Thankful Thursday VII – Malcolm Gladwell

A pop psychologist well-known enough to be picked to flog new electric cars on TV. That can only be one person, and this Thursday, I’m thankful for Malcolm Gladwell. For over twenty years the Canadian’s been a bit of an enigma and at times a lightning rod for scholarly critics…but he’s also authored six of the best-selling, and most interesting Non-Fiction books of that time period and hosted a great podcast.

For the unfamiliar, Gladwell rose to prominence in 2000 with his book The Tipping Point. It looked at why some things catch on – Hush Puppies in the ’90s, syphilis in Baltimore around the same time – and other trends peter out quickly. The book topped best sellers lists and soon topped a million copies sold, rather good going for a book on psychology and sociology. A few years later he followed up with the equally well-recieved Blink, which essentially urged people to listen to first instincts and not overthink many decisions. Before long, book store new release sections were full of books trying to take scientific data and models and simplify them for the masses, often complete with Gladwell-like covers (white covers with a simple single image and bold black type) . Four more similar books have followed, most recently Talking to Strangers which looked at how we automatically typecast people and the far-reaching implications which have ranged from Sandra Bland being put in jail where she killed herself after being pulled over by police for dubious reasons to Bernie Madoff being able to swindle dozens of rich and intelligent people out of billions of dollars. His most recent venture is the podcast Revisionist History, which kicks off by telling the story of Elizabeth Thompson, a British painter who briefly rose to great fame in the 19th-Century but was the only female painter given acceptance by the art “society” of the day.

The books, and podcast, are all well-enough written, snappily-paced and just downright interesting enough to make you forget you’re reading what could essentially be entry-level college texts. Why were the Beatles so good? Same reason Wayne Gretzky was in hockey, he tells us in Outliers. I find not only each book, but each chapter fairly fascinating. do I always absolutely agree with him? No. Usually I do, but he sees the world through a different lens than I so sometimes comes up with different conclusions. For instance, in his podcast about Thompson, he connects her difficulties getting other women into the elite arts community to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was voted out of office in 2013 and suggests some kind of conspiracy is in place to allow just one woman into any important office, ever. Given the tumultuous state of politics there as well as here, that only eight years have passed since a woman held the office there and the fact that neighboring New Zealand has a female in charge right now, that seems an exaggeration to say the least. But it does get you thinking about the challenges women have breaking into previously male domains.

I don’t think Malcolm would want me, or any of his readers, to automatically agree with him. I think that he would be happy when people think for themselves and draw their own conclusions… a pretty recipe for life in fact. And for making that popular, making thinking more popular, I thank Mr. Gladwell.

By the way, if you’ve been noticing a number of GM commercials lately touting their new electric cars… yep, that’s Malcolm at the opening.

Thankful Thursday VI – Kudos Time

This Thursday, I’m thankful for “time”. In every way. I’m always grateful for time which I have to do the things I love, which never seem quite enough. It’s clear to me that you can make back money you lose or repurchase most items which break but there’s no getting back a minute of time once it’s gone. But for this day, I’m thinking of it in a different context – Time magazine.

It’s one of those pieces of Americana that seems to have always been around. (In fact, it’s been published for 98 years) It’s been a staple on newsstands for as long as I can remember … back to when there were newsstands, for instance! I remember seeing it and it’s distinctive red-bordered cover on the tables in the waiting room when I had to go to the doctor as a kid and coming through the mailslot week after week at home. Now that I’m an adult, our household still subscribe to it. I try to find the “time” to read Time somewhere along the line every week.

For the few who might not be familar with it, Time is the last of its breed. A weekly news magazine. Back in the pre-internet age, it was what you read to get the big picture and the in-depth look at the big stories of the past seven days. Sure, you’d read your newspaper too, but Time gave you more detail and covered stories your local daily probably overlooked. Ironically, that’s even more true today in the internet age with our 24-hour news channels and 20-page daily newspapers featuring mostly public service notices and wire stories about celebs.

Being an American publication, Time focuses largely on American stories, but it finds the room to look at global issues better than most of our other media. Australian elections, Italian landslides, African massacre, new disease in China – it probably is in the pages of Time, long before it catches the attention of your hometown news station. And it covers a variety of topics. Sure there’s the news – largely bad as is the nature of news – but there are also interviews with interesting newsmakers, entertainment updates, movie, book reviews and context. Why does that Aussie election matter? What causes the Italian landslide or new emerging diseases.?

