Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

Credible News. Seems Simple, But. . . .   Leave a comment

Challenging The False Narrative From #45

June 1, 2017

I’ve always been an early-riser. As a child my mother found that my body clock was set for 5:00am. She dealt with this reality as would any mother wishing to keep her sanity. Since she worked 3rd shift as a registered nurse (and didn’t return home until 7:30am,) I accepted her guidance. My mother taught me how to make my own breakfast, and provided me with an understanding of why I would live longer if I didn’t wake everyone else in the house at 5:00am. It was no surprise that years later when I delivered papers in Milwaukee, I worked for the morning paper, The Milwaukee Sentinel.

To my own surprise (based on my early years in school) I find that I read a lot these days. It’s a habit I developed in the 1970s while living in Chicago, where I became a regular reader of the Chicago Sun-Times. That choice—Sun-Times vs. Chicago Tribune—was based on two simple ideas: first, the story selection and the writing style of the Sun-Times connected with me; second, I preferred the physical size and shape of the the Sun-Times tabloid format vs. the Chicago Tribune’s broadsheet. It didn’t matter that the Tribune was larger (in number of pages and readers) and far more powerful than the Sun-Times. We all have our preferences.

The Chicago Sun-Times always seemed grittier to me, more blue-collar than white collar; more Main Street than Wall Street. Looking back to those days in Chicago my memory paints a picture of a Sun-Times that was something of a real-life version of The Sun in Ron Howard’s 1994 film The Paper, or The Day in Richard Brooks’ 1952 film Deadline U.S.A. In fact, as I recall the Sun-Times was the backdrop for the 1981 film Continental Divide Belushicd02starring John Belushi as a gritty reporter. Moving to Los Angeles in 1977 didn’t change my habits; just the names of the papers. As a resident I looked to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and The Los Angeles Times. Both were pale versions of the Chicago papers but for more than a decade I followed the world through the lens of the Los Angeles papers. And as I began working nationally and internationally, I also expanded my reading list to include the New York Times, which I continue to read today, along with the Washington Post and occasionally the Press Democrat here on the coast.

There’s a scene in the 1977 film Futureworld, where the film’s two lead characters—a TV reporter played by Blythe Danner and a print reporter played by Peter Fonda—talk about which is more important and more popular for getting news and information. After a brief exchange (and the question remaining unresolved) they turn to a stranger. The Fonda character asks the man if he gets his news from television or newspapers? His response went something like this: “Me? I’m a tube freak, man”.  The film may be 40 years old but looking at the media landscape today, it seems that the ‘tube freak’ was on to something. According to a recent Pew Research analysis, “. . . TV continues to be the most widely used news platform; 57% of U.S. adults often get TV-based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three. This same pattern emerges when people are asked which platform they prefer – TV sits at the top, followed by the web, with radio and print trailing behind.” The analysis goes on to confirm that “the greatest portion of U.S. adults, 46%, prefer to watch news rather than read it (35%) or listen to (17%).”

How we get news is less important, in my opinion, than the credibility of the news we get. There’s no question that our current president, number 45, likes to talk about ‘fake news’ as a way to explain his “stolen popular vote”, or the smaller crowds at his inaugural, or the popular resistance to his gutting of the social safety net and his denial of climate change. I don’t care if #45 believes Martians or Mexicans voted illegally to keep him from winning the popular vote. I just wish he’d either start governing or pack up his marbles and go home. Either is preferable to the continuing mistrust he sows in our society.

A couple of weeks ago I started watching 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, in part perhaps, to help me believe that our government might start governing. Alas, I didn’t watch the entire movie because I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that there is even one strong and honorable “Jefferson Smith” residing in today’s U.S. Senate. I’d even settle for the film’s Senator “Joseph Paine” to come to mr_smith_goes_to_washington_61073-1920x1200our rescue, and tell him to keep some of the graft for his effort. Governing isn’t a lost cause, but fake news is pushing us in that direction.

Jacob Soll wrote in Politico last December that “fake news’ dates back almost 600 years, essentially since Gutenberg in 1439. As an example Soll offers this nugget: “To whip up revolutionary fervor, Ben Franklin himself concocted propaganda stories about murderous “scalping” Indians working in league with the British King George III.” With the consolidation of news outlets, local beat reporters are an endangered species, and regional and national reporters are at the very least a group under threat. Soll concludes that “Real news is not coming back in any tangible way on a competitive local level, or as a driver of opinion in a world where the majority of the population does not rely on professionally reported news sources and so much news is filtered via social media, and by governments. And as real news recedes, fake news will grow. We’ve seen the terrifying results this has had in the past—and our biggest challenge will be to find a new way to combat the rising tide.”

I’ll keep looking for real news and pass along what I find. I hope you’ll do the same.

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The Best Holiday Movies Are About Memories   Leave a comment

Turn Your Television On This Month. Please.

