Friday, August 8, 2014

In with the Old

It must have been over thirty years since we got the first fax machine in the office. A guy from the phone company came and spent hours installing the dedicated line. We plugged it in and with difficulty inserted the roll of thermostatic paper. One of our competitors had also recently taken the plunge and we tested out our respective machines sending faxes back and forth. Mainly things like “Go fuck yourself,” and other witticisms. My father never used the thing himself but was enchanted by it. He described its function to everyone like he was recounting a vision at Fatima.

When my boys were little they'd come to the office after school each day. My dad still worked as hard as he could but by then had slowed down quite a bit. He'd wake from his afternoon nap and have a snack with the kids, usually something my stepmother had forbidden him to eat. He told them about seeing an airplane overhead for the first time. Dad remembered the Madrona Theater in Seattle, where he worked as an usher. It closed for several weeks in 1930 and he watched as the organ was torn out and speakers were installed for the advent of sound motion pictures. The grandchildren were also told stories about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Sacco and Vanzetti and Leopold and Loeb. Dad didn't have much of a filter. My kids would sit on his lap in his big leather chair and listen. Grandpa remembered lots of lurid history and all of the advances and inventions he'd witnessed since his birth in 1918. He'd stroke the kids' heads and sigh, “I can't begin to imagine what you'll see...”

We have Netflix and Amazon Prime, a DVR and a premium cable package and still my kids rent DVDs. I remind them frequently of growing up with seven black and white channels only (and walking eight miles to school. Barefoot. In the snow. In Van Nuys). My mother did spring for a color set when I started college but you pretty much had to scour the TV Guide and slavishly pour over revival house programs if there was something you were dying to see. I had the enormous advantage of access to a library of 10,000 films. I did a ton of movie theater going because ,despite its enormity, my dad's collection was limited to only certain studios. I'd run stuff by myself a lot, even on the bulletin board in my tiny dorm room and also, until the advent of video, my access to movies was my best social currency.

My kids abhor my current media laziness. If it isn't music I can listen to on Rhapsody, I don't bother with it. I watch mostly Judge Judy and Forensic Files, even re-runs, unbothered by commercials for disability lawyers and mobility devices. I seldom go to movie theaters and while I know how to switch the regular TV over to the Roku device, I usually don't go to the trouble. Himself and I are watching Sons of Anarchy, although I've seen the series already. It has an ongoing Irish theme and even uses some Irish language so he's thinking of writing a paper. God forbid he should watch for entertainment. We also have Masters of Sex and Rectify stored away on the DVR for when the kids are gone and we run out of stuff to say to each other. But left to my own devices I watch crap.

Years ago the yard at Casamurphy was tended by a wonderful landscaper. We had a viable herb and vegetable garden and frequently entertained outdoors. Our landscaper moved to Oregon and we had a mow and blow guy who sucked but is a relative of our housekeeper. It took me over a decade to muster the courage to fire him. We've installed a dog run and the new gardener is pretty decent. I score a pretty tile table. My friend really wants it too but, in that she already has two tile tables, I buy it while she is on vacation. Since, we've taken to eating dinner outdoors occasionally and it is very pleasant.

There is just over a week of overlap having both kids home and it will be December until they're both here again. A friend screens some films at the Echo Park Film Center and the kids enjoy it so much I decide to schlep home a projector, screen and a bunch of my own shorts to run on the patio. My dad ran movies at a lot of the kids' parties. Himself says, and I find it hard to believe, but I bear the onus of being married to someone infallible, that he has never seen me run movies.

Some friends are invited for Saturday night but I am rusty on projecting so I do a dry run just for Himself and myself on Friday. I have a particularly rare silent film from the late 20s. Sister Aimee Semple McPherson founded the Angelus Temple on Echo Park Lake. She was one of the first media evangelists and her catchphrase was “I hate hearing the clinking of coins but love the rustle of paper dollars.” In 1926 Sister Aimee mysteriously disappeared while bathing at the beach at Venice. There were some specious ransom notes and a huge media sensation. Aimee turned up six weeks later. It was conjectured that she'd run off to a love nest in Carmel By the Sea with a married boyfriend. There has been speculation about the veracity of the kidnapping story for years. Pete Seeger wrote “The Ballad of Sister Aimee” which described the motel and included the line, “The dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose.” After a long trial Aimee, and her mother—an accused conspirator, were acquitted but the controversy still didn't blow over.

Aimee produced and starred in a film version of the real story. The result was melodramatic, to say the least. Aimee does a lot of praying but her evil captors fail to see the light. She is able to escape from her rope bonds when the kidnappers leave to go and purchase fire water. Aimee wanders around the desert, praying and collapsing occasionally, until she is found by a kindly Mexican peasant who graciously escorts her to the border. The last shot is of the Angelus Temple which looks exactly the same as it does today. I can't imagine, even in the twenties, seeing this hokum and not concluding, based on the film, that the kidnapping story is bullshit. There is however, in San Francisco, a Court of Historic Review which examines old cases. Aimee's case was reviewed in 1990 and it was determined that there was no credible evidence that the kidnapping story was fabricated.