Sure, I have my criticisms of the magazine. To me, it bends over too far to be politically correct and avoid any charges of racism, or sexism or ageism. You won’t lose a bet if you say that any issue of theirs with the “100 Most Influential People in the World” (which weirdly seem to change in their opinion each year) at least ten of those 100 will be Women of Color under age 40 who write about the experience of being young Women of Color. And like most other hard-copy periodicals, it seems to have shrunken somewhat in physical size (as in number of pages) and roster of contributors. All that said, it’s still the best one-stop weekly review I know of. In the past year alone, it’s covered the Covid pandemic more often and in more depth, with stories from those on the fronts of battling it, as well as those effected by it more than almost all other news sources I’ve seen combined. In the months leading up to last November, it had in-depth interviews with pretty much every major political candidate running.

A throwback to a “time” when people wanted to be well-informed and when a magazine didn’t have to be micro-focused in content to succeed. Good “Time”s indeed. I’m thankful to still have Time.

Movie Extra 6 – High Fidelity

I like some musicals well enough (Grease, even The Sound of Music), and at times I love watching music movies of artists I like in concert. But since I love music, books, love reading and love romcom-style movies, how could my choice for the “Music or musicals” category in this exercise not be more obvious. My sixth choice in the Movie Draft Event run over at Slice The Life is the 2000 film High Fidelity.

Not many movies have me marking my calendar in advance for opening, but this one was one of the rare exceptions. That’s because I’d read the 1995 Nick Hornby novel on which it was based a few years before and that had become a favorite in my personal library. I found it relatable, funny and at times heart-breaking. To my surprise and joy, the Hollywood adaptation (directed by Brit Stephen Frears) stuck to the book remarkably closely, other than the obvious fact that the setting had been moved across the sea from London to Chicago. Apparently even Hornby was surprised at how faithful to the original Hollywood had been. “It appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book,” he’s said.

Cusack is the lead character, Rob, and is a perfect fit for the role. The capsule summary of it is essentially that he is a young 30-something who runs a run-down little specialty record shop and begins to wonder what went wrong with his life. This occurs when his long-time girlfriend, Laura (played by Danish actress Iben Hjejle, a relative unknown over here) splits up with him and moves out. Laura’s now an increasingly successful lawyer. He feels he can’t live up to what she wants or deserves. Besides, she’s changed. She still loves him but feels the problem is that he hasn’t changed. Other than growing lazier and more cynical since they first hooked up. By now Rob’s life largely consists of spending days at his record shop, co-staffed by the loud and obnoxious Barry (an over-the-top Jack Black) and quiet, nerdy Dick (Todd Louiso). The three have little in common other than their love of oft-obscure music and music trivia and making list after list of “top fives”… Top Five Side One, Track Ones. Top Five Songs About Death (“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot” Dick suggests. “”You bastard! That’s so good, that shoulda been mine!” Barry responds). And looking down their noses at most of their customers who know less than them about music. Rob’s nights; at home listening to , or re-organizing his countless thousands of records. All vinyl. Rob is a music purist.

When Laura leaves, he goes through a cycle of reactions consisting largely of anger and self-pity. He makes up a Top 5 Breakups list and cheers himself by yelling out the window at her she didn’t make the list. Still, he can’t help wonder what his mom pointedly asks him – essentially, why can’t he hold onto a woman? He decides to get back in touch with the “top 5 breakups” and deconstruct what went wrong in those relationships. He manages to have a fling with a local singer. All the while he feels worse, finally acknowledging Laura’s importance. “She didn’t make me miserable, or anxious or ill at ease. Y’know, it sounds boring but it wasn’t.”

Circumstances give them one last chance together. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say by the end, Rob’s figured out a few things a little better and sees a way forward.

