Thursday, January 31, 2013

Anne Frank's Diary

This weekend, I was telling my wife and a friend of ours, that I was going to start reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I told them that I have always avoided this book because it seemed odd to be reading someone's diary. My wife made the point that historians read people's diaries, all the time, as primary sources.Since I am not a historian, just someone interested in history, I still feel odd about it. After reading the Preface (or Introduction) to the edition of my paperback copy of the book, I don't feel so bad about it anymore. It is clear she wanted the public to read it.

When I start to read a work of literature, I always have to make a decision as to whether to read the Introduction.  Many of them wax on for pages, sometimes 20 or 30 pages, adding little to the text. If it is not longer than 10 pages and if it is the first time reading the work, I generally give it a try. In this particular printing of the book the Preface is only four pages long, so I read it and I am glad I did. I assume it is written by the editors Otto H. Frank (Anne Frank's father) and/or Miriam Pressler. They tell a story about how Miss Frank, in 1942, heard a radio broadcast from London. It was by Gerrit Bolkestein who at the time was the Dutch Minister of Education living in exile while the Nazi's occupied The Netherlands. In this address, he urged Dutch citizens to keep records of their suffering during the occupation. At this point, Miss Frank was 14 or 15 years old (just few a months older than my mom) and had been keeping her diary for two years.  She apparently was excited by this and decided to publish her diary after the war. She started editing it for publication. Her partially edited diary was found with her belongings in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Lower Saxony, Germany after the war.  Both Anne and her older sister,Margot, died of typhus just a few weeks before the camp was liberated.

After the war, Otto decided to honor his daughter's wishes.  Three editions of the diary exist which he refers to as (a), (b) and (c).  The (a) version is the unedited version without any of the edits that Anne or anyone else has made.Version (b) takes the edits into account. Version (c) is a shorter edition combination of the other two versions. This version was published as The Diary of a Young Girl which is the version I am reading. I also believe this is the only version to be translated into English.

If you are unfamiliar with this story, it is fascinating and a heart breaker. You should check it out (if not the book, at least check out one of the movies). I am just a few pages into it and I am already hooked. The Franks were a Jewish family in Amsterdam during the Nazi Occupation. In July, 1942 (just a few weeks after she started the diary), her Jewish family went into hiding from the Nazis in a secret annex behind Otto Frank's office for the spice company he worked for, the Dutch Opekta Company. A bookcase covered the entrance while the annex was hidden by the surrounding buildings. Only four employees knew they were there. The Franks lived there with another family, the van Pels, for over two years along with a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. Their names were changed in the book.

Already, I noticed something very interesting. It starts on her 13th birthday and she writes about receiving the diary as a gift. She then describes her classmates. In a footnote, it states that those who did not give permission for the use of their names are referred to by their initials only. You really have to wonder why anyone wouldn't want their real name printed in this book. Ever if she bashes someone, she is only a kid. No one would care. Perhaps the editors just couldn't find everyone to get their permission.  Regardless, expect to read a few more blog posts from me about the Nazi Occupation of The Netherlands.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama Ties FDR

Today, when President Barack Obama took the oath of office, he actually tied President Franklin Roosevelt for number of oaths of office. This sounds wrong, but Obama has actually taken the oath four times even though he is only serving two terms.

First: In 2009, during Obama's first inauguration Chief Justice Roberts actually got the wording wrong. He interrupted the President forcing him to repeat some of the oath.

ROBERTS: ...that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully...
OBAMA: ...that I will execute... [pause]
ROBERTS: ...faithfully the office of president of the United States...

Second: Again in 2009, to make things official, they completed the oath in private later using the same Lincoln Bible.  It is this oath that crazy conspiracy theorist believe Obama took the oath on the Quran which he didn't. As an atheist, I don't really care what ancient book of superstitions the President takes the oath with. I prefer he took it with something more appropriate like a copy of the actual Constitution but other great books would be fine also, like Whitlman's Leaves of Grass or Emerson's Collected Essays.  

Third: In 2013, because the Constitution requires that the President take the oath on the January 20th, the President took the oath on Sunday, the day before Inauguration Day, in a private ceremony.   This time they used the Biden family Bible.

Fourth: Today, January 21st 2013, he took the oath again during Inauguration Day which apparently they never have on Sundays so it was today, a Monday.  Most of us had a holiday today so we could actually see it.

