Posted in Observations

The World of Tomorrow

The future ain’t what it used to be.
Yogi Berra-

1939-new-york-worlds-fair-poster-220x300But what it used to be was fabulous.

If you’d like to know how this country once embraced the possible, go to the Museum of the City of New York for “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930’s,” now on display through March 31st. Equal parts commercial enterprise, scientific exposition and amusement park, the Depression Era world’s fairs each had an unmistakable WOW factor. Beginning with the Chicago fair of 1933-34 and covering the lesser-known expositions of San Diego (1935-36), Great Lakes/Cleveland (1936-37) and the Texas Centennial (1936), the exhibit culminates with San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition and the New York World’s Fair, both held in 1939-40. While the architecture ranged from Chicago’s classic art deco to Dallas’s ur-Southwest to San Francisco’s pan-Pacific, what each of these fairs had to say about America was remarkably similar.

There’s a big-heartedness in the vision, an open-mindedness as to what could be, as the fairs’ slogans proclaim. A Century of Progress. The Dawn of a New Day. The World of Tomorrow. Attendees saw man-made lightning at the General Electric Pavillion, a live General Motors automobile assembly line, and Electro the smoking robot and his equally radio-tubed dog, Sparko, courtesy of Westinghouse. They marvelled at displays of homes of the future, cities to come and super-highways, and were the first to behold images produced and transmitted by a new technology known as television. Is it any wonder that the signature souvenir of the 1939 New York World’s Fair was GM’s pin, proudly stating “I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE“?

1933 Chicago World's Fair
1933 Chicago World’s Fair

Each of these fairs married technology, commercialism and innovation in design in a manner that has yet to be duplicated. All of this is on full display in the Museum’s exhibit, which showcases the participation of industrial giants like Ford, Chrysler, Borden (loved the automatic cow milking carousel), Wonder Bakeries and many others, without which the fairs would have remained a pipe dream. And, incidentally, would not have been a source of employment for thousands of people, before, during and after the fairs’ existence.

It’s fascinating to see Electro himself, promotional films for each of the fairs and the full array of souvenirs, games and ephemera they produced. Most haunting, though, are the home movies, especially those shot at the New York fair, since a considerable number of these are in color (when you’re so used to seeing historic images in black and white, the sight of the same views in Technicolor is eye-popping indeed). Equally memorable are the designs considered but discarded by the fairs’ planners which line the walls of the Museum’s display.

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The Museum of the City of New York is one of those rare places that’s open seven days a week (closed for major holidays). If you go, be sure to visit an equally compelling exhibit, “Activist New York,” that features abolitionists, suffragettes, garment workers, school protestors and gays and lesbians, among other groups, in full cry. Great stuff.

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Posted in Television

Resetting “Homeland”

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It arrived when it was most needed.

“The Choice,” last night’s season-ender of “Homeland,” was a long-overdue reset of the show. We saw Brody hike off into the woods toward Canada, and never was this series more in need of a time-out. I love “Homeland” and want it to stick around, but the show has been in need of adjustment for a while.

The powers-that-be have been painting themselves into a corner with Brody for two seasons.  Where were they going to go with the character after he murders Tom Walker, kidnaps and kills the tailor from Gettysburg and ultimately furnishes Abu Nazir with the means to kill the Vice President, topped off by his refusal to summon help in time to save him? He’s a U.S. Congressman who disappears for hours and days at a clip and nobody says anything? I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but this verged on the ridiculous some time ago.

There’s been a lot of critical chatter that this season saw a perceptibly weakened Carrie—that the Carrie of Season One who was strong in spite of her bipolar disorder was lost along the way. To my way of thinking, yes and no. Was she a fool for love? In the latter half of the season, yes, but only after she had Brody arrested for treason and proceeded to break him in interrogation. What’s more worrisome to me is that her radar’s been de-calibrated. She’s at her best when she trusts her gut, and you knew her gut told her to shoot Brody after the explosion in last night’s episode. She was straining to do it, every fiber of her being told her to do it, but Brody and her heart overrode her instincts (nicely done, Claire Danes).

Too bad she’s backing the wrong horse. I think he’s guilty as sin and has been playing her all along. But that’s the beauty of “Homeland”—you just never know.

