Saturday, February 25, 2012

"A Screwy Business, All High Key or Low"

(Note:  Because I'll be away, my next posting will be March 10th.)

With the Oscar nomination of the new silent film, The Artist, plus Hugo which features old silent movie film clips, I'm reminded of hearing tales of the days when the silents were the only game in town.  And we all know which town I'm talking about.  Hollywood.  The same, as it happens, where I was born. We were in Hollywood because some years before, my father had set out one day in his 1919 Model T flivver to drive to California from his native East Coast.  The year was 1923.  A cousin went with him.  The pavement gave out in St. Charles, Missouri.  The route after that was marked but they had to contend with broken springs, flat tires, lost chains, a bent steering wheel, deep mud, and trees across the road.  At one point, they followed what my father called "a course that would have broken a snake's back."

Their final day, as he wrote his family, they "reached civilization and - good roads, and what roads they are.  ... We drove on thru long groves of oranges, walnuts, lemon and grapefruit trees, grape vineyards, - thru shady lines of eucalyptus and pepper trees ... and I know you will think I am exaggerating - but the poinsettias grew from fifteen to twenty feet high.  Gosh!"

He very soon had a job at Famous Players-Lasky (which became Paramount Pictures) first as a grip and then as a second cameraman who helped the first cameraman and sometimes shot the film.  He lived across from the studio lot when it was then on a gravel street lined with pepper trees.  He'd wake at the last minute and dash over through the wardrobe department.

He shot what he called horse operas ... nonsense comedies ... silent films when a small orchestra played "sob stuff" (as he called it) to enhance the on-set mood.  He shot films hanging onto the side of speeding cars.  He shot scenery over Mt. Whitney and Death Valley from a tri-motored Bach Air Yacht plane that barely escaped tangling with a barbed wire fence when landing to refuel.  He picked bread dough out of cameras when an ill-timed explosion sent dough and splinters flying.  It could be dangerous work, he said.

On one Esther Ralston film, he shot from a platform built on the back of a car.  With only a four-inch clearance, the car raced down the road at 55 mph alongside the heroine's high-powered foreign car going at the same speed.  Since she was supposedly waving to her father on a train next to the highway, she'd take both hands off the wheel to wave, swerving the car badly.  It was a wonder, my father said, that she didn't smash into the camera car where he was filming.  Then, when shooting the 1926 classic, Old Ironsides--a ship in full sail with rigging, ropes, and ballast--my father had just come down from the golden ball at the top of the mainmast when a rough swell snapped and toppled it, taking the mizzenmast with it.

My father filming Old Ironsides off Catalina Island in 1926

He called it "a screwy business, all high key or low.  Either abysmally sluggish or fantastically exaggerated.  Likewise, emotions were at a similar pitch and tempermentality rode uninhibited; it was either evanescent or scowlingly subdued.  As went the stars' morale, so followed that of the entire troupe," he once wrote.

There were humorous times as well.  When directing an epic on a spectacular set with hundreds of extras, one "German director of ample paunch but scant hair" (my father forgot his name) took the entire morning to arrange everyone for the climatic battle.  By one o'clock, everyone was hungry.  Oblivious to the crew's appetite, the director seemed satisfied.  Everything was set.  Cameras started to roll.  But, fumbling for the English word, "Charge," he bellowed through his megaphone, "Launch!"  At which the entire cast threw down their weapons and went to lunch.

My father loved the work, the fun of it, the team work, the jokes and gaffs.  He loved setting himself the task of looking through a lens, adjusting exposures, figuring angles.  He played ball with Jack Holt, a Western star he was shooting.  He danced with actress Billie Dove, a former Follies star.  He filmed Boris Karloff as a Saracen sailor.  He worked with Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton, a young Gary Cooper.  Other names have gone the way--Richard Arlen, ZaSu Pitts, Sally Blaine, Wally Beery.  And many of the films have surely disintegrated in their cans.  The Blind Goddess, The Enchanted Hill, Looie the Fourteenth.  As for California, he loved it, too, and wrote home that first year that he picked a rose blossom as late as December 28th ... unheard of in his native East Coast.  He returned East to visit but never again to live.

