Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Archive for February 2011

You will doubtless read and hear reviews of Oscar winners and losers in the coming hours.  I, too, have a few thoughts about this year’s statuette holders.  But first, allow me to share some observations about the show itself.

Let’s put aside the old snark that the show was too long.  It was scheduled to run for three hours, and it ran for three hours and about ten minutes.  End of snark.  Of greater import was that a minimum number of set pieces were used in this year’s show; a fact so remarkable that Lisa noticed it…not bad for a pedestrian.

But she went even further to observe that the set changes were done almost entirely with lighting.  She was absolutely right!  Massive arches hung like the colors of a rainbow from one side of the Kodak Theater’s stage to the other.  Upon these arches were projected lights and images.  Each segment was unique; each “set” design enormously appealing.  And while I’m on the subject of production values, some of the award winners were shot in dramatic lighting with a camera from stage left.  This close-up technique produced intimately satisfying results.

On the whole, I’d say it was a good show.  There were, however, some elements that should have been good, and weren’t.

Maybe with my deficient hearing, I should stay away from the subject of sound.  But the contrast between the audio clarity of the packages (taped pieces) and the muffled live stage mic’s was too great to miss or ignore.  On an occasion where technical excellence should be most on display, the live audio missed the mark, and people like me missed many heartfelt words.

I actually looked forward to this year’s Academy Awards show because it was to be hosted by two people for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration: James Franco and Anne Hathaway.  Anne sings and dances and remembers and delivers her lines and looks good while doing it.  James is not only a much-celebrated and prolific actor, he added to his schedule a crushing coarse-load as an English major at UCLA, got his Masters from Columbia University and his PhD from Yale.  He did all of this in the past five years ! How can we not hold him in the highest regard.

So my expectations were high for this year’s hosts.  Anne was pitch perfect in every way.  James seemed to sleep his way through the show.  Very disappointing.  The show’s opening had our intrepid hosts inserted into the scenes of top movies, interacting with top stars in ways that were never intended by the movie’s creators.  It was a good piece, but didn’t Billy Crystal make these show-openers famous for the eight years he hosted?  Couldn’t something fresh have been developed for this show?  And the writing; ugh.  The same tired, cliché-ridden schlock.

Now, the envelope please.

It’s a rare year that I can claim to have seen a fair number of the top movies.  Such was 2010.  Credit where it is due: Lisa and I discovered a low-price/first-run theater about ten miles away.  This made it possible for us to justify the cost versus what we perceive to be usually low value.

Before I get to the juicy categories, some technical notes: the only qualities of Inception that appealed to me were its visual effects and cinematography.  I was pleased that the movie captured Oscars in both categories.

Clearly, Natalie Portman earned her Oscar for Best Actress in Black Swan. She not only had to transform herself into someone she is not, but had to learn a skill she did not have: ballet.  For me, that’s acting.

The same can be said in reverse for Best Actor winner Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.  In this case, the actor had to un-learn decades of masterful elocution to become a stutterer.  Try it sometime: if you are, say, a great singer, try to sing badly.  It’s really hard to do.

As much as I liked The King’s Speech, I leaned toward The Social Network for Best Picture.  It’s story, pacing and current-day relevance captured me.  I especially enjoyed the device Aaron Sorkin (Oscar for Writing – Adapted Screenplay) wrote into the script where not one but two depositions were being taken against the lead character.  These legal proceedings served to bind together what might have been disparate pieces, and they offered opportunities to deliver some of the best lines of a movie filled with great lines.

That said, I was not at all unhappy to see the Directing and Best Picture Oscars go to The King’s Speech.  This was a movie made with a lot of love and not a lot of money – only fifteen million dollars.  It was never imagined to be a big, wide-release movie.  But it caught on, and word-of-mouth quickly propelled it to worldwide distribution and to huge, appreciative audiences.  Frankly, this story – about a man’s disability – was often difficult to watch; no great personal victory was achieved, and nobody lived happily ever after.  But it was quite obviously a story truthfully told, and one that correctly estimated the intelligence of the viewer.  And that, dear friends, will always win the prize from me.

First, there was a popular uprising in Tunisia.  President Ben Ali fled his country, and allegedly took with him 1.5 tons of his country’s gold.  Western media were sparse, and the story faded away.  But Al Jazeera was there, and the video they captured was sent throughout the Arab world.  That video touched a vein in Egypt where the despot Mubarak was eventually unseated by great masses of people.  Tens of billions of his country’s riches were stashed in his name in Swiss bank accounts.  The Swiss have thankfully frozen those assets.