I choose a more crowd pleasing program for the next night. Most of the kids have never seen a 16mm projector or real motion picture film. I run a few obscure cartoons, some Betty Boops, and an Our Gang. I watched hours and hours of Our Gang as a child because I described the plots to my dad for his rental catalog. Watching one now it occurs to me that the friendship between the black and white kids is so natural and easy. The film I show however has a big production number which projects the kids into the future. Some of the white kids end up on the Bowery, louts and trollops. The luckier kids strut down 5th Avenue in tuxedos and minks. The final group is the black kids who tap dance wearing the uniforms of maids and railway porters. I'm sure I didn't notice this when I was kid but my audience gasps. Then however, there is another twist. In the future, Spanky has a swanky nightclub. Darla explains to Alfalfa that by performing there she earns “hundreds and thousands of dollars” and buys diamonds. When it's Buckwheat's turn to take the stage, Darla explains that Buckwheat earns “hundreds and thousand of dollars” and sports diamonds too. Our Gang comedies were such a simple pleasure of my childhood. I am surprised that now, half a century later, they're so confounding.

I will likely bring home films and a projector again. It is weird that this is a novelty in such a different way than it was when I was a kid. For me and most of my friends, being able to choose what to see was incredibly appealing, Now it is an exercise in nostalgia, which I am happy to provide but it makes me feel old. Our mom. The blacksmith. I hold on to many films and pay a bundle to keep them in climate controlled storage. It seemed like folly but I couldn't bring myself to part with them. Now however with the advent of high definition, holding on the the prints is still sentimental but suddenly quite practical too.

While I keep thousands of film prints I am virulently opposed to most other physical media. I take great pains to reduce the clutter of DVDs, CDs, vinyl records and books. My kids however spend much of their time amassing more. I chide them for accumulating more bulky dust collecting items. I guess, like my pop with the fax machine, I appreciate that I need no more than a phone or laptop to enjoy books, films and music. Perhaps the kids are building priceless collections. Or maybe they'll reach the same point that I have and find the aggregation of stuff unbearably oppressive.

Free stuff is a bit less oppressive though and as a top Amazon reviewer Himself receives books, sundry items and various gadgets in the mail every day. He is reluctant to let me peruse the available books because he's afraid that it will skew his Amazon algorithm towards chick lit and they'll start sending him Stephanie Meyer or Danielle Steele books instead of William Vollman and Thomas Pynchon. Because the upstairs TV is on the fritz (and even though it is NOT energy efficient and the screen is too small for me to see, I am forbidden from acquiring a model that will consume MUCH less electricity and costs (with free shipping!) under $200) I am reading a book. I am almost done with said book and due to the lack of en suite entertainment I think it's a good idea to get another one. Himself relents and lets me log on to his Amazon Vine account to see what books can be had for free (or for the price of a review actually).

I ask Joe College how to make my computer incognito so I don't have to try to remember by own Amazon password. He tells me the commands off the top of his head and voila! Earlier in the summer Girlfriend in-law shows me how to retrieve my browsing history. I still can't figure out a screen grab. There is so much that I don't know that I don't know. The kids though have never not had computers and I was nearly thirty when I acquired my first. My kids have never had to make a trip to the library to settle an argument over a trivial fact or navigate using a map. Or try to refold a map.

I wear a device on my wrist that records how far I walk and how much I sleep. And probably tracks me in some sort of creepy way. But, whenever I look at something online, it is advertised on Facebook within seconds so I'm over that. Still, like my dad, I wonder where it is all going. I read about a new device called a Sproutling which is affixed to a baby's ankle. It monitors the baby's heart-rate and sleeping positions. It also analyzes the baby and alerts parents via a phone app when it is hungry, wet or on the verge of waking up. It anticipates a baby's needs before the baby has a chance to cry. What will it be like in the world when, inevitably, a technological device recognizes our every need before we know it ourselves? My dad saw a man actually fly in a winged contraption. I watched, in snowy black and white, a man set foot upon the moon. I sense though that in the lifetimes of my children, and their children, the world will change more profoundly than it has since the beginning of time. And I don't know whether to feel wistful or relieved that I will miss it.


Mike Maginot said...

It's been a long time since I've had a real film night. I talk about doing it, but it just doesn't happen. The last time I put up a screen and projected a film in the backyard, with family and friends, we watched Nanook of the North. There may have been a Betty Boop cartoon and Laurel & Hardy short before the feature presentation. I have a pretty complete collection of Our Gang on DVD and a video projector. I hope I will be able to share such things with my grand-daughter someday...even if they aren't always politically correct.

John L. Murphy / "FionnchĂș" said...

Well, I was reading a few minutes ago this verdict: technology won out over the humanities, a poet admits. But even Twitter channels Muses. The gadgets proliferate, their shelf life dwindles. Moore's Law + capitalism's "creative destruction" insisting we buy again as XP goes the way of rotary phones, clock dials, and cursive script. The most profound wisdom may be when Sister Aimee looked up, hand extended to beseech the Almighty, and said of her captors: "Father, forgive them, for they know what they do." At least she cited from the best: and she used the newfangled hi-tech of the 20s to pack her Angelus Temple. I wonder even then where everyone found parking near Echo Park Lake. Guess it was hip even then. xxx me

Barbara Effros said...

I know you have an amazing collection of films. Will send you my wish list that includes trumpet music performed by my Grandpa. Range includes Betty Boop cartoons, rare silent movies and Paul Whiteman orchestra music with Bing Crosby. There is great museum (new) in Culver City for screenings, Mayme Clayton museum and Cultural center. Currently running "Black Talkies" like today Scott Joplin- king of jazz".