FDR took the oath four time because he served four terms.  Nothing quite so odd as Obama's reasons.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series, Third Season

I was working at my pc today and I realized that I really wanted to hear Miles Davis. I picked up my iPhone, hit the button twice and said "play Miles Davis."  Kinda Blue started playing on the tiny speakers.  I hit another button, it started playing on my stereo speakers and Miles filled the room. Whenever I do something like this I cannot help but think of the computer on Star Trek. It was always one of the more fascinating technologies on the show along with warp drive and the transporters ... the Star Trek computer has arrived and I am holding it in my hand.

Every Star Trek series has had the high points (classic episodes) and their low points (episodes so bad that you wish to purge them from your memory). I have seen all the Star Trek series, many times over. I often have difficulty sleeping. Now that all the series are available on Netflix streaming, the show is perfect for night time viewing. When I do get tired, I can just close my eyes and listen. Kirk, Picard, et al, just lull me to sleep. I had never viewed all the original series episode in order until now. Until you view them in order you don't realize how bad the third season is. Every episode that I have always thought of as being awful came in the third season. Most of the great, classic episodes were in the first two seasons. They peaked early. 

Lists of Top 10 best episodes are all over the net. Few of the third season episodes are on these lists, so I know it is not just me. It is seems widely accepted that "City On the Edge of Forever" (the Joan Collins episode) is the best.  It came in at the end of season one and was written by sci-fi great Harlan Ellison. The only great episode (probably my personal favorite) in season three is "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," guest starring Frank Gorshin, is a biting portrayal of the absurdity of racism (see image). These two characters were from the same planet and their races had been fighting for centuries until they end up destroying each other.   

The famous line from the Star Trek intro "a five year mission" always seems ironic in that the show only lasted three seasons. It was supposed to be cancelled in 1968 after two seasons, but a letter writing campaign by the fans resurrected it. Instead of cancelling the show, NBC decided to move it from the prime Monday night slot to Friday night at 10pm. Considering how young their audience was (long before DVRs and home video recorders), this was clearly NBC showing how little interest they had in the show. It was competing with Laugh-In on Monday nights so they moved it and slashed the show's budget. A lot of their viewers were too young to stay up that late and the older viewers (teens and twenty-somethings) went out on Friday nights. This was the show's death knell. In protest, Gene Roddenberry resigned as producer.  He is credited with "executive producer" and did do a little writing in the last season.  This lack of network buy-in may explains the mess of the third season.

The canceling of Star Trek might be one of television's biggest blunders, but the big fail came when NBC decided to sell the syndication rights. Usually, shows need at least four seasons to go into syndication, but an exception was made for Star Trek due to the amount of dedicated fans.  When the show was played at an earlier hour, when its younger viewers could see it, the ratings went off the charts.  It went into syndication immediately and by 1972 was playing in over 100 cities and 60 countries.

Before I mention why the Third Season was so bad, I must point out why this show was so great for its time.  The first obvious reason is that most of the shows on television (even now) were awful.  In 1960's most shows were still very conservative, not tackling any of the issues of the times. Star Trek tackled racism, over-population and cold war paranoia among other issues of the time. They had a multi-racial cast and Lt. Uhura was the first black woman on American television that wasn't a maid or a nanny. At times it was anti-religious and anti-establishment and yet, at times it was pro-religion and patriotic. Occasionally, they even quoted Shakespeare or philosophers. In one of the better third season episodes, "Plato's Stepchildren," they made television history by showing an inter-racial kiss, one of the first (if not the first) when Kirk and Uhura kiss. This is a perfect example how subversive sci-fi can be. The characters were being forced to kiss by telekinesis. The scene was almost cut from the episode. What I find most interesting about it is how little hate mail they received. This particular episode was removed from airing by the BBC in the UK unrelated to the racial aspects. Telekinesis was the problem. The forcing of people to do things that they didn't want to do was considered sadistic. It didn't air in the UK until 1994.

