Jackie Robinson West league, Dave Zirin (who happens to be white), seems to fall into the trap of mistakenly assuming that African American communities are places filled with nothing but hopelessness and despair, fueled by poverty and racism. Implicitly he's saying that it's hard for black folks to do anything on their own without help from above. As such, characterizing the success of JRW as "astonishing" and "against all odds" is parochial at best, patronizing at worst.

The success of the Dragons and JRW teams are tremendous accomplishments to be sure, but no different from those of any other Little League team who reaches those heights. What Zirin and other social commentators fail to take into account is that the stories of Mo'ne Davis, her Taney Dragons teammates, and the team from Jackie Robinson West are not simply triumphs of the human spirit, but like anything worthwhile in life, are the result of countless hours of dedication, hard work, and the pursuit of perfection from everybody involved: the players, the coaches, the community, and especially the parents.

That's a valuable lesson all of us need to learn.

Thank you Dragons and JRW for being such magnificent teachers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gone Ghetto

I belong to a few Facebook groups that focus on particular neighborhoods in Chicago. Some deal with neighborhoods where I have lived, others with neighborhoods that have particular interest to me. Many of the posts deal with the past, featuring long-gone landmarks whose memories speak of a bygone era which almost inevitably according to the members of each group, was better than the one in which we live in now.
A group that focuses on the community in which I currently live, Rogers Park/West Ridge (more commonly referred to as East and West Rogers Park) on Chicago's far north side, is particularly fond of the past. I don't personally know any of the folks whose comments appear on the group's posts, but from what I can tell, most of the people active in the group grew up here, and moved away a long time ago.

Like every neighborhood in Chicago, Rogers Park (from hereon I'll refer to the two communities collectively by the one name), has significantly changed in the past fifty years. Ninety nine and some change percent white as late as 1960 and heavily Jewish, the neighborhood since then has diversified. Immigrants have come from West Africa, all corners of Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. A large contingent of Jews from Russia, as well as a huge concentration of orthodox congregations, have kept the presence of the Diaspora strong up here. The neighborhood has also become racially integrated over the past half century, welcoming African Americans who left some of the troubled segregated neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides. I've often said that ours is one of the most culturally diverse communities in the city if not the nation.

The subject of one post on the Rogers Park Facebook group that received many comments was Devon Avenue, once a street filled with storefronts mostly catering to the Jewish community but today is the commercial hub of Chicago's Indian and Pakistani community. To me Devon is one of the most fascinating streets in the city; stepping onto it you feel that you have just been transported halfway around the world, perhaps to Delhi or Karachi. It turns out that several of the members of the Facebook group don't share my enthusiasm about the street. They understandably miss the street they knew as children, but not understandably, feel threatened when they return. Beyond the shall I say, creative driving styles of some of the area's residents and the slight chance of unintended contact with a motor vehicle on Devon Avenue today, there is nothing threatening about the street, except perhaps that it is different from the way it used to be.

In another post, a regular contributor posted a photograph of a stop sign that was tagged with gang graffiti. One of the responses came from someone who currently lives in California. His comment was this:
Sadly most of Rogers Park & the surrounding areas have gone ghetto.
Now the phrase "gone ghetto" is a humorous street-slang expression describing losing one's cool and going off on an expletive-filled rant. The most famous use of the term was perhaps the golfer Tiger Woods' description of his wife's reaction to the news of his sexual exploits.

Because of the context and the fact that both the writer and most of his audience are white, I can only guess the comment was not intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but to be taken literally.

I was troubled by that statement on many levels, not the least of which is the fact that no homeowner appreciates his neighborhood being labelled a ghetto. I struggled finding the correct words to respond, not wishing to be confrontational or opening myself up to a barrage of comments pointing out statistics that would seem to confirm his sentiment. My response was simply this:
Having lived in this community for the past 11 years I beg to differ.
In our place and time, "the ghetto" is charged term, inextricably tied to three things: race, poverty, and crime. The word has origins that go back nearly one thousand years. It is defined as a distinct area of a community where people of one particular ethnic minority live, specifically to be separated from the rest of the population. More often than not during those thousand years, the ethnic minority forced to live in ghettos was Jewish. That makes the description of the recent transformation of Rogers Park from a Jewish community into a ghetto, particularly ironic.