Then came Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and now Libya which seems to be inflicting the harshest punishment against its people.  Qaddafi has claimed that al-Qaeda is supporting his dissenters, and that Osama bin Laden is directly to blame.  On the surface, this seems to be just another bombastic utterance from a madman.

In truth, however, al-Qaeda is licking its chops at the thought of gaining more ground in all of these countries.  And what of al-Qaeda’s mortal enemy, “The Muslim Brotherhood”?  Well, despite rumors to the contrary, the non-violent Brotherhood is doing all it can to help people; all people in the region regardless of religion.

Qaddafi?  He could be gone tomorrow, but not before he and his sons have pillaged untold hundreds of millions.

People of the Arab world, mostly Muslim, are clamoring for change; for freedom from dictatorial rule; for democracy.  The Middle East is a hotbed of protest by ordinary people wanting their human rights and a voice in their governments.  We, the free people of the western world, applaud these movements toward democracy.  It’s what we’ve always wished for, isn’t it?  People around the world should enjoy the same freedoms we do.

But events in these far-off lands have consequences right here at home.  Unrest on this scale makes our stock markets nervous.  This puts at risk stocks held by you and me in our 401(k)s, pension funds and investment accounts.  No crystal balls are able to predict what comes next, but it could be that the markets decline; this just after we’ve had a taste of a return to prosperity following “the great recession.”

Oil speculators were bringing up the price of their products – including gasoline  – well before the mid-east got fired up.  Now, the reasoning for yet further price increases is more easily seen.  This, of course, affects you and me even more directly.

Some Middle Eastern nations have diverse economies.  As a whole, however, the main economic engine is oil.  You well know how important oil is to the world; it literally fuels all of commerce.  The great fear now is that current events will bring opportunity to mal-intents who would destroy the oil fields and pipelines.

As a side note, Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the region, seems to be on stable footing.  King Aziz is well-liked by his people and an uprising there seems unlikely.  Add to that the fact that the American government stands ready to “assist” its ally if their oil resources are threatened.  So say the insiders.

And, of course, we should recognize that Israel is particularly nervous about current events.  It perceives its security to be at risk.  Here again, America stands ready to protect its ally in a heartbeat.  Wouldn’t that be an interesting military scenario?  Putting aside the fact that we have our troops already spread thinly in Iraq and Afghanistan, now we’d have military assets in four countries in the same region.  The geopolitical nuances of this picture should cause our heads to spin.

The chattering class is busier than ever, expressing sometimes insightful opinion,  sometimes inciting rhetoric about all of this; you’ve likely heard lots of it over the past couple of months.  One analyst took a macro view on Charlie Rose the other night.  He was talking about the rise in oil prices not from the perspective of the impacts on our wallets, but of the impacts on nations.  He said, “If the price of a barrel of oil reaches, say, $175, that will have a crippling effect on the Mozambique’s of the world.”

Sure, Mozambique is just one country.  But there are many just like it.  Nations of doomed people will wreak havoc upon their governments and infrastructures and will then starve to death.  The cumulative effect of many third-world countries on the world’s economy should be easy to see.  And the possibility of stronger economies declining as a result is also a logical thought.

The picture being painted before our very eyes is really quite frightening.  We’re hoping for the best, but there’s a little catch in our gut telling us that things look pretty bad.  There are doomsayers who are using current events as substantiation for the fulfillment of prophecy, and they could be right.  Maybe things are lining up for an ‘end-of-the-world’ scenario.

But I just keep thinking about the number of times I’ve heard similar assertions – made both by the well-meaning and the crazy – that turned out to be, well, wrong.  Things do look bad now.  There is much to worry about.  But let’s compare notes again in a couple of months.  My money is on our being in far better shape then than we now fear.

My father once bought a Dodge Neon because he liked the TV commercial.  This he did without consideration of the fact that my mother couldn’t see over the dashboard when she drove it.  Was this a smart, economical, low-maintenance buying decision or a bad buying decision?

My smartphone has been on life-support for a year and a half.  It finally expired last month.  I’ve written many a blog post with that thing from hospital rooms and such, and I truly miss its functionality.  I am now using a “feature” phone; “feature” being an industry term meaning ‘without features.’  It’s a clamshell-style (flip open) phone with number buttons and very little else.  It isn’t even adequate as a cellphone, much less as a smartphone.