Even when Star Trek is at its worst, it is still better than most network television. With so many great shows on HBO, Showtime and AMC, I have almost given up on network television. It has always been awful with few exceptions. Since 2005, our airwaves are Star Trek-free which is very sad.  Season Three of the original series is sandwiched between what may be the two worst episodes. It begins with "Spock's Brain," which is probably the most stupid episode, and the series ends on a very low note with "Turnabout Intruder" which is outright offensive. Star Trek may have been cutting edge in regards to racial issues, but in regards to the sexes, it was not. It was somewhat sexist. This episode is the worst in that regard.  One of Kirk's ex-gril friends, Dr. Janice Lester, forces him into a machine that does a "complete life energy transfer" which means that her mind is transferred to Kirk's body vice versa. The crew notices that Kirk isn't right due to his irrational behavior. Kirk's emotions fluctuate erratically which gives William Shatner much opportunity for over-acting. On this last episode, #79, we are told that women aren't allowed to be Captains in Star Fleet. I'm not sure why they hadn't figured that out by the 23rd century; it probably had something to do with 1960's network politics. Dr. Lester feels "tortured" because of this restriction.  She tells Kirk, "now you'll know the indignity of being a woman," and later, she says "I'd rather be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman." What makes this even worse, is that this is one of the episodes the Gene Roddenberry wrote. 

When Star Trek was created, the pilot episode "The Cage" had a female First Officer portrayed by Majel Barrett, also called Number #1. The nickname was used later during the Next Generation years. A lot changed when the show was approved as a series. This role was rejected by the network because they believed that Americans didn't want to see woman in command. She ended up marrying Gene Roddenberry and also, playing Lwaxana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as the on-board computer's voice.    The role of the captain changed as well. The captain on the pilot was not Shatner's Kirk, but Christopher Pike portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter. Hunter turned down the role for the series so that he could concentrate on his film career. He died in 1969 due an explosion on the set. His death would have ended the show definitively. The only character on the pilot that ended up on the series was Leonard Nimoy as Spock.  I guess I should be grateful about the great show they did  create and stop complaining, but imagine how great this show would have been if executives didn't get in the way of the creative types.  Imagine how long it would have gone on and how many more great episodes we'd have to stream.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Some Suggestions for Peter Jackson's Next Film

In my last posting about The Hobbit, I may have given the impression that I am a purist regarding films being made of books, particularly works of literature. This is not the case in that I understand that film is a different medium and some changes are often necessary. A good example in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo wears a cloak while he rides the pony beside the dwarfs.  In the book, there is no cloak, but this is a good change. Film is a visual medium. Bilbo wearing the cloak allows the viewer to easily tell the dwarfs and the hobbit apart.  In Jackson's adaptation of the Lord of the Rings, he excluded entire chapters of the book and yet it worked. The heart of the book was not lost in its transition to film like it was in The Hobbit.

I just watched David Fincher's 2011 adaptation of the first book in Steig Larsson's Millenium Trilogy: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. My initial thought when hearing about this film was "why the heck are they remaking this film? The Swedish version, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, came out two years earlier and was quite good. The Fincher film is more stylized than the Oplev film with some excellent acting and mood altering music and even closer to the novel in regards to plot. But the Oplev film is a better film. Fincher's film is slower and even boring for the first half hour or so.  Film adaptation seems to have a sweet spot ... the film mustn't suffer to make it accurate to the book, but the book shouldn't be trampled in the process. In this respect both these films are successful and worth seeing, but the Swedish film is definitely better. Another example of a film adaption that was too accurate was Michael Radford's 1984 film of George Orwell's 1984.  This film was so dreary and difficult to watch.  The dreariness worked in the book, not so much in the film.

Some directors have acknowledged that they have completely changed a book when setting it to film. This is why many directors change the names of the films. Two of the best examples that come to mind are Bladerunner and Apocalypse Now, two of my favorite films. If not for these films, I may not have read the books which they were based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, respectively.  When Ridley Scott put the Dick book to film, he knew he was altering it enough to make it into something very different. It is basically a sci-fi action film while the novella has little action.  The themes remain the same and Dick approved of the mood of the film saying he recognized in it his "interior world."  We'll never know what Conrad would think of the film masterpiece Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, but I am guessing that he'd approve for it does seem to capture the heart of the book (perhaps, the "horror" of the book is more appropriate). The film is obviously very different since it is not set in colonial Belgian Congo but during the Vietnam War, and not about a boat on the Congo but a boat on the fictitious Nung River in Cambodia. The themes in the book match and plots are similar enough to be given the "based on" reference. The names of the works were changed to preserve separate identities.  These films are gems and are the exception.

Some film adaptions have been made of books that surprised me about how accurately they capture the mood of the source material. George Roy Hill's adadaption of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five comes to mind as a book I never thought a good film could ever capture. It does a decent job. Also, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Again, these are the exceptions. Most adaptions of books that I love, like The Hobbit, just leave me grumbling.  More often than not, filmmakers butcher their source material. A couple of other decent film versions of books: David Fincher's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and Barbra Streisand's adaptation of Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides.