In this country today, the ethnic minority usually associated with the ghetto is African American. Contrary to the notion that the United States is a "free country", black people regardless of their economic status, have not been free to live wherever they pleased for a very long time. In Chicago and similar cities, perfectly legal housing covenants in white-only communities once prohibited home owners from renting or selling to people of color. Consequently blacks who arrived in Chicago during the "Great Migration" from the South, roughly between 1915 and 1970, were forced to live in restricted parts of town where they found price gouging, substandard housing, and crime. Thus the Chicago neighborhoods that were the homes for generations of this city's black community, were by the strictest definition of the word, appropriately called ghettos.

Laws would eventually do away with restrictive housing covenants, but Chicago remains a segregated city. The reasons for this are complicated. I've been raked over the coals for posts I've written placing at least some of the responsibility on one group or another. Suffice it to say there is lingering bitterness and distrust between groups who prefer to dwell on assumptions of other people rather than face to face contact, and on our differences rather than what we have in common.

The members of the Facebook Rogers Park group have unwittingly tapped into this very issue. Often someone will post a comment saying they wish to visit the old neighborhood but are afraid to because of the threat of crime. "Oh you'll be OK..." is the typical response, "as long you come during the day and don't flaunt any valuables."

They do call this city Chi-raq after all.

I've encountered this attitude often on my travels around small towns in the Midwest when people see my white face then learn I live in Chicago and automatically ask: "which suburb?" When I tell them I live in the city proper, they look at me with apprehension, as if they found out I was just released from prison.

More troubling than the effects of unwarranted assumptions about my city or my neighborhood, is the casual use of labels such as "ghetto" to describe any neighborhood. It is universally assumed that people who live in "the ghetto" are either one of two things: criminals, or helpless victims with no option but to live there. Many of us don't realize that despite the relatively high rates of crime and violence, most of the people who live in places like Englewood and North Lawndale, two Chicago neighborhoods that are labeled ghettos among other much worse things, are honest, law abiding citizens who work for a living, pay their taxes, vote, and have the same needs and hopes for their lives as everybody else. Unfortunately because of the bad press, most of the people I know would never set foot in those neighborhoods let alone talk to the residents in order to find out that simple fact. I dealt with this subject in a post written a couple years ago.

This is not to downplay the rise of violent crime in this city over the past few years. The two neighborhoods mentioned above have been hit particularly hard by the recent spike in violence. We've also been feeling up it here in Rogers Park. A well publicized murder involving an innocent bystander and three gangbangers (who were not from the neighborhood) made the headlines a few weeks ago. Shootings are on the increase; it's not unusual to hear gunshots from our home. Several years ago I was attacked by a group of teenagers behind our building leaving me bloody and pissed off. Believe me, I don't write off crime and violence in the least.

But as I found out in 1968 when my family left the filth and crime of the big city for the clean air, green lawns, and safety of the suburbs, you can never escape reality. Within the first few months in our new home in an all white suburb, for the first time in my life: I heard gunshots, had my bicycle stolen, encountered truly mean and nasty children who no doubt went on to use those skills productively in their adult lives and, heard the word "nigger" used in passing conversation.

The recent tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri have underscored the divisions in our society. Some have expressed surprise, this coming so many years after the triumphs of the civil rights movement and the election of an African American president. But the idea that we live in a post-racial America, one "devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice", however desirable as that may be, is preposterous. If anything, with the rise of technological innovations such as cable TV, the internet, social media, and the blogosphere, where the views of any idiot (such as myself), can be voiced, we are perhaps more divided than ever. Today a person with any viewpoint no matter how imbecilic or irrational, can find some kind of justification, somewhere.

Not only have we separated ourselves physically, but also intellectually into enclaves, ideological ghettos if you prefer, where like-minded people can preach to each other. No longer do we talk to one another face-to-face about important issues, because that would be imprudent. We express our views with our "friends" in the relatively collegial atmosphere of Facebook, where we can "de-friend" people if we don't happen to like what they have to say. Or we can spew our venom anonymously to the world through Twitter and countless other outlets where we have no responsibility for truth or accuracy.

Rather than reading "all the news that's fit to print", people are more likely today to get their news from sources whose motto may as well be: "all the news you want to hear." As a friend pointed out recently, the events in Ferguson: "sadly (are) no longer about truth but rather, each of us being 'right.'"

