Tuesday, March 29, 2016

New Bedford

If you have been gripped by the history of whaling or by reading Herman Melville’s unforgettable novel Moby Dick, then at some point you owe yourself a trip to New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was the Capital of Whaling in the 19th Century and is still America’s busiest fishing port. Trust me, one day will not be enough; you will need at least a weekend, and if you and your family really like going deep into history, three or four days would not be excessive.

Its favorable location and excellent harbor made New Bedford a natural for the whaling and fishing industries from its start. It vied with Nantucket for domination of whaling but eventually won out, thanks in part to technical innovations; the toggle iron harpoon, which became the standard, was invented by African-American blacksmith and New Bedford resident Lewis Temple in 1848.
Portuguese immigrants already familiar with whaling from their bases in the Azores and other Atlantic islands began to come to New Bedford in large numbers in the early 19th Century, and this is still home to the largest Portuguese-American community in the United States. Which also means that if you have a taste for traditional Iberian seafood dishes such as paella, the city’s restaurants will not disappoint!

There are nine historic districts in New Bedford – few cities have so many – and two of them, the New Bedford Historic District and the Merrill’s Wharf Historic District, are part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. There is so much to see in this area, although there are also many New Bedford attractions beyond it.

Readers of Moby Dick will know that the novel opens in New Bedford, and that one of the early scenes takes place at the Seamen’s Bethel (which Melville calls the “Whaleman’s Chapel,” and which was built in 1832), where the character Father Mapple gives a powerful sermon. (This part was played in director John Huston’s 1956 film version by Orson Welles, and exteriors were shot at the actual Bethel.)

Visiting the Bethel and sitting in its pews is an intensely moving experience. All sailors traditionally did so before going to sea. The walls are covered with the names of New Bedford whalers and fisherman who died in their work. The Bethel is still actively used for religious services, weddings, and funerals.

Just a few blocks away, in front of the main branch of the New Bedford Public Library, is the famous Whaleman Statue.

Elsewhere in the area are the Mariners’ Home, which the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) is working on turning into a Fishermen’s Museum; the 1834 U.S. Customhouse, the oldest such building still in active use by the U.S. Government; the 1848 Durant Sail Loft on Merrill’s Wharf…

…the 1834 Rotch-Jones-Duff House, home to three prominent whaling business families over the years…

…and (usually) the 1894 fishing schooner Ernestina, one of the oldest ships of its kind still afloat (currently under restoration offsite in order to keep it seaworthy).

But the centerpiece of the Whaling National Historic Park is the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which occupies several historic buildings and boasts a diverse group of collections, as well as a research library and film theater. These collections include the world’s largest assemblages of scrimshaw (ivory pieces carved by whalers) and whaling log books; paintings by great artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Albert Pinkham Ryder; a large array of historic glass; five complete whale skeletons…

…and the world’s largest ship model, the Lagoda, built in 1916, which at 89 feet is half the size of the original ship, and which may be boarded by visitors.

All in all, you certainly won’t regret a trip to New Bedford!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Peter Gunn vs. Michael Shayne

Despite their similarities on many points, Peter Gunn (1958-1961) strikes me as more noir than Michael Shayne (1960-1961).

Peter Gunn was the more popular and longer-lasting show. Created by Blake Edwards and famous for its Henry Mancini theme music, Peter Gunn was a half-hour series that ran for three seasons, with a total of 114 episodes produced. 

Played by Craig Stevens, who was 40 when the show premiered, Peter Gunn is a private eye in an unnamed Western city with a waterfront. His home base is a bar called Mother’s, presided over by Hope Emerson. He has no secretary, no assistants, no operatives, and, crucially, no formal office; when asked about his office in one episode, he gestures around Mother's and says, "This is it."

The bar features excellent West coast-style jazz of the era, as do other clubs that Gunn visits in the course of his work; music is a very prominent feature of this series (and rightly contributes to its cult status today). Peter Gunn’s girlfriend Edie Hart, played by the amazingly good actress Lola Albright, is the sultry regular singer at Mother’s. 

The other series regular is Gunn’s contact on the police force, Lieutenant Jacoby, also played very well by Herschel Bernardi. Gunn and Jacoby have the typical push-pull, grudging-mutual-admiration relationship that is typical of private eyes and cops in this sort of narrative set-up. Jacoby tolerates far more from Gunn than he would from another independent.