So, I studied Consumer Reports and CNet and several other credible sources.  I did my due diligence and I made a buying decision: I’m going to buy an HTC ThunderBolt.

I’ve made a decision to buy a smartphone that doesn’t exist!

But wait.  It gets worse.

Verizon and HTC are keeping the ThunderBolt‘s launch date under wraps.  It could be next Monday, or next Thursday or the following Monday.  Maybe it will be sometime in the first quarter – the only target officially announced by either company.

The techie blogosphere is buzzing about the device eager to get its digital claws on this latest marvel of smart-phonery.  But they’re frustrated because they don’t know when it’ll be in the stores.  Silly techies…aren’t there more important things in this world to be frustrated about?

The problem is I’m one of them.  Yes, I’ve joined the ranks of the early innovators.  I’ve been calling Verizon every other day to see when they’ll be taking pre-orders and/or when the ThunderBolt will arrive in stores.

Silly me.  Don’t I know there are more important things in this world to be anxious about?

I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Is it because the flu’s going around?  No.  Is it the Valentine’s dinner I shared with my wife; something foul with the Chicken Marsala?  No again.

How about the movie we saw after dinner?

Bingo !

Oh, Black Swan; how did I hate thee?  Let me count the ways.

Black Swan is more a psychological thriller than a movie about ballet.  Nina Sayers – played by Natalie Portman – wins the lead role in a darker, edgier version of Swan Lake.  From the start, everyone is against her; the other dancers, the director, even her mother.  Each victimizes poor Nina in cruel and graphic ways, and she quickly earns your sympathy.  At the same time, she questions her own sanity.

Even if you’ve seen the movie trailers, you’re not prepared for the shocking scenes that await you.  You expect to see the toil, the hard work that goes with big-time ballet productions.  This is, in itself, not pretty.  But Black Swan takes not pretty to another level.

Plenty of movies make you jump out of your seat.  It’s all good fun if you can brush it off as you leave the cineplex.  But, you don’t go to a ballet movie expecting to see stabbings, murder, graphic sex; all kinds of mayhem perpetrated on the new star.

And then there’s the dancing itself.  Nicely done, I’d like to say, but I couldn’t see enough of it due to the overused handheld camera technique.  They didn’t even bother to use a steadicam.  Every dance sequence was seen as an extreme close-up and it kinda made me nauseous.

I’ll dig deep to find something good to say.  There was one scene within three minutes of the movie’s end that really awed me.  The white swan is spinning around the stage non-stop.  As she does, she transforms into the black swan during a single, continuous camera shot: feathers, makeup, bloodshot eyes.   Character generation was undoubtedly used, but it was impressive  nonetheless.

I suppose the movie’s producers should be thrilled to have had such a strong – usually positive – impact on its viewers.  But I went to see an Oscar-nominated film, and left with a tummy ache.

Black Swan is a top-10 movie of 2010 for many film critics.  My rating: one Plié (out of four).  Rent it if you must.

P.S.  I didn’t give too much away.  You’re welcome.

Egypt is a mess.  It was a mess before Mubarak and before Sadat.  Now, after decades of repression, subjugation and torture, the Egyptian people have spoken.  They have gained their freedom.  Or have they?

The Egyptian Army is in charge during this “transition” period.  That could be bad; patrols on every corner; the possible emergence of military rule.  But I don’t think that’s what will happen long term.  Why?  Because the army has a business to run; many businesses, in fact.

The army manufactures and markets olive oil, cement, kitchen ware, fire extinguishers, heavy appliances, TV’s and laptops.  They run oil companies and the hotel industry.  The Egyptian Army is responsible for somewhere between five and forty percent of that nation’s economy.  No one knows for sure because the army isn’t showing its books.

Things could go one of two ways, if not more.  First, the army could choose to continue the repression of the Egyptian people, some thirty percent of whom live in abject poverty.  But that would mean that the army would have to divert some of its resources to non-business matters.

More likely, I think, is a scenario where the army releases its control to a new regime as quickly as possible, so as to return full-time to the profitable thing that it is.

To be sure, the Egyptian Army is a fighting force, the largest on the African continent and second largest in the middle-east.  Only Israel’s Army is larger.   Egypt’s Army has allied itself with the U.S. military for its bi-annual “Bright Star” exercises, and fought well in the first Gulf War.  It is also a major buyer of U.S.-made heavy military equipment; some of it licensed for manufacture in Egypt.