December 1, 2016

I’m still a kid. I love the holidays, and one of the things I enjoy this time of year is reliving Thanksgiving and Christmas memories through films. Turkey dinner was the sit-down altar where we communed together as a family. Film is where we see ourselves again or for the first time. Viewing can be particularly enjoyable when watching the film with friends or family, as we have favorite scenes—some in common and some unique to us. After all, memories are about life, real or imagined or some combination of the two. This month I’ve decided to offer you my list of ten films that are worth watching every holiday season, from Thanksgiving Day to New Years Day.

#10: Prancer: This 1989 film features a midwest farmer/single dad, his 9-year old daughter, and a reindeer named Prancer. It has sentimentality but also a first rate realism and charm. Directed by John Hancock Prancer stars Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, and Cloris Leachman. Roger Ebert wrote “[Jessica is] a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn’t a Santa, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did nine-year old Jessica’s mother go when she died?”. Heavy stuff or heady stuff? Either way, you can handle it and feel good about this unusually good holiday treat.

dec-mov-2#9: A Christmas Carol: There have been many film versions adapted from Charles Dickens’ story, but this 1951 version is my favorite. It features Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, and Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley. The story is timeless and worth watching every Christmas. Whether you become tearful or not, it’s a century old story, in a half-century old film, shot in glorious black and white, and it still delivers

#8: Home Alone: Few movie stars have had the ability to be both charming and annoying on screen and in real life, and all before the age of 12. Forget the annoying part. Macaulay Culkin helps drive this 1990 film with sufficient believability as the young child left home by highly distracted parents. Culkin benefits from the direction of Chris Columbus, the writing of John Hughes, and the comedic performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It’s been a quarter century since the film was made yet the basic premise holds up. If it seems like too much work, watch it for Pesci and Stern. The film wouldn’t work without them as the bumbling thieves.

#7: The Santa Clause: Tim Allen’s turn in this 1994 holiday-flavored feature film was a surprisingly good idea. In short, Santa dies on the job, Tim Allen’s character steps in to save the day and discovers that he is now (and forever?) the new Santa Claus. It’s funny with some tugging at the heart. It’s the Twinkie of Christmas movies. Enjoy it and don’t think about the calories. The Washington Post had it right: “The Santa Clause would be another formulaic Christmas special without Tim Allen.”

#6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Not all of the films from National Lampoon have been winners but this 1989 spinoff from the original Vacation is a lot of fun. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as the Griswold parents, along with a new Audrey (Juliet Lewis) and a new Rusty (Johnny Galecki). It’s also worth watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the way-too-hipster next door neighbors “Margo and Todd Chester”. We can watch the film and look back on our fond memories or on the horror of sharing Christmas with the entire family. Good fun.

#5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: No holiday season would be complete without this 1987 film. One of Steve Martin’s better outings, and John Candy is as perfect as he can be. The unlikely twosome becomes mutually dependent as they attempt to travel from New York to Chicago by way of Kansas and Missouri in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. As with most films written and directed by John Hughes, the music is top notch (including Martin’s traumatized “you’re messin’ with the wrong guy”.) The film is wonderful and it always reminds me of how much the world misses John Candy.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street: On the surface this is a film about a nice old man who calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus. Threatened with being declared insane, a young lawyer steps in to defend Kringle, arguing in court that he really is Santa Claus. While Kringle’s sanity is the central theme, the real centerpiece of the 1947 film is about a single mom’s journey (and ours) to have faith, and to believe in something that may be difficult or impossible to prove. While that sounds like religion, the faith here is far more about life itself. But it works on both levels. The cast is a who’s who of post WWII Hollywood faces: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Granville Sawyer, William Frawley, and Jerome Cowan.

#3: The Bishop’s Wife: This 1947 film is also about Christmas and faith. But relax, this is not a film that looks or feels anything like a tent-revival. It’s an intelligent story based on a visiting angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) entering the life of protestant minister Henry Brougham (David Niven), who’s marriage to wife Julia (Loretta Young) is tested along the way. There are numerous religious moments but the film is anything but preachy. There are lofty (sometimes heavenly) goals, a couple of sermons, a boys choir, some shopping, lunch at a French restaurant named Michel’s (of course), a few snobs, and some solid citizens. Sit back and simply let yourself get lost inside this film. Rounding out the cast are Elsa Lanchester, Regis Toomey, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley.

#2: It’s A Wonderful Life: Frank Capra presents the life and times of George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed). In just over two hours, we are treated to their lives and ours. Like the old nursery rhyme, this 1947 film features tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, a rich man and more. As Bailey’s life moves forward, he’s forced to reflect on how he’s helped change things for the better, and with an angel’s help, he sees an alternate version of how his life—or lack thereof—could change everything and mov-no-1everyone. Like other Capra films, this one is rich in characters and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, and H.B. Warner. And for trivia buffs, there is the perfectly-cast voice of Moroni Olsen as Franklin, the never seen senior angel narrating the film.