The casting of the movie was perfect. Cusack was the downbeat, rather depressed everyman the character required, ordinary but with enough going on to make one believe he could be more. Black was in full-out, egocentric gag mode which I tire of quickly but in his limited role, he added some of the movie’s funniest bits. Hjejle was likewise a perfect choice for her role, a subdued but bright, attractive but not bimboish kind of woman we could easily imagine being in awe of the Rob she met years earlier, the fun record store guy by day/ club DJ by night Rob. Even the minor characters like Catherine Zeta Jones as the exotic, worldly Charley (another of Rob’s top 5 breakups) were spot on.

The movie wasn’t a smash, but it did turn a profit and was largely well-reviewed. Now a word of confession from me. I like the movie quite a lot. But back in 2000, I loved the movie. For some years it was one of my “top 5 films” of all-time. I was a single guy about Rob’s age and could relate to his inertia and his inability to figure out why relationships came and went. I liked the movie so much it was the reason I bought a DVD player…when it came out on home release, I couldn’t find a VHS so I figured it was time to at last adopt the new technology so I could watch it when I wanted. Now, looking back on it, Rob can be a bit of a … well, one of his co-workers names let’s say. He was at times too oblivious and too inconsiderate of those around him. But he’s human enough, smart enough and witty enough to be likable still. More importantly, as he grows through the movie and finally, as he says by the end has being a better man figured out for the first time. As I hope I have in the twenty years or more since it hit the big screen!

Funny, intelligent, relatable and with a decent soundtrack too (not to mention a Bruce Springsteen cameo)… I give High Fidelity four LPS – original, not re-released, mind you – out of five.

Thankful Thursday V – Spring Is In The Air

I just got in after running any number of errands and getting the groceries done. I’m sweating. But that’s ok, because this Thursday I’m thankful for spring arriving.

Now if you want to get technical, spring doesn’t “arrive” until some time next week, based on the earth’s tilt and so on. But I’m a weather buff and a naturalist and meteorologists and ornothologists alike consider March 1 through May 31 “spring.” Enough for me to go with, even if it wasn’t 80 and tropically humid outside with the threat of tornadoes penciled in for the weekend. Which it is.

Spring was always a joy for me when I lived in Canada. Arguably summer was my favorite season but spring had a whole lot going for it, enough for it to create the weather equivalent of a “two-sided hit single” to me. Now, spring in Ontario can be a bit of a tease… I’ve seen snowstorms at Easter and fruit trees blossom before one last blast of Old Man Winter and his sub-zero temperatures blew back in. Not to mention that early spring can often be dreary, rainy and cool. Still, to me that beat drearier, snowy and colder. Spring always had its appeal because quite frankly, I don’t like winter. I don’t like being cold, I like lots of daylight and the emotional boost (not to mention Vitamin D) it gives me, I don’t like having to wear heavy coats and gloves. I don’t like seeing young women bundled like penguins in heavy coats and gloves…err, when I was single that is! What I do like is being comfortable outside and seeing the landscape awaken day by day…the grass getting greener, the trees leafing out, new birds arriving by the day, people crowding into garden centers with happy plans. And of course, baseball being back, which I looked at a few weeks ago.

Here in Texas, spring often creeps in almost unnoticed, mainly because winters often dress up like it. This year is a bit different of course, after the state saw record cold temperatures, eight to ten days straight sub-freezing temperatures and an ice storm that shut down stores and electric plants alike. Texans can welcome spring with the gusto of Canadians this year. I am!

Spring! Co-recipient of Dave’s “Best Season of the Year” award. How about you, friends? What’s your favorite season?

Movie Extra 5 – Rear Window

For my fifth choice in this movie bonanza, (put together by Hanspostcard with ten of us picking great movies) I take care of the Action/Adventure/Thriller category with an oldie but a goodie. There’s not a whole lot of action but there is nail-biting adventure and suspense in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window.

Any writer who’s ever taken any rudimentary writing course knows one of the first “rules” you’re told is “show, don’t tell.” Saying “Billy was frightened” is boring. Having Billy creeping down the hallway, sweating and cringing when the door he opens creaks a little is much more effective. Movie makers tend to know that too. But when it comes to murder, mayhem as well as things erotic, sometimes the viewer’s own mind is even more evocative than anything the screen reveals. Less can be more. That’s something many have forgotten these days but Hitchcock was the master of.

