The opinions of the opinionated. Let's take a look at food, cinema, fragrance, baby products, legal decisions, booze, cars, and whatever else catches our interest.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Now Rent This: These Little Town Blues

Welcome to the first Now Rent This: my opportunity to suggest movies you likely haven't seen, but will enjoy as a rental. So log into Netflix and let's start building up that queue. Today's theme is films set in small towns.

When the legacy of Sheriff Chris Cooper's father is called into question by the discovery of a body in the desert, he learns that the past can intrude rudely into the present. John Sayles' 1996 mystery Lone Star is one of my favorite movies because it creates a complete world within itself. The tiny border town is a character in the drama, every corner of the place containing some of its secrets. Watch for a single scene-stealing appearance by Frances McDormand. Unquestionably a writer's movie, the script is simultaneously wordy and incredibly spare -- there isn't a wasted phrase anywhere and everything said has meaning.

If you've never seen The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946, it's time. I plan to write several blog posts in the future aimed at those who have little or no interest in classic movies. I certainly understand their apprehension. Older films have different conventions from those made today -- slower pacing, unfamiliar speaking styles, and all that black and white -- and these conventions seem strange and distancing to many of today's viewers. With our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, controversy about PTSD and the health care our veterans receive headlining the news, it's appropriate to take a look at arguably best movie about soldiers returning from war.

Three soldiers return from World War II to fictional Boone City, a perfect EveryTown USA, with an old high school and a new golf course. They fly home in the belly of a decommissioned bomber, surprised at the changes and nervous about landing back in their old pre-war lives. Iconic performances from Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and Harold Russell keep the story rooted in drama rather than melodrama. Watch for a rather shocking scene in the drugstore when a political discussion turns violent. Seventy years later, it is easy to forget that the decision to enter WWII was not unanimous. The more things change...

You've probably never heard of Wildflower, a 1991 TV movie made for the Lifetime network, the retirement home for Designing Women and Golden Girls reruns. Actress Diane Keaton directed this small-town tale of a brother and sister who discover a neglected teenager hidden by her parents in a shed. The surprise here isn't the darkness-to-light story, since we've seen that a hundred times: think Lena Olin in Chocolat, Agnes Gooch, Sabrina, Awakenings, and every chick flick with a makeover scene. The surprise is the performances. Some newcomer in only her second film role plays Ellie, a girl with an unwavering sense of right and wrong. This newcomer, Reese Witherspoon, has a lot of potential. Also a pleasant surprise is Susan Blakely, a pretty blond actress who has been working consistently since 1972, playing heiresses and doctors and murder suspects on the small screen. Here she plays an abused wife in a loose cotton sack dress, in sore need of a facial and a mani-pedi, and Blakely really gets to act. What would her career have been like had this been an early role for her?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Product That Makes Al Gore Cry

A generous acquaintance with two year old twins gave us pairs of cribs, carseats, strollers, high chairs, and a changing table in anticipation of the arrival of our son. Along with this largesse came a Diaper Genie, a tall vertical diaper pail with a twistable dial on top. The Diaper Genie is a device with a dirty purpose, and it holds a dirty little secret.

I was dismayed to see it. I had heard of it, and knew the basic principle: the Genie contains a nearly-endless tube of plastic bagging. As each diaper is placed in the machine, a little mechanism lets you twist the bagging around it, sealing in the stench. Each stinkbomb is separated by a new twist of the plastic. When the pail is full, a little blade cuts the tube, you tie a little knot, and throw the long twisty thing away.

Here are the problems. Each diaper is now wrapped securely in a wasteful length of the plastic bagging. Once it reaches the landfill, it will remain seperate from other waste, unexposed to the air and bacteria that will break it down. Time slows for each diaper and its contents. How long will it remain there, untouched by the natural processes that would return the organic matter to the soil?

In a better world, baby waste would go the same place as adult waste. Sewer systems and even septic tanks ultimately follow nature's course: wastes are broken down by bacteria, and water and organic matter ends up back in the ecosystem. The advent of disposable diapers circumvents this process for baby feces: wrapped in plastic, absorbed by chemical gels and layers of padding, the cacapoopoo sits in the landfills. Thanks to the Diaper Genie, one extra layer of plastic seals it from the outside world.