#1: A Christmas Story: This 1983 film narrowly edged out the others for #1 simply because it speaks to me on so many levels. Instead of just seeing the enjoyable chaos surrounding the lives of the Parker family, I can clearly see my own family growing up in Milwaukee; our version was all Wisconsin, not Indiana. Yet like ‘old man Parker’, my father did swear at the furnace (and other things). I did want a BB gun for christmas. We lived in our version of that neighborhood, on that street, in that house and we had our own Bumpus family for neighbors. And there was plenty of innocent “drama” surrounding our lives as Christmas approached, but there was also the sense of family and time together. I love this film. Regardless of any memories I might like to forget, my reality is of a time when, as Jean Shepherd tells us, “all was right with the world”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Stories of Heroes, Despots, Killers, Musicians, and Things That Go Bump. . . .   Leave a comment

About Some Of My Favorite Books

October 1, 2016

For two decades I was a road warrior, traveling on company business around the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many of those road trips were the long-haul variety, to New York or Toronto, London or Tokyo. A constant traveling companion for me on those journeys was a book, sometimes two. Books were excellent companions for frequent flyers, all of us happily oblivious in those pre-smartphone days, with no hint of the on-board tech-driven in-flight annoyances to come. With the Lighthouse Peddler’s  regular book contributor Joel Crockett taking a well-deserved leave from writing for a few months, I decided try and fill his shoes by reconsidering some of those literary traveling companions of mine.

Crafting a story based on fact can sometimes be more difficult than it seems. Subsequently adapting that non-fiction story for film can be even more daunting. I recall seeing a preview for the soon-to-be-released film All The President’s Men (1976) and couldn’t wait to see it. A friend of mine was surprised that I had such anticipation for the film adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about the fall of Richard Nixon. My friend said, “why would you want to see that film?  Everybody knows how it ends.” But that is what separates many/most of those aspiring to literary success from successful writers.

In the early 1980s I found myself on a Pan Am flight to London clutching The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. My copy of this classic, Wolfe’s 8th book, shows the wear and tear of all that travel. When I pulled it out of the bookshelf in our home this weekend, an Eastern Airlines “seat occupied” card fell out of the pages. Eastern was once one of the “Big Four” domestic airlines, and like Pan Am, it had a glorious history, only to be eclipsed by a dramatically changed travel industry. Coincidentally, the glory days of Eastern Airlines and Pan Am paralleled many of NASA’s as well.

The Right Stuff is an amazing book. Most people, these days, are at least familiar with NASA and know some history of the early space program, and the lives of those early pioneers. There was Chuck Yeager; not destined to be an astronaut but a legend nonetheless. Gus img_1782Grissom, Wally Schirra, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and all of the other wannabe ‘spacemen’ are here. Wolfe’s recounting ranges from stool specimens to test flights, and then the final glory of being selected to sit on top of a rocket and be hurled into space and history. The Right Stuff was a ‘page-turner’ as they say. I recall a British Pan Am flight attendant, observing my reading material on that London flight. She simply looked at me and said, “powerful stuff, that!”. Understatement of the day. And Wolfe told this amazing story in just over 400 pages.

In 2001 I did some reading as part of my graduate research in New York for a class taught by Professor Robin Blackburn, a regular guest lecturer from London, on the subject of the slave trade. In addition to Blackburn’s own fine books—The Making of New World Slavery (1997) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988)—I selected img_1787Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. The subtitle pretty much says it all: “A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa”. In just 318 pages, one gains a thorough understanding of the contemptible nature, the arrogance, and the greed of many of our European Ancestors, and the baggage left behind on three continents. I loved King Leopold’s Ghost. There is imagery in and between the lines to give you pause, but then perhaps the slave trade and colonial exploitation should continue to give pause to us all.

I rarely read fiction, but another college assignment back in 2000 was The Killer Angels, the gripping and historically accurate look at the Battle of Gettysburg. My copy of Michael Shaara’s book is a pocket-sized, inexpensive hard cover edition. But once again, a writer proves that using more words is not always a necessity. How those words are put together is the test. Like All The President’s Men, we all know (or should know) how the Gettysburg story ends, yet Shaara take’s the horror and the drama and refines it into an amazing literary work. The imagery is outstanding. As the days of fighting took their toll, the Battle of Gettysburg was nearing its conclusion. “[General Robert E.] Lee came out of the mists. He was tall and gray on that marvelous horse, riding majestically forward in the gray light of morning outlined against the sky.” Shaara writes so well that you’d swear he was sitting on a bluff overlooking the bloody fields. In July of 1863 the American Civil War was at its turning point. Many more lives would be lost, with sacrifices on both sides. Books like The Killer Angels speak to George Santayana’s mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The more casual we speak of war, the more likely we are to reaffirm Santayana’s words.

If Wolfe, Hochschild, and Shaara don’t interest you, there are plenty of other good books around, probably in stock at your local independent book seller. Here are a few more older titles that I recommend:

The Last Lion, William Manchester’s trilogy on the life of Winston Churchill. I found volume one fabulous, volume two a little slow at times but worth the read. I picked up a copy of the final volume at Four-Eyed Frog some months back and its nearing the top of my reading pile.

Lawrence In Arabia is Scott Anderson’s look at the great Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence. Note the title emphasis: in, not of. This is about the complexities of the man and his img_1785adventures, and not simply the T.E. we saw in the grandeur of David Lean’s marvelous 1962 film. The pages are filled with the real dirt and grit that Lawrence lived. And Anderson knows how to tell the story.