Sometimes the very bad film version of a great book can be somewhat justified (or forgiven) when it is done for children. The best example I can think of Disney's version of Huckleberry Finn which is truly awful. If you remove all the biting political stuff and the wit from the book, you get an action adventure for kids. This is only forgivable if some of these kids get interested enough in it to read the book. When they turn a literary masterpiece into a dumbed-down and homogenized version for stealth learning purposes ... I guess can deal with it.  I just can't look, it is too painful. But what I cannot deal with is these overly long versions of children's books like some of the Dr. Seuss books (films) or The Polar Express.  What Hollywood hack Robert Zemeckis did to The Polar Express should be considered a crime. This is a beautiful children's book whose calm and relaxing Christmas story is completely rewritten and turned into an action adventure film. It is almost as if Peter Jackson made the film.

My biggest problem with Peter Jackson's The Hobbit (as stated earlier) is his take on the character Thorin Oakenshield. He changed the character into an action hero much like the protagonists in the over-bloated Hollywood blockbusters Gladiator or Braveheart ... avenging the death of a loved one wrapped in a bloody flag of glory. The Thorin in the book spends more time running away than he does fighting and his main concern is gold, not revenge. The revenge is a subtext that is very much blown out of proportion in the film. If this were some grubby pulp novel (like a Tom Clancy or Stephen King novel), I would not be too upset, but this is canonized literature that deserve some respect. Jackson has a responsibility to the text.

Going forward, I have some suggestions for Peter Jackson's next projects:

Peter Jackson's The Hunchback of Notre Dame:  In this version, Quasimodo is handsome, has a mild bump on his shoulder and lives in the Notre Dame condo complex.  Instead of killing Claude, he saves him and wins the heart of Esmeralda. Mel Gibson plays Quasimodo.

Peter Jackson's Wuthering Heights:  Heathcliff battles Edgar and the ghost of Wuthering Heights for the heart of Catherine.  Russel Crowe plays Heathcliff.

Peter Jackson's Pride and Prejudice: The Bennet girls fight crime while being wooed by the boys of Meryton. They are like 19th century Charlie's Angels played by the same actresses of that film.  Actually, this could be the sequel to it.

Peter's Jackson's The Great Gatsby: Jay Gatsby will fight anyone to get Daisy including the narrator Nick Carraway.  The car accident is changed to a car chase and the murder by the pool, a shoot out.

Peter Jackson's To Kill a Mockingbird: Instead winning the war of ideas in a court of law, Atticus Finch saves Tom Robinson and Scout from the clutches of the white supremacists using only his fists. Bruce Willis as Atticus Finch.

Peter Jackson's Catch 22: Instead of this being a black humor satire about the mundanity of war. Jackson's version concentrates on Jossarian and Snowden's fighter missions.  It is a buddy film.

After Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, he seemed infallible. Reading that trilogy as a kid and later as an adult, I never dreamed that I'd be seeing it set to film such a spectacular way.  It came to life for me. I will always have this joy and I have Peter Jackson to thank for this.  I am just disappointed that he didn't perform a miracle again.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Hobbit: The Unexpected Three Hours that I Will Never Get Back

In July, I expressed my distaste for what Peter Jackson was doing with his film adaptation of The Hobbit.  I saw the film yesterday. I enjoyed the acting, the amazing production and the excitement of it all ... but felt myself huffing and puffing throughout the film. My immediately thoughts were that if Peter Jackson wanted to make a film about a grudge match between a pale orc and a noble dwarfish king that is fine with me, but please don't call that film The Hobbit, because that is not what that book was about.

It seems that I should start with what he got right. It is an entertaining film and if I hadn't read the book and loved it as both an adult and as a child, I probably would have no problem with it. The two best and most important and iconic scenes (or chapters) in the story are when the party of dwarfs show up at Bilbo's home and his meeting with Gollum (aka Smeagul). Both those scenes are fantastically done, especially the latter.  Like everything in the film the party of dwarfs goes on too long and digresses into Three Stooges like antics that is more about Hollywood than it is about Tolkien. The other success of this film is the visuals.  The 3D 48 frames per second made for some fantastic viewing. I found myself ducking a few times as projectiles came at me. The elvish city of Rivendell was stunning as was most of the film. The visuals alone might be worth the $10 ticket.