Our generous friend gave us three of the plastic bag refill cartridges as well. We decided to use them up since they'd already been purchased. And here's the point in the story where Al Gore mists up.

The darn thing works. It works very well. There is no diaper smell in the nursery, only that wonderful roses-and-vanilla blend that scents baby powder and lotions. It's easy to empty and add the refill cartridges. We put a Curious George sticker on it, and now it's even cute.

Of course, the day came when we ran out of refills. Should we buy more, and join the conspiracy against smaller landfills? Should we turn in our Diaper Genie, our seductive environmental criminal who steals away the poopie-stinkies like a thief in the night? Has my "criminal" metaphor gone to far?

We bought more. So here I sit in my glass house, juggling two throwing-stones and a dirty diaper. I criticize the product -- an odorless diaper pail comes at a high environmental cost. Ultimately I criticize myself for accepting that cost.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Farewell, My Lovely

My father bought a Canon A1 camera, a 50mm lens, and an aftermerket zoom in 1981. At the time, the A1 was arguable the most advanced consumer 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera out there.

For the uninitiated, SLR cameras work under the principle that the photographer peers through the main lens when framing his shot. What he sees in the viewfinder is the image that will end up on film. This works though a quickly-moving mirror that flips up at the magic moment to expose the film. (This explains the classic "moment of darkness" that accompanies the shwick-shwack noise we associate with photography. Think of every movie in which someone takes a picture.)

The A1 was a magnificent camera, offering a level of flexibility that attracted amateurs and professionals. Exposure could be aperture-priority or shutter-priority, meaning the photographer could choose the size of the lens opening or the shutter speed, and the camera would calculate the appropriate other measurement. Best of all, it had a "Program" setting, for which both shutter and aperture were automatic. All measurements showed up in the viewfinder in small, perfect red LED numbers, just below the image. It felt space-age at the time, and still feels clear and precise.

It had features galore, too many to name here. You could stop-down the lens, actually closing the aperture to see the exact depth of field for your shot. Two self-timers. Exposure compensation. Double exposure!

Over two summers, I took charge of the Canon. We added a polarizer -- great for shots with water or sky. We bought special-effect filters from Cokin, a pre-Photoshop way to mask out parts of a shot and surround a face with flowers or change colors, all done in the camera without a computer. I still have a perfectly masked photo of myself playing cards against myself, a twelve year old me in both sides of the frame. Ah, the fun of the self-timer, the double exposure tab, and the Cokin filters! In high school, the Canon and I shot night skies, friends suspended mid-air over swimming pools, parties and pets.

My father had less success with the A1 than I did. Not for lack of trying, he found the tiny dials and mysterious abbreviations a bit baffling. Eventually he switched to easier point-and-shoots, and now has a magnificent little Sony digital with which he makes artistic close-ups of printed pages, his own Polariods, and shopping-mall trashcans. He blows up tiny corners of the frames to make spectacular abstract prints. Amazingly, he does this without a computer -- a nice reminder of the in-camera effects we used to get from the Cokin filters.

Last year my dad presented me with the Canon and all its accessories, thousands of dollars of gorgeous equipment in mint condition, now worth only a few hundred on eBay. He has gone completely digital. My photography remains a mix: I have a point-and-shoot digital, my stereoscopic slide cameras from the 1950's, and a new digital Canon camcorder to capture the baby. Unfortunately, I see no place at the table for my first love, the Canon A1.

Today's SLR has auto-focus, auto-exposure, modes for fast action and nighttime skylines, auto-bracketing, white balance manipulation, and more. Most importantly, they are all digital. The lure of hundreds of photos on one chip, no wasted film, cropping and editing on the computer is too strong for me. My next camera will be a digital SLR, capable of everything the A1 did but without the constraints of film. I will never run another roll through the Canon.

Should I sell you on eBay or let you sleep in endless retirement in the closet?

You taught me the true joy of photograpy. You taught me to consider the light and the dark. Stopping-down the lens taught me the concept of depth-of-field better than a semester of photography class. 36-exposure rolls of film taught me to take care with each shot. Farewell, my old friend, made obsolete by the digital revolution.