Meet Me At Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musician’s And Their World by Gene Lees. This book came out of a reading assignment some twenty years ago. Lees takes a look at some well known (and less well known) musicians from the world of Jazz. There’s Shorty Pederstein (. . . me either), Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Frank Rosolino, Bill Evans, Art Farmer, and others. You will absolutely learn something about Jazz, Jazz musicians, and the desire to express oneself through music. This book is a bit tougher to find, but it’s worth it.

My wife taught me years ago that there remains a tactile wonder when turning the pages of a book. Just browsing the aisles of the Four-Eyed Frog or other bookstores we’re aware that there isn’t really any such connection when reading with the glowing screen of a Kindle or an iPad. But however you choose to read, do it again. Even if it’s for the first time. And don’t wait for a long flight to London.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Longing For The Cold War   Leave a comment

Who’d a thought?

March 1, 2016

For some of us, perhaps many of us, the Cold War years had clarity. Believe it or not while there weren’t rules, the Cold War gave us lines and boundaries. There was fear and yet our government sought to soothe our worried minds. Of course both sides—East and West—had people on the extremes but, to borrow a football metaphor, the ‘cold warriors’ generally played between the 20 yard lines. Not much scoring but no nuclear missile strikes either.

During the half century after WWII, America had a more unified and purposeful society, not to mention better friends, better enemies, better politicians, and better music. The 220px-Nagasakibombunification of spirit felt during that political “ice age” was likely the end result of our collective fear of being destroyed, in spite of assurances from those in authority that we could ‘survive a nuclear attack’. What senior citizen does not recall being lovingly informed by a kindergarten teacher that if we wanted to get home safely toniP.S._58_-_Carroll_&_Smith_Sts._Bklyn._hold_a_take_cover_drill_01489vght, we’d better know how to duck and cover, as in duck under your desk when you hear the warning or see the flash of the A-Bomb, and then cover your head. Right. Even the older children were fed the idea that they could ‘survive an atom bomb’. No discussion of those pesky radiation burns or ingesting some residual particle of U-235. Instead, “OK kids, the bright light is gone, the mushroom cloud is pretty, the city’s destroyed, but we’re just fine. Get home safe! And don’t forget to read Silas Marner for tomorrow.”

This is not an attempt to trivialize the Truman-to-Reagan era, (or for that matter Stalin-to-Gorbachev.) We felt the tension, witnessed occasional provocations, and were sometimes heartened by moments of detente. Khrushchev visited America, and then that silly U2 spy plane thing happened. There were years of atmospheric nuclear tests with regular forays into unilateral brinksmanship. The proxy war with China, also known as the Korean “Police Action”, morphed into an uneasy and often violated truce along the 38th Parallel. The militarization of western Europe through NATO was a reflection of the occupation of eastern Europe under the guise of the Warsaw Pact. We lived through the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everywhere the raison detre was expressed as defeating the “Decadent Capitalism” of the West, or the “Godless Communism” of the East.

Providing additional boundaries for our lives were some lighter cultural influences. Like Mad Magazine (“What-Me Worry?”) and its offbeat humor. Its satire was sometimes dark, and like other cultural touchstones it had double-entendres Mad30for intergenerational readers, i.e. the oddball humor of Spy vs. Spy. On television there was Rocky & Bullwinkle providing viewers with A-Bomb comic-relief featuring Boris & Natasha; a bit like the Addams Family with nukes. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. gave us the organizations UNCLE and THRUSH squaring off as “good” and “evil”. There was even a credit at the end of each episode thanking the United Network Command For Law Enforcement for its assistance in the production. (No such organization existed but suggesting it was a real agency was a little like the childish joke ending with “. . . made you look”.) The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was mirrored with humor in Get Smart with its agents of “Control” and “Kaos”.

Two big screen offerings in 1964 were Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In the drama of the former, Henry Fonda portrayed “The President”, attempting to be a rational voice with his Russian counterpart. In the end, the wayward American nukes destroyed Moscow, and Fonda’s president prevented a full out Soviet nuclear response by dropping an American nuke on New York City. (Ted Cruz probably liked that part of the film). Strangelove’s black comedy was center stage with Peter Sellers in three roles: as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (suggesting Britain’s WWII Field Marshal Montgomery), American President Merkin Muffley, telling the members of his cabinet that even when discussing global thermonuclear war, decorum is required: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” And finally there was Dr. Strangelove himself, an obvious preview of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s role in the Nixon White House. Ironically Kissinger helped open American relations with “Red” China by organizing a meeting between conservative Nixon, and Mao and Chou en Lai. (Twenty years later, the cultural relevance of that meeting was not lost on fans of Star Trek, when Spock tells Kirk the old Vulcan saying, “Only Nixon could go to China.”) You Only Live Twice, the 1967 Bond film was contrasted with The President’s Analyst. Deadly suave vs. deadly humor. Exposed to both fiction and fact, by the 1970s we continued to see the lines.

