Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I Touch the Future: Follow-Up

Just for the sake of closure...

Endeavour is on the ground. Barbara Morgan is back on Earth. Mission complete.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I made a surprising discovery after finishing this film, when I went back to my Hitchcock biography to read up on it: this was pretty much the same point where I stopped reading the first time around. Clearly, there's something about this period in Hitchcock's career that is deeply uninteresting to me.

I'd like very much to blame that on the stories he's telling. They're not especially, well, Hitchcockian. All the suspense, the intrigue, the dark humor that we expect from one of his films has been missing. And that's certainly true of the latest entry in the oeuvre, The Ring. After all, it's a movie about boxing.

The problem with that theory is this: uniquely among his films, Hitchcock takes a writing credit on The Ring. Unofficially, Hitchcock had a great impact on the story of most of his films, usually through his direct influence on the writers. But to actually slap his name on the title card as writer and director is pretty unusual.

And it's regrettable, because the story of The Ring is pretty simple-minded. Our hero is a carnival attraction by the name of "One Round" Jack Sander (played by the surprisingly stringy Carl Brisson), who earns his nickname by challenging all comers to last more than one round against him in the ring. Of course, since he's a skilled fighter and most of his would-be opponents are either weaker, drunk, or both, "One Round Jack" has things pretty well in hand. He's friends with everyone at the carnival, and he's in love with the ticket girl, whose name is Mabel, or might be Nellie (the character played by Lillian Hall-Davis in the credits as "The Girl", so I was really surprised to find out she might have a name; the IMDb kind of threw things into chaos). For a guy who travels around with circus freaks and makes his living punching people, life is pretty good.

The fly in Jack's ointment is a fellow by the name of Bob Corby (played by Ian Hunter; NOT the MTV VJ). Corby defeats Jack, and then reveals that the whole thing was kind of a cheat; Corby is the world boxing champion, so Jack never had a chance. But Corby is impressed enough to hire Jack as a sparring partner, and to give him a chance to work his way up through the ranks. So things are ever brighter for Jack, except that Corby has an ulterior motive. He's infatuated with Mabel/Nellie/Whatsername, and he's already plying her with trinkets like an arm bracelet. Soon enough, Jack realizes that he's going to have to fight for his girl, both literally and metaphorically.

I have two major gripes with The Ring. The first is the boxing. It looks terrible. The film culminates -- very much like Rocky -- with a lengthy, dramatic battle inside the ropes, and the whole thing falls apart because the boxing is so wussy. Honestly, it looks like a Girl Scout fight. I was inclined to chalk it up to lousy casting, until I read that Carl Brisson got the part because a middleweight boxing champ. Which led to my new theory: that boxing in the 1920s was awful.

But the much bigger grievance, and the one that actually made me angry, involves the central conflict of the film. Jack is losing his girl to Corby, and he feels powerless to stop it. There's a good reason for him to feel this way: his girl is a cheap slut. Seriously. The moment -- I'm telling you, the very moment -- that Corby starts coming on to her, she completely loses interest in Jack. She even marries Jack, and yet hardly gives him the time of day. Most telling is a wild 1920s hullaballoo in their apartment, where Corby fawns all over Mabel/Nellie, and all she does is look contemptuously at Jack. Sweet girl. So knowing that the outcome of the fight depends on her choice of man is infuriating. She's done nothing to deserve it.

And all the while, Jack seems to do nothing but quietly bemoan his fate. When he invites all his old pals from the carnival over to the new home, and The Girl is nowhere to be seen, all they can do is look at each other sadly while he pathetically stews about his delinquent wife. In other words, the man has a backbone made of Jell-O. Oh, he seethes at Corby, destroying a punching bag while watching his wife flirt with the champ. But he doesn't say one word to the woman he presumably loves.