Peter Gunn is a very suave guy, impeccably well-dressed (wardrobe coordinator Sydney LaVine – love the name! – gets a prominent end credit). He’s really Dapper Hall of Fame material. He is quite deliberate in his speech and movements, not remotely a hothead. His only vulnerability is that, operating alone as he does, he can be outmanned, and is sometimes conked on the head or otherwise roughed up. (I’ve never understood why fictional private detectives don’t operate in pairs, with one out of sight but ready to swoop in. It would save a lot of trouble!) 

Gunn’s relationship with Edie Hart is very bold for the television of its day; they are unquestionably sexually involved, very happy in their arrangement, and don’t talk of marriage. The many close shots of the two are erotically charged and satisfying in a way that doesn’t even call for any historical allowances; they come off as equal in intelligence and equals in their relationship.

At 25 minutes in length, the episodes are very brisk in their set-ups, even more so in their denouements, and frequently rely on a sort of genre shorthand because there simply isn’t time to spell much out. One early episode, “The Chinese Hangman,” is an unofficial abbreviated remake of Out of the Past that is positively whirlwind in its effect. A standard feature of the episodes is an opening teaser that cuts to the credits from a “shocker” – a body being discovered, say. (This technique was used many years later for comic and ironic as well as melodramatic effects on Hill Street Blues.)

The world that Peter Gunn operates in is decidedly nocturnal – day-lit scenes are few, and there is no sense of 9-5 normalcy at all, even around the show’s edges. Peter, Edie, the cops, the crooks – all come out at night. The show is hermetic in that particular sense that soundstage shooting and night lighting can conspire to create. 

Michael Shayne premiered two years after Peter Gunn, and might have been catching its tailwind. It only lasted one season, for a total of 32 hour-long episodes. Like Peter Gunn, Michael Shayne was shot in black-and-white, standard for television at that time.

Shayne, of course, was already a popular character – in the many novels and short stories by Brett Halliday (and, after 1958, his ghost-writers), on radio, in film adaptations starring Lloyd Nolan and Hugh Beaumont.  The Shayne I’ll be describing is the Shayne of the television show only; there are inevitable variations when you’re dealing with a character incarnated in so many media. 

Played by Richard Denning, who was 46 when the show premiered, Michael Shayne is a Miami-based detective with far more “apparatus” at his disposal than Peter Gunn. He has an office; he has a secretary, Lucy Hamilton (played first by Patricia Donahue and then replaced mid-season by Margie Regan); he has a buddy on the local paper, Tim Rourke (Jerry Paris) –their trading of information and favors seems pretty unethical from the journalistic side! Lucy’s bongo-playing brother Dick (Gary Clarke, in for the youth appeal) also hangs out and does some operative work. Shayne has about the same relationship with the local gendarme Lieutenant Gentry (Herbert Rudley, of Decoy fame) as Peter Gunn has with Lieutenant Jacoby.

Like Gunn, Shayne is tall, self-possessed, quite well-dressed – both these guys are charter members of the cufflinks-and-pocket-squares brigade. Shayne wears lighter-colored suits sometimes, in keeping with the Miami locale. He’s got a quicker smile than Gunn, and his manner is less ironic. He, too, is prone to being conked on the head; also, undesirables are frequently waiting in his apartment when he opens the door – he ought to get on the building management about that. 

There is a strong hint that Shayne is carrying on with his secretary Lucy, but they never make out on screen and the show is not remotely as titillating as Peter Gunn. Again in keeping with the locale, the well-built Denning gets to take his shirt off fairly often, something we never see Gunn do (although I imagine Stevens would have looked fine). Michael Shayne is not the heavy smoker that Peter Gunn is (Craig Stevens’s handling of the cigarette as masculine prop was expert), but he loves his cognac – put some in his coffee, please! 

There are fairly frequent jazz club scenes in Michael Shayne, but they are not as flavorful as the corresponding Peter Gunn scenes, and seem to be there mainly so Gary Clarke can annoyingly trot out his bongos.

Since Michael Shayne is an hour show, the plotting can be and is far more elaborate than in Peter Gunn. Only about half the scenes are set at night. There appears to have been more actual outdoor shooting - probably with Los Angeles doubling for Miami, since I don’t believe this was a location-produced show. (That became the norm later, with Hawaii Five-O - on which Denning played the Governor - and The Streets of San Francisco.) There is definitely a normal 9-5 world on display in Michael Shayne, and Shayne knows very well how to operate in it (although his secretary won’t make appointments for him before 10:00 AM; he does put in some late nights).