Those events taking place as we speak in the St. Louis suburb have shown that most of us are still guided by our assumptions rather than facts born out of evidence. The court of public opinion has already weighed in as judge, jury, and jailer over the death of Michael Brown, only divided by ideology. Depending upon your point of view, the teenager was either: a criminal who assaulted a police officer while reaching for his gun which justified his killing or, an innocent, unarmed young man executed by a racist white cop.

That the truth probably lies somewhere between those two scenarios hardly matters; people will stick to their guns, their assumptions, and their prejudices, come hell or high water.

Things are never exactly what they seem and if we Americans, black, white, and everything in between, keep living by our assumptions about our fellow human beings and nothing else, we will continue to live in a bitterly divided society.

Like it or not, the face of this country is rapidly changing and before long, the United States will become a majority-minority country. We all would do well to accept and embrace this fact, rather than continually run away from it. Eventually there will be few places left to hide and the remaining enclaves filled with people separated from the rest of society by choice, will become the new ghettos, and their residents and their like-minded, like-complexioned neighbors, the new ghetto dwellers.

How ironic is that?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A death outside the family

Yesterday I learned of the deaths of two individuals, one of whom I knew personally. The other was Robin Williams

It's hard to explain why the death of a stranger hit me as hard as it did. I was not exactly a fan of Robin Williams although I did admire his work in several movies. As it so often happens with the deaths of notable people, I've spent more time thinking about him in the last 24 hours since learning of his death than in the past thirty years or so that I've been aware of his existence. Since yesterday I learned about his health issues including open heart surgery, profound depression, dependence on drugs and alcohol, and the steps he took over a long period of time to get better. I learned that his off screen persona wasn't all that different from what he presented to the public, and that beyond the wacky, hyper, over-the-top schtick for which he was famous, it seems that deep down he was a wonderful human being.

And like the whole world, I learned that he died by his own hand.

I used to think that suicide was the most selfish act imaginable. Now I'm not so sure. 

It so happened that within the span of a couple years, two people with whom I worked took their own lives. Both were women in their early twenties. Both had scores of friends and loving families, both were exceptionally intelligent, talented, and accomplished for their young ages.

Granted I didn't know either of these individuals very well, but on the surface these two women would have been the last people on earth I would have imagined to have suffered from clinical depression and would eventually kill themselves. The first was someone I never really cared for. I found her to be unpleasant, aloof, and self-assured to a fault. When I learned that she died I felt ambivalent - terribly guilty that I didn't like her in life, but also angry that she would cause so much pain to the family and friends who loved her. Foolishly I resolved in my head that my assumptions about the kind of people who would take their own lives were correct all along.

Although I hardly knew her any better, the second woman was the polar opposite of the first. Her spirit of warmth, kindness, and generosity was palpable. She was not the kind of person who would have intentionally slighted a perfect stranger, let alone the people who loved and cared for her.

As a society we are just now beginning to come to terms with the torments of clinical depresseion. The fact that we all get depressed at times over the anxieties of life makes those of us who don't suffer from this terribly debilitating and deadly disease feel that if only "those people" lightened up a little and looked on the bright side of life, they'd realize they had nothing to be depressed about in the first place. After all, what does someone with all the money, talent and success of someone like Robin Williams have to get depressed over?

While I'm no psychologist and in fact know very little about the subject, unlike the case of my two former colleagues, I can't say that the news of Robin Williams's death shocked me. I knew nothing about the private man until yesterday, but in retrospect I felt that his outrageous, rollicking comic free-spirit must have been tempered by another, much darker force. It's hardly a surprise that most comedians deep down are rather sad individuals. As a friend put it yesterday, their craft serves in part to make some sense out of a "really fucked up world."

You could say that Robin Williams's mental state, both the highs and the lows of it, (not to mention the copious amount of drugs and alcohol he admitted to consuming over the years), contributed significantly to his "genius." Like that sappy Elton John song about another Hollywood icon, that "candle in the wind" was bound to burn out much too soon. This is not to trivialize the tragedy of his death in the least; but the truth is, Robin Williams lived larger than most of us, as his fall was equal in proportion.