Which leads us to Rear Window, a tale of murder most foul in which we have little evidence of an actual murder even being committed. The premise of the story is that a globe-trotting, adventure-seeking photo-journalist, LB Jefferies (played by post-It’s A Wonderful Life Jimmy Stewart) is laid up at home in his New York apartment due to a broken leg. He’s restless and itching to get back out into the fray…anywhere but in a sweaty Big Apple apartment complex. Jefferies busies himself by watching all his neighbors from the window, with the help of his camera’s telephoto lens. “We’re becoming a race of peeping toms,” he states prophetically some 40 years before the advent of reality TV. Mind you, that doesn’t prevent him staring through his camera at his shapely young neighbor working out in a bikini of scandalous scantiness for the era. There’s her, there’s the lonely man playing piano (watch for Hitchcock to make one of his famous cameo appearances in his apartment), there’s the older woman with the little dog out in the courtyard. And the middle-aged bickering couple across the way.

All the while the photog’s girlfriend, elegant socialite Lisa (played by Grace Kelly) is attentive and hoping her man will see the attraction of staying home. She promises while he’s in a cast “I’m going to make it a week you’ll never forget.” An innocent enough remark in this day and age but doubtless a shockingly suggestive one for the 1950s. We can’t quite see the reason they are a couple to begin with, but she seems in love with him and the nurse who looks in on him tries to nudge him towards settling down with the lovely lady. He clearly seems to think something’s missing and that Lisa could never understand his need for excitement and investigation.

Until that is, the wife of the bickering couple comes up missing and Jefferies begins to suspect foul play is involved. He comes up with a scenario in his head, but being immobile can’t investigate. Perhaps the husband has killed his wife. Which is when Lisa shows there’s more to her than pearls and furs and puts herself in the line of danger to do the footwork for her boyfriend. Which is where the nails start being bitten and the tension heats to the boiling point just as the summertime city was doing simultaneously.

Do the duo crack a murder case or merely fall victim themselves… to over-active imaginations? You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out. What is clear is that the gruff photographer comes to see his hometown as less dull than he imagined it and his lady a lot more interesting and adventurous than he’d given her credit for. As a romance, Rear Window is lukewarm. As an edge-of-the-seat thriller, it’s hard to beat.

At the time of its release, it won generally good reviews (the New York Times for instance note that “what it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib but it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life” but still call it “a tense and exciting exercise”) and made about five times its million dollar budget back at the box office in its first run. It received four Academy Award nominations but lost out, including the Best Screenplay which ended up going to another Grace Kelly film, Country Girl.

Rear Window may be the least bloody murder movie made…but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best as well. I give it three-and-a-half Nikons out of five.

Thankful Thursday IV – That Controversial “Doctor”

Well I’ll wander into the fray today, because this Thursday I’m thankful for Dr. Seuss. Or, the works of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, during this week in which his birthday fell.

The children’s author and illustrator has been much in the news of late, yet another example of how badly divided this country is. In case you hadn’t noticed, the publisher in charge of his body of work recently announced it was going to stop printing six of his titles, including the popular And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, because some of his illustrations seemed a little racist and out of step with today’s norms. Predictably, many Republicans are frothing at the mouth and yelling “censorship”, failing to note that it was a commercial decision made by a publisher rather than an act of government restriction. Likewise, some of the far-left faction of the Democrats say that doesn’t go nearly far enough and wouldn’t be happy until every reference to Seuss is obliterated from our culture. Which I suppose is a convenient way for both to distract from the fact that Iran seems to be taunting the U.S. in the Middle East at risk of provoking a war and that over 1000 people are still dying from Covid every day in our land.

Geisel fashioned a long and very successful career penning books written for kids through the middle part of the last century. Some, like Green Eggs and Ham and How the Grinch Stole Christmas became cultural cornerstones as well as rites of passage for new parents teaching their young ones. Something over half a billion copies of his works have been printed through the years.

It’s said that Geisel wasn’t that fond of having little children around in real life. But he exhibited a brilliance unsurpassed at knowing what would appeal to them and he delivered that time and time again with his stories. A cat in a hat? Green eggs and ham, Sam? There’s not a three year old in existence who doesn’t giggle at the thought – especially if its accompanied by the zany cartoon illustrations the “Doctor” was known for.