As I pointed out in my July post, the length is the obvious problem here. My paperback copy of The Hobbit is 286 pages in length. This is a fairly uncomplicated kid's book. I could see a three hour film being made of this book, but Jackson is making three 3 hour films. When I got home from seeing this first film, I pick up my book to see where he was in the story ... page 111.  How do you do this?  You make scenes much longer than they are in the book and you add stuff. The stuff he added ... much of it is unnecessary.

There are character that are just mentioned once in the book that are given a lot of time in film.  Here are a few:

Azog, aka the pale orc, is mentioned once in the book in passing. He is historical reference and was slain long before this story begins. His son Bolg is in The Hobbit but it is for a short time and it during the conclusion of the book. Azog is beheaded by a dwarf that isn't even related to Thorin nor to any of the dwarves in this story.  In the film, he is not only alive but a major character. Perhaps he was added so that there a clear enemy in the first film. Since Smaug the dragon doesn't actually appear until the end ... the film needed a bad guy. Just another reason it should be one film, not three.

Radagast the Brown is also only mentioned in the book as an after-thought. Gandalf mentions his cousin Radagast that lives near the southern most tip of Mirkwood. But takes up the screen for about 20 minutes. I have to say that the scenes of Radagast riding his bunny drawn cart through the forest are fantastic, but again, not necessary to the story.  Also, his portrayal is un-wizard like in Tolkien lore. You would never seen a wizard with bird droppings in his beard in anything Tolkien wrote.

Characters from The Lord of the Rings have been added into this story.  Saruman (aka the Necromancer) and the elvish queen Galadriel are inserted into the Rivendell scene. Some might say that adding these characters is a tie-in to The Lord Of the Rings film that some viewers might need, but wasn't that the purpose of the 20 minute intro. The first 20 minutes of the film shows the history of the dwarfs and Frodo and old Bilbo talking about the journey. Do we really need any other tie-in's at this point?  Surely, Galadriel was added just to get some femininity added to the film for those viewers on testosterone overload. The Hobbit has no female characters, a fact that Hollywood, obviously, had a problem accepting.

Finbul, the orc, and Grinnah, the goblin, are not in the book either. As far as I can tell, these are created by Peter Jackson, not Tolkien. No wargs (gigantic wolf beasts) are in the book either. The climatic scene to at the end of this first film was clearly added to give the film a climax. Spoiler Alert: Yes, they were saved by the Eagles while the trees, in which they were stranded, were set afire, but the big grudge match between Thorin and the pale orc, just doesn't exist in the book, hence Bilbo coming to the rescue is just nonsense. This is all Hollywood.

Not only did he add unnecessary characters, but he altered some of the characters.  My biggest complaint on this front what he did with the head dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield. Arguably, Jackson has made him the protagonist. He enters alone to the dwarfish party (in the book he is one of three). The literary Thorin is unattractive, is tall for a dwarf and has a very long beard. His motivation is purely gold. He wants to defeat Smaug the dragon for the booty. Jackson's Thorin is born anew. The only thing he got right was that he is tall.  Thorin is played by the very handsome Richard Armitage with a goatee. He is noble and wants to avenge his father.  This is a classic example of Hollywood shitting all over a work of literature. This is like Disney's Huckleberry Finn. You can dumb down and rework literature into a neat little formula to make it more palatable for the general public, but I don't have to like it. Jackson did such a great job with The Lord Of the Rings. I am not sure why he felt like he had to fall into this trap for this film.

I have too many problems with the film to put them all down. I had enough to make me grumble out loud during the film. Here is just a few more:

  • Bilbo is supposed to be middle aged and fat at this point.  Also, during The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf mentions that he didn't seem to have aged a day (the effects of the ring).  Then why the 40 year age difference between the actors portraying him. Time has gone by but has not affected Bilbo.
  • Rivendell is beautiful but all wrong.  The dwarfs don't sneak out of Rivendell but are reluctant to leave. The dwarfs are happy there and feel very welcome. 
  • The White Counsel doesn't meeting while they are there. This all happens in another Tolkien work and has little to do with The Hobbit.
  • The most of his dwarfs are more like Klingons or Stooges than they are like the dwarfs from The Hobbit.  
Lets call this film what it is, a reasonable facsimile. It is an elaborate ploy to get us to pay $30 rather than $10 to see a film that should be three hours long at best. It is supposed to be a children's tale, but it was made more violent and elaborate to attract a larger audience.  I hope to resist the magic that got me into the theaters this time. They got my $10, I don't plan on paying another $20 to see a film that should be over by now.