This comes to forefront in a pivotal scene at a nightclub, where Jack has gone looking for his wife. He finds Corby, who cheerfully offers him a glass of champagne. (In a nicely acted moment, Brisson coldly pours it on the floor.) But more importantly, he has a cheerless dance with a pretty reveler (much prettier than Mabel/Nellie, if you ask me) who clearly is smitten with him, but whom he blows off. Now good for him for the sanctity or marriage and all that, but what was clear to me was that Jack's really alright. He's not a total pushover; he's a fighter, and the chicks dig him. But when it comes to The Girl, he's a total pussy. And that's what I was yelling at the screen: "Jack, you idiot! She totally doesn't deserve you! Either confront the ungrateful little tramp or dump her!"

I tried to stop caring about the story, because I felt fairly certain that Hitchcock didn't. The very opening of the film shows the carnival in all its glory. With quick cuts, dissolves, multiple exposures, all the tricks at his disposal, he captures every element of the fairground, all the fun and all the nastiness. Hitchcock the Visualist is in full bloom in The Ring, especially in that big boxing scene I was talking about. The fighting may be lousy, but it's filmed awfully well. He uses shots from the very top of the arena, and he uses shots that get right into the ring with the combatants, which must have been a novel idea in 1927. He even uses a series of point-of-view shots, giving us a look through each boxer's eyes as our opponent comes at us. (Unfortunately, this also serves the highlight the terrible boxing.) In many ways, The Ring feels like an experimental film, as though Hitchcock had all these great ideas for what to do with a camera, and he just made up some silly story as a way to showcase them.

Unfortunately, my other great surprise from Patrick McGilligan's biography was the discovery that The Ring is one of the most acclaimed of Hitchcock's silent movies. I just don't see it. Maybe technically, I suppose. But I can't get past the notion that the whole film falls apart if the hero -- just once -- stops acting like a wet dishrag and stands up for himself. I'm not against passive heroes, and judging from his future output, neither is Hitchcock. But they usually end up earning their triumph, because they overcome their passivity. And "One-Round" Jack really doesn't do enough to earn his way into Round Two.

We're almost done with the silents. And thank goodness, because the randomly inappropriate music these public domain DVD producers are using is driving me batty.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

I Touch the Future

Barbara Morgan is in space.

I've all but given up on the hope that anybody I know -- absolutely anybody -- shares my enthusiasm for the exploration of space (if not the ineptly-run "space program"). But the fact remains that tonight, Barbara Morgan is in space. And I couldn't be happier.

It takes something really unusual to get most people's attention focused on a shuttle launch these days. Either there's someone notable on the flight, or people think it might explode. Otherwise, no one gives it the time of day. Barbara Morgan is, it turns out, one of the more noteworthy shuttle passengers in recent years, and still very few people are paying notice. I admit that even I'm a little attentive to this flight, and Barbara Morgan is the reason.

That's her with Christa McAuliffe. They were the two people selected by NASA's Teacher in Space program over two decades ago. McAuliffe was to fly; Morgan was the backup.

And of course, Christa McAuliffe died when a booster rocket malfunctioned, and burned a hole in an enormous tank of fuel, and her spacecraft was destroyed and she plummeted for two minutes until she smashed into the unforgiving surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

(Thinking back over the list of gross errors NASA made in allowing McAuliffe and her colleagues to perish in that accident still infuriates me. That may have been noticeable just now.)

I was in high school when Challenger was launched for the final time. We weren't avidly following the flight that day, but the Teacher in Space program had not escaped out notice. I learned precious little chemistry in my chemistry class, but I have never forgotten the day our teacher, a small but imposing man named Karl Jones, was asked why he didn't apply. His response seemed, at the time, cynical and cruel: "I'm not really interested in sitting atop a guided missile built by the lowest bidder."

I don't remember where I was headed when Sunny Hsieh stopped me in the hallway and said, "The shuttle blew up." I didn't believe him. It seemed like a bad joke. (Although not nearly as bad as the ones I would hear over the next few weeks. Every dead astronaut joke was like salt in a wound.) But the ugly truth was confirmed when I reached my locker, which was next to a bank of windows looking into the metal shop. There was a television, and in the way that network news does, it played the tragedy on a continuous loop. All through lunch, I stayed in that hallway, staring through the window, watching the television, hoping I wouldn't get in trouble.