In the 1980s the acronym MAD emerged providing a shortcut to imagining the end result of unleashing weapons of war in the Atomic Age: Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD reinforced a simple premise: nuclear war was insane. We ALSO accepted another new phrase: Nuclear Winter. It took “MAD” and further defined the outcome of a nuclear war in two words. So instead of launching a global thermonuclear war, over the decades the East and West engaged in proxy states and proxy wars, as in Vietnam, Angola, Korea, Syria, Israel, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Cuba. But the world began to believe that there were actual lines, and launching a nuclear war was a line not to be crossed.

Through all those years, music was an important ingredient in American culture. There was always someone, somewhere, inspired and willing to write and record a song about the times in which we lived. Something to give us a tweak on the nose, a slap to the back of the head. Today we sometimes feel as if there is no relevant music, or we’re less inspired by music, or music is no longer enough. (Name me two widely recognized songs that we all came to know as the anthems of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. . . . time’s up.) In keeping with the current state of technology, protests have become less frequent, but more visual; like standing up at a Trump rally asking for tolerance and being thrown out of the room, often with disregard for personal safety. Highly visible buy hardly new. Trump has (as ha16moore_CA0-popups the GOP) become the new “Bull” Conner. Half a century ago Conner—the Commissioner for Public Safety—enforced racial segregation and denied civil rights to black citizens in Birmingham, Alabama by using attack dogs, firehoses, and worse. (See the Charles Moore photograph). The difference then, the abuse was a wakeup call to anyone on the sidelines. Today’s boorish and thug-like behavior seems to embolden the supporters, while those in opposition can complain for one news cycle; and like the introduction of another shiny object, the noise dies down as the media loses interest. Until it happens again.

It’s my belief that we are not sufficiently confronting today’s bigots, warmongers, and racists in our midst. Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and the others say anything and the greatest casualty is the truth. We can only hope that at some point they will each be called to account. Whether by a citizen in the streets, a famous newscaster, a war veteran, or a musician on stage. Presidential wannabes are calling for “carpet-bombing” the Middle East, deporting 12 million people, building a wall along our border, excluding members of one or more religions from entering the U.S. solely on the basis of their religion, and declaring that we need waterboarding and [actually] it should go further. A counter-message to these dismantlers of the Constitution must emerge, and soon.

As I prepared to write this column, I reviewed a list of recordings. I kept searching for a contemporary narrative to protest the warmongers, to counter the nativists, and to refute those with a flawed history of the founding of the Republic. The more I thought about it, the less important a long list of recordings became. Beyond David Rovics, who is constantly writing, recording, touring—his website declares “Music is no spectator sport, [we should] become a co-conspirator and organize a gig, translate my songs into other languages or join the Better Anarchist™ Club and help me get to the next protest”—we need music to transcend the moment. We need today’s Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Woody (or Arlo) Guthrie, Nanci Griffith, or Shona Laing to raise their voices. But we must recognize that the lines are no longer as clearly drawn as they were during the Cold War.

Racists are getting away with being racist. Warmongers are wrapping themselves in the flag to justify bombing indiscriminately. Bigots are openly expressing their abhorrent bigotry. Don’t ask where the “anti-ISIS” songs are. Instead, understand that hatred is obvious within America today. Everyone has a duty to protest the borderline insanity of these modern day John Birchers. As New Zealander Shona Laing asked thirty years ago in her song “Soviet Snow”, are we keeping “One eye on the winter? Are we wide awake? Is the world aware?” While I’d like to believe that we are awake and aware, it seems, maybe, not so much.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

 

Note: An edited version of this was published in the March 2016 issue of the monthly Lighthouse Peddler.

 

Return of the Pharisees   Leave a comment

Many of the Wealthy Seem Bent on Giving for Name Only

December 31, 2015

The concept of giving is wonderful, confusing, rewarding, necessary. And that’s just for starters. From my earliest days in Lutheran elementary school, I learned about the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. “Alms for the poor” (or a variation), a phrase we were assured was found throughout the Bible, was drilled into our heads. What Sunday School 8-year old could not feel some degree of empathy? There are the numerous lessons on giving offered by the world’s major religions including Judaism, Christianity (including Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, etc), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and among them we learn what alms are, who they are for, why we should give, and so on.

We’d like to believe that charitable giving is only or primarily altruistic. But, of course, it is not. To be fair much of the giving to charity by Americans is personal, like money dropped in the collection plate during mass, or in the poor box inside the narthex of the church, or in the Salvation Army collection pot. Yes, someone may observe the act of giving but not necessarily the amount given. The idea is to be less than obvious. And to be clear, there exists no societal norm for how much is enough. Some elect to follow an historical or epistemological practice. Tithing, for example: giving 10%. Others may have a familial ‘norm’ based on nothing more than “I always give $5.00”. And still others follow the “spare change” model. I was in a conversation with a priest who told me of a parishioner who asked “if one wishes to practice tithing, is it gross or net?” Somewhat predictably the priest responded, “well, if you have to ask. . . .”