But the army’s bread and butter, it knows, is the business conglomerate that it controls.  It is in their best interest to see Egyptians produce and prosper.  In that way, cash will flow into army business coffers.

It should be noted that retired generals and political cronies helm some of these enterprises.  Too, there is a fair amount of corruption in the army’s business ranks.  No one who seeks leadership in the new Egypt will achieve that position without the army’s backing.

But, for the moment, the army is a money-making machine, and would like to stay that way.  They’re interested in stability.  Unrest and chaos are unwelcome.  If that means holding onto power, they will; but, I think, with a soft hand.

Another thing.  The army’s lower ranks, the troops who would be closest to the people if there was military rule, are, financially, little better off than the general populace.  These troops would not be highly motivated to attack their own brothers and sisters who, just yesterday, were playing in their back yards with them.

These are possible “perfect world” scenarios.  There is little “perfect” about things in Egypt these days.  The people have spoken in a mighty way, and for the first time in most of their lives, have won what they perceive to be their freedom.  Their battle was noble, hard-fought and bloody.  But the slate is clean now, as is Tahrir Square.  Many questions must now be asked; answers must be proffered.  What kind of government will be created?  Who will lead Egypt into its next phase in history?

An interesting dichotomy now exists.  Other populations in the region see that it’s possible to win their freedoms; and geo-political and economic interests want a return to (relative) stability in the mid-east.

It’ll be a tough ride for the Egyptian people.  The eyes of the world are upon them.

I love maps.  I can spend hours absorbing details and directions which, often, help me find the way.  It wasn’t till I was in my forties that I learned that my father also loved maps and that, as a child, he’d aspired to become a cartographer.  Could there be some kind of genetic transmission?  It seems unlikely, and yet…

One of Pop’s passions that I did know about was music.  I, too, loved music though never the same kind.  He liked Brahms and Beethoven.  I liked The Beatles and Blood Sweat & Tears.  I was rebellious; so much so that five years of forced piano lessons yielded no ability to play the instrument.  But I did like music.

Pop played about twenty-seven instruments – all of them self-taught beginning as a child.  He composed boxes and boxes of music never to be performed.  He directed church choirs for many decades and wrote spiritual music; even cantata’s for Easter and Christmas.  I remember standing to applaud after one such performance.  It happened in a usually staid Catholic church.  The surprise was that the entire church body also stood and applauded.  He wrote magnificently.

I have two life regrets: one is that I never went to college opting instead to take a military path; and two, that I didn’t apply myself to the piano.  If I had, I, too, could be writing the music that plays in my head.  Sure, I could learn now.  But I’m busy.  Maybe later.  Leave me alone.

When I was old enough to be a credible high tenor, I was allowed (or perhaps forced, I don’t remember) to join Pop’s choir at St. Catherine’s Church in Glen Rock, New Jersey.  On the big occasions, Pop would set up a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder and two microphones maybe ten yards apart.  I was fascinated with the process of taping the concert.  When we got home, I’d listen in my headphones to catch the nuances of a stereo recording.

Not too many years later, I had become a good enough technician that I engineered and announced radio programs.  More than that, I engineered three record albums, two of them with my father among the musicians.

I joined the U.S. Air Force to become a broadcaster.  Part of that experience, beginning in tech school, was to learn how to write professionally, how to record audio and video and then how to edit.  I worked hard to learn it, but in the end, it was all great fun and I did it well.

I went on to enjoy six of the best years of my life.  I wrote lots of scripts and produced many television and radio programs – several of which won huge awards.  One award was for a song.  I’d written the lyrics, and separately engineered the recording of voices and of the famed Air Force Band.  What a life.

After the Air Force, it was commercial radio, independent television production, and leadership of a crew that assembled an internationally-viewed thirty-minute TV show each week.

All this from a reel-to-reel tape deck set up in a church choir loft.  Thanks, Pop.

Somewhere between the living room radio console with its huge tubes, and the slick component stereo system with its big speakers lived the transistor radio.  This was in the fifties and sixties.  AM stations were king.  FM radio as we now know it was soon to be born.

My mother likes to tell a story set in my first-ever home; a 5-story walk-up in the Bronx.  She says that I would take my portable transistor radio into a closet along with a soup spoon.  There, using the closet as a sound studio and the spoon as a microphone,  I would mimic the words I heard spoken.  I was two and a half.  This was the beginning of a life-long love affair with radio.