I really enjoyed the twist of Brody’s confession resurfacing, taken out of context from the aborted suicide bombing and applied to the mega-explosion at the CIA. While I disliked the character at first, it was great to see Quinn ask the right questions and finally sing Carrie’s praises. His confrontation with Estes was so quiet, yet so epic: “I’m the guy who kills bad guys.” Eeep.

What does the future hold? In no particular order, hopefully less Dana. Her involvement with the VP’s son, the subsequent hit and run, and her interminable meltdowns created an absolute sinkhole. On the other hand, I expect more Quinn, and I’d love to see F. Murray Abraham back as Mr. Black Ops with the ever-changing addresses.

Before “Homeland” I was never a Mandy Patinkin fan. Now I’m a card-carrying member of the club, because his Saul Berenson is indispensable. He knows Carrie like no one else, and he’s nobody’s fool. And now he’s Acting Director of the CIA? And Carrie will become a section chief? Bring it on, please.

We still don’t know who the mole at the CIA is—oops, maybe was. I had my money on Estes, but I’m sure there will be confederates surfacing next year. And what happened with Roya Hammad, who managed to turn the tables on Carrie? And who was the Al Qaeda spokesman who appeared on the broadcast of Brody’s confession?

All the more to look forward to.

Posted in Television

Before Their Time

We all have our lists of TV shows that jumped the shark, whether early in the game or much further down the road. But what about those intriguing series that other people, not to mention the networks, thought were not quite up to snuff? The shows forced to walk the plank before things really had a chance to gel, or even worse, weren’t renewed when they were so clearly on the verge of delivering?

Exhibit A, ladies and gents—the new “Upstairs Downstairs.”

Caspar Landry and Lady Agnes...what might have been?
Caspar Landry and Lady Agnes…what might have been?

Why did this show die after just two truncated seasons? The BBC’s failure to renew it left us all dangling after the development of some great story lines, not to mention that bang-up finale. True, “Upstairs Downstairs” had several strikes against it before Series Two even began filming—we were left Lady Maud-less when Eileen Atkins quit the show, Jean Marsh’s screen time was limited because of the effects of her minor stroke, and there was a huge elephant in the TV ratings known as “Downton Abbey.”

Nevertheless, life at 165 Eaton Place had some engrossing twists and turns, in the drawing-room as well as below stairs. Pritchard, the butler, was shunned by the staff and ultimately lost a lady friend when his status as a “conchie” (a World War I conscientious objector) was revealed. Sir Hallam, a stalwart at the Foreign Office, had an affair with his young sister-in-law, who never quite gave up her fondness for men in Nazi uniform—or sharing diplomatic information with them. Hallam’s Aunt Blanche, a renowned Egyptologist, renewed and later ended her relationship with the married Lady Portia. And best of all, we saw Lady Agnes fall for Caspar Landry, a Jewish-American manufacturer, who gallantly refused to compromise her reputation. There were guest appearances by the Duke of Kent, not to mention Ambassador Joe Kennedy with son Jack in tow. And Jean Marsh’s short scenes in two episodes were especially poignant.

“Upstairs Downstairs” left us on the verge of World War II, with relationships unsettled and characters about to undertake new roles in life. I know there was a lot of “it was never as good as the original” squawking about the show, but I found it absorbing. How the season ended pointed to some foreseeable yet intriguing possibilities. I have no doubt that had the show continued, we would have seen Lady Agnes heroically drive an ambulance through the height of the Blitz, Sir Hallam undertake a dangerous mission, and Caspar Landry return to London as a U.S. Army officer, probably consummating that mutual attraction with Lady Agnes at long last. Sadly, we’ll never know.

firefly_wallpaper24“Firefly” was another series whose table was set, only to have the banquet cancelled. If you’re a Joss Whedon fan, it was so easy to see what he would have delivered. Certainly there would have been a phenomenal flashback showing how Zoe and Wash fell in love, even though she initially thought he was a total dweeb. There was some tremendous backstory on Shepard Book just waiting to be told—those skills of his didn’t exactly match that collar he wore. And I’m sure we would have gotten so much more about Inara’s past, present and future clients (Speaking of Inara, I have no doubt that the Counselor, her female client, would have been a powerful ally in future episodes).