Why does Peter Gunn impress me as more noir than Michael Shayne? They pair up well enough in most aspects so that there really shouldn’t be much to choose between them in that way. But a few significant differences tell the tale. As a half-hour show, Peter Gunn is less explicit in its narrative style. It is darker, more nocturnal. It is moodier. It is sexier. It is unlinked to quotidian reality. The city is unnamed. Add it all up, and the show is just more “mysterious” than Michael Shayne

Also more classic – both series are enjoyable, but only Gunn is iconic. Michael Shayne adheres to a TV formula in which all tensions are resolved by episode’s end; but Peter Gunn, even when it appears to do the same thing, stays edgy. Since an uneasy emotional residue seems to me to be basic to the appeal of noir, Peter Gunn qualifies as a noir detective series. Michael Shayne is a breezy detective show out of a slightly distinct tradition. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Stylish 60s TV Commercial

Stanley Kubrick's enthusiasm for the technique of certain television commercials, such as the early 1970s "The Night Belongs to Michelob" series, is well-known. I wonder what he would have made of this stylish early 1960s spot for Tiparillos mini-cigars? The restless panning captures the swanky nightclub energy perfectly. We never really get a good look at anyone except the vending girl; it all just slides by. The footage would not be out of place in an American knock-off of La dolce vita or La notte. It also demonstrates decisively that the Mad Men stylistic is not merely a retro imposition, but is part of the way the era felt about itself.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

New Pinterest Board

Activity here at Book 'em, Danno! has slowed to a crawl since I gave up reviewing, although a little new content may appear now and then. In the meantime, though, I have started a new Pinterest board called "General Interest" where I collect all my gleanings from the web (as I used to do at my old blog, Patrick Murtha's Diary - I'll probably eventually port a good deal of that legacy material over to Pinterest). I'm like the European Jay pictured above, gathering my acorns.

I realize, of course, that Pinterest boards are traditionally very subject-specific, so I fly in the face of that expectation by creating such a heterogeneous assemblage. But it can't be helped; it's my way. I have never been able to pin myself down to one subject, and never will. I appreciate the efforts of those who can do that, and rely a lot on their blogs and websites for material - but my own viewfinder is necessarily wide-lens.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Early History of Hot Air Ballooning

In man’s quest to become airborne, the first victories were won with balloons, and 1783 was the year of miracles.

As with the invention of printing, the Chinese really were the prime movers, although no one in Europe knew that until much later. As early as the 3rd Century AD, the Chinese were using small paper balloons with suspended fire sources, known as Kongming lanterns, for both festive and military signaling purposes. (Of course, the entire history of man in the air would continue to have a strong military component.)

European priests were a later group of innovators. In the late 17th Century, the Italian Jesuit, Francesco Lana, theorized that a “flying boat” could be lifted by spheres of copper foil that had been vacuumized. This was not quite practical, but Lana was on the right track in thinking about vessels rising in air by being lighter than air. He was presciently worried about the military implications of his concept: “Iron weights, fireballs and bombs could be hurled from a great height.”

The Brazilian priest Bartolomeu de Gusmao demonstrated a small model hot-air balloon for King John V of Portugal and his court on August 9, 1709. But knowledge of this demonstration was not widely disseminated outside the Portuguese-speaking world.

With the 1766 recognition by British scientist Henry Cavendish of hydrogen as a gaseous element only 1/10 as heavy as air, other scientists such as the Scotsman Joseph Black and the Frenchman Jacques Charles (1746-1823) inferred that a lighter-than-air hydrogen-filled balloon would probably fly.

Charles enlisted the aid of a pair of engineering brothers, Anne-Jean Robert (1758-1820) and Nicolas-Louis Robert (1760-1820), to help him build such a balloon. Their balloons would be made of silk varnished with liquid rubber.

But Les Freres Robert were the not the only brothers in on this chase. Enter the Montgolfiers, Joseph-Michel (1740-1810) and Jacques-Etienne (1745-1899). When you consider the later Wright Brothers, the prominence of brother acts in the history of aviation remains a curious fact!

Like the Wrights, the Montgolfiers were tinkerers and enthusiasts; compared to the Charles-Robert team, their command of the science involved was a little on the sketchy side. They figured out from observation that heated air rises, but thought that the smoke from the necessary fires was creating a special substance they brand-consciously dubbed “Mongolfier Gas.” The fact that heated air was lighter than unheated air initially escaped them.