For me, Seuss was “the man” when I was that age. I was lucky to have parents who surrounded me and my brother with a lot of books as kids, but none delighted me quite like the rhyming, goofy stories about Sam-I-Am, the Cat in the Hat, The Grinch and little Cindy Lou Who, or Horton who heard a Who. I looked at the books time and time again, and soon with a little help could read them all by myself. From there, I never looked back…unless it was Christmas time and time to watch the TV version of The Grinch, a beloved holiday tradition I try to keep to this day even as my hair gets grayer. In later years, I went on to work briefly in the conservation field and was able to at times delight campers young and old alike by playing the film of The Lorax, another Seuss story telling of the little creature who tried to save the truffula trees from the industrialist Onceler. Like many of his best works it delivered a strong and worthwhile moral in the guise of a children’s cartoon.

So, yes, Dr. Seuss may not have been perfect and his books were products of his time (as any work of art is ultimately.) But few things made me happier as a kid and now, as I sit by a bookcase full of titles of all sorts, including a couple of ones I wrote myself, I thank him for getting me to know the magic of reading. I don’t know what I’d be doing if not for him… but I doubt I’d be here writing my thoughts for you, dear readers.

Meg Shone But Real Star Was On Sidelines

Some are surprised by the fact but some guys like movies that are fun and romantic more than ones which feature a lot of things blowin’ up. I’m one of those guys, so I don’t mind when my sweetie wants to snuggle up for the evening and put on a classic Romcom movie. Now there were some goofily fun ones made in the ’50s and her beloved Jane Austen wrote works which had the romance if not the comedy part of the equation, some of which have been made into perfectly acceptable period movies. But for me, you can’t do any better in that genre of film than the trio of late-20th Century smashes from Nora Ephron : “When Harry Met Sally”, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” All three had complicated romances, and all three had Meg Ryan as the female lead. Not a bad formula at all.

So I quite enjoyed reading the book I’ll Have What She’s Having, loosely a biography of writer and director Ephron, but more specifically an in depth look at those three movies and how they came about. The Erin Carlson book looks at Nora’s upbringing and her turbulent marriage to Watergate reporter (made heroic in the book and movie All the President’s Men) Carl Bernstein, which itself resulted in the movie Heartburn, and ends by filling us in a little on Ephron’s life after the three movies mentioned as well as those of the main stars. Still the bulk of the book is on the works Carlson says “saved the romantic comedy.”

Whether or not it did that, Nora certainly raised the bar for the type of film and made Ms. Ryan into America’s sweetheart. Whether coincidentally or not, Ryan probably looks the best in the book, generally as nice to be around and as bright as her movie characters. Tom Hanks also comes out looking good, a little reluctant to do so many romance movies but good to everyone on set and a great actor. Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner are seen in fine light… really the only featured person (besides the ever-philandering Bernstein) who isn’t shown to be a joy to be near was Ephron herself. Ephron is depicted as prickly, short-tempered and rather close-minded. However, that might be what made her a great movie-maker. She was also obsessively attentive to detail and had a great sense of dialog and movie pacing. Reading the book, one comes to expect none of the three movies would have amounted to much had it not been for Nora’s vision for them and insistence on certain actors being cast and scenes being shot.

Fans of the three movies will be interested in a lot of the trivia that resulted in them being like they were. An entire storyline cut out of You’ve Got Mail to keep it to under two and a half hours. The iconic “baby fish mouth” in When Harry Met Sally being adlibbed by Bruno Kirby. And of course, the punchline the book got its name from, the classic diner scene in When Harry Met Sally in which prim Sally fakes an orgasm at the table… to Harry’s mortification. Turns out that was Meg’s idea, and Rob Reiner (the director) thought it was brilliant… until he began to sweat when his own mom was brought on set!

However, even if these films aren’t your cup of tea and you prefer ones with a lot of explosions and perhaps heroes in capes, if you’re a fan of Hollywood and films in general, it could be interesting. Carlson details much of the film-making process, and how a so-so script is edited, tweaked and rewritten, sets are searched for and meticulously created, lighting sculpted, the processes of finding the right actor for the roles and much more that would be as applicable to a Marvel adaptation or teen gross-out flick as it would a mature romcom.

A fun and interesting read. I’ll give it 3.5 AOL mailboxes out of five.