New York City was Mecca in so many ways, but none more profound to me than its powerful radio stations.  This was true in my young life, and grew into the teen years.  There was WABC, first and foremost – the station playing top-20 hits and had the best DJ’s around: Herb Oscar Anderson, who would open his morning show singing his own song, “Hello again, here’s my best to you.  Are your skies all gray?  I hope they’re blue”;  the always-upbeat “laughin’ and scratchin'” “Big Dan” Ingram (“Hi, Kemosabe”, meaning ‘faithful friend’ in Potawatomi); “Gravelly-voiced human rock encyclopedia Scott Muni (“The Professor”); and the legendary “Cousin Brucie”, Bruce Morrow who’s show was a daily must-listen for teenagers.

WABC had a number of infamous competitors, among them WINS, WOR, and WMCA.  All had memorable personalities at the helm, and all had devoted listeners.  All claimed sponsorship of The Beatles to America and, in varying degrees, all of them did.  It was a great time for music and a great time to be a kid.

I heard the hits and absorbed every spoken syllable with my brown leatherette-clad 9-volt battery-powered transistor radio which was not much larger than a than a pack of cigarettes.

I couldn’t sleep at night for fear that I would miss something.  Like so many other kids, I hid my little radio under the pillow.  I had one of those early-model earbuds so no one could hear it.  I slowly, carefully turned the dial to see what distant stations I could pick up from my northern New Jersey home:  Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, Charlotte.  I didn’t even know where some of these places were, so, I thought,  they must be very far away.

I watched “Murray the K” demonstrate how a professional turntable works during a segment of TV’s Wonderama.  Few books about contemporary radio were available at that time.  What there were, I read.

It was around 1967 that I began to hear a different kind of voice.  WNEW-AM had morning funnymen Klavan & Finch, then Julius LaRosa and William B. Williams who weaved stories of Americana and celebrity between songs that grownups liked.  I began to take notice of talk show hosts like Barry Farber, Joe Franklin, Jean Shepherd, Long John Nebel and John (rambling with) Gambling.  The seeds  of talk were by now deeply planted in me and would germinate later.

It was also around 1967 that popular music took a turn for the serious.  The happy hit songs were slowly overshadowed by the events of our times: race riots, women’s rights, civil liberties, the moon landing and Woodstock.  The Beatles were, themselves, partly responsible for bringing this metamorphosis about: Sergeant Pepper… and The White Album signaled a change in musical sophistication and in the influence music would have on a generation.

Along with the change in music came a change in radio formatting.  A new kind of presentation was necessary for the new music; ‘Freeform’ came first, then ‘Album-oriented rock’.  These formats called for an eclectic mix of longer songs and longer non-stop music sets from artists who gave us folk and jazz fusion and hard rock.

The station that did this first and, in my opinion, best, was WNEW-FM led by now-ex WABC DJ Scott Muni.  He gathered around him the top air talent of the day; talent that knew the music, knew the industry, and knew, personally, the artists.  Bands would visit the station frequently for interviews and live performances.  It was quite an intimate experience, these visits, and engendered strong listener loyalty.

Muni himself formed a deep friendship with each of The Beatles and especially with John Lennon until his death.  That “Roscoe” Bill Mercer broke the color barrier was insignificant to us; he was the evening voice as smooth as the smokiest jazz and he loved reading poetry and he liked playing the longest records.  And there was Alison Steele.  Oh my god, how sexy can a woman sound.  There wasn’t a young man for miles who wasn’t smitten by “The Nightbird.”

I was, by this time, the proud owner of a 17-transistor radio with a black leatherette case and eight D-cell batteries.  Somewhat larger than a book, it was the biggest portable radio around.  It was also my first-ever AM and FM-stereo radio.  The quality of the music was important to me.  Equally important, though, was the air talent.  Every time a microphone opened, I listened with rapt attention.

A mic opening meant that something important was about to be said.  A mic opening meant that I had another opportunity to learn something.  The intimacy of the radio medium was at its apex.  The industrial truth, ‘speak as if you’re talking to only one person’, was on prominent display.  This, I knew, was the best radio could be.

Talk radio became my primary focus.  I studied the way the host thought, the way he spoke his thoughts, his tonality and temperment, his ability to reach only me.

I wanted to learn it all because I’d need to know this stuff when it came time for me to open a mic of my own.

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