The two teams, one exploring the possibilities of hydrogen balloons and the other hot-air balloons, both kept at their work intensely in the same time-frame. This pattern would be repeated with developments in heavier-than-air flight a century later; the “first to…” designation for many of those forward leaps is still intensely disputed, and even the Wrights’ “first to fly in a controlled, manned airplane” claim does not escape entirely without challengers. Many inventors around the world were working furiously on aviation in 1903 (and for the half-century before that).

Fortunately for historians though, the progress of ballooning in 1783 is well-documented and dated, and it was all happening in France.

The Montgolfiers had been born into and continued to work in the paper manufacturing industry, so they constructed their balloons of paper encased in sackcloth - although given the heating involved, this seems like a bad idea to us. Their balloons did not yet have portable, attached heaters; they were launched from on top of fiery pits.

Working in obscurity in Annonay in Southeast France, the Montgolfiers conducted experiments from late 1782 on, and felt ready to give a public demonstration in the Annonay town square on June 4, 1783. The balloon successfully rose to a height of about 6,000 feet, creating a sensation.

King Louis XVI got wind of this development and summoned the brothers to Paris, although only the slick Etienne went; Joseph was geeky and socially awkward.

Jacques Charles and the Roberts were also galvanized by the news of the Annonay launch, especially as they mistakenly believed that the Montgolfiers were employing their beloved hydrogen. They got a move on to launch their own balloon.

It was only a pipsqueak compared to the Mongolfiers’ June balloon (35 cubic meters as compared to 790 cubic meters). And it was confoundedly difficult to generate even that much hydrogen; it took four days of pouring sulfuric acid onto scrap iron, and feeding the resulting gas by lead pipes into the balloon (sort of the world’s biggest chem-lab experiment).

To raise the necessary money and the public’s awareness level, Jacques Charles’ good friend, geologist Bathelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, spearheaded a subscription effort – the first Kickstarter campaign? – which allowed contributors to get a close-up view of the launch action. Benjamin Franklin, then in France as ambassador from the brand-new United States, was among the subscribers.

The crowd got much larger than Saint-Fond bargained, however, as the days of filling the balloon wore on and progress reports were issued to the eager would-be spectators. It became clear that the original launch location in the Place des Victoires would be inadequate, so the balloon was moved four kilometers away to the Champ de Mars, where an assembly of 400,000 watched the balloon ascend on August 27.

It traveled quite a ways, landing 21 kilometers distant in the small village of Gonesse. In terms of 18th Century publicity, that might as well have been a thousand miles, because the local peasants had no idea what this flying contraption was and interpreted it as some kind of threatening monster – much as some Japanese in the 1850s thought that Commodore Perry’s black steamships were “giant dragons.” The Gonesse residents attacked the balloon with rocks, pitchforks, and knives, and finally carried off the corpse.

Now there was ballooning excitement every few weeks. The next major development came on September 19, when the Montgolfiers sent the first animals skyward in a basket attached to the largest balloon yet (1,060 cubic meters) – a duck, a rooster, and a sheep named Mont-au-ciel (“climb to the sky”), the unsung predecessors of Laika the Space Dog who orbited the earth for the Soviet Union in 1957. All three animals survived the eight-minute flight, although the rooster was a little roughed up; apparently the inconsiderate sheep sat on him.

Clearly, sending people up was the next step. But the danger! – perhaps, King Louis XVI thought, the first men in the sky should be condemned criminals, just in case? The scientist and Montgolfier associate Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier argued otherwise; to be the first fliers was too great an historic honor to be awarded to mere miscreants.

And in fact, Pilatre de Rozier got the glory. After experiments with tethered human flight throughout October, he and the Marquis Francoise d’Arlandes made the first free manned balloon flight on November 21, traveling five to ten miles (accounts vary) in 25 minutes. They landed in a vineyard amidst another group of upset peasants, but were ready with champagne to offer to them; bubbly and balloons were associated ever after.

Pilatre de Rozier was responsible for another, less desirable flight milestone in 1785, when a balloon he was attempting to pilot across the English Channel blew up, making him and his co-pilot the first aeronautical casualties.

Not to be outdone by the Montgolfiers, Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert made the first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon on December 1. To show that the rivalry was a friendly one, Joseph Mongolfier was invited to release a tiny “pilot balloon” before the main balloon, to help Charles see which way the wind was blowing. 