And he loved describing those days when he worked on what he called "the flickers--when movies were movies."

What Makes February February

Waiting for March
Purposefully getting a new bouquet each week to brighten things up
Realizing the days are getting lighter
Finishing up this season's Downton Abbey

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Winter Paintings

I'm very fond of winter paintings because of the nuance of the whites, creams, greys.  In my own work, I tend to pop in a lot of softened blues and purples for the sky and shadows.  And sometimes a bit of lemon yellow for the weakened sunlight.  But of all the seasons, I've produced the fewest of winter.  I find it impossible to be out in the cold, though once--I was in Scotland and it was supposed to be spring--I worked in my mittens.  And though I often do (only) landscapes from photos, I rarely scout out possible scenes this time of year.

However, here are some I've done in oil.

"Winter Light"
"In the Silence"
"Winter Along Kipling Road"
"Last Light"
"January Hillside"

And here's a Santa Fe scene in watercolor.
"Winter Chamisa"

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Finding Designs in the Everyday: Living Alone in the Later Years

I've come up with an admittedly casual list that I thought I'd pass along to those of us who are older, whose lives are probably quite different than they were some years ago.  So what are the rest of us experiencing?  Or how do we keep our lives fresh as some of our old ways go-the-way?  As our family structure shifts, our jobs come to an end, our bodies change ... but, also, as our spirit and wisdom continue to grow?

Of course, each of us has talents and fingers in different pies whether we collect recipes, meditate, re-stack library books, make jewelry, act as justice of the peace, serve on a board, do our member hours in a coop, host sister-city visitors, or research a book on crony vs. free-market capitalism.  Each of our lists will obviously be different, but here's one I came up with one afternoon.
The design the shadow of my apple tree makes in the snow

* Keep a good degree of silence.  It helps equalize things around you and also lets you listen to what's inside you.
* Do something creative regularly whether piano, art, writing, clay, cello ...
* Open your door each morning and say hello to the grass/snow, trees, sky.  To the day itself.
* Get a good camera and find designs in the everyday, the ordinary.
* Keep a blog.  It will keep you on your toes.
* Explore a new or re-visit a favorite destination.  The seacoast, a winery, the city.
* Spread out a jigsaw puzzle to work on.  Treat it like a meditation.
* Get in your car and explore back roads.
* Find a good route to walk regularly.
* Tend something that's growing--a whole garden, an indoor plant.
* Keep your silver polished, cupboards and closets cleaned out.  You'll feel spiffier.
* Frequent your local stores (to help support your local economy) but keep shopping to a minimum.  At this point in our lives, who needs more things!
* Read.  Re-read books you love.  Keep a books-read journal.
* Consider downsizing.  Definitely de-clutter.  How many sets of dishes, sheets, towels do you really need?
* Keep your house and car clean and in good working order.  They are a part of who you are.
* Be fussy about what you watch--TV, movies, news.
* Consider writing poetry.  As The New Yorker says, it has "a way of slowing down time."
* Put aside anything that doesn't energize you.
* Do away with expectation.  Life has its own agenda.
* Laugh.  Breathe.  Take soaking baths.
* Don't be afraid to say "no."
* Drink lots of water.
* Watch your words.  For instance, don't say, "I can't stand it" or "Give me a break."  Your body believes what you say and just might accommodate you in ways you don't want.
* Let the people who are important to you know that they're important.
* Consider this quotation by Rilke:  "Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us."
* Get more rest.  Get more exercise.
* Always keep a spare car key with you.
* And, ever-important, help someone in some way.

In seeking designs in the everyday, the commonplace, here are some I've found.