Now, for me, the presence of a teacher wasn't necessary to make it more tragic. (The loss of Columbia four years ago was just as much of a sucker punch, although years of NASA aimlessness deadened the pain somewhat.) But for good or ill, Christa McAuliffe is the face of that ill-fated flight. For defenders of the space program, she's a martyr. For opponents, she's a symbol of incompetence turned deadly. For the indifferent, she's just a sad story, someone to put on the cover of People.

For Barbara Morgan, she was something else entirely, and that's why I really like her. For her, Christa McAuliffe was a friend and a co-worker. But even more, she was the embodiment of an idea. She represented the notion that there was a lot to learn from space. And as far as Barbara Morgan was concerned, until someone got up into space and taught the lessons that Christa McAuliffe was supposed to teach, then something very important, very meaningful, remained unfinished. So she lobbied NASA to keep the Teacher in Space program alive. She taught the lessons of her friend, and campaigned to finish her mission. Eventually, she left her teaching job and became a full-fledged astronaut. (She'll operate the robot arm that will install new solar panels on the space station.) She fought and fought to make sure that Christa McAuliffe's sacrifice did not go for naught. And almost 22 years later, she's about to realize that dream.

I get overly emotional about these things, which is why I blogging is a perilous venture for me. But that emotion is why I watched the launch of Endeavour on my computer at work this evening, even though I had work to do. I want to see Barbara Morgan complete this mission, and I'll be watching anxiously until she touches down in two weeks. And right now, she's in orbit. So far, so good.


Monday, August 06, 2007


In an feeble effort to atone for my complete and utter absence for weeks at a time, I'm going to try and catch up on some of what's been going on during all that time. Once I've done that, I'll probably disappear again. I'm awful, you see.

One of the columns that I wrote over and over in my head was the open letter I was composing to the CEOs of United Airlines and US Airways, as a great big thank you for the awesomely incompetent job their companies were foind in the field of getting people from one place to another. Of course, as you know if you've boarded a plane at any time in the past seven months, the entire fracking industry has given the American public the middle finger.

Our June travel extravaganza was particularly ripe for trouble, because we were zig-zagging across the entire continent within a 10-day span, and we had no room for flexibility. Naturally, we were so screwed. And yet I've never felt as screwed in the realm of air travel as I did this time around. Let me take you on a little trip.

Leg 1: ORD->MIA. We flew to Miami for the wedding of our friends Jessica and Jason. This trip would be the last one that wasn't fraught with trouble. We took off on time, we landed on time, and other than a run-in with the world's stupidest Avis counter representative, we had no difficulty at all. Which is astounding, when you consider that we left O'Hare, which has a just reputation as the most irritating airport on earth. But no, we had no problems with O'Hare. No, that was someone else's evil domain. We drove from Miami to North Carolina, having no idea what fresh hell lay in store.

Leg 2: CHA->ORD->YVR. For reasons to complicated to go into, Clair had to attend a conference in Vancouver right in the middle of our trip. But we were rolling with it. I drove Clair to Charlotte with plenty of time to spare. Clair checked her bag, despite her absolute certainty that they were going to lose it. (To be safe, she kept a particular dress in her purse, just in case.) And about two hours later, as I was making my way back across North Carolina, I got the text message: "Computer failure. All flights grounded."

Yes, evidently United Airlines has a single computer that does all of the fuel and weight calculations for every single flight they run. And when some yokel decides to play Minesweeper at the same time, that computer goes down, and the entire system goes into a giant kerfluffle. And from what I understand, THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED. United, let's face it: you're idiots. Buy another damn computer, you morons. It's truly a miracle that Clair made it to Vancouver at all, let alone hours late.

Oh, and they lost her luggage.

Leg 3: YVR->LAS->PHI->Whatever the hell the code is for Newburgh, New York
Her return trip was even more brutal. She had to change planes twice, and evidently, they did not go out of their way to make it comfortable. Of course, I wasn't helping matters because of

Leg 4: CHA->EWR. Which is where I was within inches of ripping the larynx out of a USAir lackey's throat just for the pure satisfaction of hearing it crackle. USAir, bless their little incompetent hearts, found that they had scheduled way too many flights into the New York area. Turns out this isn't a surprise, since everyone schedules too many flights into the New York area. But I didn't know that at the time. So I wasn't too worried when I reached the gate and saw that my flight was delayed by two hours. Hey, I was still going to make it in time for the Broadway show I had tickets for.