Charles and Robert stayed aloft for two hours, went to a height of 550 meters, and traveled some 30 miles, once again landing in a field. Although it was getting dark, and the hydrogen was running low, Charles was in such good spirits that he insisted on going up again briefly by himself.

It was the last time he ever flew, for the experience rattled him. He went higher than anyone had ever done, about 3,000 meters, felt intense ear pain, and in a bit of a panic, vented gas and tossed ballast, landing safely but quite disoriented.

The last of these significant early flights happened on January 19, 1784, when the Montgolfiers sent up a 2,000 cubic meter monster balloon with seven people in the basket. One of them was unanticipated, a young man named Fontaine who jumped in at the last minute, becoming the first aerial stowaway.

Ballooning was tried in every country within a short period of years after that. It only remains to say – you saw this coming – that the first military use of the new balloons came during the Napoleonic Wars in 1794. War has never been out of the air since.        

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Commonplace Book: Cornwall

Cornwall seems to have been custom built for secrecy. The county is filled with tiny lanes enclosed by high hedgerows so thick with age and overgrowth they seem as much part of the natural landscape as the cliff tops, steep village streets down which nothing wider than a bicycle can pass with comfort, unexpected coves appearing and disappearing behind another few miles of switchback road, twisting river mouths and thickly wooded hillsides, glimpses of water vanishing behind ambiguous headlands, similar-sounding place names, and always that dreamlike sense of having passed this way a little time before. It is that confusion, the sense of having stumbled across a half-discovered land, which forms so much of Cornwall's attraction. You could stay in the same place every summer for twenty years and still get lost every time. The fishing village at the bottom of a near-vertical hillside with its bath-sized cove, its perfect pub and its peeling red phone box might be there one weekend but have vanished by the next; the patch of beach on which you built a fire and cooked an impromptu meal might seem vivid in memory but no longer exists in fact. Walk along the same stretch of headland and somehow the path leads you off to a different place on each revisitation. Sail up one of the inlets and stare round you as the sun goes down; whatever you see will be gone by the time you return. Landmarks get nearer or further, headlands appear or repeat; expected signs refuse to materialize. Cornwall is England's mirage, parts of it always vanishing before your eyes. From land and sea, it is a cartographer's nightmare and a wrecker's dream - a place that could not possibly have been better designed for concealment. - Bella Bathurst, The Wreckers 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Growth (Troy S. Gamble)

Peculiar case, this one. Despite some bizarrely off-the-point Amazon reviews that make it sound like an earnest novel about personal growth, it is actually an archly satiric novel about (mostly) economic growth. The style is like a Britishized distillation of the opening line of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49:

One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

The book is also Pynchon-esque in that it takes place in a world that is not quite the real world; it's just a little too absurd and improbable. Thus, a key skein of the plot (at least for a while, until the author seems to forget about it) has to do with the possible purchase of a piece of real estate that would definitely never be for sale in our reality.

This is difficult fictional territory to work successfully, and it cannot be said that debut novelist Troy S. Gamble really succeeds. There are bright spots, such as funny bits of observation:

This man was the epitome of life as it should be, she thought...She wanted her life to be like that: walking a dog, flying her own jet to her own Caribbean island, helping people across the street, reading a good book while listening to the friendly chat of her partner on the phone discussing a loan to some small Eastern European country in exchange for a special tax arrangement approved in the local parliament. Apparently, it wasn't possible, not for long.

Or encapsulations of the novel's financial themes:

"The new rich usually have a small part of their worth in liquidity, some fraction of a percent. Everything else is loans, goodwill and market capitalization - and it is not real money, it's just funny numbers to juggle and brag about. Do you know how many people who buy or rent high-end property are unable to pay their utility bills?"
"Open your laptop, add some zeroes to a random digit, call it money."

But the drags on the (long) narrative are many. It proceeds by a series of set-pieces, some of which are passably amusing, others obviously derivative - a masked-orgy sequence is straight out of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and suffers by the comparison. The plot frequently descends into mere silliness (the aforementioned real estate sub-plot, for example). The protagonist, failed corporate manager and would-be poet Peter Copeland, is an annoying nitwit; in fact, many of the characters are annoying nitwits. Despite the book's length, a number of plot-lines are left dangling and unresolved, and the key one that is resolved achieves its denouement through the arrival of a new set of characters out of nowhere. This may be intended as a comment on life's essential randomness, but it come across as novelistically inept.

In short, an interesting try at a thematically timely literary performance, with glints of real talent, but I could not easily recommend it.