It's impossible to imagine what thoughts must have gone through his head in the last moments of his life. I can only guess that his pain must have been unbearable, so much so that it forced him to do the one act that is alien to the very thing all living organisms are programmed to do, survive.

I'm not sure why deep, psychological pain is such a hard concept for so many people to grasp, but it is. We have a friend whose daughter has for several years experienced chronic abdominal pain which has of late become excruciating. She has been hospitalized for weeks now and so far the doctors have been able to come up with absolutely no explanation for what has been causing the pain. They have been able to medicate it which brings only temporary relief for the symptoms, but are nowhere closer to finding the cause of her condition.

No one would have any problem understanding and sympathizing with this young woman's physical pain and the incredible frustration she and her family are experiencing in not finding its source, let alone a cure. As I see it, suffering through the depths of depression is much the same; the source of the pain is inexplicable, and the cure for its symptoms in the form of medication, is fleeting at best. The only difference is that other people simply can't understand.

I can only guess that what was on Robin Williams's mind at the end was not his loving family, his adoring fans, and all the good that he brought to the world. My guess is that the only thought on his mind was how to make the pain stop.

Those of us who do not suffer from clinical depression can learn a great deal from the struggle of Robin Williams. The one good thing that may come out of the tragedy of this beloved public figure and his family is a better public grasp of the disease that took his life. And hopefully those of us with loved ones who suffer from debilitating clinical depression will learn to better understand them, listen to them, and most of all love and care for them.

It may not make their pain go away, but it's sure better than the alternative.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Quintessence of Life

At the end of a particularly draining Saturday one month ago, my wife suggested we head to a Redbox machine in our neighborhood to find a DVD for an all too infrequent family movie night. Frankly there's little in those machines that interests me. Call me a snob but I just don't care for many contemporary Hollywood movies. With their one dimensional characters, predictable story lines, interminable chase scenes, incessant devotion to special effects, gratuitous violence and sex, (well violence anyway), and their target audience, the least common denominator, I'd take an old, a foreign, or an indie movie any day.

Out of the dozens of choices in the machine, only two movies appealed to me, and one was not appropriate for the children. The other was the new version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by and starring Ben Stiller in the title role. I always liked the James Thurbur short story, probably because I can identify with a character who spends much of his time in a dream state which he prefers to reality. My kids like Stiller, especially from his role as the security guard in the two Night at the Museum movies. My wife was just happy we could find something to agree upon. I was prepared for a much needed, mindless evening chilling in front of the tube watching a pleasant, harmless movie. I figured the worst thing that could happen was that I'd fall asleep, which is what usually happens when I plant myself  in front of the TV.

That last thing I expected was to be engaged, enthralled and overwhelmed by a film that was not only entertaining, but also touched upon several issues that are close to my heart, issues that have been dealt with in this blog.

In this version of the Mitty story, our hero begins the movie late for work having missed his train as he becomes lost in a fantasy about the woman he has a crush on, a co-worker named Cheryl Melhof, (played by Kristen Wiig). Walter's tardiness does not bode well for him as he learns upon arriving at the office that his company has just been bought out and the transition team has already arrived to eviscerate the staff. We are soon to meet the chief antagonist of the story, the leader of the transition team, a pompous, self-serving weasel of a man named Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), dressed in a suit and ridiculous beard, (the source of one of the funniest lines of the movie).

The business Ted Hendricks's company bought could have made cars, investments, or widgets; it hardly matters to people like him who are only interested in the bottom line. It so happens that the business in question is Life Magazine. Hendricks proves time and again that he is completely in the dark about publishing a magazine. While he lacks any knowledge of the industry he's just been thrust into, his people skills are worse. In the first meeting with his new staff he tells them the bad news: most of them are about to be fired. Then the good news: before they lose their jobs they are about to have the honor of creating the magazine's final print edition, as Life was about to go entirely online. *

While the Hendricks character is merely an apparatchik for the entity who bought out Life Magazine, he serves well as a metaphor for today's corporate world that cares little about what a company actually does and needless to say, less about the people who work for it. I wrote on this very subject a few years ago, about a corporate takeover specialist named Edward Lampert who bought out K-Mart and Sears. Despite his ostensible interest in saving the two struggling national icons, it became clear that Lambert's actions were motivated out of the profit gained by selling off those companies' vast holdings of real estate, rather than selling hardware, clothing, and appliances.