The number of people who choose to give anonymously is infinitely larger than the “look at me” crowd, those who make very public contributions. My analysis is based soley on the far greater number of people in the so-called 99%, versus the smaller group—the 1%, those who hold the greatest amount of accumulated wealth within this or any society. It is possible that some within the latter “one percenters” give for one or more sincere reasons, but I would wager that most of the wealthy believe that public giving works beyond helping others; it improves their standing in the community, society, or the world. They are also likely to be well versed in the tax code, as in a list of deductions to offset income and reduce taxes.

Charity, from ancient times to today, has been used by some as a billboard, a neon sign, offered publicly to impress others. Like the pharisees of old, the wealthy and particularly the über-wealthy seem to relish making public donations, affixing their family name to a fund, trust, or charitable organization so everyone knows it was they who made the donation. These days when I see the credits at the beginning of a documentary film or a public television program (or video) I find I’m spending more time scrutinizing the donors than the stars, producers, or writers. The latter have an agenda, to be sure, but the former—the donors to one of these projects—have an agenda as well. The size of the on-screen font suggests that some (or many) of these donors are 21st-century pharisees who, like their namesakes two thousand years ago, believe in their inherent lofty place in society, and wish to reinforce an equally pretentious “knowledge” of their superior sanctity. They want the world to accept their premise.

The wonderful and long-running PBS series Nova is just one example where the good vibe and hopeful anticipation of what is to come quickly crashes through the floor when you see one of the named contributors to the funding: The David H. Koch Fund For Science. You understand that IMG_1558this is no quiet, unobtrusive thank you credit to the billionaire. That on-screen credit, the fund’s logo, takes up about 25% of the screen. About as subtle as a freight-train. The Koch brothers, more than any single American family—at least during the past twenty years—have used their wealth to reshape the American political landscape. Their agenda is simple: spend hundreds of millions (billions really by some estimates) to place very conservative, anti-government, low-tax (for the wealthy) candidates in state legislatures, governorships, in the U.S. congress, the senate, and on the supreme court. And they receive tax deductions for their efforts.

As one of his contributions to the generations who followed, the great codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides left the world his take on giving, on charity, with a list of eight levels of giving, correlating to the degree to which the giver is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the recipient. Counting down, and in an abbreviated form, here are Maimonides’ levels, the “Great Eight”:

Eight: Giving grudgingly. If the option is to give grudgingly or not at all, Maimonides prefers that you give grudgingly. Better to help someone in need, albeit with a bad attitude, than to ignore them.

Seven: Giving less than you can afford, but doing so pleasantly. If you or your accountant suggest you can afford to give $1,000 and you decide to give $250 and you do so with a pleasant demeanor, the positive nature of your expression of caring helps offset—to some degree—the decision to do less than you can afford.

Six: If you give generously, but must first be asked, you land at level six. Take heart. You gave, even though the person in need had to calmly ask or grovel in your presence.

Five: You gave before anyone asked. This requires you to pay attention, to look where you may not wish to look. No crying, begging, or pleading required. In essence, you reached out before the needy reached out to you.

Four: The person on the receiving end knows that the gift came from you, but you don’t know who received the gift. Perhaps the donor feels like they’ve accomplished something of more value because of the anonymity. Of course, those on the receiving end still know they are indebted to the donor. The superiority of the giver is maintained.

Three: This is the reverse of level four: The donor knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know who donated the money. I disagree with Maimonides here, as this seems like it should change places with level four (above). After all, this type of giving enables the donor to maintain a feeling of superiority over the recipient. In any case, Maimonides placed this at level three.

Two: A completely anonymous gift. The donor does not know where the money went, or who received the money, and the recipient has no idea whom to thank. This is a near-perfect level, since the receiver can take the gift with the knowledge that there is no one to whom they need to feel indebted, and the giver can never know if the recipient was someone on the other side of the world or down the block.

One: Helping someone reach self-sufficency. If you recall the saying that “give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach someone to fish and they can feed themselves”, then Level One is the idea that you can actually help someone become self-sufficient. Better to have a job than to be unemployed. Better to feel you are contributing to society than to take from society (although many on the far right speak only of the “takers”). Along with income, food, and shelter, there is the preservation of one’s dignity.

Many followers of western religions believe that doing good things on earth will be rewarded in heaven. Karma, from Hinduism and Buddhism, represents the sum of one’s actions in this and previous states of existence, and those actions are viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. This year let’s resolve to do more, and perhaps we should consider doing it silently. Our karma may depend on it.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2015

 

Of Music’s Gods, Background Singers, and Unsung Heros: Review   1 comment

The Beat Goes On, Sort Of….

October 1, 2015

I spent most of my adult life working in the music industry, but my appreciation for the value of music is not unique. Three documentaries (two films and an audio series) have been released during the past few years and for fans of music or those interested in the music business, all three are worth exploring in a theater, on television, DVD, or streaming, and in one case on radio or audio stream.

