A Taste For The Real (2015Mar30)


Monday, March 30, 2015                                                    6:49 PM

I watched TV all day. I got caught up in “Muhammed Ali’s Greatest Fight” (2013) about the Supreme Court justices, and their clerks, at work on the decision whether to uphold Ali’s conviction for draft evasion—a conviction they ultimately reversed in a dramatic series of events (if we take the movie at face value). I felt it to be a stirring illustration of a point in time when reasonable men were confronted by their own prejudices and confused by the tug-of-war between the ‘traditions’ of racism and its incompatibility with even-handed protection of constitutional rights.

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Then I saw a PBS documentary about the author/illustrator of “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” (1939), “Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place”. This tells the story of the life and art of a “Renaissance woman”, innovative children’s book author/illustrator, textile designer, painter, and sculptor in granite, marble and wood. The film goes to places on Cape Ann that inspired ‘Jinnee’, including her home and studio, Folly Cove, Gloucester Harbor and the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Her designs of her children’s books reflected her efforts to compete with her sons’ fascination with comic books—one of the film’s commentators remarked that her books were the first examples of the graphic novel. She also founded Folly Cove Designs, a textile collective prominent during the Craft Art Revival era, employing many locals who went on to become accomplished craftspeople in their own right—the collective’s works were retailed in major stores and exhibited by several museums. When Virginia Lee Burton died in 1968, the remaining members of Folly Cove Designs decided to shut its doors.

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Then I watched “The Valiant Hours” (1960), an American docudrama about William F. Halsey, Jr., and his efforts in fighting against Admiral Yamamoto and his Japanese Navy in the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. This film was the sole product of James Cagney’s production company, and Cagney gives a great performance as Halsey. The story is a nail-biting bit of head-to-head between the US and the Japanese in the Pacific, with Guadalcanal becoming the high-water mark for Japanese conquest and the beginning of the turning of the tide of that war. Told from the point of view of an admiral who spends most of the battles sitting at his desk drinking coffee, the film is careful to annotate the fates of those regular marines with whom Halsey meets during his personal visit to the island.

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That visit impacted the morale of the tired, struggling soldiers who felt on their last legs before Halsey even took over for poor Woolsey (whose only mistake, says Halsey in one scene, was in ‘getting there first’). Japanese intelligence even credited the strengthening of resistance among American forces to that visit. Moreover, it was in an attempt to bolster his own troops in the same way that Yamamoto was later shot down by American flyers in transit. The film is a wonderful tough-guy cameo of both the Admiral and of the War in the Pacific.

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It occurred to me during all of this that I had, in some sense, outgrown fiction. Earlier in life, I’d been puzzled by people who never read novels or watched movies or TV, preferring to read only non-fiction. It seemed a draconian approach to information-gathering, since much of fictional art has a lot to say, both about the people and times of the story, and about the story-teller.

And I don’t think that my recent change in taste is a concession to that point of view—but the information to be gathered from fiction has reached a point of diminishing returns for me—I’m familiar with the rough outlines of social, economic, and military history, with the cultural oddities to be found in Dicken’s London, Cervantes’ Spain, Michener’s America, and Clancy’s Cold-War, with the habits and jargon of Berkeley’s Broadway, Ford’s Old West, and an endless list of other times, places, and peoples.

Further, while this information source dries up for me, the settings, plotlines, conflicts, and dramatic devices become ever more familiar. I find that large swathes of popular culture are not only intended for the young, but are utterly predictable and unsurprising to an older audience. More importantly, the vicarious experience becomes problematical when the characters are concerned with something as jejune as first love or first career-step or becoming new parents. I can’t place myself in the action when the action concerns a teenager, or a twenty-something, or even a thirty-something.

The ultimate effect of most new movies that appear on my VOD menu is to make me depressed about how old I am, when I’m not in full critic mode, questioning the decisions made by the directors, the writers, or the actors. So I find myself, after the end of an interesting, fact-based program, desperate to find something of equal interest—something that treats with real life, rather than a diversion meant to make me laugh, feel desire, or dream of the future.

But there is a silver lining. The occasional excellent movie will be appreciated that much more—they do still make them, though they’re few and far between. Meanwhile, my health has improved to the point where I can read almost as much as I used to—and books have much better ‘pickings’ than cable TV when it comes to jaded, over-experienced audience-members like myself.

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