1.  Stacked egg cartons
2.  The red handle of a shovel
3.  A little kid contraption
4.  Chinese noodles

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Calendar Talk

A Tibetan calendar

It all started when I realized that Queen Elizabeth will be observing the sixtieth anniversary of her accession to the throne in just two days now, on February 6th, the day her father died in 1952, prompting Diamond Jubilee celebrations this year.  So how much longer will it be, I wondered, before she becomes Britain's longest-reigning monarch?  For that, I found we'll have to wait until September 10, 2015 ... though Elizabeth, at 85, has now lived longer than Victoria who died when she was 81.

Then I learned that 2012 has been designated the Alan Turing Year in commemoration of the English cryptographer's birth just a hundred years ago.  Turing was a mathematician who helped break the German code during World War II when he worked at Bletchley Park with the Enigma machine--work which contributed to the subsequent invention of the computer.  (Too bad it took a war to invent the computer.)

Wondering about other '12 years besides our own, I did a little research.  Here's what I came up with.

1912.  Two separate expeditions went off to be the first at the South Pole--one (Amundsen's) a total success using sled dogs, the other (Scott's) a total failure using horses.  The airplane was coming into its own with the first parachute jump from a moving plane, the first use of a plane for military purposes, and the first bombing from a plane.  The RMS Titanic sank.  Japan ended its Meiji era and also sent 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C.  The theory of continental drift was proposed.  Born:  Kim Philby, Charles Addams, Jackson Pollock, Erich Leinsdorf, Eva Braun, Lawrence Durrell, Pat Nixon, Wernher von Braun, Sonja Henie, Studs Terkel, Heinrich Harrer, Woody Guthrie, Milton Friedman, Julia Child, Gene Kelly, and Lady Bird Johnson.  Died:  Robert Falcon Scott (and the other members of his expedition), Clara Barton, John Jacob Astor IV (and other passengers on the Titanic), August Strindberg, Wilbur Wright, Jules Massenet.

1812.  A time of conflict when the War of 1812 began between the U.S. and Britain ... Lord Wellington fought in the Peninsular War (Spain) ... Napoleon was making trouble in Europe, invading Russia and fighting in the Battle of Borodino ... and Luddites, in desperation, were turning violent against English industry.  (Lord Byron apparently addressed the House of Lords on their behalf.)  James Madison was re-elected President.  The first volume of Grimms Fairy Tales was published.  Born:  Charles Dickens, Robert Browning.  Died:  Sacagawea.

1712.  Two Englishmen came up with an invention which harnessed steam power in a practical way.  Born:  Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

1612.  Shah Jahan married Mumtaz Mahal (for whom he later built the Taj Mahal).  Galileo Galilei was the first to observe Neptune though thought it a fixed star.  Born:  Samuel Butler.  Died:  Giovanni Gabrieli.

A calendar from India

In prowling these sources, I found a good site for what I might call "2012 in Other Calendars."  This year, for instance, is 6761 in the Assyrian calendar.  2555 in the Buddhist.  5771-5772 in the Hebrew.  1389-1390 in the Iranian.  5112-5113 in the Kali Yuga (Hindu).  And I found two calendars I wasn't aware of--and their subsequent reckoning for 2012.

1. The Anno Urbis Conditae which counts from the founding of Rome.  2764.

2. And Unix time calculated in seconds since January 1, 1970.  So:  1293840000 - 1325375999.

Finally, I'm glad we can at last more or less agree to call this and upcoming years The Twenty-somethings and put aside that Two Thousand usage.  After all, we say Nineteen-o-eight, not One-thousand, Nine-hundred and Eight.  And then when 2000 came around, people tagged on the awkward, The Year 2000.  Why not jump right in and call it Twenty-hundred, I wondered.  I'm still curious how we'll label the first decade of this century.  I remember hearing my parents call 1900 to 1909 the Naughty Oughties.  What will we come up with?  The Zeros, the Knottys, the Double Dips?

By the way, thanks, Wikipedia.