The Wrecking Crew, a recently released film, is from a nickname drummer Hal Blaine gave to a group of very talented studio musicians. These recording session “hired guns” were so talented and worked so well together, they became an institution within the Southern California music community. The New York Times review offered this: “For a stretch in the 1960s, those faces beaming from album covers were lying to you: The music inside was often played by others. Those others were usually members of the Wrecking Crew, a loose cabal of versatile Los Angeles session musicians fluent in rock, soul, country and getting out of the way.”  In a way, this was the Milli Vanilli business model, only thirty years earlier.

In a warm and friendly way, this film documents the glory days of the “crew’s” studio work, and although most of the members are still unknown to the general public, The Wrecking Crew gives us a glimpse at the key players. WreckingCrewLogoFor example, bassist Carol Kaye’s clear mastery of her instrument comes through as she tells the story of playing on Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” session. What we learn is Kaye’s not insignificant creation of a simple bass-line, a riff for “The Beat Goes On” which was destined to become as iconic in pop music as Keith Richards’ opening riff for the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”. And she’s emblematic of what these unsung musicians contributed to many of our favorite songs, including hits by The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, The Crystals, Jan & Dean, Mamas & Papas, The Monkees, Elvis Presley, The Righteous Brothers, Frank Sinatra, and so many more.

Director Denny Tedesco’s 2015* film drifts from straight storytelling to an homage to his father—guitarist and Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco. His devotion is touching but unnecessary in the final cut of the film. Nevertheless, the strength shown by Kaye, Blaine, Tedesco and the other musicians—James Burton, Glen Campbell, Jim Keltner, Barney Kessel, Larry Knechtel, Jack Nitzsche, Earl Palmer, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Julius Wechter, and so many more—becomes obvious. Their stories come through loud and clear in The Wrecking Crew, and always in the proper key.

Another recent production is 20 Feet From Stardom, a 2013 release from director Morgan Neville. The obvious story of these vocalists is about the anonymity of their recording life, but it also touches on some of the classic racism and sexism within the American recording industry of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. 20 Feet From Stardom is a look underneath the successes made possible, in tumblr_mzita5pAb01sn7wjto1_500part, by these singers. What we are witness to is the heartfelt story of a group of performers, who under other circumstances, would be living a bit more comfortably today, yet there remains a joyful tone as each knows just who they are. New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott described it this way:

“20 Feet From Stardom is a chronicle of exploitation and appropriation — in other words, the music business — and also a series of tales of professional commitment and artistic triumph. The picture it paints is gratifyingly complicated.”

Performers like Darlene Love (nee Darlene Wright) and Merry Clayton give us a glimpse into the agony and the ecstasy of the work. Love recorded as a member of the Crystals and the Blossoms, and also under her own name. She reinvented her career years later in part by legally and morally challenging the producers and record labels for unpaid royalties, and then reentered the spotlight of concerts and recording. Clayton lived through much of the same oblivion, but without a late-career spotlight to enjoy. Her background performance (actually as foreground as a background singer can get) on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 recording “Gimme Shelter” was more than memorable. It was a classic. Don Snowden wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Merry Clayton’s spine-chilling vocal on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of the most famed in ’60s rock.” Her own 1970 album Gimme Shelter offered a new all-Clayton version of the song that remains solidly on my list of all-time favorites.

I highly recommend 20 Feet From Stardom as a tour-de-force in the lives of these and other little known, unknown, and/or forgotten talents. They deserved better, and this small tribute is something of a rich first step. Besides, the music is memorable, the conversations are personal and introspective, and their gifts may be gifts from God, but also—and as importantly—they are gifts to us.**

Finally, I want to mention an audio project you may never hear. Robert Harris produced a five-part series titled Twilight of the Gods. Created for the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Twilight of the Gods was launched in 2012, and was recently rebroadcast on the CBC-1’s Sirius/XM Satellite feed where I had the pleasure of hearing it once more. As an introduction (or perhaps a warning), Harris offered this:

“It’s hard to imagine how rich, decadent and some would say corrupt, the record business was in the 80s. Then again, ‘Morning in America’, the slogan that got Ronald Reagan [re]elected President in 1984 might have been ‘Party Night in America.’ This was the era of Wall Street gazillionaires, cocaine, Madonna and hair metal bands. And the record business symbolized it all, with its immense profits, private jets, trashed hotel rooms, and overall scandalous behaviour. At its height, the business was selling a hundred million dollars worth of product, worldwide – every day. There was no end to the ride. Until there was.”

Harris gives us a highly entertaining look at the recording industry, with a North American perspective and a slight Canadian flavor. If you are at all interested in the history of the music business, his series is worth your time. One problem. Twilight of the Gods is unavailable for streaming or by way of podcast in the United States. When you go to the link on the CBC site, you’re presented with a message that reads: “This Content is Licensed for Canadian Audiences Only.” Until things change you can [a] drive to Canada and download the podcast, [b] listen to the CBC online and pray for a replay, or [c] contact a friend in Canada and ask your friend to podcast the series and send it to you on a thumb drive marked “The Great Speeches of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper”. It will be ignored by customs officials on both sides of the border. And only you will be the wiser.