Still, just out of curiosity, I checked the weather in New York. Crystal clear. Hmm. So I approached the counter, just to clarify the announcement. What's the matter again?

"Air traffic!" the prissy man barked.

Um, okay. So, like, weather patterns between--

"Air traffic!"

Ah, you're so helpful. So is there any chance the plane will be delayed again?

"No!" And he said it with this fey indignance. But, to be fair, he was telling the truth. It wasn't delayed again. Ten minutes later, it was canceled.

Evidently, you can do this. You can promise people something, take their money, and then renege on the promise, and they're not obligated to give a crap. It was breathtaking.

I'm sure I was supposed to be grateful for the fact that the USAir computers or whoever had automatically booked me for another flight -- four hours later. And an hour after my play started. After all, there were people who got bumped even later than that, and probably still more who ended up going nowhere at all. But it's hard no to be bitter. Even more so when I ended up two short on the standby list for another plane. I blame the Lu's for that. Some couple named Lu got paged 38 times, and right as they're about to call my name, this idiot who has been sitting in front of the counter the entire time says, real casual-like, "Oh, we're the Lu's." I didn't want that plane to crash. Just the two seats where the Lu's were sitting.

So what did I do to cope? Two things:
1) Sent pathetic text messages to my wife. The one who was getting on three different planes in a desperate attempt to make it all the way across the country for the second wedding on our itinerary. Classy move, Shane.
2) Read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which proved to be most enlightening, as Harry no longer seemed like the whiny, self-absorbed teenager that he had during my first reading, but rather an earnest soul who was unfairly treated by the world, and deserving of some overdue respect. Yes, Harry's anger and mine were flying in close formation.

I couldn't even get much angrier when my new flight, the four-hour later one, and which took off almost a full hour later than that, was forced to fly around for a while because New York was still too crowded and wasn't ready for us. It metasticized into pure surliness by the time I reached the hotel, around the same time my play was ending. Suffice it to say, I had never ordered Johnnie Walker Black before.

Last Leg: LGA->ORD. The fact that it was delayed would be anticlimactic, except for the fact that we were grateful for this delay. Why? Because our TRAIN didn't run on time. In fact, we found out when we got to the station that sometimes, the train we booked to get us back to New York City "doesn't run at all". Isn't that marvelous? Sometimes, there's just no train. That's just how things are. No one's in charge of this, evidently. We had seats on board the Existential Express.

Is there a reason for this? Well, yes, the Transportation Security Administration is borderline retarded, and summer is always busy, and demand is higher than ever, but in the end, don't blame terrorists. No, this is entirely the airlines' doing. As Patrick Smith, an airline pilot himself and one of my favorite writers on the web today, points out, airlines are switching to smaller planes that require the exact same amount of time as a 747 to be cleared by air traffic control. So Mr. Air Traffic! has no one to blame but his own bosses.

We saw clear evidence of this trying to get out of LaGuardia. Once our plane finally pushed away from the gate, disappointing the 97 people onthe standby list who had probably gotten screwed out of their own flights, we taxied beside a very long line of planes. The woman in front of me was counting them out loud. I believe her final tally was 26. And that line was the one we had to join at the end. And after finally reaching the front, we then crossed over three other lines just to get to our takeoff runway. Unbelievable.

And why would the airlines do this? Because they're making tons of money, that's why. I'll mention this again: if a restaurant brings you bad food, they replace it. Frequently, they don't charge you for it. A car dealer might take money off the price if you find a ding on the fender. In most industries, when you get a substandard product, you get compensated for it somehow. But in the wild world of air travel, where every seat costs a different price and where your only demand is that you get pretzels and you gladly punt your civil liberties because someone heard you can blow up a plane with AquaFresh, in this crazy mixed-up world, when the company doesn't give you the service you purchased, or they give you a substandard product, in this world YOU DON'T GET JACK.

This is why Americans love their cars.