Anyway, Hendricks told his stunned audience that the last issue of Life Magazine was to feature on its cover a photograph made by the esteemed photographer Sean O'Connell, (Sean Penn). According to O'Connell, his picture which at that point had been unseen by anyone but its creator, depicted nothing less than "the quintessence of life." Hendricks had no idea what that meant but was told by his two goons, also in suits and ridiculous beards, that it meant something special.

Walter Mitty's position at the magazine was photo archivist, his official title in comically ironic corporate-speak, "negative asset specialist." In that role he and O'Connell had developed a close working relationship over the years, although the two men had never met face to face. In this capacity, Walter was entrusted with the roll of negatives, (yes O'Connell still shot film thank you very much), containing the important picture. The trouble was, the roll was completely intact except for the one important frame, #25.

The rest of the film depicts Walter breaking free of his dream life by embarking on an ever broadening journey to find the elusive photographer and his missing negative. As with most literary and cinematic quests, whether it be for the Holy Grail, Private Ryan, Mr. Kurtz, or Rosebud, this search reveals at least as much about the searcher as for what is sought.

This film received by and large, ho-hum reviews. Many of the critics didn't accept the premise of a search half way around the globe for one picture. Taking the premise quite literally, Richard Roeper said: "It's hard to get too excited in the digital age about a missing photograph." Not too surprising a comment I suppose coming from a reviewer who works for The Chicago Sun Times, the newspaper that recently laid off its entire staff of photographers.

The filmmakers who made this Walter Mitty story take the medium of photography more seriously than the Chicago tabloid and their reviewer, as their movie is liberally populated with important photographs. The halls of Life are covered with decades worth of iconic photographs that graced the pages of the magazine. Peering down at us from the walls of Mitty's workplace are the images of a generation, the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King,  JFK, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and John Glenn (or is it?). We see the first moon launch up close, Mt. Everest from a little more of a distance, and Moses holding up the Ten Commandments on the screen of a drive in theater.

These are not images made by just anybody with their smart phone, they were made by artists who were the best in the business. Just as having an e-mail account doesn't make you a writer, having a phone with a camera doesn't make you photographer. That inherent truth is something beyond the grasp of a businessman like Hendricks just as it is to the current owners of the Sun Times. Throughout the film, as the photographs begin to be removed from the halls of Life Magazine, we learn what is about to be lost. In one scene, a particularly alluring Marilyn Monroe looks on from down the hall as the clueless boss surveys the institution he is about to disassemble. You can almost hear her say indignantly: "really?"

I keep thinking that the late Roger Ebert, Roeper's predecessor at the Sun Times would not have missed the significance of that scene.

An important part of the movie that many critics did not buy was the portrayal of the elusive photographer Sean O'Connell. He's clearly an eccentric character marching to the beat of his own drummer, an artist led entirely by impulse, creating work for himself above all others. I suppose the most difficult thing to understand about O'Connell takes place when we finally catch up with him in one of the remotest parts of the world. He is about encounter something he has traveled half way around the world to photograph. After a long wait, the camera trained upon his subject, he observes it through his telephoto lens, then shows it to Walter. Walter asks O'Connell if he's going to take the picture and the photographer answers no:
Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
It takes a true artist to understand that sentiment.

With his long hair, scraggly beard and disheveled appearance, O'Connell is cast as the stereotypical artist directly out of central casting. If people like Sean didn't exist, you'd have to invent him. In reality, Sean O'Connell is not much of a stretch, I just wrote about two artists who would make O'Connell look no more off-beat than Aunt Bea. One is Josef Koudelka, the other is Vivian Maier.

One frequent criticism of the movie is its simplistic message that it's better to do than to dream. One critic called Walter's break out experience nothing more than an extended Nike "Just do it" commercial. I think these critics miss the point. Walter is not, as some folks see him, a simple milquetoast, everyman of a character. There is depth to the guy as we learn early on that his more or less mundane existence is the result of circumstances beyond his control. Much like George Bailey, the central character of the classic film It's a Wonderful Life, the teenage Walter was forced to abandon his youthful dreams of exploring the world because of family responsibilities caused by the death of his father. As we meet him many years later, he still takes full responsibility for the care of his elderly mother (Shirley MacLaine) and his demanding sister (Kathryn Hahn).