Yet another excellent series that met the guillotine far too early was the more recent “FlashForward.” We all have our favorites, so feel free to vent your frustration here.

Posted in Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Music, Television

Brain Bits in Autumn

The rule of thumb in film has always been “show, don’t tell.” So when “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, shows, it’s riveting. The heated debates on the floor of the House of Representatives over the proposed 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, the calculated arm-twisting to obtain those precious votes, first by a trio of hired guns, then by Lincoln himself—marvelous entertainment. But when we get to the telling—and telling and telling—when Lincoln spins yet another yarn or delivers one more parable, your urge to imitate Secretary Stanton’s disgust by leaving the room may be overwhelming. By the end of the film, when Lincoln sits at the bargaining table for peace talks with the Confederate commissioners, you may be uttering a heartfelt “Yes” when one of these Southern gentlemen warns “Spare us your pieties, sir.”

On the plus side, you couldn’t ask for a better cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is surrounded by some of the best lincoln-daniel-day-lewis_810character actors in the business: David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, Hal Holbrook in a marvelous turn as Blair, Lee Pace (the dandy, Rep. Fernando Wood) , Michael Stulbarg, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, John Hawke, James Spader, Jared Harris (the last two almost unrecognizable), Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln. Sally Field delivers a terrific Mary Todd Lincoln, but her inclusion is emblematic of a major flaw in this film—at times it feels like it’s made of mismatched parts. When the subject is war, slavery, politics or reconstruction, the film just sings.  When it’s about Tad (who gets far too much screen time) or other matters, you long to get back to another round of Congressmen insulting each other on the House floor or to finally sit down with those Confederate peace commissioners whom Lincoln has so strategically delayed. Lincoln did indeed suffer numerous personal tragedies throughout his life, and his relationship with Mary was a difficult one, but those stories have been portrayed many times. “Lincoln” shows us perhaps the best and shrewdest politician in our nation’s history (FDR is a close second) at work, and had Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, focused exclusively on that aspect of his life, I think they would have had a better movie.

The last view Spielberg gives us of the living Lincoln may be trite, but it’s still stunning. As his faithful valet watches him depart the White House for Ford’s Theater, we see Lincoln walking into the deepening blue of an April twilight. Absolutely breathtaking, and shown without a word.

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boardwalk-empire-nucky-chalky“Boardwalk Empire” ends its third season tomorrow night, and I’m dreading the outcome.

The show runners long ago made their point—and remade it to the point of exhaustion—that Gyp Rosetti is a lunatic. I’m surprised they didn’t emblazon an “N for Nut” on his Anthony Wayne hat to top off his antics. But he’s had his uses. I don’t think I was alone in smirking when he pitched his tent (“Heigh ho!”) in Gillian’s Artemis Club in last Sunday’s episode, “Two Imposters.” I loved how Gretchen Mol played Gillian’s barely concealed disgust at the invasion of Jimmy’s her elegant mansion. So much for harp-accompanied poetry, particularly when the boys are humping your young ladies in your well-appointed living room.

Any episode in which Chalky White gets quality screen time makes me happy, so I was gratified to see Michael K. Williams strut his stuff in the stand-off with Gyp. How long Chalky and Nucky will remain BFFs is anybody’s guess, but I suspect the present alliance will be enough, along with the cadre from Chicago, to take care of business.

My biggest concern is Richard Harrow. The promo for the season finale does not seem encouraging—it looks like he attempts to shoot his way out of the Artemis Club, thus the reason for the marshalling of weapons we saw last week. And he appears to aim at a woman whom I hope is Gillian. This season of “Boardwalk Empire” has demonstrated, if nothing else, that the show runners made a huge mistake in killing off Jimmy and Angela Darmody, who lent an emotional cast to the show that’s been sorely missed. Let’s hope they don’t compound the error by eliminating Richard. May he live to kidnap Tommy, marry Julia and grow rich working for Nucky.

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If I had to name my favorite classical music works, Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” would surely make the short list. Late autumn is the perfect time of year to listen to this, and there’s no better depiction of the season than “Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn),” the second song in the cycle. The mezzo-soprano is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Enjoy.