David Steffen

* Released in 2015, the film was reportedly completed in 2008 but getting all of the necessary legal clearances took additional years to complete.

** My long time friend, the late Gil Friesen, was the producer of 20 Feet From Stardom and drove this project from idea to completion. He died just before the film was awarded an Oscar© for Best Documentary, Features at the Academy Awards in 2014.

Note: an edited version of this essay appears at www.lighthousepeddler.net.

© 2015 David Steffen

The Unmusical Oscars   Leave a comment

April 21, 2012

Can You Name That Tune?

What the hell is going on in Hollywood? In the music business we used to comment on the increasing number of lawyers and accountants who were creeping (literally and figuratively) into senior roles at medium-to-large record labels. This wasn’t paranoia, because we  knew that tone-deaf ambulance chasers and bean counters were out to get us. Low and behold, with rare exceptions, unmusical lawyers and accountants running record companies became poster-children for the Peter Principle. So now I’m forced to ask the same question about the film industry.

In the recent unexplainable Academy Awards, music in the Best Original Song category was clearly relegated to the status of the crazy aunt in the attic. Of 39 songs under consideration, only two songs received nominations:  “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets, with music and lyrics by Bret “Flight of the Conchords” McKenzie, and “Real in Rio,” from Rio with music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown, and lyrics by Siedah Garrett. (By comparison, Best Achievement in Makeup had three nominations, yet as far as I know, post-screening interviews apparently never revealed a film-goer who spent money on a ticket due to the foundation, blush, eyeliner, or lipstick used on the film’s cast.) With only two songs to choose from, voting members of the Academy could ignore the rules about actually listening to music and instead simply flip a coin. Since “Man or Muppet” won the award, the immediate question is, “is this the best we can do”? This is not an attack on McKenzie, or The Muppets, but it is a comment on the directors, producers, and of course, the ambulance chasers and bean counters, who couldn’t work to find more music options for more of the films of 2011.

Consider how far the industry has fallen in the past decade or so:  In 2002 there was “Lose Yourself” (8 mile); “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic) in 1997; “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” (The Lion King) in 1994; “Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia) in 1993. Need I go on? There are plenty of songwriters (of all levels of quality and all levels of documented success) who would have been willing to submit songs on spec if need be. But apparently, not enough of them were asked.

During my tenure in the music industry, I observed the birth of MTV. That corporate creation developed—for better or worse—a film industry farm team of aspiring film directors, producers, and cinematographers who (in theory) understood the synergistic connection between music and movies. In virtually every case, these music clip directors created two, three, four-minute (and longer) music videos, built on top of good (sometimes great) songs. Let me emphasize that point: the visual elements were built on top of existing music tracks. The Music Came First! Music is what connects us. The emotion we attach to the lyrics and the melody is then often transferred to friends and family.

So the two issues I have with the film industry are [1] why so few films with music of a high enough quality worth submitting for Academy Award consideration (39 songs were submitted this year), and [2] why only two nominations? The Los Angeles Times helps wade through the process:

By this point, there’s been plenty of outrage at the Academy Awards for nominating only two songs, but viewers may have forgotten that the Oscars are generally a bit out of tune when it comes to music. This is a category, after all, that heavily favors songs in animated movies — Randy Newman won last year for his “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” rewrite “We Belong Together” — and just four years ago the field was flooded with three songs from “Enchanted.” At the awards that honored 2006, three songs from “Dreamgirls” were nominated.

Imagine watching 39 four-or-five-minute movie clips back-to-back-to-back. There are far worse ways to spend a few hours, of course, but it’s easy to see which scenes and songs will make an impression. The National’s very adult and melodramatic “Think You Can Wait” from “Win Win” isn’t going to stand much of a chance against the rainbow-colored birds with red-hot rhythm in “Rio.”

The screening process, in fact, likely puts too much of an emphasis on brief, cinematic scenes that dazzle rather than those that gently accentuate the film’s themes. It’s easy to overlook, then, end-of-film songs such as Mary J. Blige’s understated “The Living Proof” from “The Help,” or Chris Cornell’s folksy “The Keeper” from “Machine Gun Preacher.” Even the pretty, vintage strut and light orchestral touches of “Winnie the Pooh’s” “So Long,” performed by Zooey Deschanel’s She & Him, is going to have screening audiences bored once the credits start rolling.

While the L.A. Times does a credible job of explaining the process, i.e., why there were only two nominations, there needs to be more discussion on the lack of quality songs included in the films. And the voting process needs an upgrade. I’m reminded of the 1988 Grammy Awards, when Jethro Tull won a Grammy for “Best Hard Rock/Metal” album. Clearly too many of the voting members that year didn’t know what the category meant, or they had never heard a Jethro Tull album (some Grammy voters actually thought Jethro was the first name and Tull the last name of the leader of the group; in fact it was the name of an 18th century English agriculturalist); or they didn’t bother to listen to all of the nominees to make an informed choice. It was an embarrassing day for the music industry. This year’s treatment of music at the Academy Award ceremony was—in my opinion—equally embarrasing. The audience and fans deserve better.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2012

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