Walter may lead what many consider a hum-drum life, but what slowly becomes clear if you pay attention, is that he is thoroughly engrossed and passionate about his work. It is the very thing that motivates him to go on his fantastic journey in the first place. Sean O'Connell entrusts Mitty with his work knowing full well that without Walter, he would be nothing. No, Walter is not escaping from his life and his "boring" job, rather he is taking his work to a higher level. When Mitty returns from his first journey empty handed, he tells his new boss that in 16 years on the job he has never lost a negative. The heartless response is: "put that on a plaque and hang it on the wall, at your next job." But after receiving another clue about the whereabouts of O'Connell, Walter embarks on his most ambitious adventure to find the negative, after he his fired. Hard to imagine your typical 9 to 5 office grunt doing that. This film teaches us that a person's job and a person's work, are not necessarily the same thing.

I suspect that most of the negative criticism of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty comes from the fact that the movie doesn't live up to the expectations of the reviewers. As it would be difficult in this day and age to revolve a feature length movie around a the daydreams of a man during a Saturday afternoon shopping excursion with his overbearing wife, this is definitely not James Thurbur's Walter Mitty. It's also not a remake of the the 1947 version of the story starring Danny Kaye, simply because Ben Stiller is not Danny Kaye. In fact, Ben Stiller in this movie is not even Ben Stiller, as a typical comedy featuring the popular actor is driven by a frenetic comedic pace where the setup for one gag begins as soon as the laughs from the previous gag die down. There are funny moments in this Walter Mitty story and some amusing lines in the screenplay written by Steve Conrad, but you would be hard pressed to call this introspective film a comedy. The two other stars of the movie, Wiig and MacLaine, best known for their characterizations of over the top characters, here downplay their roles so naturally that it hardly ever seems they're acting.

The one universal bit of praise this film has received has to do with the magnificent cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh. The film looks beautiful, especially after we leave the confining environments of Walter's Manhattan apartment and workplace for the great unknown, in this case shot on location in Iceland. To many critics, the scenes of these remote places, while stunningly cinematic, have little to do with moving along the story, they are eye candy at best. Here I reserve my harshest critique of the critics. To me, the most memorable scenes in what I consider to be a remarkable film, are three prolonged sequences containing no dialogue. They involve, a helicopter flight, an extreme skateboard ride, and a pickup soccer game.

These amazing scenes represent transcendent moments in Walter's life where he breaks free of the restraints he has placed upon himself, finds the freedom to do the thing that comes most naturally to him, and finally accepts and lets go of at least some of his old assumptions about they way he should live his life.

Save for jumping into shark filled waters and coming face to face with an erupting volcano, much to the chagrin of critics like Roeper, Walter's excursions abroad aren't filled with scene after scene of conflict and resolution. Instead they are filled with wonder and discovery. Some reviewers speculate that those scenes are just more of Walter's dreams, but clearly they are not. In the dream sequences which we see in detail at the beginning of the film, Walter is at the center in the role of hero, whether he's leaping into a building to save Cheryl's dog from an imminent explosion, or telling off his pompous boss in front of his co-workers. Far from it during his excursions abroad where he is continually dependent on the help of strangers, including a drunken lout in a Greenland bar and an Afghan war lord who is smitten with a piece of Mrs. Mitty's famous Clementine cake. Walter's encounters along his journey are for me the most poignant part of the story. These encounters with people who are vastly different than him, and by extension, us, speak to the fact that while we all may be different, there is an essential quality of the human experience that connects us all.

By the end of the movie, things are hardly resolved for Walter. He's back in New York without a job, his future uncertain, and he's failed to come through on the promise to his mother that she would never have to sell her most prized possession. The "feel good" ending is laced with not a small amount of melancholy. I'm not giving away anything by telling you that Walter gets the girl at the end. That should come as no surprise as it's already clear by the second reel that there is a mutual attraction between Walter and Cheryl; quickly enough she becomes both his muse and soul mate. The real payoff which I'm not going to give away, comes about a minute before the final frames of the movie where we see Walter and Cheryl holding hands for the first time. To some critics, the resolution of this movie was the biggest letdown since they discovered that Rosebud was only a sled.

Personally I found the resolution of this story nothing less than sublime. The real message of the film is more complicated than: "just do it." As I see it, the message is that it may be better to do than to dream, but in order to live a complete life, they're both important. And finally, that we all hold the quintessence of life right in the palm of our hands, but sometimes we have to go to the ends of the earth to find it.

Those may not be the most profound messages in the world, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty certainly doesn't rank up there with the great films of all time. But for the life of me, I haven't been able to stop thinking about the movie since I saw it.

*The real Life ceased publication as a weekly magazine back in 1972. It resurfaces from time to time in commemorative issues published by its parent company Time INC.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Old signs

An article called Nostalgia's Burning Glow, written by Ginia Bellafonte in the New York Times questions the current trend of preserving old, defunct signs in the urban landscape. The author makes some interesting points asking why we are so fond of these signs advertising products our "enlightened" era finds distasteful or harmful; in her words:
mammoth emblems to industries whose output or methods of production are (or were) anathema to a prevailing value system that holds in relentless contempt anything processed, chemically supplemented, bought in a chain store or intended for ingestion more than 11 minutes after harvest.
Bellafonte uses the examples of the well known Domino Sugar and Pepsi Cola signs along the East River in Brooklyn and Queens respectively, that are prominently visible across the river in Manhattan. While "liberal" New Yorkers gleefully endorsed former Mayor Bloomberg's law banning the sale of "super sized" sugar-laden soft drinks, Bellafonte claims those same people ironically loved the signs and wholeheartedly approved of their preservation, including the great lengths taken to keep them standing.

Not satisfied that people are just thinking inconsistently about these signs and what they represent, the author goes further to define the issue in terms of class struggle. She suggests there is a disingenuous nature to the longings of well-heeled, upper-middle class New Yorkers who are fascinated by these symbols of a more modest world or: extension of creative class fetish for the workingman’s life.
About the endangered, roof-mounted Kentile Floor sign that has been a landmark for riders on the F train through the industrial neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn for fifty years, Bellafonte writes:
...there is almost no one belonging to the brownstone Brooklyn renovating class who has ever said, “You know, for the living room I’m just going to forgo the reclaimed zebrawood and retain the integrity of the 1958 vinyl flooring.
Yet according to Bellafonte, the Brooklyn renovating class almost to a person wholeheartedly supports the preservation of the sign above the factory that manufactured vinyl flooring until the 1990s. It would be much better the author chimes in, if those pampered New Yorkers put their time and effort into supporting the cause of the working class people of today, rather than the icons of their ancestors.

Beyond the heavy-handed, class conscious arguments of Ms. Bellafonte which I find somewhat ridiculous, I disagree with the assertion that people are interested in these signs purely out of a sense of nostalgia.  The signs that folks are interested in preserving are examples of great industrial and graphic design, and as objects were crafted with care and an eye for quality that we are unlikely to find in today's throw away world. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, most of the signs and their supporting structures are beautiful objects in their own right, at least in my own opinion.

Our cities are reflections of ourselves and those who came before us. Great cities are not torn down and re-built with each new generation, but evolve over time. Each generation contributing bits and pieces of itself, combined with bits and pieces of other generations, create a gigantic crazy-quilt pattern of architectural and design styles which gives a city its sense of place. Some of my favorite cities like Rome, London, and New York are prime examples of this. All three are layered with centuries' worth of cultures built on top of, or right next to one another.

I said in an earlier post that "advertising speaks volumes about the culture that created it." We think of ancient cities as consisting of austere temples and cathedrals as that is what remains of them. As we've lost much if not all of the ephemeral, low culture of the past, we forget that life went on well beyond those sacred spaces. It's the presence of that low culture ephemera that differentiates a living, breathing city with a city of ruins, a place of the dead.

As someone who is interested in historic preservation, I believe we need to consider holding on not only to the high culture: the great landmarks such as notable buildings and monuments of the past, but also to the low: mundane objects like vernacular architecture, examples of outmoded technology like water tanks, and yes, even defunct signs. Obviously we can't save everything; the rights of property owners must be taken account, especially because it is they who are left to foot the bill to maintain structures that in themselves may not have any commercial worth to them.

While keeping these monuments to the past which have no inherent value may seem frivolous and inefficient, that very frivolity is an indication that a city is alive and well.

Long may those signs live.